In a period of great confusion where personal observations of the ongoing degradation of the world and the absence of a shared discourse on the causes at the origin of this degradation rub shoulders on a daily basis, the concept of spectacle is more relevant than ever. This critical theory of modern society that Guy Debord described in 1967 in his book The Society of the Spectacle, is an intellectual weapon that can help to distinguish the false from the true, to recognize the impostors, to name what accompanies the capitalist system or really breaks with it. While Guy Debord wrote that the spectacle is « the most important thing in the world.he most important event that has occurred in this century, and also the one that has been least explained (1) « Nothing has changed in the 21st century, even worsening with the « progress » of mass communication. Here is an article about this question, followed by a short anachronistic interview with Guy Debord.
Most often, society seems to be apprehended as a total fact which, like living nature, would have been bequeathed to us and about which there would be nothing to say. If we protest about the biological characteristics that make a plant grow in such a way, or give flowers that have such an aspect, why should we do otherwise with the social body, which would then be in our imagination, like the tree, directed by an external force? Cornelius Castoriadis spoke on this subject of heteronomy, that is to say the opposite of autonomy, by specifying » that a central and fallacious idea of the majority of the movements of the left […] was to confuse heteronomy with domination and exploitation by a particular social stratum. But domination and exploitation by a particular social stratum is only one of the manifestations (or realizations) of heteronomy. The essence of heteronomy is more than that. (…) Thus, heteronomy is the fact that the institution of society, the creation of society itself, is posited by society as given by someone else, a « transcendent » source: the ancestors, the gods, the God, nature, or — as with Marx — the « laws of history » « (2).
Immersed in a media bath that holds the monopoly of the representation of the world, the images conveyed reinforce this heteronomy, maintain the lie, present the world as an intangible data and assure the perpetuity of the domination. » In terms of techniques, when the image constructed and chosen by someone else has become the main relationship of the individual to the world that before he looked by himself, from every place where he could go, we obviously do not ignore that the image will support everything; because inside the same image we can juxtapose without contradiction anything. The flow of images carries everything away, and it is also someone else who governs at will this simplified summary of the sensitive world; who chooses where this flow will go, and also the rhythm of what will have to be manifested in it, as a perpetual arbitrary surprise, not wanting to leave any time for reflection, and quite independently of what the spectator can understand or think about it. In this concrete experience of the permanent submission, is the psychological root of the so general adhesion to what is there; who comes to recognize him ipso facto a sufficient value. The spectacular discourse obviously keeps silent, besides what is properly secret, everything that does not suit it. He always isolates, from what he shows, the surroundings, the past, the intentions, the consequences. It is therefore totally illogical « (3).
Thus, at a time when the consumption of screens can exceed 7 hours per day among teenagers, that on average a child reaching his seventh year will have spent a year of time awake in front of them (television, tablet, smartphone, game consoles …), that manufacturers develop tablets for babies under 6 months(4)Reality is fiction and the world we « know » is only that of the image. What should however have remained of the domain of the unacceptable propaganda was accepted by a majority, fallen progressively in the incapacity to become aware of its alienation to the virtual objects and to the imposed imaginary, siphoning the intelligence of the subject and containing this risk of » deprive us so completely of freedom that we would not even have the freedom to know that we are not free « (5).
In this dynamic where the image occupies the place of the imaginary, the denominations change with the only purpose to continue to deceive the subject and to inoculate him always the same representation of the society in which he lives — « the most evolved » — and not to change anything. Those who benefit in some way from the system in place will have every interest in believing what they are told and will avoid real experiences that contradict the official reality. They will always find explanations to justify the existing, yet unjustifiable world.
The words change, the domination remains. We have thus, for example, gone from a « sustainable development » which still accepted in its terms that progress, i.e. infinite material accumulation, could be reconciled with duration, to a « fight for the climate », the contours of which are vague but the foundations identical: we want to imagine that we can continue as before, without drastic reduction of our consumption, and therefore profound modification of our ways of life, while imposing this superiority of man over everything, decreeing again that it is the one who had destroyed everything who should now become the savior. Of course, both approaches — sustainable development and the fight for the climate — are based on the same principles and are born to entertain the subject and be able to continue the same thing. Why this rather sudden change though? Because despite the media omerta, some counter-current ideas have nevertheless passed through the interstices of the wall of the single thought; because the Internet has nevertheless offered a counter-information to the omnipotence of the media, because misery and inequalities have increased and institutional palliative devices have been reduced. Of course, there are also the effects on nature that have become more visible, the fossil resources that have reached their peak and introduced the idea of scarcity, while the market society was paradoxically becoming more and more obvious: » It is certainly a pity that human society encounters such burning problems at a time when it has become materially impossible to make the slightest objection to market discourse heard; at a time when domination, precisely because it is sheltered by the spectacle of any response to its fragmentary or delusional decisions and justifications, has become the norm, believes that it no longer needs to think; and really does not know how to think « (6).
