The Society of the Spectacle
“Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself only insofar as it exists in and for another self-consciousness; that is, it exists only by being recognized.”
—Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit
Ideology is the intellectual basis of class societies within the conflictual course of history. Ideological expressions have never been pure fictions; they represent a distorted consciousness of realities, and as such they have been real factors that have in turn produced real distorting effects. This interconnection is intensified with the advent of the spectacle — the materialization of ideology brought about by the concrete success of an autonomized system of economic production — which virtually identifies social reality with an ideology that has remolded all reality in its own image.
Once ideology — the abstract will to universality and the illusion associated with that will — is legitimized by the universal abstraction and the effective dictatorship of illusion that prevail in modern society, it is no longer a voluntaristic struggle of the fragmentary, but its triumph. At that point, ideological pretensions take on a sort of flat, positivistic precision: they no longer represent historical choices, they are assertions of undeniable facts. In such a context, the particular names of ideologies tend to disappear. The specifically ideological forms of system-supporting labor are reduced to an “epistemological base” that is itself presumed to be beyond ideology. Materialized ideology has no name, just as it has no formulatable historical agenda. Which is another way of saying that the history of different ideologies is over.
Ideology, whose whole internal logic led toward what Mannheim calls “total ideology” — the despotism of a fragment imposing itself as pseudo-knowledge of a frozen totality, as a totalitarian worldview — has reached its culmination in the immobilized spectacle of nonhistory. Its culmination is also its dissolution into society as a whole. When that society itself is concretely dissolved, ideology — the final irrationality standing in the way of historical life — must also disappear.
The spectacle is the epitome of ideology because in its plenitude it exposes and manifests the essence of all ideological systems: the impoverishment, enslavement and negation of real life. The spectacle is the material “expression of the separation and estrangement between man and man.” The “new power of deception” concentrated in it is based on the production system in which “as the quantity of objects increases, so does the realm of alien powers to which man is subjected.” This is the supreme stage of an expansion that has turned need against life. “The need for money is thus the true need produced by the modern economic system, and it is the only need which the latter produces” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). Hegel’s characterization of money as “the life of what is dead, moving within itself” (Jenenser Realphilosophie) has now been extended by the spectacle to all social life.
In contrast to the project outlined in the “Theses on Feuerbach” (the realization of philosophy in a praxis transcending the opposition between idealism and materialism), the spectacle preserves the ideological features of both materialism and idealism, imposing them in the pseudo-concreteness of its universe. The contemplative aspect of the old materialism, which conceives the world as representation and not as activity — and which ultimately idealizes matter — is fulfilled in the spectacle, where concrete things are automatic masters of social life. Conversely, the dreamed activity of idealism is also fulfilled in the spectacle, through the technical mediation of signs and signals — which ultimately materialize an abstract ideal.
The parallel between ideology and schizophrenia demonstrated in Gabel’s False Consciousness should be considered in the context of this economic materialization of ideology. Society has become what ideology already was. The fracturing of practice and the antidialectical false consciousness that results from that fracturing are imposed at every moment of everyday life subjected to the spectacle — a subjection that systematically destroys the “faculty of encounter” and replaces it with a social hallucination: a false consciousness of encounter, an “illusion of encounter.” In a society where no one can any longer be recognized by others, each individual becomes incapable of recognizing his own reality. Ideology is at home; separation has built its own world.
“In clinical accounts of schizophrenia,” says Gabel, “the deterioration of the dialectic of totality (with dissociation as its extreme form) and the deterioration of the dialectic of becoming (with catatonia as its extreme form) seem closely interrelated.” Imprisoned in a flattened universe bounded by the screen of the spectacle, behind which his own life has been exiled, the spectator’s consciousness no longer knows anyone but the fictitious interlocutors who subject him to a one-way monologue about their commodities and the politics of their commodities. The spectacle as a whole is his “mirror sign,” presenting illusory escapes from a universal autism.
The spectacle, which obliterates the boundaries between self and world by crushing the self besieged by the presence/absence of the world, also obliterates the boundaries between true and false by repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. Individuals who passively accept their subjection to an alien everyday reality are thus driven toward a madness that reacts to that fate by resorting to illusory magical techniques. The essence of this pseudo-response to an unanswerable communication is the acceptance and consumption of commodities. The consumer’s compulsion to imitate is a truly infantile need, conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession. As Gabel puts it in describing a quite different level of pathology, “the abnormal need for representation here makes up for a torturing feeling of being on the edge of existence.”
In contrast to the logic of false consciousness, which cannot truly know itself, the search for critical truth about the spectacle must also be a true critique. It must struggle in practice among the irreconcilable enemies of the spectacle, and admit that it is nothing without them. By rushing into sordid reformist compromises or pseudo-revolutionary collective actions, those driven by an abstract desire for immediate effectiveness are in reality obeying the ruling laws of thought, adopting a perspective that can see nothing but the latest news. In this way delirium reappears within the camp that claims to be opposing it. A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must know how to wait.
The self-emancipation of our time is an emancipation from the material bases of inverted truth. This “historic mission of establishing truth in the world” can be carried out neither by the isolated individual nor by atomized and manipulated masses, but only and always by the class that is able to dissolve all classes by reducing all power to the de-alienating form of realized democracy — to councils in which practical theory verifies itself and surveys its own actions. Only there are individuals “directly linked to world history” — there where dialogue has armed itself to impose its own conditions.