Every year in my Contemporary Art class, I guide my students through a 1960s manifesto called Society of the Spectacle. Written by the angsty, art-adjacent theorist Guy Debord, it captures the philosophical energies informing contemporary fine art in a pithy and memorable way.
Debord’s central thesis (informed by Marxist thought) is this: that modern society has devolved over time from being, to having, to appearing. For Debord, “being” was a state of natural integration and dignity. “Having,” its successor, was a capitalist state of wealth accumulation (and stuff accumulation) that sought power and pleasure by artificial means. “Appearing,” finally, was a state of total performance. It was like “having,” but only the semblance of it. It projected an image without any substance to back it up. And sadly, for Debord, our shallow and image-obsessed post-modern society has made “appearing” the only thing that matters. It is this condition of trapped-on-the-surface emptiness that many critics saw exposed in Pop Art icons like Andy Warhol’s Marilyns or the preening, comic-book melodramas of Roy Lichtenstein. Debord gave intellectual heft to the Pop artists’ intuitions.
As you can imagine, my students find Debord’s writings highly relatable. Though Debord died (of suicide) in 1994, he clearly foresaw the social media jungle. It was just such an ephemeral marketplace of images, in fact, that he dubbed “The Spectacle” in 1967.
Like many academics, I divide my time among far-flung places. In the summer, I spend weeks or even months in small-town “flyover” territory, hanging with family or road tripping. Sometimes I visit other countries to do research or attend conferences. I also teach a study abroad program in Rome, Italy.
And what I increasingly feel, as I absorb more places, is that Debord does not speak equally well to everyone. The Spectacle does not explain every visual economy.
I spent a month in small-town Indiana this summer. (As I do most summers.) And in small-town Indiana (except among teenagers), people are notably indifferent to physical appearance. Obvious cosmetics and impractical hairstyles are rare. Clothing can take on the expressive quality and predictability of a uniform. Nobody makes any effort to experiment or “stand out.” When I was in my twenties, I judged this “drab” and predictable approach to self-adornment, finding it shoddy and complacent.
But now I realize that “small-town fashion” can be explained as a healthy absence of Spectacle. People know you for what you do, not for what you look like.
There is no need to “signal,” self-categorize, or “perform” when everyone around you has known you since childhood. There’s no point in appearing younger, richer, or more “hip” than you are because everyone knows the truth. Aggressive tattoos and spiky hair will not make you intimidating to people who saw your gawky teen years. Cosmetic surgeries will not change the estimations of people who know your “real” face. There can be something stifling about this, of course: familiarity can breed contempt, and sometimes older family members won’t let you transcend the awkward kid fixed in their memories. (Maybe this is why Jesus said, “a prophet is never recognized in his hometown.”1) But in these deeply-rooted spaces, there’s also a refreshing lack of vanity. Spectacle—putting on a social “costume”—is reserved for Halloween, prom, weddings, and vacations to Myrtle Beach.
However, in the high-flux boomtown of Seattle where I live—where 70 percent of adult residents are non-natives—real life meets social “costume” in a sustained and consequential way. This city, like many others, is big enough and fast-moving enough that many personal encounters are simultaneously one-and-dones (you’ll never see them again) and crucial for living. On a daily basis, you have to quickly size up strangers—and live in the awareness that they are sizing you up, too.
Who is the man at the park near your kids? Does he look trustworthy? How do you impress the random suit at the job interview? How do you ingratiate yourself with those strange faces at the block party? How do you get “in” with the realtor fielding multiple bids in the exclusive neighborhood? How should you approach the wealthy PTA leaders at your kids’ big, urban school? Should you introduce yourself to that couple who (you think) are members of that elite social club? These encounters are brief, but they can have big ramifications. It can feel essential to inhabit a “stereotype”—a pleasing one, in order to get ahead. And this, indeed, is the practical use of the “Spectacle”: it engineers powerful first impressions in a world without deep relationships. It is ersatz community.
Spectacle even extends to cardboard. A small-towner by birth, I have scoffed at the seemingly universal need in Seattle, for preachy, brightly-colored yard signs. But when you don’t know your neighbors, it makes sense to fall back on the assurances of Spectacle: quickly digested, unmistakable, loud, shiny and “up to date.”
What would Jesus think about all this?
First of all, I imagine He would remind us that everything we do should be ordered toward the glory of God. Full stop.
I think next, He might remind us how malformed our hearts truly are, and how easily we list toward—are magnetized toward—lesser goods. When does a yearning to appear well—to make a good spectacle—become an idol?
We humans, He might remind us, are amazingly good at self-deception. We can almost fool ourselves that our self-promotion is really done for the good, that is, “for God.”
I think Jesus might also tell us not to be ashamed of the gospel. Yet how often are Christians in big, secular cities—especially educated, “intellectual” Christians—actually suffused with shame, allowing it to deeply affect their actions? It used to be that “smart” Christians had to worry about looking “irrational” or “superstitious.” Now they have to worry about looking “fascist” and “bigoted.”
I think Jesus might ask us if we have integrity: if our secret hearts and our outer selves line up.
He might ask us if we see other people as images of Christ and not as objects of manipulation.
He might ask us if our internally loud and cynical calculations, always seeking advantage, are drowning out the voice of the Holy Spirit.
I’m not at ease in a big city that sizes people up quickly and mercilessly with a low level of trust and a high level of judgment.
Neither, though, am I at ease in the unchanging grip of a kinship that can trap one in the amber of their twelve-year-old self.
The Spectacle, illusory as it is, does make space for reinvention that can lead to revelation. Isn’t that what the Cinderella story is largely about? Fabulous ballgowns + a fresh new setting = the True Self Made Manifest!
In the end, though, the big, high-flux city can be soul-killing. The Spectacle is not a place where one can live; it should be reserved for “festival” times, when one can experiment and dream. I think all of us need long, deep relationships that make “costumes” unnecessary. But I also think we need the flexibility to understand that people develop, and that our received categories might not explain everything.
I think, sometimes, that when Adam and Eve donned the fig leaves, they must have done it because a light left them. They had lost an intrinsic incandescence (a sort of “being,” to use Debord’s term), and they thought fig leaves could mask the cause or even make the darkness seem an aesthetic choice. Later, God affirmed their instinct to cover. In their weakened state, they needed protection, and perhaps even something to signal (in the manner of “appearing”) that they were works-in-progress—newly insufficient to their circumstances and destiny.
The Spectacle, at its least pernicious, is like those fig leaves, or better, like the Post-Edenic animal skins Adam and Eve later wore. For like animal skins, the Spectacle makes use of violence as it protects and adorns. In the Spectacle, as in post-Edenic life, things natural and primal must be subdued – maybe even killed! – and then shaped into something else to provide advantage. The compromises and maddening complexities feel unavoidable.
But what will it be like, in the end, when the inner light returns forever?
How will we shine, unashamed, in the sea of glass, kindled by spirits of fire?