The post-situationist French group Encyclopedie des Nuisances' critique of the Situationist International, primarily concerning Guy Debord, in the form of a review of two books on the history of the SI by Jean-Francoise Martos and Pascal Dumontier.
Compendium – Encyclopédie des Nuisances
The Situationist International and its historical activity are the subjects of two books recently published in France (Jean-Françoise Martos, History of the Situationist International, Paris 1989; Pascal Dumontier, The Situationists and May ‘68, Paris 1990). These books at least possess the importance which they owe to their subject: the SI, during the period which had seen the rapid modernization of domination in France, had in effect been the principle collective attempt to formulate and communicate a critique of the new conditions which had become established, and indisputably the most consequential. To prove this one need only turn to the twelve issues of the SI’s journal published from 1958 to 1969. But historical works, insofar as such works exist, can take advantage of the time which has passed and the distance opened up to analyze the development of this critical activity in its relation to the real historical movement of which it claimed to be the general theoretical expression; and to evaluate, for example, in the light of its effective outcome, in what respect its thought was ahead of its time (Karl Korsch’s text Marxism and Philosophy remains a model for this kind of analysis).
Before examining the two books in question in order to determine what value they have in this sense, we will call attention to a problem to which these historians devote no attention, but which nonetheless seems of importance to their task. The Situationist critique was originally conceived in order to impose, in a “race” with power, an emancipatory use of the new technologies developed by the latter (twenty years later, Debord still defined this period as that of a “confrontation concerning change”). Knowing that it “was forced to travel the same road as its adversaries”—the road of the complete transformation of the entire old bourgeois edifice—the SI wanted “to disseminate another idea of happiness” by putting forward “certain new values of life”: constant mobility, the derive, obscurity. As Debord pointed out in 1957 concerning surrealism, “the task of an enterprise of this nature is not to be correct in absolute or relative terms, but to attempt, during a particular period of time, to catalyze the desires of an epoch.” It must be admitted that, as far as the SI was concerned, this period of time was particularly brief: more or less from “the Strasbourg scandal” in 1966 until shortly after May 1968. The “new epoch” announced by issue No. 12 of their journal had contemplated the extension of the situationist critique, its translation into practice by a revolutionary current, but nothing of the sort happened. For from that moment, and the most profound cause of the progressive practical paralysis of the SI and its then-numerous followers is probably due to this fact, the desires of the epoch, confronted by the acceleration of the authoritarian transformation of everything, began to crystallize around different values which were often contrary to those which had been emphasized by the situationist program. What has attracted most peoples’ aspirations since then, when they have not abjectly submitted to the imperatives of modernization, was the obvious and secret necessity of rescuing the continuity of human history (its memory, its language), and in the first place the elementary preconditions for life, from permanently imposed innovation. Nothing sheds more light on this complete inversion of the value imputed to change than a comparison of two statements made by Debord, separated by an interval of more than thirty-five years: “Everything which maintains anything contributes to the work of the police”; “When ‘being absolutely modern’ has become a special law proclaimed by tyranny, what the honest slave fears more than anything else is that he might be suspected of being anchored in the past.”
Through all kinds of hardly avoidable disorientations and mystifications, the consciousness then began to develop (in France, after the end of the sixties, that is, relatively late) of having passed the point when technological innovation could have been corrected, and reoriented in a liberating sense, and that it was a question of making the obstruction of its mindless race a matter of the highest priority. And it was precisely that aspect of the SI where it had shown itself to be ahead of its time—its attempt to formulate a passionate program for the material change of the conditions of life—which became a step backwards in regards to its ability to provide the resistance to this alleged progress with its historical reasons. To give only one example, the perspective “of a whole universe pillaged by the Workers Councils” (IS No. 12, September 1969) was even then naturally inadequate for the arousal of much enthusiasm, if indeed it could ever have been, when others, more lucid in this regard, had already denounced the pillage of the universe effectively being carried out by the owners of industry. Dissatisfaction was still the reality from which the theoretical critique had to begin once again. But to do so it had become necessary to recognize it under the new forms which it had adopted. To the contrary, the majority of those who had adopted the positions of the SI during that epoch remained perfectly indifferent to all these new problems, which they complacently judged to be vain under the pretext that those who expounded them generally did so using terminology clumsily derived from various ideological archaisms.
