Concerning Several Errors of Interpretation

It is necessary to recognize in Robert Estivals' studies[1] of what he calls the situationist system (Grammes, issue #4) the honesty of an exact examination of certain information, but not where he deals with the SI. Which incites one to indicate the causes of the transformation of his critical efforts into global incomprehension. This incomprehension explodes in the incoherence of his appraisals, since he reproaches situationist theory for its "megalomania" -- without further defining the grandeur in question -- and, more bizarrely, for its "shallow erudition," so as to reach the general conclusion that "it [situationist theory] has all of the characteristics that make for authentic creations."

Estivals certainly is not hindered by a quantative lack of knowledge, but by a level of insufficient thought. In addition to Estivals, this applies to all of the "avant-gardists" who attempt to surpass bourgeois aesthetics by making use of the conceptual instruments by the bourgeoisie.

Indeed, Estivals' analysis [mistakenly] discovers that the constructed situation, because it participates in an interaction between human behavior and the environment that it modifies, is certainly a philosophical dualism inherited from Auguste Comte.[2] Estivals himself decides (page 24) that "the situationist freely creates his situation . . . based upon his own will," and the idea of "free will" that he loans to us notoriously dominates all of our judgments of modern art. It is strange that Estivals does not recognize in his reading [of our texts] that we begin by linking this judgment of modern art to the class struggle, to the retardation of the revolution. It is also strange that he reduces to dualism a method that has become quite widely used since Engels, explaining a celebrated thesis of Marx, wrote the following: "The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and human activity can only be considered and rationally understand as revolutionary practice."[3] Meanwhile, Estivals confesses his ideological infirmities by noting that, because it founds itself upon a "synthetic perspective," "the situationist conception . . . cannot glimpse the historical reality made by fundamentally separated domains. . . ." (page 26). It is I who underlines this affirmation made by Estivals and so many others, because it abundantly clarifies his point of view, which is opposed to ours. "The reign of the category of the totality is the carrier of the revolutionary principle in science," as Lukacs says.[4] And what Estivals lacks, since it appears that he doesn't lack erudition, is the dialectic.

It is necessary to believe that Estivals is [instead] quite attached to metaphysics because, for him, "the notion of the moment[5] leads to an opposition to the traditional view of history, consequently to metaphysics and the morality that derives from it, that it replaces with another, obviously issued from itself." In any case, summoned to recognize themselves in one metaphysics or another, where do the situationists end up? According to Estivals, it is the metaphysics of "presentism" that we favor. Why? Because we reject as a whole the notions (quite curiously amalgamated) "of evolution, progress [and] eternity, which have been [items of] modern faith since the end of the 17th century" (page 22). This appearance of eternity at the end of the 17th century almost evokes the humor of the title of a work by J.L. Borges: "A New Refutation of Time."[6] But Estivals is not pleasing. The situation has never been presented as an indivisible, isolatable instant, as in Hume's metaphysics, for example, but as a moment in the movement of time, a moment containing its factors[7] of dissolution, its negation. If it places the accent on the present, it is to the extent that Marxism formulated the project of a society in which "the present dominates the past." The structure of the present that knows its inevitable disappearance, that converges [concourt] with its replacement is farther from a "presentism" than traditional art, which tends to transmit a hypostasized present, an extract from its moving reality, deprived of its passing contents.

The metaphysics and eternity that encumber Estivals are naturally accompanied by a resolute over-estimation of individual, idealist creation. In the case of "situationist" creation, it is good enough [for Estivals] to attribute to me personally and immediately the best parts. It seems to me that this means that Estivals is still largely influenced by the ideological system of [Isidore] Isou, of which he has made an insufficient "sociological" critique in the false clarity of mechanistic reasoning.

Testifying more to the dissolution of contemporary than anything else, the art proposed by Isou is the first art of solipsism. In the conditions of an artistic expression that is more and more unilateral and separated, and completely deceived by those conditions, Isou attains the theoretical suppression of the public, thereby bringing to the absolute point -- that is, death and absence -- one of the fundamental tendencies of previously existing artistic activity. Thus, he announced in his second Memoir on the Future Strength of the Plastic Arts and Their Death (published in the journal, Ur, 1951): "Each day one will create new forms; one will no longer have the difficulty of testing them, of making explicit their resistance to 'valuable works'. . . 'Here are possible treasures,' one will say. 'Here are chances for secular works.' But no one will bend down to gather rocks. One will go even further, so as to discover other 'secular sources' that one will abandon, in their turn, to the same state of unexploited virtuality. The world will open up aesthetic riches that one will not know what to do with." Isou's involuntary avowal of the disappearance of the arts is a reflection of the real disappearance of the arts. But Isou, who discovers himself placed -- by chance or by an aspect of his genius -- at a zero point of culture, hastens to furnish this emptiness (through a symmetrical culture that will fatally reopen, after its has been reduced to nothing) with elements similar to the old ones. And, profiting from the godsend, so as to become the only definitive creator of this neo-culture, Isou makes concessions that are always further from the artistic terrains that he will not occupy. The product of an era of inconsumable art, Isou has suppressed the very idea of its consumption. He no longer needs the public. He only needs to continue to believe in the presence of a hidden judge -- almost nothing, his personal variant of "the spectator God" -- the judge of a small tribunal outside of time, whose sole function remains eternally endorsing Isou's titles of ownership.

