December 4, 2014, by criticalmoment

Debord is dead, long live Debord!

Twenty years ago, Guy Debord, the French thinker responsible for The Society of the Spectacle (a book, a ‘sequel’, and a film) and figurehead of the Situationist movement, took his own life. It seems an appropriate moment to reflect.

Rather than sentimentally recalling his ‘finest moments’ and sycophantically inventorying his ‘greatest ideas’ – which would, I think, be to entirely miss the point – I’d like to draw attention to two books, one published the year he died but only recently translated into English, and one which arrived, in paperback form, in May. Both offer us ways of thinking about the commodified world we inhabit which – unwittingly, perhaps, in the first case, explicitly in the second – owe a sizeable debt to Debord’s bleak appraisals thereof, and draw out the very real and lasting significance of his work.

Capital and Affects, now a ‘mini-classic’ according to its introducer (something we could certainly say of Society of the Spectacle), sees Swiss-Italian economist Christian Marazzi plot the hazardous entry of communication into the realm of production in post-Fordist capitalism – a process Debord, in many ways the great ‘prophet’ of post-Fordism as a drastically culture-reshaping mutation, was all too ‘onto’ back in the 1960s. A bold, sweeping, always erudite (if occasionally philosophically imprecise) survey, Capital and Affects paints a stark picture of the increasingly deregulated, deterritorialized ‘new’ economy of the 1990s. In such environs, Marazzi notes, the “entrepreneur…becomes a politician” who can “lie (in particular when an entire political class is being legally prosecuted) because – in truly Hobbesian fashion – lies are part of the linguistic-communicative arsenal utilized to produce goods and services, especially when these goods are by definition ‘representational goods’, world images” (41-2), a clear reference to the the-then ascendant Berlusconi (though equally applicable, in reverse form, to Blair) and, we might observe, undeniably ‘Debordian’ in tone.

Marazzi describes a world of “industrial feudality” (45), “totalitarian democracy” (45), “neo-servile work relations” (47) and “just-in-time” temporalities (57): lonely, paranoid and increasingly divided, “dispositions such as cynicism, fear or denunciation” – paradigmatic affects of the contemporary landscape – today “grow and fester” (55). Powerful stuff indeed, but over and above the palpable indignation that surfaces, generally after extended periods of sagaciously researched empirical analysis, what really marks Marazzi’s critique out – and the same goes for his more recent, crash-debunking The Violence of Financial Capitalism (2011) – is the degree to which it attempts, however optimistically, to delimit and articulate the very real but complex socio-economic logics, structures and abstractions at play in the neoliberal field. As Debord foresaw, these entail the conflation of previously distinct social, political, economic and psychic fields in an unprecedented financio-cognitive paradigm, but also engender new and unfamiliar codes, territories and disjunctions. From domestic “live labour” (81-3) and “reengineering” in the wake of IT’s ascendancy (89-91), to the broader dynamics of intellectual capital (92-6), class composition (114-24) and state/market relations (124-35), Marazzi sheds light on what, for many, are invisible but powerfully determining processes across diverse areas of life and work. In so doing, he helps us come to understand something of the frightening, evolving but produced ontology we call ‘our present’.

24/7, meanwhile, chronicles the beleaguered fate of sleep in today’s insomniac ‘world village’, an activity increasingly at odds, so its author, art historian Jonathan Crary, suggests, with the incessant operations of the global economy and its hyperactive subjects. Early on in the book, we learn of “sleepless soldier” research programs (2), “mirror satellite” lighting schemes (3) and US Military “Dark Sites” (6), where high-intensity sleep deprivation is used as part of a battery of resolve-annihilating techniques aimed at the extraction of information from those who, we’re ceaselessly told, pose an existential threat to America and its allies. All of which might, perhaps, sound rather gloomy and ‘extreme’, except that when we look a little ‘closer to home’, we observe quite profound shifts in our relationship with time, sleep, rhythm and ‘natural’ life-patterns, involving an ever-greater lurch toward an abstracted, amnesic, ahistorical ’24/7′ temporality proper to global neoliberalism: “a time without time, a time extracted from any material or identifiable demarcations, a time without sequence or recurrence…a hallucination of presence” (29). Which puts us in far closer proximity to the super-soldier, and the shattered detainee, than we might like to imagine.

As he goes on, Crary directs his polemical sawn-off more and more squarely – and bravely – at the late capitalist market economy, convincingly calling into question – with feet, à la Marazzi, always firmly ‘on the ground’ – the sinister ubiquity of anything-but-neutral technologies which permeate and mediate subjective experience at all levels, despoiling lived relations – the potential commonality of which, Crary opines, fades as our addiction to capitalistic technologies spirals – and entrenching us in a solipsistic, phenomenologically impoverished existence apart: “Experience now consists of sudden and frequent shifts from absorption in a cocoon of control and personalization into the contingency of a shared world… a sociality outside of individual self-interest becomes inexorably depleted, and the interhuman basis of public space is made irrelevant to one’s fantasmatic digital insularity” (89). Again then, Debord’s work comes to feel strikingly prescient, and so it is that, in a book which openly namechecks its numerous bed-fellows (only Baudrillard and Virilio are conspicuous in their absence), The Society of the Spectacle is paid well deserved attention, with Crary provocatively questioning how much today’s online ‘conversation’ might be “equivalent to the mass autism that Debord noted” (120).

At times, in fact, this simply could be Guy Debord, updated for the Twitterjabbering ‘clicktivist’ age – which, far from coasting into frictionless, post-ideological digital bliss, has witnessed the emergence of two of the murkiest of state security agencies (and their accordant ‘mortal enemies‘), and all-new forms of domination and control – and aware that the stakes have never been higher. Indeed if, as Bruno Latour suggests of our current historical moment, “It is a desperate task to continue thinking when the powers of intelligence are dedicated to shutting down thought and to marching ahead with eyes wide closed”, we might never have needed Debord, and his spectacular insights, more.

Max Bacharach (MA in Critical Theory & Cultural Studies)




If you’re interested in Debord and/or some of the thinkers associated with him, come along the Centre for Critical Theory’s ‘Vital Theory’ event at Nottingham Contemporary on December 12th, where, as part of a day of talks, activities and discussions, I’ll present a specially composed piece of music in his memory.

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