Debord at the BNF, or the Art of Diversion

What can the spectacle get from the critique of the spectacle?

A Guy Debord expo at the very temple of the cultural institution is the worst dirty trick to play on this man, whose anti-cultural, anti-artistic and anti-institutional radicalism would surely not have accommodated itself to such official glorification.

It certainly isn’t the job of the critic, the curator, the commentator, or, of course, the researcher to piously follow the wishes of an author without questioning him, updating him, stretching him [le mettre en tension] and confronting him with the realities that he has, perhaps, dodged. Not putting the thought of a man into a contradictory situation, in order to confront it with its own limits, is even the worst way of paying tribute to it.

It is certainly completely normal that Guy Debord, as the principal representative of an artistic and political current that has been duly indexed among the avant-gardes of the second half of the 20th century, has been welcomed as a national treasure by the Bibliothèque nationale de France [BNF]. Thus there was reason to take the Debord archives (purchased by the BNF for 2.7 million Euros in 2011[1]) from the bowels of obscure conservation in order to share them with the public, which is the very vocation of the library and its temporary exhibitions. . . .

And it is certainly not surprising that one accords him the honors of this temple of the book, since one can read his various works in folio editions, buy his films as a boxed set from FNAC[2] and quote him in a sociological assignment for the [Université Paris] Dauphine or HEC [Hautes études commerciales] . . . .

Since Debord’s suicide in 1994, his writings have been fully part of the national culture, belonging to the mainstream[3] production of the cultural industries, and quite naturally they have found their place at a prestigious Parisian exhibition, as was previously done with the works of René Char and others.

Yet . . . when one has read The Society of the Spectacle, one can only find it strange to see a Guy Debord exhibition at the BNF. At the minimum, this operation is proof of the justness of his analyses of the process by which life is reified, the commodification of everything, and especially the spectacular alienation of culture, and – at the same time and quite sadly – the failure of the famous strategies (here displayed) that he deployed to escape this deadly destiny. . . . Jean Baudrillard emphasizes this paradox in La société de consommation: “Just as the society of the Middle Ages was balanced upon consumption and the devil, ours is balanced upon consumption and its denunciation.”[4] What the BNF is exhibiting today is the art of the commercial absorption of critical discourse (indeed, one that wanted to be the most radical), and I think this is the big question that it poses to us. Everything concerning the commodification of the acts of cultural life that Debord violently “denounced” has been subjected to it with great pomp: his reader’s notes, written in an unreadable scrawl, are exhibited like trophies to the bugged-out eyes of the spectators (an obligatory situationist iconoclasm is that we are readers more than spectators); his films are shown in accordance with the customary arrangements of exhibitions (uncomfortable benches, obscure nooks, continuous loops), even though these screenings are offered outside of the exhibition and for free; his letters, written by hand in the heat of tactical action, but here displayed in glass cases, become the traditional reliquary fetishes of an honored Man of Letters; and his short directives [sa pensée brève], initially written as graffiti[5] intended to shout out to both worker and executive, have become a spectacle detached from their own in situ proclamations, [and are now located] in a hushed framework in which the Benjaminian[6] strollers can idly skim through them. The cherry on top are the two truly charming security guards who roam the aisles of the expo at great speed and with agility to make sure that amateur photographers do not take home any personal souvenirs. . . .

In its important story on the subject, Télérama[7] wasn’t mistaken in highlighting the contradiction between declaring a “national treasure” a body of work as radical and as opposed to the institution that honors it [as Debord’s was], just as the curators of this exhibition didn’t fail to emphasize the paradox, as this precaution in their press release shows: “Paris, 2013, on the banks of the Seine, [the works of] Guy Debord, classified a national treasure, will become part of the spectacle of which he was the most intransigent critic. But with him, to fight it still, [comes] his art of war.” Irrefutable, and bizarre! The means by which Debord will be made part of the institution is, precisely, that of war . . . war against the very one who is thereby honored. Thus it is Debord the strategist that is placed in the foreground by the exhibition, at the risk of making him appear as a party leader without an army, as a writer stuck in a radical impasse. This approach offers a double advantage for the institution: on the one hand, it foregrounds the “historical” dimensions of the Lettrist and Situationist adventures, that is to say, the part that most fully belongs to the national heritage; and, on the other hand, it doesn’t highlight too much the texts themselves, that is to say, the well-argued critique of the spectacle, which is the hardest part to show in such places. Adopting a technique that is well-known in the martial arts (using the strength of the adversary himself to tip him over), the curators have placed at the start of the exhibition a remark in which Debord says that he was well aware that at least half of his disciples will support his ideas at the very heart of the institution that he criticizes. . . .[8] The expo on one side, Julien Coupat[9] on the other.

