The nature of situationism and its founder Guy Debord are exceedingly elusive, and they also constantly endeavoured to be precisely this. A genuine avant-garde movement never stops, that is self-evident. However, while showing due deference, the undersigned shall make a brave attempt to slow down, if only for a very brief moment, this movement and fix it onto paper. In connection with a biennial focusing on photography we will now see examples of both the contemptuous dishonesty of the image and the society of the spectacle that replaces reality when the space around us congeals, when the subjective reality of life becomes an objectified image – what Debord calls the society of the spectacle.
Debord encounters lettrism
We begin our journey in the vernal sun of Southern France, where we meet the recently arrived, youthful and cheeky lettrist movement, created in post-war Paris by the almost megalomaniacal artist Isidore Isou. Isou took over when Dadaism and surrealism ceased to add something new to avant-garde art and the critique of it. Isou felt that Baudelaire annihilated the anecdote, Verlaine poetry, Rimbaud metre, and Tristan Tzara the word. If Tzara’s Dadaism, with its onomatopoetic declamations, saw its task as breaking down poetry into disconnected and meaningless albeit complex ‘words’, Isou wanted to go even further and, as the movement’s name indicates, free the smallest component: the letter. Isou was also a film-maker, and in 1952 he was at the Cannes film festival to make sure that his controversial Traité de bave et d’éternité would actually be screened. And it was, accompanied by the eager boos of the audience, in a true avant-garde manner.
Someone who did not boo was Guy Debord, who was in the audience this night. However, only the four-hour-long soundtrack of the film was ‘shown’, because the pictorial material had not been finished on time. This was, however, totally in line with Isou’s complete contempt of photography, and he proclaimed, ‘At a time when humanity is completely obsessed with beautiful images the task is to destroy these images’. When the potential of a form of art becomes saturated it only adds an obese excess, and Isou likened the medium of film to a fattened pig that would soon die of its own accord in a metabolic explosion of fat and disgusting matter caused by an intestinal obstruction. The cinematic image must, like literature, be deconstructed and broken down into its smallest common denominators, through what Isou called the aesthetics of discrepancy cinema: a mastication, digestion, and regurgitation of yesterday’s masterpieces.
To a changed Paris
Completely captivated, Debord chose to accompany Isou and his ilk back to Paris, and settle down in the shabby artists’ quarter, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which was also a haunt of various members of the Paris underworld. The powerful centrifugal force of urbanism was in the process of casting out unwanted elements from the centre to gigantic and cold banlieues – all in order to pave the way for the automobile, the constant authority of the street network, where humanity, inside these claustrophobic cast metal forms, has succeeded in isolating itself from the surrounding world, now also when outside the home. Alongside the street is the advertising sign, the mainstay of capitalism that completes the décor of consumerism. The prevailing economic ideology is materialised in architecture, spatially uniform and functional à la the architect Le Corbusier. No unwanted elements must hinder the Big Brother-like gaze of the spectacle across a naked, austere Alphaville of reality. And where did all the people who previously populated the city streets really go? The society of the spectacle, with its recently created domesticated fantasies, literally moved into the home during this time, in the form of diverse mass-media phenomena, and with them came humanity. Here, there had now been constructed an artificial need for staying within the isolated hearth of the home, where, after a day’s work, one is confronted with the ‘entertainment’ of the spectacle, which, like a veritable Sandman, transforms one’s household goods into a quiet bear’s den. And in the street outside, humanity’s absence echoes, desolately as in the dehumanised landscapes in the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico. Nevertheless, during the first years of the 1950s, Saint-Germain-des-Prés at any rate offered, to a certain extent, the possibility of disappearing, of going underground – one way to escape the petrifying Gorgon’s gaze of the spectacle. This desire to shun the limelight and to the greatest extent possible avoid being canonised would become fundamental for situationists in general and for Debord in particular. Because the spectacle negated life, the spectacle would in itself also be negated. Debord emphasised that what constituted the traces of one’s life, be it art or footprints along the ever more uniform streets of Paris, only benefited the bloodhounds of the police.
Paris had undergone a relentless urban metamorphosis. On the one hand, the surrounding environment seems to come to a halt and become fixed in sterile cement blocks carefully placed to create the correct geometry, and on the other hand, contradictorily enough, the city is perceived to be ever more ephemeral. The world around us is moving at an ever increasing pace, but in the same predictable direction. In the middle of this oxymoronic paradox of conformist changeableness, in this by commercialism ravaged battlefield with its inverted trenches in the sky, we find Debord, cursing what is happening before his eyes to the city of Paris. To him, the street represented a vivid meeting place for people, not on the move, but on voyages of discovery. Through dérive, drifting, one should venture out into the nooks and crannies of the city and succeed in voluntarily becoming lost, and thus, like Thomas De Quincey’s opium eater, try to find the North-West Passage of real life – an attempt to find a place outside the spectacle and reveal the indistinct craquelure in the spectacle’s falsified image of reality, to find the scratches in the representation.
Toward an art without works; a total negation
It is no exaggeration to claim that Debord’s first film is almost as far from the, in popular parlance, established concept of ‘film’ as one can get. It is an anti-film. An anti-work. A negation. If Isou claimed to be able to give shape to nothingness, Debord managed to go one step further in Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952). The film contains no images whatsoever, is seventy-five minutes long and consists of a white image shown whenever voices are heard on the soundtrack. When there is silence it is also completely black. The final scene consists of twenty-four minutes of silence. As can be expected, the audience did not sit quiet and still during the screening at Ciné-club d’Avant-Garde. The chairman of the film club cut the screening short fairly quickly, but at any rate those present had the time to listen to the opening proclamations of the film, read by Isou: ‘Just as the screening began, Guy-Ernest Debord should have stepped out in front of the screen and given an introduction. Had he done so, he would have said, “There is no film. Cinematic film is dead. Film can no longer be created. If you wish we can discuss this matter.”’ Consequently, Debord had deprived the audience of its voyeuristic pleasures, caused a break in the fetishising attitude of the passive viewer to representations, to the cinematic image, where the viewer prefers the representation to reality, the copy to the original – a veritable alarm clock for the somnambulists in the cinema’s auditorium. Like a Brechtian verfremdungseffekt but produced without a work, just a sudden empty interval in the otherwise seamless repetitive representation of cultural consumption. Thus Debord begins a hostile relationship with this contemplative observer of the spectacle’s images. What took shape now was an aesthetics of obscurity, a true art of living. An art without works. From now on, no art would be created, only lived, and Debord’s only permanent work during the subsequent years was a 1953 statement of position scribbled in crayon that well summarises Debord’s refusal to incorporate himself in the machinery of the market: ‘Ne Travaillez Jamais!’.
