A response to Paul Mattick’s Do We Live in a Society of the Spectacle?

On November 8th, 1990 the Soviet Union held its 73rd anniversary October Revolution Parade. Hundreds of Soviet troops goose stepped past an enormous portrait of Lenin hanging in the Red Square, while Gorbachev and the Politburo looked on from Lenin’s Mausoleum. At the conclusion, a huge crowd of civilians marched through the Square with banners bearing the old revolutionary slogans. The proceedings were not seamless, however. The emblems of the Soviet Republics were not flown, testifying that Latvia and Lithuania had declared their independence. Bands of Stalinist disruptors showed up to protest Gorbachev’s revisionism. A lone gunman even tried, unsuccessfully, to shoot Gorbachev with a sawed-off shotgun. As The New York Times reported that day: “The holiday caught the Soviet Union in a hangdog mood. The economy is in tatters, public confidence in most leaders has plummeted, and most of the country’s history is a subject of open self-doubt.”

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Paul Mattick asks Do We Live in a Society of the Spectacle? Our digital age seems to match Debord’s description of “a social relation among people, mediated by images”: celebrities are famous for being famous, influencers are influential for being influential, social media profiles are more important than the people they purport to represent, politics (even, if not especially, radical politics) is reduced to aesthetics, aesthetics is reduced to taking selfies in front of paintings, and so on. As Debord predicted, “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” Yet Mattick questions the extent of this “spectacle” with a few common-sense observations. Whereas Debord asserts that “commodities are now all there is to see,” Mattick points out that people “see much besides commodities — their relationships with lovers and families, political questions that interest them [etc].” He also questions the degree of influence that Debord attributes to images in determining historical development:

“Contrary to popular belief, it was neither television coverage of the Vietnam War nor student demonstrations against, but the actual inability of the US to defeat the Communist army at an acceptable cost, that ended that war. Similarly, the pictures from Abu Ghraib went around the world without much impact on the war or even on the practice of torture, despite the fears and hopes of interested parties that they would amount to political dynamite.”

Mattick suggests that the claim that modern life has been consumed by something called “the spectacle” ignores both that people continue to have experiences outside of mass culture and that history continues to be driven by concrete material forces.

But this raises the question as to why, then, as Mattick puts it, “the terms of Debord’s description of present-day capitalism have been absorbed by the dominant discourses of social and cultural criticism.” Mattick suggests that this is because it is in the interest of social and cultural critics to adopt these terms. If we do in fact live in a society of the spectacle, where mass images — or, if you prefer, simulacra, or the culture industry — determine social development, then social and cultural critics who deal in mass images occupy a privileged position to interpret that development (against, say, economists). “Such views,” Mattick says, “celebrate the particular social role claimed by [social and cultural critics].” Here Mattick echos a point made by Adolph Reed: “The insight that the world can be read as text easily slides into the claim that interpreting literary texts is identical with interpreting the wider world … [which is] an attractive fiction partly because it invests studies of literature and other forms of cultural production with an aura of political importance they would not otherwise possess.”

Nevertheless, no matter how much critics have exaggerated the role of images, and no matter how incentivized they have been to do so, one cannot deny the initial intuition of the spectacle. Celebrities are, after all, famous for being famous, and influencers are influential for being influential. We may critique such phenomena, account for their material conditions, and so on, but they remain before us as phenomena. Such phenomena do not even contradict Mattick’s argument. It is one thing to say that mass images have assumed an autonomous, fetishistic power, and another to say that all of life has been consumed by “the spectacle.” The former allows us to ask how the social base causes mass images to appear in this way, the latter denies the very existence of a social base.

If we are to ask, then, how the social base causes mass images to appear as the spectacle, then we must first understand the function of mass images. Although mass images belong to a specific mode of production they also exist in continuity with other historical forms of culture. All civilizations have had a unified cultural vocabulary of one kind or another, and, naturally, image has played a vital role in all of them. In that sense we may say that Catholicism provided a “mass culture” to Medieval Europe. Debord himself drew this parallel in The Society of the Spectacle, saying that mass images arouse “moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism.” The functionality that is common to all “mass cultures” is that of connecting the individual to the social totality. The individual, who is otherwise limited to his particular family and his particular role in the social division of labor, is connected by mass culture to the myth or the idea (in Hegelese, the “universal self-consciousness”) that animates his entire civilization. Thus mass culture is a phenomenon of, by, and for the totality.

