Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle: Are We Defined by How We Appear?

Guy Debord investigates the “society of the spectacle”: a time where images, billboards, advertising, and consumerism are encouraged and omnipresent. Is there a way to avoid the capitalist spotlight?

Apr 2, 2023By Klejton Cikaj, MSc in Social Philosophy, BA Philosophy

guy debord society of the spectacle


After WW2, capitalism entered a golden age. Taxes on the rich were relatively high across advanced capitalist countries, which  brought about higher wages and better standards of living to the rest of the population. The attention was turned towards consumption: how to get people to buy what was produced, to get them to feel like they needed it. The average family could now afford a TV and a radio. The society of the spectacle and mass media began to emerge.


In every new product, there exists tension. On one hand it tries to present itself as a unique, ground-breaking object that can make you become one of the select few people able to possess it; at the same time, it is produced on a mass scale. With mass production, the product loses its unique aura. As soon as this is revealed, a new product that promises the same things is revealed to the consumer who gladly plays along, over and over again.


Guy Debord asks us: if these products are supposed to fill some deep desire inside us, why do they get replaced in every cycle of production by a new product? Each advertisement is itself an admission of the lie in the previous one. It always turns out that the product which was supposed to solve all your problems didn’t actually do that, again and again.


Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle: The Inversion of Life

“Cover of the 1983 edition of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle”, 26 November 1952, by J.R. Eyerman via GettyImages.


In this new, post-WW2 social order, everything which was previously lived directly was now experienced through representations. Images create a pseudo world in themselves, a world of spectacle which captures us in amusement.

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“The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the non living.“


The spectacle for Guy Debord is the dominant model of life, the heart of the mode of production. It also serves as a justification of the current system and mode of production. The current system doesn’t confront us as an actual physical entity given to us directly in our experience but as a reified net of social relations, all entangled in the accumulation of capital.


The spectacle doesn’t mean “fake” or “illusory” for Debord. Quite to the contrary, the spectacle is reality, the necessary alienation which supports the system from which it grows. The system of spectacle marks a negation of life. People find themselves caught in its net and the power of the spectacle seems inescapable.


The spectacle isn’t just a cherry on top of the current social order, it is its very essence. Without the spectacle, the system malfunctions. It is the oil which keeps the engine running, the viewer passive, lost in the stream of images. It takes every aspect of life and sells it back to the consumer, completely sterilized of its vitality. It sells them back their revolt in the form of Che Guevara T shirts for 6.99$ and a discount on Das Capital from Amazon. You throw a rock at the spectacle, it puts it in a museum. Anything can be appropriated and sold back to the people.


The Image and the Fleeting World

“Screen ad for swedish oat drink”, 10 October 2020, by Arno Senoner via Unsplash


The spectacle isn’t just an advertisement on TV but a way of being in the world which fundamentally affects our experience and our relationships with other people. The emergence of the internet and social media has only reinforced this problem. All of our interactions are mediated by an influx of fleeting images. Our experience of life has been separated from any of its realities. Every aspect of our lives is trapped by the spectacle and commodified by it.


This commodification also serves to conceal our relations. Just think of how our perception of someone can be affected by their Instagram followers. The idea of permanence, which was offered by religion in the past, is now provided by the spectacle. The world beyond, divine happiness, and transcendence can be found by purchasing the right product. Our relations are experienced as fleeting. The world slips through our fingers, our communities become spectacle communities, held together not by a sense of belonging or identity but by the common field of the spectacle.


“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.”


Resisting the Spectacle: Building Situations

“Fashion Photo”, circa 1945-1955 , by Eric Holmen via Wikimedia Commons


The spectacle is the current order’s nonstop monologue about itself. Its power seems inescapable and it seems to catch us at every turn of our lives. Debord, however, didn’t simply theorize about the spectacle but actively tried to build ways to avoid being subsumed in it. This is what situationists like Debord call constructing a “Situation”.


A situation can be anything spontaneous which is done for its own sake. An argument which is repeated ad nauseum is that you are a hypocrite if you critique the current order which has given you such a good quality of life. To the contrary, situationists believed that the only experiences worth living are those that are least mediated by the specter of capital. These authentic experiences could be anything. Taking a stroll in parts of the town you had not visited before could lead to the emergence of spontaneity, a feeling of unpredictability, a genuine interaction with strangers motivated by nothing other than human curiosity.


Another technique of subversion suggested by Guy Debord was Detournement. Detournement consists in mocking the spectacle by using its own language, directing back its own force – for example, turning logos or slogans against the advertisers themselves.


Is Desire Purely Personal?

“Rick’s drive in&out”, 12 February 2021, by Anthony A via Unsplash


Our notion of desire and the way people speak about it is highly personal and individualized. Desire is always grounded in the subject doing the desiring. One might think that advertisements and the Spectacle are simply informing possible consumers about products that they might be missing out on.


For Debord, this is not true. Desire was experiencing a shift, he says, from having to appearing. This meant that people were becoming less concerned about the use value of a commodity and more with the symbol of its exchange value. What does the commodity being consumed signify to others about who the consumer is?


Desire became symbolic, grounded in the Other and not in some inherent need for a particular product. A car could cost 5000$ or 500.000$. It is not plausible that the second car is simply 100 times better than the first one. It probably looks much better and it is likely somewhat faster, but these technicalities can not justify its price. The only reason why people would pay that much additional money for a car is for the symbolic value that the possession of the car provides to their own identity in the eyes of the Others.


The price gap is explained by the symbolic difference. It speaks for itself. The spectacle creates a field of symbolic values which are used to signify the type of person one wants to be perceived as. Identity becomes ultimately tied to consumer choices.


Instagram and the Society of the Spectacle

“Chasing waterfalls” travel influencers, 23 July 2021, by Karsten Winegeart via Unsplash


There is a curious phenomenon in contemporary society. A lot of people seem to desire fame for fame’s sake. They don’t want to be known for doing something specific but just want to be known for the sake of it, following a ghostly, vacuous spectacle grounded in nothing but the desire to be recognized by the Other.


This tendency towards wanting to be known culminates within the spaces created by Instagram. People manufacture their whole identities in preparation for the gaze of the Other, always anticipating a look from someone, always ready to impress.


Guy Debord, who died in 1994, couldn’t have known about the existence of Instagram. However, his analysis is easily applicable to our current situation. With the emergence of social media, people have begun living in a constant game of trying to predict the Other’s reaction to our identities. This leads to people constantly modifying their identity, often in a very ad hoc way – depending on who is gazing at us – leaving them with nothing but a shapeless ability to transform in order to cater to someone’s gaze.


When looking at the page of an average influencer, one can see this emptiness in action. The influencer collects signs of their identity, surrounding themselves with what will best convey to the Other their desired perception of themselves. Standing in front of a sports car with bags from a luxurious brand laid on the ground, with an expensive suit, in the Monaco seaside. All of these signs are carefully tailored and arranged to give an impression to whoever might be looking, “I am very successful and I have what you lack”.


“The spectacle is a permanent opium war designed to force people to equate goods with commodities and to equate satisfaction with a survival that expands according to its own laws. Consumable survival must constantly expand because it never ceases to include privation.”

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By Klejton CikajMSc in Social Philosophy, BA PhilosophyKlejton holds an MSc in Social Philosophy from the University of Tirana in Albania. Klejton has a deep interest in all philosophy-related fields, from metaphysics to epistemology, to the philosophy of mind and politics. Klejton is dedicated to making the substance of philosophy accessible to regular readers without diminishing its quality.