The Society of the Spectacle
by Guy Debord
Chapter 3 "Unity and Division Within Appearance"
A lively new polemic about the concepts "one divides into two"
and "two fuse into one" is unfolding on the philosophical front in this
country. This debate is a struggle between those who are for and those
who are against the materialist dialectic, a struggle between two conceptions
of the world: the proletarian conception and the bourgeois conception.
Those who maintain that "one divides into two" is the fundamental law of
things are on the side of the materialist dialectic; those who maintain
that the fundamental law of things is that "two fuse into one" are against
the materialist dialectic. The two sides have drawn a clear line of demarcation
between them, and their arguments are diametrically opposed. This polemic
is a reflection, on the ideological level, of the acute and complex class
struggle taking place in China and in the world.
Red Flag, (Peking), 21 September 1964
The spectacle, like modern society, is at once unified and divided. Like
society, it builds its unity on the disjunction. But the contradiction,
when it emerges in the spectacle, is in turn contradicted by a reversal
of its meaning, so that the demonstrated division is unitary, while the
demonstrated unity is divided.
The struggle of powers constituted for the management of the same socio-economic
system is disseminated as the official contradiction but is in fact part
of the real unity--on a world scale as well as within every nation.
The spectacular sham struggles of rival forms of separate power are at
the same time real in that they translate the unequal and antagonistic
development of the system, the relatively contradictory interests of classes
or subdivisions of classes which acknowledge the system and define themselves
as participants within its power. Just as the development of the most advanced
economy is a clash between some priorities and others, the totalitarian
management of the economy by a State bureaucracy and the condition of the
countries within the sphere of colonization or semi-colonization are defined
by specific peculiarities in the varieties of production and power. These
diverse oppositions can be passed off in the spectacle as absolutely distinct
forms of society (by means of any number of different criteria). But in
actual fact, the truth of the uniqueness of all these specific sectors
resides in the universal system that contains them: the unique movement
that makes the planet its field, capitalism.
The society which carries the spectacle does not dominate the underdeveloped
regions by its economic hegemony alone. It dominates them as the society
of the spectacle. Even where the material base is still absent, modern
society has already invaded the social surface of each continent by means
of the spectacle. It defines the program of the ruling class and presides
over its formation, just as it presents pseudo-goods to be coveted. it
offers false models of revolution to local revolutionaries. The spectacle
of bureaucratic power, which holds sway over some industrial countries,
is an integral part of the total spectacle, its general pseudo-negation
and support. The spectacle displays certain totalitarian specializations
of communication and administration when viewed locally, but when viewed
in terms of the functioning of the entire system these specializations
merge in a world division of spectacular tasks.
The division of spectacular tasks preserves the entirety of the existing
order and especially the dominant pole of its development. The root of
the spectacle is within the abundant economy the source of the fruits which
ultimately take over the spectacular market despite the ideological-police
protectionist barriers of local spectacles aspiring to autarchy.
Under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle, banalization dominates
modern society the world over and at every point where the developed consumption
of commodities has seemingly multiplied the roles and objects to choose
from. The remains of religion and of the family (the principal relic of
the heritage of class power) and the moral repression they assure, merge
whenever the enjoyment of this world is affirmed--this world being
nothing other than repressive pseudo-enjoyment. The smug acceptance of
what exists can also merge with purely spectacular rebellion; this reflects
the simple fact that dissatisfaction itself became a commodity as soon
as economic abundance could extend production to the processing of such
The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being,
embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being
a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the
object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate
for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived.
Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society
unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the
inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products
magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations,
decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed
process. In one case state power personalizes itself as a pseudo-star;
in another a star of consumption gets elected as a pseudo-power over the
lived. But just as the activities of the star are not really global. they
are not really varied.
The agent of the spectacle placed on stage as a star is the opposite of
the individual, the enemy of the individual in himself as well as in others.