Can the revolution be materialised?
The ambition to revolutionise everyday life contradicts the reluctance to be seen. One enters the stage, but once in the spotlight one is struck by the idea that the gaze of the audience has the power to congeal one’s being, to canonise one’s art, one’s thoughts, and thus one immediately becomes a part of yesterday, and yesterday’s revolution is completely uninteresting – the oh so precarious problematics of the avant-garde. The works of Debord, the lettrists and later the situationists are continually struggling with the fact of their own concrete existence. Debord’s second film, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps (1959), remains distanced from its audience and consciously hides from our gaze and refuses to adopt the ‘natural’ form of film: ‘Of course one could have made a film about this. But even if this film would have become just as incoherent and unsatisfying as the reality it reflects, it would nevertheless have remained a recreation – as poor and false as this bad tracking’, we hear Debord’s laconic voice-over proclaim while we witness a deliberately poor shot.
If Sur le passage… primarily problematised film itself as a medium, we find this societal lack of context clearly and distinctly accounted for, as well as embodied and reflected, in the third film, Critique de la separation (1961). This film is quite simply deliberately unsatisfactory in its expression, because one can only demonstrate the actual defectiveness of society, demystify and de-fetishise it, by means of an unsatisfactory image – a kind of mimesis of incoherence, which could be translated as a mimicking of society’s lack of coherence, of context. The more coherent and satisfactory the film, the more passive the spectator. Debord’s films are not broken mirrors that fragmentarily reflect a homogeneous reality, but a complete reflection of a fragmentary, crackled ‘reality’. This problematics shines through even regarding situationism as a whole. It is never as mercurially difficult to grasp as when it has just assumed an almost veritable form, best illustrated a bit into Debord’s fourth film, La Société du spectacle (1973), when suddenly white letters against a black background inform the viewer that ‘If the rhythm of the film now continues, then maybe a certain cinematic value would emerge. But it will not continue.’
Debord’s lack of trust in the cinematic image is not completely dissimilar to his countryman Jean-Luc Godard’s contempt for it. Godard often calls attention to the dishonest qualities of the image, for instance in British Sounds (1968): ‘The photograph is never a reflection of reality, only an image of it’, and similarly in Vent d’Est (1969), ‘Ce n’est pas une image juste, ce juste un image’. But where Godard is content with the awareness implicit in declaring that an image is a lie, a representation and nothing more, Debord goes further. The image is to Debord not juste un image but possesses an inherent beguiling power that petrifies and at the same time conveys and enhances a ceaseless boredom, a continual alienation. But it is also important that for Debord it is really not the image in itself that is criticised. It is not the tool in itself that alienates the worker. It is not the commodity in itself that alienates the consumer, but the prevailing ideology that functions as a beguilingly beautiful wrapping paper. Here we come close to how the image is draped as a consumable commodity, de facto without content. Only the exchange value of the pseudo-needs is interesting for the spectacle; the real usefulness, the service value, has had to completely give way to the image’s illusion of utility. Debord writes in his magnum opus, the book The Society of the Spectacle from 1967, that ‘the real consumer has become a consumer of illusions. The commodity is this materialised illusion, and the spectacle is its general expression.’
For the film to become an analytic and critical tool, Debord used the device of détournement, which one can claim is the most important contribution of the situationists to the art world (something that was of course not their intention!). Instead of making new art, one would thus now make use of already existing works. Bearing this in mind, a person who is well read in art history immediately thinks of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s art-critical works, such as the moustache on Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q. (1919). According to Debord, L.H.O.O.Q. is, however, not more interesting than the original painting, and, considering the hasty incorporation of Duchamp’s negations into the bourgeois art canon, their power as negation have also immediately decreased and they have instead become spectacular visual objects of consumption, forever museologically petrified. Literally speaking, détournement is a redirection of the substance within an object for the creation of a new context with a self-critical and subversive purpose. To Debord détournement was less an artistic instrument than a purely political tool, such as when the paving of the streets of the city was redirected against the administrators of urbanism during the spring of revolt in 1968.
Nothing must congeal, neither being, nor creation, nor time.
What characterised situationism was a strictly upheld line against any kind of artistic productivity. This all but phobic fear of the spotlight, of objectification, of immobility, of canonisation, is a result of what the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács calls the phenomenon of reification. Here a relationship between static objects is created, commodities that are given a so-called ‘ghostly objectivity’. What is reified goes through an objectification, is fixed, and ends up outside the subjective living world, and constitutes what Debord called ‘the society of the spectacle’ in which society is transformed into a negation of life that has become visible. In simple terms, if one sees the spectacle on the one hand and real society on the other as a pair of opposites, then the former is a false homogenised representation of the latter, conveyed through images, that totally occupies humanity’s time and space – an image that has a monopoly on appearing, a flattering one-way communication that never receives an answer. The spectacle has divided the unity of the world into reality and image, but continually struggles to present a polished semblance of pure objectivity – that the ideology that has been embodied in the spectacle not only is the true one, but merely is.
Because the capitalist production of commodities has accumulated a surplus (which has been the situation in the Western world for a long time), it suddenly demands cooperation from the worker also outside the working time of the production sphere, through which the worker’s free time becomes consumption time, and together working time and consumption time thus form an uninterrupted occupation of life. The more spare time you have, the more the spectacle will endeavour to occupy also this time through the creation of ‘needs’, resulting in empty consumption and pointless entertainment. Lukács also tackles how time is thus reified. Time to Debord becomes nothing other than commodity time in a consumable disguise. That is to say, time becomes a commodity and consequently a congealed image of being. The spectacle is thus capital of such a degree of accumulation that it becomes image.
From nothing and back again
Here we begin to understand why the creation of images is such an incredibly problematic area for Debord. The empty white and black film frames of Hurlements en faveur de Sade are filled with conclusive signification, with far greater meaning than the dishonest superficiality of the spectacle. These negations would also recur in each and every one of Debord’s subsequent films, which constantly deprive us of the voyeuristic pleasures we have become accustomed to when we go to the cinema. ‘The audience never find what they are attracted by. They are attracted by what they actually find’, says Debord in his fifth film, Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu’hostiles, qui ont été jusqu’ici portés sur le film ‘La société du spectacle’ (1975). This claim works in all contexts where the commodity has been draped in the desirable packaging of the spectacle, but not however with respect to occasions when the viewer finds the image of nothing, just a non-consumable black hole, completely without any means of identification. Because we need these pleasures of the image. The more banal the spectacle makes work, everyday life, and our entire lived environment, the more this has to be compensated for by a consumption of images. We thus in the end consume a non-authentic image of ourselves, in other words a stereotype, that functions as the spectacle’s veritable cast, modelled on the symbol of the ostensibly experienced: the celebrity, who according to Debord produces the unobtainable results of societal work by imitating the by-products that in some magic way have been placed as goals beyond work itself – power and leisure time. But in reality we only have stereotypes to choose from, more like unchangeable Happy Families-cards, drawn for life.
