Guy Debord, “the search for a better life”


Le Temps: When did you encounter the work of Guy Debord for the first time?

Laurence Le Bras:[1] For me, when one of his films was screened at the Pompidou Center in 2001. It was like an obvious fact, one which I had expected, which I had sought after in different currents of thought and different works. A kind of revelation, the analysis of the society in which I find myself.

Le Temps: Were you political?

Laurence Le Bras: No, and I still am not. I was completely interested in his idea of an existence that transcended all the fields of action, through the search for a better life, which we have made one of the main themes of the exhibition. We wanted to produce a synthesis of the different means by which we approach this work and the meaning that it has for us. Perhaps there is the possibility of finding another way of living? Debord’s texts furnish us with arms to reflect upon this.

Le Temps: And you, Emmanuel Guy?

Emmanuel Guy:[2] I have a traditional university background. I have studied the history of art. I encountered Debord through two extra-academic paths. On the one hand, my curiosity about architectural investigations in the 1950s and 1960s and about the avant-gardes, a curiosity that led me to the situationists. On the other hand, a taste for contemporary creation, in music, especially, which makes abundant use of sampling[3] and détournement. Debord was already a classic when I encountered him. His works were published by institutional publishers. But I was fascinated by his corrosive power, by his phrasing and his humor.

Le Temps: Did he have an echo in your generation?

Emmanuel Guy: We have received many [echoes] from very young researchers concerning exhibition. They are twenty, thirty years old. Previously, those who worked on situationism did so with empathy for their subject, as if to study Debord was to become Debord. We do not have this pretense. We are not situationists. Two generations have gone by: the one that was there and claims to have a moral and scientific Master’s Degree about the epoch because its members were there, and ours, which is distant from the events and the power games that filled them. It seems to me that our generation was destined to make a Debord exhibition in 2013. To study him is a way of settling our accounts with own our era, which seems contestable to us.

Le Temps: How have you conceived the exhibition?

Emmanuel Guy: On the basis of strategy. Receiving the archives, we discovered the “War Game” board.[4] We found reader’s notes dedicated to military strategy and history. A third of Debord’s [personal] library was dedicated to those subjects. Yet he is primarily placed among the Parisian [artistic] avant-garde and then in the European artistic avant-garde. He participated in political action staring at the beginning of the 1960s. Then, after the dissolution of the Situationist International, he belonged more and more to the literary field.[5] How could we integrate these successive fields? Strategy appeared to us to be the means to do so. The strategist has his feet in the era to which he adapts himself and aims at a precise goal. Debord’s strategy was to find a way to transmit a discourse of emancipation[6] without becoming a master thinker.

Laurence Le Bras: Guy Debord’s reader’s notes permit us to better understand the problem of transmission. Unpacking the archives, we found in them 1,400 [notes] that are the center point of his work. Debord did not annotate his books.[7] He copied out quotations from 1950 until his death. He classified them in folders whose themes corresponded to his preoccupations: poetry, Machiavelli and Shakespeare, historic, Hegel, Marx, strategy, military history, philosophy, sociology, etc. We are exhibiting around 600 such cards. The variety of the authors cited testify to his autodidactic side and the depth of the thought against which Debord constructed his.[8]

Le Temps: Was he a man of words and texts more than a man of action?

Emmanuel Guy: In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord criticizes the images produced by advertising, by the powers that interpose themselves between us and the world, between us and others; he criticized the social roles that are presented to us and that we imitate. One often concludes from this that Debord appealed to a non-mediated relationship with the real. Yet, when he was at the barricades, he thought about the Iliad. His relationship with reality was mediated by reading.[9] This is a disposition that we share.

[1] Laurence Le Bras is a curator at the Manuscript Department at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the one in charge of the Debord Archives. She was 18 years old in 1994 when Debord committed suicide.

[2] Emmanuel Guy is getting his doctorate on Debord. He was 11 years old in 1994.

[3] English in original.

[4] The cabinet game also known as Kriegspiel.

[5] A pair of falsehoods: Debord – a revolutionary Marxist as much as an avant-garde artist – was active in “political” matters at least as early as the formation of the Lettrist International in 1952, and remained politically active all through the 1970s and 1980s.

[6] False: Debord’s strategy was to foment social revolution (the source of “emancipation” for all). To bring it about, he invented situationist praxis, which includes both “discourse” and action.

[7] False: he listed the détournements used in The Society of the Spectacle and provided a copy of this list to publishers who were interested in translating this book into other languages.

[8] This notion (du fond de pensée contre lequel Debord a construit la sienne) undermines the extent to which Debord saw himself continuing the work begun by Marx.

[9] Both false and absurd: no man whose “relationship with reality is mediated by reading” erects and fights armed detachments of police officers, nor does he occupy buildings. Debord was a man of action who happened to be very well-read. By contrast, Laurence Le Bras and Emmanuel Guy appear to be poorly educated men who are not politically active.

(Interview conducted by Laurent Wolf. Published in the 27 April 2013 issue of Le Temps. Translated 2 May 2013 by NOT BORED! All footnotes by the translator. First two footnotes takes directly from material that preceded this interview. Ms. Le Bras' gender corected 15 March 2016.)

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