It is fascinating to see how a book in a context of revolutionary anti-establishment Paris from 50 years ago seem so applicable in our modern day setting. You begin to wonder what literature being produced now that is being brushed off is doing the same for the times ahead of us. In essence The Society of the spectacle is a call out on current Society, due to Capitalism, is obsessed with images rather than reality, truth and experience.
Capitalism revolves around the idea of the free market and the private ownership of means of production supported by machinery and technology. And it is dependent on human greed to push it forward. As horrible as that sounds we can see how in ideal situations that works in progressing humanity forward especially in terms of advancement in production technology. We want more and therefore strive to achieve it.
Like almost anything in this world, it is never that simple isn’t it. Because in an ideal situation, we would have a larger middle class controlling most of the wealth of the world but yet in our current state of the capitalism the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 50% put together. So what happens when so much power is in the hands of the wealthy? What ideas have this 1% who control media, who control the spectacle have indoctrinated into us without us even knowing. The Situationist International and Guy Debord sees the problems with a Capitalistic society.
It sees that in the current state of Capitalism, it is a system designed around helping the rich get richer while the poor stays in the same position and you can see this clearly in America today. We see big companies influencing politics through the use of money to prevent legislation for increasing taxes on the superwealthy, increasing the minimum wage and support for small to medium sized businesses. You could argue with Trickle down Economics philosophy that the benefits would go back down to the middle and lower class, for example the rich develop production methods, goods becoming cheaper and with that more people have access to them. But once again this is an ideal, as it stands, the rich benefits much more than the middle and lower classes. To quote Wanda Sykes, nothing good ever trickles.
“The Sociaist believed that a Society organised around such consumption induced boredom while shaping people’s desires in ways that could be fulfilled only through purchase of consumer goods.”
Although Capitalism has solved our basic needs of survival, we now have easy access to water and food. But being a system that hinges on human greed and the state of abundance that it presents, the definition for survival has changed now hasn’t it. We now want more. We won’t just be satisfied with bread and water, we want good food too.
Capitalism doesn’t doesn’t just affect our wealth but our philosophy and our purpose. It affects the very human condition. Consumerism has perpetuated the idea that the boredom and the monotony of life can be solved through the buying of commodities. But at the same time it presents not just basic survival needs as commodities but commodifies everything. It does this through the power of spectacles. Its a common known technique in business and advertising, not to just sell a product, but to sell an idea, an image, a brand or a lifestyle. Which begs the question, what are the ramifications when ideas, images and philosophies disseminated to us from a capitalistic point bleeds into our everyday lives? Its affect on an individual itself would be profound, but what happens to a whole society who knows nothing but this?
“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.”- Theory 34
The Power of Spectacles
Although Captalism without a doubt has made common place the use of Spectacles, we have to understand that Spectacles are not just a collection of images. It is not just advertising and media.
“The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” – Theory 4
” Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world- not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society’s real unreality. In all its specific manifestations – news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment – the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing moel of social life. It is the omnipresent celebration of choice already made in the sphere of production, and the consummate result of that choice. In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification, for it governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself.” – Theory 6
“The spectacle cannot be understood as mere visual deception produced by mass media technologies. It is a world view that has actually been materialised.”
As much as we can blame the system as the reason we turned out this way. We ourselves perpetuate veneration of the spectacle and it can be easily seen in the way we handle social media, how we view our politicians and how we view celebrities today.
Just look at the pictures that we put on Instagram. What stories do we post. These are all curated to fit the image that we try and present to our followers. Sometimes, we would rather appear to be happy rather (just to prove an ex wrong) rather than put in the effort to be happy. And just like that we see how we perpetuate the power of the image over substance. And as scary as it might seem, don’t we do this offline too?
With politicians we would immediately think of Donald trump and see how he uses spectacle, or be more exact, how he uses controversy to put spread our attention thin to prevent us on focusing on key issues. But this doesn’t just happen with conservative Republicans, oh no, it happens with liberal democrats too. How often have we been more focused on what a politician appears to stand for rather than the actual substance of their campaign. A politician can be for raising the minimum wage, they can be for gender and lgbtq equality, the can be for raising taxes on the wealthy, but how many times have we not gone further and actually asked how exactly are they going about doing so. We have are now more interested in seeing how politician appears on screen, how well they act rather than their actual substance and policy. In the world of alternative facts, have we become more concerned with what appears to be the truth rather than actual truth?
