CONCERNING DEFEAT AND THE VARIOUS WAYS IT WAS DEALT WITH
“After wasting a lot of time and money, you see these old men, burdened by their years, dressed in rags, starving, reeking of the odor of sulfur, covered with black soot from coal, paralyzed by their constant handling of mercury, rich only in the amount of snot dripping from their noses and furthermore so miserable that they would sell their soul for four pennies. They undergo themselves the metamorphosis that they sought to produce in metals, transformed from alchemists into melancholics, from doctors into beggars, from soap-makers into the haunters of taverns: the targets of the people’s jibes…. And often, compelled by poverty, they are reduced to the practice of detestable arts, counterfeiting and other frauds.”
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva (1527) (“Declamation Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts”)
In his “Report to the 7th Conference of the SI in Paris”, in 1966, Debord claimed that “the theory of the SI is clear at least on one point: one must make use of it.” To what use it was put by Vaneigem and Debord himself over the course of the next few years is the topic that we shall now examine, in order to discover how they overcame, if indeed they did overcome, the contradictions and weaknesses evoked in the previous chapter. Before we do so, however, it will be necessary to reexamine the way the SI considered its past theory at the moment of its final crisis.
Two of the SI’s members who remained in the organization after the “orientation debate” of 1970 and the resulting wave of resignations and expulsions, Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti, harshly denounced (in the “Communiqué of the S.I. concerning Vaneigem”) “the myth of the admirable perfection of the SI”, in order to counteract the sterile admiration that this myth had aroused among the “stupid external spectators” who did nothing but passively consume the situationist publications. In 1972, in the text that announced the dissolution of the organization (“Theses on the Situationist International and Its Time”), published in The Veritable Split, they call for “applying the critique that the SI had so correctly applied to the old world to the SI itself”. To imagine that the SI had produced a perfect theory1 is an “idealist pretension” that “can only support itself through a dogmatism that is always already doomed to defeat, and dogmatism is always already the inaugural defeat of such thought”. Far from considering that the SI had constantly demonstrated the most extreme coherence, they insisted, paraphrasing Marx, on the fact that “the SI has always known how to scoff pitilessly at the hesitations, weaknesses, and failings of its first efforts, while showing at every moment the hypotheses, oppositions, and ruptures that have constituted its history”. The theory of the SI is not fixed in “a doctrine for interpreting existing conditions”, established once and for all, precisely because it is linked to a practice that is under constant development.
Furthermore, this theory continued to undergo changes after 1968. The “Theses” of 1972 take ecological questions into account for the first time:
“Whether it is a question of the chemical pollution of the air we breathe or of the adulteration of foodstuffs, of the irreversible accumulation of radioactivity by the industrial use of nuclear energy, or of the deterioration of the water cycle from the subterranean springs to the oceans, or of the urban leprosy that is continuing to spread out in place of what were once the town and the countryside, or of the ‘population explosion,’ of the increase in suicides and mental illnesses, or of the threshold approached by noise pollution….”
These facts are testimonies, each in its own field, to “the impossibility of going any further (which is more or less urgent and more or less mortal according to the individual case)” along the road of industrial development. The situationists thus included in their field of vision a category of considerations that they had previously disdained, compensating to some degree for their backwardness. For they began to show concern for these issues at a time when the publications devoted to the various forms of pollution and the problems they cause began to proliferate,2 which revealed a mass of reflections formulated in the sixties outside of the vanguardist and revolutionary milieus.3 A very severe critique, which was certainly relevant, was directed against the “partial” nature of the knowledge accumulated by the scientists regarding these questions:
“However, such a science, the servant of the mode of production and limitations of the thought that it has produced, cannot conceive of a true reversal of the course of things. It does not know how to think strategically, which nobody asks it to do anyway; no more does it possess the practical means of intervening in it. It can only talk about its expiration, and about the best palliatives that would postpone this expiration if they were firmly applied. Thus, this science shows to the most ridiculous degree the uselessness of knowledge without means of use and the nullity of nondialectical thought in an era carried away by the movement of historical time. Thus, the old slogan ‘Revolution or Death’ is no longer the lyrical expression of consciousness in revolt; it is the last word of the scientific thought of our century.”
In order for the knowledge of “general degradation” not to be translated into “general powerlessness”, it will necessarily have to incorporate the (situationist) theory of the revolution, and thus discover a coherence and above all a practical use. This knowledge also confirms that theory, since “the last word of scientific thought” from now on is: “Revolution or Death.”
But this is where the problems begin. For this information that the situationists will from now on have to take into account implies the idea of the irreversibility of the processes that are underway, explicitly emphasized with the example of the nuclear industry. It is therefore necessary to put an end to this industry as soon as possible, along with most other industries, which, translated into situationist terms (imitating Marxist rhetoric), implies:
“The relations between production and the productive forces have finally reached a point of radical incompatibility, because the existing social system has bound its fate to the pursuit of a literally unbearable deterioration of all the conditions of life…. The brutal downfall of prehistoric production, which only the social revolution of which we are speaking can bring about, is the necessary and sufficient condition for the beginning of an era of great historical production; the indispensible and urgent renewal of the production of man by himself.”
The situationists of 1972 present the “brutal downfall of prehistoric production” as a simple update to their theory. For if the question is only framed from a descriptive point of view, the previous positions of the SI are indisputably confirmed:
“The universal development of the commodity has been completely verified as the realization of political economy, in other words, as ‘renunciation of life.’ At the moment when everything has entered the sphere of economic goods, even spring-water and the air of towns, everything has become economic sickness…. This admirable coincidence appears with the new era: revolution is desired in a total form at the very moment when it can only be accomplished in a total form, and when the totality of the functioning of society becomes absurd and impossible outside that accomplishment.”
If, however, we view the matter from the practical point of view, that is, if we ask ourselves how they will arrange the revolution to “transform the world” within the new conditions that were just described, we can confirm that the latter actually contradict the previous theses of the SI. It will be recalled that these theses were largely based on an allegedly disalienated utilization of automation and the existing system of production, since these two conditions make it possible to foresee a substantial reduction of labor time in the future society. It was, so to speak, change within continuity: all that was necessary was to “reverse the perspective” and all the rest would follow later. For the theory of the spectacle granted a central role to the subjective perception of reality, and that is why the subjectivism of The Revolution of Everyday Life accorded quite well with the ideas of Debord (the notion of the “spectacle”, in the situationist sense of the term, only had any meaning in relation to subjectivity: “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”, etc.). From that point on, the situationists declared (“Notes To Serve towards the History of the SI from 1969 to 1971”):
“… one cannot make revolutionary theory while neglecting the material foundations of the existing social relations. It is this critique of modern capitalism as it really is that separates the SI from all leftism and also from the lying lyrical sighs of the various Vaneigemists. We had to recommence the critique of political economy in understanding precisely and in combating ‘the society of the spectacle.’ And assuredly we had to continue this critique because this society, since 1967, has pursued its movement of decay in an accelerated manner.”
The new importance that was conceded to the “material foundations of the existing social relations” was confirmed by a sibylline passage from the “Theses on the Situationist International and Its Time”:
“The basic fact is not so much that all the material means exist for the construction of a free life in a classless society; rather, it is that the blind under-employment of these means by class society can neither interrupt itself nor go any further.”
