The Spectacle…or Welcome to the Handbasket?

I ended up thinking about Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) whenever I opened up Twitter this past week.

I mostly blame the clown-car/lynch mob that was Trump’s Republican National Convention (America, you have my bewildered sympathies). The ghastly God-I-wish-this-were-surreal-but-nope-it’s-reality sense of overwhelm that the convention engendered in me, even from the comfort of my securely-Canadian couch, was ugly. Add in the recurring black death and hashtag resistance that populates my Twitter feed all too often, the increasing regularity of mass-scale terrorism and retaliation, even the banning of professional troll @Nero from Twitter for unleashing all sorts of racist, misogynist hell against Ghostbusters’ Leslie Jones…it all adds up, for me, to a societal social contract that my existing conceptual tools are inadequately equipped to deal with.

Because what the hell is all this hot mess if not Spectacle with a capital S? (plus some other words that start with S and end with “storm”)…

So. Debord’s been niggling at the back of my mind. He defines the spectacle as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 5).

(Caveat: I am a very casual reader of Debord. I didn’t work with Debord’s spectacle in my dissertation on academic Twitter, except insofar as so many of my conversations during that period were with participant and mentor @KateMfD, whose visual identity on the internet during that time was the cover photo FOR Society of the Spectacle (see below). I spent that intensive and relational research period interacting with Kate while primarily visualizing her as that cover image, which…Debord would probably have something to say about.  I’ll leave that one for some other keener to unpack.)

Cover of Debord's Society of the Spectacle, people with 3D glasses on

@KateMfD, as I will forever see her in my mind

Anyhoo, while I was musing about spectacle thanks to the mangled mob pageantry of the RNC and its blue-collar billionaire, a Debord reference landed smack on my screen much closer to home.

Because last week for us here was also the extraordinary #DigPed PEI, which brought people from all over PEI education and from the US, UK, and other Canadian provinces together for three days of intensive engagement with ideas and tools – Twitter among them. And in one of the (so far very positive and thought-provoking) anonymous feedback forms I solicited afterwards, a participant brought up Debord and spectacle, as related to that individual’s residual hesitancy about social media.

And so I thought, clearly this is a combo endorsement from the universe to go back & read me some Debord.

(After all, beyond politics and societal participation, how many of my household’s personal and professional relationships find communicative and affective expression in Facebook/Twitter/Instagram? What about the casual but relationship-augmenting encounters that Pokemon Go has created for my kids and, erm, me this past week?)

So I did. Spoiler? I don’t, ontologically, buy the ways Debord separates society and the subject, and the implied essentialism of a reality outside the spectacle…which is why there was no Debord in my thesis. Still, there’s something to his idea of the spectacle I think we all ought to be digging into and trying to grapple with, especially those of us who see ourselves as educators. Or, um, people who don’t want the world to burn. Or both.

It’s this. What I took out of seventy cobbled-together minutes of my life spent re-aquainting myself with Debord is:

the spectacle of contemporary society is about power. Full stop.

(Okay there’s more about identity & commodity & reification but Ima hafta dig into that another day. Or you can. Ping me if you do!)

Debord, on power:
“At the root of the spectacle lies that oldest of all social divisions of labor, the specialization of power. The specialized role played by the spectacle is that of spokesman for all other activities, a sort of diplomatic representative of hierarchical society at its own court, and the source of the only discourse which that society allows itself to hear. Thus the most modern aspect of the spectacle is also at bottom its most archaic” (Debord, p. 8).

In other words, the bread and circuses we are being fed are pretty much naked, craven power subsuming all other forms of societal organization.

So Trump’s bizarre content-free campaign video, above? Just power as spectacle, image circulation subsuming any other form of discourse.

Those English people who voted for Brexit but now don’t want to leave? Who voted as they did as a way of signalling “burn it all down”? A sheer exercise in power, both from the political engineers and from many of the individual voters.

And everything Milo Yiannopoulos ever wrote on Twitter? Same. As Laurie Penny says in what is pretty much a mic drop to this particular cultural moment“It’s all an act. A choreographed performance by a career sociopath who will claim any cause to further his legend.” 

The problem, of course, is what Penny points out: there’s no room in this kind of game for truly believing in much of anything. That’s why the disconnects are so vast and nobody seems to care. The “attention hustlers,” as she calls them, “channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind.”

Spectacle. Power. The fomenting of archaic hatreds, not because one necessarily believes them…but because they’re there. Because they allow social relationships to be mediated so effectively by images and symbols.

Oh goody. So THAT’s why most of my Twitter feed is so damn bewildered and depressed these days. For those of us who still believe in just about anything beyond the spectacle of power for its own sake, the way the Overton window on this kind of politics and personal practice has shifted is kinda staggering.

