Read Guy Debord’s chapter, Separation Perfected, making your notes in the usual way.
- Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view
- What do you think Dubord means by the ‘spectacle’?
- First published in 1967 – has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?
- Does his view that we ‘see the world by various specialised mediations’ mean that we are having our view controlled or that we simply don’t know is propaganda and what is not?
- Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx had to say on the subject). Is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or an extreme reification? 
The Society of the Spectacle is such a challenging book that it’s tempting to focus only on the ‘easy’ bits. It is possible to view the spectacle, as Dubord points out, in the “limited sense of the ‘mass media’ …(its)… most glaring superficial manifestation” (loc 506); and in our modern terms also impossible not to equate the spectacle with the Internet, which I have done at length here. However, it encompasses so much more.
We are asked in the brief to concentrate only on the first chapter, rich with pithy sentences that have been used repeatedly by others in explanations about what the spectacle is, but beyond that, the rest of the book is a complex and profound exposition of history, economics, philosophy and sociology as seen through the eyes of Dubord. Taking those pithy phrases out of context risks more than a degree of reductionism.
The contents of the Society of the Spectacle offer a pre-cursor to what Hannah Peterson in an article about modern artists in The Guardian refers to as “Hypercapitalism”. “In the age of ‘hypercapitalism’, the tentacles of the corporate world extend further into our lives than ever before. Even the words that were once used to signify creative rebellion – DIY, pop-up, grassroots, punk – have all be been co-opted, fetishised, used to sell coffee, flog old furniture and entice property buyers to up and coming areas.” (2016) The nostalgically tinted, slightly de-saturated adverts that McDonalds produced when it changed its image a few years ago is a case in point. Nostalgia is trendy and sells.
Tom Vague in an introduction to Society of the Spectacle states, “capitalism could appropriate even the most radical of ideas and return them in the form of harmless ideologies” (loc 33) and shortly afterwards, “Alternative lifestyles can be turned into commodities, safely recuperated and sold back to people, inducing a yearning for the past”. (loc 45) Lots of current and not that distantly-past advertising images spring to mind; New Labour, Ikea, Heinz, Facebook, Pears.
Images, because, as Dubord explains, that is how we receive and understand the world. Just a few years later Berger describes how the capitalist system is intrinsically reliant on images used as publicity in his television programme and book, Ways of Seeing (1972). Politics, charities, healthcare, education, every aspect of public and private life all make use of images to sell themselves. Institutions become commoditised, packaged, and given varying expensive makeovers. The spectacle, as Dubord see it, is life economised, separate from reality but also insidiously part of it. “The specialisation of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous images, where the liar has lied to himself” (loc 438).
More than a world view
Society of the Spectacle is not just a philosophy, nor merely a ‘world view’ – the direct translation from Weltanschauung. Rather, it is a critique of modern western life, capitalism, and the critical theories that led up to and including Marxism, as well as the movements that evolved in opposition to capitalism. It also offers surprisingly resonant predictions about how capitalism and its detractors will unfold and have done. It is an ethnographic excavation performed from within. It is a blueprint for a different way of existing, and of conceiving reality. It is an extraordinary document that is difficult to fully comprehend because of its depth, richness of ideas and the alternative and original model of reality it suggests.
Perhaps all comprehensive descriptions of humanity, such as Marxism and capitalism, are at their simplest understanding, merely models that enable examination of the systems they describe. If so, then Society of the Spectacle is so complex because it is a model that dissects and deconstructs all models that came before it, whilst also providing an entirely different model by which it might be possible to mediate reality.
The Situationists were damning of modern life and Society of the Spectacle is a rally cry for the destruction and replacement of our culture; a recipe for re-starting from scratch, doing away with capitalism entirely, and all its ‘enemies’ too, which only exist in opposition to it. It examines our culture, which evolved out of the industrial revolution where factories and the significantly increased and mechanised production of goods changed the fundamental way in which we live (although it could be argued that the agricultural revolution was really the start of it). Since the industrial revolution lives are governed entirely by economic productivity and commercialisation. The Situationists recognise modern industrialised life as one that is in the thrall of such productivity and the ‘things’ that emerge from it; empty of the real, a pathological lie spread through the unreal images we are subjected to, the publicity, but believe and render as reality. Simply put (if that is possible), we see people looking more beautiful, more powerful, happier, having higher status than ourselves, and are told by the publicity this becomes possible when people live in a house that is decorated a certain way, wear clothes that sport certain labels, drive cars that concur with impressions of class. We buy into all of this, going to great lengths, and sometimes deep debt, to make sure we have an approximation of those images in our lives; and then imagine that we are those people we see in the images (images that are ‘designed’ with sophisticated and manipulative means to look a certain way). Like all well-versed pathological liars, for we lie blatantly to ourselves when we accept the images as truthful, we believe whole-heartedly in the illusion even though there is some sense of knowing too that it isn’t real. The anorexia, depression, anxiety, pill popping, and debt-ridden existences that abound are testament to the fact that on some level we know it’s all false. Nevertheless, the things we produce and the images we use to spread the word about them, govern how we live, who we fundamentally are, right down to how we perceive of right and wrong.
