“old paris is no more”: geographies of spectacle and



“old paris is no more”: geographies of spectacle and
Antipode 32:4, 2000, pp. 357–386
ISSN 0066-4812
David Pinder*
The spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which
the commodity completes its colonization of social life. It is not
just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see—
commodities are now all that there is to see; the world we see is
the world of the commodity . . . [S]ocial space is continually
being blanketed by stratum after stratum of commodities. With
the advent of the so-called second industrial revolution, alienated consumption is added to alienated production as the inescapable duty of the masses.
— Guy Debord (1994:thesis 42)
The term “spectacle” has featured widely in recent critical discussions
around issues of vision and visuality. Prefaced with “society of the . . .”,
it has often been deployed in a loose sense to indicate a shift towards
an image-saturated world where electronic media, advertising, television
and other cultural industries are said to be increasingly shaping everyday
experiences. It has also been used more specifically to refer to particular
events or spaces. In this manner it has been prominent in attempts by
geographers and other critics to address the emphasis on visual components and strategies in capitalist urban developments over the last thirty
years or so, as evident in the construction of urban scenes, landscapes, and
stage sets presented for visual consumption; in the importance attached to
*Department of Geography, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, London, England; e-mail: [email protected]
© 2000 Editorial Board of Antipode
Published by Blackwell Publishers, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 108
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spaces associated with display and show; and in the efforts to re-image
places, to attract capital investment and to gloss over social divisions.
In using the term spectacle, many writers have cited the work of the
French writer and revolutionary, Guy Debord, whose book La société du
spectacle was originally published in November 1967 (since translated as
The Society of the Spectacle, 1994). In the context of urban studies, the book
has been a significant reference in critiques of the “spectacularisation”
of the contemporary city, including David Harvey’s initial take on postmodernism in the American city (Harvey, 1987; see also Ley and Olds,
1988; Jameson, 1991; Boyer, 1994; Merrifield and Swyngedouw, 1996). It
has also been drawn upon to address developments in Paris and London
from the mid-nineteenth century associated with the establishment of a
new phase of commodity production, with an internal expansion of capital
into realms of leisure and everyday life, and with the opening up of urban
spaces for visual consumption and display (Clark, 1985; Richards, 1991).
In this paper I want to return to the concept of spectacle as Debord
developed it. Along with his colleagues in the Situationist International
(SI), the avant-garde group of which he was a leading member during its
existence between 1957 and 1972, Debord did much to put a certain
understanding of the term—or, more accurately, a mode of critique—into
political and subsequently academic debate. However, while his texts on
the subject are now often referenced in academic circles, they are rarely
discussed in any depth. Still less frequently is there much appreciation of
the context from which they emerged or of the political project of which
they were part. My aim here is to address the meanings and potentialities
of Debord’s notion of spectacle in confrontation with issues of urban
change. To do so, I situate his writings back into the context of his engagements with the modern city between the 1950s and 1970s, and specifically
with Paris, where he spent much of his life. In part my intention is to urge
greater sensitivity to the situatedness of Debord’s arguments, to caution
against attempts simply to project them onto the different circumstances
of the present. Yet in rereading Debord in this way, I also aim to reveal
grounds for a renewed dialogue with aspects of his work in the belief that
they can speak powerfully to many contemporary intellectual and political concerns, especially those around the politics of urban space.
Debord and the situationists were concerned above all with contesting
and bringing about revolutionary change in dominant social relations and
the social organisation of space. A prominent part of this, evident especially in the group’s early years, was their interest in studying the power
and politics of urban space, as well as seeking to transform those spaces
through what they termed “psychogeographical” practices. By critically
exploring the city, the situationists aimed to reveal not only the play of
power in the city but also the play of possibilities. The situationists’ theorisation of the spectacle became a key component of this contestation, an
attempt to critique what they believed were the alienating conditions of
postwar societies marked by the “colonization” of everyday life and space
by the commodity. In commentaries on Debord and on the history of the
SI, an orthodox narrative has now emerged that presents their “early” aesthetic-geographical activities as being progressively superseded by their
“later” emphasis on the theory of the spectacle (for example, see Maayan,
1989; Wollen, 1989; Plant, 1992; Sadler, 1998). It is true that many of the
group’s psychogeographical activities gave way to more directly
theoreticopolitical concerns in its later years. However, there are problems
with making too neat separations, not least because an interest in cultural
politics and urbanism remained within the group (see McDonough,
1997:9–13). There is also much to be learned from paying closer attention
than such narratives usually allow to the situationists’ engagement with
urban geography. It casts the group’s other writings and activities in a different light, something I show here in relation to geographies of spectacle.
It further offers insights to a variety of debates within radical geography
and beyond about the production of space and political struggles over
urban spaces and meanings, both in the past and today.1
Debord frequently framed his attacks on the spectacle in terms of the
damage that was being wrought on cities and urban life. “Paris no longer
exists,” he states in his 1978 film In girum imus nocte et consumimurigni (We
go around in circles in the night and are consumed by fire), as images
show views over parts of the city. “The destruction of Paris is only one
exemplary illustration of the fatal illness, which, at this moment, is carrying off all the major cities” (Debord, 1991a:30–31).2 The lines echo a familiar refrain about the end of “old Paris.” They recall Charles Baudelaire’s
poem “Le Cygne” (The Swan), composed in 1859 and set in the quartier of
the Carrousel near the Louvre, an area that several years earlier had been
destroyed to make way for the kinds of public building works that would
be overseen by Baron Haussmann. The poem’s most famous lines run:
“Old Paris is no more (the form of a city/Changes more quickly, alas, than
the heart of a mortal)” (Baudelaire, 1987:288). From its dedication to Victor
Hugo, then opposing the Second Empire from outside the country, to the
figure of the swan itself, stranded in the city, the poem is dominated by
images of dispossession and exile.
Debord’s own anguish at the eradication of the city he had treasured is
evident in many of his texts and films, especially when he looks back longingly on the Paris of his youth in the early 1950s and rages against the
displacements brought about by its reconstruction. He states that these
changes forced him to leave the city for a time, something that occurred
when it “had been sacked and the kind of life that had been led there
had been completely destroyed—which is what happened from 1970
onwards” (Debord, 1991b:44). Such feelings found their bleakest moment
in his work on a final film on which he collaborated with the French television company Canal Plus. Entitled Guy Debord, son art et son temps and
completed days before he took his own life in November 1994, it shows the
quotation from Baudelaire’s poem in the midst of scenes of the destruction
of buildings, collapse, and ecological catastrophe. Alongside this sense of
loss and exile, however, Debord’s tale about the spaces of Paris in his film
of 1978 contains other elements. In his description of watching “the last
days melt away there,” where he refers to how he and his colleagues
found themselves “amongst a scenery which would be swept away, and
enraptured with a beauty which will not return” and where he quotes
from Victor Hugo, “O misery! O pain! Paris is trembling!”—among these
lines he also notes how “And yet, the setting sun of this city left, in places,
some glimmers of light” (1991a:57).
