The Peculiar Unreality of Spectacle

Isn’t AI just a shoddy facsimile of authentic expertise that “serves the state and the media” in a new theater of Spectacle?


Longtime correspondent Zeus Y. recently shared this thought-provoking article:

Guy Debord’s Warning of ‘The Role of the Expert:’
A Philosophical Perspective on the Rise of Fact-Checking.

The article sheds light on the current phenomenon of fact-checking and reliance on “experts” by referencing French philosopher Guy Debord’s 1967 book,

The Society of the Spectacle
. (This is a PDF of the entire text.)

Here are some insightful excerpts from the article:

“Because spectacle replaces real life with a mere mediated representation of life that cannot be experienced directly, it provides a framework where mass deceptions and lies can consistently and convincingly appear as true.

It has recreated our society without community, and it has obstructed the ability to communicate in general. Such processes and their ramifications ultimately mean people cannot truly experience life for themselves: they have become spectators, bound to an impoverished state of unlife.

In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord explains that the economy subjugating society first presented itself as an ‘obvious degradation of being into having,’ where human fulfilment was no longer attained through what one was, but instead only through what one had. As society’s capitulation to the economy accelerated, the decline from being into having shifted ‘from having into appearing.’

With respect to knowledge, therefore, experts no longer have to be experts or have expertise, they only need to take on the appearance of expertise.”

Here is how Debord described his 1967 book in his 1988 follow-up work,

Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

“In 1967, in a book entitled The Society of the Spectacle, I showed what the modern spectacle was already in essence: the autocratic reign of the market economy which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty, and the totality of new techniques of government which accompanied this reign.”

In my view, Debord is laying out a way to understand how society has become subsumed by economic forces, specifically neoliberal markets.

This arrangement manages the populace by turning everything into a spectacle which in Debord’s view is not “real life,” it’s a representation that we passively accept without understanding how it transforms our identity and social relations from “being” to “having,” i.e. consuming and owning stuff that is a representation of who we are and our role in society.

This representation is managed by technocratic expertise–the source of “fact-checking.”.

What we refer to as propaganda, marketing and narrative are for Debord all aspects of spectacle.

Spectacle as a simulation or facsimile of “real life” speaks to a profound alienation: we passively watch spectacle and take that passive consumption as “real life” without understanding it’s all managed to maintain the dominance of those benefitting from the neoliberal economic arrangement.

This echoes many related ideas (for example, The Matrix films), the post-modern view of simulacra being passed off as the authentic “real thing,” and Marx’s concept of alienation in which the worker has been disconnected (alienated) from the product/value of their labor.

The core idea here is that Spectacle is inauthentic, a simulacrum or facsimile of reality, a substitution of representation for substance, that creates a peculiar unreality.

The entire appeal of social media can be seen as personalizing Spectacle, as we each gain audience and influence by making ourselves and our lives into unreal representations, i.e. spectacles.

Here are some illuminating excerpts from Dubord:

Debord: “All experts serve the state and the media and only in that way do they achieve their status. Every expert follows his master, for all former possibilities for independence have been gradually reduced to nil by present society’s mode of organisation. The most useful expert, of course, is the one who can lie.”

Debord: “The vague feeling that there has been a rapid invasion which has forced people to lead their lives in an entirely different way is now widespread; but this is experienced rather like some inexplicable change in the climate, or in some other natural equilibrium, a change faced with which ignorance knows only that it has nothing to say.”

This reminds me of a comment French writer Michel Houellebecq made in an interview: “I have the impression of being caught up in a network of complicated, minute, stupid rules, and I have the impression of being herded towards a uniform kind of happiness, toward a kind of happiness that doesn’t really make me happy.”

This strikes me as an apt description of “spectacle as faux reality.”

I am not sure this reliance on spectacle to create a peculiar unreality is solely modern.

If we think of late Rome’s extravagant spectacles–staged battles in the Coliseum, chariot races, etc.–they were representations of a Roman power that was no longer real.

In the real world, Rome’s power flowed from its vast importation of wheat from North Africa, its lucrative trade with the Mideast and India, its silver mines in Spain and its well-trained and provisioned legions.

Once these decayed or collapsed, the spectacles in Rome were no longer manifestations of power, they were mere representations of a power that was rapidly dissolving in the world beyond Rome.

Those within the bubble of Rome had no grasp of the tenuous instability of the Empire beyond the city walls.

As a final thought, consider how AI is being presented as automated expertise. But isn’t AI just a shoddy facsimile of authentic expertise that “serves the state and the media” in a new theater of Spectacle?


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