Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Guy Debord / Society of the Spectacle – summary: "Unity and Division within Appearance"

vSociety of the Spectacle -chapter 1 - chapter 2 - chapter 3

In chapter three of "Society of the Spectacle" Guy Debord suggests the dialectical, seemingly paradoxical, nature of the spectacle. He asserts that " The spectacle, like modern society, is at once unified and divided" (54). This is a bit tricky to grasp but the idea here is that contradictions in society, which are present in the spectacle, are themselves being contradicted by it, a reversal of meaning, so that out of division comes unity.

Here the society of the spectacle functions in a manner similar to Gramsci's notion of Hegemony. It can contain contradiction, for example, by offering "false models of revolution to… revolutionaries" (57). By assigning each with his place in the spectacle "The division of spectacular tasks preserves the entirety of the existing order and especially the dominant pole of its development" (58). The spectacle also has a capacity of banalizing things with everything being diverse but actually the same, producing what Debord calls "pseudo-enjoyment". Even rebellion is conducted within the terrain of the spectacle and thus is in fact a part of it, a part of what it allows and another example of how contradiction merges into unity within the spectacle. This, for Debord, "reflects the simple fact that dissatisfaction itself became a commodity as soon as economic abundance could extend production to the processing of such raw materials" (59).  The spectacle also serves imperialism by invading the social surface of underdeveloped countries even before economic dominance is gained.

 Debord looks to the cultural phenomenon of "the celebrity", which he understands as " the spectacular representation of a living human being" (60). The celebrity is a form of production, a shallow spectacle of a role and life style. As agents of the spectacle they appear on stage as the opposite of the individual, the opposition ("enemy") of the individual in themselves as well as in others. " Passing into the spectacle as a model for identification, the agent renounces all autonomous qualities in order to identify himself with the general law of obedience to the course of things" (61). The diversity of celebrity characters is in truth a unity of their adherence to presuppositions of their culture about a successful way of living. This is of course the opposite of the notion of the celebrity is one which fulfils himself to the highest degree. " The admirable people in whom the system personifies itself are well known for not being what they are; they became great men by stooping below the reality of the smallest individual life, and everyone knows it" (ibid).

When treating the value and function of commodities in the society of the spectacle Debord hold true to the notion about the deterioration from being into having (commodities) and form having into merely appearing, thus "The satisfaction which no longer comes from the use of abundant commodities is now sought in the recognition of their value as commodities: the use of commodities becomes sufficient unto itself" (67). Commodities no longer have any intrinsic value, not use value in any material functional sense, but rather only "spectacular" value, which might me found in what is now widely know and criticized as a "brand".  Bebord further claims that "The pseudo-need imposed by modern consumption clearly cannot be opposed by any genuine need or desire which is not itself shaped by society and its history" (68) and the result is for him the "falsification of social life" (ibid).

Debord describes this process of falsification in the society of the spectacle by showing how a new product (think of the iPhone or iPad) hold promise of being the ultimate thing for you, but by the time you realize it is not, there is something new to hand on to. This "fraud of satisfaction"(70) is easily recognizable with the change in products ("That which asserted its definitive excellence with perfect impudence nevertheless changes") and therefore "Every new lie of advertising is also an avowal of the previous lie" (70). The rapid replacement of consumer products reveals to illusionary nature of the society of the spectacle. The paradox of the spectacle for Guy Debord is the contradiction between natural condition of constant change and its inclination of appearing as essential   

The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord | Summary & Study Guide

Society of the Spectacle -chapter 1 - chapter 2 - chapter 3

More by Debord: