Guy Debord turned into spectacle

The founder of the Situationist International was a strategist with several lives, an audacious provocateur and profoundly well read. From 27 March to 13 July, the BNF is devoting a passionate exhibition to him: “Guy Debord, an Art of War.”

In New York in 1990, an American journalist took me among the shelves of an East Village bookstore to show me the American edition of The Society of the Spectacle. Close to it was prominently featured Lipstick Traces, the book by Greil Marcus, published the previous year, in which the influence of the situationists on the punk movement was highlighted. This delighted a young Frenchman, who came to discover Guy Debord with passion and to devour his books. This living proof was added to the previous ones: while Leftist thought had collapsed into dust, swept away by the movement of history, this unique contemporary figure, who brought together revolution and intelligence, was a theoretician who was almost [completely] ignored by the media. Guy Debord was as young as ever. Even better, his theory of the world transformed into “spectacle” seemed more pertinent every day and was spread by initiates from one country to another.

We would not have dared to imagine that, thirty years later, Debord would become the posthumous hero of a very official exhibition, organization by the Bibliothèque nationale de France [BNF]. Had he himself not insisted on the irrecuperable side of his thought? Today, his archives, purchased by the State, have obtained the status of “national treasure”! But, after all, nothing assures us that he would have disapproved of this paradoxical destiny, like so many aspects of his life. Is his work poetry or politics? Why did the theoretician of the “surpassing of art” sometimes project the image of great nostalgia, of being a lover of past centuries? He continually played upon these ambiguities with a passion for strategy that justifies the title of this exhibition: “Guy Debord, An Art of War.”

The documents presented here (letters, posters, photos, manuscripts, works of art . . .) allow us to better understand the intellectual formation of “Guy-Ernest,” as he called himself in his youth. Born in Paris in 1931, he was raised in Cannes, where his personality came forth in his school years. In his correspondence with a comrade, Hervé Falcou, he expressed the desire to “re-impassion life” by knocking down the barriers that prevented the individual from realizing his aspirations in everyday life. Such would remain the stakes of an oeuvre that is difficult to contain within the [respective] fields of aesthetics, politics and philosophy. A quest for freedom, and even more (as he would ironically concede), by someone who “had always believed that the world existed to please him.”

His meeting with the Lettrist writer Isidore Isou at the Cannes Festival in 1951 served as a point of departure for his emancipation by putting him in contact with one of the most radical currents of the avant-garde. The following year, he presented his film Hurlements en faveur de Sade, which ended in a completely black and silent sequence that lasted twenty-four minutes. But the other striking aspect of those initiatory years is Debord’s passion for reading, which was an intense and serious activity that occupied most of his time. His culture not only drew upon the Marxist heritage of Rosa Luxembourg and Georg Lukacs, but also from the classical authors: from Thucydides to Cardinal de Retz by way of Baltasar Gracian and Clausewitz. Each book he read ended in the drafting of index cards on which the young man copied out several phrases from his favorite authors. Reassembled at the heart of the BNF’s exhibition, some of these 1,400 reader’s notes allow us to locate the quotations that nourished his writings, principally under the form of “détournements.” Several of them reappear at the heart of the theory of the “spectacle,” like this phrase from Marx’s Capital: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production reigns announces itself as an immense accumulation of commodities,” which was remodeled by Debord as “The life of societies in which modern conditions of production reign announces itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” And when Descartes invited men to “make themselves masters and possessors of nature,” situationist ambition incited them to “make themselves masters and possessors of their own lives.”

Established in Paris, Debord became the guiding light of an initial groupuscule, the Lettrist International, [which existed] from 1952 to 1957.[1] The documents displayed at the BNF emphasize, with good reason [à bon escient], that the adventure [of the Lettrist International] had as much to do with bohemia as revolution. The very modest café Moineau, located at the edge of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, served as the meeting place for this shady band that included Michèle Bernstein, Debord’s [first] wife, the poet Gil J. Wolman, and Ivan Chtcheglov, the initiator of “psychogeographical dérives [drifts].” Like all of the young people of the era, they were impeccably dressed. Their projects were much less so. In the journal titled Potlatch, they called for the installation of switches in the lampposts, the display of masterpieces from the Louvre in the cafés, and the elimination of all information concerning the destinations of the trains from the stations “to favor drifting [la derive].”

