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The Society of the Spectacle

The Society of the Spectacle

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The Society of the Spectacle (La Société du spectacle) is a work of philosophy and critical theory by Guy Debord
Guy Debord
Guy Ernest Debord was a French Marxist theorist, writer, filmmaker, member of the Letterist International, founder of a Letterist faction, and founding member of the Situationist International . He was also briefly a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.-Early Life:Guy Debord was born in Paris in 1931...

. It was first published in 1967 in France.

Book structure

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

Degradation of human life

Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life
Social life
Social life may refer to:* an individual's Interpersonal relationships* Social relation * Social Life, an album by Koufax* Social Life, the indie/punk band from Greensboro, North Carolina....

 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." This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life."

With the term spectacle
Spectacle (Situationism)
The spectacle is a central notion in the Situationist theory developed by Guy Debord. Guy Debord's 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle, attempted to provide the Situationist International with a Marxian critical theory...

, Debord defines the system that is a confluence of advanced capitalism
Advanced capitalism
In political philosophy, advanced capitalism is the situation that pertains in a society in which the capitalist model has been integrated and developed deeply and extensively and for a prolonged period of time...

, the mass media
Mass media
Mass media refers collectively to all media technologies which are intended to reach a large audience via mass communication. Broadcast media transmit their information electronically and comprise of television, film and radio, movies, CDs, DVDs and some other gadgets like cameras or video consoles...

, 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...". 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."

In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there's also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought. 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.

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".

Debord encouraged the use of détournement
A détournement is a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International, and consist in "turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself." Détournement was prominently used to set up subversive political pranks, an influential tactic called situationist prank that was...

, "which involves using spectacular images and
language 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
Commodity fetishism
In Marx's critique of political economy, commodity fetishism denotes the mystification of human relations said to arise out of the growth of market trade, when social relationships between people are expressed as, mediated by and transformed into, objectified relationships between things .The...

. 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 the central importance of the image in contemporary society. Images, Debord says, have supplanted genuine human interaction.

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."

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.

"In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false." Thesis 9.

Comparison between religion and marketing

Debord also draws an equivalence between the role of mass media marketing
Marketing is the process used to determine what products or services may be of interest to customers, and the strategy to use in sales, communications and business development. It generates the strategy that underlies sales techniques, business communication, and business developments...

 in the present and the role of religions in the past. 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".

Other observations Debord makes on religion: "The remains of religion and of the family
In human context, a family is a group of people affiliated by consanguinity, affinity, or co-residence. In most societies it is the principal institution for the socialization of children...

 (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." "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. "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."

Critique of American sociology

In Chapter 8, Negation and Consumption Within Culture, Debord includes a critical analysis of the works of three American sociologists. He discusses at length Daniel J. Boorstin
Daniel J. Boorstin
Daniel Joseph Boorstin was an American historian, professor, attorney, and writer. He was appointed twelfth Librarian of the United States Congress from 1975 until 1987.- Biography:...

’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1961), which Debord argues missed the concept of Spectacle. In thesis 192, Debord mentions some of American sociologists that have described the general project of developed capitalism which "aims to recapture the fragmented worker as a personality well integrated in the group;" the examples mentioned by Debord are David Riesman
David Riesman
David Riesman , was a sociologist, attorney, and educator....

, author of The Lonely Crowd
The Lonely Crowd
The Lonely Crowd is a 1950 sociological analysis by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney. It is considered—along with White Collar: The American Middle Classes, written by Riesman's friend and colleague C. Wright Mills -- to be a landmark study of American character.-Description:Riesman,...

(1950), and William H. Whyte
William H. Whyte
William Hollingsworth "Holly" Whyte was an American urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher.Whyte was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1917 and died in New York City in 1999. An early graduate of St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware, he graduated from Princeton...

, author of the 1956 bestseller The Organization Man
The Organization Man
The Organization Man is a 1956 bestselling book by William H. Whyte, originally published by Simon & Schuster. It is considered one of the most influential books on management ever written.-Background and influence:...

. Among the 1950s sociologists that are usually compared to Riesman and Whyte, is C. Wright Mills
C. Wright Mills
Charles Wright Mills was an American sociologist. Mills is best remembered for his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination in which he lays out a view of the proper relationship between biography and history, theory and method in sociological scholarship...

, author of White Collar: The American Middle Classes
White Collar: The American Middle Classes
White Collar: The American Middle Classes is a study of the American middle class by sociologist C. Wright Mills, first published in 1951. It describes the forming of a "new class": the white-collar workers. It is also a major study of social alienation in the modern industrialized world and...

. Riesman's "Lonely Crowd" term is also used in thesis 28.

Translations and Editions

  • Translation by Fredy Perlman and Jon Supak (Black & Red, 1970; rev. ed. 1977). Online at
  • Translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith
    Donald Nicholson-Smith
    Donald Nicholson-Smith is a translator and freelance editor, interested in literature, art, psychoanalysis, social criticism, theory, history, crime fiction, and cinema.. Born in Manchester, England, he was an early translator of Situationist material into English. He joined the English section of...

     (Zone, 1994). Online at
  • Translation by Ken Knabb
    Ken Knabb
    Ken Knabb is an American writer, translator, and theorist, best known for his translations of Guy Debord and the Situationist International.-Early life:...

     (Rebel Press, 2004). Online at

External links