Project-the society of the spectacle

Text: Separation perfected-  Guy Debord


This text has been edited from the original. What remains resembles a restatement of various Marxist ideas about the state, and its base and superstructure. I will therefore choose to  summarise the text bringing out these similarities.

The titular ‘separation’ seems to be far-reaching, and could be summed us as that between the real and the represented way of life. This may include but is not limited to the separation of: working and ruling classes, images and ideologies, and the  good and the bad.

The initial quotation from Feuerbach suggests that the piece relates to the overwhelming occurrence of signs, symbols and illusions in society, and that they are now more sacred than  simple truths (Debord, 1999: 95).  The author first states that in societies which are characterised by modern production (a thoroughly Marxist approach to society) life is presented through spectacles, rather than more representational methods. Reality consists of a visual representation through images, which make up a pseudo-world, which ironically are more characteristic of the non-living, such as mechanical and inanimate objects. This paragraph reads like a Marxist interpretation of the media where images may act directly upon society to interpellate an ideology, and perhaps a false consciousness, and that individuals in society are not free to choose how to live, but have become subjects of the ruling classes (Althusser, 1993). The author states that ‘this spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.’ (Debord 1999:95). Restated, the author believes that society is not what it seems on the surface, but is corresponding to a Marxist society, where all its social relations are affected (not exclusively) by visual images .

This spectacle is described as a Weltanschauung (world view (Free dictionary)), resulting from the ability to share images globally (Debord, 1999: 96). Debord believes that this state of affairs is so pervasive that it is the essence of society, not an added extra, and lists several manifestations of it’s presence; information, propaganda, advertisement, entertainment. The power of these to control and mould society, in a unidirectional way flowing from the ruling classes to the working classes, is shown by the author’s use of language in this paragraph. The language alludes to a classical Marxist view of society.  ‘It [the spectacle]is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made (DeBord’s italics) in production and its corollary consumption’(Debord, 1999: 96).

In extract 8 the author discusses a theme previously approached by Althusser, suggesting that it’s not actually possible to separate the disseminated images (here we may  if we desire, substitute Althusser’s Interpellated State Apparatus and its ideology) from reality- because although the ideology is not real (Althusser says ) ‘like a paving stone’ , it is experienced through material things (Althusser,1999: 318).

The spectacle is described as appearing positive, and indisputable- though inaccessible (DeBord, 1999: 96). This corresponds to Althusser’s  ‘false consciousness’ . However, whereas DeBord believes that the ideology is accepted passively because it is monologous and ubiquitous, Althusser’s classic position is that the subject has some freedom to accept the ideology being pedalled (Althusser,1999: 318).   In fact Debord goes as far as to say that the spectacle of the image world which constitutes the ideology, can be thought of as the main production of society (Debord,1999: 96), and later that ‘The spectacle is capital….’ (Debord,1999: 97). This definitely leaves us without doubt that he believes the magnitude of the effect is great, but rather mixes his metaphors within the context of a Marxist analysis.

The spectacle ‘subjugates living men’ (Debord,1999: 97) in as much as the economy does. This states the classical (economist) Marxist view that the economy is the base of society, and effects all other aspects of it (these constitute the superstructure) – including the media, and man’s behaviours and social relations. The author believes that vision is the most important sense by which society is affected by the economic base, in a mystical and hypnotic (ie. not completely grasped) way- unlike in former times when touch was probably dominant (Debord,1999: 97).  Images, which are so powerful and mystical a force here, are known to be ‘felt to be weak in respect of meaning:…..’ when compared to text as language (Barthes, 1999: 33). In fact they are so weak and have such a potential for layers of coding, that text is often added to them in the form of either anchorage or relay in order to facilitate their identification and interpretation (Barthes, 1999: 38). However, this weakness- of- meaning makes images eminently suitable for the hidden communication of ideologies, from the powerful ruling classes to subjugate the working class. This is described as the ‘opposite of dialogue’(Debord,1999: 97)  reinforcing the unanswerable power which ideology constitutes. Debord shows his underlying disdain for image-based ideology by saying it reflects the weakness of western civilization and thought, which is based mainly on images. He uses a simultaneous example of two rhetorical devices here producing a double-whammy linguistic reinforcing effect (these techniques are further illustrated in Victor Burgin’s essay ‘Art common sense and photography’ (1999: 47)):

The spectacle does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality

(Debord,1999: 97)

This is certainly an example of chiasmus (using two words the opposite way round in one sentence) and I think it is also a subtle antanaclasis. Antanaclasis refers to repeated usage of a word with different meanings.   The effect here relies on the shaded meanings possible for the word philosophy. In the first clause philosophy is used to communicate the sense of  ‘the ideas of a society’ , a straightforward interpretation where one’s ideas are used to build a reality for ones’ self. However, the author  uses the term with a more flexible, political, and Marxist inflection in the second clause, where  the word philosophizing has taken on an extra function- it now carries a suggestion of Marxist ideologizing with all its added ramifications  on the power relationships within societies.

