The Real Split in John McHale’s Translation of The Real Split

La Véritable Scisson dans L’Internationale: Circulaire Publique de L’Internationale Situationniste was published 40 years ago this month. It was the last “official” publication of the Situationist International, which was disbanded by one of its co-founders, Guy Debord – in consultation with Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Juvénal Quillet and others – shortly after the exclusion of René Riesel on 7 September 1971.[1] La Véritable Scisson was published by Editions Champ Libre, which had been launched by Gérard Lebovici in 1969 and had previously issued reprinted editions of Debord’s La Société du Spectacle, first published by Chastel-Buchet in 1967, and the complete run of the French section’s journal, Internationale Situationniste, first published (as a collection) by Van Gennep in 1971.

The six texts included in the original edition of La Véritable Scisson (all except one written by Debord) were composed over a five year period: the “Report to the Seventh Conference of the Situationist International” was written in July 1966; the “Declaration of 11 November 1970” was written on the date indicated in its title and co-signed by René Riesel and René Vienet; the “Communiqué from the SI Concerning Vaneigem” was written on 9 December 1970, in response to Raoul Vaneigem’s letter of resignation from the group, which was also included in the original edition of La Véritable Scisson; “On Our Enemies’ Decay” was written in June or July 1971; the “Notes to Serve Towards the History of the SI from 1969 to 1971” was primarily written in February or March 1971, and then updated in September 1971 to reflect the exclusion of Riesel; and the longest and most important text in the whole volume, “Theses on the Situationist International And Its Time” was written last, between September 1971 and February 1972.[2]

Until 2003, when Pluto Press brought out John McHale’s translation of La Véritable Scisson under the title The Real Split in the International, the only available translation of this important book was the one published under the title The Veritable Split in the International by B. M. Piranha in 1974.[3] Though B. M. Chronos reprinted this translation twice in “revised” editions (1985 and 1990), it remained awful. The problem wasn’t that the translator, Michel Prigent, didn’t know French very well (he was in fact a native speaker of the language), but that his writing in English was poor. He may have clearly understood what Debord was saying in French, but he consistently failed to render it into clear, understandable English.

We are happy to report that John McHale is an excellent translator: both his knowledge of French and the quality of his writing in English are superb. This pairing of abilities sets him apart from both Michel Prigent, who is simply incompetent, and Ken Knabb, who intentionally dumbs Debord down so that allegedly stupid Americans can understand what he was saying. Better still, McHale doesn’t appear to have an ideological or personal axe to grind, which sets him apart from both Malcolm Imrie and Donald-Nicholson Smith. As a result, his translation of The Real Split is a real pleasure to read.

And yet, at the same time, The Real Split is also a real embarrassment. Rather than translate the volume that was published by the SI in 1972, McHale agreed to translate the “enlarged” edition of the book published by Librairie Artheme Fayard in 1998, four years after Debord’s death. (The “enlargement” consisted of the addition of three appendices: an excerpt from the statutes adopted by the SI in 1969 at its conference in Venice, a very short list of the détournements deployed in the “Theses on the SI and Its Time,” and an except from Debord’s essay “Détournement as Negation and Prelude,” published in the third issue of Internationale Situationniste. Because of the date and placement of the text on détournement – 1959 and at the very end of the volume – the Fayard edition ends the book in the distant and largely irrelevant past, whereas the original edition ended in 1970, with the very recent and totally relevant past of the “Communiqué Concerning Vaneigem.”)

McHale’s choice meant that he or his publisher, Pluto Press, had to pay Fayard a sizable “translation fee,” which in turn meant that he or it had to get funding from somewhere. (Though two of the “new” appendices were originally published without copyright, and thus could have been published in translation without paying any money to anyone, the fact that Fayard published them together, and as appendices to its edition of the book, meant that this commercial publishing house could, at least according to bourgeois copyright law, charge whatever it wanted for the “translation rights.” As for the remaining “new” appendix, the one listing the détournements, it is so short and so incomplete – and the détournements that it acknowledges are so obvious – that it McHale himself could easily have compiled it.) In a real betrayal of both the SI and Debord, McHale and/or Pluto Press sought and received that funding from the French government (the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs). To make matters worse, McHale not only thanked the person who ended up receiving that “translation fee” from Fayard (someone named “Alice Debord”), but he also dedicated the book to her.

McHale’s “Introduction” to The Real Split is totally inadequate. It is only six paragraphs long, and two of those paragraphs do not even concern the subject at hand. (The second paragraph informs the reader that “a regular feature” of all twelve issues of Internationale Situationniste was “the pages given over to news or developments within the SI that the editorial board wished to communicate,” but says nothing about why this was done or what it might mean to either the situationists or their readers. The fifth paragraph first speaks of the translation into English of situationist texts other than The Real Split over the course of “the last 30 years,” and then – quite incoherently – shifts backwards in time to the non-SI groups that were “already the subject of polemical debate in the pages of the SI journal itself.”)

The paragraphs that are about the subject at hand fare little better, and sometimes much worse. Save for the fact that McHale states that The Real Split was “first published by Editions Champ Libre, Paris, in 1972,” he mentions none of the information relayed in the first two paragraphs of this review. As a result, he fails the minimum requirement of being “chronological and biographical,” and doesn’t even broach the question of “venturing into the specifically historical aspect” (cf. Debord’s comments about Raspaud and Voyer in “On Our Enemies’ Decay”).

The first paragraph of McHale’s “Introduction” flatly informs the reader that the title of the book is a détournement of a text “written by Marx and Engels in French between January and March 1872, as part of their preparations for the Hague Congress of September which, among other things, saw the expulsions of Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume.” (In both the original French edition and the B. M. Piranha/B. M. Chronos translation, the book’s cover was also a détournement: a détournement of the cover used by the original printer of Marx and Engels’ text.) But that’s all: the reader is never told why this détournement was executed, or what it might mean. In the absence of such information, the reader might reasonably conclude that the split in the Situationist International was between the Marxists and the anarchists, when, of course, it wasn’t. It was in fact a split between those who, even after May 1968, remained committed to “the work of the negative” and those who preferred to remain satisfied with the “positivity” that had already been accomplished. As for the détournements of the cover and title, they were executed to ridicule “our enemies” – “whether bourgeois, bureaucrats or spectators” – who “can conceive of history only in the form of spectacular, organizational or police manipulations […] which are those of the anti-historical period we have just left behind” (“On Our Enemies’ Decay”).

McHale’s third paragraph begins with the false and very misleading idea that “the seriousness of the crisis into which the world events of 1968 eventually plunged the SI, events that the latter had done so much to foment and whose repercussions are with us to this day, thus prompted Guy Debord as prime mover of the organization to devote an entire book to the SI and its place in history.” In point of fact – indeed, as any good reader of The Real Split knows – the “crisis” in the SI was diagnosed by Debord in his text from July 1966, that is to say, well before “the world events of 1968.” Furthermore, this “crisis” wasn’t simply provoked by “events” that took place outside the SI, but also by “events” that took place within it. McHale himself knows this; he goes on to list those “internal” events in his next sentence (the Venice Conference of the SI, the orientation debate of 1970, the failure of the editorial team of Beaulieu, Riesel and Vienet to produce issue #13 of Internationale Situationniste, the appearance of “contemplatives” within the SI, etc.). But by the time his next sentence is finished, McHale has somehow forgotten all about the “external” events. Or, rather, he introduces a separation or “split” (one that originally didn’t exist) between the “external” events that prompted Debord to write a book about the SI and the “internal” ones that, to quote McHale, “seemed indeed to indicate that the organization in its present form should be wound up.”

As if all this wasn’t enough, McHale’s third paragraph ends with the blatantly false claim that the SI was “a separate vanguard of revolutionary extremism.” As any good reader of Thesis 5 of “Theses on the SI and Its Time” knows, “The SI not only saw modern proletarian subversion coming; it came along with it […] We did not put our ideas ‘into everybody’s minds’ by the exercise of some outside influence […] We gave voice to the ideas that were necessarily already present in these proletarian minds, and by so doing we helped to activate these ideas.” McHale’s third paragraph also claims that “The Real Split in the International is important testimony to the fact that, for a number of years after 1968, proletarian subversion in the industrially advanced countries continued to make itself felt and feared,” as if Debord’s book was a mere work of journalism about the post-1968 years, when it is in fact an historical critique of the SI in the pre-1968 period. (The existence of this critique should cause historians of the SI’s development to question the usual or customary division of that development into an “artistic” period that lasted from 1957 to 1961, a “theoretical” or “political” period that lasted from 1962 to May-June 1968, and a third period of intense self-critique that lasted from July 1968 to 1971. It seems, instead, that the “political” period ended – and the period of self-critique began – in July 1966.)

McHale’s fourth paragraph is another incoherent mess. First it makes the false claim that The Real Split contains a “brilliant and incisive analysis of the new class relations and conditions in the emerging ‘postcolonial,’ post-industrial society” (it doesn’t: it remains focused on the old class relations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and says nothing at all about either the ‘postcolonial’ or the ‘post-industrial’). Then McHale falsely claims that the book contains a “caustic assessment of the ravages of pollution on the global environment” (it doesn’t: it speaks of pollution as a “calamity of bourgeois thought,” “the ne plus ultra of ideology in material form,” and “the wholly contaminated superabundance of the commodity, as well as the real, miserable dross of spectacular society’s illusory splendor”). Finally, McHale’s fourth paragraph would have its readers believe that good and proper examples of the “pro-situ” phenomenon – upon which “withering fire was also trained” by The Real Split – can be found, not in France nor in the era in which the SI was active, but in England and in the years after it had been dissolved. In this ahistorical non-context, McHale mentions “the pro-situ Svengali, Malcolm MacLaren” and the Angry Brigade, neither of whom were pro-situ because they, unlike the real pro-situs of which Debord speaks, were in fact (in the words of Debord’s 1966 report to the SI) committed to putting SI theories “to some, even superficial, kind of use” instead of passively contemplating these theories as mere “ideas.”

McHale’s sixth and final paragraph (it is actually a single sentence) is the perhaps the worst. Though it might be true that The Real Split is “essential to an understanding of the revolutionary thought that inspired May 1968,” it is both false and quite misleading to say that it is “also an indispensible guide still to all that underpins and is really at stake in the society of the spectacle.” In point of fact, The Real Split is perfectly useless to contemporary struggles – which have seen the radicalism of the 1960s and early 1970s quashed by the retrenchments and repressions of the 1980s, which were in turn outflanked by the radicalism of the 1990s – unless one is willing to rewrite it in the light of those very developments.

No one – or no one who is truly serious about destroying “all that underpins and is really at stake in the society of the spectacle” – could claim that, back in 2003 or today in 2012, the extent and intensity of proletarian subversion exceeds or even matches that of 1972. It is no longer true that, “at all levels of global society, people no longer can nor do they want to continue as before” or that “people are no longer prepared simply to put up with whatever comes their way” (Thesis 8). No one truly serious could claim that, today, “youth, workers, people of color, homosexuals, women and children […] refuse most of the paltry results that the old organization of class society allowed people to obtain and put up with” or that “they want no more bosses, family or State” and “are in fact taking issue with alienated labor, for what is now clearly on the agenda is the abolition of wage labor” (Thesis 12). Only fools, clowns and jesters could feign to believe – or try to get others to believe – that, today, consumers “are sick of the tawdry ‘semi-durable goods’ with which they have long been swamped” or that workers “no longer want to take on” the jobs being created and that they “no longer want to buy” the goods that are being produced (Thesis 14). Phrased another way, Debord was wrong – or was only right for a few years – when he spoke of the “obvious fact” that “capitalism has finally delivered proof that it cannot develop productive forces any further” (Thesis 14) and when he asserted that “class society can neither come to a halt nor go any further” (Thesis 18). The year 1972 or the 1970s, for that matter, did not bring the capitalist world “to the final act” (Thesis 35). It is forty years later, and capitalism is still developing its productive forces “further”; pushed to the limit, it has not accomplished its “self-destruction” (Theses 14 and 15).

In point of fact, the 1980s saw global capitalism “turn itself around while remaining under the exclusive control of the same bosses” (Thesis 14); these bosses managed to “reverse their falling rate of control over society in as few years as possible” (Thesis 13). Debord himself understood this, and that was why, in 1988, he undertook to write his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, which in the words of The Real Split, showed him “rewriting theories with the help of [new] facts” (Thesis 40).

And yet there are many aspects of The Real Split that are startlingly relevant to today’s situation, especially where “the economy” (its autonomy from and control over society) is concerned.

The crisis of the economy, by which we mean the economic phenomenon as a whole, a crisis which has become ever more blatant in recent decades, has just crossed a qualitative threshold. Even the old form of plain economic crisis that the system had succeeded in overcoming during the same period, and in the way we know, has resurfaced as a possibility for the near future. (Thesis 14)

Because of this perpetual and deepening crisis (“the phenomenon is in no way cyclical, it is cumulative,” says Thesis 13), illusions about revolution and revolutionary ideologies persist and thrive. In the form of MacKenzie Wark, Alexander Galloway and Sam Cooper, there are still “submissive intellectuals who are currently at the beginning of their careers” who “find themselves obliged to adopt the guise of moderate or part-time situationists merely to show that they are capable of understanding the latest stage of the system that employs them” (Thesis 2). In the form of Occupy Wall Street, there is still a milieu that “expresses that share of authentic modern protest which had to remain ideological, imprisoned by spectacular alienation, and informed solely of what the latter sees fit to impart” (Thesis 25), whose ranks are swelled by the type of individual “who may follow fashion to the point of extolling the image of the revolution – indeed many were favorable to something of the character of the occupations movement – and these days some of them are even minded to give the situationists their seal of approval” (Thesis 36) and who is “secretly of the opinion, even though he himself is unemployed, penniless and talentless, that contemporary society should see to it that he enjoys a fairly comfortable standard of living by sole virtue of the fact that he has proclaimed himself to be out and out revolutionary because he declared himself to be one, and an unadulterated one at that” (Thesis 38).

To combat both the capitalist spectacle and its spectacular opponents, we must return to the “negative side” of revolutionary critique. To readers of The Real Split, that means two things: a rediscovery of the reality of the proletariat, and a rediscovery of the critique of capitalist time. For Debord, the proletariat is not an already-existing “class” of workers. It is, instead, a potential force: “the proletariat can only be defined historically, by what it can do and by what it can and must want” (Thesis 35). What can the proletariat do? It can, by refusing to work, shut down the entire system (and not just the universities or “Wall Street”). What can, what must the proletariat want? Not just the conversion of all capitalist enterprises into truly human ones (the destruction of exchange value and the triumph of true usefulness), but also the recovery of historical time. In the words of “On Our Enemies’ Decay,”

The revolutionary moment concentrates the entire historical potential of society as a whole into a mere three or four propositions whose gradual evolution in terms of power struggles, growth or overthrow can clearly be witnessed [...]. It is at such moments that those who regularly spend every waking hour of the day not thinking start to think in accordance with an everyday logic.

16 April 2012

[1] For Sanguinetti, see letter dated 16 September 1971; for Quillet, see letter dated 14 December 1971; and for Riesel, see letter dated 7 September 1971.

[2] For “On Our Enemies’ Decay,” see letter dated 7 May 1971; for “Notes to Serve Towards the History of the SI from 1969 to 1971,” see letter dated 27 September 1971; and for “Theses on the Situationist International And Its Time,” see letter dated 15 February 1972.

[3] The word “Veritable” (as in “True”) is better in this context than “Real,” precisely because there are some things that, while “real,” are not “true.” The spectacle, for example.

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