Dispensing with Clausewitz

Once employed by the political consultancy group Devine Mulvey, and now pursuing a graduate degree at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Gene McHugh says he is interested in "questioning the applicability of [Guy] Debord's own conception of resistance (particularly detournement) in an age of networked, topological communication." Perhaps "Debord's strategies of resistance do not in fact jive with our version of the society of the spectacle."[1] Then why keep bringing him up? Like so many before him, McHugh needs to both cite Debord (an obligation at this point) and put Debord behind him so that he (McHugh) can continue to do what he is doing "in good faith."[2] McHugh's article on the Radical Software Group's version of Debord's cabinet game Kriegspiel -- which drew a cease and desist letter, alleging copyright infringement, from a lawyer retained by Debord's widow, Alice Becker-Ho, in April 2008 -- attacks Debord's relevance on two fronts.

First, McHugh asserts that "detournement, that famous cornerstone of Situationism [sic] . . . is itself, by now, a familiar concept in Internet culture [. . .] The second major Situationist tactic, derive, or the arbitrary drifting through urban space, has become a primary tool of online capitalism [. . .] At least some of his [Debord's] strategies of countering it [the spectacle] have been effectively incorporated into the internal logic of communications media today."

Commonly repeated though they are, these claims are largely meaningless. First, the Situationist International evolved and progressed over time, so much so that there were three distinct periods in its existence. Detournement and derive were important, even "cornerstone," concepts, yes, but in the SI's first period (1957-1961). And so, while it may be true that the spectacle of today has apparently recuperated detournement and derive, this says nothing about the status of the weapons forged and used during the SI's second period (1962-1966), when theoretical critique replaced artistic experimentation, nor during the SI's third period (1967-1971), when the SI concentrated on strictly political interventions in France and elsewhere. But has the spectacle really recuperated detournement and derive? McHugh refers to certain forms of communication that have been recuperated. But what about their content? It is quite clear that there has been no "incorporation" of Debord's primary themes (alienation, dispossession and decomposition) into the language of the spectacle, even at this late date.

The second move McHugh makes is to claim that Debord's Kriegspiel, rather than recuperated, has been revealed to be unworthy of recuperation. Building upon remarks made by the RSG's Alexander Galloway, who claimed in Cabinet magazine[3] that Kriegspiel had "more in common with Napoleon's 1806 Battle of Jena than Debord's own 1968 Battle of Paris," McHugh tries to call attention to "the blatant anachronism of the Clausewitzian theories underlying [Debord's game] and the accompanying lack of a substantive formal connection to the asymmetrical warfare that Debord himself experienced in May 1968 [. . .] The tactical apparatus of both the 'Game of War' [by the RSG] and Kriegspiel crumbles when viewed through the lens of postmodern military theorization." According to McHugh, Debord (and thus Galloway's version of the game) "neglects to represent how communication has in fact been used by more recent resistance groups such as guerrilla armies, terrorist cells, and hackers unleashing computer viruses." Thus, McHugh concludes, Alice Becker-Ho isn't to be criticized for exerting copyright control over a work by her husband, but for going after an infringement that actually demonstrates the "futility" of her husband's work, not its potency.

It is ludicrous to imagine that Guy Debord was the either the "Napoleon" (the military leader) or the "Clausewitz" (the military historian) of "the Battle of Paris." Debord was simply one person among many at the barricades of the rue Gay Lassac,[4] in the occupied Sorbonne and, later, in the national library occupied by the situs and Enrages. He was never "in command." Furthermore, the May 1968 movement in Paris (and elsewhere in France) was not some kind of military battle, i.e, an instance of "asymmetrical warfare" between cops and protestors. Such a notion both exaggerates the degree of organization that the May movement had reached (unlike the Paris Commune, it did not possess an armed guard) and trivializes the stakes of the contest (the "battlefields" of May 1968 weren't simply a few student-dominated streets in Paris, but the factories, ports and transportation systems of the entire country, as well).

It is even worse to imply on the basis of such flimsy claims that Debord himself -- despite or perhaps precisely because of his very participation in/leadership of the May 1968 movement -- did not realize that it had little or nothing to do with classical military theory (Clausewitz) and that May 1968 was in fact an early postmodern instance of "nonhierarchical dispersion," "networked opposition" and "cutting-edge warfare." Perhaps this is why General Debord lost the Battle of Paris? In McHugh's hypothesis, Debord had been clueless about truly contemporary warfare ever since 1968: in 1977, when he designed Kriegspiel, and again in 1987, when he defended it in a book co-authored with Alice Becker-Ho. It simply took Alex Galloway's failed attempt to bring Debord's Kriegspiel into the age of computers to reveal the game's fatal weaknesses.

