The Guy Debord Show[1] is at the BNF

“In a world that is really upside-down, the true is a moment of the false”: this summary, which is the best of the thought of the situationist philosopher Guy Debord, is also the aphorism that is most often quoted, sometimes to the point of nausea, by people of all types. They throw it in your face with commiseration, as if to say, “My poor friend, only dupes still seek out the truth!”

In 2008, in a spirited essay,[2] Jacques Rancière wrung the neck of this post-situationism that strikes disillusioned poses (Le Spectateur émancipé, [published by] La Fabrique). Guy Debord himself wasn’t able to resist the temptation to observe the human herd. Nostalgia and an aristocratic bent show up in his texts, drawing him near – more powerfully – to the anti-modernist Philippe Muray, who vituperated the general idiocy in order to better distinguish himself from it.

Fortunately, the founder of the Situationist International had another, more interesting and generous facet. In it dominated the taste for pictorial games, the art of facetious détournements, and the desire to do battle by inventing [new] forms. The exhibition that opens this week at the Bibliothèque nationale de France [BNF] allows us to take the full measure of it.

In 2011, the philosopher’s archives[3] were sold to the French State by his widow for 1 million Euros.[4] They are now displayed for the public. No thunderous revelations, but a recalibrating of the work to the benefit of the pictorial part. Thus the appearance within the same glass enclosure of the three original notebooks of The Society of the Spectacle and the American comic strip that was détourned to become a publicity flyer seems to say to us: do not take me too seriously![5]

But let us return to Thesis 9 in Chapter 1 of The Society of the Spectacle: “In a world that is really upside-down, the true is a moment of the false.” It comes from a slogan in Hegel’s The Phenomenology of the Spirit: “The false is a moment of the true.”[6] Debord’s inversion was a stroke of genius: it is solemn, dazzling, imposing.

This process is at work in all of The Society of the Spectacle, a veritable patchwork[7] of détourned phrases. This was a method, a fashion of constructing his thought. At the BNF, we see how, all his life, Debord read and re-copied in childish handwriting extracts from Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Châteaubriand, Trotsky. . . . Upon his death, these sheets were placed into folders, festooned with a schoolboy’s label. In the margin, he sometimes added “det,” for “détournable.”[8]

Perhaps this spotlight on Debord the dabbler in quotations [Debord en bricoleur de citations] can attenuate the pompous worship of which he has become the object . . . worship that all the more ridiculous in that it is in contradiction with the very idea of the critique of the spectacle. “Debordist posterity is so difficult,”[9] sighs Olivier Assayas. The filmmaker, who took care of the restoration of Debord’s films twenty years ago, is the scientific advisor for the exhibition.

In Après Mai,[10] which will be released this fall, he evokes in the role of Debord, confronted with a Leftism that has become destructive, at the beginning of the 1970s.[11] “In 1969, he dissolved the Socialist International. He was the leader of the group and once again found himself alone. This is what pleased me about him: the manner that he had of transforming himself as a function of the transformation of the world. He was at war.”[12] A self-transformation that reveals the same logic of strategic adaption as the détournements of Hegel and Marx. Furthermore, the exhibition ends with his Kriegspiel, which he conceived by annotating Clausewitz.

“He wanted to strike with his aphorisms. For him, they were weapons against society. He claimed to have said everything,” emphasizes Anselm Jappe, author of a remarkable analysis that brings Debordian thought out from its splendid isolation (Guy Debord, [published by] Denoël). Because, despite himself, the philosopher belonged to a vast collective reflection on the link between economic exploitation and cultural alienation.[13]

“His critique of the spectacle converges with the works by the Frankfurt School about the cultural industry,” Jappe goes on to say. Proof of this impregnation: the exhibition unveils exchanges with Henri Lefebvre and the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.[14] “He didn’t desire descendents [descendance],” Jappe concludes. “He wanted to remain as a solitary apparition.” But a solitary man who could not live without the words of other people. . . .

[1] Translator: English in original.

[2] Link provided by publisher: le-spectacle-est-termine.html.

[3] Link provided by publisher: -mecenes-prives-a-la-rescousse-d-039-un-tresor-national.html.

[4] Translator: it appears that this number is incorrect, and that the purchasing price was actually 2.7 million Euros.

[5] Translator: despite the author’s use of the pronoun “me,” Debord wanted to be taken very seriously. It is the BNF that wishes him to be taken seriously (seriously enough to warrant the expenditure of 2.7 million Euros) but not too seriously (a genuine threat to France capitalism and its State).

[6] Translator: in point of fact, the line in Hegel (Thesis 39) reads “Yet we cannot therefore say that the false is a moment of the true, let alone a component part of it.”

[7] Translator: English in original.

[8] Translator: the ordering of this paragraph suggests that, after his death, Debord the little schoolboy returned to make his marginal comments.

[9] Translator: the word employed here, pénible, can also mean painful, impossible, tiresome, troublesome, burdensome or annoying.

[10] Link provided by publisher: http://cinema.

[11] Translator: I fall to see how this characterization has anything to do with Debord, who wasn’t a “Leftist” and hated “Leftism.” Furthermore, I fail to see how Debord, long a partisan of “the role of the negative,” could be turned off by a “Leftism” that had “become destructive.” The implication seems to be that, prior to that point, the “Leftism” that Debord favored was not “destructive,” but “creative,” as if the passion for destruction is not also a passion for creation.

[12] Translator: in point of fact, in 1972, when he dissolved the Situationist International, Guy Debord was not “alone.” Not only did fellow member Gianfranco Sanguinetti co-sign the document that dissolved the SI (they would continue to work together for several years thereafter), but Debord and Sanguinetti took this step after long discussions with revolutionaries who were not part of the SI, but could have been.

[13] Translator: this is total bullshit. It’s as if Debord never belonged to any groups, never founded the Lettrist International or the Situationist International with other people, never was in dialogue with Henri Lefebvre, never belonged to Socialisme ou Barbarie, and was always by himself, “splendidly isolated.”

[14] Translator: this lumping together ignores a simple, basic fact: in 1967, neither Lefebvre, the former members of the S. ou B. group (which had disbanded in 1965), nor Herbert Marcuse believed that a revolution was either possible or imminent in an advanced capitalist country such as France. Only Debord and the other situationists thought so, and of course the events of May 1968 proved them right.

(Written by Eric Aeschimann and published by Le Nouvel Observateur on 28 March 2013. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! on 4 April 2013. Footnotes as indicated.)

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