The Triumph of Spectacle

Chris Hedges on GritTV: How did such a sizeable portion of modern society develop into a post-literate, fantasy-fueled, perma-reality show?  Noted reporter Chris Hedges speaks to the wonderful Laura Flanders about his new book: The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

4 thoughts on “The Triumph of Spectacle”

  1. What Hedges is talking about-although he doesn’t seem to realise it-is Silent Weapons.

    The study of predictive programming by elites is not greatly enhanced by Hedges latest effort.

    Those interested in doing real research on the topic that goes beyond evaluating reality tv and wrestling would be better off reading William Cooper’s Behold A Pale Horse or visiting Alan Watt’s

    Cooper predicted 9/11 on his radio show and died months later in suspicious circumstances.His Pale Horse book contains the anonymous Silent Weapons For Silent Wars document (Chapter One)that will tell you far more about the collective illusions promoted by elites to which Hedges only refers superficially.

    Analytical terms like “Spectacle” and “Literacy” have been misappropriated here in the title of the Hedges book.The former was the analytic tool used by Guy Debord in his book Society of the Spectacle to describe false-flag terrorist events engineered by Gladio stay-behind operatives in Italy and elsewhere in the 1970s.

    Debord’s ideas were extended by Gianfranco Sanguinetti in a path-breaking essay called On Terrorism and the State.

    All these researchers have extended our knowledge of the lengths to which elites are prepared to go in order to manipulate the masses.

    The Silent Weapons piece is at

  2. Hedges’ failure to acknowledge the earlier analyses of French Situationists like Debord and their application of the concept of “the spectacle” is a mark of just how under-theorised his new book is.

    Debord himself complained that other writers used the concept carelessly by focussing merely on its surface manifestations (in Hedges it’s the entertainment industry) while remaining steadfastly reticent about providing the necessary and enabling economic and historical judgements required by readers in a revolutionary situation.Led by Debord the Situationists helped ignite the wildcat activism and strikes in Paris in 1968.

    Given that Hedges has evidently made it his vocation to describe the symptoms of America’s descent into cultural twilight,anomie and incipient economic collapse he would do well to more thoroughly consider key concepts (commodity fetishism and reification are two obviously relevant examples) previous writers have brought to their analyses of the revolutionary situations obtaining at the time they were writing.

    Likewise without reference to historical parallels Hedges,as one reviewer puts it,is creating more heat than light and everything he describes “is seething and crumbling in the Big Now”.This heat may sell books but just how far Hedges wishes to extend his mission to describe the symptoms of the invasive elite conquest of all our lives now approaching its climax is far from clear.

    Given that we are the victims of the aforesaid conquest it would be helpful to be enlightened as to just what is the purpose of the conquest and how precisely it is advancing.

    Debord noted wryly that Le Monde in 1987 found it rather droll that while it was obvious that all advanced industrial countries had succumbed to the society of the spectacle he had theorised the vast army of commentators discussing the phenomenon usually (like Hedges today)-to deplore it-had to sacrifice themselves to it in order to become known!

    Unlike Naomi Klein,who to her credit remains acutely aware of the degree to which her ground-breaking book No Logo is implicated in the relations of commodity fetishism she describes (see the book cover for confirmation),Hedges appears oblivious to the idea this is the fate of any cultural work that draws its lifeblood from the anxiety about late capitalism shared by the author and the readers.

    Inescapably,as Debord understood,the empty debate on the spectacle-“that is on the activities of the world’s owners”-is organized by the spectacle itself!

    In recognition of the prolific advance of elite control he detected in the advance of the society of the spectacle by the late 1980s Debord refined his thesis further with the concept of the “unified spectacular” which he believed by then to have superceded the “concentrated” and “diffuse” forms of spectacular power that characterised the Soviet and Us forms of elite domination respectively.

