What is it good for?

Guy Debord believed his war board game would be his legacy

The French iconoclast Guy Debord tends to be known in America—if he is known at all—for two things, both of which peaked in the student movements of 1968,[1] when he was thirty-six. Debord was a founder of the Situationist International, an underground organization[2] whose roots lay in Dada and cultural Marxism[3] and whose whimsical slogans, creative defiance, and cryptic prose attracted dreamers on both sides of the pond. He was also a curmudgeon. His 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle (the other thing he’s known for), was the high point in a lifetime of faultfinding, paranoia, and alienation.[4] In 221 short theses, it attacked a cultural “spectacle”[5] in which consumer items and pat images had replaced social relationships. These ideas seem old hat in an age inured to Viagra ads and the many phases of Madonna. In 1960s France, though, they proved galvanizing. Debord’s malaise[6] was the kind some people feel when they see Times Square for the first time. His genius was to back up that malaise with theory.[7]

Still, he thought his legacy would rest on something else. “I succeeded, a long time ago, in presenting the basics of [war] on a rather simple board game,” he wrote in 1989.[8] “The surprises of this kriegspiel seem inexhaustible; and I fear that this may well be the only one of my works that anyone will dare acknowledge as having some value.” Debord invented the Game of War, as he called it, in his early twenties—he had no military background—and patented it ten years later. The version that finally reached market in 1987, after more than two decades, included blow-by-blow commentary on a match between Debord and his wife, Alice Becker-Ho. The story behind this curious publication is partly that of Gerard Lebovici, with whom Debord shared a productive and unlikely partnership for nearly fifteen years. Productive, because Lebovici backed Debord’s experimental films, published his writing, and threw extra cash his way when necessary. (Debord had no profession.)[9] Unlikely, because Lebovici seemed to be everything Debord loathed. He was a high-powered media mogul—one of France’s first. At his peak, he managed a stable of actors that included Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, and Yves Montand; fleshed out movies by Alain Resnais and Francois Truffaut; and published the likes of William S. Burroughs and George Orwell. Lebovici, alas, never saw the Game of War come to fruition. He was found dead in his car in 1984, four rifle[10] bullets in the back of his head. The crime was never solved.

Atlas Press has just rereleased A Game of War in a new English rendering by Donald Nicholson-Smith, a translator Debord appears to have trusted.[11] The edition comes in a sleek box and includes, for long winter nights, a playing board and little punch-out pieces. It’s difficult to summarize. The board contains two facing territories of 250 squares each. Two of these per side are “arsenal” squares. (Active pieces, we learn, must be in “communication”—i.e., aligned, either directly or through intermediary pieces—with an arsenal.) Territories also include three “fort” squares (which raise a piece’s “defensive factor”—more on that in a second), nine “mountain” squares (impenetrable to all things), and one “mountain-pass” square (for penetrating the impenetrable mountains). Each side has seventeen pieces—an array of infantry, cavalry, artillery, and communications. Players take turns, as in chess. Unlike in chess, they move up to five pieces per turn. Each piece carries a numerical “offensive factor” in addition to its defensive factor; when an attack is under way, offensive factors are summed and weighed against the defense, a la Risk. The game ends when a player’s fighting pieces or arsenals are gone. In the match Debord played with his wife, this took fifty-five moves. Ludologists and the extremely anal-retentive will be relieved to find that errors in the 1987 diagrams have been corrected. The rest of us will be glad just to get the rules down.

In crafting this game, Debord was synthesizing more than inventing. The thinker who inspired him was Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general who spent most of his life fighting the French—first the Revolutionary Army, then Napoleon. His goal was to understand how these unorthodox campaigns succeeded, and his summa, On War, unfinished at his death in 1831, is a military classic.[12] It’s also a book seriously prone to misreading.[13] Debord, who often described living as a private war (and who dealt his own share of Delphic prose), saw Clausewitz’s precepts as life lessons; his game was originally to be subtitled “Strategy and Tactics of Military Conflict (According to Clausewitz).” But that title would have been as wrong as it is ugly. Debord’s game may take its lead from On War’s principles and anachronisms—his generation feared the Bomb, not the cavalry, after all—but it misses Clausewitz’s point. “War, and the form which we give it, proceeds from ideas, feelings, and circumstances,” wrote the general. His key innovation was to depict participants in combat as unreliable, diverse, and prey to loyalties and grudges: to humanize battlefield strategy.[14] Debord’s ambitions traveled in the opposite direction: to shrink the human world down to a game board.[15]

But doing so required a lucky break from that very world. Debord’s game had been on a back burner for years by the time the beneficent likes of Lebovici appeared to follow through. In 1977, the pair founded the Society of Strategic and Historical Games—a company that was supposed to do for the Kriegspiel approximately what the Christian Broadcasting Network does for Pat Robertson[16]—and published Debord’s rules. At that point, their collaboration had been going strong for six years and had become, in the eyes of many, creepy.[17] Not only had Lebovici’s left-wing publishing house, Editions Champ Libre, taken to publishing Debord’s favorites (Clausewitz included) but Lebovici seemed increasingly reluctant to publish anything else.[18] When Champ Libre’s editors got uneasy and rose against the mogul, he fired them all and took on Debord as an unofficial consultant.[19] From there, the creepiness shot heavenward.[20] In 1983, Lebovici unveiled a Latin Quarter cinema that screened four Debord films and nothing else.

Newspapers of the time treated the unlikely pair with hostile fascination, casting Lebovici as a slimy businessman with seamy secrets—some thought him a KGB agent or a mafioso—and Debord as his black-tongued, radical “guru.”[21] Debord seems to have spent a great deal of middle age fretting about this public image. His other pastimes during this period included anticipating lawsuits for piracy and plagiarism (he didn’t like to gather permissions)[22] and drinking (“Although I have read a lot, I have drunk even more”). His writing of the ’70s and ’80s frequently sounds like someone trying to talk his way out of a room-service bill:[23] He grandstands, he plays the victim, he produces absurd principles, he kvetches over details, he makes personal attacks. He is extraordinarily inconsistent. In a March 1973 letter to Lebovici, he professes not to understand lawyerly language;[24] that November, he passed along his draft of a legal defense. When the film version of The Society of the Spectacle disappeared from Le Monde’s movie listings after a month, Debord blamed “some Stalinist or gauchiste copy editor.” Later, he railed against a proofreader who “coldly suppressed my commas”—i.e., copyedited his manuscript—and blustered about leaving Champ Libre altogether.[25]

Why did Lebovici put up with this stuff? The two men had grown symbiotic, for one thing. Debord got cash and connections,[26] and the mogul got an intellectual compass; each lent the other a guise of seriousness.[27] Yet the relationship must have been personal, too.[28] Lebovici seemed to understand his colleague’s cultural nostalgia—The world isn’t what it used to be! is a recurring Debord theme—and his way of thinking. Debord’s overconfidence, paranoia, and reneging came partly from his eagerness to see patterns everywhere: When an anomaly arose,[29] his whole MO would undergo recalibration. The rigid rules and move-by-move study of a war game played into this tendency. Debord could never pass up a chance to explain his own moves, or parse his opponent’s, in a clear-cut system.

It is difficult to know, though, what Debord would have made of Lebovici had it not been for the generous checks.[30] People often spoke of the mogul as Janus-faced, a man of double lives, but he seems more like a massive sponge.[31] Lebovici was born in France to Romanian-Jewish immigrants. In 1942, when he was ten, German soldiers rang at his family’s Paris residence, and his mother hid him and his sister before answering the door. He never saw her again. When his father died a few years later, Lebovici dropped out of the most prestigious acting class in Paris (“I want to be the best or nothing,” he told his teacher) and returned to the family business of importing boar-hair brushes. In 1959, a friend suggested that he become a theatrical manager. He cofounded his first agency the following year and, in 1963, bought out a company managing Belmondo and other A-list names. It was his first coup, and it gave him the authority and resources to form his megafirm, Artmedia.

Lebovici’s launch coincided with a sea change in French cinema. The late ’50s gave rise to a realer, grittier, more ambitious screen style that the magazine L’Express eventually dubbed the New Wave. But it also changed the way filmmakers thought about their work. Lebovici and Debord’s generation fell under the thrall of Hollywood directors like Hitchcock, Huston, and Welles, whose movies flooded into France for the first time after the war. It was revelatory stuff: Here were guys who had managed to give big-budget, collaborative products the style—the unmistakable mark—of a single artist. The New Wave cineastes came disproportionately from the writing professions, and they spent a lot of time hanging around the Editors’ Quarter of the Left Bank; their hope was partly to join the bureaucracy of moviemaking with a kind of literary independence.[32] Lebovici’s strategy as an agent arose from this ethic. He worked to represent actors, directors, and screenwriters as individual artists rather than as pawns in a producer’s game. Later, he would bring together cinema and publishing as two arms of a single enterprise. He didn’t invent the pan-media alliance in France. He just made it his business model.

And yet money didn’t seem to be the object here. Lebovici reinvested almost everything he made into Artmedia and, throughout his life, declined most opportunities for self-indulgence. (Indulgence of his artists was another matter. By the mid-’70s, he was paying Debord advances[33] of 210,000 francs, roughly equivalent to $230,000 today, for films that had little to no commercial potential.[34] Debord requested a yearly adjustment of the payout against inflation.) Some of Lebovici’s early colleagues praised his “taste.” But what kind of taste was this, really? Lebovici was not an aesthete (he had weak formal education and disdained bourgeois pretense), but neither was he a populist (with a few exceptions, his publishing record is the intellectual equivalent of a bran diet with lots of big, weird seeds in it).[35] His political zeal was a midlife acquisition.[36] And although his purse jingled with the best of French cinema, the heavy hitters—Truffaut, Resnais, Deneuve, Belmondo—were all established talents by the time he scooped them up. Lebovici was a dealer, not a creator. His good taste was commercial good taste, filtered and perverted by his enthusiasm for anything that might turn the France of World War II on its head.[37] Ironically, these two affinities let him ride his era in a way that Debord, despite frequent claims to historical insight, never could.

For postwar France was in a bad way then, and cleaner, faster, more industrial culture of the sort Lebovici represented[38] was its analeptic. As the middle class seized portents of a new age—sleek washing-machine soaps, awesomely chrome-fendered stoves—critics and xenophobes fretted about “Coca-Colonisation,” or American commercialism. Many of the accusations and indictments Lebovici faced throughout his ascent—that he arranged inside deals, that these deals let him smother competition—were actually indictments of this new commercial reality. Not that he had especially clean hands. Lebovici’s financial web reached into the sex-shop business, his extracurricular activities encompassed booze-and-poker binges (with ne’er-do-wells, usually, but sometimes with Yves Montand), and his income sources may have included money laundering.[39] Yet the flip side of this coin (or is it the same side?) is an American-style success story: an orphaned kid who, by his own drive, shrewdness, and wrangling, rises to lead a small empire, cavorts with marquee names, and make lots of dough in the process. Lebovici would have hated to be described as a bellwether. But he wasn’t far from the center of a culture freshly caught up in corporate growth and Bob le Flambeur. The same commercial tide Debord attacked brought Lebovici his success.

In the months following Lebovici’s murder, Debord bombarded his widow, Floriana, with letters—about the unfinished Game of War project; about Lebovici’s memoir, Tout sur le personnage, which Debord was preparing for publication; about the publishing house’s Clausewitz project.[40] The letters lack finesse (in one attempt at consolation, he tells Floriana that her years with Lebovici put him in mind of Clausewitz and Marie von Bruehl),[41] but perhaps his soft side showed better in person. When Champ Libre, renamed Editions Gerard Lebovici,[42] started sinking financially,[43] Debord sprang to the rescue. “The best solution I can see would obviously be to sell the Kriegspiel,” he wrote. “If it is, in business terms, an equivalent of ‘Monopoly,’ we won’t lack means to pay the Editions’ debts unflinchingly.”The game came out that February, by which point Floriana had opened a Saint-Sulpice bookshop consecrated to her husband’s publishing. There’s no evidence that the Kriegspiel lived up to its presumed commercial promise, yet Editions Gerard Lebovici stayed afloat. Meanwhile, Debord was being canonized.[44] In 1990, when Floriana died, he cut off all contact with Lebovici’s sons, who had inherited the publishing house,[45] and signed with Gallimard, the Random House of France. It was his last offensive move—and, some would say, his full entry into the enemy territory of sellouts and complacency.[46] In 1994, he put a bullet through his heart.[47]

Gallimard reissued A Game of War in 2006, and now Atlas has joined in, which brings us back to serious and pressing questions like, How does the game stack up against Monopoly? Not well. The Game of War is difficult to play. Its minutiae quotient is ungodly. Between the arithmetic and the boggling geometries, it may, in fact, be reminiscent of a certain dream you had the night before the SAT. The thrills are modest. All good board games, whether of the abstract type (chess, backgammon) or the little-cards-and-figurines type (Monopoly, the Game of Life), have easily digestible rules.[48] Debord’s are long and hairy. He prized the game’s indeterminacy—every round is different; it isn’t over till it’s over—yet many will find this questionable inducement. Board-gaming aims to be casual and friendly, after all.[49] Cocktails are frequently involved. So are Cheez-Its. The fight for Boardwalk–Park Place is a fun part of Monopoly, but there’s also pleasure in the inexorable plunge, when everyone else owns five hotels and you’re pawning your get-out-of-jail-free card. Debord ended his rules by touting, once again, the Kriegspiel’s verisimilitude: “With [some] reservations, we may say that this game accurately portrays all the factors at work in real war.” A chess match is nothing like battle, though, just as gory video games can’t capture the uncertainty and moral pressure of actual warfare. Things look different on the board than on the ground. Debord didn’t realize that,[50] as far as we’re concerned, this is OK. People don’t like their games too real.

(A book review of A Game of War, this text was written by Nathan Heller and published in the February/March 2008 issue of Book Forum, an off-shoot of Artforum International. Footnotes in lieu of a letter to the editor by NOT BORED! December 2008.)

[1] The "movements of 1968" included, but were not limited to students. The author fails to mention the movements made up of workers. As for the Situationist International, though it did indeed write and distribute On the Poverty of Student Life (1966), it also wrote and distributed pamphlets concerning the socio-political conditions of workers in China, Algeria and the USA.

[2] The SI was not an "underground" organization. Though the SI's meetings were closed to non-members, the proceedings of these meetings were published -- and in a journal called Internationale Situationniste, which was sold on the open market. Furthermore, this journal was officially registered with the French government.

[3] The SI's roots were in Dada, Surrealism and political and revolutionary Marxism.

[4] The extreme prejudice of these remarks would seem to disqualify their author from writing a review of any book by Guy Debord. At the very least, such remarks -- as we will see, there are many others, some even more hateful -- raise a simple question: why would Book Forum print such a manifestly biased review?

[5] In fact, only one chapter of the nine chapters in The Society of the Spectacle is about the "cultural spectacle." The longest chapter concerns "the proletariat."

[6] Here the discontents of an entire society are presented as if they were the "malaise" of a single individual. Cure him, and society's problems will be cured as well? Ridiculous.

[7] A very cynical remark: if Debord had not come up with "theory," he'd merely be an alienated, fault-finding paranoiac. Note that Debord's practice -- the way he lived his life -- doesn't enter into the matter at all.

[8] In 1987, not 1989.

[9] Lebovici certainly didn't throw "extra cash" to Debord "when necessary." Lebovici or, rather, Editions Champ Libre, paid Debord in accordance with the sales of his books. In the 1970s, there were several "hot titles" that Debord had either written or edited and that were published by Champ Libre: all twelve issues of Internationale Situationniste, The Real Split in the International, and, of course, The Society of the Spectacle.

[10] No: Lebovici was shot at close range, with a handgun, not at long distance, with a rifle.

[11] No: Debord didn't trust Nicholson-Smith. See Debord's letters dated 27 May 1979, 11 July 1979, and 20 November 1989.

[12] No: Clausewitz's goal in such books as The Campaign of 1796 in Italy, The Campaign of 1799 in Italy and Switzerland, The Campaign of 1812 in Russia, the Campaign of 1813, The Campaign of 1814 and Notes on Prussia in its great catastrophe was to write history. In On War he tried to develop a general theory of warfare. Debord's interest in Clausewitz derived from a desire to counter the use of Clausewitz's name and reputation among certain contemporary "philosophers" (right-wing ex-Trotskyists and ex-Maoists). In a letter to Gerard Lebovici dated 16 April 1972, Debord writes that: "Almost all of Clausewitz, who fortunately returns to fashion, is translated into French but, except On War, nothing has been reprinted since 1900, and it is unfindable. Everything is thus in the public domain [...] Today, certains authors such as Glucksmann feign to appreciate Clausewitz as a theoretician of strategy, so as to cite him in their inept, pure and structuralized constructions, and beside Mao, several formulations taken from On War that they do not understand. There is a great interest in really knowing a theoretical thinking that is applied to a concrete process. This is what justifies publishing this apparently military material."

[13] Only among those who haven't actually read it.

[14] No: Clausewitz endeavored to theorize battlefield strategy, not "humanize" it. His theorization meant taking account of "chance" factors and events, which included "loyalties and grudges," but also included such non-human factors as the weather and the terrain.

[15] An absurd idea. Debord's "ambition" was to translate Clausewitz's method and ideas into a board game.

[16] A perfectly ridiculous analogy.

[17] What does this mean? Is the author insinuating that Debord and Lebovici were lovers? co-conspirators in a criminal enterprise? funding terrorists, perhaps?

[18] Ridiculous. As Debord wrote to Jaime Semprun on 26 December 1976, Champ Libre was in fact inconsistent in what it published: its titles were "Bakuninist, Korschist, Debordist, etc, which of course cannot become unified and coherent in their theses, and this not because Lebovici, the editor, is a hesitant and uncertain personality, incapable of choosing among these theses, but because he need not do so."

[19] Once again from the letter to Jaime Semprun: "At the publishing house, which I consider exactly according to the terms of analysis that I have exposed to you, I am neither associated, nor employed. Thus I exercise in it no 'co-responsibility,' neither general nor particular, having there with respect to whomever it might be -- the owners, the authors or the public -- neither rights, nor duties, nor functions."

[20] This phrasing suggests that the "creepiness" (some kind of sin or sordid crime?) was beginning to stink to high-heaven.

[21] And those French newspapers that did so were sued (successfully) for defamation of character.

[22] False. This is from the precise document to which the author alludes e.g., Film: "The Society of the Spectacle": Bases for a defense in a possible lawsuit: "The producer, as he has already affirmed, is completely ready to pay the rights for the sequences on litigation, now that he has accomplished this engagement with the author."

[23] Same objection as note [4] above: The extreme prejudice of these remarks would seem to disqualify their author from writing a review of any book by Guy Debord.

[24] From Debord's letter to Lebovici, dated 20 March 1973:

"I also communicate to you a letter, which has followed me here, from a lawyer who acts in concert with Kiejman. What is this obscenity? From where comes this person, whose language I do not understand and what does he mean by 'my society'? Is it a question here of the society of the spectacle? He also precipitously reiterates his demands in a letter dated 23 February, asking me again about 'birth and death records' that Kiejman evidently possesses. Tell me, I ask you, if you know this lawyer and the opportunity for his intervention in our affairs."

And so, Debord understood "lawyerly language" rather well; he just didn't understand this particular lawyer's questions (they appear to have been rather stupid).

[25] Debord had every right to be disgusted with the services provided by such "experts": he was an excellent proofreader and copyeditor, both of his own works and their works of others. See for example the quality of his work on Baudet's translation of Clausewitz.

[26] False: Debord sought no "connections" from Lebovici and never made use of any "connection" to advance his career.

[27] Especially in the wake of May 1968, Debord needed nothing to convince anyone of his "seriousness."

