Spectacular Times

The Spectacular Times is a series of pamphlets written/produced by Larry Law in the late 1970s/early 1980s that took the often abstruse ideas of a group of French radicals called “situationists” and explored them in concrete ways and easy(er) to understand language. They are generally considered to be one of the most accessible introductions to situationist ideas available.

The situationists were a loose group of (mostly) French activists and intellectuals, very active in the events of May 1968, who tried to formulate a revolutionary theory applicable to daily life (speaking very loosely here) under what we would now term postmodernism. [As usual, see Wikipedia for a more extended introduction.]

While interest in the situationists themselves is fairly limited – confined mostly to radicals of various anarchist tendencies and academics in the humanities – many of the ideas put forth by the situationists have been much more widely influential, particularly their exploration of the politics of “everyday life” and their critique of a consumer-oriented, mass-mediated social order. Their analysis of these topics is directly applicable to many of issues raised in my discussion of “kids and kommercialism.”

The Spectacular Times pamphlet “The Spectacle: A Skeleton Key” lays out the perspective of a large percentage of post-60s anarchist-and situationist-influenced, post-Marxist radicals bluntly and succinctly:

Once upon a time there was a revolutionary working class movement – first organized by Marx and Bakunin in the 19th century it has, over the years, been diverted, hijacked and defeated; in the West by the bourgeoisie, in the East by the Bolsheviks.

Capitalism rules. In the West “free enterprise” big business and the multinationals – giant corporations with budgets equal to those of medium sized nations. In the East the monopolists dream – one big company – Soviet Union Ltd. And the workers? – bored to death in a ‘peoples’ barracks or legless in Disneyland.

The Spectacular Times pamphlets consist of (mostly) hand-lettered text interspersed with a variety of figures and examples – images, cartoons, newspaper clippings, etc. – that illustrate or expand upon the text. As such, they don’t work well in extended quotes – they really need to be read in the original:

[Links to other digital copies of the pamphlets can be found at the end of this post.]

At the heart of The Spectacular Times‘ exploration of situationist ideas is the notion of the “spectacle.” The key theorist of the situationists, Guy Debord, drew overtly on Marx’s notion of the commodity and commodity fetishism in his development of the notion of “the spectacle,” but was also powerfully influenced by the post-WWII ascendancy of mass media, marketing and television, and the disillusionment of French radicals after 1968:

The Spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images…. The Spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living…. The liar has lied to himself.

The Spectacular Times positions the ideas of the situationists, including crucially this notion of “the spectacle,” as a way to resurrect the “diverted, hijacked and defeated” revolutionary movement in the world of triumphal capitalism (even more so since the fall of the Soviet Union), the world of the spectacle:

The old terminology of revolutionary ideology, defined when the technology at the disposal of modern capitalism was undreamt of, has proved hopelessly inadequate. Like a fundamentalist preacher trying to come to terms with space travel, we are caught trying to make the new conditions fit the old analysis.

To attempt a description of these new conditions Henri Lefebvre suggested “The Spectacle” as an ad hoc term – a term later defined and analysed by Guy Debord … in “The Society of the Spectacle” and Raoul Vaneigem in “The Totality for Kids” and “The Revolution of Everyday Life”.

The first pamphlet of The Spectacular Times. “Images and Everyday,” begins by addressing the issue of the spectacle directly:

We live in a Spectacular Society. That is, our while life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of Spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy.

Once an experience is taken out of the real world into the spectacular world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience.

Speaking very loosely here, “the spectacle” refers to what Debord described as “the totality of new techniques” of capitalism and the government, particularly the techniques of the mass media and marketing, and to the way that everyday life tends to take on the form of a spectacle, a TV show that we are living. (Reality TV of course would have delighted the theorist and horrified the activist in every situationist.)

“Skeleton Key” quotes Carol Ehrlich (an English feminist theorist who later wrote the Spectacular Times pamphlet on “Women and the Spectacle”) on the totality, the pervasiveness or ubiquity, of “the spectacle”:

Culture as Spectacle covers everything; we are born into it, go to school in it, work and relax and relate to other people in it. Even when we rebel against it, the rebellion is often defined by the Spectacle.

Or, as Larry Law puts it elsewhere, “The only choice we are presented with is the choice between the spectacle of domination and the spectacle of opposition.”

Influence

Like many young radicals, I stumbled across The Spectacular Times at the local alternative bookstore (in my case,  the Redfern Black Rose Anarchist Bookstore in Sydney), and was deeply influenced by the ideas I found in these pamphlets, which seemed to speak more clearly to the mass-mediated, postmodern world I inhabited than did the “old terminology of revolutionary ideology” that I heard at meetings from older activists. Situationist ideas as explored in The Spectacular Times seemed to give me an intellectual purchase, a critical purchase, on my world, while also confirming my hostile reaction to so much of what I was confronted with, at school, on television, from the authorities – banal, inauthentic, conformist and everywhere the same.

When I embarked on my university career, though, I found that the situationist influence was not confined to starry-eyed kid radicals and cranky pamphleteers labouring in garrets. The work of situationists like Guy Debord and of related figures like Henri Lefebvre has had an important impact on a range of work within academia, particularly in cultural studies, and in media studies and the media more generally. The notion of “the spectacle,” as obscure and alien as it may have seemed in some of the above discussion, has become fairly widely accepted and other ideas derived from the situationists are regularly used by a range of academics and media professionals.

Returning to the issue of “kids and kommercialism,” situationist analyses of the way the “spectacle” functions to absorb every authentic human impulse into the structure of mass mediated commodity capitalism are directly relevant to critiques of marketing to children – even those of mainstream groups like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, in for example their criticism of the commercialization of play. Similarly, my own work in popular culture studies and critical media literacy is deeply influenced by the work of the situationists and fellow travelers. For instance, in critiquing ads, I am attentive to the way they (attempt to) take utopian impulses and genuine human desires and redirect those impulses and desires back into the system, into support for the status quo – eg, into the form of something you can buy – “the spectacle of opposition.”

The Texts

PDF versions of most of the Spectacular Times pamphlets are available for download through the Internet Archive [here] and on SlideShare [here]. They can also be found as series of image files at “No Need to Know” [here].

A fairly comprehensive selection of the work of Guy Debord, the French theorist/activist (praxist?) who played a key role in the development of situationist thought, can be found here – in the invaluable Spunk Library archives, always a good place to start when you are looking for radical texts with anarchist sympathies or connections.

A very extensive collection of situationist writing and related material is available from the Bureau of Public Secrets.

Finally, for those of you who are German native speakers, a German language version of “Images and Everyday Life” is available [here].

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