We’re going to be taking a look at French theorist Guy Debord‘s 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle in order to unpack how Debord critiques a society which he saw as being ever more obsessed with images and appearances over reality, truth and experience.
Particularly following the rise of social media, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle has often been held up as a kind of book of our times, an (albeit not always particularly easy to follow) guide to a highly mediated, image-obsessed, confusing and confused world. However it’s worth noting that, while it may seem to resonate quite strongly in the present day, the book is in actual fact a little over fifty years old. Though it might often seem to predict such things, The Society of the Spectacle was not written in a context of Instagram stories and Twitter threads but, instead, against a backdrop of revolutionary, anti-establishment fervor in 1960s Paris.
Consumerism and the Situationist International
Following the end of the Second World Wars Europe had become gripped by consumerism. With peace seemingly here to stay and worldwide markets opening up, Europeans of most social classes suddenly had access to a huge range of consumer goods including cars, home appliances and electronics which they dutifully began filling their homes with. Not everyone, however, saw this as an intrinsically good thing and among the skeptics was the Situationist International, a group of which Guy Debord was a key member and who, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘believed that a society organized around such consumption induced boredom while shaping people’s desires in ways that could be fulfilled only through the purchase of consumer goods”.
The Situationist international held that consumerism preyed upon the fact that slaving away from 9:00 to 5:00 in order to make profit for one’s boss is inherently monotonous, boring and unfulfilling and that, through increasingly sophisticated and manipulative advertising methods, consumerism had managed to convince people that they might find the satisfaction and fulfillment that they craved not through throwing off the shackles of capitalism but, instead, through buying a new car, television or refrigerator. Initially very much an artistic movement, the Situationist International thus sought to create “situations”: moments in which the monotony of everyday capitalist routine was disrupted without having to buy stuff. In short, they wanted to encourage people to find moments of truth and real experience among what they saw as the all-pervasive consumerist lie. Many of these situations which they created were incredibly small and personal, such as their development of the derive, a sort of method for taking an aimless wander throughout a city in order to allow oneself to come across new people, new places and experience new things.
However the ideas of the Situationist International became incredibly popular amongst Parisian students and, though it would be a stretch to suggest that they acted as a catalyst, when students and workers across France went on strike during the evenement of May 1968, Situationist slogans could be found on many a placard.
The Society of the Spectacle and Capitalism
Alongside this artistic practice, the Situationist International produced a small library’s worth of literature of which Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is only one example and, as we discuss The Society of the Spectacle, it’s worth bearing in mind this revolutionary context. Because, although it is often introduced as a purely descriptive work, it is in actual fact a manifesto. Debord seeks to encourage us not just to recognize the Spectacle and the society that has supposedly fallen under its spell but also to seek to subvert it.
At its heart, then, The Society of the Spectacle is a critique of post-war capitalism. And, in this way, it very much sits within a Marxist theoretical tradition. Guy Debord makes this clear in his own roundabout way in the opening lines when he states that ‘in societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles’. This phrasing being an allusion to the opening lines of Das Kapital in which Marx states that ‘the wealth of those societies in which the capital mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities’. While Debord considered Marx’s description of capitalism and its inherent need for inequality and disempowerment generally correct, he also recognized that the system had changed somewhat in the 100 years since Marx had published Das Kapital.
In particular, Debord argued that capitalism had ‘produced a level of abundance sufficient to solve the initial problem of survival but only in such a way that the same problem is continually being regenerated at a higher level’.
In short, the technological advances brought about by capitalism meant that our basic survival needs were now pretty easily met. Yet, in its constant need to find new markets, capitalism had simply redefined what survival meant. Debord argues that we now pursue a sort of ‘augmented survival’ in which we don’t just want consumer goods we consider them a need, something that is necessary for our augmented survival.
It’s important to state that Debord is not suggesting here that we should just be happy with having food, water, shelter and warmth and just be done with it. To think that Debord might be suggesting that computers or the internet, for example, are entirely superfluous is to misunderstand him. What he is suggesting is that capitalism encourages us to always be thinking that we need—not want but need—more. Even once we have a perfectly serviceable computer which will fulfill all the great functions that computers and the internet fulfil, we think that we need an even better one. All of this so far, however, is a simply surface-level critique of consumerism.
Debord, however, was not content with this and what makes The Society of the Spectacle a particularly important and influential work is where he goes with this idea next. Debord argues that, at his time of writing, capitalism was experiencing ‘a general shift from having to appearing—all having must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances’. Debord is here arguing that, rather than our desire for that new computer coming from a place of genuinely believing that it performs the function that we need it for better than our current one, instead, if only subconsciously, we are guided by thinking that it will improve how we appear to others.
