The Integrated Spectacle

So far this space has introduced and briefly discussed the notion of “the spectacle” posited by the French radical thinker Guy Debord in the middle of twentieth century. Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle as part of a larger political and intellectual wave of revolt and social renewal that was sweeping France and much of the rest of the world in the 1960s and culminated in the protests of the Paris Spring in 1968. However, these revolts failed in their most ambitious designs to radically transform French society and the activist elements that were most strongly advocating for this transformation saw their movement suppressed by the coercive power of the state or co-opted by establishment institutions like the socialist parties of Europe. For Debord himself, the fizzling of the movement led him to retreat into relative obscurity while he worked on a handful of film projects and looked on with great interest as the governments of Europe went to great lengths to purge the political ferment released in the Paris Spring. Of particular interest to him was the lingering social and political conflict in Italy, where extreme radical elements in the form of the Red Brigades appeared to grow increasingly fanatical with the use of violent tactics like bombings and kidnappings of public officials. Debord believed there was more to these events than met the eye, and though he would not write about them explicitly at the time, he saw in the “years of lead” in Italy another change in the nature of the spectacle.

In 1988, as the Cold War was about to come to an abrupt close, Debord finally offered up this new understanding of the spectacle. Dubbed the “integrated spectacle,” this form was the “rational combination” of both diffuse and concentrated spectacles into a potent new assemblage of power. Debord describes the effects of the combination in the following way:

As regards concentration, the controlling center has now become occult: never to be     occupied by a known leader, or clear ideology. And on the diffuse side, the spectacle has never before put its mark to such a degree on almost the full range of socially produced behavior and objects. For the final sense of the integrated spectacle is this reality no longer confronts the integrated spectacle as something alien.[1]

As powerful as the concentrated and diffuse spectacles were in the middle of the twentieth century, their merging and transformation into the integrated spectacle represents something substantially more potent and mighty. In essence, the best aspects of both spectacles are fused together while the leftovers are jettisoned. The benefits of raw kinetic force and violence that are the specialties of police and military forces but have the drawbacks of bad optics and heavy costs can now be camouflaged and framed with sensationalist news media and skilled public relations. Conversely, the highly cohesive but slow-bonding social cement of consumerism and “lifestyle” management can now be given the proper time to fully settle and affix itself into the consciousness of mass society through selected and temporary deployments of physical discipline. The best illustration of the fusion might be the recent revelations of the National Football League, an example of the diffuse spectacle par excellence, coordinating with and paying the Pentagon hundreds of thousands of dollars for pre-game and in-game promotions and celebrations of American military power, including football field-sized American flags, flyovers by military aircraft, heartfelt (and highly choreographed) reunions of veterans and families, and on-field administrations of the oath of enlistment.[2]

More profoundly, the integrated spectacle can also be thought of in terms of the processes of neoliberal globalization that were in their early stages when Debord wrote his Commentaries.  Debord presciently argued that “the society whose modernization has reached the stage of the integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal features: incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy; generalized secrecy; unanswerable lies; and eternal present.”[3] Debord does not go into any detail on the specifics of these features, but the best way perhaps to understand Debord’s point is to combine the happy-go-lucky world of middle 20th century consumerism with the ominous solemnity of the post-September 11th world. In the West the amusement park-like atmosphere of consumer society is now accompanied by the imagery of state violence and secrecy. The rituals of leisure and consumerism—football games, shopping sprees and tourism—are interspersed with military flyovers by nuclear bombers, heavily armed police, and constant admonishments to be on the lookout for unseen threats by faceless terrorists and other kinds of troublemakers. Conversely, many of the areas of authoritarian control like China see the ubiquitous photos of Mao rivaled by the images of models in advertisements at the entrances to giant shopping malls while armed Chinese police standby humorlessly as hordes of tourists take pictures of themselves in places like Tiananmen Square where massacres of civilians took place in the not-too-distant past.