In what follows I am concerned both with tracing out the dark vision
about the fate of cities and urban life presented here by Debord and with
considering these “glimmers of light.” For Debord, the destruction of cities and urban life was bound up with the wider transformations in capitalism and state bureaucracies that he associated with the society of the
spectacle. In the next two parts of the paper, I discuss Debord’s critique
of the spectacle and especially the geographical themes in his arguments
that lie behind his laments about the demise of the city. In subsequent sections I return to his critical engagements with Paris in more detail. Here
I interrogate the aesthetic and political stakes involved in the nostalgic
mode through which his criticisms were often articulated. In particular,
I consider how his oppositional reading of the urban spectacle centred
around certain urban sites that occupied a tense and shadowy relation to
notions of the spectacle, and how a consideration of their geographies
opens up gaps or cracks for thinking about “counter-sites” and points of
political intervention.3
Guy Debord: Critique of the Spectacle
Debord’s writings have been attracting increasing attention in recent
years. In particular, a number of French critics have been reversing the
previous neglect that has surrounded his work and reconsidering him as a
great “moralist,” celebrating his texts for their classical prose and their
melancholic spirit and even at times (and at worst) vaunting their aesthetic
value over their role in a political project (for example, see Guilbert, 1996,
and the discussion in McDonough, 1997:3–5). The mythologisation has
also been stirred with a degree of mystery and scandal driven by media
speculation.4 At the same time, however, a more substantial rekindling of
critical interest in his writings has centred on his book The Society of the
Spectacle. Long viewed as a classic piece of subversive writing from within
radical leftist circles, where it has found its most obvious audience among
those seeking to contest capitalist society, the text has also been increasingly taken up within Anglo-American academia since the late 1980s.
The Society of the Spectacle’s early influence often went unacknowledged.
One critic even writes of its “shameful copying and ‘hushed-up’ use” in
France since 1968, where its theses were toned down or sidelined through
occasional furtive references (Quadruppani, 1983, cited in Reader, 1987:
131–32). Examples given include Jean Baudrillard and Régis Debray, with
the latter discussing the text explicitly only after Debord’s death (Debray,
1995). However, recent interest in the book has come from a variety of
quarters. It has figured most prominently in contemporary critical theory
and cultural studies focusing on electronic media, new forms of consumption, and notions of a “postmodern” age or condition. Here Debord’s arguments have often been set against those of Baudrillard, with the former’s
commitment to revolutionary struggle being contrasted with the political
acquiescence of the latter’s theorisation of a later stage of simulation and
hyperreality (Plant, 1992; Best and Kellner, 1997). Debord’s book has also
featured in critical discussions of vision and visuality, being placed by
Martin Jay (1993) in the context of a widespread “denigration of vision in
twentieth century French thought,” in relation to histories of Western
Marxism and political theory (Shipway, 1987; Wollen, 1989; Macdonald,
1995), and in the burgeoning literature on imaging cities and urban spectacles as already noted. The first book-length studies of Debord have begun
to appear (Jappe, 1993, 1999; Bracken, 1997; Gonzalvez, 1998). As Jonathan
Crary noted some years ago, the proliferation of references to the spectacle
have meant that it has become “a stock phrase in a wide range of critical
and not-so-critical discourses” (1989:97).
No one who comes across Debord’s book can avoid being struck by the
ferocity of the argument, and the density and concision of the prose. As
Debord warns in his preface to the third French edition, it “should be read
bearing in mind that it was written with the deliberate intention of doing
harm to spectacular society” (1994:10). In his view it was the revolts in
Paris in May 1968, just six months after the book was first published, that
made it known; and shortly after these events, the situationists confirmed
in their journal that in their opinion it “is basically a book that lacked nothing
but one or more revolutions” (SI, 1981b:266; emphasis in original). In his text
Debord makes a stronger case about the spectacle than many of those
referring to his work. This is especially the case with critics of urban developments, where, as Bonnett (1989) has discussed, geographers such as
Harvey (1987) and Ley and Olds (1988) have employed a partial use of
the concept in relation to particular events and “spectacles” rather than
Debord’s understanding of the spectacle as a totality.
Debord argued that the spectacle is a central organising principle of
modern societies. We live in an image-dominated world, he believed, in
which alienation is increasingly total. People are alienated from their
labour, their surroundings, their desires, and their true selves. In this view,
social life is so colonised by the commodity and administrative techniques,
so saturated in an accumulation of spectacles, that people are more like
spectators than active agents, occupying roles assigned to them in a state of
passive contemplation. As Debord puts it, “All that once was directly lived
has become mere representation” (1994:thesis 1). An often-taken analogy is
that of an audience of a television or film show, watching what is presented to them but unable to intervene fundamentally in its production
(Fig. 1). Debord stresses, however, that the mass media is only a specific
feature of the spectacle. The spectacle should be understood as neither “a
collection of images” nor “a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as
a product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images” (Debord,
1994:thesis 4). Rather, it is “a social relationship between people that is
mediated by images,” a “world view transformed into an objective force”
(Debord, 1994:thesis 5).5 With everyday life riven with separations and
dominated by the economy as a separate sphere, the spectacle becomes a
means of unifying in terms of the image where it “unites what is separate,
but it unites it only in its separateness” (Debord, 1994:thesis 29; emphasis
in original).
Debord’s theorisation of the spectacle has associations with several
strands of Western Marxism. In particular it extends discussions of alienation and commodity fetishism within the Marxist tradition, tracing a
lineage back to Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. It
is indeed important to underline the engagement with Marx’s thought
in The Society of the Spectacle, for this is in danger of getting obscured in
the attempts to assimilate Debord into “postmodern” theory. The book
Figure 1 Unconscious advertising. From Internationale situationniste 8, January
1963, p. 6.
abounds with echoes and unacknowledged (as well as a few acknowledged) quotations from Marx, Hegel, and Georg Lukács, along with other
writers. The connection with Lukács and his History and Class Consciousness of 1923 is especially significant, as Debord takes up questions of the
totality, commodity fetishism and reification through his own critique of
capitalist society. Like Lukács, he castigates the contemplative character of
this society that he believes is based upon a principle of nonintervention
(see Jappe, 1999:19–31). Debord’s broadly Hegelian view of Marxism is
influenced by the interpretations of Hegel in France by Alexandre Kojève
and later by Jean Hyppolite. Parallels are also apparent between some of
his ideas and those explored by Jean-Paul Sartre as well as the Arguments
group in France in the 1950s, although he was scathing about the direction
that the latter group took in its criticisms of Marx. Debord also follows the
precedent of Henri Lefebvre’s analyses of everyday life in capitalist society, and especially Lefebvre’s influential early attempts to re-orient Marxist theory around notions of alienation and fetishism as well as the struggle
for the disalienation of society.
