Oct 19, 2010

Society: Debord/Klein/Baudelaire

Aristotle tells us that a city is a happy place to live.  This is not really the case today though. After the Global financial and economic crisis of September 2008, it is evident that capitalism is failing despite the cries of the politicians to the contrary. In addition, through consumerism, capitalism works to determine to a great degree the types of experiences people have and in such a way, affects the minds and lives of people in all areas of our global society. As such, it also effects the arts. It is therefore, very important to think of a new type of relationship between culture, technology, industry and politics.
What it means to think about the future today is a question which I find extremely interesting and which I wish to develop further, concentrating on the poetic vision of various contemporary artists. For this review I have chosen to focus on the work of Guy Debord, Naomi Klien and Charles Baudelaire and will review:
-       The film “Society of the Spectacle” directed by Guy Debord.
-       “No logo” by Naomi Klein, 2000, published by Flamingo.
-       “The painter of modern life” by Charles Baudelaire, 1863, edition;            Mille et une nuits, N 567.
Firstly, I will briefly present the authors, then explore the sources I have chosen and analyse and discuss their particular viewpoint and how I might use this for my work.

                   “Society of the Spectacle”  Guy Debord(1973). 


“The oldest social specialization, the specialization of power, is at the root of the spectacle. The spectacle speaks for the ensemble of the others”(Ref).
         Guy Debord (1931- 1994) was an engaged Marxist writer, essayist and filmmaker. At the start of 1950, he was a member of a band of young anarchists who believed in the avant-garde. They were called ‘Lettriste’, and believed that Art, used in everyday life, has a transformative power. In 1957, Debord became a member of the Situationist International (SI)(1) a philosophical, aesthetic, political movement that believed in revolution in everyday life. They dreamed of an egalitarian society free from bondage to physical goods (2).

 In this essay I will explore one of his movies: Society of the Spectacle (1973)adapted from his book of the same name. In this film he explains in images, that are sometimes absurd, his theory of ‘Spectacle’: This is the social link between people mediated by their images which he connects with commodity.
Debord’s theory is a continuation of Marx’s ideas (Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen okonomie (capital) 1867), in which he analyses and shows the link between the production system and goods.
By the time of Guy Debord’s writing, goods are an aspect of everyday life and Debord sees the danger for the people who can’t see that they are addicted to goods. At the start of Society of the spectacle Debord says, “All that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”. In fact, because of the multiplication of production and images of the non-real (people mediated by their images), the real become less and less and the ‘Spectacle’ becomes both more and more important and increasingly invisible to those who live in this society. The ‘Spectacle’ is something that everyone participates in, intentionally or not and is thus, the people are the result of the production. This resultant alienation and dehumanisation is for Debord, the reason that capitalism is dangerous. In Debord’s movie this idea is portrayed first by happy classical music. This seems quite out of place. It is quite ‘surreal’, like a joke, a comedy or something like this. He then shows us topless women in cages, on stages or on the beach. These images of desire become objectified and in so doing become symbols of dehumanisation. After these images of naked women Debord presents us with images of war. These are initially choreographed in such a way that the marching and military advances appear quite beautiful and you are lulled into a sense of enjoyment akin to watching dance. After this has passed from the screen all that remains is death and destruction. The voice of Debord, flat, slow and emotionless throughout, now comes more to your attention as he speaks about people as the production of the ‘spectacle’. The juxtaposition of these images creates an uneasy feeling and for me, the idea that one’s dreams are not one’s own but created and manipulated by politicians for power.
Guy Debord persuaded me more than ever that capitalism endangers  human creativity. Through his ideas I can understand the beginning of mass consumption and link this to the development of alienation, addiction and the loss of individual creativity. In my thesis I will use his theory of the‘Spectacle’ and incorporate his vocabulary into my work to show the general development of western lifestyle. I will base my ideas about how we live today with this dominant economic format upon his ideas. Finally, I believe that Debord may be able to help me to understand the nature of society today.

                                                               No logo” Naomi Klein(2000).

“When we start looking to corporations to draft our collective labour and human rights codes for us, we have already lost the most basic principle of citizenship: that people should govern themselves”.

Naomi Klien is an engaged socialist writer. In her book’s No Logo (2000) she demonstrates how branding works. This has helped me to understand how identity is created through the use of disposable products by multi nationals in modern western society. The book has four parts: ‘No Space’, ‘No Choice’, ‘No Jobs’ and ‘No logo’. ‘No space’ explains the invasion of marketing into public spaces such as the high street, popular culture and education. ‘No Choice’ explains how the marketing strategies of multinationals have reduced the diversity of choices for the consumer. ‘No Jobs’ analysis’s the consequences of globalisation on employment and ‘No Logo’ focuses on resistance to brands. In my thesis I will use the ideas associated with ‘No Space’, ‘No Choice’ and ‘No Jobs’ to develop my argument.

(She gives in No Logo a brilliant analysis of our society and I will explore that for my work.
When you have knowledge, you have taste for life. Or the challenge of this society it’s to give individual taste again. In another way give knowledge.)

         ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ Charles Baudelaire (1863)

Baudelaire wrote The Painter of Modern Life in 1863. His inspiration for the book was the urban life drawings of Constantin Guys. Baudelaire believed in a new beauty that captured the present moment and found this ephemeral beauty of modern life characterized in Guys’ artwork. In this analyses of Guys’ artwork Baudelaire showed why it is important for an artist to look at the time, the era in which he lives.
For Baudelaire the Poet should reflect contemporary society like a mirror through new and contemporary techniques rather than classical ones. To this end, he walked the streets of Paris without aims or prejudice just observing and experiencing the world around him. This enabled him to both distance himself from society whilst at the same time observes his participation in it and in so doing become more conscious of it. In the book Baudelaire describes what and whom he sees on is wanderings. This includes; beauty, fashion, happiness, artists, men, women, children, dandies, make-up and the military. For Baudelaire these descriptions serve to paint an authentic picture of life as it is around him. For me, this approach of Baudelaire’s can help to reveal the authentic conditions of contemporary society and in such a way its real aesthetic values.


The global crisis has shown us the absurdity and the irrationality of our economic system. One of the main questions today is; what does the future mean? Human are disoriented. But we know we need each other to create a better future. Some people like Naomi Klien, Guy Debord and Charles Baudelaire can help us to understand the world where we are living in a better way. Art, I believe is one of the important keys in the change, perhaps by pointing our aesthetic values closer to their reality and further from the ‘Spectacle’ value.

©Herve Mathilde

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situationist_International Wikipedia it’s a free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. Wikipedia it’s one new way of thinking, like free software, or anyone can give their contribution to build something.
         (2)    “Art in theory, 1900-2000, An Anthology of changing Ideas”; Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood; 2003; Blackwell                                                  
             Publishing; p.701,707.

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