Guy Debord “the society of spectacle”


The Society of the Spectacle (La Société du spectacle) is a work of philosophy first published in 1967 by the Situationist and Marxist theorist, Guy Debord.

* 1 Book structure, influences and translations
* 2 Ideas
o 2.1 Degradation of human life
o 2.2 Mass media and commodity fetishism
o 2.3 Comparison between religion and marketing
* 3 See also
* 4 References
* 5 Notes

[edit] Book structure, influences and translations

The work is a series of two hundred and twenty-one short theses (about a paragraph each), divided into nine chapters.

Debord focuses on an aesthetic approach, his theory of the spectacle is grounded in aesthetics.[1] He wrote in an almost poetic theoretical style.[1] Debord provided a valuable contributions to the field of media theory.[1]

The Society of the Spectacle provides an extensive reinterpretation of Marx’s work, most notably in its application of commodity fetishism to contemporary mass media. It also expands the concept of Marx’s theory of alienation to include far more than labor activity, and exposes the common spectacular politics of Soviet and American regimes.[citation needed] Debord also builds significantly on the work of Lukács.[1]

The book is filled with “detourned phrases”,[2] that is citations altered in detournements, drawn particularly from Hegel [3][4] Therefore is crucial that translators take into account the original sentences. Debord denounced the unfaithfulness and incorrectness of many of the translations.[5][6] For instance, regarding the English translations, he indicated the Fredy Perlman 1970 edition as containing “obvious weaknesses”.[2] Remarkable was the case of the first Italian translation published by De Donato, “the most monstrous of all”; he instead considered excellent the fourth Italian translation, made by Paolo Salvadori and published in 1979 by Vallecchi, and in 1990 by Sugarco.[5][7][8]

[edit] Ideas

[edit] Degradation of human life

Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its image represents:[1] “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.”[9] Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”[10] This condition, according to Debord, is the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.”[11]

With the term spectacle, Debord defines the system that is a confluence of advanced capitalism, the mass media, and the types of governments who favor those phenomena.[1] “… the spectacle, taken in the limited sense of “mass media” which are its most glaring superficial manifestation…”.[12] 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.”[13]

In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished,[14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26] with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there’s also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought.[1][27] 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 (time), one that can be overturned through revolution.[1][28][29]

Debord 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”.[1] In the situationist view, situations are actively created moments characterized by “a sense of self-consciousness of existence within a particular environment or ambience”.[1][30]

Debord encouraged the use of détournement, “which involves using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle.”[1]

[edit] Mass media and commodity fetishism

The Society of the Spectacle is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and its 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 central importance of the image in contemporary society. Images, Debord says, have supplanted genuine human interaction.[9]

A classic example is the place of television in the home. Here images of the world—images which represents half-truths at most—are conveyed to the viewer as reality. Video clips from the news showing Islamic Extremists, for example, impress on the viewer that all there is to the Middle East is extremism and violence. This is of course, simply not true. The viewer, or ‘spectator’ has never been to the Middle East and has not interacted with real Muslims. So the viewer is accepting a judgment as truth, and the judgment is based only on the the image, not on true human interaction.

In movies, the interaction is scripted, sometimes unrealistic and human. Similarly, the image of the perfect body or perfect entertainment system are deemed essential to happiness. The spectator, having no other source to turn to, accepts these images are reality.

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.”[31]

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.[32]

[edit] 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.[33][34] 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”.[1][35][36]

Other observations Debord made 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.”[37] “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 define them as Semi-historical religion.[38] “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.”[39]


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