Камен Старчев, Без звук 5, 53х200

 

 

Alienation has been a problem for philosophy for a long time. It has also been a problem for religion – in theological terms, alienation describes the estrangement of humanity from God following the banishment from Eden.[1] In more contemporary terms, however, alienation is largely discussed in the context of human relations and production. The term has been used or implied by various philosophers – Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Hegel, Sartre, Marx and others. In the 1960s, however, a certain thinker that goes by the name of Guy Debord developed further the theory of alienation and incorporated it in his notable work The Society of the Spectacle. Influenced by Marxist theorists and at the same time giving new insights to the problem, Debord considers alienation as one of the main aspects of capitalism. He makes alienation and separation the foundations of his theory of the Spectacle. This essay will discuss Debord’s theory of the Spectacle, how it was influenced by previous theories of alienation, and how it developed those theories.

 Friedrich Hegel is largely considered to be the “godfather” of alienation.[2] In his Phenomenology of Spirit, we read about two types of ‘alienation’ – alienation as estrangement and alienation as externalization[3]. The former refers to a process or state where consciousness is separated from, at least, one of the aspects that are required for consciousness to fully understand itself. The latter, on the other hand, describes a process where the consciousness projects itself into an object, thus externalizes and objectifies itself so it can develop a better understanding of itself. Hegel says that “it is the nature of spirit, of the Idea, to alienate itself in order to find itself again.”[4] Alienation as estrangement is often considered an undesirable process because the consciousness fails to understand its ontological structure. Although the process is considered negative, it is not necessary that the consciousness would experience it negatively or experience it at all. The process of estrangement can contribute to the consciousness’ fully understanding of itself – that it is a spiritual synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity. The other form of alienation of which Hegel talks – alienation as externalization – is more closely connected to the ‘alienation’ which appears in Marxist rhetoric. As I said, Hegel finds this form of alienation a necessity when it comes to knowledge of the self. He says that the consciousness must ‘externalise itself, have itself as an object, so that it knows what it is, in this way [it] exhausts all its potentialities, becomes entirely its object, wholly discloses itself and plumbs and reveals its whole depth.’[5] Such externalization occurs in the process of production – when one produces an object, one recognizes oneself in that object. This recognition leads to the realization that one’s object is not simply opposed to oneself; one realizes that one’s ontological structure is dependent on and incorporates a relation to objectivity. The process of externalization can be analysed within the context of Hegel’s master/slave theory.[6] The slave remains a slave because when he/she produces something for his/her master, when he/she alters the world to please his/her master, the slave externalizes his/herself, projects his/herself onto objects, recognizes him/herself in those objects and learns that the world is the objective expression of his/her own subjective freedom.[7] Objectification/externalization/alienation is a positive and even necessary process for self-knowledge only if one recognizes oneself in the produced object, i.e. in the object one externalized oneself in.

 There are situations, however, in which the consciousness does not recognizes itself in the object it creates. Namely this failure of realization, I believe, is the root of leftist/Marxist theories of alienation. Hegel believes that if the consciousness does not recognize itself in the object of externalization, it will understand that it exists in a strict opposition to its object.[8] Then, the consciousness will estrange itself from its nature because it will understand itself only as a subject, opposed to the objectivity, and will fail to understand its nature of subjectivity and objectivity synthesised. It must be noted that when I discuss Debord (and Marx) in relation to Hegel’s idea of alienation, the alienation in question is namely the failure of one to realize one’s externalization in a produced object. Debord describes the Spectacle’s function in society as “concrete manufacture of alienation.”[9] In reference to Hegel’s ideas, this would mean that the Spectacle “makes sure” the worker is not able to recognize his/her own externalization, leading to his/her ultimate failure to understand his/her nature. With the advancement of capitalism, more and more manufactured objects surround our lives. That would mean that, as Debord says, “man is more and more, and ever more powerfully, the producer of every detail of his world”[10], despite being separated from his product. Production is ever growing, and products become more and more present in our lives. But, since the worker cannot recognize himself in the products, and further, as I pointed out before, the consciousness lives in a strict opposition to its object due to its failure to understand its externalization, “the closer [the worker’s] life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically is he cut off from that life.”[11] What happens is that the worker feels those objects estranged from him/herself, and he/she sees his/herself estranged from them. The reason is that those objects, although produced by the worker, serve the Spectacle. “Workers do not produce themselves; they produce a force independent of themselves.”[12] This estrangement, this independence is the essence of the Spectacle, for the Spectacle can maintain itself only when it is separated from the force that produces it, i.e. the worker. The worker’s life and the worker’s essence belong to the Spectacle because the worker is left with nothing else to recognize her/himself in. The worker produces the Spectacle but loses his/her personal life and essence. For Hegel, the consciousness is a synthesis between the objective and the subjective.[13] Within the Spectacle, the worker unconsciously gives one half of his essence, i.e. the objective, to the Spectacle, and is left with only the subjective, which I believe is the reason for the separateness that occurs within the Spectacle of which Debord talks. He says that the communication between the product and the worker is one-way.[14] The product, no longer representing the worker, but the Spectacle instead, is communicating the message of the Spectacle to the spectator/worker. In Hegel’s theory, the communication is two-way – first, the person externalizes him/herself in the object, and then he/she receives self-knowledge from that object. In the Spectacle, however, since the worker does not realize the externalization, the message of the object originates in the Spectacle – therefore this message, this one-way communication is alien to the worker. When Debord talks of ‘separation’, he means all kinds of separation. But within the context of Hegel, the separation is one of the worker from his/her product.

