Society of the Spectacle by Debord

This book describes The Society of the Spectacle as seen by Debord. The concept is quite easily understood but the interest in the book is the way Debord describes it.

The book is a series of passages, the first of which is the following …

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

I find myself questioning the words “all of life”; it surely can not be all of life since we see the world immediately around us as it is rather than “as an accumulation of spectacles” and life is surely what we are presented with rather than what we dream about in our heads. Perhaps the translation has exaggerated what Debord is saying; this discourse has lost my trust as a reader from the very beginning although it is still interesting.

Debord continues that as a result of this … “ the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds … ”

A significant piece is the fourth which says …
“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

This starts to define what is meant by The Society of the Spectacle and it is not what one might immediately assume.

While Debord offers an interesting explanation of his concept, there are statements which are not so easy to understand; for instance, section 9 he writes …
In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.

This statement follows logically from previous statements yet it requires a small leap of faith, one that I am not prepared to make at the beginning of his book. Debord has passed judgement on us all; does the book give us any chance of seeing through this mess we have created for ourselves? If not, it is going to be a very tough read indeed.

Debord is also considering The Society of the Spectacle from a political standpoint as well as a sociological one; I find it quite profound. In a way, Debord seems to be writing about the nous or universal mind that was once posited by the Greek philosophers yet as an externalised rather than an internalised phenomena. He comments on philosophy which he defines as ” the power of separate thought and the thought of separate power“(20) mentioning the “weaknesses of the Western philosophical project which undertook to comprehend activity in terms of the categories of seeing“(19)

One can read the whole book at …


Debord quotes Feuerbach at the beginning of “The Society of the Spectacle” … “But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane”

Susan Sontag also responds to the same quote by Feuerbach in the last chapter of “On Photography”; she writes that “a society becomes “modern” when one of it’s chief activities is producing and consuming images … first hand experience becomes indispensable to the health of the economy.”

It may be the result of inaccurate translation but I find myself questioning Feuerbach; it is untrue to say that the present age prefers “the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence …” rather people have become habituated to this situation. For instance, the city dweller knows of the country through images rather than experience; he would probably prefer to be in the countryside rather than see it on TV yet his job and family life prevent it. Feuerbach would appear to be writing with a sense of authority rather than understanding.

Here he is again, sounding a little more reasonable perhaps …

“Only when we abandon a philosophy of religion, or a theology, which is distinct from psychology and anthropology, and recognise anthropology as itself theology, do we attain to a true, self-satisfying identity of the divine and human being, the identity of the human being with itself.”

One can read the whole book online at …