Project 2-3: The Society of the Spectacle

This project requires reading an extract from “The Society and the Spectacle”, ‘Separation Reflected’ by Guy Debord on pps. 95-98 of the course reader before considering the following questions:

Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view?

Weltanschauung is defined as a particular philosophy or view of life, the term literally translates as ‘world view.’ It is a fundamental concept in German philosophy and epistemology which was first said to have been used by Kant before being popularized by Hegel.

Freud discusses Weltanshaunng in ‘A philosophy of Life.’ Near the beginning he notes the difficulty in translation as Weltanshaunng is “a specifically German notion which it would be difficult to translate into a foreign language.” Attempts to do this are so futile “it can hardly fail to strike you as inept.” He offers this useful definition:

“By Weltanshaunng, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.”

The pursuit of Weltanschauung is one of mankind’s ideal wishes – it leads to security in life as one knows what to strive after and how to organize emotions and interests to the best purpose.

It could be argued that the entirety of ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is Debord arguing that the spectacle has become Weltanshaunng, although, he definitely does not see this in the positive terms defined by Freud. The spectacle also represents an intangible and yet ubiquitous way to control society – Debord argues that citizens often do not even realise what is happening. The spectacle represents ideology and alienation.

In paragraph 1 Debord states:

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”

With “all of life” Debord is clearly beginning his case for the spectacle as Weltanschauung – for the rest of “Society of the Spectacle” he will seek to define what exactly the spectacle is, but here we are left in no doubt of the important hold it has over citizens as being omniscient and overwhelming.

The notion that the spectacle is something intangible is quickly asserted with:

“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

This suggests the spectacle is ideological while referencing the Marxist notion of alienation.

In paragraph 5 Debord directly mentions Weltanschauung:

“The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is rather a Weltanschauung which has become actual materially translated. It is a world vision that has become objectified.”

The choice of “world vision” rather than world view here is an interesting distinction – it suggests that the spectacle is forced upon society rather than citizens sharing its ideology. Despite being seemingly intangible and difficult to pin down, “has become actual materially translated” shows that the spectacle is something that is real. “Materially translated” and “objectified” suggest the concept of commodity fetishism, the Marxist idea that misplaced value is placed onto objects due to capitalism – Debord seems to be suggesting here that the concept of the spectacle represents an extension of this idea from reality to the conceptual.

What do you think Debord means by ‘the spectacle’?

This question is accompanied by the reassurance that this is more difficult than it sounds and that it is the attempt that is important here, which, after reading through the extract for the first time came as gentle reassurance! Debord writes in a way that is both difficult and simple, you seem to gain insight for it only to slip away proving allusive. The individual paragraphs in ‘Society of the Spectacle‘ each define what the spectacle is, yet, this can sometimes contradict what we have understood and read previously or can give emphasis to something we have not yet considered. As I come to understand a little more what Debord is trying to achieve through ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ I recognise that this is the point – the spectacle is  a concept which is difficult to define – this is part of the spectacles intention in fact. It is pervasive, far reaching and infiltrates all parts of society without even being acknowledged as existing by a large number of people in society.

Some of the language and terms in the extract are recognisable to me in what has been studied already, particularly from Marxist theory, although not necessarily presented in the same way. The more I read the more I began to be able to pick out ideas of commodification, alienation and ideology which seem to be the main thrust of Debord’s argument. Debord reasons that the spectacle represents a kind of evolution of commodification – the final form of the commodity will be the image – no longer a physical object we can own, having being replaced by appearing. The circulation of images becomes more important than the accumulation of commodities. Buchanan observes that in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ it is not producing or owning things that drives society forward but how things appear and how they make us appear to ourselves that matters. The spectacle is the illusion that our fragmented, alienated life is in fact whole, true and authentic.

Sturken and Cartwright assert that Debord saw the spectacle as a metaphor for society – we live in an ongoing, constant spectacle. Through the spectacle we no longer experience life directly, life has become representation. The spectacle is an instrument of unification and a world vision that forges a social relationship among people in which images and practices of looking are central.