Now, given that Debord was writing in 1967 and Ann Coulter’s “career” – to name but one of Penny’s “attention hustlers” – pre-dates social media by at least a decade, Twitter itself nor social media more generally obviously can’t be the source of the spectacle. I don’t actually even believe it’s a more pure or powerful instantiation of the spectacle than television, especially in cable news territory.

But I don’t have cable news on when I work. I don’t spend my professional days with TV constantly in the background.

Whereas Twitter – for me, Twitter even more than Facebook – has been, for the past six or seven years, a constant presence. It’s a stream I dip in and out of as I work, even when it is not the site of my work…and it has been a rich source of connections and conversations and resources FOR that work as well as a space through which my work and voice have been amplified.

But it is also part of the spectacle-ization of broadcast media, part of the crush of the attention economy within which we all swim these days whether we sign up for Pinterest or Twitter or Instagram or no. Because our narratives are all filtered through the spectacle and its steroids of scandal and somewhere after years of 24-hour news cycles and Twitter fights and identity commodification, we all just seem to be rolling down hill in the same unfortunate handbasket, labelled “power.”

Or that’s how it felt this week.

I’m not quite done with Debord, I don’t think. Gonna try again – next week – to figure out what it means to be an educator in the midst of this sea of media and spectacle in which we all swim, and think about the ways in which social media in particular are handmaidens of spectacle…and yet maybe also means of subverting the spectacle that mass media and politics serve up? Maybe.

We’ll see. That’s next week. For the remainder of this week, I’ll just be over in the corner here rocking gently and staring at the wall trying to figure out how to get through another 5+ months of 2016. Join me! I have jellybeans.

10 Comments The Spectacle…or Welcome to the Handbasket?

  1. Simon Ensor

    Thank you for writing this.

    I am beginning to feel that we need to avoid this so seductive web if it means losing sight of where real power lies.

    In whose interests do we have this “freedom” to “connect” “virtually” ?

    If you have a whole population believing lies then those lies constitute the truth which kills.

    When Erdogan was threatened by a coup d’état he asked his supporters to come out onto the streets – not to participate in a Twitter chat.

    “Maintaining public attention diverted away from the real social problems, captivated by matters of no real importance. Keep the public busy, busy, busy, no time to think, back to farm and other animals” (quote from text Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars). N.Chomsky

    I don’t hold much faith in “digital citizenship”.

    1. bon

      i don’t know if i hold out much faith in “citizenship,” generally. i think the digital frame around it fails to map particularly well over a geopolitical world…but i’m not sure the nation-state frame around it maps over a world of global(ish) media (very unevenly distributed) and spectacle.

      i don’t think the two (digital & material) are truly separate, at least relationally, and yet our models still don’t fully factor that in. coups use social media to coordinate. the spectacle of Trump or Brexit still has real geopolitical consequences, even if it’s spectacle. even for you & i, living outside the US & UK…it’s true that ppl decrying stuff here is not ppl marching in the streets…but where/how else can you & i speak back to all this? and if you hurt me via digital means, i am still hurt. so i dunno. i take your point. but in so many ways…i still value this.

      i guess that’s the point of my next post, whenever i get around to writing that. ;)

  2. Mary G

    The whole RNC reminded me forcefully of my reading about the Roman populace in Empire days voting themselves bread and circuses.
    Simon Ensor’s quote above is totally relevant.
    Do,we do history any more?

    1. bon

      Mary, indeed. i read this just today and thought of your comment:

      at the same time, i vaguely remember Doonesbury and Bloom County making comments about Reagan being ahistorical and not taking the job seriously…i was only a kid but that was my intro to politics beyond Canada’s borders. i’m not sure whether that makes it better as i think the machine of the RNC that we see going off its own rails these days was the product of the Reagan era…but i’m more just reminding myself that Reagan did not, in the end, blow us all up with nukes so maybe we’ll get lucky again. ;)

  3. Alan Levine

    Nice post. I mean that, nice to see the RSS reader light lit up.

    If at least for now I know the connecting to Kate’s previous avatar. Clever so clever.

    As I read I thought of the dissonance of this from my own world, the people I spend time with, what I call a reality, and to what is happening in many places. There must be some point it seems so far from what I know to either be jarring or numbing. Or maybe that’s the privilege from my own couch.

    At the same time I find that increasing dissonance from the spectacle from what I live. And pile on tip of that an ever increasing feeling that here are many may of find a resonance with what hits me as dissonance.

