When analyzing the spectacle one speaks, to some extent, the language of the spectacular itself in the sense that one moves through the methodological terrain of the very society which expresses itself in the spectacle. But the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught. (Debord, Thesis 9)
Henri Lefebvre broke new ground in urban theory by giving an analytical priority to the consideration of space. Reacting against the overwhelming emphasis on time and history prevalent in critical philosophy at the time, Lefebvre’s work appeared to indicate that capitalist appropriation of space was a key source of alienation in contemporary life. Although he had been Lefebvre’s pupil and was his friend, Debord differed with Lefebvre on the significance of time within the urban order, arguing that despite the importance of space, the principle source of capitalist domination lay in “the spectacle’s seizure and denigration of history and memory”. For Debord, the abstraction of space was a moment of a much larger process; that of capital’s establishment of a universal and equivalent time of the commodity. Demonstrating both the proximity and divergences between Lefebvre and Debord, Merrifield writes that “Lefebvre had brought the commodity form to bear on everyday life, and extended abstract time (value) to incorporate abstract space; now, suggested Debord, everyday abstract space was but one aspect of the spectacle itself”.
The difference between the two writers turns upon Debord’s critique of production as it appears within class society. While Lefebvre produces a sophisticated analysis of the production of space, Debord shows that the production of time is an intrinsic aspect of capital itself. Beginning with the temporal experience of pre-capitalist societies, Debord sees the social appropriation of time as fundamental to domination. As he writes: “the class which organizes the social labor and appropriates the limited surplus value, simultaneously appropriates the temporal surplus value of its organization of social time: it possesses for itself alone the irreversible time of the living” (Thesis 128). Whereas pre-capitalist society expropriated the time of living labour openly, either through coercion of force or tradition, the great achievement of capitalism is that it manages to build the appropriation of time into the process of production itself, albeit invisibly. As David Harvey writes, time “is a vital magnitude under capitalism because social labor time is the measure of value and surplus social labor time lies at the origin of profit” (1989 p 425). Thus hidden within the cloak of production, the advantage to capital is that it accumulates surplus labour-time voluntarily, without recourse to constant coercion. To manage this, however, capital must organise all time so that it reflects the logic of equivalence that is the very secret of commodity production. Debord writes that:
The time of production, commodity-time, is an infinite accumulation of equivalent intervals. It is the abstraction of irreversible time, all of whose segments must prove on the chronometer their merely quantitative equality. This time is in reality exactly what it is in its exchangeable character. In this social domination by commodity-time, “time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most the carcass of time” (Poverty of Philosophy). This is time devalued, the complete inversion of time as “the field of human development.” (Thesis 147)
Capitalism thus replaces cyclical times of traditional societies with its own ordering of time, one characterised by the positing of an homogenous temporal “direction” or linearity to the flow of time itself. By irreversibility, Debord means to indicate that capital struggles to impose a unified time over the entire field of social subjectivity, thus annihilating any other temporal order that might threaten the domination of capital. The accumulation of abstract, empty and exchangeable time becomes the teleology of capitalist progress, and history becomes capitalist history: all other conceptions of time are swept before the onset of capitalist commodity production.
With the development of capitalism, irreversible time is unified on a world scale. Universal history becomes a reality because the entire world is gathered under the development of this time. But this history, which is everywhere simultaneously the same, is still only the refusal within history of history itself. What appears the world over as the same day is the time of economic production cut up into equal abstract fragments. (Thesis 145)
Despite the unprecedented force and clarity of his thesis, it could be argued that there is little at this point to distinguish Debord’s analysis of temporality from the writing of Lefebvre or even, should one look carefully enough, from that of Marx himself in the Grundrisse. But it is exactly here that Debord strikes out in an entirely new direction, one that will have significance for our understanding of the relation between capitalism, temporality and the city. As we saw above, one of Debord’s great insights is to recognise that the nature of the capitalist order has changed fundamentally from what it was in Marx’s day. Now, Henri Lefebvre was also attentive to the transformation of capitalism in the late 20th century, but situated this transformation in the emergence of an urban order. Debord, on the other hand, argues that it is the appearance of the spectacle that defines contemporary capitalism. While this distinction might appear simple, in reality it is more complicated than it seems. The Society of the Spectacle links the advent of the spectacular order to the development of the modern capitalist city, and as a result, it might appear as though Debord and Lefebvre have simply arrived at different ways of expressing the same thing. However, the consequence of Debord’s position is that he sees the urban as a spatialisation of the spectacular order, so much so that it is the spectacle’s logic and temporal structure that determines urban reality in late capitalism.
What is most innovative about Debord’s approach is that he is not simply arguing that it is the temporal logic of the classic commodity that determines the physical landscape of the urban. Were this the case, we would need only understand the temporality of classical commodity production in order to grasp the way in which urban space conforms to, and reproduces, the domination of capital. Such an approach fits within the scope of much traditional marxist political economy, concerned as it is with the analysis of the temporal rhythms of capital. It might even be argued that much of David Harvey’s urban geography proceeds in this direction; that is, despite his careful understanding of both space and time, in essence his work imports temporality through the deployment of classical marxist political economy. In his 1973 Social Justice and the City as well as in his 1985 Consciousness and Urban Experience, Harvey exhaustively analyses the relational character of time and space as it relates to urban geography through a deft grasp of marxist economics. While I am certainly not arguing against this method of approach, I am saying that we need to be careful that our understanding of political economy keeps pace with transformations of late capitalism. The strength of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is that it develops our understanding of marxist political economy and the temporality of capitalism by positing the spectacle as a new form of the commodity, one that modifies the conditions of capitalist production and temporality.
As an illustration of the specificity of this spectacular time, let us turn now to a final aspect of Debord’s work, one having to do with his account of how capital struggles to impose its temporality upon all of social life. For Debord, the imposition of capitalist time is akin to a form of “primitive accumulation” or expropriation. However, once capital asserts its social and temporal dominance, it begins the work of returning carefully delimited temporality to the producers in a manner that is more complex than the simple imposition of abstract and homogenous time discussed above. How does it work? Debord understands that this gift of time is not given freely by capital. Rather, as capitalism passes beyond the era of basic industrial manufacture, producers must be gradually converted into consumers. Debord writes that,
The preliminary condition required for propelling workers to the status of “free” producers and consumers of commodity time” was the violent expropriation of their own time. The spectacular return of time became possible only after this first dispossession of the producer. (Thesis 159)
In the section titled “Spectacular Time,” Debord notes that, with the full development of the spectacular society, a particular form of cyclical time is re-introduced into the temporal experience of capitalism. According to Conrad Russell, “in the ‘spectacle’, linear ‘commodity time’ acquires a cyclical double. The surviving rhythms of everyday life do not ‘hang in tatters’ – they are reconstructed as commodified products. As abstract and homogeneous as commodity time itself, they constitute its ‘consumable disguise’” (Russell 2002, p 198). Thus, in addition to abstract and homogenous commodity time, the spectacular order imposes what Debord calls “pseudo-cyclical” time, a time that corresponds to the temporality of the spectacle and one that therefore helps define urban terrain. Reading Debord, it is not difficult to see how the temporal order of spectacular time maps out onto our contemporary urban areas:
Consumable pseudo-cyclical time is spectacular time, both as the time of consumption of images in the narrow sense, and as the image of consumption of time in the broad sense. The time of image-consumption, the medium of all commodities, is inseparably the field where the instruments of the spectacle exert themselves fully, and also their goal, the location and main form of all specific consumption… The social image of the consumption of time, in turn, is exclusively dominated by moments of leisure and vacation, moments presented at a distance and desirable by definition, like every spectacular commodity. Here this commodity is explicitly presented as the moment of real life, and the point is to wait for its cyclical return. What was represented as genuine life reveals itself simply as more genuinely spectacular life. (Debord, Thesis 153)