Musings on "The Society of the Spectacle," Integralism, and Wicked Problems in the World

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.

Cheers,
-Russ

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Hi Russ

It’s an interesting topic and questioning.

Some thoughts:

I wonder if a main reason for why it tends to be males who commit shootings is because the type of bullying the perpetrators tend to have experienced is physical, and can be quite extremely violent. Girls, on the other hand, don’t tend to bully eachother physically. I think being a victim of physical violence is a reason for boys to feel existentially threatened to a greater extent too in a very physical way from other boys, and so more isolated too. Not to have people come to your rescue in a physical way is what a lot of boys experience, and the culture often treats it as just something that happens. It can be a very scary infrared and red world for, especially young, males who don’t quite fit in with other males.

Then when it comes to emotions, too - if a girl is crying or upset other girls tend to come to her aid and look after her. This is basically a certainty that this will happen from my understanding. Boys, on the other hand, this doesnt happen for, and they can be bullied if they cry even. This leads to greater isolation.

Whether it does actually go against societal norms is complex, just because violence is actually so common place in our media and so on, and i think, for males, there is still kind of an expectation to have the ability of being a physical warrior. It definitely goes against societal norms for a girl to be violent. Even though there are more violent girls and women in media now, it isnt the norm for them to be.

In terms of going against common morality, i think exploring the vigilante perspective is helpful. It can be the red sense of justice, which isnt actually justice but rather is revenge. They can actually think theyre doing society a favour, or people like them, their society a favour…

I watched the film ‘The luckiest girl alive’ and this shows school shootings from perpetrators’ potential perspectives.

I think a big part is also having access to fire arms too, and that school shootings exist in the cultural sphere, because they’ve happened so often. Whereas in other countries boys might get angry and have time to cool down, in America there’s this other option, very sadly. :yellow_heart:

Edit

Attempting to see things from the perspectives of people who’ve committed atrocious acts is a risk to oneself. People who struggle to empathise well themselves can think any insight must come from you having the same motivations yourself. So people don’t really go much into the whys regarding this kind of thing.

An example of the dangers - Amanda Palmer receieved death threats for writing a poem from the perspectives of terrorists:

Thank you for exploring some of the underlying symptoms I was calling out. At this point, though, what most interests me is examining the Spectacle itself–mass shootings and an increasing social divide are just symptomatic examples I called out (and I want to be careful that we don’t focus too hard on healing the symptoms while missing the underlying cause, which I posit to at least be contributed toward by Debord’s idea of the Spectacle).

So far, I have yet to find a source with a strong emphasis on what the solution might be. Debord was brilliant in calling out the problem but didn’t offer many solutions–which many others I’ve read who analyzed his work say is because he, too, was very much caught up in the Spectacle.

If I were to offer a solution based on the symptoms and perceived root cause, it might look like this:

  1. Much harder limits on advertising of products–advertising must be grounded and rooted in as much truth as possible. Taglines would go away completely as they carry no meaning other than what one assigns to them. Advertising would need to be more rooted in objective truth rather than how a product will make one feel. Yes, this is going to butt up against the 1st Amendment and will get shot down by the current conservative Supreme Court (who, on the surface, seem to be enablers of the Spectacle since John Roberts took over and allowed Citizens United to expand capitalist influences–themselves both enablers and products of the Spectacle–on political discourse).

  2. Elimination of social media, or at the very least a strong emphasis on demoting it from its current authority over interpersonal discourse. It’s funny, but I look at science fiction series like Star Trek, and in ST they don’t have smart phones. They actually talk to one another face-to-face. This is a major shift in the last one-hundred years compared to how humans used to communicate, and it’s clear that text-only communication is woefully inadequate. My experience is that when one is exposed to an idea that generates cognitive dissonance via text (even if the idea is true), it is much easier to dismiss text than a human being and all the communicative nuance they bring.

  3. A rediscovery of what authentic interpersonal discourse looks like. David Bohm, I think, was on the right track, as well as Marshall Rosenberg with his non-violent communication model. The emphasis is on using spoken language in person with another to re-ignite the feeling of interpersonal connection. Text just doesn’t do that well because you can’t have a conversation with text (and I recognize I am using that very medium right now to convey this idea). You can’t see text laugh or smile, or disagree with it and share your own ideas, except asynchronously. We see the limitations of text as a medium with the advent of communications over the Internet, and how emojis have become so prevalent–people could see without any training that text wasn’t conveying what they felt, and hence they invented emojis and memes.

  4. Re-examine the current form of capitalism and it’s means of self-preservation through the Spectacle. I would hope that most would agree that in the context of creating a world that works for everyone (which I believe is a core goal of Integralism–transcend the problems while including what works as well as the lessons learned) we can agree that what is happening today with capitalism is only serving to widen the economic and political divide in the west. Capitalism has not solved poverty (and seems to be increasing it in many parts of the west), it has not solved homelessness (it has, in fact, exacerbated it through the transformation of homes into commodities to be invested in, bought and sold, which is beyond the primary use-case for a home), it has increased economic inequality, the latter which has taken away a great deal of power from the working class. The idea that there should be a class division itself in a way that gives advantage to another (the owner of the means of production) needs to be examined as well, because historically, we have many examples of how that power has been abused and continues to be abused. Moreover, there is an increasing body of research that illustrates that hoarding of wealth tends to make the hoarder far less empathetic to the world around them, which I believe pulls them back to Amber/Red ways of being. They simply don’t need to evolve when they are rich, and can actually end up devolving.

