From the culture industry to the society of the spectacle: Critical theory and the situationist international, in No Social Science without Critical Theory (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Volume 25)
Kevin Fox Gotham, Daniel A. Krier
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Since Karl Marx fashioned his theory of capitalism in the nineteenth century, scholars have continually updated Marxian theory to capture the pervasiveness of commodity relations in modern society. Influenced by Georg Lukács and Henri Lefebvre, the members of the French avant-guard group, the Situationist International (1957–1972), developed an intransigent critique of consumer capitalism based on the concept of the spectacle. In the spectacle, media and consumer society replace lived experience, the passive gaze of images supplants active social participation, and new forms of alienation induce social atomization at a more abstract level than in previous societies.
We endeavor to make two theoretical contributions: First, we highlight the contributions of the Situationist International, pointing out how they revised the Marxian categories of alienation, commodification, and reification in order to analyze the dynamics of twentieth century capitalism and to give these concepts new explanatory power. Second, we build a critical theory of consumer capitalism that incorporates the theoretical assumptions and arguments of the Situationists and the Frankfurt School.
Today, critical theory can make an important contribution to sociology by critically examining the plurality of spectacles and their reifying manifestations. In addition, critical theorists can explore how different spectacles connect to one another, how they connect to different social institutions, and how spectacles express contradictions and conflicting meanings. A critical theory of spectacle and consumption can disclose both novelties and discontinuities in the current period, as well as continuities in the development of globalized consumer capitalism.
only available in English published by Black and Red (Detroit, 1970). A new French edition appeared in 1983 and a new translation in 1994. We refer to the 1994 translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. 2. We use the term 舠Situationists舡 throughout this paper to refer to the changing members of the Situationist International (S.I.), formed in 1957 and disbanded in 1972. See complete texts of the Situationists at www.nothingness.org; www.cddc.vt.edu; www.situationist.cjb.net; www.notborded.org;
Berman, R., Pan, D., 8 Piccone, P. (1990舑1991). The society of the spectacle 20 years later: A discussion. Telos, 86, 81舑102. Bernstein, J.M. (1995). Recovering ethical life: Jurgen Habermas and the future of critical theory. London: Routledge. Best, S. (1989). The commodification of reality and the reality of commodification: Jean Baudrillard and Post-Modernism. Current Perspectives in Social Theory, 9, 23舑51. Best, S., 8 Kellner, D. (1997). The postmodern turn. New York: Guilford Press.
and mental life. In: D.N. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms., (pp. 324舑339). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Simmel, G. (1971). Subjective culture. In: D.N. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms., (pp. 227舑234). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Situationist International. (1959). Unitary urbanism at the end of the 1950s. Internationale Situationniste #3 (December 1959). P. Hammond (Trans.).
minorities (Jay, 1993, p. 431). Other critiques include the Situationists舗s failure to clearly specify the connections between macro- and micro-levels, their tendency toward hyperbole and exaggeration, their orthodox and naive faith in the revolutionary agency of the proletariat, and their lack of attention to the crisis tendencies and sources of opposition and resistance that affect capitalist societies (Best 8 Kellner, 1997, p. 117; Gardiner, 2000, pp. 124舑125; Jappe, 1999, pp. 103舑104).
society of the spectacle. During a motion picture, individuals are constituted as spectators rather than acting subjects, forced to observe the images that others create. Such a society is predicated on conformity, submission, inactivity, and contemplation. More broadly, the intensity and extensiveness of social and technological change combined with the speed of the changing images, on television and elsewhere, isolates and abstracts events and knowledge from the realm of affective and lived