The Society of the Spectacle


Richard Moore


As I was driving over the beautiful highway from Vancouver to Vernon 
in British Columbia, I listened to Jeff Jewell's review of Guy 
Debord's book, "The Society of the Spectacle". I can't pretend to 
understand such a deep book by listing to a one-hour review, but I 
understood enough to be impressed. The central idea, if I got it 
right, is about 'spectacle' in the sense of 'Roman games', as in 
'bread and circuses'.  That is to say, modern society is about 
presenting us with an unending sequence of 'things' that are their 
own justification and in which we have no participation (except to 
the extent we contribute to production in the workplace).

'Things', or 'spectacle', includes gadgets, entertainment, politics, 
news reports, etc. In previous ages people were inspired (ie, led by 
the nose) by promises of future utopias (eg, religion), or progress 
toward utopias (eg, socialism). Today, the 'things' themselves -- the 
'spectacle' itself -- is supposed to be our utopia. GE used to say 
"Progress is our most important product". Not progress toward 
anything, but just progress. That is, an endless progression of the 
'new', of 'spectacle'. 'Economic growth' as an end-in-itself.

'Spectacle' becomes ever-more remote from reality, and from us. We 
have ever-less role to play in it, and it becomes an ever-more 
indirect representation of the world. Last night, watching PBS with 
Caspar Davis, I could see this 'spectacle' thing in action. It was a 
show about the upcoming Congressional elections. So many levels of 
indirect. Politicians are remote from power to begin with, power 
which hides behind the curtain.  Media is then remote from real 
politics, showing us only public posturings. On the show we saw 
pundits and politicians giving us their opinions (more accurately 
their public sound bites) about what the elections are about... 
whether so-and-so is for-or-against such-and-such, and how this will 
play for-or-against the republicans-or-democrats. Not debates between 
positions, not discussion of the issues, but opinions about what the 
effect of various posturings might-or-might-not be when 'the people' 
(an abstraction, not you-and-me) go to the polling places to press 
Diebold buttons which are again remote from the pre-determined totals 
they will later display.

'The Matrix' image can be seen as an extrapolation of this 
'Spectacle' thing. The ultimate of 'indirect and remote'. Nothing but 
a non-participative observation of an indirect representation of 
non-reality. Not that different, really, from our present 
circumstance. Instead of going outside and being with nature, we 
watch documentaries about nature. Instead of participating in sports, 
we watch sports (and lots of commercials) on TV. Instead of deciding 
our future, as is the promise of democracy, we contribute a vote, 
.00001% of a 'voice'. And that was before the days of Diebold.

In the face of all this, I have been very encouraged by my tour. 
Everywhere I've gone I've met people who want to break out of this 
Matrix, this Spectacle. People who want to participate, people who 
shared their own personal views and concerns. In two places (Nanaimo 
and Vernon) the outcome of the meeting was "How can we start?", 
"Let's start organizing to have our own dialog process, our own 
Wisdom Councils". Those two outcomes themselves have made this tour 
worthwhile. There is a saying, 'Nothing can stop an idea whose time 
has come'. I have faith that it's true. The neocons believe it, and 
that's why they're installing a police state. They know the people 
have had enough. There are billions of us and only a few of them. 
When we find our unity we will prevail.


The notion of Spectacle underscores the revolutionary nature of the 
Internet. What is most special about the net is that it enables 
participation. Unlike everything else in our society, it gives us a 
voice. Partly what we say is important, and who we say it to, but 
perhaps most important is that the net gives a sense of empowerment. 
It reminds us that participation is possible. That is why 'they' are 
in the process of figuring out how to take the net away from us, 
without at the same time destroying its commercial aspects. There's 
no sense crying about this, but what we can do is make the most use 
of it while it still exists.

In my own work, what I have been most encouraged about is the fact 
that real democracy does not depend on 'public opinion' or 
centralized media. It is about face-to-face dialog at the local 
level, in our own communities. Let 'them' do what they want at the 
mass level, at the centralized level. Our power is at the local 
level, where we can see and hear one another, where it is most 
difficult for 'them' to interfere.

best regards,

ps> People have said messages to me have bounced recently. At the 
same time, some messages have gotten through. This could be some 
general problem on the net, or it could be some kind of attempt to 
isolate me from my friends. If the latter, that means I've finally 
shown up on their radar!  That would be very encouraging, but I kind 
of doubt it. People who start major wars and run the world are 
unlikely to care about what people like me are up to.