    By this time,as he put it,”the becoming-world of falsification was also the falsification of the world.Beyond a still important heritage of old buildings and old books,but destined to continued reduction and moreover,increasingly selected and put into perspective according to the spectacle’s requirements,there remains nothing,in culture or in nature,that has not been transformed and polluted,according to the needs and interests of modern industry.Even genetics has become readily accessible to the dominant social forces.

    The government of the spectacle,which now possesses all the means to falsify the whole of production and perception,is the master of memories just as it is the unfettered master of projects that will shape the most distant future.”

    In his uncompromising theoretical analysis with obvious relevance to the aforementioned use to which it was put by fellow situationist,Sanguinetti in his account of false-flag terrorism,Debord identified five features of the integrated spectacular.

    Three that seem especially relevant today include the tendencies towards generalized secrecy,forgeries without reply and perpetual present.

    Elites now create history and the forgeries of which Debord wrote form the texture of our daily diet of media disinformation-re-9/11 and 7/7 for example.
    Debord understood that the first priority of spectacular domination was to make historical knowledge disappear.

    Without more rigorous economic and historical cross-referencing books like Hedges’ play into the spectacle’s agenda.Such works are thereby implicated in the moral and spiritual degeneration they describe.

    1. I just finished reading Hedges’ ‘Empire of Illusion’ and until the last page I was anticipating some reference to Debord’s 1967 ‘Society of the Spectacle’ or 1988 ‘Comments on the Society of the Spectacle’. As Freeborn and others have noted there was none. I was sure I had missed it and checked the index but no. I cannot help but think that this is an intentional omission rather than a lack of familiarity
      with Debord. Hedges obviously owes a debt to Debord, given that his area of inquiry is spectacle and illusion in US society and economy, how could one not familiarize oneself with the single most important theorist of these concepts? It is obvious that Hedge’s was familiar. Hedges’ central formulation: that the culture of illusion facilitated the transformation of the US from a producing society to a consuming society is much too close to Debord’s analysis of the transformation of function of the worker in spectacular capitalism from the source of labor value to role as a consumer ( see thesis 41 Further similarities to Debord abound in Hedges analysis, from the role of the threat of terrorism as a foil for the curtailing of civil liberties, to the the discussion of the function journalists in the US ‘culture of illusion’.

      But There is a stark lack of reference to Marxist theorists in Hedge’s work which is made more glaring by the fact that it is at base a critique of US capitalism. I take this lack of theoretical depth as an intentional omission aimed at increasing the public appeal & polemic value of the work at the expense of intellectual rigor and theoretical value. Hedges does quote Marx, but very sparingly and references to less politically objectionable theorists abound: he quotes Adorno, Karl Polyani ( who would be objectionable were he better known), and Benjamin but there is a tendency towards very superficial engagement with text. The quote from Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus logico-philosophicus’ is case and point. Hedges says, “They ( the intellectual elite) have been rendered mute and ineffectual. ‘What we cannot speak about’ , Wittgenstein warned, ‘we must pass over in silence'”. This quote is hilariously inappropriate; Here, Wittgenstein is talking about the limits of language at the end of a very dense book( the only one published in his lifetime and one that founded the logical positivism school of philosophy) wherein he claimed to have solved all philosophical problems. Wittgenstein is not talking about morally bankrupt education system; his words have no import to and make no sense in this context but to give Hedges’ book the superficial appearance of greater theoretical depth.

      Hedges’ book would be more useful if, instead of grasping at theoretical grounding where there is none, he had drawn from the very deep well of work on late capitalist political economy. It would serve to introduce readers to other authors who have been theorizing capitalism and its spectacular form, it would acknowledge the existence of and point readers towards political movements that have existed and still exist in opposition to the spectacular order of late capitalism. All this said, I enjoyed ‘Empire of Illusion’, I’m glad Hedges wrote it, I hope lots of people read it and do something nice for a neighbor, stop shopping for useless crap and stop watching pornography/professional wrestling.

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