When he refers to the “society of the Spectacle”, then, Debord is suggesting that late capitalism has encouraged us to become obsessed with image and appearances above all else. Certainly, we are surrounded by image-based advertising on billboards, on the sides of buses, before, during and after our YouTube videos. But, also, as well as often being based upon images—moving or still—modern advertising largely operates around selling us products based on the effect they might have upon our appearance. To stick with the example of computers, Apple’s 2006 to 2009 “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” advert may make some suggestions as to why one might want to buy a Mac over a PC based upon functionality, but it primarily hinges on selling us the idea that the kind of person who uses a Mac is far more fun and youthful than the stuffy old Windows user. We are thus not really sold the product itself but the image, appearance or lifestyle that it represents.
Oftentimes, we find celebrities used to this end in adverts as a kind of shorthand for the image or appearance that marketers want us to associate with a particular product. In this year’s Super Bowl, for example, Tom Hanks appeared in an advert for The Washington Post. Hanks’ own image is one of a fairly intelligent, sensible, reasonable person whose biggest vice is collecting vintage typewriters. Including him in this advert thus acts as something of a shorthand for suggesting that, if you buy the Washington Post, you too will be seen as intelligent and reasonable.
Elsewhere during the game, 2 Chainz appeared in an advert for Expensify, an app which records receipts for people who have expense accounts for work. Here, albeit comedically, 2 Chainz is used as a shorthand for suggesting that this app is used by the kind of people who have luxurious, expensive lifestyles and, if you’re seen to be using it too, people will think the same about you.
Again, no one’s even trying to convince us that the products themselves are good; they’re simply selling us on the image that it might help us curate. The celebrities involved in these adverts are not even taken as fully-rounded individuals, they solely serve to represent a certain image. In truth, Tom Hanks probably also has to keep track of his expenses and 2 Chainz might feel incredibly strongly about the role of the press in a liberal democracy, however the Spectacle is not interested in the subtleties, complexities and contradictions of reality; it’s only interested in presenting us with simplified, monosyllabic images. And this obsession with appearances and images is not just confined to selling us products. Ever since the publication of The Society of the Spectacle, many people have sought to use it as a way of critiquing contemporary representative politics, suggesting that politicians might be just as involved in selling us an appearance over actual policy.
In recent years, much of this discussion—like seemingly everything else—has revolved around Donald Trump‘s campaign. However, we can see it in almost all politicians to some extent. A lot of Hillary Clinton‘s campaign revolved specifically around how her demeanor or appearance differed from that of Trump. She attempted, sometimes successfully sometimes not, to curate an image of decency and stateswomanship. And, while these attributes may certainly be favorable in our elected politicians, they’re not policies. Again, the communication of a presidential image is prioritized over the communication of what Hilary might actually have done as president.
Now, when put in this way, it might be tempting to see this notion of the Spectacle as simply a description of the way that the media has come to work in the present day. Debord however was adamant that this was not the case. He writes that ‘the spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized’ rather than being imposed upon us from above. Debord was clear that the Spectacle is in actual fact diffuse throughout society; that we all participate in it and are all to some extent responsible for sustaining it. He argues that ‘real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing and aligning itself with it’.
It’s not just advertisers and politicians that have come to prioritize the projection of images and appearances over communicating actually meaningful information but all of us. Although he doesn’t discuss it due to the small matter of it not being invented yet, one of the clearest articulations of how the Spectacle has invaded our everyday lives is social media. The version of ourselves that we place online is highly curated and selective: most of us are quite keen to portray ourselves as happy people who are successful in some way and fulfilled in our relationships. And, in this way, we act in very much the same way as those advertisers and, even more so, we become obsessed by appearing to be happy, successful and fulfilled rather than actively going out and seeking those experiences.
As Debord writes, ‘the spectacle is an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all social life with appearances’. And he does really mean all social life because, although many of us engage in this kind of curation of appearances and images of ourselves online somewhat knowingly, and if we really thought about it we’d probably have to admit that we do so offline an awful lot too.
So, to conclude in some way, Debord argues that capitalism or late capitalism in the present day has become obsessed with images and appearances over truth and real experience.
The Society of the Spectacle is not always an easy read. However the manner in which, from a distance of fifty years, it fairly accurately predicted our image-obsessed mediated world makes it a really worthwhile text to try and crack.