When Debord addressed changes in the postwar period, he shared
Lefebvre’s concern with alienation and the extension of commodity relations into everyday life. “Under capitalist regimes, ‘to exist’ and ‘to have’
are identical,” Lefebvre had written in 1947, quoting Marx: “The man
who has nothing is nothing” (1991a:155). Debord later concurred that an
“earlier stage in the economy’s domination of social life entailed an obvious downgrading of being into having that left its stamp on all human
endeavour” (Debord, 1994:thesis 17). However, he asserted that the present stage of the spectacle “entails a generalised shift from having to appearing: all effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige
and its ultimate raison d’être from appearances” (Debord, 1994:thesis 17).
Along with several other situationists, Debord developed a close association and friendship with Lefebvre for a number of years around the
late 1950s and early 1960s. Their projects had important intersections and
parallels, not least around their respective interests in urbanism and the
politics of space and in how revolutionary activities might lead to the
transformation of both space and society. Lefebvre’s later consideration of
capitalist “abstract space” itself emphasised the power of its visual formant. In so doing he acknowledged the connections with the SI’s idea of
the spectacle, although he also saw his work on the logic of visualisation
and the decorporealisation of space as going beyond what he called the
“sociologism” of Debord’s book (Lefebvre, 1975:161; 1991b:286).
By the time of their association, Lefebvre had left the French Communist
Party. In contrast, Debord never joined and remained resolutely opposed
to much of the mainstream political Left. His interest in self-management
and workers’ councils brought him close for a period to Socialisme ou
Barbarie, a group that had broken with the Trotskyite Fourth International
in 1948 to critique the Soviet bureaucratic system as a class system based
on exploitation and oppression alongside the bureaucracies of the capitalist west. Debord similarly never harboured illusions about the oppressiveness of bureaucratic or “state capitalist” societies, and he initially
addressed the spectacle in terms of two variants: the “concentrated” form
of bureaucratic or totalitarian regimes and the “diffuse” form of contemporary capitalism (Fig. 2). Much of The Society of the Spectacle was in fact
directed against Stalinism and against its continuing reproduction within
the Left, as well as against the role of the centralised party according
to Leninism (the longest chapter of the book is entitled “The proletariat
as subject and representation”). As two former members of the SI have
recently underlined, Debord’s strategy in the text—and especially his dialogue with the early Marx—need to be understood in that political context
of the time, in relation to the situationists’ other political analyses and
specifically to their opposition to the orthodox Left. It should also be seen
as resisting certain currents of Marxism then seeking to banish the concept
of the totality along with traces of Hegel from its theorising, as in Louis
Althusser’s concept of Marx’s supposed “epistemological break,” developed in texts such as Pour Marx and Lire le Capital written with Etienne
Balibar in 1965 (Clark and Nicholson-Smith, 1997).
Geographies of Spectacle
There are now several good accounts of Debord’s concept of the spectacle
(see Plant, 1992; Jappe, 1999). However, the significance of geography and
urban space within its formulation is rarely drawn out in any detail (for an
exception, see Bonnett, 1989). The spectacle has often been primarily associated with specific sites such as trade fairs, exhibitions, showcase developments, department stores, and the like. As such it has sometimes been
Figure 2 The diffuse spectacle of modern capitalism. From Internationale situationniste
10, March 1966, p. 45.
traced back to developments from the mid-nineteenth century in Paris
and London, as mentioned earlier (see Clark, 1985; Richards, 1991). At
times the situationists themselves related the spectacle to particular areas
or characteristics of cities, as when they complained in 1959 about the presentation of cities as “lamentable spectacles” for the visual consumption
of tourists and attacked the tendency to “museumify” neighbourhoods
(SI, 1989:144). Remarking on the spectacle’s historical development, however, Debord subsequently alluded to its emergence as having been later
than some accounts drawing on his work imply, around the late 1920s
(Debord, 1990:3). And, as I have stated, he and his colleagues increasingly
addressed the spectacle in terms of a more total occupation of social space
and life.
Capitalist production may have shrunk the globe with the annihilation
of space by time, noted Debord, but such a unification resulted in homogenisation that dissipated the quality of places, draining them of their
distinctive realities and at the same time reproducing new forms of separation. The spectacle dominated social life and space, homogenising and
fracturing space, unifying and separating, and becoming “the perfection
of separation within human beings” (Debord, 1994:thesis 20; emphasis in
original). He assigned particular importance to urbanism in concretising
separation. It provided a means “of tackling the ongoing need to safeguard
class power by ensuring the atomisation of workers dangerously massed
together by the conditions of urban production,” since it allowed the
capturing of isolated individuals as “individuals isolated together” in factories, cultural centres, tourist resorts, housing complexes, and other spaces
(Debord, 1994:thesis 172; emphasis in original). Debord’s analysis built on
the situationists’ earlier understanding of class segmentation in spatialtemporal terms. In 1963 they argued that the proletariat, far from declining
in significance, had now expanded and included “all people who have
no possibility of altering the social space-time that society allots for its
consumption”. In contrast, the ruling class was constituted by “those who
organise this space-time, or who at least have a significant margin of
personal choice”. (SI, 1981c:108). This fundamental social polarisation was
typically veiled by gradations of income and rank and by the workings of
the leisure society, they noted, but once posed it left other differences in
status “secondary”. In developing their theorisation of the spectacle during the 1960s, Debord and the situationists therefore portrayed urbanism
and planning as important factors in ensuring the reproduction of these
class lines and understood them as key components of spectacular society.
Debord’s laments about the destruction of Paris and other cities need
to be understood in this context. The role of planning in dispersing populations from urban centres became a particular target for the situationists,
as did the importance assigned to the motorcar within planning schemes.
The SI regarded the building of developments such as the grands ensembles in France as the work of twentieth-century Haussmanns, enabling
the repressive management of urban areas in the interests of state and
police power and representing the partitioning of space in its purest form
(Fig. 3). With both a massive housing crisis and a recovering economy
from the mid-1950s in France, the built environment became the focus
of new investments, construction work and displacements. This was
strengthened over the following decade as processes of decolonisation
became bound up with a shift towards what both the situationists and
Lefebvre characterised as a form of interior colonisation. This involved a
new concentration of capital, personnel, and administrative techniques
on realms such as consumption, leisure, and urban space.
The transformations within Paris during this period were dramatic.
Between 1954 and 1974, twenty-four percent of the surface area of the
built environment of Paris was demolished and reconstructed, and around
550,000 people were expelled from the city itself to the outskirts and suburbs. This compares with the 350,000 that, according to Haussmann’s own
estimates, were displaced by the building works of the Second Empire.
The new wave of expulsions were centred along class and ethnic lines;
they led to the working class population of the city during this period
declining by forty-four percent and the cadrés supérieurs increasing by
fifty-one percent (figures from Evenson, 1979:309–10, 238; Eveno and de
Mezamat, 1991, cited in Ross, 1995:151). Particular changes took on a powerful symbolic significance. The construction of the périphérique in Paris
from 1956 on served to break up and isolate communities, as it separated
people—especially the region’s immigrant population—from central areas
by effectively cordoning off the city from the new housing projects and the
banlieues beyond with a wall of traffic (Ross, 1995). Meanwhile, the closure
of the old markets of Les Halles in the city centre in 1969, along with the
destruction two years later of the celebrated metal and glass pavilions,
Figure 3 Sarcelles, the first grand ensemble built in the Paris region. Between 1954
and 1974 its population increased from around 1,500 to 60,000 people. From
Internationale situationniste 9, August 1964, p. 11.
which had been designed by Victor Baltard and built during the time of
Haussmann, represented for some critics the extraction of the very heart of
the city (for example, Chevalier, 1994:260).
