Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’

  • Posted on: 20 February 2017
  • By: thecollective

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.




This of course precedes The Society of the Spectacle(which is something of an overrated work as many Marxist based works tend to be).

Also we're not entering into a period similar to 1968(wait 30 years for that one). We are in similar unravelling territory to the late 30s-early 40s with binary ideology wars at their worst. To have 1968 like events you need a bohemian zeitgeist like era which we currently are not in.

The Bohemian Zeitgeist went to:

1- Silicon Valley
2- to the grave of Kurt Cobain
3- to northern India/Nepal/Tibet
4- to Leftard activism

All of these things need to be washed out completely (except Kurt Cobain's grave, who still cares about this one?), no matter how impossibly complex will it be, at the end of the Fourth Turning in 2048 and blablablabla....

Maybe genetically-revive Kurt Cobain?

What do you mean by #3?

Have you missed the whole era of hippies and liberal yuppies doing their multi-years pilgrimage to this region!? Plenty of those people are still there.

Really? Don't mean to be combative with this or previous question. Just wasnt aware of a sizeable expat population there. Pictured it more as touristic, transient.

I dunno how sizeable, just that a great many hippies moved over there starting in the '70s, and many preferred to stay in that highly-spiritual region. That's what I heard from several different people in-the-know... the country area where I used to live has seen of its population of bohemians vanish in the late '70s, which had a significant negative effect on the popular culture around there (like in most of the West), with a return towards conservative, materialistic culture and cocooning.

Bohemians since then, especially the bougie ones, have become more about feeling better than becoming better, about the sensation of well-being, than actual love. Such is the yoga liberal culture, which I think deserves its sociological inquiry.

Debord style entryism is still very much in vogue. This began with anarchist-hating Marxist's like Pannekoek ( Council Communism nein decades ago) then moved through the 60's Sits to the Autonomists of the 80's. Three highly significant attempts by left-fascism to penetrate & parasite off anarchism.
The * RED BLOC* meh - they tried and died.
The significance is easily seen now the inverse-Marxist Libertarian right are trying the same scam. ( Anarcho-Crapitalism, etc)

Trump is a Sit. Chan memes are the current-day form of détournement. 2016 was the ultimate media manipulation, spectacle transformed. Pop art on steroids & stimulants, anti-anti-depressants & dissociatives. Situationism turns out to be a tactic, not an embodiment of political precepts. SotS was read by not only subversives, radicals, communists or anarchists, but military planners, policy makers, academics & establishment powers. We remain the exploited working class serfs toiling to make product for consumption, even as counterculture. Toiling in the field of the mind for those who make mine fields, although it seems like we're dreaming new life & fomenting change. Efforts end up in the hands of those with mass influence. Division & hierarchy continues like continental drift.

World change in the grand scheme of things feeds history, power and leviathan.

Mass movements, revolution, nation-building, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, communism, socialism, war, government, mass organizing, shepherding, patriarchy, matriarchy, evangelism, missions, propagandizing; these are all the same thing.

Cheese, bikes, toothpaste, blue skies, scuba diving, Disneyland, wide-screen TVs, a walk in the park, elephant-hunting, tears, the pancreas, Ipods, cold coffee, door handles, tornadoes, hot fudge, cream-colored ponies, crisp apple strudels, doorbells, sleigh bells, schnitzel with noodles, wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings, girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes; these are all the same thing. someone who's dead.

Rather, they are formations of Power
That are striated, molar, and congealed states
Of affairs that indicate Signifying Subjectivies
That in turn rule over the singularities which
difference and creative concepts and
The development of a micro-praxis
of liberation can show-forth.

as the durescent synaptic of the mind-blown
through a sea of information we linquish the awe
and pronounces a clamor, bemuzed, lost in the blur of fluxes
of flatulating void-spaces
of relational symbolism and adage...

All we "are" anyway is are immanent "a-risings" as part of the Full plenum of the multiverses
to which we all in-habit. In that sense, we "are" all a Spectacle of sorts. Embrace our time
here on this planet. They say that the most important first thing is to "Show Up".
We here are not afraid to make some Noise, show off our Wares, make an Im-pact,
create new Vistas, come up with novel and different Concepts, pick up the signs and traces of our
land-scape , and Fashion, with great Flair,
the autonomous Zones in which we Par-take our counter-intuitive Intuitions and Practices. Why? Because we Want to, because we Can, because we do that Thing that we do: new Beginnings, new Becomings: as to the Coming Communities of new
Worlds and new Peoples. Yes Indeed > pretty Spectacular, if I don't say so my- self.
All with good Style, different Takes on things, with Mutual Aid and Mutual Respect.

