The society whose modernisation has reached the stage of integrated spectacle
is characterised by the combined effect of five principal factors: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalised secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present . . .
â€” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967)
In December 1994, French essayist, filmmaker, and counter-celebrity nonpareil Guy Debord helped himself out of this world with a bullet. It was a direct hit proving, if nothing else, that death's one hell of a great career move.
Instantly transformed into the sacrificial punk saint of all things useless, beautiful, and free, the co-founder of the Situationist International's "anti-movement" during the riotous sixties had done the undoable: He'd wantonly traded the mystery of invisibility for the shock of notoriety by making a magnificent spectacle of himself and, in the process, he'd guaranteed his greatest contribution to civilisation, culture, and creativity, The Society of the Spectacle, did not vanish with him. That seminal volume, initially something of a sacred scripture for activists, anarchists, and maverick academics, shot to the top of the charts when publications as diverse as Le monde libertaire and The Utne Reader raced to eulogise the prophetic guy to the skies.
Here on terra firma, on the brink of our brave new nirvana six years later, Debord's integrated spectacle â€” the techno-media juggernaut â€” looms larger than life. Just prior to his death, the 62-year-old who drank too much and wrote too little had wryly observed, in the "Preface to the Third French Edition" of his uncannily prescient text, that the "same formidable question that has been haunting the world for two centuries is about to be posed again, everywhere: How can the poor be made to work once their illusions have been shattered and once force has been defeated?"
Positing his belief that the integrated spectacle â€” his IS writ large â€” comprises the material reconstruction of "the religious illusion," Debord condemned its dictatorial freedom to proclaim "the predominance of appearances" while concealing its essential character "as a visible negation of life â€“ and as a negation of life that has invented a visual form of itself . . . For what the spectacle expresses is the total practice of one particular economic and social formation; it is, so to speak, the formation's agenda. It is also the historical moment by which we happen to be governed . . . The spectacle is self-generated, and it makes up its own rules: It is a specious form of the sacred... . The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere . . . The spectacle's function in society is the concrete manufacture of alienation . . . The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image."
Look no further than the ostentatious whoopla surrounding the AOL-Time-Warner megadeal last week, a nice bit of bizthness pundits predict will engender copy-cat conglomerates greedy for the greatest gains at the expense of the greatest good. Merger-mania is afoot; God is dead; no doubt, with the Western world's accelerated state of disgrace, what can only be described as cultureless utilitarianism (CU) will â€” IS willing â€” outlast us all.
Everybody knows we've been universally flattened by the commodification of absolutely everything; nobody quite recalls when the remote took control of our lives. But, like it or not, we've all become the contemporary anybody, the chronically frustrated voyeur of the ubiquitously visible, the itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie chip off the ol' integrated block.
Where cultureless utilitarianism rules, everything equals everything else. Its proudest contribution to our accelerated razing of civilisation lurks in its insidious derogation of the producer (either maker or creator) in favour of the shameless elevation of the product, the package, the goods. Insofar as aesthetic values, spiritual mainstays, and guiding principles provide sanctuary for the benumbed and beleaguered contemporary anybody, CU affirms that when anything goes, everything most assuredly does.
Each civilisation assesses themes, issues, images, and mythologies central to its unity and self-respect, predominantly through art and the sacral. CU's plundering of the gratuitous (or use-less) stands as the major obstacle to the emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth of individuals within the global community. Self-definition depends more upon external factors and relies less upon internal landscapes of the heart, soul, and spirit, the very things which guarantee civilisation's preservation and ability to keep barbarity at arm's length.
In this, the epoch of the triumph of CU, we are only as healthy as our bottom lines (or so the juggernautical core would have us think). Voiding our contemporary crises of faith, belief, and individual value resulting from the systematic slaughter of all things useless, beautiful, and free, the integrated spectacle's perpetual-motion machine gently soothes, lulls, and consoles us with the rather cold comfort that we â€” the billions of contemporary anybodies â€” are anything but alone.
HOMO SPECTATORUS *IS* US :( originally appeared in The Globe and Mail's SPECTATOR series (18 January 2000). Â© 2000-2014 Judith Fitzgerald and The Globe and Mail. All Rights Reserved. (Special thanks to Martin Levin.)