Developing his critique in The Society of the Spectacle, Debord asserted
that it was already “the era of the self-destruction of the urban environment” (Debord, 1994:thesis 174). He drew attention to the impact of new
ideologies and codes of urbanism, and he referred to the way in which the
fabric of urban areas was being dissolved and dispersed along highways
and temporally reconstituted in shopping centres—“these temples of frenetic consumption”—before themselves being abandoned as spaces of
consumption were restructured (Debord, 1994:thesis 174). For the first
time, he claimed, an architecture designed specifically for the poor had
emerged, one that was shaped according to modern means of mass construction and the interests of social control: “At the core of these conditions
we naturally find an authoritarian decision-making process that abstractly
develops any environment into an environment of abstraction” (Debord,
1994:thesis 173; emphasis in original). He thus understood urbanism in
terms of the spectacle, as he underscored the significance of the production
of urban space in the reproduction of dominant social and economic interests. As he put it: “Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural
and human environment by capitalism, which, true to its logical development toward absolute domination, can (and now must) refashion the totality of space into its own peculiar decor” (Debord, 1994:thesis 169; emphasis
in original).
Running through Debord’s writings on the spectacle was a concern not
only with spatial issues but also with the paralysis of history and memory
under the rule of the commodity and with a false consciousness of time.
His vituperative assessment of planned new towns in the post-war period
was in part framed in terms of this theme, in relation to their break with
what he called “historical time.” He stated that their motto might well be
“On this spot nothing will ever happen—and nothing ever has” (Debord,
1994:thesis 177; emphasis in original). More generally, he wrote that the
spectacle involved arrogating to itself “everything that appears in human
activity in a fluid state so as to possess it in a congealed form,” and he
condemned urban planning as a particularly problematic “freezing of
life” (Debord, 1994:thesis 35). He suggested that this might be expressed
in Hegelian language as “an absolute predominance of ‘tranquil sideby-sideness’ in space over ‘restless becoming in the progression of time’”
(Debord, 1994:thesis 170).6 When he returned to the concept of the spectacle again in his Commentaires sur la société du spectacle in 1988, he argued
that it should now be understood as “integrated,” having superseded its
“concentrated” and “diffuse” forms. He especially elaborated on what he
saw as one of the spectacle’s most pernicious effects: the destruction of
history and the management of an eternal present. In his account, reality
itself seems to have been increasingly falsified according to principles of
exchange and the spectacular image. He wrote: “Beyond a legacy of old
books and old buildings, still of some significance but destined to continual reduction and, moreover, increasingly highlighted and classified to
suit the spectacle’s requirements, there remains nothing, in culture or in
nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the
means and interests of modern industry” (Debord, 1990:10).
We are therefore left with the kind of bleak scene that I discuss at the
beginning of this paper, where the city “is no more.” What of the “glimmers of light” to which Debord also referred? With this phrase he alludes
to political struggles that continued to contest the spectacle. Debord saw
as one of the SI’s main aims the making known and articulating, in theoretical and practical terms, of forms of revolutionary contestation. As he
later boasted, “We carried fuel to where the fire was” (Debord, 1991a:52).
In The Society of the Spectacle, he pointed towards a variety of new forms of
revolts and contestations. These included emerging anti-union worker
struggles and “tentative and amorphous” protests among the young. He
identified the spontaneity of many of these protests as “portents of a second proletarian assault on class society,” where the proletariat was understood in an expanded sense as all those unable to determine freely their
own lives and to shape the spatial-temporal organization of society
(Debord, 1994:thesis 115). He and the other situationists often emphasised
the spatial concerns of many of these struggles, and understood urban
space as an arena not only of domination but also of contestation and
political struggle.
The phrase “glimmers of light” also evokes the activities of the
situationists themselves and those of their avant-garde predecessors during the 1950s and 1960s as they sought to intervene in urban spaces. The
situationists developed a range of tactics and oppositional practices in
order to contest the stranglehold of the spectacle. Many of these opposed
or appropriated visual forms, especially through means of détournement,
which involved redirecting or hijacking materials such as texts, images,
and cultural artefacts and setting them in other contexts to create different
meanings and effects. In this way the group challenged dominant ways
of seeing the city as embodied, for example, in standard forms of cartography (Pinder, 1996). This was part of the SI’s wider aim to establish “a
new form of geographical investigation that can enable the revolutionary
reappropriation of the landscape” (Bonnett, 1989:136). Debord’s optimism
about the potential for radical political activity and the prospects for
anti-spectacle struggle stands in contrast to the gloomy portraits often
painted of him in which he is seen as continually asserting the recuperation
of such activity by dominant interests.7 He was certainly concerned with
how radical activities are all too often recuperated or even turned against
or sold back to their initiators, and the situationists provided many examples of this process in their journal. However, even when looking back
on their history from the perspective of 1978, Debord could assert that
“[t]his is how, little by little, a new epoch of fires has been set alight, which
none of us alive at the moment will see the end of: obedience is dead”
There is much to discuss about these issues, including their implications
for conceptions of the spectacle. For example, Bonnett (1989) claims that
the situationists’ account of reification logically inhibits political judgement and action, and that their continuing commitment to political struggle was in fact a mark of the contradiction upon which their libertarianism
was founded. In contrast, Doreen Massey (2000) sees their continuing
insistence on struggle as having a theoretical as well as political imperative. In the rest of this paper, I want to concentrate on an aspect of
Debord’s position that is less often considered directly and yet that is further suggested by the phrase “glimmers of light.” This is bound up with
the oppositional practices mentioned above, but it also connects with other
aspects of Debord’s critical engagement with urban spaces, especially with
the significance he attaches to certain urban sites at a time when the city
was being recomposed in terms of the spectacle. I suggest that a different
characterisation of the urban spectacle emerges when these spatial issues
are considered.
In the Shadows of the Rue Sauvage
To further develop this reading of Debord’s engagement with urban geography, I return in this section to his formative years in Paris in the early
1950s, when many of the situationists’ later ideas about urban space and
psychogeography were first set out. Debord refers to his days in the city in
his film In girum. As an aerial photograph of the sixth arrondissement
appears on the screen, he states: “There was at that time, on the left bank of
the river—you cannot go down the same river twice, nor touch a perishable substance in the same state twice—a neighbourhood where the negative held its court” (Debord, 1991a:31). It was a period and place to which
he would continually return in his later years, drawn back to what he
regarded as the beginning of his critical journey. In the film, he recalls how
the city’s inhabitants “had not yet been driven out and dispersed.” He
adds: “The modern commodity had not yet come to show all that can be
done to a street” (Debord, 1991a:28, 29). As further aerial photographs of
the city appear on the screen, he invokes the conditions of nature as a measure of the times, stating that they had not yet seen “the sky darkening and
the good weather disappearing, and the false fog of pollution permanently
covering the mechanical circulation of things, in this valley of desolation.