If one allows this vision of the human position in society to influence one, as Debord and the situationists did, then it cannot be denied that a certain hopelessness manifests itself. This melancholy feeling also echoes throughout all of Debord’s works. If one then contemplates the fact that there is no way out except for a total revolution of everyday life, something that we all deep inside know will never happen, then the situationist Raul Vaneigem’s resigned, almost suicidal words no longer jar as falsely as at a first reading: ‘A life built on passion can never be belittled. Such a life should rather be taken than allowed to quietly turn to dust’. Debord eventually committed suicide in 1994.
Nor did Debord ever come closer to total negation than in his first film. All of his subsequent works were merely futile attempts to give shape to the same negation, attempts that were in advance doomed to failure. Perhaps it was this resignation that led Debord to write his Mémoires already in 1958 – as though everything thereafter was simply a repetition of what had once been. One can see Debord’s entire oeuvre as one single circular movement, from nothing back to nothing, indicated in the palindrome of the title of Debord’s last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), and manifested in the final text of the same film: ‘To be gone through again. From the beginning’.
In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 9.
The Society of the Spectacle is a 1967 book by Guy Debord, with a title as catching as its content is mostly neither read nor much considered. In that sense, it shares the fate of Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “The Media is the Message” – which was admittedly not a book title, as it appeared much before he published the tongue-in-cheek sequel The Media is the Massage. We took to the phrase, not always knowing its actual meaning.
Debord’s book is a product of its time, sharing with its readers a punch of doctrinarian Marxism as well as a scent of burning rubber and tear gas from the barricades of Paris in the May revolt of 1968. We might think today, that the late 1960s was an age of ‘truth’, of direct action, of youthful rebellion against crumbling authority. If so, it was a reaction against a post-WW2 society that had grown too complacent with itself and its achievements.
In this book organized as a series of 221 numbered paragraphs, there are quite a few catching formulations. Guy Debord famously stated that a world of former unity and reality has been shattered by a world of spectacle, where a system of images is replacing reality and truth. Instead of truth or reality a world of more or less skillful deceptions presents itself. This is false consciousness, as the Marxist terminology goes. The Society of the Spectacle is according to Debord not the images themselves, but the relationships between people “mediated by images”.
What Debord describes is a projection of an idealized society and its relationships between people and between these and consumer goods and even life styles, ideas and ideals as varieties of commodity. In this new world, all choices are already made without the consumers being made aware of it, the spectacle is as much the cause as it is own goal and end result. What I see before my closed eyes is a commercial in 1960s style, where the petty Bourgeois family lifestyle is appearing on both sides of a TV screen, like in Valie Export’s early television art work of 1971 Facing a Family, where the filmed image of a family eating by their TV table was broadcasted into the homes of people across Austria, assumingly sitting by their tables watching back.
The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.” The attitude that it demands in principle is the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility, and indeed by its monopolization of the realm of appearances. The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 12.
The concepts of truth and falsehood is essential to Debord, often dressed in the Marxist terms of Consciousness and False Consciousness – to be precise, the latter is not used by Marx himself but by Engels, while it became increasingly central in Marxist discussions as the more doctrinarian 1970s kicked in. False consciousness is what the Bourgeois society serves its citizens, it was claimed. The problem with this terminology is that it refers both to a Romantic, even Schopenhauer-tinted, idea of reality as hidden behind the veil of Maya, and to the positivist perception of truth as something definite and undivided, which can only be truly seen through a filter – another veil of Maya – called (Critical or Political) Consciousness, i.e. Marxism.
Debord’s many claims are often catching, but also open to critique. He speaks of a state of “directly lived” experience in a distant and idealized past as opposed to the society of spectacle. A Paradise, lost and never regained. It is hard to tell how and when this wonderful state of undisturbed innocence occurred and when it was wrecked. Philosophically, much of what Debord says about the spectacle is expressed with more precision and critical analysis by postmodern and only slightly later thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze in for instance their different ways of discussing simulation and simulacra.
The spectacle mediated currently through our computers and (still) TV screens might not at all copy the one-dimensional world of TV advertising in the 1960s. In recent years politics have suddenly transformed into reality shows and prime time entertainment. Whenever the TV is turned on, there seems to be yet another populist character, a sort of demagogue clown moved into politics, mesmerizing its audience with a combination of new truths based on what the audiences might want to hear and what is outrageous enough to hit every headline and talk show only moments later.
It is as if the Spectacle previously filmed through the soft cornered lenses of Debord’s has got an evil or cynical twist in recent time. What we see might be a commodity, but not one anyone necessarily wants to have at home. We see a grotesque, twisted, rapid and entertaining turn of spectacles, and whether we sympathize or are disgusted by what we see, we know there will be even more, and worse, tomorrow.
“You are fired!” – was the penultimate phrase and situation of the reality show “The Apprentice” where verbal abuse, betrayal and manipulation were epitomized as the foundations of business as well as staff management. We all know now that the feared and by some admired (and by others, among them people from business, ridiculed) center point of this show was the man to become the 45th and current President of the USA, Donald Trump.
Right now, at a moment when our attention span has – under the constant pressure of world events – shrunk to approximately a single day at the most, even an intellectually aware follower of daily news has difficulties engaging with painfully cynical events or statements and their consequences for a longer time than what is allowed in the tiny time-slot before the next outrageous event. In the case of Trump, it seems even to be a media strategy: once you are in trouble (again), do or say something even more heinous than the current issue, like dropping the biggest conventional bomb ever in some remote country, declaring a trade war with a dependent neighbour or a competing power, scrapping a trade agreement, insulting another political leader, or tying bonds with tyrants. Just grab the world yet again (metaphorically) by the pussy, then smash a window, insult a neighbour, befriend a mass murderer, fill your pockets as much as you can in plain sight or just tell another lie. As long as every move gets the same maximum attention as the previous, we will experience it all as a merry-go-round off its hinges, turning at a speed where horror and hilarity can’t be told from each other.
This constant manipulation of the awareness of the environment, and the absolute opportunism in the approach to what can be said and done to cause your opponents the greatest and most immediate damage, does have deep historical roots. You can go to any intrigues and scandals of ancient China, Japan or Europe. You can go to the Medieval and Renaissance courts of Italy. You can go to Machiavelli.