The formula that “all the material means exist”, etc., corresponds to the situationist discourse of the period between 1958 and 1969 as it was expounded in the journal and in Vaneigem’s book, The Revolution of Everyday Life. This discourse no longer coincided with “the basic fact”, because it is simply incompatible with “the brutal downfall of prehistoric production” that is now announced (although in a relatively discreet way and, as we have seen, almost in a sibylline manner). But the situationists did not want to say this explicitly, or at least they never did so. They contented themselves at the time with saying that “the blind under-employment of these means by class society can neither interrupt itself nor go any further”. In other words, class society finds itself in a dead end; a situation that can only be resolved, the situationists say, by way of revolution. It was assumed, however, that this revolution was the “supersession” of the present situation; the question that then arises is: can a dead end [impasse] be “superseded” [dépasse]? Evidently not. You have to turn around and go in another direction. But in that case one no longer “supersedes” anything; one departs from the progressivist logic and then it is necessary to address different questions of a practical order which are precisely the questions that the situationists do not ask: how can that “brutal downfall of prehistoric production” be reconciled with the material abundance that up until now had been taken for granted? To what extent is it compatible with the suppression of alienation, with the suppression of labor, etc., etc.? By defining the industrial mode of production as “the blind under-employment of these means”, it was suggested that they could be utilized more effectively if they were not wasted in the intensive production of useless objects, which squander the available natural resources without providing any benefits. But could they really be utilized with discernment? A “brutal downfall of prehistoric production” means exactly the death of the industrial system based on productivity. By turning their backs on this system, they make the entire apparatus of production and distribution tremble and necessarily replace abundance with scarcity, which returns the question of material survival to the highest plane. (This question, which abundance, the daughter of industry, allows us to ignore, was precisely the question that pre-industrial societies had to permanently face.) Thus, what must be reconsidered is the whole situationist theory. In order to avoid devoting themselves to such a revision, the situationists, in 1972, restricted themselves to formulating their last theses without drawing the requisite conclusions from them, and preferred to act as if these theses were themselves a supersession of the theory of the SI, “which thus abolishes in such a way that it maintains and preserves what is abolished”.
In this way, the coherence of the theory was preserved, but only in words. (One example: this class society, which, by pursuing its current mode of functioning, “can neither interrupt itself nor go any further”, is confronted by a contradiction which by definition assumes that it will be resolved by the revolution, since the latter is the supersession of contradictions or, to express it in the Marxist-situationist style, “the real movement that surpasses existing conditions”. But this formal supersession is still a petitio principii insofar as it does not pose the question of how this state of affairs will be surpassed: unless one thinks, as Vaneigem does, that the democracy of the workers councils will solve all problems, and that it is therefore pointless to address them before the revolution. This way of avoiding the disturbing questions is a defect to which numerous pro- and post-situs would succumb.) In reality, the situationists, who had the merit of taking a step forward in the sense of a drastic revision of their theses—a revision that the leftists would never carry out, or that they would undertake much later and less consistently—but who had stopped at the threshold of this revision, found themselves precisely in the same situation as class society, a situation that they had so accurately characterized: their theory “can neither interrupt itself nor go any further”. Then all that was left was to dissolve the SI, which is another way of leaving the problem unresolved, but this time, definitively.
The process of development through conflict that made the SI’s journal so stimulating—its ability to “[show] at every moment the hypotheses, oppositions, and ruptures that have constituted its history”—is interrupted, because the new stage in the evolution of situationist theory is no longer of the same order as the previous ones; this time it involves a change of course that was not carried out. In these conditions, even though it continues to claim that its theory is not perfect and that it must be criticized, the SI in fact considers its theory, from then on, as if it were something finished and immutable, even going so far as to say (at the end of the “Communiqué of the SI concerning Vaneigem”) that “the historians will only confirm the judgment of the SI”. With this sleight-of-hand, the situationists in fact favored dogmatism and “the narcotic certainties of ideology” that it professed to combat. The SI offered its readers an intrinsically contradictory theory—as before, as we proved in the previous chapter, but henceforth in a yet more flagrant form—presenting it, despite all the rhetorical denials that might be marshaled in its defense, as the most admirable thing in the whole world.4 Like transubstantiation or the philosopher’s stone, it is something incomprehensible, it seems impossible, yet you have to believe in it; since the power of the tone and the style employed is such that it exercises a role of “hidden persuasion” which makes a cold and objective reading impossible.5
It would be erroneous, however, to perceive this as a deliberate maneuver, a Machiavellian manipulation on the part of the situationists. It is just that they are obsessed with the question of organization, which they consider to be “fundamental … in the very theory of revolution”, and they devote their most serious attention to the critique of the “pro-situs” and the “Vaneigemists”. There are blind spots in their theory, which they are thus unable to discern, just as they do not see that their new contributions to situationist theory do nothing but exacerbate that theory’s contradictions. But maybe they sensed this in a confused way, which would explain their insistence on recalling that they had not sought to elaborate “a definitively coherent and worked-out system”, and that with regard to their theory, “whoever helps the age in discovering what it can do is no more shielded from the blemishes of the present than he is innocent of the most deadly things that might occur”. They therefore anticipated in advance a critique that, in the final analysis, would not take place. And Debord, as we shall see below, would do nothing but replace one discourse with another without ever reconsidering the various contradictions that he had previously evoked.
After his resignation from the SI, Vaneigem first passed through a stage of escalated radicality, followed after 1979 by a second stage distinguished by renunciation of the very idea of revolution.
In 1972, in “Terrorism or Revolution” (Vaneigem’s Introduction to Pour la révolution, an anthology of texts by a 19th century revolutionary, Ernest Coeurderoy) and above all in “A Toast to Revolutionary Workers”, which was added as an afterword to the new edition of The Revolution of Everyday Life, he undertook, utilizing a profusion of detourned formulas from Marx, a critique of the “radical critique” represented by situationist theory. While the latter carried out “an analysis of the old world and through practice in which the analyst negates him or herself as separated consciousness”, “it must now either realise itself in the practical activity of the revolutionary masses or betray itself by becoming a barrier to that activity”; for “without the criticism of arms, the arms of criticism are but weapons of suicide”. The “subjective expression of the situationist project”, which in 1968 “reached its highest point”, “the most advanced practical thought of a proletarian sector with no access to the levers of the commodity process”, then experienced its “lowest ebb” when it became only the object of an “intellectualised reading”. Thus, “the main theses of the Traité de savoir-vivre must now find corroboration of a concrete sort in the actions of its anti-readers…. in the shape of total revolution”, replacing the “theoretical what is to be done?” with “the revolutionary act”.
Vaneigem therefore accused the situationists of the post-1968 period of practical impotence, whereas the situationists, in the “Communiqué of the SI concerning Vaneigem”, had characterized Vaneigem’s position as a “permanent refusal to envision a real historical development”. In their view, as they pointed out in 1972 in “On the Decomposition of Our Enemies” (included in The Veritable Split), the new texts by Vaneigem are only a kind of pseudo-revolutionary logorrhea in which “the most hollow formulae, and the long series of concepts without use, accumulate in a slap-dash manner, in what seems to be a bad pastiche of the Vaneigem of 1962”.
