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The Society of the Spectacle: A Poetical Depletion of Life

Spectacle; Debord; Poetics of Power

Our realization that the recent paralysis of our credit systems threatens to destroy our society’s economic base has frightened many of us but also caused some of us to wonder why the “best and brightest” among our economic managers, who benefit the most from the system but who also should have the necessary competency and ethical skills to manage, regulate, and supervise it either utterly failed to stop or actually encouraged economic practices they knew to be socially harmful? That is, we ask why was it the case that their expert manipulations of ingenious speculative strategies designed to maximize profits actually blinded them to the terrible risks and consequences that would follow from founding our basic financial systems on investment practices they knew to be fraudulent? This paper of course lacks the scope necessary to provide an adequate critical analysis of the most important factors that compelled our financial systems to take a cannibalistic turn.

We can only at this time offer an examination of the nature of one aspect of our economic system that will help shed light to some of its inherent irrationalities: our pathological relation to the commodity world or the ways in which our effort to shape our lives according to the norms embodied in commodities cause us to ignore their destructive impact on our person and society. In other words, Guy Debord’s concept of the “society of the spectacle”# will provide the intellectual vista for delineating the logic of economic arrangements whose highest fulfillment actually constitutes a serious depletion of our society’s material and spiritual resources. This critical project obviously constitutes only an initial step in our attempt to tackle the economic uncertainty and crisis of confidence that now plague our society; tracing the source of the problem back to the ethical and spiritual dispositions of economic actors at the crux of our exchange systems will help us figure out ways to bridge their search for personal fulfillment and our society’s need to sustain itself on the basis of the flourishing of its basic mechanisms.

Debord tells us that a spectacular matrix# represents the organizational principle of our society because the latter represents a social formation in which the circulation of symbols coordinates most dimensions of life. Specifically, modern societies that have long been organized around the commodity form of exchange now have reached a new level of abstraction in their power to base social organization on the circulation of representational norms embodied in commodities. Debord provides the conceptual tools for a proper appreciation of the society of the spectacle as a carnivorous ideological system, a poetics of power whose claim that through its processes society has become a context in which making sense of one’s life is ultimately within one’s power actually helps generate a uniquely reactionary horizon.

Spectacular society equates happiness with its subjects’ ability to consume the symbols of wealth and power reified in the commodity. “The spectacle is money for contemplation only, for here the totality of use has already been bartered for the totality of abstract representation. The spectacle is not just the servant of pseudo-use – it is already, in itself, the pseudo-use of life” (Debord, #49). Images now rule as the main socioeconomic, cultural, and political mediating forces owing to their power to determine, in an apriori fashion, use-value itself. That is, the representational content of commodity-symbols has surpassed the mere physical collection of commodity-things as one of the basic means for determining equivalencies in the peddling of social prestige. We detect a transcendental quality at work here because the commodity, which we see as an elemental thing, actually projects a formidable power whose dialectic exceeds its everydayness: its symbolic force opens up a deeply suggestive level of meaning that recreates us as individuals whose lives embody the best ideals of society. Debord reminds us that “the present stage, in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all effective “having” must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’ etre from appearance” (#17).

This situation of course represents a basic feature of modern “affluent” society, in which high levels of material enjoyment normalize the idea that its members should expect the gratification of most of their needs since the powerful service base of the economy supposedly never fails in its capacity to satisfy everyone’s material needs. Through its power to capture our psyches and its games of symbolization, the spectacle has become adept at restructuring itself to exploit our deepest longings for meaning through the commodities#. The financial side of the spectacle grants consumer credit in the most liberal fashion, the assumption being that consumers, portrayed as basically desiring-beings, always subsist in thrall of the movements of things, having succumbed to the advertising prowess of the system. The spectacle then displays a maddening rush to deliver as much as possible on the promise of quarterly or annual model changes on the commodity to guarantee belongingness. Ideologically suffused images, especially in our media and entertainment industries, have become a powerful means to satisfy our desire to act according to the moral order of things: to consume the image is to belong but also to affirm one’s personal worth as a respectable member of society.


A further exploration of this process of social dressage reveals that it consists in practices founded on symbolic forms that mystify us because of the baroque luster they attribute to our lifestyles but also due their power to impose themselves, in a quasi-tyrannical fashion, as the only horizon that coincides with life itself. Representing spectacular individuality as baroque helps us point to the reality that this individuality is marked by personality qualities that hide the utter emptiness of the idols that mold it. Whereas in majestic seventeenth century Europe the exuberance, colorfulness, weightiness, dynamicity, and theatricality of artistic styles helped the masses find a place within an oppressive political and spiritual order that marks society in the wake of horrific religious wars, in spectacular society similar cultural features, acquired through the consumption of commodity-symbols, now serve as the main elements relied upon to fashion pleasurable personal identities and lifestyles. Through their absorption of commodity-symbols spectacular subjects find themselves in a situation in which their fetishistic fascination for the dramatic, sensual, and expansive qualities of commodities transforms their horizon into an imagistic Being that practically blind them from the depletion of the earth’s natural and human resources.