“In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.” – Theory 9
And Lastly our veneration of celebrities and pop culture. How many times have we adopted the identities of and image of someone we have seen rather than trying to form one of our own. Yes I do not believe in the concept of a true self as our being as an amalgamation of our experiences, but even so, rather than adopting one image we see and like and moving on to the next, we should make a conscious effort to reflect and collect these pieces and piece them together.
As Krystof Wodiczko would put it.
“The subjects of that oppression were themselves often unaware of the extent to which they were an active component – a vital cog or gear- in that machine. Only under clinical conditions of such autocratic system could one fully understand the symptomatic dependency and incapacitation of the individual..”
To me I think it is simply innate human nature to be attracted to the spectacle. But to actively perpetuate the notion that our lives should be ruled by it, I think that is on us.
During our class discussion on this reading, we sort of came to the conclusion that Guy Debord was extremely pessimistic on the whole situation and that the whole book was him ranting about why Spectacles are bad. But after further analysis, I think this was actually a manifesto too.
The first paragraph of the Society of Spectacles is clearly an homage to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
“The whole life of those societies in which modern condition of production prevail present itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation”- Guy Debord
“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.” – Karl Marx
And with this you could argue that Guy Debord was someone who subscribed to Marx’s revolutionary spirit. As anti media as Debord seemed to be, he actually understood that spectacles could be used for a force of good too.
“In order to describe the spectacle, its formation, its functions and whatever forces may hasten its demise, a few artificial distinctions are called for. To analyze the spectacle means talking its language to some degree- to the degree, in fact that we are obliged to engage the methodology of the society to which the spectacle gives expression. For what the spectacle expresses is the total practice of on particular economic and social formation; it is, so to speak that formation’s agenda. It is also the histotrical moment by which we happen to be governed.”
On top of creating the book The Society of Spectacles, Guy Debord also created a series of films, on of which is also titled the same. Through his films he tries to address the same issues. Using mass media techniques, techniques of the spectacle he tries to use them for revolutionary means. To create revolution we must first put light and gain awareness to our cause, for a revolution happens only when a mass subscribes to the ideas we are preaching, and to gain that awareness we must show and display. Therefore any struggle for change cannot be devoid of the spectacle.
In my opinion, spectacles are honestly not all too bad. We can use the power of the spectacle to put attention on key issues that would otherwise have stayed hidden. Or like Krystof Wodiczko, we can use the power of spectacles to give a voice to those who have been oppressed and hidden.
“The appearance of interrogative design may “attract while scandalizing” – it must attract attention in order to scandalize the conditions of which it is born. Implicit in this design’s temporary character is a demand and hope that its function will become obsolete” – Krystof Wodiczko , Critical Vehicles
But as Guy Debord has pointed out in his book, Spectacles and by extension become a problem when society becomes passive and is only interested in its passive consumption. When media fails to become a dialogue and is only a one way source of disseminated philosophies.
” …. The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule.” – Theory 18
” …If the social requirements of the age which develops such techniques can be met only through their mediation, if the administration of society and all contact between people now depends on the intervention of such “instant” communication, it is because this “communication” is essentially one-way; the concentration of the media thus amounts to the monopolization by the administrations of the existing system of the means to pursue their particular form of administration….”
So now we must think, how exactly do we create media which engages people in dialogue? Well as simple as it sounds, the solution is to create good thought proving artworks. Create works that would get people to reassess themselves and the world they live in. Create works whose impacts would last beyond its lifetime and ones that would stick with the viewer long after they have left the exhibition. Now of course this is an ideal. In my opinion, the simplest way we can do this is to make things interactive. By making something interactive, participants naturally have a stronger emotional connection as they have more investment in the experience and this naturally causes the experience to fill in a larger space in their consciousness. Of course this a gross oversimplification matter but it is a starting point that we can make use of.
With that, thank you for taking time to read this post and I hope you have an amazing day.
Side note update: Reading about a Real Time strategy war game called Kriegspeil and apparently its based on a board game created by Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho. Apparently Guy Debord was a really good game designer and I’m like whaaaaaat that is so cool