It must be added in this connection that the historical explanation offered in 1972 concerning the nullity of the pro-situs, while precisely describing the general social conditions which determined their passive adhesion to what had become for them “an absolute and absolutely useless ideology”, forgot to consider dialectically just what it was in the theory and practice of the SI which had facilitated such passive adherence and such uselessness. The fact that the supporters of the SI’s theses were not capable of developing them and transforming them into a practical force, even in an epoch as favorable as the one immediately following 1968, obliges one to search for the obstacle to the development of situationist theory in that theory’s origin, in its emphasis on permanent change as the passionate motor of subversion, in its idea of the infinite richness of a life without practice and the consequent discredit attached to the partial character of all positive realization. To speak in this connection of error would be futile, because one must see that this “error” was inevitable, imposed as it was by the necessities of the negation of art and politics. This demolition work, with its consequent valorization of a life dedicated to the ephemeral, was historically necessary; and it fully corresponded to Debord’s personal genius. But this project, which sowed the seeds of the psychological foundations of “disincarnate radicalism” among the situationists (a recurrent phenomenon in the SI’s history right up until its end) was only a transitory task, a secondary process in the general development of a movement of subversion which was only in its beginnings. “Every partial process tends to go beyond its limits (as defined by its nature) and to imprint its tactics, its thought, its watchwords and its morale on the entire historical movement which it unleashes. The means turn against the end, the form turns against the content” (Trotsky, Our Political Tasks). The experience of the emptiness of everyday life, the program of its supersession, had been a journey, rapid and disorderly like youth soon lost, toward a renewed revolutionary activity, but the journey and its velocity could not serve as the standard for that activity: it had to be durably inscribed on reality, for which it had to be re-appropriated, completed and corrected by a collective extension. And those methods which had served to raze one terrain (that of culture) were useless or even harmful when it was a question of constructing another terrain, that of “a revolutionary organization of a new kind.” By mentioning all of this we do not intend to moralize a posteriori; the difficulty in finding a concrete terrain of action and the appropriate working methods marked the whole history of the SI (witness the periodic denunciation of passive nihilism and, symmetrically, of premature attempts at positive realizations) and had already become fully apparent already before 1968 (see Debord’s report to the 7th Conference of the SI in June of 1966), finally leading to the pious vows of post-68: predictions concerning councilist organization, etc. In reality, the “goal of the situationists”, “the immediate participation in a passionate abundance of life, through the passage of deliberately unconditioned perishable moments” (Debord, "Theses on Cultural Revolution", IS No. 1, June 1958), was certainly achieved, but only by Debord, as a brilliantly conducted individual adventure, and reaffirmed against the collective debacle of the SI.
Martos is obviously far from confronting these problems. After having totally unwound the spool of its teleology (“the essence” was there since 1953, and later underwent nothing but “an always more coherent formulation” or “the smallest correction of certain essential notions”), and fastidiously transcribing quotations and demonstrating his virtuosity in the use of inverted commas, he martially concludes: “The hostilities will continue”. Who will start them, how, on what terrain, with what arms? The historian has nothing to say concerning these questions, or about what might, even indirectly, have something to do with the problems of the present: in his little yellow volume, history only exists to confirm dogma, and this string of confirmations represents the sole meaning of his book. Such a work can undoubtedly serve neither the ends of vulgarization nor of propaganda: it is so boring and academic that it instead runs the risk of driving the younger generations away from situationist theory (it therefore falls far short of what Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism was in its day). The sole function of this pensum [school assignment imposed upon a student as punishment—translator’s note] thus appears to be that of over-abundantly illustrating the judgment which we had propounded in 1988, concerning other historical works by the same gentleman, about his use of scissors and glue (see our article "Abonnir").
Despite various inept oversights (among others, he alleges that Debord had “reproached Marx…for the abandonment of philosophy”), one of them especially astonishing (the description of a letter signed and published by Gérard Lebovici as “falsely attributed” to the latter), Dumontier’s book is better. It is a “research work carried out under the auspices of the University of Nanterre”: dedications, acknowledgments, the opening of “new fields of interrogation”, it lacks nothing. But this distancing of the university researcher paradoxically allows Dumontier to get closer to his object: not being paralyzed by respect, he arrives at some conclusions which the other author absolutely does not permit himself. There is, however, a great distance between these conclusions and an historical comprehension worthy of the name.
