A remembrance of the author's friendship with Guy Debord in the late 1950s and early 60s - with some theoretical reflections.
Written in English by David Blanchard, 1995. First published in Drunken Boat. Also published in Revolutionary Romanticism; edited by Max Blechman, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1999.
Debord, in the Resounding Cataract of Time
(David Blanchard, 1995)
There are moments in one's existence that stand out, as if of a more solid texture, drawn in stronger lines contrasting with the uzziness and fathomless ambiguity of the rest of life. And they really are charged with objective meaning, imparted by the movement of a sort of historic overdetermination. Often that special quality only reveals itself retrospectively, but sometimes, too, it is perceived immediately.
That is what I experienced on the day, in autumn 1959, when I first glanced through an issue - number 3, I think - of the SI [Situationist International]. At the time, I participated in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, and in the journal of the same name, for which I wrote, as was the rule, under a pseudonym: P. Canjuers. That day, as a few of us were going through the weekly mail, my eye was attracted by that sleek, elegant publication, with its scintillating cover and incredible title. I took grabbed hold of it, and immediately began to explore what I gradually came to see as a new-found land of modernity, bizarre but fascinating.
Now we, at S. ou B., felt that we epitomized modernity, and I continue to think us completely justified in doing so. S. ou B. had broken with orthodox Marxism-Leninism, and gone on to radically criticize the Eastern European Communist regimes, but also to reformulate the criticism of capitalism, through the analysis both of its most sophisticated forms of domination, and of the most advanced experiences of the working class movement. Among these, the revolutionary workers' councils in Hungary in particular fed our thinking about what, positively, might be the content of a truly revolutionary program.
How passionate were those years of searching, its fever further intensified by the position of quasi intellectual clandestinity to which the utter rejection of our ideas confined us. For, despite the Kruschev report and the uprisings in Poland and Hungary, the French political scene was still essentially paralysed by the intellectual blackmail of both Stalinists and the most cowardly "pentiti" of bourgeois ideology, such as Sartre. So we explored the deep waters Nautilus-like, almost unknown to the world on the surface, freely and audaciously, to a point that would perhaps not have been possible had we been obliged to battle foot by foot against dishonest opponents who, furthermore, had nothing of interest to say to us.
And now, looking through this perfectly singular booklet, I discovered a small group of unknown people who did have some terribly exciting things to say to us. Definitely strange things for us, with our eyes glued to the Marxist horizon, even though the point, for many of us, was to travel beyond it; totally inhabitual in regard to the messages sent out to us by other tiny groups intent on saving some vestiges of the revolutionary past from the Stalinist disaster. The strangeness was not uncanny, but rather, attractive, incredibly enticing. The criticism of art and culture led on to a utopian, liberated life, already experimented by these young adventurers in practical poetics such as "derives" around cities, or the illustrated description of a fantastic place called the "Yellow City." And that utopia already haunted the people whose faces could be seen in a few dim photos, sitting around cafe tables engaged in ardent, infinite conversation that lofted them through the nights. With the frenzy of escaped prisoners, in the secret folds of the city, they too were struggling to elucidate the deepest roots of modern misery, and living, in fantasy, the upheaval that would overthrow it. And the journal was something of the tale of their efforts, in a sharp, tense style, almost stiffened in the same arrogant conceit with which we too affected to steel ourselves, both to reflect back on our opponents the scorn they inflicted on us, and to convince ourselves of how radical we really were.
As I read that issue of the SI, then, I realized that what was occurring was an objective encounter, so to speak, a criticism in action of "separation," to use an expression in consonance with my emphatic feeling of the time: a meeting at the acme (no doubt hidden to everyone but us) of modernity. Over the following months, Debord and I checked out in detail just how necessary and fertile that encounter was, during long talks in bistros, and endless roamings through the city streets. In the project of self-management embracing every aspect of social life, as expressed by the workers' movement at the heights of its spontaneous creativity - from the Paris Commune to 1956 in Hungary - resided the social and political underpinnings for the utopia of people constantly inventing their "use of life," like a perpetual composing of music or poetry. And in turn, the subversion of the artistic and cultural institution, which the SI claimed to embody, came as an extension and a consecration, so to speak, in what was reputed to be the highest spheres, of the subversion of every agency of domination and exploitation. The text that we finally wrote jointly, and pompously entitled Preliminaires pour une definition de l'unite du programme revolutionnaire, definitely gives an idea of the ambition behind our exchanges, but tells hardly anything about how rich they were, and even less of the friendship that was built up through that conversation.
In a restaurant on rue Mouffetard, on July 20, 1960, we put the finishing touches on what we viewed as the guidelines of an agreement between the cultural vanguard and the vanguard of the proletarian revolution. We were very finicky about the title and its print, designed, according to Debord, so that the document would be referred to as the "Preliminaires" - and I smiled, indulgent and foolish, knowing nothing about communication at the time. After that, we parted for the summer, each with the task of circulating the paper among his comrades. In the fall, I had to leave France for 9 or 10 months, and during my absence I learned that Debord had formally become a member of S. ou B, was participating fully in its activities, especially during the group's action within the major strikes that shook the Belgian Borinage in the winter of 1961. The news surprised me. His membership, I felt, exceeded the closeness we had actually achieved: and above all, it seemed useless, and in fact, in our discussions Debord had expressed the view that each group should continue, in practice, to follow its own path. The news of his resignation came as less of a surprise, since he had based it on his disagreement with the internal functioning of the group, and on the role played by some domineering individuals. Apparently, he had attempted to foment a revolt among the younger members, mostly students, but that had been no more than a Fronde.
I have stressed the episode of Debord's relations with S. ou B. because it seems significant on several counts. First, the person I knew and loved at that time was, so to speak, a nascent Debord. Although he already had a brilliant career as an agitator in the cultural sphere behind him, the most singular traits of his personality as a revolutionary, as well as the most fertile and most perspicacious of his inventions still retained a vivaciousness and an accuracy that would subsequently be somewhat adulterated by his obsession with being public enemy number 1, and also by the structural stupidity of disciples, from whom he proved unable to take sufficient distance. At the time there were Khayati, Kotanyi, Jorn . . . friends, not disciples.
Above all there is a need, I think, to point up the importance, for the road Debord followed, of that involvement with S. ou B. - particularly so since he and most everyone who has had anything to say about his adventure have practically systematically ignored it. The point is obviously not to stake any claim either for S. ou B. and even less for myself, as having fathered the thinking of a man who went on to become a celebrity. To the contrary, it is the objective nature of our encounter that I would emphasize once again, and what it revealed about a particular moment in history. Debord did not succeed in wrenching himself from the curse that Stalinism and the bureaucratization of the working class organizations had laid on the revolutionary movement by dint of reading Hegel, the young Marx and Lukacs. It was the insurgent Hungarian workers and the Councils they created who lifted that curse, at least for those who were prepared to listen to what they had to say.
At this point in his itinerary, Debord was ready. He had broken with the Lettrists and with a criticism that remained complacently restricted to culture: in his opinion, the cultural vanguards did nothing but repeat ad nauseam the scene of the break-off with art, originally performed by the Dadaists after World War I. A clean break was called for, and a way of moving beyond art had to be found. Art conceived as play, as the freeing of desire, as subversion, as negation of the deathly, repressive social order, for this was the sense of modern art, as Debord saw it. The creation of "situations" was a response to that exigency: "The arts of the future will be upheavals of situations, or they will not be." There was clearly a parallel between the revolution as the invention of society and those "upheavals of situations" as the invention of daily life.
Now, the link between so radical a demand and the concrete action of the proletariat turned out to be thinkable again. For anyone intent on seeing the true situation, the Budapest insurgents - about whom Debord had learned first hand from his friend Attila Kotanyi - had overthrown not only the colossal statue of Stalin, but also the terrifying image of a proletariat whose mission it was, as the sadistic agent of historic necessity, to force all of humanity, once and for all, to endorse industrial discipline, the cult of the leader, the annihilation of individuals, reduced to being the masses, etc. For artists and intellectuals, that proletariat was truly a bogy man, who so many had determined to serve nonetheless, out of fear, masochism or ambition.
In the West, by the same token, all those libertarian anarchists, anti-authoritarian Marxists, council communists, etc. who had never ceased to denounce the Stalinist imposture, began to gain some acknowledgement. And among them, S. ou B. and such sister groups as Solidarity in England, Correspondence in the USA, and Unita Proletaria in Italy, had undertaken a complete reinterpretation of the proletarian experience, highlighting the significance, for a liberatory movement, not only of the great moments of revolutionary creation, but of the everyday struggles around the work process and the creativity with which workers combat the disciplinary industrial organization. In doing so, S. ou B. revived the radicality characteristic of the anarchists, and of the very beginnings of the socialist movement, and geared thinking about the revolutionary utopia ("the contents of socialism") to call every aspect of life into question, from the shape of cities to gender relations.
Clearly, then, there was nothing fortuitous in the arrival of an issue of the SI in the mailbox of S. ou B., any more than in the passionate interest it drew from a young member of that group, or the excited discussions that ensued. . . . And conversely, the reader will understand that when such themes as the criticism of daily life or all-encompassing self-management became the battle cries of the SI years later, I was not overwhelmed by their novelty, and I was surely not the only one.
How is it, then, that my excitement of some 30 years ago, when I first discovered the SI, is still tingling - not as some narcissistic pleasure in reliving the vanished past, but truly as the ongoing perception of an invaluable uniqueness? It is, I believe, because of the sense of form and the artistic quality that inhabited everything Debord undertook, and contributed enormously to making him effectively subversive.
I am of course not by any means contending that Debord should be embalmed in museums of modern art. It is true that he boasted of being the inventor of the major modern-day cinematographic innovations. . . . And one could also argue that as a virtuoso in the collage, photomontage and "detournement" of ads and comics, he was a great pop artist, - but the only sense in doing so would be for the (mediocre) pleasure of drawing screams from his devotees. Or again he may, as late sycophants would have it, be ranked among the great French writers of this century, thanks to his resolute style and the fine boldness of his assertions. And Sollers, who is one of Paris' highest-paid literary clowns, and can therefore get away with anything, even took advantage of his position to subject Debord, alive and kicking, to the insult of claiming to be his spiritual heir; shortly thereafter he supported Balladur for President.
No, what I would like to demonstrate is quite the opposite: how the artistic treatment, so to speak, applied by Debord to revolutionary activity constitutes the exact, faithful expression of the contents of that activity, and gives its perspective proper depth.
To call Debord an artist is obviously something of a paradox. His criticism of art, intended to be devastating, was two-faceted. Modern art, on the one hand, with its succession of repetitious vanguards incapable of surpassing themselves, has exhausted its critical bite on alienated existence. But on the other hand and more deeply, art contrasts with "true life" in that it is congealed, so to speak, and therefore doomed to be no more than a cemetery of moments, affording fictitious, fallacious fulfilment of desires.
The same alienating force that Debord would later extend to the entire functioning of society, through the concept of the spectacle, applied, then, to the very principle of art. Art was nothing but separation from life.
Perhaps the explanation of the paradox by which the promulgator of so vivid a criticism actually turns out to be an artist, and profoundly so, resides in the fact that this criticism misses its mark, leaving its object intact, in essence. In fact, to reduce 20th century art to the movement of negation embodied by those vanguards is to mistake official art and some historicizing discourse on art for art work itself. The fact that Dada, and above all Duchamp, traced the theoretical limit of 20th century art with exemplary clarity - namely, that in the last resort it is the signature that makes the work of art, and for anything to be art the condition, necessary and sufficient, is that an artist decides it is - has in no way prevented art since then from being rich and meaningful within that limit. In striving obstinately to define what present-day art can or should be, the vanguards have succeeded only in becoming the "art pompier" of the second half of this century, in the person of Beuys, Buren and so many others - and in this it really has succeeded. And again, in any reference to vanguards, it is important not to align them all on any single historical trend. The Cobra movement, for instance, exemplifies a positive renewal much more than the work of negation.
This work of negation, which cannot be completed by art itself and can only achieve completion when life itself surpasses art - in "situations" - seems to rehash the old denial not only of art, but of symbolization, and of mediation by signs or figuration. To condemn art - and thence signs as well, or symbols - as false, in the name of the truthfulness of life or of things themselves, is not a judgment but a pure act of violence: does that make it revolutionary? Swift derided the academicians of Lagado who replaced words by specimens of things, in their attempt to reform language by doing away with its unfortunate polysemia, that is to say its very power of symbolism: endless transports were needed to have the slightest conversation!
Symbolization has avenged itself of this violent dismissal by taking over the very field of "destructive" activity to which Debord devoted himself, and by conferring the aura of the work of art on his life, as well as on his writings and films. And this came about through play and style.
As we all know, nothing is more serious than play, where the exercise of freedom adventures as close as possible to material and social constraints, or to chance; it guards us, then - but at such great risk ! - from the most repugnant kind of comfort: repetition - death in disguise in the eyes of Debord. But its seriousness also derives from its always, and especially in revolutionary action, being a world-play. Be it in tarots, chess or go, the physical objects and the rules of the game compose an analogue of the world, and each game or each move reorganizes and recommences the world. In the case of a group of revolutionaries, however small, the form of its organization, the way it functions, the content and the modalities of its action all prefigure, as in a microcosm, the desired state of the world. This was one of the bitter lessons drawn from the fate of the Bolshevik party, and the group S. ou B. was intent on drawing the consequences and on behaving immediately, concretely and on its own microscopic scale, as we thought a free society would demand.
Debord quite naturally extended this exigency to the area in which his desire to break with the "old world" was in fact most strongly focused, and which I will not call everyday life, because of the somewhat futile connotation of the term, but rather, "the use of life," use of the fleeting moments, and of the most concrete contents of situations. And play was necessarily the model here, in the sense that the artist is playing when the progress of his work proposes an unheard of, desirable modulation of the course of time or the unfolding of space. "Experimenting" with the urban environment was this sort of play: through wanderings imbued with the hues and resonances lent by the peculiar qualities of the places visited, the drinks downed here and there and the remarks exchanged. The same was true of conversation, to be taken almost in the original sense of "shared life," for it embodied something of a sensual fulfilment of friendship. For Debord it was a verbal derive, the playful experimenting, by several people, of ideas, words, new fancies - and anyone who ever spent some time with him knows how his presence and talk succeeded, in these exchanges with friends, in catalysing and freeing their imagination, in its liveliest expression. With real opponents, on the other hand, the discussion veered to another type of game, which he called a "boxing match" but was actually more of a free-for-all since he had no qualms about resorting to every available means, including the lowliest personal attacks.
In friendship, however, - and I think friendship is what really most accurately prefigured the kind of society he expected a revolution to produce -, he was intent on enforcing the rules dictated, in his opinion, by the constraints inherent in the fight against the existing order, and the degree of freedom required to be worthy to fight. And he often pushed that inflexible stance to the point of formalism, and of arbitrariness as well, since it was he who set those rules unilaterally, and most often left them implicit, the understanding being that they were self-evident. His disciples obviously were incapable of anything but an exaggeration of these practices, turning them into the most putrid fashionable snobbishness.
I myself was victim of that formalism, without even understanding, at the time, what had transpired, since the notion that relations between friends could be regulated by a code was completely alien to me. On the evening when Guy and Michele invited me to dinner at impasse de Clairvaux and served me a chicken-and-French-fries plate bought in some greasy joint on boulevard de Sebastopol, I should have understood that my hour of disgrace had arrived, even if the "insult" was strangely cloaked in an apology - "we're broke" - which cancelled it and which I definitely could not revile. Had I been less of a fool I would probably have read the signals more fully, and understood that the mixture of chicken-fries plus apology was a sort of self-contradictory compromise between the will to exclude me - clearly imputable to Michele - and a desire to be indulgent. Etc. Here, then, in any case, is the method Debord chose when he felt the time had come to put an end to our friendship, without informing me of his reasons, even in the form of insults. Too bad for me, and for him.
The May '68 retreat by the SI, calling itself the council for the pursuit of occupations, into the Institut Pedagogique National (!), seems to me to be an infinitely more serious perversion of this kind of play. In doing so, the SI usurped the title of council which, in its own eyes, was supposed to designate the agency of collective empowerment of the revolutionary masses, turning it into a camouflage for a separate authority handing down judgments - that is, condemnations - of the innumerable protagonists of the May revolt, and above all of those people who dared to defend ideas barely distinguishable from their own.
Playing, under the circumstances, would definitely have demanded that the game be waged on a much broader scope, and Debord would no doubt have lost control of it, and the possibility of imparting a style to it.
No irony is intended in my use of the term "style." Style, to me, is not an affected form used to facilitate or embellish the communication of a message, the meaning of which is located at some basement level of expressiveness. Play involves style; and so does the revolutionary action of a minority group, the idea being to give shape to a vision of the world that cannot be achieved at its own small scale. Each move or combination of moves outlines a gesture or a figure, projecting an order, however fleeting, into the existent chaos. To speak of beauty or elegance in reference to play is not superficial, but truly imparts the awareness that play operates in the objective world. And again, style cannot be defined as the mark of subjectivity, but rather, as the tension between the ephemeral and the utopian dimensions - between movement, on the one hand, wresting free speech from the inertia and senselessness of the pervading verbal noise to adventure it, in all its vulnerability, suspended over "the cataract of time," and on the other hand utopia, the projection of a figure offering, by analogy, a foretaste of some desirable ordering of the world.
When a minority group acts, then, it is style more than the necessarily limited material effect that propels reality to a breaking point where open-ended time, and the incompletion of history, and the possibility of revolution make themselves felt, by surprise.
In the work of art this gaping openness to time, signature of its uniqueness, is what Benjamin called the aura. He deemed relinquishment of it necessary, in the name of his melancholic subjection to modern technicity. At a time when the fate of the revolution was believed to be tied to machines and the massified humanity presumably generated by them, he proclaimed "What one man has done can be done again by another" as a liberatory slogan. Now that we know a bit more about machines, and above all about society as a machine, it seems to me that the revolution needs to bet on the postulate that "what one man has done cannot be done again by any other" if we are truly intent on acknowledging equal dignity for all subjects, referred to here as men.
This is the postulate asserted in his practice by Debord, haunted by his horror of repetition and, what comes to the same, by his acute perception of the uniqueness of each moment: "(what is) beyond the violence of intoxication. . . peace, magnificent and fearsome, the true taste of time passing."
The mirror as a figure - mirror adhering so closely to the fluctuating image of reality, but, at the same time, reversing it - acts as a deeply unifying structure for Debord's work, and perhaps even for his life, from his writings to the singular critical posture he adopted, and including the contents of that criticism: the concept of the spectacle.
But again, the mirror figure embodies all of Debord's ambivalence toward any mediation by signs, representation and symbolisation. It would ensnare us in alienation and commodity fetishism, or in the substitute for true life that art extends to us: because it is fake, distorting and fragmented, it is the instrument of domination through the spectacle. It must constantly be broken, to liberate "true life," to rid oneself of the petrifying hold of images and reassert authenticity, constantly to be reinvented. From Memoires to Panegyrique, however, and in all of his films - down to the palindromic title marking his last film -, the mirror also figures remembrance: a memory both hurt to the quick, ravaged by nostalgia, and at the same time controlled and guided by critical thinking.
In his writing, then, mirrored phrases, used as a mode of criticism in themselves, proliferate. Debord himself theoretized "this insurrectional style that turns the philosophy of wretchedness into the wretchedness of philosophy," and "is not a negation of style, but the style of negation": because it ferrets out the instability in the "existing concepts . . . it simultaneously includes the grasp of their rediscovered fluidity, of their necessary destruction."
On a broader level, the mirror served Debord again, as an instrument for reversing "existing concepts," in an on-going reflection trained on the course of events, a sort of chronic of current events, of the kind he wrote in the twelve issues of the SI, and in Commentaires. And to me, it is when he did just that, speaking within the surging movement of history, that he saw farthest and aimed most accurately. He had to defend his life and work inch by inch, against concrete, constantly repeated facts, in "the resounding cataract of time." And through that fight he drew a sort of reasoned, demythifying portrait of present times, yielding the subject matter for theorization, but still retaining the very grain of the event.
But when he came to a halt, and attempted to stand at a distance to construct a theoretical battleship, The Society of the Spectacle, he got bogged down, in my opinion - but I will not attempt to explain my reasons here. The very expression "society of the spectacle" seems abusive to me, but probably because I am captive of the existing meaning of the words. And the word spectacle seems right to me as a metaphor, not as a concept; that is, precisely, not as the generalization that Debord so stubbornly defended. The metaphoric power of the word, so cuttingly critical in partial applications, takes its revenge when Debord attempts to make all of social reality fit into it, and traps him; this is clear in Commentaires, in particular. Society is reduced to the oversimplified model of the conventional theater, and the dialectic of alienation wears thin in a pitiful denunciation of the stagehands pulling the strings behind the scenes. The society of the spectacle then becomes a society of backstage manipulations. . . . Here again, the demythification of how domination works is reduced to the simple denial of the symbolic dimension. The concept of the total spectacle completely flattens out the sphere in which, precisely, the enormous complexity of representation, and of the alienation generated by it, unfolds.
The extraordinary effectiveness of the machinery combining the commodification, the market economy, representative democracy, opinion polls, the mass media and the social sciences resides precisely in the fact that it does not impose its discourse unilaterally, as being the law, but rather, that it is interactive. The TV commentator is not Big Brother, authoritatively proclaiming the official lie, he is John Doe, who reads your mind and utters your thoughts. The agitated clowns on the screen have our faces, our gestures, our voices, and the thundering discourse that oppresses us and drives us to despair is depicted as our own. And in a sense, it is: lies, like taxes, are levied directly at the source. It is from us that a vast scheme extorts the basic material out of which the various organs of the domination-producing apparatus, and the social sciences in particular, then proceed to isolate the active principle of the lie, and to resynthesize a social discourse that is a sort of clone of our own - uncannily familiar. And, stupefied at hearing and seeing ourselves speak and act from outside of our selves, we shut up. Can there be any worse censorship?
Would Debord have agreed with an analysis such as this? Probably not. It hardly matters.
What does matter is that he denounced and described the universal lie proffered by our society about itself and the world; that he showed how this lie destroys reality by saturating everything animate and inanimate with inauthenticity and eliminating the temporal dimension, so that we circle 'round endlessly in the perpetual present of current events. And above all, what matters is that he detected the sickly locus of the devastating lie: the denial of death. "The social absence of death is the same as the social absence of life." "The spectator mind no longer moves through life toward achievement and toward death." "He who relinquishes expending his life can no longer admit his own death to himself."
At such depths of critical thinking, Debord was very much alone. The denial of death also inhabited the revolutionary movement, with its dire need for positivity and optimism. Around '68, it was fashionable to qualify death as "reactionary."
And, too, at such depths there can be no empty talk. Debord was not content to oppose a few statements to the key imposture of the times: his entire work and life were spurred by an awareness of the presence of death, and tensed between the ephemeral and the utopian dimensions. The "true taste of time passing" is also the taste of the true, be it in savouring wine, in certain moments, or in a revolutionary struggle. The presence of the "movement toward death" is the touchstone of authenticity, which revolution should restitute - or institute. It is in this sense that Debord was radically an artist. In the same sense that he acknowledged that his friend Asger Jorn had remained a situationist although, when enjoined to choose between the two, he gave up being a member of the SI to continue his work as painter, sculptor and ceramist. For, as Debord said in Une Architecture sauvage, writing about the perpetual metamorphoses operated by Jorn in his home and garden in Albissola, despite that choice, his life never ceased to be propelled by a constant spate of invention and desires.