Passing into the spectacle as a model for identification. the agent renounces
all autonomous qualities in order to identify himself with the general
law of obedience to the course of things. The consumption celebrity superficially
represents different types of personality and shows each of these types
having equal access to the totality of consumption and finding similar
happiness there. The decision celebrity must possess a complete stock of
accepted human qualities. Official differences between stars are wiped
out by the official similarity which is the presupposition of their excellence
in everything. Khrushchev became a general so as to make decisions on the
battle of Kursk, not on the spot, but at the twentieth anniversary, when
he was master of the State. Kennedy remained an orator even to the point
of proclaiming the eulogy over his own tomb, since Theodore Sorenson continued
to edit speeches for the successor in the style which had characterized
the personality of the deceased. The admirable people in whom the system
personifies itself are well known for not being what they are; they became
great men by stooping below the reality of the smallest individual life,
and everyone knows it.
False choice in spectacular abundance, a choice which lies in the juxtaposition
of competing and complimentary spectacles and also in the juxtaposition
of roles (signified and carried mainly by things) which are at once exclusive
and overlapping, develops into a struggle of vaporous qualities meant to
stimulate loyalty to quantitative triviality. This resurrects false archaic
oppositions, regionalisms and racisms which serve to raise the vulgar hierarchic
ranks of consumption to a preposterous ontological superiority. In this
way, the endless series of trivial confrontations is set up again. from
competitive sports to elections, mobilizing a sub-ludic interest. Wherever
there is abundant consumption, a major spectacular opposition between youth
and adults comes to the fore among the false roles--false because the adult,
master of his life, does not exist and because youth, the transformation
of what exists, is in no way the property of those who are now young, but
of the economic system, of the dynamism of capitalism. Things rule
and are young; things confront and replace one another.
What hides under the spectacular oppositions is a unity of misery.
Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation
confront each other, all of them built on real contradictions which are
repressed. The spectacle exists in a concentrated or a diffuse
form depending on the necessities of the particular stage of misery which
it denies and supports. In both cases, the spectacle is nothing more than
an image of happy unification surrounded by desolation and fear at the
tranquil center of misery.
The concentrated spectacle belongs essentially to bureaucratic capitalism,
even though it may be imported as a technique of state power in mixed backward
economies or, at certain moments of crisis, in advanced capitalism. In
fact, bureaucratic property itself is concentrated in such a way that the
individual bureaucrat relates to the ownership of the global economy only
through an intermediary, the bureaucratic community, and only as a member
of this community. Moreover, the production of commodities, less developed
in bureaucratic capitalism, also takes on a concentrated form: the commodity
the bureaucracy holds on to is the totality of social labor, and what it
sells back to society is wholesale survival. The dictatorship of the bureaucratic
economy cannot leave the exploited masses any significant margin of choice.
since the bureaucracy itself has to choose everything and since any other
external choice, whether it concern food or music, is already a choice
to destroy the bureaucracy completely. This dictatorship must be accompanied
by permanent violence. The imposed image of the good envelops in its spectacle
the totality of what officially exists, and is usually concentrated in
one man, who is the guarantee of totalitarian cohesion. Everyone must magically
identify with this absolute celebrity or disappear. This celebrity is master
of non-consumption, and the heroic image which gives an acceptable meaning
to the absolute exploitation that primitive accumulation accelerated by
terror really is. If every Chinese must learn Mao, and thus be Mao, it
is because he can be nothing else. Wherever the concentrated spectacle
rules, so does the police.
The diffuse spectacle accompanies the abundance of commodities, the undisturbed
development of modern capitalism. Here every individual commodity is justified
in the name of the grandeur of the production of the totality of objects
of which the spectacle is an apologetic catalogue. Irreconcilable claims
crowd the stage of the affluent economy's unified spectacle; different
star-commodities simultaneously support contradictory projects for provisioning
society: the spectacle of automobiles demands a perfect transport network
which destroys old cities, while the spectacle of the city itself requires
museum-areas. Therefore the already problematic satisfaction which is supposed
to come from the consumption of the whole, is falsified immediately
since the actual consumer can directly touch only a succession of fragments
of this commodity happiness, fragments in which the quality attributed
to the whole is obviously missing every time.
