Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Commodity as Spectacle

With a Marxist approach of ‘commodity fetishism’, Guy Debord in this essay critiques the ‘spectacle’ of the commodity that has overtaken its actual presence and use-value. He says that the society is dominated by things which are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. This gives birth to the world of ‘spectacle’ which is constructed of images which seem to be superior to the actual world. Debord asserts that in the world of the spectacle, all that was once lived has become mere representation and commodity rules over all lived experience. The commodity form, instead of being qualitative has become ‘quantitative’ where it is characterized by self-equivalence/currency-value. Although the commodity turns away from its quantitative value, but its development still depends on the qualitative.

Debord further observes that the commodity production has for long retained its ‘artisanal’ value where the quantitative was masked by the qualitative. However, with large-scale trade this production became quantitative. The commodities thus acquired an economic power and transformed human-labour into wage-labour which then gave rise to ‘abundance’. He argues that with such commodity production, societies do solve the problems of basic survival but they themselves get entrapped into its vicious circle. The economy transforms the world but it transforms the world into a world of the economy. This ‘abundance’ of commodities gives rise to what Debord calls ‘augmented survival’.

The ‘spectacle’ allows the commodity to attain a social life. Debord asserts that if the first industrial revolution alienated the worker from the product of their own labour, the second industrial revolution has alienated them from not just production but also consumption. The proletarian who was once a ‘producer’ of commodity has now also become a ‘consumer’ due to the ‘abundance’ of commodities. This is where ‘spectacle’ comes into play. To correspond to the growing pseudo-needs of people, Debord suggests that new opportunities for employment must be created in the service and the tertiary sector. He examines how exchange-value gained an upper hand over use value and the process of exchange became indistinguishable from utility. The undermining of use-value gave birth to a new form of privation. The new privation, in the realm of ‘augmented survival’ does not limit itself to basic survival but goes much ahead of that.
In Debord’s words, “The real consumer thus becomes a consumer of illusion. The commodity is
this illusion, which is in fact real, and the spectacle is its most general form.”

The spectacle, for Debord is the other side of money- the abstract general equivalent of all commodities, for in it (spectacle) a unified image of the commodity world is visible. “The spectacle is not just the servant of pseudo-use – it is, in itself, the pseudo-use of life.” He feels that with an ‘economic abundance’, the social labour has become visible as a result of abstract representation. By replacing the necessity of human needs with the necessity of economic development, the satisfaction of primary human needs is being replaced by the “pseudo-needs”. The society of the spectacle, thus, does not need a developing economy for survival, but one which has to provide for the survival of the economy itself.

Unity and Division within Appearances

In this chapter, Debord discusses the paradoxical characteristic of the ‘spectacle’ where it is “at once united and divided”. The contradiction in the society, which emerges from the spectacle, is itself being contradicted by the society. For example, the class struggle that divides the society is actually aimed at unifying it with the purpose of running the same socio-economic system. The society that constructs the ‘spectacle’ does not dominate underdeveloped regions only through economic hegemony but also through the hegemony of the ‘spectacle’ itself. Just the way, society of spectacle promotes a desire for pseudo-needs and pseudo-goods; Debord believes that “it may also offer false models of revolution to local revolutionaries”. He feels that the roots of spectacle stand firm in the economy and it is economy that dominates the spectacular market.

For Debord, the glitter of the ‘spectacle’ produces a banality where although all commodities are different but all are superficially coated with the ‘spectacle’ tending to look the same. Rebelliousness also arises from the ‘spectacle’ by contradicting it and yet allowing to merge within the unity of the spectacle. The reason for this, Debord figures is “that dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economics of affluence finds a way of applying its production methods to this particular raw material”.

Debord looks at the phenomenon of stardom and believes that stars are “spectacular representations of living human beings”. Celebrities are also a result of production who embrace an appearance/spectacle hiding behind the real-self. He further claims that an individual, in the course of becoming a star or embracing the ‘spectacle’, becomes an enemy of the individual within him and of many other individuals. In order to become a model that others would identify with, he loses his power to identify himself. Therefore, although the celebrities might portray different personalities on the outside, within they enjoy the same consumption and satisfaction. He goes on to say that the people who we admire are the ones who embrace a level of reality
lower than that of the most insignificant individual life.

Debord feels that the consumption of abundance has established itself in the antagonism between youth and adulthood where an adult is nowhere to be found and youth is not proper to people who are young. This antagonism characterizes the economic system where the things that rule are young. Such spectacular antagonism conceals the unity of poverty. In such cases, the spectacle is in a concentrated or diffused form. While the concentrated form of the spectacle is characterized by bureaucratic capitalism, the diffused form is associated with the abundance of commodities where each commodity’s presence is justified due to the ‘abundance’ factor. Giving the spectacular logic of the automobiles, Debord says that for a perfect traffic flow, the spectacle calls for the destruction of the old city centers whereas the spectacle of the city itself proposes that these sections be turned to museums. So the satisfaction derived from the consumption of the whole is questioned from the outset as the consumer can consume it only in fragments.

In the society of the spectacle, every commodity fights for itself and imposes its presence over the other and in this process actualizes itself in a higher order than its original self. In the word of Debord, “the commodity becoming worldly coincides with the world’s being transformed into commodity”. In this abundance of commodities, they have lost their use-value or intrinsic value but are only bought for their spectacular value. Debord feels that as the “mass of commodities become more and more absurd, absurdity itself becomes a commodity”. For Debord, the pseudo-need imposed by modern consumerism cannot be opposed by any genuine need which is not
itself shaped by society and its history and this eventually leads to the “falsification of life”.

Debord gives example of the falsified nature of advertising and the fake promise of products they offer. With every new product, the consumers are made to believe that this is the ultimate one for them until a new product arrives with a new promise or “disillusionment”. This continual process of product replacement hints at the fake gratification of the product and the illusory nature of the society of the spectacle. Each new lie of the advertising industry acknowledges the one told before. At the end, Debord also claims that the ‘spectacle’ lacks permanence and is an ever-changing phenomenon.

Author: Ritika Pant

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