The Spectacle Of Secrecy

"Secrecy dominates this world, and foremost as the secret of domination."

Guy Debord, Treatise on Secrets: Commentaires sur la societe du spectacle, (London: Verso, 1990).

Written as if the most revolutionary style were the most classical, Commentaires is not a secret history after Procopius, but rather a classic treatise on secrets whose main thrust is to remind us of the secret potential of negation. Originally published in 1988 by Editions Gerard Lebovici, it broke what had been Debord's virtual silence since "Preface a la quatrième edition italienne de 'La Societe du Spectacle'" (1979), which is included in the Gallimard edition of Commentaires (1992). The British1 translation of Comments (Verso 1990) softens what may be Debord's last shot at the society of the spectacle -- hands down the mightiest enemy in current political theory. As events continue to validate his "reckless historical judgments" it isn't too surprising for a writer of the stature of Phillippe Sollers to praise Debord and to quote Comments in the novel Le Secret: "As has written an excellent author: 'The generalized secret stands behind the spectacle as the decisive complement of what it displays and, if one gets to the bottom of things, as its most important operation.'"2

The most easily revealed secret in this treatise by the self-proclaimed Prince of Negation is that he is a living master, a veritable Machiavelli. Gone is the nervous acidity of Lautreamont that prevailed in Debord's Potlatch3 diatribes and in his films; nor can we see the stylistic influence of Chtcheglov "setting off for the hacienda" along the Soviet-Franco border that Debord brought to the Situationist International. There is a faint echo of Nietzschean ressentiment and the obligatory nod to Marx, but with his references to military strategists, and by his elaborate sentence structures, the Debord of Comments sounds like the one who translated Sanguinetti4, only much better. In his direct, striking propositions Debord appears to "take up, with Machiavelli, the analysis of desanctified power, saying the unspeakable about the State" as he remarked in Society of the Spectacle (139).

Unlike Machiavelli, Debord scoffs at necessity and laughs at fortune, or so it would seem to readers of Panegyrique (Editions Gerard Lebovici 1989) where, among other tales of adventure, he recounts his sojourn in Florence. This is a testament to a life of sovereignty governed -- after Bataille -- by uselessness, which contradicts (as Debord is well aware) the duty to history voiced in Comments: "If history should return to us after this eclipse, something which depends on factors still in play and thus on an outcome which no one can definitely exclude, these Comments may one day serve in the writing of a history of the spectacle [...italics mine]."

The notion of history depending on factors in play is close to the Florentine statesman's concept of historical flux. Debord's statement, "We believe we know that history appeared, in Greece, at the same time as democracy. We can verify their simultaneous disappearance," ties his historical duty to democracy. The clarity, sweep and content of this, and many other generalizations are Machiavellian. Debord's democracy is washed with the wine of an eternal Renaissance festival -- probably not exactly what Machiavelli would call virtù despite their shared "historical consciousness issuing from the democratic communities" of Antiquity.5

Like Machiavelli, Debord analyzed the forces that conspired against democracy, and thus sketched its features in the negative. The Society of the Spectacle (1967) showed, as Debord remarks in Comments, "the autocratic reign of the market economy which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty, and the totality of new techniques of government which accompanied this reign." In Comments, we see the spectacle's "lines of advance" accompanied by what would be the equivalent of mercenaries to Machiavelli -- terrorists, the mafia, and secret agents of every stripe; in short, everyone who "conspires in favor of" the spectacle.

The Situationist International is hardly mentioned in Society of the Spectacle, but it was written during the heroic phase of the International: who can forget the scandalous publication of The Poverty of Student Life by the pro-situ students in Strasbourg in 1966, or the Paris occupation movement in May 1968 that touched off the largest wildcat strike in world history. Predictably, the value-laden term "spectacle" has been trivialised by its appearance in the spectacle and by neo-situationists ("pro-situs") who would somehow forget to cite Debord in relation to this concept. Although Comments is not a sequel to Society of the Spectacle, readers of the former should recall that the latter was a total critique of modern capitalism's system of illusions that simultaneously clarified the real by means of the possible: class struggle and revolution.6 Before highlighting a few aspects of Comments that directly pick up on themes in The Society of the Spectacle, I should make a few critical remarks. Debord begins and ends with the phrase of "ideology materialized." I'm compelled to bring this negation of ideology into question because it is ubiquitous in what has become, in North America, a vague anarcho-situationist scene. In the ground breaking work Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Volosinov7 opens with a chapter on ideology and language that makes the convincing case, among others, for an equivalence between ideology and word.

