French author, filmmaker, social and political: theorist, commentator, and provocateur; artist at the forefront of the Parisian revolutionary scene of the sixties, and leader of the radical Situationist International (SI) movement – Guy Ernest Debord took his life in 1994 with a gunshot to the heart. Suicide was for Debord the final and ultimate revolutionary act of resistance, and so he turned his back one last time to the world which repulsed him, the world which he had uncannily predicted three decades earlier. Or perhaps as others have speculated, it was an escape from the repugnant celebrity status catching at his heels.
In the face of the world, as he saw it, Guy Debord (1931-1994) responds as the pre-eminent radical artist of the revolutionary student scene of Paris. Central to the artistic movements the Letterist International, and eventually the Situationist International movement. The Situationists, spearheaded by Debord sought in their artwork to break the usual flow of what he calls the spectacle, and to abruptly startle the audience or spectator out of sleep, so to speak, to awaken them to the authentic moments of life. Their situations aimed to create a “unitary ambience and a game of events”. By 1972 though all of the Situationists (including Debord) had seemingly failed at their aims and been expelled, the group was dissolved.
The text Society of the Spectacle was published in 1967 by Debord to serve as a manifesto for the situationists, and its pages have since become eponymous with radical Marxist thought. The text offers a nauseatingly accurate depiction for what the next half century or so would have to offer society, and for the shaping of individuality.
His outlook was one of desperation toward a culture born of 1920’s America. The onset of mass media and advertising accompanied new technological processes in production, fundamentally (d)evolving the landscape of, well all of life. His is a view in which all that we once could consider reality has been usurped, usurped by mere representation, or appearance, where a parody of life is plastered over every surface, and the spectator is blinded by the on-going stream of imagery.
“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
The relevance of Debord’s text rings only clearer in the twenty-first century. Everything which was once lived is now merely represented he says. The meaning is that we experience all of the various things life has to offer in greater volume from images, (and Debord writes long before colour television and the all pervasive flow of images from social media) as we do from experience.
“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
Imagine even colours, which truly are original only when found in nature, long now drowned out by their plastic, metal, or neon equivalents, so that we no longer come to associate things like colour to the eye, with the natural world. By the time a child first sees a butterfly in the summer, she will already own butterfly soft-toys, stickers, cardigans, bed-sheets, and memories of a thousand images from television, or iPad applications.
The spectacle feels like when you hear that the most powerful nation on the planet has had a voting fiasco and that a clown will be given a second term in office to lead the public voice. And without shuddering too much, not being riled up enough that a glass of beer or wine at the end of the day won’t gently turn your attentions away. When you hear of wars, natural disaster, genocide, mass shootings, plane crashes, oil or nuclear spills and feel a little bored that second we ask, how many?! if it isn’t some new record, some worst thing ever. The mediation of every real event via images detaches us, and boredom ensues.
All the world becomes a film set, a fridge looks normal but doesn’t open, the glass of water does not spill when knocked. A place where commodity and commerce is majestic, behind which life disperses into a foggy background. Every beatific beach or bay, every jungle, and wonder of the world becomes a hotel owned tourist magnet, where guides are hired from AA recommended apps to ensure safe delivery around said Marvel, before secure return to the hotel lobby.
“It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society”.
Our detachment comes from an isolation/alienation from the world, as in early Marxism. As the specialised labourer is alienated from the finished product, only seeing the part, the consumer is isolated from the product, it being made in ways he does not care to ponder. The work in production is unknown to the consumer, and thus unappreciated.
“The satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs.”
This being the lie at the heart of the desire-inducing mirage that is the spectacle. Debord’s text is magnified in every element two decades after his suicide. The celebrity culture where stardom is aspired to, capturing the near opposite to real life, fulfilling idealisations in a world where power, popularity, money, consumption and ownership are the rewards, and which in Debord’s words are “the beginning and end of an undiscussed process”. Development of what already is, being the only aim of the spectacular society.
We find ourselves without regard for the food found in supermarkets; we have for the most part no notion from where it comes, nor what it contains. We choose by appearance, and habit, pay and exit to the car park. A detachment that leaves us today, needlessly eating chemical soaked, genetically modified food, almost exclusively, with sweeping health concerns, not least obesity as widespread. We think of decadence, gluttony, and the inevitable decline which comes to all spent things.
Human agency is another grand concern for Debord. The spectacle reduces our potential to the shallow, habitual and repetitive, producing a strong enough influence as to diminish our perception, and our intellect directly, changing the parameters of our vision of reality and life. He considers the freedom of the individual who is made into consumer, and how he is guided by the productive forces which precede him and his decision making. To Debord consumerism takes over the mantle of religion for relieving man of his freedom to act.
”It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption.”
Without reading Debord directly, the easiest route to his mindset concerning life in the spectacle is to consider the films The Matrix, or The Truman Show, both of which share ideological roots with the philosophy of the spectacle. In The Truman Show, we recall the line “it’s all true. It’s all real. Nothing here is fake. Nothing you see on this show is fake. It’s merely controlled”.
To get a feeling of what the spectacle is, turn on a finely tuned sensor for tackiness. Walk the street, or visualise walking and seeing an absolute tack in everything designed to take your money, billboards, signs, and posters, hotels, shopping centres, products, car designs, the packaging on products, to social housing, and all new build housing. Think of public gym spaces in parks, and the small symmetrical grassy squares dotted about council housing, filling in for a longing for something real, or the need to add exercise as an extra to an everyday life devoid of any. Every contrived broadcast on social media, every personality constructed of superficialities. The spectacle is the producer of all cliché moments.
Debord’s contemporary Jean Baudrillard later writes on a similar notion to the spectacle, entitled simulation and simulacra. The representation has made a further step of isolation from the real he says, the map not only covers the territory but covers that there is none. In today’s world, Baudrillard writes, the signs and images which we associate things no longer have a referent, the map corresponds to nothing, in fact, the map, the lie in a sense, comes before and produces the “real”.
He considers a great many stories told through history about religion, as well as our ideas which constitute the actual existence of the religious practice. Churches, pews, stained glass, Bibles, crucifixes, and other symbols, the institution of the Vatican and so on all make up our idea of religion. The problem being that when we remove all of these things, we find that they all conceal the fact that there never was any unified idea of God to which those things apparently all corresponded to in the first place.
To Baudrillard, Disneyland is an artefact built to make the rest of western civilisation appear as real. Disneyland is the imaginary, the cities surrounding, by contrast, the real. But to Baudrillard the authenticity of the real is no greater than Disneyland, Disneyland merely hides the similarity with the simple act of pretending to be different.
As a thought experiment to whether Debord, Baudrillard, and others were on to something concerning the world of spectacle, where image saturation dominates every corner of our real life I think of this: Imagine if once you were dead and buried nothing but a constant sensory cycle of what was lived replayed in eternity. Would the proportion of time that you would be re-watching advertising and evolution from Gameboy to Snake, to non-stop social media updates, funny animal videos, and pixels in shapes changing colours in your tunnel vision zoomed on candy crush. If life did replay like this, what would you notice in the periphery?