But the spectacular society does not admit defeat so easily. The fight against climate change has remained on the rails of acceptable protest for the regime, symbolized by a few icons enthroned by the media under the figure of the messiah — which says a lot about the majority’s shared ignorance of the dominant media, its structure and its functioning, which has obviously not suddenly adopted a role other than the one it has always played, that is, to make people accept the world as it is. The discourse must therefore always remain unclear about the causes of the situation, constantly » decentered « . » In some cases, it is a question of creating, on questions which would risk becoming burning, another pseudo-critical opinion; and between the two opinions which would thus emerge, one and the other foreign to the miserable spectacular conventions, the ingenuous judgement will be able to oscillate indefinitely, and the discussion to weigh them will be restarted each time it is convenient. More often, it is a general discourse on what is hidden in the media, and this discourse can be very critical, and on some points obviously intelligent, but remaining curiously decentered. Themes and words were selected artificially, using computers informed by critical thinking. There are in these texts some absences, rather inconspicuous, but nevertheless remarkable: the vanishing point of the perspective is always abnormally absent. They look like the facsimile of a famous weapon, where only the firing pin is missing. It is necessarily a lateral criticismThis is a book that sees many things with a lot of frankness and accuracy, but from the side. This is not because it would affect any impartiality, for on the contrary it must appear to blame a lot, but without ever seeming to feel the need to let it appear what its cause ; therefore to say, even implicitly, where it comes from and where it would like to go « (7). If the words of the young Swedish woman sound true sometimes, they draw a general shape which does not touch our bourgeois ways of life, focusing the attention on « the decision makers » who would not have listened to us. « Forgetting » to name the essential, movements presenting themselves as « rebels » can thus send a letter to the local political power on the air pollution in the city without mentioning once the car. This will allow two things: not to make the motorist feel guilty and to put pressure on the public authorities to adopt laws accelerating the passage to electric cars(8), as harmful for the planet, as criminal for the exploited people.
The fog on the causes is in fact the sine qua non condition to benefit from the ear of the powerful and to have the mouth of the media, which need more than ever today an acceptable and controlled contestation. One does not argue with Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenneger or Leonardo Di Caprio (whom Greta Thunberg met) when one goes to the end of the reasoning and explains the system that created them. It is a fantastic footnote to meet those among the most faithful servants of the society of the spectacle, to make us believe that we will find with them a solution to the disaster in which they actively participate. Here again, the image… » An anti-spec tacular notoriety has become something extremely rare (…) But it has also become extraordinarily suspicious. The company has officially declared itself spectacular. To be known outside of spectacular relationships is already to be known as an enemy of society « (9). No risk here…
Terrorism » itself, that which only the West has the prerogative to name(10), is at the service of domination, participating through the barbarization of the other in the excellence attributed in return to the one who names. » This so perfect democracy manufactures itself its inconceivable enemy, terrorism. It wants to be judged on its enemies rather than on its results. The history of terrorism is written by the state; it is therefore educational. The spectator populations cannot know everything about terrorism, but they can always know enough to be persuaded that, in relation to this terrorism, everything else will have to seem rather acceptable, or at least more rational and more democratic « (11).
Everything is there to continue. Will we move to electric cars and photovoltaic panels? 1,000 billion will be spent over 10 years to ensure a Green New Deal in Europe. Money that will certainly constitute a kind of transfer from the poorest to the richest, the former subsidizing the « transition » and the companies of those who will have the technical means to implement it. The others, those who die away from us to ensure our way of life, will continue to die.
« DEMOCRACY » REDUCED TO THE BALLOT BOX AND MEDIA DISCOURSE
Like spectators of a wrestling match, we find it astonishing that those who watch the daily political jousts staged by the media can still confuse fiction with reality. Because there is a permanent connivance between the political actors and the media that allows them to represent themselves, even if we don’t really know if the game is taking place because all have bought their ticket and pretend to believe in it or because few believe in it but all keep silent, which in both cases leads to the same result. However, we quickly discover that political enemies are only political when they are on screen, and that as soon as the camera is turned off they continue their business, the Flemish and Walloon politicians being a good example.