This has profound implications. There are ideologically neutral words, but I would argue that an ideologically neutral lexicon is impossible at the level of conceptual thinking engaged in by Debord. In other words, this endless haranguing against ideology is done with ideologically charged language -- Marxist, anarchist or situationist. To bring the charge of "false consciousness" to "ideology" is to do so in a way that clearly denotes an ideology. And even in the relatively neutral language of Comments one finds words like agora that denote a quest, like Machiavelli's, for legitimacy in the ideological tradition of Antiquity.

What should be avoided is not the unavoidable -- ideology -- but systems thinking in general and that of Debord's beloved Hegel in particular. It is one thing to privilege "desire" as a moment of transitory thought, and quite another to privilege it as an element in a hierarchical system. For all of Nietzsche's outward elitism, which should be anathema to anti-authoritarian thinkers, his hammer crushed grand philosophic systems into dust. And while Nietzsche had recourse to a questioning, Socratic "dialectic," he eschewed the stiff, academic dialectics of Hegel. Debord is working in the revolutionary tradition of Marx, Bakunin and Stirner (fellow Young Hegelians), so it is not surprising that he insists, in theory, on continuing the tradition of Hegelian dialectics while in practice his methods vary.

I contend that it is precisely here, at the fundamental level of methodology, that tradition must be broken if revolutionary theory is to advance. Dialectics is, to my mind, one of the very reifying models that Debord rails against. Reality is messy, open-ended and always contextual, whereas dialectics are abstract -- a central contradiction for a thinker who would privilege the situation and everyday life, which is always particular. Dialectical thinking may have engendered historical acts, but history is not dialectical; it is -- as the Debord of Comments observes -- subject to surprise and may yet reappear.

It is in the particular that Debord and Hegel can be insightful. For example, Debord makes the shrewd observation that it is totality that must come into question -- regardless of the genesis of this particular proposition, its validity seems obvious to me. And he quotes Hegel at the beginning of Society of the Spectacle, and before the last chapter, to the effect that a representation of the self is not actual; that self-consciousness only exists for another self-consciousness. In other words, Hegel can be an excellent instrument of self-consciousness at a time when the prevailing conceptions of self are citizen, worker and consumer.

We live in various states of self-denial, so this focus on the self and other "selves" -- even when Hegelian -- is focusing on the right thing. I reject the effort to make reality fit into a neat dialectic, but I have no qualms with appropriating good ideas, such as Debord's concept of the spectacle -- sometimes criticized as being too totalizing to match reality. I would reply in defense of the spectacle by saying, "I wish it weren't so." Those who would question the extent of the spectacle's reach into the thoughts and souls of humanity have doubtlessly failed to look for it in themselves.

In ending The Society of the Spectacle with a call to have dialogue arm itself, and in pulling the plug on the Situationist International with a call for a theory of dialogue that is a critique of society8, Debord opens the door in my mind to Bakhtin's theory of dialogue. Contrary to what some would have us believe, Bakhtin is a Bakunin for our times. Kristeva has shown that it is possible to move beyond structuralist9 thought by following the path marked by Bakhtin, and Stam10 has shown how subversive Bakhtinian thought can be. More serious play along the line of a Bakhtinian-parasituationist dialogue needs to be done rather than following the nihilisticly cynical path of Baudrillard who has conceded to once being 'situationistic' -- for him secrets and repression have been supplanted by 'the obscene,' "the rule of the game of a world without appearance or depth -- a transparent universe."11

In Comments Debord maps the progression of the spectacle to its universal arrival at the integrated stage. The spectacle in 1967 was either concentrated (fascist and Stalinist forms), or diffuse (the American form). Now, with the unification of the two forms around the stronger, diffuse form, spectacular economy and spectacular government are ubiquitous -- they transform and rule the globe. As Debord introduces this formulation of the integrated spectacle, he is by turns droll and startling. The end of the division of labor, which was such a preoccupation for revolutionaries like Proudhon, is accomplished by the spectacle so that, "a chef will philosophize on cookery techniques as if they were landmarks in universal history." I will never forget the day I bought Comments, waiting to attend a lecture by renegade spy Philip Agee and reading the lines: "Yet the highest ambition of the integrated spectacle is still to turn secret agents into revolutionaries, and revolutionaries into secret agents."

