How is the digital age affecting us? The Situationist International predicted it 54 years ago
To say that in today’s world, we are bombarded by images is somewhat of a cliché. Although it does not mean that it is false. Not only are we often idly hypnotised by the images, but we start to experience the world through glass screens. As Olga Tokarczuk said in her Nobel Prize Lecture, the world somehow becomes ‘unreal, distant, two-dimensional...’
We begin to construct our lives in ways that can be best-suited for on-screen representations. Over 50 years ago, The Situationist International claimed that the world is driven by the endless chain of different spectacles that came to occupy every dimension of human existence. As such, it can be easily deduced that we are all enthralled by the modern spectacle. On the one hand, we are subservient to its dictum and almost imprisoned by it. On the other hand, we allow it to happen because the spectacle captivates and fascinates us.
But let’s start that ‘sociological’ journey from the beginning. The Situationist International came into being in 1957, when a few members of the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, and the Lettrist International met in Italy. They were an avant-garde formation with high aspirations aiming to overturn various areas of life such as art, history, politics, but also everyday life practices. The group’s intellectual leader was a French philosopher, Marxist theorist and filmmaker, Guy Debord whose book ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ became the most well-known text associated with the Situationists. One of their key ideas was that every aspect of life is corrupted by capitalism and its relations of production and consumption, which, in their opinion, does not necessarily have to cause alienation [of labour and/or individual].
The spectacle – ‘the pseudo-use of life’
Representations, appearances, visuality, and images are of particular importance in the creation of the spectacle. What is the spectacle? Debord instructs that it ‘is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between the people that is mediated by images.’ Considering the above, images themselves should not be at the centre of discussion around the spectacle. Rather, it is their impact on how we live our lives and experience the world.
Even though it is not certain whether ‘the spectacle is a false representation of reality or whether is a falsification of reality itself,’ a level of preference for the latter may be observed in Debord’s writing. The way this idea can be understood is that not only do the images - and this includes media in a broad sense - give us distorted representations of reality but that the reality is lived with the intention of subsequent representation of that reality. It is experienced as ‘second-hand.’ Finally, this seemingly insignificant difference finds its best manifestation in the way the media has changed over the years.
Today, all kinds of spectacles have the potential to become media spectacles as the ability to turn them into such is available to everyone with the simple use of a smartphone. Not only can anyone do that, but also anyone can create an event with the idea of it becoming a spectacle. Debord at one point described the spectacle as ‘the pseudo-use of life’ – meaning that life in the society of the spectacle is not genuine. People are alienated, removed from what they produce and consume, but also from what they experience. They become spectators of their own lives.
Such a prevailing feeling is a consequence of the constant need to represent what one is doing and who one is as a person. To further quote Debord, ‘The reality of time has been replaced by its publicity.’ Life acquires reality and meaning only through its representation to an audience - ‘Without representation, life might as well not happen at all.’ While in the past, this idea could only refer to big events, e.g. football matches, today, due to the ever-growing ubiquity of social media, more and more people feel the need to broadcast their lives to some audience, no matter how big or small.
Social media: the case of Instagram
As already mentioned, it should not be forgotten that the spectacle is ‘a social relationship mediated by images,’ which is perfectly exemplified by the very term ‘social media’ itself. It stresses the socialising aspect of one’s online presence. However, self-representation, therefore the visual aspect, is an inevitable component of online socialising. It cannot be ignored that some social media platforms rely on images more than others. That is the distinction between Facebook, where you can invite people to ‘Facebook events’ or create discussion groups, and Instagram, which is a platform premised on photo-sharing. While on Facebook a sense of community is an important part of the experience, on Instagram, it is a reinforcement of users’ individuality and self-promotion that comes to the foreground. Instagram, however, proves that it is, in fact, self-representation and visuality, not community spirit, that are going to be more relevant.
Instagram, as first and foremost a mobile phone app, only allows uploading the photos that are usually taken on users’ mobile phones. That platform’s co-founder explained that the core of Instagram is about ‘seeing and taking photos on-the-go in the real world, in the real-time.’ Due to this, Instagram encourages its users to perceive everything as a photo opportunity. Their everyday activities grow to the level of the worthiness of representation. Additionally, since their reality and everything they experience can be subject to spectacularisation, their world becomes ‘at once here and elsewhere’ - at once directly lived and already existing within the virtual realm.
If we were to apply Debord’s writing to Instagram, we would say that ‘Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle.’ It means that separation is the spectacle’s most fundamental principle. However, the images of spectacle do not just remain separated, but ‘detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream.’ What does it mean? First of all, according to our dear Debord, the images are ‘detached from every aspect of life,’ which is inconsonant with an observation that Instagram users constantly look for ‘photo opportunities.’ Secondly, those fragmented images ‘merge into a common stream,’ describing anyone’s Instagram feed. You scroll down Instagram only to see hundreds of images with little to no affinity with one another.
Similarly, even when you look at someone’s profile, what you see are just snippets of their life. If you do not know them, those images have no context. They often have to stand for themselves (‘the spectacle isolates all it shows from its context, its past, its intentions and its consequences’). What is more, according to a study conducted by Sheldon and Bryant called ‘Surveillance/Knowledge about others,’ such a lack of context is actually the most important reason behind Instagram use. This situation makes a scenario painted by Debord look like a prophecy. ‘Everyone is busily watching everyone else in a spiralling web of purposeless surveillance.’
Are there ways to resist the spectacle?
Today, when virtually every sphere of life can be turned into a spectacle; when not only can ordinary people be mere spectators, but can also create their own spectacles, Debord’s argument that through the spectacle, ‘the consumption has attained the total occupation of social life’ is more clearly visible than ever. People both participate in the spectacle that unfolds on everyone’s screens and constantly try to look for opportunities to construct their own lives as suitable for representation. While in the first case, the alienation people feel is external, in the latter, they are the ones alienating themselves from their own experiences. Debord notices this irony - ‘The closer his life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically is he cut off from that life.’
If the spectacle is total, is it possible to oppose it? Yes, the things that create the spectacle can be used against it. Such is the function of détournement, which may help in exposing the idiocies and hypocrisies of various spectacles. The French détournement can be translated as ‘diversion.’ Although it does not fully express what détournement entails, since it could also be translated as ‘corruption,’ ‘hijacking,’ or ‘rerouting.’ The way to create détournement involves taking parts of what exists in the world and through some alteration and turnaround, exposing it as a product of the spectacle. The world does not have to be Truman Show, we do not have to accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.