[28] According to Debord himself, his relationship with Lebovici was primarily personal, and included the entire Lebovici family: Gerard's wife Floriana and their son, Nicolas. This relationship with the Lebovici family continued long after the murder of Gerard.

[29] The author doesn't provide a single example of an "anomaly," and so it is impossible to evaluate his claims about Debord's psychology.

[30] Same objection as note [28] above: According to Debord himself, his relationship with Lebovici was primarily personal, and included the entire Lebovici family: Gerard's wife Floriana and their son, Nicolas. This relationship with the Lebovici family continued long after the murder of Gerard.

[31] This kind of "reporting" is sloppy at best and slanderous at worst.

[32] The bureaucracy of moviemaking: what does this mean?

[33] Note: not "extra cash" (see note [9] above).

[34] Illogical. If Gerard Lebovici the film "mogul" thought that Debord's films -- especially The Society of the Spectacle -- had "commercial potential," then it is quite possible that they did in fact do so. But this entire line of thought leads in the wrong direction: Lebovici helped Debord because the latter had a long track record of making good films, that is, films still worth watching after the bloom of their initial or apparent "commercial" success has worn off.

[35] It is clear from the poverty of invectives such as these that the author of this essay isn't intelligent enough to understand anything about Champ Libre's "publishing record."

[36] No, his political zeal was caused by May 1968, which happened to occur when Lebovici was in his mid-thirties.

[37] The writer doesn't seem to realize that, by the time Debord and Lebovici became friends, "the France of World War II" had already been "turned on its head" by May 1968.

[38] Illogical. Lebovici's work -- Editions Champ Libre, for example -- was among the few exceptions to the "industrial culture" of the late 1960s and 1970s.

[39] More defamation of character, this time directed against Gerard Lebovici. But we suppose that neither Nathan Heller nor Book Forum are worried about being sued by a dead man.

[40] No: Debord did not "bombard" his friend with letters; mostly he seems to have tried to comfort her (and succeeded).

[41] Nathan Heller fails to mention the context for these remarks:

"To conclude, they [the police] had the impudence to ask me what I thought of the nature of your relationship with Gerard. I responded: 'Excellent and admirable. Founded on a mutual, complete and perfect trust, which all of your [Floriana's] behavior had moreover confirmed since the assassination.' Without making this scholarly historical reference, I admit to you that, at that moment, I thought of Clausewitz and Marie de Bruehl, because I recalled the tender admiration that Gerard manifested when speaking of this couple and it appeared obvious to me that he recognized himself in it. Seeing the contrast with my customary coldness, I believe that on this point they did not doubt my sincerity nor my conviction. They made no commentary and we left it at that."

(Letter to Floriana Lebovici, dated 24 Janaury 1985.)

[42] This took place in 1984/1985. The author makes no mention of Floriana Lebovici's incredible bravery and dedication to the cause: she was the one who continued Gerard's work, despite his murder and the threats made against her.

[43] This started to take place in 1986/1987.

[44] The author has given us no reason to understand how or why this could come about. He mentions neither Comments on the Society of the Spectacle nor Panegyric, which were the books for which Debord was being praised.

[45] Debord cut off contact with Editions Gerard Lebovici (and its successor, Editions Ivrea) because Lebovici's sons tried to break an already-signed book contract with Pascal Dumontier.

[46] "Full entry"? Ridiculous. Debord never appeared on television, never wrote for a newspaper, never taught at a university, never advised politicians -- in short, he never did any of the things routinely done by such true sell-outs as Jean Baudrillard, Andre Glucksmann, Jacques Attali, Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, etc etc.

[47] No mention of the painful alcohol-related disease from which Debord had been suffering since 1990.

[48] Of course. But then again, most people like their revolutionary theory to be "easily digestible," too.

[49] Given his systematic and completely undisguised hostility towards Guy Debord, Nathan Heller is the wrong person to be speaking about what is or is not "casual and friendly."

[50] Yes, he did: this was why he not only actively participated in May 1968, but also anticipated it.

To Contact NOT BORED!