Your Book Review: The Society Of The Spectacle
Finalist #11 in the Book Review Contest
[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]
“The Society of the Spectacle will make no sense if the reader feels there is nothing fundamentally wrong with contemporary society.”
Guy Debord was a Marxist theorist and founding member of the Situationist International, among other things. Like all great thinkers worth their salt, he was an embittered alcoholic who took his own life in despair. 
Published in 1967, The Society of the Spectacle is his magnum opus and lasting legacy. It unfolds in staccato bursts, almost like a book of aphorisms. The writing is pithy and poetic, albeit with the occasional lapse into the meandering, circular prose so typical of critical theory. This makes it extremely readable, particularly for a work of political philosophy. One downside of his style is that he tends to state his points in just-so fashion. We’ll have to do some of the legwork for him to flesh things out.
Strap in, boys - we’ve got a bumpy road ahead of us.
I. A More Perfect Union
The spectacle is never outright defined; or rather, the entire book is a series of definitions, each approaching from a different angle. What Debord describes is really a combination of two things; the total triumph of capitalism, and the rise of mass media.
It might seem strange for Debord to declare capitalism victorious at the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was very much a superpower, and Nixon had yet to go to China. But as a real Marxist, he had already arrived at what would become the historical consensus - communism, as practiced, was merely an inferior cousin to its free market foes.
Unsurprisingly, capitalism is the best system for the accumulation of capital. And despite their pretensions, communist societies had the same goals as every modern nation - wealth, prosperity, innovation, and growth.
In Debord’s reading of history, “the bourgeoisie is the only revolutionary class that has ever won; and it is also the only class for which the development of the economy was both the cause and the consequence of its taking control of society.” The revolutions of the previous centuries were economic in nature, replacing kings with merchant princes. As a result, all societies began to judge themselves in almost purely economic terms, regardless of their ideological leanings. 
Media developed symbiotically with capitalism, and together these twin forces changed the world. Twentieth-century forms of media were one-way communications. The owners of society were also the owners of the media, and the messaging reflected this power dynamic. Long before the general public became disillusioned with the news, Debord was woke to the fact that ‘the free press’ was largely a myth. He saw the shaping of the narrative firsthand, and well knew the ability of the media to amplify or ignore as convenient.
As the spectacle conquered the earth, it took on different forms. Debord differentiated between the concentrated, diffuse, and integrated modes of the spectacle:
Communism and fascism were the primary examples of the concentrated spectacle, with totalitarian control of the economy and the media centralized in the hands of the State.
The United States exemplified the diffuse form, where the government allowed corporations and private media to operate relatively unimpeded.
In his later writings, Debord declared that the entire world had turned into variants of the integrated spectacle, where the State is swallowed whole by the economy and subordinated to its needs.
II. All The World’s A Stage
Debord emphasized the visual character of the spectacle, as you can see from his choice of book cover:
He never outright explains why he thought photos and film were more pernicious than newspapers or radio, but I imagine the advertising industry played a major role. We’ve grown accustomed to GoDaddy ads and ALL CAPS YouTube titles, but Mad Men shenanigans were a worrisome development at the time. It must’ve been highly alarming to see such brazen manipulation of the public.
Whatever the reasoning, we now arrive at one definition of the spectacle: "The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images." Also: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”
Well, that’s about as clear as Flint water. Here’s something meatier: "In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life."
If you’re familiar with Girard, that is a huge statement.  Girardian mimetic desire is triangular; there is you (the desirer), the object (of desire), and the model (another person who also desires the object). Most of our desires are rooted in imitation. Nobody has to tell you to want steak or sex, but almost everything else is learned. How does everybody know that they should want a Rolex or a Rolls Royce? There’s no genetic imperative for luxury goods. You acquire those tastes from the people around you.
Or you used to, at least. Before the spectacle, your models, mentors, and rivals were real people you knew in real life. Now we have an acronym for that - IRL - because reality is everywhere in retreat.
This is not a small thing. What we desire is at the core of who we are. What do you want out of life? What kind of person do you want to be? For the entirety of human history, those questions found answers close at hand. Your local community was your world, for better and worse. Now we are global citizens with global perspectives, and it’s difficult to overstate how much that changes what it means to be human.
Imprisoned in a flattened universe bounded by the screen of the spectacle that has enthralled him, the spectator knows no one but the fictitious speakers who subject him to a one-way monologue about their commodities and the politics of their commodities. The spectacle as a whole serves as his looking glass. What he sees there are dramatizations of illusory escapes from a universal autism.
The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him.
Now our role models are media creations. Some are literal fictional characters (James Bond); others are nominally real people (Kylie Jenner). But both are merely representations - images usurping an essential formative role. ‘William Shatner’ and ‘Robert Downey, Jr.’ are only marginally more real than Captain Kirk and Tony Stark, yet they occupy way more headspace than people that live down the street.
Most people can name more celebrities, in more detail, than people they’ve known in person. I know the names of Will Smith’s kids - I don’t even know if my best friends from high school have any.
This is an issue of The Map and The Territory. Pre-modern Maps were narrow but deep. You might have had only a vague notion of ‘Africa’ or ‘The Pope’, but you knew every square inch of the town you lived in. Spectacular Maps are broad but shallow, and they are drawn for us by spectacular hands. The average person ‘knows’ way more about Africa now, but how well does that knowledge reflect the facts on the ground?
Meanwhile, firsthand reality has been reduced to the narrow slices connecting house to car to work, with precious few exceptions.
The Society Of The Spectacle is one long lament for this loss of The Real, although Debord doesn’t state it as such. Borrowing again from The Uruk Machine, this sense of loss tracks with the gradual displacement of metis  by episteme ,.
III. Everything New Is Old Again
Debord has a lot to say about the ‘falsification of the world’:
The first stage of the economy’s domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having — human fulfillment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed. The present stage, in which social life has become completely dominated by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing — all ‘having’ must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances.
As he might have put it - we have graduated from conspicuous consumption to consuming conspicuousness.
Spectacular technology has not dispersed the religious mists into which human beings had projected their own alienated powers, it has merely brought those mists down to earth, to the point that even the most mundane aspects of life have become impenetrable and unbreathable.
In the spectacle, a part of the world presents itself to the world and is superior to it. The spectacle is simply the common language of this separation. Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.
These themes are familiar to us by now. It’s not exactly news that people are getting more isolated and untethered by the year. What is striking to me is not what he is saying, but when he is saying it.
Anybody with sense has spent time thinking about how to manage the challenges of modern life. We talk about digital minimalism and social media fasts. Turn off your phone. Get outside and touch grass. Go see people in meatspace. Be present.
All great advice. But what are we envisioning, when we imagine a healthy connection to The Real? For most of us, we are picturing life as it was lived… right around the time Debord was saying that everything is phony and toxic.
What does the average person think of as the peak of journalistic integrity in America? Probably Vietnam and Watergate - right after this was written.
When we mock Millennials and Zoomers, what standard are we measuring them by? The Greatest Generation, who were running the show by the late sixties. In terms of self-reliance and resilience, the average adult in 1967 would be a massive outlier in 2022. Yet here is Debord, saying in no uncertain terms that this American ideal was fraudulent and devoid of meaning.
What have we lost?
Every era has its cynics, doomsayers, Luddites, and misanthropes. Maybe Debord was just a Boomer’s Boomer, railing against progress and the passage of time.
But I don’t think so. We’ve all felt the shockwaves of the Internet explosion. Life is different now. It takes an act of will to put down your phone so you can focus on the TV. Low battery is an emergency. Losing signal is bereavement. Navigating without GPS is an anxiety attack.
Do you remember what it was like, not so long ago? How exciting it was to play videogames with someone a thousand miles away? How cool it was the first time you streamed a movie on an airplane? That sense of possibility and promise, like all the world was in the palm of your hand?
How quickly things change. For maybe the first time in history, most people are apprehensive about the relentless march of technology. While we’ve always been afraid of advances in weaponry, it’s starting to feel like everything is being weaponized. Who truly believes the metaverse will be a positive step for humanity? Who now is excited at the prospect of gene editing, AI, or transhumanism? There appears to be a growing sentiment along the lines of ‘MGTOW for modernism’. We hope for the best, but 2122 is shaping up to be some unholy amalgam of Gattaca, The Matrix, and Minority Report.
Sometimes it seems like the world we grew up in is categorically distinct from the world we inhabit. But I’m sure Debord would argue that we are merely experiencing an intensification of a process that has been in motion longer than any of us have been alive.
Pre-spectacular society has already passed beyond living memory. Soon we will hit another inflection point - where no one alive even knew someone who lived before the spectacle. All of human history is now before and after; it will soon become literally impossible to understand the inner life and daily reality of pre-modern man - if it’s not already.
As an example: how much of your daily environment, as a percentage, do you truly understand? Look around the room and reflect on how “even the most mundane aspects of life have become impenetrable and unbreathable.” Your kitchen and your medicine cabinet are filled with mystical objects. Hell, just look at what’s on your person. The phone in your hand, the cash in your wallet, the clothes on your back, the food in your belly - how many lifetimes would it take to truly grok the building blocks of everyday existence?
Compare that to, say, a homesteader. It really hasn’t been that long since people lived in a comprehensible universe. Our collective knowledge of the universe has deepened tremendously, but theoretical physics is only less slightly hermetical than the occult beliefs it replaced. It is notionally true that anyone could go get a Ph.D. and verify our working model of the cosmos. But in practice, the science is received wisdom, taken on faith. Our belief in the God Particle is functionally indistinguishable from the belief in God of ages past.
It’s worth noting that our current theories will surely be supplanted in a century or three. They are placeholders for better, truer ideas. And so our greater grasp of the wider world has less value than we think, while our day-to-day grows ever more opaque. Is it any wonder epistemic learned helplessness is a thing?
IV. With Typical Extravagance
Debord was also ahead of the curve on commoditization:
This constant expansion of economic power in the form of commodities transformed human labor itself into a commodity, into wage labor, and ultimately produced a level of abundance sufficient to solve the initial problem of survival — but only in such a way that the same problem is continually being regenerated at a higher level. Economic growth has liberated societies from the natural pressures that forced them into an immediate struggle for survival; but they have not yet been liberated from their liberator.
Once his workday is over, the worker is suddenly redeemed from the total contempt toward him that is so clearly implied by every aspect of the organization and surveillance of production, and finds himself seemingly treated like a grownup, with a great show of politeness, in his new role as a consumer.
Debord correctly perceived the totalitarian nature of spectacular capitalism. Your time, your attention, your opinions - all are bought and sold, and can be influenced to better facilitate such transactions. He would have been totally unsurprised by the rise of Big Data and the corporate surveillance (e.g. Alexa, your phone) that accompanies it. Every piece of your life is a commodity. Every moment that you are not producing or consuming is a missed opportunity. Never fear - someone, somewhere is going to find a way to solve that ‘need’.
