Guy Debord in 2009:
Spinning or Laughing?

Guy Debord wasn't buried. Following his wishes, his remains were cremated and scattered into the wind over a beloved Quay in Paris. The gesture couldn't be clearer: no place to come to worship his memory, to mark significant anniversaries or to leave tokens of appreciation. A refusal of eternity and "posterity"; an emphatic embrace of the ephemeral and disappearance(s). And so one can't say "Guy Debord is probably spinning in his grave" or "Guy Debord is probably laughing in his grave." But the question can still be raised. Fifteen years after he committed suicide at the age of 62: is Guy Debord, now in heaven or hell, spinning or laughing?

He's gotta be doing something, something other than resting peacefully. He has not been forgotten; he has not achieved oblivion. On the one hand, his works continue to inspire and motivate people: his 1950s-era notions and practices of psychogeography and urban drifting (la derive) continue to be popular, especially among urban theorists and contemporary performance artists; his chess-like cabinet game from 1977 (aka Kriegspiel or The Game of War) has become fairly popular among programmers and players of digital games in England and the USA; and his critique of the society of the spectacle (aka "the Spectacle") continues to be adopted as a starting point by young revolutionaries in France (cf. Tiqqun and The Coming Insurrection).

On the other hand, Debord's works have been repackaged and sold by his second wife, Alice Becker-Ho. Over the course of the last 15 years, "Ms Debord" has chosen to distribute her late husband's films in DVD form through Gaumont, a large and well-established producer and distributor of spectacular entertainment; to publish her late husband's "complete" correspondence in abridged form through Fayard, a subsidiary of a large arms manufacturer; and to sell his complete archives to either the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BNF) or the Beinecke Library at Yale University, whichever can come up with $2.34 million by 2011. "Ms Debord" has also used her commercial and legal clout to either change the presentation or completely suppress the "unauthorized" usage of her late husband's works by the Radical Software Group (re: The Game of War) and Jean-Francois Martos (re: Correspondance avec Guy Debord), neither of which came close to actually competing with the "official" copyrighted products. Were either of these heavy-handed actions really necessary? They certainly generated a ton of negative press for Alice.

I grant that her conduct could have been (even) worse. After all, she could have written books or appeared in the movies or the mass media to extoll the virtues of her late husband. She could have licensed his image for use in an advertising campaign . . . "Spectacular eyeglasses," or some such. She hasn't, of course. Nevertheless, she has conducted herself like a classic recuperator. Would Guy agree? What would he think? Intriguing questions, n'est pas? I don't know what the answers would be, of course: I never met or corresponded with him; I am not in communication with either his ghost or his spirit; I have simply translated a bunch of his writings, especially his letters. And so, I can only make an "educated guess."

I would say -- all things considered, contrary to what others seem to think and despite what I personally might want or like -- Guy Debord would have approved of it all, not just the "good" things (inspiring yet another generation of young people), but the "bad" (capitalist) things, as well. He would have found no contradiction between these two developments or, rather, he would have seen the contradiction between them in a positive light. His approval would of course be a matter of supporting everything that his wife and companion for the last 30 years of his life would do "in his name" -- only she knows what his real wishes and intentions were -- but also an affirmation that these would have been the precise things that he himself would have done, had he been alive. In short, Alice isn't to blame for the weird repackaging of Guy Debord's works; Guy himself is.

I say this despite the fact that "Ms Debord's" recent conduct -- appearing in public and hobnobbing with high-level governments officials, wealthy patrons, and literary celebrities like Phillipe Sollers so as to "raise money" for the BNF, or appearing alongside Jacqueline de Jong and allowing herself to be misidentified as a "member of the Situationist International" in the publicity for an art opening at Yale University -- would have appalled her late husband, who detested celebrity and avoided celebrities, and had a mania for correcting "small" factual mistakes concerning membership in the Situationist International. She certainly would have done none of these things when he was alive. Though Guy had been litigious, he never sued a publisher of a "pirate" or copyright-infringing edition of his works. Though he allowed his works (both the new and the old ones) to be published by Gallimard, he did so provisionally, in response to a specific situation, and was ready to "jump ship" at any moment. And though he himself had created, organized and made plans for the eventual disposition of his archives, he would certainly have been mortified by the idea that the French government, in a fairly mysterious attempt to keep those archives in France, would declare them a "national treasure." Guy detested literary prizes and would certainly have hated the explicitly anti-May 1968 politics of the very French government (the Sarkozy gang) that has miraculously deemed his archives to be worthy of such great distinction.

Guy Debord was a very complicated person. While he was alive, he -- he and Alice, as a matter of fact -- were supporters, organizers and beneficiaries of various kinds of scams. According to his own Panegyric, he was a thief in his youth. In the 1950s and 1960s, Debord and his first wife, Michelle Bernstein, made a little "easy" money by publishing cheap novelties (a horoscope for racehorses, a superficial novel about the depths of the "existentialist" scene, etc.). In a letter to Gianfranco Sanguinetti dated 26 October 1975, Debord referred to this kind of enterprise as "shit crushing": crushing shit and getting money as a result. For example: claiming to the Italian government that one's ships were destroyed during World War II and that one is therefore entitled to financial compensation. In August 1993, Debord justified the publication and sale of Memoires (originally produced as a gift to its recipients) in the following manner: "It was a gift, but now it must cease to be one [...] In sum, I prefer to sell my prestige and to recoup my losses with suitable liquid compensations."

The greatest emblem of this side of Guy Debord is the cover of his post-humous book, Des Contrats (1995), which was designed in accordance with Debord's own wishes. It shows "the Street Acrobat" (Le Bateleur), which is a card in the Marseille Tarot deck. In one of the last letters he ever wrote, Debord explains that this image is "the most mysterious and the most beautiful, in my sense of these words [...] It seems to me that this card will add, and without the duty to imply it too strongly, something that one could see as a certain mastery of manipulation, and will do so by opportunely recalling the extent of its mystery" (letter to Georges Monti). The "mystery" of truly masterful manipulation is that it achieves its intended effects without any apparent effort, without the manipulation ever being detectable, not to mention obvious. But then, if the manipulation is indeed undetectable, how do you know it is really there? In the Tarot card: note the deceptive simplicity of the Acrobat's movements.

Of course it isn't quite clear who was being manipulated in the pages of the Contrats. Was it Gerard Lebovici, Debord's patron in the 1970s and the co-signatory of his film contracts? Or was it Lebovici's heirs, with whom Debord had broken off both commercial and personal dealings in the early 1990s? I believe it was the latter. In 1992, Editions Lebovici had been forced to turn the rights to Debord's films over to Debord himself. Perhaps the Contracts book (and its Tarot-card-cover) were ways of signaling Editions Lebovici that they had been "manipulated" because they had failed to realize that, even though Debord's films had not been screened since 1984, the texts surrounding them (the film contracts, in this case) could be commercially exploited.

How could someone like Debord be devoted to "the objective truth" of the dialectic and History, and committed to the practice of "transparency" by and within revolutionary organizations, and yet still be a mysterious master of manipulation? Properly answered, it seems, this question is not a matter of ethics (the rhetorical demand/condemnation "How could you do that!"), but a question of practicality ("How did you do that?"). It is, of course, tempting to break Debord's "career" into parts, with -- inevitably -- the good parts coming early and the bad parts later on. With greater or lesser justification, people have said the "break" came in 1962, with "the expulsion" of "the artists" from the SI; in 1971, with the end of the SI; in 1975, with the appearance of the first-person "I" in his films; in 1984, with the murder of Gerard Lebovici; in 1988, with the publication of Comments on the Society of the Spectacle; or in 1990, with the on-set of chronic health problems. All were turning points, but "breaks"? I'm not sure.

And so let say this: during his lifetime, Guy Debord managed to juggle a lot of objects of different kinds; his genius was his ability to (attempt to) retrospectively demonstrate the consistency of his movements. The Preface to the 4th Italian Edition of "The Society of the Spectacle (1979), Considerations on the Assassination of Gerard Lebovici (1985), Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), Panegyric (1989), and Preface to the Third French Edition of "The Society of the Spectacle" (1992) are all true feats of intellectual acrobatics. In each case, Debord shows that there had been no contradictions, no real contradictions, in the sense that he had never come to a halt or been stopped en route; at every turn, he'd found a way out. The line from 1952 to 1994 was surely irregular and meandering, but it was unbroken. But what happens after 1994, when the line must continue (the "legacy" must be protected, the Show must go on) despite and yet because of the death of The Acrobat himself? The answer is obvious: another acrobat must be found who can "step in" and keep the acrobatic feat going.

But why does the Show have to go on? What would it mean for the "Debord Show" to stop? Instead of being repackaged (sold piecemeal or en bloc), his archives could be donated to, say, the Institute for Social Research in Amsterdam, the Beinecke Rare Books Library at Yale University or the French National Library -- someplace open to the public. The Debord estate could receive the appropriate tax deductions and write-offs, plus whatever it might make as sole copyright holder from the sales of individual components of the archives (Debord's films, film scripts, film contracts, essays, song lyrics, translations, books, letters, posters, audio recordings, paintings, etc.). That would be a lot of money, obviously; perhaps as much as $2.34 million. The estate would be free to make as much money as it wished, provided that the contents of the thing(s) being sold were complete and unabridged, and that the producers/distributors of the item(s) -- the truly complete correspondence of Guy Debord, for example -- were either independent or non-profit entities.

As things stand today, Alice Becker-Ho, doing as she pleases, will make a great deal of money in the coming years, perhaps much more than $2.34 million. I do not think it too much to ask, "Where is all that money going? To what purpose(s) is it being put, other than Alice's personal needs?" Unfortunately, unlike her late husband, "Ms Debord" doesn't explain herself. Except for a brief notice published shortly after Guy's suicide on 30 November 1994, she has remained silent and/or let her attorneys do her talking for her. Though the last 15 years have seen her publish several groundbreaking books about argot, she has published nothing that explains how her decisions, both individually and taken together, have been in line with those taken by Guy before 1994. Either she can't explain or she won't explain. Perahps she feels no need to explain anything to anyone. Her silence might derive from the fact that she was never a member of the SI, even though she had known some of its members personally since 1964 and participated in the CMDO during May 1968 in France. Are the conceptual acrobatics necessary to explain, not to mention justify, Alice's conduct over the last 15 years even possible? Could Guy himself perform such a feat? Could anyone?

The answers to these questions are simple, just as the actions encouraged by them are unacceptable. If someone were to smash the glass vitrines that contained the manuscript of Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, steal the document, and hold it in exchange for ransom, then everything -- everything "theoretical" -- would become crystal clear. "Guy Debord" isn't property that can be owned. He is a weapon, and weapons were meant to be used.

Bill Not Bored
7 December 2009

To Contact NOT BORED!