4chan-type detournement was developped by Something Awful satirists. The memetic shock aspect also came out of the loose crowd formerly orbiting around that site, Stileproject, and Newgrounds, with the first biggest memes of the Internet golden age being All Your Base and the Goatse. There might be others I can't think of at the moment, but these two are WAY legendary. This stuff came out of actually pretty anarchistic underground art groups of the '90s like ACiD and DARK.

Then the White suburban millenials came in during the Internet 2.0 era and everything took a really fucked up political dimension. Now I guess we might be witnessing a return to apolitical subversion, hopefully, with antifa becoming big online and Trump becoming the total bad joke he truly

The first commenter is correct to say the political atmosphere today resembles that of the 1930's and not a recycling of 60's neo-Marxist Situationists and their mediocre satirical inversion which detournement was. People like Breton, Duchamp and Dali were the masters of apolitical subversion and the avant-garde who Debord totally plagiarized and corrupted with leftist materialism.

How was one more apolotical than the other? Not contesting, just curious.

Breton ran off to Mehico and befriended Trotsky, Dali befriended Franco, and Duchamp embraced Henri Poincaré's theories. I leave this group of neuroatypical artist's and their ideas to ponder upon.

"It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognized itself." _Breton
" We must always remember that the Chinese revolution was not a peasant's revolution, but one of the extreme Right "_Salvador Dali
" Democratic societies are unfit for the publication of such thunderous revelations as I am in the habit of making"_. Salvador Dali
“All this twaddle, the existence of God, atheism, determinism, liberation, societies, death, etc., are pieces of a chess game called language, and they are amusing only if one does not preoccupy oneself with 'winning or losing this game of chess.”_Marcel Duchamp

Just saying,,,,,,,,,,,,,

He's the only one of those 3 who did not take a later political turn. He stuck to his own game of chess. I wonder what situationism would have turned out to be if it's adherents had simply been an active apolitical update to Duchamp. The situationists down to their name had the right underlying idea. The Marxist Communism is what ruined it at least from the Southern European part. As Bob Black notes in 'The Realization and Suppression of Situationism' the Nordics were a little more Aesthete in orientation but then perhaps they took themselves too seriously as well as lacked certain amount of analysis(though at least they weren't Marxist/Communist politicos like Deb and Van)

Sure, but I'll give any surrealist benefit of the doubt in that their extra-ordinary imagination and whimsical Machiavellian nature drives them to amoral actions, in the case of Dali's friendship to Franco, the ultimate in real life detournement using relationships as the medium. In his era, his admitted onanism, and outrageous acts as shock tactics, I will exempt him from being a political turncoat. Breton yes, a turnaround, but Duchamp, he stuck to his own way.

"in the case of Dali's friendship to Franco, the ultimate in real life detournement"

Maybe your issue is that you're this kind of 4chan troll who simply can't make a difference between representations of repressive politics and their realization in real life (...or cut shot between representation and reality), that the Franco regime and any previous Catho-fascist regimes were all made of!?

There was no intent of détournement in Dali's collaboration with Franco's regime. It was just whoring for the dominant regime, just like he's been whoring for American dollars, and that was very consistent with his own Evola-esque self-aggrandizing assertion of his megalomania. No wonder why he the other artists of the Spanish avant-garde dropped him during the '30s, for being such a fucking narcissist capitalist asshole, just like our Grand Artiste Duchamp.

Oh dear me, the philistines still plague this site.

Thanks for those. The Duchamp quote is great.

Salvatore Dali has supported the Spanish extreme right, so to go on calling the Chinese commies as such was quite hypocritical on his part. Which may be related to him also being a total narcissist asshole as well.

That was a Machiavellian coup.

Is that an argument against ANYTHING, political-wise? Politics are all machiavellian, dumbass.

Machiavellian is not caring about policies or ethics per se, its solely about power, therefore non-democratic, amoral and therefore quintessentially apolitical, if you can see behind the political mask,,,,,,moron. For instance, would you REALLY describe Trumph! as a " politician " compared to the likes of George Washington or General Macarthur?.

Citations that don't cover much on the ontology of the Goa-Tse paradigm/semiotic arrangement.

Dali was an open fascist. Cool guy. Glad you're exposing anarchists to wider thoughts, like from fascists. You're really contributing to the expansion of the conversation.

Can you please stop saying the f-word so much. At least not spelling it out every damn time. I'd prefer to not get triggered every other sentence... Thanks.