The trees were not yet dead from suffocation; and the stars were not yet
extinguished by the progress of alienation” (Debord, 1991a:29).
Along with a small number of other writers, artists and revolutionaries,
Debord formed a group called the Lettrist International (LI) in Paris in
1952. Established as a breakaway from the Lettrist Movement based in the
same city, it included Michèle Bernstein, Ivan Chtcheglov, Mohamed
Dahou, and Gil J. Wolman. Several members would later be instrumental
in the foundation of the SI in 1957. The lettrists did not see themselves as a
literary or artistic movement; rather, they emphasised cultural and political action as they pursued a critique of dominant society that was meant to
be lived. During this time they developed spatial practices and forms of
psychogeography that would later be taken up by the situationists. These
included critical drifts through the streets, or dérives, through which they
studied the ambiences and emotional contours of existing urban spaces
and routes and explored how these might be changed, and the “construction of situations,” which they understood as the concrete and deliberate
construction of a moment of life through the “collective organization of a
unitary ambience and a game of events” (SI, 1981a:45). The “negative”
spirit of the group lay in its desire to negate the existing social order in
order to move towards a new stage, a dialectical formulation that Debord
would later employ in arguing that the “truth of that society is nothing less
than its negation” (1994:thesis 199) and one that underpinned his assertion
at the foundation of the SI that “[t]he construction of situations begins on
the ruins of the modern spectacle” (Debord, 1981:25; see Fig. 4).
Referring to the activities of the LI during the 1950s, Debord stated:
“The atmosphere of a few places gave us intimations of the future powers
of an architecture that it would be necessary to create to be the support
Figure 4 “Never work,” graffiti on a wall of the rue de Seine, from early 1953. The SI
labelled the photograph “the minimum programme of the situationist movement,”
and described the inscription as “one of the most important relics ever unearthed on
the site of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a testament to the particular way of life that tried
to assert itself there.” Quotes and photo from Internationale situationniste 8, January
1963, p. 42.
and framework for less mediocre games” (1992a:32). What were these
places? In the information bulletin Potlatch in 1955, the lettrists published
a list of recommended areas to frequent in Paris as well as a list of those
to avoid. This constructed an anti-monumental view of the city that
steered away from grand boulevards and classical scenes, away from
such places as the Champs Élysées, Montmartre, École Militaire, Place de
la République, and the sixteenth arrondissement (LI, 1996a:58). Debord
embodied a similar idea of resisting standard monumental views a few
years later, when he came to film parts of the city, by avoiding filming
monuments by shooting scenes as if from their point of view with the
camera at the site to ensure that it did not encroach in the frame (Debord,
1964:3; Levin, 1989:89). In contrast, among the lettrists’ favourite haunts
listed were “Continent” Contrescarpe, Chinatown, the Jewish Quarter,
Butte-aux-Cailles, Aubervilles at night, rue Dauphine, Buttes-Chaumont,
rue Sauvage, and parts of Les Halles. Places exuding particular psychogeographical characters were celebrated and a number of them were
associated with themes or sensibilities, such as Butte-aux-Cailles with
“the Labyrinth,” and Buttes-Chaumont with “play.”
An important reason behind the LI’s valorisation of such sites lay in the
notion of psychogeographical ambience or atmosphere. This related to
the lettrists’ aim to investigate the city and the interactions between subjectivity, behaviour, and urban spaces so as to transform them along revolutionary lines. At times they exhibited a typically avant-garde desire to
break with the past, as in their comments on the need to remove monuments and statues now deemed to be insignificant or irretrievable from
the perspective of being put to different uses through détournement
(LI, 1996d:57). However, they also wanted to uncover histories and geographies in the city, including those obscured through the discourses
of planning and redevelopment and those subject to the forces of forgetting characteristic of the commodity system, with its demands for the
ever-new. A comparison may be drawn with Walter Benjamin’s critical
readings of the city and especially his concern with memory and with
excavating the historical layers of places. He sought to recover the traces
of people and events that were unremembered within “official” stories
about the past and unrecorded within monumental landscapes. The
task of this “urban archaeology” was to rescue past hopes and dreams,
to redeem them for the purposes of contemporary political struggles.
Against the monuments of the triumphant, supposedly fixed as symbols
of authority and power, Benjamin emphasised the ways in which they
became open to different and contrary readings during their “afterlife”
as their political contexts changed, enabling their mythic and barbaric
side to be revealed. In his essays on Berlin he also proposed a series of
contrasting “counter-monuments” which related to his own experiences
in the city and which spoke of alternative or marginalised histories
(Benjamin, 1979a; see Gilloch, 1996:72–77).
The lettrists and situationists likewise sought to open up new routes
through the city and to construct alternative maps that celebrated different
itineraries, sites and ambiences. What connected many of these sites, and
what made them glimmer for Debord, was their marginality in terms of
dominant planning schemes and representations of the city, and the way
they occupied a shadowy relation to notions of the spectacle. In effect, they
represented counter-sites within the urban spectacle. At the same time,
though, Debord recognised that this marginal existence was always under
threat, which added an urgent edge to many of the LI’s and SI’s references
to these sites and their efforts to defend the sites from destruction. One
area that was especially favoured by the groups and that was threatened
in this way was Les Halles, with its markets, restaurants, cafés, and diverse
mix of inhabitants and visitors. Images of the markets at dawn featured in
Debord’s film of 1959, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez
courte unité de temps (On the passage of a few people through a rather brief
moment in time). The district was also the subject of a more indepth
psychogeographical study by the situationist Abdelhafid Khatib in 1958
(see Figs. 5, 6a, and 6b). Khatib’s study was meant in part as a riposte to
redevelopment plans that had been hanging over the area for a number
of years following a decision to remove the food markets out from the
city centre. Along with demands to clear the area to ease overcrowding
and to improve traffic circulation, there were proposals to “clean up” its
supposedly “unhygienic” and “diseased” elements. Such arguments were
connected with wider prominence given to discourses of hygiene and sanitation in the appropriation of urban space in the period, discourses that
often used the language of hygiene as a means of excluding social groups,
Figure 5 Les Halles at dawn, as shown in Guy Debord’s film On the Passage of a Few
People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time (1959). From his Oeuvres cinématographiques complètes (Paris: Champ Libre, 1978).
especially immigrant populations, from specific locations (Ross, 1995). In
rejecting such plans, Khatib played on the popular centrality of the district
and argued that its projected displacement to the outskirts “will entail a
new blow to popular Paris, which has for a century now been constantly
exiled, as we know, to the suburbs” (Khatib, 1996:76).
