The Ultimate Spectacle

guy-debord_hurlements-21 Guy Debord-Howling for De Sade 1952[/caption]

“Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?”  Raoul Vaneigem,The Revolution of Everyday Life 1967

“In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle 1967

In 1967 the French film-maker, writer and head theorist of the Situationist International (Moving ImagesThe Hacienda Must Be Built), Guy Debord published an influential book of Marxist critical theory, The Society of the Spectacle, consisting of 221 thesis. Within its elegantly written and rigorously argued pages Debord advanced the theory of the Spectacle. The Spectacle has degraded authentic life and replaced it with mere representation, a decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. The Spectacle has supplanted relationships between people with relationships between commodities and we passively identify with the Spectacle. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,”  Debord notes,  “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”  The Spectacle obliterates the past and annihilates the future so that we live in an never-ending present. In this affect-less neuter-time there has been a systematic degradation of knowledge and we are incapable of critical thought, unaware that we are living in a moment in history.

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, announced that Western neo-liberalism was the final point in human evolution; it wasn’t going to get better than this and that we were living in a post-historical period: the Spectacle had won.

But of course the statement by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem quoted above holds true, and after a period when the Spectacle lacked a certain zest and an inability to hold our complete and undivided attention, the world has really turned upside down again. The true is a moment of the false. And we watch and wait with bated breath, in a rapt trance, with a horrified fascination as to what comes next. Maybe this time it will be the Ultimate Spectacle?

114 thoughts on “The Ultimate Spectacle

  1. Oblique, you say? I can’t imagine a more apropos description of our upside down time. What’s bad is good and what’s good is bad. Alternative facts. Edicts and denunciations handed down in 140 characters or less. The louder you yell the truer it is. The present is all there is because the future seems like a precipice towards which we are accelerating. Was this in one of your new literary acquisitions?

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    1. No I have written about the SI before in the links in the post. Not only is Trump a spectacular president (in the Situationist sense, a spectacle) but also he manufactures situations, though not in the way they would have wanted, so I did a bit of speed reading and hey presto. Plus I think we underestimate how boredom is a motivating factor in human history.

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      1. You know… that’s a good point – the boredom thing. I actually had a conversation with someone this weekend who said watching Trump was like watching an expanded version of a reality show. We’ve come to expect high drama. He certainly delivers.

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      2. The whole end of history theory was very reductive, people need something more than just economics and will embrace pretty much anything to give there life meaning. Hence the dangerous appeal. The amount of scandals is ridiculous and I started to get paranoid and almost started to think the whole thing was scripted.

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      3. On whose part though? Scripted by the Trump administration to appear persecuted and thus sympathetic? Or by the left and/or the media out on a witch hunt? Or maybe the Russians to throw the West into imploding once and for all.

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      4. You know, my other thought about him… sometimes when someone unqualified finds themselves in a position of greater responsibility, they find themselves the smartest and best qualified people to advise them. That hasn’t happened here. The best qualified people don’t want anything to do with him and he just wants people around him to agree with his distorted view of everything. And thus any opposition from clearer heads even within his own party are brushed off as a grand conspiracy against him. He can’t be advised it seems.

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      5. Paranoia is contemporary reality…ever since science has cast us out into a random and meaningless universe paranoia has imposed some meaning and order upon the world…a completely mad meaning but meaning nevertheless

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      6. Yes, and there is always the big “reveal”: will we or will we not sign the Paris accord? will he or will he not pardon (fill in the blank)? It’s a politics of mass distraction that may soon be mass destruction. Mr. Cake, your essay is refreshing, this take on it gives me hope we may overcome the — I’m not sure what — I almost said ‘carnival’, but sadly I can’t really think of these seven months as mere licensed shenanigans .

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      7. It is a carnival in a Bakhtin sense to a certain extant. I find it very disorienting that the right seems to be borrowing so much from the left, almost unwittingly. I think Bannon for one is aware of this (most of the right would be shocked and appalled at the mere suggestion) hence his quote about being a Leninist.