-a fellow comrade

Can you pleeease put anon 1 or some way of distinguishing you from the other nameless horde of opinionated anons, at least you didn't cuss or swear. Remember one of Dali's quotes _ We must always remember that the Chinese revolution was not a peasant's revolution, but one of the extreme Right.
I think that explains perfectly well Dali's definition of fascism. Quotes can give some context to a conversation. I'll feed your sarcasm some more.
"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision" If you can't reply with something expansive, I guess you must be the philistine anon.

Right... aside than the issue of Duchamp having institutionalized and capitalized on the surrealists. Guggenheim anyone? He's become the rear guard from what used to be the vanguard.

The only surrealist AND consistently anarchist form the Spanish vanguard who didn't become a sell out like the three others and remained *sharply* subversive was carefully left out of your comment (intentionally... because he was antifacist?). Read: Luis Bunuel.

"as carefully left out of your comment (intentionally... because he was antifacist?)"

Loving the paranoia, comrade. Keep it up!

If you think that suspecting more of that anti-antifa intent on this site is "paranoia", it may be due to you living in a cave for the last 3 years or so, and just having come out of it over the last weekend?

Oh, I bet you would just love it of more cave people stayed in the cave, wouldn't you? Troglophobe.

If that would mean reactionary basement-dwellers like the permanent trolls of this site moving to a primitive basement, where there's no internet access (made of... BINARIES!), i.e. a cave, then yes, I'd like them to stay there for at least a few years.

is people-of-caves. Your eloiesque surface privilege is showing, you irradiated sun-worshipper.

No, not intentionally, I just pulled the 3 most well known surrealists out of my head as I was writing, and "sell out' is a vague term. Bunuel worked often with the lucrative movie industry in Hollywood,,,,,I believe in artistic license,,,,,
"I’m not a Christian, but I’m not an atheist either, ... I'm weary of hearing that accidental old aphorism of mine, 'I'm not an atheist, thank God.' It’s outworn. Dead leaves. In 1951, I made a small film called 'Mexican Bus Ride', about a village too poor to support a church and a priest. The place was serene, because no one suffered from guilt. It’s guilt we must escape, not God." _Bunuel,,,,,,

"worked often with the lucrative movie industry in Hollywood"

As I suspected. Subtle antisematism. Y'all fascists are way too easy to read. But keep claiming you didn't intentionally leave Bunuel out.

OMG, I've hooked a thrashing paranoid crypto-Zionist! My standard retort " I'm still Jewish though I missed my brit millah due to unforeseen circumcisions"

"Bunuel worked often with the lucrative movie industry in Hollywood,,,,,I believe in artistic license"

That's simply not what Bunuel was doing as a job during his time in Hollywood. His job was something else entirely, a film technique he was the inventor of. And it wasn't very lucrative... hence why he eventually returned to Spain. Unlike Dali and Duchamp, he never got rich.

I have a hard time remembering only one of your comments where you weren't a complete ignoramus and a gigantic asshole at the same time.

And I can't remember any of your ' easy to read ' troll comments where you weren't a total foul-mouthed philistine unable to fathom the non-materialistic creative drive!

Of course you can't expect anyone here, other than your lil buddies SE or Emile, to be "fathom" the levels of self-absorbed, bubble-boy idiocy you keep spewing here 24/7. It's so constant that we can even guess your sleeping patterns... christ. Anyways see ya, I'm off to the abhorrent materialistic outside world now... you know outside of your basement window.

Oh no, you've mistaken my dialectical materialism with molecular materialism, sad :(

They are the other side of the coin to the fasctards. What does give me some hope are the shit posting Stirnerians who are different from the Kek crowd. It will be really interesting to see what comes out of that as they are at least some post leftist implications to be gained from that crowd.

gives you "hope"? Gross … no wonder your analysis is so terrible.

Thank you for this post. It reminded me of this handy list I'm working on. As you can see, "bad analysis," currently ranks at number three. Feel free to add and edit this list at your leisure!

2. alt-right
3. bad analysis
4. armchair
5. not relevant
6. troll
7. liberal
9. leftist

Pending approval:

*Recently overtaken by the wildly popular buzzword "alt-right," currently resting at number two.

Doesn't really apply since it's a factual observation as opposed to an insult

i am laughing and crying at your list and it almost makes up for the fascistic nonsense passing for analysis around here. even (especially) in this thread? and the scum spewing anti-immigrant garbage in the other thread... can there be a downvote or SOMETHING? or maybe change nothing, and let the comment section here be as ugly as its become

We say "Rightards". But careful around... this might include YOU.

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