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Spectacular Time

November 19, 2009

Society of the Spectacle
Books that Changed Me: The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord.

Voices From The Grave! Guy Debord changed my life. Well, he at least provided a framework and language to think about certain truths I’d had some nagging sense of, yet until now, would have struggled to express. Though the edition pictured above is the book I read, for cutting and pasting purposes, the excerpts in the article below come from a different translation that I found online.

WHAT IS the spectacle? Debord puts forth the proposition that we people of the modern age do not directly live, but rather experience a representation of life through an endless succession of spectacles.

In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. [Debord, #6]

That sense of dissonance we experience, in quiet moments of clarity, between the world we plainly perceive, and the world as it is presented to us, is born of our alienation from an unreal version of ourselves which is a construct of our all-too-real societal (spectacular) institutions.

Spectacular society is uncompromisingly divided into a small elite ruling class and everybody else, whose value stems from their productivity. The spectacle’s greatest strength is in it’s ability to create and perpetuate an image, an alternate version, representing the “truth” of these opposing classes.

Wait, when the fuck did all of this happen?

The historical moment when Bolshevism triumphed for itself in Russia and social democracy fought victoriously for the old world marks the inauguration of the state of affairs that is at the heart of the modern spectacle’s domination: the representation of the working class has become an enemy of the working class. [Debord, #100]

This representation of the working class is still at work today. It could be witnessed recently, when we saw the vilification of autoworkers as they made efforts to ensure the pensions and retirement health benefits owed them as a term of their employment would continue to be honored, even as the auto companies were facing bankruptcy. It can be seen in the vilification of migrant workers, even as they harvest our food! It cannot be said that that work isn’t valuable to society, but these are some of the most hated people in this country.

This sort of domination through false representation and alienation isn’t limited to workers. The portrayal of women, minorities, young people, the handicapped, in no way reflects the true nature of particular individuals or their aspirations. The spectacle thrives by creating these groups and categorizing people by association, and then championing or dispatching whatever group’s concerns as determined by political utility.

The spectacle is a potent servant of power.

Debord’s chapter 6, Spectacular Time is one that really sings. Especially to one experiencing the constant sense of loss brought on by an obsessive preoccupation with the inexorable passage of time.

Wise folks have colorfully explained time. Such as, “Time is just one damn thing after another.” Or, “Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.” Or, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

But time is also, in some ways, hard to pin down. Does time have a beginning? In natural terms, time goes all the way back to the Big Bang, if not before, tracking backward through Membrane time. Historical time began back with the first powerful dudes who decided their exploits were worth recording, if not before, tracking backward to the beginnings of the origin myths they devised. A lifetime begins at birth, if not before, tracking back over the lives of ancestors whose deterministic influence can sometimes be felt for generations.

It’s hard not to notice the relative aspect of our perception of time. As we grow older, time seems to move faster, as each increment, while the measures remain constant, becomes a smaller proportion of the amount of time we have already experienced.

As a child I’d sometimes spend hours watching ants, just as my favorite, and the internet’s most beloved, heart-warming nature crap-uralist is wont to do:

Not only do red harvester ants denude vast acreages, they construct gravel highways leading in and out of the crop circles that stretch for miles and miles (when you adjust for the size of the ant). [Jill @ IBTP]

In those days, I could while away a summer afternoon watching ants slogging miles and miles across the driveway. The width of the driveway. It was a distance I could cover in seconds. Seconds! It might take an ant the better part of an hour. Ant days must seem interminable! (To ants.) Because they are small? Would a giant a thousand times my size experience time differently?

Senior year. AP Pyhsics. Special Relativity. Ruined. Everything. (Not really, but what the fuck you gonna believe in after that?)

We use time as a measure. We think of the distances we travel in terms of the time it takes us. My parents live less than three hours away. The area of our lawns are measured in mowing hours. That pile of dirty laundry is gauged by the number of hours we anticipate it will take to process. One could say that these are measures of productivity. One could call measuring productivity in this manner “spectacular time.”

