Our Spectacular Society

Debord, Guy. Society Of The Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1983.

Written by French Theorist Guy Debord and first published in 1967, Society of the Spectacle is an in depth, yet fairly ambiguous account of modernity that attempts to identify the characteristics of the phase of capitalism named ‘the spectacle’ by Situationist International. Debord’s central argument is that the ‘spectacular’ circumstances of ‘commodity fetishism’ and representation surrounding our social culture are the root cause for the degradation of human existence. Society of the Spectacle is somewhat a dissertation on the modern human condition and offers an extensive observation of the ways the spectacle affects how we understand and interpret our social interactions, environments, culture and history.

Debord defines the spectacle as “affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance (Debord 1983).” By saying this, he is insinuating that all human interaction is nothing more than representation. Debord explains representation as the ‘“unrealism of the real society” the way that “images detached from every aspect of life fuse in common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished.” Debord predominantly demonstrates the alienating effects of representation and the social interactions that come as a result of those representations (Debord 1983). Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher wrote in his book Beyond Culture (Hall 1996), “The study of a man is a study of his extensions.” What this means is that we cannot simply study a human and their natural functions. When we study a human, we are unintentionally studying the cultural representations that have been projected on said human over time. This statement supports Debord’s idea that representation is the root of all human interaction and culture. Debord also believes that we have become a culture of consumption and that our personal fulfilment now comes from what we possess rather than who we are. He identifies this idea as “commodity fetishism” which he defines as “domination of society by ‘intangible as well as tangible things (Debord 1983)'.”

If we are to understand the power of the critical practice that Debord discusses in Society of the Spectaclethen we need to assume that the spectacle is still in existence in contemporary society. Debord believed that his critical theories wouldn’t ever need adjusting as long as the general conditions that he initially described were still intact. In 1994 he stated, “The continued unfolding of our epoch has merely confirmed and further illustrated the theory of the spectacle.(Debord 1994)” Some would argue that technological advancements have paradoxically led us to an even more ‘spectacular’ state of being and will continue to do so over time. Society of the Spectacle was written long before the Internet and social media were fundamental elements of everyday life. Debord could not have predicted the rise of these technological devices, but his discussions on the constructions of representations certainly still stand in contemporary society. Not only do these devices encourage ‘commodity fetishism’ through mass production and consumer culture; they also encourage the alienating nature of being a part of ‘spectacular’ society due to the added degree of separation from direct social interactions. In Beyond Culture, Hall states: “To really understand a given behaviour on the basic level, one must know the entire history of the individual. It is never possible to understand completely any other human being; and no individual will ever really understand himself…”(Hall 1996) Not only does social media separate us from direct social interactions, it also forces us to come to our own conclusions about things based solely on the constructed representations placed in front of us. Like Hall said, we need to know the entire history of an individual to truly understand any given behaviour; social media takes away our ability to do that. As technology progressively removes the need to directly interact with one another, Debord’s concerns about our emotions and values predominantly being shaped by the media (and consequently expanding the society of the spectacle) are more relevant than ever.

Society of the Spectacle reminds me, as a designer, to be mindful about what I am creating and to make sure I’m always thinking critically about what I am bringing into our world and the impact it could have both directly and indirectly. What is brought into the world now will have inevitable impact on the future of our world. Not only does design influence our culture consciously; but it also does this subconsciously. We are continually exposed to endless amounts of propaganda that we fail to notice it even when it’s right in front of us. Naomi Klein believes that we are being manipulated left right and centre, which is why regular, critical analysis of design is so important (Klein 2000).

Despite the strength and insight of Debord’s analysis, Society of the Spectacle still reads like a desperate account of the alienation of the spectacle, paired with the fantasy of a future transparent society. He seems to be optimistic about an alternate model of life but also pessimistic about the transformative ability of the masses and the fact that our reliance on commodity may need to get even worse before enough people begin to critique it themselves. Despite this, Debord still succeeds in encouraging interrogation of the spectacle; which was his primary motive from the beginning. In the Preface to the Third French Edition of Society of the Spectacle, Debord wrote: “This book should be read bearing in mind that it was written with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society. There was never anything outrageous, however, about what it had to say (Debord 1994).”

Debord reiterates his discontent with encouraging the society of the spectacle by writing this exposition in a style that would be considered as contradictory to the writing conventions of his (and our) time. He believes that “Critical theory must be communicated in its own language…the language of contradiction, which must be dialectical in its form as it is in its content” (Debord 1983). He doesn’t believe that writing in this way is contradicting style, but rather, the style of contradiction (Debord 1994). This in itself is a critique on the spectacle as he didn’t write in a way that would be expected; instead he questioned his motives and reflected on them in a way he believed was more logical.

Society of the Spectacle argues that the circumstances surrounding our social culture are the root cause for the degradation of human existence. Although the spectacle no longer exists in its original state, it maintains, and is maintained by, control. The spectacle will inevitably and continually regenerate, but as long as we are conscious of this problem we have the ability to question it. To question the spectacle is to think critically and see things in a different, and potentially revolutionary, light. If we choose to ignore this problem rather than critique it; we will find ourselves increasingly separated from the world.

Reference List:
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1983.
Debord, Guy. Preface to the Third French Edition of Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord. New York: Zone Books, 1994.
Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1976.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. Canada: Picador, 1999.