Society of the Spectacle: WTF? Guy Debord, Situationism and the Spectacle Explained | Tom Nicholas

Society of the Spectacle: WTF? Guy Debord, Situationism and the Spectacle Explained | Tom Nicholas


Hi, my name’s Tom. Welcome back to my
channel and to another episode of What the Theory?, my ongoing series in which I provide some sometimes enjoyable but always accessible introductions to key
theories in cultural studies and the wider humanities. Today, 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. As always, if you’ve got any questions as we go along then please do
feel free to pop those down in the comments below and, if this seems like
your kind of thing, then please do consider subscribing. With that out of
the way however, let’s crack on with it. 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. See, 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. 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 perhaps important for me 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 Superbowl, 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 act 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’. Again, 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, I think 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. There is far more to be said about The Society of the Spectacle than I
could have ever have hoped to have got into one video. If anyone would like to
see a follow-up to this where I look at some other aspects of the book then do
let me know down below. And, if by the time you’re watching this I have been
convinced by the lovely people who watch these videos to make that video, then
I’ll link it up there. However today I wanted to focus on that central element,
this notion that Debord argues that capitalism or late capitalism in the
present day has become obsessed with images and appearances over truth and
real experience. I’ll admit that 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. Thank
you very much for watching this video. I hope it provided some kind of insight
into the fundamentals of Debord’s work. If you have found this video useful
and think it is a vague net positive for the world then I really appreciate a
thumbs up down below and, equally, if you’d like to see more like this, then
please do consider subscribing. Thank you very much for watching once again and
have a great week!

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