Criticism of the spectacle – the radical thought of Guy Debord

Ben Connors, 2016


Author's introduction to newly published book

We live in a society of the spectacle. It is unlikely to imagine anyone who disagrees with such a statement. It is enough to see how many times this sentence is repeated by media commentators or by authors who are not interested in criticizing this same society. Some change a term to feign an ill-disguised originality — a famous writer from our continent decided to speak of the “civilization of the spectacle” — while others assume that the problem has been resolved and the spectators already emancipated. It would be worth asking, then, if we still gain something by talking about the society of the spectacle.

Or, to put it more academically: does the category of spectacle still have any heuristic value? Can it, moreover, help in the elaboration of a critical apprehension of social reality? Evidently, if my answer to that question were not affirmative, I would not have written this book. I believe, however, that resuming the heuristic — that is, explanatory — and critical potential — that is, negative — that inhabited the notion of the society of the spectacle in its initial formulation, requires patient and complex work.

It is not enough to remember that the expression was coined by a French free thinker on the eve of the May 1968 uprising, and that it inspired the generation that took to the streets and boulevards of the French capital that spring. Attesting to Guy Debord's political radicalism does not guarantee the theoretical radicalism of his thought. On the contrary, it can even mean a false trail, because of what is commonly conceived as the sixty-eight spirit, we find little or nothing in it. The Society of the Spectacle, a book from 1967, but whose reflections were being conceived by its author for at least a decade.

Let's go back to the beginning. Who was Guy Debord? Resistant to epithets, Debord was an erratic character who crossed different fields of knowledge and different practices. He belonged to the world of the new artistic vanguards that sought to recover the legacy of Dada and Surrealism after the end of the Second World War. Afterwards, he turned away from art and launched himself in search of revolution. He then joined the world of ultra-left, from the radical left, accustomed to Marxist thought, but averse to official communism. In this environment he was also considered a strange figure, not only because he carried part of the aspirations of the artistic vanguards, but also because he formulated an unusual synthesis between Marxist assumptions and libertarian theses.

As if that weren't enough, he also dedicated part of his life to cinema, producing works of reference for montage cinema, as notable as those by Chris Marker or Jean-Luc Godard. He also received some recognition for his literary merits, especially for his handling of the classical style in his later writings. But primarily he was the target of a “bad reputation”, as he would discuss in his last writing, which accompanied his obstinate refusal of official recognition (Debord, 2006 [1993]).

At first, the presentation of the character may serve more to confuse than clarify. But it is also a foretaste of the state of confusion that sometimes invades us when we read her work, as this multiplicity of talents and references permeates her. More concretely, knowing the character serves to situate at what specific moment the theoretical formulation intervened in its course. Debord had participated in the founding of an avant-garde group, the Situationist International (IS), in 1957. The group's fundamental problem was finding a use value for art, and making it a means for transforming everyday life.

An avant-garde focused less on the production of works than on the search for transforming practices in our relationships with others and with the world. His practices were drift”, experience of affective rediscovery of the urban fabric, and the “constructed situation” – where did the name of the group come from -, a proposal for the concomitant use of artistic means to create a qualitatively rich and deliberately constructed experience. But the desire to produce transformative practices and experiences collided with a social order that was antagonistic to them. For Situationist aspirations to become real, Debord and his associates realized, it was necessary first to change society. Situationist life was impossible under the impoverishing limitations of capitalism; would be reserved for after the revolution. However, the situationists also realized that, in order to change society, it was first necessary to understand it.

The Situationist International thus turned to the study of society, in the desire to formulate a critical theory capable of fostering a new form of transformative action. He paid particular attention to the pressing phenomena of his time, such as youth rebelliousness, the revolt of black populations and anti-colonial struggles, while at the same time seeking to rescue key elements of Marx's thought and some of his readers. The fundamental turning point occurred at the beginning of the 1960s, when the artists withdrew from or were excluded from the Situationist International, and the group officially established a new route. At that moment, Debord approached Henri Lefebvre and started to attend the Socialism or Barbarie group. Also around that time, he found in György Lukács a key to reading Marxian theory that would profoundly mark his own conceptions. In 1963, Debord began work on preparing The Society of the Spectacle, which would finally come to light at the end of 1967.

The first objective here will be to analyze the central points of this theory, which are difficult to understand. Contrary to what its title might suggest, Debord's theory does not aim to study the media or the cultural industry. Duly titled The society of the show, the purpose of the work is to understand the show as a total social phenomenon, that is, as articulated to the social totality. This implies a constant movement between the general and the particular, according to an eminently dialectical way of thinking, which also demands moving reasoning on the part of the reader. Most of the misinterpretations and inconsistent uses of this theory stem from the lack of understanding of this movement, resulting in the insistence on watertight aspects artificially isolated from the broad perspective proposed by the author.

