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Tag: spectacle

From the commodity to the spectacle: Debord’s Marx (Russell, 2019)

Guy Debord with knife

by Eric-John Russell, Capitalism: Concept, Idea, Image eds. Osborne, Alliez, Russel (2019)


Published a century after Marx’s Capital, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was described upon its release as ‘the Capital of the new generation’ (Le Nouvel Observateur). However, the book’s content has almost never been seriously examined alongside the dialectical logic of the social forms of value systematically ordered within Marx’s Capital. Despite Debord’s description of the modern spectacle as a development of the commodity-capitalist economy, discussions on Debord’s debt to Marx customarily emphasize those early writings in which Marx enunciates the critique of alienation without having yet traversed the works of classical political economy. And for good reason, as his archival notes can verify. A preliminary glance at The Society of the Spectacle elicits the impression that the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ first enunciated by Marx in his early twenties continued to reverberate a century later. The book resounds with both implicit and explicit reference to the phenomenon of social alienation or estrangement described by Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts. READ PDF

Basic Banalities (Vaneigem, 1962)


Basic Banalities

Raoul Vaneigem

Internationale Situationniste #7 (April 1962)

Translated by Ken Knabb


BUREAUCRATIC CAPITALISM has found its legitimation in Marx. I am not referring here to orthodox Marxism’s dubious merit of having reinforced the neocapitalist structures whose present reorganization is an implicit homage to Soviet totalitarianism; I am stressing the extent to which crude versions of Marx’s most profound analyses of alienation have become generally recognized in the most commonplace realities — realities which, stripped of their magical veil and materialized in each gesture, have become the sole substance of the daily lives of an increasing number of people. In a word, bureaucratic capitalism contains the tangible reality of alienation; it has brought it home to everybody far more successfully than Marx could ever have hoped to do, it has banalized it as the reduction of material poverty has been accompanied by a spreading mediocrity of existence. As poverty has been reduced in terms of survival, it has become more profound in terms of our way of life — this is at least one widespread feeling that exonerates Marx from all the interpretations a degenerate Bolshevism has made of him. The “theory” of peaceful coexistence has accelerated this awareness and revealed, to those who were still confused, that exploiters can get along quite well with each other despite their spectacular divergences.

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The Use of Bodies, Prologue (Agamben)

1. It is curious how in Guy Debord a lucid awareness of the insufficiency of private life was accompanied by a more or less conscious conviction that there was, in his own existence or in that of his friends, something unique and exemplary, which demanded to be recorded and communicated. Already in Critique de la séparation, he thus evokes at a certain point as intransmissible “cette clandestinité de la vie privée sur laquelle on ne possède jamais que des documents dérisoires” (“that clandestinity of private life regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents”; Debord 1, p. 49/33); and nevertheless, in his first films and again in Panégyrique, he never stopped parading one after the other the faces of his friends, of Asger Jorn, of Maurice Wyckaert, of Ivan Chtcheglov, and his own face, alongside that of the women he loved. And not only that, but in Panégyrique there also appear the houses he inhabited, 28 via delle Caldaie in Florence, the country house at Champot, the square des Missions étrangères at Paris (actually 109 rue du Bac, his final Parisian address, in the drawing room of which a photograph from 1984 shows him seated on the English leather sofa that he seemed to like).

Here there is something like a central contradiction, which the Situationists never succeeded in working out, and at the same time something precious that demands to be taken up again and developed—perhaps the obscure, unavowed awareness that the genuinely political element consists precisely in this incommunicable, almost ridiculous clandestinity of private life. Since clearly it—the clandestine, our form-of-life—is so intimate and close at hand, if we attempt to grasp it, only impenetrable, tedious everydayness is left in our hands. And nonetheless, perhaps precisely this homonymous, promiscuous, shadowy presence preserves the stowaway of the political, the other face of the arcanum imperii, on which every biography and every revolution makes shipwreck. And Guy, who was so shrewd and cunning when he had to analyze and describe the alienated forms of existence in the society of the spectacle, is equally innocent and helpless when he tries to communicate the form of his life, to look in the face and dissolve the stowaway with which he had shared his journey up to the end.

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The Ideology of Revolution in Bioshock Infinite and Hunger Games


via (spoiler alert!)

The effects of the absence of revolutionary projects on the cultural consumption of youth

A well known effect of the current crisis of the mode of production is that it involves a loss of legitimacy resulting in it being challenged by a fringe element of the exploited. Faced with this revolt, Capital has many defences. Capitalist domination has an incredible arsenal, from trade unions to its armed forces, from the ballot to tear gas, from racist divisions to nuclear weapons, over which the proletariat has never permanently triumphed. Whenever the proletariat has been defeated but has managed to deliver a severe blow to the bourgeoisie, its successes are soon transmuted and added to the arsenal of bourgeois rule. The Paris Commune gave way to the voting booths, the October Revolution produced Stalinism, anarchism has become democratic anti-fascism.

