What did Debord mean by ‘the society of the spectacle’? How might this idea explain the apathetic character of popular political culture?
Guy Debord’s theory is presented in detail in his book Society of the Spectacle, originally published in 1968. The book functions as a critique of modern capitalism as well as outlining strategies, such as the détournement, to challenge this society. In its time, it was a fundamental text for the revolutionary Marxist-inspired Situationist International group (Sadler, 1999). Since 1968 it has been hugely influential on a diverse range of theoretical approaches to analysing political culture (Marcus, 1997; Beller, 2006; Hardt and Negri, 2000; Fisher, 2009). This essay will first of all outline what Debord means by ‘the society of the spectacle’. This includes a focus on how spectacular images mediate social relations, masking the actual capital degradation of human life; on how the spectacle dominates all aspects of life, disallowing any agency or critique; on the spectacle’s relation to space and time; and on the situationist strategies of the derive and the détournement, which are proposed by Debord. It will also debate whether, and to what extent, critical space outside of the spectacle can exist. The next section is a consideration of how Debord’s idea could help to explain the apathetic character of popular political culture. It is argued that his theories are still relevant today, for example in explaining how resistance to capitalism is co-opted and absorbed; in the use of discourses of celebrity within political culture; and in the continued popularity of strategies of détournement. This then raises the question of whether popular political culture is apathetic, or whether it is does provide a space to critique capitalism. It is argued that while Debord’s analysis is useful for explaining apathy, his models of resistance now seem firmly subsumed within the spectacle of which he seeks to stand outside. The essay concludes by highlighting and suggesting directions in which Debord’s theories have been taken in an attempt to overcome such apathy.
Debord opens his definition of the society of the spectacle with the claim that images have come to replace the ‘direct reality’ of everyday life, “everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (2009, p.24). He goes on, however, to emphasise that the spectacle refers not just to the images themselves but to the “social relation between people that is mediated by images” (p.24). The spectacle includes not only the media, but refers to the whole capitalist system, government and mode of control, “the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images” (p.33). In the society of the spectacle, relations between commodities are more important than those between people. The world is driven by market forces and everything is turned into a commodity (p.36). Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces (1997), his ‘secret history of the twentieth century’, which takes Society of the Spectacle as one of most fundamental texts of this history, connects Debord’s analysis to developments in capitalism in the 1960s:
It [capitalism] turned upon individual men and women, seized their subjective emotions and experiences, changed those once evanescent phenomena into objective, replicable commodities, placed them on the market, set their prices, and sold them back. (p.101)
This transformation echoes Debord’s first stage of the spectacle, “the degradation of being into having” (2009, p.27). He then goes on to focus on the next stage, the shift
“from having to appearing” (p.28) and the dominance of the image as mediator of social relations driven by commodity and profit. The image, in the society of the spectacle, does not provide access to reality, but alienates from the possibility of genuine experience (Jenkins, 2009, p.8). While proposing itself as freedom, it is only actually an image of freedom, serving to alienate and control.
The society of the spectacle for Debord is everywhere, “the totalitarian domination of all aspects of life” (p.30). It has taken a particular way of living, “the dominant model of life” (p.25) and presented itself as the only possible way of living, “a part of the world presents itself to the world and is superior to it” (p.32). It takes a specific capitalist mode of consumption as a model of social life, and universalizes this to create an effect of objectivity, suggesting that there is no alternative, “the fetishistic appearance of pure objectivity” (p.30). Within the spectacle, there is no possibility of critical agency, “all critical awareness has disintegrated” (p.31), and subjects to the spectacle, or ‘spectators’ can only consume rather than actively engage with the images that mediate their social interaction, “spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship [with the spectacle]” (p.32). As Marcus has argued, it is not necessarily the case that spectacle refuses the possibility of critique, but rather that it infiltrates desire in order to make critique undesirable, “one could not respond, or talk back, or intervene, but one did not want to” (1997, p.99).
In analysing the spectacle, we are obliged to a certain extent to use the spectacle’s own language…It is the historical moment in which we are caught”. (Debord, 2009, p.26)
Debord here argues that the spectacle determines critical possibilities for its own analysis. Even the situationists are ‘caught’ in its moment, forced to use its language. However, his use here of ‘to a certain extent’ suggests that possibilities do exist of forming a critical space outside of the all-powerful spectacle of capitalism, contrasting with his image of it earlier as completely pervasive. As Sadler has argued, “the situationists wanted to believe in the possibility of a cultural sphere outside the spectacle of capital, party politics and imperialism” (1999, p.43). The possibilities of such a space outside will be returned to later in this analysis.
The society of the spectacle creates a specific sense of time. In order for revolution to be possible, according to Debord’s argument, people must be aware of the spectacle as a contingent historical moment, which can be overcome. Instead, the spectacle makes itself seem inevitable by collapsing the past and future into an endless present, making the idea of revolution impossible (Debord, 2009, p.103). Spectacle uses a particular model of time, as that which can be split into commodified consumable blocks, and then masquerades this as ‘universal’ time (p.103). It also infiltrates leisure time, distracting and redirecting all ‘real’ activity into consumption (p.31). It also creates a specific sense of space. Debord gives the example of tourism as “human circulation packaged for consumption” (p.114) to suggest that spatial difference has been eliminated in modern capitalism. Wherever you travel, patterns of consumption will be the same, creating a ‘levelling out’ and homogenizing of diverse spaces. In this sense, there is no escape.
After using most of the book as a critique of the society of the spectacle, Debord does go on to point toward possible modes of resistance. Revolution is proposed as a necessarily putting into political practice of theory (p.88). Resistance must be a form of critique that is aware of the spectacle and can avoiding simply falling back into its structure (p.88). The first form of resistance he points towards is the “authentic wanderings” (p.119) of the dérive or drift (in English translation). This is defined by Marcus as “a drift down city streets in search of signs of attraction or repulsion” (Marcus, 1977, p.168). Debord himself had defined it in an earlier text:
A technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll. (Debord, 1958, p.1)
It is different form a stroll as it suggests the possibility for the wanderer to escape the spatial dominance of the spectacle by finding their own routes through the city, different trajectories and alignments, which may be outside of the logic of spectacle, and its identification of ‘map’ with ‘territory’ (p.233), or insistence on the universality of a single spatial practice.
The other method of resistance to the spectacle proposed by Debord is the détournement, a way of taking images or other artifacts out of their intended contexts and changing their meaning to something opposed to their original intention. The situationists did this with posters around the city as well as literature, political theory and film (Sadler, 1999, p.44). A contemporary example of such a strategy would be the variations on political election posters, hijacked, re-photoshopped and directed against their original meanings, disseminated on advertising billboards and around the internet (Fig. 1). Debord describes this as:
The opposite of quotation…a fragment torn from its own context and development… détournement is the flexible language of anti-ideology. (p.134)
After this outline of Debord’s theory of the society of the spectacle then, it must now be considered how these ideas could help explain the apathetic character of popular political culture. In this context, the first question to ask may be is Debord’s work still relevant today? Is the society of the spectacle still an effective means of describing and engaging with contemporary popular political culture? Jenkins argues that it is, relating Debord’s analysis specifically to recent crises of capitalism such as the ‘credit crunch’ to propose that such crises reveal problems, not with a handful of banker’s mistakes and greed represented spectacularly across an increased variety of media forms, but with the system of capitalism itself:
What spectacular society cannot admit is that the crisis is, root and branch, an example of the functioning of the capitalist economy as such (2009, p.5)
Marcus also emphasizes the continued relevance of Debord’s analysis of the spectacle, which has become even more relevant with the development of more image technologies and the greater prevalence of the image:
A never ending accumulation of spectacles – advertisements, entertainments, traffic, skyscrapers, political campaigns, department stores, newscasts…made a modern world…in which all communication flowed in one direction, from the powerful to the powerless. (1997, p.99)
Looking closer at Debord’s analysis, much of it seems relevant to explaining contemporary popular political culture. One element of the society of the spectacle that Debord focuses on, for example, is the way that dissatisfaction with capitalism is itself marketed as a commodity and reabsorbed as part of the spectacle (2009, p.48). This is evident in contemporary culture in the way that, for example, political protests are used as desirable iconography to create brand identity in advertising campaigns. A recent campaign for the Alexander McQueen clothing label MCQ uses imagery from the student protests in Paris in May 1968, stating that it “looks to reference the essence and spirit of youth and subcultures. The concepts of anarchy, rebellion and revolution are never far from the seasonal fundaments” (MCQ, 2010). Here, any ‘real’ sense of critique or protest has been replaced by a spectacular image of commodified political protest functioning as an integral part of the capitalist society it ostensibly sets out to critique. The way that spectacular society can function in such a way, taking something politically oppositional and making it operate as part of a fashion brand is one way of explaining the apathetic character of popular political culture. If ‘revolution’ and ‘rebellion’ is just a fashion and branding exercise, then why should people have any belief in the possibilities of political activism expressed in protest? People may choose to buy the clothing in order to express their desire for ‘revolution’ but, of course this is not real revolution, but the continuation of consumerism, the buying-into of a conveniently pre-packaged identity, and a sense of what Debord would describe as the “pseuso-gratification” (p.47) of spectacular society. Mark Fisher describes the process of ‘precorporation’ endemic to contemporary capitalism:
What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead their precorporation, their pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires and aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture. (2009, p.9)
Such analysis relies heavily on Debord’s ideas of the society of the spectacle, drawing out Debord’s pessimism at its pervasiveness, and offering a persuasive argument for explaining apathy – power pre-empts critique and therefore the spectator does not desire to ‘really’ critique, but just consume. As Debord defines the spectacle, “It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made” (p.25).