For Vaneigem, the functioning of the SI, which should have represented—according to the terms of The Revolution of Everyday Life—a model of organization that mediates “between the increasingly disorganised old society and the new society yet to be built”, had proven incapable of finding a way “to harmonise inter-subjective agreements and differences”. Vaneigem henceforth rejected all “organizational model[s]” in favor of the spontaneous organization of the “insurgent workers” in wildcat strikes and revolts. The worker is now the only reader capable of drawing the practical conclusions of the theses of The Revolution of Everyday Life, whereas during the period when it was being written it was directed at any reader ready to “re-experience” the “life” that it contained; what the situationists were now reproaching Vaneigem himself for, on the other hand, was not having known how to do this. All-too-marked by the ideas of the SI and not having been written specifically for the “insurgent workers”, The Revolution of Everyday Life is not adapted to Vaneigem’s new orientation, which is why Vaneigem published in 1974, under the pseudonym of Ratgeb,6 a book entitled From Wildcat Strike to Total Self-Management. Published in a paperback edition (10/18)7 and presented as a practical manual, it ran no risk at all of being subjected to an “intellectualised reading”, all the more so insofar as it adopted a clumsy pedagogical style that was addressed “exclusively to revolutionary workers”, since they are the only people who can “break the bonds of commodity domination”. The “revolutionary theory of total self-management” delineated by Vaneigem during the period when he was a member of the SI (to which he does not refer, because of the pretense that this book was not written by Vaneigem) is here reintegrated in “the movement it came from, the insurrectionary movement of the workers”. Despite his use of a pseudonym, the very title of the book already smacks so much of Vaneigem that we may ask ourselves if it found any readers who did not notice this.
Ratgeb sets forth, in much more detail than Vaneigem had provided in The Revolution of Everyday Life and in the “Notice to the Civilized”, “a model of what total self-management might be like, and of a society based on the satisfaction of individual desires and passions”. This model owes much, as always, to Fourier: social equilibrium results from the harmonization of the passions. Among the four sections that comprise “a total self-management assembly” there is also “a harmonization section, charged with coordinating passional offers and requests, harmonizing the plurality of desires, and facilitating the fulfillment of particular caprices”. The author, a self-declared enemy of bureaucracy and of all “organizational models”, ultimately conceives, without even being aware of this, a typically bureaucratic organization, with that “harmonization section” that is simultaneously a research institute, a planning center and an office for the management of human resources. It will be recalled that, as far back as 1963, in “Basic Banalities”, Vaneigem imagined that one day the workers would “devote their attention to watching over the cybernetic specialists, whose sole task would be to increase … production” in a society in which “the extension of automation” would be the rule. Ratgeb takes the utopianism of the Vaneigem of the situationist era to the point of caricature by radicalizing it even further. Ratgeb, however, defends himself from the accusation that he is a utopian. He thinks (just like Fourier) that his “contributions” can be “put into practice without delay”. The dreamed-of reconciliation of theory and practice—one of his articles for the journal is entitled: “Aiming for Practical Truth” (I.S., no. 11)—once again comes to grief.8
Now we come to the second stage in Vaneigem’s literary career. As if to confirm the prediction of the SI concerning him (“What one has affirmed to be perfect, one must one day affirm to be totally nonexistent”), Vaneigem, after having waited for several years for a revolution that never took place, undertook, beginning with The Book of Pleasures (1979), to subject his past “errors” to harsh criticism, replacing the word “revolution”, which he now only used reluctantly, with the word “emancipation”. From then on, the individual quest for salvation is what will allow for the attainment of the goal, always demanded, of “globally subverting society”. It is true that “daylight has not yet dawned on real life”; however, “behind all you shadowy figures, it is pushing through, under my very feet”. In this book, as in all those that would follow, Vaneigem explains that the “reversal of perspective” is no longer a hypothetical future event but is taking place “under my very feet”; it heralds “the end of the economic era and introduces universal self-management”, which is just around the corner. The ultra-radical who exhorted the “insurgent workers” to revolution has been transformed into a teacher of wisdom who preaches love with an artificial serenity, halfway between Lanza del Vasto and Paulo Coelho. Some examples taken at random:
“The key is within each of us. No instructions come with it…. It is entirely up to us to invent our own lives. We waste so much energy in living vicariously, it is really hard work, when it would be enough, if you love yourself, to apply this energy to the achievement and development of the incomplete being, the child within…. At any one moment, my 'me' is to be found tightly tangled in the detritus of what oppresses me; heated debate erupts in the attempt to disentangle the twisted filaments and liberate utterly the sexual impulse as the breath that gives life perpetually. It ought never to be stifled.”
“With attractive ease as the most natural thing in the world, our common desire for autonomy will bring us together to stop paying, working, following orders, giving up what we want, growing old, feeling shame or familiarity with fear. We will act instead on the pulse of pleasure, and live in love and creativity.”
The revolutionary subjectivity of which he had been an ardent apostle is now in his view the main obstacle to the emancipation of life. His critique is directed, obviously, at his old comrades of the SI. It is all the more interesting insofar as it totally accords with what the SI had pronounced against him. He was accused of not having sufficiently taken the negative into account; and he accuses the “men of denial” for having been satisfied with an excessively critical attitude, as if they were the “district attorneys of the revolution, self-appointed arbiters of radicality, hucksters of merit and demerit”. Far from being the explorers of the world of the future, they are “armour-clad in neurosis” and the worst enemies of freedom: their hatred for this world is merely a projection of “the disgust they feel at themselves”, since “they are attempting to change society and never cease to dissimulate, by exorcizing it, the old world that they bear within themselves”.9 Here, the effort to understand the dialectical relation of the positive and the negative that was reflected in The Revolution of Everyday Life yields to a fixed separation of the two aspects (which had already been anticipated in “Notice to the Civilized”): on the one side, the idealism of a doctrine of the “alchemy of the I”; on the other, the nihilism of the worshippers of the negative.
If there is one thing that Vaneigem did not abandon it is the reference to his favorite themes, already fully displayed in The Revolution of Everyday Life, which are “the will to live” and alchemy. The Book of Pleasures specifies what Vaneigem means by life, a notion that was characterized up until this time, according to his own testimony, by a certain imprecision. This is a force or an energy without goal or purpose, defined as that which “escapes the economy and will destroy it with gratuitousness”. Against it, the economy stands as a power of death: “the market” is “a dead civilization”, a state of “inversion in which death battens on life”, in which “death is what the dominant world thinks about”. As opposed to “a society which reduces life to a production of dead things” in a process that inexorably tends towards self-destruction, Vaneigem posits “a society based upon the individual will to live”, animated by the constructive energy of life. That is why “life becomes strange and new” when it is manifested within a “moribund society”, “upon the threshold of the unlivable, filled with compensatory nostalgia for a past that never was but inseparable from a history based upon the degradation of the will to live”.
The “alchemy of life”, the central theme of the Adresse aux vivants sur la mort qui les gouverne et l'opportunité de s'en défaire, published in 1990,10 emerges directly from this conception of life. Since life is the opposite of the economy, the “alchemy of life”, which produces (not in an uncertain future, but here and now) the philosopher’s stone that is capable of transmuting market society, is nothing but “the grace of love and of being friendly [that] dispenses with all this waiting for favors from anyone or anything”, which brings about “the fundamental agreement between life and nature.” This is the secret of the Great Work.
“By an enchantment that has come into its prime in our time, an alchemical relationship has elaborated itself, timidly, between these two beings, taken over by the radically new state of being they enter together, a relationship where the transmutation of a primal nature implies the simultaneous trans- formation of the operator of that transmutation.”
The realization of this alchemy proceeds via “the child’s second birth”: it involves an attempt “to rediscover … not a wounded childhood”, as in psychoanalysis, but “a blooming childhood”, “wealth of being … the morning of desire”. This is therefore a revelation: “the creation of the living is revolutionary”. Long and picturesque explanations ensue in which he addresses the development of the fetus in “the maternal athanor” (the “athanor” is the furnace of the alchemists) and the “alchemical quest”, which is “a quest in search of happiness”. The “alchemy of the ‘I’” is the “conscious creation of individual destiny”, that is, “the stubborn urge to desire endlessly”.11 There is no reason to go any more deeply into the details of this discourse, which rehashes many of Vaneigem’s old formulations by adapting them to a kind of New Age philosophy. It will suffice to point out that, by means of an effect of magical transfiguration that not even Fourier would have dreamed of,
“the transmutation of the ‘I’ contains the transmutation of the world, [because] each individual is the whole of the world, with its disasters, prosperity, massacres, births, wars and peaceful havens, seasons, climate, intemperateness, cyclones, earthquakes, and humid, dry, cold, sultry, and temperate zones.”
