Debord and Tik Tok: Society of the Spectacle Redux
May 30, 2023
Debord and Tik Tok: Society of the Spectacle Redux Tom Pazderka 30 May 2023 The central thesis of the society of the spectacle is the reduction of all life into mere images. And while this thesis certainly stands up even today, digital technologies and the introduction of algorithms and AI begot an era in which images themselves have passed through the reproduction phase and into a seemingly innocuous stage of producing life from the same images to which it was initially reduced. Whether iconic or clichéd, Guy Debord’s 1967 classic The Society of the Spectacle begins with a chilling observation. “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” The argument is that in the world of mass media and consumption, we have become mere spectators in a vast ecosystem of television shows, advertising, and corporate branding. Incredibly prescient, Debord’s ideas outlined in The Society of the Spectacle were adopted by the counter-culture in the 1960s. These were later colonized and banalized by the very culture against which Debord deployed his critique. His critique of the spectacle, of the media, advertising and propaganda, became part of the very system of the corporate state media apparatus that used it in highly diluted forms to sell back to the culture a whitewashed slick version of cultural critique that was readily available, consumable and commodified to fit the rising trends in academic studies, in the workplace and above all in the media sphere. Today, Debord’s book continues to be relevant, because very little has changed in modern social relations from his day to ours. Social relations are mediated within the same continued renewal of and dependence on modern technology. Debord argues that the spectacle functions as a separation, “the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.’ This fundamental separation is what guides our reality which turns everything upside down, inside out, truth into falseness and the fake into the real. The world has been turned into a new type of reality, not a false reality, because despite the falseness of the images, they in effect reproduce and materialize another complete reality into which one can enter, but from which there is no escape, thus making the spectacle into an ‘objective reality.” Within the spectacle, objective reality is that which is useful for the propagation of the system that develops and projects the spectacle. It is, like modern technology, a totally enclosed circular system, feeding on itself, propagating and multiplying itself endlessly, while it continually separates out the ‘objects’ (people, images, events, etc) that are detrimental to its continuation from those that are useful. Much ink has been spilled already on the radical shift in focus from the Pandemic, that occupied the minds of the public and the media sphere for the last two years, to the Russia-Ukraine war, but it is this shift that precisely illustrates Debord’s argument of the spectacle. While the shift is real, the spectacle and the objective focus remain the same. Objective reality has become subordinate not to the ‘truth’ of what constitutes that reality, but to the ‘credibility’ of the media that presents it. It is credibility that is today the raison d’etre of capital, the ultimate producer of augmented reality through mass media, tech and the burgeoning field of Artificial Intelligence. In 1979 Christopher Lasch observed that “the rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence. Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.” The contemporary rebranding of the decaying news networks into ‘authoritative sources’ in the wake of the political takeover of everything from the internet to public health policy, highlights how the modernized version of the spectacle insinuates itself into every crevice of modern society. By focusing on credibility, rather than objective truth, on misinformation rather than lies, modern mass media articulates its message through constructive ambiguity about its own position relative to the powers of the state of which it is an extension. The fluid relationship of the largest news networks to corporate interests is also host to a porous border between the state and the ‘intelligence community,’ making the need for such ambiguity and public consent that much more necessary. In this environment lies simply dissolve into varying degrees of misdirection. Debord wrote for a society grappling with a new reality of images and media reproduction, fueled by an anxiety of a runaway world in which the individual was no longer integral, but was felt as a cog in a vast machine. In the 1960s it was still possible to think of ways to escape the clutches of the machine and the deindustrialized, globally financialized world that the machines and computers ran and surveilled. The global protests of the late 1960s culminated in the student uprising in Paris in May 1968, with its obverse in the Prague Spring of that same year. The quashing of these protests, and the reassertion of the reality principle imposed by governments, created a rift in the social fabric that had not been fully reconstituted even today. In the West, the failure of the protests spawned the counter-culture movement. In the East, those involved with protests and alternative politics coalesced into a loose knit dissident movement, operating on the margins of society. Both movements had to contend with a radical reassertion of a new mediated reality. The world of newscasts and television programs was a venue that presented a commodified reality totally at odds with the goals and intentions of the counter-culture and the dissidents, but also in every other sense, it presented reality as a reflection of the dominant social narrative borrowed and stolen from counter-culture and spun together behind the scenes in studios and secret war rooms. “Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the present mode of production. It is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations – news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment – the spectacle is the model of the prevailing way 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 in that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the condition and goals of the existing system. The spectacle is also the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the modern production process.” At the time of Debord’s writing, an individual could still experience life within historical time, that feeling of continuity between the past and the present. What is different today is that with the introduction of digital technologies we have entered into a new ahistorical, perhaps an anti-historical time, in which all that exists is agglomerated into a totalizing experience of a new reality beyond the spectacle. The crude early versions of the internet of the last millennium mark the beginning of the end of historical time. It was at that moment that the spectacle was absorbed and the mediated world became ‘real.’ The world of the internet appears as real, organic and fluid. It has the capability to produce experiences, everything that exists, also in exists in an altered state online, including people. The internet’s ahistorical nature however produces a permanent present. Whatever appears immediately disappears, events replace other events. The ahistorical nature of the internet makes everything available and therefore forgettable. Spectacle is absorbed into this new reality with the individual as the focal point of a system of algorithms and AI, watched over by machines supplemented by an array of abstract laws and regulations whose reality appears in a veneer of magic. In The Society of the Spectacle , Debord’s view of time and history is interwoven with the separation of society into classes, into those who work and those who live. “Only those who do not work live.” All arguments over history are essentially arguments about power. The experience of time and thus of history is marked by the appearance of labor. It is until labor appears, that time in class-less societies was experienced as cyclical, through recurring events, seasons, and natural cycles. Irreversible time or historical time appears with writing, when “The owners of history have given time meaning: a direction which is also a significance.” The history book or chronicle is for Debord “an expression of the irreversible time of power and also the instrument that preserves the voluntaristic progression of this time from its predecessor” marked by the continual collapse back into cyclical time upon the collapse of the power and empires that produce them. The chronicle documents the irreversible time of the “masters who make history their private property.” Culture is a byproduct of the internet and the algorithm. We do not live, but are being lived. Ensconced within ahistorical time, we do not experience reality as a sequence of events but as a torrent of information, disjointed bits of data and code, which is collected, used, exploited and recycled. The algorithms curate experiences out of this primordial chaos to provide individuals with the reality of its own choosing, or as Debord wrote ‘the spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: ‘What appears is good: what is good appears. The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.’ With the internet this ‘passive acceptance’ is turned into an ‘active interpassivity,’ the individual no longer a passive witness to events, but rather an active subject whose activity feeds and recreates the system of experience. The end result is the same, because the system of experience, like the system of the spectacle, creates the ‘appearance’ of activity, giving the individual the false impression of agency. We are no longer passive observers of television screens, accepting the inevitability of life subject to a higher symbolic order or law, but proactive co-conspirators in the recreation of cultural norms, social hierarchies and moral codes. Invited to participate in the social reproduction of the networks of power, we are collectively building a vast prison complex made of biometric and financial data. Debord’s insight, that the (un)real world of the media is encroaching on the ‘real’ world, is today more true than in his own time. Everything that happens on screen, inside social media, and increasingly within the growing ‘metaverse,’ has real world ramifications. The unseen generates movement in the seen and vice versa. The logic of the spectacle is for the ‘left’ what conspiracy theory is for the ‘right.’ The spectacle is a totalized world of appearances, in which nothing is truly as it appears. Behind appearance and separation lies the possibility of ‘truth,’ even though the very concept of truth is itself subject to the same logic of the spectacle. What drives the spectacle is its inherent ‘need’ to produce an alternate reality. This reality appears as an image and remains an image until the appearance is broken and the ‘real’ intrudes into it. What this ‘real’ represents is the bedrock of the conspiracy theory of the spectacle, because it is the essence that structures life itself. Ironically, it is within the spectacle itself where we find glimpses of the ‘real’ as small windows into the occluded world of appearance. Many films have attempted to pull back the curtain of the spectacle, while masterfully hiding it behind yet another set of appearances – Network, The Matrix, Fight Club, They Live, or X-Files, among others. The ‘real’ is the ‘repressed’ that intrudes into the view of constructed reality – the sunglasses in They Live, the pill in the Matrix, Deep Throat and Mr. X in X-files, etc. Tyler Durden is the repressed inner desire of the main character ‘Cornelius’ in Fight Club. The scene where Cornelius fights Tyler (himself) is the moment where he slips behind the appearance and into the ‘real,’ beyond spectacle. This is finally revealed at the end of the film through the character of Helena Bonham Carter, but by this time the real had finally encroached into the world of appearance and we witness the collapse of the city skyline. What is important, is that behind the ‘real’ lies the conspiracy of Cornelius/Tyler to clear, set up and wire the buildings with explosives. It is the final coup de grace in which Cornelius/Tyler becomes an active participant in yet another layer of the appearance enabled and subject to a presumed capital power structure of which he is now the source. In these films, as in Debord’s book, it is the pessimism that is most tragically present. Whatever the revelation of the existence of the spectacle brings, it is only the absolute certainty there is no possibility of escaping it.