Reading Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle”

As a doctoral student, one of my primary tasks is to write. One would assume this is a no-brainer and should come easily to any bookish individual who chooses to pursue a graduate degree. I have worked as a journalist in the past, where I wrote rapidly to deadlines based on the calculation of page-space in inches, alongside advertisements for cars and the latest hockey scores. I have also written prose fiction and poetry in my spare time. I tend to enjoy writing most of the time.

In theory, I am now free to write virtually all day long. However, there is something to be said for having too much freedom. In some ways, graduate students have a lot of freedom (in other ways they have very little). A modern impediment to writing is the tyranny of the screen. The pervasiveness of digital distraction has been widely discussed in books, magazines, and television shows. Our writing implements are filled with one-click access to movies, games, social media, and more. It is as if one’s pencil could also turn into a three-ring circus, chess match, or radio show with a single click.

I’ve read a number of books on technology, but I feel like Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle offers an interesting take on both current events and my own immersion in a world of diversions. I intend to use it as the basis for a series of writing exercises here on Medium. In the visual art world, painters and illustrators will often ‘warm up’ by drawing abstract shapes or loose sketches for 20 minutes or so before they move on to their more serious work. I am going to try and do something similar on Medium. I plan to use Debord’s book, which is broken down into numbered paragraphs, to warm up on my writing. I will write a small amount in response to each section, tying it to current events, my own research, or whatever other thoughts are provoked.

I don’t intend for this space to be a deep scholarly disputation or investigation into Debord’s philosophy, but more a series of reader response articles. I need practice.

The Society of the Spectacle is broken into nine chapters, the first of which is titled “Separation Perfected”. It is important to note that Debord places a quote from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind on the very first page of the book, before the title page, publishing information, or table of contents. The quote makes clear the distinction between the representation of the self and the actuality of the self — “where it is by proxy, it is not”. This is the thought Debord wants us to enter his work with. The modern reader should be able to immediately identify with this concept by considering something as common as Facebook. Facebook, according to this logic, is a place where the self is not — it is a place where the self is by proxy.

Chapter one of Society of the Spectacle also begins with an epigraph, this time by Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. It is placed opposite the image of an industrial labourer using a file on an enormous gear-shaft that completely dwarfs him in scale. I could spend this entire space discussing the Feuerbach quote, but I’ll boil it down to a simple description. Feuerbach states that society (in the nineteenth century) values illusion over truth. It venerates illusion as sacred but truth as profane. In this way, we begin Debord’s Society of the Spectacle — where the self exists as an ideal presentation, it is not actual; where the self is by proxy, it is not; where society encounters illusion, it sees sacredness; where society encounters truth, it sees the profane.

Debord presents his first paragraph:

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

Vancouver certainly qualifies as a place where the modern conditions of production prevail. Obviously, this is now the case for a massive swathe of humanity. We literally move through life gripping a screen in our palms, struggling to lift our eyes from the ongoing spectacle and representation it conveys. But Debord argues further that all of life is now consumed by this representative mode.

What is ‘direct living’? I assume we can determine this by tracing backward from the idea of spectacle. If a kiss in a movie is a spectacle, then is a kiss between lovers in a field an example of something that was once directly lived? Similarly, we might think of cooking a meal for the sole purpose of eating versus the idea of cooking a meal with nice outfit on, taking pictures of the food, watching a cooking show, or eating at a restaurant with an open view of the kitchen.

If we think back to the Hegel and Feuerbach quotes, it’s possible to argue that Debord is suggesting we have lost the actuality of our lives, that a part of our lives have ceased to be. He is also suggesting that we have learned to venerate the spectacles we accumulate as sacred images. The perceived ‘profanity’ of something like death is obscured by an endless accumulation of spectacles.

It’s interesting to think of the American election in this light, or even the BC election. Both events are an ‘immense accumulation of spectacles’. We watch representations of these things and people and events on our televisions. Modern conditions of production ensure a continual renewal of these spectacles in the public arena, the illusion of political discourse. Certainly, Trump seems intuitively aware of this dynamic, and the cultish fever with which his followers view him aligns with the idea of the illusion as sacred. The ideal presentation of the self negates the actuality of the self. When a housefly landed on Mike Pence’s head during the American vice-presidential debate, it was a momentary break in the spectacle just as it became a part of that spectacle.

Even flies are now representations, both of their own actuality, and of their symbolic meaning — decay, filth, death, waste, etc. The illusion of a fly is as political as a the illusion of the vice president of the United States.

It is unsettling to consider that I might be so ensconced in an existence of spectacle and representation that I no longer ‘directly live’ or even really know what that means. Now in a time of Zoom calls for class and seminars, we have further reduced life to spectacle. ‘Zoom fatigue’ may be described as boredom. As far as spectacles go, Zoom meetings and classes do not compete well with Netflix and Youtube, which we know are waiting a few clicks away.

I think Society of the Spectacle is considerably more important and relevant now than in 1967 when it was first published.



Jedidiah Anderson is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where he studies higher education in northern and circumpolar regions.

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Jedidiah Anderson

Jedidiah Anderson is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where he studies higher education in northern and circumpolar regions.