Reviews of The Society of the Spectacle (1974) and related work

The Society of the Spectacle (1974Moving picture, 88 minutes)

Next to useless in film form, but the May 1968 montage is nice.

References here: The Game of War (2009).

moving picture non-fiction

The Society of the Spectacle (2023Moving picture, 94 minutes)

Seen in 2023.

Co-director Roxy Farhat reads from 24 of Guy Debord’s mini-chapters and interviews sympathetic readers applying his ideas to the world more than 50 years after the book came out. As breaks from this intellectual discussion, there are relevant clips of TV and Internet debris.

Farhat’s lo-fi VFX add an early-1990s cyberpunk charm to the visual presentation. This framing reminds me of more vapid post-McLuhan media philosophy, like that of Jean Baudrillard. The clips themselves are varied, but not always to the point. Jer Schmidt asks his Youtube followers to help him find a real job where he can meet people: Relevant, but Jer is 0% spectacular as a media personality. An old and long viral clip called “Cykelsvensken” (“Nu kommer Robert här! Uppför backen!”): Irrelevant but funny. Roxy Farhat’s own 2017 film “Acting Woman”: Uncanny but dubious. The wide variety and sometimes weighty expert opinion elevate the documentary, from mere potshots at streaming and social media, to a worthwhile meditation on the larger situation.

As far as I can tell, the film is faithful to Debord’s intentions. It is appropriately serious, though its only real conclusion is to commit to direct action for communist chiliasm. What the movie doesn’t have is counterpoint. Nobody in it asks the basic questions. Is it a historical fact, as Debord claimed, that “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation”? If so, is that a mere Platonic alienation of indirectness, or Marx’s alienation of the labourer separated by economic force from the fruits of their own labour, or is it the heavy artillery: Gramsci’s all-pervading, contourless, unprovable colonization?

Much is made of Debord’s phrase, “the empire of modern passivity”, but alternative reasons for passivity are not mentioned. Jyoti Mistry, one of the experts, tells the story of how she was viewing the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, with her own eyes, but then went inside to watch the television coverage instead. She says that’s hard to explain, but it isn’t. The representation is materially safe, and therefore associated with safety. In the case of TV news, it is unidirectional, therefore undemanding, and therefore calming and passivizing. It is no more so in the USA than in the communist PRC. No Marxist framework is needed to understand those associations, or to understand the uncredited Schmidt’s worsening social anxiety in the absence of literal human contact. You don’t have to be a revolutionary communist to appreciate the film, and its discussions are all fun, but its viewpoint is narrowly specific and a little naīve.

moving picture same source material non-fiction