Isou's "system of creation" is a system of pleadings, as extensive a composition of his resume as possible, so as to defend his ideal domain at every point against the bad faith and chicanery of a possible competitor to [his] creations, who might try to get a fraudulent recognition of a particle [of it]. Nothing restrains Isou's sovereignty, except for the fact that neither the tribunal nor the code of procedure exists beyond his reveries.

Nevertheless, this system has not been applied completely purely, because the purpose of constituting an avant-gardist movement in the world has led Isou to realize -- almost accidentally -- several real experiments in contemporary artistic decomposition ("metagraphic" books, cinema). I believe that, by refuting Isou in the name of the most obvious objectivity, Estivals has not very clearly distinguished the sector of practical activity of Lettrism between 1946 and 1952 at least, and the sector of idealist alienation; [nor] the connections and contradictions between the two. With the result that, when he envisions situationist positions -- not without advancing several partial considerations and even hypotheses that, in their details, are accurate -- he is still, on the whole, the victim of his mystified conception of a fundamentally idealist, avant-gardist creation, which he accepts as such on all cases (and of which he only critiques the exaggeration: the propensity to delirium). As it is necessary for him to reduce everything to the individual, whom he exhorts to remain modest, Estivals creates his creator, if necessary: "Isou only makes the three-dimensional novel a partial overturning of a branch of artistic creation. Debord finds in the situation, [which is] composed of all the human activities, the means to overturn them all at the same time." I have gone quite far in this direction, nevertheless. And I do not think I will make it [a constructed situation] alone.

Is it worth the bother of saying this again? There is no "situationism." I am myself only a situationist due to the fact of my participation -- at this moment and in certain conditions -- in a community practically grouped together in view of a task, which this community will or will not know how to accomplish. To accept the notion of leadership, even collegiate direction, in a project such as ours already means one's resignation [from the group]. The SI is obviously composed of very diverse individuals and even several discernable tendencies of which the relations of force have sometimes changed. Without doubt, its entire activity is only pre-situationist. We do not in any way defend "creations" that belong to someone and still less to a single one of us: on the contrary, we find it very positive that the comrades who have joined us have already, by themselves, attained an experimental problematic that blends ours. The surest symptom of idealist delirium is, moreover, the stagnation of individuals, supporting or quarreling for years about the same values, because they are the only ones to recognize them as the rules of a poor game. The situationists leave them to their dust-ups. Estivals has over-estimated their interest, to the point of drawing from them criteria of judgment that are inapplicable, perhaps because the too narrowly Parisian optics of his work on the recent "avant-gardist" period puts too much weight on these details. Such a knowledge of anecdotes must at least allow him to know that I have been never motivated to occupy myself with the subordinate relations that some people are capable of entertaining with me. I have had other tastes.

G.-E. Debord

[1] Estivals was a member of the Ultra-Lettrism Group (1957-1961) and the director of the journal L'Avant-Garde Artistique. The publication of "Concerning Several Errors of Interpretation" triggered an exchange of letters between Estivals and Debord in July-November 1960. See Debord's letter to Asger Jorn dated 6 July 1960 and Debord's letter to Estivals himself dated 24 November 1960. In 1963, in response to the publication of Estivals' book The Parisian Cultural Avant-Garde Since 1945, Debord address him a long letter dated 15 March 1963.

[2] August Comte (1798-1857), a French philosopher of "the law of three phases," which were theological, metaphysical and positivist.

[3] Frederick Engels, commentary on the third of Marx's eleven "Theses on Feuerbach."

[4] Georgs Lukacs, commentary on Rosa Luxemburg in History and Class Consciousness.

[5] Actually, this is a concept from the work of Henri Lefebvre, which -- in the same issue of Internationale Situationniste that this text about Estivals was published -- the SI connected to its own concepts in the essays entitled "The Theory of Moments and the Construction of Situations." See letter from Debord to Andre Franklin dated 22 February 1960.

[6] An essay from 1947.

[7] The French word employed here, facteurs, can also mean "carriers."

(Published in Internationale Situationniste #4, June 1960. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! July 2007. Footnotes by the translator.)

To Contact NOT BORED!
ISSN 1084-7340.
Snail mail: POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998