a double deflection:

McDonough and "October" on Guy Debord, Again

In 1997, someone named Thomas F. McDonough (see picture above) edited a special issue of October that focused upon "Guy Debord and the Internationale situationniste."[1] This collection had an announced agenda: to provide a counter-weight to Ken Knabb's Situationist International Anthology (1981), which, as Knabb himself says, is "admittedly weighted somewhat toward the situationists' later, more 'political' period." But McDonough's special issue of October, though it focused on the situationists' earlier, more "artistic" period, wasn't really weighty enough to offer an effective counter-balance to Knabb's massive Anthology. And so, in 2002, October expanded the collection and published it as a 500-page-long, illustrated tome entitled Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents. Its editor: Tom McDonough.

Centered around 1958, the year the first issue of Internationale Situationniste came out, this book certainly reveals a few glaring omissions from Knabb's collection: the complete text of Debord's 1957 "Report on the Construction of Situations," (Knabb only offered excerpts);[2] Debord's "Theses on the Cultural Revolution" (1958); the unattributed "Critique of Urbanism" (1961); and Raoul Vaneigem's "Comments Against Urbanism" (1961). But Knabb is not just "countered" as an editor, but as a translator, as well. McDonough ignores Knabb's translations of such early, "cultural" texts as the "Report on the Construction of Situations" (1957), "All the King's Men" (1963) and "The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Art and Politics" (1963); and either brings in other translators (John Shepley or Thomas Y. Levin) or translates the texts himself.[3]

But Knabb's Anthology holds its own against this onslaught. Though it is in fact more heavily weighted towards the SI's "second" period (1962-1971) than its first (1957-1961), Knabb's book still provides a good selection of early documents, some of them produced well before 1957. But McDonough's book only offers four texts written after 1963: Theo Frey's "Perspectives for a Generation" (1966), Mustapha Khayati's "Captive Words" (1966), Rene Vienet's "The Situationists and the New Forms of Action against Politics and Art" (1967), and the unattributed "Cinema and Revolution" (1969). With the exception of the unremarkable essay by Theo Frey, which was only included, perhaps, because Frey was excluded from the SI,[4] all of these texts were already available in Knabb's Anthology. None of them are major contributions to the situationist project.

Here's the kicker: although Tom McDonough provides an introduction to the big and weak volume that he's put together, he's no longer interested in Ken Knabb's Situationist International Anthology nor in rectifying its over-emphasis of the SI's later, political period at the expense of its earlier, artistic period. Tom McDonough has moved on. "This introduction is meant polemically," he writes,

"as an initial foray into new interpretive territory, as a suggestion for moving beyond the stale categories into which we have compartmentalized our thought on the Situationist International. Those categories -- of avant-garde purity, or of chronological and ideological division ('artistic' versus 'political' phases or wings) -- now simply hinder any understanding of this group; it is time to move beyond them."

Tom McDonough is not Thomas F. McDonough and hurumph! Tom is not interested in what Thomas was interested in back in 1997. Tom McDonough is interested in what he calls "a 'Tafurian' critique of situationist positions" -- 'Tafuri' being Manfredo Tafuri, an Italian architect (1935-1994) and the author of Architecture and Utopia (MIT Press, 1976). And so the reader is confronted with a double deflection. First, there's a deflection away from Knabb's political preoccupations and (back) towards the SI's early, artistic period; and then a deflection away from the SI as a whole and towards Manfredo Tafuri's critique of artistic avant-gardes. But fast-moving Tom McDonough didn't update the body of his book to keep pace with the initiatives of his "Introduction: Ideology and the Situationist Utopia." Not one of the ten critical essays that he includes in his book mentions Tafuri or the relevance of his "critique" to the situationists. Tom McDonough moved on, but he forgot to take his book with him. And so it just sits there, thick as a brick.

