Commentary on Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (Chapter 1)
Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is an enormously influential book — one of the most influential in the Marxist tradition. However, it’s also notoriously difficult. Debord’s style of writing was highly condensed. He opted to write out his ideas in the form of short theses, which is why he had to pack so much conceptual content into them. On top of this difficulty, he also presupposes that the reader has a deep familiarity with the Marxist concepts of capital, alienation, commodity fetishism, ideology and reification. In what follows, I’ll be doing a line-by-line commentary on all 34 theses in chapter one of The Society of the Spectacle (I plan on doing this for more of the chapters in the future). Here’s the format: I’ll quote one of the theses and, then, provide my commentary below it. The theses will be in bold, whereas my commentary will never be. I’ll be using the translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith.
Before we get to the exegesis of chapter one, I want to give a brief introduction to the important Marxist concepts I just mentioned. First, let’s start with capital. Capital is the process through which value augments itself. A capitalist starts with a certain amount of value but comes to grow that value through the “wizardry” of economic exchanges. For example, the capitalist starts the day with $1,000 but ends the day with $1,200. A profit was created. Now, capital is this process but it can also be things. Capital can consist of raw materials, instruments of labor (technology), means of subsistence (food, clothing, shelter, etc., that is, all the stuff workers need in order to be able to come back to work the next day), social relations between capitalists and proletariats, the sum of commodities (exchange values), wages, surplus value, etc. According to Marx, capital augments itself, produces profits, through workers producing more value for the capitalist than the capitalist reimburses them for in their wages. For example, a worker produces $100 worth of value for the capitalist but only gets $80 in wages. There is a inequality between the value produced by labor and the value received in wages. But capital is also all of those things bought for the sake of the accumulation of capital. This means that advertising, for example, can become capital insofar as ads serve to make more money for a company by making its commodities well-known to the public.
Alienation has to do with what happens to workers under the conditions of wage labor (the industrial division of labor). Marx pointed out that there are four aspects to alienation. Wage laborers are alienated from their products, from their labor, from their “species-being” (human essence) and from other workers. They are alienated from their products owing to the fact that the capitalist gains ownership and control over these products at the end of the production process. They are alienated from their own labor insofar has they have no control over it. Think about how mind-numbing it must be to work on an assembly line just doing the same little movements over and over again. This type of mechanized labor is not like what it was for a craftsmen to make something. The craftsmen got to use his creativity and intelligence in the process as well as work at his own pace. Wage workers are alienated from their species-being or human essence because creative activity is our human essence. For Marx, humans are most alive, most themselves, when they are engaging in labor that affirms their very existences. Wage labor, on the other hand, is soul-crushing as fuck! All wage laborers do while engaging in wage labor is wish they were doing something else, something they are passionate about, something that truly interests them. Wage labor, therefore, separates us from our fundamental mode of authentic existence. Finally, wage labor alienates us from other workers by making us compete against them. If they do a better job than you do, then you’ll end up getting fired. Your “fellow” employees are situated in a way that makes them into your enemies. Wage laborers are also alienated from each other due to the industrial division of labor. In the factory, everyone is isolated from what everybody else is doing. The whole collective labor cannot be perceived by individual workers.
Commodity fetishism has to do with how the commodity is intrinsically deceptive. Commodities have a certain mystical aura about them. We all used to wander the mall staring at commodities for hours on end. For Marx, commodity fetishism involves social relations between people taking on the appearance of social relations between things. Yeah, this sounds confusing as fuck, but it’s really very simple. How do commodities get produced? Through the collective labor and interactions between people, between the social relations between workers and capitalists. However, when we’re standing in Best Buy looking at the bad-ass Sony TV, we don’t directly experience all of the multifaceted labor and complex social relations between people that actually created the TV. But all of this is present in the experience of the commodity — just in a distorted way. We experience all this as a mystical property of the commodity itself. The Marxist economist David Harvey likes to have his students do a little thought experiment. He asks them to try to imagine how many people it took to make the breakfast they ate that morning. When you really stop and think about it, thousands upon thousands, if not millions upon millions, of people played a role in the production of a box of Cheerios. But these social relations between people get reified and experienced as social relations between things (commodities). Think about how we just spontaneously experience one commodity to be better than another one. “This Mercedes is so much better than that Honda.” Commodities all have different prices, but we get tricked into thinking that price reflects some intrinsic property of the commodity itself. In reality, it’s all of the various types of labor that produced the commodity that give it its aura, but the aura ends up hiding all of these economic factors from us. For Marx, this is like what we do with religion. Humans create gods, but, then, turn around and think that the gods created them. This sort of distortion is the fundamental mechanism in reification, ideology and false consciousness.
Reification involves subjects (human beings) being perceived as mere objects. It also entails human activities and their products being perceived as natural objects like trees, rocks, etc. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought offers us a great definition of the concept of reification: “The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of alienation, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society.” Now, that we have a basic understanding of these Marxist concepts, we are ready to move on to The Society of the Spectacle.
One last thing, it’s very important to remember that Debord was writing in the aftermath of the onset of new electronic technologies — especially that of television. He was born in 1931, which means that he was in his mid-20s when TV really hit. This new type of technology, this particular medium, totally reconfigured the world as he knew it. Debord was going through what people my age are going through thanks to the emergence of the internet. These media revolutions totally upend one’s basic familiarity with the world. As an X-er, TV was my default setting, but it totally shook up Debord’s world. The Society of the Spectacle is his report on the fundamental transformation of his world. For him, the spectacle (modern electronic media and pop culture) is the latest and most advanced form of alienation, commodity fetishism, reification, ideology, false consciousness, etc. Alienation is separation — separation from ourselves — and the spectacle is the perfection of this sort of separation.
Chapter 1: Separation Perfected
1. The whole of life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. At this point in capitalism, in the consumer society circa 1968, everything has become about appearances and images. All facets of people’s lives are mediated by spectacles. In the past, people used to relate themselves directly to others and to things, but now everything is mediated through representations (images of life styles, advertising, mass media, movies, self-images, etc.). These spectacles serve to keep us distracted and aloof. They keep us from focusing on the material (real) conditions that force us into alienated and exploited existences. In other words, reality (concrete things) used to be more primary than images (representations, appearances), but now the opposite is true. We live in a society where images are primary and real things are secondary. It’s also worth noting that this statement echoes the opening line of Marx’s Capital: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’”. For Debord, the point in echoing Marx’s words is to highlight the fact that capitalism has entered into a brand new configuration — that of the spectacle (consumer capitalism).
2. Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life. Reality is no longer something we directly participate in. Our social reality is now the never-ending stream of images that we sit back and contemplate. TV and film are especially passive media-forms. Social “reality” is now something we experience at a distance insofar as we are mere observers of the spectacle. Our personal and social lives cannot have the unity they used to possess. In older societies, images were used to represent, as accurately as possible, external realities, but now images have come to have their own reality. Images are reality. This is the rise of the “autonomous image”. Think about how our social media avatars, the images of ourselves, contain more social “reality” than the selves we actually are. Our images are more “real” than our real selves. Ever since Plato’s critique of the image in The Republic, images have been considered to be liars, that is, they always contain a lie insofar as they never really present the reality they represent. However, images are now liars that lie to themselves. Why? Because on top of lying to us about the reality they claim to represent, they now also lie to us about themselves, that is, they conceal the fact that they’re no longer in the business of representing anything at all. All of these autonomous images get networked together and transform life into the life of nonliving images. The march of society, of human beings, is turned into the collective play of mere images. We can call this the Great Inversion, since it entails images of reality becoming more important than reality itself. The real world is usurped by a pseudo-world. If you think that the spectacle isn’t essential to our lives, then just think about how it would be if we lost the internet, TV, movies, etc. This loss would be the loss of the world as we know it. The spectacle is our world.
