Guy Debord at the Bibliothèque nationale de France

The majority of the critiques of the Guy Debord exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale [BNF][1] concern the presumed incompatibility between the thought and morals of Debord and the fact that his works are being shown at a large State institution, henceforth recuperated by the spectacle, recognized as a national icon, a national treasure or, secondarily, they concern the financial bonanza that his widow received for his archives and the rich donors who contributed to their acquisition. (In a letter to Michèle Bernstein dated 25 June 1968, did not Debord write, “one must beware of the former members of the CMDO [the May 1968 committee that brought together situationists and Enragés]; there are some among them who are scrounging for money from the intelligentsia by speaking more or less vaguely of the SI. We absolutely must not be mixed up with these dilettantes”?)[2] These critiques concern the spectacularization of Debord, and sometimes the fact that the other situationists only appear in this exhibition from Debord’s perspective (real or presumed), and the idea that the exhibition is a form of betrayal or appropriation – not counting those critiques that use the exhibition to settle their accounts with the BNF concerning copyrights[3] or the procedure by which inaccessible texts will be made available to the public (which raise an elitist outcry[4] that I do not understand very well, but that isn’t the subject), which are practices that should prevent the BNF from exhibiting Debord, if we are to believe them . . . .[5]

With all these preconceptions, critiques that truly speak of the exhibition and Debord are so rare that it might seem that they are, perhaps, too disturbing for some people. Not belonging at any of these schools of thought, having been – like everyone else – amazed at the age of twenty by The Society of the Spectacle (also by Vaneigem’s Treatise on Living and the caustic On the Poverty of Student Life, which sees the student as a false rebel and a true conservative: all books that, like [Philippe] Sollers, I read immediately, in the street between the bookstore where I bought them and my residence); having found in this knife-edged thought an invigorating antidote to “academic-Leftist mush,” to quote Assayas; having thus read a bit; – I have appreciated this exhibition. (I have also done so, perhaps, because I had the privilege of visiting it a second time in the company of the sole survivor in the photo of the group that is on the publicity poster, Jacqueline de Jong,[6] excluded in 1962.)

I have appreciated it because, first of all, beyond the wealth of the documents presented (one could regret the fact that, in the six hours and 45 minutes of films being screened alongside the exhibition, the very “discrepant” Hurlements[7] is not included), it endeavors to show, on the basis of the archives, Debord’s way of thinking and working. The ovoid hall in which are presented his reader’s notes (the quotations that he copied out and classified) mounted upon Bristol boards that echo the red BNF oval like a Legion of Honor does not seem to me like a recuperation or a spectacularization: the goal isn’t to read each of the cards, but to show visually how Debord’s thought was anchored in an impressive literary erudition, which is easier to do in a thesis than in an exhibition. Sometimes one sees in these cards the annotation “det,” short for détournable. . . . Détournement was at the very center of the approach of Debord, who was an enthusiast for quotation, collage and incongruous montage (not so far from the execrated surrealists, even if his practice of the form was more intellectual than oneiric). One must read the volume published by Acts Sud, La Fabrique du Cinéma de Guy Debord,[8] which eloquently shows how he took up and détourned images from all kinds of sources in order to integrate them into his films.

Of course, the interesting thing is the richness of the unpublished documents, the paths that they open up for researchers, the importance of the testimonies (one absolutely must see the interviews conducted by Olivier Assayas, unreleased, whose distribution outside of the exhibition isn’t planned). The formative period, the first Lettrist years (an astonishing discovery over the course of these pages: the first issue of Front de la Jeunesse, a Lettrist journal from 1950,[9] calls for the liberation of the militia members imprisoned during the Liberation), the Lettrist International (why call it Lettrist, one wants to ask Debord, when it is directed against Lettrism? Because it is an already-known word, and thus sounds good, he responds, already an enthusiast of the spectacle),[10] are particularly enlightening. The attention given to form is also a common thread to follow here, from the colors of the metallic cover of the journal[11] to the extreme care with which the tracts were composed. He wrote to [Asger] Jorn in 1957: “We must immediately create a new legend about ourselves.”