Machiavelli’s The Prince is a book advising a member of the Medici family on how to best govern a state. The ends justify the means. The Prince maintains his power by inducing spite between his competitors and performs whatever necessary actions to stay in power. Machiavelli introduced to political theory an emphasis on realism as opposed to the idealism characterizing earlier “Mirrors for Princes”. Above all he introduced a theory and practice that was deliberate and calculated to achieve distinctive goals.
What we see in the Trump post-truth reign is power as its own ends and means. It does not add glory to the Prince or strengthen the State. Even if what is acted out looks cynical, it is hard to tell the actual goals of this new Prince, and how it is supposed to be in the interest of his State. It could be argued that what the reality show billionaire-turned-president displays is a pre-Machiavellian ruler, who aims basically to fill his own plate and pockets, rather than creating a sustainable state or a great reputation for himself. It is an unruly ruler, making public what Machiavelli would have advised to do secretly. You see squabbling courtiers and parliamentarians, but you also see the man in power increasingly isolating himself in his gilded cage and tower.
Maybe the French election is a turning point, leaving the left leaning liberal Emanuel Macron victorious after a battle with the far right populist Marine Le Pen that kept the European continent on its toes. We didn’t see yet another pile of mischievous, xenophobic dirt shoved into the gaping mouths of a majority eager to be fed just faintly perfumed garbage. Despite the polarization, which normally supports a flight to the extremes, a voice of moderation won solidly. This has never happened before in France, where conservative rightwing and socialist presidents have taken turns at the helm of the country. Some see this with regret. I rejoice.
So, we’ve seen spectacle. Is there a return to slow, unspectacular politics, politics that somehow even agrees with a few idealized goals as well as means? To the big and beautiful words of common good, of openness, generosity, education and moderation? To Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. If so, farewell to the Society of the Spectacle. Welcome, unspectacular future.
The exhibition Subjektiv is curated by the editorial board of the Scandinavian art journal Objektiv. Its fulcrum is the potential relations between art, politics and subjectivity in a time when the very basis of democratic subjecthood is called into question. It brings together artworks from the last five years that speak to the current political situation through their strategic staging of subjectivity and its political potential or impotence. In this context, the usual title of the journal simply wouldn’t do, hence our temporary rebranding as Subjektiv.
All the works by the eight artists are camera-based – photographs and films, installations, collages and a poster project – and span from straight documentary to a post-internet aesthetic of the interface. While radically different in strategies and aesthetics, the artists all investigate the friction between the subjective, the collective, and the political.
While there is a sense that the shared public space of politics is being overwhelmed by affective content, we are simultaneously witnessing a reinvigoration of the power of the collective and the resolve of community. The exhibition and accompanying journal issues explore questions of what subjektiv might mean in this context. How do we apportion our attention when our media feeds include traditional journalism, Internet gossip, propaganda, and the opinions of friends and family? What’s at stake when subjective criteria and utterances have entered the political environment at a completely new scale?
These questions connect in fundamental ways with our understanding of the camera as a subjective narrator and a technology of perception both in the history of photography and in today’s realm of the scroll. The artworks, in different manners, investigate how subjectivity is constructed and distributed, sometimes in ways radically new. While some of the works questions how personhood is defined, negotiated, and legislated through photographic representation, others reflect on the discrepancy between physically grounded and immaterial ways of existing as humans, and on how deeply embedded we are in other life networks and ecologies. The self is no longer necessarily understood as singular; we acknowledge the extension and molding of subjectivity via screens and technologies and via a myriad of practices; consuming, branding, naming, performing, liking, hosting, acting, and mimicking.
explores the micro-molding of subjectivity through circulation and value of objects and images, often addressing feminist issues and what she calls a soft misogyny. Deana Lawson (US) seeks to explore a multifaceted representation of black iconography, describing her work as negotiating knowledge of selfhood through a corporeal dimension. The collage project ALBUM by Eline Mugaas and Elise Storsveen (NO) offers a highly subjective take on political photographic history, exploring representations of gender, sex and the concept of care. Liz Magic Laser (US) uses the format of the TED Talk in her film installation, where she has instructed a 10-year-old actor to deliver a monologue adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. In this way, she parallels the authors attack on the socialist ideal of enlightened self-interest to contemporary capitalist thinking. Another film installation by Basma Alsharif (US) addresses both the stateless self and mass-mediated representations of trauma in her work played out at the Gaza Strip. Zoe Leonard (US) also addresses displacement and statelessness as both an individual experience and a shared social condition. Josephine Pryde (UK) speaks of another form of displacement in her series It’s not my body, superimposing found, low-resolution MRI scans of a human embryo in the womb against desert landscapes shot through tinted filters. Thus, she engages questions about the reproduction of images – as well as humans – and its impact on political debates surrounding subjecthood and a woman’s right to choose.
Outside, at the entrance to Malmö Konsthall, Zoe Leonard’s iconic queer, feminist text I Want a President will function as a point of departure for the exhibition. The text was written in 1992, and poignantly portraits the cultural and political climate in the early ‘90s in New York. 25 years later, in connection with the 2016 US election and the current political climate in Europe, the text has regained widespread attention. The text, together with the different artworks in the exhibition, calls for a different kind of multifaceted political subject at a charged historical moment. The exhibition also reflects upon how photographs continue to inform and shape our subjectivity within the social fabric of public and private life.
Subjektiv is made through a subjective and collective dialogue between five different curatorial voices. The exhibition is a collaboration with Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, where it will be presented this autumn. It will be accompanied by a two-part issue of the journal Objektiv, renamed Subjektiv, one featuring solo presentations of the artists, and the other presenting recent critical perspectives on the issues at stake.
Objektiv’s editorial board/curatorial team consists of: Lucas Blalock (artist, US) Ida Kierulf (curator, NO), Brian Sholis (writer/curator/director, US), Susanne Ø. Sæther (researcher and curator, NO), and Nina Strand (artist and editor in chief, Objektiv, NO).
While there is a sense that the shared public space of politics is being overwhelmed by affective content, we are simultaneously witnessing a reinvigoration of the power of the collective and the resolve of community. The exhibition and accompanying journal issues explore questions of what subjektiv might mean in this context.
Curator Clemens Altgård gives a background to the exhibition Malmö’s Burning and a picture of the development of Malmö during the period 1968-1988.
In the early 1980s, just before the redevelopment of the city started in earnest and the economy took off, Malmö could still feel like a rather bleak place. People who lived through that time will recall the many “bomb craters”—the vacant lots left by tearing down old buildings—and the provisional barracks around the Triangeln plaza during the 1970s and early 80s. The city’s flat terrain and broad streets were swept by the strong prevailing winds, and when it rained those vacant lots awaiting construction turned to mud. I remember a walk through muddy fields in the heart of the city one New Year’s Eve in the 1980s. Fireworks exploded all around me, and for a moment it felt exactly like a war zone. That was part of growing up in Malmö.
