Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 16

Towards a Genealogy and Typology of Spectacle : Some Comments on Debord

David Roberts Thesis Eleven 2003 75: 54 DOI: 10.1177/0725513603751005

Published by:

d at: http://the.sagepub.com/content/75/1/54 Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com Additional services and

Additional services and information for Thesis Eleven can be found at:

>> Version of Record - Nov 1, 2003

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013



Some Comments on Debord

David Roberts

ABSTRACT Debord’s influential theory of the spectacle is vitiated by its lack of historical and analytical differentiation. This article draws on Debord’s own undeveloped distinction between the concentrated spectacle and the diffuse spectacle in order to propose a double genealogy and a fourfold typology of the spectacle since the French Revolution.

KEYWORDS aestheticization • festival • sacralization • secularisation • spec- tacle

The term spectacle covers a multitude of phenomena. I want to distin- guish two main meanings: spectacle as festival and spectacle as spectacle. Spectacle in the second sense has such a wide range of reference – from sport and entertainment to the staging of politics and protest in the contem- porary world – that I shall, with Guy Debord (1983), focus on the question of the spectacle and the representation and self-representation of society. Debord’s use of the term spectacle silently presupposes the distinction between festival and spectacle. He distinguishes between the concentrated spectacle of totalitarianism, which refers back to the religious and political functions of the festival, and the diffuse spectacle of the society of the spec- tacle. Debord complicates things however, by claiming that the diffuse spec- tacle has taken over the traditional religious function of the festival. In the present article I want to propose a typology of the spectacle in modernity, which retrieves and elaborates Debord’s undeveloped distinction between

Thesis Eleven, Number 75, November 2003: 54–68 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Copyright © 2003 SAGE Publications and Thesis Eleven Co-op Ltd


Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

Roberts: Genealogy and Typology of Spectacle


the concentrated and the diffuse spectacle, and argue that this typology involves different genealogies. 1 Let me start at the beginning as befits a genealogy:

Societies and peoples define themselves through spectacle. Since the beginning of recorded history, community festivals have served to create and express collective identity. (Bergmann, 1999: 2)

For Durkheim (1976) the elementary (by which he means the essential) forms of religious life arise from the self-representation and the self-affir- mation of the social group through collective assembly. These ritual cere- monies, directed to the social and cultural renewal of the community, open up what Victor Turner calls the space-time of liminality: ‘the scene and time for the emergence of society’s deepest values in the form of sacred dramas and objects’ (Turner, 1984: 22). John MacAloon uses Turner’s distinction between the liminal and the liminoid (Turner, 1982) to distinguish between festival and spectacle. According to MacAloon, spectacle in modern urban societies is to be understood as involving a process of the fragmenting and fissioning of liminal ritual: ‘spectacle has destructive effects on genres like festival, ritual and game, genres that reduce in their various ways the distance between actors and audiences’ (MacAloon, 1984: 268). This allows us to dis- tinguish between festival and spectacle as ideal types by reference to the kind of participation involved. The festival, strictly speaking, excludes spectators. It consists of a collective act of presence in which the participants are actors and spectators at the same time. The spectacle, as its name indicates, signi- fies a separation of actors and spectators, which is almost inescapable once

the social group exceeds a certain size. If spectacle is as old as recorded history, it is because recorded history is as old as the state, as old, in other words, as the emergence of a social hierarchy based on a centre of military and religious power separate from the social group as a whole. The festival in its pure, elementary form – Durkheim’s example is the aborigine corro- boree – originates in the many millennia of non-historical societies prior to the state. The festive self-representation of the clan, the tribe, the village com- munity, is overlaid by the hierarchical representation of the sacred power of the state across the long history of what Marcel Gauchet has termed the political history of religion (Gauchet, 1997). Within recorded history, that is, in relation to urban societies, we can in turn distinguish between the poles of state spectacle and popular festival by using Don Handelman’s distinction between public events that present and those that re-present the lived-in-world. Events of presentation ‘are the

dominant form of occasion that publicly enunciate

hood, and civic collectivity’ (Handelman, 1990: 42, 48). Events of re- presentation aim at comparison and contrast with the existing order through the playful use of images of alternative visions of the world. Thus popular festivals such as the Saturnalia and carnival suspend and invert the social