Nothing is spared. Even opposition is assimilated:
Complacent acceptance of the status quo may also coexist with purely spectacular rebelliousness — dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economy of abundance develops the capacity to process that particular raw material.
Once again, Debord is shockingly prescient in noting that the conflicts of our time are largely distractions from bigger systemic issues:
Fallacious archaic oppositions are revived — regionalisms and racisms which serve to endow mundane rankings in the hierarchies of consumption with a magical ontological superiority — and pseudoplayful enthusiasms are aroused by an endless succession of ludicrous competitions, from sports to elections.
Genuine grassroots movements (Occupy, the Tea Party, BLM, Canadian truckers) almost always fizzle out without accomplishing anything of substance. They will either be ignored, crushed, or co-opted. Any remnants that endure will be reduced to figureheads that offer ‘representation’ for a point of view without actually producing any change. (‘The Squad’, Rand Paul, etc…) If the extremes of either side gain enough momentum to pose a threat, they will face a united front from the establishment wings of both parties (Bernie, Trump).
It’s fashionable at the moment to blame the Woke Left for the politicization of everything, but we’ve all been around long enough to know better. It’s the same shit, different decade. During the Bush years, it was the left who opposed unending wars, government overreach, and media gaslighting. Today those positions are often considered right wing, but only because the pendulum of power has swung in the other direction. Moloch pursues its own goals, wearing whatever ideological guise it deems most effective.
From Debord’s perspective, everything is becoming politicized because everything is getting monetized. In the integrated spectacle, the primary concerns of the State are economic, so the personal turning political is simply a downstream effect of the growth of capitalism.
V. A Short History of Time
It would do Debord a disservice to reduce his work to ammunition in our present disputes. There are two whole chapters in the book devoted to time as a historical development.
It’s not something we think about much, but time and history had to be invented. Before the beginning, humanity lived in what Debord calls cyclical time. Countless generations came and went, because nobody was counting. Survival was the name of the game; to be or not to be was the only question.
Eventually we formed early societies, which brought into being a ruling class that had the freedom to take actions above and beyond the daily grind:
The owners of this historical surplus value are the only ones in a position to know and enjoy real events. Separated from the collective organization of time associated with the repetitive production at the base of social life, this historical time flows independently above its own static community. This is the time of adventure and war, the time in which the masters of cyclical society pursue their personal histories; it is also the time that emerges in the clashes with foreign communities that disrupt the unchanging social order. History thus arises as something alien to people, as something they never sought and from which they had thought themselves protected.
The murkiness of pre-civilization was shaped into coherence by these rulers, who used their unique agency to literally make history:
The succession of generations within a natural, purely cyclical time begins to be replaced by a linear succession of powers and events. This irreversible time is the time of those who rule, and the dynasty is its first unit of measurement.
With writing there appears a consciousness that is no longer carried and transmitted directly among the living — an impersonal memory, the memory of the administration of society. ‘Writings are the thoughts of the state; archives are its memory’ (Novalis).
The owners of history have given time a direction, a direction which is also a meaning. But this history develops and perishes separately, leaving the underlying society unchanged, because it remains separated from the common reality.
Over time, these narratives gathered a religious dimension. This helped legitimize the rule of regimes, but it also changed the way ordinary people saw themselves in the world. Although still living in cyclical time, they gained purpose through a spiritual journey culminating in Heaven.
The clashes of the Mediterranean peoples and the rise and fall of the Roman state gave rise instead to semihistorical religions, which became a new armor for separate power and basic components of a new consciousness of time.
The Middle Ages, an incomplete mythical world whose consummation lay outside itself, is the period when cyclical time, though still governing the major part of production, really begins to be undermined by history. An element of irreversible time is recognized in the successive stages of each individual’s life. Life is seen as a one-way journey through a world whose meaning lies elsewhere: the pilgrim is the person who leaves cyclical time behind and actually becomes the traveler that everyone else is symbolically.
The Renaissance created a profound break with this mythic raison d'être and reoriented man towards the accumulation of knowledge as a species:
The Renaissance was a joyous break with eternity. Though seeking its heritage and legitimacy in the ancient world, it represented a new form of historical life. Its irreversible time was that of a never-ending accumulation of knowledge…
This transformation of our relationship with history and progress was accompanied by the rise of the bourgeoisie:
The bourgeoisie is associated with a labor time that has finally been freed from cyclical time. With the bourgeoisie, work becomes work that transforms historical conditions. The bourgeoisie is the first ruling class for which work is a value.
The victory of the bourgeoisie is the victory of a profoundly historical time, because it is the time corresponding to an economic production that continuously transforms society from top to bottom. So long as agrarian production remains the predominant form of labor, the cyclical time that remains at the base of society reinforces the joint forces of tradition, which tend to hold back any historical movement. But the irreversible time of the bourgeois economy eradicates those vestiges throughout the world. History, which until then had seemed to involve only the actions of individual members of the ruling class, and which had thus been recorded as a mere chronology of events, is now understood as a general movement — a relentless movement that crushes any individuals in its path.
Irreversible time initially appeared at the societal level as a narrative of events. The bourgeoisie brought irreversible time to the masses. Progress became something that we personally experience in the form of rapid technological innovation. It is hard to miss the motion of history when you go from horses to space travel in a single lifetime.