Every given commodity fights for itself, cannot acknowledge the others,
and attempts to impose itself everywhere as if it were the only one. The
spectacle, then, is the epic poem of this struggle, an epic which cannot
be concluded by the fall of any Troy. The spectacle does not sing the praises
of men and their weapons, but of commodities and their passions. In this
blind struggle every commodity. pursuing its passion, unconsciously realizes
something higher: the becoming-world of the commodity, which is also the
becoming-commodity of the world. Thus, by means of a ruse of commodity
logic, what's specific in the commodity wears itself out in
the fight while the commodity-form moves toward its absolute realization.
The satisfaction which no longer comes from the use of abundant commodities
is now sought in the recognition of their value as commodities: the use
of commodities becomes sufficient unto itself; the consumer is filled
with religious fervor for the sovereign liberty of the commodities. Waves
of enthusiasm for a given product, supported and spread by all the media
of communication, are thus propagated with lightning speed. A style of
dress emerges from a film; a magazine promotes night spots which launch
various clothing fads. Just when the mass of commodities slides toward
puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity; this is epitomized
by the gadget. We can recognize a mystical abandon to the transcendence
of the commodity in free gifts, such as key chains which are not bought
but are included by advertisers with prestigious purchases, or which flow
by exchange in their own sphere. One who collects the key chains which
have been manufactured for collection, accumulates the indulgences of
the commodity, a glorious sign of his real presence among the faithful.
Reified man advertises the proof of his intimacy with the commodity. The
fetishism of commodities reaches moments of fervent exaltation similar
to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism.
The only use which remains here is the fundamental use of submission.
The pseudo-need imposed by modern consumption clearly cannot be opposed
by any genuine need or desire which is not itself shaped by society and
its history. The abundant commodity stands for the total breach in the
organic development of social needs. Its mechanical accumulation liberates
unlimited artificiality, in the face of which living desire is helpless.
The cumulative power of independent artificiality saws everywhere the falsification
of social life.
In the image of the society happily unified by consumption, real division
is only suspended until the next non-accomplishment in consumption.
Every single product represents the hope for a dazzling shortcut to the
promised land of total consumption and is ceremoniously presented as the
decisive entity. But as with the diffusion of seemingly aristocratic first
names carried by almost all individuals of the same age, the objects which
promise unique powers can be recommended to the devotion of the masses
only if they're produced in quantities large enough for mass consumption.
A product acquires prestige when it is placed at the center of social life
as the revealed mystery of the ultimate goal of production. But the object
which was prestigious in the spectacle becomes vulgar as soon as it is
taken home by its consumer--and by all its other consumers. It reveals
its essential poverty (which naturally comes to it from the misery of its
production) too late. But by then another object already carries the justification
of the system and demands to be acknowledged.
The fraud of satisfaction exposes itself by being replaced, by following
the change of products and of the general conditions of production. That
which asserted its definitive excellence with perfect impudence nevertheless
changes, both in the diffuse and the concentrated spectacle, and it is
the system alone which must continue: Stalin as well as the outmoded commodity
are denounced precisely by those who imposed them. Every new lie
of advertising is also an avowal of the previous lie. The fall of
every figure with totalitarian power reveals the illusory community
which had approved him unanimously, and which had been nothing more than
an agglomeration of solitudes without illusions.
What the spectacle offers as eternal is based on change and must change
with its base. The spectacle is absolutely dogmatic and at the same time
cannot really achieve any solid dogma. Nothing stops far the spectacle;
this condition is natural to it, yet completely opposed to its inclination.
The unreal unity proclaimed by the spectacle masks the class division on
which the real unity of the capitalist made of production rests. What obliges
the producers to participate in the construction of the world is also what
separates them from it. What brings together men liberated from their local
and national boundaries is also what pulls them apart. What requires a
mare profound rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchic
exploitation and repression. What creates the abstract power of society
creates its concrete unfreedom.
4 The Proletariat as Subject and as Representation