As in the Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, “that which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below”. The harmony of microcosms and macrocosms (“to feel yourself to be in agreement with everything living”) in “the body on its quest for psychosomatic plenitude” is the only authentic medicine, which allows one “to learn how to hijack and divert the effects of death”. In short, “the ubiquity of the living is reborn in the new symbiosis in which the individual founds the unity of human nature and terrestrial nature on enjoyment”. The Age of Aquarius is not far off, and we float in a daydream; the full title of the book is Address to the Living concerning the Death that Rules Them and the Opportunity to Free Themselves from It.
Even in The Revolution of Everyday Life, one of the effects of revolution must be the abolition of death, or at least its considerable postponement, by means of an unprecedented reinforcement of the will to live.12 Thus, however disturbing they might be, the later works of Vaneigem are nothing but further developments of what his situationist writings already contained. This explains why we have spent so much time here with the avatars of “Vaneigemism”.13
The Vaneigemist conception of the “will to live” is largely inspired by the ideas of Schopenhauer, who had conceptualized the “will to live” in The World as Will and Idea (sometimes translated as The World as Will and as Representation) (1818). The series of passages that follow, at the same time that they allow us to understand just what Schopenhauer means by the “will to live”, will also clearly show the similarity between his works and Vaneigem’s (some of his sentences sound like pure Vaneigem):
“… the answer to the riddle is given to the subject of knowledge who appears as an individual, and the answer is will. This and this alone gives him the key to his own existence, reveals to him the significance, shows him the inner mechanism of his being, of his action, of his movements….
“… every kind of active and operating force in nature is essentially identical with will ….
“In us also the same will is in many ways only blindly active: in all the functions of our body which are not guided by knowledge, in all its vital and vegetative processes, digestion, circulation, secretion, growth, reproduction. Not only the actions of the body, but the whole body itself is, as we have shown above, phenomenon of the will, objectified will, concrete will. All that goes on in it must therefore proceed through will, although here this will is not guided by knowledge…. The will, considered purely in itself, is devoid of knowledge, and is only a blind, irresistible urge, as we see it appear in inorganic and vegetable nature and in their laws, and also in the vegetative part of our own life…. the will is the thing-in-itself, the inner content, the essence of the world….
“Thus our knowledge, bound always to individuality and having its limitation in this very fact, necessarily means that everyone can be only one thing, whereas he can know everything else….
“… the satisfaction of the sexual impulse goes beyond the affirmation of one's own existence that fills so short a time; it affirms life for an indefinite time beyond the death of the individual…. procreation is only the expression, the symptom, of his decided affirmation of the will-to-live…. the will-to-live, the kernel and essence of that world….
“Nature, always true and consistent, here even naïve, exhibits to us quite openly the inner significance of the act of procreation. Our own consciousness, the intensity of the impulse, teaches us that in this act is expressed the most decided affirmation of the will-to-live, pure and without further addition…. procreation is only the expression, the symptom, of his decided affirmation of the will-to-live…. The genitals are the life-preserving principle assuring to time endless life…. The pleasure that accompanies procreation is a higher power of the agreeableness of the feeling of life…. The act of procreation is further related to the world as the solution is to the riddle. Thus the world is wide in space and old in time, and has an inexhaustible multiplicity of forms. Yet all this is only the phenomenon of the will-to-live; and the concentration, the focus of this will is the act of generation. Hence in this act the inner nature of the world most distinctly expresses itself…. Therefore that act, as the most distinct expression of the will, is the kernel, the compendium, the quintessence of the world; it is the solution to the riddle. Accordingly, it is understood by the ‘tree of knowledge’; for, after acquaintance with it, everyone begins to see life in its true light…. No less in keeping with this quality is the fact that it is the great ‘Unspeakable,’ the public secret which must never be distinctly mentioned anywhere, but is always and everywhere understood to be the main thing as a matter of course, and is therefore always present in the minds of all. For this reason, even the slightest allusion to it is instantly understood. The principal role played in the world by this act and by what is connected with it, because everywhere love-intrigues are pursued on the one hand, and assumed on the other, is quite in keeping with the importance of this punctum saliens of the world-egg….”
As you can see, Freud invented nothing. The transition from the “will to live” to the “alchemy of life” is easily explained in the light of these texts, and Schopenhauer himself used alchemical metaphors (“quintessence”, “the world-egg”…); but for Vaneigem they are not metaphors: it is assumed that the alchemy is really as he describes it. Vaneigem distorted Schopenhauer’s ideas with respect to their original meaning, because Schopenhauer is a total pessimist and Vaneigem’s ecstatic reveries concerning “the happy childhood” and the “wealth of being” would have made him burst into laughter. For Schopenhauer, the “will to live” is the worst evil, and the only way to escape this misfortune is to flee from desires by leading an ascetic life. Animated by a diametrically opposed intention, in The Revolution of Everyday Life, Vaneigem reworked Schopenhauer’s ideas about boredom, which he used to characterize the subjective perception of “survival”:
“The basis of all willing, however, is need, lack, and hence pain, and by its very nature and origin it is therefore destined to pain…. Hence its life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents. This has been expressed very quaintly by saying that, after man had placed all pains and torments in hell, there was nothing left for heaven but boredom.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea)
One last observation to conclude our examination of Vaneigem. In 1995, he was kind enough to write the Afterword for a book written by Alain Mamou-Mani that was published by Albin Michel, whose title—Au delá du profit: comment réconcilier Woodstock et Wall Street (“Beyond Profit: How to Reconcile Woodstock and Wall Street”)—tells you all you need to know about its contents. In this book we find the whole future program of the “alter-globalization” movement, and even a precocious debut of the most famous of its slogans:
“‘Another world’ is possible if civil society, consumers associations and stockholders play the role of pressure groups by using democracy and the market…. All the individuals who live on this Earth are structured as one vast planetary brain, a world civil society, a network of citizens, a global consciousness…. This new consciousness will unite the values of the East with those of the West, the masculine and the feminine values, the values of the economy and efficiency, with the values of ecology, of respect for oneself and for one’s neighbor. Worldwide television, like ‘world music’, based on cultural fusion, reduces the ‘mental distance’ between continents, peoples and civilizations: it contributes to the emergence of this planetary consciousness, of common challenges.”
Vaneigem appears in this work as the guru of capitalism with a human face:
“Like Raoul Vaneigem, we see14 that ‘the message of business provides sufficient clarity for elucidating the destiny that you desire for yourselves. We must give priority, therefore, to environmental remediation, to the marketing of quality goods, to the coordination of the regional and the international, to the critical processing of information, to the suppression of work and to the promotion of creativity, to the reconversion of parasitic industries, to the development of so-called natural or alternative energy, to the emergence of a gay science, to a non-state controlled collective of producers and consumers, to individual autonomy, to the defense of the rights of life, to the construction of a human environment, to the introduction of new energy technologies in the third world, to the peaceful reconversion of military technologies, to the gradual replacement of penal sanctions by a policy of atonement for the harm caused…. Isn’t this a beautiful program, and well-designed to awaken even more enthusiasm than the enthusiasm that was aroused for a few months during the economic upheavals of 1789 and 1917?’.”