As indicated at the beginning of this post, Debord and his contemporaries saw evidence of this integrating spectacle from the state’s responses to the aftermath of the Paris Spring in Europe, especially in Italy. According to Jeffrey Kinkle, “Italy is clearly seen as a test ground for the integrated spectacle” for Debord because, in Debord’s words “Italy sums up the social contradictions of the entire world and attempts, in ways well known to us, to amalgamate in one country the repressive Holy Alliance between class power—bourgeois and bureaucratic-totalitarian—that already openly functions over the surface of the entire earth, in the economic and police solidarity of all States…”[4] This perspective emerges from Debord’s observations of the Italian state’s reaction to a series of insurrectionary activities taking place around the country in the so-called anni di piombo, including multiple bombing attacks in public squares throughout the major cities of Italy, the kidnapping and eventual killing of Christian Democrat Party leader and former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978, and the abduction (and eventual rescue) of the American Army General James Dozier in 1981.[5] On top of this was the assassination of Debord’s close friend and “business” associate Gerard Lebovici in Paris under extremely mysterious circumstances—so mysterious that Debord believed he might have been killed by “agents” of the French state.[6]

Behind these acts of violence, Debord argued, was a more sinister set of machinations by the state—especially among the security apparatus of the police and the military and elements of right-wing extremism in civil society. While not denying the existence of bona fide radical elements in Italian politics that sought to use violence in public in pursuit of its agenda, Debord nevertheless argued that the most audacious and destructive violent attacks were perpetrated in part or in whole by the state itself. Knocked onto their back foot by the popular protests throughout Europe in 1968 and what had always been a strong and well organized labor movement in Italy, the forces of the status quo that controlled the institutions of government were tempted to plan and perpetrate public violence, attribute it to “leftist” actors like the Red Brigades, and let the mass media’s tendency for sensationalism paralyze the larger population into a state of fear and anxiety and in no mood to see the government compromise with oppositional and dissenting parties out of power. Referencing the Moro kidnapping, Debord writes:

The kidnapping and execution (of Aldo Moro) was a mythological opera with great machinations, where terrorist heroes by transformation become foxes so as to ensnare their prey, then lions so as to fear nothing and no one so long as they retain it, and stool pigeons so as not to draw from this blow the smallest harmful thing to the regime they aspire to defy.[7]

In essense, what Debord is suggesting is that the Italian state (perhaps with foreign assistance), orchestrated—or at the very least participated in—the kidnapping and execution of Aldo Moro as a way of shoring up its control over Italian civil society in the face of the possibility that left-wing political groups were gaining too much influence in the governing institutions of Italy.[8]

This belief that the state is somehow as much responsible for major terrorist attacks than any clandestine radical group is part of what some analysts label the “strategy of tension.” According to Martin Bull and James Newell, this strategy “was predicated on the basis of spreading a climate of fear to provide a perceived necessity for a restoration of public order, either through a coup or through the political consequences following from an awareness by politicians of preparations for a coup.”[9]  There is a temptation here to relate the strategy of tension with the idea of the “false flag operation,” a term used frequently in contemporary American political parlance, especially among reactionary political groups prone to advocating conspiracy theories. The difference here is that “false flag operations” are usually understood as providing pretexts for war orchestrated by a hidden group of global illuminati, while the concept of the strategy of tension analyzes ways dominant social and economic groups in a weak state attempt to legitimize themselves by conjuring up largely internal threats that threaten the stability of civil society.[10] In terms of creating an integrated spectacle, the strategy of tension gives the state a path to enter and exploit the communications infrastructure of the diffuse spectacle and facilitates the creation of a situation where “spectacular government, which now possess all the means to falsify the whole of production and perception, is the absolute master of memories just as it is the unfettered master of plans which will shape the most distant future.”[11]

This galaxy of falsification by the organs of the integrated spectacle was never on greater display for Debord than when his friend and publishing partner Gerard Lebovici was murdered in 1984. Lebovici was himself a fascinating figure. Once an aspiring stage actor in France in the 1940s, the Paris Spring of 1968 and his marriage to the radicalized political activist Floriana Valentin aroused a revolutionary spirit in him. In 1969, he started a small publishing firm he dubbed Champ Libre that specialized in printing cheap copies of works by key thinkers of critical thought, including Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.[12] Lebovici also took an interest in film production, and became the primary benefactor to Debord and his filmmaking aspirations in the 1970s.[13] Yet when Lebovici’s body was found in his car shot four times in the head, the relationship between him and Debord became the foundation of a rash of speculation within the French media of who was the assassin. According to Jeffrey Kinkle, “all sorts of theories were bandied about in the press with suspects including the far left, the far right, police assassins (French as well as Spanish), … the KGB, videocassette pirates, the mob, Action Directe, the Red Brigades, and, last but not least, Guy Debord.”[14]