Pooke and Newhall define the spectacle as being used by Debord to characterize pseudo-events and commodified interactions under capitalism.

My eventual approach to gleaning a closer reading from the text was to break down each paragraph and then write whatever response came into my head. This could be an observation or recognition of some sort of nuance or sometimes a question. This approach helped and yet I still find a personal definition of the spectacle difficult to articulate. In the spirit of Debord’s writing style here are some personal responses represented as bullet points:

  • The spectacle is everywhere.
  • We do not know who controls or orchestrates the spectacle – such a notion may not even exist in a simple way we can comprehend.
  • The spectacle is a means of control but in a much more subtle way than we have come to understand – for example in capitalist structure of worker/owner.
  • We are complicit with the spectacle but may not even recognisee what the spectacle is or even its existence.
  • Debord uses terms, phrases and ideas that have a resonance, particularly with Marxism, but they are somehow changed which emphasises that the spectacle confounds our conventional understanding. For example: “the spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced” suggests Marx’s description of ideology through which social relations are perceived in an inverted way (Marx uses the analogy of a camera obscura which gives an upside down view of the world) and groups this with the tangible idea of commodity production. This is a difficult but effective combination of both the abstract and the real.

The book was first published in French in 1967. Has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?

A strength of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ is that Debord did not confine his argument to specifics that would date his theses. This means that the ideas presented translate to the 21st century making them all the more powerful and Debord seemingly prescient.

Despite this, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ does not achieve Debord’s revolutionary intent, today it is seen as an important work of philosophy rather than a political manifesto with real purpose to change the world through revolt. Debord himself became depressed in later life that his insights ceased to be a call to arms but rather a banal, if accurate, description of the modern condition. (Hussey, 2001) The spectacle as a term has become a cliché appropriated by post modernism to describe any contemporary process.

Will Self views the “genius” of Debord in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ as characterising “the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post -industrial manifestation” and that it reads “as fresh as paint.” He recognises the importance of the “pseudo-events” which act to convince the citizens of the spectacle that they are able “to progress into a better future” when it is only the anointed few, the celebrities, who are imbued with the money and power that signify the ability to make choices. Debord’s concept of the spectacle has been so thoroughly appropriated by society that it is no longer used as short hand for the consumer society or post-ideological character of western ‘democracy’ which is woven by the internet and late capitalism.

John Harris believes the frequency that the spectacle is used to describe the “image saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures” leads to it sounding banal, yet, the frequency used also “speaks volumes about the power of its insights.” ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ points towards much that is prescient in the culture of the 21st century:

-Celebrity culture and the portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us live it.

-The driving out of meaning in politics.

-Warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion”, for example, the Che Guevara T-shirt.

-Social media and “the white noise of most online life.”

The book describes that everything we consume, and if we are not careful, everything we do embodies a mixture of “distraction and reinforcement” that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme – ideas which we now term neo-liberalism.

Personally, the more I think about the themes contained in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ the more I feel it articulates suspicions I have held for a long time – what is it to be a citizen in a late capitalist society in the 21st century? We are told we have never had so much freedom and access to information and yet it is also accepted there is no alternative to the lives we lead. There is so much information that we are unable to process it – what on the internet is real and what is false? There is no longer any distinction in political life, no left or right – only a consensus that this is the way things need to be. Facebook seems to represent the clearest example of how human experience has become inauthentic, spectacular and false – what people now understand as friendship. Our online presence is the way we present ourselves rather than through real life – more real than the real world. As John Harris observes “even the way we relate to each other has been so commodified it is no longer genuine.” There is no more depressing modern sight than that of citizens who seemingly only have an experience through the prism of their smart phone – if we do not record our experiences then they no longer happen and by doing this we lose the ability to live our lives directly.

Does his view that we “see the world by means of various specialized mediations” mean that we are having our view of the world controlled or that we simply don’t know what is propaganda and what is not?

