The Society of the Spectacle
“But for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence, . . . truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be seen as the highest degree of sacredness.”
Feuerbach, Preface to the Second Edition of The Essence of Christianity
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world has culminated in a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.
The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is ostensibly the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation.
The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, that has become an objective reality.
Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the present mode of production. It is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real societys unreality. In all of its particular manifestations news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment the spectacle is the model of the prevailing way of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle is also the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the modern production process.
Separation is itself an integral part of the unity of this world, of a global social praxis split into reality and image. The social practice confronted by an autonomous spectacle is at the same time the real totality which contains that spectacle. But the split within this totality mutilates it to the point that the spectacle seems to be its goal. The language of the spectacle consists of signs of the dominant system of production signs which are at the same time the ultimate end-products of that system.
The spectacle cannot be abstractly contrasted to concrete social activity. Each side of such a duality is itself divided. The spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality, while lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it. Objective reality is present on both sides. Each of these seemingly fixed concepts has no other basis than its transformation into its opposite: reality emerges within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and support of the existing society.
In a world that has really been turned upside down, the true is a moment of the false.
The concept of “the spectacle” interrelates and explains a wide range of seemingly unconnected phenomena. The apparent diversities and contrasts of these phenomena stem from the social organization of appearances, whose essential nature must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all human social life with appearances. But a critique that grasps the spectacles essential character reveals it to be a visible negation of life a negation that has taken on a visible form.
In order to describe the spectacle, its formation, its functions, and the forces that work against it, it is necessary to make some artificial distinctions. In analyzing the spectacle we are obliged to a certain extent to use the spectacles own language, in the sense that we have to operate on the methodological terrain of the society that expresses itself in the spectacle. For the spectacle is both the meaning and the agenda of our particular socio-economic formation. It is the historical moment in which we are caught.
The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: What appears is good; what is good appears. The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.
The tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the globe, endlessly basking in its own glory.
The society based on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist. In the spectacle the visual reflection of the ruling economic order goals are nothing, development is everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.
As indispensable embellishment of currently produced objects, as general articulation of the systems rationales, and as advanced economic sector that directly creates an ever-increasing multitude of image-objects, the spectacle is the leading production of present-day society.
The spectacle is able to subject human beings to itself because the economy has already totally subjugated them. It is nothing other than the economy developing for itself. It is at once a faithful reflection of the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers.
The first stage of the economys domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having — human fulfillment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed. The present stage, in which social life has become completely occupied by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing — all having must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances. At the same time all individual reality has become social, in the sense that it is shaped by social forces and is directly dependent on them. Individual reality is allowed to appear only insofar as it is not actually real.
When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior. Since the spectacles job is to use various specialized mediations in order to show us a world that can no longer be directly grasped, it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special preeminence once occupied by touch: the most abstract and easily deceived sense is the most readily adaptable to the generalized abstraction of present-day society. But the spectacle is not merely a matter of images, nor even of images plus sounds. It is whatever escapes peoples activity, whatever eludes their practical reconsideration and correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation becomes independent, the spectacle regenerates itself.
The spectacle inherits the weakness of the Western philosophical project, which attempted to understand activity by means of the categories of vision, and it is based on the relentless development of the particular technical rationality that grew out of that form of thought. The spectacle does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality, reducing everyones concrete life to a universe of speculation.
Philosophy — the power of separate thought and the thought of separate power — was never by itself able to supersede theology. The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion. Spectacular technology has not dispersed the religious mists into which human beings had projected their own alienated powers, it has merely brought those mists down to earth, to the point that even the most mundane aspects of life have become impenetrable and unbreathable. The illusory paradise representing a total denial of earthly life is no longer projected into the heavens, it is embedded in earthly life itself. The spectacle is the technological version of the exiling of human powers into a world beyond; the culmination of humanitys internal separation.
As long as necessity is socially dreamed, dreaming will remain necessary. The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.
The fact that the practical power of modern society has detached itself from that society and established an independent realm in the spectacle can be explained only by the additional fact that that powerful practice continued to lack cohesion and had remained in contradiction with itself.
The root of the spectacle is that oldest of all social specializations, the specialization of power. The spectacle plays the specialized role of speaking in the name of all the other activities. It is hierarchical societys ambassador to itself, delivering its messages at a court where no one else is allowed to speak. The most modern aspect of the spectacle is thus also the most archaic.
The spectacle is the ruling orders nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life. The fetishistic appearance of pure objectivity in spectacular relations conceals their true character as relations between people and between classes: a second Nature, with its own inescapable laws, seems to dominate our environment. But the spectacle is not the inevitable consequence of some supposedly natural technological development. On the contrary, the society of the spectacle is a form that chooses its own technological content. If the spectacle, considered in the limited sense of the mass media that are its most glaring superficial manifestation, seems to be invading society in the form of a mere technical apparatus, it should be understood that this apparatus is in no way neutral and that it has been developed in accordance with the spectacles internal dynamics. If the social needs of the age in which such technologies are developed can be met only through their mediation, if the administration of this society and all contact between people has become totally dependent on these means of instantaneous communication, it is because this communication is essentially unilateral. The concentration of these media thus amounts to concentrating in the hands of the administrators of the existing system the means that enable them to carry on this particular form of administration. The social separation reflected in the spectacle is inseparable from the modern state that product of the social division of labor that is both the chief instrument of class rule and the concentrated expression of all social divisions.
Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. The institutionalization of the social division of labor in the form of class divisions had given rise to an earlier, religious form of contemplation: the mythical order with which every power has always camouflaged itself. Religion justified the cosmic and ontological order that corresponded to the interests of the masters, expounding and embellishing everything their societies could not deliver. In this sense, all separate power has been spectacular. But this earlier universal devotion to a fixed religious imagery was only a shared belief in an imaginary compensation for the poverty of a concrete social activity that was still generally experienced as a unitary condition. In contrast, the modern spectacle depicts what society could deliver, but in so doing it rigidly separates what is possible from what is permitted. The spectacle keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence. Like a factitious god, it engenders itself and makes its own rules. It reveals itself for what it is: an autonomously developing separate power, based on the increasing productivity resulting from an increasingly refined division of labor into parcelized gestures dictated by the independent movement of machines and working for an ever-expanding market. In the course of this development, all community and all critical awareness have disintegrated; and the forces that were able to grow by separating from each other have not yet been reunited.
The general separation of worker and product tends to eliminate any direct personal communication between the producers and any comprehensive sense of what they are producing. With the increasing accumulation of separate products and the increasing concentration of the productive process, communication and comprehension are monopolized by the managers of the system. The triumph of this separation-based economic system proletarianizes the whole world.
Due to the very success of this separate production of separation, the fundamental experience that in earlier societies was associated with peoples primary work is in the process of being replaced (in sectors near the cutting edge of the systems evolution) by an identification of life with nonworking time, with inactivity. But such inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity. It remains dependent on it, in an uneasy and admiring submission to the requirements and consequences of the production system. It is itself one of the products of that system. There can be no freedom apart from activity, and within the spectacle activity is nullified — all real activity having been forcibly channeled into the global construction of the spectacle. Thus, what is referred to as a liberation from work, namely the modern increase in leisure time, is neither a liberation within work itself nor a liberation from the world shaped by this kind of work. None of the activity stolen through work can be regained by submitting to what that work has produced.
The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender lonely crowds. With ever-increasing concreteness the spectacle recreates its own presuppositions.
The spectacle was born from the worlds loss of unity, and the immense expansion of the modern spectacle reveals the enormity of this loss. The abstractifying of all individual labor and the general abstractness of what is produced are perfectly reflected in the spectacle, whose manner of being concrete is precisely abstraction. In the spectacle, a part of the world represents itself to the world and is superior to it. The spectacle is simply the common language of this separation. Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.
The alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects that result from his own unconscious activity, works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires. The spectacles estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individuals gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.
Workers do not produce themselves, they produce a power independent of themselves. The success of this production, the abundance it generates, is experienced by the producers as an abundance of dispossession. As their alienated products accumulate, all time and space become foreign to them. The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents. The forces that have escaped us display themselves to us in all their power.
The spectacles social function is the concrete manufacture of alienation. Economic expansion consists primarily of the expansion of this particular sector of industrial production. The growth generated by an economy developing for its own sake can be nothing other than a growth of the very alienation that was at its origin.
Though separated from what they produce, people nevertheless produce every detail of their world with ever-increasing power. They thus also find themselves increasingly separated from that world. The closer their life comes to being their own creation, the more they are excluded from that life.
The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.
(References are to the numbered theses of the book, not to page numbers.)
Chapter 1 epigraph: Ludwig Feuerbachs The Essence of Christianity was published in 1841; the Second Edition appeared in 1843.
1. In societies . . . accumulation of spectacles: Cf. the opening sentence of Marxs Capital: The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities. (Marx is in turn alluding to The Wealth of Nations by his great predecessor Adam Smith.)
2. the deceivers are deceived (literally: “the liar has lied to himself”): Debord says this is detourned from Hegel: The truth verifies itself. an autonomous movement of the nonliving: Cf. Hegels First Philosophy of Spirit (Jenenser Realphilosophie, Part I, 1803-1804): Money is that materially existing concept, the unitary form or the possibility of all objects of need. By elevating need and work to this level of generality a vast system of common interest and mutual dependence is formed among a great people, a self-propelling life of the dead, which moves hither and thither, blind and elemental and, like a wild animal, it stands in constant need of being tamed and kept under control.
3. The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification: The first example among many in this chapter revealing that “the spectacle” is not some fixed, objective entity that can be defined once and for all, but a multifaceted process or tendency within the present society that must be seen and examined from different angles.
