Situationist International Online

pre-situationist archive

situationist international archive

post-situationist archive

situationist chronology




news & updates

site search

notes & sources


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

III. Unity and Division Within Appearances

A lively new polemic about the concepts "one divides into two" and "two fuse into one" is unfolding on the philosophical front in this country. This debate is a struggle between those who are for and those who are against the materialist dialectic, a struggle between two conceptions of the world: the proletarian conception and the bourgeois conception. Those who maintain that "one divides into two" is the fundamental law of things are on the side of the materialist dialectic; those who maintain that the fundamental law of things is that "two fuse into one" are against the materialist dialectic. The two sides have drawn a clear line of demarcation between them, and their arguments are diametrically opposed. This polemic is a reflection, on the ideological level, of the acute and complex class struggle taking place in China and in the world.
Red Flag (Peking), 21 September 1964


LIKE MODERN SOCIETY itself, the spectacle is at once united and divided. In both, unity is grounded in a split. As it emerges in the spectacle, however, this contradiction is itself contradicted by virtue of a reversal of its meaning: division is presented as unity, and unity as division.


STRUGGLES BETWEEN FORCES, all of which have been established for the purpose of running the same socioeconomic system, are thus officially passed off as real antagonisms. In actuality these struggles partake of a real unity, and this on the world stage as well as within each nation.


THIS IS NOT TO SAY that the spectacle's sham battles between competing versions of alienated power are not also real; they do express the system's uneven and conflict-ridden development, as well as the relatively contradictory interests of those classes or fractions of classes that recognize the system and strive in this way to carve out a role for themselves in it. Just as the development of the most advanced economies involves clashes between different agendas, so totalitarian economic management by a state bureaucracy and the condition of those countries living under colonialism or semi-colonialism are likewise highly differentiated with respect to modes of production and power. By pointing up these great differences, while appealing to criteria of quite a different order, the spectacle is able to portray them as markers of radically distinct social systems. But from the standpoint of their actual reality as mere sectors, it is clear that the specificity of each is subsumed under a universal system as functions of a single tendency that has taken the planet for its field of operations. That tendency is capitalism.


THE SOCIETY THAT brings the spectacle into being does not dominate underdeveloped regions solely through the exercise of economic hegemony. It also dominates them in its capacity as the society of the spectacle. Modern society has thus already invested the social surface of every continent — even where the material basis of economic exploitation is still lacking — by spectacular means. It can frame the agenda of a ruling class and preside over that class's constitution. And, much as it proposes pseudo-goods to be coveted, it may also offer false models of revolution to local revolutionaries. As for the bureaucratic power that rules in a number of industrialized countries, it certainly has its own peculiar spectacle, but this plays an integral part in the overarching spectacle as general pseudo-negation — and hence as vital support. So even if in its local manifestations the spectacle may embody totalitarian varieties of social communication and control, when viewed from the standpoint of the system's global functioning these are seen to be merely different aspects of a worldwide division of spectacular tasks.


THOUGH DESIGNED TO maintain the existing order as a whole, the division of spectacular tasks is chiefly oriented toward the actively developing pole of that order. The spectacle has its roots in the fertile field of the economy, and it is the produce of that field which must in the end come to dominate the spectacular market, whatever ideological or police-state barriers of a protectionist kind may be set up by local spectacles with dreams of autarky.


BEHIND THE GLITTER of the spectacle's distractions, modern society lies in thrall to the global domination of a banalizing trend that also dominates it at each point where the most advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly broadened the panoply of roles and objects available to choose from. The vestiges of religion and of the family (still the chief mechanism for the passing on of class power), and thus too the vestiges of the moral repression that these institutions ensure, can now be seamlessly combined with the rhetorical advocacy of pleasure in this life. The life in question is after all produced solely as a form of pseudo-gratification which still embodies repression. A smug acceptance of what exists is likewise quite compatible with a purely spectacular rebelliousness, for the simple reason that dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economics of affluence finds a way of applying its production methods to this particular raw material.


MEDIA STARS ARE SPECTACULAR representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle's banality into images of possible roles. Stardom is a diversification in the semblance of life — the object of an identification with mere appearance which is intended to compensate for the crumbling of directly experienced diversifications of productive activity. Celebrities figure various styles of life and various views of society which anyone is supposedly free to embrace and pursue in a global manner. Themselves incarnations of the inaccessible results of social labor, they mimic by-products of that labor, and project these above labor so that they appear as its goal. The by-products in question are power and leisure — the power to decide and the leisure to consume which are the alpha and the omega of a process that is never questioned. In the former case, government power assumes the personified form of the pseudo-star; in the second, stars of consumption canvas for votes as pseudo-power over life lived. But, just as none of these celestial activities are truly global, neither do they offer any real choices.