The power of commodities to give meaning to everyday existence in indeed partly derives from their ability to inspire in consumers a sense of efficacy over most of the practical challenges that define everyday life. The commodity-image, in terms of its symbolic content and from the point of view of its consumers, offers a deeply suggestive account of personal existence: it provides a telos to personal existence, turns being-in-itself into an imagistic matrix that extends our sense experiences, while delivering possibility as a mode of living. One’s absorption of commodities provides to them an opportunity to weave for oneself a biographical sketch that dramatizes but also resolves the lifestyle challenges of mundane existence, now the object of cinematic artists and publicists, veritable magicians whose talents ground the advertising industry’s ability to revolutionalize our lifestyles. Having turned to images as a means to recreate our lives, we also have allowed the system to set the symbolic parameters within which we can establish our life narratives. Part of the social prestige that follows from proving one’s access to and ability to consume the latest favored commodities includes turning their symbolic contents into statements about oneself. Commodities serve as conduits for communicating the reality of social mobility, that is, one’s ability to afford a lifestyle whose glitters prove its transcendence of the banal patterns of everyday life. The spectacle reveals powers in us that we could never have conceived by ourselves, unaided by commodity-images. The exciting innovations (in fashion, gadgetry, or behavioral style) that adorn existence iterate important personal capabilities: the power to give life a spiritual context through images but also the power to display the positive qualities of our will and character.

The embellished accounts of personal existence that follow from consuming the commodities usually produce a noticeable intensity in the sensuous aspects of life. Spectacular subjects may reason through the potential effects of commodities on lifestyles before or after purchasing them, but much in the personal factors that compel consumption has to do with a spontaneous appropriation of objects’ sensuous and aesthetic qualities (fashion style, beauty, hippness, or message, as exquisitely executed by advertisers and marketers). A perennial pursuit of the exciting attributes of objects has turned into a situation in which the sensualization of daily living itself has become the norm#. The consumption of the commodity represents a means to perpetuate our enjoyment of appearances but also a means of returning to a condition of self-control: keeping the senses busy but satisfied, as in the case of the addict who requires a daily dosage of drug to recover his sense of normality, has become a balanced life for many of us, with the result being of course the production of even more commodities that further sensualize life, especially when this also represents a learning process for the spectacle, always eager to discover and capitalize on patterns of popular needs as suggested by the introduction of new commodities. Our consumption of commodities recreates them as organs of our sensual constitution: for examples, TV, sports, movie stars, some of the most culturally appealing products of the system, owe much of their mass appeal to their serving as conduits for our personal longings for good looks, wealth, physical valor, courage, political power, romantic love, sexual appeal, etc.# We see a degree of interchangeability between the irrationality of the consumer and the rationality that governs the life narratives of star-commodities.

An immanent correlate of this sensualization of existence is an expansive outlook that structures the world according to the law of the commodity. What has begun as an effect of the commodity-image’s exchange value has now turned into a staunchly accumulative worldview. Such an imperialistic perspective on our world, now appropriated as a constant reservoir for material-symbolic self-renewal, parallels our absorption of spectacular forms. The cultural relevance of any elements in the multiplicity of our world becomes a function of the impressionistic dialectic that results from the spectacle’s transfiguration of that multiplicity: the rich features of the world acquire value only to the extent that they can serve the sensualistic determinations of our spectacular way of life. Spectacular subjects develop a dynamicity begotten by a life that communes with the logic of a systemic reality constantly seeking to reduce the fluxes of life to the processions of objects. While the managers of the system seek the commodification of that multiplicity, the spectacular subject mostly embrace it as an object of enjoyment, for being an extension of the norms of the commodity world, it has learned to internalize its spectacular identity, that is, its detachment from the multiplicity of becoming.