In his Afterword, entitled “Brief Observations on the Ethical Stage”, Vaneigem declares that the ethical stage,15 “a legitimate weapon of neo-capitalism”, is the prelude to the reconciliation “of consciousness and the body”:
“Are there no reasons to be satisfied with a transformation in which the economy that is extinguished in the systematic looting of the planet discovers a new youth in the profitable reconstruction of a devastated natural environment and an everyday life ruined by survival? Besides the fanatics of a profit that feeds on death, who would regret the fact that ethanol distilleries and solar collectors replace the nuclear power plants, that fauna and the flora escape programmed massacre, that the free range chickens should call for a boycott of the chickens that are raised in gigantic factories?.... The struggle that capitalism has been waging since 1968 against its archaic—and still dominant—forms is nothing but, in the convergence of its contraries, a revolution: one that is engendering a new era and that nothing can stop. If critique only wants to perceive in neo-capitalism the old system with a new look, it is condemned to the blather and the tacit apology for the old world. Furthermore, it does nothing but perpetuate the separation of consciousness and the body—the fundamental space of the territory that must be liberated—if it contents itself with approving the humanist ethic, which is the legitimate weapon of neo-capitalism against the barbarism of an economic system whose death throes make the death throes of the earth profitable.”
We hear the same old song in A Warning to Students of All Ages, published in the same year:
“On the other hand, if the same steps taken obey the solicitations of a Neocapitalism searching out in ecological investments a weapon against the property speculation of an ownership without imagination, all that'll be lacking will be a change of consciousness for a guaranteed salary and a reduced-time workday for the path of free creation and the leisure to find and to be oneself, at last, to be opened for everyone.”
Thus, twenty-five years after leaving the SI, Vaneigem comes to explain to us that, once all modesty is cast aside, a real “revolution” finally did take place after 1968, but that it did not come from where it was expected; it is “neocapitalism”, at war “against its archaic forms”, which is responsible for bringing about this prodigy. This time the hour of emancipation has really arrived. There is no longer any need to appeal to the “insurgent workers”: capitalism is spontaneously oriented towards a collective “change of consciousness” that will allow for the establishment of “a guaranteed salary and a reduced-time workday” that will make possible the advent of the long awaited realm of the qualitative.
(The Curtain Falls.)
After the dissolution of the SI, Debord, too, gradually renounced, although in a very different way than Vaneigem, the situationist perspective of the revolution. While Vaneigem increasingly expressed his taste for positivity, Debord did exactly the opposite, presenting himself as the incarnation of the negative.
In 1978, in his film In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni, Debord speaks ironically of those who expect the advent of “a permanent paradise”, “a total revolution”, “a happy, eternally present unity”. Similarly, in 1979, in his “Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of The Society of the Spectacle”, he recalls that life cannot be conceived, “for the sole reason that it would be pleasant for us”, as “a trouble-free and evil-free idyll”: it is not possible to abolish with the touch of a magic wand the dimension of conflict, which is the very substance of history dialectically conceived. The “Communiqué of the SI concerning Vaneigem”, discussed above, quoted Hegel, who said that “contradiction is the source of all movement, of all life”, since it “is only to the extent that a thing includes within itself a contradiction that it shows itself to be active and alive”. In order to distinguish himself even more clearly from Vaneigem, Debord points out that he had set forth in The Society of the Spectacle “a conception which is … historical and strategic”, and that the book
“gives no kind of assurances about the victory of the revolution or the duration of its operations or the rough roads it will have to travel, and still less about its capacity—sometimes rashly boasted of—to bring perfect happiness to everyone.”
With this declaration, which confirms the change of course initiated in the “Theses on the Situationist International and Its Time”, the situationist theory of the revolution (with all of its “Vaneigemist” baggage) is definitively abandoned. It is true that Debord was still proclaiming that “the days of this society are numbered” and that “its inhabitants are divided into two sides, one of which wants this society to disappear”, but there will be blood, sweat and tears.
Paradoxically, although he distances himself from the illusions of the SI of the sixties, he nonetheless renders, so to speak, one last homage to them, in a passage that is undoubtedly the most utopian of his entire oeuvre:
“… the revolution that wants to create and maintain a classless society … can begin easily enough wherever autonomous proletarian assemblies … abolish the separation of individual, the commodity economy and the State. But it will only triumph by imposing itself universally, without leaving a patch of territory to any form of alienated society that still exists. There we will see again an Athens or a Florence that reaches to all the corners of the world, a city from which no one will be rejected….”
In The Society of the Spectacle, the paragraph devoted to the Renaissance had already demonstrated Debord’s fascination with the Italian cities of the 15th century:
“The new possession of historical life, the Renaissance, which finds its past and its legitimacy16 in Antiquity, carries with it a joyous rupture with eternity. Its irreversible time is that of the infinite accumulation of knowledge, and the historical consciousness which grows out of the experience of democratic communities and of the forces which ruin them will take up, with Machiavelli, the analysis of desanctified power, saying the unspeakable about the State. In the exuberant life of the Italian cities, in the art of the festival, life is experienced as enjoyment of the passage of time. But this enjoyment of passage is itself a passing enjoyment.”
Besides the elegance of a well-constructed formula, we can ask ourselves just what “an Athens or a Florence that reaches to all the corners of the world”, in which separation has been abolished, would look like. It is actually nothing but the generalization over the whole planet of direct democracy, which would necessarily assume the form of a federation of cities, since direct democracy can only function (as Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood) in small-scale communities; this democracy, which was first assayed in the Greek city-states and later in the Italian cities, will be fully realized by the democracy of the workers councils.17 Debord later added, in his 1979 “Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of The Society of the Spectacle”, that the revolution, after “having brought down all its enemies”, would “surrender itself joyously to the true divisions and never-ending confrontations of historical life”. In this brief evocation of the ideal city, Debord emphasizes conflict, in complete opposition to the Fourierist harmony praised by Vaneigem (a variation on the theme of the “invisible hand” that is supposed to miraculously reconcile individual desires with the good of the collectivity). Employing the same comparison with Athens and Florence at the conclusion of his Truthful Report on the Last Chances to Save Capitalism in Italy, first published under the name of “Censor”, Sanguinetti—who had terminated the adventure of the SI together with Debord—still insisted, in 1975, on the conflictive dimension of the adopted “model”:
“… the most cultivated of our adversaries find the rough outline of their model in Pericles’ Athens or pre-Medici Florence—models that they must confess are quite insufficient, but nevertheless worthy of their real project, because they display to the most caricatural degree the incessant violence and disorder that are its very essence.”
The Debord of 1979 is in complete agreement with the Sanguinetti of 1975, who nonetheless at the time seemed to be prone to an exaggerated and ironic form of expression. The revolution will not abolish “violence and disorder”; it will not be the end of history but its real beginning, since it will make humanity exit (as Marx said) prehistory. The revolution, however, is still conceived, in the situationist manner, as “a total revolution” (although in 1979 Debord no longer uses this expression) that must be “universally” imposed or else not exist, since it is based on the abolition of separation. But this is precisely what makes it totally unrealizable. And that is why Debord no longer considers it to be imminent but relegates it to an indefinite future; for example, in In Girum he does not rule out the possibility that we might someday “manage to abolish classes and the state”.
If we look carefully, we can find some formulations in Debord with which Vaneigem would not disagree. In In Girum, for example, he declares that the situationist program “promised nothing more than an autonomy without rules or restrictions”. There is also a fleeting allusion to “a harmonious society that was capable of controlling all its forces”. But outside of these few excursions into positivity, Debord was preferentially devoted to highlighting the negative dimension of his past and present activity. In In Girum, he summarizes the situationist project in the following terms:
“[We were devoted] quite simply to totally destroying this hostile world — in order to rebuild it, if possible, on other bases.’
