“Spectacle and Spectator: Ways of Seeing and Being Seen” was a recent conference organized by the UCLA Graduate Students Association of the Department of French and Francophone Studies and the Department of French and Francophone Studies. The conference’s keynote speaker was Professor Jean-Marie Apostolidès, Stanford University, whose October 12, 2012, talk was titled “Are We a Society of the Spectacle?”
Apostolidès explained how he has a critical view—what he called a “love-hate relationship”—with Guy Debord, whose theories on consumerism and spectacle have been an important part of Apostolidès’s work. The society of the spectacle, Apostolidès said, started in the 1920s with the rise of advertising; mass media and consumerism have taken over genuine human interaction in the decades since. In his 1967 book on the topic, Debord posited that life has been replaced with its representation via the central position of images in modern life. He defined “spectacle” as a system of consumer culture, commodity fetishism, and mass media.
Apostolidès pointed out how patriarchy is a key part of the society of the spectacle’s global construction, and how 1968 saw the “symbolic destruction” of patriarchy (symbolic because the two World Wars killed off “the idea of the father”). In his own country, Apostolidès said, accepting French collaboration during WWII helped end the influence of parents and patriarchy. As a result, younger people in France came into power, which the older generation gave up because they knew the accusations were true.
After 1968, new technology developed, digitizing the modern world. This new technological society permitted everything to be transformed into images. (Apostolidès added that money, despite being an image, wasn’t included in this change, as it became magnetic—and therefore invisible—through credit cards and other means.) Relevant to the new society was Marx’s idea of use value vs. exchange value: images allow the use value in the contemporary world, while money permits everything to be transformed into exchange value. Apostolidès mentioned the films La jetée and Vertigo as examples of worlds where it’s impossible to distinguish between image and reality; similarly, he said, one cannot separate “actors”—the bourgeois class—and spectacle, and they are both essential parts of the society of the spectacle. (Here Apostolidès joked that he is like Moses, trying to lead the way to a society without spectacle, which he will never see.)
A major element of today’s society of the spectacle is the image of ourselves created by what people say about us online. Apostolidès calls this image the “mediatic ego,” and said that it is important, for example, when finding a job: employers search online for job applicants’ online presence. He described the mediatic ego as being “someone who bears my name and is not me, yet it is me, and [it] affects me finding a job or sexual partner.” The mediatic ego is bigger than the real self, and the problem therein is how to balance the two. Apostolidès also pointed out that in the past only some people (actors, etc.) had public images, whereas in today’s world most people do, to some extent, due to technology advances.
Apostolidès also discussed how film has played a role in the society of the spectacle. He argued that actors have been portrayed differently, and had a different impact, over the last hundred years: the “idol” of the silent era—Garbo, Brooks—who created a goddess-like ideal of femininity; the “star” of the years between WWI and WWII—Bardot, Monroe, Crawford—who created a “circulation” between young people, giving them an image to copy in order to create a personal self; and the “negator” of today—Huppert, Kidman—who are no longer stars. Apostolidès claimed that modern actors are unable to play things that are unlike themselves, contributing to a society of representation. Additionally, theater has undergone huge transformations recently: theatricality is no longer as obvious as it used to be. Apostolidès said that actors today often dialogue with the audience, and that many plays transform into a monologue with the audience. He distinguished between traditional theater, with personages and auditions that use Shakespeare passages, and modern theater, with actors playing characters similar to themselves and auditions of original monologues.
As for whether the society of the spectacle will last, Apostolidès said it depends. If we are at the beginning of a new kind of civilization, it might last for centuries to come. This generation is, Apostolidès said, between the influence of parents and whatever will come next. The next several generations will certainly be transformative, and technology may ultimately decide future changes.