The Society of the Spectacle

Notes on The Society of the Spectacle, 2013

I began this project not because I thought it must be done out of some political or aesthetic concern, but with the modest hope to better understand The Society of the Spectacle. How odd, I thought, that for all the interest in Situationist artwork and the spectacle that very few seem to have ever seen this film, let alone study it. Surely there must be much to gain by looking at it under a microscope. Despite the film’s relative obscurity, I maintain that this is the case, and ultimately it is what motivated this project to completion.

The Society of the Spectacle (2013) takes Debord’s film of the same name as a starting point and skeleton for a new video project. I began, some 16 months ago, by studying Debord’s film, shot for shot, scene for scene with script in hand. I researched every image in Debord’s film, attempted to understand its origin, its political implication, and its relationship to Debord and to the spectacle. Many images are clear enough, trite advertisements for this or that, films that are immediately legible due to their banal nature. Other images, however, are less clear, at least to an American 40 years later. For example, many images are specific to the French political context of his time, which made understanding Debord’s use of imagery a significant and research-intensive task. This specificity is in large part what gave Debord’s film its teeth, to anchor his critique of the spectacle in particular figures, images, and signifiers. While the machinery of spectacle might seem abstract and overwhelming, enemies were never abstract for Debord. There are always apologists and collaborators like union bureaucrats and socialist politicians to be attacked, as well as spectacular languages like the cinema and the media to be deconstructed and subverted.

My process was to begin by more or less replacing each image, one for one. In doing this, much of the resonance in Debord’s analysis was made evident, yet at other moments the words broke down and failed to articulate a contemporary geopolitical reality. Still in other instances, I pondered particular images for weeks, unsure of how to interpret and respond to them. In this sense, my film is necessarily a quarrel with Debord’s book and film, as every image was chosen deliberately and carefully to either critique, test, or further articulate a critique; to deepen but also complicate this thing called spectacle.

In SoS Debord writes of détournement that it is the “flexible language of anti-ideology,” meaning that détournement is necessary and meant to be used to transform meaning with time. It is the only way in which one can resist falling into the trenches of dogmatism. It is a mode of “communication which includes a critique of itself.” Thus in re-stating SoS in 2013, it must be revised and simultaneously plagiarized, and it is in this vein in which I re-introduce this project. As Debord himself says (détourning Lautréamont) “Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.”

Détournement need not only be a mode of subversion, but can also be a self-critical and open-ended way of thinking and making — one that might also be used by others. I like to think of my project as a piece of research by way of re-making or re-stating; a research project which makes use of Debord’s work not as a quotation but as an appropriation of a collective inheritance in the cultural commons. This is how Debord worked, both with his own work as well as his use of the work from others. For Debord, and I’m inclined to agree, it is the “first step toward a literary communism.”

Because of this I see no contradiction to first think of my film as a record of my thinking alongside Debord’s film and theory. Of course this doesn’t mean it isn’t or can’t be an artwork, but I think it changes the emphasis and expectation. It challenges the perhaps easy critique that as a film it is too full of theory. It also problematizes the common notion art and film must be for a general audience, effectively disallowing for any possibility of rigorous research. More importantly this shift in emphasis turns away from the inflated rhetoric surrounding the original film as well as so much of modernist avant-garde practices. In Debord’s statement upon the original’s release, he writes: “As revolutionary critique engages in battle on the very terrain of the cinematic spectacle, it must thus turn the language of that medium against itself and give itself a form that is itself revolutionary.” Fair enough, but the last thing we need is exaggerated rhetoric about the self-prescribed revolutionary potential of an artwork. I opt instead for a more modest hope: that my film might contribute to a deepening of a theoretical analysis and contribute to a culture of anti-capitalist cultural production.

—Heath Schultz, February 2013

[for a much longer engagement on detournement, Debord’s film, and my own re-make, you can view my MFA thesis here]