Guy Debord’s (1931–1994) best-known work, La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle) (1967), is a polemical and prescient indictment of our image-saturated consumer culture. The book examines the “Spectacle,” Debord’s term for the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity.
Debord defines the spectacle as the “autocratic reign of the market economy.” Though the term “mass media” is often used to describe the spectacle’s form, Debord derides its neutrality. “Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ‘media,’” he writes, “and by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service.” Instead, Debord describes the spectacle as capitalism’s instrument for distracting and pacifying the masses. The spectacle takes on many more forms today than it did during Debord’s lifetime. It can be found on every screen that you look at. It is the advertisements plastered on the subway and the pop-up ads that appear in your browser. It is the listicle telling you “10 things you need to know about ‘x.’” The spectacle reduces reality to an endless supply of commodifiable fragments, while encouraging us to focus on appearances. For Debord, this constituted an unacceptable “degradation” of our lives.
Debord was a founding member of the Situationist International (1957–1972), a group of avant-garde artists and political theorists united by their opposition to advanced capitalism. At varying points the group’s members included the writers Raoul Vaneigem and Michèle Bernstein, the artist Asger Jorn, and the art historian T.J. Clark. Inspired primarily by Dadaism, Surrealism, and Marxist philosophy, the SI rose to public prominence during the May 1968 demonstrations during which members of the group participated in student-led occupations and protests. Though the extent of its influence is disputed, there is little doubt that the SI played an active intellectual role during the year’s events. Graffiti daubed around Paris paraphrased the SI’s ideas and in some cases directly quoted from texts such as The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967).
The first English translation of Debord’s text was published in 1970 by Black and Red Books. The book’s cover features J.R. Eyerman’s iconic photograph of the premiere of Bwana Devil (1952), the first 3D color film. Originally reproduced in LIFE magazine, the image captures the film’s audience gazing passively at the screen with the use of anaglyph glasses. In the foreground, a besuited, heavy-set gentleman watches the screen intently, his mouth agape. Eyerman’s photograph reduces the audience members to uniform rows of spectacled spectators. Although the image encapsulates Debord’s contempt for consumer culture, it reductively implies that his work was mediaphobic (Debord later adapted The Society of the Spectacle into his first feature-length film by utilizing footage from advertisements, newsreels, and other movies). If we were to judge The Society of the Spectacle by Black and Red’s cover, we might assume that the book is a straightforward critique of media-driven conformity. Debord’s insights however, were far more profound.
The Society of the Spectacle consists of 221 short theses divided across nine chapters. The first thesis reworks the opening line of Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867):
Marx: The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.
Debord: In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.
By paraphrasing Marx, Debord immediately establishes a connection between the spectacle and the economy. The book essentially reworks the Marxist concepts of commodity fetishism and alienation for the film, advertising, and television age.