society of the spectacle

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A zeitgeist or periodizing term proposed by French Marxist critic and activist Guy Debord as the appropriate designation for the latter half of the 20th century in which the process of alienation had achieved its nadir. Whereas earlier Marxists had been concerned that the process of commodification had brought about a generalized shift in social ontology away from being towards having, Debord argues that things had in fact gone still further, so that having has been replaced by appearing. What is at stake here is of a higher order than the problem of image saturation which Susan Sontag thought might be curable by going on an image diet. The image, Debord famously proposed in La société du spectacle (1967), translated as Society of the Spectacle (1970), is the final form of the commodity. In other words, it is not producing things, or even owning things, that drives society forward in the era of late capitalism; it is, rather, how things appear, or more precisely, how they make us appear to ourselves, that matters. Importantly, for Debord, this is not a simple case of vanity. Image consciousness is what we are condemned to in a society which has substituted the spectacle for God. The spectacle is the illusion that our fragmented, alienated life is in fact whole, true, and authentic; the spectacle is what we believe when all our beliefs have been devalued by the market; the spectacle is the idea that the market is sufficient unto itself, no longer a means to an end but an end in its own right. See also consumer society.

Further Reading:

A. Jappe Guy Debord (1999).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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