  5. There is a real opportunity here to do a deep dive into economic materialism and better understand why humans are so attached to the idea of ownership. I’m not against ownership–heck, I own a really silly amount of musical equipment to fuel my passion (probably more than I need, if I am really honest)–but I do get a little concerned about the sheer degree of unnecessary things that are created today by labor. In my mind, that’s labor that could be building houses and solving our housing issues, as one example. I think one of the reasons we have such a reaction to watching those hoarder TV shows is because, at some base level, we see that that isn’t an effective or healthy way of living. Hoarding shows the extreme nature of capitalism, and in fact shows up in a slightly different way when examining the ultra-wealthy. In essence, the ultra-wealthy hoard capital, rather than physical items. The net result of that hoarding, though, is that the whole is diminished since that capital is not free to be used to the benefit of the larger society.

I think one of the key issues with the Spectacle is that we are in it, and thus we seem to be presented with only the tools that the Spectacle itself presents us to try to find our way out. This is the dilemma that Debord faced himself–how does one who is already part of a system that isn’t working break free from it?

I think Integralism presents some answers as it asks us to look beyond the pure visual fetishism that is currently the primary way of operating in the Spectacle (ie, moving beyond deriving meaning primarily from images to other ways of knowing, such as instinct, non-verbal communication and connection, direct forms of knowing as experienced in some Buddhist traditions like Dzogchen, exploring all the senses as means of knowing and communicating, etc). Cultivating ways of knowing beyond words, in my experience, has greatly broadened and enriched my experience of reality. Heck, it’s one of the reasons I became a minister! At the risk of this being read the wrong way, one of the things I love most about being a minister is that it’s impossible for me to be effective if I am divorced from my means of production, because my job is to help foster connection between my congregants and the community at large. I always get see the outcome of my labor, and it’s what really jazzes me up to go to work. There’s nothing quite like getting to witness people making new friends, new connections, and new discoveries about themselves and how their consciousness operates.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. I recognize this is probably some very Marxist prose, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’ve always believed that a mix of capitalist and socialist ideas were the best outcome–to look at it Integrally, one must take what works from both and see what is compatible, while letting go of all the things that have been proven to be ineffective at maximizing the positive outcomes for all. Once we are able to do that, I think we will be better equipped to address the Spectacle itself, because until we do, I think we are only living the image of reality rather than reality itself.

This is also important to me because I believe that Integralism itself risks falling victim to the influence of the Spectacle if we don’t address some of the negative ways it plays out. The primary danger I believe we Integralists need to work through is what Deboard calls out in thesis 19 (see my OP), and how Integralism in particular is very good at falling victim to “analysis paralysis” at the expense of taking action and trying something in the world.

The existential question I think we have to ask ourselves is, are we simply propagating the image of a new way of being, or are we actually helping to embody it.

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I always appreciate reading you Russ, and while I haven’t read the entire essay (scanned it), I think Debord’s #4 thesis is helpful for people to better understand this thread:

The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle “modifies and distorts social relations” and (coming from a Marxist philosophy), :“the main one between the working class and the capitalist class.”

His #5 thesis holds that modernity is “a worldview translated into the material realm, a worldview transformed into an objective force.” He contends that modernity holds itself as an “ideal worldview” (but is in fact a “dreamworld” or a “fantasyland,” according to the commentary about his work in the essay you linked to.) (And of course, as Integralists, we could say that each stage of development is translated into the material realm in some way, and into an objective force, but I understand the Marxist philosophy is context for Debord’s essay, and also agree with you that a mix of capitalism and socialism is probably best)

That’s all I have to say about that for the moment.

However, a couple of things I would offer that seem relevant:

The ability to use images and pictures (and words) and mental symbols in general arises in the pre-operational stage of Piaget’s model of cognitive development, which occurs between ages 2 and 7. This is also the stage of primary egocentrism in children. So the use of imagery is deeply embedded in human consciousness, as is egocentrism. Adeptness at the use of logic does not come along until the next stage, concrete operational, ages 7-11 approximately, and abstract thinking abilities do not begin to assert themselves until the formal operational stage (age 12 and up). The point being, perhaps, is that the “spectacle” plays upon some of our earliest stages of cognitive development: imagery and egocentrism, as well as our survival instincts, given that vision (the visual) is considered the sense most necessary for survival.

Finally, if you’re not familiar with the work of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, you might want to check out some of it. He focused on media theory, and coined the phrase “the medium is the message.”

Good post.

That’s the point of Zen, isn’t it? Direct seeing.

Translating to a more current idiom, Vervaeke’s solution to the “crisis of meaning” involves “participatory knowing”. Purely propositional (i.e., medidated, symbolic) knowing tends to go off the rails. We need to bathe periodically in the directly experiential to refresh our reality relevance filters.

In integral terms, that means connect with the infrared. Second tier is supposed to be able to do that sort of thing.