Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Society of the Spectacle

"We must discover new frontiers... People have been standing for centuries before a worm-eaten door, making pinholes in it with increasing ease. The time has come to kick it down, for it is only on the other side that everything begins."
Raoul Vaneigem

Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord are/were two Belgian Situationists (a small group of international political and artistic agitators with roots in Anarchism, Lettrism and the early 20th century European artistic and political avant-gardes.)

Guy Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle, a work of philosophy and critical theory about society. Let's explore some of the ideas therein:

Degradation of human life
Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: "All that was once directly lived has become mere representation." Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life."

With the term spectacle, Debord defines the system that is a confluence of advanced capitalism, the mass media, and the types of governments who favor those phenomena. "... the spectacle, taken in the limited sense of "mass media" which are its most glaring superficial manifestation...". The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity. "The spectacle is not a collection of images," Debord writes. "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."

Mass media and commodity fetishism
The Society of the Spectacle is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and commodity fetishism. Before the term ‘globalization’ was popularized, Debord was arguing about issues such as class alienation, cultural homogenization, and the mass media.

When Debord says that, “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he is referring to central importance of the image in contemporary society. Images, Debord says, have supplanted genuine human interaction.

Thus, Debord’s fourth thesis is "The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."

In a consumer society, social life is not about living but about having; the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have. Consequently, social life moves further, leaving a state of 'having' and proceeding into a state of 'appearing;' namely the appearance of the image.

Comparison between religion and marketing
Debord also draws an equivalence between the role of mass media marketing in the present and the role of religions in the past. The spread of Commodity-images by the mass media, produces "waves of enthusiasm for a given product" resulting in "moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism".

Other observations Debord makes on religion: "The remains of religion and of the family (the principal relic of the heritage of class power) and the moral repression they assure, merge whenever the enjoyment of this world is affirmed–this world being nothing other than repressive pseudo-enjoyment." "The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, ... These religions arose on the soil of history, and established themselves there. But there they still preserve themselves in radical opposition to history." Debord defines them as Semi-historical religion. "The growth of knowledge about society, which includes the understanding of history as the heart of culture, derives from itself an irreversible knowledge, which is expressed by the destruction of God."

1 comment:

tommy said...

Very interesting. Makes a lot of sense.