The first and most important of these conclusions is that, with respect to its declared ambitions, the SI failed in a great part of its historical task, a part which it had itself justly considered to be central: to contribute to the construction of a modern revolutionary movement. For this fact, Dumontier offers an explanation based on the usual tautological model: the SI failed because it had not succeeded (at the moment of extending its influence beyond the student milieu, of renewing itself theoretically, etc.). It would be more interesting and more precise if he would tell us not why the SI failed (if one is to remain on this level of generality one could just as well content oneself with blaming the weakness of the social movement as a whole), but why it failed in just the way it did, among all the possible ways it could have failed. This matter is all the more worthy of attention insofar as the SI effectively managed to avoid the usual fate of vanguards: comfortable retirement. Such a relative success cannot be presented as the ne plus ultra except at the price of a triumphalism which Debord still reaffirmed in 1979, and according to which, along the lines of the Marxist justifications of the liquidation of the First International, the power of the revolutionary movement rendered the existence of a separate organization useless in advance. In fact, the validating historical justification for the SI’s dissolution, just as in the case of many previous exclusions, was nothing but an obligatory defensive measure: in the weakened and exposed position it found itself in the years 1970-71, it was the best method of damage control. It was necessary to bring down the curtain quickly and gracefully, under the penalty of a shameful finale. But why had it come to that? What could have been done differently so as to achieve different results, etc.? Even beyond the interest such questions could have for anyone who wants to launch an historical action today, they are not idle. Because although it is improbable that the course of history could have been fundamentally altered, it is certain that another way of proceeding, one granting less space to that “rigor which sanctifies itself in its own eyes” whose influence has been so baleful, would have been able to leave the future a more useful example. The inevitable part played by misunderstanding in all historical influence has on the contrary become truly exorbitant due to the persistent insufficiency of the critique of situationist mythology. (One of the most pertinent texts in this regard is the “Communiqué concerning Vaneigem” of December 1970.)
Dumontier offers some elements to answer these questions, but he does not bring them together in a truly historical analysis. Thus, he indicates that, concerning the “Minimum Definition of Revolutionary Organizations” adopted in 1966, “this definition is conceived in such a way that it is ultimately a matter of the SI proclaiming itself to be the only modern revolutionary organization.” The problem was, rather, as was immediately seen at the time, that as a “theoretical model” this definition was just as inadequate for what the SI itself was at that time, as it was for what the SI had to do. The SI had asserted in many ways that it wanted to contribute to the construction of a new revolutionary movement, whose formation depended, according to the SI, on the progress of the self-organization of the proletarians, and on the theoretical and practical unification which the latter made possible. (On the other hand, this notion had always cohabited in the SI’s formulations with some much less historical conceptions.) But with this “Minimum Definition” the SI implicitly put itself in the place of the future revolutionary organization about which it had spoken. It thus fostered a de-dialecticization of critical activity (fixation of the organization in an admirable present, disconnection from the real historical movement), which was to progressively sterilize, within the SI and among its supporters, theoretical and practical invention.
Criticizing politics without preoccupying itself much with the means of its revolutionary realization (except under the distant form of the Workers Councils), situationist theory remained underdeveloped in all which concerned tactics, the search for mediations, as much outside the SI (the process of encounter of a radical theory in formation and a fragmentary and incomplete radical practice) as within it (the methods of organization which favor the coherent appropriation of the critique). The myth of the total fusion of theory and practice, supposedly realized in the SI, and its “historical” corollary, a revolution which was to realize this fusion on the scale of society and all at once, weighed heavily upon the development of a precise intelligence of what the situationists really had to do together. As Brecht said: “What is democratic conduct? Conduct which makes democracy possible, not one which teaches democracy.” And four years after that famous “minimum definition”, those who had declared themselves against all conservatism of the glorious image of the SI would still be demanding “an exact definition of the collective activity within the Situationist International organization, and of its effectively possible democracy” (Debord, Riesel, Viénet, "Declaration of November 11, 1970").