The media hullaballoo that followed the killing of Lebovici and Debord’s prime place within it further clarified Debord’s thinking about the nature of the integrated spectacle and the role of violence within it. Of particular importance for Debord was the role of the mass media alongside the institutions of the state and the agents of the market economy. While the media was always given a place within the larger concept of the spectacle, Debord had never fully spelled out with any specificity how the media contribute to the madness of modern society.[15] Now, as he witnessed the media take the violent death of his friend and turn it into a cheap melodrama designed in part to impugn his politics, Debord concluded that the swirling maelstrom of false information and partisan speculation was evidence of the integrated spectacle’s further entrenchment into the daily lives of the population. In a short book written after the events of the Lebovici assassination, Debord states, “Never have so many false witnesses surrounded a man so obscure.”[16] Later, in his Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord concludes “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay it.”[17] Even if the assassination of Lebovici was not terrorism in the same way as the killing of Aldo Moro, the two events are related for Debord in that they show the way the spectacle had taken on a darker and more powerful turn with its integration and the difficulty of truly knowing what was true or false in modern society.

Ostensibly, the integrated spectacle provides an interesting and powerful way of explaining many of the absurdities of our age, ranging from the odd phenomenon of the rise and persistence of ISIL to the surprise victory of the Brexit campaign to the “failing upward” success of Donald Trump. However, might this all be symptoms of yet another variation of the spectacle? This topic will be explored in the next post.

     [1] Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 8.

     [2] Jeb Lund, “The NFL and the military: a love affairs as strange and cynical as ever” The Guardian, 11 September, 2015. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/sep/11/the-nfl-and-the-military-a-love-affair-as-strange-and-cynical-as-ever

     [3] Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 9-10.

     [4] Jeffrey Kinkle, Spectacular Developments: Guy Debord’s Parapolitical Turn. PhD Thesis, Goldsmiths, Univeristy of London. [Thesis]: Goldsmiths Online, 107 and Debord, Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of The Society of the Spectacle, Not Bored. trans. Not Bored: 1978 Available at: http://www.notbored.org/debord-preface.html.

     [5] Anni di Piombo translates to Years of Lead, a reference to the amount of bullets fired during these turbulent years.  Kathryn Westcott, “Italy’s history of terror”. BBC News (January 6, 2006). Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/3372239.stm. On the history of the Red Brigades, there has not been much published recently in English. Robert C. Meade’s Red Brigades: The Story of Italian Terrorism (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1990) is probably the most accessible account of the period. In Italian, however, a new comprehensive history has been published by Vladimiro Satta, I nemici della Repubblica: Storia degli anni di piombi (Milan: Rizzoli, 2016).

     [6] Debord wrote and published his thoughts on the killing of his friend and its meaning in Considerations on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici, translated by Robert Greene (Tam Tam Books, Los Angeles, 2001).

     [7] Debord, Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of the Society of the Spectacle, (London: Chronos, 1983), 12.

     [8] Debord’s skepticism about who really kidnapped and killed Aldo Moro and the possibility of a foreign role (by the United States and the Soviet Union) in the episode may seem like delusional paranoia, but substantial mystery surrounds the event even into the present day. Indeed, as recently as 2008, Italian investigators were making new inquiries into the affair. See Lizzy Davies, “Aldo Moro mystery: Italian prosecutors revisit former PM’s 1978 murder,” The Guardian (10 June 2003). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/17/aldo-moro-murder-mystery-italy and Malcolm Moore, “US envoy admits role in Aldo Moro killing,” The Telegraph (11 March 2008). Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1581425/US-envoy-admits-role-in-Aldo-Moro-killing.html.

     [9] Martin J. Bull and James L. Newell, Italian Politics (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 101.

     [10] In this way, Debord is part of the tradition in critical theory to understand the idea of “false consciousness” first theorized in the modern era by Marx. For a discussion of the emergence and development of this term, see Ron Eyerman, “False Consciousness and Ideology in Marxist Theory,” Acta Sociologica vol.  24, no. 1, (1981), pp. 43-56.

     [11] Debrod, Comments on the Society of the Society of the Spectacle, 10.

     [12] McKenzie Wark, The Spectacle of Disintegration, 140-141.

     [13] Indeed, so close had the two men’s working relationship become that in 1983, Lebovici bought Debord his own movie theater in Paris, the Studio Cujas, which screened nothing but Debord’s films. Needless to say, the theater was almost always empty. See Winkle, 109.

     [14] Kinkle, 110.

     [15] Ibid., 111-114.

     [16] Debord, Considerations on the Assassination fo Gerard Lebovici, Robert Green, trans. (Los Angeles: Tam Tam, 2002). 2.

     [17] Ibid., Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 19.

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