Project The society of the Spectacle

This project is review of  a chaper  Separation Perfected by Guy Debord (Evans, J. and Hall, S., 1999).  The project calls for a number of questions to be answered. I deal with each of these in turn below. It has to be said that I found Debord’s language and ideas very difficult to understand. My responses are therefore my best attempt. I have some doubts as to whether I really got to the bottom of his ideas.

Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view?

To answer this question I first needed to explore what the term Weltanschauung means. An excellent summary of the term is provided by Sigmund Freud (Freud, 1932) as follows:

‘By Weltanschauung, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.’

So Freud presents the concept as an intellectual construction, or  a philosophy. I am not sure though that this is the way Debord uses the term. He believes that people see the Spectacle as real not just as a set of ideas. In his view a process of social alienation has taken place whereby the Spectacle is taken as reality. This goes beyond just a set of intellectual ideas.

What do you think Debord means by ‘the Spectacle’?

Debord refers to the physical manifestation of the Spectacle as follows: ‘In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertising or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life’. So he regards the mass media as a physical manifestation of the spectacle, but he also uses the words ‘the spectacle, taken in the limited sense of the mass media’, so clearly he sees the spectacle as much more. What comes through within his essay is the sense that he sees the spectacle as the dominant means by which the  ‘existing systems administration’ exerts control over society. So the Spectacle is not just another word for mass media, it is more a method of controlling society in the interests of the the ruling classes.

Have Debord’s ideas been confirmed or contradicted since 1967?

Without question in my mind the scale of the physical manifestation of Debord’s Spectacle, i.e. the mass media, has mushroomed since 1967. So if one believes his basic argument then it seems likely that the level of control exerted on society by the ‘existing systems administration’ has grown. However this assumes that one accepts the notion that the mass media is being used as a means of control. Or indeed that it can be controlled. An alternative view is that the mass media is a cacophony of messages from competing interests and that it is not a system of control, rather it is out of control. The democratisation of the mass media through the internet which allows individuals to present themselves and their ideas to the world also complicates matters.

Are we having our world view controlled or do we simply not know what is propaganda?

My view is that Debord used the term ‘see the world by various specialised mediations’ to propose that we are having our view of the world controlled. He uses the expression ‘the Spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them.’, which supports this view. He also makes the point that the spectacle is a one way form of communication – there is no capacity to question or interrogate. My own view is that it is more that we are unable to distinguish between what is real and what is not, nor for that matter what is real and what is propaganda. The sheer volume of information with which we are bombarded these days makes it even more difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. However as I indicated above I remain unconvinced that the Spectacle can be managed as a grand plan by the ruling classes.

Is the Spectacle seeing the real as abstract or as an extreme reification?

The strict definition of reification is to make a thing (greek: res) out of an idea.  I believe that the concept of reification is at the heart of Debord’s Spectacle. The Spectacle relies on the Marx’s concept of fetishisation of commodities, ie when an output from productive processes is transformed into a commodity it becomes a marketing idea disengaged from its original form and value based on its intrinsic cost of production. Commodities are presented through advertising etc as something more. For example young men buying Lynx cosmetic products are not buying a glass bottle or aerosol can with perfumed liquid in it, rather they are buying the idea that if they have this product then they will become more attractive to women. This idea becomes reality in the minds of the purchasers and as such is reified.


Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: the reader London: Sage

Freud, S. (1932) A philosophy of life Available from: [Accessed on 2nd January 2012]

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