Images of ‘things’ can pertain to material, such as houses, cars and clothing; or ideas such as political ideals (New Labour) and experiences like packaged holidays; or even sponsorship of under-nourished African children. But what all those products have in common is that they are commoditised and sold to us through images. The spectacle is a reality that is essentially false, but made real by the fact we buy into it, and render it real. “Reality rises up within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real.” (loc 458) I lie to myself, I begin to believe the lie. I get angry if someone questions the lie. I rage if anyone deconstructs the lie. I live in a constructed reality based on falsehoods. The lie becomes my reality. I know it isn’t real but at the same time I cling to it as truth and therefore it cannot be a lie because I have made it true.
The problem with this, according to Dubord, is that we are living in the ‘negative’. “In a world that is topsy turvy, the true is a moment of false”(loc 460). We are not really living. We are not experiencing the full gamut of life. We exist only through images of the unreal. “The concrete life of everyone has been degraded into a speculative universe,” (loc 491) & “The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep” (loc 496). In order to sustain the lie our lives are dominated by work; even when we’re not working, we’re involved in ‘leisure persuits’ which are just as governed by production as our work lives are. We sleep walk through life beholden to the forces of productivity. Nothing we experience is separated from productivity. We are prisoners to modern economics. “The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn.” (loc 533) Here, a development from Marx’s thoughts about the way in which we work, which Marx and Dubord believe is essentially bad for people, and says that our economic system makes us lonely, isolated, disconnected from each other. It’s unhelpful for humans who have evolved as social creatures and who fare better emotionally and socially in groups. But the spectacle is not interested in humanity’s well being. Even though it often makes claims to the contrary. Anyone who has watched television in the States won’t have failed to notice that a significant proportion of adverts sell healthcare and medical products.
“The spectacle originates in a loss of unity for the world…The spectacle reunites the separate, but reunites is as separate.” (loc 540) How does it reunite us? By telling us, through images which we see in advertising, TV programmes, films, and now on social networking sites, that we will be acceptable to others and ourselves if we have the right baby-buggy, boots, haircut, phone, computer. Or, more insidiously, if we believe in the correct state or productivity governed version of morality, which goes far beyond obvious moral dilemmas such as killing and stealing, but has inveigled its way into issues that might seem utterly unconnected to morality, such as what we feed our children or how we choose to sleep, for instance.
Reading through the Society of the Spectacle, it really is difficult not to become excited by notions that appear to describe our modern lives so accurately. Especially in relation to the digital sphere. As an interesting exercise replace spectacle with the word Internet.
“The spectacle is capital to such a degree that it becomes an image.”
“The oldest social specialisation, the specialisation of power, is at the root of the spectacle. The spectacle is thus a specialised activity which speaks for all others. It is the diplomatic representation of hierarchic society to itself….” (loc 499)
“But the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practise of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught.” (loc 466)
… the spectacle is “a negation of life that has become visible” (loc 463)
How images are made is secondary to their being a visual manifestation of capital. Be it pixels or ink dots, the end result is the same – “capital to such a degree that it becomes an image”. The sentiments expressed by Dubord undoubtedly resonate more today than before the technological revolution, when the digital sphere became so embedded in our lives. Whilst it’s true that some of the political tone of Society of the Spectacle seems outdated now, especially when you compare it how people are writing about post-capitalism (Korody 2016), many of Dubord’s sentiments speak directly about how current economic and sociopolitical systems operate, and how the Internet especially is a digital expression of those systems. It is, however, a mistake to think of the spectacle as merely images. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” (loc 442)
But those images are designed to make us want stuff. “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realisation the obvious degradation of being into having.” (loc 479). The accumulation of ‘stuff’, Dubord argues later in the text, generates religious fervour and zeal in a society that is hypnotised by the images it sees, a society continuously advertising and promoting stuff to itself. “Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour.” (loc 483). Our concrete life is “degraded into a speculative universe”. (loc 491) Which describes accurately the digatised and virtual medium of the Internet. Debord without knowing of the Internet accurately predicted many of its downsides, so it is not surprising he has become more interesting to people.