Malmö is not a particularly easy city to portray. One of the literary portraits that were read in our circles was Jacques Werup’s deeply personal and colorful book Hometown, which came out in 1981. It ended with a bitter, despairing epilogue in which the author finds some words scrawled across the wall of a building on the edge of the Gamla Väster neighborhood. They say, “A city of demolished buildings—a city without memories.”
Development in the city, according to Werup, seemed to be headed toward a kind of uniformity and anonymity. A lot has happened since that time in Malmö, and today the city is associated with anything but uniformity. But those of us who were young here in the early 80s weren’t nearly as worried about the city’s direction as Werup was.
Several years ago we, Clemens Altgård and Ola Åstrand, began to discuss the idea of producing an art exhibition about, among other things, the city of Malmö as we knew it in our youth. In conversations with John Peter Nilsson (Moderna Museet Malmö’s director 2012–16) we developed plans for an exhibition that would span from the 1960s to the 1980s. That planning effort turned out to be a long process due to a number of different circumstances. In 2013 we began reaching out and initiating a number of parallel conversations with potential contributing artists. Those conversations continued, and have now finally culminated in the exhibition Malmö’s Burning: An Exhibition about Revolt, Dreams, and Passions, 1968–1988. Those years are not a strict delineation of when the works in the show were executed, but rather a symbolic construct that has served as a temporal framework for us to relate to, and sometimes as a boundary for us to cross.
The bearing idea for Malmö’s Burning is to be an exhibition that offers a new and different picture of the city and what has happened there in terms of its cultural history and even sociological aspects. We have assembled a mixture of art in the conventional sense with a variety of expressions for the subcultures that have left an impression on the city. We have also been influenced by Lia Ghilardi, an international expert in urban cultural planning who believes that most western cities, in competing with one another to be the most attractive place, have often missed what’s most essential. It is ironic that most cities promote themselves using either attributes that are borrowed like stencils, in the form of culture prestige objects like world-famous musicals, or obvious tourist brochure clichés. According to Ghilardi, it is actually the subcultures and minority groups that give a city its dynamism. We are inclined to agree with her.
The concept of not doing a conventional art historical and linear exhibition, and of not basing it on established and customary values, emerged gradually. At one point we even changed the working title to Malmö Redux. The word redux comes originally from Latin, is fairly common in English, and has been used in film contexts in Sweden. It means restored, or returned, but in everyday speech it can mean to do over and experience anew. Because we were hunting for a vanished city, trying to reflect our subjective experiences of Malmö, redux seemed to fit perfectly. The sound of the word also recalls remix, and it was also our intention to produce a kind of remix of cultural historical elements. And that is what we’ve done, even though we decided to stick with the original title Malmö’s Burning. So this redux and remix approach has guided our thinking throughout. Both of us have found some inspiration in the British author Jeff Noon’s novel Needle in the Groove (1999). The book’s narrator is a musician, and joins a group that tries to develop music with the help of a new tool—a sphere filled with a liquid drug that allows the protagonists to travel back in time to bygone musical venues. Manchester is the center of the action, and in Noon’s imaginative interpretation the dreary and dilapidated city is transformed into a stage for a peculiar drama. The author mixes lyrical prose passages with samples and an advanced editing technique that leads to thoughts of a literary master from an earlier era, William S. Burroughs. Noon’s writing is saturated with rhythms, resonance, and references to popular culture in Britain. Contrary to what one might expect, all of this results in a distinctly personal book whose form thoroughly illuminates the content rather than becoming an end in itself. For example, Noon recreates the last night of Manchester’s legendary punk club the Electric Circus—a night that repeats itself in several different versions over the course of the book. But which version is the right one, the truth?
Surprisingly enough, there is a linear story inside Noon’s experimental prose, and the coherence of the plot becomes increasingly clear the more we read. We hope the coherence of Malmö’s Burning is gradually revealed to viewers in the same way.
We should note that we are not the first to use the title Malmö’s Burning. It was also given to a large-format multiple-artist exhibition arranged by the Drömmarnas Hus cultural center in the Rosengård neighborhood in 2005, and it’s still a controversial title—so loaded and provocative, in fact, that we needed to think long and hard before deciding to use it. There’s definitely something unsettling about it, even ominous. And maybe that suits the demonic narrative about Malmö a little too well—a narrative that lately has begun to spread not just throughout Sweden but abroad, even reiterated by the tweeting President of the United States. My response is that fire itself is a polysemantic, ambiguous metaphor, a fact the Drömmarnas Hus exhibition played on too. The point of departure for their production is the argument that “either Malmö is going to burn to the ground or else there’s a lot of incendiary power in Malmö,” and the show made a convincing case for the latter. We want to show that these incendiary forces have been smoldering in Malmö for some time, and make the connection between the fire we see today and the events of the past. Malmö did not in fact burn to the ground in 2005, but twelve years later we are still accustomed to recurring street crime and gun violence, fires we can’t ignore. At the same time it’s extremely important to provide a nuanced picture of the city, and to convey that there are and always have been strong positive forces here as well.
There is another way of interpreting the word burning. The word was just as charged when the British punk band The Clash sang “London’s burning…” in the late 1970s, but they were referring to a smoldering discontent: “…with boredom now.” The song also includes the lines “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home / I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone.” Those words were easy for a young kid in Malmö to relate to in the late 70s. And that wind is something all of us, young and old alike, deal with to this day. Thus we have thought less about burning cars and more about how an inner spark can be ignited even in the most dreary or wind-buffeted places, whether in protest or with the realization that something needs to be done, and that we are going to have to do it ourselves. In fact, it’s probably true that boredom leads to creativity. And I sometimes wonder if that no longer applies to kids today, since they always have access to stimulation in the form of digital entertainment. But perhaps that screen-time overload can lead to a new kind of boredom that in turn leads to a new kind of creative expression. I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s a fact that today’s Malmö has been home to a long series of business successes in the field of computer games and digital production, which depend on young people with innovative ideas. What’s more, the city’s leaders show much more willingness today than ever before to support new forms of cultural expression, and that ambition has generated a lively cultural scene with music, experimental theater, artist-driven galleries, and more. The era our exhibition examines was still burdened by the need to clearly distinguish between high culture and popular culture, and in general the conditions in society were more openly hierarchical and patriarchal than today. Anyone with new or different ideas often had to arrange and run their innovative project on their own, whether it was starting a band or organizing more or less informal events and exhibitions.
