Professor Galloway's Latest Stupidities

As if there weren't enough stupidities concerning Guy Debord emanating from a small group of academic "gamers" in New York City,[1] Associate Professor Alexander R. Galloway (NYU) has produced yet another collection of them. Entitled "Debord's Nostalgic Algorithm" and published in Culture Machine #10 ("Pirate Philosophy"), this article is mostly concerned with Debord's board game (sometimes called Kriegspiel, other times The Game of War), which Galloway digitized and exhibited with/under the name of The Radical Software Group.

Unlike Professor Galloway, we do not believe that "By March 8, 1978, Debord's former glory as a radical filmmaker and author had faded," because in 1978 Debord had yet to write his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) or Panegyric (1989), which are two of his finest and most celebrated books. Nor do we believe, as Galloway does, that Debord was quite serious when he claimed that Kriegspiel "might be the only thing in all my work -- I'm afraid to admit -- that one might dare say has some value"[2] (this claim is made, after all, from within the shifting sands of Panegyric). And so we are not interested in the few banalities that Galloway comes up with concerning Kriegspiel (his speculations as to whom played North and whom played South in the game recorded in Debord and Alice Becko-Ho's 1987 book The Game of War; his commentaries on the number and kinds of mistakes and/or instances of cheating in all three versions of the game's rule book, and -- worst of all -- his educated guesses about Debord's psychology and his possible motivations for being interested in what Galloway calls "first cinema and philosophy, and finally the bourgeois parlour game"). We are primarily interested in the bold new stupidities that Galloway's text contains. In particular, his remarks about the assassination of Aldo Moro.

But first, a brief sampling of the low quality of Professor Galloway's scholarship. "In 1991," he writes, "Debord ordered all his published works destroyed, including this book [The Game of War]. But after Debord's death and under Becker-Ho's stewardship, the French publisher Gallimard reissued the book in 2006 as Le Jeu de la Guerre: Releve des positions successives de toutes les forces au cours d'une partie. After remaining untranslated for twenty years, an English edition of the work appeared a year later from Atlas Press, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, an ex-Situationist with whom Debord had kept in touch over the years. In 1986, as his publishing house was suffering hard times in the wake of the death of Gerard Lebovici, Debord suggested a scheme to Floriana Lebovici, the daughter, to relieve the publisher's debts by commercializing The Game of War."

There are no less than five serious omissions or errors of fact in these four sentences:

1) in 1991, Debord was able to get a court to order his former publisher, Editions Gerard Lebovici (EGL), to pulp all of the books that it had published under his name (Alice Becker-Ho asked for and was granted the same wish) because he/they wanted to make sure that EGL kept to its word, actually dissolved as a company, and didn't re-establish itself under a new name. Galloway makes Debord's decision seem capricious or arbitrary, when it was in fact reluctantly taken in response to the unprofessional conduct of the inheritors of the Lebovici name.

2) it was in 1992, under the stewardship of Jean-Jacques Pauvert, that Debord started publishing his books with Gallimard. The 1987 book wasn't reissued by Gallimard during Debord's lifetime (unlike Panegyric, the Comments, and The Society of the Spectacle) because Debord did not in fact consider Kriegspiel to be as important as these other books/projects.

3) Debord didn't "keep in touch" with Donald Nicholson-Smith, whom he disliked and distrusted as early as 1979 and steadfastly all through the rest of his life. In fact, DNS kept pursuing Debord with the project of translating Spectacle into English, and Debord kept ignoring him.[3]

4) Editions Gerard Lebovici was not "his [Debord's] publishing house," which implies that he either owned part of it or was responsible for running it, neither of which were true. Indeed, Debord had been denying such foolishness as early as 1976.[4].

5) Floriana Lebovici was Gerard Lebovici's wife, not his daughter.

Of course, Professor Galloway also allows himself the liberty to make shit up (that is, project his own personality and preoccupations upon Guy Debord): the French occupations movement of May 1968 was merely "a student movement"; Debord might not have been at the barricades "in the flesh"[5] and he certainly wasn't a "frontline militant," unlike Gilles Deleuze (!); after 1974 Debord "stayed away from Paris for much of the rest of his downhill life, watching the passing parade from a safe distance" and he was "something of a fading violet when it came to actual conflict." Far from being a "bad ass" of any kind, Professor Galloway -- a bland, politically cautious fellow -- should know that he of all people would do well to refrain from publicly questioning Guy Debord's experiences with and taste for "actual conflict."

Galloway makes much of the following falsified juxtaposition: in March 1978, while Guy Debord was allegedly "dallying" with the idea that the cinema was over, "the world awoke to a dramatic turn of events":

The long-time Prime Minister of Italy, Christian Democrat Aldo Moro, had been kidnapped during a brazen intervention by the far left communist militant group the Red Brigades. In Italy the progressive militancy of the sixties had metastasized during the following decade into an actually existing low-level guerrilla war. Moro was held for 54 days. During the hostage period, Moro appealed to the Christian Democrats to acquiesce and negotiate with what both the newspapers and government officials alike called terrorists, that newly evolved form of political actor so closely associated with the late-modern period. Held in secret and sentenced to death in a so-called people's trial on or about April 15, Moro received little solidarity from his former government colleagues, and sensing the immanent culmination of events, the presumed future president of Italy stipulated that no Christian Democrat leaders should be present at his funeral. There were none.

In such a juxtaposition, Debord comes off very poorly.

So as Moro lay in the trunk of the Renault R4, Guy Debord was at his rural home playing board games and toying with the idea of fashioning one of his own. The backdrop of European militancy in the seventies makes Debord's penchant for playtime all the more delicious.