The productive worker toiling in spectacular society experiences what Debord called “spectacular time.” Spectacular time is like a conveyor belt through life’s dismal factory, a b-line from birth to death. The spectacle expects us to jostle along like empty bottles. The spectacle compels us to ride, in alienation from the glimpses of spectacular history we are to mark our time by, projected on the walls like billboards flashing by along an airport corridor. The spectacle would have us gaze right through our fellow travelers unseen and unseeing.


This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle’s false memory of the unmemorable. [Debord, #157]


Fixated on the delusory center around which his world seems to move, the spectator no longer experiences life as a journey toward fulfillment and toward death. Once he has given up on really living he can no longer acknowledge his own death. [Debord, #160]


As Hegel showed, time is the necessary alienation, the terrain where the subject realizes himself by losing himself, becomes other in order to become truly himself. In total contrast, the current form of alienation is imposed on the producers of an estranged present. In this spatial alienation, the society that radically separates the subject from the activity it steals from him is in reality separating him from his own time. This potentially surmountable social alienation is what has prevented and paralyzed the possibilities and risks of a living alienation within time. [Debord, #161]

This is our time. Our most valuable possession. If there is something to be won from the society of the spectacle, if victory is possible, it must lie in the reclamation of the life-time it steals from us.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2009 1:34 PM

    Thank you, sir. When time permits I will return to the internets and have much more to say.

    • November 24, 2009 8:25 AM

      hopefully it’s vacation/feast preparation keeping you away for the tubes and not, you know, toil.

  2. November 29, 2009 2:12 AM

    “One might say…that there are two intellectual streams that emerged from the period of May ’68 in France that are still alive in the US and English-speaking world: the pre-1968 revolutionary strain, kept alive in zines, anarchist infoshops, and the Internet; and the post-1968 strain, largely despairing of the possibility of a mass-based, organized revolution, kept alive in graduate seminars, academic conferences, and scholarly journals. The first tends to recognize capitalism as an all-encompassing symbolic system that creates extreme forms of human alienation, but sees it as possible to rebel against it in the name of pleasure, desire, and the potential autonomy of the human subject. The second tends to see the system (whether it is now labeled capitalism, power, discourse, etc.) as so all-encompassing that it is constitutive of the desiring subject him- or herself, rendering any critique of alienation, or possibility of a revolution against the system itself, effectively impossible. At the risk of editorializing…the situation is full of endless ironies. The Situationists argued that the system renders us passive consumers, but issued a call to actively resist. The current radical academic orthodoxy seems to reject either the first part or the second: that is, either it argues there is no system imposed on consumers, or that resistance is impossible. The first has long been most popular: since the early 1980’s…anyone who makes a Situationist-style argument in an academic forum can expect to be condemned as puritanical and elitist for suggesting consumers are allowing themselves to be passively manipulated. Rather, consumers are creatively reinterpreting consumer styles, fashions, and products in all sorts of subversive ways. In other words, ordinary folks are already practicing detournment.

    The great irony here is that this emerging orthodoxy, which quickly became the mainstay of cultural studies (and, later, anthropology), was strictly confined to the academy. Cultural studies tracts were rarely, if ever, read by the ‘ordinary folk’ in question, while Situationist literature, which by these standards was the most elitist position possible, actually does have a certain popular audience. The Revolution of Everday Life (Vaneigem, 1967), for example, is almost never assigned in courses or cited in academic texts, but it’s just as regularly read by college-age radicals now as it was thirty years ago. It all rather confirms that, as my friend Eric Laursen once suggested to me, the reason Situationism can’t be integrated in the academy is simply because ‘it cannot be read as anything but a call to action.'” — David Graeber, Direct Action

  3. December 7, 2009 3:22 PM

    Also, with regard to the reclamation of time, you would probably find sympathy with the Wobbly ideal of a 4-hour day for 8-hours pay.

    • December 7, 2009 3:28 PM

      TWO hours a day for eight hours pay! but four is a start. ;)


  1. Alienation and Busy Work « Stump Lane

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