The problems already broached by Debord on two occasions (his Report to the 7th Conference of the SI, and the theses on organization of April 1968) not only remained unsolved after the revolutionary crisis of May, but became more serious. The SI’s own success during those weeks, that is, its ability to communicate the principle points of its program at the moment of its historical verification, in effect posed new problems, which in turn complicated the old ones which remained unresolved. In the period immediately following May ’68, the SI simultaneously found itself facing the victory of its ideas and the defeat of its mode of organization (on the other hand, the latter had been suspended de facto in May, and it was just this fact which had permitted the SI a certain effectiveness.) The extreme slowness of the maturation of the latent crisis after 1966 above all demonstrated, beyond the “inter-subjective” problems, the difficulty of concretely relating the deficiencies it had observed to an analysis of the new tasks of critical activity, and of the way in which everything which had in the past served the SI’s project now harmed it. Limiting its attention to the various deficiencies of those who were not at the heights of the image of the SI only perpetuated this image which had to be destroyed. That which had to be historically redefined after the May movement, in accordance with the new revolutionary necessities and the new relation of forces, was the criterion for judging deficiencies and capabilities, and this task was passed over by erasing numerous features which the SI should have been developing the whole time, above all by abandoning a certain “rowdy” style, which really missed the point at a moment when the whole earth began to tremble.
The employment of bluff, which had been useful to the SI in order to make itself heard, evidently does not reveal a vulgar imposture, but rather a dialectical anticipation which Stanislaw Jerzy Lec succinctly defined in this fashion: “Do we have the right to separate ourselves from the truth? Yes, if it is in order to bring ourselves beyond it”. One must add: and if it is done in such a way that one allows oneself to be reached by it afterwards. Anticipation is only useful for a certain time, or rather that which is anticipated varies with time, and the old short-cuts become parking lots. In order to prevent its advance beyond its time from becoming an advance of specialists, by rejecting for example the demand for the universality of communication which had formed the basis of its project against the official arts of non-communication, and thereby re-enacting the sclerosis of surrealism, the SI should have, after the May events, renewed its program from the early 1960s—refusing to “take into consideration any problems which were not already felt by the whole population”—making a sharp break with its old ideas and methods, pitilessly distancing itself from everything in its formulations which had amounted to nothing but vain promises and useless predictions. That attitude had certainly not been a bad condition to display during a previous phase, along with everything this apparent unrealism entailed, a scandalous anti-political aplomb based upon the certainty of the possible revolutionary simplification of all problems; a certainty which was itself based upon the experience, a constitutive moment of the SI, of a dialogue among autonomous individuals which arrogantly scorned all the problems of the dominant society in order to pose instead the question of the use of life, and answered this question with the demand for its full use through play, uninterrupted creation and the realization of art. The first situationists had thus been capable of formulating a new revolutionary program; if they had been more attentive to the means required for its realization, they would not have been able to formulate its objectives so liberally. At that time, the acute assertion of a total program was itself a means (of seduction, of summons) and as for the rest it sufficed to make vague allusions to the radicalism of the revolutionary workers. All these qualities which were suitable for that time must however not be transformed into their opposites by the historical movement when, on the one hand, the simple proclamation of a total program that was supposed to be spreading everywhere, remained without any use except that of “sparing itself all the difficulties and all the little historical risks of its realization” ("Communiqué concerning Vaneigem"); and on the other hand, the problems of the dominant society, with the frenetic decomposition of life as survival, could no longer be ignored (in the name of the life to be constructed) without depriving the revolutionary project of all concrete and universal content. The radical simplification of all problems, as method and as program, was transformed into a crude mystification, a caricature of the totality and the consolidated image of a future where “the vulgar problems of real society and of the revolution will be instantly abolished before even having taken the trouble to take them into consideration” (Ibid.). Likewise, the audacious conviction of the central historical role of the SI was transformed into the comfortable certitude of being the gold standard of the art of living, the center from which the value of the rest of humanity would either rise or fall, measured, as is the case with any snobbery, by its more or less faithful similarity to what the SI presumed itself to be, or at any rate to its conventions.
The central error of the SI after May 1968 was that it wanted to reinforce itself (by means of the quantitative extension as well as the complacent perpetuation, for its audience of that time, of a style whose exhibited mastery was almost solely restricted to Debord himself), without having previously carried out the critique of its past and the redefinition of its tasks for the coming period. This “error concerning organization” was also a “complete error concerning the conditions of historical practice”, as was demonstrated by the lack of realism which characterized the internal debates of the SI from 1969 until its dissolution: between the majority of its participants and their comprehension of the new conditions, of what each one of them could do in the latter, was interposed the fiction of their supposed excellence as members of the SI. The promised supersession of Leninism was transformed into a regression, the activity and the life of the SI being poisoned not only by the reality of what was in fact the meager egalitarianism of its internal relations, but above all by its magical negation of the organization, which blocked individuals’ self-formation in the collective activity, the only possible way to reduce inequality.
