Guy Debord: A Philosophy of Time


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.

– Guy Debord,  Society of the Spectacle

Time, power, value and technics when seen for what they are awakens us to the concept of governance which is at the core of the neoliberal global accelerationist project of absolute governance. Etymologically the concept of governance arises out of the old Latin “gubernare”: to direct, rule, guide, govern, originally “to steer,” a nautical borrowing from Greek kybernan “to steer or pilot a ship, direct (the root of cybernetics. (see Online Etymology) This notion of steering, directing, guiding, governing coalesces in the mutations of temporal relations that have transformed our planet into an accelerationist machine of consuming time, a feeding frenzy that takes in everything organic and inorganic in its closing horizon of conceptuality.

Marx in the Grundrisse would align this temporal process as the interplay between flow and interruption (disruption) of the machinic processes of capital itself. For Marx humans (labor) are seen within the machine or automatic system of machinery “merely as its conscious linkages”:

In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labor. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labour, to transmit the worker’s activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine’s work, the machine’s action, on to the raw material – supervises it and guards against interruption [Italics Mine]. Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it…(Marx, Chapter on Capital, Notebook VI 692-693)1

This notion that the machine is the creative and vital (soulful) virtuoso rather than the humans supervising it and guarding it against interruption introduces one of the earliest renditions of what would come to be known as the cybernetic revolution that would only in our time come to complete fruition. When I read Franco Berardi’s essay on e-flux Time, Acceleration, and Violence and saw that first paragraph where he asks:

What do you store in a bank? You store time. But is the money that is stored in the bank my past time—the time that I have spent in the past? Or does this money give me the possibility of buying a future? 

We’ve all heard the old shibboleth of Benjamin Franklin, “Time is money!” Berardi will tell us that all of this is clear: value is time, capital is value, or accumulated time, and the banks store this accumulated time. He will remind us that in Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard brought forth the notion that temporality is the key to financial capitalism,  a unique fulfillment of Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” at the level of finance: the complete loss between time and value. Berardi will  contextualize this as a war between various cultural frames: Italian futurism as the masculinization of time as accelerationist warrior credo, etc. One that would lead to fascism, and would mark it as the crucial point of passage from feminine shame to masculine acceleration culture, to pride, aggressiveness, war, industrial growth, and so forth. But it remains a search for another perception of time, for a way of forgetting one’s own laziness, slowness, and sensitivity by asserting a perception of time in which one is a master—a warrior and builder of industry. (see Berardi)

As I began thinking through this biting reversal in Marx of the machine as Creative Agent rather than human labor (which is seen as subsidiary and servile, a mere regulator and gatekeeper of disruptions, etc.) , and of these various sense of time and value along with the dialectical line of various cultures of shame and guilt, deceleration and acceleration, agricultural civilization vs. industrial civilization, etc. I began realizing this “perception of time” that Berardi teases out is in need of further examination.

I decide to reread Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle recently, and realized that at the center of its theme lies the leitmotif of temporal relations as a philosophy of Time & Civilization. For it is here that he develops the kernel of this historical battle between cyclic civilizations and the accelerationist civilization of the machine that would underpin much of Marx’s critique of Capitalism. It’s not a gnostic or Manichean vision of opposites, but of a historical vision of how humans have oriented and organized their modes of life, labor, and value across time.

The Nineteenth Century would see the consolidation of the Enlightenment project with its centralization of time as irreversible: progress, development, improvement, modernity, etc. Within the void of each of these concepts would hide the concept of “efficiency”, which allowed a mathematical and quantifiable way of calculating labor time and productivity and the attenuated fears of waste, especially the waste of time.3 Efficiency was never about increasing productivity in the Progressive Era, rather it aimed at guaranteeing a reliable, regular rate of production and cultivating reliable, steady habits of character. It was a tool of self-management and personal stability in the face of turbulent change. (Alexander, KL 1451) So efficiency was a tool to control and shape time as progressive time:

Efficiency was … embedded in a rhetoric of dynamic, transformative power. Balanced efficiencies provided the reliable elements of economic or social transformation, the interchangeable and standardized parts, the unchanging substrata, upon which a new bureaucratic order of interaction and adjustment, of change, might be built. (Alexander, KL 1453)

Progressive ideologues, engineers, thinkers defined rationalization as “everything that could restore equilibrium,” and many would describe rationalization as seeking the “‘efficiency’ key to orderly social and individual life,” economic stability almost invariably given as its goal.” (Alexander, KL 1562)

