The Roots of Inauthenticity Within the Society of the Spectacle

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"Empires live by numbness. Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness in tact". - Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination


In my recent piece On Death Awareness and the Holy Moment- Fragments, I mentioned the philosopher Martin Heidegger's view that our inability to confront our inevitable death was a key source of inauthenticty in our time. After I wrote that piece I came across John David Ebert's new video series on Heidegger's Being and Time, and in Part 8 Ebert unpacks Heidegger's discussion of the many modes of inauthenticity in the modern period. As usual Ebert makes a very difficult text quite accessible, and I thought it was worth an extended meditation on here, both as an addition to the Death Awareness post and as a topic worthy on its own.

When I read Heidegger on the topic of inauthenticity huge parts of the society around me, parts that I Ostrich-man-head-in-sandpreviously took for granted as "the way it is", were revealed as anything but. Inauthentic living, with which our post/modern culture overflows, is the proverbial ostrich head in the sand. But we live in a time of profound transition, and in a civilization that some say is dying but in denial about it, and the turning away won't be possible much longer. To confront and understand our inauthenticity is to start thawing the numbness, to break the spell of business as usual, and to open possibilities for a new future.

Before turning to the video I want to offer two more layers of context that I think help to understand why inauthenticity is so rampant in our time. The first is this death denial that permeates our culture, as outlined in the post on death awareness. The second closely related and intertwined context is a lack of metanarratives or overarching cultural meaning in the postmodern period. I wrote about this in a post called Fear and Trembling Under the Open Sky- Sloterdijk on the Postmodern Condition, which also drew off a video by John David Ebert. Those two posts aren't necessary to engage the video here on inauthencitity, but if the three are put together I believe the loose contours of an active cultural matrix begin to appear.

A quick note for those new to Heidegger- the word Dasein, which Ebert will be using repeatedly, is Heidegger's term for a human being. It's a German word that literally means "being there", and it's an attempt by Heidegger to evoke a certain existential 'being-in-the-world' that is central to the experience of humans. Much more could be said about that, but since the word in not defined in this particular video, I thought I should point that out.




"We are caged by our cultural programming. Culture is a mass hallucination, and when you step outside the mass hallucination you see it for what it's worth". - Terence McKenna

There's lots that could be said about the contents of Heidegger's analysis of inauthenticity, but I want to pick up on one point in particular, that of spectacle, which is not a word Heidegger specifically uses but I think Ebert is spot on in evoking it. It's worth considering how our popular culture- represented in all those celebrity filled magazines at the check-out counter- might act as a massive space of diversion, a place where we can displace and dispel so much of our nervous fear and anxiety, and fill the void SOSof our underlying meaninglessness. One of the most famous investigations/critiques of this dimension of modern mass society is Guy Debord's 1967 text The Society of the Spectacle. (There's a decent 15 min. Big Ideas podcast on the Debord's book here). I want to quickly look at two theses that appear early on in the book:

[3] The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated- and precisely for that reason- this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.

[4] The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

According to Debord, we think that when we're talking about Tom and Katie, or the Kardashians, or the latest movie, that we're creating connection and community, but what we're really doing is interacting via an external and mediated sphere not of our own making. As much as it feels like a village of old, it's really "generalized separation", a culture not engaged in its own world making but simply making commentary on a constructed world for us to consume from afar. Our social relationships with others are mediated via this mass spectacle, that is, we do not interact with others directly through creating a world of our own, but interact only through the spectacle as we gossip and chatter with one another about pop occupyfoodculture, sports, passing fads, fabricated political theater and other glitzy productions of the phantasmagoric Other.

Now let's recap bringing in some of the other threads in this post. Generally speaking we're racked by death fear in our cultures that lack meaning, but because this is massively uncomfortable to confront we push it away into shadow and retreat into modes of inauthenticity. The mass produced society of the spectacle gives us an enormous but shallow playground within which to divert ourselves and our anxious energy, and as a result, as Debord says in thesis 1, "all that was directly lived has become mere representation".

We can add one more key axis to this story- consumer society and the manipulation of desire. The society of the spectacle has also developed ever more sophisticated ways to stoke our desires, our fears and our anxieties, and to sell us products that will temporarily relieve us of all this internal tension. There's a great BBC documentary film on this subject called The Century of the Self, which I really recommend watching if you haven't seen it already. Part 1 (of 3) covers this particular territory and draws attention to Edward Bernays, a historically very interesting figure who was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and who applied Freud's theories of desire and the unconscious to mass marketing and public relations (1). Not only was modern mass society full of fear and inauthenticity, this was being both stoked and preyed upon via new sophisticated understandings of the human mind. Here's a short 2 minute introduction to that series, but the whole first part can be watched here.



