Part of our ongoing Film Portal series, Chris Houkal brings us Guy Debord’s film essay The Society of the Spectacle (1973). Debord employs ironic (or détourned) film clips, image choices and quotations in a modern day analysis of alienated society’s dependence on spectacle.
Debord turns his 1967 philosophical text, The Society of the Spectacle, into a film using the Situationist method of détournement. Interesting riffs on humanity’s growing alienation from real life are made more compelling through his use of odd film clips, images, and mixed up quotes from historical figures.
Ever seen those parodies of the G.I. Joe PSAs from the 80’s? All 25 are available online, as are artist Eric Fensler’s other videos. If you haven’t seen them, check them out – they’re weird and funny and delightfully subversive. Originally shown at the end of the G.I. Joe cartoons between 1985 and 1987, each short features a child in a bad situation saved by some quick-thinking, good-hearted, grenade-toting member of the Joe Team. The bizarrely rendered Reagan-era wholesomeness of these PSAs featuring children and armed giants was a freaky enough statement about the times even then and, as such, ideal for détourning.
The term détournement – the deliberate hijacking of an original image or quote to create a new meaning – was coined in the 1950s by a Paris-based group who were originally known as the Letterist International, but later swapped that out for: the Situationist International. While the Letterists are more associated with a French rendition of the American Beats, it is the Situationists who are generally considered the heirs of Dadaism and fathers of Punk and, more recently, street art (in the Banksy vein). Both were concerned with reclaiming ‘Art’ from its ethereal heights and incorporating it into everyday life: in architecture and landscape, yes, but also in how we live our lives.
According to the Situationists, we all are complicit in the deterioration of our own social interactions with others, which ties into the bigger issue of the power that images possess over us. The Situationists defined this as Spectacle: a social relation among persons, mediated by images. The result is our alienation from the rest of the ‘real’ world. Although this definitely resembles Marxism – specifically the idea of alienated labor – the group wasn’t so much affiliated with any type of political system, since they were opposed to all of them. But they weren’t total anarchists either. They saw the need for some structure, but one which said “no” to the status quo and encouraged a more artistic approach to life (despite declaiming ‘Art’… they’re an interesting bunch). The man in charge of it all was former Letterist Guy Debord.
Much of Debord’s writings during this time dealt with social theory. The most famous is The Society of the Spectacle (1967), which he adapted into a film six years later. In Society, Debord argues that social life is governed by spectacle (images), and, appropriately enough, the film is itself a spectacle. But according to the original announcement for the film, these images are used in no particular way: “Instead, the film’s use of images (whether photographs, newsclips, or sequences from preexisting films) is governed by the principle of détournement, which the situationists have defined as ‘communication that includes a critique of itself.’” Because Debord equates détournement with critical dialectic – his mode of critique – plagiarism is required.
The Society of the Spectacle is an interesting film, if not always visually gripping. Its form is that of a documentary, with film clips, news footage, and still photos serving as the visual storytelling medium and Debord’s nearly constant voice-over providing narration. Although I can’t say for sure that I understood every aspect of his argument, what I can say is that this is some heavy stuff. It certainly requires close attention, several viewings, and possibly a grad-level course in Marxist and/or French philosophy. Occasionally intertitles comprised of various quotes by historical figures appear and curiously used scenes from Hollywood and Soviet films cut through the dinsity. Here, the film, often so dark, comes alive with some nice classical music. Aside from the diegetic music from the various clips, this is the only time such a reprieve occurs. It is as if Debord is graciously allowing us a few moments to process all the information, though, of course, one assumes these choices were also intended ironically.
While Debord tongue lashes pretty much anyone and anything in his film, he is most venomous in his attacks on the State. (This is no communist harangue on the West, though – over and over again we see images of Communist Russian and Chinese leaders as Debord criticizes the ‘State.’) Debord: “The oldest social specialization, the specialization of power, is at the root of the spectacle. It is thus a specialized activity which speaks for the ensemble of the others. It is the diplomatic representation of hierarchical society to itself, where every other form of speech is banned. The generalized spirit of the spectacle is inseparable from the modern State: from the general form of the split in society, product of the division of social labor and agent of class domination.” This could’ve come directly from the pen of Karl Marx, but with the contemporaneous addition of the spectacle as agent of State oppression.
Not surprisingly, given Debord’s iconoclasm, his film offers up some self-reflexive critiquing of itself – or film as trustworthy medium – through its sometimes incongruous audio-video edits and asynchronous use of sound (for example, listen to how the music during the intertitles sometimes goes on too long, or starts at an odd cue). You must pay close attention to what’s being said as images are flashing on the screen to make full sense of the film. For example, in one sequence Debord is talking about the world being turned upside down – “true now equals false” – we see an actual woman bathing as he says true and still image of a bikini clad woman as he says false. This simple technique succeeds at getting right to the heart of the film’s themes.
One of the most puzzling – though surely not accidental – aspects of Debord’s use of imagery is the sheer number of bikini-clad and nude models strewn throughout the film for no apparent reason. Is he détourning – via Kuleshov effect – the more serious imagery in his film, deconstructing mythic scenes of Stalin and Hitler et al. into mere adverting images? Or alternatively making the models, representatives Western commodities, into something more frightening via the same juxtaposition of images? Godard did similar things with the beautiful women in his films: he purposely made them neurotic about their bodies, or lit them weirdly, or dressed them in military fatigue, or made them cannibals… anything to anger his producers and irritate an audience expecting titillation. If nothing else Debord wants to force the viewer to think about images differently, and so offers no easy answers.
One final note: Debord didn’t originate the idea of the spectacle. It’s important that we recall Juvenal’s take on this very subject, dating back two thousand years: “Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books.”
Watch The Society of the Spectacle here.