Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle – a text which has become synonymous with the French 1968 moment – is cast in new light by the advent of social media. Far from being messianic, Debord’s analysis shows its limitations in its inability to estimate how far the trends it described could develop.
The society of the spectacle
Debord employed the term “society of the spectacle” to describe the process by which for his contemporaries “that which was directly lived [had] been estranged in a representation.” The individual, he argued, came to understand his existence and his society through the prism of images produced and defused by the cultural industry in such a way as to saturate his physical and mental environment.
Becoming the very definition of that which they sought to represent – be it an abstract psychological yearning like “happiness” or “satisfaction” or social processes like “friendship” or “government” – these images taken as a whole came to substitute themselves for reality. Through this process, the individual’s ability to define the conditions of his existence was further removed (alienation). A process which culminated in the utter impossibility of collective modes of being geared to reclaiming agency (atomization).
Far from referring to the entertaining nature of contemporary society, the term “spectacle” is an indictment of the passivity of the both the individual and the masses – spectators of their own reciprocal pulverization. In the dark night of the spectacle – which might be for Debord the dark of the cinema room akin to a Platonic cave – social media has been hailed as a beacon of hope to empower the individual, to weave a new social fabric and, ultimately, to challenge existing power structures. A blissfully disconnected account of the connected era.
The power of social
Debord’s account of the genesis of modern existence follows the development of capitalism. Individual perception is closely tied with structures of production and follows its successive shifts: the “degradation of being into having” – produced first and foremost by the spread of consumerism – followed by the “sliding of having into seeming” – produced by the proliferation of cultural representations.
The author placed particular emphasis on ownership and materialism and how the promises of both were only truly fulfilled through the gaze of society, rather than purely through acquisition. For a generation more preoccupied by “experiences” and less by “stuff” than its parents’, the focus has merely shifted to these ephemeral moments. Reinforcing the structures in place by a pattern of consumption which is – more so than material goods – in constant need of renewal, it also perpetuates the enshrinement of the power of the social which remains the sole token of the reality of the new mode of consumption.
The process described by Debord in the advent of the society of the spectacle and epitomized by social media illustrate the power of “the social” over reality and the corresponding degradation of existence to a world of appearances. The only notable difference is the shift from a behavioral pattern termed “conspicuous consumption” by Veblen to one of “conspicuous experience” as displayed through various social channels.
The false hopes of horizontal communication
What Debord had not anticipated, however, is the self-feeding tendencies of the society of the spectacle. The Society of the Spectacle is essentially an account of top-down manipulation of desire and perception by the established order. Social media has arguably horizontalized patterns of communication – companies and consumers, specialists and amateurs are leveled on an equal footing in access to communication.
Yet the horizontilization of communication has not curbed the spectacle. Rather, it allows users in turn to feed their own images and representations into the spectacle’s loop. Whether it is mimicking album cover artwork or a commercial aesthetic, content contributed by users duplicates the standard of traditional media described by Debord.
Far from matching his logic of ‘détournement’ by which decontextualized and personalized fragments of popular or high culture are used to subvert its message, user-generated content instead adopts the standard of the spectacle, multiplying its productive capacity and its reach.
The figure of “the star”, which was for Debord the cultural representation of non-alienated human existence is often mimed by social media users eager to claim the corresponding status. And through the imitation of the imitation, representation of existence has grown one step further removed in abstraction.
Identity and branding converge
Companies are following an opposite yet converging trajectory to that of individuals in the age of social media. Interestingly, if individuals’ efforts to assert their personality can increasingly be perceived as an exercise in branding, companies seem to be going towards developing a full-fledged human identity. Having always aspired to greater and greater personification, fantasizing over the status claimed by living members of society, the capabilities of social media platforms have exponentially developed companies’ ability to do so convincingly.
Both trends, however, converge in the present-day spectacle. Corporations can be seen masquerading as individuals: endorsing causes, defining a persona, listing preferences of a subjective nature to foster a sense of human attachment. Individuals, on the other hand, can be described as developing their own marketing strategy for the professional, dating or friend-making markets.
Individuals are trying to conform to the attributes of merchandise and corporations are claiming a human status for themselves and, by extension, their products. If this constitutes in a sense a revolution, in Debord’s view it would be seen as an anti-revolution and the enthronement of commodity fetishism.
Commodities and communities
Having been described as holding the potential to liberate the production of content and images from the grips of the cultural production industry, social media has reinforced trends that Debord had already described. Not only is the spectacle produced and distributed by users themselves, their own categorization into “communities” of shared interests facilitates the task of the cultural production complex.
For Guy Debord, the purpose of the spectacle is to confront the unprecedented issue of abundance, or over-production, by creating a stronger desire for goods and services dispensed by the system. The communities created online are a powerful vector for producers who can target their key-demographic exclusively. They could conceivably even go further – targeting one demographic with one message and another demographic with a different (and even contradictory) one.
The spectacle 2.0
For the individual, the spectacle has meant the slow degradation of being to having to finally seeming – a process which is now fully divorced from having. For society, the spectacle and its amalgamation into horizontal modes of communication has increased the power of social perception, exponentially multiplied production of spectacular images, and created a self-referencing virtual wasteland where companies and individuals interact without any basis in external reality. As for the motives that brought about the spectacle in the first placed, they are better served than ever by the self-assignation of individuals to groups of shared values, interests and – last but not least – consumer preferences.
The point is not that social media is inherently geared to operate in this particular fashion. Rather, the argument is that given the particular sequence of developments that allowed social media to arise and heavily conditioned the use that would be made of it, the result should come as no surprise.
Debord anticipation of the phenomenal development of the spectacle is rather vague, arguing that the spectacle would seek to continue its enterprise of conquest of the mental and physical environment of man. Mainly, the (Marxist) perspective he was writing from made him if not optimistic at least hopeful for the possibilities of emancipation from the clutches of the spectacle.
He was nonetheless realistic in the sense that he perceived how easily these attempts could be recuperated by the spectacle. Therein lies the true foresight of Debord as he consents that his own project did not exist outside of the realm of the spectacle, merely on the periphery, and that the denunciation of the spectacle was in no way incompatible with the spectacle, on the contrary.