But the real level at which one can imagine the paradox presented by this exhibition isn’t simply that of its oxymoronic situation: exposing the obscure or glorifying the adversary. More certainly, that level is the economic gambling in which the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is precisely engaged: a change in its business model that heads towards a more pronounced commercialization of its holdings and the instauration of public-private partnerships that increase the presence of commercialism in the routes to the BNF and even within its walls. One can see this indirectly when one has to cross the promenade to re-enter the West Hall due to the work being done by the “public-private partnership” with MK2 in the East Hall, where a multiplex movie-house is being built within the library itself . . . . But even more so it is in the light of the public-private partnership with ProQuest, which is digitizing the old books for the BNF and selling subscriptions to computerized access to national treasures (public domain materials) in France that one should consider the [BNF’s] tribute to the critique of the commodification of the world. As is emphasized by this clearly worded text by Scinfolex[10]: “The financial terms foresee that the BNF will collect a share of the digital copies sold by ProQuest for a period of ten years and B. Racine[11] states that these revenues will be entirely applied to the development by the institution of its own digitization.” Finally, as Antonio Casilli has emphasized,[12] this exhibition started a week after the BNF presented the ReLire project, which will digitize out-of-print books from the 20th century and provide an additional commercialization, as one can read in the notice revealed by Casilli: “If the title holders are not opposed to this, these books will become collectively managed in September 2013. Then they will be placed on sale in electronic form.” At the end of his text, Casilli brilliantly presents the cynicism of this step: “It is here that copyrights become a spectacle to the extent that the spectacle – according to Debord – is only the vehicle of market relations. In such case, cultural relations are being exposed to predation and market recuperation, not on the part of private companies, but State institutions, which bring about the double blow of making national property [patrimonialiser] and capitalizing upon the common goods that are represented by the very works of one of the first intellectuals to have theorized the surpassing of all intellectual property.”

At a certain level, the exhibition displays the strategy of Guy Debord to better annihilate it by using its strength against itself, as a Super-Egoistic guarantee of its concrete commercial exploitation. . . . Tartuffe taught us that there is nothing more subtle and effective that accusing oneself in order to act with impunity, and it is precisely at the moment that the jaws of the market bite into the apple of public domain works that one stages an exhibition about the critique of the commodification of culture, a visual trifle that makes Debord’s “art of war” into a consummated art of diversion. . . .

[1] Link provided by author: 21/a-chacun-son-debord_1852103_3246.html.

[2] Translator: the Fédération Nationale d’Achats des Cadres (the National Shopping Federation for Managers).

[3] Translator: English in original.

[4] Author: Jean Baudrillard, La société de consommation, Paris, Folio Essais # 35, 1986, p. 316.

[5] Translator: or “directives” painted upon canvases.

[6] Translator: a reference to Walter Benjamin.

[7] Link provided by author: un-regard-radical-sur-notre-societe,95039.php?xtatc=INT-41.

[8] Translator: cf. the first lines of Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988): “These comments are sure to be promptly known by fifty or sixty people; a large number given the times in which we live and the gravity of the matters under discussion. But then, of course, in some circles I am considered to be an authority. It must also be borne in mind that a good half of this elite that will be interested will consist of people who devote themselves to maintaining the spectacular system of domination.”

[9] Translator: a student of Debord’s writings at school, Julien Coupat was arrested and imprisoned in 2008-2009 because of his alleged involvement with ultra-Leftist terrorism. It would appear that he is offered here as an example of a good disciple of Debord.

[10] Link provided by author: http://scinfolex. train-de-se-faire-rouler.

[11] Translator: head of the BNF.

[12] Translator: In his essay “The BNF, Guy Debord, and the Schizophrenic Spectacle of Copyrights.”

(Written by Olivier Beuvelet and published on his blog on 31 March 2013. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! on 4 April 2013. Footnotes as indicated.)

To Contact NOT BORED!