.] statehood, nation-

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

56 Thesis Eleven (Number 75 2003)

hierarchy to recall for a brief interregnum the original unity and equality of the Golden Age. The vitality of the most spectacular of these urban festivi- ties (Venice, Basel, Rio, Sydney) makes them prime objects of international tourism. Conversely sacred and secular powers seek to impress through pomp and ceremony. Both the Roman Empire and the Roman Church have shown themselves to be unsurpassed masters of the art of spectacle. The function of such spectacles is not in principle different from that of the popular festival: they too aim at social regeneration from above in the form of the reassertion and renewal of the collective identity of the social group or of the body of the faithful. Festival and spectacle share a common interest in celebrating unity. In this respect premodern spectacle appears to be closer to a liminal sense of participation than to a modern liminoid sense of distance. The crucial turning point in the transition from liminal to liminoid spectacle is given, I think, not by the critical awareness of the difference between the two – the knowledge that public life involves play acting before an audience goes back to antiquity – but rather by the critical recognition of the death of sacred spectacle, mortally wounded by the Enlightenment’s unmasking of the sacred illusion uniting throne and altar. The overthrow of the ancien regime in the French Revolution brings to an end in the West the tradition of sacred power and the power of the sacred. The Enlightenment’s victory over the long tradition of sacred power did not signal however the victory of the moderns over the ancients. The imi- tation of the Roman republic by the French revolutionaries involved more than a matter of political style, inspired by a classical education. It signalled that the revolutionary spirit of the moderns was imbued, in its very founding act, with a nostalgia for a lost unity, with the dream of the once and future republic of the free, equal and fraternal people. The sacred spectacle of superstition is dead, long live the sacred festival of the people. But once you have broken the sacred spell, how is the empty space at the heart of society to be filled? Debord’s answer is the spectacle of the commodity: the immense accumulation of goods which both mirrors and totally justifies the existing system of production. As the ‘self-portrait of power in the epoch of its total- itarian management of the conditions of existence’ (Debord, 1983: par. 24), the spectacle represents the concrete inversion and alienation of life, which is at the same time the concrete inversion of the religious illusion: ‘The spec- tacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion’ (1983: par. 20). Debord’s spectacle is a specifically modern phenomenon. It is the product of secularization but of a secularization which has failed, which has only managed to perpetuate the religious illusion by other means. This gives us Debord’s genealogy of the spectacle and decadence theory of culture: ‘The spectacle originates in the loss of the unity of the world’ (1983: par. 29); ‘Culture is the locus of the search for lost unity’ (1983: par. 180). Debord is somewhat vague as to when the unity of the world was lost.

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

Roberts: Genealogy and Typology of Spectacle


When he speaks of the loss of ‘the community of the society of myth’ (1983:

par. 186) one could well think that he is referring to the end of prehistory. The context, however, makes it clear that the prehistory he has in mind is history prior to the emergence of the modern historical sense of time:

The historical time which invades and expressed itself first of all in the sphere of art itself, starting with the baroque. Baroque is the order of a world which has lost its centre: the last mythological order, in the cosmos and in territorial government, accepted by the Middle Ages – the unity of Christianity and the phantom of an empire – has fallen. (1983: par. 189)

The art of change supplants the art of eternity, the invasion of historical time challenges and dissolves the religious illusion but only to produce the triumph of illusion – first in the theatrical spectacles of the baroque stage (defined by perspectivism, stage machinery and the creation of magic illusion in the modern sense) – and then in the spectacle of the commodity (inheri- tor of the magic of stage illusion and of the material promise of heaven on earth). The triumph of illusion serves to mask the fact that in historical society history is not yet lived. Modern art is the mirror of our not-yet-historical but already post-historical world. It proclaims the art of change while manifest- ing the impossibility of change. Against the dead time of the spectacle, Debord sets the great time of the festival. The goal of the Situationists is to regain the liminal experience of the space-time of festive being and presence, time out of time. The political revolutions which failed have led only to the eternal return of the same in the society of the spectacle, the nightmarish simulacrum of the eternal return celebrated in the festival, which renews society by renewing time. This image and phantasm of return inhabits the central, circular myth of modernism: the revolution which will restore the lost innocence and unity of society. I have already referred to the founding example in the self-understanding of the French revolutionaries, who sought to represent the birth of a new egalitarian society of freedom by staging in their festivals the return of society to nature (Baxmann, 1989). Debord’s historical/anti-historical construction raises a number of ques- tions, two of which concern me here. First, his concept of secularization, and second, his portmanteau concept of the spectacle. Debord seems to be working with an emphatic enlightenment concept of secularization, that is, the belief that the irresistible progress of science must in due course dissipate the clouds of religious illusion. In this sense secularization can be said to have failed. We could equally well say, however, that this concept of secularization has failed to grasp Durkheim’s insight into the persistence of the sacred after the decline of religion:

Thus there is something eternal in religion which is destined to survive all the particular symbols in which religious thought has successively enveloped itself. There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

58 Thesis Eleven (Number 75 2003)

reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality. (Durkheim, 1976: 427)

