Five Major Omissions and Thirty-Four Factual Errors in
McKenzie Wark’s The Spectacle of Disintegration

McKenzie Wark: “I’m happy to be corrected, but usually its [sic] differences of interpretation” (tweet @dillon_votaw, 28 May 2013).


Despite its broad and apparently inclusive title (“Situationist Passages Out of the 20th Century”), there are several very important events or facts left out of it.

1. In 1978, Guy Debord wrote a preface to the fourth Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle. Published as a short book by Champ Libre, this was Debord’s first and only major statement about Italy. It is not mentioned even once here.

2. In 1984, in response to the calumnies of the French press where the murder of Gérard Lebovici was concerned, Debord withdrew all of his films from distribution everywhere in the world. This withdrawal remained in effect up to and well after Debord’s suicide in 1994. These facts are not mentioned.

3. In 1988, Debord published Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, a major work that, except for three passing references, is not discussed.

4. In 1999, Alice Becker-Ho – who was never a member of the SI and whose conduct since her husband’s death has been distinctly un- or even anti-situationist, and yet is included in this book – used the French “justice system” to suppress Jean-Francois Martos’ edition of the letters he exchanged with Debord, and in 2006, she threatened legal action against an NYU professor for allegedly infringing on the copyright foe Debord’s Game of War, aka Kriegspiel. She was roundly and universally criticized for these recourses to bourgeois “justice.” Neither event is mentioned here.

5. In 1999, Alice Becker-Ho, working in tandem with Fayard, began publishing Debord’s letters. Though Debord (and Lebovici) had always taken care to publish his letters along with the ones that were sent to him (cf. both volumes of Champ Libre Correspondance, 1978 and 1981), none of the volumes in the series Guy Debord Correspondance included a single one of the letters sent to Debord, which thus destroyed the context of the letters that Debord sent out. Once again, none of this is mentioned.

Factual errors

Only thirty-four errors (on average, one every seven pages)? No doubt there would have been many more, where it not for the facts that Chapters 3, 4 and 5 primarily concern French paintings of the 19th century (and only indirectly concern the situationists), and Chapters 6, 7 and 8 primarily concern Charles Fourier (and, once again, only indirectly concern the situationists).

p. 13: “The period from 1961 to 1972 is considered the political phase”

There was a third phase, 1968 to 1972, the existence of which is recognized by every other historian of the SI, but especially Debord himself. This third phase is different from the second phase because, as a result of May 1968, the SI was rather suddenly “discovered” by all the people who had previous ignored its existence. Furthermore, the composition of the SI in its third phase was qualitatively different than it was in its second (énrages, anarchists, etc), and the purpose of the SI in its third phase was different (no longer to put revolution back on the agenda, but to spread and intensify it).

p. 20: “Debord, like Retz and so many others, failed to transform the world of his own time”

Before 1968, no one believed a massive revolt in an advanced Western nation was possible (cf. Lefebvre, Adorno, Marcuse); afterwards, revolt suddenly seemed to be everywhere. The SI succeeded in its historical mission to put revolution back on the agenda, from which it had been missing since the 1930s.

p. 44: “What Debord calls the concentrated spectacle has its roots in David and Delacroix; the diffuse spectacle arises out of the contradictory materials Manet and Pissarro explore.”

According to Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, the concentrated spectacle was created by the Stalinists and Nazis in the 1930s; the diffuse spectacle was created by the USA in the 1940s and early 1950s.

p. 49: “Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord met in 1960”

As demonstrated by the letter from Debord to Vaneigem dated 31 January 1961, the two men didn't meet until 1961.

p. 50: “All of which [Vaneigem’s ideas about May ’68] was finally too much for Debord and some of the others in the Situationist International”

As reported by Debord in the “Communiqué Concerning Vaneigem,” the hostility to Vaneigem within the SI after May 1968, and Vaneigem’s decision to resign in 1970, concerned the other members’ objections to his “contemplative” attitude towards the SI itself and his inaction within it.

p. 54: “While Debord and Vaneigem were fellow travelers in their Situationist wanderings, in the end they belong to different camps.”

The difference between Debord and the other situationists (Riesel, Viénet, Sanguinetti, et al) and the “Vaneigemists” was not based on ideology, but on the latter’s contemplative attitude and absence of activity within the SI.

p. 55: “When they turned away from Stalinism, Breton and friends were left with nowhere to go except the rewriting of everyday alienation as cosmic mental theater.”

In 1951, Breton explicitly embraced anarchism.

p. 76 “come in their own hands, making an offering, if only they knew, to Barbelo, reigning Goddess of one of Vaneigem’s favorite heresies.”

The cult of Barbelo were not simply men [sic] who masturbated and ejaculated in their own hands. They believed that Barbelo was a sperm-eating Goddess, and so the Barbelites ate their cum – and menstrual blood, too. Furthermore, Vaneigem has no real interest in the Barbelites, who still believed in a divine being. In fact, his favorite “heresy” was that of Simon of Samaria.

p. 79. “[After 1968,] wage labor was bought off in the usual fashion, with more of the same, at least while it retained the power to demand it.”