 In his work Philosophy of Right, Hegel talks about yet another type of alienation, different from the ‘estrangement’ and ‘externalization’. It is humans’ alienation from culture. He says that people, through their activity, created culture, which then seemed alien to them. But as an idealist, Hegel believed that human activity (which created culture) is just the expression of the Spirit/Zeitgeist.[15] Therefore, creation of culture is inevitable, since it is part of the natural process of following the Zeitgeist. Namely this theory, or rather the critique of it, gives birth to the Marxist concept of alienation. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx questions and inverts Hegel’s theory. In materialist style, Marx claims that it was human labour that produced the spirit, not the other way around.[16] Moreover, he believes that “externalization” in which the person recognizes him/herself in the object he/she produced, and is recognized by others as well, is not a form of alienation, but simply genuine human relations.[17] Marx then goes to define what alienation is within the context of private labour. He says that since one’s labour serves the private property, i.e. the capitalists, one’s work is simply a process of obtaining one’s means of life. One works in order to live – one’s work is not one’s life. When the action of labour does not belong to the worker, the outcome, i.e. the product, is not property of the worker either – both in figurative and literal sense.[18] The product one produces through one’s labour is alien to one. Another aspect of alienation within the Marxist context is the Fetishism of commodities. For Marx, Fetishism occurs when human relation is not represented by the relations between humans themselves, but between the commodities they produce.[19] Workers do not communicate in a sense – it is their labour, their products that communicate, but they communicate within a system of value that is alien to the worker. The worker works only to make a living, and his/her social relations are therefore projected onto the products of his/her labour. The worker is left to observe those relations between commodities. Value, being a social construct, translates human labour into social relations, and, as Marx says, “it is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.”[20]

