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text archives > situationist international texts > the society of the spectacle >

IX. Ideology in Material Form

Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or "recognized."
— Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind


IDEOLOGY IS THE foundation of the thought of a class society within the conflictual course of history. Ideological entities have never been mere fictions — rather, they are a distorted consciousness of reality, and, as such, real factors retroactively producing real distorting effects; which is all the more reason why that materialization of ideology, in the form of the spectacle, which is precipitated by the concrete success of an autonomous economic system of production, results in the virtual identification with social reality itself of an ideology that manages to remold the whole of the real to its own specifications.


ONCE IDEOLOGY, which is the abstract will to universality and the illusion thereof, finds itself legitimated in modern society by universal abstraction and by the effective dictatorship of illusion, then it is no longer the voluntaristic struggle of the fragmentary, but rather its triumph. The claims of ideology now take on a sort of flat, positivistic exactness: ideology is no longer a historical choice, but simply an assertion of the obvious. Names of particular ideologies have vanished. The portion of properly ideological labor serving the system may no longer be conceived of other than in terms of an "epistemological base" supposedly transcending all specific ideological phenomena. Ideology in material form is itself without a name, just as it is without a formulable historical agenda. Which is another way of saying that the history of ideologies, plural, is over.


IDEOLOGY, WHOSE WHOLE internal logic led toward what Mannheim calls "total ideology" — the despotism of a fragment imposing itself as the pseudo-knowledge of a frozen whole, as a totalitarian worldview — has now fulfilled itself in the immobilized spectacle of non-history. Its fulfillment is also its dissolution into society as a whole. Come the practical dissolution of that society itself, ideology — the last unreason standing in the way of historical life — must likewise disappear.


THE SPECTACLE IS the acme of ideology, for in its full flower it exposes and manifests the essence of all ideological systems: the impoverishment, enslavement and negation of real life. Materially, the spectacle is "the expression of estrangement, of alienation between man and man." The "new potentiality of fraud" concentrated within it has its basis in that form of production whereby "with the mass of objects grows the mass of alien powers to which man is subjected." This is the supreme stage of an expansion that has turned need against life. "The need for money is for that reason the real need created by the modern economic system, and the only need it creates" (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). The principle which Hegel enunciated in the Jenenser Realphilosophie as that of money — "the life, moving of itself, of that which is dead" — has now been extended by the spectacle to the entirety of social life.


IN CONTRAST TO the project outlined in the Theses on Feuerbach — the realization of philosophy in a praxis transcending the opposition between idealism and materialism — the spectacle preserves the ideological features of both materialism and idealism, imposing them in the pseudo-concreteness of its universe. The contemplative aspect of the old materialism, which conceives of the world as representation, not as activity — and which in the last reckoning idealizes matter — has found fulfillment in the spectacle, where concrete things are automatically masters of social life. Correlatively, idealism's imaginary activity likewise finds its fulfillment in the spectacle, this through the technical mediation of signs and signals — which in the last reckoning endow an abstract ideal with material form.


THE PARALLEL BETWEEN ideology and schizophrenia drawn by Joseph Gabel in his False Consciousness should be seen in the context of this economic process of materialization of ideology. What ideology already was, society has now become. A blocked practice and its corollary, an antidialectical false consciousness, are imposed at every moment on an everyday life in thrall to the spectacle — an everyday life that should be understood as the systematic organization of a breakdown in the faculty of encounter, and the replacement of that faculty by a social hallucination: a false consciousness of encounter, or an "illusion of encounter." In a society where no one is any longer recognizable by anyone else, each individual is necessarily unable to recognize his own reality. Here ideology is at home; here separation has built its world.


IN CLINICAL PICTURES of schizophrenia, according to Gabel, "a degradation of the dialectic of the totality (of which dissociation is the extreme form) and a degradation in the dialectic of becoming (of which catatonia is the extreme form) seem to be intimately interwoven." Imprisoned in a flat universe bounded on all sides by the spectacle's screen, the consciousness of the spectactor has only figmentary interlocutors which subject it to a one-way discourse on their commodities and the politics of those commodities. The sole mirror of this consciousness is the spectacle in all its breadth, where what is staged is a false way out of a generalized autism.


THE SPECTACLE ERASES the dividing line between self and world, in that the self, under siege by the presence/absence of the world, is eventually overwhelmed; it likewise erases the dividing line between true and false, repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. The individual, though condemned to the passive acceptance of an alien everyday reality, is thus driven into a form of madness in which, by resorting to magical devices, he entertains the illusion that he is reacting to this fate. The recognition and consumption of commodities are at the core of this pseudo-response to a communication to which no response is possible. The need to imitate that the consumer experiences is indeed a truly infantile need, one determined by every aspect of his fundamental dispossession. In terms used by Gabel to describe quite another level of pathology, "the abnormal need for representation here compensates for a torturing feeling of being at the margin of existence."


WHEREAS THE LOGIC of false consciousness cannot accede to any genuine self-knowledge, the quest for the critical truth of the spectacle must also be a true critique. This quest calls for commitment to a practical struggle alongside the spectacle's irreconcilable enemies, as well as a readiness to withhold commitment where those enemies are not active. By eagerly embracing the machinations of reformism or making common cause with pseudo-revolutionary dregs, those driven by the abstract wish for immediate efficacity obey only the laws of the dominant forms of thought, and adopt the exclusive viewpoint of actuality. In this way delusion is able to reemerge within the camp of its erstwhile opponents. The fact is that a critique capable of surpassing the spectacle must know how to bide its time.


SELF-EMANCIPATION in our time is emancipation from the material bases of an inverted truth. This "historic mission to establish truth in the world" can be carried out neither by the isolated individual nor by atomized and manipulated masses, but — only and always — by that class which is able to effect the dissolution of all classes, subjecting all power to the disalienating form of a realized democracy — to councils in which practical theory exercises control over itself and surveys its own action. It cannot be carried out, in other words, until individuals are "directly bound to universal history"; until dialogue has taken up arms to impose its own conditions upon the world.