Another prominent case that took on something of a mythic status
within the LI was a street in Paris, the rue Sauvage. Located in the thirteenth arrondissement near the Gare d’Austerlitz, cutting between Quai
d’Austerlitz and Boulevard de la Gare, it was viewed by the lettrists
as “[o]ne of the most beautiful spontaneously psychogeographical places
in Paris” and “the site of the most moving nocturnal prospect on the
capital” (LI, 1996b:45). They therefore denounced its projected demolition
by developers in 1954. “We deplore the disappearance of a little-known
street, little-known and therefore more alive than the Champs Élysées and
its bright lights,” they declared. “We have no predilection for the charm of
Figure 6a Internal currents and external communications of Les Halles.
Figure 6b The “unity of ambience” of Les Halles. From Abdelhafid Khatib’s
psychogeographical study of the area in Internationale situationniste 2, December
1958, pp. 14, 16.
ruins. But the civil barracks that we build in their place are so gratuitously
ugly as to be an open invitation for dynamiters” (LI, 1996b:45). Later
detailing the progress of the private developers and the Ministry of Public
Works in obliterating the site and in constructing a large building to house
PTT offices, they invoked Baudelaire’s famous lines from “The Swan,”
this time in their article’s title: “The form of a city changes more quickly
. . .” (LI, 1996c). Around the same period Bernstein, Debord, and Wolman
also wrote to the London Times in 1955, responding to plans to demolish
part of the Chinese quarter in that city:
We protest against such moral ideas in town planning, ideas
which must obviously make England more boring that it has
in recent years already become. . . . Anyway, it is inconvenient
that this Chinese quarter of London should be destroyed
before we have the opportunity to visit it and carry out certain
psychogeographical experiments we are at present undertaking. Finally, if modernisation appears to you, as it does to us,
to be historically necessary, we would counsel you to carry
your enthusiasm into areas more urgently in need of it, that is
to say, your political and moral institutions. (Bernstein, et al.,
Debord’s celebration of such areas against the forces of development
connects to a wider valorisation of sites deemed to be outmoded in his
writings. Given the tenor of some of his laments about the “old city,” cited
earlier, this valorisation could be associated with a largely romantic or
nostalgic way of seeing the city, part of a tragic narrative of urban decline.
There is, of course, a long tradition of nostalgic writings about “old Paris”:
it was already a cliché and the subject of satire during the nineteenth century (Prendergast, 1992). Many of these writings are imbued with an
anti-modernist aesthetic and with reactionary notions of good city form,
of the supposedly more coherent and structured life of the city as it once
was. In Debord’s case, as his remark about the necessity of modernisation
in the letter above implies, the nostalgia does not represent a longing to
return to the past. There is certainly a danger of it appearing to endorse
an aestheticisation of urban dilapidation and decay where a celebration
of ambience glosses over the social conditions and lived experiences of
inhabitants. Indeed, Debord at times exudes an almost aristocratic disdain
for aspects of modernisation and “progress,” a disdain that can result in
absurd self-mythologisation, as in the first volume of his autobiographical
Panegyric when he characterises his as one of the only critical voices raised
against the “debasement” of Paris during the 1970s (Debord, 1991b). It
also leads him towards some unlikely alliances, as when in the same passage he draws a parallel with another “righteous” study that he states he
only came across later, in the form of Louis Chevalier’s L’assassinat de Paris
of 1977 (Debord, 1991b:46). At the same time, however, such references
are crosscut in his writings with a desire to struggle for different futures
and to set out other understandings of modernisation and modernism.
Debord’s focus on the outmoded can therefore be read politically as a
form of urban resistance, an attempt to contest the forces of capital and state
planning that gave them that designation under the guise of “modernisation.” In opposing the plans of developers, the lettrists and situationists documented areas directly under threat, such as those discussed above. This
involved protests not only against wholesale reconstruction but also against
the reconstitution of areas according to the values promoted through heritage and gentrification schemes. This was part of their attempt to contest the
representational regimes through which understandings of urban space
and renewal were being constructed, and it was bound up with their efforts
to challenge the language of the spectacle. While the process of outmoding
is intrinsic to the creative destruction of capitalism, it should be underlined
that it was intensifying rapidly in Paris during the 1950s as the drive for
modernisation in France accelerated—hence the attention focused on it as a
concept. In the remaining parts of this paper, though, I want to consider
whether, within Debord’s stance on these issues, there may be another
political and even potentially explosive dimension. What further role might
the notion of the outmoded play in his denunciations of the present? Is it
part of an attempt to turn aspects of the present against itself so as to figure
other futures?
The Outmoded and Anti-Spectacle
To consider these questions further, I take a brief detour in this section
through earlier writings on Paris by the surrealists. I also return to Benjamin, specifically to his assessment of the surrealists’ own concern with the
category of the outmoded.
Out-of-the-way places in the city, and obsolete spaces and objects,
deeply interested members of the surrealist group during the 1920s and
1930s. André Breton explored the haunting quality of a number of urban
sites in texts that gave a central role to subjectivity, desire and unconscious
associations. A sensibility towards the encounters, events, and associations
that make up urban places runs through many of his writings. Favoured
sites included—again—the streets of Les Halles, which became the celebrated setting for a nocturnal drift with Jacqueline Lamba in his book
L’Amour fou of 1937; and the Tour Saint-Jacques, which he described as
being clad in scaffolding that made it “the world’s great monument to
the hidden” (Breton, 1987:47). Another well-known favoured place, the
Saint-Ouen fleamarket, not only contained an array of outmoded objects
but also was itself under threat of demolition from 1926. “I go there often,”
wrote Breton in his book Nadja of 1928, “searching for objects that can be
found nowhere else: old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse . . .” (1960:52).
In Breton’s writings, parts of Paris exude a ghostly presence and their
pasts—especially those with revolutionary or bohemian connections—
threaten to burst into the present. In one of his meetings with the young
woman Nadja in the book of that name, they take a meal outside at a
restaurant at the Place Dauphine. As Nadja starts to look around she
becomes “disturbed by the thought of what has already occurred in the
square and will occur there in the future. Where only two or three couples
are this moment fading into the darkness, she sees a crowd. ‘And the
dead, the dead!’” (Breton, 1960:80).9 Admitting to their fears, they hurriedly leave, but ghosts of the political past are again summoned when
they find themselves heading towards the Louvre. The path they take
resembles that traced by Baudelaire near the beginning of “The Swan”;
although Breton does not mention this directly, he starts to recite what he
identifies as “a poem by Baudelaire” (Breton, 1960:83). Far from restoring
Nadja’s spirits, though, this only frightens her further. (Late in the book
Breton quotes directly from the poem when he states, “It is not for me to
ponder what is happening to the ‘shape of a city’ . . .” [Breton, 1960:154]).
