The Society of the Spectacle
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness [...]." -- Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, cited in The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord.
The Society of the Spectacle (French: La Société du spectacle) is a work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory by Guy Debord. It was first published in November 1967 by the Paris publishers Buchet-Chastel. The book was adapted for film by Debord himself in 1973.
The work is a series of 221 short theses (about a paragraph each), divided into nine chapters.
Degradation of human life
Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: "All that once was directly lived has become mere representation." Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life."
The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which "passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity". "The spectacle is not a collection of images," Debord writes, "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."
In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished.For example:
- from Debord (1977) thesis 19: "The concrete life of everyone has been degraded into a speculative universe."
- from thesis 17: "The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having" and now "of having into appearing"
- from thesis 10: The Spectacle is "affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance"
- from thesis 6: "The spectacle ... occupies the main part of the time lived outside of modern production."
- thesis 30: "The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere."
- from thesis 8: "Lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle"
- from thesis 16: "The spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them."
- from thesis 134: "Only those who do not work live."
- from thesis 37: "the world of the commodity dominating all that is lived"
- from thesis 60: "The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived."
- thesis 68
- from thesis 192: "The critical truth of this destruction the real life of modern poetry and art is obviously hidden, since the spectacle, whose function is to make history forgotten within culture"
- from thesis 114: in the "intensified alienation of modern capitalism", "the immense majority of workers" "have lost all power over the use of their lives
With such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there's also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought. Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never-ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history, one that can be overturned through revolution.
Debord's aim and proposal is "to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images," "through radical action in the form of the construction of situations," "situations that bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art". In the situationist view, situations are actively created moments characterized by "a sense of self-consciousness of existence within a particular environment or ambience".
Debord encouraged the use of détournement, "which involves using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle."
Mass media and commodity fetishism
The Society of the Spectacle is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and commodity fetishism. Before the term "globalization" was popularized, Debord was arguing about issues such as class alienation, cultural homogenization, and the mass media.
When Debord says that “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he is referring to the central importance of the image in contemporary society. Images, Debord says, have supplanted genuine human interaction.
Thus, Debord’s fourth thesis is: "The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."
In a consumer society, social life is not about living, but about having; the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have. Consequently, social life moves further, leaving a state of "having" and proceeding into a state of "appearing"; namely the appearance of the image.
"In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false."
Comparison between religion and marketing
Debord also draws an equivalence between the role of mass media marketing in the present and the role of religions in the past. The spread of commodity-images by the mass media, produces "waves of enthusiasm for a given product" resulting in "moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism".
Other observations Debord makes on religion: "The remains of religion and of the family (the principal relic of the heritage of class power) and the moral repression they assure, merge whenever the enjoyment of this world is affirmed–this world being nothing other than repressive pseudo-enjoyment." "The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, ... These religions arose on the soil of history, and established themselves there. But there they still preserve themselves in radical opposition to history." Debord defines them as Semi-historical religion. "The growth of knowledge about society, which includes the understanding of history as the heart of culture, derives from itself an irreversible knowledge, which is expressed by the destruction of God."
Critique of American sociology
In Chapter 8, Negation and Consumption Within Culture, Debord includes a critical analysis of the works of three American sociologists. He discusses at length Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1961), which Debord argues that Boorstin missed the concept of Spectacle. In thesis 192, Debord mentions some of American sociologists that have described the general project of developed capitalism which "aims to recapture the fragmented worker as a personality well integrated in the group;" the examples mentioned by Debord are David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd (1950), and William H. Whyte, author of the 1956 bestseller The Organization Man. Among the 1950s sociologists that are usually compared to Riesman and Whyte, is C. Wright Mills, author of White Collar: The American Middle Classes. Riesman's "Lonely Crowd" term is also used in thesis 28.
Translations and editions
- Translation by Fredy Perlman and Jon Supak (Black & Red, 1970; rev. ed. 1977).
- Translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone, 1994).
- Translation by Ken Knabb (Rebel Press, 2004).
The book cover of the 1983 edition is derived from a photograph by the Life magazine photographer, J. R. Eyerman. On November 26, 1952, at the Paramount Theatre (Oakland, California), the premiere screening of the film Bwana Devil by Arch Oboler took place as the first full-length, color 3-D (aka 'Natural Vision') motion picture. Eyerman took a series of photographs of the audience wearing 3-D glasses.
Life magazine used one of the photographs as the cover of a brochure about the 1946-1955 decade. The photograph employed in the Black & Red edition shows the audience in "a virtually trance-like state of absorption, their faces grim, their lips pursed;" however, in the one chosen by Life, "the spectators are laughing, their expressions of hilarity conveying the pleasure of an uproarious, active spectatorship." The Black and Red version also is flipped left to right, and cropped. Despite widespread association among English-speaking readers, Debord had nothing to do with this cover illustration, which was chosen by Black and Red.
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