3. The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all conscious ness, converges. Being isolated — and precisely for that reason — this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation. The spectacle presents itself in a way that is confusing and perplexing. It seems to be all of society, a part of society and an instrument society uses to unify itself. It seems to be all of society insofar as it is the center of social reality, the center of what’s going on. “That video has gone viral!” Yet it can just as easily be seen as a part of society, since it can seem to be reducible to mass media, that is, it’s the part of society that is a magnet for our attention. It’s that part of society our attention and consciousness get glued to. The spectacle turns consciousness into an image junkie. Insofar as we’re completely hooked on spectacular images (images of the spectacle), we become separated from the rest of society, that is, from the material conditions produced by the economy. The spectacle separates workers from their concrete reality by distracting them with hypnotizing images. This means that the revolutionary proletariat becomes the pacified consumer. The spectacle is a way to tame the wild proletariat. And, yes, this shit worked quite well. The spectacle traps our gazes and deceives our consciousnesses. We are imprisoned in a cell of entertaining images. The spectacle does this so that we’ll never realize how exploited we are. It’s like those magic tricks (sorry, Gob, I mean illusions) that use misdirection in order to work. They get our attention focused on one thing so we won’t notice some other thing. But the spectacle also unifies. It unifies our minds in such a way as to get them speaking the same language — the language of consumption. Simply put, the spectacle gets all of us fixated on the same shit and this shit becomes all that we care about. It’s the new show on Netflix. It’s the new viral video. It’s that collection of images that are popular. And you can only be cool if you are up-to-date on what is popular. The spectacle is our language insofar as it determines what we talk about it and how we talk about it. This “official language”, the language of consumerism, is what keeps us separated from our material conditions and economic realities. Does this because it’s always directing us to other images. “If you like that, then you have to see this!”
4. The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images. This is super important to understand. The spectacle wouldn’t be a big deal if it was just a bunch of images collecting dust. What’s significant about the spectacle is how it modifies and distorts social relations. The main ones being those between the working class and the capitalist class. The spectacle serves to distract us from our exploitation at the hands of the capitalists. It makes the relation between capitalist and proletariat seem like one that isn’t exploitative. Even worse, the spectacle keeps us from even thinking about this relation. The spectacle treats us like a photographer trying to get a baby to look into the camera by waving around a stuffed animal and saying, “Look at the pretty birdie!” The spectacle reverts all of us back into stupid babies. But the spectacle also effects all other types of social relations. We are judged on how we appear and not on who we really are. Our relations to each other are totally mediated by other images. Nowhere is this more true than on social media. “This person likes ICP? Delete!” Just think about how much the images in movies, TV shows, etc., shape the type of relationships we desire. You wish you had a relationship with your parents like some person has in some movie. You wish you could find the love of your life like the characters in romantic comedies. The spectacle doesn’t merely serve to conceal and distort the relations between workers and capitalists. It effects and influences all of our relations to one another. All of our relationship ideals (relations to one’s parents, one’s children, one’s friends and coworkers, one’s lover, etc.) are shaped by the spectacle. Consider how The Office makes soul-crushing wage labor appear to be a wonderful time spent with friends. A shitty job is nothing like working at Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch, but the show lays down an ideal image of it that we come to internalize. The Office is pure ideology.
5. The spectacle cannot be understood either as a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as a product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images. It is far better viewed as a weltanschauung that has been actualized, translated into the material realm — a world view transformed into an objective force. The spectacle isn’t reducible to literal images, pictures we literally see. Instead, the spectacle is like a dreamworld, an ideal worldview, come to life. Weltanschauung means “worldview”. Again, the spectacle is like some fantasyland that as been incarnated in this world. Our world is filled with all kinds of social antagonisms, economic tensions, class struggles, wars, etc., that make life here all shitty, but what if we could distract ourselves from all these problems by forgetting that they even exist? That’s exactly what the spectacle does. It makes it seem like all the bad shit in life has gone bye-bye and has been replaced by some “utopian” society. We all call this utopia the consumer society. Consumerism is a worldview. This fantasy world of images embodied in the material plane is very real in the effects it has. When it comes to its effects, it is the most real of things. This is really what industrial capitalism was missing. Consumerism is capitalism with a vision of life and the spectacle is what brings this vision of life to life. Of course, this happens at the expense of life (reality) itself. “You’re living in a dreamworld, Neo.”
6. Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world — not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society’s real unreality. In all its specific manifestations — news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment — the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life. It is the omnipresent celebration of a choice already made in the sphere of production, and the consummate result of that choice. In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification, for it governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself. The spectacle is both what the capitalist system ends up becoming and what it aims for. It’s the way cruel, harsh and inhuman industrial capitalism gets transformed into capitalism with a human face, that is, into consumer capitalism that seems to care about us. Basically, the consumer spectacle is the most efficient way to pacify the working class and to make workers shut the fuck up about their shitty lives of exploitation and alienation. The spectacle is not some handy supplement to reality, some extra images that decorate the world. No! The spectacle is the heart of our heartless society. In order words, it becomes the center of our reality and, thereby, it makes our reality into an unreality. This statement is a callback to Marx’s words on religion: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of spiritless conditions” (Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). This is Debord’s way of saying that consumerism (the spectacle) is our new religion. If images are at the center of our reality, then reality is no longer reality. A “reality” of images is an unreality. The spectacle manifests itself in different forms which include the news (Fox, CNN, MSNBC), advertising, movies, video games, TV shows, social media, YouTube videos, etc. And all of these different images work together to instill a certain worldview in our minds and hearts. It teaches us what to think and believe about ourselves and about society (capitalism). This can be very difficult to come to terms with, since we all love the shit out of Star Wars, Mortal Kombat, Rick and Morty, and all the rest of the cool shit pop culture produces. However, we must deal with the fact that all of the movies, video games and TV shows we love are used by capitalism to keep us distracted from what’s really important — our material conditions. The spectacles of pop culture prevent us from focusing on the fact that life in capitalist society is shitty, alienated, exploitative, unjust and unfree. The spectacle is a “joyous” celebration of a lifestyle chosen for you by the very system that exploits you. You didn’t choose capitalism and its spectacle, but they make you believe that you did. This is like a fucking Jedi mind trick, bro! The spectacle’s purpose is to convince us that we really enjoy living in a capitalist society even though exploitation, inequality, unfreedom, alienation and straight-up fuckery are at its very foundations. The spectacle is how capital justifies itself and its goals to those it fucks over the worst. The spectacle is not just a justification of capitalism. It’s a justification with a permanent presence. Everywhere you go, you find the spectacle. The spectacle is like God — it is omnipresent. In your house, on your phone, in your car, you are being “hypnotized” into believing that capitalism is just, good and decent. It’s not! Wake up!
7. The phenomenon of separation is part and parcel of the unity of the world, of a global social praxis that has split up into reality on the one hand and image on the other. Social practice, which the spectacle’s autonomy challenges, is also the real totality to which the spectacle is subordinate. So deep is the rift in this totality, however, that the spectacle is able to emerge as its apparent goal. The language of the spectacle is composed of signs of the dominant organization of production — signs which are at the same time the ultimate end-products of that organization. Separation has to do with our separation from our creative activity, form of concrete lies, from each other and from the products of our labor. It’s a way of talking about alienation. But it also has to do with our separation from the awareness of our material conditions by focusing our attention on the spectacle. This separation, our separation from our social reality, is precisely what serves to prolong the existence of the capitalist order (the unity of the world). The capitalist order is split in two between reality (material conditions) and the spectacle (images) but this split is precisely what makes the whole system work as a unified network. For Debord, the relative autonomy of the spectacle is ultimately underpinned by social reality, by human labor, by the economy, by material circumstances or by social practice. Even though the spectacle and social practice exist on other sides of a rift, thanks to the spectacle itself, they are still aspects of the same world. The rift is really on the side of reality, it exists in the order of social realities, but the rift is the separation produced by the spectacle. Again, this separation, this rift, is the one between our material conditions and our attention. On the one hand, the spectacle is that which challenges social reality by getting us to forget about it, but, at the same time, is also what all of our material activities seem to have as their goal. Everybody is working their asses off in order to be able to go home at night and watch TV. The spectacle is the language of capital, that is, it is composed of signs (words, images, etc.) that trick us into believing that the capitalist society is a good society. The spectacle is the way that capitalist ideology colonizes our minds, hearts, fantasies and desires.
8. The spectacle cannot be set in abstract opposition to concrete social activity, for the dichotomy between reality and image will survive on either side of any such distinction. Thus the spectacle, though it turns reality on its head, is itself a product of real activity. Likewise, lived reality suffers the material assaults of the spectacle’s mechanisms of contemplation, incorporating the spectacular order and lending that order positive support. Each side therefore has its share of objective reality. And every concept, as it takes its place on one side or the other, has no foundation apart from its transformation into its opposite: reality erupts within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and underpinning of society as it exists. Even though Debord seemed to make a sharp distinction between reality and image in thesis 7, now he’s refining it a bit. Both concrete social activity and the spectacle will involve reality and image to some degree. The spectacle goes against reality while being the product of it. The spectacle also has all kinds of material effects on us. We absorb the spectacle into our bodies and end up acting in ways that it wants us to. Our attitudes, desires, dispositions, etc., all are material effects of the spectacle and serve to support it. For Debord, reality is alienated in the image and the image is alienated in reality. Reality is alienated in the image insofar as the representations of reality are more significant than reality itself. Reality has lost itself in its own images. The image is alienated from itself in how it comes to takeover our material bodies. Consumer society is defined by this double alienation.
