Guy Debord: Force or Farce?

Until 13 July 2013, the BNF is devoting an exhibition to the father of the Situationist International: Guy Debord. Was the strategist an impostor or a genius? The ambiguity persists.

And if all this was only a gigantic hoax? And if situationism was only a top-flight joke, a surrealism without poetry, a cinema without spectators, a Marxism confined to the schoolyard of the Sorbonne?[1] And if, finally and especially, all of that collective adventure was only the mask for a single man, Guy Debord (1931-1994),[2] “the most famous of obscure men,” as he himself declared in the beautiful language inherited from Cardinal de Retz?

Paradoxically, it is at the moment that the author of The Society of the Spectacle is consecrated by an exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France [BNF] that the suspicion grows. His manuscripts are there (magnificent walls composed of reader’s notes); the tracts and slogans of the Situationist International chatter away; the metal prototype of the Jeu de la guerre,[3] that chessboard for amateur strategists invented by the Master, is superbly enthroned in obscurity; the Gibert notebooks in which he wrote his “best seller,”[4] unfolding in his small handwriting – yes, all the archives purchased two years ago for 2.7 million Euros by the BNF are there, before us, and yet the doubt persists. What remains of this avant-garde that knew so well how to put itself onstage, for posterity, as the beautiful exhibition catalogue shows? Several querulous words announcing May 68; scathing slogans on the walls of the Latin Quarter (“Never work!”); the superbly oracular style of the works of Guy Debord; a slightly vain theory of the “integrated spectacle”; and a reservoir of dreams for adolescents lacking urban dérives and revolution.[5] A mixture of strategy and games. Clausewitz rue Gay-Lussac.[6]

[1] Though a fool or cynic might have asked these ridiculous questions during the early years of the Situationist International, they were definitively settled in May 1968.

[2] Rather than the truth, this is the myth that has been propagated since the early 1980s, first by Guy Debord himself, then by his widow, Alice Becker-Ho, and those she has been able to convince of its usefulness.

[3] Sometimes known under the name Kriegspiel.

[4] English in original.

[5] It is both the ignorance of the writer and the incompleteness (or poor conception) of the exhibition itself that permits such dismissive judgments. Had either one known about and emphasized the relevance of situationist ideas to the tumultuous events in Italy (1969-1977), Poland (1970), Portugal (1974), Spain (1975), or France (1986), such dismissals would have been impossible to make or would have backfired and injured their maker.

[6] The location of the first barricades during May 1968.

(Written by Jérôme Dupuis and published in the 5 April 2013 issue of L’Express. Translated and footnoted by NOT BORED! 5 April 2013.)

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