But of course Guy Debord did not live and write in the era before the advent of "more recent resistance groups such as guerrilla armies, terrorist cells, and hackers unleashing computer viruses." Guerrilla armies and terrorist cells were active in the 1970s, when Kriegspiel was created, and Debord spent a good deal of time discussing them both in his Preface to the 4th Italian Edition of the Society of the Spectacle (1979) and his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988). And though he knew nothing of hackers or viruses, Debord deliberately constructed his Comments so that it could not be read by computers. Parts of it are "deliberately confused."[5]

More to the point, Debord's interest in Clausewitz was neither superficial nor short-lived. As far as we can tell, it began in the early 1970s, when Gerard Lebovici showed Debord a copy of Clausewitz's book. In a letter dated 21 February 1974, and speaking with respect to the developments then taking place in Portugal, Debord -- always one to move with the times -- proclaimed that, "At this stage and to speak schematically, the basic theoreticians to retrieve and develop are no longer Hegel, Marx and Lautreamont, but Thucydides, Machiavelli and Clausewitz."[6] It was presumably this turn from critique to strategy that led Debord to create his Kriegspiel three years later. Between 1984 and 1989, Debord devoted a great deal of time and energy to helping Editions Gerard Lebovici publish Jean-Pierre Baudet's translation of Clausewitz's Vom Kriege, which had previously appeared in French, but never unabridged or translated well. Debord not only "recommended" the book for publication, he also fact-checked, copyedited and proofread the manuscript himself. He insisted that Baudet's translation be illustrated with maps from the time, and even went to the National Library and managed to locate seven suitable examples.[7]

McHugh and Galloway, by contrast, know nothing about Clausewitz. The former speaks of "Clausewitzian theories," as if Clausewitz were a source of theories, instead of a rare and fine example of dialectical thinking about theory; and the later speaks of the "Clausewitzian mentality" -- the mentality of "resistance" -- as if Clausewitz's theories [sic] were actually a mind-set that always and only sees two alternatives (attack or be defeated). Together, these two "budding anarchists"[8] reject Guy Debord (and Carl von Clausewitz, too) in favor of the well-known military theorist Roland Barthes (!), who wrote "there is only one way left to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it." But won't such a "retreat" be a series of defeats, ending in a rout? No, it will be a "'hypertrophic' forward escape," says McHugh; it will "push technology into a hypertrophic state, further than it is meant to go."

What successes can this "postmodern military theorization" claim? (I mean, in reality, not in cyberspace or on university curriculum vitae.) Under the name "Revolution in Military Affairs," this theorization called for the single-minded use of "shock and awe," airpower, and small teams of special forces -- and the rejection of such "traditional" (Clausewitzian) theories and practices such as diplomacy, ground troops and the use of overwhelming force -- in America's attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan in October 2001 and in America's second war against Iraq in March 2003. This same theorization was utilized in Israel's war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006.[9] In each of these cases, "postmodern military theorization" did not lead to spectacular victories, but to humiliating defeats. And yet, here are McHugh and Galloway -- claiming to be speaking in the name of effectiveness in combating the spectacle -- blithely continuing to advocate this "theorization" of warfare as if it were more relevant than Debord and his "merely nostalgic" Kriegspiel![10] The similarity of these postmodernists to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfield is striking: all have little or no actual knowledge of warfare, and all see "war" as an end in itself, as a "network," as something fundamentally open-ended and impossible to terminate, and not as a means to a political end.

7 December 2008

[1] "Battle Code: Guy Debord's Game of War and the Radical Software Group," Artforum International (November 2008), pp. 167-168. Earlier in the year, Book Forum (an off-shoot of Artforum) published an article that contains at least 50 incorrect, slanderous or otherwise objectionable statements about Guy Debord and Kriegspiel.

[2] Note the following passage, which appears in our essay The Society of the Virtual Spectacle:

Following a pattern established in the 1970s by Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, Giroux only mentions Guy Debord and his "pioneering" theory of the society of the spectacle so as to say that, since the 1960s, the spectacle has changed so much that Debord's theory is no longer relevant. Debord and "older notions of the spectacle" could not possibly account for "the emergence of new media and image-based media technologies" such as "camcorders, cellular camera-phones, satellite television, digital recorders and the Internet" because none of it existed in 1967. Either these gadgets are so fundamentally different from radio, TV and the cinema, or the "new media" exist in such great quantities, that "a structural transformation of everyday life" has taken place: these media "have revolutionized the relationship between the specificity of an event and its public display." And while "neither the concept of the spectacle nor the practice of terrorism itself is new," there has been a new and completely unprecedented "merging of the spectacle, terrorism, war and politics." There is, in sum, "a new regime of the spectacle in which screen culture and visual politics create spectacular events just as much as they record them."

Lest we suspect that this "new" spectacle seems an awful lot like the "old" spectacle, and that is it not true that "critical discourses of the spectacle need to be revised so as to provide the theoretical tools required to fully understand how the spectacle has changed," Giroux contrasts "the terrorism of the spectacle" (the old, surpassed reality) with "the spectacle of terrorism" (the new one). While the former was based in "fascist culture and late capitalism's culture of commodification," the later is rooted in "a new notion of the subject forged in social relations largely constructed around fear and terror." And, while the former was dominated by "consensus," "a sense of unity," "solidarity," "illusion" and "depoliticization" (as if the Cold War never existed!), the later is dominated by "a theatrics of fear and shock," "politicization," and "the image added with the thrill of the real." The key idea is that "the spectacle of terrorism undercuts the primacy of consumerism, challenges state power and uses the image to construct a new type of politics organized around the modalities of death, hysteria, panic and violence" (emphasis added).