History thus became as much about things as events. Eli Whitney and Thomas Edison took their places alongside generals and heads of state in our narrative of who we are and where we’re going. Our notion of progress became dominated by the economic prejudice. We talk about raising the standard of living and lifting people out of poverty - laudable goals, to be sure - but we deliver them from physical privation into deprivation of a different kind.
One way that deprivation manifests is in our current conception of time:
Pseudocyclical time is associated with the consumption of modern economic survival — the augmented survival in which everyday experience is cut off from decisionmaking and subjected no longer to the natural order, but to the pseudo-nature created by alienated labor. It is thus quite natural that it echoes the old cyclical rhythm that governed survival in preindustrial societies, incorporating the natural vestiges of cyclical time while generating new variants: day and night, work and weekend, periodic vacations."
As capitalism commoditized time itself, we recreated cyclical time with the standard work week. But this artificial substitute has been about as successful as vegan chicken nuggets. It’s not the same, and it never will be.
The workday used to be determined by the work, but now the work is determined by the workday. And everyone has to work, not because we need what they produce, but because we need them to spend - else the whole thing comes crashing down.
Irreversible time keeps marching on, giving us new widgets and new wonders, but the continual churn of innovation masks the stifling sameness of spectacular progress. We know something is missing, but we lack the capacity to understand or express the problem.
This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle's false memory of the unmemorable.
VI. The Coming Revolution
Debord spends a good chunk of words describing how the spectacle has affected art  and physical space, but you can guess the gist by now. Everything’s fake, everything’s worse, everything’s changing but also the same.
The last topic of the book worth discussing is the imminent socialist revolution. Debord walks us through the various ways that Marxism has been done wrong, then attempts to offer an alternative. He goes into a fair amount of detail, but it boils down to this:
The anarchists properly rejected society in its entirety, but remained dogmatically attached to a 'one size fits all' mentality and failed to organize in an effective manner.
The worker's movements took a reformist approach that fell victim to its own success. They achieved specific objectives and won elections, but by failing to challenge the system as a whole they got absorbed by the existing framework. 
The Bolsheviks created a professional revolutionary class that successfully seized power, but it came at the cost of a top-down totalitarianism that recreated the rigid hierarchy communism was meant to eliminate.
All of these critiques sound reasonable to me. Debord repeatedly emphasizes the importance of avoiding ideological rivalries and dogmatic divides within the movement. This totally makes sense, but the only way to get everyone on the same page is through mass media. Which requires capital, which is inherently a one-way top-down dissemination of principles and best practices, which will inevitably be transformed into ideology and dogma…it would seem we have a bit of an issue.
If your movement is decentralized, there will always be differences of opinion that create division within the ranks. If your movement is coherent and coordinated, its tenets will crystallize and be dogmatically enforced.
If you try a bottom-up rejection of society, you will get squashed by the establishment. If you try to work within the system, you will eventually become a part of it.
If you want to actually seize power, you will need to conduct a coup - which, so I’ve heard, is top-down. It’s the only strategy that has ever really worked, and sadly the overlap in the Venn Diagram of 'ruthless conspirators' and 'ethical administrators' is regrettably small. Maybe we just have to abide, at least until we figure out how to clone a thousand copies of Cincinnatus.
But maybe not, because Debord has a solution. He has thought long and hard on the problem, and his answer is…drumroll please…Decentralized Worker’s Councils!
Okay, granted, that doesn’t sound like much - but that’s just Step One. Step Three is, duh, global socialist utopia. Step Two… well, it’s a work in progress.
The critical concept of 'the spectacle' can undoubtedly be turned into one more hollow formula of sociologico-political rhetoric used to explain and denounce everything in the abstract, thus serving to reinforce the spectacular system. It is obvious that ideas alone cannot lead beyond the existing spectacle; at most, they can only lead beyond existing ideas about the spectacle. To actually destroy the society of the spectacle, people must set a practical force into motion.
Fair enough, but what does that look like?
Revolutionary organization is the coherent expression of the theory of praxis entering into two-way communication with practical struggles, in the process of becoming practical theory. Its own practice is to foster the communication of these struggles. At the revolutionary moment when social separations are dissolved, the organization must dissolve itself as a separate organization.
This 'historic mission of establishing truth in the world' can be carried out neither by isolated individual nor by atomized and manipulated masses, but only and always by the class that is able to dissolve all classes by reducing all power to the de-alienating form of realized democracy - to councils in which practical theory verifies itself and surveys its own actions.
Right. That’s a whole lotta words to say ‘fuck if I know’. 
Anybody can say that the proletariat should become practical theorists who apply Situationist principles to every facet of their lives. Alas, he's a teensy bit fuzzy on how he plans to get construction foremen and HVAC technicians to become part-time philosophers. Debord reaffirms my long-standing belief that there is a direct inverse correlation between movement success and frequent reference to ‘praxis’.
Obviously, I’m being more than a little bit unfair. The Society of the Spectacle is a work of philosophy, not a tactical handbook for worldwide insurgency. Presumably he had more granular proposals when it came time to get down to brass tacks.
We’re also playing Monday morning quarterback with a half-century’s worth of hindsight. We know now that Marxism is exhausted as a revolutionary political force. But it certainly wasn’t in 1967. The Society of the Spectacle was at least partially the inspiration for the events of May ‘68, which came surprisingly close to being a Big Deal. Instead, it proved to be one of the last gasps of true radical fervor in the West, and only a few short years later the Situationist International disbanded.