This comment goes to the heart of Comments. Debord devotes long paragraphs to the other four features of the integrated spectacle -- incessant technological innovation, fusion of state and economy, unanswerable lies and a perpetual present -, but to "generalized secrecy," he gives us only the phrase cited by Sollers that calls secrecy the spectacle's most vital operation. The reason for this is that the entire book is a treatise on secrets by a man who wraps himself in a cloak of secrecy for what are, apparently, good reasons. When commenting on the mysterious assassination of Debord's benefactor a Parisian journalist claimed that Debord had a Soviet bank account12, and rumors on this side of the Atlantic would have him be a C.I.A. agent.

Yet none of this agent baiting rings true in light of the fact that when Debord breaks his silence it is primarily to expose the artificial terror of the state. In his "Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of the Society of the Spectacle" and again in Comments Debord exposed what has recently become widely acknowledged: Moro was killed by members of his own party, and the Italian "terrorists" of the late sixties and seventies were right-wing activists who infiltrated ultraleft groups and militarized them. Despite his denunciation of "terrorism," there have been militant groups that began their literature with, "Debord was right in saying..."

Comments is full of warnings:

* the militant " at the service of the established order right from the start, even though he may have had quite the opposite intention."

* " distinguish with equal clarity the related, but very different, meanings of the perils normally expected to be faced by any group which devotes itself to subversion, following, for example, this progression: misguided, provoked, infiltrated, manipulated, taken over, subverted. Certainly these important nuances were never seen by the doctrinaires of 'armed struggle'."

* in chapter XXVII Debord quotes Thucydides at length on the mistrust and mutual suspicion among the mass of people that protected a minority conspiring for oligarchy in the name of the Revolutionary Party.

* "In a relatively confidential manner, lucid texts are beginning to appear, anonymously, or signed by unknown authors -- a tactic helped by everyone's concentration on the clowns of the spectacle, which in turn makes unknowns justly seem the most admirable -- texts not only on subjects never touched on in the spectacle but also containing arguments whose force is made more striking by a calculable originality deriving from the fact that however evident, they are never used. This practice may serve as at least a first stage in initiation to recruit more alert intellects, who will later be told more about the possible consequences, should they seem suitable. What for some will be the first step in a career will be for others -- with lower grades -- the first step into the trap prepared for them."

Debord notes that more and more people are conspiring in favor of the spectacle, that there is a "crisis in the growth of secret services," what he says elsewhere is "a natural product of the concentration of capital, production and distribution." Many agents are disguised as journalists, historians and novelists; and they are the ones who silence, not what is secret, but what spectacular discourse "finds inconvenient." Whereas Arthur Cravan envisioned a near future where everyone was an artist, Debord sees a spy in everyone. And of these front-row spectators, Debord follows a brilliant formulation with a just-so observation: "The fact is that almost no one sees secrecy in its inaccessible purity and its functional universality. Everyone accepts that there are inevitably little areas of secrecy reserved for specialists; as regards things in general, many believe they are in on the secret." What follows is not intended as an attack on business, religion, cults, feminism or multiculturalism, but to simply state that their relationship with secret services is antithetical to democracy. Industrial espionage is carried out by governments for corporations, many of which have their own secret services. Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (I use this example primarily because its media exposure is a current event), and scientologists have squads of people trained to act in secret. "The spectacle has brought the secret to victory, and must always be more controlled by specialists in secrecy who, it is understood, are not all officials who have, to different degrees, just freed themselves from the state; who are not all officials." Outside of the politics of left and right -- and far from any authentic opposition based on the mass of proletarians -- the perfection of separation continues.

