You emphasize the fact that this society of the spectacle challenges the noble meaning of culture. I agree with you in that respect. I’m going to permit myself to develop this point a little because I believe it goes in the direction you’re focusing on. What was noble culture, high culture, for the Moderns? Culture represented the new absolute. As the Moderns began to develop scientific and democratic society, the German Romantics created a form of religion through art, whose mission was to contribute what neither religion nor science were providing, because science simply describes things. Art became something sacred. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the poet – and artists in general – were those who showed the way, who said what religion was saying earlier.
When we observe what culture is in the world of consumption, in the world of the spectacle – what you aptly call the “civilization of the spectacle” – is precisely the collapse of that Romantic model. Culture becomes a unit of consumption. We’re no longer waiting for culture to change life, change the world, as Rimbaud thought. That was the task of the poets, such as Baudelaire, who rejected the world of the utilitarian. They believed that high culture was what could change man, change life. Today, nobody can possibly believe that high culture is going to change the world. In fact, on that score it’s the society of entertainment, of the spectacle, that’s won. What we expect from culture is entertainment, a slightly elevated form of amusement; but what changes life today is basically capitalism, technology. And culture turns out to be the crowning glory of all this.
To a certain extent we share a strictly negative vision of this civilization of the spectacle and of consumer society in general. However over the years I’ve also tried to demonstrate its positive potential, despite everything. Seen from the traditional model of culture, the negative aspect is undeniably greater. But life is not only culture. Life is also politics – for us, democracy – our relationships with others, our relationship with ourselves, with our bodies, with pleasure and with many other elements. On that level, we may say that the society of the spectacle, consumer society, has massified behaviour patterns, has given a greater degree of autonomy to the individual. Why? Because it has meant the collapse of mega-discourses, the grand political ideologies that confined individuals within a tight set of rules, and has replaced them with leisure, with cultural hedonism. By and large, people no longer want to submit to authority: they want to be happy and to seek that happiness with all the means at their disposal. Hedonistic, consumer society has allowed these lifestyles to proliferate. Television, for example, has been a sort of graveyard for high culture, but it has also provided people with other references and opened up new horizons: it enables individuals to make comparisons. On that level, the society of the spectacle has enabled individuals to become autonomous, creating a kind of society à la carte in which people construct their own lifestyles.
I think this is an important aspect, because societies in which the spectacle dominates are generally consensual societies founded on the democratic contract. Today, social struggles no longer end in a bloodbath and in all these places the figure of the dictator has been rejected. In that sense, I think, the society of the spectacle has permitted democracies to live in a less tragic, less schizophrenic way than before. Yet this has not entirely liberated us from the two basic features – the two great vices – of the modern age: revolution and nationalism. Nationalisms exist wherever the society of the spectacle prevails, but they’re not bloody, and revolution – the great epic of Marxism, the great eschatological revolutionary hope – no longer counts many faithful followers. Remembering what nationalisms and revolutions have meant for the twentieth century enables us to avoid apocalyptic readings of the society of the spectacle, although we might continue to be critical of it.