“The Society of the Spectacle”

I’m working on a video about this book, written by Guy Debord & published in 1967. The Kindle translation I have isn’t as good as the Audible translation, so I was going to type up some quotes/notes on the Audible version so I can compare the two more easily, since comparing two translations is often a lot more, uh, elucidating. I couldn’t think of a word that sounded less pretentious. Anyway. I figured, why not share it with you? So.

1. The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail, presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.

2. Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images of the world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and as such, the autonomous movement of non-life.

3. The Spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated, and precisely for that reason, this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness. The unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.

4. The spectacle is not a collection of images. Rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

Okay. That’s enough for now, because that’s where things start getting more complicated. This is a good place to start, because there’s already quite a bit to unpack. I had a professor once who had us rephrase philosophy passages in the simplest terms possible to help us understand them better, which I always found really helpful, so here’s my attempt with these ones:

  1. The media is at the center of modern life. Instead of living life for ourselves, we watch movies and TV shows about life.
  2. The Spectacle (media/movies/TV/books/etc) chips off a piece of many different ways/aspects of real life and presents itself as the real thing. This new homogenized reality turns us into passive viewers of the version of life it presents to us.
    1. The second two sentences here are tricky, I’m not quite sure but I’ll give it a shot..
      1. These representations of life take on a life of their own… and begin to believe in their own validity.
      2. The spectacle prioritizes the general over the individual, which turns individuals into zombies whose real lives are lived in service of the spectacle, which is imaginary.
    2. It’s kind of hard because I feel like you could write a book just about what he means by “the spectacle” exactly, but imagine, like, corporations where the real people sacrifice their actual lives to this bigger idea of the corporation that doesn’t actually exist, and so the corporation, which isn’t alive, takes on a life of its own by siphoning life from the living people who compose it.
  3. The spectacle (for simplification purposes, let’s just say the media) – presents itself as both a part of society and all there is of society – as the means by which the different veins of social life become unified. But because it isn’t really society, but rather a sort of fun-house mirror that allows society to watch itself, the unification it purports to create is a lie.
  4. The spectacle isn’t just the amalgamation of all media (it isn’t a list of all the shows on Netflix and Hulu, all the videos on YouTube, etc., it’s the means by which those things mediate our relationships to each other on both the individual and the collective levels.

So this is kind of going to be the cornerstone, I think, for me, in thinking about the philosophy of the media, and I hope you can kind of see why. Because what’s completely bananas, is this dude wrote all of this before the internet even existed. Social media wasn’t even a thing – he was JUST talking about, like, cable news and sitcoms at the time.

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Our economy has subjugated…

…all values to instrumental ones. If it isn’t of value to the economy, it has no value. 

Inherent value is either not recognized or simply ignored. 

This is how it becomes possible to have a healthcare system that operates on the assumption that the lives of people with money are more valuable than the lives of people without. 

This is how it becomes possible to have a justice system that operates on the assumption that the lives of drug addicts are less moral than the lives of people who only do as many drugs they can afford. 

This is how it becomes possible to have an education system that teaches children that their worth is not in who they are but in what they can achieve. That teaches children to value a letter on a piece of paper more than the process of educating themselves and becoming individuals. 

This is how it becomes possible to have “art” that exists for the purpose of making money, of gaining views, of rocking the boat enough to get people talking about it but not so much that it turns people away. 

THIS is how it becomes possible to have a political system that is so easily co-opted by a reality television star with no real values whatsoever other than the survival of his own ego. 

And this is also how we have come to see each other. Not as ends in themselves, but as purveyors of other ends. Money. Sex. Power. Exposure. Validation. Acceptance. Companionship. 

But the saddest part, perhaps, is that this is how we have learned to see ourselves. And so we’ll continue to try to fill the hole in our hearts with all these other values in an attempt to convince ourselves that WE have value, that WE deserve to be seen as more than just the goods and services we can provide, even if we live in a world that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it, that has trained us since we were children too see ourselves as vehicles of value, not as possessors of it. 

Let yourself be valuable just because you exist, and you become a subversive. Let yourself value others just because they exist, and you become a radical. Let yourself choose values that serve something other than the machine of production and spectacle that is the world economy, and you become a revolutionary. 

My Philosophy Video Plans

So far, my channel has involved a lot of, uh… goal-setting would be a generous way of putting it. I was sort of inspired by the story about how Jim Carrey wrote himself a check for a million dollars, in the sense that I kind of figured that if I say I’m going to do something, I’d be much more likely to actually do it just to prove that I meant it. 

Shaving my head comes to mind as a less labor-intensive example of the same principle…

Anyway, so I wrote myself into a corner sort of intentionally, I think, because I felt like that was probably the best way to motivate myself to work as hard as I can. I didn’t really imagine the corner would end up being as tight as it currently is, but… the point is, I have plans. Arguably, too many of them. But I’m going to tell you what they are in more detail, right now, in case anyone other than me cares. 

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Is this the best of all possible worlds?

I frequently think about the following bit of sass from a letter that Voltaire wrote in response to Leibniz’s rebuttal to his argument that our world was the best possible world. 

What is this, YouTube? Anyway in Voltaire’s response to Liebniz’s response to his response, he says the following: 

I just think this is such a fantastically pithy response to a LITERAL BOOK that Liebniz wrote about Voltaire’s arguments against him. Imagine writing an entire book arguing against someone who disagrees with you, only to receive THIS as a response. It just… it delights me, so I think of it often. 

Anyway it also highlights something about philosophy that I find both irritating and kind of beautiful, which is this: often, philosophers spend SO MUCH TIME hashing out the minutiae of their theories and arguments, splitting hairs and giving precise definitions, refining those definitions upon further investigation, then returning to the original definition having learned something new about where we started, and so on. 

There is a lot of ink spilt in the name of “rigorous philosophical argument,” is what I’m trying to say. But quite often, when it comes down to it, it would actually take far fewer words to express the same argument in a way that was not only less pedantic and tiring, but also more grounded in reality. So what Voltaire does here is take the pages of Liebniz’s argument, which I’m sure had redeeming structural and rhetorical qualities, as most philosophical argument does, and level it all out with a single blow, grounded absolutely in the actual world of lived human experience. 

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On “Debauchery…”

It just occurred to me that if you read this blog before watching my YouTube stuff, you could very well think I’m, like, devoutly religious. Maybe.

I guess I’ve clarified that organized religion isn’t always my favorite thing, but a lot of religious people also feel that way.

Anyway just for the folks who wind up here, first, and wonder why I’m so into Jesus… I’m not a sex negative Christian, or a “drugs are bad” Christian. I wouldn’t even identify as a “Christian” necessarily, but that’s not because I’m not a fan of the J-dog.

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