Crucial to rationalization was a concept of flow. It could describe the assembly line and other practices for keeping the productive works in continual motion… But flow also carried another meaning, referring not to specific techniques but to a more general ideology of undisturbed production. If the solution to social and economic crisis lay in the raising of living standards through cheaper and more plentiful goods, then whatever imperiled production further imperiled a society already in crisis. Many technical measures were undertaken to streamline production, including standardization in many forms, of work schedules, parts and sizes, and methods of production; widespread adoption of new cost-accounting methods; and a host of technical measures to reduce waste… (Alexander, KL 1564)

As Alexander will inform us behind efficiency lay a legacy of balance and a worry about waste, expressed in its assumptions that one ought to get as much as possible out of what one had put in, not only enough to be productive or to show a profit but enough to show that the system was under control. (ibid. KL 1811) And, as we know control is both mastery and self-mastery. As we know the word control represents its most general definition, purposive influence toward a predetermined goal. Most dictionary definitions imply these same two essential elements: influence of one agent over another, meaning that the former causes changes in the behavior of the latter; and purpose, in the sense that influence is directed toward some prior goal of the controlling agent.4

The rationalization of society with the rise of the Fordist economies with their need to reduce waste opened the door to regulatory bureaucracies to control and oversee the governance and management of time, value, labor, etc. both within the governance of society, technology, and corporations. It is here that we begin to see how the older forms of control in government and markets had depended on personal relationships and face-to-face interactions; now in our time control is seen to be reestablished by means of bureaucratic organization, the new infrastructures of transportation and the Information and Communications technologies (ICTs). The new accelerationist economies based on global societal transformation, with its attendant rapid innovation in information and control technology accelerating Just-In-Time production in endless productivity cycles without waste: a process that seeks to regain control of functions once contained at much lower and more diffuse levels of society but which are now becoming invisible and ubiquitous as we move into the tecnocapitalist paradigm of intelligent economies based of the financialization of Big Data, etc.

 Society of the spectacle

Guy Debord will portray this history in phases of cyclical (agricultural society), irreversible (industrial), and pseudocyclical (postmodern) notions of time, technics, and civilization in his Society of the Spectacle. He will see within the agrarian mode of production, governed as it is by the rhythm of the seasons, the basis for a fully developed cyclical time of eternal return of the Same. Eternity is within this time, it is the return of the same here on earth. Myth is the unitary mental construct which guarantees that the cosmic order conforms with the order that this society has in fact already established within its frontiers. (Debord, Section 126)

Yet, as agricultural civilization took off and the static based food societies came into conflict with the older hunter/gatherer societies there arose the need for authority and security, so that the first cities and centralized bureaucratic organizations of religious accounting and kingship arose. The social appropriation of time and the production of man by human labor develop within a society divided into classes. The power that establishes itself above the poverty of the society of cyclical time, the class that organizes this social labor and appropriates its limited surplus value, simultaneously appropriates the temporal surplus value resulting from its organization of social time: it alone possesses the irreversible time of the living. (Debord, Section 128)

This is the time of adventure and war, the time in which the masters of cyclical society pursue their personal histories; it is also the time that emerges in the clashes with foreign communities that disrupt the unchanging social order. History thus arises as something alien to people, as something they never sought and from which they had thought themselves protected.

This irreversible time is the time of those who rule, and the dynasty is its first unit of measurement. Writing is the rulers’ weapon. In writing, language attains its complete independence as a mediation between consciousnesses. But this independence coincides with the independence of separate power, the mediation that shapes society. With writing there appears a consciousness that is no longer carried and transmitted directly among the living — an impersonal memory, the memory of the administration of society. (Debord, Section 131) Yet, Debord will see a double-edged distinction between the masters and the worker (slaves): the masters played the role of mythically guaranteeing the permanence of cyclical time, they themselves achieved a relative liberation from cyclical time. (Debord, 132)

So this notion of the common man living in an eternal present cut off from history and time as an irreversible arrow, while the upper elites, kings, warriors, etc. lived in a “recorded time”, a time that counted, and was marked down for future generations to remember would form the backdrop of all future social relations. The rulers owned time, and time was the first and greatest commodity: it guaranteed immortality and eternity for those who controlled it. We’ve seen this in those works by Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization), Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death), and Ernest Becker (Escape From Evil). Each of which combined readings of Freud and Marxian critiques of solar mythologies of the ancients.  Each would hone in on the conceptual frameworks of myth, the sky based mythologies as abstract mappings of order against chaos: the sky as a mathematical system or machine that could be calculated and measured with increasing care and exactitude, giving assurance of an orderly world, in which the ancient kings became the earthly representatives of the victorious sky gods. Our mathematical sciences would begin in astrology, the mapping and mathematization of the sky. Astronomy laid the base from which all sciences emerged. The clock-work movements of the heavens and their dramas would influence philosophers and musicians to come.