 In Society of the Spectacle, we see that Guy Debord agrees with Marx on those problems. Moreover, with the Spectacle Debord applies the theory of Fetishism on every aspect of human life, or rather, he sees the Fetishism of commodities as just one part of the Spectacle. Just like Marx described the Fetishism as social relations externalized in relations between commodities, Debord describes the Spectacle as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”[21] In Marx’ writings, we see “alienated production”, i.e. the workers being alienated from their fruit of labour. Debord believes that with the arrival of the second industrial revolution, “alienated consumption is added to alienated production as an inescapable duty of the masses.”[22] Debord updated Marx’ theories according to the times he was writing in (1967), while at the same time becoming more pessimistic. The worker has been totally alienated from his/her product – now it was time for the consumer to be alienated from the object of consumption, too. Within the Spectacle, the spectators are met with images praising the Spectacle itself. The images usually promote consumption, but it is not a consumption that is of necessity for the consumer, but for the Spectacle. The Spectacle creates artificial needs for the consumer, and the consumer consumes objects and uses services that are otherwise unnecessary for him/her outside the context of the Spectacle. But the Spectacle needs the consumer to sustain it – without consumption, there would be no spectacle. Just like the alienated worker does not recognize him/herself in the object he/she produced, the alienated consumer does not recognize him/herself in the object he/she consumes or the services he/she uses. The spectator/consumer’s needs are alien to him/herself because they are no genuine needs that represent one’s essence; they are needs that affirm the stability of the Spectacle. Television adverts are an example: the spectator is usually in no need of the objects that are being advertised – the need for them is manufactured by the Spectacle and is presented to the spectator through Television. The spectator then falsely recognizes his/her identity in those artificial needs, without realizing that he/she is being alienated from his/her true needs. This process Debord describes as ‘contemplation.’ “The more he contemplates, the less he lives” he says. “The more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need […], the less he understands his own existence and his own desires.”[23] All this is done by the Spectacle in order to sustain itself. Debord says that the Spectacle engages in “an interrupted monologue of self-praise.”[24] He, like Marx, believes that alienation leads to the proletarianization of the world. For him, however, capitalism transcended the Fetishism and value of commodities. It is now images that represent capitalism. Capitalism is no longer represented by an exploitive owner and an alienated worker. Within the Spectacle, capitalism manifests itself outside the production process, too, and in people’s lives and ideas. Debord believes that “the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.”[25] It can be said that the Spectacle is the cultural manifestation of capitalism. Marx was writing in the early days of capitalism, and his critiques and alternatives can be perceived as rather optimistic, or at least not totally pessimistic. Debord, on the other hand, was writing during a time of advanced capitalism, and his views do not really offer us an alternative. With the Spectacle, he confirms the omnipresence of capitalism, and the spectator’s inability to escape it. “The spectator feels at home nowhere for the Spectacle is everywhere”[26] he says. Debord also implies that he does not believe in the Communist revolution described by Marx and attempted by some countries. “Organization became the locus of revolutionary theory’s inconsistency, allowing the tenets of that theory to be imposed by statist and hierarchical methods borrowed from the bourgeois revolution”[27] he says. Debord also believes that an externalized power, i.e. a ruling Party like in the Soviet Union is perceived as alien by the workers.[28] The State is supposed to represent the workers, but instead it is simply alienating them due to its archaic hierarchical structure.[29]

 Another thinker that agrees with Marx’ theory of alienation but disagrees with the proposed alternatives and the eventual solving of the problem is Max Weber. Both Weber and Marx believe that the increased efficiency of production allow an unprecedented domination of man over nature. They also believe that rationalized efficiency leads to dehumanization. Weber, however, disagrees with Marx’ claim that alienation and dehumanization is only a transitional stage in the process of man’s true emancipation. Weber blamed not privatization of means of production, but bureaucracy and rationalization of social life.[30] He claims that Socialism would be even more rationalized and bureaucratic, thus it would be even more alienating.[31] He believes that in order to engage in socially significant actions, people should join large social organization.[32] By joining such organizations, people should sacrifice their own goals and desires in favour of the “greater good”, i.e. the goals of these organizations. The goals and ideas of such organizations seem impersonal and alien to the individual. By sacrificing his own needs, the individual loses a part of himself and becomes alienated. In other words, people are alienating themselves so they can join others – other people, who also alienated themselves for the sake of organization.

 According to Weber, everyone is at least partly alienated within large-scale organizations. People have at least one thing in common, though – being alienated. Namely this is how Guy Debord describes the Spectacle: “Spectators are linked only by a one-way relationship to the very centre that maintains their isolation from one another. The Spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness.”[33] We could look at the Spectacle as a form of such a large-scale organization of which Weber talks. Guy Debord’s Spectacle leaves no option for the individual but to join it, “for the spectacle is everywhere.”[34] The Spectacle’s goals are alien to the spectator, since its goals are simply to improve itself. The spectator could not possibly benefit from participating in the Spectacle and sacrificing his/her own identity, since “the only thing into which the Spectacle plans to develop is itself.”[35]

 In this essay we saw how Debord built his ideas on solidly Marxian foundations, employing such elaborated concepts as alienation, commodity fetishism and reification.[36] His theories, however, describe a more advanced stage of capitalism, and consider traditional communist and socialist theories as archaic. Debord looks at alienation as a far more serious problem compared to previous philosophers’ views, since it engulfed every aspect of human life. Although his writings develop earlier theories of alienation, Debord does not really describe a solid response to the phenomenon of the Spectacle. His Society of the Spectacle is simply a critique which promotes criticism (see thesis 121.) Society of the Spectacle describes alienation beyond the production process and incorporates it in culture and personal life. I consider the theory of the alienated consumer presented in his work to be his most significant and accurate development of previous theories of alienation. Naturally, he developed ‘alienation’ into an even more pessimistic concept due to its omnipresence and impact on human life. Guy Debord showed us how the problem of alienation only becomes worse.