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      1. Nothing scripted could be as crazy, I don’t think. He just does things on a whim, whatever suits his ego. He is loyal to none, not even his followers, who will suffer greatly from his policies, as well, not just his opponents.

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      2. Well the seeming chaos appears to be unscripted but maybe that is the style of the writers. His, like most politicians and most reality TV stars, persona is carefully constructed. Trump happens to be both. It is interesting that he places more weight to what he sees on TV, especially Fox News, than to the in depth and detailed intel he must surely have in his possession for the US secret services. He picks up what he wants from TV and social media and what re-inforces his worldview. Like almost everybody else the information overload has overwhelmed him and he has constructed a paranoid myopic alternative reality where every thing makes sense. Most politicians serve only themselves in the long run. I worry about the need to sustain interest will provoke the writers to fashion some kind of grand, apocalyptic narrative.

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      3. He is just a toddler for a figurehead with an unwieldy temper and a penchant for hypocrisy. Let’s not forget Putin is no doubt holding something on Trump and has meddled in not only the election but now the administration. There are so many factors at play. Bannon, his Mar-a-Lago retreats and the business conflicts, his attack on the media. I’m so proud that it was my city/state that sued and won against his travel ban. He will most certainly be impeached at some point. When, is the question. But then we have Pence as President. Not much better. There are some mixed blessings here. The world has now seen the depth of evil that the Republican Party is capable of. Ultimate in corruption, lies, corporate interest whores, and assassins of the environment. We always knew there were “a few” in the far right like this, but watching the spineless mainstream Republicans too afraid to stand up to him, or is it they actually abide by his racist, xenophobic, sexist policies…not sure what’s more disturbing. Do you read The New York Times? It is an excellent resource for following the “spectacle.”

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      4. As do I. The GOP seems dead set on backing their “boy” (as was apparently Putin, according to recent reports) no matter what. The ends justify the means, in their view. Honestly, I think that many in the Republican party will turn out to be involved in money laundering, including the so-called leadership. So, let’s hope we live long enough for this to resolve.

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      5. Regarding Putin, the EU and the US made a rod of their own back when they considered inviting the Ukraine into the EU and NATO respectively as an ongoing eastward expansion, giving tacit approval of Ukraine fascist, Neo-Nazi leaders. For historical reasons, including the Ukrainian involvement in the SS in WWII, this was an affront not to be borne, and resulted in the invasion of the Ukraine and the Crimea, and increased Russian involvement in US and European domestic politics. Ironically Putin exploited the nascent nationalist movements (that had risen due to the poor handling of the economic crises, which was basically corporate socialism and Darwinian capitalism for everyone else) similar to the one that was in power in the Ukraine against the centrist economic neo-liberals in Europe and the US. History in the Hegelian sense hasn’t ended at all. Thank you and I am glad you found it good food for thought, as you can see I could go on for a very long time.

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  2. You linked this quite well with the world of today. It’s just so…indescribable I guess, since I can’t think of how to describe it. I guess surreal- as in I’m left going wtf? so so often.

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      1. I can see that about you. Sometimes I wish I were like that. I think I’m too ok with doubt and uncertainty. Or maybe I’m just lazy. ☺️

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      1. Thank you Lisa, i did another rather odd political essay recently regarding Charlottesville, I will send you the link. I also got involved in a spate in the comment section of someone else’s blog that resulted in my post Glory, which I will also send the link to. It really isn’t my thing, but occasionally I am goaded into action. Of the time being though I will go back to writing about art and books, besides my own stories and poems. Thank you as always.

