A Distracted Society
“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.” – Edward Bernays
In Propaganda, Edward Bernays talks about the intelligent manipulation of the opinions of the society. Manipulation in this context is the control of the public mind – A mediated way of life through images and how the masses perceive and act upon it – And that was how The Society of the Spectacle came about: A situationist theory published by Guy Debord in 1967 where the “spectacle” refers to the superficial mass media. The society of the spectacle could be seen present when advertising and public relations were introduced in the late 1920s. So what is the significance of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and how has the manifesto influenced Art & Design?
Guy Debord was a lawless thinker who accurately predicted the culture revolution of the 20th Century. In 1951, Debord took up with the Letterists, a French avant-garde movement consisting of radical artists and theorists who went against Andre Breton’s imperious control of the surrealism movement. Six years later, the collective went on and formed the Situationist International (SI), a leftwing artistic and political group.
In 1967, Guy Debord developed The Society of the Spectacle influenced by Karl Marx’s concept of “fetishism of the commodity”. The concept underpinned the nature of consumer culture and their tendency to treat commodities as fetishes, whereby the consideration of labour power to produce a particular product is lost once the product is associated with monetary value for exchange. For example, brand symbols like Nike and Apple has created an identity and culture in the daily lives of the society, and they have become a statement of promise to make lives better with such commodities. However, the question is, how is value made? And in this context, the “spectacle” refers to the use of image to convey the must-haves and needs of the society at the present time. Karl Marx’s theory of human “alienation”, which represents the idea of human social separation has also made Debord argue about overcoming alienation caused by capitalism, where the “spectacle” of images has replaced the social interaction between human beings and fulfilled satisfaction at a mere superficial level.
Another influence that contributed to Debord’s development of The Society of the Spectacle was Edward Bernays, also known as the “Father of Public Relations”, and his ingenious way of thinking introduced in his campaigns for the tobacco industry in the 1920s. As mentioned by Bernays, “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.” Bernays believed that the society should not be overwhelmed with too many choices, therefore, it was necessary to manipulate the society to make them function as one. Nevertheless, as Debord mentioned in The Society of the Spectacle, “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.” Debord felt that the society was slowly being dictated by the spectacle and everything became nothing more than superficial. That was when Debord came up with a strategy to disengage the idea of consumerism. Thus in the 1950s, Guy Debord alongside the Situationists promoted the strategy “Detournement” as a solution to subvert the “spectacle”. The strategy aimed to interrupt the flow of the media spectacle and eventually gain control of the media’s powers, in order to give the familiar media a new subverted meaning. By the 1980s, the rise of punk movements such as Culture Jamming was inspired from the Detournement.
“As much as we’d like to believe that human beings are rational actors making decisions based on a sober weighing of the facts, cognitive science reminds us that we are narrative animals that apprehend the world through stories. We make decisions more with our guts than our heads, and the facts alone are seldom enough to move public opinion. Therefore, social actors are constantly waging a “battle of the story” to shape public perception.” – Doyle Canning
Doyle Canning’s words in Beautiful Trouble explains the effectiveness of Debord’s solution of Detournement – As human beings think in images, the final judgement of truth is often dependent on what is comfortable and familiar to them. Therefore, culture jamming was a way to re-create and rebuild the commercial culture in order to transform the way society thinks. Culture jammers had a shared vision to counter the capitalist messages portrayed through the mass media in more artful ways, and that was when Art & Design is influenced from the idea of Detournement. In return, culture jamming also facilitates culture resistance by having a say in the society. One example of such influence is Banksy, a mysterious graffiti artist from Bristol, United Kingdom. His works include stenciling slogans and humorous art works across the streets as an act of “Subvertisement”, which was similar to the Situationist tactic to make rebellious political statements.
Another example is the Detournement of an iPod advertisement designed by an anonymous collective from New York who called themselves Cooper Greene, which is a code name used to describe the program of prisoner abuse in Iraq. Playing with the name iRaq (Iraq), the brilliantly designed poster had a subversive message that made use of the infamous image of an Iraqi prisoner tortured by American jailers at the Abu Ghraib prison. By making use of the typical iPod advertisements, it was definitely difficult for the public to move past the poster without looking at it. Put simply, Detournement and culture jamming tactics were a way to disengage the idea of consumerism from advertisements through art and design, and make it more like a critical reflection for the masses to amplify their thoughts and opinions.
The movement continued for a few years, but as the world of the spectacle approaches the tipping point of provoking new resistances everywhere, the Situationist International went into decline and eventually split up in 1972. However, that was not the end of it all. The Situationists and its legacy continued to inspire. In 1976, just a few years after the dissolution of the Situationist International, Malcolm McLaren started a culture revolution.
As a musician, visual artist, fashion designer and a boutique manager, McLaren was known prominently for fusing these different activities in a very experimental and offensive way. McLaren was associated with the band, Sex Pistols, as the manager who formed the band to create a sort of “culture chaos”. By designing the infamous swastika shirt, bondage-leather trousers and cut-up ransom letter typography, all of these were a marketing drive to keep the society engaged. McLaren’s antics with the band have certainly galvanized its impact towards the culture revolution through art and design inspired by Debord, especially the rebellious elements of the Situationist practice.
“The world we see is not the real world but the world we are conditioned to see, and the Situationist agenda is to explain how the nightmare works so that everyone can wake up.” – Michelle Brigandage
Is the “spectacle” a form of power, a social relationship, or a tool of conditioning? As each individual is conditioned through different forms of spectacles, the idea of the spectacle is subjective. However, what is compelling about Debord’s ideas is that he accurately predicted the way we live in the 21st Century now. As I slowly understood the concept of the spectacle, I had come to realize that myself too, was part of the hyper-real and manipulated society. We no longer see things as they really are. We understand ourselves through a representation and we live our lives based on something else. Does that mean that we have lost hope in our identities? I believe that this manifesto serves as a reminder for the society to be intelligent – To learn and deconstruct the subjected spectacle to see the truth in the false, instead of letting the spectacle continuously define our viewpoint of life.