Durkheim’s statement that no society can dispense with the collective need to affirm its unity and identity – in other words, that there is an intrin- sic and reciprocal relationship between society and spectacle – means that we must substitute for the unilinear concept of secularization (with all that it entails in the way of a meta-narrative of evolution and/or progress) an ongoing interplay in modernity between processes of secularization and sacralization (Thompson, 1990). Debord’s concept of the spectacle is too compact to be analytically useful. It needs unpacking, using Debord’s own undeveloped distinction between the concentrated and the diffuse spectacle, by which he means on the one hand the totalitarian state (Debord, 1983: par. 64) and on the other the omnipresent commodity form (1983: par. 65, 66). Applying this distinc- tion, and bearing in mind that Debord does not cancel the difference between the modern spectacle and modern art, I want to propose a fourfold typology of the spectacle since the French Revolution. The first two types correspond to Debord’s concentrated spectacle and express the spirit of revolution. Driven by imitation of the ancients, they are characterized by the dialectical ambiguity of revolution and re-volution, secularization and (re-)sacralization. The second two types constitute the profane antithesis of the first pair. They correspond to the diffuse spectacle and express the spirit of capitalism, characterized by the dialectical ambiguity of the disenchantment and (re-)enchantment of the world. The first pair (the spectacle as festival):

1. The spectacle of the political religion of the moderns, directed, from the French Revolution to fascism, to the regeneration of society.

2. The spectacle of the aesthetic religion of the moderns, the total work

of art, directed to the aesthetic regeneration of alienated society and to the social regeneration of alienated art.

The second pair (the spectacle as spectacle):

1. The spectacle of the commodity, the capitalist justification of the

world as aesthetic phenomenon. In Debord’s words: ‘the spectacle is affir-

mation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance’ (1983: par. 10).

2. The spectacle of the spectacle. Just as the total work of art accom-

panies the idea of total revolution, so the mass multimedia spectacles of the entertainment industry are the mirror of the society of commodity consump-


What our four types have in common are representation and aes- theticization. What separates them is a question which Debord evades with

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

Roberts: Genealogy and Typology of Spectacle


serious consequences. By terming both the concentrated and the diffuse

spectacle totalitarian, he fatally contaminates his theory of the spectacle. In

a typical avant-gardist gesture of total rupture and supercession, Debord

dismisses the crucial historical fact that the political and aesthetic religions of modernism, whether of the right or the left, regarded the capitalist culture of the commodity as their deadly enemy, while laying claim to be its sole authentic dispossessor. The first pair in our typology present themselves as both the truth and the potentiation of premodern sacred illusion. In other words, they are both equally conscious of the necessity of inventing a new mythology, a new binding illusion. This means, as we have seen, that the political and aesthetic religions or, if you prefer, the political and aesthetic utopias of modernism, are haunted by nostalgia for the once and future community, Gesellschaft dreaming of Gemeinschaft. The revolutionary dream of the transparent com- munity, which transforms history back into nature and yet is at the same time a pure and harmonious work of art, finds its echo (or should we say shadow?)

in what I would call the short-circuit of our first two types in the avant-garde’s

revolutionary dream of the destruction of the sacred illusion of art in order

to effect the transformation of art into life. Debord and the Situationists are still caught in this particular illusion. They envisage the destruction of the sacred as the final accomplishment of the revolution, which marks the begin- ning of real life, in which our realized desires will create the total work of art (Clark et al., 1967; Sadler, 1998). Rousseau and Nietzsche define the opposite poles of the spectrum of sacred illusion: the world as true being and as appearance. Rousseau affirms the idea of the popular festival as the negation of the meretricious spectacles

of theatrical society. Nietzsche affirms the endless play of appearance of the

world theatre. Despite this diametrical opposition we are dealing in both cases with a specifically modern, sentimental not naïve, relation to illusion. Both Rousseau and Nietzsche unmask the sacred spectacle that has governed all societies: Rousseau by tearing off the mask to reveal behind the spectacle of alienated religious or political representation the sovereign body of the people, present to itself in the republican assembly and the republican festival; Nietzsche by revealing that there is nothing behind the mask, behind the religious illusion. God is dead, long live the creation and celebration of new life-enhancing fictions. Our initial premise – ‘Societies and peoples define themselves through spectacles’ – requires a supplement: ‘and modern societies know this’. Thus Georges Bataille can insist in Nietzschean fashion on the creative will to fiction:

It [myth] cannot be separated from the community whose creature it is and that ritually takes possession of its authority. It would be a fiction if a people in festival excitement did not show in their accord that it was the vital human reality. Myth is perhaps fable, but this fable is made the opposite of fiction if

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

60 Thesis Eleven (Number 75 2003)

one looks at the people who dance it, who act it, and whose living truth it is. (Bataille, 1988: 22)

