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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Literature Review: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

French theorist, philosopher, filmmaker, former member of the Letterist International and founding father of the Situationist International Guy Debord penned this 1967 book. A controversial book, one that some consider to be a catalyst for the 1968 Paris uprisings, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ or ‘La Société du Spectacle’ in its original published language, is an extensive collection of Marxist-influenced theories and critiques penned by Debord.

Debord saw that all societies that had become capitalist were suffering. He believed that life was now ‘presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles’ by “The Spectacle”. This spectacle that Debord heavily theorised about was the idea that humans had become engrossed into a system where commodities and consumerism had taken over from the older, simpler time of life. The production of commodities - especially electronic goods - had heavily increased since the Second World War and he states throughout his book many reasons why this had a negative effect on society. Debord talks about how the proletariat must break from the spectacle to gain a better mindset and way of life. The Situationist and Debord’s techniques of how to do so are theorised throughout the book in numerous essays. The ideas throughout are radical and some even hinge on changing society in an extreme manner. However, despite some of the wild ideas throughout the book, many of the techniques mentioned did become part of common activity for the situationists. The key technique for me is the idea of the ‘dérive’ This technique has remained influential in present-day psychogeographical literature. The idea of a ‘rapid passage through varied ambience’ may sound unusual to some, but to those such as myself, it makes perfect sense how many writers within the genre are influence by Debord’s ideas. This therefore meant that by delving into ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ I gained a clearer understanding on where some of these techniques grew out from. Regardless of being a piece bursting of philosophical and political theories, Debord’s work is broken up into numbered essays. At first when reading it can be a daunting, but once I became familiar with many of the terms and statements that Debord regularly used throughout, I found it easier to understand. Regardless of being quite a small book, there is a lot to take in from Debord’s critical thinking, as it is an impressive and intensive collection of philosophical and radical theories.

Much of Debord’s work is heavily influenced by Marx and this book was released after much of Marx’s significant work had become known. Because of this it is clear to me that Debord’s critique of consumerism rests on Marx’s theory of consumer fetishism, which was touched upon in Marx’s book ‘Das Kapital’. It is an area I wish to research into more, so as a next step I plan to delve into more Marxist theory to understand what exactly influenced Debord.

We must remember as well that Debord’s work has been translated by the Ken Knabb. This must be considered when analysing the text as this may be why some of the wording comes across as clumpy at points. Debord’s work was written in his native French, which flows differently to English, so Knabb, despite his brilliant aptitude, would have had to work with the best he could when translating the work.

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