One wonders what an older, wiser Debord would have to say after his dreams went up in smoke. Would that we could hear his thoughts on the unchallenged reign of the spectacle.
VII. Spectacle 2: The Quickening
Fortunately, we have exactly that. In 1987 he gave a speech entitled, appropriately enough, Comments On The Society Of The Spectacle. The first thing that jumps out is a jarring shift in tone. Debord’s remarks have a paranoid cast that would fit right at home on r/conspiracy. He opens by stating that he “obviously cannot speak with complete freedom” because Big Brother is watching.
It’s easy to mock internet detectives channeling Charlie Day from the comfort of their computer chairs; that shit hits different when your publisher was murdered in cold blood.
By the late eighties, any number of books had been published describing features of the spectacle, but to Debord they were only superficial critiques:
The empty debate on the spectacle — that is, on the activities of the world’s owners — is thus organized by the spectacle itself : everything is said about the extensive means at its disposal, to ensure that nothing is said about their extensive deployment. Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ‘media’... For what is communicated are orders; and with great harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what to think of them.
Although the media allows criticisms to be voiced, they are always shaped in the narrowest possible manner. We are constantly told that the problem is a single bad actor, a single instance of misbehavior, a single industry. Focusing on such limited issues is actively encouraged. Direct your anger at anyone and everyone, so long as you don’t see the forest for the trees:
The power of the spectacle, which is so fundamentally unitary, a centralizer by the very weight of things, and entirely despotic in spirit, frequently rails at seeing the constitution under its rule of a politics-spectacle, a justice-spectacle, a medicine-spectacle, and all the other similarly surprising examples of ‘mediatic excess’. Thus the spectacle would be nothing other than the excesses of the mediatic, whose nature, unquestionably good since it facilitates communication, is sometimes driven to extremes.
The all-pervasive nature of mass media has led to the universal victory of form over function and style over substance:
It is in these conditions that a parodic end of the division of labor suddenly appears, with carnivalesque gaiety, all the more welcome because it coincides with the generalized disappearance of all true competence. A financier can be a singer, a lawyer a police spy, a baker can parade his literary tastes, an actor can be president, a chef can philosophize on the movements of baking as if they were landmarks in universal history. Where the possession of ‘mediatic status’ has acquired infinitely more importance than the value of anything one might actually be capable of doing, it is normal for this status to be easily transferable and to confer the right to shine in the same fashion to anyone anywhere.
Another major theme is the emergence of the Eternal Present. Pseudoevents  come and go in rapid succession, everywhere and then nowhere at all. Social media has only accelerated the turnover. The news cycle generates nonstop whiplash. Yesterday it was Covid, today it’s Ukraine; tomorrow both will be memory-holed. Last year’s news has already vanished without a trace. Whither Kazakhstan? Afghanistan? Who knows and who cares?
For that matter, why are we up in arms about Ukraine and not, say, Yemen? There are clear reasons why - they just have nothing to do with democracy, sovereignty, war crimes, or human rights. I don't mean to say that nobody cares about those things. We all do, at least in a vague and abstract way. But that collective concern only becomes acute when the spectacle brings it into focus. The spectacle's gaze roves and lingers according to its whims. Without that constant reminder to care, awareness dissipates.
When the spectacle stops talking about something for three days, it is as if it did not exist. For it has then gone on to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists.
With mastery the spectacle organizes ignorance of what is about to happen and, immediately afterwards, the forgetting of whatever has nonetheless been understood. The most important is the most hidden.
History’s domain was the memorable, the totality of events whose consequences would be lastingly apparent. Inseparably, history was knowledge that must endure and aid in understanding, at least in part, what was to come: 'a possession for all time,' according to Thucydides. In this way history was the measure of genuine novelty; and those who sell novelty at any price have made the means of measuring it disappear. When the important makes itself socially recognized as what is instantaneous, and will still be the other and the same the instant afterwards, and will always replace another instantaneous importance, one can say that the means employed guarantee a sort of eternity of non-importance that speaks loudly.
Who controls the past, controls the future. Debord just missed the heyday of Rage Against The Machine, but he would’ve been a fan.
He takes aim at technocrats as well. The acceleration of technological innovation “...has greatly reinforced spectacular authority, by completely surrendering everybody to the ensemble of specialists, to their calculations and their judgments, which always depend on their calculations."
No longer is science asked to understand the world, or to improve any part of it. It is asked to instantaneously justify everything that happens.
All experts are mediatic-Statists and only in that way are they recognized as experts. Every expert follows his master, because all former possibilities for independence have been almost reduced to nil by present society’s conditions of organization. The most useful expert, of course, is the one who lies. Those who need experts are, for different reasons, falsifiers and ignoramuses. Whenever individuals lose the capacity to see things for themselves, the expert is there to offer a formal reassurance.
Some of these New Mandarins get a peek behind the curtain, some small taste of how power really operates. This cons them into thinking that they’re part of the club.
They constitute the privilege of first-class spectators: those who have the stupidity to believe they can understand something, not by making use of what is hidden from them, but by believing what is revealed to them!
As for the spectators themselves, they become unmoored by the implacable tide. Wave after wave assaults the senses, until even the best of us get swept out to sea.
The movement of the spectacular demonstration proves itself simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation on the unique terrain where anything can be publicly affirmed, and be made believed, precisely because that is the only thing to which everyone is xfss. Spectacular authority can similarly deny whatever it likes, once, or three times over, and say that it will no longer speak of it and speak of something else instead, knowing full well there is no danger of any other riposte, on its own terrain or any other.