This self-knowledge defines, I would like to suggest, the creative and the catastrophic circle of modernism. Creative in that this knowledge is one with the self-constitution of society, the new beginning which separates autonomous from heteronomous society, the pure festival of the people from the age old spectacles of superstition. The co-authors of the manifesto known under the title ‘The Oldest Systematic Programme of German Idealism’, Hegel, Hölderlin and Schelling, greet the new revolutionary age of freedom beyond the mechanical state: ‘Never again the contemptuous glance, never the blind trembling of the people before its wise men and priests. Only then does the equal development of all powers await us, of the individual as well as of all individuals’ (Behler, 1987: 162). Similarly Rousseau states in the Social Contract (Book IV, Ch. 8) that a Christian republic is a contradiction in terms, since the republic is constituted by the divinity of the sovereign people: vox populi, vox dei. As Derrida observes, Rousseau’s ‘praise of the “assembled people” in the festival or in the political forum is always a critique of representation’. Derrida therefore speaks of Rousseau’s conception of the festival as a theatre without representation (Derrida, 1967: 418–31). What will there be to see in the popular festival, Rousseau asks in his Epistle to M. d’Alembert and replies:

.] Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle

of the square; gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors themselves; do it so that each sees and loves himself in the others so that all will be united. (Rousseau, 1995: 336)

Nothing, if you please.

The people visible to itself – and within reach of the voice, as Derrida reminds us – without any separation of actors and spectators: the same beautiful and sublime idea also fascinated the French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée, writing in the immediate wake of the French Revolution:

Imagine three hundred thousand persons gathered in an amphitheatre where no one could escape the eyes of the crowd. The effect produced by this combi- nation of circumstances would be unique. The spectators would be the elements of this surprising spectacle and they alone would be responsible for its beauty. (Boullée, 1976: 101 )

It is not far from Boullée’s surprising spectacle, conceived as the essence of national celebrations, to the mass politics of totalitarianism. Both are defined by giganticism. To put Boullée’s numbers into perspective, at the centre of Germania – the capital of the future German world empire – Hitler (with the aid of his architect and master of mass ceremonies, Albert Speer) planned a Congress Hall to dwarf all comparable buildings ancient and modern, expressly compared by Speer to the imaginary architecture of

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

Roberts: Genealogy and Typology of Spectacle


Boullée and Claude Nicolas Ledoux. The diameter of the circular hall was to be 250 ms, the internal height of the dome 220 ms, to give a space seven- teen times greater than the interior of St Peter’s. This gigantic building, which was to hold a standing audience of up to 180,000, is a grotesque illustration of the totalitarian materialization of Boullée’s imagined 300,000 (Speer, 1969:

166–70). But do such parallels allow us to posit a fundamental connection between the republican festival and the mass rallies of fascism, between the creative and the catastrophic circle of modernism? In her investigation of the role of the festival in the French Revolution, Mona Ozouf (1988) identifies their importance as lying in a transfer of sacral- ity from the hierarchical spectacles of the ancien regime to a new secular religion. As we have seen, a secular religion signifies from Debord’s perspec- tive the failure of secularization but illustrates from Durkheim’s perspective the persistence of the sacred behind its changing forms and symbols. George Mosse follows Durkheim when he stresses that we cannot understand fascist spectacle if we dismiss it as mere manipulation and propaganda and fail to recognize in it the power of sacred spectacle based on faith and myth. Mosse derives the new politics of fascism, with its central orientation to national regeneration, from the 18th century idea of popular sovereignty, which led the fascist movements to develop a political style, designed to mobilize popular participation ‘through rites and festivals, myths and symbols which gave a concrete expression to the general will’ (Mosse, 1975: 2). Mosse’s derivation requires modification. First, the idea of popular sovereignty led to distinct lineages: in France, republicanism took the form of a political religion of civic secularism engaged in a permanent civil war with the Catholic and royalist right and its conception of the eternal, sacred nation; in Germany, the people is defined ethnically not politically. Second, Mosse does not suf- ficiently stress the new element which distinguishes totalitarian from French revolutionary politics: the idea of the party – and thus of the one party-state – as the embodiment of the general will. To take the example of China: the Maoist vision, inspired by Rousseau, is that of state and society led by the party, which as the representative of the general will constitutes the source of all ideological and cultural legitimation. The model informing this vision is that of a direct political process, physically embodied in Tiananmen Square, ‘in which the party leaders could face an assembled mass of a million citizens; the Square was a microcosm of the party and its people and its basic structure is replicated in village squares all over China’ (Taylor and Lee, 2003: 8). Walter Benjamin was one of the first to recognize the aesthetic dimen- sions of the new politics of fascism. The genealogy is particularly clear in the case of Italy. The political style of Mussolini and his party is directly indebted to the liturgy of national rebirth developed by Gabriele D’Annunzio during his occupation and rule of Fiume from September 1919 to January 1921. According to Mosse, ‘the Italian poet is as important for an understanding of

