Paris: Car crash / the society of the spectacle

The society of the spectacle
The society of the spectacle

I heard the sound of the car crash sometime before I saw the vehicles involved. I was very surprised to hear such a sound because the street in which the crash happened did not lend itself to road traffic accidents. I decided not to go and look because a host of people had hurried to the scene; in addition, the sound of sirens signalled the arrival of the emergency services; I did not want to get in their way.

After a while, as I made my way home, I passed the crash site. A police officer was still securing the scene. I was struck by the sheer amount of damage that had been done to the three cars involved in the crash. Since I’ve been making a documentary on Paris I thought I might take a photograph – and this I did. The police officer noticed that I was taking a photo and immediately became furious with me. He shouted: ‘This is not a spectacle’ and then he used the French equivalent of telling me to ‘F**k off’. This I did. (Incidentally, I thought he might well seize my camera and smash it to pieces. It’s probably wise, in France, not to embete a police officer. They aren’t like their UK counterparts.)

But the police officer’s remark ‘This is not a spectacle’ is interesting. Whilst I think he was right to criticise the idea of the car crash as ‘spectacle’ he does draw attention to the fact that we are living in what the brilliant radical sociologist Guy Debord called ‘the society of the spectacle’. We are super-saturated with images. I think they have turned the world into a show, a ‘spectacle’ – a ceaseless presentation of visual tit-bits served up for our entertainment. More importantly, as Debord says, this ‘image world’ hinders or diminishes critical thought. (An image doesn’t tell a thousand words: rather, as Susan Sontag noted, an image has edges but the real world does not.)


Guy Debord published his text ‘The society of the spectacle’ in 1967. In this work he says that “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” He is referring to the central importance of the image in contemporary society. Images, he says, have supplanted genuine human interaction.

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