“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.

I just find this picture of Debord amusing…

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.

Say what you will of the man’s writing, the cover is truly iconic… (the photo is of the first crowd to view a film in 3d, hence the glasses)…

But NOW the things he talked about are even truer, I would argue, and more obvious and pernicious, which is why we have such a bizarrely dependent/problematic relationship to the media. It’s why there’s so much drama about facebook and twitter, it’s why people get so deeply upset now in a way they never did before about, like, cultural appropriation and media representation of minorities. These things have become more real than real life, to most people.

Consider also how the pervasiveness, the inescapableness of media in every aspect of our lives, is also why it becomes so easy to manipulate people’s media consumption and put it to your own ends *COUGH* Putin *COUGH.*

AND this isn’t a dissertation or anything, obviously, but one last point I think is interesting is this: consider how the advent of social media, and the timing of its advent affected the way we think about “generational” differences, and the way people who were born, say, after 2000, grew up in a completely different social landscape than their grandparents did – making it impossible for either group to really understand the other’s fundamental orientation towards the world.

Spooky stuff.

Jake Paul, master exploiter of “The Spectacle”

Now, okay. With all that said. While it is true that there’s this weird paradox of social media making us at once eternally connected and even more deeply and intractably isolated from one another, and all the other problems he talks about in this book, I don’t think that social media is inherently bad. I actually think that in the long term, it could be incredibly helpful to us, but it’s a little like fire. Fire is an incredibly powerful tool, and when used properly, it can (and did) revolutionize human life.

But it’s also not easy to learn how to control it, and the same goes for social media, as we’ve been seeing with the facebook scandals, Russia interference, and so on. Even the cross-talk between political parties has been so much exacerbated by social media that we now can barely have civil conversations with each other because we’re all so deeply encapsulated in our own little political bubbles.

But social media isn’t going anywhere. The society of the spectacle is here to stay. So as a person who presumably is stuck on this earth for another few decades, my question is, how do we get it to work for us rather than having us work for it? How do we toggle the levers behind the scenes (*COUGH* YouTube algorithm *COUGH*) to make it so that we can have rational, nuanced conversations rather than allowing the natural tendency of people to be drawn to what’s flashiest and most controversial to drive the entire global discussion of what kind of world we want to live in?

I dunno. Just some food for thought as I flesh out how I’m going to relate all of this to Jake Paul in a video (although honestly, I’d really rather not have to research him, which is why I’m doing a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the book, first, because, eugh. Anybody wanna volunteer to just give me the highlights? I watched Shane Dawson’s series and I feel like I’ve kinda already seen enough…)

2 thoughts on ““The Society of the Spectacle”

  1. Very interesting post. Thank you for clarifying Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle because I was never 100% sure what the hell he was talking about although I could surmise that it was very interesting.

    The other day I had a thought along these lines and I thought, “Huh, maybe that’s what that Guy was talking about in Society of the Spectacle.” Basically I was thinking of the fact that as a human being today you can spend your entire day communicating with representations of reality…even when we chat with real people online, in a sense we’re actually just sitting in room by ourselves watching colors move across an electric screen. And these simulations are very vivid and convincing…but I think sometimes we forget that they’re not the same as reality. There’s elements missing. Spontaneity, for instance.

    Liked by 1 person

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