7 May 2023
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Black & Red, 1970.
Originally published in French in 1967.
The Society of the Spectacle is a philosophical work that investigates the role of the media, technology, and consumer culture in the modern world. Debord theorizes that contemporary society is dominated by a "spectacle," which is a form of mediated experience that replaces true social interaction with images, media, and advertising. These elements, he argues, become more important than actual human experience. In this way, by reducing everything to a commodity, the spectacle creates a sense of alienation between people and their own lives and ultimately leads to a loss of freedom and individuality. Debord says that individuals can escape the alienation and oppression of the spectacle only through radical social change. Interestingly, much of this seems particularly relevant today given the popular current reliance on social media and phone apps.
How does this relate to scenography and theatrical design instruction?
There are a few ways in which The Society of the Spectacle relates to contemporary theatrical design. Debord's conclusion that mediated experience has replaced genuine social interaction can be seen as relevant to today's theater which often relies on video projections, special effects, and other technologies to create immersive and visually stunning environments, thereby enhancing the stage space. However, some might argue that these elements can distract from the core human experience of theater, and that there is a need to maintain a balance between technology and genuine human interaction on stage. (See William Ball’s categorization of spectacle in A Sense of Direction.) In this sense, Debord's ideas are a call to re-evaluate the use of technology in contemporary theatrical design, and to prioritize simple spaces charged with human experience over fancy effects. Similarly relevant is Debord's idea that the commercialization of theatrical experience creates successful productions that appeal to mass audiences but inevitably lead to the homogenization of theatrical content, including stage environments. Also, Debord's challenge to theater practitioners to create work that is more socially and politically engaged extends to the appearance and use of the physical stage space. Lastly, Debord's interest in authentic human interaction can be seen as a call to create theater that is rooted in genuine human experience and that connects audiences with the real emotions, ideas, and experiences on stage and the environments which contain it.
For theatrical design students, The Society of the Spectacle is relevant in many ways. Firstly, it encourages them to critically examine the role of technology and media in contemporary theater, and to consider how these elements can be used in a way that is both effective and socially responsible. Also, it encourages students to think about the commercial pressures that can influence theatrical production, and to consider how they can create work that is culturally, socially, politically and emotionally engaged. Finally, Debord's call for radical social change can encourage students to think about how their work as designers can contribute to broader social and political movements that seek to challenge dominant cultural values and promote more equitable societies.
In summary, Debord's ideas are an invitation to design students to consider the role of technology and commercialization in theater design and how they want to be a part of it.