"History is the Spectre haunting Modern Society": Temporality and Praxis in Guy Debord's Hegelian Marxism

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Abstract

Guy Debord’s famous concept of ‘spectacle’ is perhaps one of the most widely misunderstood and misappropriated ideas in contemporary theory. This essay will respond to that problem by offering a clarification of the concept, advanced via a discussion of the philosophical positions that inform Debord’s often dense formulations. Through doing so, the essay will show that the conceptual framework that the theory rests upon possesses far greater sophistication and complexity than is often acknowledged, insofar as it contains the following, still largely ignored components: 1) a philosophical anthropology; 2) a speculative philosophy of history; 3) the rudiments of an epistemology; 4) an implicit ethics; 5) a dialectical conception of strategy. Through outlining those elements the essay will advance the following, broader argument. Debord’s work is best understood as a 20th Century re-articulation of the classical 19th Century concern with realising philosophy in lived praxis; after all, the heralded supersession of spectacular representation, in all of its various formulations within his thought, essentially revolves around the need to begin consciously making history, as opposed to merely admiring and interpreting its results. Therefore, if his theory is indeed to be viewed as having become ‘more relevant than ever’, as many of his more enthusiastic commentators would have it, then that key orientation towards praxis should form part of its purported relevance. The essay will show that such a claim to pertinence can indeed be made: that whilst the theory may be of limited value as an account of modern capitalism, the model of praxis that one can draw from its conceptual mechanics – a model that amounts, we will argue, to a highly politicised ethics – may, nonetheless, be of contemporary interest.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-86
Number of pages25
JournalParrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy
Volume20
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2014

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History
Spectre
Modernity
Temporality
Haunting
Praxis
Marxism
Guy Debord
Sophistication
Spectacle
Philosophy
Philosophical Anthropology
Philosophy of History
Commentators
Speculative philosophy
Conceptual Framework
Articulation
Conception
Thought
Pertinence

Cite this

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title = "{"}History is the Spectre haunting Modern Society{"}: Temporality and Praxis in Guy Debord's Hegelian Marxism",
abstract = "Guy Debord’s famous concept of ‘spectacle’ is perhaps one of the most widely misunderstood and misappropriated ideas in contemporary theory. This essay will respond to that problem by offering a clarification of the concept, advanced via a discussion of the philosophical positions that inform Debord’s often dense formulations. Through doing so, the essay will show that the conceptual framework that the theory rests upon possesses far greater sophistication and complexity than is often acknowledged, insofar as it contains the following, still largely ignored components: 1) a philosophical anthropology; 2) a speculative philosophy of history; 3) the rudiments of an epistemology; 4) an implicit ethics; 5) a dialectical conception of strategy. Through outlining those elements the essay will advance the following, broader argument. Debord’s work is best understood as a 20th Century re-articulation of the classical 19th Century concern with realising philosophy in lived praxis; after all, the heralded supersession of spectacular representation, in all of its various formulations within his thought, essentially revolves around the need to begin consciously making history, as opposed to merely admiring and interpreting its results. Therefore, if his theory is indeed to be viewed as having become ‘more relevant than ever’, as many of his more enthusiastic commentators would have it, then that key orientation towards praxis should form part of its purported relevance. The essay will show that such a claim to pertinence can indeed be made: that whilst the theory may be of limited value as an account of modern capitalism, the model of praxis that one can draw from its conceptual mechanics – a model that amounts, we will argue, to a highly politicised ethics – may, nonetheless, be of contemporary interest.",
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AB - Guy Debord’s famous concept of ‘spectacle’ is perhaps one of the most widely misunderstood and misappropriated ideas in contemporary theory. This essay will respond to that problem by offering a clarification of the concept, advanced via a discussion of the philosophical positions that inform Debord’s often dense formulations. Through doing so, the essay will show that the conceptual framework that the theory rests upon possesses far greater sophistication and complexity than is often acknowledged, insofar as it contains the following, still largely ignored components: 1) a philosophical anthropology; 2) a speculative philosophy of history; 3) the rudiments of an epistemology; 4) an implicit ethics; 5) a dialectical conception of strategy. Through outlining those elements the essay will advance the following, broader argument. Debord’s work is best understood as a 20th Century re-articulation of the classical 19th Century concern with realising philosophy in lived praxis; after all, the heralded supersession of spectacular representation, in all of its various formulations within his thought, essentially revolves around the need to begin consciously making history, as opposed to merely admiring and interpreting its results. Therefore, if his theory is indeed to be viewed as having become ‘more relevant than ever’, as many of his more enthusiastic commentators would have it, then that key orientation towards praxis should form part of its purported relevance. The essay will show that such a claim to pertinence can indeed be made: that whilst the theory may be of limited value as an account of modern capitalism, the model of praxis that one can draw from its conceptual mechanics – a model that amounts, we will argue, to a highly politicised ethics – may, nonetheless, be of contemporary interest.

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