Guy Debord was a rebel, philosopher, and filmmaker. Arch-critic of consumerism and theorist of “the spectacle”. He was one of France’s greatest and most original intellectuals. Today, Debord appears as a prophet of our image-saturated hyper-digital consumer culture. Critically, he highlighted that our descent into a world “mediated by images” corresponds with the production of mass social alienation. Debord’s critique has never been more relevant than it is today. Read on to learn more about his life and thought.
Guy Debord: Master of Subversion
WW2, shaped modern France. Yet in the aftermath of the devastating war, the country was brought to its knees. The collapse of the French economy and the destruction of its cities and infrastructure was near total. In the context of the Marshall Plan, economic recovery came in the form of home décor, domestic appliances, and housing plans. A relative degree of stabilization of the economy was achieved, as France set out on the road to becoming a mass consumer society.
As a child, Debord grew up in Pau, an up-market town in the French Pyrenees. As a young man, he lived with his family in the chic seaside town of Cannes. Yet he would make his name on the streets of Paris — the city of his birth.
The France of the supermarché, the nuclear family, and modernist residential housing, was the France of Guy Debord. Writer, filmmaker, self-proclaimed “doctor of nothing”. Guy Louis Marie Vincent Earnest Debord once claimed that though he had read a lot, he had drunk even more.
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Debord’s rebellion was against the emergence of a bureaucratic society of controlled consumption. He was convinced that the world in its entirety must be torn down and rebuilt, not under the sign of “the economy,” but under the banner of art, creativity, and spontaneous life.
Prime mover of the Situationist International, author of the Society of the Spectacle, anti-artist, and filmmaker, Guy Debord offered a critical theory of capitalist society that still stands. Above all else, he was a master of subversion and a strategist for class struggle.
The Situationist International
Formed in 1957 and disbanded in 1972, the Situationist International (SI) was a revolutionary alliance of writers, political theorists, and avant-guard artists. Drawing on both Marxism and Surrealism, their totem was that it was not emotions, feelings, or experiences that defined human action in a given situation, but the situation itself.
The primary aim of the SI was to transcend the division between artist and spectator. The Situationists looked to explore the possibilities of new, spontaneous modes of expression.
They prioritised the city, the street, and what became the key tactic of the Situationists, the dérive.
Writing in 1956, Debord claimed that the dérive was “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences” (Theory of the Dérive, 1956). For the Situationists, the aimless stroll of an unplanned journey was a tactic.
Experiments in aimless strolling broke the monotony of the city and were typically followed by secondary theoretical elaborations, such as Debord’s Guide psychographique de Paris.
The Situationists aimed to reclaim individual autonomy from passivity, and establish new relations to the urban environment. Debord’s “guide” consists of a map of Paris cut into pieces and rearranged to create random paths. The dérive is closely connected to the concept of detournement.
Detournement was described by Debord as the “reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble.” Though pioneered by the SI, this technique — of hijacking and rerouting — would later emerge in the aesthetics of the punk movement and the anti-consumerist culture jamming movement of the 1980s.
Debord was especially concerned by the image-saturated consumer culture of capitalism. In this regard, detournement offered a tactics of subverting images and charging them with radical ideas. The idea that social relations were increasingly mediated by images woud be elaborated in Debord’s most famous work, the Society of the Spectacle.
The Society of the Spectacle
The Society of the Spectacle (1967) is a collection of Debord’s ideas and a theoretical elaboration of his critique of capitalism. A work of Marxist theory and lyric poetry, one has to read it carefully and slowly. Debord’s sole aim is to develop and elaborate the concept of the spectacle. The results are dynamite.
The spectacle, for Debord, “is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life.” It refashions social relationships between people, and “corresponds to a concrete manufacture of alienation.” what is incontestable, is how well the book describes the world in which we live now.
According to Debord, the media interprets (and reduces) the world for us. Images influence our lives and how we think; mass media and advertising manufacture our aspirations and desires. The invasion of mass media into our lives is an expression of the kind of society that we live in: The society of the spectacle.
The spectacle represents a form of unification, where the totality of social relations becomes mediated by appearances. Direct experience of events is replaced by a passive contemplation of images (which are determined by other people). The image-saturated mass culture of advertising, consumption, and celebrity takes center stage.