There is therefore no absurdity in the fact that the same person who hastily asks, while knowing that he is in danger of being prosecuted, to vote for a law punishing whistleblowers and journalists who reveal secret government information with several months in prison and thousands of euros in fines(12)The first case he dealt with was the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had revealed the Maltese government’s complicity with organized crime, particularly in matters related to the Panama Papers. the assassination of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had revealed the complicity of the Maltese government with organized crime, particularly in matters related to the Panama Papers. No surprise from these benevolent media when the politician says about this first task: » What is envisaged for the time being is to first pursue the anti-money laundering efforts and the way in which passports can sometimes be given for payments « He himself is suspected of money laundering and has his fingerprints all over a number of major corruption cases.(13). In the same way, a former banker reaches the highest spheres of the French state, itself a product of a media process, and these same media gargle with the novelty that arrives. Nothing new though, just an evolution towards perfection. Political lies are peddled through the media, which in turn sustains political deception. As Orwell said, » political language — and with some variation this applies to all political parties, from conservatives to anarchists — has the function of making lies credible and murder respectable, and of giving what is only wind an appearance of consistency(14) ».
In this configuration, political life could only be reduced to the electoral system and become nothing more than that, a fact whose supreme expression can be found in the good conscience of the guy who lectures you when you tell him that you no longer vote: » So don’t complain about the decisions that will be made « … The ingenuous, who still thought that it was the vote, his or another, that could influence some decisions, confusing causes and coincidences: if a government makes choices, it is not because a majority has decided so, but because the elites who knew beforehand the cards they were going to play and who had ratified pre-electorally the decisions, managed to convince, via their media propaganda organs, a rather important part of the population to do so. Everything goes with the wind. Partisan loyalty, the idolatry of political personification, an atavistic form of voluntary servitude and a love of political spectacle will do the rest. The same puppets will play a game that is always the same in substance, but significantly different in form. Afterwards, if in spite of everything, the voter « makes a mistake », elections will be reorganized so that the people can vote « well ». The individual will most often be content with this, and if not, will remain passive due to the inability to know where to act.
The litany of scandals never announces its end, and gently brings to light the idea that the occasional revelation of small political arrangements does not belong to this category, but rather to a form of habit inscribed in the very structure of power. We understand then that the scandal, the only one, is the one that has taken away the sovereignty of the people.
In this democratic vacuum, the compensation offered by commercial consumption serves as an outlet for a life that is essentially directed from the outside, over which we lose control. This is the only power they want to leave us, the power of purchase, a demand taken up wholeheartedly by the entire political spectrum, unions and associative sectors. Real political inaction is thus compensated by this ersatz action that is consumption, becoming a form of « redemption » for our loss of freedom, ensuring that those who confiscate political choices will never be bothered. But things can change, and those who have always believed that they could continue to manipulate us, must fear an upcoming reversal.
THE SHOW OR THE ORGANIZATION OF IGNORANCE ANACHRONISTIC INTERVIEW WITH GUY DEBORD
The anachronistic interview is the meeting with an author that we can no longer meet, not to make him say what he did not say, but on the contrary to highlight the relevance of past words in the understanding of the present(15).
Kairos: Guy Debord, we see today that, despite the information on the disaster caused by our Western civilization, things are going on as they should. Is this all just a set-up?
Guy Debord: The spectacle masterfully organizes the ignorance of what happens and, immediately afterwards, the oblivion of what could still be known. The most important is the most hidden. Nothing has been covered with so many ordered lies as the history of May 1968(16).
Of course, but it can be said that the lies of 1989 were just as important. Indeed, it was necessary to conceal the social destruction of East Germany following its annexation, in order to celebrate the inauguration of total capitalism and the unipolar world, an apotheosis that would henceforth signal the « end of history. In general, the story is thus increasingly distant from reality?
As soon as one has the mechanism controlling the only social verification that is fully and universally recognized, one says what one wants. The movement of the spectacular demonstration proves itself simply by walking in circles: by coming back, by repeating itself, by continuing to affirm on the only ground where resides from now on what can be affirmed publicly, and be believed, since it is of that only that everyone will witness. The spectacular authority can also deny anything, once, three times, and say that it will not talk about it anymore, and talk about something else; knowing well that it does not risk any other retaliation on its own ground, nor on another. For there is no longer an agora, a general community; nor even communities restricted to intermediary bodies or autonomous institutions, to salons or cafés, to the workers of a single enterprise; nowhere where the debate on the truths that concern those who are there can be durably freed from the overwhelming presence of the media discourse, and of the different forces organized to relay it.
It’s interesting that you mention truth, when we have now entered the era of post-truth, where it has become a taboo word, everything being now marked by an absolute relativism. The same people who misinform us on a daily basis have recently become the sole holders of the truth?