The foundation of the Situationist International (1957-1972) marked a more political turning point, which was nourished by the influence of Henri Lefebvre and his Critique of Everyday Life and that of Cornelius Castoriadis, organizer of Socialisme ou Barbarie.[2] But, in many respects, the revolutionary movement that extolled the surpassing of art and the invention of “situations” remained an aesthetic adventure in which the most striking figures around Debord[3] were the great [Danish] painter Asger Jorn, founder of the COBRA group, and the Dutch architect [and painter] Constant. Their imaginations were deployed in the legendary issues of the journal [Internationale Situationniste] that featured covers made of metallic paper and that included humorous détournements of urbanism, [graphic] design, art, and advertising. Although Debord held the reins of this revolutionary enterprise as the pitiless warlord [chef de guerre], the exclusion of “dissidents” from the heart of this already miniscule group resembled a détournement of Communist and surrealist exclusions.[4]

At the beginning of the 1970s, while Maoist excitement occupied the front of the stage, Debord put an end to the situationist adventure, which had greatly inspired the days of May 1968 in that they were more poetic and libertarian. But[5] he pursued his work as an initiated theoretician with The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and concluded it twenty years later in the luminous Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988). Several ideas remain from that adventure.

1. The modern world has become a “spectacle,” which isn’t only the media system, but the very organization of our lives and desires by the modern economy.

2. The Socialist and capitalist regimes have both sacrificed human interests to the dogma of production.

3. Artistic avant-gardes have become powerless, constrained to reproduce the same models, transformed into new modern styles.

A revolutionary due to his ideas, Debord wrote a clear and concise prose, very French in its way, in which his military vision of existence surfaced. In 1978, he even conceived a “war game” with armies and a chessboard, of which several copies were made.[6] As he wrote in a note: “I have a completely childish side and I rejoice in it: the maps, the Kriegspiel, the soldiers made of lead. I have also loved greater games: art, towns, the overthrow of a society.”[7]

His life became more peripatetic, from France to Italy, notably marked by a friendship with the revolutionary and wine-maker Gianfranco Sanguinetti (who highlighted the manipulation of certain terrorist groups by the State).[8] He moved to Arles, then returned to Paris, before becoming definitively established with his companion Alice Becker-Ho in an isolated house in the Haute-Loire region. His style of life, his assumed names,[9] and the friendship of the powerful producer Gérard Lebovici, who became his patron,[10] fed all sorts of theories among those who wanted to see Debord as a manipulative guru. He himself analyzed this phenomenon in his Considerations on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici,[11] a mix of critique and self-portrait, a perfect and marvelously rounded dialectic. In his last two books (the two volumes of Panegyrique), Debord joined images and text to revisit, with melancholy, several episodes in his life, going back to the Paris of the 1950s. In 1994, the symptoms of alcoholic polyneuritis (the result of a very drunk existence) led him to commit suicide by shooting himself in the heart on 30 November. But his death, immediately followed by the publication of a small book, illustrated by an image of the “acrobat,”[12] was given something of an aesthetic gesture.

To consider the wealth of this path, one might wonder if Guy Debord’s oeuvre doesn’t reside in the totality of his existence and the “situations” that he invented. One might even see the situationist movement (in which certain figures, such as Raoul Vaneigem, a medievalist and author of The Treatise on Living for the Younger Generations, obviously count for much)[13] as a chapter in a personal adventure,[14] one that is still stimulating for those who discover it today. As for the official consecration of the man who was so disdainful of all forms of power, it appears to the enemies of Debord (who still exist among the ex-Leftists, furious at being passed over) as the final proof of his betrayal;[15] it cynically enchants those who recuperate his prose by quoting it in an effort to outdo each other. One finds many of these people [the recuperators] among the advertising men and the politicians . . . . But this official consecration will bring smiles to those who suppose that Debord, always a strategist, had, in a certain fashion, at the end of his life, prepared this recuperation by confiding the totality of his writings to large publishing houses (Gallimard and Fayard),[16] then by settling every detail of his biography and his estate,[17] as if [Debord] the artist and his works ultimately prevailed over [Debord] the revolutionary.

[1] This version of the events in question drops out the violence of the separation between Isou’s lettrists and Debord’s Lettrist International, which took place due to disagreements about the attack certain Lettrists (Debord among them) led against Charlie Chaplin on 29 October 1952. Cf. No More Flat Feet.

[2] Note that Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life was published in 1947 and Socialisme ou Barbarie began publishing its journal in 1949. It would be more accurate to say that the formation of the SI in 1957 (almost a decade after the aforementioned events) was inspired by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which was celebrated in France by both Lefebvre and Castoriadis.

[3] This phrasing over-emphasizes Debord’s centrality in the formation of the SI. The role of Asger Jorn, and especially his longstanding connections with radical artists all over Europe, was equally important as, if not more important than, the role of Debord.

[4] Debord was merely the editor in chief of the SI’s journal, and not the group’s leader or “warlord.” Exclusions weren’t his exclusive decision; they were voted upon by the group as a whole. Furthermore, some “dissidents” left the SI because they resigned, not because they were excluded.

[5] The very dates mentioned here undermine the writer’s suggestion that Debord was an “initiated theoretician” after the dissolution of the SI in 1972. In point of fact, Debord was a theoretician well before May 1968. Furthermore, the writer fails to mention Debord’s personal involvement with “the days” of May 1968 – the events actually lasted almost an entire month – namely his presence at the barricades at the rue Guy-Lassac and in the occupations movement.

[6] Though “copies” of the Kriegspiel were produced in 1978, Debord first “conceived” of this cabinet game and worked out its rules as early as 1956.

[7] This note, undated and previously unpublished, is apparently a part of the exhibition at the BNF.

[8] Sanguinetti was also a member of the SI, and, with Debord, co-signed the documents that dissolved the group.

[9] As Debord took pains to specify during his life, he only used pseudonyms in his correspondence, and never published anything under an assumed name.

[10] Despite the chronology suggested by the author, Debord became friends with Lebovici in 1971, before the dissolution of the SI.

[11] Published in 1985, one year after the still-unsolved murder of his friend. The author fails to mention that Debord was virtually accused by the French press of having caused or even ordered the murder of Lebovici; that Debord successfully sued those who had defamed him in this despicable fashion; and that, in response to these events, had withdrawn all six of his films – the writer only mentions his first – from distribution (a withdraw that was only rescinded after his death).

[12] Des contrats (Le Temps qu'il fait, 1995). For my discussion of the image of the acrobat, and the behavior of Alice Becker-Ho after the suicide of her husband, see Guy Debord in 2009: Spinning or Laughing?

[13] In addition to Vaneigem and the aforementioned situationists (Jorn, Constant, and Sanguinetti), other members who certainly “counted” were Mustapha Khayati, Donald Nicholson-Smith, and René Viénet.

[14] This is the myth that has been propagated since the early 1980s, first by Guy Debord himself, then by his widow, Alice Becker-Ho, and those she has been able to convince of its usefulness.

[15] As if only “enemies of Debord” could object to the exhibition at the BNF! In point of fact, true friends of Debord (or, if you will, true friends of the situationist movement) know that the exhibition at the BNF is a “betrayal” (even or especially if Alice Becker-Ho has allowed this betrayal of her husband’s reputation and works to take place). See, for example, Olivier Beuvelet’s Debord at the BNF, or the Art of Diversion.

[16] This is false: Debord never arranged things so that Fayard would publish his books. That was something arranged by Alice Becker-Ho, and no one else. As for Gallimard, Debord only agreed to work with them because of the involvement and through the mediation of Jean-Jacques Pauvert (cf. letters to Pauvert dated 27 August 1991, 9 September 1991 and 14 November 1991. But of course Debord’s decision to have Gallimard reprint his books is a far cry from having the French State (in the form of the BNF) purchase and then commercialize the entirety of his archives.

[17] It was in the 1980s that Debord arranged for Jean-Francois Martos to write “his” biography (it was actually the biography of the Situationist International). As for the final dispensation of his estate: it is ludicrous to imagine that Debord foresaw that the French State, pushed into a corner by Yale University’s offer to purchase his archives from his widow, would (1) declare those archives to be a national treasure, and thus make that sale impossible, and (2) get the BNF to pull out all the stops to raise the money necessary to satisfy his widow’s exorbitant asking price.

(Written by Benoît Duteurtre and published in the 30 March 2013 edition of Marianne. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! on 6 April 2013. The footnotes are offered in the spirit of Oscar Wilde, who once wrote, “Formerly we used to canonise our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarise them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of cheap men are absolutely detestable.”)

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