In the late 1960s, French theorist Guy Debord wrote the essay “The Society of the Spectacle” within an impending era of mass consumption that would eventually dominate modern society. Debord critiques and addresses the consumer fetishization that had taken hold of the masses and capitalism’s ceaseless efforts to commodify culture. In 1974, he released an accompanying film featuring a collage of advertisements, newsreels, and feature films set against himself reading quotes from his text and deliberate misquoting of seminal Marxist thinkers.
Over 50 years later, and 28 years since his death, artist Roxy Farhat and director Göran Hugo Olsson have adapted the text to discuss the society Debord accurately described in a new film of the same name. Farhat plays a host who leads discussions with scholars to unpack Debord’s theses as they apply to the dystopian nightmare of our hyper-digital age. Advertisements, news footage, and depictions of vapid cyberspace are interwoven between the discussions.
There is a frank quality throughout the film that directly criticizes the artificiality of our society. Much of that criticism has to do with social media’s commodification of images and how these images have driven much of our construction of society. In the movie, filmmaker Jyoti Mistry says that images don’t dictate her worldview, but a lot of what she knows is from the media saturation she’s been exposed to all her life. Mistry states, “The contractual relationship in terms of how we understand race, class, access, sexuality; all of that has actually been given to us through a set of mediated images.”
The May 68 protests in France aimed to overthrow the ruling class and end the people’s oppression. But half a century later, the inequalities have only become starker. One particular note comes from scholar Frida Beckman as she describes how the Situationist International, an avant-garde leftist group founded by Debord, would have found the commodification of revolutionary slogans deeply problematic. Consider how ubiquitous Che Guevara’s face has become in clothing and pop art, as it becomes increasingly divorced from his revolutionary intentions.
Farhat and Olsson’s dynamic 90-minute piece is deeply personal to the self without ever addressing the individual. The Society of the Spectacle (2023) reminds us that if you want to join the revolution, you must look within the self first. At the film’s start, Farhat tells the viewers that at any point, they may “liberate themselves from themselves,” likely a jab at how film viewers often juggle between various distractions outside of the film.
Today’s abundance of injustice plays out through various lenses (i.e. social injustice, racial discrimination, religious persecution, and cultural genocide.) Yet Debord, Farhat, Olsson, and the accompanying scholars they engage with maintain that aspiration for a cultural revolution is possible when “the individual stops being an individual.”