The still young concept of disinformation was recently(17) imported from Russia, along with many other inventions useful for the management of modern states. It is always highly employed by a power, or corollary by people who hold a fragment of economic or political authority, to maintain what is established; and always by attributing to this employment a counter-offensive function. What can be opposed to a single official truth must necessarily be disinformation emanating from hostile powers, or at least from rivals, and it would have been intentionally distorted by malice. Disinformation is not the simple denial of a fact that suits the authorities, or the simple affirmation of a fact that does not suit them: this is called psychosis. Contrary to the pure lie, disinformation — and here is why the concept is interesting for the defenders of the dominant society — must inevitably contain a certain part of truth, but deliberately manipulated by a clever enemy. The power that speaks of disinformation does not believe itself to be absolutely without defects, but it knows that it will be able to attribute to any precise criticism this excessive insignificance that is in the nature of disinformation; and that in this way it will never have to agree on a particular defect. Disinformation is ultimately the equivalent of what » evil passions » represented in the social warfare discourse of the 19th century. This is all that is obscure and would be likely to oppose the extraordinary happiness that this company, as we know, gives to those who have put their trust in it; happiness that cannot be paid for too much by various risks or insignificant setbacks. And all those who see this happiness in the show admit that there is no need to skimp on its cost; while the others misinform.
By stigmatizing the « misinformer », one also grants oneself the appreciable title of official informant, therefore of « good informant »?
The other advantage that one finds in denouncing, by explaining it thus, a very particular disinformation, it is that consequently the global discourse of the spectacle could not be suspected of containing some, since it can designate, with the most scientific insurance, the ground where the only disinformation is recognized: it is all that one can say and that will not please him.
This concept of disinformation has something of totalitarian, form of control of a central power which wants to ensure the control of the representation of reality…
The concept of misinformation is only good in the counter-attack. You have to keep it in the second line, then instantly throw it forward to push back any truth that comes up. The confusionist concept of disinformation is put in the spotlight to instantly refute, by the mere sound of its name, any criticism that the various agencies of the silence organization would not have been enough to remove. For example, one could say one day, if it seemed desirable, that this writing is an enterprise of disinformation on the show; or, it is the same thing, of disinformation to the detriment of democracy.
The thing normally exists because it is named?
What the show can stop talking about for three days is like that which does not exist.
However, for disinformation, it is the opposite…
Yes, where misinformation is named, it does not exist. Where it exists, it is not named. In the same way, we speak at all times of « states governed by the rule of law » only since the moment when the modern so-called democratic state generally ceased to be one.
Those who stage the show are also those who would have the power to mediate our response to what we hear and see. However, there is no radical opposition. But this is easily explainable in your opinion?
On the level of the means of thought of contemporary populations, the first cause of decadence is clearly due to the fact that any discourse shown in the spectacle leaves no room for response; and logic had only been socially formed in dialogue. But also, when the respect of what speaks in the show, which is supposed to be important, rich, prestigious, which is the authority itself, the tendency also spreads among the spectators to want to be as illogical as the show, to display an individual reflection of this authority.
One remains sometimes astonished that no political actor or almost no political actor goes out of his role and denounces, not the drifts, but the intrinsic harmfulness of a system. How would you explain this?
La Boétie showed, in the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, how the power of a tyrant must find numerous supports among the concentric circles of individuals who find, or believe they find, their advantage in it. In the same way, many people, among the politicians or the media, who are flattered that they cannot be suspected of being irresponsible , know a lot of things through relationships and confidences. The one who is happy to be in the confidence is hardly inclined to criticize it: nor therefore to notice that, in all confidences, the main part of reality will always be hidden from him. He knows, by the benevolent protection of the cheaters, a few more cards, but which may be false; and never the method that directs and explains the game. He therefore immediately identifies with the manipulators, and despises the ignorance that he basically shares. Because the bits of information that are offered to these familiar with the tyranny of lies are normally infected with lies, uncontrollable, manipulated. However, they please those who have access to them, because they feel superior to all those who know nothing. They are only useful to make people approve of domination, and never to understand it effectively. They are the privilege of first-class spectators : those who have the stupidity to believe that they can understand something, not by using what is hidden from them, but by believing what is revealed to them.
Has censorship reached a stage of perfection?
Never has censorship been more perfect. Never has the opinion of those who are still made to believe, in some countries, that they remain free citizens, been less allowed to make itself known, whenever it is a question of a choice that will affect their real life. Never before has it been possible to lie to them with such a perfect absence of consequences.
Those who « lead » us, however, seem to be afraid. Many legal initiatives are taken, for example, to muzzle whistleblowers. If they didn’t have to worry about it, they’d let them, wouldn’t they?