The subtle ubiquity of the spectacle allows a level of dominance that dictators can only dream of. While overt repression gets the headlines, osmosis does the yeoman’s work:
The individual who has been marked by impoverished spectacular thought more deeply than by any other aspect of his experience puts himself at the service of the established order right from the start, even though subjectively he may have had quite the opposite intention. He will essentially follow the language of the spectacle, for it is the only one he is familiar with; the one in which he learned to speak. No doubt he would like to show himself as an enemy of its rhetoric; but he will use its syntax.
VIII. A Mournful Discovery
So far, his thoughts are of a kind with the original book. Brace yourselves, because we’re about to get topical:
This perfect democracy fabricates its own inconceivable enemy, terrorism. It wants, actually, to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The history of terrorism is written by the State and it is thus instructive. The spectating populations must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else seems rather acceptable, in any case more rational and democratic.
They hate us for our freedoms, no? What other reasons could they possibly have? They are enemies of freedom. Logically, we must be free.
Judicial repression’s current objective here, of course, is to generalize matters as fast as possible. What is important in this sort of commodity is the packaging, or the labeling: the price codes. One enemy of spectacular democracy is the same as another, just like spectacular democracies themselves.
When in 1914, the war being imminent, Villain assassinated Jaures, no one doubted that [he] believed he had to kill Jaures… Today, in the presence of such an event, journalists/police officers and well-known experts on the ‘facts of society’ and ‘terrorism’ would immediately explain that Villain was well known for having several times sketched out attempted murders, the impulse each time seeing men who, despite the variety of their political opinions, all by chance looked and dressed rather like Jaures. Psychiatrists would attest to this, and the media, only attesting to what the psychiatrists had said, would thus attest to, by the same fact, their own competence and impartiality as incomparably authorized experts. The next day, the official police investigation would establish that one discovered several honorable people ready to bear witness to the fact that this same Villain, considering he had been rudely served at the ‘Chope du Croissant,’ had, in their presence, loudly threatened to take revenge on its proprietor by murdering, in front of everyone and on the premises, one of his best customers.
These takes are getting spicy. I’m running out of bumper sticker real estate. But Debord’s not done, not by a long shot. You may be ready to tap out, but here he comes from the top rope with - I shit you not - Russian disinformation.
The relatively new concept of disinformation was recently imported from Russia… It is always openly employed by a power.. in order to maintain what is established; and always in a counter-offensive role. Whatever can oppose a single official truth must necessarily be disinformation emanating from hostile or at least rival powers, and must have been intentionally falsified by malevolence. Disinformation would not be simple negation of a fact which suits the authorities, or the simple affirmation of a fact which does not suit them: that is called psychosis. Unlike the pure lie, disinformation.. must inevitably contain a degree of truth but deliberately manipulated by a skillful enemy… In short, disinformation would be the bad usage of the truth.
There must be disinformation, and it must be something fluid and potentially ubiquitous. Where spectacular discourse is not under attack, it would be stupid to defend it... The concept of disinformation is only good for counter-attack. It must be kept in reserve, then instantaneously thrown into the fray to drive back any truth which has managed to arise.
In fact, disinformation resides in all existing information and as its principal characteristic. It is only named where passivity must be maintained by intimidation. Where disinformation is named it does not exist. Where it exists, it is not named.
He’s a bespectacled Deadpool, breaking the 4th wall of the simulation. And he keeps it coming.
From the networks of promotion/control one slides imperceptibly into networks of surveillance/disinformation. Formerly, one only ever conspired against an established order. Today, conspiring in its favor is a new and rapidly developing trade. Under spectacular domination, one conspires to maintain it, and to guarantee what it alone would call its progress.
It is an inevitable effect of clandestine forms of organization of the military type that it suffices to infiltrate a few people at certain points of the network to make many march and fall.
In many domains, laws are even made precisely so that they may be outflanked by exactly those who have all the means to do so. Illegality in some circumstances — for example, around the global trade in all sorts of weaponry, most often concerning the products of the highest technology — is only a kind of back-up for the economic operation, which will find itself all the more profitable.
As to the rising number of assassinations over the last two decades, which have remained entirely unexplained… their character of production in series has its mark: patent and changing lies in the official declarations; Kennedy, Aldo Moro, Olaf Palme, ministers and bankers, a pope or two, some others who were worth more than all of them.
It doesn’t let up. He riffs on the Mafia, Big Pharma, false flags, faked autopsies… were he alive today, he’d be ranting about banksters and Hollywood elites on a podcast sponsored by Express VPN. But he’s working towards a point:
At the moment when almost every aspect of international political life and a growing number of those aspects that count in internal politics are conducted and displayed in the style of the secret services, with decoys, disinformation and double explanations (one might conceal another, or may only seem to), the spectacle confines itself to making known a wearisome world of obligatory incomprehensibility, a boring series of lifeless, inconclusive crime novels.
IX. Fornever Wars
Taken together, the Comments form a precise description of Fifth Generation Warfare , well before the concept was invented.  5GW is basically hybrid warfare without the kinetics. It is a war of information and influence, where conflict is never outright declared and cannot even be proved to exist. If “war is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will”, 5GW is the most subtle and least violent way to conduct such a war; it relies on “...the deliberate manipulation of an observer’s context to achieve a desired outcome.” 
