The Spectacle, the Social Web and You

“The only historically justified tactic is extremist innovation” – Debord & Wolman, A User’s Guide to Détournement (1956)

I’ve been thinking about the Situationists for about a decade now, after learning of Guy Debord’s Society Of The Spectacle in some Propagandhi liner notes (I think) about a decade ago.  Sadly, after all that time, I’ve developed no great insights as to what the hell they were talking about.  I mean, I get the gist if that counts for anything, but I think to really grasp what they’re really getting at, one needs a graduate seminar and plenty of contextual knowledge.  Nevertheless, the shit is damn brilliant and informs my worldview in many ways (most of which are surely based on misreading).  Since presently, I do what one might call information work, and as a result have become heavily invested in the web and social networking, I’ll use this post to share some cool films by the Situationist International (SI), and briefly look at how the SI’s  ideas of spectacle, détournement, and separation apply to the social web.

Social networks as commodified existence…

I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence toward the Internet, particularly as it has become the prime mediator of social and professional interaction.  Obviously, we have experienced some real and perceived benefits due to our increasingly rapid adoption of technology (defining “technology” is problematic in many of the same ways as “information,” but let’s put that aside and assume I mean computers and electronics and stuff).  We have increased economic opportunities (for some), more free time (theoretically), greater safety and efficiency, instant production and communication without regard to geography, and access to unbelievable amounts of information.  But we can just as easily indict technology for it’s less benign social, political, and economic effects.  A short list of technology’s less celebrated effects might include: modern global warfare, loss of personal privacy, environmental devastation, and political (as well as social, economic, and cultural) hegemony — all brought to new heights by liberatory (at first glance) technology such as industrial automation; steam, electrical, and combustion power; the telephone; modern media; and any number of innovations in digital computing.  Of course, what we currently colloquially refer to as “technology” — the Internet — is equally hailed in alternation as a force for democracy and a catalyst for democracy’s demise.  Obviously, both are true in their own argumentation, but miss the larger point altogether.

With the relatively recent explosion of Web 2-point-oh!, social networks, etc., we see something notably different than what was experienced with earlier technologies.  Machines, electricity, cars, televisions, and the like, were all transformative and initially liberated in some sense; addressing (and inventing) needs, and conferring legitimacy and status to their early consumers.   In those regards, the Web is not different.  Where it departs from previous innovations is that it goes beyond creating, serving, and reinforcing consumer identity and consumer culture into actually displacing and disappearing the consumer as he exists in reality.  Debord identified this tendency in …the Spectacle as it relates to earlier (1960s) cultural conditions, but it is ripe for application to the 21st century, with it’s ravenous tech fetishism and fascination with identity construction and maintenence through social networks.

As you may have guessed, I recently picked up Society of the Spectacle for some rereading and found that basically the entirety of the first chapter is as effective a deconstruction of 21st c. new media culture as it was of television, films, and advertising in 1967.  Here’s a sample…


In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.

The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation.

The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.

The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.

Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process.

I could continue quoting ad nauseum (actually, you may already be throwing up), but I’ll leave it to the reader to read more if they choose.  In the end, I’m still not sure where I stand on this.  I like the internet.  It’s amusing and often useful.  And as a worker in information and technology, I am actually not alienated from my own work.  More than ever, I have a high degree of control over the products of my labor. While I see the potential harm of these evolving conditions, I mostly see them in the bizarrely onanistic tweets/status updates of others.  I, naturally, am able to rise above the unreality of mediated life — so much so that I’m thinking about purchasing an island timeshare in Second Life to serve as respite for my World of Warcraft guild.  This, of course, would be done as an act of serious-parodic détournement (not to be confused with shallow irony), and thus would not be lame.


So, what is détournement?  A quick but insufficient answer might be found reference to hip hop, web mashups, Marcel Duchamp, or Adbusters. “In détournement, an artist reuses elements of well-known media to create a new work with a different message, often one opposed to the original” (Wikipedia).  A common example (though I’m not sure it was ever actually produced) would be to take the footage of The Birth of a Nation, and replace the text panels of that technical masterpiece with new music or text which would change (or détourne) the original meaning, from an egregiously racist historical lie, to something that crafts from the film’s intellectual content and technical strength an effective (and modern/correct/relevant) moral-political statement.  As Debord & Wolman point out (1956), if such a project merely attempts to negate the meaning through irony, counter-argument or comedic juxtaposition, it misses the opportunity and the point.  The best example I’ve seen, which serves as a better instruction than I can write, is René Viénet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks?.

Film: Can Dialectics Break Bricks?: René Viénet, 1973: via U B U W E B

I’m not a great fan of the Debord films, though they do nicely illustrate, literally, the idea of the spectacular as it permeates our collective media life.  As with social networks, academia and high culture, the images Debord détournes in Society of the Spectacle are, individually and collectively, simultaneously useful, beautiful, and inspiring, as well as banal, authoritarian and vacuous. Like all cultural products, their meanings are contextual and constructed and can serve many masters at once.  The same is true of new media products, services, and cultural tendencies.

Film: Society of the Spectacle, parts 1 & 2: Guy Debord, 1973: via U B U W E B

Although new media culture has some very deep differences from traditional media culture working in its favor (openness, decentralization, interactivity), it’s yet to be seen how that will change over time.  Likewise, will the ubiquity of web-mediated social interaction continue on its current trajectory (whatever that might be is actually unclear), or will it evolve into new and unexpected forms?  I’ve got this idea that the (social) web is the perfect vehicle for détournement, though I’m less convinced it’s a worthy venue for cultural resistance.  Any thoughts?

  • Justin Hons

    Interesting question Erin but isn’t detournement (I’m finding a way to put the tilday on the e dude) cultural resistance by it’s very nature of subversion? Of course, it goes without saying that some resistance is more effective than others. Nevertheless, I think the idea of the Spectacle is true and absolutely can be applied to web 2.0 and social networking. We know people construct their identities through the use of cultural symbols in order to project a message to others of niche cultural belonging. But how is this any different than, say, an indie rocker buying a fixed gear bike? The hip hop kid wearing a Bape hoodie and white nikes? The 40 year old professional who decides to get in shape by riding his bike and feels the need to wear those tight shirts with the pockets in the back like he’s in the Tour de Cleveland Heights? In other words, I don’t really think these technologies heighten our lame attempts to create tribal connections through the use of symbols in real, first life.

    And honestly, there is a certain air of moralizing in favor of the “genuine” by Debord, Focault, etc. All human cultural can be deconstructed and laughed at for its silly insincerity. But that doesn’t change that that’s what we do man. And we’re really good at it. And maybe that’s ok. (And maybe I should stop starting sentences with “and.”) Maybe the point isn’t to wallow in artificalness of the reality (real or 2.0) but simply participate in making both as sincere and meaningful as possible. In some ways, I think this is the real gift given to us by these obnoxious Frenchies: the ability to see past it all while embracing our ability to construct it with our own desires.

    And without a doubt, I really enjoyed this sentence: “This, of course, would be done as an act of serious-parodic détournement (not to be confused with shallow irony), and thus would not be lame.” Provoking and really good read Erin.