The Society of the Spectacle
“We have nothing of our own except time, which even the homeless can experience.”
—Baltasar Gracián, The Art of Worldly Wisdom
The time of production — commodified time — is an infinite accumulation of equivalent intervals. It is irreversible time made abstract, in which each segment need only demonstrate by the clock its purely quantitative equality with all the others. It has no reality apart from its exchangeability. Under the social reign of commodified time, “time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most the carcass of time” (The Poverty of Philosophy). This devalued time is the complete opposite of time as “terrain of human development.”
This general time of human nondevelopment also has a complementary aspect — a consumable form of time based on the present mode of production and manifesting itself in everyday life as apseudocyclical time.
This pseudocyclical time is in fact merely a consumable disguise of the production system’s commodified time. It exhibits the latter’s essential traits: homogenous exchangeable units and suppression of any qualitative dimension. But as a by-product of commodified time whose function is to promote and maintain the backwardness of everyday life, it is loaded with pseudo-valorizations and manifests itself as a succession of pseudo-individualized moments.
Pseudocyclical time is associated with the consumption of modern economic survival — the augmented survival in which everyday experience is cut off from decision-making and subjected no longer to the natural order, but to the pseudo-nature created by alienated labor. It is thus quite natural that it echoes the old cyclical rhythm that governed survival in preindustrial societies, incorporating the natural vestiges of cyclical time while generating new variants: day and night, work and weekend, periodic vacations.
Pseudocyclical time is a time that has been transformed by industry. The time based on commodity production is itself a consumable commodity, one that recombines everything that the disintegration of the old unitary societies had differentiated into private life, economic life, political life. The entire consumable time of modern society ends up being treated as a raw material for various new products put on the market as socially controlled uses of time. “A product that already exists in a form suitable for consumption may nevertheless serve as raw material for some other product” (Capital).
In its most advanced sectors, concentrated capitalism is increasingly tending to market “fully equipped” blocks of time, each functioning as a unified commodity combining a variety of other commodities. In the expanding economy of “services” and leisure activities, the payment for these blocks of time is equally unified: “everything’s included,” whether it is a matter of spectacular living environments, touristic pseudo-travel, subscriptions to cultural consumption, or even the sale of sociability itself in the form of “exciting conversations” and “meetings with celebrities.” Spectacular commodities of this type, which would obviously never sell were it not for the increasing impoverishment of the realities they parody, just as obviously reflect the modernization of sales techniques by being payable on credit.
Consumable pseudocyclical time is spectacular time, both in the narrow sense as time spent consuming images and in the broader sense as image of the consumption of time. The time spent consuming images (images which in turn serve to publicize all the other commodities) is both the particular terrain where the spectacle’s mechanisms are most fully implemented and the general goal that those mechanisms present, the focus and epitome of all particular consumptions. Thus, the time that modern society is constantly seeking to “save” by increasing transportation speeds or using packaged soups ends up being spent by the American population in watching television three to six hours a day. As for the social image of the consumption of time, it is exclusively dominated by leisure time and vacations — moments portrayed, like all spectacular commodities, at a distance and as desirable by definition. These commodified moments are explicitly presented as moments of real life, whose cyclical return we are supposed to look forward to. But all that is really happening is that the spectacle is displaying and reproducing itself at a higher level of intensity. What is presented as true life turns out to be merely a more truly spectacular life.
Although the present age presents its time to itself as a series of frequently recurring festivities, it is an age that knows nothing of real festivals. The moments within cyclical time when members of a community joined together in a luxurious expenditure of life are impossible for a society that lacks both community and luxury. Its vulgarized pseudo-festivals are parodies of real dialogue and gift-giving; they may incite waves of excessive economic spending, but they lead to nothing but disillusionments, which can be compensated only by the promise of some new disillusion to come. The less use value is present in the time of modern survival, the more highly it is exalted in the spectacle. The reality of time has been replaced by the publicity of time.
While the consumption of cyclical time in ancient societies was consistent with the real labor of those societies, the pseudocyclical consumption of developed economies contradicts the abstract irreversible time implicit in their system of production. Cyclical time was the really lived time of unchanging illusions. Spectacular time is the illusorily lived time of a constantly changing reality.
The production process’s constant innovations are not echoed in consumption, which presents nothing but an expanded repetition of the past. Because dead labor continues to dominate living labor, in spectacular time the past continues to dominate the present.
The lack of general historical life also means that individual life as yet has no history. The pseudo-events that vie for attention in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those who are informed about them; and in any case they are soon forgotten due to their increasingly frenetic replacement at every pulsation of the spectacular machinery. Conversely, what is really lived has no relation to the society’s official version of irreversible time, and clashes with the pseudocyclical rhythm of that time’s consumable by-products. This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle’s false memory of the unmemorable.
The spectacle, considered as the reigning society’s method for paralyzing history and memory and for suppressing any history based on historical time, represents a false consciousness of time.
In order to force the workers into the status of “free” producers and consumers of commodified time, it was first necessary to violently expropriate their time. The imposition of the new spectacular form of time became possible only after this initial dispossession of the producers.
The unavoidable biological limitations of the work force — evident both in its dependence on the natural cycle of sleeping and waking and in the debilitating effects of irreversible time over each individual’s lifetime — are treated by the modern production system as strictly secondary considerations. As such, they are ignored in that system’s official proclamations and in the consumable trophies that embody its relentless triumphant progress. Fixated on the delusory center around which his world seems to move, the spectator no longer experiences life as a journey toward fulfillment and toward death. Once he has given up on really living, he can no longer acknowledge his own death. Life insurance ads merely insinuate that he may be guilty of dying without having provided for the smooth continuation of the system following the resultant economic loss, while the promoters of the “American way of death” stress his capacity to preserve most of the appearances of life in his post-mortem state. On all the other fronts of advertising bombardment it is strictly forbidden to grow old. Everybody is urged to economize on their “youth-capital,” though such capital, however carefully managed, has little prospect of attaining the durable and cumulative properties of financial capital. This social absence of death coincides with the social absence of life.
As Hegel showed, time is the necessary alienation, the terrain where the subject realizes himself by losing himself, becomes other in order to become truly himself. In total contrast, the current form of alienation is imposed on the producers of an estranged present. In this spatial alienation, the society that radically separates the subject from the activity it steals from him is in reality separating him from his own time. This potentially surmountable social alienation is what has prevented and paralyzed the possibilities and risks of a living alienation within time.
Behind the fashions that come and go on the frivolous surface of the spectacle of pseudocyclical time, the grand style of an era can always be found in what is governed by the secret yet obvious necessity for revolution.
The natural basis of time, the concrete experience of its passage, becomes human and social by existing for humanity. The limitations of human practice imposed by the various stages of labor have humanized time and also dehumanized it, in the forms of cyclical time and of the separated irreversible time of economic production. The revolutionary project of a classless society, of an all-embracing historical life, implies the withering away of the social measurement of time in favor of a federation of independent times — a federation of playful individual and collective forms of irreversible time that are simultaneously present. This would be the temporal realization of authentic communism, which “abolishes everything that exists independently of individuals.”
The world already dreams of such a time. In order to actually live it, it only needs to become fully conscious of it.