Society of the Spectacle

I have just finished my first reading of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and have just begun my second, so I will probably be posting on it frequently over the next few weeks. Debord published the text, one of the seminal works in the study of media, in 1967, and it came to prominence during the now almost mythical events of 1968, when student protests in Paris instigated a general strike and eventually toppled the governing party of Charles de Gaulle.

The text is organized into numbered sections, some very short, almost aphorisms, and some considerably longer. The sections are grouped together into chapters that circulate around larger themes or arguments, and the sections are arranged such that a chain of argumentation can usually be reconstructed, though this chain is not always explicit. The first few chapters deal almost exclusively with the function of spectacle in society. The later ones are more concerned with analyzing certain trends in Marxist theory and with defining an alternative perspective that has become associated with a movement called Situationism.

There is little in the later chapters that interests me. In my limited experience, any discussion that begins to analyze the relative merits of the various Marxisms leads nowhere, or, more accurately, leads almost everywhere but to nowhere useful, to an endless list of parties, theories, figureheads, congresses, manifestos, and splinter groups. While the analysis of this mess seems to be the favourite occupation of every imaginable brand of Marxist intellectual, it only bores everyone else.

The first few chapters of the text, however, explore the questions of social visuality, mediation, and specularity in ways that are interesting and provocative. There is something blunt, almost aggressive about Debord’s thinking. Though I have reservations about some of his conclusions, many of his observations strike me as true and worth reexamining in the context of our contemporary culture. It seems to me that his ideas about how the spectacle mediates social relationships have perhaps never been more relevant, and I intend to discuss some of these ideas as I have the opportunity.

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