from Guy Debord

To Robert Estivals[1] 15 March 1963

The avant-garde in 1963 and afterwards.

1) The term "avant-garde" implies the affirmation of a novelty. The properly avant-gardist moment of such an affirmation is, on the one hand, at the frontier between the moment of pure arbitrary prognosis of what the future can be (prophet-ism), and, on the other hand, the moment at which this novelty is recognized (established recognition "by the majority," but not universally: the fact that a novelty still encounters several past-ist resistances doesn't suffice to maintain it in the avant-garde). The avant-garde is thus the beginning of the realization of a novelty, but it is only the beginning. The avant-garde doesn't have its field in the future, but in the present: it describes and begins a possible present, which its historic consequences will confirm in the ensemble by the most extensive realization (in making appear a certain number of errors). The practical activity of the avant-garde struggles against the present to the extent that it characterizes the present as the dead weight of the past and the inauthentic present as delay.

2) In applying the concept of the "avant-garde" to the very diverse modalities of socio-cultural reality, one is led to distinguish two degrees: limited and generalized interpretations of the concept. In the limited sense, one can speak of avant-garde activity with respect to all that leads, in whatever sector (medicine, industry). In the strong, generalized sense, an avant-garde of our times is what presents itself as a product of surpassing the social totality; as open criticism and construction, which constitutes an alternative to the ensemble of realities and problems that are inseparable from existing society. For the avant-garde, it is a question of describing the coherence of what (thanks to such techniques as lighting and mirror-play) appears to exist as a new coherence; here coherence means the opposite of "systematic." Since the formation of the concept of the cultural avant-garde in the 19th century and in parallel with the existence of political avant-gardes, these historic manifestations have passed from the avant-garde of a single artistic discipline to avant-garde formations trying to recover the near-totality of the cultural field (surrealism, lettrism). Today, we are at the point where the cultural avant-garde can only define itself by joining (and thus suppressing as such) the real political avant-garde.

3) The first realization of an avant-garde today would be the avant-garde itself. This would be the most difficult of its realizations; and the fact that it is a preliminary step explains the absence of authentic avant-gardes over long periods of time. That which generally calls itself "realization" is, at first, a concession to the banalities of the old cultural world. In this respect, what is notable is the tendency of all of today's artificial avant-gardism to place the accent on "works" that aren't very new (and the fact that ideological mystification valorizes the very small number of distinct nuances in these works as richness and originality); but a movement such as the S[ituationist] I[nternational] tends to dissimulate (to deliberately disparage), not only partial projects, but also and especially realizations -- designated "anti-situationist" -- that are effectuated despite the fact that the numerous sub-products of the central activity of the self-formation of an avant-garde contain more novelties than all the other philosophical-artistic productions of the last few years. It is in not believing in currently permitted works that an avant-garde produces "the best" of currently permitted works.

4) In the traditional sense of the term, the avant-garde has entered into a final crisis; it moves towards its disappearance. The symptoms of this crisis are as follows: the more and more obvious difficulty of avant-garde cultural production in the sectors where it is officially permitted (and thus the always cruder recourse to the idealist lie in attempts to sustain such production: the delirium of the argument from authority in Lettrism was the supreme state of this process). Corollarily: the organized inflation of false novelties of past avant-gardes, prematurely re-packaged and saluted everywhere as the very originality of our times.

In this framework, the separated activities of the real avant-garde, in the limited sense of the term, are always recuperated by the existing world, and finally used to maintain the essentials of the old equilibrium.

As for the generalized avant-garde, where it truly exists, it advances towards the supercession of the avant-garde itself. Certainly not in the imbecilic meaning of the formula "the avant-garde is obsolete," which means nothing other than a return to conformism, which is seen as new because it returns from farther away. To surpass the avant-garde (all avant-gardes) means realizing a praxis, a construction of society, in which -- at every moment -- the present dominates the past (see the project of a classless society in Marx and the permanent creativity implied by the realization of this project). The creation of such conditions for creation marks the end of the historical conditions that have controlled the movement of the avant-garde, that is to say, the resistance to the domination (the predominance, the authority) of the past over the each moment of the present (even though the possibility of an impatient insurrection against the predominance of the past has been created by the reality of the changes brought about by the scientific progress of the last four centuries and, especially, since the Industrial Revolution).

5) Sociology, the police and the good taste of an era can judge an avant-garde, which at the same time judges the reasons and the ends of sociology, the police and good taste. If it really is an avant-garde, it carries in itself the victory of its criteria of judgment against the era (that is to say, against official values, beause the avant-garde exactly represents this era from the point of view of the history that will follow it). Thus, the sociology of the avant-garde is an absurd enterprise, contradictory in its object. One can easily make a sociology of false avant-gardes, a sociology of the absence of an avant-garde -- all of these factors being comprehensible and explainable in dated sociological terms. Whereas, if the sociology of the avant-garde recognizes that it can only explain an avant-garde by entering into its language (not transcendant and unquestionable language: no, but an ensemble of hypotheses susceptible to being examined, adopted or rejected, which is in fact a wager for -- and against -- a certain state of the world and its becoming). The least profitable error would certainly be a half-recognition of a real avant-garde, because the observer's own avant-gardist intuitions or intentions would be mixed together with a half-objectivity that claims kinship with disinterested scientific observation (which naturally isn't possible with this material, in which the phenomenon is unique and nonrepeatable, nor with an observer who has already taken sides to some extent). Such a confusion, whatever its motives, can only lead to nothing.

6) A theory of the avant-garde can only be made from the avant-garde of theory (and not, obviously, in handling in a summary fashion old ideas that one would still like to apply to the comprehension of a thought that has explicitly rejected them). According to the working hypotheses of the situationists (which they have largely verified already), all conscious and deliberate attempts to advance the comprehension and, indissolvably, the activity of an avant-garde today must define themselves with respect to the SI (including those attempts against or beyond it). A discussion that lacks such a point of reference can only remain within the province of anecdotes, and then even the anecdotes would not be truly understood.

G.-E. Debord

[1] A handwritten note says "For Estivals," in response to his book, The Parisian Cultural Avant-Garde since 1945. This text carried the seal, "Situationist International, B.P. 75-06 Paris."

(Published in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 2, 1960-1964. Footnote by Alice Debord. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2005.)

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