The Society of the Spectacle

The Society of the Spectacle

"The Society of the Spectacle" ("La Société du spectacle") is a work of philosophy and critical theory by Situationist and Marxist theorist, Guy Debord. It was first published in 1967.

Book structure, influences and translations

The work is a series of two hundred and twenty-one short theses (about a paragraph each), divided into nine chapters.

The Society of the Spectacle provides an extensive reinterpretation of Marx’s work, most notably in its application of commodity fetishism to contemporary mass media. It also expands the concept of Marx's theory of alienation to include far more than labor activity, and exposes the common spectacular politics of Soviet and American regimes.Fact|date=January 2008 Debord also builds significantly on the work of György Lukács.

The book is filled with "detourned phrases," that is citations altered in detournements, drawn particularly from Hegel. [ [ miro renzaglia - SITUAZIONISMO ] ] [ [ Guide to the detournements in The Society of the Spectacle] ] Therefore it is crucial that translators take into account the original sentences. Debord denounced the unfaithfulness and incorrectness of many of the translations.Guy Debord, "Préface a la quatrième édition italienne de "La société du spectacle" (published by Editions Champ Libre, Paris, February 1979). [ Here] in Italian] For instance, regarding the English translations, he indicated the Fredy Perlman 1970 edition as containing "obvious weaknesses".Letter from Guy Debord To Donald Nicholson-Smith, 27 April 1978 [] ] Remarkable was the case of the first Italian translation published by De Donato, "the most monstrous of all"; he instead considered excellent the fourth Italian translation, made by Paolo Salvadori and published in 1979 by Vallecchi, and in 1990 by Sugarco. [ [ Letter] from Guy Debord to the publisher De Donato, 4 June 1969] [ [ I Situazionisti e la loro storia - Un brano] ]


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." [Ibid., thesis 17.] This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life." [Ibid., thesis 42.]

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...". [thesis 24] 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." [Ibid., thesis 4.]

In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, [from thesis 19: "The concrete life of everyone has been degraded into a "speculative" universe."] [from thesis 17: "The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having ..." and now "of having into appearing"] [from thesis 10: The Spectacle is "affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance"] [from thesis 6: "The spectacle ... occupies the main part of the time lived outside of modern production."] [thesis 30: "The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere."] [from thesis 8: "Lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle"] [from thesis 16: "The spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them."] [from thesis 134: "Only those who do not work live."] [from thesis 37: "the world of the commodity dominating all that is lived"] [from thesis 60: "The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived."] [thesis 68] [from thesis 192: "The critical truth of this destruction the real life of modern poetry and art is obviously hidden, since the spectacle, whose function is to make history forgotten within culture..."] [from thesis 114: in the "intensified alienation of modern capitalism", "the immense majority of workers", "have lost all power over the use of their lives] with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there's also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought. [from thesis 25: "All community and all critical sense are dissolved.."] Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history (time), one that can be overturned through revolution.Thesis 11] Thesis 143]

Debord's aim and proposal, is "to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images," "through radical action in the form of the construction of situations," "situations that bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art". In the situationist view, situations are actively created moments characterized by "a sense of self-consciousness of existence within a particular environment or ambience". [Simon Ford (1950) "The Situationist International: A User’s Guide"]

Debord encouraged the use of détournement, "which involves using spectacular images andlanguage to disrupt the flow of the spectacle."

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.Thesis 1]

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." [Nicholson-Smith translation, Thesis 4]

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. [Nicholson-Smith translation, Thesis 17]

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. [from thesis 20: "The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion."] [thesis 25 on the spectacle and the sacred] 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".Thesis 67] [from thesis 132: "The masters who make history their private property, under the protection of myth, possess first of all a private ownership of the mode of illusionn: in China and Egypt they long held a monopoly over the immortality of the soul ... The growth of their real historical power goes together with a popularization of the possession of myth and illusion."]

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." [Thesis 59] "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". [thesis 136] "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." [thesis 182]

ee also

*Autonomist Marxism


*Translation by Fredy Perlman and Jon Supak (Black & Red, 1970; rev. ed. 1977). Online at []
*Translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone, 1994). Online at []
*Translation by Ken Knabb (Rebel Press, 2004). Online at []
*Anselm Jappe (1999) " [ Guy Debord] " ISBN 0520212053


External links

* [ The Society of the Spectacle] full text at
* [ Translation from the] Situationist International Library
* [ Remembering Debord] by Lindsey Freeman
* [ Thoughts on Society of the Spectacle] , free audiobook from the Audio Anarchy project

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