In a period of great confusion where personal observations of the ongoing degradation of the world and the absence of a shared discourse on the causes at the origin of this degradation rub shoulders on a daily basis, the concept of spectacle is more relevant than ever. This critical theory of modern society that Guy Debord described in 1967 in his book The Society of the Spectacle, is an intellectual weapon that can help to distinguish the false from the true, to recognize the impostors, to name what accompanies the capitalist system or really breaks with it. While Guy Debord wrote that the spectacle is « the most important thing in the world.he most important event that has occurred in this century, and also the one that has been least explained(1) « Nothing has changed in the 21st century, even worsening with the « progress » of mass communication. Here is an article about this question, followed by a short anachronistic interview with Guy Debord.
Most often, society seems to be apprehended as a total fact which, like living nature, would have been bequeathed to us and about which there would be nothing to say. If we protest about the biological characteristics that make a plant grow in such a way, or give flowers that have such an aspect, why should we do otherwise with the social body, which would then be in our imagination, like the tree, directed by an external force? Cornelius Castoriadis spoke on this subject of heteronomy, that is to say the opposite of autonomy, by specifying » that a central and fallacious idea of the majority of the movements of the left […] was to confuse heteronomy with domination and exploitation by a particular social stratum. But domination and exploitation by a particular social stratum is only one of the manifestations (or realizations) of heteronomy. The essence of heteronomy is more than that. (…) Thus, heteronomy is the fact that the institution of society, the creation of society itself, is posited by society as given by someone else, a « transcendent » source: the ancestors, the gods, the God, nature, or — as with Marx — the « laws of history » « (2).
Immersed in a media bath that holds a monopoly on the representation of the world, the images conveyed reinforce this heteronomy, maintain the lie, present the world as an intangible fact and ensure the perpetuation of domination. » In terms of techniques, when the image constructed and chosen by someone else has become the main relationship of the individual to the world that before he looked by himself, from every place where he could go, we obviously do not ignore that the image will support everything; because inside the same image we can juxtapose without contradiction anything. The flow of images carries everything away, and it is also someone else who governs at will this simplified summary of the sensitive world; who chooses where this flow will go, and also the rhythm of what will have to be manifested in it, as a perpetual arbitrary surprise, not wanting to leave any time for reflection, and quite independently of what the spectator can understand or think about it. In this concrete experience of the permanent submission, is the psychological root of the so general adhesion to what is there; who comes to recognize him ipso facto a sufficient value. The spectacular discourse obviously keeps silent, besides what is properly secret, everything that does not suit it. He always isolates, from what he shows, the surroundings, the past, the intentions, the consequences. It is therefore totally illogical « (3).
Thus, at a time when the consumption of screens can exceed 7 hours per day among teenagers, that on average a child reaching his seventh year will have spent a year of time awake in front of them (television, tablet, smartphone, game consoles …), that manufacturers develop tablets for babies under 6 months(4)Reality is fiction and the world we « know » is only that of the image. What should however have remained of the domain of the unacceptable propaganda was accepted by a majority, fallen progressively in the incapacity to become aware of its alienation to the virtual objects and to the imposed imaginary, siphoning the intelligence of the subject and containing this risk of » todeprive us so completely of freedom that we would not even have the freedom to know that we are not free « .(5).
In this dynamic where the image occupies the place of the imaginary, the denominations change with the only purpose to continue to deceive the subject and to inoculate him always the same representation of the society in which he lives — « the most evolved » — and not to change anything. Those who benefit in some way from the system in place will have every interest in believing what they are told and will avoid real experiences that contradict the official reality. They will always find explanations to justify the existing, yet unjustifiable world.
The words change, the domination remains. We have thus, for example, gone from a « sustainable development » which still accepted in its terms that progress, i.e. infinite material accumulation, could be reconciled with duration, to a « fight for the climate », the contours of which are vague but the foundations identical: we want to imagine that we can continue as before, without drastic reduction of our consumption, and therefore profound modification of our ways of life, while imposing this superiority of man over everything, decreeing again that it is the one who had destroyed everything who should now become the savior. Of course, both approaches — sustainable development and the fight for the climate — are based on the same principles and are born to entertain the subject and be able to continue the same thing. Why this rather sudden change though? Because despite the media omerta, some counter-current ideas have nevertheless passed through the interstices of the wall of the single thought; because the Internet has nevertheless offered a counter-information to the omnipotence of the media, because misery and inequalities have increased and institutional palliative devices have been reduced. Of course, there are also the effects on nature that have become more visible, the fossil resources that have reached their peak and introduced the idea of scarcity, while the market society was paradoxically becoming more and more obvious: » It is certainly a pity that human society encounters such burning problems at a time when it has become materially impossible to make the slightest objection to market discourse heard; at a time when domination, precisely because it is sheltered by the spectacle of any response to its fragmentary or delusional decisions and justifications, has become the norm, believes that it no longer needs to think; and really does not know how to think « (6).
