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The Society of the Spectacle

August 18, 2009

Spoiler Line: p. 621

Photo by Flickr user aphasiafilms, used under a Creative Commons license.

Pages 620 and 621 rang a literary-theoretical bell that had lain dormant in my skull since back in Fall 2003 when I took an Intro to Theory class.

There was this French guy, a literal French Guy named Guy DeBord*, who in 1967 wrote a brief but influential book/treatise called “The Society of the Spectacle.” His main shtick was that, as he says in the very first line of the book, “life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” In other words, life is no longer something that we live, but something that we watch, primarily via the medium of TV and other forms of entertainment.

If you’ve been Infinite Summering this summer then your pump is probably primed to accept this sort of critique, because it’s very similar to a lot of what Wallace has to say about Entertainment in the U.S. To wit:

One of DeBord’s problems with a society that plops its fat collective ass in front of the Tube to live life, as opposed to say, actually going out and living life, is that it engenders an insidious passivity. The spectacle demands “passive acceptance;” it is “the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity.” It “keeps people in a state of unconsciousness.” Cf. this with what Wallace says in everyone’s favorite RCF interview: “[TV] admits passive spectation. Encourages it. TV-type art’s biggest hook is that it’s figured out ways to ‘reward’ passive spectation. A certain amount of the form-conscious stuff I write is trying–with whatever success–to do the opposite.” Similarly, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, DeBord’s goal was to “wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images.”

The drug-speak is not an accident. As with Infinite Jest’s Entertainments, DeBord’s Spectacles have an overall narcotizing effect. Like the enslaving Substance who’s only goal is to get you to ingest more Substance, “the spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.” “The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.”

Another consequence of the society of the spectacle is what DeBord calls “a vicious circle of isolation.” “From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender ‘lonely crowds.’” “Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.” If your head isn’t throbbing with echoes of Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram by now, please refer back to p. 112 of Infinite Jest.

I think these correspondences are pretty striking, and I have to imagine Wallace was familiar with DeBord’s work. But Wallace departs from DeBord’s arguments in some pretty important ways. In fact, I have to say that Infinite Jest offers a more nuanced and accurate account of our passive fat-assed scopophile society than The Society of the Spectacle. Here’s why.

DeBord was essentially a Marxist whose Marxism was shot through with thick ropey veins of Pynchonian paranoia. DeBord blamed the current state of societal affairs solely on the machinations of the capitalist system and, importantly, those who control it. Or as he put it, “the activities of the world’s owners.” DeBord is interested in power and those who wield it, and he is convinced that powerful are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of us.

Wallace agrees that there’s a certain amount of Pynchonian machination going on, I think. Just look at the whole ONANtiad puppet-play and the rise of Interlace Entertainment. But Wallace’s key insight w/r/t DeBordian spectacles is the way that individuals are willingly complicit in their own enslavement. We like having the DeBordian wool pulled over our eyes because its soft and fuzzy and it makes us feel good. Think of the rats ringing their P-terminals over and over, and the human test-subjects lining up to do the same. Think of the myriad ways in which American identity, as Wallace sees it, is tightly wound around the concepts of freedom and happiness — or, the freedom to pursue happiness at whatever cost. One of the major projects of Infinite Jest, I think, is to show how close we as a society are to taking the pursuits of freedom and happiness to their logically absurd endpoint of mindless masturbatory P-terminal enslavement. DeBord doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that nobody would be vegging out in front of the TV if it wasn’t hugely compelling to begin with.

If you’re interested, “Society of the Spectacle” makes for a brief, really interesting read. DeBord is generally way more readable and less full of shit than that other French guy who burst onto the literary-theoretical scene in the late ‘60s. And the book has an awful lot more to say about Infinite Jest than what I’ve included here. For instance, he goes into an aside about the role of stars (entertainers, if you will. Like the ETA kids, or Madame P?) in the spectacular society. And I’ll leave you with one last tantalizing quote that is guaranteed to give an enormous interpretive boner to anyone interested in making more sense of the Eschaton episode:

The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents. The forces that have escaped us display themselves to us in all their power.