Since it no longer sees itself as a continuity of that multiplicity, the latter ceases to be the object of its care and becomes the object of its excessive use, its degradation being never seen as a degradation of existence itself. The spectacular individual tends to arrange and rearrange the complexity of nature according to the pre-reflective, bodily dispositions of a self that values pleasurable but wasteful lifestyles. Its contacts with nature, for example, reduce to prepackaged, commercialized experiences related to visits to local parks and forest reserves, experiences that reiterate its mastery over nature while gratifying its constant curiosity for thrills. The more the spectacle reduces the scope of nature’s involvement with human existence to provide space for the processes of the commodity (i.e. suburbs, freeways, malls, factories, etc.), the more what remains of nature is groomed and sold as commodities designed to feed the sensual longings of spectacular subjects.
Therefore the spectacular system owes part of its success to the baroque appeal of its symbolic forms; it can confidently rely on the docility of its subjects owing to its ability to afford to them a deeply meaningful place within its cultural framework. Spectacular subjects’ consumption of the commodity-image transforms them into individuals whose practical needs and choices apparently matter to the order of things, for the narratives of their personal existences assume wondrous qualities that identify them with the symbolico-cultural configurations of their world, while their sensual, idiosyncratic extensions of themselves into the imagistic being of the spectacle, a kingdom of needs and gratified desires, become a means to stamp the world with their expansive individualities, one of whose main qualities, also gifts of the system of appearances, is an expansive tendency that equates life with possibility.

Debord believes that our personal identification with the rich polychromy of the commodity causes a level of enjoyment of things that poetically reduces the Real itself to the spectacular#. We agree with his assertion that the spectacle “is far better viewed as a weltanschauung that has been actualized, translated into the material realm-a world view transformed into an objective force” (#5). The baroque radiance of the commodity constitutes a numbing of the spirit: we done the representational forms of the commodity to stamp our individuality on the world, but such a moment of personal affirmation is actually deceptive, for any personalized movement of assertion also becomes a conduit for the spectacle to totalize social existence itself.

Social coordination represents an important aim of unitarian spectacular system. Indeed “if the administration of society and all contact between people now depends on the intervention of such ‘instant’ communication, it is because this ‘communication’ is essentially one-way; the concentration of the media thus amounts to the monopolization by the administrators of the existing system of the means to pursue their particular form of administration” (Debord, #24). In its capacity to directly transmit the will of our corporate elites, the spectacle represents a most potent tool for the integration and management of a complex postindustrial society requiring various subtle means of administration. This unitary quality of the spectacle best manifests itself in our current socioeconomic conditions, whereby values that threaten the system are isolated and neutralized through a radical reinterpretation of our socio-cultural formation: to guarantee a hegemonic place to its ethos of acquisition within our society, the spectacle displaces traditional values that may discourage excessive consumption by representing society in ways that make those traditional values irrelevant. For example, since the days of early capitalism, ordinary Americans have prided themselves in their ability to display hard working habits but also a capacity for material self-restraint.

But with the rise of corporate capitalism in modern times, while we have not simply shed aside the value of self-restraint, it has ceased to function as a primary organizing principle in our market-spectacular driven world. The life of the average American in the public sphere, governed by the consumerist logic, has entered a moment of forgetfulness when it comes to self-restraint, suggesting that as an American value, it now hardly poses a serious threat to the accumulative spirit of the spectacle. Such a lifestyle reorientation is operated in the society of the spectacle by persuading most people that society has transcended scarcity with the advent of easy consumer credit, which hides wealth distinctions by easing the personal acquisition of prestige-commodities. In that way the value of self-restraint is isolated from its traditional personal and social context of meaning. Debord notes that “the spectacle divides the world into two parts, one of which is held up as a self-representation to the world, and is superior to the world. The spectacle is simply the common language that bridges this division” (#29).

In the hands of a new corporate-bureaucratic class, the spectacular system has become an effective means of dissolving any socially-ethically obstructing factors. To isolate traditional norms through the institution of a new cultural context is to effectively strip them of the original confluence of horizons, emotions, calculations, and visions (structurally derived) that originally motivated them, a purging process that allows vested interests to introduce new values into prevalent registers.

The spectacle also achieves unification by imposing its representational schemes as the absolute models for organizing all social discourses. In effect the spectacle denies the existence of alternative cultural-representational systems in the process of structuring existence. The behavior of bureaucratized, mediatic, educational, religious, political, commercial institutions that excel in the peddling of prestige through the movement of image-commodities illustrates a core totalizing aim of the spectacular system, focused on the redirection of the meaning of basic social values. Debord believes that “understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance” (#10).

