Guy Debord on computers, dialectic, strategic thought

One can call anything that misleads rapid reading or computers a “lure.” In any case, there isn’t a single inexact or deceptive piece of information [in my book]. I suggest another hypothesis to you: what if, in this book—for a reader capable of understanding dialectical, strategic thought (Machiavelli or Clausewitz)—there are in fact no lures? What if the only lure is the very evocation of the possibility of there being lures? [86]

Let us begin with the remark about computers. Debord’s later writings contain several references to computer technology, and typically charge the latter with denigrating independent thought. [87] In his view, “computers cannot understand dialectics.”[88] Presumably, because they are constrained by programmed algorithmic rules, they fall short of the mutability and critical stance afforded by “dialectical, strategic thought.” Comments, as Debord remarked in another letter, “was made to paralyze a computer,” [89] and Debord seems to have believed that he achieved this by directing the book’s intended meanings towards a select readership who are proficient in a mode of thought that eludes such algorithmic constraint. This is a kind of thinking characterized by inversion, reversal and opposition; those are, not coincidentally, the primary characteristics of détournement.

[1] Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Imrie (London: Verso, 1998), henceforth Comments, 80; Guy Debord, Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), 1641, henceforth Oeuvres.

[16] Debord, Correspondance, vol. 7: Janvier 1988 – Novembre 1994 (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2008), 78; henceforth Correspondance, vol. 7.

[86] Correspondance, vol. 7, 78.

[87] In Comments, Debord writes as follows: “… the computer’s binary language is an irresistible inducement to the continual and unreserved acceptance of what has been programmed according to the wishes of someone else and passes the for the timeless source of a superior, impartial and total logic” (Comments, 28-9; Oeuvres, 1609). Other remarks in his late writings stress the role of computers in monitoring, managing and even simulating forms of dissent.

[88] Debord, Cette mauvaise réputation, 102. [Paris: Gallimard, 1993.]

[89] Correspondance, vol. 7, 218.

SOURCE: Bunyard, Tom. “Spectacle and Strategy: On the Development of Debord’s Theoretical Work from ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ to ‘Comments on the Society of the Spectacle’,” Selva, no. 4 Fall 2022 [Ideology, Strategy, Aesthetics], pp. 103-127. This excerpt, pp. 119-120.


According to the basic interests of the new system of domination, the dissolution of logic has been pursued by different, but mutually supportive, means. Some of these means involve the technology which the spectacle has tested and popularized; others are more linked to the mass psychology of submission.

At the technological level, when images chosen and constructed by someone else have everywhere become the individual’s principal connection to the world he formerly observed for himself, it has certainly not been forgotten that these images can tolerate anything and everything; because within the same image all things can be juxtaposed without contradiction. The flow of images carries everything before it, and it is similarly someone else who controls at will this simplified summary of the sensible world; who decides where the flow will lead as well as the rhythm of what should be shown, like some perpetual, arbitrary surprise, leaving no time for reflection, and entirely independent of what the spectator might understand or think of it. In this concrete experience of permanent submission lies the psychological origin of such general acceptance of what is; an acceptance which comes to find in it, ipso facto, a sufficient value. Beyond what is strictly secret, spectacular discourse obviously silences anything it finds inconvenient. It isolates all it shows from its context, its past, its intentions and its consequences. It is thus completely illogical. Since no one may contradict it, it has the right to contradict itself, to correct its own past. The arrogant intention of its servants, when they have to put forward some new, and perhaps still more dishonest version of certain facts, is to harshly correct the ignorance and misinterpretations they attribute to their public, while the day before they themselves were busily disseminating the error, with their habitual assurance. Thus the spectacle’s instruction and the spectators’ ignorance are wrongly seen as antagonistic factors when in fact they give birth to each other. In the same way, the computer’s binary language is an irresistible inducement to the continual and unreserved acceptance of what has been programmed according to the wishes of someone else and passes for the timeless source of a superior, impartial and total logic. Such progress, such speed, such breadth of vocabulary! Political? Social? Make your choice. You cannot have both. My own choice is inescapable. They are jeering at us, and we know whom these programs are for. 5 Thus it is hardly surprising that children should enthusiastically start their education at an early age with the Absolute Knowledge of computer science; while they are still unable to read, for reading demands making judgments at every line; and is the only access to the wealth of pre-spectacular human experience. Conversation is almost dead, and soon so too will be those who knew how to speak.

The primary cause of the decadence of contemporary thought evidently lies in the fact that spectacular discourse leaves no room for any reply; while logic was only socially constructed through dialogue. Furthermore, when respect for those who speak through the spectacle is so widespread, when they are held to be rich, important, prestigious, to be authority itself, the spectators tend to want to be just as illogical as the spectacle, thereby proudly displaying an individual reflection of this authority. And finally, logic is not easy, and no one has tried to teach it. Drug addicts do not study logic; they no longer need it, nor are they capable of it. The spectator’s laziness is shared by all intellectual functionaries and overnight specialists, all of whom do their best to conceal the narrow limits of their knowledge by the dogmatic repetition of arguments with illogical authority.

