another unkind reply to RETORT

It comes labeled as "An Exchange on Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War,"[1] but in no way is it an exchange; it is more like a series of juxtaposed rhetorical flourishes. The questions ("posed by Hal Foster before the first bombings in London," that is, before 7 July 2005) are separated in both time and space from the so-called responses ("delivered by Retort in the midst of the first flooding of New Orleans," that is, on or after 29 August 2005). It is clear from these sparse explanatory notes, which were provided by October, and from the movement or flow of the "exchange" itself, that it was conducted by email, but without the rapid-fire back-and-forth of typical emailed exchanges, not to mention instant messaging. Hal Foster and RETORT might well have simply sent each other letters.

Both parties are responsible for the ensuing disaster. Hal Foster can't seem to ask a direct question; instead, he relies on a series of small, indirect or "leading" questions, some of which lead nowhere. He doesn't seem to have done his homework, and might even have forgotten things that he knew when he wrote Recodings.[2] When Foster asks, "What are the possibilities of Situationist responses to this situation?" -- that is to say, the fact that "today radical invention, and not only reckless power, is most [sic] in the hands of the Right, both here and abroad" -- it is clear that he has no idea that at least three different authors have gone beyond contemplating "possibilities" and have actually made "Situationist responses" to September 11th -- and did so in the immediate aftermath of the event(s), not several months or several years later. Worse still, Foster unironically refers to situationist theory as "situationism," despite everything that has ever been said on the subject of its non-existence or its status as a tool of the situationists' enemies. But, then again, two out of the three writers published in this particular issue of October (half-devoted to Guy Debord) unironically refer to and comment about the existence of a "Situationism"![3]

Foster isn't totally clueless; at some level, he gets it. After reminding RETORT that it called September 11th "a spectacular defeat," despite the fact that September 11th "has served as the cover for both the military neoliberalism prosecuted abroad and for the political neoliberalism pursued at home" and has resulted in "an awesome burgeoning of powers," Foster asks, "with defeats like these, some in D.C. [District of Columbia] backrooms might chuckle, who needs victories?" Despite his disorganization, Foster clearly sees the obvious emptiness of RETORT's claims that the September 11th terrorists, thinking spectacularly, launched a successful attack against the spectacle; and that, as a result, the society of the spectacle was changed, the theory of the society of the spectacle needs to be changed, and RETORT's book is a good orientation for such a debate, such an "exchange" of ideas, "on the Left." One wants Foster to come right out and say, "No, you blatant apologists for the everything-changed-on-September-11th ideology promulgated by the Bush Administration, September 11th was a clear victory for spectacular power, for 'the spectacle,' and for the military/industrial/entertainment complex whose representatives meet in D.C. backrooms." One wants Foster to press the point: all that would have been obvious to Debord, if he had been asked about it between, say, 1969 and 1980, when spectacular terrorism was clearly being used by the Italian State (among others) to extinguish proletarian subversion. As we have already pointed out,[4] there is no need for a "new" or "changed" theory of the society of the spectacle: Debord's would suit us well enough, if we were properly informed of it and knew how to read what it says.[5]

But the primary responsibility for the disastrous "exchange" with October belongs to RETORT. Despite the group's announced intention to develop a "non-rejectionist" critique of modernity, RETORT refuses to refer to Hal Foster by name, instead calling him "October," as if he represents something, something beyond or larger than himself, something ideological, like "Octoberism" (he is in fact one of the journal's editors). As a result, RETORT doesn't so much respond to the questions it is asked as respond to "the overall drift of October's questions," which RETORT manages to discern after only two of them. This tactic allows RETORT to hold itself above everyone else or, at the very least, above the "Octoberists"; the "mice" who gnaw upon what RETORT in its haughty superiority labels (but does not describe or explain the details of) "a Conspiracy Hillbilly version" of the idea that September 11th was a victory for spectacular power;[6] and "the actually existing art world of the [American] Empire."[7] Needless to say, RETORT has never deigned to respond to (or even acknowledge the existence of) our Unkind reply, even though it was sent copies by both email and ground mail.

