Blinding the Spectacle
Constructed only of light and darkness, white and black, multiple voices and total silence, Guy Debord’s first film, Howls for Sade (1952), eschewed any images at all. In his final work, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (We Spin Around the Night Consumed by the Fire, 1978), his voice can be heard over a montage of preexisting images from films, news footage, television shows, commercials, comics, and photographs. Throughout, Debord consistently battled the spectacle, the spectacle that permeates our world and the detail of our daily lives, the spectacle that grabs hold of our consciousnesses and individual ways of life. The “spectacle” reduces life’s complexities and unified connections to a fragmentary and simplified image, which autonomously drives this inverted “life.” Now the spectacle has become a part of our society, society itself, and the instrument for integration of society. Debord battled this spectacle not through film but through a fundamental critique, the destruction of that thing we call film.
First, by stripping images from film, he tried to break the spectators’ immersion in and infantile dependence on the image. Images are absent in Howls for Sade to allow the spectators, in the bright light, to forget that they are spectators and instead fixate on themselves. Darkness and silence cause us to strain to hear our inner voice, and prompt dialogue with ourselves. In that way a “debate” is born, a debate over what constitutes the fabricated system that controls our world as spectacle, over what our meagre lives submerged in spectacle are, and over how to break free from these.
After this initial ritual of image deprivation, Debord next turns to the language of spectacle itself, to snatch away the weapons of that society and turn them back on it, initiating a battle with spectacle that crosses over the public and the private. As Alice Debord says, works such as Critique of Separation (1961) and The Society of the Spectacle (1973) are a “mirror” to the world that we see. In this mirror we discover the self entrapped in the spectacle. There we are not spectators. What we see on the screen is not an image cut off from ourselves. In contrast, as we as spectators watch images of the catastrophe of the world, we ourselves are watched.
On the other side of this mirror is the life of Debord, totally unable to be seen within the spectacle. His youth in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, his friends, the imprisoned, those killed and gone mad in adventures, night wanders around Paris, the Situationist conferences in Munich and Venice, European trips, his life with Alice at Champot . . . This life of Debord’s, unable to be seen in the gaze of the spectacle, radiates from beyond the mirror to the backs of our eyes. Like the break of dawn after a night of roaming the streets . . .
In the morning as we wake, or when a baby is born and first opens her eyes, in that moment the spectacle is not yet there. On the white-washed and pitch-black screens of Debord’s films is the memory of the moment we opened our eyes, and the chance to time and again blind the spectacle.
Born in 1956. A professor at the University of Hyogo, Kinoshita is a specialist in French literature, French philosophy, and European society and culture. His translations of books by Guy Debord include The Society of the Spectacle; Comments on the Society of the Spectacle; Complete Cinematic Works.