The destruction of “this hostile world” is still an indisputable goal, insofar as its reconstruction “on other bases” is presented, with notable casualness, as something vague and uncertain. The situationist theory, considered in its broadest outlines (see above, Part I, Section 2), identified destruction and reconstruction as two aspects of a single process, and not as two distinct phases. But the SI was marked, in its historical development, first of all by diverse propositions concerning “unitary urbanism” and the “realization of art”, and later by Vaneigem’s program of “generalized self-management”. The positive part of the situationist enterprise became for Debord accessory, imprecise, almost insignificant. Because he did not want to recapitulate it, he considered it to be non-existent, and thus practiced a kind of repression, in order to only subsist in the negative part, the only valid one in his view.
Without openly saying so, Debord admitted that the situationist project could not lead to any effective action that did not involve destruction, which he now presented as the only practical contribution of the SI to the revolutionary movement, the only one, at least, that was crowned with success. This new, almost nihilist,18 perspective, was retroactively transformed into the truth of the SI. Debord described the situationists as knights who went in search of an “evil Grail”, which is obviously the revolution:
“We did not seek the formula to overthrow the world in books, but in wandering. It was a derive on great days, in which nothing was like the day before, and never stopped. We found surprises, considerable obstacles, great betrayals, enchanting dangers, nothing was lacking in this quest for the other evil Grail that no one had wanted.”
The quest for the Grail, which constitutes the theme of several medieval romances—known as “Arthurian” romances because their plots are situated in the legendary epoch of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table—that were written in the 12th century, such as Perceval le Gallois [published in English translation as: Perceval, the Story of the Grail—American Translator’s Note], by Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval attempted to cross a “Desert Land” whose king was known as the “Fisher King”, but was thwarted. The Desert Land would never be fertile until the King was cured thanks to the Grail—a sort of cup which later authors identified with the chalice that contained the blood of Christ collected by Joseph of Arimathea—and the “Bleeding Lance”, also identified later with the lance that a Roman soldier had thrust into the side of Christ at Calvary. While staying as a guest at the castle of the Fisher King, Perceval sees a strange procession pass by in which these two objects are featured. Amazed by this marvelous apparition, he misses his chance to seize the objects so he can cure the Fisher King. He subsequently discovers his error, and devotes the rest of his life to trying to locate the Grail Castle; but the opportune moment has passed and will no longer return. Later, in various sequels to the romance of Chrétien de Troyes, various Knights of the Round Table (Lancelot, Gawain, Bors, Galahad, etc.) depart in search of the Grail, meeting with various adventures. The constant motif in all these adventures is the fact that this Grail is surrounded by a veil of mystery, and those who seek it do not really know what they expect to find; they even see it without recognizing it. They go to meet adventure, at random, without any plan to guide them, so that their wanderings possess all the features of a situationist “derive”. Some of them see the Grail, others do not, but none of them can possess it; the cup is content to appear and disappear without anyone knowing how or why. Modern students of the occult will identify it with the Cauldron of Abundance of the Celts or the philosopher’s stone.
It is obvious that Debord is quite familiar with this literature. Various allusions to the Desert Land crop up in In Girum. The modern world appears in this film as a “vale of desolation”, a “wasteland where new sufferings are disguised with the name of former pleasures” (an obvious reference to the illness of the Fisher King). But Debord inverts the meaning of the legend: the Grail, a divine object possessing the power to cure, becomes “evil”, and Debord explicitly transforms it into a diabolic object.
“Did we eventually find the object of our quest? There is reason to believe that we obtained at least a fleeting glimpse of it; because it is undeniable that from that point on we found ourselves capable of understanding false life in the light of true life, and possessed with a very strange power of seduction: for no one since then has ever come near us without wishing to follow us. We had rediscovered the secret of dividing what was united.”
Just as the serpent tempted Adam and Eve with the fruit of the tree of life, that is, knowledge, the Grail allowed one to be “capable of understanding false life in the light of true life”; it conferred a “power of seduction” that evokes one of the main characteristics of Satan, the tempter, the seducer par excellence; and transmits the “secret of dividing”, which brings us to the devil, the “Prince of Division”. Such an interpretation might seem forced if we were not to see it fully confirmed in another passage of In Girum:
“We brought fuel to the fire. In this manner we enlisted irrevocably in the Devil’s party—the ‘historical evil’ that leads existing conditions to their destruction, the ‘bad side’ that makes history by undermining all established satisfaction…. If you don’t fall in line with the deceptive clarity of this upside-down world, you are seen, at least by those who believe in that world, as a controversial legend, an invisible and malevolent ghost, a perverse Prince of Darkness…. We thus became emissaries of the Prince of Division —‘he who has been wronged’—and undertook to drive to despair those who identified with humanity.”19
The identification of the devil with the “negative” of Hegel and Marx is obvious here, in accordance with Goethe’s definition of Mephistopheles in Faust (“the spirit of perpetual negation”). We need only compare the above passage with the following extract from the “Theses on the Situationist International and Its Time”, where certain identical formulas are employed, taken from Marx:
“The SI has only succeeded by expressing ‘the real movement that surpasses existing conditions’ and by knowing how to express it. In other words, it has known how to make its own unknown theory understood from the subjectively negative aspect of the process, from its ‘bad’ aspect. This aspect of social practice, although initially unaware of it, creates this theory. The SI itself belonged to this ‘bad aspect.’”
The definition of the devil as “he who has been wronged” is taken from Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil (“The Litany of Satan”):
“O Prince of Exile, you who have been wronged
And who vanquished always rise up again more strong,
O Satan, take pity on my long misery!”
Thus, the formula that Debord would employ, some years later, in Panegyric, acquires its full meaning (“After all, it was modern poetry, for the last hundred years, that had led us there”): the poetic modernity invoked by the Lettrists and later by the situationists was born with Baudelaire, who published The Flowers of Evil in 1857, exactly one hundred years before the founding of the SI.
The diabolical Grail is also a theme that was already featured in surrealism.20 In 1950, Michel Carrouges, in a chapter of his book, André Breton et les donnés fondamentales du surréalisme [“André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism”], entitled “The Appeal to the Powers of Darkness”, evoked “that mad quest for a new castle of the Grail—a black Grail—wherever it may be”, which animated the surrealists. Furthermore, Vaneigem himself, during the period when he was a member of the SI, had described the surrealists as “those latter-day knights wandering between the devil of total freedom and the death of culture” (A Cavalier History of Surrealism).21 Thus, in this sense as well, Debord elaborated and reformulated the themes and proposals of the old artistic vanguards.
The expression, “the formula to overthrow [renverser] the world” evokes the “reversal [renversement] of perspective” advocated in The Revolution of Everyday Life (a work that Debord, as we saw above, was always careful to distinguish from “Vaneigemism”, which is the transformation of Vaneigem’s situationist ideas into an ideology). And when Debord says that “we had rediscovered the secret of dividing what was united”, he is referring not only to the “Prince of Division” but also to alchemy, a Vaneigemist theme where it appears, but reversing the meaning that Vaneigem gave it. Vaneigem insisted on the positive dimension of this art, on the vital principle that acted in the alchemical process; Debord, for his part, emphasized its destructive, “bad” side. The phase of dissolution clearly interested him more than that of coagulation. By way of his constant practice of exclusions and breaks, Debord, in the final analysis, was doing nothing but practicing a kind of alchemy, one of the traditional definitions of which was “the art of separating the pure from the impure”. (In view of the facts discussed above, it is not impossible that the similarity between the beginning of the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and the passage from The Summit of Perfection by the pseudo-Geber mentioned at the beginning of this book was deliberate.)