9. In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood. So the truth of our material conditions is now a falsehood. The spectacle, the language of capitalism, convinces us that we are free and that capitalist society is just. Insofar as we now take representations to be more truthful than concrete reality, insofar as we hold up spectacular images as authorities, we are blind to the real truth of our social reality. The “truth” of the spectacle inverts the truth of our material conditions into a “falsehood”. This is ideology. This is false consciousness. It distorts our reality by making us think that its truth is false.
10. The concept of the spectacle brings together and explains a wide range of apparently disparate phenomena. Diversities and contrasts among such phenomena are the appearances of the spectacle — the appearances of a social organization of appearances that needs to be grasped in its general truth. Understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance. But any critique capable of apprehending the spectacle’s essential character must expose it as a visible negation of life — and as a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself. The concept of the spectacle allows us to see how many different social phenomena which appear to exist in isolation from one another are actually deeply related. The concept of the spectacle allows us to see the secret sameness at work in a field of different phenomena — this is how we grasp the general truth of capitalist society in its consumer form. If we take the spectacle at its word, if we listen to its official take on itself, then we are left thinking that the spectacle is merely a representation of life. The spectacle affirms the image and claims that human life itself is made of images and appearances, which the spectacle represents. To say that social life itself is a series of appearances is to to say that things are just what they appear to be. It’s to say that there are no hidden and exploitive mechanisms at work beneath the surface of appearance. The beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet shows the disgusting realities that exist just below the surface of all-American, suburban appearances. In ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, Althusser described how ideology turns itself into “obviousnesses” and “self-evident facts”: “For it is characteristic of ideology to impose self-evident facts as self-evident facts (without in the least seeming to, since they are ‘self-evident’) which we cannot not recognize and before which we have the inevitable and eminently natural reaction of exclaiming (aloud or in ‘the silence of consciousness’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’” What Althusser is calling “self-evident facts” can also be called “appearances”. The spectacle tricks us into thinking that what appears to be going on is all that’s going on and is all that there is to see. Life is what appears to us and nothing else. However, in reality, the spectacle is a negation of life, that is, it prevents us from having real experiences by keeping us in the state of a passive observer of spectacular images. The spectacle is literally a visible negation of life. The spectacle only seems to validate life (appearance). The truth is that it destroys it through appearances (visual imagery). If we are prevented from seeing the troubling truths of our concrete, practical existences, then we can never start to fix all of the problems they involve.
11. In order to describe the spectacle, its formation, its functions and whatever forces may hasten its demise, a few artificial distinctions are called for. To analyze the spectacle means talking its language to some degree — to the degree, in fact, that we are obliged to engage the methodology of the society to which the spectacle gives expression. For what the spectacle expresses is the total practice of one particular economic and social formation; it is, so to speak, that formation’s agenda. It is also the historical moment by which we happen to be governed. If we want to be able to understand the spectacle and how it works, then we must learn its language, we must break its code. This is how we can come to challenge it. The spectacle is capital become image and semiotic code. Learning this language will enable us to truly perceive how capitalism’s methodology works, that is, how it uses pop culture, mass media, advertising, etc., in order to get us to “happily” go along with the system. This methodology is the method of capitalism’s reproduction of itself. If we can decode the code, then we will see how the capitalist system actually works in practice. It’s all right there in the spectacle waiting to be ideologically critiqued. The agenda of capitalism is to produce for itself a way to make those whom it exploits come to enthusiastically affirm it. “Let’s go to the mall! Shopping is so much fun!” The spectacle is the way capital makes us love capitalist society. This is the society in which we live. Again, it can be very difficult to realize that all of the pop culture phenomena we love are, in part, ways to keep us enjoying our own exploitation.
12. The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.” The attitude that it demands in principle is the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility, and indeed by its monopolization of the realm of appearances. The spectacle almost has a godlike presence in the consumer society. It’s presence is enormous. It’s omnipresent, transcendent and absolutely self-justified. In the consumer society, the spectacle is the final authority. Trying to fight the spectacle is like trying to punch God. The main message of the spectacle, one that’s mainly unconscious and implicit, is that “appearance is good and good is appearance” (this echoes Hegel’s statement “the real is rational and the rational is real”). It trains our minds to make a fundamental association between goodness and appearance (images, obviousnesses, superficialities, etc.). The spectacle demands for us to remain in passive moods. It wants us to simply be the receivers of its ideological programming. However, it has already achieved this through its overwhelming undeniability, that is, through its godlike status. Trying to actively question and interrogate the spectacle is like trying to force God into a submissive disposition. The spectacle isn’t set up to allow us to truly challenge it. This is why Baudrillard thought symbolic exchange was so important. We have to figure out how to reverse things, that is, give something, a countergift, back to the spectacle it’s not prepared to deal with. Anyway, this is very hard to do due to the fact that the spectacle has full control of appearances (the most obvious way things seem to be).
13. The spectacle is essentially tautological, for the simple reason that its means and its ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire globe, basking in the perpetual warmth of its own glory. What the spectacle aims to achieve is what it’s already doing. In other words, the spectacle is always changing itself, modifying its content and even maybe its form (think of the shift from TV to the internet), but it makes these changes just to keep on reproducing us as manipulatable, passive consumers. Its means are all the ways it uses technology to keep us stupid and pacified, and its ends are all the new ways it finds to keep this consumerization process going. The spectacle is operative all round the globe at all hours of the day for the purpose of keeping all of us passive idiots. It’s like the British Empire — the sun never sets on it. Globalization is built into capitalism. That’s why fascism (nationalism) is always a reaction to it, but one that stems from it.
14. The spectacular character of modern industrial society has nothing fortuitous or superficial about it; on the contrary, this society is based on the spectacle in the most fundamental way. For the spectacle, as the perfect image of the ruling economic order, ends are nothing and development is all — although the only thing into which the spectacle plans to develop is itself. The spectacle is not some contingent accident, some inessential feature, of capitalism. No! The spectacle is essential to capitalism. The spectacle is at the heart of capital. Think about how the commodity itself is spectacular. I’m referring to commodity fetishism. The commodity appears to have some entrancing aura about itself. This aura, this luring presence, seems to belong to the commodity. However, this aura is actually generated by a secret truth — that of the human labor concealed and congealed in it. Nevertheless, the fetishistic appearance of the commodity is what matters to capital. This type of spectacular aura is precisely what the spectacle develops and spreads throughout the world. The spectacle is the outgrowth of the commodity’s fetishism and the commodity is the atom of the capitalist mode of production. And capital has no qualitative ends. In other words, capital has no desire to bring about qualitative states of affairs for their own sakes. No! In this sense, capital has no meaningful ends or ultimate values. All capital is concerned with is its quantitative accumulation and the conditions of its reproduction. The only thing capital wants to develop is itself and the ways in which it can achieve this development. The spectacle is the main mechanism through which capital can go on getting its way and recreating the world in its own (literal) image.
15. As the indispensable packaging for things produced as they are now produced, as a general gloss on the rationality of the system, and as the advanced economic sector directly responsible for the manufacture of an ever-growing mass of image-objects, the spectacle is the chief product of present-day society. The spectacle is the “packaging” of commodities insofar as it informs us, usually implicitly and suggestively, of their meanings, connotations, sign-values, etc. The spectacle informs us as to how we will appear if we consume certain commodities. Yes, literal packaging uses literal images, but the true image of a commodity appears by understanding its position in relation to other commodities and advertising is the primary database of this knowledge. Therefore, the spectacle is the main product of today’s consumer society, since it’s the product of all products, that is, it’s the product that rules and governs the appearances of all particular products. The spectacle is what makes sense out of the proliferation of commodities. Notice that Debord mentions “image-objects”. This obviously inspired Baudrillard’s concept of the sign-value of the commodity. Whether we are talking of image-objects or sign-values, we are talking about the senses of selfhood commodities give to their consumers. The spectacle is the objective discourse, the symbolic order, the language, that enables commodities to take on existential connotations, which produces the self-images consumers cultivate for themselves (one’s which usually have no subjective referents). As Tyler Durden put it in Fight Club, “You’re not you’re fucking khakis”.