Other aspects of Debord’s writing are also particularly relevant to contemporary popular political culture. He writes about the function of ‘stars’ for example, proposing that they operate as part of a “glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward banalization” (p.47), and also offer an illusion of acting with free will, while further alienating spectators from reality (p.48). Both of these points are relevant and intensified in contemporary celebrity culture, where the role of the ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’ is increasingly visible. P.David Marshall’s analysis of stars as representative of the individualist ideologies of capitalism, actively producing ‘audience subjects’ in thrall to their representations, is also heavily influenced by Debord:
Through its intense development of the individual personality’s power and its dependence on collective configurations…the celebrity is reconceptualized as a sign that negotiates these tensions and contradictions in its formation and disintegration. (Marshall, 2004, p.xii)
Marshall, as Debord (2009, p.49), develops his analysis of stars to include political players as part of the spectacle of celebrity:
The disciplinary boundaries between the domains of popular culture and political culture have been eroded through the migration of communicative strategies and public relations from the entertainment industries to the organization of the spectacle of politics. (Marshall, 2004, p.xiii)
These ‘boundaries’ are eroded already in Debord’s analysis where political actors, as much as stars, are all “agents of the spectacle” (p.48). A focus on the recent UK election campaign, where the visual spectacle of televised debate has become a vital mode of communication, reveals its ‘spectacular’ nature. The “struggles between illusory qualities” (p.49) Debord refers to can offer a way of explaining the great lengths gone to in the media to attempt to differentiate political parties who, while offering images of ‘change’ or ‘hope’, actually merely repeat the same models of market-led social relations Debord is so deeply critical of. Voting, in this sense, becomes another form of ‘pseudo-gratification’, an illusion of participation in democracy equivalent to boosting the profits of telecommunications companies through the expression of individual choice afforded in voting on the X Factor. As Marcus discusses, you may feel like you have participated, but actually you haven’t, and the spectacle has functioned as “the dramatization of an ideology of freedom” (1997, p.99). The recent mobilization of social networking sites to sabotage the UK music charts by making Rage Against the Machine Christmas number one provides another example of the contemporary spectacle. Offering an illusion of resistance, radicalism and free choice, what is ‘really’ provided is the choice between two artists signed to offshoots of Sony Records (Pidd, 2009). Further, as in Debord’a anlaysis, ‘real’ radicalism is actually apathetic, as it can only take place through the model of purchasing and consumption.
Criticisms can also be made of Debord’s analysis. It relies on a series of binary oppositions between ‘real’ and ‘illusory’, “the real consumer has become a consumer of illusions” (p.40), or ‘pseudo-needs’ and ‘genuine needs’ (p.52), which assume that there is some kind of ‘authentic’ reality behind the deceptive illusion of spectacle. While his analysis is useful as critique of how the spectacle is used to control, he makes no real attempt to define what this ‘authentic’ experience outside of the spectacle would be. There is a seeming contradiction between his analysis of the spectacle as all-powerful and all-pervasive, and his own unquestioned position as somehow outside of, and superior to it, with a direct access to authentic reality. His analysis elevates his own position to the seer, who can lead the docile public from their captivity by spectacle. As Sadler has argued, “the situationists were certain, of course, that they stood outside the spectacle, and that they could lead the populace out of it as well” (1999, p.43). There is a certain hypocricy here, as presumably, Debord’s or the situationists’s definitions of authentic true reality, would equally be taking a specific model of reality and universalizing it, in the same way that the spectacle does. His way around this, as has been outlined, is to propose ways of using the language of the spectacle against itself through strategies such as détournement.
The main argument against this however, is that, especially in the wake of developments of internet and mobile technology, strategies of détournement have become an accepted part of mainstream culture, devoid of any radical political power, and indeed absorbed, co-opted and re-incorporated into the discourses of spectacular capitalism. Returning to the current UK election, détournement has played a big role in the campaign as a whole. No sooner has one of the party’s released a new poster and slogan, then multiple detourned variations appear across the media, and on the internet in particular (see Fig.1). The vital question here is whether such gestures can be seen as radically political, suggesting an active, rather than apathetic, popular political culture, or, on the other hand, whether they are ‘pseudo-gratifications’ contained within the confines of the society of the spectacle, allowing no real critique and leading to the apathetic popular political culture assumed in the question. Internet and social media network debates suggest that people do see critical power in such work, but this is perhaps undercut by the fact that partys are now producing their own ‘already-detourned’ posters (Alt.Vote, 2010).
It can be argued that, in spite of its relentless critique, Debord’s analysis is ultimately an optimistic and utopian one. He assumes revolution is possible (p.42) and shows real belief in the actions of the dérive or détournement as radical political gestures (p.134). This can, in a sense, be read as the spirit of a certain age. Written in the context of May ’68, Debord and the situationists believed that another world was possible. Today, however, their political slogans, rather than suggesting the possibility of change, look just like slogans, repeated by the media throughout the last forty years, printed and reprinted on T-shirts, advertising and marketing campaigns. Debord and the situationists have ultimately become part of the society of spectacle they set out to critique. Debord’s idea is useful in explaining the apathetic character of popular political culture, but it also suggests hope, spaces of critique outside of the spectacle and a clear set of tactics to achieve this. Reading it today, it is still useful in explaining the apathetic character of popular political culture, but its utopianism has become part of this apathetic culture itself.
The society of the spectacle is useful then, in explaining the apathetic nature of popular political culture, but its revolutionary zeal no longer seems to provide an appropriate escape from this apathy. Ultimately, Debord’s analysis is too deterministic, allowing no agency for political actors, apart from those who are led to the light through the revolution. Other models have more recently proven more fruitful as attempts to theorise moves beyond the apathy of popular political culture. Hardt and Negri’s Empire for example (2000) proposes a different model of power and control. Debord assumes the spectacle as primary. Any challenges to it or critiques of it have to engage with it on its own terms. This leads to a series of problems, as anything using the language of spectacle seems to be ultimately co-opted by the spectacle. Empire on the other hand, proposes that not spectacle but the potential resistance of global creative force is primary. ‘Empire’, the spectacle redefined as a global network of multinational power relations, is only a parasitic capture of this force of ‘the multitude’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000, p.493). Rather than assuming the spectacle is all powerful and having to use its language to a certain extent, global networks of anti-capitalist movements have emerged over the last fifteen years, which attempt to map their own social relations. Some critics interpreted the World Trade Centre attacks of September 11th, 2001 as a “crisis in the spectacle” (Beller, 2006, p.288), which necessitates formulating new ways of thinking capitalist power. Beller draws on Debord by emphasizing the importance of the image in contemporary capitalism but focuses on how this has developed with new visual technologies, which have reorganized the “mediasphere” (p.289). While Debord’s analysis, as Beller’s still does, foregrounds sight and visuality, “it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special preeminence once occupied by touch” (2009, p.28), more recent texts such as Goodman’s analysis of Sonic Warfare (2009) have focused on affective or sonic forms of power, which are not necessarily formulated visually. Goodman’s analysis, through focusing on rhythm and feeling rather than purely visual images, allows him to propose the more optimistic potential of “models of collectivity that revolve around affective tonality” (p.xx) and are not subject to and produced by spectacular ideological power. All of this rethinking and re-theorising of Debord’s ideas may not only help to develop explanations for apathetic popular political culture, but also go some way toward developing new techniques or tactics to transcend the apathy that capitalism prescribes.
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http://www.m-c-q.com/ [accessed 3/5/2010]
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Fig. 1. Détourned campaign posters from the UK 2010 General Election, taken from http://fiveprime.org/hivemind/Tags/poster,tories [accessed 1/5/2010], and http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2010/apr/21/internet-spoofs-unspoofable-conservative-poster [accessed 1/5/2010].