Potlatch (1954-57)

The bulletin Potlatch appeared twenty-seven times, between 22 June 1954 and 5 November 1957.[1] It was numbered from 1 to 29, with the bulletin dated 17 August 1954 being a triple issue (9, 10, 11). A weekly until this triple issue, Potlatch became a monthly upon its 12th issue.

Potlatch was successively edited by Andre-Frank Conord (#1-8), Mohamed Dahou (#9-18), Gil J Wolman (#19), again by Mohamed Dahou (#20-22) and Jacques Fillon (#23-24). These last issues no longer mentioned the principal person who was responsible for them. Starting from #26, it "ceased to be published monthly."

Potlatch presented itself as the "information bulletin of the French group of the Lettrist International" (#1-21), then as the "information bulletin of the Lettrist International" (#22-29). The Lettrist International was the organization of the "Lettrist Left," which in 1952 imposed a split in the "Lettrist" artistic avant-garde, and from that moment exploded it.[2]

Potlatch was sent gratuitously to addresses chosen by its editors, and to several people who asked to receive it. It was never sold. In its first issue, Potlatch was printed in 50 copies. At the end, its print-run, through constant increase, reached 400 or perhaps even 500 copies. Precursor to what became called "pirate publishing" [l'edition sauvage] around 1970, but truer and more rigorous in its rejection of market relations, Potlatch -- obeying its title[3] -- was only given away for free during the time it was published.

The strategic intention of Potlatch was to create certain liaisons to constitute a new movement, which was to be -- then and there -- a reunification of avant-garde cultural creation and the revolutionary critique of society. In 1957, the Situationist International effectively formed on such a basis. One will recognize situationist themes as already present here, in the lapidary formulations demanded by this special means of communication.

The passage of more than thirty years, exactly because these texts have not been contradicted by subsequent events, introduces a certain difficulty for today's readers. At present, they have difficulty conceiving under which forms the banalities almost universally accepted these days were presented and, consequently, they have difficulty recognizing the ideas that, then scandalous, will ruin them. The difficulty is still greater, due to the fact that these spectacular forms have apparently changed, every three months, almost every day, while for several centuries the content of dispossession and falsification has not been presented as something that can be changed.

Inversely, the time that has passed will also facilitate the reader on another aspect of the question. The judgment of Potlatch concerning the end of modern art seemed very excessive in 1954. One knows now, due to an experience that is already long -- no one can advance another explanation of the fact, although one sometimes tries hard to put it into doubt -- that, since 1954, one has never seen appear, in any field, a single artist in whom one can recognize a real interest.[4] One also knows that no one outside the Situationist International has wanted to formulate a central critique of this society, which nevertheless falls around us and pours forth an avalanche of disastrous failures and is always pressed to accumulate more.

[1] Translator's note: Debord does not mention that Potlatch #30 (#1 in a new series) was published on 15 July 1959 in Amsterdam by the Dutch section of the Situationist International. It contained "The Role of Potlatch, Then and Now," written by Guy Debord (as translated by Reuben Keehan):

Potlatch was the name of the information bulletin of the Lettrist International, 29 issues of which were produced between June 1954 and November 1957. An instrument of propaganda during the transitional period from the insufficient and failed attempts of post-war avant-gardists to the organization of the cultural revolution now systematically initiated by the situationists, Potlatch was without doubt the most radical expression of its time, that is to say the most advanced search for a new culture and a new life.

Whatever fortunes our activity might have known, it was Potlatch alone that filled the void in the cultural ideas of an era -- that gaping hole in the middle of the 1950's. It is already certain that history will see it not as a witness to the fidelity of the modern spirit during the reign of reactionary parody, but as a document of the experimental research that would be the central concern of the future. But this future is now -- it is the game of every one of our lives. The real success that may be attributed to Potlatch is in its serving to unite the situationist movement on a new and greater field of operations.

Potlatch took its name from the North American Indian word for a pre-commercial form of circulation of goods, founded on the reciprocity of sumptuous gifts. The non-salable goods which such a free bulletin could distribute were desires and unedited problems; and it was their profundity for others that constituted a gift in return. This explains why the exchange of experience in Potlatch was often supplied as an exchange of insults, the sort of insults that we owe to those whose idea of life is inferior to our own.

Since the founding conference of the SI at Cosio d'Arroscio, Potlatch has belonged to the situationists, who broke off its publication almost immediately. However, on [Maurice] Wyckaert's suggestion, the Munich situationist conference adopted the principle of the publication of a new series of Potlatch, this time serving solely as an interior liaison among the sections of the SI. The editing and production of Potlatch has been placed under the control of the Dutch section.

The new task of Potlatch, in a different context, is as important as the old. We have moved on, and thus increased our difficulties, not to mention the chances of contributing to a completely different end than that intended. We live -- as we must, the real innovators until the overthrow of all the dominant conditions of culture -- with this central contradiction: we are at once a presence and a contestation in the so-called "modern" arts. We must preserve and surmount this negativity, superseding it on a superior cultural terrain. But our methods cannot be drawn from the given means of aesthetic "expression," nor from the tastes that feed on them. The SI might be a good instrument for the supersession of this laughably stagnant world; or it could congeal into an even greater obstacle: a "new style." We intend to push it as far as it will go. We intend Potlatch to work usefully toward this end.

A second issue was planned, but never came out. See letters from Debord to Constant dated 16 September 1959, 22 September 1959, 25 September 1959, and 8 October 1959.

[2] Translator's note: the "Lettrist" artistic movement, founded by Isidore Isou in 1948, continued to exist well into the 1960s.

[3] Translator's note: see Georges Bataille, "The Notion of Expenditure" (1933) in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

[4] Translator's note: OK, we'll play along. What about Elvis Presley?

(Published in Guy Debord Correspondance, Vol 6: Janvier 1979-Decembre 1987 by Librairie Artheme Fayard, 2006. Except where noted, translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2007.)

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