Guy Debord - La Société du spectacle (1973)


This version of Debord's film is evidently based on the Gaumont DVD. However, Debord's French narration has been replaced with an English-language recitation by American actress Dore Bowen. The new voiceover uses Ken Knabb's translation. That translation has also supplied subtitles for the non-English dialogue in the film clips that Debord utilizes. Editing and production is by Konrad Steiner.

In a 1996 text, Ken Knabb describes Debord's film as follows:

If we ever get out of this mess, future generations will look back on Guy Debord as the person who contributed to that liberation more than anyone else in this century.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) was the most influential figure in the Situationist International, a small experimental group that played a key role in catalyzing the May 1968 revolt in France. The Society of the Spectacle (1973) is Debord’s film adaptation of his own 1967 book. As passages from the book are read in voiceover the text is illuminated, via direct illustration or various types of ironic contrast, by clips from Russian and Hollywood features (Potemkin, Ten Days That Shook the World, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Shanghai Gesture, Johnny Guitar, Mr. Arkadin, etc.), TV commercials, publicity shots, softcore porn, street scenes, and news and documentary footage, including glimpses of Spain 1936, Hungary ’56, Watts ’65, France ’68, and other revolts of the past. Intertitle quotes from Marx, Machiavelli, Clausewitz or Tocqueville occasionally break the flow.

Leaving aside the question of aesthetic merit (in which regard Debord’s films are incidentally among the most brilliantly innovative works in the history of the cinema), The Society of the Spectacle is certainly the most important radical film ever made. Not just because it is based on the most important radical book of the twentieth century, but because it unfortunately has no real cinematic competition. Many films have provided a few insights into this or that aspect of modern society, but Debord’s is the only one that presents a consistent critique of the whole global system. Many radical filmmakers have given lip service to Brecht’s notion of encouraging spectators to think and act for themselves rather than sucking them into passive identification with hero or plot, but Debord is virtually the only one who has actually realized this goal. Aside from a few Debord-influenced works (notably Viénet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? and Cronin and Seltzer’s Call It Sleep), his films are the only ones that have made a coherent use of the situationist tactic of détournement: the diversion of already existing cultural elements to new subversive purposes. Détournement has been widely imitated, but usually without real understanding. It does not mean merely randomly juxtaposing incongruous elements, but (1) creating out of those elements a new coherent whole that (2) criticizes both the existing world and its own relation to that world. Some artists, filmmakers, and even ad designers have used superficially similar juxtapositions, but most are far from fulfilling (1), much less (2).

The Society of the Spectacle is neither an ivory tower 'philosophical' discourse nor a helplessly impulsive 'protest,' but a ruthlessly lucid examination of the most fundamental tendencies and contradictions of the society we live in. This means that it needs to be reread (and reseen) many times, but it also means that it remains as pertinent as ever while countless radical and intellectual fads have come and gone. As Debord noted in his later Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), in the intervening decades the spectacle has become more all-pervading than ever, to the point of repressing virtually any awareness of pre-spectacle history or anti-spectacle possibilities: 'Spectacular domination has succeeded in raising an entire generation molded to its laws.'". source

A short summary of some of the central perspectives of the Situationist International can be found in a text the group published in 1965:

"Internationale Situationniste is the journal of a group of theorists who over the last few years have undertaken a radical critique of modern society — a critique of what it really is and of all its aspects.

As the situationists see it, a universally dominant social system, tending toward totalitarian self-regulation, is only apparently being combatted by false forms of opposition — illusory forms that remain trapped on the system’s own terrain and thus only serve to reinforce it. Bureaucratic pseudosocialism is only the most grandiose of these disguises of the old world of hierarchy and alienated labor. The developing concentration of capitalism and the diversification of its global operation have given rise, on one hand, to the forced consumption of commodities produced in abundance, and on the other, to the control of the economy (and all of life) by bureaucrats who own the state; as well as to direct and indirect colonialism. But this system is far from having found a permanent solution to the incessant revolutionary crises of the historical epoch that began two centuries ago, for a new critical phase has opened: from Berkeley to Warsaw, from the Asturias to the Kivu, the system is being refuted and combatted.

The situationists consider that this opposition implicitly requires the real abolition of all class societies, of commodity production and of wage labor; the supersession of art and all cultural accomplishments by their reentry into play through free creation in everyday life — and thus their true fulfillment; and the direct fusion of revolutionary theory and practice in an experimental activity that precludes any petrification into “ideologies,” which reflect the authority of specialists and which always serve the specialization of authority.

The factors involved in this historical problem are the rapid extension and modernization of the fundamental contradictions within the present system, and between that system and human desires. The social force that has an interest in resolving these contradictions — and the only force that is capable of resolving them — is the mass of workers who are powerless over the use of their own lives, deprived of any control over the fantastic accumulation of material possibilities that they produce. Such a resolution has already been prefigured in the emergence of democratic workers councils that make all decisions for themselves. The only intelligent venture within the present imbecilized world is for this new proletariat to carry out this project by forming itself into a class unmediated by any leadership.

The situationists declare that they have no interest outside the whole of this movement. They lay down no particular principles on which to base a movement which is real, a movement which is being born before our very eyes. Faced with the struggles that are beginning in various countries over various issues, the situationists see their task as putting forward the whole of the problem, elucidating its coherence, its theoretical and therefore practical unity. In short, within the various phases of the overall struggle they constantly represent the interest of the whole movement." source.

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