Both before and after May ’68, “wage labor” (workers in capitalist countries) could not be “bought off” with modest or even large salary increases: it was only people like Adorno, Lefebvre and Marcuse (cf. p. 20 above) who believed so. It was this precise refusal to be “bought off” that led the workers to leave the unions, go out on wildcat strikes, engage in sabotage, etc. etc.

p. 88: “The slogan ‘those who make the revolution by halves dig their own graves’ is not mere overblown sixties rhetoric. It is quite literally true.”

This slogan was coined by Saint Just, and only repeated by the SI in the 1960s.

p. 89: “Viénet had been to China, had seen the Cultural Revolution begin, and was well aware of the costs of failed revolutions.”

The Cultural Revolution was not a “revolution”; it was a counter-revolution, that is to say, an attempt to hold on to power despite the refusal of the Chinese working classes to be ruled by the Communist bureaucracy.

p. 106: “Debord admitted to using false names and documents in Italy in the seventies, but he had his reasons.”

Cf. letter to Martos dated 27 July 1988.

“The malevolence of Le Monde wants to console itself by starting a rumor about my ‘diverse pseudonyms, not all identified.’ The paper immediately ‘proves’ this rumor by indicating that here [in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle] I have adopted ‘for once [my] name as a pseudonym’ (my emphasis). I said so in Considerations [on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici] and even before that: I have never published anything under a pseudonym. Apart from several anonymous or collectively written texts, all were signed Debord. It was only for certain letters or meetings and [certain] internal debates -- where there were good reasons for only leaving discrete traces -- that I employed a very small number of pseudonym, clearly known by the comrades concerned, in each period; and a ‘lapsed’ pseudonym was never reprised. As it is quite possible that you will become the historian who ‘has authority’ on these questions, and as the liars will surely persist in unforeseeable inventions, I now provide for you a quick list of the totality of these pseudonyms: that is to say, any other would be subsequently invented and, likewise, any ‘publication’ that one might vaguely evoke or that one might exhume from one knows not where, and that one might claim to be signed by one of them, will be an obvious fake.

Gondi – in France, starting in 1965. (Colin) Decayeux – starting at the end of 1968, in France, then in Italy (he was a friend of Villon). (Guido) Cavalcanti, starting in 1972, in Italy (he was a friend of Dante in his youth). Glaucos – starting in 1974, in Portugal. (Juan) Pacheco – in Spain, starting in 1980 (he was an enemy of Manrique).”

p. 107: “I have known a man who spent his time among the party girls of Florence” (italics in original).

In Italian, Sfacciate donne fiorentine in fact means “The immodest/impudent/shameless ladies of Florence.”

p. 108 “Debord and Sanguinetti’s critique of the Italian left pleases no one.”

It certainly pleases us!

p. 108 “From a wealthy Tuscan family with leftist pretensions, Sanguinetti […]”

Gianfranco’s father, Bruno Sanguinetti, was a clandestine, anti-fascist militant during WWII and the head of the then-illegal Italian Communist Party. Gianfranco’s mother, Teresa Mattei was also a member of the then-illegal Community Party. She was instrumental in the post-WWII assassination of the Italian fascist Giovanni Gentile. She was a member of the Constituent Assembly, elected as a member of the ICP.

p. 109: “Perhaps the origins of terrorism are not so easily decided. Perhaps the origins are not even all that relevant” and p. 112: “They may be agents of another state. They may be agents of the very state they are attacking, or merely its dupes. It doesn’t actually matter.”

The existence of “Operation Gladio,” aka the “stay behind” networks organized by NATO and the CIA, were confirmed by the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti on 24 October 1990. This fact and others certainly “mattered” to all the people falsely arrested, imprisoned and even murdered by the Italian State in its attempts to hide the existence and purpose of Gladio.

p. 115: “Certain states are less and less concerned with the well being and productivity of their subjects – their so-called biopower” (italics in original).

It is certainly the case that the USA is more and more concerned with the health of its subjects: the anti-smoking regulations that concern public places; the attempt to ban large containers of sugary soft drinks and trans-fats in NYC; the federal mandate that all citizens must have health insurance, etc. etc.

p. 117: “Censor stressed the usefulness of the Communist Party in imposing discipline on the working class and keeping refractory elements in line. But this view was not shared by the ruling class, deluded by their own fiction that cast the Communists as the leadership of the working class against the state.”

It was precisely the ruling classes of Italy (the politicians such as Aldo Moro and the big bourgeois, such as Gianni Agnelli) that sponsored the Historic Compromise. Its opponents were the military and the reactionary big bourgeoisie (and of course NATO and the CIA).

p. 120: “It [Censor’s pamphlet] was thought to be either of the work of some kind of modern Tancredi […] or perhaps some junior state functionary.”

Neither of these possibilities is mentioned by Sanguinetti’s Proofs of the Nonexistence of Censor by His Creator (which says the speculation ran from “everyone from Guido Carli to Cesare Merzagora, from Giovanni Malagodi to Raffaele Mattioli himself”) or by the press clippings that Sanguinetti himself assembled and published.

p. 122: “With the failure of disorganized labor to turn local and sporadic expressions of boredom into a strategy for dismantling spectacle power, the integrated spectacle emerges triumphant.”

