“All life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” writes Guy Debord in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle. “Everything that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” In the theses that follow, Debord offers a revolutionary critique of contemporary capitalist society, a striking vision of a world reduced to the superficiality of images.

For Debord, the concept of the spectacle “unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena.” And today, in an era of so-called “post-truth,” a hyperreal, liquid modernity in which, as Marx once presciently wrote, “all that is solid melts into air,” the spectacle represents an enduringly valuable concept through which to interpret capitalist society. We live in an age saturated by social media, in which “selfies” hold more weight than actual lived experience, where our lives (both real and virtual) are dominated by advertisements at every turn. Images in urban environments mediate and commodify our social relations on a daily basis, while the 24-hour news cycle helps reduce “knowledge” to a series of vapid, sporadic flashing images. It is within such a context that The Society of the Spectacle finds its real relevance.

The book has stirred considerable controversy and debate. Michel Foucault, for one, insists that modern society is, in fact, “the exact reverse of the spectacle.” For him, “our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance.” Meanwhile, Jean Baudrillard builds upon the work, suggesting that the concept of spectacle has been superseded by a new, dystopian regime of simulation. And Sadie Plant shows how many of the ideas of the Situationist International, of which Debord was a member, have come to influence ideas of the postmodern, but in ways which mark a certain political “break.” The work has, arguably, been drained of its fundamental radical qualities, co-opted by the mainstream and repackaged as benign rhetorical theory. In The Society of the Spectacle, as Debord predicts himself, the concept might be reduced to “just another empty formula of sociologico-political rhetoric.”

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of its publication, this two-day symposium, as part of CECC’s annual Fieldwork meeting, will explore the impact and legacy of this pivotal work. In what sense does the spectacle unify or explain the contemporary world? How do individuals and communities produce, confront or challenge spectacle on a daily basis? How relevant is Debord’s spectacle thesis in a rapidly changing contemporary cultural and political landscape? This symposium welcomes contributors to address current local and global concerns through Debord’s ideas, from the increased influence of digital media, the portrayal of refugees and the risk of ecological disaster to gender performativity, urban development and nationalist discourse. We invite academic colleagues, artists and thinkers of all stripes, from Lisbon and beyond, to come together on November 23-24 and join us in a spectacular retrospective of this landmark text in political and cultural theory.

This symposium is free to attend.