In one of his most influential works, The Society of the Spectacle and Other Essays, Guy Debord develops a concept of ‘spectacle’ which refers to the domination of media images in a consumerist society where the ‘affirmation of appearances’ helps in controlling the individuals and obscuring the effects of capitalism. The ‘spectacle’ in an urban economy is a unifying tool for homogenisation and massification of a commodity culture, produced through media-tised images across cultures. It helps in producing alienated and depoliticised masses, by constantly creating a series of fetishised disposable images such as advertising images on billboards, within print and electronic media, which lures the individuals towards the mechanisms of consumption, entertainment and leisure. This ‘thingification’ and ‘objectification’ of social relations and products through the consumption of images led individuals to turn into spectators of a constructed reality. It will be important to note that the rise of communication revolution, mass production of urbanised landscapes and culture industry (speedy dissemination of news and entertainment) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played a crucial role in producing spectacles for the consumerist society. In such industrialised societies, people, rather than directly relating to each other, developed relations and even an understanding of the self, through mediated commodities¹. Lived experiences are replaced by mediatised images and passive gazes. This ‘commodity fetishism’, as Marx called it, attributes ‘life’ to things, even though we know they do not have it².
In the middle of the nineteen century, the development of new forms of photography (or photographic industry) such as portraiture, the production of carte-de-visites and picture postcards, as ‘mediatised images’ along with the sharp rise of middle class and commodity culture played a vital role in deriving a sense of relation among social classes, who were eager for the consumption of ‘symbolic objects’ for upward mobility. Fashionable style statements, dramatic studio set-ups and photographic gestures within a photograph became ways to display one’s bourgeoisie status or aspirations. Along with self-fashioning, this new urban economy also allowed individuals to accumulate spectacular or picturesque visuals of desired public figures, exotic lands and royals, creating a sense of one’s location within the world around. Not only this, the emergence of half-tones plates in photography in 1880s, chromolithography and the mass publication, circulation, of newspapers and magazines, by the second industrial revolution, recast the entire economy of image production³. By the late nineteen century, political figures, revolutionary icons and royals, all exploited this new craze for the accumulation of visuals and ‘visibility’ through portraits within the newly found spectacular economy of images.
With the ascent of real-time communication networks, advertising and the entertainment industry, the twentieth century saw a ubiquitous production of ‘celebrity personalities’. As political and cultural changes took place within the newly emerged nations in the new century, aristocrats gave way to national figures, cultural icons and entertainers. By the 1930s, the advent of consumer societies, film industries, print media and later the machinery of broadcasting, produced individual personalities which played out the fantasy, desires and aspirations of the masses within the public sphere. Illustrated weeklies, magazines and tabloids, regularly publishing personal stories, film gossip and love scandals along with phantasmagoric visuals of the leading movie actors, sports players and political icons, became commonplace and found mass audiences. Tabloid sensationalism and melodramatic spectacles became the new genre of the news industry which pushed the limits of photojournalism and documentary claims of press photography. In fact, to regularly appear within tabloids, magazines and commodity advertisements became one of the marketing strategies of the ‘stars’ to climb popularity charts. Leading stars endorsing commodities through promotional products or appearing often within advertisements was the other way of maintaining public appearances and to remain within the public memory. Film studios also very frequently produced carefully packed star imagery through promotional lobby cards, posters, film advertisements and stills for publicity purposes. Skilled photographers, artists, stylists and marketing managers were deployed to produce styles of portraiture infused with glamour, to create ‘stardom’. By the second half of the twentieth century, photography and its various genres played a pivotal role and were well established within the news industry to create dramatic war visuals, in the entertainment industry to create fantasised glossy visuals of star icons or in the advertising industry to generate fetishised consumerist images. Soon radio and prime-time television became new essential forms of mass media culture and communicating means, creating culture of dominant transitory images, celebrity hosts and guests along with political and cultural spectacles.
As the twentieth century progressed and moved towards advanced capitalism, commodity culture through visual advertisements and marketing materials created endless spectacles which mediate our understanding of everyday ‘reality’. According to Guy Debord, mass media such as photography, print, television, billboards, films were used by the corporate ventures to create a ‘false consciousness’ and a vast inaccessible ‘objectified reality’ which can never be transgressed. The commodification of the photograph through various means in the late nineteenth and twentieth century points towards the crucial role photography played in creating the ‘society of spectacle’.
- Nicholas Mirzoeff, An introduction to visual culture, Second Edition, Routledge Press, 2009.
- Ibid (pg114)
- John Tagg, The Burden of Represenation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1999.