Debord, a treasure

France has decided to classify the archives of the situationist philosopher coveted by an American university. Guy Debord erected as a national monument. . . .

The French state has refused to allow the personal archives of the founder of the Situationist International to leave France. The injunction of 29 January [2009], signed by the Minister of Culture, Christine Albane, and published on Thursday in The Official Journal, stipulates that the archives assume "a great importance for the history of the ideas of the second half of the 20th century and for the knowledge of the still-controversial work of one of the last great French intellectuals of the period." A major and symbolic decision. "This classification as a national treasure reveals a recognition by the State of what Debord represents in the intellectual and artistic life of the just-ended century," emphasized Bruno Racine, President of the National Library of France, who has worked to keep the archives in France.

A paradox. Astonishing posterity for Guy Debord, who preferred the secret over neon lights, gave no press interviews and abhorred awards [honnissait les distinctions]. At most, he finally left Editions Gallimard the care of publishing his works, after having been the emblematic author for Editions Champ Libre. "I have merited universal hatred from the society of my time," he wrote in 1978, "and I am angry that I have had other merits in the eyes of such a society." Today, in the most lively paradox, he has become its "treasure." Guy Debord shot himself in the heart on 30 November 1994 at the age of 62, in his home in the Haute-Loire. Born in Paris in 1931, he founded in 1957 the Situationist International, a movement of thought in the line of Lettrism that he scuttled in 1972. This theoretician of revolution continued to write and make films. Since his death, his wife and legatee Alice Debord has guarded his archives, which have been rarely consulted. She herself has worked to bring out the correspondence of the author of Panegyrique, the seventh volume of which, published by Fayard in 2008, covers the final period from January 1988 to November 1994.

Two years ago, Yale University in the United States manifested its desire to acquire the totality of the personal archives of the author. The Americans are hooked [friands] on contemporary French intellectuals. The university wanted to base its research center on the avant-garde upon this purchase; the Debord assets would be one its diamonds. Because these assets are quite beautiful (see below). They include the quasi-totality of the works of the writer and filmmaker from 1950 to 1994. The masterpiece is of course the manuscript of The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967, which watered May 68 and all as a sociological and philosophical current.

Reading notes. Careful about his legacy, Guy Debord took care to select and organize everything. Thus he said to his friend Ricardo Paseyro in October 1994: "We have done the sorting out, burned a mass of useless papers and kept for the disposal of my readers all that matters." Thus he only conserved what he thought to be essential to the comprehension of his work. The genesis of the texts, from the first flashes to the corrected page proofs, demonstrating a pronounced attention to precision. Debord struggled against approximations and took untiring care to transcribe his thoughts into words. This great reader -- of Hegel, Clausewitz and Machiavelli -- drafted thousands of reader's notes. The plans for his films were also conceived in a straight line. In total, the totality of his earthly traces have been exceptionally well preserved. A little of it has been auctioned off; hardly thirty letters from his youth, written between the ages of 18 and 22, which were dispersed on 12 May 2006 by Drout. For the Consulting Commission on National Treasures, which issued a negative opinion on the export [of the archives], "these documents, which illustrate the creative processes of the thought of the author, allow one to understand his assiduous manner of working, his great erudition and his style, inheritor of the greatest classics, placed in the service of his critical analysis of modern society."

Strong gesture. The "situ" is thus recognized as one of the major thinkers of the western world by a society that he condemned to destruction. A strong patrimonial gesture. "This is the first time that a writer so close to us [in time]" has been considered to be a national treasure, Bruno Racine estimates, explaining that, with Debord, the National Library takes modernity in its arms: "These assets will be fully developed. A veritable programme will be offered with the setting up of a colloquium and an exposition." The thought of Guy Debord will soon be accessible in its totality and coherence. Face the legend.

Benoit Forgeot, who inventoried the assets, reacts to its classification by the Ministry:

Q. Benoit Forgeot, bookseller in Paris, arranged the transaction with the United States. How and why was this transaction arranged?

A. At the request of Alice Debord, Pierre Bravo Gala and I inventoried the archives of Guy Debord so as to establish the catalogue and submit it to an American university that wanted to acquire them. This university had created a research center into the avant-gardes that would welcome them. Alice Debord, favorable to this step, judged that this center would be a natural destination. Her will is that everything is conserved in a single place at the disposition of researchers, that the archives are displayed, confronted.

Q.What was her reaction to the classification?

A. Ambivalence. Disappointment at first, of course. In addition to the commercial transaction, the university proposed a true intellectual project; the university saw the Debord assets as the master key to its project. Alice Debord obtained the guarantee that they would rapidly be placed at the disposition of researchers and that an expo and a colloquium would be organized in September 2009. But the French State made a very strong symbolic gesture. It is a recognition of the works of Guy Debord, who is thus accepted as one of the most important contemporary thinkers of the second half of the 20th century. This classification as national treasure can be seen as an authoritarian decision, but it is especially a recognition. The State henceforth welcomes the enfant terrible and thus makes a place among the saints for him.

Q. Why did she decide to yield everything in a single bloc?

A. Alice Debord has always been against a piecemeal sale, as happened with [Andre] Breton, which she feared. She attempted to preserve the integrity of the archives so that they remained available in a single place for future generations. Thenceforth, Guy Debord's papers would be like a historical monument, of which one could not move a single stone, but which one could visit, study, search.

Q. What are these archives composed of?

A. They bring together the essential of what Guy Debord produced between the 1950s and 1994, everything that he could and wanted to conserve. He himself classified the major part before his suicide. The archives include his manuscripts, the jewel [fleron] of which is obviously that of The Society of the Spectacle, but also unpublished ones, a projected Dictionary . . . . One finds in them several hundred index cards with reader's notes, which form a kind of unpublished manuscript and which records the origins of the "detournements." It is exciting not only to see what Debord read, but how he read. The assets include his working library, with hundreds of volumes classified by theme ("Marxism," "Military Strategy and Tactics," "Social Movements," "avant-gardes" . . . ). His films also form one of the most important parts: one can find in them all or almost all of the preparatory manuscripts at different stages of the scenario, as well as the photographic plates. There are even objects such as his typewriter, his eyeglasses, and a small wooden table on which he fixed a handwritten note that says "On this table Guy Debord wrote 'The Society of the Spectacle' in 1966 and 1967 at 169 rue Saint-Jacques, Paris." His correspondence, which includes many drafts and copies, and which has largely been developed [exploitee] by Alice Debord for her publication of his general correspondence -- a monument -- of which the final volume will [soon] be published.

(Written by Frederique Rousell and published in Liberation, Monday, 16 February 2009. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! 26 February 2009.)

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