As I have researched the spectacle I have stumbled across videos and articles claiming an increased interest in the spectacle and The Situationists. All of it, content made by people whom I shall never meet and am unlikely to converse with, even though I can usually leave a comment beneath many of these items. I can sit here at my desk, isolated with my expensive computer, commenting, thinking and writing, before uploading my thoughts to the Internet, so that others, who won’t ever meet me, can read them on their own costly ‘things’. Mishka Henner in the talk I went to at The Photographers Gallery said he liked the Internet because he was able to get into a conversation with the people who interacted with his art due to the words they left in the comment section. But the spectacle is “the opposite of dialogue” (loc 487), says Dubord, and touch is less critical now than sight, perhaps a sense consigned to history (loc 486). The spectacle gives the appearance of enabling conversation but it in fact offers nothing of the sort. What it does gives society is a nihilistic approximation of something that looks like it might be a dialogue. We are “consumers of illusions” (loc 624).
Who’s in control?
Last year I wrote about Dan Ruschkoff, who in a TV programme called “The Virtual Revolution […] talks about how online companies capture our clicking habits and then feed back behaviourally targeted advertising, which in turn eats away at our authenticity by telling us who we are and thereby disallowing us from actually finding out who we are organically.” The more sophisticated the algorithms, the harder it is to resist this if you access anything online at all. Spotify tells me what I like to listen to all the time. Facebook decides which of my photographs are worth viewing. I can’t look up a holiday without being bombarded with Thomas Cook adverts for weeks afterwards. And then there is the problem of a limited number of umbrella companies owning all the media outlets. If we see something stated as true in any form of visual media, but especially on the Internet, we are in danger of simply accepting it as truth. As Dubord said, following criticism of The Society of the Spectacle, he has changed the wording in the following; ““What is good appears, what appears is good.” Now it says simply; “It is so.”” (loc 393)
Earlier, I made the following statement:
“(We are acceptable to others and ourselves) ….if we believe in the correct, state and productivity governed versions of morality, which go far beyond obvious moral dilemmas such as killing and stealing, but have inveigled their way into issues that might seem utterly unconnected to morality, such as what we feed our children or how we choose to sleep, for instance. “
Recently an article published across various platforms reported how mothers lie about sleeping with their babies as the NHS guidance is for babies to sleep alone in cots on their backs. (Griffiths/Summers 2016) Despite the fact that mothers have routinely slept with their babies throughout our evolutionary history, it is now deemed unacceptable, unsafe, dangerous, and morally questionable. New mothers are told they must put their babies in a cot and are given very clear safety instructions which only pertain to cots, rather than being offered well researched advice about co-sleeping and some basic facts about alcohol, smoking, sofas (modern materials). This leads to many mothers feeling extremely guilty about the fact that their babies sleep better, as they do, when they’re sleeping together; thanks to a highly evolved, biological expectation in infants who will in most cases respond positively to a close, warm, breathing mother. And although many babies adapt to sleeping alone for long periods of time without difficulty there are plenty who don’t. So mothers choose to co-sleep in spite of the publicity telling them not to, and then exist with the ‘knowledge’ that they are potentially risking their babies’ lives. When asked about co-sleeping at health visits, mothers might choose to lie because they are afraid of being chastised. Which ultimately prevents anyone from giving them accurate safety advice about how to ensure they lower the genuine risks, regardless of where their babies sleep. Statistics are couched in terms and phrases made by organisations that suggest co-sleeping is the major cause of sudden infant death syndrome, even though a significant number of deaths occur in cots, car seats, or buggies.