4. The spectacle is not a collection . . . mediated by images: Cf. Marxs Capital (Vol. I, chap. 33): Capital is not a thing; it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by things.
6. it is the very heart of this real society’s unreality: Cf. Marxs Introduction to a Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of spiritless conditions.
7-8. Debord says that several phrases in these two theses are detourned from Hegel.
9. the true is a moment of the false: Cf. the Preface to Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit: The false (though no longer as false) is a moment of the true. This quotation follows the French translation used by Debord. The various English translations are somewhat different (Miller #39, p. 23; Baillie, p. 98; Kaufmann, p. 60). See Note 76 for information on these different editions.
12. What appears is good; what is good appears: Cf. the Preface to Hegels Philosophy of Right: What is rational is real, and what is real is rational.
13. the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity: The phrase the empire on which the sun never sets was applied to the Spanish Empire of the sixteenth century and later to the British Empire.
14. goals are nothing, development is everything: Cf. the Conclusion of Eduard Bernsteins Evolutionary Socialism: “To me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.”
17. degradation of being into having: Cf.
the Private Property and Communism section of Marxs 1844 Manuscripts
(a.k.a. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts): Private property has
made us so stupid and partial that an object is only ours when we have
it, when it exists for us as capital or when it is directly eaten, drunk, worn,
inhabited, etc., in short, utilized in some way. But private property
itself only conceives these various forms of possession as means of life,
and the life for which they serve as means is the life of private property
labor and creation of capital. Thus all the physical and mental senses
have been replaced by the simple alienation of all these senses the sense of
18. When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings: Cf. Marx and Engelss The Holy Family (chap. VIII.3.a): For one to whom the sensuously perceptible world becomes a mere idea, for him mere ideas are transformed into sensuously perceptible beings. The figments of his brain assume corporeal form.
19. The spectacle does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality: Cf. Marxs Introduction to a Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right: you cannot supersede philosophy without realizing it.”
20. This thesis contains several allusions to Feuerbachs The Essence of Christianity, which among other things examines the projection of humanitys positive potentials into an imagined heavenly realm.
21. As long as necessity is socially dreamed, dreaming will remain necessary: Debord says this is detourned from Marx. Perhaps he is alluding to Marxs distinction between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom in Capital (Vol. III, chap. 48). The spectacle is the bad dream . . . guardian of that sleep: Cf. Freuds The Interpretation of Dreams (chap. 5, section C), which contends that dreams reflect the wish for sleep and that dreams are the guardians of sleep.
22. The fact that the practical power . . . in contradiction with itself: Cf. Marxs Theses on Feuerbach: But the fact that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the divisions and contradictions within this secular basis.
23. The most modern . . . is thus also the most archaic: Cf. the Introduction to Marxs Grundrisse: Some determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient.
24. The fetishistic appearance . . . conceals their true character as relations between people and between classes: Cf. Georg Lukácss History and Class Consciousness (1923; translated by Rodney Livingstone, MIT Press, p. 14): The fetishistic illusions enveloping all phenomena in capitalist society . . . conceal the fact that they are the categories of the relations of men with each other. Instead they appear as things and the relations of things with each other. a second Nature, with its own inescapable laws, seems to dominate our environment: Cf. Lukács, op. cit., p. 128: For, on the one hand, men are constantly smashing, replacing and leaving behind them the natural, irrational and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality they have created and made, a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier on with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form).
28. lonely crowds: allusion to David Riesmans book The Lonely Crowd (1950).
29. In the spectacle, a part of the world presents itself to the world and is superior to it: Cf. Marxs Theses on Feuerbach: It thus tends to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness: Cf. Hegels Love (a fragmentary text included in his Early Theological Writings): In love, the separate still exists, but it exists as unified, no longer as separate. This passage is quoted at greater length in Debords dedication to his wife Alice Becker-Ho at the beginning of his film The Society of the Spectacle (1973). See Guy Debord, Complete Cinematic Works (AK Press, 2003, translated and edited by Ken Knabb), p. 43.
30-33. The alienation of the spectator . . . The more he contemplates, the less he lives . . . Workers do not produce themselves, they produce a power independent of themselves . . . The closer their life comes to being their own creation, the more they are excluded from that life: Cf. various passages of the Alienated Labor section of Marxs 1844 Manuscripts, e.g. The worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object. The more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful becomes the world of objects that he brings into being over against himself, and the poorer his inner world becomes, and the less he belongs to himself. . . . The greater his activity, the less he possesses. What is embodied in the product of his labor is no longer his own. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life he has bestowed on the object confronts him as a hostile and alien force.
31. a map that is identical to the territory it represents: allusion to Alfred Korzybskis phrase, The map is not the territory, and
possibly also to Jorge Luis Borgess story On Exactitude in Science:
the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the
Empire, coinciding point for point with it.
Chapter 1 of Guy Debords The Society of the Spectacle (Paris, 1967), translated and annotated by Ken Knabb.