Spectacle and the Production of Space

The Society of the Spectacle helps me pick up where I left off with my recent comments about the centrality of “fetishism” and “critique” in Henri Lefebvre’s work. Put simply, Guy Debord’s “spectacle” is Marx’s notion of fetishism writ large. Rather than social relations primarily mediated by mystified things (i.e. commodities), as Marx would have it, Debord sees that social relations between people have become deeply mediated by images and representations.

The process of spectacle is sustained by Debord’s elaborate notion of “separation”—separation of work, of spaces, of people, of people from spaces, people from things, from products, etc. These separations—that is, their intense reification—unleashes into practice Marx’s famous dictum that ideas become material forces when they seize the minds of the multitudes. That’s how spectacle works. Separation, in all its mind-numbing plentitude, becomes the total enemy of the dialectic, of society as totality: “The spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality. Conversely, real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it. Objective reality is present on both sides. Each of these seemingly fixed concepts has no other basis than its transformation into its opposite: reality emerges within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and support of the existing society” (Thesis 8). Spectacle envelopes reality with its opposite; kernel and shell are not only inverted, they become practically indistinguishable.

In view of Debord’s rich elaboration of “separation,” it’s not surprising that Lefebvre called the “production of space” a “unitary theory” of space (Production of Space, e.g. 11, 12, 13, 20, 21). The trouble was to build a theory of space encompassing all its various dimensions without reproducing a long tradition of bad philosophical abstractions. In Lefebvre’s synonymous iterations the various fields that needed unifying were the physical, mental, social; the perceived, conceived, lived; the material, ideal, everyday, respectively). Without bringing these moments or fields of space into dialectical unison, space would remain fetishized. Indeed, taking any one field of space in isolation of its dialectical totality only further mystifies and naturalizes space as it crudely appears to us.

In writing about the commodity as spectacle (and the same goes for space as spectacle), Debord claims, “In the spectacle’s basic practice of incorporating into itself all the fluid aspects of human activity so as to possess them in a congealed form, and of inverting living values into purely abstract values, we recognize our old enemy the commodity, which seems at first glance so trivial and obvious, yet which is actually so complex and full of metaphysical subtleties” (Thesis 35). (I’m using Ken Knabb’s translation of the book.) This is the same point Lefebvre is trying to make about space: taking any one field, as he defines them, in isolation, is a reproduction and perpetuation of its mystification, petrifying space abstractly and sapping it of all human practices and social relations.

We know that Marx’s call for “relentless criticism of all existing conditions” is never enough; in fact, at a recent conference I was at someone flatly stated, “It’s simply not working!” I think Debord and (more so) Lefebvre provide a much more grounded (quite literally) and practical hypothesis for pushing social transformations, and space is at the center of this politics. Lefebvre called it autogestion, while Debord, using “critique” as point of departure and not a destination, wrote: “Proletarian revolution is this critique of human geography through which individuals and communities could create places and events commensurate with the appropriation no longer just of their work, but of their entire history” (Thesis 178). Echoing Debord in a cautionary way, Lefebvre noted that the bare-minimum of durable social changes have to produce a spatial imprint: “Ideas, representations or values which do not succeed in making their mark on space, and thus generating (or producing) an appropriate morphology [i.e. social space], will lose all pith and become mere signs, resolve themselves into abstract descriptions, or mutate into fantasies”—that is, into spectacle (Production of Space, 417).

Indeed, the common denominator between many of Latin America’s most forceful political movements—the highland Aymara in Bolivia, Zapatistas in Mexico, MST in Brazil, recovered factory and unemployed workers in Argentina, and indigenous communities across the region—is that they’ve managed to produce trenchant socio-spatial morphologies. Space, more often defined and described as “territory” by these movements, has been central to their political strategies and tactics. Autogestión (in Spanish), as a word, concept, and practice, forms another key part of their praxis.

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