I never thought I would see the day when the New York Times prints an article using Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as a critical tool. This book, for those not in the know, is a thin manifesto of 220 theses that expose and condemn the pernicious effect of mass media on the freedom of individuals. To quote from the article at length:
In the 220 theses that follow, Debord, a founding member of the avant-garde Situationist group, develops his indictment of “spectacular society.” With this phrase, Debord did not simply mean to damn the mass media. The spectacle was much more than what occupied the screen. Instead, Debord argued, everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.
The success of Donald Trump, in his presidential ambition and previous triumphs alike, depended on his mastery of the spectacle. He commanded spectacular forces with a natural intuition:
With the presidency of Donald Trump, the Debordian analysis of modern life resonates more deeply and darkly than perhaps even its creator thought possible, anticipating, in so many ways, the frantic and fantastical, nihilistic and numbing nature of our newly installed government. In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.
I also want to pair this NYT article with a comment from the r/sorceryofthespectacle subreddit. The group takes its name from Debord’s book and frequently discusses the Frenchman’s work as well as the work of other thinkers at the edges of media theory:
Are we really drowning in spectacle though? To be sure, we are bombarded with images, tidbits, tiny disposable units of culture, more rapidly now than ever before. But I mean are things really so different from the gossip that pre-world war newspapers used to print? Or before that when fictional literature was taboo because it was all lies? What we’re seeing is and always has been a function of the linguistic human condition, the substitution of words for experiences, except now words are being replaced by images and videos, emojis, hashtags, and icons to click on. But it is still the same in the end.
I don’t see this as a disaster but an identity crisis of people disaffected by the machinations of the old mind body problem. The fruition of that which only modern and post-modern critics used to lament. The things Derrida and Eagleton, Foucault, and Sartre used to write about in esoteric and unreal corners of academia are now actually affecting regular people and they have no idea what is happening. But they feel it and they are confused and so scared and subsequently angry. Thus Trump.
There you go, folks. Normal revved the engine and roared right off the cliff. To want to return to ‘normal’ means to stay in the car, skirting dangerous close to the edge…This is bat country. We’re in the gully; the sun has set, and strange things roam the land. When the going gets weird, the Weird turn pro…