The Age of the Spectacle

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Is this the real world or is it fantasy?

Glowing billboards. ‘Reality’ television. Instagram influencers. Golden yellow arches crowding large city centers. Fake bodies, fake personalities, fake plastic trees.

Flooded with information, memes and seductive advertisements.

McDonalds – I Am Lovin’ it.  Nike- Just Do It. Coca-Cola – Taste the Difference. Apple – Think Different.

Manufactured desires. Manufactured appearances.

Passive spectators. Passive consumers.

Welcome to the age of the spectacle. A world of carefully crafted images and illusions. Fiction becomes reality and the ‘real world’ becomes undesirable.

In modern societies do we think of ourselves as ‘humans’ or mere ‘consumers’? We see an endless stream of advertisements persuading us to buy more and more stuff Source

Even prior to the advent of the internet and social media, French theorist Guy Debord recognized modern societies obsession with appearances and images. In his seminal book The Society of the Spectacle, Debord critiques consumerism and the advent of mass media and marketing which came to dominate our day to day lives beginning in the latter half of the 20st century.

He tracks the evolution of social relations from being into having and subsequently from having into appearing.

  1. Being into Having: This transformation represents a shift in human relations where the focus is not one’s character or temperament (ie. who one is), but rather what they own. Their social status and stuff that they have.  
  2. Having into Appearing: A second shift occurs in modern societies when prestige and recognition becomes dominated by the world of images and appearance. That is, the representation of a thing or event take’s precedence over one’s own direct experience in the moment. Images and appearances are now of paramount importance. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach summarizes this concept nicely,

…the present age… prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence… truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.

Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

Amongst the numerous examples of this phenomenon, the most obvious of course is the addictive social media apps we all know and love. Every minute of our lives comes to be meticulously recorded, carefully crafted, edited and posted online.

Satisfaction in one’s life does not come from our direct experience with the world, but rather from the likes, comments and shares we get from our pictures and videos. Think of those who go to concerts only to watch the whole show though the screen on their smartphones.  

A copy of a copy – Image Source

The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The spectacle shapes and influences our desires, goals and aspirations. It tells us who we are and who we ought to become. If only I could look like the athlete from the latest edition of Sports Illustrated with his toned body, big smile and perfect lifestyle. We think to ourselves, “perhaps if I purchase a BMW I will become as attractive, sleek and confident as that man in the commercials.”

Further, the spectacle affects how we think of personal, romantic and professional relationships. We desire for our dating experience to be as dreamy as those couples from The Bachelor or our marriages to exemplify our favourite romantic film.

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Happiness can be bought, one purchase at a time. Image Source

Ultimately, all these endless spectacles and advertisements we see on a daily basis distort reality, and hinder our ability to think critically about issues. We become alienated from ourselves and to others as everything becomes a commodity. It becomes increasingly difficult to live in the world authentically when corporations and their marketing departments shape our interests, beliefs and consumption habits.

The spectacle permeates not just through seductive marketing campaigns, but also has become the norm in our ‘news’ media and politics. Entertainment, viewership and attention becomes more important than genuine policy discussions or analysis.

Recall in the movie Gladiator, how the Emperor Commodus used the gladiator games to distract the public of the various crises across the Roman Empire. This strategy of entertainment and diversion has not changed much from the past, we just have more sophisticated means of distracting the population.

The spectacle prevails.

Are you not entertained?

The political theater that we’ve all become exhausted from isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon per say, but it is just far more apparent with our current crop of politicians. Further, it becomes amplified with the range of digital technologies now available to everyone.

Humanities fascination with the world of images, illusions and representations has been well documented throughout history by philosophers, most notably in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. Just like the prisoners fixated on the shadows, we ourselves have become detached from the ‘real world’ ,and our direct observable experiences with our endless digital distractions.

As technology advances, will we continue to become mere spectators in this world of images or can we cultivate the wisdom and self-awareness to break free from our chains?

To pull the plug and leave The Matrix , turn away from the spectacle and embrace the ordinary.

To love and cherish the one world we have.  

Plato’s cave in the 21st century, Image Source

When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for hypnotic behavior.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

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Coca-Cola – Saving the world one healthy beverage at a time
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A Life of Virtue Turns One: Some Thoughts About the Current Crisis

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When I started this blog a year ago, I didn’t really have a clear idea on what direction it would go or how it would evolve.

I was inspired by thinkers and organizations who were applying philosophical ideas to the many issues we face in our modern societies. This led me down the rabbit hole to discover channels such as Alain De Botton’s School of Life, Rebel Wisdom as well as John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series.

It is exciting to see communities emerging like The Stoa who facilitate dialogues with a wide range of unique thinkers and practitioners trying to make sense of an increasingly complex world.

A World in Peril

We live in strange times.

Very strange times.

There is a general skepticism, made particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, that our social, economic and political institutions are not well suited to deal with many of the issues that we face in the 21st century.

Some have questioned if the current path we are on as a society is desirable or even sustainable.

Do we have the right ‘tool kit’ and systems in place to deal with the many global problems and existential threats we face?

To name a few: 

As a society it seems like we are running faster and faster into the future without a clear direction of where we are going.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

In a highly competitive globalized environment that prioritizes status and consumption, short-term thinking takes precedence. We lose sight of the consequences of our actions that extend past our limited horizon.

These issues are compounded by our broken information ecosystem in which it is getting more and more difficult to have consensus on basic facts. Reality thus becomes filtered down to us through politicized news media or our personalized social media feeds.

We are forced to ask, who is truly looking out for our best interests?

The Need for Philosophy in the Modern Age

In times of deep uncertainty, philosophical inquiry can be used to help us understand some of the problems we face as a society more deeply.

It may not provide concrete solutions or answers, but it does force us to slow down and think.

Ideas matter. They are like the glasses we wear to interpret the world around us.

This is why critical thinking is so important. In an age of information overload and false information, we can turn to the ancient wisdom of Socrates.

Socrates famously said “I know one thing – that I know nothing.” This idea, coined as Socratic ignorance, helps us resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or conform to the popular beliefs of the time. Socrates asks us to rigorously question and examine our beliefs, compare and contrast different viewpoints and engage in honest good faith dialogue with others.

This is how we find truth and cultivate wisdom.

The American sociologist and education scholar Peter W. Cookson Jr. argues that this type of multidimensional and critical thinking is needed to address many of the interconnected crises we face in the 21st century. He notes that our education systems should be transformed to promote interdisciplinary learning rather than teaching subjects in rigid silos or compartments. The industrial education model of memorization, conformity and standardized testing in no longer sufficient for the modern era.

Rather flexibility, creativity and the ability to look at problems from multiple different angles should be prioritized. In sum, we need to learn how to navigate through complexity.

As the challenges facing the globe become increasingly complex, our frames of reference must be flexible, expansive, and adaptive …

By looking at a challenge from multiple points of view, we are more likely to arrive at a realistic, effective solution.

What Would Socrates Say?
Peter W. Cookson Jr. , Educational Leadership
Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

The Role of the Individual and the Need to Look Inward

The future ahead may seem daunting.

We may be inclined to cling our existing beliefs, support a certain political ideology or be attached to our personal grand narrative of how society must change.

Technical or political solutions may be necessary, but we should first do our own homework. Look inwards and take ownership and responsibility of our lives first. Examine your own beliefs and biases, and prioritize the truth rather than the desire to be ‘right’.

As the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire noted, we must first “cultivate one’s own garden.”

Only then can we learn to be a proactive rather than reactive.

Robert Pirsig eloquently reflects on this idea in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  

Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert Pirsig

 Going forward in this next year in the blog, I hope to continue to explore how philosophy can be a useful tool in fostering critical self-reflection and helping us make sense of a seemingly chaotic world.  

I aspire to work towards the virtue of humility, to be open to new ideas and perspectives. To be able to examine my own belief systems and change my mind on an issue if the evidence requires me to do so.

Thank all for following the blog, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the content.

Here’s to another year of writing and philosophical inquiry.

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To Be Human

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Below is a poem I wrote on embracing the human condition, and all the beauty and terror that comes with it.


Humans such fragile beings
A desire to be heard
A desire to be seen

A vast longing to be loved and understood

Driven by ambitions and lofty goals
Riddled by confusion and anxiety

Grasping, clinging for any sort of certainty
Building great towers to protect our vulnerable egos

Prepare we may, prepare we can
But Nature will not cede to our demands

Where will you take shelter from the storm?
Where will you go when the flood rolls in?

Flow with the current of life
Dance with danger, tango with terror

What else can we do but love our difficulties
Keep them near, let them change you for they are dear

Beware of those who seek refuge in digital utopias
Seduced by the grand illusions of fame and fortune

Ignore the screens, those cold machines
With perfect bodies, perfect smiles, perfect lives and perfect teeth

What is a human but a flawed being in search of transcendence?

We can still embrace and overcome
We can rise above rough waters and high tides

We can still be human – after all

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