The Spectacle

The Trumpire is the product of a particular assemblage of forces converging at a unique moment in history. It may be rhetorically useful to compare the Trump regime to past totalitarian or authoritarian governments, but such comparisons in the long run only distort and inhibit a genuine understanding of the Trump phenomeon. And if the goal is to contest and defeat the Trumpire, one ought to heed the advice of Sun Tzu: “Know the enemy, know yourself, and victory is never in doubt, not in a hundred battles.”

The argument explored in this space is that to fully understand the Trumpire, one must be familiar with the idea of “the spectacle,” a concept offered by the French troublemaking inebriate Guy Debord amid the social tension in France that eventually led to the Paris Spring of 1968. A clear and specific definition of the spectacle is notoriously difficult to pin down, due in large part to Debord himself—and the situationist ethos he helped establish—which seeks to avoid any clear or explicit categorization or definition of things. However, throughout the first chapter of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord tries to flesh-out a little bit the idea of the spectacle and how best one might try to understand the concept. Thesis 6 perhaps comes the most reasonably close to giving a full and formal definition:

Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world—not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society’s real unreality. In all its specific manifestations—news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment—the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing mode of social life.[1]

Twenty-three years later, in a follow-up collection of thoughts and ideas published under the title of Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord gives perhaps his most rigorous definition of the spectacle—one that he seems to regret moments before he gives it—when he describes the spectacle as “the autocratic reign of the market economy which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty, and the totality of new techniques of government which accompanied this reign.”[2] What both these characterizations of the spectacle point toward is a concept where an assemblage of power consisting of both economic and political forces merges together to create both a materialistic and mental apparatus of rule.

At the heart of this apparatus of rule is the power of the image. With the emergence of film as a mass medium in the early twentieth-century, and then drastically expanded with the advent of television broadcasting after World War II, the ability of images to alter or restructure the nature of human relationships (including relationships of power and authority) became readily apparent. For Debord living in France the middle of the twentieth century, this meant giving a boost to the dominant structures and legitimizing ideologies associated with western capitalism. In Thesis 17 of Society of the Spectacle, Debord states:

An earlier stage in the economy’s domination of social life entailed an obvious downgrading of being into having that left its stamp on all human endeavor. The present stage, in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all effective “having” must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’etre from appearances.[3]

According to Debord, the emergence of industrial capitalism gave rise to a new set of social values that prioritized the production, accumulation and consumption of manufactured goods and services over all other possible human activities. With the emergence of mass media and the hegemony of the images that it brings, simple mass production gives way to such practices of advertising, marketing, branding, and public relations that transform these simple manufactured objects into deities that occupy the exalted spaces in society. Individual human beings thus construct their own identities and core value systems in relation to the mystique that surrounds these manufactured objects.[4]

I try to emphasize this point to my students by asking them why they are in school (especially those enrolled at expensive liberal arts colleges). Usually, the first response I get is a canned answer about the importance of “getting and education” and “making a contribution to society.” Inevitably, more honest answers to the question begin to emerge–something to the effect of: “I want a good job and a college degree is more likely to make that possible.” I then ask “Why do you want a good job?” Again, a few canned responses repeating the “contributing to society” theme, before someone evetually says, “I want to make lots of money.” “Exactly!” I reply, to which I then ask, “And why do we want to make lots of money?” A long moment of silence ensues before someone chimes in: “To buy stuff!” And there is the answer. The spectacle fuels the thoughts, hopes, dreams, aspirations and  fantasies of vast populations who are embedded within it and motivates them to take on substantial debt to purchase the services of higher education (or for others, to play the lottery or audition for talent shows despite the long odds of success).

The existence of this spectacle by itself does not explain the rise of the Trumpire. Several more historical steps will occur before we arrive in the twenty-first century. For now, the key takeaway in this preliminary discussion is the recognition of the connection between the spectacle and the daily lives of millions of people around the world.

     [1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 13.

    [2] Ibid., Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 1998), 2. With regards to Debord’s regret about his writing with a clarity not normally associated with him, he states in the line preceding the one quoted above, “However, in this brief work there will be only too many things which are, alas, easy to understand.”

     [3] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 16.

     [4] Ibid., 43-44. In this way, Debord is building off of Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, but at a level far greater than was ever likely conceived by Marx.

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