Seven of us met in an OCA Hangout last night. The subject of the hangout was Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, first published in 1967 in French. There are a number of translations into English, each of which gives a slightly different viewpoint of his theories. Debord was a Marxist philosopher who theorised that the fetishism of the commodity through the business of advertising has led to “The Spectacle” – which essentially means that our lives have become so mediated and informed by what we see and hear in the media that we have lost all touch with the underlying reality of being alive. Will Self, in this 2017 BBC Radio programme, identifies the Spectacle, as ‘both the result and the producer of the existing mode of production. It’s the heart of the unrealism of the real society, in all its forms. The Spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life’.
If I am honest, this circuity and lack of simple clarity is a major part of Debord’s theories. They are not easy to understand, even though they are presented as 212 very short pieces, which he calls theses, and which I would call unsupported statements. There is no research of background material in the book to validate his theories and his ideas seem, like those of Susan Sontag, to have been accepted by the academic cohort of the time without any of the requirements of proof and logic of argument that we would feel necessary today.
Having said all that, 70 years on, it is uncanny how correct Debord’s theories have proved to be. The ever-increasing drive to produce more (and more complex) products to feed a market that didn’t know they needed them until they appeared has become the ghastly reality. We are constantly bombarded with images telling us what our lives should be like and which has the dual effect of making us desire those objects and feel discontented with our current lot. The banking crisis, which was based on extending credit (i.e. debt, in truth) facilities in more and more complex ways until nobody at all knew how the system worked was one very clear example.
More recently, social media exemplifies the ideas present in Chapter 2, that by specialising more and more and reducing the potential/need for face to face interactions between people, Debord’s theories of separation and alienation are becoming ever more obvious, with consequent effects on mental and physical health. Our lives which are now rich in complex technology have become poor in real interactions and face to face group activities. The internet has rendered the majority of them unnecessary. We are inevitably moving towards a scenario where each person sits alone in their home, constantly being fed a diet of social media, tv and advertising, over which big business has total control. It is a scary scenario to envisage, but we are well on our way towards it already.
So, if we are locked in this system, which has become self-perpetuating and circular in nature, what can we do to return to a proper sense of reality? Debord’s answer is that we can do nothing. Every effort to work in alternative ways or to return to a time when produce was necessary, beautiful and sturdy rather than mass-produced, cheap and poorly made will be ruthlessly knocked back by the mainstream, and escape is impossible, even if we know (and not many of us do know) that we are trapped inside the Matrix. The very best we can hope to do is gently subvert it with the long term aim of making slow changes. The worst scenario is much more likely to happen though, one where life gets more and more complex and mechanised at and every increasing rate, until catastrophe strikes and we swirl down the plughole, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy prospect, is it? The inevitable collapse of society, drowning in a sea of plastic rubbish and galloping climate change.
There are those who have since proposed alternative models, such as Naomi Klein, whose book This Changes Everything (2014) , (which I realise that I have read, but obviously not taken in) suggests a more collaborative, gentler model, but none of them have any chance of being put into practice without a seismic change in the way we run society. And try as I might, I can’t think of how that change could be initiated.
And who are the winners and losers in this model? Well, the workers are needed to make the products, but they also need to have enough money to consume them too. Without the finance to consume, it would not be profitable to make the products. These days, this simple circular economy has been altered by automation and so the workers can no longer earn their money by making things. Therefore the service economy for formed in order to give the workers jobs which will continue to allow them to consume. In the two chapters we read, Debord did not really elaborate on who is making these decisions, arguing instead that The Spectacle makes them, without human intervention, and that the continuance of capitalism makes them inevitable.
Bringing this down to photography and our student work, I have been wondering how to incorporate some of these ideas into what I make. Other students have made work which is relevant, most recently Matt Davenport’s commentary on social media, Contactless . I am going to see whether I can fit it into the work I am doing towards assignment 5, which will almost certainly be a continuance of my work on the Female Gaze.
Many thanks to Emma for organising the Hangout, and to all the other participants for their interesting viewpoints. This is definitely something that is worth doing again, not least because it forces me to read books that I would go out of m y way to avoid normally.