The proletarian struggle often has a cultural side. This is a movement against the insignificance of bourgeois existence and of culture, the counter-culture. It is doomed to failure if it is not based on a class movement, if it does not find the material basis to flourish. It has, until now, always been recuperated and relegated to the status of a commodity. Its subversive substance is transformed into capital, the revolt into a commodity. The absorbed counter-cultures are as much a device for conservation and control as the social democratic organisations. Revolt is profitable, especially in times of crisis, because it calls on a group of proletarians, often young, to consume. Anti-fascist skinheads and the teamsters are as much alike as Burningman and Montdragon. They channel the revolt of the exploited, reducing it to a mere cog in the capitalist machine, and creating a new outlet for the revalorisation of Capital.

For two or three years, it is not only the revolt that is exploited, but the very idea of revolution. Since the uprisings in the Arab world, the cultural representations of insurrections have multiplied on the market. From the latest Batman villains who inexplicably launched an anti-capitalist insurrection to put into operation a plan to destroy a city with home-made nuclear weapons to the gang of revolutionary youth of the horrific book Divergence. Overturning the established order seems fashionable. The success of these productions is rooted in the fact that they cater for a young generation of proletarians in the countries at the centre of capitalism. More educated than previously, as precarious workers, they will inherit a planet devastated by overproduction and very likely an imperialist world war more total and devastating than the previous two. This generation will have no choice but to get rid of capitalism, of blasting its voice towards the future, if it does not want to end up envying the fate of those shredded at Verdun or incinerated in the Nazi camps.

One thing is striking about these new revolts in almost every case. The revolutionary project has no name. Sometimes it does not even exist. The revolution is purely negative in its essence. Although having stated that

“Communism is for us not a state to be created, nor an ideal to which reality will have to adjust. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” (The German ideology)

Marx Engel took care to define a little what a classless and stateless society would be like. ”From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” or “a free association of producers” remain clear benchmarks for the future. The spectre haunting Europe had a name and a substance, now it is anonymous and empty. We will analyse two works to see how this phenomenon occurs. First the video game “BioShock Infinite” and then the series of books adapted for the film “The Hunger Games”.


The Inexplicably Bloodthirsty BioShock Infinite

In BioShock Infinite, released in March 2013, the player is Booker DeWitt, detective, former member of the US Cavalry who participated in the massacre of Wounded Knee and is a former Pinkerton agent. You are sent in 1912 to a floating city called ”Columbia” to find a woman in exchange for the redemption of these debts. The city was to be an ideal representation of American society at the beginning of the century; it is a caricature. Racial segregation, abject exploitation of the workers, hypocritical puritanism and religious bigotry stretch out before your eyes. This is America described by Vladimir Pozner and Howard Zinn, where class war rages.

The proletarians are organised by a group called ‘Vox Populi’, led by a brilliant black woman, Daizy Fitzroy. Rebel workers, dressed in red, with an aesthetic between that of the IWW and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, the association with the socialist movement is easy to make. But no ideology seems to animate the Vox. Apart from a vague populism, no political project, except for a hatred of the ‘founders’ (the name given to the big bourgeois of Columbus) and a form of jealousy motivates them. At the beginning of the game, ”Vox” are rational, their intentions are noble and their methods are quite justifiable faced with the repression of the regime. But when the revolution triumphs, the masses become brutal and bloodthirsty. Although similar events may appear, the turnaround is pretty brutal. The most extreme case is that of Fitzroy, who tries to kill a bourgeois child, to ‘destroy evil at its root’ but who, as although a determined revolutionary leader, had never done anything so bloodthirsty before.

The explanation for this sudden revolutionary thirst for blood is the same one that sheds light on their lack of political project. The revolution in essence is considered a violent and negative act, despite its noble intentions. The bloodshed is considered normally associated with any attempt to change the world outside the bourgeois framework. Any qualitative change in society is associated with the liberal fear of the “tyranny of the mob”, so dangerous for minorities (especially the exploiting minorities). The revolution itself is seen as something that can only degenerate into an act of bloody dictatorship. It is a well known process, whether in the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. Bourgeois historiography is only capable of considering it a succession of the most horrific bloodbaths, each worse than the last.

Another analytical angle may be that this is the current vision of many white liberals to the racially rooted proletarian uprisings in countries at the centre of capitalism. Liberals will often reduce acts of rebellious rioters to simple moments of revenge by looting. We can see this vision when, having won, a member of Vox writes ”your lives are ours, your houses are, your wives are ours. ” Although this view is true in part, the rioters often engage in acts of vandalism counter-productive to their own interests, the movements often dying out after their phases of riot through lack of political substance. The fact remains that social conflict is reduced to bestial acts of revenge by a part of the population which is just what bourgeois social organisation thinks.