In the second paragraph of section 19, the author compares and contrasts the all-consuming image- world of his time with religion, both described in terms of ideology. He believes that they are essentially both spectacles carried out by humans, and that they co-exist. However, whilst religion uses illusions which detach from man (clouds, and projection into the sky- perhaps a reference to heaven, or the ill-fated Tower of Bable?), the image-world uses illusions which are firmly based within man and his society (Debord,1999: 97). He seems to consider both to be illusions based on very unstable foundations.

In extract 24, a complex paragraph,  the author refers explicitly to the Marxist idea of ‘relations among men and classes’ (Debord,1999: 97) which are represented by ‘spectacular relations’. The spectacle itself is not the product of technical evolution (Debord uses the term ‘natural development’), but is instead the product of an evolution driven by the controlling forces of the state and it’s administration. In other words, the form of the spectacle is chosen (or evolved) by the state to be just that form which is best able to totally control the working class,  in this case visual media which are essentially unilateral, and whose message cannot be returned, and is non-negotiable (Debord,1999: 98).


In your BLOG……

Weltanschauung- a comprehensive philosophy or world view?

It is a little difficult to answer the question based solely on my reading of the given text, as the term is  new to me, and being mentioned just once in the text remains a little unfamiliar to me. Based on its literal translation the term means ‘Worldview’ in German. However, based on my belief that this term is used to describe one of the main state apparatuses used to subjugate the working-classes (images  and the mass media)  I would say that it is more of a philosophy and subsumes a whole collection of associated ideas and relationships (at least in as much as Marxism is a philosophy which does the same).


What do you think Debord means by ‘the spectacle’ ?   

Throughout the text  ‘the spectacle’ is referred to in rather abstract terms. In one rather clearer citation it seems to be described as having the forms of  ‘….information, or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption’(Debord,1999: 98). These take on visual shape in ‘the spectacle’.


The book was first published in French in 1967. Has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?

The sources of visual media in 1967 would have consisted of advertising, television, books and newspapers. Of these television and advertising (in newspapers, television or billboards) would be most likely to carry the coded messages which Debord refers to. Political messages from books would be less common, and more honestly transmitted.  In 2017 television remains popular, and probably has more channels, all still full of adverts. Newspapers (and perhaps books) are in the process of being replaced by ‘online’ alternatives whose power is roughly equivalent to the paper versions.

The massive change is the advent of computer world, and the birth of the internet in society around 1997. This has massively increased the global power of visual communications. The average person spends several hours a day on visual on-line gadgets, and many programmes and activities are laden with troublesome, hard to avoid, advertisements. Moreover, sophisticated programmes track your history, and algorithms tailor advertisements directly to the individual consumer, increasing their power to influence.

Whilst this sort of internet use increases the subjugation of the working classes, it must be said that their ability to communicate with each other globally (facebook, e mail, flickr etc..) and form political groups and associations, and their ability to find out about any conceivable topic for themselves through search engines (if executed in a rigorous and careful way),  has to be politically empowering. Think for example of the way that recent revolutions in Africa and the Middle east have been facilitated by the transmission of pictures via mobile phone, both to other downtrodden citizens, and to the more priveliged first world occupants (Mirzoeff, 2013: xxxiv). Mirzoeff specifically discusses the 2011 revolution in Egypt where ‘Facebook [was] used to set the date, Twitter was used to share logistics, YouTube to show the world, all to connect people’ (Mirzoeff, 2013:xxxiv).


Does his view that we ‘‘see the world by means of various specialized mediations’’ mean that we are having our view of the world controlled or that we simply don’t know what is propaganda and what is not?

My feeling is that the author makes clear throughout the text that we are being deliberately controlled. His language about the spectacle is Marxist and often perjorative and dismissive. So for example the spectacle is ‘the choice already made in production and it’s corollary consumption’, it demands ‘..passive acceptance’ , and it ‘subjugates living men to itself …’ (Debord,1999: 96-97)


Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx had to say on the subject); is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or an extreme reification?

Marx considered that the commodity was a realization of the summed worker contribution and social relationships invested in in it. He called this idea reification. In the rhetorical quote discussed above, although using wordplay, Debord states that ultimately he thinks the spectacle is an explanation of reality-not a reality itself. In Marx’s sense of the term, reification of media images would suggest that they are the real manifestation of thoughts and political behaviour by the state, but as the state is ‘the other team’  to Marx’s ‘workers’ I will refrain from choosing to reify them here. Of course all these decisions are somewhat arbitrary; reality may have several layers, as discussed previously with reference to Althusser’s view on the reality of ideology (Althusser,1999: 318).



Althusser, L (1993). ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall,,S (eds), London. SAGE Publications.   p317-324

Barthes, R (1993).  ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   P33-41

Debord, G (1993). ‘Separation perfected’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds), London. SAGE Publications.   p317-324

Mirzoeff, N. (2013). ‘Introduction: for Critical Visuality Studies’ In The Visual Culture Reader. Mirzoeff, N (ed). Routledge, OXON. p.ⅨⅩⅩ- ⅩⅩⅩⅧ.

The Free Dictionary (2016) Farlex Ltd. ‘Weltanschauung’  at   (accessed 17th March 2017)