sp been quite a while since I posted anything but am going to try to get back to it.
Several months ago, on the W.A.S.T.E. Thomas Pynchon followers site on Facebook, someone posted a review of a book by Joanna Freer, Thomas Pynchon and The American Counter-Culture. This looked promising because my own researches into Pynchon made it clear that the 1950’s and early 1960’s are when Pynchon’s literary, political and philosophical sensibilities were formed.
Freer’s book, however, was extremely disappointing. I am sure she got her Ph.D for it, and what a sad state academia must be in for that to happen. Badly written (I would have drenched the first chapter in red ink, had I been editing it). There were two middle chapters that were at least comprehensible. I suspect that was because they had been published as journal articles and some poor devil editors labored over them to make them presentable. Overall, her book didn’t tell me much of anything new about Pynchon’s writings
But there is always something to gain when reading new books. And in this case, it was a reference to a book by French Marxist critic Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, written in 1967. As a new source for Pynchon, this looked promising. Alas, it was not to be. If Pynchon read Debord back in 1967, I can’t see any direct relation. No quotes ring out, as when reading, for example, Norbert Weiner’s The Human Use of Human Beings, or Marshall McCluhan’s Understanding Media. There are some great insights into the uses of capitalism, the nature of revolutions, and what we would call “class war”, but Pynchon could have picked up those ideas from any number of sources.
Which brings me to Debord’s book: a peculiar mash up of Marxist theory, McCluhan media insights, and, for lack of a better term, Kabbalist mysticism. There are lots of sentences that negate themselves, such as “So far from realizing philosophy, the spectacle philosophized reality…” And “So long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity.” I could quote quite a few of these but you get the idea. This kind of drivel leads you nowhere. But then there are some true gems: “though man is separated from his product, man is more and more…the producer of every detail of his world. The closer his life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically is he cut off from that life.” “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” There are interesting insights into how media “spectacles” have come to be a false image of everyday life but are immensely popular. — just think of the popularity of so-called reality TV shows and you get the idea. But this was written in 1967, when television and film were just becoming the focus of modern social life.
There is a chapter on how commodities — material things– have, since the Industrial Revolution, become the center of social life, with the haves pretty much dominating the have-nots. (A thesis brought to life recently by Thomas Piketty in his study, Capital in the Twenty-First Century).
The middle of the book then takes up the failure of proletarian revolutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. How all that happened in France, Germany, Russia and China was only a replacement of one ruling class for another, with those at the bottom of society left behind, betrayed, and kept in subservience yet again. Yes, a Pynchon theme, if you will, but not unique to Debord by any means.
I found this book intriguing: at times brilliant; at times opaque. But written with a sense of moral urgency as to how the world has come to be this way and how it doesn’t have to be this way. It is also informed by a sense that ideas matter. That striving to understand the nature of the society we live in makes a difference in how we act. Some of that comes from the French intellectual tradition that this kind of commentary can change the way people think and act. It’s a refreshing viewpoint, to say the least, given how thin Americans can be on this kind of enquiry.
The Society of the Spectcale is definitely not for everybody. I look forward to re-reading it. My friends who enjoy the works of Thomas Pynchon will find it interesting — maybe some of you will see direct references that I missed.