5. “They are jeering at us, and we know whom these programmes are for.” The French here is, “On nous siffle, et l’on sait pour qui sont ces structures.” Debord is playing on a famous line from Racine’s Andromache, Act V, Scene 3: “Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos tetes?”


Networks of promotion/control slide imperceptibly into networks of surveillance/disinformation. Formerly one only conspired against an established order. Today, conspiring in its favor is a new and flourishing profession. Under spectacular domination, people conspire to maintain it, and to guarantee what it alone would call its well-being. This conspiracy is a part of its very functioning. Provisions for a kind of preventive civil war are already being made, adapted to variously calculated future projections. These are the ‘special squads’ responsible for local interventions according to the needs of the integrated spectacle. Thus, for the worst scenarios, a tactic has been planned under the name ‘Three Cultures,’ a witty reference to a square in Mexico City in October 1968 — though this time the gloves would be off and the tactic applied before the revolt occurred. 13 Such extreme cases apart, to be a useful tool of government, unexplained assassinations need only be widely influential or relatively frequent, because simply knowing that they are possible complicates calculations in many different fields. Nor is there any need to be intelligently selective, ad hominem.

The entirely random application of the procedure may well be more productive. The composition of certain fragments of a social critique of rearing has also been arranged, something which is no longer entrusted to academics or media professionals, whom it is now preferable to keep apart from excessively traditional lies in this debate: a new critique is required, advanced and exploited in a new way, controlled by another, better trained, sort of professional. In a relatively confidential manner, lucid texts are beginning to appear, anonymously, or signed by unknown authors — a tactic helped by everyone’s concentration on the clowns of the spectacle, which in turn makes unknowns justly seem the most admirable — texts not only on subjects never touched on in the spectacle but also containing arguments whose forte is made more striking by a calculable originality deriving from the fact that however evident, they are never used. This practice may serve as at least a first stage in initiation to recruit more alert intellects, who will later be told more about the possible consequences, should they seem suitable. What for some will be the first step in a career will be for others with lower grades, the first step into the trap prepared for them. In some cases, with issues that threaten to become controversial, another pseudo-critique can be created; and between the two opinions which will thus be put forward — both outside the impoverished conventions of the spectacle — unsophisticated judgment can oscillate indefinitely, while discussion around them can be renewed whenever necessary. Most often this concerns a general discussion of what is hidden by the media, and this discussion can be strongly critical, and on some points quite evidently intelligent, yet always curiously decentered. Topics and words have been artificially chosen, with the aid of computers programmed in critical thought. These texts always contain certain gaps, which are quite hard to spot but nonetheless remarkable: the vanishing point of perspective is always abnormally absent. They resemble those facsimiles of famous weapons, which only lack the firing-pin. This is inevitably a lateral critique, which perceives many things with considerable candor and accuracy, but places itself to one side. Not because it affects some sort of impartiality, for on the contrary it must seem to find much fault, yet without ever apparently feeling the need to reveal its cause, to state, even implicitly, where it is coming from and where it wants to go.

To this kind of counter-journalistic false critique can be added the organized practice of rumor which we know to be originally a sort of uncontrollable by-product of spectacular information, since everyone, however vaguely, perceives something misleading about the latter and trust it as little as it deserves. Rumor began as something superstitious, naive, self-deluding. More recently, however, surveillance has begun introducing into the population people capable of starting rumors which suit it at the very first signal. It has been decided here to apply in practice the observations of a theory formulated some thirty years ago, whose origins lie in American sociology of advertising — the theory of individuals known as ‘pacemakers,’ that is, those whom others in their milieu come to follow and imitate — but this time moving from spontaneity to control. Budgetary, or extrabudgetary, means have also been released to fund numerous auxiliaries; beside the former specialists of the recent past, academics and media professionals, sociologists and police. To believe in the continuing mechanical application of past models leads to just as many errors as the general ignorance of the past. “Rome is no longer in Rome,” and the Mafia are no longer thieves. 14 And the surveillance and disinformation services are as far removed from the police and informers of former times — for example, from the roussins and mouchards of the Second Empire — as the present special services in all countries are from the officers of the army general staff’s Deuxieme Bureau in 1914.

13. “under the name ‘Three Cultures’.” On 2 October 1968, police opened fire on student demonstrators in Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City, killing many. During the preceding fortnight, at least fifty more students had been killed during police attacks on strike meetings and the university campus.

