The work is a series of 221 short theses. They contain approximately a paragraph each.
Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: "All that once was directly lived has become mere representation." Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life."
The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which "passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity". "The spectacle is not a collection of images," Debord writes, "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."
In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there's also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought. Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never-ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history, one that can be overturned through revolution.
Debord's aim and proposal is "to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images," "through radical action in the form of the construction of situations," "situations that bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art". In the situationist view, situations are actively created moments, characterized by "a sense of self-consciousness of existence within a particular environment or ambience".
Debord encouraged the use of détournement, "which involves using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle."
The Society of the Spectacle is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and commodity fetishism, dealing with issues such as class alienation, cultural homogenization, and mass media.
When Debord 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, Debord says, have supplanted genuine human interaction.
Thus, Debord’s fourth thesis is: "The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."
In a consumer society, social life is not about living, but about having; the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have. Consequently, social life moves further, leaving a state of "having" and proceeding into a state of "appearing"; namely the appearance of the image.
"In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false."
Debord also draws an equivalence between the role of mass media marketing in the present and the role of religions in the past. The spread of commodity-images by the mass media, produces "waves of enthusiasm for a given product" resulting in "moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism".
Other observations Debord makes on religion: "The remains of religion and of the family (the principal relic of the heritage of class power) and the moral repression they assure, merge whenever the enjoyment of this world is affirmed–this world being nothing other than repressive pseudo-enjoyment." "The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, ... These religions arose on the soil of history, and established themselves there. But there they still preserve themselves in radical opposition to history." Debord defines them as Semi-historical religion . "The growth of knowledge about society, which includes the understanding of history as the heart of culture, derives from itself an irreversible knowledge, which is expressed by the destruction of God."
In Chapter 8, Negation and Consumption Within Culture , Debord includes a critical analysis of the works of three American sociologists. Debord discusses at length Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image (1961), arguing that Boorstin missed the concept of Spectacle. In thesis 192, Debord mentions some American sociologists who have described the general project of developed capitalism which "aims to recapture the fragmented worker as a personality well integrated in the group;" the examples mentioned by Debord are David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd (1950), and William H. Whyte, author of the 1956 bestseller The Organization Man . Among the 1950s sociologists who are usually compared to Riesman and Whyte, is C. Wright Mills, author of White Collar: The American Middle Classes . Riesman's "Lonely Crowd" term is also used in thesis 28.