Lastly for this post, I want to offer the voice of Chris Hedges on the topic of the spectacle, as Hedges wrote an excellent (and punishing) book in 2010 called Empire of Illusion- The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Here's a ten minute interview with Hedges talking about the book. The interview ends on a moment of hope, and I want to offer one here too, as taking in all the information in this post can send us off into a sea of despair if we're not careful. The thing is, what breaks the spell of all this illusion and inauthenticity and numbness is simply our willingness to face into the wind and do so. There are so many movements today that have broken through this barrier and are actively trying to create a new society and a new future. Despite the dark material in this post it's also part of that exodus out of exile, and this site is largely dedicated to that project too. What Charles Eisenstein has called "the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible" awaits, and in my view is inbreaking ever so slowly but gaining speed. May the great thaw continue.



"Consciousness of desire and the desire for consciousness together and indissolubly constitute that project which in its negative form has as its goal the abolition of classes and the direct possession by the workers of every aspect of their activity. The opposite of this project is the society of the spectacle, where the commodity contemplates itself in a world of its own making". Society of the Spectacle, Thesis 53




(1) “Much as Freud had revolutionized the way the world thought about individual behavior, so Bernays was able to transform attitudes toward group action. He used his uncle’s ideas in the commercial realm to predict, then adjust, the way people believed and behaved. Never mind that they didn’t realize it. In fact, all the better. And just as Freud was rewarded with the title Father of Psychoanalysis, so Bernays became known around the world as the Father of Public Relations. The techniques he developed fast became staples of political campaigns and of image-making in general”. Tye, Larry. The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998. p.ix.

Also Debord, Society of the Spectacle, thesis 51- "Replacing that [economic necessity of earlier societies] by the necessity of boundless economic development can only mean replacing the satisfaction of primary human needs, now met in the most summary manner, by a ceaseless manufacture of pseudo-needs, all of which comes down to one- namely, the pseudo-need for the reign of an autonomous economy to continue".

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  • Comment Link James Barrow Thursday, 08 November 2012 20:23 posted by James Barrow

    Trevor, this is great stuff. The fear of death and the increasing diversions we now have in our culture, hell yeah.

    I love this:
    "The thing is, what breaks the spell of all this illusion and inauthenticity and numbness is simply our willingness to face into the wind and do so. There are so many movements today that have broken through this barrier and are actively trying to create a new society and a new future."

    My heart leaps when I see or hear any song, movie, speech, event that breaks this barrier. It's like I can smell it a mile off, like my heart is absolutely craving for it. And so when that breakthrough does happens it has all the more impact for me.

    Did you know that one of the central themes to Danny Boyle's opening Ceremony at the London Olympics was "mortality"? Apparently that's what he told the choreographer who came up with this amazing piece:

    And also that the very last piece of music heard that night was Pink Floyd's Eclipse from Dark Side Of The Moon, the last line of which is "..and everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon..." According to Roger Waters on this album the moon represents "the death force". I'm pretty sure Boyle took it that way too as he placed it right at the end of the most watched TV event in recent times. Now that's what I call culturally shining a light on what we normally fear to look at!

    I saw The Century Of The Self a few years back and it totally blew me away. Should be shown in all schools! Edward Bernays has a lot to answer for.

    Bringing your wider cultural observations back to a personal scale, I nearly died in a car crash in 2010 and that changes one's perspective somewhat! One way that I partly "processed" it after the event was I found myself compelled for about 6 months to learn to play by heart the incredibly sad but beautiful piano music from Aranofsky's movie The Fountain, called Together We Will Live Forever:

    You probably know this movie but check out this nice compliation of scenes espcially around 4min.25sec when Hugh Jackman starts to get to grips with his mortality:

    Come to think of it, there is a correlation of visual motifs and colours between Khan's Olympic dance piece and Aranofsky's imagery in The Fountain.

    Thanks for this great piece Trevor.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 10 November 2012 01:06 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    James, love all the riffs and resources, thanks. I especially love this:

    "My heart leaps when I see or hear any song, movie, speech, event that breaks this barrier. It's like I can smell it a mile off, like my heart is absolutely craving for it. And so when that breakthrough does happens it has all the more impact for me".

    I totally experience this too, and your comment reminded me of Bruce Sanguin's article on God as the Future. Here's a passage from the end of that piece:

    "Is it not legitimate to speak, not just of historical causality, but also future causality—the future causing us to act in a new way now in response to a promise of something better? We’re not simply determined by the past, but also by an alluring promise of the future. God is in that promise of the future, as much as God is in the past and the present. Theologian, Paul Tillich, defined faith as willingness to be “apprehended by the future”".

    I think we are craving something, at least I feel that anyway. I like Eisenstein's sort of secular rephrasing of it as "the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible". Helps to get it out of the Biblical language, which carries a lot baggage for many, although I think it's interesting to see how central this experience was to the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. I think the experience is real, however we want to phrase it or frame it. I heard Eisenstein also say at a workshop that "something is wanting to be born on this Earth". I was like fuck ya, I totally agree and feel that pregnancy too. It's actually pretty painful sometimes. Actually a lot painful. But there are breakthroughs, and those are beautiful.

    However, that future world, whatever it is, won't in my estimation be born if we don't look at our fears, into the dark parts of our existence. If not, as Heidegger says, our energies get dissipated away from living authentically and in line with our purpose. So thanks for being willing and able to walk with that material here James, cheers.