When Ola Åstrand and Ulf Kihlander together produced the 1998 exhibition The Heart Is on the Left: Swedish Art 1964–1974 at the Gothenburg Museum of Art, it was the first major retrospective of Swedish art from the 1960s and 70s. In writing an article for the exhibition catalogue I was reminded what a wealth of imagery emerged during that period. There were actually several different revolutions going on at once. Alongside the leftist political wave came the more apolitical hippie movement, which formed part of the youth revolt. Mind-expanding psychedelic drugs played a central role in hippie culture, of course, but there were other essential attributes. For example, there was a strong faith in collective action, communalism, and non-hierarchical forms of organization. Freedom and love was their primary message for the surrounding world.
In the early 1970s Malmö suffered from a serious shortage of musical venues, and in response some people with ties to the alternative left and the music scene started the Folk Festival in 1971. One of them was Lasse Hejll, who has become known primarily for his art posters, but also worked as a photographer. He made a poster for a multi-activity evening at Malmö Museum in 1971. The event had been given the name “The Museum’s Burning!” and in Hejll’s screen print Mona Lisa smiles at the viewer.
In our exhibition we’re showing some of Hejll’s more seldom viewed satirical posters, which were a protest against the cultural politics of the city’s leaders at the time. They featured photos from the Folk Festival that so effectively united people in a spirit of radicalism during a time when much was made of the distinction between high culture and popular culture. Ola Åstrand recalls the Folk Festival as a manifestation of the possibility of an alternative future, and how people who wanted to improve the world gathered together, sustained by faith in the future. He remembers as well the lack of advertising, the Mother Earth Collective’s vegetarian food, and how the sounds from the stage were borne aloft by the wind.
That brings to mind the prematurely passed British critic Mark Fisher, author of the book Capitalist Realism (2009), and his ideas about French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s book Specters of Marx (1993). Derrida asserts that “time is out of joint,” referring to the state of things after “the end of history,” but he also writes about how the past comes back like a plague on the present. Fisher finds examples of such plagues in contemporary music. He sees things like the obsession with vinyl discs and the eclectic recycling of older musical styles as expressions for a melancholic and yet vital longing for “lost futures.”
In the anthology Post Punk Then and Now (2016), Fisher expresses the idea that we are also plagued today by the political left’s inability to channel and make something of the resistance and the energies that have found expression in musical culture. In the same way, perhaps Malmö’s Burning could be seen as a kind of plague. It also makes me wonder about how the populist right has been able in recent years to appropriate the word “alternative,” as in “alt right.”
When I look today at collections of works from the era of the first youth revolts, I am struck by the thought that it is primarily in times of upheaval that creative individuals on the margins of society are allowed into the public realm, when established values are being overturned with Carnival abandon. The hierarchical order is reestablished soon enough, and it is typical that several of the most interesting visual artists of the 1960s and 70s had already been lost to public memory just a couple of decades later. That was the case with the artist couple Sture and Charlotte Johannesson. But it changed with Sture’s contribution to The Heart Is on the Left and Charlotte’s contribution to Light the Darkness!, an exhibition about the Cold War of the 1980s that followed it, both curated by Åstrand and Kihlander. In our younger days, Ola Åstrand and I got to know the Johannessons, who were among Malmö’s hippie pioneers. In the early 1980s they also emerged as digital trailblazers. They were open to other new influences of the day as well, including punk. I remember them complaining about old friends who had turned their backs on them—not for their interest in punk but because they worked with computers. The time was not yet ripe for the digital revolution, but the seed had been planted….
In Malmö’s Burning we do have something reminiscent of a computer, but the piece is more of a science fiction fantasy of a digital future. I’m thinking of Jacques Zadig’s The Wall. He first got the idea for the work back in the fall of 1968, but did not complete it until 1976. Zadig gives form to something of the terror of Big Brother and the surveillance society of George Orwell’s 1984, a book that was familiar to many of us. Most citizens today take the personal computer for granted, along with their smartphone and even the tablet, but at the same time the surveillance society has become such an integral part of everyday life that many no longer think about digital surveillance at all. Back then there was no social media or email. Distant communication was achieved through telephone landlines or with letters and postcards. In the late 1980s the fax was still commonly used. The Leger brothers ran a gallery in Malmö at the time, and they’ve told me that many works of art were sold via fax during the art boom that occurred in the final years of the decade. Then in 1990 Sweden was struck by a bank, finance, and property crisis that lasted for four bitter years—but that’s another story.
We should also say something about how this exhibition reflects the last decades before the world started being digitalized at an increasing pace. It was a time when it was still quite unusual for artists to use digital tools, even if an increasing number had begun to do so, especially the teenagers. It was also the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of “the end of history,” and before the processes of globalization and digitalization really took off. We know now that it wouldn’t be long before history found a new life and the world was rocked by new conflicts and war. But globalization and digitalization have changed the conditions for daily life, and thus the analog world—for those of us who were around to experience it—has become a lost world that lives on only in our memories and dreams.
Speaking of memories and history, though, it has not been our intention to make this some kind of nostalgic exposé. Instead of simply reiterating a story that has already been told, we have striven to assemble an alternative view of that story that embraces diversity and the margins of society. That also explains why—in case anyone’s wondering—certain works and artists that one might expect to see as a matter of course have not been included in this exhibition.
Therefore, having begun with our own memories and social networks, we have searched for artistic works that are unusual and locally unique, highlighting those that are important to us, while at the same time making a subjective inventory of a particular period in time. Some viewers will thus recognize a few pieces while others, particularly those who didn’t live through the era, will hopefully discover something they’ve never seen before.
Furthermore we would like to illuminate some common threads that run back and forth through time and space. One era transitions into another. Social ties are formed and dissolved—and then in some cases formed again years later. So instead of a history lesson, this has become a process by which different times collide as in a dream. And we have also wanted to include some real dreamers in the show, like Annika Wide and Elisa Halvegård, two artists with roots in the 1960s’ more romantic tendencies each of whom in her own way seems to have been working with dreams since their youth. Wide has done it more explicitly, analyzing her own dreams and manifesting them in paintings or objects. This establishes a kind of interlinking between dream and art. Looking back on that time, Wide recalls, “In the 1970s and 80s I was painting my dreams so intensively that I could interpret them while I was still asleep!”
When asked to name her sources of inspiration, Elisa Halvegård said, “I admire and am inspired by John Bauer, Ernst Fuchs, William Morris, Edward Gorey, Anna Casparsson, Aubrey Beardsley, Hieronymus Bosch, and some of my contemporaries like Annika Wide. I’ll never forget her detailed early paintings from the Scania County Collection at the Malmö Museum.”
But it has also been our intention to incorporate art with a political content, like works by the artist Allan Friis, for example, whose interest in social issues intensified during the 1960s. His pictures took on an increasingly political and social critical character in the early 70s. Thus the overall title for his portion of the exhibition is The Aesthetics of Resistance. The works we’ve included are from the 1970s, but the resistance they portray is in fact timeless.
We grew up during a time characterized by progressive rock and hippie culture, but were eventually drawn to punk and what has come to be called post-punk. Punk was actually an incitement, a counterpart in a way to Dadaism’s “zero point,” while post-punk sought new and sometimes experimental ways. But during the 1970s no one was making a distinction between the two. Post-punk is a term that emerged long after, when enough time had passed to reveal the difference.
I keep coming back to one book in particular about Malmö: Niklas Qvarnström’s book of essays Memento Malmö, which was published in 2001 by a little house called No Fun. Qvarnström portrays a city that can seem like a dream game, always slipping away from us even as it reveals a number of precisely rendered details. He writes that Malmö is a kind of passage that isn’t really in Sweden, and explains the title Memento Malmö thus: “It is not the fatalistic ‘What are you gonna do?” or the isolation and desolation of northern Sweden, but rather an awareness that anything at all can happen, but that nine times out of ten it doesn’t happen, that the world is lying there a stone’s throw away, but mostly like a reminder of which side of the world you’re on, a Memento Malmö.”
Malmö as a passage. Malmö as a border zone. Malmö can be perceived as either a big city or a small town depending on your perspective and your points of reference. In social terms it is more of a small and close-knit community, one that offers more opportunity for different subcultures to mix and for meetings across boundaries and barriers. In that way Malmö may be seen as a kind of gray area—in a positive sense.
Punk was decidedly more disillusioned and individualistic than progressive rock, but they shared a common do-it-yourself approach. That approach created a kind of collective self-confidence that resulted in cultural expressions that can be appreciated for their originality even today, and in Malmö the hippies, progressive rockers, punkers, and post-punkers mixed with the artists and poets in meeting places throughout the city. Thus, for example, conceptual artist Leif Eriksson could be found in a bar full of subcultural elements, lecturing informally to rock musicians about idea-based art.
It also generated some unusual cultural expressions. For example, several of the local punk bands (which we would today call post-punk bands) had a distinctive style that incorporated elements of psychedelic rock. One of the artists from this era, Stry, coined the term psynk to denote the psych-punk amalgam he considered a genre of its own. Stry plays a central role in Lena Mattson’s video piece When Hades Bursts with Blooms, which she produced just for Malmö’s Burning. I even appear in the piece as a representative for Malmöligan (The Malmö League), a group of local poets. Another member of the group was Per Linde, who has contributed a text/sound piece called Malmö, a poem performed by the psychedelic rock band Technicolor Poets, which is currently active on the local music scene.
Ola Åstrand played in a series of local bands, and his retrospective piece The Ghetto is a search through the years of his youth in Malmö to explore the connections between things and his own identity during that era.
Both punk and progressive rock inspired grassroots creativity, a kind of joyful amateurism if you will. That was true not just in music, but in creative expression generally. And here we can see the connection to a slogan that was borrowed from Lautréamont and used by the Situationists in Paris during the social unrest of May 1968: “Poetry must be made by all!” In Malmö you could have said during that era, “Punk must be made by all!” Nevertheless it was an environment that I remember as profoundly male-dominated, a problem worth reflecting on today. We have chosen to make space here for a series of women artists who were punk rockers at the time: Jessica Nilsson, Maria Tomczak, Pernilla Frykholm, Ninni Benediktsson, and Anne Nummila Rosengren. Frykholm’s works are based on the 1970s, but they communicate consciously with the here and now through titles that celebrate rap artists of today, Jason “Timbuktu” Diakité and Joy Mbatha.
Christian Cavallin had his breakthrough as an artist in the late 1980s, but here he shows photographs he took a decade earlier of various punk stages, frequently in Great Britain, where he often traveled. Cavallin says, “The pictures are what they are, but the music itself—the atmosphere, the mayhem and the magic—I couldn’t have captured it if I hadn’t been participating in it myself. Taking pictures was secondary. Several of them are taken from behind the band, looking out toward the audience, which I considered a very important component—the crush of the fans. I tried to bring that out. As a fan myself I was one of them, part of the horde.” This is also an example of how some individuals’ joy of traveling brought new experiences and ideas that later spread through their own hometown. If not for all these trips to other cities, Malmö would probably never have enjoyed such a vibrant subcultural scene. Of course the proximity to places like Copenhagen and Berlin has also been important in this regard.
When creativity happens at the grassroots level, it often produces a kind of outsider art—work that doesn’t look like what you find in the established galleries but is art nonetheless. Now there are those who strongly object to the expression “outsider art,” and there are a number of arguments for why it’s not a good term. But this is not the place for that discussion. Since I do in fact use it here, I will rely on the Chicago author William Swislow, one of our most eloquent proponents of outsider art. Swislow offers a clear definition: the person behind the work must have created it without concern for established conceptions of what art is. Nor can an outsider artist be motivated by a desire for commercial success or recognition from the art establishment. Swislow talks about individuals who are driven by creative force but lack formal training in the field of art, and therefore don’t even see themselves as artists—at least until some expert tells them that what they’re doing can actually be considered art. Do we have any such pieces in Malmö’s Burning? Well that’s something for those of you visiting the exhibition to think about! In one case the outsider perspective is plainly expressed: Isabel Rayo Planella doesn’t want to call herself an artist even if we who have curated the exhibition consider what she makes to be art. Her spatial installation Souvenir is a kind of staging of the home environment she created over the years by assembling a multitude of objects and images in an enormous, changeable bricolage.
It should also be noted that Rayo Planella has been very active in Malmö’s cultural scene, contributing to films and posing as one of the country’s best-known life drawing models. She came to Sweden from Chile in the 1970s, and is an example of how Latin American immigrants have brought new impulses to the city. Another artist, Pepe Viñoles, fled from Uruguay to Chile in 1972, and after the 1973 coup d’état in that country came to Sweden. For several years he worked mostly with making posters, which often had a political message. In the 1980s he came to Malmö, and he has contributed a new piece to our exhibition entitled Remnants, a reflection on the time that has passed and on his career as a poster artist.
Abelardo Gonzalez is an artist and architect who immigrated to Sweden from Argentina in 1978. He quickly made a name for himself in Malmö. He left a strong impression as a designer, with an innovative interior featuring mirrors and zebra hides that was a hit for Club Trocadero when it opened in 1979. It became a queer meeting place where everyone was welcome. He has produced a new video piece for our exhibition that offers a look back at Trocadero’s heyday and at an era when public life in Malmö was becoming a little more open than before.
Malmö evolved gradually and became in time less of an industrial city. The photographer and filmmaker Paulina Hårleman moved here in 1985. She brought with her experiences from Paris and from stays in cities such as Milan, London, and Munich. In Malmö she found a lively art scene with new magazines such as Nöjesguiden and Reflektion. She built up a company here together with her life partner, Roger Hynne, that came to work with photography, journalism, film, music, and events. For Malmö’s Burning Hårleman has put together a slideshow she calls Adu, lugna ner daj tösabid (roughly, “Hey now, easy does it, little girl”), a comment someone directed at her in the local dialect as she wandered around Malmö taking photographs. Some viewers will probably recognize some of the people in the pictures. For example, the conceptual artist Leif Eriksson appears in a couple of them, as does Kristian Lundberg, who was a member of the group of poets known as the Malmö League.
The late 1980s is also represented in Malmö’s Burning by the artist and set designer Åke Dahlbom, also known as Art Bomba. He designed the sets for Darling Desperados, a theater troupe he helped found in Malmö in 1987. His piece Funeralism: Impressions of a Vanished Future comprises several parts that together form a picture of interdisciplinary expression characterized by spontaneity and expressivity. During this time, Stina Ebers was a central figure in the wave of new art that was being shown in Malmö galleries. Her sculptures and installations attracted attention for being so uncompromisingly executed. In 1973 she participated in a group exhibition at Galleri Lång, and in 1986 she had a solo show at Galleri TV, which was at the time an important meeting place in the new cultural environment emerging in the city. These were followed by a series of exhibitions in Stockholm as well as in Germany.
Explicitly political art was not particularly sought after in the late 1980s, but it later made a comeback beyond and outside of the point in time where our exhibition ends. But as I said, our time frame is mostly symbolic. The present moment figures throughout the exhibition, and we have mixed the times in the space of the gallery. Several of the works are newly produced, and the retrospective pieces are not entirely uncritical. It is our hope that Malmö’s Burning will inspire viewers to take a stance and will awaken in them a desire to do something creative themselves.
Nearly 50 years ago, Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” reached bookshelves in France. It was a thin book in a plain white cover, with an obscure publisher and an author who shunned interviews, but its impact was immediate and far-reaching, delivering a social critique that helped shape France’s student protests and disruptions of 1968.
“The Society of the Spectacle” is still relevant today. With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.
As with the first lines from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”) and Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), Debord, an intellectual descendant of both of these thinkers, opens with political praxis couched in high drama: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”
In the 220 theses that follow, Debord, a founding member of the avant-garde Situationist group, develops his indictment of “spectacular society.” With this phrase, Debord did not simply mean to damn the mass media. The spectacle was much more than what occupied the screen. Instead, Debord argued, everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.
The “image,” for Debord, carried the same economic and existential weight as the notion of “commodity” did for Marx. Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra. Images have become so ubiquitous, Debord warned, that we no longer remember what it is we have lost. As one of his biographers, Andy Merrifield, elaborated, “Spectacular images make us want to forget — indeed, insist we should forget.”
But in Debord’s view, forgetting doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. We are not just innocent dupes or victims in this cataclysmic shift from being to appearing, he insisted. Rather, we reinforce this state of affairs when we lend our attention to the spectacle. The sun never sets, Debord dryly noted, “on the empire of modern passivity.” And in this passive state, we surrender ourselves to the spectacle.
For Marx, alienation from labor was a defining trait of modernity. We are no longer, he announced, what we make. But even as we were alienated from our working lives, Marx assumed that we could still be ourselves outside of work. For Debord, though, the relentless pounding of images had pulverized even that haven. The consequences are both disastrous and innocuous. “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them,” Debord concluded, “because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse.” Public spaces, like the agora of Ancient Greece, no longer exist. But having grown as accustomed to the crushing presence of images as we have to the presence of earth’s gravity, we live our lives as if nothing has changed.
With the presidency of Donald Trump, the Debordian analysis of modern life resonates more deeply and darkly than perhaps even its creator thought possible, anticipating, in so many ways, the frantic and fantastical, nihilistic and numbing nature of our newly installed government. In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.
In his later work, “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle,” published almost 20 years after the original, Debord seemed to foresee the spectacular process that commenced on Jan. 20. “The spectacle proves its arguments,” he wrote, “simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed …. Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte.” After Trump’s inauguration, the actual size of the audience quickly ceased to matter. The battle over images of the crowd, snapped from above or at ground level, simply fueled our collective case of delirium tremens.
Since then, as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all. It goes on, Debord observed, “to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists.
The practical consequences, as we see, are enormous.” Indeed. Who among us recalls the many lies told by Trump on the campaign trail? Who can re-experience the shock felt when first seeing or hearing the “Access Hollywood” tape? Who can separate the real Trump from the countless parodies of Trump and the real dangers from the mere idiocies? Who remembers the Russians when our own Customs and Border officials are coming for our visas?
In the end, Debord leaves us with disquieting questions. Whether we love Trump or hate him, is it possible we are all equally addicted consumers of spectacular images he continues to generate? Have we been complicit in the rise of Trump, if only by consuming the images generated by his person and politics? Do the critical counter-images that protesters create constitute true resistance, or are they instead collaborating with our fascination with spectacle? We may insist that this consumption is the basic work of concerned citizenship and moral vigilance. But Debord would counter that such consumption reflects little more than a deepening addiction. We may follow the fact checkers and cite the critics to our hearts’ delight, but these activities, absorbed by the spectacle, have no impact on it.
Surely, the spectacle has continued nonstop since Jan. 20. While Debord, who committed suicide in 1994, despaired of finding a way to institutionalize what, by nature, is resistant to institutionalization, we need not. We seem to be entering a period similar to May 1968, which represents what Debord called “lived time,” stripping back space and time from the realm of spectacle and returning it to the world of human interaction.
The unfolding of national protests and marches, and more important the return to local politics and community organizing, may well succeed where the anarchic spasms of 1968 failed, and shatter the spell of the spectacle.
Robert Zaretsky specializes in French history when not teaching in The Human Situation. His books include Nîmes at War (Penn State University 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (Nebraska 2004), and with John Scott, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding (Yale 2009). His most recent books are Albert Camus: Elements to a Life (Cornell 2010) and, with Alice Conklin and Sarah Fishman, France and its Empire Since 1870 (Oxford 2010). His book “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” was published in 2013 by Harvard UP. His new book, “Boswell’s Enlightenment,” will be published by Harvard in spring 2015, and he is also writing a book on the friendship between Catherine the Great of Russia and the French philosophe Denis Diderot. Zaretsky is also the history editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, regular columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward and frequent contributor to the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy and Chronicle of Higher Education. (Ph.D., University of Virginia)