Notes on Society of the Spectacle: Chapters 8 and 9

Society

Chapter 8: “Negation and Consumption Within Culture”

#180 “Culture is the general sphere of knowledge and of representations of the lived.” Once culture separates out on its own, it becomes imperialist and ends up suppressing its independence and eventually negating itself.

#181 Cultural development is a struggle between tradition and innovation, but can only be carried out with the permanent victory of innovation. Innovation can only be carried out by historical movement, but the “totality” of the historical movement tends to overshadow its cultural beliefs and suppresses any separation.

#193 “When culture becomes nothing more than a commodity, it must also become the star commodity of the spectacular society.” Debord talks about knowledge/culture already making up 29% the US national product every year back when he was writing this. This number has surely gone up since then, as we are in the service economy and everything we buy is aimed at providing us with an experience and aims at entertaining us.

#194-196 The spectacle invades knowledge and culture to the point of corrupting academic fields of study. The spectacle funds everything, so in order to gain grant money or to even be taken seriously, you must have a theory or take a position that validates or legitimizes the status quo. This constitutes a “general science of false consciousness” according to Debord. This is because the spectacle cannot and will not allow itself to be investigated to deeply. He doesn’t say it here, but my argument is that this leads to an empty pseudo-science.

#196-197 He takes particular issue with structural functionalism in the United States, and basically calls is an empty pseudo-science. He gives them credit for compiling a large amount of empirical data, but criticizes them because they fail to or refuse to go beyond a surface critique of the system, and generally ignore the issues that are embedded deep and lacking an understanding of history or of simply ignoring it.

#201 Structuralism is “anti-historical” which can cause people who study it or follow it to believe in a system that has an eternal presence “that was never created and will never end.” It presents the spectacle as a “preexisting unconscious structure” or, like he hinted at in earlier chapters, it presents the spectacle as simply the natural order, or “that’s just how things are.”

#202 “Just as one cannot appraise the value of a man in terms of the conception he has of himself, one cannot appraise —and admire— this particular society by taking as indisputably true the language it speaks of itself.” This happens all the time, and it’s backed up by opinions of pundits in the news, economics professors, etc. Probably his best sentence on structuralism “Consequently, it is not structuralism which serves to prove the transhistorical validity of the society of the spectacle; it is on the contrary the society of the spectacle imposing itself as massive reality which serves to prove the cold dream of structuralism.” 

#203 Debord argues for a critical theory that is willing investigate and identify the actual truth of what lies behind the spectacle, rather than succumbing to a social science that helps justify or explain the surface aspects of it. He argues that this critique should unite with resuming the revolutionary class struggle, but he also goes out of his way to say it does not overemphasize the efforts needed by the working class. He believes establishing this is a “long-range task”, meaning that this is not an overnight task due to the “obscure and difficult” path in front of critical theory.

#204 Critical theory must have it’s own language. This is important because we see how the spectacle chooses its words wisely with the various public relations campaigns it has. It is the job of critical theory to use it’s own language in order make clear what the spectacle obfuscates with its careful choice of words. I would argue that Debord wants us to use “historical language” in order to describe the true aim of the spectacle. Because, as he has already said, the social sciences that end up justifying the spectacle, are “anti-historical.”

#209 Debord reminds that theory and idealism only go so far. They are not valuable in themselves, but are valuable when put into historical action.

Chapter 8 Summary: Debord’s focus in this chapter is how the spectacle has infiltrated culture through art and knowledge. Just as everything tends to splinter out and specialize under capitalism, culture becomes separated from society and becomes independent. This leads to a cultural imperialism that negates culture itself.

Debord argues that when the spectacle infiltrates culture, it no longer serves the critical purpose it should be intended for. Rather, when culture is infiltrated by the spectacle, it ends up serving the spectacle and justifying its existence. It helps obfuscate reality and makes it difficult for individuals to see that there are any alternatives to the current system. Culture should be about free thinking and exploring the endless possibilities of the world, but the spectacle has a specific view of the world that it wants people to believe. It wants people to believe that this system never began, or that things have always been this way. It also wants people to believe it will never end, and this is just the way things are.

