Guy Debord was a French theorist that became an important part of postmodernity and shaped the theory of the spectacle and its role in society during the 1960s. He is particularly interesting with the fact that he often put his theory into practice with his creation of the situationist group that often protested against societal norms and capitalist control, which were significant aspects in his theory. Overall, Debord’s theory on the spectacle is vital to the postmodern theories and is used to explain the toxic relationship between media, economy, and society.
Guy Debord’s spectacle is part of the Postmodern theory. He belongs to the Postmodern theorists because of his ideas style destroying substance and media or the spectacle changing or extinguishing reality. Postmodernism, as defined by Dan Laughey in Key Themes of Media Theory, is the movement from modern ways to new postmodern ways. These new ways are separated into two forms: the creation and spreading of new media, and the rise of consumer culture with the disappearance of forms of production. Debord focuses on the rise of consumer culture that spreads the new media and controls the production. The spectacle creates an emphasis on style over substance and the lack of societal interaction through the seclusion of consumers in the terms of postmodern theories. He gives an explanation of society through the effects and control of the capitalist economies and of commodities.
Guy Debord, in his book The Society of the Spectacle, interprets the world as a commodity and is ruled by capitalism. Those who are leaders in capitalist economies create media or spectacle to control and segregate consumers with the help of technology such as television or radio. Debord paints the image of a “lonely crowd” in terms of this capitalist isolation to explain how consumers become isolated by capitalism, but they are also under the same capitalist control. The unified control is through the people’s concentration on the spectacle while also being separate from all other concentrations through deceiving the audience’s gaze. The audience believe that the media that they are seeing is real when it is not, merging them in their beliefs and reliance on the media and commodities but still isolating them from actual reality. And, this reliance on fake media creates fake needs, or pseudo-needs, within the population.
Debord creates the idea of pseudo-needs. These are needs consumers experience because the of the control that the capitalist industries have. The spectacle is what they use to create them. He positions that the audience takes up the role of the spectacle. In doing this, the audience as the spectacle works to move the spectacle from idea to reality, so that it becomes reality when introduced into the audience’s everyday life. However, the consumers are left with a false representation of life with the fact that the spectacle is the consumer creating different roles for themselves because they do not comprehend that reality does not exist when influenced by the images and media that create the spectacle.
An example of how Debord put his spectacle theory into practice is by creating a group in 1957 called the “Situationists,” who all had the main goal of making people aware of the blindness and seclusion that the capitalist economies have created through media. They believed that people have become destitute because of the fact that what everyone is forced to consume does not give the meaning it actually has, therefore giving consumers no meaning as they become the spectacle they consume. This lack of thought creates a segregated society that the situationists fought to end. They created situations that forced people to interact and think about what was going on.
Another example would be an uprising in Paris in 1968, that was influenced by the situationists’ movement, that forced the French people to think about how the country was being run and how people were barely surviving with the existence of the spectacle. Those who started the uprising were influenced by the situationists’ situations that made
people think about the hegemonic norms that they were following. The Paris Uprising was a forced examination of the French government and society, with an emphasis on the hegemonic norms like the situationists, specifically by students at the Nanterre University. It pairs with the idea of going against hegemonic, or dominant, norms that the situationists practiced, which led to students, workers and everyday people around the city to become part of a strike. In classrooms, students would stand and scream political sayings, and workers would yell them in the streets. This becomes part of the Situationists’ practice of disrupting normal society practices that are often controlled by media.
So, with the overall idea of people who have become spectacles being isolated from society, this leads to thoughts and ideas becoming unimportant and the interaction with society nonexistent.
Debord, G., & Nicholson-Smith, D. (2012). The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.
Laughey, D. (2010). Key Themes in Media Theory. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Morgan, T., & Purje, A. (2017, May 14). An Illustrated Guide to Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’. Retrieved May 7, 2018, from https://hyperallergic.com/313435/an-illustrated-guide-to-guy-debords-the-society-of-the-spectacle/
Poggioli, S. (2008, May 13). Marking the French Social Revolution of ’68. Retrieved May 7, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90330162
Situationists – An Introduction. (2006, October 12). Retrieved May 7, 2018, from https://libcom.org/thought/situationists-an-introduction
Image Attribution: Image #1 “Guy Debord, painted portrait DDC_7567. jpg” by Thierry ehrmann licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0); Image #2 “Situationist posters (Paris 1968)” by E Wayne licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); Image #3 is in the Public Domain
Written by Gillian White, 2018