“All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” – Guy Debord, Society of The Spectacle (1967)
A few months ago I gave Debord’s Society of The Spectacle to a planner friend along with Baudrillard’s ‘System of Objects’. I wrote this inside the front cover of Baudrillard’s book:
“50% of books in people’s homes are never opened. This book made me want to be a planner. It is inspirational and stuffed with insights. The other is the darkest and most harrowing portrayal of modern life I have ever read and should come with the warning “may cause existential crisis.” The other book is not to be opened, it is intended as a sacrifice for the sake of a (dubious) statistic.”
Debord’s book is a total headfuck. It’s a double headfuck because once you’ve got over the headfuck of deciphering this ludicrously impenetrable text you are confronted with the headfuck of it’s meaning. Philosophy can take you to some very dark places. There are times when I thank goodness that these philosophers don’t just lay it all bare in plain speak. This kind of philosophical bluntness could be terrifying, and, extremely dangerous. There are philosophers whose ideas and observations about the world we inhabit are so bleak that one fears these ideas reaching mass consciousness.
However, Debord’s ideas are already reaching mass consciousness. The Guardian is writing articles hailing Debord as a futurologist and to have predicted in 1967 the current state of our distracted society. The very same concerns Debord had about TV and Radio have been amplified by social media, ‘Big Data’, ‘earned media’ and our always on, always online, always watched, always watching ‘Society of The Spectacle.’
Debord was a ringleader of a band of (not so merry) 60’s political revolutionaries called the Situationist International. Their movement is associated with Hippy anti-capitalist sentiment that pervaded the champagne socialist intelligentsia at the time. They sought to update Marx’s critique of Capitalism as the rise of the USA’s glitzy brand of Capitalism and Cold War tensions bubbled away in the background. Here’s Debord’s argument in four über simplifying steps:
1. “The spectacle’s ‘lonely crowd’ “unites what is separate but unites it only in its separateness.”
Capitalism’s competitive individualism creates a man-eat-man world where individuals trample each other striving for similar goals and aspirations. Individuals perpetually strive against each other, but together. We are united in corporations, housed in close proximity, do ‘team work’ but are becoming increasingly specialized cogs in the economic machine. Some of us do such specialized jobs that we can’t even have a conversation about what it is we do with people outside of work. We all go to work physically together, but sit in silence on tubes and buses psychologically alone.
2. “The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends. It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory.” – Debord
Companies want profit but don’t know why. We want progress for progress sake. We strive without realising exactly why. We haven’t questioned our definitions of progress. We haven’t evaluated, we just do stuff “moving forward.” Debord argues that man is now the economy’s puppet.
3. “The more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system [Capitalism], the less he understands his own existence and his own desires.”
Many of us do not question why we want a bigger house, why we want a faster car and why we might commute for two hours a day for five days a week in order to buy more stuff. Society, advertising and the media tell us what we want, Debord argues. It’s not about driving the car. It’s about what we think the car represents to others. We constantly need approval from our peers. Debord laments life’s poverty despite affluent appearances.
“The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing [to have], from which all actual “having” must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function. At the same time all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it.”
4. “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.”
We used to understand what we wanted by having real emotional reactions to situations and people. This used to be done through lived, live and unedited ‘intersubjective’ experiences (a heart-to-heart with a whiskey bottle you might say) in which we read other’s body language. We react and interact. Debord worried that our emotions and values are shaped by the media. He considered that the media represents our emotions and values in easy to understand symbols, slogans, corporate speak and email conventions. Debord considers that social interactions, when “directly lived”, are messy and full of ‘guesswork’, or what we might call empathy. Now, representations of what social interactions should be like have stifled an empathetic, “directly lived” experience of conversations we have.
We speak in embarrassingly corporate meaningless jargon to hide what we really want to say (“moving forward” = ‘I want to talk about things in the future but seem to have forgotten how to use the future tense’, and “manage expectations” = ‘be pessimistic, because I am’, are my personal pet peeves). This language, which helps to grease the cogs of the corporate machine, does not foster strong bonds between colleagues. It helps us sing from the same hymn sheet as workers yet masks real communication as people. Emails do something similar.
We ‘read’ a bunch of clichés, symbols and slogans that are designed to make the guessing game or empathizing with other people a bit easier. If a man drives a Volvo we might guess that he valued the safety of his family and would be the kind of person who has a black Labrador. If a woman wears Chanel No5 we know she sees herself as glamorous. If a man has a beard we expect that he fancies himself as a trendy creative-intellectual type. We might then use that beard to sell products that we want to be associated with creative-intellectual bohemianism and Hipster culture.