Other worlds as configured by other symbolic systems remain unknown. Alternative, non-spectacular systems of identification, spectacular masters tell us, can only misguide and mislead, being backward interpretive projects. And since the spectacular system proposes its discourses as the only culturally coherent ones, most social-cultural institutions embrace the forms of its discourses as their own models for circulating meaning in our society. For example, the New Left critique of our university systems has shown the extent to which modern higher education institutions have turned into rationalized-bureaucratized systems whose job is to manufacture human extensions of the system, for they seem to be mostly interested in shaping docile workers and consumers, a reality most dramatically illustrated by the level of pre-graduation and post-graduation debt (both consumer and educational) accumulated by contemporary American university students. Even in the realm of religion the spectacle has manifested its reign, as the momentary spiritual coming-to-being of the faithful is literally programmed through spectacular festivals organized by “mega-churches,” while the idea of a decent Christian life is equated not with individual scrutiny of holy scriptures to bring one’s conscience closer to the Divinity but with unreflective personal commitment to the mass, mediatized events that now constitute the context of religious devotion. In the political realm, the most important televised debates among presidential candidates in the US, media events in themselves during campaign seasons, reduce the voting choices of most of their viewers to only those candidates whose ideas of virtue, wisdom, and social prosperity reflect the preferences of spectacular masters deeply suspicious about alternative progressive ideas and strongly interested in the obliteration of these ideas through their portrayal as worthless expressions of some obscure marginality.

Candidates are weeded out on the basis of criteria having to do with polling numbers and accumulated campaign funds, even though it is open knowledge that candidates with progressive views are generally not given fair coverage that would allow them to educate the public about their views and other urgent social issues, while the most successful fund-raisers are typically candidates financially supported by the corporate classes. Usually alternative political discourses are disarmed simply by either being denied a broadcasting platform or being forced to assume the techniques of the spectacle (which renders them impotent or incorporate them into the spectacular project/enterprise) though often, as already alluded to, the favored strategy of silencing them is to directly attack them through “infotainment” events that denounce them as socially pernicious. Here the system reduces the symbolico-political possibilities of an important American social norm, the need for an enlightened political leadership, to one or a few (spectacular) reactionary interpretations of social forces since political discourse in the spectacular world not only ignores systemic issues that deeply affect people’s lives but also shields political leaders from the need to formulate ideas that seek real social goods.

Not surprisingly the spectacle refuses to contextualize itself. Indeed to engage in authentic historical reflection, widely broadcasted through its media, may reveal the existence of alternative interpretations of its norms, the ugly nature of its past, or the regressive agendas that hide behind its luster. The spectacle refuses to think past the logic of its present slogans, and if history is part of its programs of dissemination, it deals with it in a very ahistorical manner, often exposing it as a series of anecdotes from the past having to do less with a critical understanding of the past and more with the glorification of socially insignificant idols#.

Although it dissimulates an effort to isolate and neutralize subversive historical information that challenges its norms, the spectacle’s willful ahistoricity by no means represents a politically safe procedure since the peddled historical anecdotes that are substituted for real critical history may actually trigger some levels of self-awareness among discerning consumers, making it possible for the opponents of the system to acquire a means to replace the official idols within alternative hermeneutic contexts, thus undermining their integrative aims. But the presentation of staid historical programming still remains the best option for the system. Fearing any possibility for critical historical appropriation, the spectacle sees the discouragement of original aspirations for authentic historical reflection as a crucial strategy. Therefore spectacular masters favor a strict control or obliteration of whatever tends to promote a genealogy of spectacular forms.

A pathological way of life dialectically manifests the spectacle’s social and cultural hegemony. We believe that unhealthy spiritual conditions follow from our willingness to allow the commodity to colonize existence: our becoming a material appendage to a system that has successfully reduced every aspect of life outside work into an extension of the productive process, our passive acceptance of the processions of objects as a strategy to cope with their power to overwhelm our world, our unreflective toleration of spiritual self-mutilation since submission to the spectacle consists in lifestyles that actually erode the rich existential multiplicity of our personality qualities.

A basic denial of its subjects’ right to fashion non-spectacular lifestyles expresses the spectacle’s will to extend the productive system to all aspects of daily life. “The economy transforms the world, but it transforms it into a world of the economy. The pseudo-nature into which labor has become alienated demands that such labor remain in its service indefinitely, and inasmuch as this estranged activity is answerable only to itself it is able in turn to enroll all socially permissible efforts and projects under its banner” (Debord, #40). In spectacular society consumption itself, as we have already noted, has become an extension of the economic-productive systems. Debord reminds us that “the humanity of the commodity finally attends to the workers’ ‘leisure and humanity’ for the simple reason that political economy as such now can – and must – bring these spheres under its sway” (#43). A gospel of productivity claims the power to place all aspects of life under its dominion, especially the experiences of the working classes during their non-working moments. The worker only exists to produce and further capital accumulation; outside of production no other forms of social existence is tolerated. “The dictatorship of the bureaucratic economy cannot leave the exploited masses any significant margin of choice because it has had to make all the choices itself, and because any choice made independently of it, even the most trivial – concerning food, say, or music – amounts to a declaration of war to the death on the bureaucracy” (Debord, #64).