THE INDIVIDUAL WHO in the service of the spectacle is placed in stardom's spotlight is in fact the opposite of an individual, and as clearly the enemy of the individual in himself as of the individual in others. In entering the spectacle as a model to be identified with, he renounces all autonomy in order himself to identify with the general law of obedience to the course of things. Stars of consumption, though outwardly representing different personality types, actually show each of these types enjoying an equal access to the whole realm of consumption and deriving exactly the same satisfaction therefrom. Stars of decision, meanwhile, must possess the full range of accepted human qualities; all official differences between them are thus canceled out by the official similarity which is an inescapable implication of their supposed excellence in every sphere. Khrushchev had to become a general in order to have been responsible for the outcome of the battle of Kursk — not on the battlefield but twenty years later, as master of the State. And Kennedy the orator survived himself, so to speak, and even delivered his own funeral oration, in the sense that Theodore Sorenson still wrote speeches for Kennedy's successor in the very style that had done so much to create the dead man's persona. The admirable people who personify the system are indeed well known for not being what they seem to be; they have achieved greatness by embracing a level of reality lower than that of the most insignificant individual life — and everyone knows it.


THE FALSE CHOICE offered by spectacular abundance, based on the juxtaposition, on the one hand, of competing yet mutually reinforcing spectacles and, on the other hand, of roles — for the most part signified by and embodied in objects — that are at once exclusive and interconnected, evolves into a contest among phantom qualities meant to elicit devotion to quantitative triviality. Thus false conflicts of ancient vintage tend to be resuscitated — regionalisms or racisms whose job it now is to invest vulgar rankings in the hierarchies of consumption with a magical ontological superiority. Hence too the never-ending succession of paltry contests — from competitive sports to elections — that are utterly incapable of arousing any truly playful feelings. Wherever the consumption of abundance has established itself, there is one spectacular antagonism which is always at the forefront of the range of illusory roles: the antagonism between youth and adulthood. For here an adult in the sense of someone who is master of his own life is nowhere to be found. And youth — implying change in what exists — is by no means proper to people who are young. Rather, it characterizes only the economic system, the dynamism of capitalism: it is things that rule, that are young — things themselves that vie with each other and usurp one another's places.


WHAT SPECTACULAR ANTAGONISMS conceal is the unity of poverty. Differing forms of a single alienation contend in the masquerade of total freedom of choice by virtue of the fact that they are all founded on real repressed contradictions. Depending on the needs of the particular stage of poverty that it is supposed at once to deny and sustain, the spectacle may be concentrated or diffuse in form. In either case, it is no more than an image of harmony set amidst desolation and dread, at the still center of misfortune.


THE CONCENTRATED FORM of the spectacle normally characterizes bureaucratic capitalism, though it may on occasion be borrowed as a technique for buttressing state power over more backward mixed economies, and even the most advanced capitalism may call on it in moments of crisis. Bureaucratic property is itself concentrated, in that the individual bureaucrat's relation to the ownership of the economy as a whole is invariably mediated by the community of bureaucrats, by his membership in that community. And commodity production, less well developed in bureaucratic systems, is also concentrated in form: the commodity the bureaucracy appropriates is the totality of social labor, and what it sells back to society — en bloc — is society's survival. The dictatorship of the bureaucratic economy cannot leave the exploited masses any significant margin of choice because it has had to make all the choices itself, and because any choice made independently of it, even the most trivial — concerning food, say, or music — amounts to a declaration of war to the death on the bureaucracy. This dictatorship must therefore be attended by permanent violence. Its spectacle imposes an image of the good which is a resume of everything that exists officially, and this is usually concentrated in a single individual, the guarantor of the system's totalitarian cohesiveness. Everyone must identify magically with this absolute celebrity — or disappear. For this figure is the master of not-being-consumed, and the heroic image appropriate to the absolute exploitation constituted by primitive accumulation accelerated by terror. If every Chinese has to study Mao, and in effect be Mao, this is because there is nothing else to be. The dominion of the spectacle in its concentrated form means the dominion, too, of the police.


THE DIFFUSE FORM of the spectacle is associated with the abundance of commodities, with the undisturbed development of modern capitalism. Here each commodity considered in isolation is justified by an appeal to the grandeur of commodity production in general — a production for which the spectacle is an apologetic catalog. The claims jostling for position on the stage of the affluent economy's integrated spectacle are not always compatible, however. Similarly, different star commodities simultaneously promote conflicting approaches to the organization of society; thus the spectacular logic of the automobile argues for a perfect traffic flow entailing the destruction of the old city centers, whereas the spectacle of the city itself calls for these same ancient sections to be turned into museums. So the already questionable satisfaction allegedly derived from the consumption of the whole is adulterated from the outset because the real consumer can only get his hands on a succession of fragments of this commodity heaven — fragments each of which naturally lacks any of the quality ascribed to the whole.


