Commentary on “The Society of the Spectacle” (1967) by Guy Debord, Masaki Yada

Guy Debord is the French Marxist theorist and filmmaker, whose 1967 publication, the Society of the Spectacle, served as the theoretical underpinning of the Situationist International movement. Through the Situationist movement, which he co-founded, the Situationists advocated the Marxist ideology and the revolution of the proletariats as a socialist movement by means of avant-garde art, theoretical practice and political activism. The Society of the Spectacle still stands as one of the most frequently read books in cultural studies and critical theory after over five decades since its original publication in French. Subsequent to the publication of the book, Debord also produced a video essay based on a series of elusive ideas captured in the treatise.

1. The basic idea of the “Spectacle”

The central idea of the discourse is what he refers to as the “spectacle,” which pertains to aspects of the society driven by images and digitally transmittable representations of corporeal movables. The rise of the “spectacle” highlights the decline of the physical world where people can experience life with tangible objects. Once the representations of physical objects start filling up our life, the codified symbols are commodified and thereby the “spectacle” fosters a condition, in which our social life is furnished with immaterial commodities to be bought and sold.

In the first part of the book, Debord writes, “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but rather it is a social relationship between people.” (chapter 1, thesis 4) Flooded with images and thus lacking the authenticity of the physically perceptible world, the quality of life increasingly deteriorates. Glossy images weaken human perceptions and suppress critical thought obfuscating the tangible reality. Eventually, cultural homogenization succeeds through the mass media that incessantly bombard consumers with images to stimulate their endless desire to consume (chapter 2, thesis 41). Debord writes:

Whether “news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment, in all its specific manifestations, the spectacle epitomises the prevailing model of social life.” (chapter 1, thesis 6)

2. The Fetishisation of Material and Immaterial Commodities

In the video essay, Debord peppers visual examples including female nudes, latest cars, and factories that mass-produce consumer goods. The youthful frenzy and hormonal hysteria that surrounded the rise of Rock ’n’ Roll and the Beatles also appear in the video as a reminder that our limitless desire for consumption has actually existed far longer than we ordinarily imagine. They illustrate the idea of fetishisation that underpins the perpetual force of the consumer society where we increasingly consume not only material goods but also immaterial products and services. The fetishisation of commodities constitutes a large part of the “spectacle” that Debord elaborates on.

The aforementioned video essay also shows footages of warships and military aircraft insinuating the brutal force that emanates from the “spectacle.” It even includes the rare footage of the US president then Richard Nixon visiting Mao Zedong, the former Chairman of the Communist Party of China. While it shows how old this essay is, simultaneously, it highlights, in some ways, how little the world has changed since then. Given the economic tie between America and China that has hardened over the past decades, thanks to the ingenuity of Henry Kissinger in international relations, the historical meeting that took place between the two world leaders from the West and the East marked the beginning of what has ensued, far more consequential than what was then perhaps understood.

3. In closing

The advent of technology seems to provide us with apparent autonomy to choose the objects of our desire from an immense variety. Simultaneously, the supposed autonomy of consumers gives the entrance to the cultural homogenization, which multinational enterprises strive to achieve at all cost for their own survival and expansion, which is neither good nor bad in the Darwinian sense.

Today, the idea of the spectacle is even more pertinent, as representations have deeply penetrated into our social life so much so that the spectacle is now diffused and integrated so invasively and prevalently in our life as the radiant light of the sun.

Whether culturally nourishing or journalistically corrupting, the profundity of the spectacle has an enormous influence upon the public consciousness, often weakening their ability to critically reflect. The spectacle has seeped into the fabric of our image-filled society where the infrastructure of imagery provision has infiltrated into every facet of our society.

Reference:

Debord, Guy. [1967](1994). The Society of the Spectacle. Trans: Nicholson-Smith, Donald. New York: Zone Books.

To see my artwork, please visit www.masakiyada.org

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