Review | Society of the Spectacle by Guy Dubord

Why does this always happen to me with translated works?

This review is going to be different since the book isn’t a novel—it’s a series of theses.

I have a odd love/hate relationship with academic writing. On one hand, I have to write in it when I write papers. It (usually) follows a clear argumentative structure. On the other hand, academic writing is always so elevated and restricting. It feels impersonal and selective, as if it’s not supposed to be accessible.

This is my problem with Society of the Spectacle. Not only is this novel translated from the original French (sometimes to horrible grammatical effect), the writing style is inaccessible, or at least it feels that way.

Part of the problem is that my background in Marxism and economics is lacking, so a large middle section of the book is lost on me.

And this is a real shame, because I like the ideas that Debord is positing, and I find it’s very relevant to our current society.  Debord defines the spectacle as “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” This results in not a unity, but rather an isolation from one another.

And it completely makes sense. Think of Facebook. Of twitter. Of tumblr. Of your WordPress blog. Yes, we share our ideas and our thoughts and our pictures with the world, but once you read it or see it, does any action result?

I would love to think it does. And I’m not going to stop blogging just because it “adds to the spectacle.” But I think it’s an important idea to consider.


I think the best example is the meme. Take the infamous white-gold/blue-black dress, for example. For days people argue and obsess about something as trivial as the colour of this dress, when it turns out it’s just poor white balance (you can literally take the image and adjust the white balance to make it black and blue again, just look at the background, its overexposed). And what progress happens? None. Because as soon as the dress gets taken over by the next big thing, the meme becomes nothing more than something we used to care about. It happened with the ice bucket challenge, the screaming goat, and that GIF where people couldn’t tell whether or not the hotdogs were going in or out of the guy’s pants.

(Sentences I never thought I’d have to write…)

In Society of the Spectacle, Dubord pushes this idea that we are cultivating the spectacle. Therefore, it’s up to us to break that illusion. But it’s difficult when we live in is based on, what he calls, “pseudo-cyclical” time.

I do have some difficulties with this idea, especially since I subscribe to Latour’s Compositionism, in which all answers must convene to create an ever-present now. And that includes what we see in the spectacle and our interpretations of it.

If Dubord offers a mode of action, I haven’t really gleaned it from the book yet. Reading digressions are rather tiresome, after all. In the end though, it’s useful to be aware of the situation, and so I’m glad I read this book.

Recommendation: Read. While it may be hard to read, Society of the Spectacle holds ideas that are very relevant to today’s society. If you’re looking for a read that considers not how we lived, but how we’re living presently, I’d definitely give this a shot.


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