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

62 Thesis Eleven (Number 75 2003)

the nature of modern politics as any statesman or ruler’. Inspired by Wagner and Nietzsche, D’Annunzio was driven by the ambition to give artistic form to the masses through a ‘theatre of the future,’ which:

would eliminate the gap between actor and audience and form the masses into

one entity. He drew part of his inspiration from the theatre of antiquity and

part from Bayreuth.

to provide one of the foundations of twentieth-century mass meetings, and to become an integral part of fascist rites. This was, as he envisaged it, a national theatre within which the nation represented itself visually and verbally through its myths and symbols. Here D’Annunzio took a step beyond mere verbal expression to the kind of artistic synthesis which the new religion of national- ism required. (Mosse, 1973: 35)

.] Indeed, the theatre which D’Annunzio described was

The continuum between art and politics is clear. Through artistic syn-

thesis, that is, the union of the arts, the unity of the people is to find expres- sion. Aesthetic and political religion converge in the total work of art, whose purpose is the regeneration of society and culture through a re-sacralization of art and politics. D’Annunzio’s theatre of the future renews, around 1900, Wagner’s mid-century vision in ‘The Artwork of the Future’ of a festival of the revolutionary people. If we turn to the theatre itself in the decades from the 1890s to the 1930s, the epoch of fascism and of modernism in the arts, we find everywhere the presiding spirit of Wagner. The quest for a revived sacred drama, drawing on the Wagnerian idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk and of a festival theatre, is the common thread running through the experiments in stage design and direction of Alphonse Appia, Gordon Craig, Meyerhold, Reinhardt, Eisenstein, the dramatic theory and practice of the Russian Sym- bolists, Kandinsky, Claudel, Artaud. The anti-music dramas of Brecht and Weill, with their techniques of estrangement, are expressly directed against

a theatre of sacred illusion. So many threads run together in the figure of Wagner that he could be

taken as a reference point for the spectacle as festival and the spectacle as spectacle. The influence of Wagner’s writings and of his music dramas was enormous up to 1914 and beyond. It appears wherever the romantic dream

– and trauma – of the moderns is particularly acute: the longing for the

absolute, for the sacred and the sublime after the death of God. Heidegger, who emphatically rejected Wagner and the hypnotic spell of his music, never-

theless recognizes that Wagner’s theoretical explication and prediction of the Gesamtkunstwerk stands at the very centre of the long 19th century from

1770 to 1930, at the very centre, in other words, of the whole ambiguous

epoch of modernism. What defines, for Heidegger, the significance of the Wagnerian total or collective work of art, what raises it despite its failure above all the other artistic endeavours of its time? Wagner alone confronted the Hegelian fate of art in the modern world: art’s loss of absolute power, its inability to satisfy historical man’s ‘absolute need’ through a representation of the absolute, which founds and grounds society (Heidegger, 1991: 83–90).

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

Roberts: Genealogy and Typology of Spectacle


Wagner’s artwork of the future and Heidegger’s great art are predicated on the absolute need of society to represent itself in its sacred spectacles, their common model is of course the Athenian polis and its unique fusion of art, politics and religion. The separation of art, politics and religion in modernity signifies the loss of the absolute, just as the anticipation of their future reunion inspired and haunted the redemptive programmes of aesthetic religion and aesthetic politics. The ambiguity that characterized the long 19th century for Heidegger is clearly tied up with the whole dialectic of a secularization which called forth the material dream of the total work of art as the surrogate for the absolute work of art. This is why Rousseau and Mallarmé, seeking to preserve the pure, hence absolute festival that founds and grounds society, place nothing at its centre. With Rousseau this nothing affirms and exhibits the plenitude of collective presence and sovereign self-institution. With Mallarmé this nothing affirms and exhibits the fictional truth and the true fiction of the sacred spectacle. In response to Rousseau, Hegel and Wagner, Mallarmé dreams of a theatre of the absolute, which will be, in Derrida’s words, ‘nothing other than the staging, the theatre, the visibility of nothing or of the self’ (Derrida, 1992: 161). Rousseau’s and Mallarmé’s answer to the question of spectacle in modern society takes the form of a pure paradox, which corresponds to the modern form of democracy. Claude Lefort argues that the idea of popular sovereignty is necessarily linked to the image of an empty space, ‘impossible to occupy, since those who exercise public auth- ority can never claim to appropriate it’ (Lefort, 1986: 279). This empty space, this theatre without representation, signifies the true sublime (the prohibition on representations of the divine). The totalitarian spectacle of the People-as- One and of Power-as-One (Lefort, 1986: 287) materializes by contrast the identification of state and society in a false sublime which enacts the con- tradiction inherent in the staging of the absolute. It is the contradiction summed up in Nietzsche’s formula circulus vitiosus deus (Nietzsche, 1967:

