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There Is The Dress and Only The Dress

Guy Debord ruins a perfectly nice if ubiquitous meme.

by Ben Richmond
Feb 27 2015, 6:25pm

I was working from home this week, which is to say I was alone, when the internet rose as one to watch llamas and then debate what color the dress was. Also the FCC voted to reclassify broadband as a utility or something, which registered as a distant third.

It was the best day on the internet ever; I was cheerfully a part of it, but it was also an unfortunate day to crack open a copy of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, which I also did.

But trying to read Society of the Spectacle while sometimes checking my Twitter feed, while it was almost exclusively an on-going debate about the color of a dress in a weirdly lit image, was a mistake. I see that now. There's so much I can't unsee.

I don't know how much the internet I read is like the internet that you read. So when I say that I don't see Debord referenced very often, even though the internet is full of Marxist critiques, I can't really say that he's being ignored. I just suspect that because Debord is writing in the late 20th century and talks about mass media culture, a concept that the internet is supposed to be chipping away at, his work seems less and less relevant.

"The concept of spectacle unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena"

The proof that this is happening is that I can only say, "I don't see Debord referenced very often." It's possible that there are huge Situationalist pockets on the internet talking about Debord constantly. If Rule 34 is to be believed, there's Guy Debord porn out there somewhere. But Marxist cultural critique is relevant as long as the general historical conditions that birthed it are intact (as Debord wrote in a preface to the third edition of Society of the Spectacle), and as culture moves from a mechanical age to a digital one, Walter Benjamin falls out of fashion; Adorno is tougher to read, and I assumed Debord was mostly on the outs too.

Then The Dress™ happened. "The concept of spectacle unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena," Debord wrote. He'll never know how right he was. Neither will I, because I couldn't get past the first chapter.

Even though Debord was writing about TV, newspapers and magazines, en route to explaining a class-wide false consciousness, it seemed like the only thing he was writing about was the mass media moment of "white and gold or black and blue." Here: follow along.

He opens: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."

Image: ​Wikipedia

Everyone says this about social media, which, apart from the occasional baby photo, is now optimized as a stream of links to regular media, like this one, that are fighting for your attention, because attention is capital; as Emma Stone in Birdman explained, attention is power. If you were going to describe social media, could you do better than "an immense accumulation of spectacles"? Remember: llamas.

Nathan Jurgenson wrote a piece about how this "real life v. digital life" duality is both not true and sort of harmful, which is important to keep in mind, but Debord isn't saying that the spectacle isn't real life. What it does is older than the internet.

"It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society," he writes. "In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption."

It must be Debord's fault for writing in vague little paragraph-long theses, and using the word "spectacle" a lot, which describes almost anything. Or maybe media is reflecting the media it's supposed to replace, because what else would it reflect? There sure are a lot of television bloggers, aren't there?

Debord's first chapter elliptically unpacks the concept of the spectacle, specifying its role, "as a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness."

When "all gazing and all consciousness" seemed to be debating and then explaining what color the same thing is… well. That was Twitter, where I watched everyone's wry jokes accumulate.

"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images," Debord writes.

The Dress™ wasn't just fascinating because the basic understanding of colors seemed to be breaking down. It was fascinating because it was everywhere. Before this is all over, it could be Buzzfeed's biggest post ever. Left Shark sucks in comparison.

What else is there is to say about The Dress™ that hasn't been said, or without falling into a preexisting internet cliché? "When analyzing the spectacle one speaks, to some extent, the language of the spectacular itself in the sense that one moves through the methodological terrain of the very society which expresses itself in the spectacle," I can only quote on the internet. "But the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught."

What The Dress™ reveals is that, at least as I use it, the internet is still very much "mass media." That's the connective tissue that makes it work, because otherwise, most of my internet friends and I (and most of my real-life friends and I) would have nothing to talk about.

"If the social needs of the epoch in which such [mass media] techniques are developed can only be satisfied through their mediation, if the administration of this society and all contact among men can no longer take place except through the intermediary of this power of instantaneous communication, it is because this 'communication' is essentially unilateral," says Debord.

It isn't the big three television stations, but as academic blogger and media critic Fredrick deBoer pointed out, the venues that dominate "the conversation" are all writing about the same thing: "news and politics and culture and sometimes sports." And they all basically have the same take (although deBoer says "Vice is a lot of the same stuff written by that guy you knew in high school who told you he did cocaine but seemed to only ever have that fake marijuana called Wizard Smoke you could buy at a gas station," which I realize is probably how this must sound) and they all basically have a The Dress™ story up right now.

It's not that The Dress™ doesn't make sense as an object of fascination. It's that we're witnessing the full potential of social media being realized—a single social experience shared by almost everyone through media—and it feels like it should prove something. Someone, somewhere is writing, probably at Slate, "What We Talk About When We Talk About the Dress," or "The Dress Proves TK," while the jackals of the rest of the internet are honing backlash pieces to that piece, because some websites exist to write about other websites, which is a perfect circle with no answer.

"The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends," Debord says. "It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory... In the spectacle, which is the image of the ruling economy, the goal is nothing, development everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself."

There is no why. There is only The Dress™. You are to some degree obliged to find it fascinating, but you are free to find it all exhausting.

Society of the Spectacle is a Marxist book, and thus goes on to talk about workers and economic conditions and false consciousness. Chapter III is called "The Proletariat as Subject and Representation," and much of the book concerns itself with time and compares advertising to religion. It is apparently the most prescient book ever written. It is mostly about how isolated we are. Did I mention I was working from home?

But I couldn't go on until The Dress™ was over, because it's a reductive reading, but it was also consuming my mind and maybe killing my attention span.

"The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep."

I crawled into bed, closed my eyes and wondered why I couldn't see black.​