Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’
Nearly 50 years ago, Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” reached bookshelves in France. It was a thin book in a plain white cover, with an obscure publisher and an author who shunned interviews, but its impact was immediate and far-reaching, delivering a social critique that helped shape France’s student protests and disruptions of 1968.
“The Society of the Spectacle” is still relevant today. With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.
As with the first lines from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”) and Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), Debord, an intellectual descendant of both of these thinkers, opens with political praxis couched in high drama: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”
In the 220 theses that follow, Debord, a founding member of the avant-garde Situationist group, develops his indictment of “spectacular society.” With this phrase, Debord did not simply mean to damn the mass media. The spectacle was much more than what occupied the screen. Instead, Debord argued, everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.
The “image,” for Debord, carried the same economic and existential weight as the notion of “commodity” did for Marx. Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra. Images have become so ubiquitous, Debord warned, that we no longer remember what it is we have lost. As one of his biographers, Andy Merrifield, elaborated, “Spectacular images make us want to forget — indeed, insist we should forget.”
But in Debord’s view, forgetting doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. We are not just innocent dupes or victims in this cataclysmic shift from being to appearing, he insisted. Rather, we reinforce this state of affairs when we lend our attention to the spectacle. The sun never sets, Debord dryly noted, “on the empire of modern passivity.” And in this passive state, we surrender ourselves to the spectacle.
For Marx, alienation from labor was a defining trait of modernity. We are no longer, he announced, what we make. But even as we were alienated from our working lives, Marx assumed that we could still be ourselves outside of work. For Debord, though, the relentless pounding of images had pulverized even that haven. The consequences are both disastrous and innocuous. “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them,” Debord concluded, “because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse.” Public spaces, like the agora of Ancient Greece, no longer exist. But having grown as accustomed to the crushing presence of images as we have to the presence of earth’s gravity, we live our lives as if nothing has changed.
With the presidency of Donald Trump, the Debordian analysis of modern life resonates more deeply and darkly than perhaps even its creator thought possible, anticipating, in so many ways, the frantic and fantastical, nihilistic and numbing nature of our newly installed government. In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.
In his later work, “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle,” published almost 20 years after the original, Debord seemed to foresee the spectacular process that commenced on Jan. 20. “The spectacle proves its arguments,” he wrote, “simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed …. Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte.” After Trump’s inauguration, the actual size of the audience quickly ceased to matter. The battle over images of the crowd, snapped from above or at ground level, simply fueled our collective case of delirium tremens.
Since then, as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all. It goes on, Debord observed, “to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists. The practical consequences, as we see, are enormous.” Indeed. Who among us recalls the many lies told by Trump on the campaign trail? Who can re-experience the shock felt when first seeing or hearing the “Access Hollywood” tape? Who can separate the real Trump from the countless parodies of Trump and the real dangers from the mere idiocies? Who remembers the Russians when our own Customs and Border officials are coming for our visas?
In the end, Debord leaves us with disquieting questions. Whether we love Trump or hate him, is it possible we are all equally addicted consumers of spectacular images he continues to generate? Have we been complicit in the rise of Trump, if only by consuming the images generated by his person and politics? Do the critical counter-images that protesters create constitute true resistance, or are they instead collaborating with our fascination with spectacle? We may insist that this consumption is the basic work of concerned citizenship and moral vigilance. But Debord would counter that such consumption reflects little more than a deepening addiction. We may follow the fact checkers and cite the critics to our hearts’ delight, but these activities, absorbed by the spectacle, have no impact on it.
Surely, the spectacle has continued nonstop since Jan. 20. While Debord, who committed suicide in 1994, despaired of finding a way to institutionalize what, by nature, is resistant to institutionalization, we need not. We seem to be entering a period similar to May 1968, which represents what Debord called “lived time,” stripping back space and time from the realm of spectacle and returning it to the world of human interaction.
The unfolding of national protests and marches, and more important the return to local politics and community organizing, may well succeed where the anarchic spasms of 1968 failed, and shatter the spell of the spectacle.