Debord goes into detail about how the spectacle infiltrated art, but I am not knowledgeable enough in that field to understand in detail. However, he also criticizes the social sciences, specifically the American school of structuralism in sociology. He states that structuralism helps give the system justification and proclaim that there is an order in which everything works. This is the worst type of science because it is not real science, it is pseudo-science. It refuses to go further than the surface of the matter and explore the issues at root with the spectacle. Instead, it prefers to look at the spectacle on the spectacle’s own terms, using the spectacular language that is used to sell the system to people on a regular basis. Debord argues that critical theory should use its own critical language in order to help open up debate and shine light on the injustices that the system produces. Until we utilize critical theory in order to critique the system, the spectacle will likely continue to infiltrate and control knowledge and culture. That means the reality we see today with the University of Wisconsin and North Carolina systems could be the reality for all other higher educational systems. The spectacle will fund what it sees as valuable scientific material that is useful, and discontinue or allow to continue in miserable squalor, the fields of study which it finds to be a nuisance or pointless.

Chapter 9: “Ideology Materialized”

#212 The spectacle has materialized from the concrete success of capitalism by tailoring all reality in terms of its model. In other words, capitalism has built a world that favors its success and continuation.

#213 The ideology of the spectacle has won, there is no more struggle to paint the world in its light. The victory has been so profound that this ideology is no longer seen as an ideology; it is beyond ideology. It now has a “positivistic exactitude” about it, where these ideas are seen as facts. “This is another way of saying that the history of ideologies is over.” This last line is very similar to Fukuyama’s “End of History” after the Soviet Union collapsed, but Debord was writing this about 30 years earlier.

#214 Debord calls the rule of the spectacle’s ideology the “despotism of the fragment which imposes itself as pseudo-knowledge of a frozen totality.” In other words, the spectacle is the domination of the entire society by the economic segment. Ideology blocks access to historical life (like he said about capitalism in previous chapters), but now that this is complete, Debord argues that it will disappear as society disintegrates. Another dialectical argument.

#215 The spectacle is the “highest stage of an expansion which has turned need against life.” Debord talks about the need for money getting in the way or becoming more important than the need to actually live a fulfilling or free life. He notes that the spectacle brings the principle of money into every facet of life. Every decision you make in your life should be seen as an economic decision. What college degree will get me the best return on my investment, which person I marry will be more economically stable, etc. He pulls a few great quotes from Marx and then Hegel that speak to this: 1) “The need for money is thus the real need produced by political economy, and the only need it produces.” 2) The principle of money for Hegel is “the life of what is dead, moving within itself.”

#216 The spectacle “simultaneously preserves, and imposes… the ideological characteristics of materialism and idealism.” It does this with materialism because material objects are “the masters of social life” in a system that lives to fetishize and sell you commodities for a profit. Idealism is preserved through “the technical mediation of signs and signals.” We receive these signs and signals every day that tell us what ideals we should have. We receive them through the media, through the institutions that we interact with on a daily basis, etc. They tell us what ideals the spectacle thinks are okay for us to believe in. Something like the American Dream is a safe ideal for you to have because it requires you to take out a mortgage to buy a house, get a loan for a car, reproduce and indoctrinate your children to do the same, etc.

#217 The spectacle removes the actual practice of living from the world and takes it into the realm of appearance. The removal of this praxis is accompanied by an “anti-dialectical false consciousness” that is imposed on the people that make up society every day of their life (similar to what I said in the last thesis). No longer are we encountering a real, lived experience. Instead, we get the “illusion of encounter.” This ties back to Debord’s fourth thesis “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” When people are no longer able to authentically interact and cannot recognize one another but through spectacular images, they soon become unable to recognize their own reality. This is when separation has been achieved in the world. Or, as Debord says, “Ideology is at home; separation has built its world.”

