The Society of the Spectacle, the Association of Surfing Professionals and Surfing Corporations

not soldI was recently reading Guy Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle (1967). Debord was a French Marxist artist, filmmaker, thinker and activist. I also regularly visit Swellnet, and saw that a new year of the Association of Surfing Professional’s tour is starting. The ASP Tour and Debord’s ideas were stirred together and got me to thinking about what it would be like to view the ASP tour and the corporations (surfing and otherwise) who attach themselves to it through the lens of Debord’s book.


By the phrase “Society of the Spectacle” Debord was commenting on how we are immersed in an endless sea of images by which our world becomes primarily orientated toward entertainment and consumption. Debord writes,

When the real world changes into simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior. The spectacle as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs; the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of the present day society .

Experience and everyday life are facilitated by the spectacle of a mediated culture that dramatizes social conflicts, celebrates dominant values, and projects particular hopes and fears (not necessarily ours but those we “should” have). For Debord, the spectacle is a tool for pacification and depoliticization in a capitalist society. The spectacle is what we are asked to focus on and it diverts our attention away from how capitalism actually involves separating workers from the products of their labor, art from life, and consumption from human need. We are encouraged to be nothing but consumers – an act of submission, conformity – in our case, surfing as submission and conformity.

But we have so much choice now! Surfing is “richer” because of this tour and the corporations! Look at the innovations and products they have given us! Look at the lives they has given us! We wouldn’t have this without them!

No, we would not have “this”. But think about what is also blocked from emerging. We would have otherwise – other and different surfing lives, more difference (participants, equipment, experiences, practices, values); not better or worse but simply different. Were the ancient Hawai’ian and Tahitian cultures of surfing worse because of an absence of the surfing tour and commercialization and the corporations? No.

The society of the spectacle focues on cultivating marketable difference. According to Debord this supposedly distract us from the full range of our human powers that are available through creative praxis, distract us from actively producing our own lives – our own surfing(S). There are other lives and other surfing(s), often unable to emerge or hidden because of the hegemony (the hegemony needn’t be the largest group but is, rather, the most influential). We are offered “choice” by the professional surfing tour and the corporations that attach themselves to it but it favours this marketable “difference” that can be materialized through a “new” commodity – this product is for “you” the “individual”, this product will make you surf like “this”, be like “this”, act like “this”, this product means you “belong”.

Back to Debord:

The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world.

Given this, it’s suggested that we are now “modulated” by marketing. As the philosopher Gilles Deleuze postulates in his 1990 essay Postcript on Societies of Control:

The sales department becomes a business’ center or “soul.” We’re told businesses have souls, which is surely the most terrifying news in the world. Marketing is now the instrument of social control and produces the arrogant breed who are our masters.

That modulation takes place with each click we make as we watch the surfing competition broadcast: our attention span, social media likes, online purchases, our commentary, all our online data are mined – there for market segmentation. We are not individuals but “dividuals” (Deleuze 1990). That is, digital translations of lived reality into searchable, networked, and usable data all instantaneously gathered to ensure the soul of capitalism – marketing – can keep giving us “what we want” or “what we need”. We become the product. We become the corporate fuel. Who we are, what we are, where we are is tracked and coded. Marketing is no longer simply about producing behaviour but stealing from us, invading our privacy so as to predict new commodities and markets.

Consider this quote from the editor of Marketing Week (of October 14, 2010)

Marketing departments should never lose the instinct for the big idea. The brand essence that is universally understood by your managers, your staff and your customers alike often originates with some brave, snap decisions or intuitive creative that came from deep in your gut. But what underpins all that – and sometimes more importantly, what convinces your stakeholders to back you – is the customer data that you should hold dear. Your database contains the richest of insights into the needs of your customers. If you can spot those needs and meet them before your customers have even had a chance to figure out and articulate their own desires, then you’ll be fulfilling marketing’s limitless potential to grow a business through adding value. Those of you that already possess the right data and the system that works best for your business are way ahead.

It’s easy when immersed within this society to come to believe in the society of the spectacle. This is especially the case of the young surfers who are corporatised (even the “free surfers”, in fact, them most of all). Pro surfers are enlisted in the army of the service industry. As Guy Debord writes,

reinforcing the troops responsible for distributing and glorifying the latest commodities; and in this it is serving a real need, in the sense that increasingly extensive campaigns are necessary to convince people to buy increasingly unnecessary commodities.

They become commodities: instagramed, tmblred, facebooked, tweeted, youtubed, vimeoed – multiple selves – humans as corporate logos, as corporate data – results, numbers of front covers, number of followers, numbers of sales, numbers of hits, numbers of views, numbers of followers . Their bodies and their sense of self corporatised from a very young age. Yes, some professional surfers are paid well but at what expense for others? Anyway, perhaps it is the ethos that matters – an ethos of humanity as marketing, of only existing to generate profit.

And what of the human waste, those cast aside: ex-pro surfer, labourers in Bangladesh who stitch the “eco-boardshort”, and ourselves whose surfing lives become colonised by a “reality” of consumption and of diversion and of homogeneity. Then there’s the ecological impact, as well.

Each season of the professional surfing tour is a season of society of the spectacle re-affirming its hold over us and surfing.

Surfing: “creative” and “free” expression?

The professional surfing tour and coporations attached to it preach creativity and freedom in the slogans but it’s possible to argue that they actually bury them, destroy them, make them only connote SALES. The professional surfing tour can be argued to be surfing as control –an apparatus of capture. As the commentators and judges remark, he/she surf’s “in control”.

So what to do?

Is the answer simply to ignore it? Switch it off? To simply, “do our own thing”? Do It Yourself? Surf differently and uniquely? Surf new ways, different ways – slip, slide, be out of control, capture the code of the wave – each one different, each one interpreted afresh? All of these are valid.

Yet, as Debord warns us

Spectacular society is adept at recuperation i.e. assimilating would-be oppositional currents which by challenging only isolated aspects of the system end up unwittingly propping it up.

Think of the way independent and creative projects (e.g. films, websites, equipment, people) are swept up and captured by the marketing behemoth. “Rebellion” is packaged and sold back to us.

Debord was a member of the Situationist International group. Their answer to the dilemma was to endlessly call attention to the priority of a life which continually experiments, rather than any aimed at constant reiterating or reproducing – acts which lead to standardisation, homogenisation and fetishisation, and in the end more commodities to passively consume. The Situationists would rather have us create “situations” always anew where humans interact together as people, not mediated by commodities. Celebrate difference, creativity, no rules, being “out-of-control” and experimentation. However, they go further and suggest that each time you create a situation or something don’t let it be captured. Make it unique. If it is captured for mass production then sabotage it, clog the machinery, detonate it.

“We have a world of pleasure to win”– The Situationists