I owned a cot. I paid nearly £200 for it. I went through various hoops of un-conditioning in my head by reading a huge amount of material when trying to understand why I felt better, my baby slept better and things worked well for us when we slept together. Eventually I gave up on the cot. It became a very expensive laundry basket. My friends said, “Oh you’re so lucky he falls sleep anywhere!” But then I hadn’t conditioned him into thinking he could only sleep in a cot with a black-out blind covering the windows. Whenever a decision such as this is made, consciously or not, a cost-benefit ratio comes into in play. The other mothers raised children that slept through the night far sooner than mine, which at times seemed rather desirable. But the economically produced ‘things’, the cot, the blind, must continue to be mass-produced in order to sustain our economy (along with a whole load of other things). In order to uphold the continued making of these things, mothers are given (unconsciously by society) a set of emotive, charged messages which uphold that particular train of production. These message are: The cot will keep your baby alive. You cannot. You are capable of killing your baby. Here, the cost benefit ratio swings in favour of economics on many levels, not least of which is the continued mass-production of objects.
The production of the cot governs the lives of new mothers and its mass-production results in her feel guilty and worried, even morally inept. What’s more, well-meaning people go into the houses of people who come from societies where there are no cots, or into countries where cots are not used, and tell those mothers they are wrong, that their culture is wrong, that they risk killing their babies. This is despite the fact that many cultures don’t even have words for cot death and sudden infant death syndrome is far rarer elsewhere than it is in Western cultures, or even unheard of. (Jackson 1989)
In reality, there is no moral virtue relating to the use of or rejection of a cot. And I’m not suggesting everyone should give up on modern furniture or other baby related items designed to make life more comfortable. (How each mother reaches her particular brand of parenting is deeply personal and steeped in her own history). Yet, tied up within the production and selling of cots and the whole baby paraphernalia market, is a whole set of moral codes structured by a society whose reality is informed by the needs of economics and the over-production of ‘things’, rather than our biological needs. Dubord refers to these inauthentic needs as psuedo-needs and differentiates between those and primary needs (loc 615, 636, 637). In actual fact, cots and cradles have been around for a long time and baby artifacts date back to Egyptian times at least. Additionally, in cultures very different to ours, objects such as cradle boards, for instance, enabled women to continue working while their babies might have been propped up against the nearest tree. So, it is important to realise it not the object that feeds into the social structure in which we live. Rather it is the relationship we have with the entire productive process behind the object that shapes who we are, from the very beginning of our lives and throughout.
There was no romanticised idyll prior to capitalism and I doubt very much there is any utopia to come. However, Society of the Spectacle, effectively deconstructs the reality in which we exist with extraordinary clarity, questioning the very basis of our culture. The post-capitalists today suggest a different way of existing, which according to the article mentioned earlier (Korody 2016) includes a universal basic salary for everyone, much higher reliance on automation and mechanisation, and safe, hygienic housing for all. It’s diffcult to see how the UK, a country where the disparity between rich and poor is greater than it has ever been, where the long-held structures of class are being firmly upheld, despite the progressive blip during the second half of last century promising a more evolved state, will ever be quite so social minded as that (Korody 2016). It’s encouraging to read that some countries are already looking at the ideas suggested by post capitalists, who develop many of the ideas explored in Society of the Spectacle. The book itself is incredibly complex and complicated. It has been critised as needlessly so but as Vague points out, the difficulty rightly reflects the enourmous task of addressing all that is so unhelpful to humanity within our culture.
Dubord, G 1967, Society of the Spectacle, [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.co.uk (accessed 08/03/2016), introduction by Tom Vague: The Boys Scouts Guide to the Situationist International edn, Bread & Circuses Publishing, Paris, Preface by Sam Cooper.
Griffiths, S & Summers, H 2016, Fearful mothers lie to GPs about sleeping with baby, viewed 17 March 2016, < HYPERLINK ” http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Health/article1677747.ece” http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk >.
Jackson, D 1989, Three in a Bed, 2003 3rd ed, Bloomsbury, London.
Korody, N 2016, Architecture after capitalism, in a world without work, archinect.com, London, viewed 19 march 2016, < HYPERLINK ” http://archinect.com/features/article/149935222/architecture-after-capitalism-in-a-world-without-work” archinect.com >.
Peterson, HE 2016, Where have all the art punks gone?, viewed 16 March 2016, < HYPERLINK ” http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/16/generation-y-young-british-artists-punk” http://www.Guardian.com >.
Berger, J 1971, Ways of Seeing, 1971, BBC & Penguin Books, London
 (The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of ALIENATION, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society.) (Wikipedia n.d.)