To dismiss Debord in this way requires two operations, neither of which is intellectually honest. First, Giroux must primarily rely upon summaries of Debord's The Society of the Spectacle produced by other academics, and not on a direct confrontation with the text itself. Not surprisingly, such summaries are completely inadequate and have an agenda that Giroux shares: "The image had replaced the commodity as the basic unit of capitalism; rather than arguing that commodities remained the sine qua non of domination, he insisted, as Eugene L. Arva points out, that in the current era, 'the system of mediation by representation (the world of the spectacle, if you wish) has come to bear more relevance than commodities themselves.'" Second, Giroux must pretend that Debord never wrote another word about the spectacle after 1967: "Debord could not have imagined either how the second media revolution would play out, with its multiple producers, distributors and consumers; or how a post-9/11 war on terrorism would shift, especially in the United States, from an emphasis on consumerism to an equally absorbing obsession with war and its politically regressive corollaries of fear, anxiety and insecurity." And so, for Giroux, neither the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (and its remarks on computerized networks), nor the preface to the fourth Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle (and its remarks on the spectacle of terrorism in Italy during the 1970s), ever existed.

With Guy Debord and his inconvenient insistence on the commodity out of the way, Giroux can get to where he wants to go (where he has always been?), which is a completely uncritical embrace of the "new" media and Leftist politics: "Radically new modes of communication and resistance based upon the new media are on full display [sic] in the global justice movements, in the emergence of bloggers holding corporate and government powers more accountable, and in the new kinds of cultural and political struggles waged by the Zapatistas, the Seattle protesters, and various new social movements held together through the informational networks provided by the Internet and the Web." Unlike Debord, obsessed as he was with social revolution, "theorists such as Thomas Keenan, Mark Poster, Douglas Kellner and Jacques Derrida are right in suggesting that new electronic technologies and media publics 'remove restrictions on the horizon of possible communications' and, in doing so, suggest new possibilities for engaging the media as a democratic force both for critique and for positive intervention and change."

[3] I would like to quote from this article, but it is not available anywhere on-line.

[4] See Debord's letter to Michel Prigent dated 29 August 1981.

[5] See letter to Pierre Besson dated 31 October 1989.

[6] Letter to Eduardo Rothe dated 21 February 1974.

[7] See letters to Floriana Lebovici dated 20 November 1984, January 1988 and 19 March 1988.

[8] "If Debord's strategies of resistance do not in fact jive with our version of the society of the spectacle, what is a budding anarchist to do?" McHugh asks with respect to Alex Galloway.

[9] See our review of Eyal Weizman's Hollow Land.

[10] Note added 21 December 2008: note well the following article, published on 19 December 2008 by Haaretz under the title "U.S. report: Hezbollah fought Israel better than any Arab army."

A new report from the U.S. Army War College warns that the American military must learn the lessons of the Second Lebanon War, in which Hezbollah operated more like a conventional army than a guerrilla organization.

The report, "The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy," warns against placing too heavy an emphasis on classic guerrilla warfare, and raises the possibility of further non-state actors following the Lebanese militant group's example.

"Hezbollah's 2006 campaign in southern Lebanon has been receiving increasing attention as a prominent recent example of a non-state actor fighting a Westernized state," the authors of the report state. "In particular, critics of irregular-warfare transformation often cite the 2006 case as evidence that non-state actors can nevertheless wage conventional warfare in state-like ways."

The authors of the report, Dr. Stephen D. Biddle and Jeffrey A. Friedman, state that changes made by the U.S. Army in conducting urban warfare against guerrilla fighters in Iraq could compromise the military's ability to deal with other enemies in the future.

The authors give a high grade to Hezbollah's performance in the 2006 war, describing it as more effective than that of any Arab army that confronted Israel in the Jewish state's history, and that Hezbollah militants wounded more Israelis per fighter than any previous Arab effort.

Unlike a traditional guerrilla force, however, Hezbollah emphasized holding territory and digging in to bunkers, instead of the usual tactic of hiding among civilian populations. Likewise, the militant organization's discipline and coordination highly resembled those of conventional armies.

This combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics, the report claims, places new challenges before the U.S. Army. It calls for preparing the military for asymmetrical urban warfare, while at the same time working closely with civilian populations. It also calls for reducing military activity likely to harm the image of the U.S.

The report indicates that no army can be ideally prepared to deal with both kinds of enemy, conventional and guerrilla, simultaneously, and that in light of the discrepancies between the lessons of the Second Lebanon War and the current U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, serious challenges confront military planners.

While fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan demands the ability to defeat guerrilla forces, the example of Lebanon may inspire enemies of the U.S. to adopt more conventional methods.

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