In the meantime, individual citizen-consumers are preoccupied with the search for happiness. The pleasure of acquiring new commodities — a new hat, home decor, a bottle of coke — is short-lived. Almost instantaneously, we enter into a new cycle of desire — in search of a new moment of happiness.
The goods that the system chooses to produce also serve as its weapons. In the last instance, Debord’s theory is that the spectacle is the visual representation of the ruling economic order: its primary social function is the manufacture of alienation.
In as much a call to arms, as a call to brains, Debord skillfully ranges his artillery at mindless consumption and the manufactured dreams of capitalism. Each thesis is a surrealist blast of political subversion; in over 9 chapters and 221 theses in total, the spectacle is elaborated, as Debord lays out the scale of the challenge we face.
Guy Debord’s Films
Debord’s first film, Hurelments en faveur de Sade (Howlings in Favour of Sade) was purposefully unconventional. Throughout the film, the screen is sometimes white, sometimes dark — but always blank. The soundtrack consists of various quotations, observations, and theoretical propositions, typically interrupted by long stretches of silence.
The opening salvo of the film claims that: “Cinema is dead. Films are no longer possible. If you want, let’s have a discussion.” It was first shown in 1952 in Cannes to an utterly indignant audience. As with Debord’s work in general, the primary aim of his foray into cinema was to challenge the passivity of the spectator, and highlight the actual order of things.
For Debord, modern cinema was one and the same as the spectacle. It was a rendition of the specialization of time and synonymous with alienation and passivity. Thus, for Debord, cinema in its current form had to be destroyed.
Yet his issue was not with cinema as such, but rather, its commercialized and industrialized form. Cinema could for Debord be anti-spectacular; the 24/7 rhythms of capitalism could be displaced. Instead of replicating and reproducing the spectacle, cinema might concern itself with historical examination, critical theory, experience, and memory.
For instance, in Debord’s film, Critique of Seperation (1961) the desire to rework cinema as a situationist project in action is omnipresent. Drifting, irregular rhythms are deployed to negate the spectacle. The aim of the film is to show the viewer how they actually live.
Rephotographed photographs, pirated footage, and footage of Debord wandering the streets of Paris are overlaid by a voiceover that contradicts both the images and subtitles. The film demonstrates that the distinctive characteristic of capitalist society for Debord is separation.
Critique of Separation declares itself to be a “demystification of documentary”. Debord made a total of six films between 1952 and 1978. Each consists of a sustained example of detournement. The aim of each, of course, was to work toward the dismantling of the spectacle. Debord’s critique of cinema was in essence a critique of the society that produces it.
The Legacy of Guy Debord
Though Guy Debord wrote the Society of the Spectacle in 1967, it continues to be more relevant than ever, offering a vision of our times. We live in a world of distraction, of screens, games, and phones. Advertisements and pop-up windows that follow us as we read. Television series, streaming services, and social media.
Debord’s insistence, that “in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” is uncanny as a description of the world of social media influencers, smartphone-mediated reality, and generation selfie.
As Debord succinctly put it, “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation” (Society of the Spectacle, Thesis 1).
Debord’s gift was to proffer a way to understand how capitalism reaches ever deeper into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. The Society of the Spectacle is a modern classic of critical theory and has been highly influential, inspiring the likes of Jean Baudrillard, Georgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek to name but a few.
Yet, perhaps most important is the influence of Debord’s life and work on protest, from the great revolt of 1968 to the Occupy movements in recent times. The Society of the Spectacle was released just before the student and workers revolt of May 1968 broke out.
The occupation of Paris was animated by Debordian demands. The refrains of his theses were daubed on the walls of Paris, from the University of Paris at Nanterre, to the city streets of the Latin Quarter. Debord himself is said to be visible in an old photo of the student occupation at the Sorbonne, “in the thick of the action, lurking with intent” (Merrifield, 2018).
Two years after the events of 1968, he fled Paris to rural Bellevue-la-Montagne. Behind the high walls of his château, albeit under the watchful eye of the French intelligence services, he retreated from the front line. Debord’s life becomes hazy from here on.
He lived out the rest of his life a recluse in relative seclusion with his wife, Alice Becker-Ho. On the 20th of November 1994, aged 62, he committed suicide via a single self-inflicted bullet to the heart. Yet, if one thing is clear, it’s that Guy Debord’s legacy is more relevant than ever.