52) and illustrated by Nietzsche’s total ambivalence to Wagner. In 1871 Nietzsche greeted the Wagnerian rebirth of tragedy, which crowned German victory over the French, as the herald of the cultural rebirth of the united nation. Twenty years later Wagner, now termed the ‘Cagliostro of modernity,’ has become the foremost symptom of European decadence and its longing for theatrical illusion and theatrical redemption: ‘We know the masses, we know the theatre,’ says Nietzsche; they want ‘the sublime, the profound, the overpowering.’ Wagner’s success spells out the inescapable truth of cultural decline: wherever the masses become decisive, the actor alone can arouse great enthusiasm. The golden age of the actor has arrived, the actor who knows how to command (Nietzsche, 1967: 300, 309–10). No wonder Hitler could simply declare, ‘Wagner is my religion.’ Compared with Nietzsche’s prescience, Adorno seems to be wilfully missing the point in 1938 when he proposed a completely different revision of The Birth of Tragedy:

‘The enthusiasm of the young Nietzsche mistook the artwork of the future:

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

64 Thesis Eleven (Number 75 2003)

it is the event of the birth of the film from the spirit of music’ (Adorno, 1974:

100). Again we register a constitutive ambiguity: the combination of the

masses and theatre points not to the mass spectacles of fascism but to mass art. Or is Wagner the precursor of Hitler and Hollywood, and if so, what do Hitler and Hollywood have in common? Are the concentrated and diffuse spectacle really two faces of the same thing, as Debord asserts? Does the

spirit of revolution, with its political and aesthetic religions and mass politics of redemption, really have the same genealogy as the spirit of capitalism, which has transformed culture into commodity and commodity into culture? Here too Wagner stands at the centre of the epoch of modernism. From Rousseau to Bataille, from the French Revolution to the totalitarian revolu- tions, the festival figures as the redemptive other of commercial society. In

a similar vein Jean Duvignaud states, ‘The festival is more than a festival

because ever since Rousseau it has called into question European culture and the self-assurance of its systemic rationality’ (Duvignaud, 1976: 24). This whole tradition of (anti-)revolutionary cultural and political critique is pro- jected by Debord into the absolute festival to come. For Debord, and not only Debord, the society of the spectacle is above all the society without festival, as Roger Caillois argued in his theory of festival, in a lecture deliv- ered to the College of Sociology, set up in Paris by Bataille, Caillois, Michel Leiris, Pierre Klossowski and others between 1937 and 1939 to study ‘problems of power, of the sacred, and of myths.’ The sacred sociology of the College veered between a fascination with popular festivals and carni- vals on the one hand and monastic and military orders, brotherhoods and secret societies on the other. If for Bataille the living truth of the festival denotes a living society, then conversely, the ‘scattered fragments of a whole that is broken apart’ denote a dying society, a society that has, according to Caillois, replaced the reign of the sacred in the festival by the flight into vacation, the symbol of a society which has taken leave of itself:

From this point of view vacations are characteristic of an extremely dissipated society in which no mediation remains between the passions of the individual and the State apparatus. In this case, it can be a grave and even alarming sign

that a society should prove incapable of reviving some festival that expresses,

.] we should ask the harsh question. Is a society

with no festivals not a society condemned to death? (Caillois, 1988: 302)

illustrates and restores it.

Are we, in other words, amusing ourselves to death? Despite his dismissal of the revolutionary intentions of the moderns, Debord remains caught in their circular myth of regeneration. This cuts him off from actually coming to grips with the diffuse spectacle of the commodity. He does not even take his own distinction between the concentrated and the diffuse spectacle seriously, a distinction which encapsulates very clearly the difference between communal fusion and defusion. Whereas the concen- trated spectacle derives from the imitation of the ancients and consciously

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

Roberts: Genealogy and Typology of Spectacle


seeks to renew and reinforce the fundamental link between society and spec- tacle, the diffuse spectacle appears as the very negation of this fundamental reciprocity. Instead of the affirmation of collective being and identity we have the passivity of the spectator, reinforced by the transformation of the world into media representation; instead of the living festive body of the people we have the accumulation of dead objects, in which the social bond is atomized into an aggregate of mutually indifferent consumers. Given this defining opposition, can we still say that the diffuse spectacle represents the material reconstruction of the religious illusion? Or must we look for another genealogy, confining Debord’s decadence theory of culture to the concen- trated spectacle, whose practitioners and theorists alike share a vision of cultural decadence and revolutionary renewal? The answer I think is clear:

