Society of the Spectacle

02 March 2022

“The Society of the Spectacle” is a critique of contemporary consumer culture, originally published in 1967 by Guy Debord. I’ve stumbled on the wiki for it a few times and always wanted to give it a read, so I did (it’s a short one if you wanna give it a go!)

It talks about and speculates on the development of consumer culture / capitalism. While reading it, I am losing my mind about just how relevant it is.

It talks about “the spectacle”, which is a distorted image or idea of society that its people begin to passively identify with. The spectacle eventually replaces genuine, authentic activity and interaction. It’s a social relation among people, highly influenced by society’s image. The author describes it as, ‘the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing’.

At first glance it’s easy to interpret this idea as ‘media = bad’ but Debot tackles this notion early on, and says the spectacle “cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision [or] as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images”. Instead, he calls it a “weltanschauung (world view) which [materializes] into reality”.

He writes that the spectacle presents itself as extremely positive, unquestionable and out of reach. He says it has “a monopoly of appearance [and] covers the entire surface of the world, [bathing] endlessly in its own glory.”

Society isn’t accidentally or superficially ‘spectacular’, it is fundamentally ‘spectaclist’. The spectacle is always the image of the ruling economy. “The goal is nothing, development [is] everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.”

“The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as an instrument of unification … it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of separation.”

It’s impossible to distill the ‘spectacle’ to a short concrete example. The most obvious (incomplete) example would be the ‘ideal’ luxurious lifestyle as presented on social media. It is itself a reflection of lifestyles presented in other types of media, which, again, is likely a reflection of the ‘appearance’ or ‘perception’ of other affluent lifestyles. It is certainly not limited in scope to this one example.

Debord highlights the social division of labor as the beginning and the end of the spectacle. In our current society, we are not able to contribute meaningfully to the things we care about. Instead, we contribute our time and labor to projects and duties that we don’t truly care about in exchange for a wage to live. We leave the things we care about for the times we aren’t running errands or cleaning up. This results in workers feeling alienated - from other workers (their competition), from their family and loved ones (because they’re at work), from society itself (because the individual is not able to contribute meaningful work to it - if they’re able to contribute at all). Division of labor also includes overspecialization of labor, dividing people among singular tasks and thus isolating them.

This is because the spectacle relies on and benefits from preserving a general lack of awareness (and collectivization) within the society. In the workplace, this has the intended effect of making unionization more difficult, but it’s even bigger than that - it’s the suppression of collectivization.

Celebrities are the ‘stars’ of the spectacle. This struck me as especially relevant, in a time where so many young people strive to become influencers on social media.

Debord describes celebrities as the ‘spectacular’ representation of a human being. They embody the image of a possible role. Stars specialize in the seemingly-lived, the object of identification with a shallow-seeming life that compensates for their fragmented productive specialization (e.g., always being on tour/away filming, doing celebrity things, etc.) They exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society, free to express themselves and embody the inaccessible result of social labor by embellishing its by-products as goals (power, vacations, decision, consumption).

The person ‘behind’ the celebrity is the opposite of the individual. They are the enemy of the individual (in themselves and others). In order to identify themselves with the general law of obedience, they renounce all autonomous qualities.

As the book continues, Debord describes the further development of the spectacle. The rapid development of commodities multiplies the roles to choose from (for work) and the sheer selection of commodities. But at some point, the abundance of commodities no longer satisfies the masses. “The fraud of satisfaction exposes itself by being replaced, by following the change of products and of the general conditions of production.” With a constant influx of and generous marketing for commodities, there’s always the ‘next best thing’ waiting to be sold - and someone willing to buy it.

It makes me sad, because I used to find a lot of value in ‘buying stuff’. Especially for women, it seems like being a ‘retail addict’ is a cultural badge of pride. It’s comforting to buy something nice that you might want to use. But at some point, most people come to realize that it’s an empty kind of comfort, and one that doesn’t last long. The anticipation we feel thinking about buying something is like a bubble that bursts as soon as we have it.

Even beyond buying physical goods, consumption extends to watching and participating in media (apps, games, social media). We are taught to fill our void by consuming. If we cannot fill the void this way, it is our own fault. This isn’t the truth. We feel alienated and isolated because we are.

Debord doesn’t go too much into proposed solutions, beyond taking practical action to negate the spectacle, to go against its current. He emphasizes that it must be a conscious process to unlearn the accepted false-truths of the spectacle. We must develop a critique of the spectacle that is based in material reality, so we can understand it fully.

Even just these few snapshots of the book sent me thinking about so many different things. Like the importance of choosing what to consume, and even more the importance of critically analyzing what we consume. This has never been more relevant in regard to reading our consumption of the news.

There’s a lot more in there that I didn’t go over, so I recommend checking it out if this piqued your interest! I linked the source at the top of the blog, but if you’d prefer a reading guide, this one’s pretty good.