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Saturday, 10 November 2012 18:03 posted by David MacLeod

    Good stuff Trevor!
    In regards to spectacle, I'm reminded again of Hakim Bey's arts manifesto "Immediatism" [audio here: and text here:]



    All experience is mediated—by the mechanisms of sense perception, mentation, language, etc.—& certainly all art consists of some further mediation of experience.


    However, mediation takes place by degrees. Some experiences (smell, taste, sexual pleasure, etc.) are less mediated than others (reading a book, looking through a telescope, listening to a record). Some media, especially “live” arts such as dance, theater, musical or bardic performance, are less mediated than others such as TV, CDs, Virtual Reality. Even among the media usually called “media,” some are more & others are less mediated, according to the intensity of imaginative participation they demand. Print & radio demand more of the imagination, film less, TV even less, VR the least of all—so far.


    For art, the intervention of Capital always signals a further degree of mediation. To say that art is commodified is to say that a mediation, or standing-in-between, has occurred, & that this betweenness amounts to a split, & that this split amounts to “alienation.” Improv music played by friends at home is less “alienated” than music played “live” at the Met, or music played through media (whether PBS or MTV or Walkman). In fact, an argument could be made that music distributed free or at cost on cassette via mail is LESS alienated than live music played at some huge We Are The World spectacle or Las Vegas niteclub, even though the latter is live music played to a live audience (or at least so it appears), while the former is recorded music consumed by distant & even anonymous listeners.


    The tendency of Hi Tech, & the tendency of Late Capitalism, both impel the arts farther & farther into extreme forms of mediation. Both widen the gulf between the production & consumption of art , with a corresponding increase in “alienation.” "

    Also in relation to spectacle, I thought the best review of the recent U.S. presidential debates was a short radio piece on NPR by culture critic Bob Mondello, who referred to the debates as "Whitehouse Idol."

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 14 November 2012 00:24 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    thanks David. I love the Hakim Bey, I really need to spend some more time with his work.

    I think the biggest thing that's popped forth for me while sitting with this passage for a couple of days, is a further sense of what it means to be mediated- to not be a creator of much of our own world. His musical examples are interesting. This struck me- "Improv music played by friends at home is less “alienated” than music played “live” at the Met." It reminded me of kitchen music parties on the East coast of Canada, or Pete Seeger who is always getting the audience to sing along. Again, what's dawning on me more and more is how the society of the spectacle is so much an external one, not of our own making. It strikes me that what's next culturally will be something much more grounded in the hands on production of culture, probably local to a large extent. And of course many currents are already moving in that direction, such as the permaculture field you take part in, resilient communities, the food movement, and so on.

    I would add that Stephen Jenkinson, the Griefwalker who was featured in my Death Awareness post, is also teaching people how to "make a village". This is part of what this long mediated period has erased from our memory and capacity:

    Ian MacKenzie, building off of Jenkinson's work a bit, argued in a recent post that much of the power that people felt while participating in Occupy was this lost village aspect:

    He writes:

    "The truth is apparent in watching The Occupation. As the participants struggle with the police, and each other, let alone the issues of environmental degradation, income inequality, and the erosion of democracy, you can feel the desire to hold on to a felt experience so mysterious, and so beautiful, it defies explanation.

    Here’s what I think it is: the memory of the village.

    We remembered, for a flicker, the feeling of actually having to depend on each other. Of actually caring for each other, and the willingness to work for each other. To build our homes, to share in our sadness, to stand together in adversity".

    A return to a more participatory culture would also fill much of the void of meaning in the post/modern condition too, so would take a huge crack out the rampant fear and anxiety that the SOTS feeds off of. And, on another note, as I'm sure it's not lost on you (seeing as you posted a passage by Bey), but it would seem predictable that anarchist political thought and organizational ideas will get a huge new hearing in the coming era. I'm certainly starting to pick up those readings myself, but it makes sense given the organizational forms that village-esque, networked local living will take. (there's many schools of anarchist thought of course, but I'd guess a general upsurge in interest is in store).

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Wednesday, 14 November 2012 19:30 posted by David MacLeod


    Yes, I think a return to a more participatory culture is a cure for so many of our ailments, and your connecting of this mindset to perma - culture is spot on. This is what permaculture means to me - the discovery that we need to participate more directly and more consciously in the production aspects of society, rather than seeing our roles as that of spectator/consumer.

    Permaculture is not a set of gardening techniques. However, when we root ourselves in principles that stem from effective ecological design, we see that these principles can be effectively applied to all quadrants...hence integral permaculture.

    In the arts, I think that partially due to energy depletion we will find it difficult to support professional artists on the scale that we are currently used to, and performers will not be as mobile. The positive will be a more localized arts scene, and more egalitarian/non-professional participation. Neighborhood house concerts that you can get to by walking or bicycle, and many other creative ways of being convivial will flourish.

    I don't consider myself an anarchist, but I do think it's important to keep perspectives like Hakim Bey's close at hand. The Temporary Autonimous Zones can be very important in some situations, and perhaps more so if the future some people are seeing (more fascism) continues to manifest.

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