16. The spectacle subjects living human beings to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway. For the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing for itself — at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers. The spectacle rules over people and makes them into the type of human beings it desires them to be. But this is only true when the economy (capital) has power over them. If the economy is an in-itself, then the spectacle is the economy’s for-itself. This is just some Hegelian jargon. Things can be viewed from two different perspectives for Hegel: in-themselves and for-themselves. Take consciousness, for example, there’s what consciousness is in-itself, what it is in and of itself, and there’s what consciousness takes itself to be. In other words, there’s consciousness and self-consciousness. The spectacle is the self-consciousness (for-itself) of the capitalist economy (in-itself). The spectacle is the way that the economy reflects on itself. The spectacle is the mirror of the economy. The spectacle is the becoming-conscious of capital — it’s almost like some sort of quasi-AI. The spectacle is not a faithful representation of the economy, since it edits out fundamental social realities, e.g., material conditions, exploitation, alienation, etc. The spectacle comes equipped with Photoshop. The spectacle reflects the fetishistic dimension of commodities with great accuracy, but it totally distorts the reality of the people who produce these commodities. The spectacle poisons class consciousness and replaces it with consumer passivity and curiosity. The spectacle leads us to believe that we are free, happy, unexploited, etc., when our material realities are anything but. The spectacle also reduces us to objective images of ourselves; it’s the Lacanian mirror stage run wild. The images of ourselves that we identify with are free, happy, and so on, but we are not these fucking images! The spectacle ideologically weaponizes our susceptibility to méconnaissance (misrecognition of ourselves by way of images of ourselves). We are separated from ourselves by the consumer images of ourselves. You are not your Facebook avatar.
17. An earlier stage in the economy’s domination of social life entailed an obvious downgrading of being into having that left its stamp on all human endeavor. The present stage, in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all effective “having” must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearances. At the same time all individual reality, being directly dependent on social power and completely shaped by that power, has assumed a social character. Indeed, it is only inasmuch as individual reality is not that it is allowed to appear. Society has gone from being to having and from having to appearing. These are the dominant principles of different epochs. In this context, being refers to what a person truly is, that is, what he or she does. Being has to do with authentic and meaningful identities affirmed and rooted in particular actions, creations, talents, skills, etc. Both Marx and Heidegger define the being (existence, purposeful activity) of human beings in terms of what they do. A blacksmith was a blacksmith precisely because he did what blacksmiths do. Human beings used to be defined in terms of their actions, talents, skills, etc. It’s easy to see why being is the most authentic way for humans to define themselves, since it brings them to identify with talents and skills that are connected to individual creativity. Having refers to the things one owns and possesses, that is, to personal wealth. Personal greatness no longer has to do with your individual skills and talents, but, rather, with how much shit you owned. The more expensive your cool shit is, the better you are as a person. What a bunch soulless bullshit! If being held sway during the age of feudalism and craftsmanship, then having defined the industrial age. However, appearing rules in the consumer society. Appearing simulates individual greatness where there is none. Commodities are no longer just use-values and exchange-values — they are also sign-values. The semiotics, the spectacle, the code, of consumption allows consumers to appear in certain ways. It’s not the simple fact that you have commodities that matters. Instead, it’s the self-image they semiotically produce that counts. The only reason why appearing works so well is because capitalism has stripped us of being. In other words, humans are no longer allowed to pursue individual creativity in their activity, but are coerced into simulating it through the commodities they consume in order to cultivate a personal identity. The separation Debord is concerned with, in part, is our separation or alienation from our being. You don’t have to be a rebel in order to “be” a rebel — now you just have to wear a Che Guevara t-shirt. But, again, it’s only because capitalism has made authentic being (authentic activity, self-affirming creativity, non-alienated labor) impossible that appearing is able to fill a need in us. We have a depressing dialectic here. Being is authentic. Having is inauthentic. Appearing is an inauthentic “authenticity”.
18. For one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings — tangible figments which are the efficient motor of trancelike behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present-day society’s generalized abstraction. This is not to say, however, that the spectacle itself is perceptible to the naked eye — even if that eye is assisted by the ear. The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule. We live in an inverted world. If the real world becomes images, then images become the most real of things. These images attract and entrance us precisely because we take them to be real. We cannot experience the real directly anymore. The real is not something we can reach out and touch. The “real” is only visible in spectacular images. This is why the spectacle puts all the emphasis on visual experience. This is a very McLuhanite insight. McLuhan pointed out that different media-forms produce different types of societies as well as different types of subjectivities. For Debord, sight is the most abstract of the senses, that is, the one most capable is distancing itself from concrete experiences. Consider how we use the word “see” to refer to understanding abstract truths, for example, “I see why the circle cannot be squared”. We often say we can “see” these truths, but never that we can touch, hear, taste or smell them. Thought and seeing have long been associated. Given how abstract things have become in the consumer society, it’s no wonder the spectacle puts us in a sensory mode wherein visual experience is dominant. This is also no coincidence, since sight is the most easily tricked of all the senses and the spectacle is in the business of deception. However, the spectacle is not itself visible to the eye. This sounds strange, but what he means is that the spectacle is ultimately the way in which images are arranged and configured in relation to one another and, more importantly, how human beings are brought to relate to each other in consumer society. Remember what Debord said in thesis 4: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” The spectacle is a social system, a social network, and not just a huge stockpile of images. I mean, it is a stockpile of images but one that mediates social relations among people. To say that the spectacle is “immune from human activity” means that any effort on our part to get control of the spectacle, to bend it to our will instead of to capital’s, is an effort in futility. The spectacle is far too pervasive and elusive for us to regulate it. Our simple concrete activities cannot correct it. When it comes to the spectacle, our activities do not factor in. Baudrillard was always quick to highlight the unilaterality or irreversibility of the code, of the simulation. Debord is getting at this as well. Average human activity cannot force the spectacle into a dialogue. If “dialogue” enters the equation, then it’s a simulated type of dialogue like that of a call-and-response format. If the dialogue is scripted, then it’s not really a dialogue at all — it’s a monologue in the simulated guise of a dialogue. Think about how scripted and predictable arguments on the internet are. No one is really engaging in active dialogue. Monologue is the structural default setting of the spectacle. If flows into us, it gives to us, and nullifies every attempt we make to give something back to it. It does not want us to be able to openly challenge it, reverse it, actively problematize it. It wants us to shut the fuck up and simply enjoy what it gives. This is precisely the issue with representation taking on a life of its own — the spectacle, imagistic capital, is like Ultron. Once representation usurps reality, real referents, once it has become unmoored from concrete things, it makes all the rules.
19. The spectacle is heir to all the weakness of the project of Western philosophy, which was an attempt to understand activity by means of the categories of vision. Indeed the spectacle reposes on an incessant deployment of the very technical rationality to which that philosophical tradition gave rise. So far from realizing philosophy, the spectacle philosophizes reality, and turns the material life of everyone into a universe of speculation. The spectacle is not just the zenith of capitalism but also has a deep connection to Western philosophy. The Western philosophical tradition has all sorts of blindspots in it. These have been pointed out by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, etc. The spectacle inherits all of these weaknesses. Western metaphysics has always been visucentric (based on sight). Think about how substance ontology describes everything in terms of visual properties. Substance ontology is visual ontology. This is one of it’s presuppositions. It never argued that reality itself is structured in the way that visual experience is, but, instead, blindly presupposed it. Why isn’t reality like hearing or touching? Why must it be like our experience at all? Don’t get me wrong. There have been philosophers that have challenged the validity of our experience, but I don’t really know of any that approached this in something like a McLuhanite manner. Activity, both nonhuman and human, might not be reducible to the parameters of visual perception. Just a thought. The spectacle is the technological outgrowth of the technical rationality that grew out of Western metaphysics (this is something Heidegger, Horkheimer, Adorno, etc., would agree with). Debord claims that the spectacle doesn’t realize philosophy — it philosophizes reality. But what does this mean? What’s important is not that the spectacle is the purest realization of the technological rationality of Western philosophy, but, rather, that the spectacle comes to undermine what philosophy took reality to be. Put differently, the spectacle inverts reality and representation. It makes images into realities and realities into images. This is what it means for the spectacle to philosophize reality. This also involves negating concrete human reality by turning us into detached speculators of images. The spectacle turns all of us into “philosophers” insofar as it distances us from reality and forces us into never-ending contemplation of the consumer world. You’re not concretely living when you’re abstractly contemplating.