My first reaction in my notebook to this quote from chapter 18 is ‘what does various specialized mediations mean?’ Perhaps it is that the spectacle makes us see (and believe?) the world that it is presenting.

“We see the world” reminds me of the term ‘global village’ popularized by Marshall McLuhan in reference to the growth of media in the early 1960s, and is term that Debord would surely have been aware. The access to information that we can experience through the internet has the potential to make us participants in this global village that is now a reality. The more likely response however, is that we passively take in the view of the world which is presented to us through rolling news and media outlets. We feel connected to what is going on without questioning that the views that we are presented with are those that the broadcasters choose to show – that which is deemed worthy of reporting. We feel a closeness to citizens around the world which is false.

I am not sure when the political world view reached a consensus through neo-liberalism but I am old enough to remember a time when there seemed to be real difference, not only in politics but in art, literature, music, films – even the high street. It seems today that we accept the homogenization of our lives without question, even those who oppose what they see as mass conformity struggle to define how or even what they are against. We believe that we are sophisticated readers of the modern world and its representations, we think that we would know propaganda if we saw it. This is because we think of propaganda in back and white 20th century terms rather than the complex description of the spectacle given by Debord which typifies propaganda in the modern world.

The film maker Adam Curtis seems to be highly influenced by Debord. He uses archive news footage along with a very personal viewpoint expressed through voiceover to try and make sense of the world. In a short segment he made for Charlie Brooker’s satirical Newswipe programme, he presents the idea that the news is so depressing and we are so detached from the events it contains that the only response is “Oh dear” – a defeatist reaction that has also become central to political control. He explains this by examining the political landscape of Putin’s Russia. We would normally associate Russia with the heavy handed propaganda and control of the Soviet Union, Curtis explains however that in modern Russia control is maintained by much more subtle and confusing means. Putin’s director of communications Vladislav Surkov has helped Putin remain in power for 15 years using techniques he learned from his previous life as a dealer of avant-garde art. Surkov turns Russian politics into a “bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre” the aim of which is to undermine people’s perception of the world so they can never be entirely sure what is really happening. Surkov achieves this by backing many disparate groups in Russia, some of which are even enemies of Putin, before (and this is key for Curtis) letting the people know what he is doing. The effect is that no one knows what is real or fake and all opposition is kept constantly confused – the constant shape shifting is unstoppable because it is indefinable.

Curtis then transfers his gaze to the political situation in Britain and recognises a similar situation – after all, Russia has always had a strange, fractured and controlling political situation so this approach by Putin and Surkov is hardly surprising. He argues that in Britain everything told by politicians and journalists is confusing and contradictory – a position which plays into the hands of those in power. For example: the war in Afghanistan which nobody seems to know was a victory or defeat; ageing disc jockeys who are prosecuted for crimes that alleged to have happened decades ago while no one in the city of London has been prosecuted for the endless financial crimes being revealed there; the war in Syria which was initially against the Assad regime which we were told was evil until we discover his enemies  were even worse and began bombing them keeping Assad in power.

The epicentre of our non-linear world is the economy and Curtis presents George Osborne as the closest we have to a “shape shifting, postmodern politician.” The economy is growing and yet wages go down, the importance of cutting the deficit is used as a reason for austerity policies but it is revealed the deficit is actually increasing, quantitative easing contradicts austerity and debt reduction. Vast amounts of money has ended up in the top 5% of the wealthiest people and this is prevented from becoming a scandal because nobody seems to have a clear idea of what is happening.

The strange mood of our times is that nothing makes coherent sense. We live in a “constant vaudeville” of contradictory stories which stop any real opposition from appearing because they cannot counter with a coherent narrative of their own. Individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a constant state of uncertainty. For me, Curtis’ description of the power of the media and politicians in the 21st century and the techniques they use to confuse and control is compelling and goes a long way to articulate and further much of what I understand from Debord’s arguments in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’.

Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx said on the subject); is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or extreme reification?

Marx saw reification as being omnipresent in capitalism with all of its elements invoking a greater or lesser degree of reification. The fact that capitalism subordinates the lives of millions is obscured by commodity fetishism – an extreme form of alienation.

Lukács took this further by stating that modern capitalism is such that commodity fetishism can be extended to all fields of human activity – even consciousness.

John Harris uses the example of Facebook to prove the power of Debord’s argument and its relationship to reification: the Facebook friend is used as a way to monetise everything on the website, this inauthentic incorporation leads us to believe that the Facebook friendship is real when in fact it is classically, unbelievably spectacular. I find Harris’ argument compelling here and am led to conclude that the spectacle is indeed extreme reification.

Thoughts…

I now feel quite seduced with Debord’s thrust in ‘Society of the Spectacle’ although I would by no means pretend to fully understand it. From a position of frustrated lack of understanding that I experienced at the beginning of this project I have slowly began to comprehend what Debord is explaining as well as appreciating his complex means of expression which is necessary to project the complex, contradictory nature of the spectacle. I have read through the rest of the book and it does not get easier as it progresses nor has my ability to glean meaning at first read through improved. I will stick with it however and return every now and again because of the respect I have gained and insight achieved from the first section that is the basis of this project. Hopefully further reading (I intend to ‘dip in and out’ in the future) will broaden my understanding, I can understand what John Harris means when he describes the well-thumbed copy of the book that he owns.

Workflow wise this project has helped me get back on track somewhat. Having felt a little lost and disappointed following the previous project I was initially quite perturbed by the even more dense and difficult to understand words to be studied for this project. Rather than take a ‘hopefully it will all make sense soon’ approach like I had with Bourdieu I stuck with this and revisited the text a great deal, much more than I have for any of the other projects so far, eventually breaking down the extract into digestible pieces and considering these in isolation. I often wrote whatever came into my head as a response rather than trying to come up with definitive answers, sometimes just writing questions. This way of working through a difficult text through writing seems to have been a small breakthrough for me. Similarly, I have tried to worry less about what I am writing for the project and encouraged the words to flow which has given me a strong sense of accomplishment – a lot of what I have written may not be directly relevant and I have certainly missed out much more that I could have said but as is stated in the course notes “it is the attempt [that] matters at the moment.” My new mantra!

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Appropriation art, Weltanschauung, the spectacle, reification, alienation, simulacrum

Key figures for further research:

Sherrie Levine (After Walker Evans), Walker Evans, Michael Mandiberg (www.afterwalkerevans.com), Guy Debord, Andy Warhol, Lichenstein, Jean-Paul Satre, Feurebach, Kant, Hegel, Marx.

Bibliography:

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Curtis, A. (2014) Oh Dear segment on Charlie Brooker’s 2014wipe. BBC. Available online http://youtu.be/wcy8uLjRHPM [accessed August 2015]

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Freud, S. A Philosophy of Life. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1933) publ. Hogarth Press. Available online https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/at/freud.htm [accessed August 2015]

Harris, J. (2012) Guy Debord predicted our distracted society. The Guardian 30th March 2012 Available online http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/30/guy-debord-society-spectacle [accessed August 2015]

Hussey, A. (2001) Situation Abnormal: the suicide of Guy Debord. The Guardian 28th July 2001 Available online http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jul/28/biography.artsandhumanities [accessed August 2015]

Kaplan, R. L. (2012) Between mass society and revolutionary praxis: The contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Sage. Available online http://www.academia.edu/2235717/The_Contradictions_of_Guy_Debords_Society_of_the_Spectacle [accessed August 2015]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge

Self, W. (2013) Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. The Guardian 14th November 2013. Available online http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/14/guy-debord-society-spectacle-will-self [accessed August 2015]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Walker, B. (2012) The Big ideas podcast: Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ The Guardian 28th March 2012. Available online http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/audio/2012/mar/28/big-ideas-podcast-debord-society-spectacle [accessed August 2015]