Breton’s interest in outmoded spaces is figured especially in relation to
ghostly presences and the psyche. A more social dimension of this interest
is explored by his colleague Louis Aragon in his 1926 book Le Paysan de
Paris. The opening sections of Aragon’s text focus on the nineteenthcentury arcades of Paris and in particular on the Passage de l’Opéra at the
moment that it is threatened with demolition to make way for an access
route to the Boulevard Haussmann. Aragon’s “mythology of the modern”
dwells at length on this dimly lit arcade. He highlights the charge possessed by such spaces, or “human aquariums,” as they become consigned
to the past at a time when a passion for urban planning is redrawing the
map of the city in straight lines, and as their grandeur as sites of consumer
fantasy and fashion fades. He writes that “it is only today, when the pickaxes menace them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of
a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures
and professions. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that
tomorrow will never know” (Aragon, 1980:29). The moment when the site
is being superseded and slipping into history is privileged as offering
potential insights for a critical reading of current conditions. The outmoded and the surrealist strategy of the “deliberate anachronism” are
here associated with a disruptive power, with the reclamation of elements
that threaten to disturb the spectacle of the present.
Benjamin took up these themes in his essay on surrealism in 1929. His
own interest in the “afterlife” of objects had been evident prior to that time
in his critical readings of monuments. He had argued that the obsolescence
and hence recontextualisation of these structures allowed their true character to be exposed. He later developed this idea in his analyses of the Paris
arcades as he sought to uncover the “truth content” of objects through a
focus on their fading fashionability or ruination, and to scrutinise the
architecture of the recent past and other fragmentary remains to decipher
fundamental aspects of modernity. However, while this interest in the
afterlife of an object predated his encounter with surrealism, as Gilloch
notes (1996:196), Benjamin nevertheless argued that Breton and his colleagues had made a major discovery in this regard, one that involved the
“trick” of substituting a political for a historical view of the past. In
Benjamin’s view, Breton “was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded,’ in the first iron constructions, the first
factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be
extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants
when the vogue has begun to ebb from them.” He added that “[t]he relation of these things to revolution—no one can have a more exact concept of
it than these authors. No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived
how destitution—not only social but architectonic, the poverty of interiors,
enslaved but enslaving objects—can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism. . . . They bring the immense forces of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in these things to the point of explosion” (Benjamin, 1979b:229).
Following particularly the lead of Hal Foster’s (1993) rich reading of
surrealism in the light of Benjamin’s remarks cited above, it can be suggested that the explosive charge of the outmoded for the surrealists came
in part through the outmoded’s association with the uncanny. In Freudian
terms, the uncanny relates to the return of material that was previously
repressed. While for Freud it usually takes the form of a horror or dread,
since the past that returns has been damaged through its repression,
Breton and the surrealists invested it at times with a disruptive power,
one that could potentially dislocate the hold of dominant norms and identities. As Foster notes, attempting to connect the historical and the psychic
in this manner is not an unproblematic move. Yet the surrealists—such as
Aragon in his account of the ghostly landscape of the arcade—explored
the return of repressed historical materials in a number of ways, bringing
cultural elements from the past into connection with socioeconomic forces
in the present and relating a concern with the uncanny to ideas about the
outmoded and nonsynchronous.
What particularly interests me here due to its implications for ideas
about the spectacle is how this disruptiveness affects a disturbance within
the visual order of the city. Freud refers to the uncanny, or unheimlich, in
his original essay on that subject in 1919 as—in a line taken from the philosopher Schelling—“something which ought to have remained hidden
but has come to light” (Freud, 1985, cited in Vidler, 1992:14). For Freud,
even the familiar and homely represented by the term heimlich develops in
the direction of ambivalence, with the original German word containing
within itself a suggestion of the concealed or secret. Through uncanny
wanders in Paris, Breton and the surrealists tap into this other side of the
familiar and show how the dominant visual order of the city is unstable,
liable to be shattered by the coming to light of repressed material and by
ambiguities and eruptions in the ordering mechanisms associated with
hegemonic ways of seeing. For the surrealists this opens the potential for
other ways of seeing associated with illumination (see Jay, 1993:236). This
rupturing and its potential for sparking moments of social awakening is
also one of the connotations of Benjamin’s notion of “profane illumination” (1979b:227).
How might this discussion of the surrealists’ interest in the outmoded
inform the reading of Debord’s work outlined earlier? What are its implications for understandings of the urban spectacle? On the one hand, the
position of Debord and the situationists was quite different from that of
the surrealists. Debord criticized the surrealists’ reliance on notions of the
unconscious and the powers of chance, and he argued that their fundamental error lay in “the idea of the infinite richness of the unconscious
imagination” (Debord, 1981:19). In contrast, he put greater emphasis on a
conscious analytic subject. He focused more on intervening in reality and
constructing situations, having less faith than the surrealists in the subversive potential of opening up to the “marvellous” that they believed was
buried within the everyday. On the other hand, even if Debord’s own
activities cannot be read in the same psychoanalytic register, the discussion above still resonates with the lettrists and situationists’ valorisation
of sites that were out of time with the city as spectacle, as well as with
those groups’ own desires to explore hidden meanings and associations in
the city and to disrupt dominant ways of seeing urban spaces.
Returning to the case of the surrealists helps to discern the politicised
dimension within Debord’s nostalgia. It suggests ways of deepening an
insight mentioned but left underdeveloped by Malcolm Löwy, who argues
that “[f]ew twentieth-century authors have been as successful as Guy
Debord in transforming nostalgia into an explosive force, into a poisoned
weapon to be used against the existing order of things, into a revolutionary
breakthrough into the future” (1998:33). Debord’s writings can be seen as
taking on a “gothic” strain in this respect, as Löwy suggests. However,
instead of adopting Löwy’s view of Debord’s “gothic romanticism,” which
claims too much in its emphasis on antimodernism and obscures other
sides of Debord’s thinking, I am more interested in how Debord’s position
comes into a tense relationship with a tradition of what Cohen calls
“Gothic Marxism,” associated especially with Breton, the surrealists,
and Benjamin (Löwy, 1998; Cohen, 1993). In this vein it is interesting to
consider Fredric Jameson’s defence of the potential value of a “nostalgia
conscious of itself” for furnishing a revolutionary stimulus, something for
which he finds the example of Benjamin instructive (1971:82).
The discussion above also helps to explain the significance Debord
attaches to the spectacle’s break with “historical time” and its eradication
or repackaging of the city’s identities, historical layerings, and collective
memories. When he evokes spectres, it is no longer with the same charge
as Baudelaire or Breton. Rather, he does so to refer to alienated individuals
“haunting the things anarchically presented to them by others” (Debord,
1992b:46). A symbol for Debord’s sense that “old Paris is no more” might
be the removal of the markets at Les Halles, which closed after 27 February
1969. Following the demolition of the pavilions two years later, a gaping
hole remained for almost seven years before the construction of the subterranean transport station and commercial centre of the Forum that now
occupies the site. Meanwhile, the Georges Pompidou National Centre of
Art and Culture was constructed at the nearby Plateau Beaubourg, which
ironically became the venue for the retrospective exhibition on the SI in
1989. In a line that echoes the surrealists’ interest in the interconnections
between urban space and psychic charge, the critic Adrian Rifkin (1993:
207) states that the day the workers left the markets at Les Halles for the
new site at Rungis was the moment that old Paris lost its unconscious. For
Debord, the transformation was symptomatic of an eradication of meanings and spatial differences in the city except for those produced in terms
of the spectacle.
