The Society of the Spectacle, 1:1

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. (TSOTS, 1:1)

Debord has packaged The Society of the Spectacle (TSOTS for short here) in a long series of of roughly paragraph-or-two length sections, which happens to be the perfect length for a blog quotation plus commentary. There isn’t a lot to go on with this one. Having looked ahead, I can say that this passage prefigures some of what is to come. But coming into this cold, I can’t say I know what he means by “spectacle” at this point, which is clearly the key term.

What I can say is that the Wikipedia article on the book says it’s a Marxist text, and so it should be no surprise that his first words about the means of production. Moreover, Debord is saying that their are some terrible metaphysical consequences to the economic conditions of his time. “Representation” is a philosophically loaded word; for a long time philosophy has struggled with the idea that what we perceive is not the world as it really exists, but merely representations of it. The theory says: we have a kind of mental theatre of images–an image of a horse, say–which we have access to, and it is by virtue of these representations that we come to know what lies outside our minds–actual horses.

The problem is that when we try to use this kind of model of perception, we always wind up plunging ourselves into skepticism about the world. Who is to say the images of horses we see indicate the existence of an actual horse in the world? Couldn’t we just be a brain in a vat?

An alternative, then, is to say that our world isn’t mediated by representation. Rather, it is directly lived.

If this reading of Debord is correct, then saying that “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation” is a heavy condemnation of the conditions that have brought on this predicament–i.e. capitalist conditions, in Debord’s view.

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