20. Philosophy is at once the power of alienated thought and the thought of alienated power, and as such it has never been able to emancipate itself from theology. The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion. Not that its techniques have dispelled those religious mists in which human beings once located their own powers, the very powers that had been wrenched from them — but those cloud-enshrouded entities have now been brought down to earth. It is thus the most earthbound aspects of life that have become the most impenetrable and rarefied. The absolute denial of life, in the shape of a fallacious paradise, is no longer projected onto the heavens, but finds its place instead within material life itself. The spectacle is hence a technological version of the exiling of human powers in a “world beyond” — and the perfection of separation within human beings. Thesis 20 is very much attuned to both Feuerbach’s and Marx’s thoughts on religion, on how religion inverts the order of things. First things first, Debord criticizes philosophy on Marxist grounds. To say that philosophy is the power of alienated thought is to say that it’s a way of thinking that gets its power from being alienated from the concrete circumstances and material conditions of its thinkers (philosophers). Philosophy has long been an endeavor of pure speculation, the pursuit of truth, etc. In other words, philosophy did not have concrete aims of the economic-political sort. Philosophical thought is alienated from the concrete situations from which it arises, but this alienation, this separation, is why it has the power it has. Abstract, metaphysical thinking does have power precisely because its abstractness, alienation, separation. But to say philosophy is also the thought of alienated power means that it’s a mode of thought based on alienated power, that is, power that is separated from concrete reality. In other words, philosophy does not have concrete power, since it cannot directly change the world. This is why Marx said thesis 11, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (Theses on Feuerbach). Yes, traditional philosophy ends up effecting society in all kinds of ways, but it never had the mass influence of Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism). Just think about the impact Marxism had on the twentieth-century. So, to restate it, philosophy’s power lies in its abstract thinking and its mode of thought gets its power of abstraction from being alienated (separated) from the material reality that underpins it. The fact that philosophy is based on the separation of thought and activity, theory and practice, ideality and materiality, abstraction and concreteness, means that it is theological, since it gives rise to the separation between two worlds — just like in religion. For the Marxists, thought and activity must cease to be alienated from one another, that is, thought must become revolutionary. Okay, so that’s what’s packed inside the first sentence of thesis 20. Debord goes on to state that the spectacle is the new heaven or the new religious illusion. More accurately, the spectacle is the reconstruction of the old concept of the other world. It’s very much like New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. The spectacle, like New Jerusalem, is heaven come to this world — the ideal becoming material. The religious realm, the other world, has not been destroyed by our spectacular technologies, but, instead, has become anchored in this world. Electronic media has brought heaven (ideal reality) into this plane of existence (material reality). “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” I just saw Avengers: Endgame last night. Is this not the materialization of the ideal? My eyes literally perceived a fantasy world. I mean, let’s be honest, the great icons of pop culture are essentially religious heroes to us consumers. Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, etc., are all religious icons, but these films have taken these icons and made them perceptible — “cloud-enshrouded entities have now been brought down to earth”. But this situation can be even more perplexing than the one of traditional religion. The alienation involved in Christianity is easy to understand. For older societies, the material world was here and the ideal world was over there, but now, for us, they have been merged. We are alienated in actual ideal images we literally and materially see with our eyes. The spectacle is the ideal’s suffocation of material reality. Our alienation is so direct, so immediate, that it makes us wish that we had the old type of distance contained within religious alienation — at least people could breathe in it. The spectacle is the “perfection” or completion of alienation (separation). Our material reality (labor) is now alienated in its own material reality (the production of images). We are not alienated by some imaginary religious ideals, but, rather, by material images we actually perceive. The power of the spectacle is far more difficult to wrap your head around than that of religious imagery.
21. So long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity. The spectacle is the bad dream of modern society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep. The realm of necessity (material reality, concrete activity) is a social dream insofar as it is alienated and separated from itself in the spectacle. The spectacle is the social dream but one that is secretly produced by material activity (necessity). In order for material reality to remain alienated in the form of the spectacle or the social dream, the spectacle must keep us dreaming, that is, it must keep us focused on its images out of its own necessity (the social “necessity” of capital accumulation). In truth, the spectacle is a bad dream, a fucking nightmare, whose only desire is to keep us asleep, that is, in a constant state of stupid passivity. The spectacle is what serves to keep consumers asleep or totally unaware of their material reality rooted in exploitation.
22. The fact that the practical power of modern society has detached itself from itself and established itself in the spectacle as an independent realm can only be explained by the self-cleavage and self-contradictoriness already present in that powerful practice. Practical power has detached itself from itself insofar as human labor gave birth to the spectacle, which, in turn, took on a life of its own separated from human labor. The commodity itself did this but the spectacle just takes the whole process further. The spectacle is objectified human labor or, at least, it once was. But here’s the thing: the spectacle separated itself from human activity precisely because human labor was already separated. The spectacle is a double alienation. Human labor was already alienated or separated due to the structure of wage labor and industrialization’s division of labor. Alienated labor is ultimately rooted in the contradictions of capital and especially the one between capitalist and worker. The spectacle is capital’s attempt to hide this contradictory reality (e.g., class struggle) from us. The workers knew that they didn’t have wealth, so the spectacle comes along and gives them all kinds of appearances, images of wealth, to identify with (commodities, pop culture, entertainment, etc.). We don’t get to be and we don’t really get to have so it lets us appear to “be” and to “have”. Capital will do anything to keep our attention away from the contradictions built into it, since these are its kryptonite. Debord is also echoing Marx’s 4th thesis: “Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis” (Theses on Feuerbach). The consumer spectacle is our new heaven — the new New Jerusalem. But the only reason why we need a heaven is because our material circumstances are so shitty.
23. At the root of the spectacle lies that oldest of all social divisions of labor, the specialization of power. The specialized role played by the spectacle is that of spokesman for all other activities, a sort of diplomatic representative of hierarchical society at its own court, and the source of the only discourse which that society allows itself to hear. Thus the most modern aspect of the spectacle is also at bottom the most archaic. Despite all of its new and flashy developments in technology, the spectacle essentially serves an old purpose. It’s the way those in power maintain their power. For Debord, the oldest social distinction is the one between those with power and those without it. Those in power stay in power through making power something that necessitates special requirements. Those in power are “special” in some way that justifies them having power. The spectacle functions to justify the capitalist order (power). The spectacle is the spokesman, apologist, defense lawyer, propagandist, etc., of capital and the capitalist class. The spectacle’s fundamental message is a silly one: “Capitalist society is good because it gives me to you”. We all know, be it unconsciously, that capital has played the biggest part in giving us Star Wars, Back to the Future, Atari, Nintendo, Sega, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Playstation, Xbox, South Park, Thriller, Lord of the Rings, All Eyez on Me, Back in Black, The Matrix, Rick and Morty, the Infinity Saga, etc. All of the movies, TV shows, video games, albums, fashions and technologies we know and love have been brought to us by capital. The reason they exist is because capitalists saw them as worthwhile investments. Yes, of course, George Lucas’ creativity was the main source of Star Wars, but let’s see him make it without funding (capital). Think of how much capital was required in order to make all the treasures of pop culture. But all of this is rooted in exploitation. Capitalists profiting off of the economic inequality rooted in wage labor and alienation. The spectacle uses the most modern developments in technology for an archaic purpose — the preservation of the power of those in power. Through the spectacle, capital whispers, “You know you love me! I mean, I brought you the fucking lightsaber!” In reality, human creativity and material activity gave us all the cool shit we love, but, ultimately, capital made it economically possible for pop culture to become culture by spreading it across the globe — all for the main purpose of capital accumulation. We must face the fact the capital uses all of the things we love against us in order to reproduce power dynamics that are all fucked up.
24. By means of the spectacle the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise. The spectacle is the self-portrait of power in the age of power’s totalitarian rule over the conditions of existence. The fetishistic appearance of pure objectivity in spectacular relationships conceals their true character as relationships between human beings and between classes; a second Nature thus seems to impose inescapable laws upon our environment. But the spectacle is by no means the inevitable outcome of a technical development perceived as natural; on the contrary, the society of the spectacle is a form that chooses its own technical content. If the spectacle — understood in the limited sense of those “mass media” that are its most stultifying superficial manifestation — seems at times to be invading society in the shape of a mere apparatus, it should be remembered that this apparatus has nothing neutral about it, and that it answers precisely to the needs of the spectacle’s internal dynamics. If the social requirements of the age which develops such techniques can be met only through their mediation, if the administration of society and all contact between people now depends on the intervention of such “instant” communication, it is because this “communication” is essentially one-way; the concentration of the media thus amounts to the monopolization by the administrators of the existing system of the means to pursue their particular form of administration. The social cleavage that the spectacle expresses is inseparable from the modern State, which, as the product of the social division of labor and the organ of class rule, is the general form of all social division. Again, the spectacle is the omnipresent propaganda through which capital tricks us into believing that we live in a great society without any major issues (it’s false consciousness, ideology, alienation from living, etc.). This monologue, this one-sided defence speech, is constantly being beamed at us from all directions. The spectacle is the visualization of power, that is, power relations made visible. This is why the spectacle is the self-portrait of capitalist society. Capital reigns supreme. People, like Hannah Arendt, have often umbrellaed fascism and “socialism” (Stalinism, Maoism) under the term “totalitarianism”, but Debord is saying that capitalism is just as totalitarian. Capital fundamentally orders and configures the material reality of our lives. We get no say in it. To go on existing requires you to bend the knee to the structure of capitalist society. The appearances and the relations of appearances produced by the spectacle conceal the material relations between labor and capital. Think about how in the suburbs we had all kinds of “different” people. We had preppies, “gangstas”, goths, nerds, jocks, hicks, “hippies”, etc., but most of us all came from the same economic circumstances (more or less the same). The vast majority of us did not have capitalist parents. The spectacle wants us to cultivate our identities — just not class identities. Capitalism loves identity politics so long as class identity never factors in. The spectacle presents us with all kinds of ways we can cultivate our “individualities” through consumerism (commodities, trends, fashions, genres of music, etc.). By providing us with an onslaught of identities to choose from, the spectacle drains class consciousness of its power. All of this serves the interests of capital by transforming the revolutionary proletariat into a mall-walking consumer. The spectacle is the second Nature. It’s as if some parasitic society has turned itself into the host. We can’t even image our lives without the “laws” of consumption. Technological development didn’t end up creating the spectacle out of necessity. Technology in and of itself, in its purest nature, didn’t produce the spectacle. No! It was the combination of technology and capital that did it. Despite how much new technology capital gives to us, it still hinders technological development by choosing what types will be developed and which ones will not be. And on the basis of what principle does capital make this selection? The principle of capitalist accumulation of course. Capital only develops those kinds of technologies that it can use to augment itself. Technology is restrained by economic rationality. Capital or the spectacle “chooses its own technical content”, that is, capital dictates how technology can develop, which means that it cannot be used to free workers from shitty labor and create a post-work society of true abundance. The spectacle, especially its mass media technologies, are not neutral technological developments. Capital selected them for a reason — its own accumulation and reproduction. These technologies function to put us in a mental state that’s dumb, confused, passive and entertained, which is the opposite of a developed class consciousness. It’s worth noting that Debord does not limit the spectacle to the technologies used by mass media (radio, TV, film, magazines, newspapers, etc.). The spectacle is really a semiotic system or, as Baudrillard put it, a code. Yes, the spectacle does flood us with images, but, remember, it’s the social relations between these images that are its real “substance”. The “internal dynamics” of the spectacle are the interests of capital and they rule over actual mass media technologies. These technologies are possessed by the demon named Capital. We have all kinds of social necessities and requirements that only our modern technologies can make happen. For example, governments can only function if they have the newest and best communication technologies. Also, our everyday lives would breakdown without having the necessary bundle of technologies. We can only meet our social requirements through the mediation of technology. With we lost our ability to instantaneously communicate with others, then shit would go caput. But here’s the real trick: all of this necessary tech is unilateral, that is, it only serves the interest of capital. The flow of communication is one-sided insofar as it’s secretly the flow of capital accumulation. To challenge the unilateral flow of information is to challenge capital itself. This flow is how society administrates itself both economically and politically. Mass media is the way that capital-spectacle-power forces us into using the technology it’s made necessary to have in order to meet our basic needs (material necessities). We’re caught in a web of pure fuckery. Capital has control of mass media and technology and this is how it has power over all of our lives. This is how capital monopolizes power and enforces its form of societal administration or the management of public affairs, that is, its way of running shit. Remember, the main function of the spectacle is to create a separation, a social cleavage, between our material conditions and our consciousness of them. But the spectacle actually expresses the fundamental separation in society — that of humans from the products of their labor and from authentic living. The spectacle “expresses” this separation in the sense of existing in order to suppress the truth of capital (wage labor, class struggle, exploitation, alienation, etc.). In other words, the spectacle doesn’t directly express the contradictory truth of our material reality, far from it! However, it does indirectly express it through its very existence. The existence of the spectacle secretly indicates the contradictions within our material conditions, since it exists simply to conceal these material truths. Now, the very contradiction and cleavage between labor and capital is deeply connected to the modern State, that is, to the political in “political economy”. Bourgeois States, modern governments, serve the interests of capital. The capitalist State is brought about through the capitalist-industrial division of labor. The division of labor totally reconfigured society, so a new form of governance had to take hold in order for capital to reproduce itself. The State is the fundamental instrument of those in power, which means that it is also the most general form of all social division. It’s the most general way those in power preserve their class power.
25. Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. Religious contemplation in its earliest form was the outcome of the establishment of the social division of labor and the formation of classes. Power draped itself in the outward garb of a mythical order from the beginning. In former times the category of the sacred justified the cosmic and ontological ordering of things that best served the interests of the masters, expounding upon and embellishing what society could not deliver. Thus power as a separate realm has always had a spectacular aspect, but mass allegiance to frozen religious imagery was originally a shared acknowledgment of loss, an imaginary compensation for a poverty of real social activity that was still widely felt to be a universal fact of life. The modern spectacle, by contrast, depicts what society can deliver, but within this depiction what is permitted is rigidly distinguished from what is possible. The spectacle preserves unconsciousness as practical changes in the conditions of existence proceed. The spectacle is self-generated, and it makes up its own rules: it is a specious form of the sacred. And it makes no secret of what it is, namely, hierarchical power evolving on its own, in its separateness, thanks to an increasing productivity based on an ever more refined division of labor, an ever greater comminution of machine-governed gestures, and an ever-widening market. In the course of this development all community and critical awareness have ceased to be; nor have those forces, which were able — by separating — to grow enormously in strength, yet found a way to reunite. Separation, alienation, false consciousness, etc., is everything (alpha and omega) to the spectacle — this is where it starts and where it ends. It exists precisely to separate us from truly and authentically living life, which would materially require us to do away with the capitalist mode of production. If the spectacle can separate us from meaningful practical existence, both from thinking about it and actually living it, then it can prevent us from challenging capital. Despite how complicated the spectacle is, its goal is a rather simple one — turn angry proletariats into pacified consumers. Power (a power system) has long used images to reproduce itself. In older societies, power used religious imagery to control and pacify the exploited ones. For example, the paintings in churches taught congregations about the “order of things”. They instilled in them a certain ideology that served the political interests of those in power, which was the reproduction and maintenance of the social division of labor. This was especially true in the feudal era in Europe. Via images, power made itself look like it had been ordained by God himself (the sacred). This divine justification of the power structure made the exploited workers go along with their shitty material conditions, since to challenge those in power was to challenge God himself. This is the whole divine right of kings bullshit. However, these people were at least aware of the fact that they had lost something, that they were being deprived of something important in the here and now. Religious imagery was a compensation for what society could not deliver (freedom, equality, control over one’s life, etc.). And people back then were well aware of the fact that their societies could not give this to them. But things are trickier when it comes to the consumer spectacle. Images convince us that we are going to end up living great lives. That’s one reason people vote against their own interests — they vote on the basis of where they think they will be in the future and not where they currently are. The spectacle says, “Capitalism can deliver the good life!” However, the spectacle also goes out of its way to make a distinction between what is permitted and what is possible. It wants us to think that we’ll get the good life but on condition that we act in accordance with the principles of capitalist society. The spectacle also manages to keep many things out of our conscious awareness. It does not want us to be conscious of all the ways it is constantly limiting and changing our material existences. One thing that gives the spectacle a certain divine aura or sacred presence is how appears to be self-generated. It’s like a God that has always existed or that has created itself. Human beings made the spectacle but we are totally separated and alienated from this truth. This is electronic fetishism. However, once up and running, the spectacle does have its own systematic way of doing and changing things. Remember, the spectacle is an outgrowth of capital and capital is a “logic”. The spectacle celebrates itself, that is, it celebrates capitalism. “Look at all the cool shit I make just for you!” We all know that our world is controlled by powerful capitalists and the politicians they buy off, but we go along with it because of all the cool commodities this brings us. The spectacle grows through increasing productivity, through refining the division of labor and expanding markets. This system of capital has wrecked authentic community and critical understanding. Nor have capital (products of labor) and labor found a way to reunite and de-alienate themselves. Labor grew by separating from capital and capital by separating from labor.
26. The generalized separation of worker and product has spelled the end of any comprehensive view of the job done, as well as the end of direct personal communication between producers. As the accumulation of alienated products proceeds, and as the productive process gets more concentrated, consistency and communication become the exclusive assets of the system’s managers. The triumph of an economic system founded on separation leads to the proletarianization of the world. The widespread alienation of workers from the products they make has brought about the end of an overall knowledge of the production process and non-communication between workers. In other words, workers have no idea what’s really going on at their jobs. Their class consciousness has withered away. The only people who understand the system are its managers (those in power). This concentration of knowledge is the concentration of power. Capitalism, rooted in separation and alienation, necessarily creates a world filled with uninformed wage laborers.
27. Owing to the very success of this separated system of production, whose product is separation itself, that fundamental area of experience which was associated in earlier societies with an individual’s principal work is being transformed — at least at the leading edge of the system’s evolution — into a realm of non-work, of inactivity. Such inactivity, however, is by no means emancipated from productive activity: it remains in thrall to that activity, in an uneasy and worshipful subjection to production’s needs and results; indeed it is itself a product of the rationality of production. There can be no freedom apart from activity, and within the spectacle all activity is banned — a corollary of the fact that all real activity has been forcibly channeled into the global construction of the spectacle. So what is referred to as “liberation from work,” that is, increased leisure time, is a liberation neither within labor itself nor from the world labor has brought into being. The main product of capitalism is separation/alienation itself. Because of capitalism’s “success” in alienating the vast majority of people, inactivity has replaced activity. People used to be at home in their labor, their activity, but capitalism changed this. By making labor (activity) alienated and by producing more and more leisure time, it forces us to live lives of inactivity. To talk like Marx, our “species-being” resides in our creative activity. What we do with our creativity, what we use our intellects to make, is everything to us. This is how we tap into our essence. But this essence isn’t absolute insofar as we can be alienated from it. This is what lives of alienated activity and pervasive inactivity bring about — separation from our essence. Separation from creative activity is separation from ourselves. This separation is ever-increasing in the consumer society. However, our consumer inactivity, our leisure time, is not freed from the sphere of production. In fact, our inactivity and leisure are fundamentally shaped and determined by production, by shitty jobs. To say that inactivity remains in a “worshipful subjection to production’s needs and results” means that our leisure time is structured to meet the needs of production (alienated activity). Adorno talked about this in his essay ‘Free Time’ in The Culture Industry. Simply put, when you’re not at work you are preparing to go back to work. You are recharging your batteries by sitting on the couch and watching TV. You never have sufficient time and energy to devote to those activities you’re actually passionate about. If leisure (non-work) is really just a secret extension of production (work), then we are always slaves to the “rationality of production”. We never escape the interests and schemes of capital. Even when we are not at work, we are still at work. True human freedom is deeply connected to non-alienated labor or creative activity, which means that we cannot be free if we are prevented from spending the majority of our lives in creative labor. However, the spectacle bans all activity. The spectacle is all about turning us into couch potatoes that sit back and absorb the unilateral flow of the images beamed at us. There is some pseudo-activity involved in consumption, but this is not the type Marx and Debord would consider to be attuned to our species-being. Yes, we might talk about TV shows and celebrities, we might ponder the sign-values of commodities at the mall, we might write aggressive posts on social media, but what we don’t do is actively create things. We do not externalize our creativity and intelligence is the products of authentic labor. If there is any real activity left, then it’s all the hard work that’s gone into the production of the spectacle itself. This requires a huge amount of technological development, that is, creativity. Producing a global communication network is no easy task and necessitates a lot of creative intelligence. But this means that the remnants of authentic activity are forced into serving that which negates authentic activity — capital qua spectacle. Long story short, all the talk about the “liberation from work” is ideological bullshit! At work, we are unfree due to the fact that labor is alienated. At home, we are unfree because we are forced into a recharge mode that enables us to go back to work the next day. In Baudrillardian terms, “liberation from work” is a giant simulation, since it has to real referent. We are never free because we never really get to lose ourselves in creative activities that we wholeheartedly affirm. We are always trapped inside the “world” of capital. Freedom is freedom from capital and this is nowhere to be found in the consumer society.
28. The reigning economic system is founded on isolation; at the same time it is a circular process designed to produce isolation. Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn; all goods proposed by the spectacular system, from cars to televisions, also serve as weapons for that system as it strives to reinforce the isolation of “the lonely crowd.” The spectacle is continually rediscovering its own basic assumptions — and each time in a more concrete manner. Capitalism isolates us. Capitalism is the atomization of human beings. But capital atomizes in two ways. It is founded on one atomization and works toward another. The first isolation is the one of the purchase of wage labor and the division of labor. Each worker deals with the capitalist or the manager as an individual wage laborer. This is what unions sought to correct and prevent. Also, the division of labor isolates workers into an atomized location in the production process. Think about Charlie Chaplin at the beginning of Modern Times. Production is not experienced as a holistic process involving the collaboration of many workers. It’s not like how members of small communities would pitch in and help each other build houses. Workers are alienated from each other in production. However, on top of the isolation of production, there is also the isolation of consumption. Technology isolates insofar as it makes us not have to rely on and interact with members of the community. We can do everything we need to on our own. This is what the “system of objects” does. The standard package or bundle of commodities (e.g. refrigerator, TV, smartphone, washing machine and dryer, etc.) allows us to live inside our little suburban atoms (houses) without ever needing to directly interact with others. This ended up depressing us, so capital gave us social media, which just increases our isolation while simulating sociality. We are “lonely crowds” (Debord borrowed this concept from David Riesman’s book The Lonely Crowd). The creation of social media is a great example of what it means for capital/spectacle to rediscover “its own basic assumptions . . . in a more concrete manner”. Capital is always trying to find new ways to keep us isolated and make us more isolated. It’s basic assumptions are capitals’ basic presuppositions and goals. The TV era was a great way to make workers isolated from one another, but they also felt a deep longing for communal belonging. What did capital do? It gave us a way to “interact” that convinced us that we were gaining new social connections. However, social media was a simulation machine. The vast majority of the people you meet on Facebook mean nothing to you. These are not authentic social relations. But they simulate them, which makes it seem that we do have sociality and have been freed from the radical atomization of the TV era. We are constantly commenting and responding to comments, so aren’t we actively engaging in social relations? It may seem that way, but all of this is pseudo-activity. You know damn well that social media has an extremely predictable and scripted vibe to it. People are just parroting shit from generic roles, e.g., the SJW, the alt-right troll, etc. In reality, all of this “social” media serves to intensify our alienation from each other, our separation from authentic community, our atomized lives. We are more and more becoming technological monads. Žižek has wonderfully described our postmodern monadology: “Traces of Gnosticism are clearly discernible even in today’s cyberspace ideology. The cyberspace dream of the Self freed from its attachment to its natural body by turning itself into a virtual entity floating from one to another contingent and temporary embodiment is the scientific-technological realization of the Gnostic dream of the Self getting rid of the decay and inertia of the material reality. No wonder that the philosophy of Leibniz is one of the predominant philosophical references of cyberspace theorists: Leibniz conceived the universe as composed of ‘monads’, microscopic substances each of which lives in its own self-enclosed inner space, with no windows onto its environs. One cannot miss the uncanny resemblance between Leibniz’s ‘monadology’ and the emerging cyberspace community in which global harmony and solipsism strangely coexist. That is to say, does our immersion in cyberspace not go hand in hand with our reduction to a Leibnizian monad which, although ‘without windows’ that would directly open up to external reality, mirrors in itself the entire universe? More and more, we are monads with no direct windows onto reality, interacting alone with the PC screen, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever in the global network, synchronously communicating with the entire globe” (How to Read Lacan, p. 100).
29. The origin of the spectacle lies in the world’s loss of unity, and its massive expansion in the modern period demonstrates how total this loss has been: the abstract nature of all individual work, as of production in general, finds perfect expression in the spectacle, whose very manner of being concrete is, precisely, abstraction. The spectacle divides the world into two parts, one of which is held up as a self-representation to the world, and is superior to the world. The spectacle is simply the common language that bridges this division. Spectators are linked only by a one-way relationship to the very center that maintains their isolation from one another. The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness. The spectacle emerges out of the world becoming separated between labor and capital (from the four forms of alienation Marx discussed in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). Wage labor is abstract labor insofar as we are concretely alienated from it, from its product, from our own essence (creative labor) and from other workers. This abstraction of labor becomes visualized in the spectacle of images. These images are the products of alienated labor. These images are concrete, that is, we have particular experiences of them, but they are nonetheless abstract entities (visualizations of alienated and abstract social labor). The reason why these images have a “manner of being concrete” that is actually “abstract” is because these particular images are not the real things they “represent” qua representations. Representations always have a certain abstractness about them insofar as they are mediations between concrete things (people, places, times, events, states of affairs, etc.), but the spectacle ends up becoming more “concrete” than actual things due to how we come to center our lives around it. The spectacle (system of abstract representations) becomes more concrete for us than real people and places are. The very idea of belonging to a concrete community is abstract now. This is how the world became inverted or turned into a topsy-turvy “world”. We are all like Will on Stranger Things — trapped in the Upside Down. Capital and the spectacle divide the world in two, that is, between our concrete material conditions which we cease to notice and their “representations” in the images. The “representations” have now become superior. However, the spectacle also serves to bridge the very gap it opened. The spectacle creates a language, a symbolic order, a simulation program, in which things come to seem to be unified when, in fact, they are deeply divided. The spectacle doesn’t heal separation, that is, it doesn’t correct the division it caused. No! It merely simulates a unity that conceals the reality of this division: “The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness.” We only have simulations of unity, authenticity, community, etc.
30. The spectator’s alienation from and submission to the contemplated object (which is the outcome of his unthinking activity) works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The spectacle’s externality with respect to the acting subject is demonstrated by the fact that the individual’s own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere. How does the alienation/separation of the spectator work? How does the spectacle (the object our attention contemplates) alienate us from ourselves? The more we watch the spectacle, the more we lose ourselves in images of others, the less we actually live our own lives. The more we watch TV shows and movies of people living their lives, the less we live our own. This is the fundamental mechanism at work in our consumer alienation. On top of that, we end up desiring and “needing” those things that the people in the spectacle’s images desire and need. This is a very Lacanian insight — desire is the desire of the Other. We want what others want. Most of the images we are flooded with are of people enjoying their lives in the consumer society. Think about how most sitcoms have characters that never worry about money and just go about the day enjoying capitalism. Sure, they may have all kinds of struggles and obstacles, but money, wage labor, alienation, etc., never seem to be issues people suffer from in sitcoms. The entertainment industry constantly floods us with images of people finding happiness in the consumer society. This is ideology! However, the more we focus on being like the people in movies, TV shows, video games, etc., the less we focus on our real needs and desires, that is, to be freed from the capitalist system with all its exploitation and alienation. In fact, our very bodies have been taken hostage by the spectacle. It’s like that old Sci-Fi classic The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The spectacle causes us to mimic and imitate the gestures and behaviors of those ideal personalities we fixate on in pop culture. Mass media and entertainment are training us to “spontaneously” and “naturally” act in ways that are beneficial to capital. My gestures are not my own, but, rather, have been trained to mimic those of the stars (celebrities) of the spectacle, which leads us to identify with the society that produces the images we identify with. My very gestures are now mediated by the images of the spectacle. My body is not my body — it is the host of the spectacle. This means that alienation (separation) extends to my body. My body is not my own. My body is the puppet of capital. This is almost like that classical conditioning shit you learn about in a psychology class. Capital is Pavlov and our bodies are those salivating dogs. Not only am I alienated from my creative activity, from the products of my labor, from my human essence, from other workers, from my life (doing meaningful things), from my leisure and from my time — I’m also alienated from my fucking body! Debord said, “The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere.” This is because there is no outside of the spectacle. Every fundamental aspect of our lives, which are now the shadows of our lives, have been taken prisoner by the spectacle, that is, by capital itself. The spectacle is the omnipresence of alienation.
31. Workers do not produce themselves: they produce a force independent of themselves. The success of this production, that is, the abundance it generates, is experienced by its producers only as an abundance of dispossession. All time, all space, becomes foreign to them as their own alienated products accumulate. The spectacle is a map of this new world — a map drawn to the scale of the territory itself. In this way the very powers that have been snatched from us reveal themselves to us in their full force. Workers do not produce themselves, that is, they do not get to spend their time cultivating their personal skills and talents. They do not get to work at making themselves better at those activities they are passionate about. Insofar us they are forced into wage labor, which is the mechanism of alienation, their work is the work of producing a mass of alienated objects. The objects produced by wage labor are like some alien, monster or Other with a capital “O”. Capital itself is this process/object that is an alien force. The more productive wage labor is, the more this monstrous force grows and takes control over every aspect of the workers’ lives. This global beast is really our own labor, time, energy, etc., in an externalized form or as an “abundance of dispossession”. The more this occurs, the more the whole fucking world becomes alienated to us. Time becomes an Other because we never get to have our own time in an authentic and meaningful way. Our time is never used to affirm ourselves in creative activity. Space also becomes an Other because there is nowhere to go that isn’t shaped and determined by capitalist motives. Commodification is our atmosphere. Our alienated labor, our wage slavery, is what makes all this happen. The concrete world withdraws into the background and the spectacle takes hold in the foreground of experience. The spectacle is a map of this new consumer “landscape”. The spectacle serves as that which provides us with a basic orientation in this “world” of images. The spectacle trains us in how to “succeed” in consumer society. This map covers the whole world (territory). The spectacle is everywhere now. It mediates all human interactions. It also goes global thanks to capital’s need to expand and growth itself, that is, find new markets. However, despite the monstrous presence of the spectacle, it also reveals just how powerful human labor can be. Imagine what we could do if our labor was freed from wage slavery. One last thing, this talk of the map and the territory is something Baudrillard discusses at the beginning of Simulacra and Simulation. But things are even worse according to Baudrillard. It’s not merely that the map takes prominence over the territory but, rather, it’s that the very line between them has become blurred. It’s not just the problem of the image becoming more important than the real thing — it’s the very corrosion of the reality principle itself (the metaphysical/representational criteria we use to discern the real from the fake).
32. The spectacle’s function in society is the concrete manufacture of alienation. Economic growth corresponds almost entirely to the growth of this particular sector of industrial production. If something grows along with the self-movement of the economy, it can only be the alienation that has inhabited the core of the economic sphere from its inception. Again, the main purpose of the spectacle is to alienate us even more than the sphere of production (alienated labor) does. Alienation from our lives, from awareness of our exploitation, etc., is the greatest weapon of capital when it comes to reproducing itself (keeping the capitalist system going). Capital seeks to further alienate us from the most concrete and meaningful aspects of our lives so that we end up not even knowing why we are miserable. The growth of the spectacle corresponds to the growth of economic capital. For capital to grow is for alienation to grow. Where capital grows is where lots of people are living shitty “lives” of alienation.
33. Though separated from his product, man is more and more, and ever more powerfully, the producer of every detail of his world. The closer his life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically is he cut off from that life. Capitalism necessarily involves workers being deprived of the objects they make. Yet we all have an impulse to create things and to create ourselves. Capital “solves” this problem by consumerizing itself. This means that capitalism gives the consumers all sorts of ways to individualize and personalize themselves. The consumer is the one that is totally obsessed with cultivating one’s identity. Nowhere in human history have human beings been so devote to personalizing themselves than in the consumer era. However, this kind of self-individualization is bogus. It’s a simulation. Why? Because we differentiate ourselves through the commodities we consume, through the pop-cultural items we identify with, through the opinions we have, etc. But all this is inauthentic as fuck. It’s all hollow. Why? Because true authenticity lies in what we do and what we do is inauthentic. We’re all doing the same exact shit — consuming. Our “individuality” piggybacks on conformism. To truly cultivate ourselves would entail having enough time to develop the skills we would use in our creative, authentic activity. This pervasive fixation on personalizing oneself is an indicator of the fact that no one actually gets to do this at all. Baudrillard discusses this at length in The Consumer Society.
34. The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image. This is one of Debord’s most important statements and contributions to Marxist theory. This announces a new mode of capital — the shift from industrial capitalism to consumer capitalism that occurred in the postwar era. Marx described capital in terms of means of production, wage labor, commodities, surplus-value, raw materials, social relations, etc., but he didn’t live to see the emergence of the consumer society and mass culture in which capital transforms itself into images. From this point on, we have to also remember that capital can take on the form of images (news coverage, movies, pop culture, TV shows, video games, magazines, websites, etc.) for the sake of its own accumulation and reproduction.