The Society of the Spectacle offered in 1967 an eerily accurate portrait of our image-saturated, mediated times.
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
With echoes of the most rapier-like prose written by Marx and Engels (eg “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), so begins Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, the treatise on the modern human condition he published in 1967. It quickly came to be seen as the set text of the Parisian événements of the following year, and has long since bled into the culture via no end of people, from the Sex Pistols to the Canadian troublemakers who call themselves Adbusters.
Its title alone is now used as shorthand for the image-saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures: relative to what Debord meant by it, the term usually ends up sounding banal, but the frequency with which it’s used still speaks volumes about the power of his insights. Put another way, there are not many copyright-free monographs associated with arcane leftist sects that predicted where western societies would end up at 40 years’ distance, but this one did exactly that.
The Society of the Spectacle maps out some aspects of the 21st century directly: not least, so-called celebrity culture and its portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us actually live it. Try this: “As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live.” The book’s take on the driving-out of meaning from politics is also pretty much beyond question, as are its warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion” and the fact that at some unspecified point in the recent(ish) past, “dissatisfaction itself became a commodity” (so throw away that Che Guevara T-shirt, and quick).
But there are also very modern phenomena that fit its view of the world: when Debord writes about how “behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other”, I now think of social media, and the white noise of most online life. All told, the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume – and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme. Not that Debord ever used the word, but his ideas were essentially pointing to the basis of what we now know as neoliberalism.