An introductory essay should make us want to read what follows it; but McDonough's introduction doesn't. More like a negative essay that might be included in a volume (as a counter-weight to more positive evaluations) than a neutral or "objective" essay that introduces the volume as a whole, McDonough's introduction is a hatchet job masquerading as a "critique." It openly accuses the situationists of unintentionally working on the side of "the police," socioeconomic rationalization, and the Stalinist "planification" of the future. So poisonous are these outright lies that McDonough feels compelled to reassure his readers that "This 'Tafurian' critique of situationist positions is not intended as a blanket dismissal, needless to say." The situationists didn't intend to work for the police, and Tafuri didn't intend to blow their cover, but . . . . Should we be surprised that the arbitrary drift of McDonough's stewardship of these "Texts and Documents" didn't raise any "red flags" at October or the MIT Press? Maybe not. After all, McDonough is certainly not the first academic scholar we've encountered who is openly torn between his resentment of (and ignorance about) Debord and the SI, and his need to make a living by continuously discovering new things to "historicize" and "interpret."[5]

Not surprisingly, the justification for McDonough's 'Tafurian' critique of the situationists lies in an obvious, perhaps even intentional misunderstanding of their ideas.[6] According to McDonough, everyone -- Tafuri, even Marx himself -- agrees that "Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones." But Guy Debord, says McDonough, identified "the salient characteristic of bourgeois society" with "what he called in a telling phrase 'a freezing of life.'" Later McDonough will refer to something of his own invention, i.e., the situationists' "belief in capitalism's fundamentally static, affirmative quality," which allows him to proclaim that, "What is at issue here is the potential misrecognition on the part of the Situationist International of the role of the avant-garde in advanced capitalist society; rather than being the latter's absolute contestation, Tafuri raised the possibility that it was was this society's necessary adjunct."

But here McDonough is moving (away) too fast and speaking too generally. As always, Debord was historically specific when he spoke about 'a freezing of life': the phrase didn't pertain to all of bourgeois society, at all stages of its development, but to bourgeois society since the 1930s. And Debord carefully distinguished between a freezing of history, a freezing of "life" as lived experience, and the continuing and continuous flow of "revolutionary" new commodities, fads and ideologies. It was precisely this split that made real revolution necessary and desirable, and that suggested ways of bringing that revolution about. Furthermore, the situationists didn't "misrecognize" the "role of the avant-garde in advanced capitalist society." From the beginning, they were extremely critical of Dadaism and Surrealism[7] -- in all his talk of Tafuri's critique of artistic avant-gardes, McDonough gives the erroneous impression that the Situationists uncritically followed or repeated Dada's gestures -- and this is precisely why they eventually started conceiving of themselves as a properly revolutionary organization, not as an avant-garde group. But of course one won't find a reprint of Debord's "Minimum Definitions of a Revolutionary Organization" (1966) in Tom McDonough's book -- it's got nuthin' to do with art, dontcha know.

-- NOT BORED! 31 March 2006

[1] October #79, Winter 1997. See our comments, published in NOT BORED! #27, May 1997.

[2] Knabb's worse offense as an editor is certainly his replacement of sometimes lengthy passages with ellipses [...] Note our translations of How Situationist Books Are Not Understood and Remarks on the SI Today, both of which Knabb did not translate in full.

[3] Knabb may be not be a good editor, but he's a pretty good translator: that is to say, he doesn't make really egregious mistakes. For example, McDonough titles his translation of Debord's Le Grand Sommeil et Ses Clients (from 1955) "The Great [sic] Sleep and Its Clients," as if he's never heard of the Howard Hawkes classic 1946 film, The Big Sleep (Debord assuredly had).

[4] See The Alsatian Ideology, in Internationale Situationniste #11, October 1967.

[5] See our review of Simon Sadler's pathetic book The Situationist City (1998).

[6] Note the obvious manner in which McDonough carefully maintains his "confusion" about what only he insists is "that murky differentiation" between the SI and the police, which, he says, "was described as follows . . . in 'Now, the SI': 'The path of complete police control over all human activities and the path of infinite free creation of all human activities is one: it is the same path of modern discoveries.' The confusion that this might engender was little dispelled by adding that 'we are inevitably on the same path as our enemies -- most often preceding them -- but we must be there, without any confusion, as enemies.' The same path, a shared race, a mutual goal: how could one not be confused?" But only McDonough insists on maintaining that these enemies have "a mutual goal" and so he is the only one who is confused!

[7] See, for example, Guy Debord's comments about the avant-garde to Robert Estivals (1963).

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