Guy Debord, toward a virtual commodity fetishism, essay [ENG]

This article charts the linkages between Debord’s concept of spectacle and the Marxist idea of fetishism within the context of the contemporary virtual domain of images.

Guy Debord’s theories have left an important heritage that clarifies the relation between the dimension of virtuality and the category of commodity as fetish. We can observe how, for example, Slavoj Zizek’s words recall just the French philosopher:

In contrast to Marx, who relied on the notion of the fetish as a solid object whose stable presence obfuscate its social mediation, we should assert that fetishism reaches its acme precisely when fetish itself is “dematerialized”, turned into a fluid “immaterial” virtual entity.[1]

It’s worth mentioning Mario Tronti’s words in his essay on fetishism:

The more pervasive and all-absorbing the world of technology becomes, the more, through this process, the world of commodities becomes virtual, the more the reification gains social subjectivity. Immaterial products are those that mostly reify human labour. The man becomes subordinate to technology, forced, driven, dominated by the world of commodities, which is, in turn, made independent in the production and on the market. In this case, fetish is not anymore a cult object, but a subject of power.[2] 

Zizek and Tronti have both discussed how the transformation of commodity from durable goods to virtual sign under the pressure of technology does ultimately increase its power to alienate the subject. Living labour is objectified into the very image that it hides, in the realm of virtuality. On the other hand the social relation, placing in the circuit of imaginary a form of psychic involvement between subjectivity and commodity as fetish.

Nothing different from what Debord wrote in 1967: «the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images»[3] and then, later on:«The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion. Spectacular technology has not dispersed the religious mists into which human beings had projected their own alienated power, it merely brought those mists down to earth»[4].

Commodity as spectacle expresses «what society could deliver, but in so doing it rigidly separates what is possible from what is permitted»[5].

Both Tronti and Zizek’s theories about the relation between virtual commodity and fetishism can be at first found in a passage of Society of the Spectacle it is worth quoting in extenso:

The alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects [the image Ed.] works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives […] the fundamental experience[…] is in the process of being replaced[…] by an identification of life with nonworking time, with inactivity. But such inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity […] Thus what is referred to as “liberation from work”, namely the modern increase in leisure time, is neither a liberation form work itself nor a liberation from the world shaped by this kind of work.[6]

It is immediately clear that Debord’s concept of spectacle is only another way to refer to the notion of commodity, that is the social relation which assigns subjectivity to things and reifies the relation among men: «The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images»[7]. Image does not simply refer to the ever-growing exponential diffusion of media icons through television, which Debord describe as a “simple” envelope of the society of the spectacle. The world turned into image implies that the spectacle is at the same time a form of commodity and a representation of the world as commodity, an economization of the whole social life.

Paolo Virno has pointed out that Debord’s spectacle, like the IT machine, objectifies “science, culture and social relations”[8], and it perfectly embodies Post-Fordist production, because it incorporates the social knowledge of communication, of codes and signs, that represents the entire social production, through a constant reification process, which never stops subsuming value, it never shows the finished product, but it puts into circulation a constant sequence of images, which are both commodity’s shape and content. On this point, Debord further clarifies: «the spectacle is the ruling order’s non-stop discourse about itself […] the society of the spectacle is a form that chooses its own technological content[9]» and it becomes language, where «what appears is good; what is good appears»[10].

According to Guy Debord, in a world turned into representation, images become real by subsuming life entirely: «as a power that was colonizing all social life[…] the spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life[11]». Also, the State and its apparatus are absorbed in the economization process that transforms the new model of dominant sovereignty in a biopolitical regime[12].

In Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, the discussion around technology is taken into account as well, from a point of view that, according to Giorgio Agamben, recalls Heidegger:

The «spectacle» can be easily linked to that extreme stage of technology development, which Heidegger calls Gestell and that he considers the biggest danger and, at the same time, the premonition of the ultimate appropriation of the man[13].

Debord wrote that the totalising representation of the world, through which commodity reaches a unique established reality, where images rise to the state of reality, thanks to the technology empowerment that subordinates man and life, «the spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialised, a view of a world that has become objective[14]».The similarity between Heidegger’s and Debord’s theories is here very evident: Heidegger – in his essay The Question Concerning Technology[15] – introduced the idea that in Western philosophical tradition beings are considered as objects in order for them to be judged as real and true in as much they are represented or re-presented. Debord, on the other hand, believes that the spectacle is the converging social relation wherein the perception of the visible and the contemplation of the commodity merge into the capital turned into image. Debord never states it openly, but it is the human form of life, with his passions and senses, to be called to express his own subjectivity inside a represented space: the space of the screen-image that, just like the dimension of imaginary for Lacan, teaches to the subject what to desire and how. Invisible technology exposes the “real world” as image, that is as re-presentation, and this image is always commodity, precisely a screen-image.

Debord seems to gloss philosopher Meßkirch when he writes: «the spectacle inherits the weakness of the Western philosophical project, which attempted to understand activity by means of the categories of vision». These words directly recall Heidegger’s idea of considering the Vor-stellung, the re-presentation, as principle of truth for technology and science in the tradition of western metaphysical thought. Debord writes that the hypostatization of reality «does not realise philosophy, it philosophises reality, reducing everyone’s concrete life to a universe of speculation»[16]. Here again we can refer to Heidegger: when the Being and its relation with the man is considered the centre of thought, the man conceives the being as visibility and Vor-stellung, that is as image and object where the truth is, as Debord believes, «speculative» (meaning reflected, represented in a image). According to Heidegger, modern technology, that the German philosopher names Ge-stell, works through pro-vocation, Heraus-forderung, and makes the being become pure object, or «standing-reserve». This reserve is called by Debord, long after Heidegger and in a Marxist way, commodity or spectacle.

The spectacle is then a real worldview, Weltanschauung; both in literal and ontological ways: only the world visible through image is true and the spectacle generates the world through images.

Virtual images become the only accomplishable and visible reality that transforms the relation between the man and the world. Image is commodity and language, virtual sign and real product, at the same time. The spectacle, as Paolo Virno writes, is very similar to a computer, because it is a «multipurpose machine, a commodity article among many, […] but its value in use consists in impressing organizational strength to different productive processes»[17]. The spectacle, or modern technology, whatever you want to call it, is the converging process that makes life become commodity through the spectacle itself, and it has got the specific duty of measuring not only the production of value, but also life itself, through the re-presentation of the image. The image-screen claims to contain the multiplicity of the contingent, the reality, in the re-presentation (becoming world-vision, Weltanschauung) and producing discourses of truth that encourage and contribute to create subjectivity. The integration of communication and production systems, through the IT machine, still needs images to re-present any discourse. The spectacle in the age of the virtual transcribes the reality through binary language but it always represents it through images, symbols and icons (In regards to this, the movie Matrix (Wachowski 1999) is the most adequate example of the double nature of the image, which is spectacle, language and representation together. In one scene of the movie an IT expert manages to “see” what is happening by simply reading the 0-1 numerical sequence that appears on the screen, instead of looking at the adventures of the main character, Neo, through images. Obviously, in the following scene, when we spectators enter in the Matrix world, through the screen, we are not shown the numerical sequence anymore, but only images of Neo acting in the virtual world: the image reassembles, it represents, what in reality is divided into infinite multiplicity, to subsequently see it and sell it, as it was like any other product).

The category of spectacle, as it is described in 1967 Debord’s book, has got two forms, one is concentrated and the other is diffuse, two spheres that adjusted themselves to socio-economic and geopolitical characteristics during the Cold War. The concentrated spectacle is «primarily associated with bureaucratic capitalism», basically of the Eastern bloc and Maoist China, featured by shortage of commodities and «commodity production […] less developed under bureaucratic capitalism, […] takes on a concentrated form: the commodity the bureaucracy appropriates is the total social labor, and what it sells back to the society is that society’s wholesale survival[18]». In this case the spectacle is, precisely, “concentrated” in the image of one man only, fulcrum of the totalitarian economy, on which the entire society is projected. The “diffuse” spectacle, instead, is typical of developed countries and «is associated with commodity abundance[19]» about which the entire book Society of the Spectacle is about.

In his 1988 work, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord clearly saw a new form of capital appear. He called it “integrated spectacle”, where the two previous forms of power merge together. It can be easily related to the condition of real subsumption Marx talked about. As Debord writes: «when the spectacle was concentrated, the greater part of peripheral society escaped it; when it was diffuse, a small part; today, no part. The spectacle has spread itself to the point where it now permeates all reality[20]». Only one year before the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Comments will be published in 1988), the French philosopher foresaw already the development of an organic and global political and economic system, which is actually still dominating the world today[21]. Debord asserts that in the “integrated spectacle” there is nothing “outside capital”, there is no more dialectics between culture and nature: «there remains nothing, in culture or in nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry. Even genetics has become readily accessible to the dominant social forces»[22].  Also in this case Debord’s discourse is able to project into the future settings that describe our immediate present: maybe at the time (1988) his intuitions might seem futuristic, but biotechnology represents today the last frontier of genetic engineering, requiring the use of abundant capitals.

Debord has never used the term “virtual” explicitly. Nevertheless, the combination of spectacle and virtuality comes right from the Comments, where he observes that the spectacle, though it had been taken into consideration when discussing about contemporary society, had to be called (by no coincidence) otherwise: «rather than talk about the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ̔media̕. And by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service which with impartial ̔professionalism̕ would facilitate the new wealth of mass communication through mass media[23]». Debord condemns the enthusiastic supporters of information technology and, in particular, McLuhan:

McLuhan himself, the spectacle’s first apologist, who had seemed to be the most convinced imbecile of the century, changed his mind when he finally discovered in 1976 that “the pressure of the mass media leads to irrationality,” and that it was becoming urgent to modify their usage[24].

In Debord’s opinion, the distinction between real and virtual is clearly polarized and antagonistic: image, that he thinks as a synonym of spectacle, is mere representation. Image is the sign of the capital become totipotent, able to subsume the whole life and perform reality in full, making what in reality is separated (basically, labour and market value) appear united in the represented image. The revolutionary duty that Debord recommends for his brand of critique and his cinema is the denial of the spectacle’s fictional reality, that separates real (value in use) and virtual (market value), in order to overcome history and art: if politic struggle’s duty is to deny the State and a society divided into classes, art’s duty is to deny the spectacle’s “materialized ideology” and its dissolution as “separated function of the society”, that is the reunion of product and producer.

In other words, the spectacle, either we call it media or virtual, is the«ideology par excellence», that Debord, in a rather superficial way, associates to schizophrenia. He ascribes to ideology a classical version, that is the doubling (or “separation” as he writes) of “true reality” which the society is structured on. It is the capitalistic political economy risen to the stage of spectacle. Ideology works as legitimation of exploitation, when social relations are effaced by image. From this point of view, Debord’s theories appear today very weak. Also in the edification of his thought’s pars costruens, he refers to Marxist version of Hegelian dialectics, postulating that, through proletarian class struggle, status quo can be automatically surpassed. In regards to this, he is very strict: ideology is a «distorted consciousness of realities[25]». The only moment when reality and truth rejoin is, on the contrary, the Soviets’ revolutionary statement: «the proletarian movement becomes its own product. This product is nothing other than the producers themselves, whose goal has become nothing other than their own fulfilment. Only in this way can the spectacle’s negation of life be negated in its turn[26]». Needless to say, this theory is also very contradictory, with its attempt to find real confirmations to its virtual purposes. Twenty years after Society of the Spectacle, when he wrote Comments, even if Debord observed as the system’s contradictions occurred as he had foreseen, he left aside all the assertive statements about the revolutionary movement and class struggle. The historical defeat of real social struggle represents a tragic choice, which will lead him towards a destiny made of a mere denial of himself.

Debord’s radicalism eventually make his theories become as idealist as those he used to condemn. Just in the first of his thesis it is written: «Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation[27]». To real subsumption, that turns the whole life in market value is opposed the negative action of “critique of separation”, which should bring back the man to the condition of “directly lived”: still, it is difficult to understand how this condition can exist, where experience is immediate and not alienated. Elimination of market value (virtual) and total return to value in use (real) is suggested in the dialectic struggle. But it is not clear how men can possibly relate to things in their presumed rational “naturalness”. Therefore, Debord remains strictly linked to Marxist tradition. Marx theorized that commodity “metaphysical subtleties” were typical of regime’s capitalistic exchange and that, once the conditions of social relation had changed, relations among men, and also among men, objects and nature would become rational. In regards to this, Tronti rightly writes:

The fact that religious reflection of real world will disappear the day practical and everyday life relations will show men absolutely rational relations among them and between them and nature, is a prediction that has been proven wrong both by  socialism and by the development of capitalism itself[28].

For Guy Debord a theory of the subject, adequate to the specific form of capitalistic social relation, is not taken into account. According to Debord (and to Marx as well), the man is still a subject whose nature can be tapped into with no ambiguities, once the shackles of capitalist oppression are broken. The role of the imaginary and ideology play in shaping human subjectivity is never fully addressed. Nor it is possible to infer what role the imaginary would take once capitalism has been overcome. Mario Tronti invokes the Austrian psychoanalyst to further clarify such relationship: «Here Freud rectifies Marx: relations clearly rational among men and between man and nature will never exist, and, in any case, they will never be complete and exclusive[29]». Tackling the relation between subjectivity formation and the imaginary – or ideology in Marx’s parlance – is a decisive challenge towards emancipation and real democracy. One that Debord never cared to investigate.  

[1] Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London, Verso, 2002,  p. 36

[2] Mario Tronti, «I grilli» della merce, various authors, (edited by Stefano Mistura), [it.] Figure del Feticismo, Turin, Einaudi, 2001, p. 110 (my translation)

[3] Guy Debord,  Society of the Spectacle, translation Ken Knabb, London, Rebel Press, 1983, p.7

[4] Ibid. p. 12

[5] Ibid. p. 14

[6] Ibid. p. 15-16

[7] Ibid., p. 17

[8] Paolo Virno, Cultura e Produzione sul Palcoscenico, in various authors, I Situazionisti e la loro Storia, Rome, Manifesto Libri, 1999, p. 18 (my translation)

[9] Guy Debord,  Society of the Spectacle, translation Ken Knabb, London, Rebel Press, 1983, p.13

[10] Ibid., p. 9-10

[11] Ibid., p.20-21 (my italics)

[12] Giorgio Agamben, Violenza e Speranza nell’Ultimo Spettacolo, various authors, I Situazionisti e la loro Storia, Rome, Manifesto Libri, 1999, p.9 (my translation)

[13] Ibid., p. 11

[14] Guy Debord,  Society of the Spectacle, translation Ken Knabb, London, Rebel Press, 1983, p.7

[15] Die Frage nach der Technik, in Martin Heidegger, Vorträge und Aufsätse, Neske, Pfullingen, 1957.

[16] Guy Debord, Ibid., p.11

[17] Paolo Virno, Cultura e Produzione sul Palcoscenico, in various authors, I Situazionisti e la loro Storia, Rome, Manifesto Libri, 1999, p. 18 (my translation)

[18] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, translation Ken Knabb, London, Rebel Press, 1983, p.31

[19] Ibid. , p. 32

[20] Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Translation Malcom Imrie, London, Verso, 1990, p. 9

[21] Also, Negri and Hardt, when describing the development of the so-called Empire, that is the system that organizes economy and (bio)politics nowadays, pay homage to Debord, extensively referring to his theories. Debord’s discourse had delved into a topic that would be later developed by critical theorists. Here is an exemplificative passage taken form page 11 of  Society of the Spectacle: «all individual reality has become social, in the sense that it is shaped by social forces and is directly dependent on them». This resembles a Marxist definition of biopolitics, that ican be found in Negri’s thought.

[22] Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Translation Malcom Imrie, London, Verso, 1990, p. 10 (my italics)

[23] Ibid., p.6

[24] Ibid., p. 33

[25] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, translation Ken Knabb, London, Rebel Press, 1983, p. 116

[26] Ibid., p. 69

[27] Ibid., p. 7

[28] Mario Tronti, «I grilli» della Merce, various authors, (edited by Stefano Mistura), Figure del Feticismo, Turin, Einaudi, 2001, p. 108 (my translation)

[29] Ibid., p. 108