But the spectacular society does not admit defeat so easily. The fight against climate change has remained on the rails of acceptable protest for the regime, symbolized by a few icons enthroned by the media under the figure of the messiah — which says a lot about the majority’s shared ignorance of the dominant media, its structure and its functioning, which has obviously not suddenly adopted a role other than the one it has always played, that is, to make people accept the world as it is. The discourse must therefore always remain unclear about the causes of the situation, constantly » decentered « . » In some cases, it is a question of creating, on questions which would risk becoming burning, another pseudo-critical opinion; and between the two opinions which would thus emerge, one and the other foreign to the miserable spectacular conventions, the ingenuous judgement will be able to oscillate indefinitely, and the discussion to weigh them will be restarted each time it is convenient. More often, it is a general discourse on what is hidden in the media, and this discourse can be very critical, and on some points obviously intelligent, but remaining curiously decentered. Themes and words were selected artificially, using computers informed by critical thinking. There are in these texts some absences, rather inconspicuous, but nevertheless remarkable: the vanishing point of the perspective is always abnormally absent. They look like the facsimile of a famous weapon, where only the firing pin is missing. It is necessarily a lateral criticismThis is a book that sees many things with a lot of frankness and accuracy, but from the side. This is not because it would affect any impartiality, for on the contrary it must appear to blame a lot, but without ever seeming to feel the need to let it appear what its cause ; therefore to say, even implicitly, where it comes from and where it would like to go « (7). If the words of the young Swedish woman sound true sometimes, they draw a general shape which does not touch our bourgeois ways of life, focusing the attention on « the decision makers » who would not have listened to us. « Forgetting » to name the essential, movements presenting themselves as « rebels » can thus send a letter to the local political power on the air pollution in the city without mentioning once the car. This will allow two things: not to make the motorist feel guilty and to put pressure on the public authorities to adopt laws accelerating the passage to electric cars(8), as harmful for the planet, as criminal for the exploited people.
The fog on the causes is in fact the sine qua non condition to benefit from the ear of the powerful and to have the mouth of the media, which need more than ever today an acceptable and controlled contestation. One does not argue with Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenneger or Leonardo Di Caprio (whom Greta Thunberg met) when one goes to the end of the reasoning and explains the system that created them. It is a fantastic footnote to meet those among the most faithful servants of the society of the spectacle, to make us believe that we will find with them a solution to the disaster in which they actively participate. Here again, the image… » An anti-spectacular notoriety has become something extremely rare (…) But it has also become extraordinarily suspect. The company has officially declared itself spectacular. To be known outside of spectacular relationships is already to be known as an enemy of society « (9). No risk here…
Terrorism » itself, that which only the West has the prerogative to name(10), is at the service of domination, participating through the barbarization of the other in the excellence attributed in return to the one who names. » This so perfect democracy manufactures itself its inconceivable enemy, terrorism. It wants to be judged on its enemies rather than on its results. The history of terrorism is written by the state; it is therefore educational. The spectator populations cannot know everything about terrorism, but they can always know enough to be persuaded that, in relation to this terrorism, everything else will have to seem rather acceptable, or at least more rational and more democratic « (11).
Everything is there to continue. Will we move to electric cars and photovoltaic panels? 1,000 billion will be spent over 10 years to ensure a Green New Deal in Europe. Money that will certainly constitute a kind of transfer from the poorest to the richest, the former subsidizing the « transition » and the companies of those who will have the technical means to implement it. The others, those who die away from us to ensure our way of life, will continue to die.
« DEMOCRACY » REDUCED TO THE BALLOT BOX AND MEDIA DISCOURSE
Like spectators of a wrestling match, we find it astonishing that those who watch the daily political jousts staged by the media can still confuse fiction with reality. Because there is a permanent connivance between the political actors and the media that allows them to represent themselves, even if we don’t really know if the game is taking place because all have bought their ticket and pretend to believe in it or because few believe in it but all keep silent, which in both cases leads to the same result. However, we quickly discover that political enemies are only political when they are on screen, and that as soon as the camera is turned off they continue their business, the Flemish and Walloon politicians being a good example.