One could lose oneself in the richness of the documents, linger in the halls in order to read everything, pass the hours perusing the remarkable exhibition catalogue,[12] go through all the tracts, all the proclamations. But one could also concentrate upon the more critical moments, especially the perpendicular break of 1961-62, for example, when the Situationist International was transformed from a principally artistic and poetic movement into a principally political movement:[13] instead of elaborating the spectacle of refusal, it said at the time, one must refuse the spectacle, not enrich it, but reduce it. It was at that moment that the artists, the Spur group, Asger Jorn and Jacqueline de Jong, in particular, were excluded.[14] We discover the point at which diatribe and exclusion (practices that somewhat recall Breton, who made the inverse choice to distance himself from politics)[15] were essential in the development of the SI.[16] One of the jewels of the exhibition, a real revelation, is the first version of Mémoires, which was wrapped in sandpaper in order to destroy the books that dared to be juxtaposed [on a bookshelf] with it.

Each [visitor] will attach him- or herself to the subjects that are dear to them: May 68, strategy or cartography, for example, or even the détournements. About May 68, it is fascinating to see that the situationists (along with the Enragés) – chased from the Sorbonne by the student leaders on 17 May – had almost disappeared from the history of the movement, because it was essentially written by the Trotskyites and Maoists[17] (and today Debord remains one of the best critical tools of the Left’s good conscience, a little under-utilized, but quite pertinent). Strategy is the guiding schema of the exhibition, which includes a warlike section (“May 68: Charge of the Light Brigade”) and ends with the Game of War [aka Kriegspiel]: this is an interesting and enlightening choice, but it does not account for the entirety of Debord’s works, and so one must take it with a grain of salt.

From my perspective, the cartography, dérives [drifts], and psychogeography merited a little more emphasis in that they seem to be Debord’s principal anchors in the history of the flâneur [the stroller] that goes from Baudelaire to Tichý,[18] but that is one of my obsessions.[19] (Tichý as post-situationist? Sanguinetti[20] knew him, wrote a remarkable text about him and exhibited his work in Prague,[21]and my recent text about the critical reception has been published [in translation] on the American situationist site Not Bored![22]) Poetic psychogeography leads to urbanism, of which the only trace here is a utopian model by Constant, “New Babylon,” made in the context of a Gypsy encampment on the property of the marvelous Pinot-Gallizio. (We need to recall that this is an exhibition about Debord, not the entire [situationist] movement, unlike the one at Utrecht.)[23]

Would Debord have accepted this exhibition? This is a vain question that can’t be answered. His widows, Michèle Bernstein and Alice [Becker-] Ho have supported [and contributed to] it. But what about him, the man who loved magnificent losers[24] such as Don Quixote, the consul Geoffrey Firmin and Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy (and Cardinal de Retz, a rebel against his own class)? The man who was so concerned with his archives and his copyrights; the man who was preoccupied with the transmission of his writings and entrusted them with Buchet-Chastel and then Gallimard, an established cultural enterprise par excellence? Would he feel betrayed by the enlightened, humble and sensible work of the two curators? It seems to me that too many people arrogate to themselves the right to speak in his name.

One leaves the exhibition with one’s head full and in the clouds, captivated by the simultaneously intellectual, political and artistic dimension of Guy Debord (and his companions), and wondering who today manages to combine these political positions with this artistic strength (in the form and style as much as, if not more than, in the core). Certainly not the contemporary “pro-situs,”[25] who are dogmatic and outdated idol-worshippers, nor the artists like Claire Fontaine,[26] who pretend to speak of politics by recuperating slogans or, like Société Réaliste,[27] who market themselves in complete contradiction with their slogans. No, no one, no one in the West, in any case, and this is no doubt the ultimate proof that Debord was right, that the society of the spectacle has won,[28] and that this exhibition is perfectly justified.

[1] Link provided by the author: debord.html.

[2] Translator: Alice Becker-Ho (later Debord’s wife and then his widow) was a member of the Committee for Maintaining the Occupations.

