Guy Debord – Society of the Spectacle

Debord was one of the main players behind the Situationist International and the very guy who coined the term psychogeography, referring to the experience of one’s immediate environment as it is directly presented. A way, incidentally, to counter the society of the spectacle.

The society of the spectacle is a manifest, if nothing else, primarily an agitation against consumerist society. The central tenet being that modern production systems have allowed society to accept representations of society as replacements for what is real. And it’s these representations, these spectacles, to which society gives meaning and value, not the underlying reality.

As Debord published this manifest in 1967, when still part of a decidedly left wing movement, when the Soviet Union was still competing on which system could bring ultimate salvation (even though he effectively denounces the Soviet state of affairs), it’s amazing how much of a vision Debord’s statements actually are.
Debord strongly identifies the spectacle with the provision of images. Images that don’t show life as it is, but create a representation of what life is perceived to be. That is, the representations become reality.
This is surprisingly relevant to today’s society, nearly fifty years on, where a service like instagram, thrives on the misrepresentation of reality.

Additionally, by mistaking the representations of reality as reality itself, striving to be seen as being part of that imagined reality becomes the ultimate goal. In Debord’s words, being becomes having, having becomes appearing to have.
This, of course, presages the rise in reality TV.

The only thing Debord did not take into account is that the creation of spectacle, in today’s society, is not limited to the few. In fact, with the advent of Internet, Flickr, Facebook and, yes, instagram, many have become creators as much as they are consumers.

There is a glimmer of hope, here. Research has shown that young girls who post doctored, beautified, photos of themselves online, reminiscent of the glamor shots they themselves find in the glamor magazines they read, feel better about themselves then the girls that don’t put up photos (annoyingly, I can’t find a link to the research on this). The implication being that because they know what needs to be faked to look good, they also know that the women in their magazines don’t look as good as they appear.
Or, as Debord perhaps would say, they get an indication of the being by looking past the appearing.

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But this is only a glimmer of hope. After all, the girls still do manipulate their own photos to make themselves appear to have more beauty than they do.

Similarly, the ruling classes do no longer have a monopoly on providing and directing the spectacle, that is, mass media. And it’s specifically this societal change which has been playing a significant part in this decade’s social revolutions in some more totalitarian states.
To some extent, therefore, in general, there is less of a separation between the classes due to control of the spectacle by the few. In a way, we now all participate in creation of the spectacle. However, on the other hand, this also means that by and large, most of us have, without realizing it, bought into the concept of the spectacle, effectively resulting in the masses controlling the masses through the tools of the ruling classes. A form of mob rule which is still directed by the few, giving only the appearance of control from below.

Appearance, because the means of communication, instances of the spectacle, are exactly the tools to keep the masses individually isolated. Debord: the spectacle reunites the separate, but reunites it as separate.

Debord also spends a chapter on, basically, consumerism which has become a goal in itself, where, when each level of need is met by the availability of certain commodities, it is supplanted by another level of need.
This is then how the ruling classes extend their control of the masses, by effectively dictating the consumerist needs outside of already dictating the masses’ working life. It is the perfected denial of man.
Here, it is Debord who sees hope, because the rising of consumerist levels, Debord claims, results in society realizing the fallacy of it depending on the economy, it becomes the economy which will have to depend on society. A premonition of the recent occupy movement, perhaps. 

Another chapter is dedicated to dissecting Marx’ and Hegel’s theories on socialism, with no kind words for Leninism, Bolshevism being a prime example of the society of the spectacle, with the workers’ representation being diametrically opposed to the actual workers.
But this chapter, perhaps the longest in the book, with Debord’s promotion of something of a continuous proletarian revolution and an agitation against the, then, ruling forms of the implementations of communism, feels hopelessly convoluted and outdated.

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Too much space is devoted to describing the nature of time. In short, irreversible time, as opposed to cyclical time, is required for consumerism, as it allows for accumulation. Change, or perhaps the appearance of change, requires the absence of cyclical time.
Meanwhile, the working class is presented with pseudo-cyclical time, to essentially keep them busy producing while the commodity of leisure becomes the realization of irreversible time and the perceived goal of the working class.

Too short a chapter on urbanism, which Debord classifies as the natural playing ground of the capitalist state, where pseudo-separation of the workers is needed to recreate the apathy of the agrarian society where individuals were naturally separated and practically could not cooperate meaningfully.
And psychogeography, though not mentioned in this book, is of course Debord’s answer to countering the urbanist fallacy of the ruling classes.

An interesting chapter on culture, where Debord says that culture is the locus for the search of lost unity. But by art’s natural tendency to detach itself from context, art also makes itself irrelevant. And, when culture becomes nothing more than a commodity, it must also become the star commodity of the spectacular society.
Now, with users becoming producers online, culture is what indeed appears to bind us, from instagram filters to self produced cat videos.

In the end, Debord does offer a way out of the society of the spectacle. But it’s revolutionary class struggle which needs to become conscious of itself. Besides this being rather anachronistic in this day and age, it’s exactly the apparent blurring of boundaries and apathy which Debord himself describes which makes this nigh impossible.

In his last chapter, Debord makes a few more insightful claims. In essence, when illusion, the spectacle, rules, there is no more room for ideology, because we all get the appearance of an attainable perfect world. But, “the acceptance and consumption of commodities are at the heart of this pseudo-response to a communication without response. The consumer’s need to imitate is the need conditioned by his fundamental dispossession.” Debord then borrows from Gabel: the abnormal need for representation compensates for a tortuous feeling of being on the margin of existence.

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Debord puts forward a whole lot of interesting and still very relevant ideas, but also loses himself in unnecessary complexity, borrowing too much from, and building too much on, classic philosophers.
Debord’s staying power derives from his visionary description of consumerist society, extrapolating the world as he knew and saw it some fifty years ago. But his critique is steeped in a language that formally lost relevance 20 years ago and practically many years before that.
That is not to say that class struggle is no longer relevant or possible, but it *is* very unlikely, possibly specifically because pseudo separation has made unification practically impossible. In today’s world, we all believe we are right and first and foremost put ourselves before any shared good.

Quotes

+ The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion.
+ The spectacle is the diplomatic representation of hierarchic society to itself.
+ What grows with the economy in motion for itself can only be the very alienation which was at its origin.
+ The real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions. The commodity is this factually real illusion and the spectacle is its general manifestation.
+ Dissatisfaction becomes a commodity as soon as economic abundance extends production to the processing of such raw materials (with which I presume he means emotion).
+ Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society.
+ Paraphrased: collecting is submitting.
+ A product acquires prestige when it is placed at the center of social life as the revealed mystery of the ultimate goal of production. But the object which was prestigious in the spectacle becomes vulgar as soon as it is taken home by the consumer, and by all it’s other consumers.
+ The society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance internally as spectacular separation.

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