To read Debord on the various secret services in Italy13 or his analysis of French secret services bumbling in Auckland, one comes away with a picture of secret agents as Keystone Cops falling all over one another. "So it is that thousands of plots in favor of the established order tangle and clash almost everywhere, as the overlap of secret networks and secret issues or activities grows ever more dense along with their rapid integration into every sector of economics, politics and culture. In all areas of social life the degree of intermingling in surveillance, disinformation and security activities gets greater and greater. The general plot having thickened to so that it is almost out in the open, each part of it now starts to interfere with, or worry, the others. All these professional conspirators are spying on each other without really knowing why, are colliding by chance and yet not identifying each other with any certainty. Who is observing whom? On whose behalf, apparently? And actually? The real influences remain hidden, and the ultimate aims can only be seen with great difficulty and almost never understood. So that while no one can say he is not being tricked or manipulated, it is only in rare instances that the manipulator himself can know if he is a winner. And in any case, to be on the winning side of manipulation does not mean that one has chosen the right strategic perspective. Tactical successes can thus lead great powers down dangerous roads."

What is one dangerous road hinted at by Debord? Provocation through artificial terror, which, as is seen in the government admissions and after-the-fact media exposes, ultimately backfires on the state and the spectacle. What is another road? Organization of dissent so it can instruct "not terrorists, but theories," by, to choose one example, the funding of tens of thousands of foundations that turn everyone's attention to sexism and racism, or anything else that divides people rather than unites them in class struggle.

In the same way that Machiavelli wrote The Prince and The Discourses for different audiences, Debord states that of the elite readers of Comments, half are "people who devote themselves to maintaining the system of spectacular domination," and the other half, "those who obstinately persist in doing the exact opposite." Yet there is a strange point of convergence that anticipates, and partially responds to my earlier objections to Debord's use of "ideology": the question of legality. In Comments Debord writes: "In the integrated spectacle, the laws are asleep; because they were not made for the new production techniques, and because they are evaded in distribution by new types of agreement." Secret societies of arms merchants, statesmen and revolutionaries "have ceased to trouble themselves with any kind of ideology on the question..." Everyone, following the model of the Mafia, is engaged in illegal activity, which explains what would otherwise be a childish fetish for secrets.

This practical disregard for ideology is best illustrated by General Noriega, the model prince of our times. A CIA agent against Cuba who informed the US on his competition in the drug import business, he looked to Cuba for anti-imperialist support when the US turned against him. These twists and turns were doubtlessly based on advice from his chief security advisor, a former Mossad officer. Let me quote The Prince: "I conclude, then, inasmuch as Fortune is changeable, that men who persist obstinately in their own ways will be successful only so long as those ways coincide with those of Fortune; and whenever these differ, they fail." As for Plato's "great proof" of necessity invoked by Machiavelli, well, it can't be proven, and only dupes with jobs would try.

Debord was probably amused to hear that a certain state-sponsored (via the Rand corporation) student of Kojeve started the rumor that the present is "the end of history." Conditions have never been more revolutionary according to Debord, despite the Hegelian "satisfaction" with the economy and the state on the part of all theory, at least all theory that is visible. He predicts "relief" for those who serve domination, which is to say they will be fired, or simply replaced by fresh troops.

"This relief, which will decisively conclude the work of these spectacular times, operates discreetly and conspiratorially even in what concerns those already in the sphere of power." "Relief" can also be the establishment of new supply lines by an occupying power, such as the masses. Another student of Kojeve, Georges Bataille (one opposed, however, to this "satisfaction" by his insistence that revolution is the only mature thing to do) issued a challenge to his generation "whose rebels are afraid of the noise of their own words"14 (one that Debord responded to in his generation by giving voice to a fearless critique of totality). In many ways Comments is Debord's challenge for negation to come out of hiding, for negation to find its thought.


1. Malcolm Imrie's translation is a distortion of tone, narrative trajectory, and at times, meaning. Consider the first paragraph: "promptement connus" is translated as "welcomed" (when that probably isn't the case); "connaisseur" as "authority" (in reference to Debord himself? not when the book deals so much with irrational authority). The worst error, "le système de domination spectaculaire" becoming "the spectacular system of domination" shows that Imrie isn't very familiar with the Debordian concept of "spectacular domination." I won't quibble over other words, but I must say that the last sentence muffles Debord's militant tone and injects the word "information," which isn't in the original -- Debord later writes that there is disinformation in all information. Many of the quotes in this review have been retranslated. Verso should put out a new translation, taking the editor's name off the cover.