In Gratian’s aphorism on “reality and appearance”, the peacock sees that his right to show off his plumage is conditioned on his “simultaneously turning his glance to the deformity of his feet.” The SI’s imperative of publicizing the role of misery and failure in its first attempts was certainly not a moral imperative, but historical and practical: only in this way could it have, once and for all, undermined the foolishly admiring followerism of so many of its supporters, and to summon them to the discovery of the new problems and most complex preconditions of the revolutionary struggle. The dogmatic propensity to judge history with reference to a norm situated external to it (councilist teleology, for example) very often led, within the SI and among its supporters, to considering the movement of subversion, then quite active, from the exclusive angle of its retreat in relation to the situationist program, without wanting to see that this movement at the same time constituted the critique of that program (of its generality to the point of abstraction); as if the movement of subversion had to do nothing in the future but travel the road which their program had traced, in a word, as if the theory of revolution had nothing to learn from the real revolutionary movement.
Evidently, there is a necessary link between the lucidity concerning particular tasks and the tactical program of the revolutionary activity of a concrete moment, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the capability to organize a truly collective work as a function of the former. This link appears—negatively—in the SI’s double impotence after 1968: its impotence in discerning the terrains and propitious concrete objectives for unification and radicalization, and its impotence in finding the forms of collaboration between individuals exhibiting necessarily very distinct capacities, who were in fact frankly unequal. The fact that the SI was no longer capable from that moment on, through the development and enrichment of its activity, of making situationists, led to the overvaluation of what, among all the qualities which had been necessary to form the SI, was precisely the least transmissible: to become as situationist as Debord could only have meant an absolute impossibility or a grotesque simulation for the SI’s recent arrivals. The predominance of the style and the tastes of an individual—besides condescending to lend them generously to those who surround him, before brutally withdrawing them—must be so much more overwhelming insofar as the historical reasons for collective activity were lost, together with the meaning of the active affirmation of the universal.
Debord undoubtedly sincerely sought to convert the SI into the anti-hierarchical and democratic organization which he had claimed that it was: his interventions from 1966 to 1972 made it clear that he was not in the least interested in perpetuating his preeminence, rather the contrary, and that he had understood at that moment better than anyone what was at stake. The explanation for his failure in this matter must therefore be sought in the character of his own genius, such as it had been formed during his exceptional history, and in the changing relations between that “active element which sets universal actions in motion” and the likewise mobile conditions wherein the former could be exercised. The problem is ultimately a matter of the translation of the means and values proceeding from art and the project of its realization to the terrain of politics. In the same way that the old revolutionary theory of the 19th century, arising from the critique of philosophy, had in part preserved the contemplative point of view of external knowledge (the development of the forces of production replacing the World Spirit), which had directly constituted the basis of its ideologization, modern revolutionary theory has preserved some uncriticized traits of abandoned artistic creation, traits whose retarding effects were very clear after 1968.
“Whoever creates the SI, whoever creates situationists, must also create their defects.” Debord’s activity as the conductor of the SI cannot be understood without explaining how he could have been the best critic of “situationist mythology” as well as its principle artisan at the same time; and he played the latter role right up to the SI’s end, up to the theses of the Veritable Split, where, together with critical observations of great relevance (in particular about the new factor of revolt created by harmful phenomena [nuisances in French--translator's note]), the issue of the SI’s failure is the object of a true theoretical transfiguration which indissolubly glorifies the final product and translated the incomplete task to the terrain of a subversive sequel presented as ineluctable. In an historical individual of such importance, such subjective incoherence must be explained historically, and undoubtedly not from the perspective of psychological pettiness or moralizing; this incoherence must be understood in the context of the movement which had made and unmade, within the SI, the unity of individual passions and universal interests. This perspective, of which only a few elements will be discussed here, will at the same time allow two facts to be considered in their proper context which until now have been concealed, fixing the SI in an admirable past: first, the fact that Debord himself had been able to transform the part played by historical success of the collective operation into an individual wager (that is, he managed, in his own words, “to stop being an authority in the struggle over society except within society itself”); second, the fact that, as a function of this surely original personal “triumph”—as if Marx, after the Commune and the collapse of the First International were to have written a volume of Notes from Beyond the Grave in his own style—Debord soon acquired the tendency to retrospectively underestimate the aspect of failure in the SI, which he had nevertheless felt more acutely than anyone else at the time, and he took great pleasure in sanctifying its necessity by presenting the result of the process as if it had been a conscious motive from the very beginning (see, for example, the 1979 Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of the Society of the Spectacle: “it was easy to see that this group (…) was then approaching”—this was in 1967—“the culminating point of its historical action”).