#218 When we relate to one another based on an existence mediated by images, our consciousness becomes a prisoner behind the screen of the spectacle to which “life has been deported.” We are only able to recognize the “fictional speakers who unilaterally surround him with their commodities and the politics of their commodities.”

#219 True and false don’t matter in the spectacle because the truth is driven below the surface where “fraud” dominates thanks to the “organization of appearance.” A person who passively accepts the daily norms of the spectacle is brought to a madness that “reacts in an illusory way to this fate by resorting to magical techniques.” So, after mentioning schizophrenia in the last couple of theses, he appears to be of the opinion that people are searching so hard for an authentic self within the spectacle, but are denied this “representation” by a system that wants a passive, alienated vessel that will buy commodities, that schizophrenia is a normal reaction to this system.

#220 Patience is a virtue. “The critique which goes beyond the spectacle must know how to wait.” He says this because he understands that when it comes to changing the system, the idea with the most immediate effectiveness is likely to gather the favor of the majority. Unfortunately, the easy solution is not the right solution. It compromises with the spectacle, and we get something like Keynesian social democracy, which will eventually be overthrown by capital because capital takes limits and makes them barriers, and it eventually gets around barriers (i.e. the decline of Keynesianism and the rise of neoliberalism). If we are looking for a long term solution, there is no compromising with the spectacle. It must be completely overthrown. But, again, that will take patience.

#221 Debord’s solution is to bring everybody together under real democracy. It won’t happen with just one person or with a manipulated crowd, but will take an entire class of people. Democracy is “dealienating” and allows everybody to participate, rather than being a passive observer to the system that governs them. It allows individuals to directly affect history and feel as if they are a part of something bigger, because they are moving history forward and breaking out of the pseudo-cyclical time of the mundane life they led under the spectacle.

Chapter 9 Summary: The complete domination of the economic realm has led to the materialization of ideology under the spectacle. The spectacle’s ideology is almost untraceable nowadays, as it appears to have moved beyond ideology. Its ideals are seen as facts and natural laws, and it appears as if we have reached the end of ideology.

The ideological blanket covers the entirety of society and removes actual living from the world. Everything is seen in economic terms. We value an education based on our “return on investment” and not based on what we are genuinely interested in. We begin to choose money over actually living. The spectacle provides us with not only the material goods that it wants us to desire, but it also provides us with the ideals that it wants us to strive to live toward, which really are just more ways for us to consume various commodities (i.e. attaining the American Dream by taking out a mortgage, getting a car loan, having a family to indoctrinate into this system). The spectacle takes the lived experience out of life and moves us into a state of appearance. It alienates us from ourselves as well as others. We relate to other people through the mediation of spectacular images. We have no idea who we really are because the spectacle has infiltrated every part of our life. It can drive a person who passively follows along (or someone who actively tries to fight it) to madness in the form of various mental health ailments (he lists schizophrenia, but depression and anxiety are serious issues too).

Debord’s ultimate solution isn’t all that different from most social scientists today: democracy. He believes that democracy is “dealienating” because it allows everyone to take an active role in moving history forward. He urges that the true revolutionary moment should not compromise with the spectacle. He acknowledges that during crises and revolutionary periods that often the solution that seems to have the most immediate effectiveness is the most popular. But these ideas are simply a bandage and not a panacea. Capitalism always overcomes barriers, and compromising with the system (ala Keynesian social democracy) will only temporarily slow capitalism until it reforms into something new (ala neoliberalism). The final two theses about his solutions seem like duds to me, but they would likely take an entire other book to cover. The point of the book was to describe the experience of late capitalism, and I think he did an excellent job of this.

Notes from chapters 1-3 can be found here.

Notes from chapter 4 can be found here.

Notes from chapter 5 can be found here.

Notes from chapter 6 can be found here.

Notes from chapter 7 can be found here.

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