the genealogy of the spectacle of the commodity goes back to the other focus of communal identity – the market place. The fair, from the Latin feria (holiday), draws people to its double spectacle of commodities and amuse- ments, the show business of the showground. Although the fair was, and often still is, closely associated with seasonal religious festivals (just as holidays testify to holy days), it is evident that we are dealing not with sacred illusion here but with the suspicion of profane illusion in double form: the spectacle of merchandise and magic tricks invites us not only to suspend but equally to sharpen our disbelief. If the sacred festival enacts and affirms collective belief, the fair enacts and affirms a very different mode of the social contract based on the conditionality of belief. We are not talking of a failed secularization but, on the contrary, of the secular social bond of exchange and commerce. In Debord’s account the secular genealogy of the commodity as spectacle and the secularising force of the spirit of capitalism are absorbed into the triumph of illusion. For Debord the spectacle is a wholly negative phenomenon. It has transformed real life into representation. It has imprisoned us in the night- mare of modern society, giving us no other role than that of dazzled and blind spectators. Debord does not recognize that his totalizing of the power of the spectacle leaves him blind not only to the difference between the con- centrated and the diffuse spectacle but also to their opposed modes of representation. I would sum up the essential impulse of the spectacle of the commodity and the mass media spectacle as the tendency to desublimation as opposed to the sublime of the concentrated festival. Desublimation involves a game of and with illusion. Within this game we can be both partici- pants and observers, sometimes to the point of desublimated (second order) collective fusion, as in sporting events or pop concerts, but usually and mostly as the spectators who participate through their awareness of and knowledge of the rules of the game. Let me propose, to conclude, a few observations on desublimation. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the mass multimedia spectacle as the indispensable adjunct of the spectacle of the commodity lies in its

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

66 Thesis Eleven (Number 75 2003)

symbiosis of technology and illusion. We need to replace Debord’s definition of the spectacle as the material reconstruction of religious illusion with the technological realization of magic illusion, which is modern precisely in its dual desublimating thrust of materializing the imaginary and destroying the imagination. We can trace with Debord the modern cult of illusionism back to the baroque theatre of illusion (for Debord it reveals the destructive intrusion of historical time). Wagner’s judgement on the empty spectacles of the Paris Opera names the child of the baroque marriage of technology and illusion: from the visible deus ex machina to the invisible machinery of stage effects we are spectators of ‘effects without causes’. The underlying function of technological illusion is to defuse and tame the mythic Other, the Other which by the same token can only be imagined in material terms. Special effects thus become the site of the dis/appearance of the Other. The baroque opera provided for its courtly audiences a playful version of ancient mythol- ogy, translated into the realms of magic and fantasy. Once visibility becomes the last refuge of mythology however, the theatre ceases to be the mask of the gods and becomes the site of illusion. Hence the subliminal and/or sub- liminoid dialectic of desublimation: the tragic catharsis of terror and pity is replaced by magical exorcisms, which cannot quite control our fear of, and fascination with, technology – our fascinated fear that technology and terror are perhaps the same. If ‘apocalypse now’ promises the greatest of spectacles, Hollywood profits by offering both exorcisms and rehearsals of the end at the same time as it reveals in hallucinatory fashion the convergence of terror- ism and spectacle as a species of technological magic. We should not be sur- prised that the leading German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen enviously greeted September 11 as the total work of art which no artist could ever match (Hilferty, 2001). In contrast to the apocalyptic horizon of our technological imaginary, everyday life presents an ever more elaborate and comprehensive merging of mass consumption and its multimedia images of endless affordable pleasure. Here too we observe the same desublimating tendency but without the Other’s apocalyptic edge. On the contrary, technology is wholly sub- ordinated to the service of pleasurable illusion. Duvignaud speaks of the psychic regression occasioned by technological advances in representation (Duvignaud, 1970: 122). The society of the spectacle offers a material real- ization of premodern fairy tale evocations of unimaginable riches and wonders, an apparent Open Sesame of magic illusion and wish fulfilment. The imaginary world of the commodity defuses Nietzsche’s circulus vitiosus deus into the eternal return of enchantment and disenchantment, illusion and disillusion. Desublimation becomes here the parodistic double of the Situa- tionists’ desire to destroy the concentrated spectacle through the carni- valesque supercession of both the artwork as aesthetic illusion and the sacred illusion of the festival. In place of the sacred spectacle and its periodic renewal of the world, the diffuse spectacle of consumption practises the daily

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

Roberts: Genealogy and Typology of Spectacle


justification of the world through an ever more generalized ‘aestheticization’ and ‘festivalization’ of everyday life. My article is to be seen as a first step towards a genealogy and typology of the spectacle since the French Revolution with the aim of correcting Debord’s surrender to the fatal attractions of simplification. Debord’s failure to recognize the importance of his own distinction between the concentrated and the diffuse spectacle is symptomatic of the totalizing thrust of his analysis. Only the concentrated spectacle, driven by the spirit of revolution, can be considered as the inheritor of the sacred spectacle (the religious illusion) of premodern societies. Even though the political religions of the moderns, inhabited by the phantasm of collective unity and aesthetic harmony, are fundamentally incompatible with the pluralism of open societies, we should not forget that they remain an ever present possibility of modernity. The diffuse spectacle of the commodity by contrast derives from the profane spec- tacle of the marketplace, reinforced by technologies of representation. As the mirror of production it justifies capitalism by elevating consumption to an aesthetic experience. The spectacle’s aestheticization of politics, the economy, and everyday life defines it as the complement and other of the multiple processes of rationalization at work in modernity. Compensatory processes of aes- theticization are thus integral to the modern spectacle, just as the spectacle is integral to the self-image of modern society.

David Roberts is Emeritus Professor of German at Monash University and a co-editor of Thesis Eleven. He is currently working on romantic modernism and the idea of the total work of art. [email: david.roberts@bigpond.com]


1. I would like to thank Alex Düttmann and George Markus for their critical comments which have helped me to clarify the argument of the present paper.


Adorno, Theodor (1974) Versuch über Wagner. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. Bataille, Georges (1988) ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ in D. Hollier (ed.) The College of Sociology 1937–1939. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Baxmann, Inge (1989) Die Feste der Französischen Revolution. Inszenierung von Gesellschaft als Natur. Weinheim: Beltz Verlag. Behler, Ernst (1987) ‘The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism’ in E. Behler (ed.) Philosophy of German Idealism, pp. 161–163. New York: Continuum. Bergmann, Bettina (1999) ‘Introduction’ in Bergmann, C. (ed.) The Art of Ancient Spectacle. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art. Boullée, Etienne-Louis (1976) ‘Architecture, Essay on Art’ in H. Rosenau Boullée and Visionary Architecture. London: Academy Editions. Caillois, Roger (1988) ‘Festival’ in D. Hollier (ed.) The College of Sociology 1937–1939. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013

68 Thesis Eleven (Number 75 2003)

Clark, T. J., Grey, Christopher, Nicholson-Smith, Donald and Radcliffe, Charles (1967) ‘The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution’, situationist internationale online, URL: www.cddc.ut.edu/sionline Debord, Guy (1983) The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, MI: Black and Red. Derrida, Jacques (1967) De la Grammatologie. Paris: 1967. Derrida, Jacques (1992) Acts of Literature. New York: Routledge. Durkheim, Emile (1976) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin. Duvignaud, Jean (1970) Spectacle et société. Paris: Denoel. Duvignaud, Jean (1976) ‘Festivals: A Sociological Approach’, Cultures 3 (24). Gauchet, Marcel (1997) The Disenchantment of the World. A Political History of Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Handelman, Don (1990) Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Heidegger, Martin (1991) Nietzsche. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins. Hilferty, Robert (2001) ‘The Greatest Work of Art in the Entire Cosmos’, Andante, URL (consulted September, 2001): www.andante.com Lefort, Claude (1986) The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism. Cambridge: Polity. MacAloon, John J. (1984) ‘Olympic Games and the Theory of Spectacle in Modern Society’ in J. MacAloon (ed.) Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle. Rehearsals Toward

a Theory of Cultural Performance, pp. 241–80. Philadelphia, PA: Institute for

the Study of Human Issues. Mosse, George L. (1973) ‘The Poet and the Exercise of Political Power: Gabriele D’Annunzio’, Yearbook of General and Comparative Literature 22: 32–42. Mosse, George L. (1975) The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich. New York: Fertig. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1967) Werke in zwei Bänden. Munich: Hanser. Ozouf, Mona (1988) Festivals and the French Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1995) ‘Epistle to M. d’Alembert’, in I. Kramnick (ed.) The Portable Enlightenment Reader, pp. 333–6. New York: Penguin. Sadler, Simon (1998) The Situationist City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Speer, Albert (1969) Erinnerungen. Berlin: Propyläen. Taylor, Charles and Lee, Benjamin (2003), ‘Multiple Modernities Project’, URL

(consulted October, 2003): www.sas.upenn.edu/transcult/promad.htm/ Thompson, Kenneth (1990) ‘Secularization and Sacralization’, in J. C. Alexander and P. Sztompka (eds) Rethinking Progress: Movements, Forces, and Ideas at the End

of the 20th Century, pp. 161–81. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Turner, Victor (1982) ‘Liminal to Liminoid in Play, Flow, Ritual’ in V. Turner From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. Turner, Victor (1984) ‘Liminality and the Performative Genres’, in J. MacAloon (ed.) Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance, pp. 19–41. Philadelphia, PA: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Downloaded from the.sagepub.com at UNIV FEDERAL DE SAO CARLOS on March 18, 2013