Posting The Society of the Spectacle it marked, in a way, the conclusion of a process in Guy Debord's intellectual experience. Studying the documentation contained in his personal archives, now kept at the Biblioteca Nacional da Franca, we see how the period between 1960 and 1967 was one of intense study by the author, who sought, in the reading of the existing critical thinking, instruments for the construction of his theory itself. This process cooled down afterwards. In the following decade, Debord returned to film practice. If he had already made two short films in 1959 and 1961, he would then make two feature films, in 1973 and 1978, the first being the film adaptation of The Society of the Spectacle.

It was only in 1988 that the author resumed his theory. In the book Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, he analyzed the fundamental changes that took place in the twenty years that followed the May 1968 uprising. He started, therefore, from the perception of defeat, from the inability of the May movement to revolutionize society, and sought to understand the reasons and consequences of the prolonged domination Amazing. Comments it thus brings central elements for an update of the theory of the spectacle, and will be the object of careful study in this book.

The reader could question the absence of more in-depth references in relation to Debord's avant-garde period, especially his cinematographic production. After all, he didn't make a movie version of The Society of the Spectacle? This should mean that, in his conception, there was no contradiction or even separation between these two activities, the theoretical and the artistic. In fact, there wasn't. As I could see by studying the documentation in his archives, Debord's thinking often intertwined the two spheres. It was possible that he was thinking of a cinematic sequence when reading Marcuse, or that he was quoting Hegel when putting together a film. And, despite this, rare are the commentators of his work who venture to talk about both one aspect and another of his production, or, at least, with equal depth. In my studies of the author, I have always tried to encompass the totality of his work, offering equal weight to each of his areas, precisely because I believe that, thought of in a complementary way, these activities would be more understandable.

Although I didn't change my mind, I decided to separate the publication of my research on Guy Debord into two volumes, accepting, not without some annoyance, the usual separation between theoretical and aesthetic productions. I thought this was necessary for a number of reasons that should be explained. First, each disciplinary sphere has its own references that are not obvious to the reader, and that sometimes require parallels and explanations. To understand Debord's theory it is necessary to return to Hegel and Marx, just as to understand Debord's art it is necessary to return to Dada and Surrealism.

Debord's historical context is fundamental for understanding his intellectual formation, and this context also unfolds in different dialogues. Again, to understand his theory it is convenient to evoke Lefebvre or Marcuse, just as to understand his art it is necessary to talk about the neo-avant-gardes or the experimental cinema of his time. This historic movement backwards and forwards is not simple and can become too long if not done carefully.

Its difficulty also comes from the fact that Debord was one of the rare characters to constantly cross the borders that separated these domains. I sensed, therefore, the risk of an overly extensive and off-center book, which would risk alienating the reader instead of bringing him closer. So I made the decision to publish two separate volumes. A reader particularly interested in spectacle theory is most likely someone interested in theoretical discussions and is under no obligation to become an expert in film history.

The same goes, inversely, for those who seek in Debord the inspiring ideas of drift and constructed situation, and who, even so, do not intend to become versed in Marxism. In short, Debord's reader is not obliged to be Guy Debord. Recognizing this, I consented to the necessity of disciplinary separation. I maintain, however, the warning that, although separate, these volumes are complementary. And for those who dare to venture beyond the boundaries that usually divide knowledge, reading both volumes can provide a qualitatively different understanding of Guy Debord's radicalism.

This volume is divided into two distinct parts. The first is devoted to the study of Guy Debord's critical theory, commonly called the theory of the spectacle. In the first chapter, “Critique of Separation”, I will deal mainly with the book The Society of the Spectacle, from 1967, in which this theory was originally formulated. I will try to approach its main concepts, making them understandable through a dialogue with the tradition in which it is inserted, namely: the critique of alienation founded on Hegel and unfolded by Marx. If Marx had operated a fundamental inversion of the Hegelian dialectic, removing it from metaphysical speculation and transporting it to materialist analysis, Debord, in turn, carried out a significant update of Marx's theory, identifying the subsumption of everyday life to the logic of the commodity fetishism.

For this reason, he returned to the writings of György Lukacs, who, decades before, had expanded the concept of fetishism, making it the basis of the theory of reification. But the world from which and about which Debord speaks was already quite different from that observed by the philosophers who preceded him. It was now a world in which images gained a profusion and prominence never seen before in the mediation of social processes. Debord thus established the bridge between the transformation in the world of objects, which occurred with the advent of industrialization – the immense accumulation of things noted by Marx –, and the transformations of his time, with the advent of image reproduction techniques and the constitution of a cultural industry – the immense accumulation of spectacles, as Debord would say. If objects had been transmuted into commodities, now images had been transmuted into spectacles – both the objective world and its representation being subsumed under fetishist logic. Alienation reached its highest pitch, the separation of the subject and his world being consummated. Not just loss of work product, but loss of the most elementary means of experience and representation of what was lived. Ultimately waste of your own time.