14. “Rome is no longer in Rome.” The quotation is from a line in Racine’s Mithridate: “Rome n’est plus dans Rome; elle est toute ou je suis.”

[↑ Excerpt of section]

SOURCE: Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, translated by Malcolm Imrie (London: Verso, 1998).

«“Le plan devra rester assez peu clair”, dit-il. Outre que c’est réussi, cela laisse entendre qu’il est en danger. Personne ne s’avise qu’il est beaucoup plus risqué de sous-entendre, et que Debord n’a pas été assassiné par des services secrets.» C’est une évidence que le plus grand danger où je me suis trouvé est le danger de n’avoir que trop bien persuadé l’adversaire de la vérité de mes conclusions : j’en tiens grand compte. On pourra voir dans les documents réunis ici que l’on m’a trés souvent reproché d’avoir beaucoup influencé telle ou telle sorte de gens. J’ai dû écrire déja en 1979 dans la Preface à la quatriéme édition italienne de “La Société du spectacle” : «L’un avait vu ce livre ne pas aborder le probléme de l’Etat; l’autre l’avait vu ne tenir aucun compte de l’existence de l’histoire; un autre l’a repoussé en tant qu’éloge irrationnel et incommunicable de la pure destruction; un autre l’a condamné comme étant le guide secret de la conduite de tous les gouvemements constitués depuis sa parution.» (Je souligne ici l’extravagance.) J’ai toujours eu des critiques qui étaient d’étonnants bouffons. Malgré tant d’exagérations, je sais qu’il y avait aussi une [101/102] part de vérité : trop de gens sont portés à croire ce que je dis. Tout se déchiffre, mais pas facilement par les ordinateurs, qui ne comprennent pas la dialectique. Il y a des moments du processus — et 1988 en était précisément un — oû il est bon de faire retarder certaines conclusions d’un an ou deux.

Je n’ai jamais rien sous-entendu. J’ai meme dit en 1988 : «Je ne me propose, sur aucun aspect de la question... de convaincre. Les présents commentaires ne se soucient pas de moraliser.» Les services les plus secrets n’assassinent jamais personne sans avoir exactement évalué en totalité les avantages et les inconvénients, comme aussi les urgences.

SOURCE: Debord, Guy. Cette mauvaise réputation (Paris: Gallimard, 1993), pp. 101-102. Rough translation:

“The plan will have to remain quite unclear,” he says. Besides that it is successful, it suggests that he is in danger. Nobody realizes that it is much more risky to imply, and that Debord was not assassinated by the secret services. It is obvious that the greatest danger in which I found myself was the danger of having persuaded the adversary only too well of the truth of my conclusions: I take them seriously. You can see in the documents collected here that I have very often been reproached for having greatly influenced such and such a kind of people. I must have written already in 1979 in the Preface to the fourth Italian edition of “La Société du spectacle”: “One had seen this book not approaching the problem of the State; the other had seen him disregard the existence of history; another dismissed it as irrational, incommunicable praise of sheer destruction; another condemned it as being the secret guide to the conduct of all governments formed since its publication.” (I'm emphasizing extravagance here.) I've always had critics who were amazing buffoons. Despite so many exaggerations, I know there was also [101/102] some truth: too many people believe what I say. Everything is deciphered, but not easily by computers, which do not understand dialectics. There are times in the process—and 1988 was precisely one—when it is good to delay certain conclusions for a year or two.

I never implied anything. I even said in 1988: “I do not propose, on any aspect of the question... to convince. These comments are not concerned with moralizing.” The most secret services never assassinate anyone without having fully assessed the advantages and disadvantages, as well as emergencies.

À Gilles Cahoreau 29 [Biographe de François Truffaut]

Le 6 avril 1989
Cher Monsieur,

Contrairement à votre prévision, je vous réponds pour plusieurs raisons.

Je ne juge jamais les historiens, et même pas les biographes, avant d’avoir lu leurs travaux. Les sottises du centre Pompidou, ou des crétins mondains qui prétendent me lire, ne m’intéressent en rien, et ne peuvent changer ma conduite. Enfin, votre lettre est intelligente; quoique je rejette tout à fait l’hypothèse que la phrase que vous citez soit un leurre. On peut appeler leurre tout ce qui doit égarer la lecture rapide, ou l’ordinateur. En tout cas, il n’y a pas une seule information inexacte ou trompeuse. Je vous suggère une autre hypothèse: si, dans ce livre 30 [Commentaires sur la société du spectacle], pour un lecteur capable de comprendre la pensée dialectique, stratégique (Machiavel ou Clausewitz), il n’y avait en fait aucun leurre? Si le seul leurre était cette évocation de la possibilité des leurres?