[3] Link provided by the author: 2013/03/23/la-bnf-guy-debord-et-le-spectacle-schizophrene-du-droit- dauteur/. [Translator: translated into English here.]

[4] Link provided by the author: relire-le-pillage-du-droit-dauteur-organise/.

[5] Translator: Neither text says anything of the sort. They are both protests, critical analyses, not calls for “prevent[ing] the BNF from exhibiting Debord.”

[6] Link provided by the author: . [Translator: note well that on the subpage that is dedicated to her involvement in the SI, de Jong claims that she was “excluded in February 1962 after having defended the members of the Spur group, who had been previously expelled.” I believe that this statement is incomplete, if not also inaccurate: not listed among those who were expelled on 10-11 February 1962, de Jong joined the “Nashists” at the time of their split from the SI on 15 March 1962. It is clear from her own website that, subsequent to leaving the SI and publishing the art-based and largely apolitical magazine titled The Situationist Times (which ceased publication in 1967), she was not and has not been involved with radical politics and has limited her efforts to what Debord (in a letter to the German situationist Uwe Lausen dated 9 September 1962) called “the framework of the old art (that is to say: current society).”]

[7] Translator: Hurlements en faveur Sade, Debord’s first film, which was of lettrist (not situationist) inspiration. It was in fact Isidore Isou’s film Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951) that announced the inauguration of “discrepant cinema.”

[8] Link provided by the author: cinema-de-guy-debord. [Translator: published in association and coinciding with the opening of the exhibition at the BNF (which makes it an excellent example of the recuperation and commercialization of Debord’s works, in this case his films), this volume is described as follows on the webpage to which the author has provided the link.

“An introductory essay reveals the procedures and purposes of a singular cinematographic art: this essay notably relies upon the undressed girls that people Debord’s films in order to, following a dialectical movement, speak about the commodity or love. The book [as a whole] claims to be a reference work on the work of the filmmaker, put together by three university scholars who are impassioned by this radical work. It also claims to be a book that reserves the best parts for reproductions presented in a portfolio that the commentaries propose to clarify in an annex: the pin ups and food showcases of market capitalism mix together with the faces of the men and women that he loved and the battle scenes that he détourned to represent revolutionary combat. Connoisseurs of Debord’s cinema will find herein unpublished material likely [proper] to satisfy all curiosities, and those who discover it will be guided by the didactic apparatus of the work as they penetrate into the making of a great détournement from which contemporary creation in all domains hasn’t ceased to be inspired.”]

[9] Translator: this dates from before Debord met Isou and joined the Lettrists, and so seems to have no place here, that is to say, in the context of an exhibition devoted to the works of Debord.

[10] Translator: the Lettrist International (LI) was not “directed against Lettrism,” but saw itself as part of – the “left wing” of – the larger Lettrist movement (cf. Debord and Wolman’s text, “Why Lettrism?” from 1955). In the 1950s, the word “Lettrist” was quite far from being “an already-known word,” or, rather, only became so (in very limited circles) after the LI’s attack on Charlie Chaplin in October 1952. To say that Debord was ever (in 1952 or in 1967) “an enthusiast [adepte] of the spectacle” is a real travesty of Debord’s relationship to a form of society that he detested.

[11] Translator: that would be Internationale Situationniste, the journal published between 1957 and 1969 by the French section of the SI.

[12] Link provided by the author: .

[13] Translator: this is a preposterous simplification, one contradicted by the very facts summoned by the author (after 1962, the metallic covers continued to be used; “extreme care” was still given to the composition and appearance of the tracts, On the Poverty of Student Life, for example, and the posters that announced the appearance of Vaneigem’s Traité, Internationale Situationniste #11, et. al) and by his appreciation (expressed later in this article) for the “simultaneously intellectual, political and artistic dimension of Guy Debord (and his companions).” Such a simplification, which is all too common in works about the history of the SI, goes a long way to explaining how and why the author of the present article can minimize the importance of May 1968 to both Debord and the SI. Without it, they would have just as obscure and socially unimportant as Jacqueline de Jong.

[14] Translator: Asger Jorn was not excluded; he resigned in 1961.

