If we ever get out of this mess, future generations will look back on Guy Debord as the person who contributed to that liberation more than anyone else in this century.
Guy Debord (1931-1994) was the most influential figure in the Situationist International, a small experimental group that played a key role in catalyzing the May 1968 revolt in France. The Society of the Spectacle (1973) is Debord’s film adaptation of his own 1967 book. As passages from the book are read in voiceover the text is illuminated, via direct illustration or various types of ironic contrast, by clips from Russian and Hollywood features (Potemkin, Ten Days That Shook the World, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Shanghai Gesture, Johnny Guitar, Mr. Arkadin, etc.), TV commercials, publicity shots, softcore porn, street scenes, and news and documentary footage, including glimpses of Spain 1936, Hungary ’56, Watts ’65, France ’68, and other revolts of the past. Intertitle quotes from Marx, Machiavelli, Clausewitz or Tocqueville occasionally break the flow.
Leaving aside the question of aesthetic merit (in which regard Debord’s films are incidentally among the most brilliantly innovative works in the history of the cinema), The Society of the Spectacle is certainly the most important radical film ever made. Not just because it is based on the most important radical book of the twentieth century, but because it unfortunately has no real cinematic competition. Many films have provided a few insights into this or that aspect of modern society, but Debord’s is the only one that presents a consistent critique of the whole global system. Many radical filmmakers have given lip service to Brecht’s notion of encouraging spectators to think and act for themselves rather than sucking them into passive identification with hero or plot, but Debord is virtually the only one who has actually realized this goal. Aside from a few Debord-influenced works (notably Vienet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? and Cronin and Seltzer’s Call It Sleep), his films are the only ones that have made a coherent use of the situationist tactic of detournement: the diversion of already existing cultural elements to new subversive purposes. Detournement has been widely imitated, but usually without real understanding. It does not mean merely randomly juxtaposing incongruous elements, but creating out of those elements a new coherent whole that criticizes both the existing world and its own relation to that world. Some artists, filmmakers, and even ad designers have used superficially similar juxtapositions, but most are far from fulfilling, much less.
The Society of the Spectacle is neither an ivory tower “philosophical” discourse nor a helplessly impulsive “protest,” but a ruthlessly lucid examination of the most fundamental tendencies and contradictions of the society we live in. This means that it needs to be reread (and reseen) many times, but it also means that it remains as pertinent as ever while countless radical and intellectual fads have come and gone. As Debord noted in his later Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), in the intervening decades the spectacle has become more all-pervading than ever, to the point of repressing virtually any awareness of pre-spectacle history or anti-spectacle possibilities: “Spectacular domination has succeeded in raising an entire generation molded to its laws.”
BUREAU OF PUBLIC SECRETS