“When I got my first television set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships.” – Andy Warhol
The more we let the media mediate our lives the less we live for us, for now, Debord argues. Instead of accepting the now, the ‘me’ and our messy human emotions we are trying to fit into ideas that have been represented to us. The media has helped to formulate our understanding of what is beautiful, who’s successful and what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Now our interactions are mediated by the media and social media. We worry about how we come across. We worry about ‘I’ (a crafted image of ourself that we portray to others) rather than ‘me’ and we think about what we’re meant to feel rather than just feel it. We mediate ourselves, we mediate other people, the media mediates society. Everything is mediated. Nothing is directly lived.
How tasty our breakfast looked on Instagram is more important than how tasty it actually was. Instagram would give Debord a heart attack – we upload pictures of us having fun to represent the fun we were supposed to be having. How much fun we look like we are having is more important than actually having fun.
This all seems fairly bleak (I did warn you) but I feel that there are positives planners can take from Debord’s extreme Marxist views. We shouldn’t shy away from advertiser-bashing and bury our heads in the sand. There are huge amounts of people who think advertisers are scum. We should figure out why to see if there is anything that can be done about it.
“All the branches of knowledge, which continue to develop as the thought of the spectacle, have to justify a society without justification, and constitute a general science of false consciousness. This thought is completely conditioned by the fact that it cannot and will not investigate its own material basis in the spectacular system.” – Debord
Debord can help provide the ethical, rather than practical, answers to several debates that seem to be gathering momentum in advertising and marketing at present. I believe that marketeers, in general, want to do the right thing but are lured into the easy or more practical approach. If we can debate the ethics, however, then maybe we could work upon improving the practicalities of reaching some ideals. If we don’t debate the ethics then we have not questioned our goals – we are upholding what Debord considered to be the tautological conditions of Capitalism, where our means are simultaneously our ends.
Firstly, Debord can help planners to understand and counteract a growing public scepticism of advertising and ‘The Media.’ Everybody hates being sold at. Everybody hates being told what to buy and what to think. They no longer want to be spoonfed information, yet, at the same time, the Internet has made spoonfeeding all the more necessary. It simply isn’t possible to read and see everything, but how do we choose what we find on the Internet? People have not only become increasingly suspicious of what they read and what they see but how and why they have come across it. Who has the power now when it comes to ‘The Media’?
Secondly, planners can use Debord’s writing as a way of analysing the social and cultural worth of online interactions. It seems to me that advertising no longer serves a purely commercial purpose. On the one hand advertisers are arguing that commercial success will depend on CRM (Consumer Relationship Management) on the other there are those who believe that creativity sells. How much is a Facebook ‘like’ worth? Should planners regurgitate culture by looking at what people have ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ online and reproducing something similar or should we aim to create something completely new? Should advertisers follow culture or aim to lead it? Should we let brands shape the world we live in or should we let society shape the brands we live with?
Thirdly, reading Debord’s book is, to craft a rather torturous metaphor, rather like watching a CCTV operative watching a crowd of stalkers stalk each other. Planners could do well to look through Debord’s eyes when evaluating social media interactions in which people stalk each other online in full knowledge that they too are being stalked. CCTV is like ‘Big Data’, it gathers all the information on how the two stalkers stalk each other. CCTV and ‘Big Data’ can track their every move, when they move and what they do. The planner can use CCTV/’Big Data’ to observe the stalking game in a detached way.
Detached observations are objective, yet are, well, detached. We need to empathise too. The planner must ask the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions to evaluate what the data actually shows. When people don’t know that they are being watched they act differently. They don’t edit their behaviour. On social media we know we are watched. Interrogating social media interactions might involve asking questions like: Who is following? Who is leading? Who’s trying to camouflage? Who’s conspicuous? Are they conspicuously trying to be conspicuous? Who has quickened their pace? Are they are worried that their stalker hasn’t followed suit?
In real life, when we feel like our every move isn’t being recorded we behave differently. We definitely forget about CCTV as Coca-Cola’s advert below demonstrates, but do we forget who’s following us and watching us on social media? How much value can we place on social media interaction when it comes to revealing internal whirrings of consumers? How should brands use social media to better people’s lives? Is it ethical to use ‘Big Data’ or is the CCTV operative a bit creepy? Annoyingly Channel 4’s documentary, CCTV: Caught on Camera, (as always) sat on the fence.
There’s a storm brewing in Adland. ‘Old school dinosaurs’, or Technophobes are questioning ‘Big Data’ and the validity of Social Media and Digital marketing. ‘The digital evangelists’, or Technophiles, are questioning the effectiveness of TV or printed adverts and taking a ‘gut feeling’ over data as a viable means of strategising a marketing plan. It’s that age old debate that Stephen King’s “Advertising: Art and Science” 1982 article discusses and was reinvigorated at an APG event on Planning 3.0.