Debord’s comments on the creation of such spaces connect with themes
addressed by more recent cultural critics. These include the notion of
“non-places,” characterised by the erasure of juxtapositions of old and
new in “supermodernity” (Augé, 1995) and that of “hyperspace,” based
on the erosion of a sense of temporality and on the understanding that
there is no longer an “outside” to capitalism (Jameson, 1991).10 A positive
consequence of focusing on the LI and SI’s psychogeographical engagements with the spaces of the city in this context, it seems to me, is that it
draws attention to their critical exploration of the nonsynchronous and
uneven character of urban developments associated with recreation of the
city in terms of the spectacle, and to their interest in the tensions involved
in the juxtapositions of different space-times.11 This reading, in turn, suggests ways of thinking about gaps or cracks that provide points of political
intervention, as well as shadows and ghosts, which continue to haunt
spaces of spectacle (see Thrift, 2000).
For many critics it will no doubt appear problematic, not to say inadmissible, to bring the “early” psychogeographical concerns of the lettrists and
situationists against their theory of the spectacle in this way. As I noted
earlier, many of the psychogeographical activities within the SI were
indeed left aside in favour of more directly theoreticopolitical concerns.
While the psychogeographical investigations attempted to uncover hidden
geographies and histories and subvert dominant representations of the
city, Debord’s later works appear to register the passing of those spaces
with the increasingly total encroachment of the spectacle. Nevertheless, I
think that returning to Debord’s engagement with the geographies of the
city in this context can help to move towards a less monolithic notion of
urban spectacle, where it is understood not as demonising vision and the
image altogether nor as proposing that the urban is the site of a single
visual order. This approach opens up different perspectives on Debord’s
opposition to representation and representational regimes as constructed
within capitalist society, and on his interest in exploring other possibilities
and ways of experiencing the city. Even Debord’s last laments about the
“old city” can usefully be read in connection with his earlier urban interests, acting as a continuing protest against what he sees as the injustices
underpinning urban reconstruction and the deficiency of the new urban
scenes. In echoing lines from Baudelaire’s “The Swan,” Debord invokes
what one critic calls its “mnemonics of dispossession” (Terdiman, 1993:
143) as he contests the reality of urban changes and insists on the deficiency of present urban conditions. Defiance characterises his bleak images
of the present; glimmers of other possibilities remain.
An early version of this paper was first presented at the “Geography and
Vision” session of the Annual Meeting of the Association of American
Geographers at Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1996. I would like to thank
Catherine Nash for inviting the contribution, and the participants and
audience for their responses. I am also grateful to Gerry Kearns, Steve Pile,
Jane Wills, and an anonymous referee for their helpful comments; to Linda
McDowell for her support and encouragement with my research; and to
those who have discussed versions of the paper at the “Visual Culture”
seminar series at Anglia Polytechnic University, and at seminars in the
Departments of Geography at the University of Edinburgh, the University
of Reading, the University of Wales at Lampeter, and the Open University.
I would further like to acknowledge the support of the Economic and
Social Research Council, which funded the research from which this paper
An important early exception to the relative neglect of these questions in
the literature on the SI was the work of Alastair Bonnett (see especially
Bonnett, 1989, 1991; cf. Sadler, 1998). The significance of situationist ideas and
practices to debates about urban geography and spatial politics, as well as
attempts to intervene in these fields, is something that I explore further elsewhere, including in Pinder (1996) and in a forthcoming book, Visions of the
City (Edinburgh University Press).
Debord made a total of six black and white films between 1952 and 1978.
However, he withdrew them all from public viewing in 1984. Since then two
of the films—La société du spectacle (1973) and Réfutation de tous les jugements,
tant élogieux qu’hostiles, qui ont été jusqu’ici portés sur le film ‘La Société du Spectacle’ (1975)—have been screened on the French television channel Canal Plus,
on 9 January 1995. My comments on the film In girum rely on the published
text with accompanying screenplay and film stills (Debord, 1978, 1991a).
It should be reiterated that, for Debord and the situationists, the concept of
“spectacle” was always part of a political project; it was an element to be used
alongside others in combat. There is therefore something incongruous in
disconnecting it from that usage and discussing it within the realms of theoretical discourse. Nevertheless, references to the term and to Debord’s own
account are now in wide circulation, meaning that issues about its use and
understandings are a matter of significant debate. Other commentators noting the difficulties this presents include T.J. Clark, himself a former member
of the SI, who, in accepting the inevitability of the contradiction involved
in using “spectacle” in his study of nineteenth-century Paris, nonetheless
remarks: “If once or twice in the text my use of the term carries a faint whiff
of Debord’s chiliastic serenity I shall be satisfied” (1985:9–10). For his part,
Debord acknowledged that “the critical concept of the spectacle is susceptible
of being turned into just another empty formula of sociologico-political rhetoric designed to explain and denounce everything in the abstract,” and he
therefore insisted that such a theory must join “forces with the practical
movement of negation within society” (1994:thesis 203; emphasis in original).
This includes media discussion about the manner of Debord’s death after he
shot himself at his house in Bellevue de la Montagne, on 30 November 1994,
and its possible connections with the suicides that followed in the same week
of two friends from Parisian intellectual circles, novelist Roger Stéphane and
publisher Gérard Voitey. The first newspaper to posit possible links was Le
Figaro, 8 December 1994, while coverage in Britain included Hussey and
Bowd (1995). Debord occasionally responded to media gossip and criticism
during his lifetime (for example, Debord, 1993).
Debord is here echoing Marx’s observation that “capital is not a thing, but
a social relation between persons which is mediated through things” (1976:
932). As Jappe remarks, Debord’s use of the term spectacle is often as an
extension of Marx’s notion of the commodity-form (1999:19), and Debord
begins The Society of the Spectacle with a sentence that plays on the first line
of Capital: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of
production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles”
(1994:thesis 1).
This relates to other passages in situationist writings, for instance to Attila
Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem’s characterisation of urbanism as a “geology
of lies” (1981:67). Debord is concerned here with the spatialisation of time,
something that preoccupied Bergson and that was also taken up by Lukács
in his account of the control of workers’ labour power (Jay, 1993:195–196,
418; Jappe, 1999:27).
Criticisms of Debord’s pessimism and even paranoia became particularly
common after the publication of his admittedly much bleaker Comments on
the Society of the Spectacle (1990). See, for example, Berman et al. (1990).
In the same film Debord also refers to the May 1968 revolts in Paris when he
states with reference to the city that “[w]e will have to leave it, but not without
having once tried to seize it with direct force” (1991a:57).
Cohen discusses the historical identity of the “dead” of the Place Dauphine
However, for a detailed account of the politics of spectacle in 1980s Paris that,
in contrast, pays considerable attention to the persisting significance within
contemporary debates about issues of history and memory, see Gerry Kearns
As Foster (1993) suggests, this is also apparent in certain surrealist writings.
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