 

[1] Williamson, Iain & Cullingford, Cedric. “The Uses and Misuses of ‘Alienation’ in the Social Sciences and Education”. British Journal of Educational Studies, 45:3, 1997. 264

[2] Williamson, Iain & Cullingford, Cedric. “The Uses and Misuses of ‘Alienation’ in the Social Sciences and Education”. British Journal of Educational Studies, 45:3, 1997. 264

[3] Rae, Gavin. “Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 20:1, 2012. 31

[4] Hegel, Georg W. F. Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. T. Knox and A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 80

[5] Hegel, Georg W. F. Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. T. Knox and A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 81

[6] Hegel, Georg W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. 111-119

[7] Rae, Gavin. “Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 20:1, 2012. 37

[8] Rae, Gavin. “Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 20:1, 2012. 39

[9] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 32

[10] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 33

[11] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 33

[12] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 31

[13] Rae, Gavin. “Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 20:1, 2012. 39

[14] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 24

[15] Hegel, Georg W. Fr., and S. W. Dyde. 1896. Hegel’s Philosophy of right. London: G. Bell. Thesis 344-360

[16] Marx, Karl, and Joseph J. O’Malley. 1970. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of right’.

[17] Marx, Karl. 1975. “Comments on James Mill”. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). Berlin: Dietz.

[18] Marx, Karl. 1975. “Comments on James Mill”. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). Berlin: Dietz.

[19] Marx, Karl, „Part One, Chapter One – Commodities, Section 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof“, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, London: Penguin, 2001.

[20] Marx, Karl, „Part One, Chapter One – Commodities, Section 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof“, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, London: Penguin, 2001.

[21] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 4

[22] Guy Debord, „Chapter Two – The Commodity as Spectacle“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 42

[23] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 30

[24] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 24

[25] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 34

[26] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 30

[27] Guy Debord, „Chapter Three – The Proletariat as Subject and Representation“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 90

[28] Guy Debord, „Chapter Three – The Proletariat as Subject and Representation“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 103

[29] Guy Debord, „Chapter Three – The Proletariat as Subject and Representation“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 90

[30] Coser, Lewis A. 1977. Masters of sociological thought: ideas in historical and social context. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 232

[31] Weber, Max, Hans Gerth, and C. Wright Mills. 1958. From Max Weber: essays in sociology. New York: Oxford University Press. 49

[32] Coser, Lewis A. 1977. Masters of sociological thought: ideas in historical and social context. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 232

[33] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 29

[34] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 30

[35] Guy Debord, „Chapter One – Separation Perfected“, The Society of the Spectacle, London, Rebel Press, 1977. Thesis 14

[36] Kaplan, Richard L. “Between Mass Society and Revolutionary Praxis: The Contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 15, no. 4. August 2012. 458

 

Bibliography:

Coser, Lewis A. 1977. Masters of sociological thought: ideas in historical and social context. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. London. Rebel Press. 1977.

Hegel, Georg W. Fr., and S. W. Dyde. 1896. Hegel’s Philosophy of right. London: G. Bell.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. T. Knox and A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003

Hegel, Georg W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Kaplan, Richard L. “Between Mass Society and Revolutionary Praxis: The Contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 15, no. 4 (August 2012): 457–78.

Marx, Karl. 1975. “Comments on James Mill”. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl, and Joseph J. O’Malley. 1970. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of right’.

Marx, Karl, „Part One, Chapter One – Commodities, Section 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof“, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, London: Penguin, 2001.

Rae, Gavin. “Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 20:1, 2012. 23-42

Weber, Max, Hans Gerth, and C. Wright Mills. 1958. From Max Weber: essays in sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williamson, Iain & Cullingford, Cedric. “The Uses and Misuses of ‘Alienation’ in the Social Sciences and Education”. British Journal of Educational Studies, 45:3, 1997. 263-275

 

списание „Нова социална поезия“, бр. 21, март, 2020, ISSN 2603-543X

 

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