But this is not why we felt it necessary to respond to RETORT's "exchange" with October. We again reply unkindly to RETORT because of the group's continued inability to understand just what the fuck Guy Debord was on about when he wrote about "the spectacle," and because mainstream ("spectacular") publications have begun to buy into and repeat RETORT's illogical horseshit that September 11th "put [the] spectacle in doubt." It is absolutely appalling to read that, prior to the publication of RETORT's book, "the concept of spectacle needed to be desacralized. It needed to be applied, locally and conjuncturally -- to dirty its hands with the details of politics," especially because one of the members of RETORT is T.J. Clark, who -- just a few years ago -- went to great pains to show that Guy Debord was a very "social animal"[8] and that Debord and the rest of the Situationist International were political animals, not uninvolved theoreticians.[9]

RETORT's worst bit of disinformation concerning Debord's theory is the idea that "the spectacle" and "the State" are two different forms of social control, whereas every reader of The Society of the Spectacle knows that "the spectacle" is what the modern State became during its post-Depression (1939) fusion with the capitalist economy. Thus, it is meaningless to refer to "the state's entrapment in the [spectacular] logic of image-control," or to imagine that "the trouble with the spectacle, from the state's point of view, is that its monadology of consumption constantly dissolves (even paranoid) distinctions and puts Don't Know in their place."[10] But the writers from RETORT do, and people praise them for it, and we think we know why. Scared by the (possibly paranoid) idea that Guy Debord (and Henri Lefebvre and Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno) were actually Right-wing in their respective critiques of the spectacle of "modernity,"[11] RETORT seeks to protect itself by becoming less radical than Debord et al in its critique of the State. Despite identifying itself as "Council Communist," as "a gathering of [...] antagonists of the present order of things," RETORT never speaks of political revolution. For RETORT, the State need not be destroyed: it simply needs to free itself from the illogic of the spectacle. This margin allows the various members of RETORT to remain rooted in traditional politics: reinvigorating and strengthening "the Left" and the antiwar movement;[12] god knows what else (election to the Berkeley City Council?). To detourn Raoul Vaneigem: those such as RETORT, who talk of everyday life without mentioning revolution, have a corpse in their mouths.

-- Bill NOT BORED! 27 March 2006

[1] October 115, Winter 2006, pp. 3-12. RETORT's Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War was published by Verso in the summer of 2005.

[2] Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (1985).

[3] In "Terres Inconnues," Anthony Vidler studies the influence of the 17th century Carte de Tendre and the aerial photography of Chombart de Lauwe (circa 1950) on the ideas and illustrations in Internationale Situationniste, but completely misses the importance of the continuous illumination of the earth's surface by military devices (night-vision goggles, searchlights, helicopters, warplanes, satellites, et al), even though he himself quotes relevant material. For example: "Le Corbusier had noted thirty years before [that] 'the bird can be dove or hawk. It became a hawk. What an unexpected gift to be able to set off at night under the cover of darkness, and away to sow death with bombs upon sleeping towns'" (emphasis added). See instead Paul Virilio's Cinema and War (1989).

In "The Lessons of Guy Debord," Vincent Kaufmann tries to fashion or reinforce the image of Debord as "unilateral," "a principle of perfect autonomy, a principle of noncommunication and nonexchange," but is forced to admit in a footnote that "The Situationist group and more precisely the way Debord was leading it has often been described as Stalinist because of the many exclusions that occurred in its history. However, with the ongoing publication of Debord's correspondence, it becomes obvious that these exclusions had little to do with Stalinism." Indeed. And with the on-going translation of Debord's correspondence into English, one can expect an increasingly violent rejection of the ridicuous half-truths, falsehoods and outright lies told about Debord over the years by such people as Stewart Home, Len Bracken, Andrew Hussey, et al.

And, in "Guy Debord, or the Revolutionary without a Halo," Tom McDonough -- about whom we've written once before, in 1997 -- tries to discern "a break in Debord's work, which might be dated to the end of the 1970s, and which was marked by the deployment and consolidation of a normative -- if not archaic -- conception of selfhood." But such a project is doubly misguided: either one might argue (following, say, Vincent Kaufmann) that Debord's whole life was dominated by "interruption," that is to say, by a series of breaks, and/or one might argue that Debord first deployed and consolidated a "normative/archaic conception of selfhood" around 1961, when he stopped calling himself Guy-Ernest Debord and started using only his voice on the soundtracks of his films; or in 1972, when Debord authored the auto-dissolution of the Situationist International, etc, etc.

[4] See An unkind reply to RETORT (June 2004).

[5] We do not at all mean to imply that, like sacred texts, Debord's/Sanguinetti's theories from the 1970s and 1980s can only be understood by adepts, disciples or other mystics. It is simply a matter of the availability of good translations. Preferring a work published in 1967 to one published in 1988, RETORT never accounts for Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle; even if RETORT did so, the best-known English translation of it is terrible and needed to be re-done from scratch by another translator.

