Spectatorship of the Spectacular

Susan Pelletier

In his Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord presents the lived experience as existing completely within the realm of the spectacle, in which representation supersedes reality, and through which society and the world are seen only through the gaze of the prevailing economic system. Through a definitively Marxist analysis of capitalism and its cultural structure, Debord argues, quite famously, that this spectacle, or consciousness, “is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (93). He finds that communication only happens through relating to these mediated images and conversation is accomplished only through the relationships we have to those representations. In this way, he relates the economic structure of capitalism to not only the way the world is viewed, but also the way it is constructed. Debord furthers this theory through his discussion of urbanism, which he claims is “capitalism’s seizure of the natural and human environment, developing logically into absolute domination” (105). He finds that through a reification and conscious act of those holding hegemonic power, isolation and alienation are created and utilized to naturalize the current economic system, and therefore the spectacle is reinforced. In this way, the powerful controllers of government and mediated images reify the ideologies and systems that benefit them, in a way so that it appears to the less powerful that the act is in their own interest.
In relation to Debord’s analysis of the urban environment is his concept of urban movement, and the construction of spaces he calls “distribution factories”, which allow this capitalist function of consumption and the fetishising of commodities to be realized. These include shopping malls, highways, and other means of simplified access to commodities. He claims that this manipulation of the urban environment in order to stabilize and normalize the consumptive economic system “is only the first element of the general dissolution which has led the city to the point of consuming itself” (106). For Debord, the construction and architecture of cities takes place as part of the spectacle in an effort to continue and strengthen the spectacle. How then can this idea be related to that of Haussmanization? Was this modernization of Paris Napoléon III’s effort to reinforce capitalism? Through the creation of wider boulevards, more coherent and sensible methods of travel between districts, consumer activity was certainly not impeded, but rather assisted, and in that way, this reconstruction serves as an absolute example of Debord’s claim.
Even more interesting to consider, is the role of the flaneur in this environment. He who walks these constructed and spectacularized streets is participating fully in the spectacle, even if he chooses not to interact with those he observes. Debord addresses this idea in his analysis of the spectator, of whom he writes “the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires” (98). He goes on to consider that if the spectator, or the flaneur experiences the city through observation, he is then experiencing the spectacle not through his own activity or production, but through the representation of that work in another’s actions. He claims then, “this is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere” (98).
In another work, Debord and his contemporaries, the Situationists, created a map entitled “The Naked City”. This map was constructed of nineteen different pieces of the Plan de Paris, an actual, geographically correct street map of the city, set about in a seemingly haphazard order in order to represent “the spontaneous turns of direction taken by a subject moving through these surroundings in disregard of the useful connections that ordinarily govern his conduct” (Jorn). The map is captioned as an “illustration of the hypothesis of psychogeographical turntables.” For Debord, this represents the way that the spectacle’s construction of the city influences the way it is walked, experienced, and explored. Thus, in this way, for Debord, the flaneur is manipulated by the spectacle, and his observation and experience take place directly within and of that spectacle. It is apparent then, that the art and texts created by the flaneur are situated, as are all works according to Debord’s text, within the spectacle and act only as representations of that which is already being mediated. If one accepts this ideology, the conversation that we have about those texts is capable of taking place only within the spectacle and through those mediated images of reality.

How does this view change the interpretation of the flaneur and his experience, or his art? Is it possible for the flaneur, the situationist, anyone to actually escape the lens of the spectacle and view reality rather than its representation? Is there a purpose in trying? For Debord, this is not a possibility, and he claims that the Surrealist and Dadaist works, to which many of the celebrated flaneur belong, while attempting to break outside the spectrum of the spectacle, in fact become imprisoned within it. What then does this mean for the reader of those texts, and how can we understand the effects of the spectacle on the text if we too are existing and understanding within it?

Works Cited
Debord, Guy E., and Asger Jorn. “The Naked City.” Image. Documents Relatifs à La
Fondation De L’Internationale Situationniste (1948-1957).

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1983. Print.

McDonough, Thomas F. “Situationist Space.” October 57 (1994): 58-77. Print.

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