As you’ll recall, monetization inevitably results in politicization. And what is war but the continuation of politics by other means?
One of the consequences of our interconnected world is that individual opinions matter, at least in aggregate. What you think about an election or an insurrection is self-evidently political. But so is what you think about celebrities, catastrophes, and companies - all of your thoughts have economic (i.e. political) implications. Your assessment of the state of the economy directly impacts the actual state of the economy.
And if that was already the case in 1987, it is exponentially more true now that the internet has made each of us a node in a global network. Consequently, every person on the planet is now a combatant, objective, and weapon in wars where the brain is the terrain.
This is not a fantasy - this is your news feed. The U.S. is predicting a false-flag attack by Russia in the Ukraine. Russia accused the UK of a false-flag attack in Syria. The U.S. accuses China of genocide. China and Iran claimed COVID was a U.S. bio-attack.
It goes on and on and on. They all want us to trust them and no one else. Behold the future of international politics:
And helping you sort through the propaganda and fake news are fellow travelers who may or may not be real people. Are you bickering in the comment sections with an idiot or a bot? How can you tell?
I accidentally proved my point in the process of writing this. I planned to reference a story where a Chinese weatherman was replaced by an AI replica for months without anyone noticing. I saw it on social media a while back - it never crossed my mind to fact check it, because nothing about the reporting seemed suspect. Here I am months later, about to use it in a piece, so I did some due diligence. Turns out that The Epoch Times is not a reliable publication. Cool, glad I checked, let me find a mainstream link… four search engines later and all I found was a couple random blogs and an InfoWars video, all pointing back to this one unassuming article.
This stuff is scary, when you stop and think about all the thousands of random falsehoods and skewed impressions we accumulate while scrolling on the toilet.
Of course people buy into things like Dead Internet Theory. Of course everyone’s flailing about, falling into rabbit holes that get more and more bizarre. Conspiracy theories are modern myths, blooming in the fertile soil of the spectacle. The mainstream news itself is little more than ceaseless conspiracy-mongering at this point. Look at the parade the last few years - Russiagate, Pizzagate, COVID, 2020 election, Jan. 6th… Whatever you might think about those highly controversial topics, many millions of people vehemently disagree with you. They live in an alternate universe. Many millions of other people agree with whatever your stance is - but for reasons so insane and illogical that they also inhabit a totally different reality.
We have jumped the shark as a species.
Some of this is organic. Some of it isn’t. We have no way of knowing which is which. Take QAnon, possibly the most clear-cut case of guided apophenia on record. Was it a troll-job of epic proportions, or a psyop enacted for unknown purposes? You have priors, they are leading you to conclusions, and you are wrong either way because you don’t possess a tenth of the information required to make an educated guess.
That’s what makes the spectacle so terrifying. No matter how hard we try to get it right, rationality often isn’t enough. You can’t identify a forgery if you don’t have The Real to compare it to.
X. An Animal So Lost
What to make of all this?
The spectacle undoubtedly exists, to a greater or a lesser extent. It is an important lens, a necessary perspective on where humanity is and where it is headed. But it is only one way of viewing the world among many. It is not the end-all, be-all for sociopolitical analysis.
Yes, the Internet has lost its new car smell, and we have learned that technological innovation is always a double-edged sword. But it is still amazing that my parents can read bedtime stories to their grandkids from another time zone.
As for the economics, nb4 the comment section turns into a referendum on capitalism. There is a big difference between capitalism at the individual and the macro level. In my experience, those who get their knickers twisted on the subject tend to conflate the two.
It is undeniable that our system has ennobling facets. If you work hard, work smart, and take calculated risks, you can elevate your quality of life to a nearly unlimited degree. That is a marvelous thing, and shouldn’t be downplayed or dismissed.
That said, organizing all of existence around the bottom line is probably less than optimal. Capitalism is natural selection for profit, with no regard for human suffering or flourishing. Is that the best we can do?
I’ve taken to calling myself a post-capitalist, which is a fancy way of saying that I want a better arrangement but don’t have any better ideas. That may sound like a distinction without a difference from everybody else - after all, few people this side of Ben Shapiro fall asleep fondling themselves to the free market. I guess it just means that I greet anti-capitalists with sympathy instead of snark and scorn, even if I disagree with their proposed solutions. That, and when others offer alternatives, I’m all ears.
Now for some takeaways.
I’ve grown much more forgiving towards conspiracy theorists and idealogues of all stripes. I used to judge harshly what I perceived to be moral and intellectual failings. These days, I view misinformation and propaganda in the same predatory light as gambling and opiates. It’s not fair to expect folks to take up independent journalism in their spare time. Even views that I consider hateful or repugnant bother me less, now that I see their purveyors as victims of memetic contagion and spectacular dissonance.
The flip side of that coin is that I’m much more aware of the log in my own eye.  It never hurt anyone to reflect on how crude is the Map and how vast the Territory. I’m continually astonished by the sheer variety of ways I manage to arrive at ‘Here Be Dragons’. It's disturbing how often I open my mouth and someone else comes out. 'Strong opinions, weakly held' used to be an appealing heuristic. Unfortunately, I keep noticing that the stronger my opinion, the more likely it is that I'm missing something.15
If ignorance is bliss, incertitude is wisdom.
Finally, after making my peace with the state of the world, I’m feeling much more connected to humanity and history. Debord drove himself into the grave despairing for the future of mankind, but that was a choice. I think about this meme a lot:
Debord lived and died as the guy in the corner, but we don’t have to.