There is therefore no absurdity in the fact that the same person who hastily asks, while knowing that he is in danger of being prosecuted, to vote for a law punishing whistleblowers and journalists who reveal secret government information with several months in prison and thousands of euros in fines(12)He was appointed European Commissioner for Justice a few months later and his first case was the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had revealed the Maltese government’s complicity with organized crime, particularly in matters related to the Panama Papers. No surprise from these benevolent media when the politician says about this first task: » What is envisaged for the time being is to first pursue the anti-money laundering efforts and the way in which passports can sometimes be given for payments « He himself is suspected of money laundering and has his fingerprints all over a number of major corruption cases.(13). In the same way, a former banker reaches the highest spheres of the French state, itself a product of a media process, and these same media gargle with the novelty that arrives. Nothing new though, just an evolution towards perfection. Political lies are peddled through the media, which in turn sustains political deception. As Orwell said, » political language — and, with some variations, this applies to all political parties, from conservatives to anarchists — has the function of making lies credible and murder respectable, and of giving what is only wind an appearance of consistency(14) « .
In this configuration, political life could only be reduced to the electoral system and become nothing more than that, a fact whose supreme expression can be found in the good conscience of the guy who lectures you when you tell him that you no longer vote: » So don’t complain about the decisions that will be made « … The ingenuous, who still thought that it was the vote, his or another, that could influence some decisions, confusing causes and coincidences: if a government makes choices, it is not because a majority has decided so, but because the elites who knew beforehand the cards they were going to play and who had ratified pre-electorally the decisions, managed to convince, via their media propaganda organs, a rather important part of the population to do so. Everything goes with the wind. Partisan loyalty, the idolatry of political personification, an atavistic form of voluntary servitude and a love of political spectacle will do the rest. The same puppets will play a game that is always the same in substance, but significantly different in form. Afterwards, if in spite of everything, the voter « makes a mistake », elections will be reorganized so that the people can vote « well ». The individual will most often be content with this, and if not, will remain passive due to the inability to know where to act.
The litany of scandals never announces its end, and gently brings to light the idea that the occasional revelation of small political arrangements does not belong to this category, but rather to a form of habit inscribed in the very structure of power. We understand then that the scandal, the only one, is the one that has taken away the sovereignty of the people.
In this democratic vacuum, the compensation offered by commercial consumption serves as an outlet for a life that is essentially directed from the outside, over which we lose control. This is the only power they want to leave us, the power of purchase, a demand taken up wholeheartedly by the entire political spectrum, unions and associative sectors. Real political inaction is thus compensated by this ersatz action that is consumption, becoming a form of « redemption » for our loss of freedom, ensuring that those who confiscate political choices will never be bothered. But things can change, and those who have always believed that they could continue to manipulate us, must fear a reversal soon.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, Gallimard, 1988/1992, p. 99, souligné par l’auteur.
- Freud, le sujet social, sous la direction de Annick Le Guen & al., Presses universitaires de France, 2002, p.12–13. Voir également notre long article «La montée de l’insignifiance », Kairos juin 2016.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, Ibid., p. 44–45.
- Voir Ducanda https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud3vbVxS2PI&t=187s
- Gunther Anders, cité dans « Que faire de la liberté individuelle ? », Kairos novembre-décembre 2019.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, ibid, p. 56, souligné par l’auteur.
- Ibid, p. 102.
- Voir le dossier de Kairos « La bagnole est morte. Vive la bagnole », notamment l’article «La voiture électrique, une imposture durable », Alain Gras, novembre 2017.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle ibid, p. 33.
- Voir « L’Occident terroriste », numéro spécial de Kairos, novembre 2016.
- Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, ibid, p. 40.
- Projet de loi porté par le cabinet du Ministre belge de la Défense et des Affaires étrangères Didier Reynders.
- Voir les différents articles à ce sujet sur www.kairospresse.be.
- George Orwell, Tels, tels étaient nos plaisirs. Et autres essais (1944–1949), Ivréa, Encyclopédie des nuisances, 2005, p. 160. Le 21 janvier 2020 signait les 70 ans de la disparition de George Orwell, que les médias du pouvoir, dont ils dénonçaient la fonction de propagande, ont relayé, balayant d’un trait l’essence subversive de son œuvre. Comme disait Simone Leys dans Orwell ou l’horreur de la politique : « Cette annexion d’Orwell par la nouvelle droite reflète moins le potentiel conservateur de sa pensée que la persistante stupidité d’une gauche qui, au lieu de commencer à le lire et le comprendre, s’est laissé scandaleusement confisquer le plus puissant de ses écrivains ». Plon, 2006, p. 73.