The Society of the Spectacle(s)

Ended up going to see Orbital last night – some nice throwback tunes in the rather odd, but acoustically brilliant Royal Albert Hall. The gig was good, but as is normal with this sort of ‘live’ electronic stuff, there’s not a lot to look at musically, and with the beats going around my mind starting turning too.

It was a ‘spectacle’, I suppose… there were huge sounds, and (perhaps as a compensation for the limited activity on stage) lots of big visuals too. And it got me thinking about Guy Debord’s thesis of ‘The Society of the Spectacle:

Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”

The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord writes, “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

He wrote this in 1967.

What struck me last night was just how prescient some of this was, especially with the advent of digital social media, and the ubiquity of mobile devices with cameras. As the guy I went with quipped last night as the gig began: ‘so glad I’ve got my phone, I really wanted to experience this through the grainy image of a 3″ LCD screen…’

It just brought a phrase to my mind: we’re not so much in the society of the spectacle, but the society of the spectacles: everything mediated through a lens, through a screen of some kind. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” That, it seems to me, is a pretty perfect description of what was happening last night, and, in a way, there was something troubling about it because, to quote Debord again, what we had was “passive identification with the spectacle supplanting genuine activity.”

And yet there was a sense that people wanted more than that. That they genuinely wanted to break through into activity, but the layers upon layers of mediation made that hard to do, especially after so long.

I loved the gig, and had a really great night, but it made me yearn for something more raw. For people with instruments and amps, and nothing else. For craft and meaning, sweat and passion. And no screens. No mobiles. No grainy footage. Just people wanting to be somewhere, not worrying about how they can tell other people what a great time they had…when really they weren’t there at all, but watching from behind a glass.


2 responses to “The Society of the Spectacle(s)”

  1. Your friend needs a better phone. 🙂

    Re: the last paragraph: Yes! Yes! Yes! So much of live music with real instruments sounds and feels like it is drowning in a custard sea of loops and pre-recorded instruments.

  2. Funnily enough, he’s got rid of his iPhone and returned to a no-frills, budget handset that just makes calls. *Like*

    And yes – keep it live!