Hi friends, it’s been quite some time since I’ve posted, but this seemed like a good enough venue for me to do a little external processing of some thoughts I’ve been pondering since I read Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” earlier this year. I first came across the idea after reading sci-fi writer Peter Cawdron’s first contact novel “Clowns,” where a leader of a disruptive movement does so based on interaction with aliens he met who pointed out what they saw as the problem of “The Spectacle” with modern humanity. It’s a great read if you love speculative, first-contact sci-fi.
As a primer, if you have not read Debord’s essay, I highly recommend it as it offers a fascinating perspective when used to view Integralism (a perspective I am still processing a bit, if I am being forthright). You can read the initial theses here, along with some lucid commentary that helps to unpack them in more modern language as Debord’s style of writing was quite dense.
The Society of the Spectacle can be summed up with Debord’s first thesis, which he then expands with the subsequent theses. It says:
1. The whole of 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.
Note that as Debord was very much a fan of Marx, much of what he writes is put into context of Marxist language (which the commentary in the link above unpacks). Effectively what he is sharing is what I consider a very healthy Green view on how life, which was once more directly lived, is no longer directly lived due to all human relationships being mediated through images. This became particularly pressing for Debord given he saw the invention of the television during his era, increasing the passivity of humans in Western societies.
Where Debord’s insight becomes interesting to me is the sort of “existential dread” that seems to be an undercurrent of modern society, as well as the feeling that nothing every seems to change. This is especially the case in politics, where I believe that the gross increase in authoritarian leadership across societies with capitalist leanings (which does include modern China) is a direct result of people being fed up with only getting the “image” of change rather than actual, measurable change.
Take, for example, the political polarities in the gun-control debate in the United States. There are multiple viewpoints that tend to interpret the 2nd Amendment differently, with weight toward one polarity or another. When we do see legislation in support of gun-control, it tends to be surface level and not all that effective (after all, one can commit a mass shooting with 10 bullets–a common modern restriction on magazine sizes–as with 30. And those trained with firearms aren’t really restricted by 10 round magazines as they can swap in the blink of an eye). And not once have I seen a politician truly ask, why would someone commit such an atrocity in the first place?
The reason I think that question doesn’t get asked or answered is because the Spectacle is alive and well; we get the image of politicians working toward change, without the actual more direct work (which would require more direct relationships, rather than the slinging of talking-points back and forth), but because images cannot create change we are stuck with the status quo. This is where Integralism comes in, because I believe we would want to explore the depth of this polarity and see what the underlying cause or causes might be to push a human to do something that fundamentally goes against societal norms as well as common morality. People in peaceful countries don’t tend to kill other people unless they are either psychotic (which most research shows mass shooters are not) or deeply alienated from society and the world around them (much more common based on research profiling mass shooters I’ve read, though I cannot recall the sources at the moment).
If we think back to the Columbine mass shooting at the turn of the century, those boys were deeply alienated from their peers at their school–my question is, taking into considering what Debord is sharing, why were they alienated? What deeper social systems were at play that would allow for two kids to become so alienated and radicalized that they would commit murder? The same question could probably be applied to radicalization that leads to terrorism–given the profile of many terrorists studied over the years has been that of highly educated men, how is it that they are being pulled in such an unhealthy polarity? Could it be the underlying problem of not knowing how to connect to others in the world being mere images? And, I wonder why we aren’t talking about why it is nearly always men who are at the center of these forms of violence? Are men in particular more the victim of this existential dread that comes from lack of meaningful connection with others?
And, of course, I also wonder where Integralism itself might be caught up in The Spectacle, in the sense of creating yet another image of change without bringing about the actual change itself (and I recognize that I, too, in writing this missive am participating in that spectacle). Debord even covered this in his 19th thesis:
19. The spectacle is heir to all the weakness of the project of Western philosophy, which was an attempt to understand activity by means of the categories of vision. Indeed the spectacle reposes on an incessant deployment of the very technical rationality to which that philosophical tradition gave rise. So far from realizing philosophy, the spectacle philosophizes reality, and turns the material life of everyone into a universe of speculation.
I think at its core, The Society of the Spectacle is showing me how the almost viral increase in imagery in our world has led to a deep sense of separation, both with others and within ourselves. My question, then, is what might we do about it? Debord didn’t seem to have an answer, and, sadly, he ended up taking his own life many years after writing his essay.
Thoughts? And thanks for letting me do a little external processing as this one’s been rattling around my brain for a while now.