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The master of Marx
on May 31, 2003
Marx remains the ne plus ultra of anti-capitalist thought. He criticized capitalism so strongly that to this day every time he is mentioned in the capitalist press, he is immediately denounced as a villain. Debord thought this is because he was mostly right. After all, if you are a ruler, you don't want people telling the people ruled that they should lop off your head because you're really a thug. (In both senses.)
The leading Situationist was not out to win friends and influence people. He was the Andre Breton of the Situationists and excommunicated people from the group because he didn't like their looks. He was also an alcoholic who committed suicide when the booze started to sap his health.
Regardless, his theory of the spectacle remains the only political idea in post-modernism that actually has some practical political uses. (Giorgio Agamben makes quite effective use of it in his Homo Sacer, even if he only mentions it twice.)
What is the spectacle? Debord writes that it is a social relation mediated by images. What the heck does that mean? If you look at modern consumer societies, immense efforts are undertaken by the people in them to keep up appearances, to look healthy and upright. (There are best sellers with titles like How to Win Friends and Influence People.) Debord, like WS Burroughs, says it's all hogwash. It's sort of like in JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, where the protagonist's main complaint about everybody is that they're phony. This remains a vital insight and will last. If you listen to the gangsta rappers right, they're making the same point. (They're just murdering the wrong people. (Just joking, we should ALL get along.))
As for Nicholson-Smith's translation, I can't say I actually like it. He reverts back to the Fredy Perlman translation from Black & Red in some parts, a translation which Debord denounced. A case in point is the mistranslation of Debord's sampling of Hegel that "In the world which is on its head, the true is a moment of the false." It should read, and would be a lot more accessible as, "In the world which is upside down, the true is a moment of the false." This is the translation which is used in the later Comments to the Society of the Spectacle. And you can find a similar phrase in Hegel's Phenomenology. (Just look up "truth" in the index.) If you can find it, buy the far superior and much cheaper Practical Paradise chapbook of this classic.