SPACE Gallery and the University of Southern Maine Philosophy Symposium wrapped up their Philosophy Film Series last weekend with a free screening of French Situationist Guy Debord’s 1973 film, The Society of the Spectacle, based on his seminal 1967 book of the same name, which was credited in part for fueling the revolutionary fire of the Paris uprisings of May 1968. The Phoenix sat down with Jason Read, the film series’s curator and an assistant professor of philosophy at USM, to discuss how this revolutionary concept can still influence artistic practice.
Fifty years ago, Debord defined the spectacle as a mediated social existence in which images and commodities supplant relationships between people, resulting in passivity and alienation. In what ways has the spectacle evolved since then?
My answer is based in part on Debord’s own revision in 1988 of the idea of the Spectacle in a little book called Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in which he argues that previously there was a Concentrated Spectacle identified with state socialist societies where there is one dominant center of power from which all images of society emanate, versus the Diffuse Spectacle seen in capitalist societies where there is a proliferation of commodities, images, lifestyles, etc., wherein the proliferation makes it difficult to see they are all fundamentally still Spectacle and all fundamentally images to be consumed.
What interests him in the evolved Integrated Spectacle is there is no longer a separation between the Spectacle and non-spectacular life. In the ’60s, he thought there was still a tension, a gap, between the lives people were living day-to-day and the spectacular lives they were aspiring to.
I think a clear example of the Integrated Spectacle is reality television. There’s no longer a narrative with celebrities who are glamorous and are someone to aspire to, now the celebrity is another version of us. Their celebrity status is purely connected to the fact they were on television. We can buy the same things they’re wearing, we can be concerned with intimate details of their existence — which become somewhat interchangeable with the details of our existence. It is harder and harder to draw the line between that which is real and that which is an image of reality because reality itself becomes an image of reality.
Situationist strategy is in part based on the idea of detournement — re-envisioning, re-editing existing work to make space for a new message or question. In what ways is this practiced today?
The practice is taking a pre-existing film, comic strip, whatever and subverting it by adding text, re-editing it, politicizing it by making it the very thing that spectacular consumerist culture is supposed to avoid. It is hard to think of that as an oppositional strategy anymore because it is so easy to do that. One weird example that still works is David Rees, who does Get Your War On. Clip art plus words. What works is he has an intense anger and dark sense of humor whereas a lot of other examples feel passé and commonplace.
Another example is the Yes Men, who took Barbies and G.I. Joes and switched their voice boxes and put them back on the shelves in the toy store. Where it happens is important. Go back to the breakdown of division between art and existence that the Situationists were interested in. If you do that in a gallery space it doesn’t have the effect it has in a toy store. The question is not so much the strategy itself but where you apply it.
If the situationist strategy runs the risk of being outmoded, why should a contemporary artist read or watch the society of the spectacle?
Recognizing how much our existence is mediated by images I would see as a possible opening for aesthetic practices rather than a closure. The starting point of any post-Debordian art is to recognize that we are already in a realm where our entire experience is mediated by the Spectacle. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to be done with images, it means there’s so much to be done with images because they’re so integral to not only aesthetics but to politics. Changing the world, in some sense, means changing the way we relate to images.
Ian Paige can be reached at