Notes on Society of the Spectacle: Chapter 5


Notes from chapters 1-3 can be found here.

Notes from chapter 4 can be found here.

Chapter 5- Time and History

#125 Man is identical to time. “History has always existed, but not always in historical form.” It gets that historical form from the temporalization of man. #126 Historical movement of time begins in the “real nature of man.” 

#127 Nomadic populations experience cyclical time because their conditions are repeated day after day, and are governed by the cyclical movement of the seasons. This continues into the transition of the beginning of labor, as nomadism turns into agrarian production (i.e. Polish Peasants in Reymont). The agrarian mode of production is the “basis for fully constituted cyclical time.” You wake up, take care of the crops and an animals, do chores, eat, sleep, and then repeat the next day. Time is a continuous circle of the same every single day. It is a bit like “Groundhog’s Day” come to life. “Eternity is internal to it.” Great quote.

#128 The social control of time and the production of man by labor happens within the context of a class society. The bourgeoisie defines itself as above the poverty of cyclical time and not only controls the organization of social labor and whatever surplus value there is to be had monetarily, but they enjoy the temporal surplus value. Capitalists have other people run the company for them, while they are off taking vacations. They have a monopoly on time. The bourgeoisie “possess the knowledge and enjoyment of lived events.” Those in power will simultaneously promise continuous cyclical time for those they rule, while at the same time, freeing themselves from cyclical time. 

Irreversible time is the theater of conflicts and regroupings among different peoples. It cannot repeat, it is moving forward and ever-changing. Cyclical time governs production. 

#130 “Frozen societies” (which apparently come before the birth of political power, judging by the next thesis) seek conformity by maintaining an equilibrium and slowing down their historical activity. They do this out of fear of returning to a state-of-nature-like animal existence. Thus, in order to remain human, they must remain the same.

#131 The birth of political power or state control, happens when “kinship ties begin to dissolve.” This means that the succession of generations becomes an “event-oriented succession of powers.” This creates dynasties, as “irreversible time is now the time of those who rule.” These dynasties use writing as a weapon. Writing is important because it is a “mediation between consciousnesses.” The consciousness of the writing, however, is no longer just about the living. It tells about the past and the history of the dynasty of the state. It can glorify achievements and propagandize and give people a sense of belonging to some larger history. This is very powerful. 

#132 These writings by dynasties (a “chronicle”, as Debord calls it) are the “expression of the irreversible time of power and also the instrument that preserves the voluntaristic progression of this time from its predecessor.” Anytime that a dynasty falls from power, this also collapses the orientation of time for each society back to cyclical time. It is history that keeps time from being cyclical. Those in power, who own time, give it a meaning and a direction. “The masters who make history their private property, under the protection of myth, possess first of all a private ownership of the mode of illusion.” Great quote. Those in power write the myth of popular history, and therefore, have total power over the illusion they create. You still see that today. The truth is easier to find today, thanks to the internet, but myths are still dominant because most people don’t care to go look for truth. 

#134. “Reasoning about history is inseparably reasoning about power.” Again, history is written by the victors (or those in power). Greece was the first time in history when power and the change of power were discussed and understood, thanks to the idea of democracy. Remembering Hannah Arendt’s writings about the Greek polis and how once men stepped inside the polis, they were equals. It was then their job to conduct politics and help the good of society. Greek society was not perfect, of course; men dominated and they had slaves. But this was a huge step in the right direction in history. As Debord says “In Greece historical time became conscious, but not yet conscious of itself.”

#135 The “locally favorable conditions” of Greece disappeared and were replaced eventually by “semi-historical religions” which built a different consciousness of time and gave rise to a “new armor of separate power.” 

#136 Monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history. In the religions that grew out of Judaism “time is totally oriented toward a single final event.” Judgement day. While they are “semi-historical” they still clash greatly with actual history. “It establishes a qualitative point of departure in time (the birth of Christ, the flight of Mohammed).” 

#136 continued The irreversible time of these religions introduced real accumulation which took the form of Islamic conquests or increased capital in Protestant Christianity. This was “inverted in religious thought and becomes a countdown: the hope of access to the genuine other world before time runs out, the expectation of the last Judgement.” This sounds like Weber’s idea of the Protestant ethic. The western religions that grew out of Judaism demonstrated their status as the true religion of God by accumulating territory and building huge empires. There was a sort of anxiety to demonstrate they were the one true religion and that they would be saved after the passed from this earth because, after all, how could you be the chosen religion of God if you weren’t a dominant empire? 

#137 Although, cyclical time still largely governs production time, the middle ages is when cyclical time begins to be destroyed by history. “A certain irreversible temporality is recognized individually in everyone, in the succession of the stages of life, in the consideration of life as a journey, a passage with no return through a world whose meaning lies elsewhere.” The myth of religion gives people this idea of irreversible time within not only their society, but within themselves. People are living for salvation, for something outside of this life. People take pleasure in fighting for their religion. The oriented time of the Christian era is about demonstrating faith to the religion and God. Since the ruler of the empire is the human embodiment of God on earth, you show faith and deference to God by showing your faith to the ruler. Therefore, life, during this time, becomes a journey of stages of demonstrating faith and salvation for individuals. Society is structured feudally in order for individuals (peasants) to show this deference and fidelity to God (the ruler). (Side note: Although, this would eventually set up power struggles between the Pope and Charlemagne, in order to demonstrate who was the actual representative of God on earth.) Also, there is a lot of Hegelian master/slave dialectic and Weberian Protestant ethic in this. 

#137 Continued Within this religious crusade framework the production of commodities, the foundation and expansion of cities, and the commercial discovery of the earth started to develop. This “practical experimentation” or rationality began to eradicate all “mythical organization of the cosmos” or irrationality. This “slowly revealed itself as the unknown work of this epoch when the great official historical undertaking of this world collapsed with the Crusades.” This is a very Weberian argument. The rationality unleashed by this change in the religious experience of time, was an accident that would come to change the world forever and eventually unleash capitalism. 

#138 During the decline of the middle ages there was an obsession with death, as the world mourned the loss of a world that no longer had myth or magic, or irrationality. In this thesis he talks about the millenarians, those who wanted to build the Kingdom of God on earth. He states that their revolution was doomed to fail because they had to wait to act on the “Basis of an external sign of God’s decision.” 

#139 The Renaissance is considered the time period in which western civilization rediscovers ideas from antiquity. He calls it the “infinite accumulation of knowledge” and credits it for its powerful thinking and “analysis of desanctified power, saying the unspeakable about the State.” This powerful thinking, that which challenged state power, was short-lived, however. 

#140 Historical time is monopolized by the monarchy, but it comes to be monopolized by the bourgeoisie in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The bourgeoisie is attached to labor, thus labor time is, for the first time, freed from cyclical time. This means that work, under the bourgeoisie, can now “transform historical conditions.” This is the first class that sees labor as a value. It also sees itself as the dominant class, so it looks to exploit the labor of others. This transition changes the foundation of the world. 

#141 This transition to capitalism also marks the victory of “profoundly historical time” because the productivity that is unleashed (as he says in the previous thesis) constantly transforms society (the industrial revolution). The “irreversible time of the bourgeoisie economy” eradicates any conservative fight by the agrarian population to fend off modernity, as people start moving en masse to the cities to find work. History changes from the movement of individuals (study of events) to the movement of the general. Society will come to be dominated by the commodity. 

#142 As irreversible time comes to dominate, so does the commodity, as this starts to become a “time of things.” The cyclical time of agrarian life “had supported a growing part of historical time lived by individuals and groups”, irreversible time tends to kill it. This is the first step in which humans move away from actually living. My take- This sounds like false consciousness. The proletariat are no longer living, because they are trapped inside of false consciousness, making profit for the bourgeoisie, instead of actually living for themselves. 

#143 The laborers are thus introduced to this irreversible historical time, but are kept from using it because it is controlled by the bourgeoisie. The proletariat is at the base of society; they are the ones making this historical transformation happen through their labor, but they are made to feel powerless by those in control. However, the right live/use the historical time they produce becomes the the revolutionary project. 

#144!!! Capital (the bourgeoisie) makes a compromise with Christianity in order to gain social control over the proletariat. This is similar (yet different) to Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in that religion comes to support this cult of work. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. You must always be in the harness of work to be a moral person. If you fall out of the harness of work, you will become lazy and sinful. Therefore, capitalism uses Christianity as a mode of social control to keep the proletariat in the harness of labor, in order to exploit their labor and extract surplus value for profit. There is also a lot of Hegel in this thesis, as Debord argues that Capitalism is inherently unstable and requires the rule of God, of morals, in order to keep the proletariat from rising up, and playing the role of slave and overthrowing the master in this Hegelian dialectic. 

#145 Thanks to the global nature of capitalism (it spreads like a virus, scouring the far reaches of the earth for new markets), irreversible time becomes unified on a global scale. We get universal history, because everyone is under this same history. However, this history is still not lived or real thanks to a false consciousness that the proletariat are experiencing within capitalism. Therefore, unified irreversible time becomes the time of not only the world market, but also of the world spectacle. You really can’t escape it, no matter where you go. Modernity is basically everywhere at this point. 

#146 “The irreversible time of production is… the measure of commodities.” On a global scale, this means that the entire world will become dominated by the commodity under this system. 

Summary: This chapter deals with time and history, and the changing of them over different periods in history. Debord argues that time and man are one in the same and that historical time begins with the real nature of man. He goes through the history of different societies, from frozen ones (societies that slow their historical activity down to keep equilibrium and avoid falling back into the state of nature) to the birth of political power as kin-based tribes dissolve away. Writing becomes a weapon of power and moving history forward under political power. But when a dynasty falls, society is then again plunged back entirely into cyclical time (living the same thing over and over, seasonally). Historical time starts back up again when a new dynasty comes to power. 

Then comes the monotheistic religions of the West, which are a mixture of myth and history. The irreversible time of these religions introduced accumulation by religious crusades. This gets people out of cyclical time and gives them a meaning or purpose toward a final countdown. The accumulation of capital within Christianity becomes inverted religiously and, in a Weberian way, people begin demonstrating their religious righteousness and salvation through battle or eventually business or even morally. This is when cyclical time starts to be destroyed, when individuals start feeling this Weberian anxiousness about demonstrating their salvation. This development accidentally lays the groundwork for capitalism. It unleashes capital accumulation and rational thought, and begins to erase the magical myths of the pre-modern world. 

Once this magic was gone from the world, as humans transitioned into modernity, Debord talks about a fascination with death. Similar to Nietzsche’s idea that God is dead, it is important to remember just how traumatic of a change moving into modernity was. During this change, historical time comes to be dominated no longer by the monarchy, but now by the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and force everyone into wage labor. This is a huge shift for history, as people move away from the cyclical time of agrarian life and into the historical time of modernity. The proletariat can now transform historical conditions because capitalism harnesses their labor power to unleash the type of productivity never really seen before, which begins a constant and rapid change to society. This marks the point in history where society becomes dominated by the commodity. 

Capitalism becomes “a time of things” where people are constantly fascinated with the new commodities that are available and the frequent technological change. Society loses focus of the labor embedded in the product, leading to commodity fetishism. All of this technological change and these fancy new commodities couldn’t possibly be bad, and capitalism is sold to the masses. A false consciousness sets in for the proletariat, where they define themselves in terms of serving capital and the bourgeoisie. This represents the first separation of human beings from living. 

The bourgeoisie introduce the proletariat to the power of irreversible time, by harnessing their labor to produce commodities. However, the bourgeoisie monopolize that irreversible time and keep the proletariat from it, despite the fact that they are the ones that create it. However, this becomes the driving force for a revolution, the reclamation of the right to the irreversible historical time that the proletariat produces. Borrowing from Hegel here, Debord argues that this power structure, this system of domination is inherently unstable as it is, so the bourgeoisie makes a compromise with Christianity in order to gain social control over the proletariat. Casting work as a moral necessity, introducing God into work, makes it so the proletariat has a moral incentive to serve the bourgeoisie’s interests. This is also a Weberian Protestant ethic argument, as work becomes a harness to keep people moral and headed toward salvation, rather than being lazy and sinful and on the path to hell. 

Due to the fact that Capitalism is always looking to expand and find new markets, it becomes a global, unified system. It becomes a global history, but it is still not a real history, because the proletariat is still removed from living, they are still trapped within a false consciousness. So, this unified, global irreversible historical time not only becomes the time of the world market, but it also becomes the time of the modern spectacle that we are all experiencing today. 


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