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  3. An entertaining book that entails the usual problems of black-and-white politics. What were his examples of the lost real that couldn’t be counted as parts of the spectacle? I’ve found myself wondering this ever since reading SOS (you know, making up for the lack of authorial input). For a long time I thought that engaging in digital forms of creativity and communications couldn’t be easily co-opted. Some of it could still be described that way. But Debord is a rather academic and historical figure. A pity. I once saw a lone guy in a restaurant reading the book. As myself and my dining partner left, I asked how he was getting on with it. “It’s behind the film ‘The Matrix’, so I’m told” he said. This made immediate sense. I suggested that the film is entertaining, but Debord’s book will ruin your life. Now I wonder whether ruinous books are not the last ‘real’ luxury?

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    1. I think they are. I always wondered about the supposedly authentic life, as he pretty much follows Marx and Hegel in his historical analysis. The matrix analogy is fitting, I have a thing for Gnosticism and Debord has often been criticised for his ‘mysticism’. For some reason I have always found them Situationist quite funny, although I know they took themselves very seriously indeed.

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  4. > he pretty much follows Marx and Hegel in his historical analysis
    He did, and fused ‘false consciousness’ with his observations on the emerging mass media landscape. I read an essay today that raised the criticisms of McLuhan as being naively apolitical, especially post-Debord; I couldn’t help wonder if the politicised media commentator has their own substitute weakness for naivety? Confirmation bias perhaps?
    If you’re not already familiar, Debord’s work was a huge influence on Baudrillard’s explorations of ‘simulation’. In fact, if you enjoyed SOS, you’ll love The Consumer Society.

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    1. I have always meant to read Baudrillard, I know J G Ballard had a beef with him after the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition (I am a big Ballard fan). False consciousness is a big stick that can certainly lead to mischief and to silence opposing views. I recently read that white supremacists in America frequently say they have been ‘red-pilled’, referring to The Matrix, funny how they are actually referencing their ostensible enemy.

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      1. Ballard makes for good companion reading to Baudrillard. Bizarrely, the latter is, of course, the former with Audrey in the middle, as it were! But beyond the letters in their names, they wrote so much about the modern world and all its gadgets and other technological paraphernalia.

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      2. There’s an interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg in which he said he didn’t understand the review. He then goes on to praise Baudrillard’s ‘America’. I suppose it depends on when and what he was asked.

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  5. Thanks for this insightful and concise post. I’ve had Debord on my reading list for too long, and now I absolutely must read him! I do want to comment, having read Baudrillard, that I don’t know if we can really talk about “mere” representation or “mere” appearing. If there is something tragic about the whole idea of representation-turned-appearance, it is that the spectacle has become a model for us, so it is we who undergo the slow fading away into copies of what has never been, never would be, nor could ever be had.

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    1. Thank you for your detailed comment. Debord is definitely worth reading however like a lot of Marxist intellectuals he does well with the diagnosis but the cure leaves something to be desired. My main focus on this site is Surrealism though I do devote some time to the SI. Please feel free to comment on any other posts and I will return the favour when I back from holiday.

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    1. Well you can see it with the Roman Republic, later the Ronan Empire, a civilisation that collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions and the hegemony it imposed. The idea of bread and circuses comes from them after all. We should never forget (though we always do) Hegel’s dictum, completed by Marx that history repeats itself, first as tragedy than as a farce. I think we know what stage we are in

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      1. You know me and my paranoid, connective theories. A few people around could done with a history lessons (not you of course), not as inspiration for where we are heading, but as dire warnings. Thank you as always Miss Cranes

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  6. It takes a new spectacle on a quickly refreshed news cycle to keep anyone’s attention. It waters down the importance of events as they transpire. I have resumed reading rather than watching news so that I can decide what to absorb and read on one thing in depth. Or maybe I’m just burying my head in the sand…

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  7. I am with you Mr. Cake. My excellent spidey senses warn me that the crude rabble rousing retweets are red herrings thrown to the masses to tide us over through the confusion of Christmas break for something sinister hiding under the oceans?
    The master of Illusion and King of smoke and mirrors, Neptune exactly squares this Super full moon.
    Unfortunately I am feeling a little uneasy about what 2018 will bring us.

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