The dislocation of the unitary bases of the SI’s activity had its principle cause, as we mentioned above, in the increasing lack of concordance between the situationist program, the desires to which it appealed, and the new forms adopted by a dissatisfaction which was confronted by the authoritarian transformation of everything. We cannot, however, content ourselves with seeing this disarming as the effect of the general law which Hegel coldly enunciated, whereby historical individuals who had attained their goals “fall like empty cartridges”. The goal in question here—to break the artificial social unity proclaimed by the spectacle—was only partially attained: the division of this society’s inhabitants “into two parties, one of which wants it to disappear” did not assume a durable form (and we have even less reason to assert, as Debord still did in 1985, the latter party’s “fracture” of the existing world as a “success”: the opposite is true, it is the disappearance of the party of subversion which has allowed the economy’s owners to proceed so far into disaster). Furthermore, the SI’s theory, although it was still in many ways a tributary of its epoch—then at its end-point—insofar as it had principally been a question for the revolutionaries of transforming the mode of appropriation of the forces of production (see our article, "Ab Ovo"), it had equally contained, and this was its qualitative point, the proper elements for developing into a coherent critique of the whole system of production which from that moment sought a latent rejection of the putrefaction of life. Finally, it cannot be forgotten that, at least the SI was then seeking a collective supersession, and that the problems it faced were still those of all critical activity in the first moments of its extensive diffusion: on the one hand, the necessity of developing its universality by making it concrete, of tactically defining itself by finding new terrains of intervention and, at the same time, the necessity of mastering its first signs of success and the popularization of its theses which will inevitably accompany them, in any case by means other than overvaluing its first agents by emphasizing a quality which the continuators of their project would never be able to attain.
With the long final crisis of the years 1968-1972, a kind of “nostalgia for origins” unfolded as if by logical necessity within and around the SI, that is, nostalgia for the moment when the radical nature of its project was immediately practicable in the very activity of its formulation: a violent separation with respect to the culture of separation, enunciation without concessions of objectives which were then totally scandalous, joyful rupture with the conformism of behavioral roles, everything moved at the same pace, and swiftly. The general style of this first breach was transmitted to the later phases, increasingly ill-adapted and insufficient but never corrected or criticized. To the contrary, the more anachronistic it was, the more it was mystified and appeared as the “amulet” which one had to possess in order to advance invincibly towards future struggles. In reality, however, and already even before 1968, every attempt to restore the unity of critical activity in its primitive situationist form was no more than a retrograde illusion or a “pro-situationist” simulation. It was clearly Debord who had most authentically lived and practiced this lost unity; and it was he who had the most particular knowledge, by having discovered the Northwest Passage which joined modern art’s will to permanent innovation to the program of a conscious creation of life in its entirety, of how to search for and find his own satisfaction in the affirmation of those objectives which count in universal history. Debord was therefore both better-placed than anyone to perpetuate the glorious image of the SI (which, as he confessed, he did for too long) and to perceive how this image was being falsely transformed into public relations.
The situationist program had “saved” conscious creation by transferring it from the old artistic specialization to revolutionary practice, and from the aesthetic theory of individual expression to the critical theory of communication. But this “salvation by transference” had—historically and theoretically—a merely transitional character. The end of this transition was manifested within the SI itself as the conversion of its early methods into grave handicaps, and especially by how the initial anti-aesthetic will gave way to a ridiculous aestheticization of politics. Availing ourselves of notions employed by Walter Benjamin in his essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", we can say that this aestheticization is the historical residue of the operation by which Debord recreated around the SI the aura which belonged to the old work of art. And as Benjamin demonstrated, to the quality of the aura are opposed the qualities of reproducibility and perfectibility. It is in any case easy to prove how the “ritual” value of the situationist program (revelation of a total theory, sectarian certainty of belonging to a community of the elect, etc.) was effectively opposed to its “expository value”, that is, to its capacity for publicly expounding practical goals and perfectible propositions through associations polarized around struggles and common discussions.
It would be interesting in this connection (see the article, "Vanguards") to analyze in detail everything which the SI’s mythology reproduced from artistic vanguardism, how the SI had re-activated, for better and for worse, so many values and behaviors derived from modern art, which the latter had elaborated precisely in response to the loss of the aura of works of art; the oscillation between the negation of aesthetics and the aestheticization of negation which had marked the whole cycle since Baudelaire. It will suffice for now to prove that although in the light of the program of the supersession of art (free creation of the situations of life), it had once again been possible to understand and to implacably criticize the totally opposite development of dominant society, once this program’s practical verification had begun in 1968, and when for its part the spectacle began to realize art in its own way, a program with these characteristics not only did not allow for confronting the new problems posed by the extensive development of its critique, but also impeded its being understood by prolonging the influence of illusions inherited from the artistic past, such as the ahistorical positive appraisal of innovation, of personal originality, and even of personal success and of the kind of seduction which it exercised. As a theory of modern revolution, situationist theory, formulated on the narrow basis of agitation within and against culture, and aiming beyond the boundaries of these conditions, could not be adopted as it was—in any but a purely formal manner suited to diligent followers—by the movement which was then being born on much wider bases, in now-changed conditions; and, dialectically, this theory could not truly convert itself into the general expression of the real movement, except by its own development of its universal content and by settling accounts with its earlier form, that first stirring of a total subversive program which guards “the appearance of being the esoteric possession of a few individuals”—and having failed in this task, it took on the responsibility for its recovery and provided its own exoteric version.
The way that Debord, for his part, confronted the outdated situationist form of critical activity, is clarified if we compare two statements, one prior to the crisis of the SI, the other contemporaneous with the SI’s dissolution. In 1966 he wrote in No. 10 of the SI’s journal, concerning the individual freedom which it was advisable to restore to those who would want to compromise a common project with their incoherencies: “that this freedom would be generally impoverished is another problem, without which there would have been no need for a project like the SI at this time”; and in 1971 Debord declared to the last remaining situationists: “as for us, only insofar as we do not need the SI could we form part of it.” This affirmation was directed at those who needed the SI “to personally amount to something”, but it also appeared to indicate positively that time had run out for those who had constantly found themselves at the heart of the operation and who thought that “the I without the We collapses into a prefabricated mass” (Potlatch, No. 1, New Series, July 1959). In the theses of the Veritable Split, the unity of individual passions and universal interests was still formally maintained (when in reality it was a question of an individual response to a collective non-supersession) by means of the ad hoc theoretical hypothesis according to which the SI’s liquidation corresponded exactly with the necessities of a vast social movement which rendered its continued existence useless. (Today, the author of Panegyric speaks instead of the “repugnant seventies”.) Then, to preserve this shattered unity in memory, Debord paradoxically transformed himself, with his autobiographical film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, into the last artist in an epoch without art. The truth of collective activity can no longer be expressed in the common language of that activity, which no longer exists, or in that of a superior collective activity which would judge it, which does not exist either. It is, therefore, the moment of the most irreducibly subjective expression, through which the game with time, which had been identified with the revolutionary possibilities of an epoch, must return to the game of an individual adventure which closes the circle of time to find its ultimate meaning in its origin. (This return would be even more emphasized in 1989: “. . . it is what I did in 1952 that has made me so disliked for so long”.) By confirming the lack of communication with a despicable public, individual expression thereby rediscovers something of modern art, the violent assertion of the loss of all common language which had effectively been its point of departure, but only by retrospectively magnifying the project of the re-conquest of the community of dialog within an historical project. This detachment from all practical perspective is the most striking characteristic of the Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, where the critique which had been conceived in direct relation with the praxis of the revolutionary movement is developed solely on the theoretical plane, without leaving any place, not even the possibility, for the new experiences of practical struggles which are slowly being reborn under various forms; and which, developing independently of the critical theory of the previous epoch can certainly appear to be trivial in the view of those who would continue that theory. Although the special quality which was so highly demanded in the exercise of critical lucidity cannot jeopardize the capability to recognize and calculate the relation of this critique to the totality to actually be transformed (as is proven on the other hand by the belated character of this balance sheet of the years of counterrevolution, published at a moment when new contradictions began to see the light), it would nonetheless be petty to reproach Debord for his conduct, taking into account the quality of its historical results, as it would be inadmissible to not want to recognize the revolutionary necessities which this conduct arrogantly neglects.
It is only in light of these necessities that the history of the SI can be understood and, eventually, written.
(Originally published in 1992 in issue 15 the French journal Encyclopédie des Nuisances. Spanish translation by Maldeojo, published in 2000 in radikales livres.)
Spanish translation available online at: