Notes on Society of the Spectacle: Chapters 1-3


In recent weeks I’ve begun reading Guy Debord’s classic Society of the Spectacle. I always like to take long-winded notes when I read, but due to the abstract nature of Debord’s writing and the fact that he packs so much into tiny paragraphs called “theses”, my notes are even more long-winded than usual. Thus, I am breaking my notes into sections of chapters. Today, chapters 1-3. I will post other chapters as I finish them.

My notes aren’t organized necessarily well, and they may have some grammatical or spelling errors. This is not a polished essay, but literally just notes I typed up in my notepad while I was reading.

If you would like to read the original text yourself, you can find it for free online here.

Notes are after the jump.

Separation Perfected (alienation, and separation from actually being)

Theses 1-9

The spectacle comes from the dominant mode of production (modern capitalism). It is the domination of the economy over social life. However, while the language of the spectacle is the language of the mode of production (consumerism), the spectacle grows until it totally controls the mode of production— My take, anyway.

The spectacle invades social activity and human being. It makes us believe that the spectacle is real life, and once we believe that it is, it becomes the real. The spectacle produces an inversion of reality (the matrix?). The spectacle alienates us from actually being by making us think that being is having. What we think is true, is actually false. 

My take: Traditional Society = living/being, Modern Society = having/consuming under the development of capitalism, Postmodern Society = Appearing, situations.

Even though many people don’t believe postmodernism started until at least the 70s and this book was written in the 60s, some do believe postmodernism started after WWII. That could be the case here. 

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but social relationships among people that is mediated by images. We relate to each other based on the products we consume. Individualism is demonstrated through the brands we wear and the products we consume. 

The spectacle presents itself as good for society, unchangeable (capitalism is the only way to organize society), and inaccessible in the manner that you could never hope to grasp it and change it if you wanted to (the economy is too hard for you understand, let the experts take care of it or we can’t help the crises). 

The spectacle must be good because it’s everywhere, it’s popular. Popularity means superiority, you know. #12 It covers the entirety of the world and basks in its own glory. 

!!!The spectacle is not an accident. It serves a consumerist/distractionist purpose. 

The main production of society is the spectacle. Before everything else, the continued production of it is imperative. 

Human beings are subjugated to the spectacle by the economy (capitalism) because the economy is developing for itself. Mass marketing tactics, establishing brands, creating demand for products that we really don’t need in order to make a profit. 

The first step in the domination of the spectacle over human life is the degradation of being into having. The next step is moving from having to appearing. Having commodities becomes important from the appearance standpoint. You buy a fancy purse in order to appear rich, rather than owning the purse because it serves a special purpose that a cheaper purse could not serve. It demonstrates social power and shapes power and social reality. #17

Modern western society/capitalism breaks reality down via rationalized specialization. The spectacle also presents itself to people via specialized images, which makes it almost impossible for most people to actually see reality for what it is. #18-19

!!!“The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion.” #20

Once the need for commodities (my example) is socially dreamed, continuing to dream and strive for the consumption of those commodities becomes necessary.

The spectacle is dominated by specialized, hierarchical (economic) power, similar to how other societies have been organized in the past. It bans all expression that isn’t consumption (my take). But the fact that, at its root, it is similar to other organizations of society’s past, even though it is modern, it is simultaneously archaic. #23

The spectacle is essentially the ruling economic class using its totalitarian methods to demonstrate how great it is. The consumption of images from the spectacle becomes a second nature that dominates everything. It obscures the fact that relations are between humans and classes (commodity fetishism). 

Mass media is mediated through the powers that be that run the spectacle (government/economic heads) and is unilateral in a way that it communicates to us what to think and believe in order to keep the spectacle going. (This was written before the time of the internet. It would be interesting to see what he would say about information on the internet.)

!!!#28 The spectacle produces isolation (narcissism, lack of cooperation and trust, etc.). All technology is based on isolation: TV, computer, cell phone, etc. “Lonely crowds” like sitting on break with co-workers, but everyone is on their cell phone. My take: Part of the individualism of the modern world? E.g. Durkheim, when modernity meets the traditional world, it smashes everything into individuals. (#29 “The spectacle originates in the loss of the unity of the world…”)

#30!!! The spectator is alienated by profit of production. The more he contemplates life, the less he actually “lives” according to the spectacle (depression can set in). The more he simply accepts recognizing himself the way the spectacle/economy would like him to, the “happier” he is, but the less he actually understands his existence and desires. My take: work, the more I do my meaningless job, the more “happy” I am and productive I feel. But I also feel empty and not in control of myself. The more I don’t do my meaningless work, the more depressed I feel. Also the more free. Almost like I need that harness of “productive work” to help my self-esteem.

#30The alienation of the spectacle makes sure that the gestures (any action or movement) is not man’s himself, but are really those of another who is representing them to him (advertising). My take: you are not free, therefore every way in which you believe you are expressing yourself, you are actually expressing yourself not freely, but in a way in which corporate interests want you to live and express yourself so that they can make profit and you can feel “happy” and like an individual. Buying Nikes, makeup, etc. 

#31 Basic Marx, in that every worker is alienated from their own labor, as it goes to the producer who sells it in order to make a surplus. This makes up the entirety of the spectacle, as every one is alienated from their labor.

#32 Alienation grows deeper and deeper as the spectacle/economy creep deeper into our every day lives. #33 Man produces more and more of the world, but has less power because he is constantly being separated further from his actual being. 

#34 “The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.” What does this mean? The spectacle is capital, but how does it become an image?

Summary: The meaning of separation in the first chapter is important to show that we are removed from real life and therefore become passive viewers to the spectacle. Capitalism, as Marx stated, leads to alienation. In postmodernism capital has invaded every aspect of our life, leading to total alienation not just at work, but at home, everywhere. Everything becomes more abstract and harder to get a grasp on, so much so that we just sit back and watch economic elites run the show. When we are alienated in every aspect of life, we become separated from real life. We are no longer in control of our actions, and when we do try to become aware of real life or explore our alienation we become depressed and begin to feel there is no way out, as the system has created immense pressures to keep us locked in. We are also alienated from others by economic transactions and glowing screens, leading to “lonely crowds.” This invasion of the spectacle aims to kill of solidarity and collectivism, leading to an individualistic world in which everyone competes and trusts no one. 

Another good summary is here:

Chapter 2 Commodity as Spectacle

Commodities seem so trivial, but they are so important. Since the spectacle is the economy seeping into every aspect of life, that means the spectacle is also the domination of everyday life by the commodity. My take: We work to produce them and our main reason for living within the spectacle is to buy them. It seems like a never-ending cycle. 

#38 A little bit of Weber here with the loss of the mystical and the rise of rationality under modernity? Not sure I’m reading it right, but it sounds as if the spectacle only allows the commodity to be talked about in quantitative terms, rather than allowing humans to see the alienation in qualitative terms. Could this also mean the fact that the labor theory of value is overlooked for a more “rational” supply and demand theory?

#40 What has become of human existence since the development of capitalism and the productive forces that have come along with it, is an under-told story in history. In traditional society, you literally had to work/farm to survive due to scarcity. Yes, capitalism has solved scarcity, but while capitalism can liberate us from scarcity, we are now in need of liberation from our liberator, capitalism (spectacle, commodity). So, yes, capitalism has reshaped the world, but it has also reshaped every aspect of the world in its likeness, so that everything becomes defined in terms of it. Thus, quantitative profit is everything, and we lose quality from the world.  

#42!!! “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained total occupation of social life.”- People see the world and relationships in terms of relationships to commodities. Love your wife? Buy her an expensive designer handbag. Love your husband? Buy him a giant new smart TV. Brings up the idea of “alienated consumption.” Love it! This term fits the mass-marketing world we live in so well. The use of brands and peer pressure in order to get people to think they need something, even though deep down they know they don’t need it or won’t ever use it. It’s as if almost we are not in control of our consumption in modern capitalism. Says that alienated consumption has become as much of a duty as alienated production. Great way to explain why consumption is preached so hard in capitalism. It is your patriotic duty to spend money and buy commodities in order to keep the economy afloat. Or, in Debord’s words, keep the spectacle alive. It is essentially one big cycle of alienation, in which the spectacle is everywhere separating you from real life. 

#43 Capitalism began with only caring about the worker as a laborer and nothing else. Capitalists couldn’t be bothered to care what happened with the worker outside of giving up their labor. They could be starving and homeless, who cares? In postmodern capitalism, humans are not just workers, but they are now consumers because the spectacle has grown so large (my take: due to capitalism’s inherent, constant growth and quest for profit) it also relies on consumption from common-folk and not just elites. 

#43 cont’d However, humans are not treated like humans by the spectacle because they value their “humanness”, rather they are treated better because of the commodities that they may purchase. Therefore, it is at this point in which the humanism of the commodity invades humanism and leisure of people. This is where the spectacle is now part of every aspect of life. 

#44 The spectacle makes people identify commodities with happiness and survival. It’s a way to commoditize and make a profit off of survival. Making a profit off of housing, healthcare, etc. rather than making them human rights. 

#45 Automation creates a contradiction within the spectacle/economy: capitalists have the incentive to cut labor costs by investing in new technology, but if this goes too far, they put consumers out of work and make it so they can’t afford to buy their commodities. Therefore, automation cannot go all the way, so the spectacle must create more bullshit jobs in order to keep the spectacle going.— Great quote: “Services, the tertiary sector, swell the ranks of the army of distribution and are a eulogy to the current commodities; the additional forces which are mobilized just happen to be suitable for the organization of redundant labor required by the artificial needs for such commodities.”

#46 and #47 In capitalism, use value is dominated by exchange value. (#44 again too.) Due to the privation built into the system (consume healthcare or housing or die) people are forced to sell their labor to the capitalist. He calls this “blackmail.” I love his use of language. Because people accept this reality, they buy into the “illusion” of the commodity that is manifested in the spectacle. 

#48 Use value is inherent in every commodity just as exchange value is, but most people fail to see it and only think in terms of exchange value (just as the spectacle likes). However, people really have to proclaim the right of use value and make a big deal out of it because use value has been so eroded within the spectacle, despite the fact that it is everywhere. Language here again is great: “counterfeit life requires pseudo-justification” regarding use value. 

#49 The spectacle is also interchangeable with money. When the world is defined in terms of money, the commodity world (the economy) appears as the “general equivalence for what the entire society can be and can do.” My example: defining the success of a country in terms of GDP rather than something else, like happiness. 

#51!!! Capitalism has built in contradictions, so once it finally wins (collapse of USSR and disappearance of Marxist talk from social life?) it also sows the seeds of it’s own demise. Capitalism frees us from scarcity, “solves economic necessity” but once it does that it unleashes capitalism’s insatiable need for growth. So economic necessity is replaced by “necessity for boundless economic development.” Constantly striving for new growth ends up creating “pseudo-needs.” Things we don’t really want or need, but we create a demand for them in order to continue growth. Growth becomes the one main pseudo-need, as it maintains the economy. This is why David Harvey thinks infinite growth is not only impossible, but a problem. 

#53 My take: It seems as if he is saying that within the spectacle, the commodity is more conscious, more aware of reality than the regular human because it has made this world. 

Summary: The spectacle is essentially the total domination of society by the commodity. Along with the domination of the commodity comes the complete domination of “rationality” and exchange value. Quality is gone from the world, and all that matters is money and cost-effectiveness. To even get people to listen to a qualitative argument about why we should care more about use value, you basically have to stage a social protest. The commodity comes to dominate so much that everything in society is no longer built around simply producing, but the consumer becomes extremely important within postmodern society. Capitalists now care about workers outside the factory because the spectacle has to create demand for their commodities. Debord briefly mentions automation, but states that the economy could never be fully automated because the capitalists need laborers to make some kind of wage to buy their products. The system would most likely collapse in on itself if we went to full automation, so that’s why we keep creating bullshit jobs. Capitalists don’t want to pay workers much, but they have to pay them something in order to keep the spectacle going and growing. And since the spectacle is the domination by the economy and the commodity, growth becomes the be all, end all. Growth is basically a religion, and a statistic like GDP becomes the only thing the government/spectacle cares about instead of something like human happiness.

Chapter 3 Unity and Division Within Appearance

Very Hegelian title to the chapter. Importance of the dialectic.

#54 There is simultaneously unity and division within the spectacle. On some level, we all know about income inequality and the huge divide between rich and poor. However, at the same time, we also buy into spectacle and the notion of the American Dream, in which we feel like we could one day be like one of the oligarchs, even though we know that is extremely unlikely. 

#55!!! I imagine he is talking about differences between elites in political parties, but also differences in public vs. private. In both cases, each side puts on the appearance of a huge difference, but in reality, they are united as one to manage the capitalist system/spectacle. For example: Democrats are supposedly pro-public, lower classes and government. Republicans are supposedly pro-private, upper class, and business. Little changes when each runs the country, however. They are all from the upper class and they are paid off by other folks in the upper class through things like campaign donations. So, again, appearance is huge here. Politicians and businessmen put on a show to make it seem like there is a huge divide, but they are really united. 

#56 and #57 I believe he is saying something to the effect of, no matter how different a country appears to be, it is still run completely by capitalism (even the USSR was totalitarian, bureaucratic, state-controlled capitalism); the entire world is. He then goes on to talk about how economic hegemony is not the only way in which the society that carries the spectacle dominates. When he says “carries” I imagine he means that certain western countries push the spectacle onto other countries through more than just economic means. Modern society invades every continent to ensure the spectacle is in place there. A good example of this is all of the bullshit the CIA has done in other countries. They carried out pseudo-revolutions and put new governments in place. There is a form of bureaucratic totalitarianism that resides within the spectacle, and not just within the USSR at the time.

#59!!! “Under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle, banalization dominates modern society…” Love this quote! I imagine some of this is a product of the bureaucracy that he already mentioned. However, he also talks in this paragraph about how the spectacle is so exciting because there is constant change and development, giving you more products to choose from. However, while there is constant change, this change is banal in the fact that they can only make so many flavors of Mountain Dew before it starts to feel forced. 

#59 cont’d He says that dissatisfaction has also become a commodity at times under the spectacle (another part of appearing and not actually being). My immediate thought would be pundits and think tanks who are paid to be “dissatisfied.” However, they aren’t genuinely dissatisfied in the sense that they want to end the spectacle, rather they put on a spectacular farce and make it sound like the changes they want are going to help liberate us, when they really have ulterior motives to help the spectacle grow.

#60 On Celebrities So many good quotes in this one thesis: A celebrity is the “spectacular representation of a living human being…” ”Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived;” “Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally.” To me, it seems as if he is saying that celebrities essentially show us how we are “supposed to live” and what we are supposed to consume. The various possible ways of living are shown to us through the spectacle of celebrities. 

I also think they show us what we can’t have, but just seeing it makes us feel almost like we are living it. Again, we have moved to a world of appearance. I find this with something like the Travel Channel. On the one hand, I know I will never have the money to travel to all these amazing places and have these types of experiences, so I like the channel because I feel almost like I am experiencing it. On the other hand, I know I’m not really experiencing it, but I’m more appearing to experience it. 

As far as “the banality of the celebrity” goes, I think Debord is saying that celebrities make us feel like there are so many fascinating lifestyles, but in reality it is all just the same hyper-consumption and living through brands. 

#61 Celebrities always appear to be the definition of the great individual that modern, western society loves. They did it their way, and they live totally free. Debord believes that to be a spectacle as well, as he says a star is the opposite of an individual. Rather, to identify as a star, one has to give up all autonomy and give into the “general law of obedience” of the spectacle. 

#62 This one is a bit difficult for me to understand what he means about false choice in spectacular abundance, and how it relates to racisms and oppositions that help divide society. He even mentions sports, which I would be curious to understand more about, but after doing a google search, there isn’t much about this thesis. I did find a reddit forum where people discussed the entire book, so that was interesting:

#63 I can really relate this thesis to my understanding of Bosnia. Politicians use nationalism/ethnic hatred in order to divide citizens to help keep them in power while they profit. On the surface, ethnicity looks to separate everyone in that country, but if they were all able to see what was really going on, they would understand that they are all united in being alienated by the spectacle. 

#64 Concentrated vs. diffused spectacle. Essentially, concentrated spectacle goes hand-in-hand with bureaucratic capitalism, or the USSR and other “communist” governments during this time. Fewer commodities. They control with “permanent violence” and whether it is “food or music” the bureaucracy has to choose what is appropriate for citizens to consume. Reminds me of how the USSR would frequently jam radio signals for Radio Free America during the Cold War. 

#64 cont’d Societies with concentrated spectacles also must have one god-like leader to idolize. Stalin, Tito, Mao, etc. They are the “master of non-consumption, and the heroic image.” The non-consumption is funny because these leaders were always the biggest consumers in the country. Tito had like 8 mansions and was even known to have a personal zoo at one of his island residences. Again, though, “communist” leaders were just actors in a spectacle.

I do wonder if the definition for concentrated spectacle has muddied a bit today. Certainly, China is no longer the same as they were under Mao. They still have the totalitarian structure of the communist party in place, but they don’t have an iconic leader in the way the former communist countries used to. Really, that has seemed to die out except for in North Korea. Russia might also be an exception, as Putin is clearly the supreme leader. However, they are no longer communist. They are outright capitalist and appeared to have moved toward a more diffuse spectacle in the 90s, but they are run with the totalitarian characteristics of a concentrated spectacle. Even the U.S. seems more totalitarian with surveillance practices. 

#65 The diffuse spectacle goes hand-in-hand with a system that has an abundance of commodities and allows capitalism to develop and rule unfettered. It seems production is justified for production’s sake (the need for constant growth, quantity and not necessarily quality). “Different star-commodities simultaneously support contradictory projects for provisioning society.” Another part of the dialectic. Every new commodity produces great innovation, but it also produces a societal cost that we don’t always recognize right away. He talks about cars and the need for highways that destroy old cities (and also natural habitat), but to extend that to today, something like the internet. Internet is great for instant information on everything, but it also has the negative downside of surveillance. Or if you want to stick with nature, go back to the car, and look at the need for oil and the practice of fracking that is ruining the environment. 

It does seem that the diffuse and concentrated have almost merged since the collapse of the USSR. It’s like a sliding scale, in which most countries are more diffuse nowadays, but certain countries like China and Russia are still further concentrated thanks to their past. 

#67 The use of the commodity is no longer first and foremost in postmodernity (Side note: Is this officially postmodernism? He wrote this in the 60s, but wasn’t postmodernity the 70s? But the way he talks about moving from having to appearing, really seems like a move away from classic modern capitalism into a postmodern sort of capitalism.). He wrote this in the 60s, so it’s really amazing to see how he talks about “gadgets” and the “religious fervor” people display in regards to them. Debord never saw people camp out for days to get the new iPhone, but that’s exactly what he is explaining in this paragraph. 

#68 Pseudo-needs are so powerful because they are shaped by society. It’s important to understand the types of people a certain society creates. The spectacle creates a “false” person. The “mechanical accumulation liberates unlimited artificiality.” Great quote. Consumption under the spectacle is very mechanistic, in which we aren’t really all that in control (alienated consumption). The abundance of commodities and our endless accumulation of them leads to a very artificial life because we aren’t consuming just what we need, we are consuming “pseudo-needs.” This causes people to form identities around brands and consumption patterns (my take); “I only drink Pepsi” or “I love Chipotle and Starbucks.”

#69 Almost like he’s talking a bit about planned obsolescence here. That commodity or gadget (iPhone, for instance), loses much of its sheen when you take it home. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that a month or two later, something new is released which is much cooler and leaves the gadget you just purchased looking archaic. Everyone appears united under the satisfaction of consumption, only to feel division when consumption does not necessarily lead to satisfaction, or long-lasting satisfaction. There is an emptiness that must be filled by the next new commodity (my take). 

I also find it amusing how when new high tech gadgets are released, there is literally a spectacle made about them. Apple unveils a new product and their head guy has to have people gather together while he unveils it on stage. There is music, special effects, etc. It is a gigantic production. 

#70 He’s comparing commodities to totalitarian dictators here? Are our leaders commodities that are bought and sold to us then? Interesting thought. “The fraud of satisfaction exposes itself by being replaced.” Commodities and leaders come and go, but the system must remain. But the spectacle almost seems vulnerable at these moments of change. For example, the fall of Yugoslavia after Tito passed away. As for actual material things and not leaders, “Every new lie of advertising is also an avowal of the previous lie.” So, is he saying that the longer this goes on, the more obvious it may become to people? For instance, they said this commodity would help liberate us from this, but it hasn’t. Why should we believe them about this new commodity. 

#72 Again, society projects unity, but below the surface there is class division that must be maintained in order to keep the spectacle going. He just talks about the different dialectics within the spectacle: capitalism motivates producers to participate in shaping society, but it also causes them to pull back from it and separate themselves away from the lower classes; the hyper-rationality that is built into the system also produces new irrationalities; what creates the power to build a “free” society, also has the ability to create one in which we are constantly being watched and manipulated to buy commodities. Essentially, capitalism/the spectacle is filled with all kinds of contradictions that have the ability to tear it apart. 

Summary: The spectacle/capitalism is rife with contradictions. Unity and division is everywhere, but we don’t always see it. Many of us feel united under the capitalist notion of constant consumption and feel as if we are all in this together, but lying under the surface is the increasing income inequality and class division that could tear the spectacle apart. When he was writing this, the world was split between the US and the USSR, capitalism and communism. However, he said that while there looks to be division on the surface, there is really unity underneath, as they were both part of the capitalist spectacle. They had some different characteristics (diffuse vs. concentrated), but they were both part of the spectacle. 

He also talks more about appearance in the chapter: selling lifestyles through celebrities, selling leaders to us like commodities, etc. There is also a dialectic in these relationships too. We really know that we can’t ever live like the celebrity exactly, but if we consume in a similar manner it makes us feel as if we are almost their equal. And with elected leaders, we know they are more powerful than we will ever be, but we also want to buy into the idea that they are hard-working, from lower-class roots, and someone we could drink a beer with. 

He also talks about pseudo-needs created by planned obsolescence. His talk of “gadgets” is amazing, considering he wrote this before the days of iPhone releases. But, again, he tells us that with constant change, that is when the system is at it’s most vulnerable. During that period of change, things must also stay the same. So Tito died, but the Yugoslav system had to stay intact. It of course only lasted about 10 more years, but that just highlights how vulnerable these things are during transitional periods. 


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