À Thomas Levin

Novembre 1989

D’autre part, à ne considérer que l’originalité expérimentale, c’est-à-dire l’absence de toute rédaction des « Thèses », l’application socio-historique ultérieure de cette innovation formelle est tout aussi remarquable : après qu’elle ait subi, bien sûr, un complet renversement. Guère plus de vingt ans après, en effet, on pouvait voir que le procédé avait rencontré un insolite succès dans les instances supérieures de nombreux États. On sait que désormais les quelques conclusions véritablement vitales, répugnant à s’inscrire dans les réseaux des ordinateurs, enregistrements magnétiques ou télex, et se méfiant même des machines à écrire et des photocopieuses, après avoir été le plus souvent ébauchées sous formes de notes manuscrites, sont simplement apprises par cœur, le brouillon étant aussitôt détruit.

À Paolo Salvadori

12 septembre 90
Cher Paolo,

Je veux te dire, ou dans le cadre d’un tel projet, ou pour toutes les autres circonstances qui peuvent survenir, que Panégyrique volume I est le texte définitif, où tout est vrai, et où réside l’explication complète de tout ce que j’ai fait. Mais en même temps c’est un texte bourré de pièges et de sens superposés. (Si Commentaires était fait pour paralyser un ordinateur, celui-ci est fait pour échapper partiellement pendant longtemps à de bonnes têtes politiques, tablant sur leur extrême rareté actuelle, et aussi sur divers principes de dérive que l’art moderne avait introduits dans le déploiement d’un texte.)

À Annie Le Brun

5 décembre 92
Chère Annie,

Je ne peux toujours croire au texte attribué à Schuster, en m’en tenant à sa critique interne. J’y croirai seulement au cas où vous auriez, sur cette question, des confirmations extérieures que vous tiendriez pour sûres.

Je m’explique. Je suis persuadé que la monstrueuse supplique exprime très exactement les plus profondes ambitions des personnages, comme aussi bien la véritable intention des autorités politico-culturelles du moment, après leur première opération esquissée au centre Pompidou : c’est cette part de réalité qui fait toute la force de la parodie. Mais ce que je me refuse à croire, c’est que l’ordinateur des pétitionnaires, même prêté par l’Élysée, ait pu se trouver saboté au point de les entraîner à utiliser de confiance des expressions si défavorables ou, comme on dit aujourd’hui, si contre-productives du point de vue même de leur hideux projet.

SOURCE: Debord, Guy. Correspondance, vol. 7: Janvier 1988 – Novembre 1994 (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2008). Above: excerpts from individual letters. Rough translations:

April 6, 1989
Dear Sir,

Contrary to your prediction, I answer you for several reasons.
I never judge historians, and not even biographers, before reading their work. The nonsense of the Center Pompidou, or of the worldly cretins who claim to read me, does not interest me in any way, and cannot change my conduct. Finally, your letter is clever; although I completely reject the hypothesis that the sentence you quote is a decoy. We can call anything that must mislead the speed reader, or the computer. In any case, there is not a single inaccurate or misleading information. I suggest another hypothesis to you: if, in this book30, for a reader capable of understanding dialectical, strategic thought (Machiavelli or Clausewitz), there was in fact no deception? If the only lure was this evocation of the possibility of lures?

To Thomas Levin
November 1989

On the other hand, considering only the experimental originality, i.e. the absence of any redaction of the "Theses", the subsequent socio-historical application of this formal innovation is equally remarkable: after she suffered, of course, a complete reversal. Hardly more than twenty years later, in fact, one could see that the process had met with unusual success in the higher authorities of many States. We now know that the few truly vital conclusions, reluctant to register in the networks of computers, magnetic recordings or telex, and wary even of typewriters and photocopiers, after having been most often sketched out in the form of handwritten notes, are simply learned by heart, the draft being immediately destroyed.

September 12, 90
Dear Paolo,

I want to tell you, either in the context of such a project, or for all other circumstances that may arise, that Panegyric volume I is the definitive text, where everything is true, and where lies the complete explanation of everything I have done. But at the same time it is a text full of traps and superimposed meanings. (If Commentaries were made to paralyze a computer, this one is made to partially escape for a long time from good political heads, banking on their current extreme rarity, and also on various principles of drift that modern art had introduced into the deployment of a text.)

December 5, 92
Dear Anne,

I still cannot believe the text attributed to Schuster, sticking to his internal criticism. I will believe it only in case you have, on this question, external confirmations that you take for sure.
Let me explain. I am convinced that the monstrous plea expresses very exactly the deepest ambitions of the characters, as well as the true intention of the politico-cultural authorities of the moment, after their first operation sketched out at the Pompidou Center: it is this part of reality that makes all the power of parody. But what I refuse to believe is that the petitioners' computer, even lent by the Elysée, could have been sabotaged to the point of leading them to use such unfavorable expressions in confidence or, as we say today today, so counter-productive from the very point of view of their hideous project.

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