It is very easy to misuse words when describing Debord and what he has produced. We should not refer to Debord as an “artist,” and we should not refer to his “art.” He requested to not be referred to as a “philosopher” in an interview with Giorgio Agamben. We should be very wary and skeptical toward referring to his “aesthetics.” We should not decidedly call him a “theorist,” since his venture, like that of Marx, was to unify theory and praxis dialectically so to dissolve the distinction between the two. We cannot label Debord as a “Situationist,” partly because the Situationist International dissolved before many of his most potent writings, but also because the Situationist International deliberately avoided such conclusive labels, perhaps in part in fear of creating a dogmatic legacy. This loss for words is a necessary product of negation — that is, of a synthesis between the Hegelian thesis of a dominant society and its antithesis —the negative, wherein Debord situates himself. The negative creates something new out of the two concepts, but it supersedes what exists and leads us into a realm where new words, descriptions, and approaches to a changing historical timeline must be found, and old descriptions of “great men,” “artists,” “philosophers,” and “theorists” no longer have meaning. Debord very intentionally spoke against these ideological characterizations, resisting ideological representations of individuals and individualism, resisting mere historicization, and thereby resisting recuperation. He sought to force his predecessors to consider that revolutionary strategy was the heart of his work.
In a similar spirit, Debord’s films and writings aimed to dismantle the ideology of modern society and the dominant ideology which prefaced it and continues to inform it: Western Christian religion. In his book, The Society of the Spectacle, Debord says that he intends to “speak the language of religion for the last time,” meaning, before religion is fully negated and superseded. The ideological superstructure of morality had already been historically challenged by the Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Isidore Ducasse (Lautréamont), all of whose writings Debord knew intimately. Inversions of traditional morality and of religion (which are interrelated but not equal) were achieved in all their writings through the use of the negative: the triumph of evil, perversion, and the uncivilized in the face of societal repression. However, the goal for Debord was neither hedonist pleasure nor individualism. Debord’s violent attack on religion and on society strove to overthrow the ideological power of religion by demystifying modern people of naturalized ideology.
Academics have been taught to approach films and books in ways which are formulated by specific disciplines, academic standards, and therefore distilled ideology that defines the acceptable, the successful, the popularized, and the prestigious. However, Debord strove to combat dominant power structures, academia, the “project of western philosophy,” and art. He strove to make no concessions to such standards. Given the nature of Debord’s revolutionary hopes, which coincide with my own, I hope to write as polemically, forcefully, and truthfully as possible, instead of preparing my tone and ideas for acclaim or recognition in any discipline, or for mild acceptance by institutions which may be privy to review. This is the only approach that can do justice to Debord?s style, method, and intent. More importantly, I, like Debord, Hegel, and Marx, prioritize critical analysis of the predominant, general trends of society such as capital and the spectacle; I prioritize the grand narrative of the spirit of history, its essence and ideology, and its ongoing dialectical change. Commenting on Marx’s The German Ideology in his notes for In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni, Debord writes, “Partial histories are not possible. Each history must be universal. It is only through universal history that one can understand particular cases.” While writing a history of Guy Debord may sound highly specific and obscure to the vast majority of my contemporaries, it is in fact the general rather than the specific that informs the specific for Marx, for Debord, and in my own thinking. Debord writes in the defense of The Society of the Spectacle:“The author does not intend to critique this or that detail of our époque, a syndicalist or a starlet, but rather the époque in general, through which the details are inconsequential. He chooses details because of their function and accessibility in their spectacular diffusion.” By moving from general to specific, I do not intend to disregard historical accuracy; on the contrary, I strive for extreme accuracy of both historical facts and critical perception, without which the final impact of my writing would be insignificant to the dialectical currents of thought and of history. Too often, insignificant details become petty obsessions used as distractions from the structure of modern life and the inherent contradictions within those existing structures. Entire professions and life’s works have justified the preoccupation with and production of the insignificant. I hope that, in opposition to detail-oriented trivialities which are so often produced in academic theses and dissertations, the following analysis will provide the illuminating truths with regards to society, life, revolution, and the dialectical potential for the future, the grand themes which are the core components of Debord’s work, and the illuminating critiques that motivated me to study Debord in the first place. Drawing such grand connections between religion, mass media, blockbusters, and state ideology is necessarily ambitious. It is ambitious to the extent that the writer must have perception that extends outside of the specifics of their own context to make conclusions about the function of ideology on the whole; it extends to the realm of the knowledge of a hypothetical God. It is exactly this omnipotent, Godly view over the seemingly universal dominion of ideology that is necessary to the understanding of ideology in the development from its past to its present manifestations. This omniscient perspective is possible because of the interconnectivity between ideological structures through the system of capital. Debord cites Proudhon- Marx-Picasso, “Each ideological domain, despite its relative autonomy, is connected to other ideological domains by its first cause: its economic base.”
My analysis is concerned almost solely with Debord’s works, and in that way it is both highly general and highly specific: it is a close reading. The majority of the sources I will use are primary sources. After reading the available writings by Debord, I have had the opportunity to visit the archives of Guy Debord, the “Fonds Guy Debord” at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France where I was able to immerse myself in his working notes for The Society of the Spectacle (book), The Society of the Spectacle (film), Howls for Sade, and In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni. I have also had the opportunity to immerse myself in Debord’s self-categorized reading notes labeled as “Marxism,” “Philosophy/Sociology,” and “Poetry.” In pursuit of the ideas and practices of Debord rather than of his legacy, I find it most appropriate and most useful to concentrate on the primary materials of his books, films, and notes, more so than on other written histories.
However, I greatly admire the venture taken by Anselm Jappe in his intellectual biography of Guy Debord. Jappe’s effort to write a biography that tracked Debord’s ideas is highly valuable. I hope that my analysis can be useful in a similar way. Instead of conveying dead historical mythologies, I hope to begin to convey the depth of Debord’s revolutionary vigor and insight. Debord, himself, was an admirer of the genre of the intellectual biography, particularly Karl Korsh’s intellectual biography, Karl Marx. I aim to combine dialectics with biographical, historical, material, and physical information to create a useful analysis in the Marxist methodology of dialectical materialism, and I see this as possible through something similar to the intellectual biography, perhaps even another approach to it, the close reading.
It is important for the reader to take note that my analysis of Debord is not removed from my own socio-historical time and context. I had once believed it possible to present an objectively accurate, reasonable, and contextualized approach to a subject, but I am now confident that I could not have been more wrong. After a long developing interest in Debord’s ideas, I decided that my thesis should not only represent an area of Debord’s oeuvre which would be a contribution to the existing understanding Debord, but also my existing time and context. Despite the fact that a thesis written at and for a Roman Catholic University might seem like a highly inappropriate context for a thesis about the destruction of religion and its historical authority in the Roman Catholic Church, it would be wrong of me to disregard the fact that the Catholic context and Catholic education given to me at Notre Dame deeply influenced and informed the creation of the following ideas. I like to think that the relationship between this paper and the Roman Catholic university is a dialectical negative and the dominant ideology; that general dialectical and ideological struggles resonate with my specific situation, and likewise that my specific situation forms my own thinking as a response.
At the same time, the critique of religion is not simply a specific, contextual response: it is the “prerequisite of all criticism.” In order to understand the dissemination of spectacular ideology, it is necessary to understand its source: “The spectacle is the reconstruction of the religious illusion.” As Debord observes in his notes, Marx foresees the development of religious ideology into the secular fetishism of the spectacle in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism (…) Germany will one day find itself on the level of European decadence before ever having been on the level of European emancipation. It will be comparable to a fetish worshipper pining away with the diseases of Christianity.”