But to make this cheap device work, Galloway must pretend that, prior to and during March 1978, Guy Debord said nothing about Moro, the "Red Brigades," and the spectacle of artificial (state-sponsored) terrorism in Italy. Galloway claims:

When he did finally address Moro and the Red Brigades, in his 1979 preface to the fourth Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord spat on the guerrilla movement, claiming that the Red Brigades were in fact unknowing pawns of the state Stalinist forces. Writing to Sanguinetti before the killing, Debord predicted that Moro would be 'suicided' by his own government, thus allowing the state forces to consolidate power (known in Italy as the 'historic compromise') around the common fear of terror and anarchy. (Emphasis added.)

But the problem for Galloway is obvious: the 1979 preface couldn't have been the first time Debord addressed the subject, because he wrote to Gianfranco Sanguinetti before the killing, which took place on or just before 10 May 1978 (at least according to Galloway's source, which of course is the New York Times). Galloway makes no further reference to this letter to Sanguinetti, which was in fact dated 21 April 1978 and does quite a bit more than simply and correctly predict that Moro would in fact not be released, but killed by his captors. It also asserts that the Red Brigades had long since been replaced or controlled by the Italian secret services; the "guerrilla war" was not being fought between the "far left" and the State, but by different forces active within the State that had differing ideas on what to do to quell Italy's workers movement; that Aldo Moro wasn't "kidnapped" by the RBs, but by forces that opposed the "Historic Compromise" (these forces either controlled the RBs or didn't, but their hostility to Moro and others like him dates back to the 1960s).

Galloway's account gives the distinct impression that before, during and after March 1978, all Guy Debord was interested in was his toy soldiers, when in fact 1978 saw him write several other important letters (most to Paolo Salvadori, another former situationist) concerning the situation in Italy: their dates are 3 July 1978, 18 September 1978 and 12 November 1978. Significantly, all of Debord's assertions -- proven true in the early 1990s -- were completely foreign to the "thinking" of the people to whom Galloway praises for their lucidity and usefulness: Antonio Negri and Gilles Delueze, both of whom quite foolishly believed that "the question of the Red Brigades" was that of over-zealous or under theorized politics, not state-sponsored artificial terrorism. Ironically, it is not Guy Debord who should be chided for avoiding the subject of Moro, but Sanguinetti, who had the power to the "blow" the lid off the Moro Affair -- just as he did in 1975 on the subject of the bombing of the Piazza Fontana in his Veritable Report on the Last Chances to Save Capitalism in Italy -- but who didn't, who waited until 1979, when he "finally" published On Terrorism and the State.

We'd be done now were if not for the fact that Professor Galloway felt the need to end his severely fact-challenged analysis with the following preposterous generalizations:

Certainly the domain of simulation and modelling is always something of a bitter pill for progressive movements. This is the root anxiety lurking beneath the surface of Debord's game. The left will always be deceived in the domain of abstraction. This is not to say that Spirit or the logos are by necessity contrary to progressive political movements. Nevertheless the lofty realm of rational idealism has always been something of a hindrance to those suffering from the harsh vicissitudes of material fact. And here one must revisit a long history indeed, of traditionalism versus transformation, of philosophy versus sophistry, of essence versus process, of positivism versus dialectics, of social science versus 'theory', and so on.

Progressive art movements are very good at beginnings, but terrible at endings. As Debord said in 1978 amidst his losses (the death of the SI, the 'end' of the cinema, his expanding waistline and vanishing sobriety): 'avant-gardes have but one time' (1999: 47). We might say something similar about leftist cultural production in general: (1) the left is forever true in the here and now, always in the grip of its own immediate suffering, but (2) it will forever be defeated in the end, even if it finds vindication there. This is why Debord can occupy himself with both 'struggle' and 'utopia'. It is also a window into why Debord became obsessed late in life, not with street revolt, but with the sublimation of antagonistic desire into an abstract rule book. It is not that the past is always glorious and the future antiseptic. Quite the opposite, both past and future are internally variegated into alternately repressive and liberating moments. For the left, the 'historical present' is one of immediate justice won through the raw facts of struggle and sacrifice. In short, the historical present is always true, but forever at the same time bloody. But the future, the utopian imagination, is a time of complete liberation forged from the mould of the most profound injustice. In short, utopia is always false, but forever at the same time free.

For Professor Galloway, obsessed as he is with binary oppositions (rational idealism vs. material fact, et al), its all the same: "progressive [political] movements" and "progressive art movements," "the [political] left" and "leftist cultural production," what's the difference? None. And so, Guy Debord, the enemy of both political Leftism and "leftist cultural production," is easily conflated with partisans of "utopia" and "sacrifice," that is, with the wallflower dreamers and zealous self-abnegators. But Galloway has everything upside-down: the Situationist International didn't die, as if from exhaustion or recuperation, but because Guy Debord killed it. And that numbers among the best things he ever did.

28 February 2009

[1] McKenzie Wark, Nathan Heller and Gene McHugh, among others.

[2] We would render the French slightly differently: "The surprises of the Kriegspiel seem inexhaustable; and it is perhaps the only one of my works, I fear, in which one will dare to recognize some value."

[3] See for example letter to Anita Blanc of EGL dated 20 November 1989.

[4] See Debord's letter to Jamie Semprun dated 26 December 1976 and printed in Editions Champ Libre Correspondance, Volume I 1981.

[5] Galloway says: "Much has been said about Debord being at those May barricades, certainly in spirit if not also in the flesh, with Situationist graffiti festooning the pediments of respectable French society." But see Debord's letter to Michel Prigent dated 29 August 1981.

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