A book about Guy Debord -- and Anselm Jappe's is far and away the best we have so far, I think -- ultimately stands or falls by what it has to say about two interlinked puzzles that stand at the heart of Debord's life and work. Such a book need not spell out these puzzles exactly as I do (you will see that Jappe's terms are different), but I believe it ought to be driven and haunted (as Jappe's undoubtedly is) by a similar sense of broad questions constantly coming up about the nature of Debord's achievement, and getting harder to answer the more unavoidable they seem. The questions are these. First, how are we to understand the obvious (but scandalous) fact that in Debord's case politics was largely writing -- that it turned on the building of an inimitable polemical and expository style, assembled over decades, born from a series of engagements with, on, and against the French language? Second, what does it mean that this, the only political writing of our time -- the only such writing to have a chance of surviving its circumstances, I believe, the writing that will be seen by future ages to have kept the possibility of politics alive -- issued from a situation so thoroughly at odds with the century, or with most of the terms in which the century chose to present itself? Why was distance and embattlement, of which Debord was the ultimate exponent, so often the source of insight and sanity in his case, not "paradise for a sect"? What does it tell us about the age that its true voice -- its adequate description -- came so exultantly from the margins?
Because Jappe succeeds in posing these two questions concurrently, and knows full well that answering one of them involves answering both, he manages to talk about Debord's achievement as one of voice, or language, without falling in with those in France who have been trying since Debord's death, and even before it, to turn him into "a master of French prose." At all events, the maneuver is futile. For a start, part of the work on the language Debord was involved in turns on an agonized, and deeply funny running-battle with the notions of mastery and Frenchness lurking in the phrase above -- "mastery" equalling "Frenchness," which in turns equals clarity, authority, classical balance, skeptical levity, etc. A great deal of the agony/comedy in Debord's prose in provided by the business of its continually swallowing, and half-regurgitating, monstrous Hegelian, un-French, un-clear turns of phrase and thought -- so that the reader is typically plunged, in a sentence or two, from icy [Cardinal de] Retz or La Rochefoucauld aphorisms, shining with hate-filled economy, on to smothering, fuzzy (inspiring) rigarmarole, full of unrepentant dialectical tricks, like the best bits of Feuerbach or the young Marx. (And there is no "like" about it a lot of the time: the quotes and paraphrases are verbatim. Jappe tracks many of these down.) This is "writing," sure enough. I'd be inclined to say great writing. But it was not done by someone who was only or essentially a writer (or a master of French prose), any more than he was an "artist," "filmmaker," "politician," or even "revolutionary." All of these identities, Debord never tired of telling us, are what now stand in the way of the activities they once pointed to.
Political writing of the highest order is rare. Moments at which a particular language is opened to a further range of possibilities -- a new tone, a new conception of human purposes, a sharper or wilder rhetorical ascent -- in any case happen infrequently. And moments at which this opening depends on the creation of a specifically political voice, rather than an ethical, lyrical, or epic one, are truly few and far between. The Rousseau of the Discourses would be one, Burke in the Reflections another. (The Debord-Rousseau comparison is inescapable, I think, even down to the confidence with which right-thinking commentators go on trying to reduce the politics of both to personal deficiency, thinking that doing so will lay the politics finally to rest. That never quite seems to happen.) But the fact that both my points of comparison come from the late eighteenth century only puts the Debord puzzle in sharper relief. For Burke and Rousseau were working with a political imagery and argumentation already formed and enriched by many others, in a previous half-century's conversation. They had seen the imagery and argumentation taken up in actual political practice, by despots and revolutionaries, and put to the test of reality. The terms of the conversation changed as a result. They did not need to invent a political language -- still less to wrest the possibility of one from a surrounding farrago of lies and soundbites. They did not live in the midst of a terrible, interminable contest over how to best debauch and eviscerate the last memory -- the last trace -- of political aspiration. Those who complain of Debord's paranoia should look again at what he was trying to do, and why he might have thought, in the 1970s and 1980s, that almost everything and everybody stood in his way.
One main merit of Jappe's book is that it manages to see and speak to Debord's embattledness and isolation, and also to his being a social animal. For no one was better, over the whole stretches of his life, at making himself enough of a community for the purposes of the moment; and if that community had nothing to do with the "political" culture of Sartre, Garaudy, and de Gaulle, then so much the better. Writing was one social activity among others. The room on the Rue Saint-Jacques where The Society of the Spectacle got written was at once an austere cell -- with nothing on the shelves, I remember, but a few crucial texts (Hegel, Pascal, Marx, Lukacs, Lautremont's Poesies) laid open at the relevant page -- and also the entryway to Debord's miniscule apartment, through which friends and comrades continually passed. The process was meant to be seen, and interrupted. One moment the deep, ventriloqual dialogue with History and Class Consciousness: the next the latest bubble for a comics detourne, or the best insult yet to Althusser and Godard.
Those names lead me finally to Debord's hostility to the very idea of "representation," which everyone these days (except Jappe) is supposed to think the weirdest and most naive part of his world-view. For what else can there be (says everyone) besides representation? What could Debord possibly have meant by the notions brought on in his writing to represent representation's opposite -- "lived experience," for instance, or "imagination," or, worse still, "poetry"? Do they not lead us inevitably back to a Rousseau-and-Lukacs realm of transparency and face-to-faceness, and therefore usher in a politics of purity and purging to match? Not necessarily, is Jappe's answer. In the end, in our present age of "information," it may even be this side of Debord's politics -- for the moment the most despised, the most outdated -- that will provide the kernel of future action. For supposing we take Debord's writing as directed not to anathematizing representation in general (as everyone has it), but to proposing certain tests for truth and falsity in representation, and above all, for truth and falsity in representational regimes. Why should there not be an alternative to our current "totalitarian dictatorship of the fragment"? Why is it so difficult to think (and demand and construct) "representation" in the plural, rather than the singular and centralized: representations as so many fields or terrains of activity, subject to leakage and interference between modes and technologies, and constantly crossed and dispersed by other kinds of activity altogether: subject to retrieval and cancellation, as a result -- to constant reversals of direction between object and image, and image and receiver? Why should a regime of representation not be built on the principle that images are, or ought to be, transformable (as opposed to exchangeable) -- meaning disposable through and through, and yet utterly material and contingent; shareable, imaginable, coming up constantly in their negativity, their non-identity, and for that reason promoted and dismantled at will? "History," to take up one of Debord's favorite quotes from Lukacs, "is the history of the unceasing overthrow of the objective forms that shape the life of man."
I know that in the age of symbol management it is sometimes hard to tell Debord's utopia apart from the one on offer from Microsoft. But they are different, in every respect; the one is a nervous parody of the other; and the fact that Debord's imagining of other worlds shares so much with that of his opponents is potentially his imagining's strongest point. It is what lets The Society of the Spectacle go on haunting the non-world of cyberspace -- until the moment, which is surely not far off, when the bourgeoisie begins to fall out of love with the speed-up of the last two decades, and no longer gets higher and higher on the details (the gadgetry) of its own proletarianization. Political writing is always instrumental as well as utopian. Debord's is no exception. Only sometimes writing has to reconcile itself to the idea that its time of instrumentality -- its time as a weapon -- lies a little in the future. Jappe's book is true to its subject, above all, because it reads Debord, and helps us read him, with that future in mind.