To allow the worker any autonomy that provides the opportunity for fashioning parallel, alternate forms of existence constitutes, in the eyes of spectacular masters, a legitimization of non-conformity since the worker is now in a position to escape alienation by recreating his/her social situation, adding new bonds of meaning and solidarity.
Normally the spectacular subject has no difficulty absorbing the processions of commodities, being aware of its own need for them but also showing its capacity to synthesize and mobilize the representational contents of commodities in order to stamp its individuality on becoming. However when the productive capacity of the spectacle reaches high levels, inundating life with a plurality of technologies, this requires a new strategy of appropriation, for the huge input of information, symbols, images, and ideological schemes threatens to overwhelm one’s normal capacity for individual appropriation. A new strategy must be found that allows for a tolerable absorption of the powerful onslaught of representations released by the spectacle, for our love for them is strong but the vast amount of information will certainly overwhelm our finite individual capacity to reflect on and synthesize them, and to be overwhelmed is to lose one’s capacity to affirm one’s will to power in the world. So the huge amount of data must be managed in ways that either maintain one’s personal capacity to reflect on and synthesize the symbolic norms or shut one out of the commodity world.

In the society of the spectacle, the former strategy has often won out, that is, a favored strategy used to absorb the enormous amount of spectacular output is to simply specialize on one aspect of the process: one’s uncritical application of technologies to practical existence. The overwhelming power of commodities to reduce our world to its forms has compelled a passive attitude toward their movements and impact on society, an attitude marked by a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the apparent immensity and great depth of the technological reaches of the spectacle’s productive apparatuses.
A condition of self-mutilation thus marks the situations of spectacular subjects who devote most of their energies to lifestyles that actually obliterate the health of their society and the richness of their spiritual and moral horizon. Indeed human personality as a complex of practical possibilities has become a target for spectacular homogenization; reducing individual consumers into effective mediating instruments of power represents the spectacular system’s most important aim.

We must refrain from assuming that commodity-images represent the only media of the spectacle; the transformations effected in the consumer’s feelings, behavior, and praxis also constitute another set of even more powerful media of control and accumulation#. By themselves commodities only operate as mapping strategies, relying on their symbolic content to suggest frameworks of thought and behavior eventually fulfilled or not fulfilled in consumers’ responses. But such an inherently uncertain condition is always quickly resolved in favor of control and domination, for the spectacular system remains highly aware of the need to coordinate the multiple practical aspirations that devolve from its subjects’ engagement with the system. That is, as suggested above, the spectacle works hard to insure that economically subversive outlooks, idiosyncratic lifestyles, and marginal sub-cultural norms never mature into alternative worldviews that may pose a danger to it.

The subject’s horizon must be restrained as a presupposition for the continuation of the project of misrecognition. Debord laments that “the spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Whenever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule” (#18). The system distorts and restructures individuality in ways that impoverish the latter as a locus of praxis or a mode existence organized on the basis of self-generated values. It devotes a great deal of effort toward minimizing the set of moral challenges that confronts and may distract its subjects from their productive-consumptive functions: it readily gratifies its subjects’ emotional and material aspirations without any effort at posing the resulting ecological, political, and social implications as objects for moral scrutiny. It seriously tries to shield its subjects from any awareness of the problematic consequences of their spectacular lifestyles. Everyday mass-consumption, for example, points to many dismal societal effects related to waste, environmental degradation, violence, exploitation, political manipulation, deception, fraud, etc., that can be easily overlooked since through their consumption of commodities, consumers gain for themselves the status of representing the Good as proclaimed by the masters of the system, the reigning economic ideology having identified happiness with the symbolism of objects.

The spectacle therefore turns life into a poetical expression of the power of the commodity to structure both being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Debord tells us that “the spectacle is the self-portrait of power in the age of power’s totalitarian rule over the conditions of existence” (#24). It institutes an authoritarian way of life, turning the becoming-multiplicity of the world into the being-power of spectacular corporate interests.

Many of us accept it as our only horizon because its symbols, when we make them part of us, give a luster to our existence; that is, they convey the Good in us as defined by the consumerist idols of society, they add excitement to life, and they signify social mobility and belongingness, but it seeks a complete uniformity (ultimately destructive) in how we conceptualize and construct the whole of our lives.
Published: 2008-11-11
Author: Mohamed Mbaye

About the author or the publisher
Education: MA History/Philosophy
Employment: College Instructor
Gender: Male
Age: 35

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