Pontus Kyander | Un-Spectacle the Spectacle?

Un-Spectacle the Spectacle? by Pontus Kyander

The Society of the Spectacle is a 1967 book by Guy Debord, with a title as catching as its content is mostly neither read nor much considered. In that sense, it shares the fate of Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “The Media is the Message” – which was admittedly not a book title, as it appeared much before he published the tongue-in-cheek sequel The Media is the Massage. We took to the phrase, not always knowing its actual meaning. Debord’s book is a product of its time, sharing with its readers a punch of doctrinarian Marxism as well as a scent of burning rubber and tear gas from the barricades of Paris in the May revolt of 1968. We might think today, that the late 1960s was an age of ‘truth’, of direct action, of youthful rebellion against crumbling authority. If so, it was a reaction against a post-WW2 society that had grown too complacent with itself and its achievements. In this book organized as a series of 221 numbered paragraphs, there are quite a few catching formulations. Guy Debord famously stated that a world of former unity and reality has been shattered by a world of spectacle, where a system of images is replacing reality and truth. Instead of truth or reality a world of more or less skillful deceptions presents itself. This is false consciousness, as the Marxist terminology goes. The Society of the Spectacle is according to Debord not the images themselves, but the relationships between people “mediated by images”.

What Debord describes is a projection of an idealized society and its relationships between people and between these and consumer goods and even life styles, ideas and ideals as varieties of commodity. In this new world, all choices are already made without the consumers being made aware of it, the spectacle is as much the cause as it is own goal and end result. What I see before my closed eyes is a commercial in 1960s style, where the petty Bourgeois family lifestyle is appearing on both sides of a TV screen, like in Valie Export’s early television art work of 1971 Facing a Family, where the filmed image of a family eating by their TV table was broadcasted into the homes of people across Austria, assumingly sitting by their tables watching back. The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.” The attitude that it demands in principle is the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility, and indeed by its monopolization of the realm of appearances.

The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 12.
The concepts of truth and falsehood is essential to Debord, often dressed in the Marxist terms of Consciousness and False Consciousness – to be precise, the latter is not used by Marx himself but by Engels, while it became increasingly central in Marxist discussions as the more doctrinarian 1970s kicked in. False consciousness is what the Bourgeois society serves its citizens, it was claimed. The problem with this terminology is that it refers both to a Romantic, even Schopenhauer-tinted, idea of reality as hidden behind the veil of Maya, and to the positivist perception of truth as something definite and undivided, which can only be truly seen through a filter – another veil of Maya – called (Critical or Political) Consciousness, i.e. Marxism. Debord’s many claims are often catching, but also open to critique. He speaks of a state of “directly lived” experience in a distant and idealized past as opposed to the society of spectacle. A Paradise, lost and never regained. It is hard to tell how and when this wonderful state of undisturbed innocence occurred and when it was wrecked. Philosophically, much of what Debord says about the spectacle is expressed with more precision and critical analysis by postmodern and only slightly later thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze in for instance their different ways of discussing simulation and simulacra. The spectacle mediated currently through our computers and (still) TV screens might not at all copy the one-dimensional world of TV advertising in the 1960s.

In recent years politics have suddenly transformed into reality shows and prime time entertainment. Whenever the TV is turned on, there seems to be yet another populist character, a sort of demagogue clown moved into politics, mesmerizing its audience with a combination of new truths based on what the audiences might want to hear and what is outrageous enough to hit every headline and talk show only moments later. It is as if the Spectacle previously filmed through the soft cornered lenses of Debord’s has got an evil or cynical twist in recent time. What we see might be a commodity, but not one anyone necessarily wants to have at home. We see a grotesque, twisted, rapid and entertaining turn of spectacles, and whether we sympathize or are disgusted by what we see, we know there will be even more, and worse, tomorrow. “You are fired!” – was the penultimate phrase and situation of the reality show “The Apprentice” where verbal abuse, betrayal and manipulation were epitomized as the foundations of business as well as staff management. We all know now that the feared and by some admired (and by others, among them people from business, ridiculed) center point of this show was the man to become the 45th and current President of the USA, Donald Trump.

Right now, at a moment when our attention span has – under the constant pressure of world events – shrunk to approximately a single day at the most, even an intellectually aware follower of daily news has difficulties engaging with painfully cynical events or statements and their consequences for a longer time than what is allowed in the tiny time-slot before the next outrageous event. In the case of Trump, it seems even to be a media strategy: once you are in trouble (again), do or say something even more heinous than the current issue, like dropping the biggest conventional bomb ever in some remote country, declaring a trade war with a dependent neighbour or a competing power, scrapping a trade agreement, insulting another political leader, or tying bonds with tyrants. Just grab the world yet again (metaphorically) by the pussy, then smash a window, insult a neighbour, befriend a mass murderer, fill your pockets as much as you can in plain sight or just tell another lie. As long as every move gets the same maximum attention as the previous, we will experience it all as a merry-go-round off its hinges, turning at a speed where horror and hilarity can’t be told from each other.

This constant manipulation of the awareness of the environment, and the absolute opportunism in the approach to what can be said and done to cause your opponents the greatest and most immediate damage, does have deep historical roots. You can go to any intrigues and scandals of ancient China, Japan or Europe. You can go to the Medieval and Renaissance courts of Italy. You can go to Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s The Prince is a book advising a member of the Medici family on how to best govern a state. The ends justify the means. The Prince maintains his power by inducing spite between his competitors and performs whatever necessary actions to stay in power. Machiavelli introduced to political theory an emphasis on realism as opposed to the idealism characterizing earlier “Mirrors for Princes”. Above all he introduced a theory and practice that was deliberate and calculated to achieve distinctive goals. What we see in the Trump post-truth reign is power as its own ends and means. It does not add glory to the Prince or strengthen the State. Even if what is acted out looks cynical, it is hard to tell the actual goals of this new Prince, and how it is supposed to be in the interest of his State. It could be argued that what the reality show billionaire-turned-president displays is a pre-Machiavellian ruler, who aims basically to fill his own plate and pockets, rather than creating a sustainable state or a great reputation for himself.

It is an unruly ruler, making public what Machiavelli would have advised to do secretly. You see squabbling courtiers and parliamentarians, but you also see the man in power increasingly isolating himself in his gilded cage and tower. Maybe the French election is a turning point, leaving the left leaning liberal Emanuel Macron victorious after a battle with the far right populist Marine Le Pen that kept the European continent on its toes. We didn’t see yet another pile of mischievous, xenophobic dirt shoved into the gaping mouths of a majority eager to be fed just faintly perfumed garbage. Despite the polarization, which normally supports a flight to the extremes, a voice of moderation won solidly. This has never happened before in France, where conservative rightwing and socialist presidents have taken turns at the helm of the country. Some see this with regret. I rejoice. So, we’ve seen spectacle. Is there a return to slow, unspectacular politics, politics that somehow even agrees with a few idealized goals as well as means? To the big and beautiful words of common good, of openness, generosity, education and moderation? To Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. If so, farewell to the Society of the Spectacle. Welcome, unspectacular future.

Pontus Kyander, born 1959 in Tampere, Finland is art historian, art critic and curator, former television editor, university professor and museum director at Trondheim Art Museum in the period 2011-2014. He was in the 2010-2011 Director of the Sørlandets Kunstmuseum in Kristiansand.