Guy Debord is a Phony!

I don’t really think Debord is a phony, but I almost did.

I was first drawn to Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, a collection of 221 pessimistic vignettes addressing society’s prioritization of life as an image to be watched as opposed to lived, and soon became interested in his playful ideas about the unconscious and the built environment.

Sure I knew Debord was famous for his self description as writing less than most writers but drinking more than most drinkers, but in no way did that cause me to dismiss his credibility.

But last week I started rereading Society of the Spectacle and found myself extremely annoyed. Take his introduction to the 1994 edition:

La Societe du spectacle was first published in November 1967…and reprinted regularly until 1991. The text of this third edition is identical to that of 1967…I am not someone who revises his work.

That kinda bugged me.

Maybe if Debord had stopped drinking and started double-checking the work of his editors and translators he would have corrected the poorly constructed opening sentence of paragraph 108:

BY THE TIME IDEOLOGY, become absolute because it possesses absolute power, has been transformed from a fragmentary knowledge into a totalitarian lie..

Okay Debord. Do you mean:

BY THE TIME IDEOLOGY, becomes absolute because it possess absolute power, it has been transformed from a fragmentary knowledge into a totalitarian lie?

So yeah, that kinda bugged me, regardless of whether he could read the English translation. The second thing is his ambiguous treatment of not only himself, but his ideas in general. For example, five pages later, Debord concludes:

This book should be read bearing in mind that it was written with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society. There was never anything outrageous, however, about what it had to say.

I get it. The idea of the spectacle should not seem outrageous to anyone in the loop regarding the logic of false consciousness. However, by saying there is nothing outrageous about the text makes Debord inherently ideological.  So when he goes on to write:

IDEOLOGY IS THE foundation of the thought of a class society within the conflictual course of history.. (paragraph 212), I raise my eyebrows.

As a good Marxist, Debord’s intention should be the destruction of a class-based society. However, by saying that his book has no outrageous ideas, Debord inevitably reaffirms a society based on values. Anyone who finds Debord outrageous is neither radical nor Marxist and immediately excluded from the two of Debord’s grand social cliques–the Situationist and Lettrist’s International.

Do you remember Haulden Caulfield, the genius who wrote a lot about phonies? Well he once said:

Grand. Now there’s a word I really hate. It’s phony. I could puke every time I hear it.

That’s kinda how I felt as I read the first 50 pages of Spectacle. Both the book and Debord feel grand. I believe that was his intention, to be grand and outrageous one minute, and then remind us that, no, not really. If that’s how you feel, you are so deeply embedded in spectacle society that you don’t even know it. It’s like he’s saying, “you think I’m the phony, but I’m not, it’s you.”

Or is it?

Again I’m left wondering if Debord’s idea of the spectacle works so well because it stems from false (phony) consciousness, or, if it really is just a phony idea to begin with.

For example, take paragraph 45:

Automation, which is at once the most advanced sector of modern industry and the epitome of its practice confronts the world of the commodity with a contraction that it must somehow resolve…

Debord’s grand assertion has a trace of Walter Benjamin, who, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” opens with:

The story is told of an automation constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each of an opponent with a countermove.

Both Benjamin and Debord are essentially recounting Marx recounting Hegel. But while one (Benjamin) is telling the story of historical materialism, the other (Debord) is making a spectacle of it–or at least that’s how I felt.

I again began to wonder if the book was nothing more than  a spectacle of theory. Disjointed paragraphs allow the reader to view Debord’s ideological critique, we remain alienated from any real meaningful engagement with theory. But, just as I was going to give up, I fell in love all over again:

CRITICAL THEORY has to be communicated in its own language–the language of contradiction, dialectical in form as well as in content: the language of the critique of the totality, of the critique of history. Not some ‘writing degree zero’–just the opposite. Not a negation of style, but the style of negation.

Shit Debord, you took the words right out of my mouth.

One Response to “Guy Debord is a Phony!”
  1. PTMC says:

    hum… I didn’t make it past your first objection, Debord didn’t write in english dear, any mistakes are the translator’s and not his…

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