[6] It appears clear that the "mice" are those who go further than timid Hal Foster and actually believe that, in addition to benefiting immensely from September 11th, the Bush Administration (the current face of the military/industrial/entertainment complex) actually perpetrated some or all of that day's events. For an account of RETORT's arrogant refusal to engage in a non-rejectionist "exchange" with these so-called conspiracy theorists, visit the Portland IMC.

[7] The very last line of the text is actually an avowal of RETORT's arrogant refusal to engage in a discussion with or critique of the art world: "We shall refrain from putting alongside Mohammad Sidique Khan's last testament a brief listing of the themes and styles of this week's gallery offerings in New York and Los Angeles, or a sample of the 'ethical stances' of their reviewers."

[8] See his Foreword to Anselm Jappe's Guy Debord: "For no one was better [than Guy Debord], over the whole stretches of his life, at making himself enough of a community for the purposes of the moment; and if that community had nothing to do with the 'political' culture of Sartre, Garaudy, and de Gaulle, then so much the better. Writing was one social activity among others. The room on the Rue Saint-Jacques where The Society of the Spectacle got written was at once an austere cell -- with nothing on the shelves, I remember, but a few crucial texts (Hegel, Pascal, Marx, Lukacs, Lautremont's Poesies) laid open at the relevant page -- and also the entryway to Debord's miniscule apartment, through which friends and comrades continually passed. The process was meant to be seen, and interrupted. One moment the deep, ventriloqual dialogue with History and Class Consciousness: the next the latest bubble for a comics detourne, or the best insult yet to Althusser and Godard."

[9] See "Why Art Can't Kill the Situationist International," co-written with Donald Nicholson-Smith: "All the same, what we find nauseating in the received account is the implication that concern for problems of internal organization -- above all a determination to find a way out of the legacy of 'democratic centralism' -- is more token of these art-politicians' lack of seriousness. Anyone who actually reads what the SI wrote in 1966 and 1967 will quickly realize that it could not have issued from a group of people walled into their own factional struggles. There were such struggles. They were thought (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, in our view) to be the necessary condition of the kind of revolutionary clarity that informs the best of Situationist writing. But the Situationists never got stuck in their own turmoil, and they went on thinking, especially as things heated up in the course of 1967, about how they were to act -- to 'expand' -- if the capitalist State offered them an opportunity. Here, for instance, are extracts from a working document entitled 'Response aux camarades de Rennes -- sur l'organization et l'autonomie.' Signed by Debord, Khayati, and Vienet, and dated 16 July 1967, this text came out of a series of discussions (and joint actions) with other small groups on the Left [...] We cite the 'Response aux camarades de Rennes' because its contents contradict the current travesty-history of the SI during this period, and not least that travesty-history's favorite political claim -- that the Situationists were simply 'council communists' whose only answer to the practical questions of revolutionary politics was to hypostatize past experiments with workers' councils as a way of solving all problems of organization in advance."

[10] Let the reader be assured that we, too, have no idea of what is meant by this remark, which receives no further comment or explanation from RETORT.

[11] According to RETORT, "to the extent that the Left tradition inevitably did include moments when the modern condition was thought about as a whole -- as of course was true of Benjamin and Adorno or, for that matter, Debord and Lefebvre -- what resulted most often, it seems now in retrospect, were Right-wing motifs repeated in an ultra-Left register [...] Modernity, says Benjamin somewhere in the Arcades Project, is 'the time of Hell.' The language, again, is that of the Right. It is a line from The Pisan Cantos. We could imagine it nowadays issuing straight from Al-Zawahiri's mouth." But RETORT refuses to acknowledge the possibilities that, in evoking Hell, Benjamin was speaking metaphorically or was detourning that line from The Pisan Cantos; that Benjamin (a Jew), Adorno (a Protestant), Al-Zawahari (a Muslim) and Debord (a former Catholic) might not have the same concept in mind when they each evoke "Hell"; or that -- whatever the political orientations of these four men or the desire we might experience to "kill the messenger" of bad news -- modernity might in fact be the time of Hell. See Debord's evocations of the Devil in his 1978 film In girum imus notce et consumimur igni.

[12] Clark and Nicholson-Smith, "Why Art Can't Kill the Situationist International": "It was the Left (as opposed to, say, the art world) that the Situationists most hated in the 1960s and thought worth targeting. Whether the Left is still worth targeting we are not sure. We have tried several times to write a conclusion to these pages that did so, and have come up hard against the emptiness of the present. As usual, Debord is the best guide to this state of affairs."

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