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Society of the spectacle

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“Politics is that dimension of social life in which things become true if enough people believe them.”

David Graeber
In Sum

Modern capitalism upholds social control through the spectacle, the use of mass communications to turn us into consumers and passive spectators of our own lives, history and power.


French philosopher and activist Guy Debord

“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) begins. “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” The political consequence of this separation from felt experience is key to understanding both how we experience the world and how we can change it.

For example, consider how people who witness a catastrophic event often say the experience was “like a movie.” Similarly, as activists we are often more concerned with the media attention our actions generate than with their end result. What we feel, what we believe, how we express desire, what we believe is possible — all are filtered through, and constrained by, the media we consume and produce. This is the society of the spectacle that Debord, a leading figure in the French Situationist movement, described and decried.

Marx famously argued that under capitalism, the commodity becomes “fetishized” and reduced to its exchange value. Debord applied Marx’s ideas to mass communication, showing how capitalism has penetrated not just what we produce and consume, but how we communicate. The spectacle — as manifested in mass entertainment, news, and advertising — alienates us from ourselves and our desires in order to facilitate the accumulation of capital.

Increasingly, the spectacle serves as capitalism’s primary mechanism of social control. This is control by seduction and distraction, not force — but no less powerful and insidious for that fact. Debord argued that our lives have been degraded, first from being into having, then from having into merely appearing. (Think how much of our day-to-day “activist” behavior is concerned simply with maintaining our self-image as activists: too often, we don’t strike, we strike poses.)

Seeking to free us from the power of the spectacle in order to mount a credible challenge to capitalism, the Situationists introduced the tactic of détournement: an attempt to turn the powers of the spectacle against itself see TACTIC: Détournement/Culture jamming.

Dave Oswald Mitchell is the Editorial Director of the Beautiful Trouble project, including serving as managing editor of both Beautiful Solutions and Beautiful Rising. He edited the Canadian activist publication Briarpatch Magazine from 2005 to 2010, and his writing has been published by a smattering of small, radical magazines and journals with space to fill. His interests include books, beer, brevity, alliteration, free association, lists of things, and going elsewhere.

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