* Fun Facts about GDB: In addition to writing, he also made films. Not only that, but he also designed a war game (Eschaton, anyone?) that you can now actually play online. Similar to a certain Mad Stork, DeBord drunk himself to suicide in 1994. Interested yet?

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2009 3:22 pm

    Had to tweet this line: “DeBord was essentially a Marxist whose Marxism was shot through with thick ropey veins of Pynchonian paranoia.” This is a very cool find; actually makes me want to pick up some stuff by DeBord (and Derrida).

  2. August 18, 2009 3:32 pm

    Great post! Very compelling analysis. Whets my appetite for DeBord – I’ll have to check this out soon.

    I’m also drawing a connection to DeLillo’s works here (White Noise in particular; most of them generally).

  3. August 18, 2009 3:38 pm

    As befits his anti-capitalist ethos, most of DeBord’s stuff seems to be freely available online. This seems like a pretty good translation of SotS, and it’s available in handy PDF format.

    I’m less sanguine about your prospects with Derrida. I’ve had to read a fair amount of his stuff over the years, and I attended one of his lectures at UC Irvine in 2004. It was pretty much incomprehensible to me. It had something to do with phalluses and the Aristotelian city-state, and I’m reasonably certain the whole lecture was just one big wickedly erudite dick-joke.

  4. August 18, 2009 3:45 pm

    But I *like* dick jokes! Not sure how good I am at wading through the incomprehensible, though, so maybe for the time being I’ll limit myself to DeBord and like Family Guy.

  5. August 18, 2009 4:40 pm

    Thanks for this great post. The distinctions you draw between Debord and Wallace raise the interesting question of what exactly Wallace’s attitude is toward “literary theory” more broadly. Wallace pokes some fun at literary theory throughout the novel. If I’m remembering correctly, we learn at one point that J.O.I. can’t stand the word “deconstruction.” The “Found Dramas” provide another satirical moment where the humor comes from the absurdity of some lit theory. And the celebratory scene of Molly Notkin passing her comprehensive exams pokes gentle fun at grad students in “Film & Cartridge Studies.”

    (Now I am going to nitpick a bit about Debord… apologies if this is flagrant literary theory apologetics).

    I also agree that what fascinates Wallace, and is less important to Debord, is the notion that we are “willingly complicit in [our] own enslavement.” I wonder, though, whether the best way to understand this distinction is as one of scale and focus, rather than as an absolute difference between the two. Wallace is interested in the lives of individuals; when Wallace talks about the sadness at the heart of the novel, he is describing an affective experience that may be peculiar to a certain moment of history. But for Wallace, I think, it is the affective experience itself that merits attention, not the history that created it.

    Debord, by contrast, is working within a philosophical tradition that runs from Hegel (one of Hal’s faves, remember!) through Marx. In Society Debord writes: “Economic growth frees societies from the natural pressure which required their direct struggle for survival, but at that point it is from their liberator that they are not liberated [That is pretty dialectical bit of thinking! -CF]. The independence of the commodity is extended to the entire economy over which it rules. The economy transforms the world, but transforms it only into a world of economy” (para. 40).

    The notion of spectacle is a further development of this historical process: “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life” (para. 42). Rather than seeing Debord as paranoically blaming the situation on a handful of greedy bad guys, we might understand “the activities of the world’s owners” as simply one more epithet for “Capital.”

    My point is that Debord’s notion of the Society of the Spectacle is less focused on an evil cabal of television executives manufacturing our passive entertainment and is instead an expression of a broader historical narrative about the rise and progress of capitalism. There is plenty to contest in this Hegelian/Marxian narrative, of course, but the real difference between Wallace and Debord might simply be one of genre. Writing in a tradition of Marxist philosophy, questions of individual experience take a back seat to the broad questions of “History” and “Class Struggle” and so on; Wallace, by contrast, is interested less in the abstract description of a particular development in the history of capitalism than in what it feels like to live in that same history. Or, to be a bit polemical, if we can accuse Debord of not paying sufficient to the lived experience of the spectacle (that we desire this condition), it seems equally fair to accuse Wallace of paying insufficient attention to politics.

    (As for that other French fellow–who shall be named only by link–he really is worth another look! I find him way more interesting than Debord. I think both Limited Inc. and “Plato’s Pharmacy” are, in my very humble opinion, just unimpeachably great.)

  6. August 18, 2009 5:06 pm

    Well said, CF! I neglected to put a caveat in my post along the lines of “I am shortchanging the absolute living bejeezus out of DeBord’s argument, here.” DeBord, in fact, was explicitly hostile to the type of cherry-picking I’ve subjected him to. In Section 208 GdB writes that a cherry-picked quote is an appeal “to a theoretical authority that is inevitably tainted by the very fact that it has become a quotation — a fragment torn from its own context and development, and ultimately from the general framework of its period and from the particular option (appropriate or erroneous) that it represented within that framework.”

    Your comments are a welcome corrective to my over-simplification. Regarding the paranoia bit, I was also working off DeBord’s “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle,” written in 1988, which he opens by referring to the mysterious death of his collaborator Gerard Lebovici. He makes references to those who “devote themselves to maintaining the spectacular system of domination,” and says that “I obviously cannot speak with complete freedom.”

    From what I know of this guy there was all sorts of cloak-and-dagger stuff going on around him and the Situationists (the mysterious assassination above being Item #1), so if anyone had a right to operate in a paranoid framework it was definitely him. I suspect DeBord would be really interesting to set up against Pynchon’s big works.

    Your point about the real difference between Wallace and DeBord being one of genre is a great one.

    • August 19, 2009 1:09 pm

      My familiarity with Debord stops at “Spectacle,” so thanks for this–I am completely unfamiliar with the Lebovici stuff you mention; I certainly need to go look some of this up!

      And so… how are you able to keep cranking out the quality blog posts at this rate?

      • August 19, 2009 3:40 pm

        “And so… how are you able to keep cranking out the quality blog posts at this rate?”

        I dunno, but being “self-employed” sure doesn’t hurt any…

  7. August 19, 2009 12:05 am

    I was going to comment with a much less erudite version of the first half of Forster’s comment; specifically that I haven’t read a Marxist theorist yet who underestimates the complicity of the masses in Capitalists’ efforts to subdue them. The difference (not in signifier/signified way but in a plain old A versus B way) is not that one sees only the puppeteer and the other sees only the audience. As CF says, it’s a matter of focus.

    That said, I cannot disagree more with Mr. Forster’s affection for Derrida’s work. I have debated far too many Derrideans to know I cannot win the argument in a blog comment form. Let me just state, without supporting my argument or citing any of my sources, that I find Derrida’s work intellectually stimulating and fundamentally dehumanizing. It can be, as most poststructuralism can be, intellectual and textual masturbation of the worst kind because it denies basic human experience, emotion, and reality.
    Of course you may launch your counter, pro-deconstruction volleys. But I’ve heard most of them before, I respect your belief in the man’s work, and I reserve the right to totally disagree. Probably.
    Thanks for the post, btw. Love wending through IJ with other critical theory nerds.

    • August 23, 2009 11:32 am

      Poor JD. Everyone always wanted him to be something other than what he was or turned out to be. His 1960s/1970s interlocutors – when he was doing some of his most original post-phenomenological work, and trying at the same time to think through the politics of freedom – were involved in their own fundamental creative projects and often underestimated the Husserlian themes at the heart of his first books. By the 1980s, he was somewhat adrift, but was adopted by the new Deconstructionists in the U.S., who worshipped him and set him devastatingly apart from their own work. The battle between “Frankfurt” and “Paris” raged in his Name, but without his participation. In the late 1980s and 1990s, he developed some highly interesting adaptations of his own work (e.g. The Other Heading, Specters of Marx), but alas, they were not right either for the leftists who had been waiting for a Derridean politics, and the resolution of this work in such things as friendship they found even more difficult to stomach.

      Meanwhile, he spent much of his time doing what he had always done – reading books, lecturing about them, twisting language to new purposes, sometimes more and sometimes less successfully. He never misled anyone about his own strengths and weaknesses, here. A fertile and creative mind. A difficult read. A great testament to the possibilities of philosophy.