Whether we are speaking of the Grail or the philosopher’s stone, the gold concerning which we are interested here is nothing but that of dreams, and the quest is destined never to be consummated. In the era of the SI, however, this theory is presented as the most rational theory that can be conceived, and even as the only possible rational perspective (even if it seemed extravagant to vulgar thinkers) as opposed to the suicidal madness of “this upside-down world”. Debord would repeat this in In Girum, and would not cease to do so thereafter: “there is no greater madness than the present organization of life”. In the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle of 1988, however, he no longer considered that the situationist revolutionary perspective had been as rational as the SI had claimed it to be, but he instead emphasized—as always, as was his custom, with veiled expressions—the intrinsic contradictions with which it was replete:
“It is generally believed that those who have displayed the greatest incapacity in matters of logic are precisely those who proclaim themselves revolutionaries…. Protesters have not been any more irrational than submissive people. It is simply that in the former one sees a more intense manifestation of the general irrationality…. They have given themselves diverse obligations to dominate logic, even strategy, which is precisely the entire field of the deployment of the dialectical logic of conflicts; but, like everyone else, they are greatly deprived of the basic ability to orient themselves by the old, imperfect tools of formal logic. No one worries about them; and hardly anyone thinks about the others.”
“Those who proclaim themselves revolutionaries”, among whom we obviously have to include the situationists, were neither more rational nor more irrational than “submissive people”; they were exactly like them, at least in that respect. The goals that they set themselves, and the method they followed to attain those goals, were condemned to failure, so it is normal that they never achieved those goals. But Debord had already demonstrated ten years before that the situationists were just like knights errant: the revolution was merely a pretext, what they were really more or less consciously seeking was their own derive (“the true taste of the passage of time”). From this point of view, it cannot be said that they failed, or that they succeeded; they were what they were, and that is all. Thus, as Debord says in In Girum, “there has been neither success nor failure for Guy Debord”. Theory, as the strategic formulation of consciously pursued goals, only has in the final accounting a secondary importance: while Debord magnified the existential “adventure” of the Lettrists, he abandoned situationist theory in the name of historical inevitability (“theories are only made to die in the war of time”). In his Panegyric (1989), Debord insists at length on the vanity of human actions, even quoting Ecclesiastes (“another, earlier contemner of the world, who said that he had been a king in Jerusalem”): since there is never “anything new under the sun”, all revolutionary whims are condemned in advance to failure.
Debord therefore ended up making a total break with situationist theory. In 1972, he and Sanguinetti claimed:
“The theory, the style, and the example of the SI have today been adopted by thousands of revolutionaries in the principal advanced countries…. What are known as ‘situationist ideas’ are merely the first ideas of the period of the reappearance of the modern revolutionary movement…. Youth, as a passing stage, is not what is threatening the social order; it is, rather, the modern revolutionary critique in acts and theory that is increasing every year and taking off from a historical point of departure that we are now living through. It begins momentarily among youth, but it will never grow old. The phenomenon is in no way cyclical; it is cumulative.”
This revolutionary critique that “will never grow old” becomes in In Girum a caput mortuum, and in the Comments not even the slightest trace of it remains:
“[Those who practice surveillance are] surveilling, infiltrating and influencing an absent party: that which is supposed to want the subversion of the social order. But where can it be seen at work? Because conditions certainly have never been so seriously revolutionary, but it is only governments that think so. Negation has been so thoroughly deprived of its thought that it was dispersed long ago.”
What happened to those “thousands of revolutionaries”, and that “revolutionary critique … that is increasing every year” on the basis of situationist theory and practice, which consecrates the forceful return of the negative on the world stage? They had to disappear under the effect of an enchantment, since sixteen years later, “negation has been so thoroughly deprived of its thought that it was dispersed a long time ago”. In 1979, however, Debord thought he could still affirm that the “inhabitants [of this society] are divided into two sides, one of which wants this society to disappear”. But in 1988 this party that “is supposed to want the subversion of the social order” had become “an absent party”. Thus, what the SI had considered to be “the beginning of an era” was actually nothing but a flash in the pan, perhaps even an illusion; for nothing, after all, disappears so easily as something that had never existed in the first place. All that remained was the memory of a handful of knights errant, modern Don Quijotes who sallied forth to the assault on a “hostile world” with—in the guise of ammunition—the dreams aroused by “modern poetry”, and wearing simple barbers’ basins on their heads. In any event, this is how it was depicted by Debord, who abandoned a situationist perspective that was unsustainable over the long- as well as the short-term; and, with more mediocre intellectual and literary resources, so did his comrade Vaneigem.22
In one last about-face, Debord even came to suggest (in a note dating from 1989 that was published as an appendix to the new edition of the journal Internationale Situationniste in 1997) that the only “truly vital conclusions” of situationist theory were contained in “the most mysterious” “of all the documents to come out of the SI”, the Hamburg Theses (1961), which exhibited the strange feature of never really having existed:
“It in fact involved the conclusions, intentionally kept secret, of a theoretical and strategic discussion concerning the whole of the SI’s conduct…. Deliberately, with the intention of letting no trace that might give rise to an observation or exterior analysis filter outside the SI, nothing was ever put into writing concerning this discussion or what it concluded. It was then agreed that the most simple summary of these rich and complex conclusions could be reduced to a single phrase: ‘Now, the SI must realize its philosophy.’23 This phrase itself was not written down. Thus, the conclusion was so well hidden that it has remained secret until now.”
What at first sight might seem to be a mystification, was nonetheless taken very seriously by Debord, and he saw this as one of the most decisive “formal innovation[s]” of the SI:
“… to only consider the experimental originality, that is to say the absence of any publication of the Theses, the later socio-historical application of this formal innovation is also entirely remarkable: afterwards, of course, it underwent a complete reversal. Indeed, a little over twenty years after, the process could be seen to meet with an unusual success for the higher authorities of numerous States. We now know that a number of truly vital conclusions, whose authors are reluctant to enter them into computer networks, tape or telex records, and who are even distrustful of word processors and photocopiers; after having been most often written in the form of manuscript notes, are simply committed to memory, the draft immediately destroyed.”
We shall for the present disregard the excessive influence attributed to these Hamburg Theses in order to simply point out that, contrary to Debord’s claims, the procedure he describes is not at all novel. Thus, at the beginning of the modern era, one of the most famous literary scams of European history, the Treatise of the Three Impostors, an anti-religious work that presented Moses, Jesus and Mohammed as vulgar con artists who manipulated the masses, was cited, described and even condemned on many occasions before anyone even decided to finally write it. Similarly, when around 1610 a manifesto entitled Fama fraternitatis des löblichen Ordens des Rosencreutzes (written by Johannes Valentinus Andreae) was anonymously distributed, at first in manuscript form, and later as a printed book, in order to reveal to the world the machinations of a mysterious “Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross”, the vehicle of a no less enigmatic project of universal reform, all of Europe went in search of the members of this secret society, which only existed in the imagination of its author. Only when, much later, real brotherhoods of Rosicrucians were actually formed, did the fiction become a reality. And the claim that the most “vital” conclusions of a theory are precisely the ones that, because they must remain absolutely secret, cannot be revealed to the uninitiated, has for many centuries been one of the central themes of the literature of alchemy, which leads us back to that “dispersion of knowledge” advocated by the pseudo-Geber in The Summit of Perfection, and to Debord’s analogous caveat situated at the beginning of Comments on the Society of the Spectacle.
The late—and even posthumous—insistence on the importance of the Hamburg Theses would tend to place the entire situationist enterprise in the category of the “parodic-serious”, to borrow an expression coined by Wolman and Debord (“A User's Guide to Détournement”, Les Lèvres nues, no. 8, 1956), and is particularly similar to that pataphysics which the situationists (I.S., no. 6, 1961) saw as “a religion in the making”. Furthermore, it cannot but remind us of the mystery of the magician depicted on the Marseilles tarot card, which Debord chose for the cover of his 1994 book (if you can call it a book) entitled, Des contrats. Such a retrospective jape tempts us to apply to all this business, as an epitaph, the judgment that Giovanni Battista Nazari issued in 1572 against the charlatans who practiced “sophistical alchemy”:
“Raging fits, vain illusions,
drunken dreams, false and lamentable thoughts,
deceitful inventions far removed from duty:
such are the false hopes of the alchemists.”
- 1 This is what Vaneigem seemed to think, as the “Communiqué of the SI” directed at him points out: “At the 7th Conference of the S.I., in 1966, we had to argue for two hours against a strange proposition from Vaneigem: he held for certain that our ‘coherence’ would always indicate in no matter what debate on a practical action to be undertaken, and after a thorough discussion, the sole right path, univocally recognizable in advance.” Similarly, Vaneigem claimed in his “Notice to the Civilized” that “only the councils offer a definitive solution” for all problems.
- 2 For example, this is what one may read in the first pages of the book by Maurice Pasquelot, La Terre Chauve: Aliments Pollues (1971): “Before man can enter the 21st century, it is possible that nature will have taken revenge for the devastation that man has inflicted upon it. The seas, the oceans and the rivers are decomposing, the sky is turning black and the air is unbreathable; the land, or at least what remains of it, is polluted. The ‘environment’ will not be able to support life…. Now, nothing we eat is natural. Our foods are not only contaminated by external factors but their manufacture creates chemical compounds that cause cancer, madness, leukemia and death.”
- 3 There are many books on the history of ecology, to which the interested reader is referred for more details.
- 4 The reader thus finds himself between a rock and a hard place: he is admonished to admire a discourse at the same time that he is prohibited from admiring it.
- 5 Debord and Sanguinetti were still feverishly employing “the tone of incisive pride” characteristic of “situationist expression” in the same text in which they declare that this tone has “stopped being convenient”.
- 6 Jörg Ratgeb, already mentioned by Vaneigem in “Terrorism or Revolution”, was a 16th century German painter who sided with Thomas Müntzer and the peasant rebels, for whom he served as a “military advisor”; he was “drawn and quartered in Pforzheim in 1526” (Vaneigem, La Résistance au christianisme, 1993). See Maurice Pianzola, Peintres et vilains: les artistes de la Renaissance et la grande guerre des paysans de 1525 (1962); and Thomas Munzer ou la guerre des paysans (1958), republished in 1997 with an introduction by Vaneigem.
- 7 Vaneigem had first solicited Champ Libre to publish the book, which refused to do so (see the text at the end of Chapter 5 of the Correspondance of Champ Libre, Vol. I, 1978).
- 8 Concerning Ratgeb, see also the chapter devoted to him in Jaime Semprun’s Précis de récupération (1976).
- 9 The Spanish translation of most of these passages from The Book of Pleasures that appear in this paragraph are so different from the English translation I consulted that I have in some cases translated directly from the Spanish rather than utilized the existing English translation, where the latter seemed suspect; the passages in question in the English translation I consulted (which may be viewed online at http://libcom.org/library/book-of-pleasures) are as follows: “Freedom has no worse enemy than these cure-all panaceas which claim to transform society. For these veils of exorcist ritual simply serve to smuggle the old world back in. Lawyers for the revolution or sniffers of radical chic, whatever pedigrees these grocers have, they are our adversaries, armour-clad in neurosis, and will bear the full brunt of the violence of those who live without restraint. I know well the wise men who denigrate survival, having in many ways been one of them. Under the cassock of that high-brow criticism moves the secular arm of far more pernicious inquisitions. But they merely project the disgust they feel at themselves towards others.” [Note of the American Translator.]
- 10 The decomposition of his thought is accompanied by the decomposition of his writing style: this Adresse is faulty even in its very title, which is a clumsy recuperation of the Appel aux vivants (1979) by the Stalino-Islamist Roger Garaudy.
- 11 Vaneigem would later publish a book entitled Nous que désirons sans fin (“We Who Endlessly Desire”, 1996).
- 12 In his most recent book (Le Chevalier, la Dame, le Diable et la mort), Vaneigem points out that he is not really saying that “the human being, by acceding to real life in a harmonious society, will not age and will not die”, but that this must be understood in a metaphorical sense.
- 13 He nonetheless has his admirers: two eulogistic works devoted to him, by Pol Charles and Grégory Lambrette, were published in 2002; and Philippe Sollers himself is now singing the praises of Vaneigem.
- 14 The quotation is taken from Vaneigem’s Lettre de Staline à ses enfants enfin réconciliés de l’Est et de l’Ouest (1992).
- 15 A concept taken from Kierkegaard, who distinguishes, in Stages on Life’s Way, the esthetic stage, the ethical stage and the religious stage, the highest of which is the latter.
- 16 A few pages earlier, Debord recalled that the Greek city had constituted the first outline, although imperfect (since it was based on the separation between different cities and, within each city, the separation between masters and slaves), of a “historical time [become] conscious, but not yet conscious of itself”, as opposed to the “despotic State”.
- 17 Similarly, in his In Girum, the veiled allusion to Athens and Florence (today we would be “astonished … to see the sudden reappearance of a Donatello or a Thucydides”) seems to suggest that a certain kind of individual genius is only possible in a social organization of the type of the democratic city. This is an absurd thesis, refuted by innumerable examples as well as by the idea, implicit in all of Debord’s works, that he is himself a genius of this type; but he considers himself the exception—the negative—that proves the rule.
- 18 “This civilization is on fire; the whole thing is capsizing and sinking. What splendid torpedoing! And what has become of me amid this appalling collapse—this shipwreck which I believe was necessary, and which it could even be said that I have worked for, since it is certainly true that I have avoided working at anything else?”
- 19 This last formulation was inspired by the screenplay written by Jacques Prévert for the Marcel Carné film, The Night Visitors (1942), which opens with these words: “Thus, on this beautiful day in May of 1485, His Majesty the Devil sent to the earth two of his creatures for the purpose of making humans lose all hope”.
- 20 We also find it in a disciple of the occultist Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant (Aleister Crowley and the Hidden God, 1973), but in a context of sexual magic that has nothing to do with our topic: the “diabolical Grail” designates the anus, as opposed to the unqualified “Grail”, which according to Crowley is the feminine sex.
- 21 The image also crops up in Le Chevalier, la Dame, le Diable et la mort: “What was accomplished by the knight’s wandering … and the devil who led him astray and enlightened him, since Lucifer showed him the black light of his own dissolution….?”.
- 22 Of the numerous books devoted to the ideas of Debord, the best is undoubtedly the one by Anselm Jappe, published in Italy in 1993 and published in an English-language edition in 1999. Most of the other books about Debord—especially those by Jean-Marie Apostolidès, Christophe Boursellier, Antoine Coppola, Shigenobu Gonzalvez, Cécile Guilbert, Vincent Kaufmann and Frédéric Schiffer—are no good.
- 23 See above: “The proletariat must realize art.”