    I do agree with what Simon wrote that the simple reacting in twitter is not doing much, or just gives us the feeling we are when we are not. I did my own share of reaction tweeting during the Cleveland Freak Show. Yet, yet, yet… what might be twitter’s twilight (I hope not) has been the window to this spectacle that would never have been possible in an era of networked controlled news. We would never have seen that jarring mobile phone video of cops killing unarmed, surrendered black men. It would not even make it into our news. Or the counter and counter analysis, snark, etc. I for one do not want to see that go, for all the foulness of Milo et al.

    A spectacle and a view.

    This video that David Kernohan just shared (in twitter, of course) makes me think that this is a semi-organized campaign to confuse us with conflicting messages, to make it hard to know if what brings us dissonance or resonance is even real, to actually disarm your opponents with conflicting information

    ultimately to force us to give up, oh dear, to turn off, tune out.

    1. bon

      oh dear. ;)

      or rather, very interesting? power by confusion and destabilization isn’t, i suppose, very different from power by spectacle…i wonder if theses are in a sense versions of the same thing? both are specialized forms of power for their own sake…not attached to any principles except the maintenance of power. except Debord would go on about image and commodity and identity and i don’t quite know if that maps against post-Soviet reality. huh.

      and i know without the spectacle of black death that citizens are able to generate and share via smart phones there would be little outcry against warrior policing and abuses, so i’m wary of throwing all this out with the bathwater. i think there’s more, especially for educators to grapple with. hence the promise of a post next week. even if i know i really mean next month…

      thanks for making me think, anyway. :)

  4. Kate Bowles

    Hi Bonnie,

    The avatar is still the one I use on WordPress, she hasn’t vanished. She is also explained over at the blog, and dates from when I was writing anonymously. I’ve never used my own photograph on social networks, all of them are cinema audience faces, because that’s my actual research.

    So my Twitter avatar is from a different 1940s photographer of city cinema audiences, Weegee, who also photographed crime scenes and bodies—another kind of spectacle altogether, that’s forcefully back in our view. In thinking about audiences for the spectacle, Weegee used infrared photography to capture what cinema attendees were actually up to under cover of watching, as opposed to this very staged promotional photograph of a 3D audience.

    But I love the woman in this crowd who became an avatar for me because she’s so rigidly self-conscious at being the focus of the spectacle of the spectacles. I look at her and think: you are a fully storied human with a life and a family and hopes and exasperations who arrived at this movie theatre, in your good coat and hat, only to find yourself by a chance encounter with a marketing ploy to be frozen in this spectacle forever. That’s a predicament that deserves some sympathy.

    And I think we’re all a bit like her. We show up, we’re watching, and suddenly we’re being watched, unveiled, tracked, reported, preserved. I thought of her as I watched the footage of the convention crowds this week. We search the crowd for faces that stand for some kind of general mood, and behind this crowd is every other crowd, every ugly crowd, every generous crowd, every heroic intervening protecting crowd. We imagine ourselves as we think others might see us, and then suddenly we forget ourselves in public and we’re undone, weeping, right there on camera, and before you know it, GIF-d.

    So she helps me keep the history of the spectacle/s in view, but I still keep in mind Weegee’s beautiful slouching lovers and excited children. We do all that too.

    Lovely post, you really have me thinking.

  5. Vanessa Vaile

    The conventions also put me to thinking about spectacle — and Clifford Geertz, state power, theatrical rituals. Spectacles ramp up media overload. The media becomes the story too.

    All this adds to my own growing reservations about digital citizenship as teachable. My own position does not align neatly with any of the approaches. It’s a thought experiment and personal ~ to cultivate and embody rather than prescribe.

  6. Nate Angell


    I’m late to this convo but can’t resist as it’s so up my alley…thank you for posting!

    I bet you’ve read Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, but if you haven’t, it’s a compelling, disheveled romp through the spectacle, sutuationism and more.

    While my darker side is attracted to Debord, I can never land there, just like I can’t land on the fluffier Baudrillard. Despite their influences and best intentions, I find a kind of determinism that runs through these views that I think locates power in technology and media in ways that cloud our view of how social relations organize power, technology and media.
    When I’m faced with the dark view of The Spectacle with a capital S, I think on how our consumption and creation of media does not only make us into victims, but also subjects, not just in the political sense, but also in identity. The flow of meaning and power is not so simple as to be either wholly inside or outside The Spectacle. The flow of power—and interventions in the flow of power—happen everywhere, including even on Twitter and Facebook. And yes, very importantly, outside social media too.

    While The Spectacle is transmitting dominant ideology, it is also giving rise to Kate’s “slouching lovers and excited children” and other outcomes that may or may not align with the dominant.

    Three cheers for Debord, but I land on a more useful and empowering view that matches my experience in looking at spectacle as a contested field in which power, resistance and unintended outcomes all flow.

    Yet still, rereading Debord should probably be a regular health practice, like flossing ;)


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