There is much that is new and unnerving about the spectacle, but in some ways it is merely a return to an earlier paradigm. Delusion is the natural state of man. There is no exit to Plato’s Cave. It was only conceit that we ever thought we were more enlightened than our forebears.
True, our incomprehension is somewhat different in kind. In the past, it was nature itself that served as obstacle and enigma. Our knowledge amassed, and we gained hope - all the mysteries of the universe were only puzzles, certain to be solved in time. However, as the scope and scale of human endeavor expanded, our ignorance was returned to us by the very means we sought to eliminate it. Technology colonized our lives and our minds, reintroducing unfathomable complexity into realms we once had mastered. Our world becomes increasingly manmade, and as a consequence is more susceptible to human iniquities never found in the natural world.
Even so, the experience of powerlessness and perplexity is our mortal heritage, shared by each and every one of our ancestors. Who are we to deny it?
We seem set to learn the meaning of that apocryphal Chinese curse for ourselves. The future is uncertain in a way we’ve never felt before. It’s up to each of us to make something of it.
Me? I’ll be in the van.
1: I suppose it would be in poor taste to make a Bon Jovi reference, so I won’t.
2: The Uruk series by samzdat is an excellent companion to this book, and I’ll reference it several times. The relevant piece here comes from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: “Polanyi calls the tendency to judge the world solely financially the economic prejudice… A market society is one based entirely around a market. Any damage to the market damages the entire society.” All modern nations are market societies in some fashion, and fall prey to the economic prejudice.
3: If you’re holding out for Scott’s review to get into Girard, Alex Danco has a great introduction to tide you over. He is embarrassingly off-base regarding Trump supporters, but he sums up the basics well.
4: Metis “...is a kind of accumulated, experiential knowledge. It’s the background process for whatever makes local knowledge work, and also the reason it’s hard to express in technical language. I tend to use it as shorthand…for the accumulated local knowledge of any given community.”
5: Episteme - “Any nation-building requires a top-down view of the society it wants to organize. It’s either impossible or inefficient to draw a map with the same precision that local communities use. Because of this, certain details are elided, ignored, misplaced. This categorization process is ‘epistemic’, where episteme (or epistemic rationalism, or just rationalism) means abstract, generalized, theoretical knowledge."
6: “An important aspect of metis is that it’s essentially a ‘worldview’. Metis is deeply interwoven – performing one action also affirms the others, inasmuch as planting according to [ritual] tends to include much broader social and political and religious elements, all of which are affirmed and related… The fact that metis is often explained…by ‘folksy’ reasoning at best means that epistemic knowledge rarely listens to it. The net result of this is that states tend to overrule metis with episteme, and that protesting citizenry cannot even express why this is bad. The net result of that is generally inefficiency, anger, and confusion.”
7: Art was a major part of the Situationist movement - they would probably be mortally offended that I just glossed over it. I did so for two reasons. First, I only have a highschool understanding of the relevant topics, so I don’t have much to say. Second, I was thoroughly unimpressed by what I understood, and apparently I’m not alone: “Critics of the Situationists frequently assert that their ideas are not in fact complex and difficult to understand, but are at best simple ideas expressed in deliberately difficult language, and at worst actually nonsensical.”
8: Final Uruk reference, this time from his piece on Hoffer: “Mass movements are not the result of calculated thought, nor of a genuine interest in the ideology, but of frustration… Frustration is, ultimately, about the inability to achieve a personal goal or a group goal…A corollary of this is that mass movements are less about achieving anything meaningful than about fostering frustration. A ‘good’ movement – not as in ‘taking power’ (which plenty do), but as in completing goals, bettering the life of its adherents, making them more active, making them powerful – will leave them less frustrated. The movement will then disband – can’t have one without a frustrated mass.”
9: Neil Gaiman has some thoughts on the subject.
10: Debord addresses Boorstin by name in The Society of the Spectacle, but I couldn’t fit it in. His critique in one sentence: Boorstin's views "...amount to blaming the spectacle on modern man's excessive inclination to be a spectator."
11: The Handbook Of 5GW is a truly terrible, poorly formatted, endlessly repetitive collection of essays. Nevertheless, it has some gold among the dross:
"The problem with using a narrower definition of war is that the enemy may fight you with a form of war that you not only can’t see, but, even worse, don’t even believe in. If the enemy uses a broader definition of war than you, any attack on that portion of the spectrum where you are defenseless may inflict a decisive defeat. The worst part of such a defeat may be that:
· You never knew you were at war.
· You never saw what hit you.
· You never knew there was a chance for victory.
· You never knew that you were defeated.
· You don’t believe in any of the above.
A successful fifth-generation war would be one that an opponent never even realized he lost."
12: Many experts consider the generational model of warfare outdated, preferring a gradient framework (sometimes referred to as xGW). Depending on your definitions, you can find examples of counterinsurgency and hybrid warfare throughout history, which invalidates the notion of successive generations of war. Instead, warfare exists on a spectrum, with Hobbesian total war at one end and fifth generation/gradient warfare at the other.
13: Both quotes from The Handbook Of 5GW.
14: Shut up, I like mixing metaphors.
15: From the link: “The failure mode is that ‘Strong Opinions, Weakly Held’ turns into ‘Strong Opinions, Justified Loudly, Until Evidence Indicates Otherwise, At Which Point You Invoke It To Protect Your Ass.’”
Your Book Review: The Society Of The Spectacle