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The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
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Jan 16, 2012

really liked it
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Read in November, 2011

While I wouldn’t exactly describe this book as having the force of a “Das Kapital of the 20th century” [like the cover notes indicate], Society of the Spectacle is surely an important work in the field of modern cultural critique. Originally written in France in 1967 by Guy Debord, an influential member of the Situationists movement, the book’s concepts are still as relevant as ever, as it is with many books that relate to topics of modern capitalism and consumerist “programming.” It starts with a basic outline of the definition of the “spectacle,” which is simply the idea that our conception of legitimate fulfillment (and participation) in our society has shifted to a purely superficial level. The capitalist forces of advertising, marketing, and public relations have transformed the utility of consumption into the “spectacle” of consumption, which drives us to consume and participate in this spectacle in ever intensive ways. The mere idea of consumption has replaced our conceptions of what self-fulfillment should be, and our internal worth is often measured on the “model of life” as reinforced through the capitalist order, to what Debord argues is a quasi-religious degree of reverence. Furthermore, this order is reinforced by our desire to appear “well-connected” with our selection of expensive gadgets, for example, or with our taste for specific stylish clothing brands, projecting our image which is alienated from our specific realities. This is all aided by our “separation” from the physical world of the products we produce, with the separation between worker and product playing an important role in how we feel about commodities in general. All of this results in a general degradation in our quality of life, to say the least. The book also goes on to discuss how our conception of time has changed with the advent of our participation in capitalist production, a section on class struggles against the spectacle, as well as a compelling critique of modern revolutionary ideologies and ideas.

My short summary certainly does not do the entire idea justice, of course. Debord’s profound analysis of the intersection between social phenomena and capitalist consumerism is only the tip of the iceberg. As the book is organized into small passages within larger chapters, many of these verses leap off the page as noteworthy and prescient bits of brilliance. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in consumerism, class struggles, and the state of the modern consciousness.
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