Beautiful Trouble: Society of the Spectacle

In February Pace NYC will be hosting the Debating for Democracy Conference, an annual event organized through the CCAR’s partnership with Project Pericles.  This year we will be welcoming artist-activist trainers from Beautiful Trouble – a book and website “whose mission is to make grassroots movements more creative and more effective.”  Every few weeks until the event CCAR staff members will be highlighting a case study from the book that they found particularly motivating.  Today Shaniya Francis, Student Outreach Coordinator, shares her thoughts on the Society of the Spectacle.

In Beautiful Trouble I was very interested to see that under theory they spoke about how modern capitalism upholds social control through the spectacle, the use of mass communications to turn us into consumers and passive spectators of our own lives, history, and power. Society of the Spectacle sheds light on how people view activism and how that then defines their view on whether or not it was effective. Activists are more concerned with the media attention that their actions generate rather then the end result. This leaves us to believe that no one actually cares to get to that end result. People would rather make noise to get a reaction, but not a solution. Activist Guy Debord defines the society of the spectacle as “what we feel, what we believe, how we express desire, what we believe is possible – all are filtered  through, and constrained by, the media we consume and produce.” Karl Marx believed that under capitalism, the commodity becomes fetishized and reduced to exchange its value. Debord uses Marx’s ideas to show that capitalism isn’t only about what we produce and consume but how we communicate. The spectacle alienates us from ourselves and our desires making our main focus about capital.

The spectacle accompanies us throughout our lives. News, advertising, entertainment and social media present a continuous stream of imagery, projecting an endless justification for how our culture is produced. Today, the spectacle is made up of press releases, YouTube videos and blog pieces that are received and published almost verbatim. Adverts are increasingly populated by the consumers themselves. We donate, as consumers, our own commodified identities to the spectacle, to be sold back to us.

I have seen Guy Debord’s theory happen in protest groups today, such as the Black Lives Matter group. Black Lives Matter initially started to protest against police brutality and injustice towards people of color. There were a plethora of riots and protests in the streets resulting in activists being gassed and hosed. The past was being resurfaced and many people understood why the organization was being vocal about the injustice. But after a while it seemed as if many people were causing disruption in order to get a reaction rather than solve the issue. Many people on social media would pay attention to the videos yelling at the officers and vandalizing property; as if that was effective regarding the actual situation. The social media presence is what became the norm for activists. It was to either go big or go home. Many people were straying further from the intent and began capitalizing off of the organization. I have seen apparel being sold to “support” the movement, when in reality it was for personal profit. It is hard to decipher between what is authentic and what isn’t because of the spectacle. This takes away from the people who are genuinely trying to actively make a change. I think that social media is not a revolutionary tool as it appears to be. Not with capitalism involved.

This is not beneficial because the press will continuously take these actions and create false narratives about the organization. A press group in any “social movement” acts as its point of interaction for mainstream media and sets about shaping the movement’s outward identity which, is then presented on a massive scale. Mass media will be the downfall of activism if the intent isn’t made clear and repetitively reminded to the activists/ general public. Activism is not a commodity. Injustice is not to be capitalized. The saying “Revolution will not be televised,” means that the work will be done on the street not for mass media entertainment. A military revolution could be televised. An oppressed people taking to the streets would be televised. But, a revolution in the mind is not televised.

Students interested in attending the Debating for Democracy Conference on February 28th should email for more information!