Guy Debord – The Society of the Spectacle

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Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle

It is not so usual to meet an author who engages himself in a single theme explaining everything about it even by focusing on its negative aspects. Among others, there is Nietzsche who spent his whole life in criticizing dominant culture of his era. In a sense, Debord’s fragmented and aphoristic style might be inherited from Nietzschean practice of critique. Although it is not clear whether Debord has gone so far as Nietzsche has and whether Debord affirmed the positivity of life as Nietzsche did after an extreme destruction and negation of life. Of course, his theories and activities are formed through the Situationist International movement which was under the influence of the avant-garde movements such as Dada and Surrealist. His theoretical practice would be understood in terms of his relationship with arts movement. This could be one of the reasons that Debord has interested in the image, the perceptual aspect the spectacle implies.

What is the reason that Debord has a deep attachment to the critique of the spectacle? Why does he only pay attention to the negative aspects of (the society of) the spectacle? Why does he not look for the positive and attractive aspects of the spectacle? Is the spectacle destructive as it is attractive? For Debord, is the spectacle so omnipotent that he seems as if he cannot escape its power? The spectacle for him is, as if it is living organism, evolve and develop to the stage where it dominates the whole social lives. It goes through self-division, self-development, self-alienation, self-deception, self-fulfillment, and so on. Every universal event occurs in and with the spectacle. It looks like self-evolving spirit in Hegelian sense but in the form of magical and even diabolic existence. The spectacle might be the most formidable enemy Debord has been encountered. Due to its monstrous characteristics, he could not help but writing in fragmented aphorism to fight against and within it, to deconstruct it. Thus his radical critique of Hegelian – and earlier Marxist – ideology inevitably takes on the form of aphorism or manifesto.

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Is this spectacle the product of modern, capitalist, and industrial society or is every society inherently the society of the spectacle? In passage 15, Debord says, “the spectacle is the chief product of present-day society.” But the spectacle is not just emerged as a new aspect of modern society. The spectacle has been developed from the earlier stage and accumulated to its completion: “the spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life”(passage  42). It is obvious that Debord consider the spectacle a peculiar phenomenon of modern capitalism, though it has been accumulated from the previous stage of the society.

What makes the spectacle the most problematic being? Debord’s spectacle seems to incorporate Benjaminian insight that modern capitalist industrial technology, which enabled mass production and mass consumption, is at the core of the transformation of modern life – perceptual transformation. It has been separated reality from image, essence from appearance. It has turned everything into commodity and the real consumers into the consumers of illusion. Even capital, the very material which has been the means of accumulation, is nothing but image: “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image”(passage 34). If we speculate on current global economic crisis, it would be clear how capital has been fictitious and illusory since the age of spectacle. However, without this illusion, without the spectacle, how could our modern lives be maintained? Maybe, Nietzsche could response like this: Continue to dream in order not to be awake in the dark of the daylight. Without illusion, I even cannot walk around.

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