We understand “totality” in the Hegelian and Marxist sense of the activity by which a social unit continuously reproduces the conditions of its own existence; so that, for example, whereas in its particularity capitalism “appears in as an immense collection of commodities,” in its totality capitalism “produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation itself: on the one hand the capitalist and on the other the laborer.” Given then that mass cultures are phenomena of, by, and for their totalities, it is no surprise that the mythological structures of mass cultures tend to mirror the reproductive structures of their totalities. A traditional society like Ancient Egypt, which reproduced itself as a stable form for thousands of years, had a cyclical mythology, one centered around death and rebirth, the rotation of the Sun, the seasons of the Nile, and so on. By contrast, bourgeois society, which continually revolutionizes itself according to the extraction of surplus value, has a progressivist, eschatological mythology existing in both Christian and secular forms. These mass cultures, with their mythologies, function to harmonize the particular activity of the individual with the total activity of the society.

The spectacle seems to contradict that thesis, however. If anything, the reign of the spectacle corresponds to an experience of disharmony between the particular activity of the individual and the total activity of the society. But this disharmony could also suggest a new possibility: that mass images can become disconnected from their totality. In a sense, this is a completely familiar idea. We encounter these sorts of deterritorialized images whenever we enter a museum. The cultural objects in museums appear apart from their native contexts. Hegel describes this experience of cultural objects in his Phenomenology of Spirit:

“Our active enjoyment of them is not an act of divine worship though which our consciousness might come to its perfect truth and fulfillment; it is an external activity — the wiping off of some drops of rain or specks of dust from these ‘fruits,’ so to speak — one which erects an intricate scaffolding of the dead elements of their outward existence — the language, the historical circumstances, etc. in place of the inner elements of the ethical life [Sittlichkeit] which environed, created, and inspired them.”

In other words, when an image is disconnected from its totality it becomes a “floating signifier,” and appears as an aesthetic item or historical curio. Therefore, at the same time that the image loses its social function it gains an autonomous power: it ceases to play a mediating role in a ritual or a narrative and comes before our attention as itself. In this way, images that are disconnected from their totalities come to resemble the fetishistic image-elements of the spectacle.

The difference, however, between the images in a museum and the images of the spectacle is that the latter constitute an immersive system which covers the entire social field. One cannot leave the spectacle in the way in which one leaves a museum. But here Hegel takes his analysis a step further. The objects he analyses above are specifically Roman artefacts. Above he is describing how they appear to modern people, but he also describes how they appeared to Roman citizens during the decline of the Roman Empire: “The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone. They have become what they are for us now.” In other words, according to Hegel, the experience of a modern subject looking at Roman artefacts and the experience of a late-Roman subject looking at Roman artefacts are the same experience. The late-Roman subject experienced the images of his own culture as an assemblage of floating signifiers, of aesthetic items and historical curios. But unlike the modern subject, the late-Roman subject did not find these images behind panes of glass inside of museums, but on all sides of him, as an immersive system which covered the entire social field. Therefore, according to Hegel, the late Roman Empire was, in our terms, a society of the spectacle.

Hegel says that the Roman Empire became a society of the spectacle because of the death of its totality. The Phenomenology of Spirit treats at length how the totality (or “Spirit”) of the Ancient World gradually collapsed under the weight of its contradictions and gave way to the Christian World. But there was, as it were, a latency period, during which the Ancient totality had ceased to reproduce itself, and the Christian totality was not yet in bloom. During this period, the totality was dead but had left behind it a dry husk of customs, institutions, and images, which carried on only because there was nothing yet to replace them. The reason that those images functioned like images in a museum is clear: they were, like images in a museum, disconnected from their totality. One can either disconnect an image from its totality by physically removing it from its native context, or by leaving it in place and letting its totality die out from under it, leaving the image behind as a dry husk. In the latter case it is not just one image that is disconnected, put behind glass, and so on, but an entire system of images that are all transformed into floating signifiers in concert with one another. The spectacle is therefore not something that appeared once and for all in the 20th Century; rather it is a repeating historical form, a form which corresponds to what Gramsci called “The Time of Monsters,” when “the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born.”

By situating the spectacle within this Hegelian framework we can reconcile Mattick’s critique of Debord with our initial intuition of the spectacle. The spectacle need not consume all aspects of life to be the spectacle, and it need not be the primary determinant of social development either; it is only the mass-cultural element of a society whose totality has ceased to reproduce itself. So, for example, as Mattick says, “consumer society, it turned out, was rather short-lived. It was the idea of a shift from production to consumption as socially central that lived on.” That is, mass consumer culture, with its mythological structure premised on ever-rising standards of living, carried on, zombie-like, through decades of wage stagnation, environmental devastation, and political disintegration. Advertisements, political campaigns, and television series continued to extol the post-war dream of the prosperous middle-class family long after that dream had ceased to be even a remote reality. Thus mass culture lost its referent in reality and became an autonomous, floating system of images — a spectacle.

