The concepts of spectacle and détournement are closely associated with the Paris-based postwar avant-garde movement known as the Situationist International. Spectacle is meant to work as a concept that critiques not this or that aspect of media culture, but its totality. It reveals the spectacle as the double, in the world of consumption, of capitalist commodity production. Détournement is the practice which opposes spectacle by refusing all forms of private property in the production of cultural works. While the Situationist International expired as a movement in 1972, these concepts were subsequently taken up by others, although most often shorn of the revolutionary impulse their linkage was meant to forge. This is why it is important to stress the origins of these concepts in both Western Marxism and also in the radical avant-garde movements of the prewar period. Guy Debord, a central animating presence in the Situationist International, was drawing on militant Marxist thinkers such as Georg Lukács and Henri Lefebvre, as well as the lesser-known Belgian branch of the Surrealist avant-garde. Understood as keys to a unified critical theory and practice, spectacle and détournement can be retrieved from merely descriptive studies of literature and media, and also from more narrowly formalist avant-garde literary practices.
The term détournement is most associated with a European, mainly Paris-based avant-garde group called the Situationist International (SI), which was founded in 1957, went through three distinct phases, played a key role in the May ’68 massive general strike in France, and eventually dissolved in 1972. Guy Debord was the SI’s singular leader and its most important theorist. Debord’s 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle is the best-known work produced by an SI member. In it, Debord develops his theorization of what he called the Spectacle, which is capitalism in its economic, political, social, and cultural totality. Debord argued that culture—especially visual and popular culture—played a central role in transforming citizens into consumers and passive spectators in all spheres of their lives. In societies saturated by seductive visual representations and permeated by an endless staging of spectacles, all that matters to those in power is that people consume commodities and become politically malleable and stupefied. The Spectacle works to transform everyday life into a continuous experience of alienation, passivity, mindless consumption, and political non-intervention. An apt cinematic reference for the Spectacle is the film The Matrix. Debord’s theory seems to preclude any possibilities for challenging or contesting the Spectacle, but Debord also theorized that such possibilities (situations) could be created in everyday life, and détournement was the critical anti-art that Debord and his friends practiced for the purpose of critiquing and challenging the alienating, pacifying, spectator-inducing, socially controlling forces of the Spectacle. For Debord, détournement was by definition an anti-spectacular action and creation that sought to subvert the debilitating effects of the Spectacle’s life-draining power. During the SI’s first phase (1957–1962), members of the SI created many détournements that contested the dominance of what they believed was a crucially important sphere within the Spectacle—that of the Art World. The SI’s détournements took many forms, including films, comics, paintings, graffiti, novels, and public interventions and scandals. Eventually, during its second phase (1962–1968), the SI called for a détournement of the streets and of everyday life through strikes and protests. Of their role in the events of May’68, the SI wrote that it brought fuel to the fire. During those events, ten million people walked off the job, engaged in wildcat strikes, and brought the country—and the Spectacle—to a standstill. For Debord and the SI, May ’68 was the ultimate construction of a revolutionary situation in which détournement contributed to the radical transformation of everyday life, if only for a brief time. So détournement is an important practice in the service of combatting the Spectacle and dismantling capitalism. In terms of qualitative research, détournement has a set of resemblances to several qualitative methods and perspectives, including the aesthetic and arts-based research approaches of bricolage, collage, critical media literacy, and public pedagogy, to name a few.