First of all, the “labor troubles” that afflicted Italy between 1969 and 1979 were not motivated by boredom, nor were they local and sporadic. They were motivated by a desire to share in the spectacular wealth produced by Italy’s miraculous growth after WWII, and they were organized, continuous and very effective. The subversion was directed at private firms, state-owned enterprises and the unions. The integrated spectacle (which expresses in general terms the tactic of the “historic compromise”) arose due to the success of this subversion, not due to its “failure.”

p. 124: “Nothing about their provenance is to be respected; not their context, their ownership, their genre.”

The ownership of the images used in The Spectacle of the Spectacle was very much respected: through Lebovici, Debord sought and received permission to use them. Money was paid so that this usage was legal. Sometimes permission was denied and the images in questions were not used.

p. 125: “Martine Barraqué edited Society of the Spectacle

The name of Debord’s movie and his book were The Society of the Spectacle. (Wark also consistently refers to Debord’s book as Society of the Spectacle.) Without the definite pronoun, the title no longer refers to the unity of the spectacle.

p. 126: “In appending it [Refutation] to Society of the Spectacle [sic], Debord makes a complete work that subsumes not only the actual reactions to the film but any possible reaction into the work itself, in advance.”

Two full years elapsed between the completion of Spectacle and the Refutation: they are separate films; they were never “subsumed” to create a single film. Reviewers had plenty of time to react to the first film.

p. 131: “Spread throughout the film [Spectacle] is the particular sequence of moments in which historical time accelerates, and the conflict of forces pushes it toward new qualities: Paris 1871, St. Petersburg 1917, Barcelona 1935, Watts 1965, Paris again, 1968. The sequence continues in Refutation with the carnation revolution in Lisbon, 1974. It is a sign of the further progress of the spectacular erasure of historical time”

The places and dates that are mentioned here are revolutions, and they mark instances where historical time was flowing, not frozen or “accelerated.” The significance is the gap of thirty years between “Barcelona 1935” and “Watts 1965”: that is when revolution was no longer on the agenda; that was when historical time had been frozen in place by the spectacle. These revolutions are included in Spectacle, but especially in Refutation, to show that the historical mission of the SI had been fulfilled: to get historical time to flow again.

p. 132: “As Debord writes, these stolen films”

Many of these films were properly licensed, not “stolen” (cf. p. 124 above)

p. 135: “The revolutionary movement is over. Some think it dies in Paris in ’68. For Debord it died in Barcelona in 1935”

For Debord, the first phase of the revolutionary workers’ movement was crushed in Barcelona (in 1937, not 1935); and its second phase began all over Western Europe in the 1960s. That second phase lasted until early 1980s. The revolutionary movement itself is far from over: it is simply “waiting for” its third phase.

p. 136: “The failure of the workers’ revolutions is that they relied on the same thought, the same methods, as the successful bourgeois revolutions before them.”

The distinctive feature of many workers’ uprisings including and since the Paris Commune is precisely their differences in “thought” (Marxism and anarchism) and methods (occupations of public places, not the palaces or other “seats” of political power). What took place in Hungary in 1956 – the instauration of workers’ councils – had never taken place before, in any revolution, whether bourgeois or proletarian. This is why the situationists championed workers’ councils for many years afterwards.

pp. 139-140: “In Girum concerns itself with the world after a series of failed revolutions: France 1968, Italy 1969, Portugal 1974, Italy again in 1977”

So many “failed” revolutions! The point should be obvious by now: the effort to put revolution back on the table was successful.

p. 140: “The spectacle is haunted by what negates it. Or do Debord seemed to think at the time. In the nineties his mood grew darker.”

As late as 1992, when he wrote his preface to the third French edition of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord was still optimistic about the collapse of Western capitalism.

p. 142: “Enemies like Julian Assange, the hacker-journalist-cypherpunk, publishing secret documents on the internet which reveal what those in the know already knew anyway”

The whole point of whistleblowers like Assange is that they reveal documents that contain information (usually the commission of war crimes, atrocities and the like) that was unknown to the public.

p. 151: “The same neighborhoods [les banlieus outside of Paris] would erupt in riot and fire in 2005”

This self-contradiction supports the corrections concerning p. 135.

p. 155: “It wasn’t a riot, a revolt or a revolution.” Later on the very same page, the perpetrators of the attacks in question (quoted by Wark) say, “we will revolutionize the country from inside the prisons.

No further comment necessary: by contradicting himself, Wark has revealed his own error.

p. 179: “The Russian Revolution […] which for Debord is a historic defeat of the revolutionary movement”

For the idea that “the revolutionary movement” was utterly or completely defeated (once and for all: “a historic defeat”), cf. pages 20, 131, 135, 139-140, 151.

p. 190: “As T.J. Clark once noted, it is no accident of timing that Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle came out in 1967, just after the start of the Althusserian boom”

Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle came out in 1967 exactly one hundred years after Marx’s Das Capital, which the former détourns in it opening line.

NOT BORED! and Alastair Hemmens
30 May 2013

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