After thousands of years of this interactive world of cyclic and irreversible time played out within the ancient world, came the monotheistic religions of which Judaism in the West arose. The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, between the cyclical time that still governed the sphere of production and the irreversible time that was the theater of conflicts and regroupings among different peoples. The religions that evolved out of Judaism were abstract universal acknowledgments of an irreversible time that had become democratized and open to all, but only in the realm of illusion. (Debord, 136)

Debord will remind us that it is the Middle Ages, an incomplete mythical world whose consummation lay outside itself, is the period when cyclical time, though still governing the major part of production, really begins to be undermined by history. An element of irreversible time is recognized in the successive stages of each individual’s life. Life is seen as a one-way journey through a world whose meaning lies elsewhere: the pilgrim is the person who leaves cyclical time behind and actually becomes the traveler that everyone else is symbolically. (Debord, 137)

With the Enlightenment project and commodity Capitalism we would see the slow fabrication of a new myth, the myth of progress: one that would have as its goal the elimination of waste; or, more succinctly the elimination of not only cyclical time but of historical time as well. A process that started two hundred years ago has in financial capitalism entered the ubiquitous time of an accelerating future. This is not the speed culture of Virilio’s Politics of Speed, etc. Instead as Debord tells it the main product that economic development has transformed from a luxurious rarity to a commonly consumed item is thus history itself — but only in the form of the history of the abstract movement of things that dominates all qualitative aspects of life. While the earlier cyclical time had supported an increasing degree of historical time lived by individuals and groups, the irreversible time of production tends to socially eliminate such lived time. (Debord, 142)

This will be time as a pure commodity: “time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most the carcass of time” (The Poverty of Philosophy). As Debord describes it this general time of human nondevelopment also has a complementary aspect — a consumable form of time based on the present mode of production and presenting itself in everyday life as a pseudocyclical time. (Debord, 148) As a production of commoditized time 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. In our time pseudonature is termed the InfoSphere: the artificialization of our planet into layers of information and data, abstracted out of the dead weight of natural existence people live in virtual theatres of illusion rather than older forms of existence. Inforgs or informationally embodied organisms (inforgs), mutually connected and embedded in an informational environment, the infosphere, which we share with both natural and artificial agents similar to us in many respects.5

We’ve live in artificial constructs of a spectacular world so naturalized and ubiquitous that we forget it is virtual illusion: this is the world of RealityTV as a DIY project in which we can watch the world as a selfie in which we are starring actors at one remove, doubles of ourselves roaming the virtual lanes in infinite regress of image worlds receding further and further from our physical embedded life.

As we watch our lives lived by our doubles on RealityTV in all its glorious inanity: Its vulgarized pseudofestivals 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. (Debord, 154) Time as a public relations event, a RealityTV series that keeps repeating itself endlessly on late night comedy. A life in a pure void where communication is nothing more than canned laughter. All the while zombies stare into the videodrone tubes awaiting new instructions from their masters.

Against this dead world of zombie RealityTV filled with doubles and double-talk oblivion Debord would seek 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.” (Debord, 163)

A quantum time that is both cyclical and irreversible: a paradox at the heart of the production of time as lived, one that is a difference that makes a difference? Only time will tell…

1. Karl Marx. Grundrisse. Penguin Books, 1993.
2. Debord, Guy (2011-03-15). Society of the Spectacle (Soul Bay Press. Kindle Edition.)
3. Jennifer Karns Alexander. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Kindle Location 32). Kindle Edition.
4. Beniger, James (1989-03-15). The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Kindle Locations 212-214). Harvard University Press – A. Kindle Edition.
5. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 14). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

7 thoughts on “Guy Debord: A Philosophy of Time

  1. Great run-down! People tend to forget the whole analysis of time that Debord crafted, when in a lot of ways its central to the whole Situationist project. The alternative to the Fordist economy that they posed also has its roots in notions of time, in a more abstract register – “the construction of situations.” It was Henri Lefebvre, that wonderful Dada Marxist who desperately begs to be reread today, that first raised the idea:

    “At the level of everyday life, this intervention would be translated as a better allocation of its elements and its instants as “moments,” so as to intensify the vital productivity of everydayness, its capacity for communication, for information, and also and avove all for pleasure in natural and social life. The theory of moments, then, is not situated outside of everydayness, but would be articulated along with it, by uniting with critique to introduce therein what its richness lacks. It would thus tend, at the core of pleasure linked to the totality, to go beyond the old oppositions of lightness and heaviness, of seriousness and the lack of seiousness.”

    These “moments” that he speaks of are a time against capitalist theme, so compacted, organized and itemized. Lefebvre’s revolution isn’t the reorganization of Fordist production modes under centralized command, as Vaneigem so insightfully pointed out that the Soviet Union was the perfected form of; it was a plurality of these moments, moments of ecstasy, moments of self-loss, moments of self-realization and revelation, moments that dance on the edges of time itself… A plurality of moments would be like a never-ending of adventure, of the sort called for in the events of May ’68, where everyday becomes a never-ending tapestry of newness, experience, and wonder. It was a certain interpretation of nomadic thought; it was also a call for the immediate realization of the pleasures that first religion and then capitalism promised to be the gateway too but instead constrained.

    The “Situation” itself was understood as the ephemeral transitionary period between the time of capitalism and the time of the whatever. As Debord says, “The most general goal must be to expand the nonmediocre part of life, to reduce the empty moments of life as much as possible.”

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    • Yea, between reading Land’s pamphlet of teleoplexy and Gibson’s Peripheral I had to take a review back on Debord’s notion of a federation of independent times… as if various temporal zones existed at different levels within our world or maybe a City… as if all these various time periods coexisted on some level with each other, as if moving from one block to another one entered a different timeworld, etc. More like the Occasionlists and Whitehead’s notions of time as spheres that are continuously being produced every instant, and at every instant one could interject oneself and move to a different timeflow… quirky metaphysics… or sci-fi


      • There’s a bit more sci-fi at work in the Situationists than at first glance (and a lot more Situationism in Nick Land’s writings, I think. Been sifting through both quite a bit lately to better flesh that out)… Debord was the great writer of apocalypse and ambiguity, and Vaneigem the secret occultist, student of heresies.

        Anyways, the whole dichotomies of time found in Situationist theory reminds me a lot of Deleuze’s “pulsed time” (Chronos) and “non-pulsed time” (Aeon). Just as the Situationists sort of mined the avant-garde to increase their understanding of situations and moment, Deleuze and Guattari really explore Aeon through music like John Cage, Edgard Varese, La Monte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen… people who broke through organized composition to chance operation, moved from traditional Western structure to Eastern music’s free-floating, droning nature, made music out of electronics.

        There’s something really synthetic that moves out from these time discourses, with their commonalities. It points to something more floating than fixed, expressive than impressive, and alien instead of familiar. Maybe I’m crazy but these seem like excellent modes to analyze – and hopefully create lines of flight with – contemporary power systems. Much better than riding the deterritorializing flows of capital, at any rate…


      • I agree, I’m tackling the The Philosophy of Time in particular and aligning it with much of the accelerationist and control society discourse we’ve been tracking for some time now. Remember time is really about “causality”… powers and dispositions, etc.

        And, most of it was first stated by the aesthetes: Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, who drifted in from French Decadence…

        Here is Pater in The Renaissance:

        “One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had clung always about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve –les hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passion, the wisest, at least among “the children of the world”, in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us a quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion –that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”

        Pater’s “expanding the interval, as getting as many pulsations as possible into a given time” has drifted down the pipe in many authors in modernism (Joyce, Pound, Eliot), and in your quote from Henri Lefebvre, etc. Of course all this goes back to Plato, for whom time is like an empty container into which things and events may be placed; but it is a container that exists independently of what (if anything) is placed in it. See Time (Stanford)

        Except in Pater you get nostalgia, the fleeting vanishing of these moment’s or containers that cannot be held onto in our existential life, but exist in that Platonic Absolute Time contained only in the momentary fragment of our instants: stored in eternity, but lost forever from the realm of this passing time of times. Nostalgia, loss, temporal decay: decadence as an aesthetic disposition.

        One could bring in the Occasionalists, etc. There is this dark tradition of time flowing underneath almost every philosophical theory…

        Liked by 1 person

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