2. Le Secret p. 190.

3. Journal of the Lettrist International.

4. Italian situationist. Debord translated his sublime fake The Real Report on the Last Chances for Saving Capitalism in Italy into French (Champ Libre, 1976).

5. S.O.S.#139.

6. What follows is a paraphrased and expanded version of Jean-Francois Martos' chapter-by-chapter exposition of S.O.S. from his Histoire de l'Internationale situationniste (1989 Editions Gerard Lebovici).

I "Separation Perfected" Debord revises Marx's analysis of commodity fetishism around the concept of the spectacle. "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation." The world of the spectacle is up-side-down: the real becomes ideology; and as it materializes, ideology becomes real in every domain of individual and social life. The spectacle separates an individual from his or her being, and as the inheritor of religion, the spectacle is the "material reconstruction of religious illusion."

II "The Commodity as Spectacle" Debord defines the spectacle as a moment in the development of the world of the commodity, the moment predicted by Lukacs when the commodity becomes "the universal category of society as a whole." All that one sees is the world of the commodity, and the society of the spectacle is where "the commodity contemplates itself in a world it has created."

III "Unity and Division within Appearance" Spectacular society is at once united and divided: "The unreal unity proclaimed by the spectacle masks the class division on which rests the real unity of the capitalist mode of production." This unity of alienation hides all the false oppositions of the society of the spectacle.

IV "The Proletariat as Subject and as Representation" Debord reconsiders the history of the revolutionary movement from the polemics of Marx and Bakunin, to Kronstadt to Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. He ultimately put his weight behind Pannekoek's vision of workers' councils, where, "the objective conditions of historical consciousness are reunited."

V "Time and History" Debord goes from the Oriental empires to the empire of the society of the spectacle in sixteen insightful pages, underscoring the fact that history is made by humans, that it depends on the prevailing concept of time. Despite the universality of the irreversible time of production, it is the particular time of special interests: "...the time of the world market, and, as a corollary, of the world spectacle."

VI "Spectacular Time" Debord redeploys the rhetorical strategy of definition: the spectacle ("as the social organization of the paralysis of history and memory") is the "false consciousness of time." Spectacular time is the "the time of production" of an historical society that refuses history. "Under the visible fashions which disappear and reappear on the trivial surface of contemplated pseudo-cyclical time, the grand style of the age is always located in what is oriented by the obvious and secret necessity of revolution."

VII "The Organization of Territory" Debord is reminiscent of Virilio, or vice versa: "This society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance internally as spectacular separation." Whereas urbanism is the setting chosen and created by capitalism, Debord would have workers change the environment in accordance with the needs of workers' councils.

VIII "Negation and Consumption within Culture" Debord ties the historical revolutionary perspective to the dissolution of culture as "division of intellectual labor and intellectual labor of division." "Culture is the locus of the search for lost unity. In this search for unity, culture as a separate sphere is obliged to negate itself." Debord used the material from this chapter in his film version of Society of the Spectacle -- both in front of, and behind the camera.

IX "Ideology Materialized" Here Debord argues that it is ideology that is at the base of class society. And here, the spectacle, is ideology. "Self-emancipation" is to be achieved by moving beyond the "material bases of inverted truth." He ends with an appeal to bringing all power to councils, to what has been called elsewhere "the theory of practice and the practice of theory," and the notion of "dialogue armed."

7. Volosinov worked with Bakhtinian ideas in a dialectical, method -- either he was more Marxist than the master or he did it to squeak by the censors. See Eagleton's Ideology for current theory on the ideology of language.

8. Debord and Sanguinetti, The Real split in the International.

9. Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language.

10. Stam, Subversive Pleasure.

11. Gane, Baudrillard Live p.181 and Fatal Strategies, p. 65.

12. Serge de Beketch Minute, March 17, 1984 -- reprinted in Gerard Lebovici/Tout sur le Personnage.

13. See both Comments and the "Preface" -- Sanguinetti's On Terrorism and the State develops these ideas in complete detail.

14. Cited in Marcus' Lipstick Traces p. 396.

Len Bracken is the author of numerous books including, The East is Black, Freeplay, and Ritual Intoxication, all published by Backbone Press, Arlington, Virginia.