      Yet, he is nonetheless treated as either guru or fraud. “I am not a Deconstructionist,” he said, but to no avail. “I am not a Marxist,” said Marx, to no avail.

      In any case, Derrida’s works are filled with a deep love and care, one that reminds me of Camus, who nevertheless also was reviled between various camps as well – though he was obviously granted far more public credibility as an intellectual voice.

      Need I say that I am not a Derridean? I am a critical theorist. But the territorial animosity that was such a strong part of the milieu of the 1990s should remain there, as a staging for the rapprochments of our own historico-philosophical era, if there turns out to be such a thing.

      • August 23, 2009 12:03 pm

        Thanks for adding some light to our Derridean heat, I.T.

        Here’s my main problem with J.D.: his writing — at least in the works that were discussed in my theory classes — is borderline incomprehensible. It’s notoriously difficult to parse what he’s saying, and all the theory profs. I had were quick to admit that he was being difficult for difficulty’s sake as an integral part of his philosophical project.

        This hostility to basic comprehension, integral to the project or not, makes it really, really easy to accuse J.D. of either sloppiness or outright charlatanry. And from the time I’ve taken to understand his ideas and what he’s getting at, I’m not convinced that either charge is unfounded.

        If you can recommend any writings of his to counteract this impression, I’d love to read them:)

      • August 23, 2009 10:52 pm

        See refs in CFs post above. Specters of Marx is a good read, especially for us IJ Hamleteers. Rogues is not groundbreaking, but it is pretty clear. Given Time has had a profound impact on many people I know. Of Grammatology is mostly quite readable, though it helps in parts to have access to a decent book to help, like Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction or Rodolphe Gasche’s The Tain of the Mirror or Christopher Norris’s Derrida. These are all 80s books – I like them because they weren’t trying to think through his early work in virtue of the later, thus they are good for interpretation. There’s probably mistakes in them, too, for the same reason.

        Oh, and by the way, I do not expect to always understand his occasionally runaway train of thought, and when the train gets rolling, I get off and hitch a ride to the next stop. Smarter folks than I can hang on, I’m stopping for ice cream.

        It seems like we’re not the group to worry so much about basic comprehension. There are payoffs to reading Derrida, though not everybody is interested in the same payoffs, naturally. I worry about the twisted course and fate of Kantian reason and its implications for social transformation in a world after the rise of the spectacle. I don’t expect everybody to, though (worry, that is). And you can worry about this without requiring recourse to Derrida, of course.

        But since most of us were in school before Derrida died and not since, we should expect a fair reappraisal of his significance to come posthumously – clearly a fair one could not come prior to that.

  8. Joan permalink
    August 19, 2009 1:29 pm

    And I just love reading all of the comments and posts from the critical theory nerds. I burst out laughing (once again startling my cube-mates) when I read “that other French guy” because I knew exactly who you meant and I fully agree. My college years are in the dim past, but I still remember trying in vain to get through him. Naptimewriting – I agree with your view whole heartedly and it’s certainly one of those “agree to disagree” things.

  9. charliegunn permalink
    October 21, 2009 10:36 am

    I found this blog post to be incredibly insightful towards looking at Society of the Spectacle. But I got stumped on one of the terms and was wonderig if you could explain it a little for me? Pynchonian paranoia, is this relating to the author Thomas Pynchon and his novel Vineland? I am trying to understand these ideas better for a disertation piece but in order to make mymind up about certain aspects I want to be able to full understand this.
    Thank you

  10. La Bruja permalink
    April 30, 2013 12:19 am

    This is a great post, thanks for writing it! This line: “But Wallace’s key insight w/r/t DeBordian spectacles is the way that individuals are willingly complicit in their own enslavement.” is excellent, but I would also add that I think Foucault would say the same thing about how power functions, exemplified in his analysis of the panopticon and the multifarious ways power structures are reproduced, one of the many flaws in structuralist theories of power ie Marxism. Anyway, I tend to think Wallace was also influenced by Foucault, but whatever… ideas dont start or end with us anyway.

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