[15] Translator: when did this “distancing” that never took place happen? In 1938, when Breton went to Mexico to visit Trotsky? In 1952, when he embraced anarchism? Maybe in 1960 (six years before his death) when he was a co-signer of a statement against the French War in Algeria?

[16] Translator: no: “diatribe and exclusion were essential in the development of the SI” right from the start. Cf. Michèle Bernstein, “No Unless Leniency,” Internationale Situationniste #1, June 1958.

[17] Translator: this is completely false. In point of fact, on 14 May 1968, one of the first things that René Riesel did in his official capacity as an elected delegate to the Sorbonne Occupation Committee was insist on the expulsion of the Stalinists, which it agreed to do. On 17 May – the day the CMDO was constituted – the role of the Enragés and situationists in the events was just beginning and lasted until 15 June 1968. Finally, “the history of the movement” was in fact written by the SI: cf. its book Situationists and Enragés in the Occupations Movement, which was published later that same year.

[18] Link provided by the author: Polaruserfiles/file/about/polar/tichy/2008_Marc%20Lenot_Tichy%20le% 20Flaneur_FR.pdf.

[19] Link provided by the author: -politique/.

[20] Link provided by the author: html.

[21] Link provided by the author: faits/les-cliches-de-miroslav-tichy-pour-la-premiere-fois-exposes-a- prague.

[22] Link provided by the author: html. [Translator: the author seems to be under the impression that translating a work is the same thing as approving of its contents.]

[23] Link provided by the author: linternationale-situationniste/.

[24] Translator: English in original.

[25] Cf. this comment, posted in response to the article mentioned in footnote 23: “Should we suppose (perhaps derived from the word ‘suppository’?) that the color of your glasses has definitively obstructed your eyes? What authorizes you to speak of the SI, about which you obviously know nothing, to the point of speaking of situationism, as if it referred to something that is real? This new commodity, still fashionable 35 years after the disappearance of the SI, continues to make the mouths water of those who, before giving even more guarantees of their servility, think they will be able to scrounge up some more leftover swill, to the point of claiming to confine the critique of this world in a museum as if it were a piece of ‘art,’ that is to say, ‘mastered,’ and thus saleable. A new trick, of the same kind as the claim that nuclear power is not dangerous, shielded by technology, or that one should lock up in a cage those who fight against the manipulation of the living, the last commodity that one claims we will ingest like progress in seductive packaging. Swindlers, one more effort . . . and you will end up believing your own lies.”

[26] Link provided by author: ca-pourra-etre-utile/.

[27] Link provided by author: http :// architecture-et-anarchie-societe-realiste/#comment-26696.

[28] Translator: I can find no text in which Debord says this. In fact, as late as 1992 (two years before his death), he was saying, “Thesis 111 [of The Society of the Spectacle], which recognized the first symptoms of Russia’s decline, the final explosions of which we are witnessing, and which envisioned the collapse of a global society that, as one might say today, will be wiped from the computer’s memory, enunciates this strategic judgment, the justness of which is easy to feel: ‘The global decomposition of the alliance of the bureaucratic mystification is, in the last analysis, the most unfavorable factor for the current development of capitalist society.’” (“Foreword to the third French edition of The Society of the Spectacle.”)

(Written by Marc Lenot and published on the blog Lunettes Rouges on 12 April 2013. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! on 13 April 2013. Footnotes as indicated.)

Note added 14 April 2013

After completing and posting my translation of Marc Lenot’s review, I sent him an email that said that I did not want to fight with him or be dismissed as a “pro-situ.” That is my idea of what mature people do, even if they disagree with each other or hate what they other person has said: they treat each other with respect; they engage in conversations; they exchange ideas directly with each other. But Lenot did not respond to my email; instead, he chose to post his responses to his blog, and left them there for me to find or not find. The conclusions one might draw from this behavior are obvious.

Though I have translated and will append his remarks at the end of the present text, I would like to introduce them with the following brief comments. I wrote twelve footnotes that pointed out the inconsistencies, errors or flat-out lies that I found in Lenot’s text. But in his response, Lenot only replies to six of them (note that he replies to footnote #17 twice). He has therefore left me and my readers free to conclude that fully half of my objections were rather well-taken.

