Spectacle - Society of the Spectacle

RELATED TERMS: Everyday; Alienation; Situationist International; Historical materialism - Marxism; Critical Theory; Avant-Garde Movements; Alienation effect - Verfremdungseffekt

A critical, creative and reflexive practice of narrative environment design could benefit from an understanding of the issues raised by Guy Debord in his book, Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967. It is a manifesto of 221 theses on capitalist culture in France in the two decades since the end of World War Two (WW2) in 1945 until the mid-1960s.

Developed from Marx’s theories of reification and alienation, Debord defines the spectacle as a passive, individualistic, quasi-visual relation to the social world. The individual, divorced from the collective praxis that constructs the social world, is reduced to consuming corporate-supplied entrancing narratives.

Kaplan (2012) suggests that this critique, while valuable in offering a salient, potentially illuminating, description of people’s increasingly commodity-saturated, mass-mediated, image-dominated and corporate-constructed world, with all its conspicuous irrationalities, is nonetheless flawed. Its most serious defect, Kaplan argues, is Debord’s rejection of the necessary intermediation of social life by culture and communication. His analysis assumes a notion of mass society, in which people are culturally denuded, divorced from community and thereby subject to the imposition of false needs.

Against the profound alienation of post-WW2 capitalism, Debord opposes the utopian vision of a communist society of transparent, direct human action and community. One must choose either revolutionary socialism or prolong continued acquiesce to barbarism, Debord argues. Both the alienated masses and the revolutionary collective, however, Kaplan suggests, depend implicitly on the framework of liberal individualism, which abstracts individuals from the cultural traditions and social relations in which they are embedded.


Kaplan, R.L. (2012). Between mass society and revolutionary praxis: the contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 15 (4), 457–478. Available from [Accessed 10 August 2012].