The Hunger Games: Something Altogether Different

The Hunger Games is a series of youth adventure books following the most classical genre since the early 2000s: that of a child, teenager or young adult who saves the world. The success of Harry Potter is emblematic of this narrative model. Born of the broken promise of Francis Fukuyama of the ‘end of history’ this narrative model is simply that of the generation born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The promise of free market capitalism was not achieved, “evil” persists though it is unclear how, and young people are forced to encounter it like their parents. The threat is rarely new: it’s usually an ancient evil, defeated by previous generation, who returns to the present. It is easy to understand that this is the spectre of ‘totalitarianism’. It is the USSR standing among the ashes of the Third Reich, it is Saddam Hussein rising from the ruins of the Berlin Wall.

A feature of The Hunger Games is the imposition of a certain gender gap. Indeed, in this series, evil has overwhelmed the previous generations. Evil is the Capitol, a physical place and a structure of government that governs the country of Panem. In a post-apocalyptic North America, the Capitol has established its dominance over 13 districts. Districts are areas of North America, each of which produces a type of goods for the Capitol. For example, District Twelve where Katniss comes from, is known for its coal mines. The economic domination of the Capitol was challenged by a rebellion that was crushed 74 years before the series starts. Since the rebellion, the Capitol has organised a series of fights to the death between young people of the 12 districts in order to reinforce the Capitol’s supremacy over the districts. The fighting takes place in huge high-tech coliseums recreating hostile areas. The games are broadcast throughout Panem. Katniss, challenging the judges over her own participation in the games, triggers a successful revolution to overthrow the Capitol. However, when the revolution triumphs, the leaders of the revolution propose maintaining the games, but this time with the children of the Capitol. Opposing the replacement games, Katniss kills the leader of the rebellion just as she had President Snow, deposed dictator of the Capitol.

This work is interesting on several points. First of all it offers powerful criticism of a spectacle pushed to the most extreme barbarism. Then there is the international division of labour, which is admittedly simplified, but we are talking about a book for young adults. Even more impressive is the description of the independent district, District 13, which, because of its isolation and its lack of resources, has degenerated into a harsh dictatorship. It seems almost like a criticism of socialism in one country. Also, the designation of the enemy as Capitol, with an O replacing an A is clearly anti-capitalist.

But once again, the absence of a revolutionary project is striking. Apart from two vague lines towards the end of the third book about a republic, the question of what will replace the Capitol is barely touched. Theory is non-existent, and the debates that should animate the revolutionary ranks are non-existent. The rebels have no name other than that of rebels or insurgents. The conclusion is thus predictable. The needs of revolution having corrupted the rebel leaders, the fight should now be against them.

From the Poverty of Literature to the Poverty of the Movement

The failings of these revolutionary movements accurately represent the shortcomings of the current movement of the proletariat. Blind violence of the proletarians of a racially dominated Vox Populi echoes those of immigrant proletarian youth, stuck on the periphery of the capitalist metropoles with their devastating eruptions of rebellion. The anti-Capitolisme Panem Rebel echoes the informed anti-capitalism of Occupy and the Indignados. This is the ideological depression of a generation of proletarians, where the enemy is only vaguely known. Capitol and the Founders are echos of the 1% and Babylon, or the revolutionary project is vague, undefined. This is a proletariat smitten by its experience and its past. The culprit is not hard to find. The carrion of Stalinism still stinks strong enough to undermine the revolutionary movement. The defeat of the Russian Revolution opened a wound in the revolutionary movement, a wound that is slow to heal. Stalinism dealt a severe blow not only to the political project of the proletariat, communism, associating it with gulags and famine, but also the material force that carried the experience of the proletariat, its Revolutionary Party, into association with the authoritarian state. If the current material conditions push all thinking beings to severely undermine capitalism, the lack of a material force that could link the working class to its revolutionary past, to the experience upon which it can draw, will lead us straight to barbarism.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Spectacular Time



OUR EPOCH, WHICH PRESENTS its time to itself as essentially made up of many frequently recurring festivities, is actually an epoch without festival. Those moments when, under the reign of cyclical time, the community would participate in a luxurious expenditure of life, are strictly unavailable to a society where neither community nor luxury exists. Mass pseudo-festivals, with their travesty of dialogue and their parody of the gift, may incite people to excessive spending, but they produce only a disillusion — which is invariably in turn offset by further false promises. The self-approbation of the time of modern survival can only be reinforced, in the spectacle, by reduction in its use value. The reality of time has been replaced by its publicity.