In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord explores the explosion of mass communication technologies to argue that alienation has entered a second stage of development. Where the first is objects standing in for humans, the second is images standing in for both (17).
Debord (1, 4) argues that everything directly lived is now experienced through representations, the consequence being we relate to other humans through images—dead representations of lives once lived. The spectacle becomes the basis of our connection to others, a social relation mediated by images. The insidiousness of the spectacle is that it (re)presents a unified, autonomous world, whilst, in actuality, (re)producing a fragmented, solitary one (2-3). Time spent at work is time wasted; time spent in leisure is time for ourselves; activity is negated for inactivity, as if it were an ontological given to despise labour, rather than a historical consequence of capitalism and its alienating work conditions (10, 27). This identification of life with inactivity and leisure, however, is inextricably linked to production. While the spectacle presents itself as free time, it is produced only through labour time—dispossession in the sphere of production, presented back in the sphere of consumption as universal possession (the global village, nationhood, etc) (27, 31). The greater our productive output, the greater our exclusion from it (31).
Debord (26) builds on Marx’s theory of alienation by arguing that capitalism, in separating the proletariat from their labour product, generates a communicative gap between producer and product. The proletariat is unable to comprehend their place and purpose in the world. This is the condition of alienation—a feeling of being pulled and pushed by forces unknown. Debord argues that the spectacle takes this one step further by extending this communicative gap into all of society. Assailed by one-directional messages, the spectacle allows for no dialogue, and therefore, no conscious engagement with what is consumed; as such, dialogue also begins to mirror the spectacle and lack conscious engagement. Representations come to resemble the real, and the real comes to resemble representations (8).
Why is the spectacle so convincing? Because it grants a fantasy of wholeness through visual techniques associated with objectivity. The ocularcentrism of western philosophy and science is replicated through the camera image, elevating the ideal (representation) over the material (sensation) in affirmation of an already decided upon status quo that one cannot reply to (5-6, 12, 15, 18-19). The ultimate effect of the spectacle is the reification of ruling class ideology—the constitution of the status quo as objectively neutral and good (12, 14, 24).