The separation that Debord spoke about at the time he wrote his theoretical work was understood by him above all as a gap between what was experienced and representation. What was experienced by individuals as concrete activity – notably the experience of work, which occupied most of the time of active life and which, according to the Marxist tradition, was an intrinsically alien activity – was profoundly different from everything that was experienced for them. offered as consumption of images and entertainment. At the same time, the means to represent individual experiences were non-existent, given the concentration of the means of production and dissemination of images in the hands of large conglomerates in the cultural industry.

Seen fifty years later, this discrepancy can no longer be identified in exactly the same way. After all, the devices that make it possible to represent private experiences in an imagery way are now widely accessible, occupying an important part of the active time of individuals' lives, that part, incidentally, perceived by them as more pressing and, at least in appearance, more pleasurable. It is common to see media commentators, who make superficial use of Debord's work, using the 1967 theses to address contemporary phenomena as if nothing had changed in social organization since then, which is certainly a mistake.

However, the empirical transformations that have taken place over the last fifty years do not imply the expiry of the theory of the spectacle, precisely because it turns to the deep roots of perceptible phenomena, and not to their superficial manifestations. What is, after all, the fair measure between these two antagonistic positions? It is necessary to patiently seek to identify which were the relevant changes and which are the fundamental permanences. The author himself helps in this task, as he himself carried out this type of reflection when he returned to his theory twenty years later.

The second chapter of the first part will therefore be devoted to the study of Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, published in 1988. Much less remembered than the 1967 work, sometimes dismissed as insufficiently dialectical or even paranoid, the book is, I believe, fundamental to understanding the unfolding of the society of the spectacle. It helps to understand how Debord himself understood the transformation of his time, how he unfolded his theory as a result of the changes he observed and, more than that, it constitutes a necessary mediation to bring Debord's theory closer to contemporaneity.

As I will try to demonstrate, many of the contemporary phenomena under debate today acquire another form of understanding if we accept the clues provided by Debord in Comments. If it is impossible to deny that we still live – and increasingly so – in a society of the spectacle, it is necessary to understand, however, that the problem of the separation of representation is no longer posed in exactly the same way as it was fifty years ago. The concept of spectacular integrated, formulated by Debord at the end of the 1980s, can be very useful for us to understand more clearly the situation we are in today.

The second part of the book will follow a slightly different path from the first: less of a theoretical reflection, and more of a strictly historical study of Debord's thought. I will try to elucidate the relationship he established with the intellectual context of his time, especially with the then-current Marxism. Although some of these relationships are already known, and even partially commented on, they acquire another concreteness here, as they are based on the study of the author's archives.

For years I have been examining the archives of Guy Debord, which have been in the possession of the National Library of France since 2011. There, his reading records are kept, which allow us to reconstruct, at least in part, his intellectual formation and the dialogues he established with the thoughts of other authors, a fact all the more relevant if we take into account that the situationist posture, largely combative, consisted of in only mentioning authors when they seemed worthy of abuse. This has always made it difficult to clearly identify which sets of ideas the situationists dialogued with. Debord's archives provide ample material to contextually analyze his thinking, his intellectual predilections, his refusals. Although he worked extensively with this documentation, I preferred to use it sparingly.

An excessively philological study would run the risk of distancing us from the author's thought, making him a prisoner of another time. Debord's thought dialogued with authors of his time who today seem dated. However, if we continue to talk about Debord, and not about other thinkers who were contemporary with him, it is because something in his ideas still seems profoundly current. Bringing him too close to his ideas of time could distance us from what, in his thought, still summons us, which appeals to our own historicity. At the same time, the author's historicity should not be ignored. And recognizing the contextual ties of his reflections may be the best way to differentiate aspects of his theory that belong to a past time from those that are still current.

It was for these reasons that I opted for this bipartite structure. In the first part, I try to understand the author's theory, with greater conceptual attention and with moments of reflection on its actuality, without worrying so much about philological or contextual issues. In the second part, I study the context and rely on unpublished documentation from the author's archives to bring a new understanding of the relationship between Debord and the Marxism of his time.

Some freer reflections in dialogue with recent authors will be presented at the end, by way of conclusion, in order to explain which aspects of Debord's thought still reach the present with full radicality.

*Gabriel Zacarias He is a professor at the Department of History at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).



Gabriel Ferreira Zacarias. Criticism of the spectacle: the radical thought of Guy Debord. São Paulo: Editora Elefante, 2022, 200 pages.


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