The footnotes that Lenot did not, indeed, could not reply to paint a devastating picture. They show that, when it suits his purposes, he is quite comfortable with intentionally misleading his readers about the contents of other people’s writings (footnote #5); that he is ignorant about Lettrism before Debord arrived on the scene (footnote #9); that he is unable to admit when he is wrong and that he does in fact aim at minimizing the importance of May 1968 in the life of Debord and the development of the SI (footnote #13); that he is ignorant about the politics of Andre Breton (footnote #15); that is he ignorant about the nature of the early years of the SI (footnote #16); and that he wants the society of the spectacle “to win,” even if that means lying about Debord’s views on the subject and the current state of the world (footnote #28).

How does Lenot fare when he addresses my objections? Very poorly, indeed. In his response to footnote #6, he not only fails to quote me accurately (he places his own paraphrase of my remarks within quotation marks and pretends that that’s what I said), but he proves my point for me: during May 1968, when the Enragés and situationists were behind the barricades and then occupying buildings, Jacqueline de Jong was making posters. In his apparent response to footnote #8, he doesn’t respond at all; he simply gives up the ghost and takes my side of the argument, albeit sarcastically. Though he refers to footnotes #10 and #11, he doesn’t respond to them: he simply says that they do not “emphasize” Debord’s comment to Jorn (of course they don’t: footnote #10 concerns Lenot’s ignorance about the Lettrists, while footnote #11 points out that he has carelessly failed to specify his reference to “the journal”). His “response” to footnote #14 is yet another non-response; it reveals the type of politics that he is more knowledgeable about and comfortable with (a scandal concerning a “Socialist” politician).

This leaves us with footnote #17, the one that Lenot responds to twice. It is significant, I think, that this footnote concerns May 1968, which, as I indicated in footnote #13, is the reason why Debord and the SI are not “as obscure and socially unimportant as Jacqueline de Jong.” It is not surprising that Lenot’s responses introduce new errors: namely, that the Enragés and the situationists were “student movements,” and that it is quantity, and not quality, that determines the value of the historical accounts about May 1968.

Marc Lenot is a dilettante. He likes to hop from exhibition to exhibition, and to consume what is given to him to consume. Since he approves of what has been given to him, he wants approval in return. But when that approval is denied him, he turns very nasty. He thinks he knows what insults to hurl when approval hasn’t been given to him. Or, in my case, when he has confused approval with having one of his previous articles translated, and then finds out that he was wrong. But he doesn’t know what he is doing. When he pontificates about “gratuitous and venomous accusations” and the like, he only makes himself look even worse than he already did.

The translator’s notes that NOT BORED! added to my text constitute a great example of devout reaction by post-situationists who refuse any different view of their idol.

One finds in them, among other pearls,

-- diversion of meaning (N14: “Jorn wasn’t excluded, he resigned”: yes, that’s right, like Cahuzac . . .),

-- counter-truths (N6: “de Jong had no more political activity after having left the SI in 1962”: further down in my article, one sees her posters from May 68, which the translator carefully omits),

-- rewritings of history (N17: though this pleases or not, it is perfectly established that on 17 May, the Enragés and the situationists had to leave the Sorbonne on the request of the other student movements, they then established themselves at the INP),

-- historiographical biases (Note 17: it is sufficient to study any bibliography of May 68 to take an inventory of the side to which the quasi-totality of the authors belong; to cite a single book doesn’t prove the contrary),

-- gratuitous and venomous accusations (N8: the fact that Actes Sud published a book on Debord at the moment of the exhibition is quite obviously a proof of his recuperation and commercialization; furthermore, the fact that I wrote this review is surely another example),

-- and, of course, a holy terror of anything that could reveal some of Debord ambiguities (N10 and N11 do not even emphasize his remarks to Jorn in 1957 about the necessity of “creating a legend,” but take exception to me interrogations as if they were blasphemy).

To Contact NOT BORED!