Society of the Spectacle in Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics

What follows are thematic notes from my readings in preparing my masters thesis. The quotes are from the English translation (2002).

Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is seen by many as a punctuation mark in the history of avant-garde art movements. Bourriaud states the following:


The supreme “separation,” the separation that affects relational channels, represents the final stage in the transformation to the “Soceity of the Spectacle” as described by Guy Debord. This is a society where human relations are no longer “directly experienced,” but start to become blurred in their “spectacular” representation. [….] Contrary to what Debord thought, for all he saw in the art world was a reservoir of examples of what had to be tangibly “achieved” in day-to-day life, artistic praxis appears these days to be a rich loam for social experiments, like a space partly protected from the uniformity of behavioral patterns.  (9)

Chapter 1 Relational Form

The 20th century was thus the arena for a struggle between two visions of the world: a modest, rationalist conception, hailing form the 18th century, and a philosophy of spontaneity and liberation through the irrational (Dada, Surrealism, the Situationists), both of which were opposed to authoritarian and utilitarian forces eager to gauge human relations and subjugate people. (12)

CHAPTER 2 “Art of the 1990s”

[T]he emergence of new technologies, like the Internet and multimedia systems, points to a collective desire to create new areas of conviviality and introduce new types of transaction with regard to the cultural object. The “society of spectacle” is thus followed by the society of extras, where everyone finds the illusion of interactive democracy in more or less truncated channels of communication…. (26)

The constitution of convivial relations has been an historical constant since the 1960s. The generation of the 1990s took up this set of issues, though it had been relieved of the matter of the definition of art, so pivotal in the 1960s and 1970s. The issue no longer resides in broadening the boundaries of art, but in experiencing art’s capacities of resistance within the overall social arena. Based on one and the same family of activities, two radically different sets of problems emerge: yesterday, the stress laid on relations inside the art world, within a modernist culture attaching great importance to the “new” and calling for linguistic subversion; today, the emphasis put on external relations as part of an eclectic culture where the artwork stands up to the mill of the “Society of the Spectacle.” Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies, any stance that is “directly” critical of society is futile, if based on the illusion of a marginality that is nowadays impossible, not to say regressive. (30-1)

Chapter 6 “Towards a policy of forms”

The Situationist “constructed situation” concept is intended to replace artistic representation by the experimental realization of artistic energy in everyday settings. (84)

[T]he spectacle deals first and foremost with forms of human relations (it is “a social relationship between people, with imagery as the go-between”), it can only be analyzed and fought through the production of new types of relationships between people. (85)

The idea of the “situation” extends the unity of time, place, and action, in a theatre that does not necessarily involve a relationship with the Other [….] The constructed situation does not necessarily correspond to a relational world, formulated on the basis of exchange. (85)

What Debord identifies, possibly wrongly, with the inter-human exchange are the capitalist forms of exchange. These forms of exchange stem from the “meeting” between the accumulation of capital (the employer) and the available work force (the employee-worker), in the form of a contract. (85)

The work that forms a “relational world,” and a social interstice, updates Situationism and reconciles it, as far as possible, with the art world. (85)


Society of extras
The society of the spectacle has been defined by Guy Debord as the historical moment when merchandise achieved “the total occupation of social life,” capital having reached “such a degree of accumulation” that it was turned into imagery. Today, we are in the further stage of spectacular development: the individual has shifted form a passive and purely repetitive status to the minimum activity dictated by market forces. So television consumption is shrinking in favor of video games; thus the spectacular hierarchy encourages “empty monads,” i.e. programless models and politicians; thus everyone sees themselves summoned  to be famous for fifteen minutes, using a TV game, street poll, or news item as go-between. This is the reign of “Infamous Man,” whom Michel Foucault defined as the anonymous and “ordinary” individual suddenly put in the glare of media spotlights. Here we are summoned to turn into extras of the spectacle, having been regarded as its consumers. [….] So, after the consumer society, we can see the dawning of the society of extras where the individual develops as a part-time stand-in for freedom, signer and sealer of the public place. (113)


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