A seminal work of the 20th century, “La Société du Spectacle” (1967) by Guy Debord is as well known for its complexity as for its philosophical depth. To better understand the thought of this revolutionary author, we spoke with Bertrand Cochard, philosopher and author of the book “Guy Debord et la philosophie” published by Hermann. According to him, the concept of spectacle would help us to better understand the problems of our contemporary society.
Le Comptoir: Most readers of Debord use the term “spectacle” without really understanding it. What do you think is the most common misinterpretation?
Bertrand Cochard: The main confusion consists in saying that the spectacle designates the hegemony of the media in the public sphere or the advent in the 20th century of a society of the image. This interpretation is not entirely wrong, but Debord specifies that the power of images or the power of the media are only the most superficial manifestation of the spectacle.
Can you explain the concept of “show” to us?
The term emerged at the end of the 1950s within the cultural field. The concept of spectacle finds its source in the dramaturgy of Bertolt Brecht. Two words about this playwright: Brecht criticized not only the state of passivity and non-intervention of the spectators of the classical theater, but the fact that, to compensate for this state, the classical theater set up strategies of identification (in particular the catharsis), giving viewers the illusion of activity. Brecht therefore seeks to break with this spectacular state by creating devices of distancing allowing the spectators to have a critical look at what is shown to them.
“Spectacular time is a time punctuated by commodities, the perpetual present of consumption. »
In the 1950s, the situationists took their inspiration from Brecht’s critique and extended it to social life in general. We would all have become spectators, kept away from a life presented as desirable. What society pushes us to identify with to compensate for this existential passivity are no longer heroes, as in classic tragedy, but stars, stars or politicians. In the 1960s, the notion of spectacle became politicized to designate a new form taken by capitalism. The essence of capitalism is to always seek to create more value, which leads to crises of overproduction. The merchandise is led to colonize new geographical territories to sell off this overproduction. After a while, there is nothing more to conquer, at least from a “spatial” point of view. The spectacle is the moment when, in order to be able to dispose of the merchandise produced in excess, capitalism has come to colonize our imaginations. This second concept therefore aims to designate the economic and social form taken by capitalism in the contemporary era.
In your thesis, you propose another reading of the concept of spectacle by focusing on the notion of time.
In thesis 158 of The Society of the ShowGuy Debord defines the show as ” false awareness of time “. The concept of spectacle is to show that we are kept apart from history, separated from historical time. As if we didn’t understand what time was. Debord explains that the nature of time is to be irreversible. From antiquity to the present day, this irreversible, living and historical nature of time has been hidden from us. In Antiquity, time is represented in a cyclical way. In Christianity, we see time as a countdown, oriented by the Last Judgment. This is a false awareness of the irreversible nature of time.
Our era is no better: spectacular time is a time punctuated by commodities, the perpetual present of consumption. The spectacle conceals the historical character of time. We are helpless spectators of a story that is being made without us.
To respond to the problematic of the spectacle, the situationists proposed constructing situations. What is a situation in Debordian thought?
A situation is a moment of life which contrasts with the morose and traditional organization of bourgeois life. Situations are intense moments of life that situationists attempt to construct, consciously and deliberately, using all available means. For example, they will propose a way of reclaiming urban space by breaking away from the usual utilitarian perspective. They will criticize the functionalist architecture of Le Corbusier and propose to drift in the city. Someone who drifts explores the urban space by letting himself be carried away by the different atmospheres that a city can contain. He can thus live an experience radically different from the current experience.
Guy Debord invents a game concept that he opposes to the leisure industry. What would be the difference between the two?
Leisure is a way for the worker who exhausts himself in production to recover an energy of which this production has emptied him, all this by consuming goods and spectacles which take him away from his own life. Leisure is a form of “active passivity” essential to the perpetuation of the market system. The game, on the contrary, is a way for the situationists to punctuate time in a non-commercial way by living intense experiences. The risk would be that capitalism reappropriates the taste for gambling for commercial purposes. For the situationists, it is a matter of bringing down, through revolution, the spectacular-commodity society. Otherwise, as we saw with May 68, each innovation or new subversion will be taken over by the market system.
Are the images we see in the media, social networks or advertising posters faithful representations of our reality?
No, it would rather be an inverted reflection of our reality. It is because we ourselves are unable to live immediate and authentic experiences that we consume images. If ever the images reflected reality, they would represent dull, dreary individuals unable to meet each other. It is because we are increasingly separated from the possibility of acting and making history that we drink in images and technologies which, on paper, are supposed to unite us but which, in reality, separate us. .
Does situationist thought allow us to understand our contemporary society?
It is important to come back to situationist thought if we see that the spectacle is not dead. The society criticized by the situationists has continued to develop since 1967. For example, Guy Debord understood that it was very serious to see free time as time “liberated” by work (one has to work so many days to benefit from paid leave, as if working made it possible to “produce” free time). We then imagine free time as liberated time, dearly conquered, and which must therefore be put to good use and filled with performances. One of the central problems of our civilization is the feeling of running out of time, of not living one’s time authentically.
“The game is a way for situationists to punctuate time in a non-commercial way by living intense experiences. »
So our free time is vampirized by the show?
Exactly. Guy Debord explains that the problem with free time is that, in the market society, it is punctuated by goods. To give an example, when you wonder when the last season of your favorite series is going to be released, your free time is very concretely punctuated in its expectation by the goods. This also applies to holidays, Christmas, Easter, etc. Our free time is spectacularized because it is punctuated by commodities. It only got worse after the 1960s. When exhausted workers come home, start a Netflix series and order sushi on Deliveroo, they adopt a behavior that Debord criticized in The Society of the Show. He gives us tools to understand our alienation. This brings Debord’s thinking back to something very philosophical: if you ask people to reflect on what is wrong with our society, they will list several phenomena. We can criticize, for example, the growing influence of images, the ecological crisis or identity tensions. But all that remains chaotic in our thinking because they are independent phenomena. The concept of spectacle makes it possible to unify these phenomena.
How can the show explain everything?
The show does not explain everything. I have listed a number of phenomena that can be explained using this concept. Debord believes that these phenomena are linked to the commodity and therefore to the capitalist system in which we live. To talk about identity tensions, Debord explains that the oppositions of people according to their genders or their ethnic groups only aim to hide that we are all alienated by the market system. These oppositions, as important as they are, mask what should interest us all: the overthrow of the market system. What unites us is the fact that we are all separated from historical time.
“Our free time is spectacularized because it is punctuated by goods. »
Should we focus only on capitalism and hide other forms of domination?
I wouldn’t say it shouldn’t be taken care of. I think it is even important to do so. But without forgetting that behind the majority of current forms of domination, there is the same society that produces these forms, and that it is this society that must be overthrown in its entirety. In intersectionality, many people show that there is a capitalist structure behind the forms of domination.
I am thinking more of the speeches made in the media or by various politicians who say that the current social problems are linked to immigration. They revive false oppositions while the critical issue for Debord is to overthrow the market system to put an end to an infrastructure that leads us to our self-destruction even from an ecological point of view. The media polarize our attention on pseudo-events that mask the reality of the productivist system. Continuous news channels produce a perpetual present. It is thus impossible to make sense of what we are experiencing. Our consciousness is punctuated by current events, installed in a perpetual present, which makes any criticism impossible, because criticism, on the other hand, unfolds in time.