This article is about, and quotes heavily from Guy Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle published twenty years after his 1967 Society of the Spectacle. I wanted to share all of the bits that I highlighted, as I think it speaks directly into our currently times, so buckle-up.
Debord never gives a single definition of ‘the spectacle’ but rather alludes to it in such a way that the reader is left in no doubt as to what it is. Here’s one such section:
Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use to the term ‘media’. And by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service which with impartial ‘professionalism’ would facilitate the new wealth of mass communication through mass media – a form of communication which has at last attained a unilateral purity, whereby decisions already taken are presented for passive admiration. For what is communicated are orders; and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them.p.6
There are three kinds of spectacle, the ‘concentrated’ spectacle and ‘diffuse’ spectacle that Debord discusses in his earlier work, and then the ‘integrated’ spectacle that he introduces in Comments. Briefly, the concentrated spectacle can be seen in totalitarian regimes, whereas the diffuse spectacle is in evidence in democracies such as the United States.
The integrated spectacle shows itself to be simultaneously concentrated and diffuse…
For the final sense of the integrated spectacle is this – that it has integrated itself into reality to the same extent as it was describing it. As a result, this reality no longer confronts the integrated spectacle as something alien. When the spectacle was concentrated, the grater part of surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part.p.9
One way of thinking about this in 2020 is the extent to which we carry around the media (a.k.a. the integrated spectacle) in our pockets. It permeates and mediates our reality, and we conform ourselves to its whims and ideas – for example, on social media platforms for likes and follows. We spend our time pointing out the falsity of media reports contrary to our beliefs, always within the construct of the spectacle.
Often enough society’s bosses declare themselves ill-served by their media employees: more often they blame the spectators for the common, almost bestial manner in which they indulge in the media’s delights. A virtually infinite number of supposed differences within the media thus serve to screen what is in fact the result of a spectacular convergence, pursued with remarkable tenacity.p.7
Experts are dead in the traditional sense, all that remain are media professionals who help explain the spectacle and serve to perpetuate its existence.
With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. For every imbecility presented by the spectacle, there are only the media’s professionals to give an answer, with a few respectful rectifications or remonstrations.p.16
What can one do about this? Choose to live outside the grip of the spectacle? Debord says this is practically impossible, as to do so is to be a pariah.
An anti-spectacular notoriety has become something extremely rare. I myself am one of the last people to retain one, having never had any other. But it has also become extraordinarily suspect. Society has officially declared itself to be spectacular. To be known outside spectacular relations is already to be known as an enemy of society.p.18
This is part of the problem that people are up against when trying to do things that are counter-cultural. The counter-culture is part of the spectacle, and has been commodified; packaged up to be sold at low prices to everyone via t-shirts, mugs, and other trinkets.
The spectacle requires a fleetness of foot imparted to it by everyone’s acquiescence to maintain velocity. This is achieved partly through news cycles that produce outrage but then move on quickly to the next target.
When the spectacle stops talking about something for three days, it is as if it did not exist. For it has then gone on to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists. The practical consequences, as we see, are enormous.p.20
The spectacular machinery of our age is therefore ill-suited for the kind of messaging required during, say, a global pandemic. The spectacle feeds on our emotions, on our base fears, on our need for safety. It ‘others’ people, ensuring that there is always a them vs us.
Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.p.24
This explains why COVID-19 cannot possibly, so the conspiracy theorists say, come from bats but instead must surely be the ‘weaponised’ product of an enemy laboratory. It’s the reason why two and two are put together to make five, with 5G masts and George Soros and Bill Gates and a ‘plandemic’ serving to fill the role of terrorist.
Making connections between seemingly disparate people, technologies, and ideas is easier in a world where the spectacle provides a never-ending supply of memetic imagery, designed to resonate on an emotional leve.
At the technological level, when images chosen and constructed by someone else have everywhere become the individual’s principle connection to the world he formerly observed for himself, it has certainly not been forgotten that these images can tolerate anything and everything; because within the same image all things can be juxtaposed without contradiction. The flow of images carries everything before it, and it is similarly someone else who controls at will this simplified summary of the sensible world; who decides where the flow will lead as well as the rhythm of what should be shown, like some perpetual, arbitrary surprise, leaving no time for reflection, and entirely independent of what the spectator might understand or think of it.p.27-28
Today, algorithms used by social media platforms dictate what we as users see and do not see. Baby photos precede photos of protesters which are followed by an advert for a new soft drink. No wonder we’re not sure what to think.
The only response is submission to the spectacle, of the reduction of the self to a pawn in a game played by someone, or something, else.
Paradoxically, permanent self-denial is the price the individual pays for the tiniest bit of social status. Such an existence demands a fluid fidelity, a succession of continually disappointing commitments to false products. It is a matter of running hard to keep up with the inflation of devalued signs of life.p.32
All of this is depressing enough without adding in deliberate attempts to reduce our agency by means of feeding false information with the aim to leave us confused, apathetic, and less inclined to vote in democratic elections. After all, what’s the point when there is no coherent narrative?
Unlike the straightforward lie, disinformation must inevitably contain a degree of truth but one deliberately manipulated by an artful enemy. That is what makes it so attractive to the defenders of the dominant society. The power which speaks of disinformation does not believe itself to be absolutely faultless, but knows that it can attribute to any precise criticism the excessive insignificance which characterises disinformation; with the result that it will never have to admit to any particular fault.p.45
So we get false flag campaigns, deflection, no-apology apologies, until things, as they always do with the spectacle, move on. As Debord points out, we live in a world “without room for verification” (p.48), so we might as well share that headline that confirms our existing beliefs by retweeting (without reading) as it passes us by.
In the 19th century, it made sense for Ludwig Feuerbach, a thinker who greatly influenced Karl Marx, to point to an emerging preference for the imaginary over the real.
Today, however, the tendency to replace the real with the artificial is ubiquitous. In this regard, it is fortuitous that traffic pollution has necessitated the replacement of the Marly Horses in place de la Concorde, or the Roman statues in the doorway of Saint-Trophime in Arles, by plastic replicas. Everything will be more beautiful than before, for the tourists’ cameras.p.51
Here is the problem for the person, or group of people, wishing to smash the spectacle, to dismantle it, to take it apart. It must be done in one go, rather than piecemeal. Otherwise, the spectacle has too much capacity to self-repair.
In a certain sense the coherence of spectacular society proves revolutionaries right, since it is evident that one cannot reform the most trifling detail without taking the whole thing apart. But at the same time this coherence has eliminated every organised revolutionary tendency by eliminating those social terrains where it had more or less effectively been able to find expression: from trade unions to newspapers, towns to books.p.80
So there can be no conclusion, only awareness. We live in completely different times to our forebears. I’ll leave the last word to Debord.
Old prejudices everywhere belied, precautions now useless, and even the residues of scruples from an earlier age, still clog up the thinking of quite a number of rulers, preventing them from recognising something which practice demonstrates and proves every single day. Not only are the subjected led to believe that to all intents and purposes they are still living in a world which in fact has been eliminated, but the rulers themselves sometimes suffer from the absurd belief that in some respects they do too.p.87-88
Header image by elCarito
24 June 2020 — 10:35
It’s great to review Debord and contextualise the present through his work, thanks for pushing him back up my agenda. On re-reading, I am struck how Debord recognises spectacle as an inevitable (even essential) component in life. Aspects of pandemic management are removing some localised and direct-transmission spectacles – and this helps me appreciate their positive role. (Schools are in a sense spectacles at least for students observing adult and peer behaviour). Replacing them are mediated mass-scale performances with greater manipulation powers.
27 June 2020 — 20:35
Yes, that’s a good way of putting it, I think. What’s missing from many people’s lives – and I’d argue particularly the lives of young men – is that of rituals and initiations, which I think are part of the everyday spectacular.