But we still have not answered Mattick’s question: Do We Live in a Society of the Spectacle? For while mass culture continues, by and large, to obey the logic of the spectacle, there is one persistent phenomenon that challenges it: iconoclasm. Recent memory affords many instances of iconoclasm, from the storming of the Capitol, to the destruction of monuments, to, in a way, Trump’s presidency itself, along with Brexit. Iconoclasm challenges the logic of the spectacle because in it the individual assumes a totally different relationship to the image. In the spectacle, images oppress individuals in their very transparent meaninglessness, whereas in iconoclasm, images seem almost to be invested with too much meaning, such that individuals lash out at them. Even Baudrillard, who is even more radical than Debord in his diagnosis of mass culture, had to yield in the face of 9/11, the founding act of 21st Century iconoclasm. After decades of claiming that image had totally conquered reality, down to the ontological level, and making such statements as “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” he said, “We are facing, with the World Trade Center and New York hits, the absolute event, the ‘mother’ of events … Not only are all history and power plays disrupted, but so are the conditions of analysis.” Such an event cannot be accommodated by the logic of the spectacle (much less by Bauldrillard’s ontology). In it, the image no longer covers the real, but the real bursts violently through the surface of the image.

Confronted with iconoclasm, we might say with Baudrillard that the conditions of analysis are disrupted. The spectacle cannot account for the rage that mass images provoke, nor the violence that is visited upon them. The spectacle, therefore, should perhaps be ditched as an explanatory category. Or we might say, instead, that iconoclasm characterizes the phase that comes after the spectacle. As the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle put it, “In the era of the Iconoclast, no man’s mind is any longer filled with his Idol.” When a totality dies it engenders a spectacle, reducing mass-cultural images to aesthetic items and historical curios; but then, after an elapse of time, a reversal occurs which prompts individuals to strike out against the dead images. This reversal corresponds to what Hegel calls “the negation of the negation,” wherein a totality switches from having ceased to reproduce itself to producing its own destruction, a destruction which, in its positive aspect, is also the creation of a new totality. Hegel alludes to this process in his Phenomenology when he says, “the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms.” Those “isolated symptoms” are, among other things, instances of what we call iconoclasm. There is therefore no contradiction between our account of the spectacle, on the one hand, and the existence of iconoclasm, on the other, so long as the two are seen as belonging to successive historical phases.

So at last to answer Mattick’s question, Do We Live in a Society of the Spectacle?, we would answer: no, we no longer do. Or to the extent that we still live in a society of the spectacle it is one that is vitiated by accelerating iconoclasm. The post-war epoch of global capitalism entered its decadent phase with the stagflation crisis of the late 60s, the same time that Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle. Consumer society reneged on its promises to the masses, and continued to do so throughout the neoliberal era, during which the spectacle attained its full intensity. The system staggered on through what Bauldrillard calls “the stagnant 90s” until, finally, the atrocities of 9/11 inaugurated “the era of the Iconoclast.” There has never been any recovery from 9/11. On the contrary, since then the global order has set about irreversibly unraveling itself. The mounting crises have been met only by mounting iconoclasm, culminating in Trump, Brexit, and the wild iconoclasm of the pandemic period. Between “experts,” “consensus,” “free markets,” “progress,” “merit,” and “social mobility” we have been witnessing a veritable twilight of the idols.

But in order for this to be so the spectacle must not have been exactly as Debord understood it. For Debord, the spectacle consumed and became the social base, and there was thus no totality that grounded the spectacle or that could carry us beyond it (Situationist praxis was always spectacle-immanent). Mattick’s critique showed the limits of this view, and by recognizing the fact of iconoclasm we go a step further. The spectacle was only ever the dry husk of a mass culture whose totality had died out from under it, and now a new totality takes shape and bursts through the surface of the husk. A procrustean marxist might object that there can be no new totality because there is still no end in sight for capitalism. But where one draws one’s Dedekind cuts in history is entirely a matter of scale. Capitalism has already undergone multiple revolutions — from the Second Industrial Revolution, to Imperialism, to Fordism — without capitalism itself being overthrown. Now it appears that post-war global capitalism is going the way of all ages. What will succeed it can of course not be known. It could be sino-capitalism, it could be techno-feudalism, it could be something completely unexpected — we may not know what it is or was for another century. The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk.

New York based freelance writer. Cultural and political commentary.