Debord: Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere
Friday, 8 December 2017, 6:30pm-9pm
LARC, 62 Fieldgate Street, London E1 1ES
Closest stations: Whitechapel / Aldgate East
Facilitated by Aristotelis Nikolaidis
Suggested donation £2, booking via Eventbrite
DOWNLOAD Debord, Guy (1967/1995) Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere, from his The Society of the Spectacle, transl. Donald Nicholson-Smith, New York: Zone Books, pp. 129-147.
Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is a landmark text of the Situationist International, and its most influential one together with Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. Originally published in 1967, it has been related to the radical heritage of the May 1968 uprising in France and has been in print as well as enjoyed new translations and editions to this day. Debord revisited it in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in 1988.
The Situationist International offered a radical critique of advanced capitalist societies, manifesting the fusion of art and politics and the prominence of everyday life as a field of analysis and intervention. It combined elements from Marxism and anarchism, and while being separate from both it developed in a libertarian direction and in opposition to the orthodox Marxist-Leninist canon of the time. The Situationists have been criticised, among other things for vanguard cultural elitism, as well as praised, among other things for contributing to the renewal of radical social theory and practice.
In The Society of the Spectacle Debord both draws and reflects upon Marx’s original analysis of the capitalist mode of production, including key concepts such as commodity fetishism and alienation. The result of such an intellectual endeavour is the production of an original perspective: the concept of the spectacle, a social relationship between people which is mediated by images, suggests a society where genuine activity is replaced by representation and social life is colonised by commodities. In this respect, the emerging critique promptly focuses on the key role of media culture and consumerism in late capitalism; but, unlike most of the contemporary postmodernist paradigm, it maintains a radical edge rooted in class consciousness and struggle.
Chapter 8, titled Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere, emerges as a potentially useful reading with regard to art practice and theory on the basis of two reasons. On the one hand, it is the part of the book where Debord is principally concerned with art’s position in the field of culture; the provided discussion addresses the autonomy of culture and its connection to history in a class-based society, as well as art’s relation to language and communication and its function as a form of dialogue and a practice.
On the other hand, the text constitutes a sophisticated polemic against conventional social theory as well as a fierce defence of the unity between theory and practice; and its argument culminates in the discussion of détournement, a concept signifying the language of anti-ideology and subversive action. Perhaps it is in this respect that Debord echoes Marx most clearly, and his infamous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach more particularly: the point is not just to interpret the world, but to change it.
Why does Debord argue that ‘art’s declaration of independence is the beginning of the end of art’? (Thesis 186, p. 133)
How does Debord define avant-garde art? And how may the contrasting examples of Dada and Surrealism inform our understanding of the transcendent potential of art or lack thereof?
Why is conventional sociological theory criticised for offering ‘a spectacular critique of the spectacle’? (Thesis 196, p. 138)
Why does Debord argue that critical theory is inconceivable independently of a rigorous practice? (Thesis 203, p. 143)
In what ways may the concept of the détournement empower a radical critique and practice? How may it be related to contemporary practices such as culture jamming, for example in the case of the Adbusters, or to the work of conceptual artists such as Barbara Kruger?
Aristotelis Nikolaidis studied sociology, completed a PhD in media and communications at Goldsmiths and has been involved in free and self-organised language programmes for migrants and refugees. He is teaching and researching in the field of social theory and media studies from a critical perspective, which is to say that he is at odds with marketization, careerism and precarious labour conditions in the university.
Suggested further reading
Clark, John (2015) The Society of the Spectacle Reconsidered: Good Marx or Bad Marx?, Fifth Estate, 393
Cooper, Sam (2017) The Situationist International in Britain: Modernism, Surrealism, and the Avant-Gardes, New York: Routledge
Debord, Guy (1988/1988) Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, London: Verso
Eagles, Julian (2017) Marxism, Anarchism and the Situationists’ Theory of Revolution, Critical Sociology, 43(1): 13-36
Gray, Christopher (1974/1998) Leaving the 20th Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International, London: Rebel Press
Kellner, Douglas (2003) Media Spectacle, London: Routledge
Knabb, Ken (ed.) (2006) Situationist International Anthology, Revised and Expanded Edition, transl. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets
Vaneigem, Raoul (1967/2003) The Revolution of Everyday Life, transl. Donald Nicholson-Smith, London: Rebel Press
Wark, McKenzie (2011) The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, London: Verso
Monthly free and open-access reading group for artists, researchers and anyone interested in the intersections between art practice and critical theory. Everyone can propose a text and facilitate the reading group. Participants are requested to book a place and download the shared document. Please scroll down for more information and an archive of previous events.
Free & open access
The reading group is free and open to everyone who wants to join as long as they commit to the reading. Please register and arrive early, doors will close when we reach maximum capacity. Don’t forget to download the shared document and bring a hard-copy to the book club. Please consider leaving a small donation to cover our expenses and keep us going. Alternatively, you can donate via this link.
Discussion & decision-making
Texts are selected by group consensus on the basis that they reflect on the relationship between practice and theory. This includes a broad variety of texts, from philosophy to politics and aesthetics to science fiction – there is no limitation.
Facilitating the book club
[SYMPOSIUM] is a supportive community of peers who discuss and unpack their research interests. All participants have the opportunity to facilitate the book club on a text of their choice. If you would like to propose a text, you can start preparing right now:
 Decide on a text that you want to discuss.
 Do some background research and write a short introduction to provide some context, from your own perspective. When was it written? Why was it written? Who wrote it? Was it a response to something else? Why are you interested in the text? How does it relate to, or inform, your practice or your research?
 Pace the reading. How long is the text? If it is short, can we discuss the entire text in a 2-hour book club? If the text is long you may need to divide it up between two or more sessions.
 Write down some questions that you would like to bring to the discussion. Suggest some further reading and an image or two, with captions.
 Download the infosheet and follow the directions to send us your proposal.
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