EACH INDIVIDUAL COMMODITY fights for itself, cannot acknowledge the others and aspires to impose its presence everywhere as though it were alone. The spectacle is the epic poem of this strife — a strife that no fall of Ilium can bring to an end. Of arms and the man the spectacle does not sing, but rather of passions and the commodity. Within this blind struggle each commodity, following where passion leads, unconsciously actualizes something of a higher order than itself: the commodity's becoming worldly coincides with the world's being transformed into commodities. So it is that, thanks to the cunning of the commodity, whereas all particular commodities wear themselves out in the fight, the commodity as abstract form continues on its way to absolute self-realization.


THE SATISFACTION THAT the commodity in its abundance can no longer supply by virtue of its use value is now sought in an acknowledgment of its value qua commodity. A use of the commodity arises that is sufficient unto itself; what this means for the consumer is an outpouring of religious zeal in honor of the commodity's sovereign freedom. Waves of enthusiasm for particular products, fueled and boosted by the communications media, are propagated with lightning speed. A film sparks a fashion craze, or a magazine launches a chain of clubs that in turn spins off a line of products. The sheer fad item perfectly expresses the fact that, as the mass of commodities become more and more absurd, absurdity becomes a commodity in its own right. Keychains that are not paid for but come as free gifts with the purchase of some luxury product, or are then traded back and forth in a sphere far removed from that of their original use, bear eloquent witness to a mystical self-abandonment to the transcendent spirit of the commodity. Someone who collects keychains that have recently been manufactured for the sole purpose of being collected might be said to be accumulating the commodity's indulgences — the glorious tokens of the commodity's immanent presence among the faithful. In this way reified man proclaims his intimacy with the commodity. Following in the footsteps of the old religious fetishism, with its transported convulsionaries and miraculous cures, the fetishism of the commodity also achieves its moment of acute fervor. The only use still in evidence here, meanwhile, is the basic use of submission.


IT IS DOUBTLESS impossible to contrast the pseudo-need imposed by the reign of modern consumerism with any authentic need or desire that is not itself equally determined by society and its history. But the commodity in the stage of its abundance attests to an absolute break in the organic development of social needs. The commodity's mechanical accumulation unleashes a limitless artificiality in face of which all living desire is disarmed. The cumulative power of this autonomous realm of artifice necessarily everywhere entails a falsification of life.


THE IMAGE OF the blissful unification of society through consumption suspends disbelief with regard to the reality of division only until the next disillusionment occurs in the sphere of actual consumption. Each and every new product is supposed to offer a dramatic shortcut to the long-awaited promised land of total consumption. As such it is ceremoniously presented as the unique and ultimate product. But, as with the fashionable adoption of seemingly rare aristocratic first names which turn out in the end to be borne by a whole generation, so the would-be singularity of an object can be offered to the eager hordes only if it has been mass-produced. The sole real status attaching to a mediocre object of this kind is to have been placed, however briefly, at the very center of social life and hailed as the revelation of the goal of the production process. But even this spectacular prestige evaporates into vulgarity as soon as the object is taken home by a consumer — and hence by all other consumers too. At this point its essential poverty, the natural outcome of the poverty of its production, stands revealed — too late. For by this time another product will have been assigned to supply the system with its justification, and will in turn be demanding its moment of acclaim.


THIS CONTINUAL PROCESS of replacement means that fake gratification cannot help but be exposed as products change, and as changes occur in the general conditions of production. Something that can assert its own unchanging excellence with uncontested arrogance changes nonetheless. This is as true of the concentrated as of the diffuse version of the spectacle, and only the system endures: Stalin, just like any obsolete product, can be cast aside by the very forces that promoted his rise. Each new lie of the advertising industry implicitly acknowledges the one before. Likewise every time a personification of totalitarian power is eclipsed, the illusion of community that has guaranteed that figure unanimous support is exposed as a mere sum of solitudes without illusions.


WHATEVER LAYS CLAIM to permanence in the spectacle is founded on change, and must change as that foundation changes. The spectacle, though quintessentially dogmatic, can yet produce no solid dogma. Nothing is stable for it: this is its natural state, albeit the state most at odds with its natural inclination.


THE UNREAL UNITY the spectacle proclaims masks the class division on which the real unity of the capitalist mode of production is based. What obliges the producers to participate in the construction of the world is also what separates them from it. What brings together men liberated from local and national limitations is also what keeps them apart. What pushes for greater rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchical exploitation and repression. What creates society's abstract power also creates its concrete unfreedom.

IV. The Proletariat As Subject and Representation