The society that announces itself as democratic, when it has reached the stage of the integrated spectacular, seems to be accepted everywhere as the realization of a fragile perfection. So that it should no longer be exposed to attack, since it is fragile; and moreover is no longer attackable, since it is as perfect as ever. It is a fragile society because it has great difficulty in controlling its dangerous technological expansion. But it is a perfect society to be governed; and the proof is that all those who aspire to govern want to govern it, by the same procedures, and maintain it almost exactly as it is (…) Wherever the spectacle reigns, the only organized forces are those who want the spectacle. None of them can therefore be an enemy of what exists, nor can they transgress theomertà that concerns everything. The worrying notion that a society could be criticized and transformed, reformed or revolutionized, which had dominated for more than 200 years, is over. And this was not achieved by the appearance of new arguments, but simply because the arguments became useless. This result will measure, rather than the general happiness, the formidable force of the networks of tyranny.
Joyful totalitarianism is the « good guys » who allow us access to « purchasing power » and the « bad guys » who illegally help themselves, but all illegitimately, for the same objectives of monopolizing the common good. It is a great illusion to oppose the two?
Every time we want to explain something by opposing the Mafia to the State, we are mistaken: they are never in competition. The theory verifies with ease what all the rumors of practical life had too easily shown. The Mafia is no stranger to this world; it is perfectly at home here. At the time of the integrated spectacular, it actually reigns as the model for all advanced commercial enterprises.
Do you expect anything from those who lead us. These are serious times, aren’t we wasting precious time waiting for them to listen, when they know the dramatic effects of their management of the world?
The domination is lucid at least in this that it expects from its own management, free and without hindrances, a rather large number of catastrophes of the first magnitude for the very near future; and this as much on the ecological grounds, chemical for example, as on the economic grounds, banking for example. For some time now, it has put itself in a position to deal with these exceptional misfortunes in a way other than the usual soft disinformation. The real influences remain hidden, and the ultimate intentions can only be suspected with difficulty, almost never understood.
Anachronistic interview with Guy Debord, by Alexandre Penasse
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, Gallimard, 1988/1992, p. 99, souligné par l’auteur.
- Freud, le sujet social , sous la direction de Annick Le Guen & al., Presses universitaires de France, 2002, p.12–13. Voir également notre long article «La montée de l’insignifiance », Kairos juin 2016.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, Ibid., p. 44–45.
- Voir Ducanda https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud3vbVxS2PI&t=187s
- Gunther Anders, cité dans « Que faire de la liberté individuelle ? », Kairos novembre-décembre 2019.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, ibid, p. 56, souligné par l’auteur.
- Ibid, p. 102.
- Voir le dossier de Kairos « La bagnole est morte. Vive la bagnole », notamment l’article «La voiture élecLa voiture électrique, une imposture durabletrique, une imposture durable », Alain Gras, novembre 2017.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle ibid, p. 33.
- Voir « L’Occident terroriste », numéro spécial de Kairos, novembre 2016.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, ibid, p. 40.
- Projet de loi porté par le cabinet du Ministre belge de la Défense et des Affaires étrangères Didier Reynders.
- Voir les différents articles à ce sujet sur www.kairospresse.be.
- George Orwell, Tels, tels étaient nos plaisirs. Et autres essais (1944–1949), Ivréa, Encyclopédie des nuisances, 2005, p. 160. Le 21 janvier 2020 signait les 70 ans de la disparition de George Orwell, que les médias du pouvoir, dont ils dénonçaient la fonction de propagande, ont relayé, balayant d’un trait l’essence subversive de son œuvre. Comme disait Simone Leys dans Orwell ou l’horreur de la politique : « Cette annexion d’Orwell par la nouvelle droite reflète moins le potentiel conservateur de sa pensée que la persistante stupidité d’une gauche qui, au lieu de commencer enfin à le lire et le comprendre, s’est laissé scandaleusement confisquer le plus puissant de ses écrivains ». Plon, 2006, p. 73.
- Les interviews anachroniques antérieures étaient celles d’André Gorz, « L’idéologie sociale de la bagnole » et de Simone Weil, « L’obsolescence des partis politiques », respectivement dans les éditions Kairos de septembre et novembre 2017. Les propos ici sont tous tirés de Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, Gallimard, 1988/19 92.
- L’auteur indique que « rien, depuis vingt ans, n’a été recouvert de tant de mensonges commandés … ». Guy Debord écrit en 1988. Pour rendre plus facile ce saut temporel de l’interview anachronique, nous avons enlevé cette référence temporelle.
- Dans les années 80.