To Each His Own Debord

It required a certain malice to conceive of the Parisian manifestation that will begin at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF). Or at least a taste for defiance: to display the archives of an intellectual who was a critic of all institutions and society in general in a temple of the State; to try to map out a polymorphous thought, profoundly resistant, misanthropic, sarcastic and systematically set against all attempts at recuperation.

Starting on 27 March [2013], visitors to the BNF will be able to stroll through the exhibition titled “Guy Debord, An Art of War.” Hundreds of reader’s notes, maps, photos, journals and letters will be put together like a huge paper chase around the strategies used by Debord in his struggle against contemporary alienation. The whole thing comes from the archives purchased by the BNF in 2011 from Guy Debord’s widow for the astronomical sum of 2.7 million Euros.

No doubt each person will be able to find in it “his” [or “her”] Debord, because this is one of the particularities of this atypical thinker: his theses and his sensibility radiated into very different directions; he himself being moved from one field of thought to another all through his life. What is more, Guy Debord slid from [embracing] revolution to a form of radical pessimism, even being a reactionary, between the beginning and the end of his life. So that, today, the inheritors of this man who didn’t want any are numerous, and their profiles are dissimilar.


Almost twenty years after his death on 30 November 1994 (at the age of 62), what remains of the thought of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, the movement of which he was the principal founder? Beyond the title of a book, The Society of the Spectacle (Buchet-Chastel, 1967), which here and there works as a gimmick[2] for people who haven’t always read it, in what way have the ideas of Debord and the situationists pervaded society?

The responses to these questions are inevitably approximate, as the landscape is huge and its lines are fuzzy. From philosophy to advertizing, by way of architecture, urbanism, art, sociology and literature, the “situs” have expanded into sometimes unexpected directions. Debord had the genius to see far and wide, always remaining several steps ahead of the era. A number of his theses have been confirmed. As if History supported the great reader of Marx who was repulsed by the society of the spectacle – in other words, social relations mediated by images and thus bereft of all authenticity. Debord combined two great types of reflections: the first concerned the weight of the “substructures,” since he offered a reformulation of Marxist theory for the media age; the second concerned the alienation of and the possible forms of resistance by the subject. “He represented a lot for the critical thinkers of society,” states Bruno Racine, President of the BNF, who fought with patrons to raise the necessary sum to acquire Debord’s archives.

Radical Vision of the World

Curiously, this radical vision of the world has, with a remarkable agility, infiltrated into the different generations that have arose for the last half-century. “Each era has had its way of reading Debord,” observes Jean-Louis Violeau, a sociologist, a professor at the Architecture School of Paris-Malaquais, and an expert in the works of the thinker. “In the 1970s, it was from a revolutionary perspective; in the 1980s, his work became the breviary of the ad men; the following decade, he was the one who didn’t let himself be taken in by the lies of the various totalitarianism; and today he inspires the people of Occupy Wall Street[3] and Anonymous[4] due to his denunciation of the market society.” Among those who have been inspired by his writings one finds Julien Coupat, one of the authors of the manifesto The Coming Insurrection (La Fabrique, 2007)[5] and someone who was investigated during the so-called “Tarnac Affair” (sabotage of a high-speed railroad line) in 2008.

“We are on the same road as our enemies, most often preceding them,” Debord wrote at the beginning of the Situationist International during the end of the 1950s. Ironically, this thought has been recycled by those in the media, communications and advertising whom it denounced. Oliviero Toscani, the famous Italian photographer who conceived the Benetton ads of the 1980s, hasn’t hesitated to refer to Debord. And the methods of the “new management”[6] have been greatly inspired by the ideas tied to the development of creativity, the individual project and “all artists.”

“Market society recycles everything,” emphasizes the novelist Morgan Sportès, who knew the writer and who quotes him in his novel Tout, tout de suite (Fayard, 2011). “There is no reason why it should not recycle Debord!”

“A Philosophy of Disillusionment”

One of the particularities of the situationists was that they affirmed a radical subjectivity. No school, no pretense to scientism, for this “coarse thought” [pensée rude], to use the expression of Emmanuel Guy, a young curator associated with the exhibition at the BNF. Thus the academic transmission of Debord’s thought is not easy. “The Society of the Spectacle is difficult to proffer in a university setting because of its explosive character,” explains Francis Marmande, a writer and a professor of literature at Paris-VII. In any case, it is more so than the ideas of Foucault, Bourdieu and Baudrillard, other critics of contemporary society.

In philosophy, Debord isn’t the rage, even though someone like the Italian Giorgio Agamben continues to refer to him. “The concepts of situation and spectacle have been re-thought in the light of analytical and pragmatic philosophy,” says the writer Christophe Hanna. “In fact, Debord particularly functioned as a lookout [une vigie]. He created a philosophy of disillusionment.”

To Free Oneself of Constraints

He is especially the one who learns to see, to rid himself of blinders, to free himself from constraints. This is true for Gérard Berréby, founder of Editions Allia, who published situationist documents in the 1980s, when almost none of them were available. “His thought has helped me organize myself,” says this man, who was 17 years old in 1968. “His posterity cannot be measured in a number of theses, but in the manner in which it becomes a leaven for action.”

In another register, Frédéric Olivennes, director of communication and marketing[7] images at France Télévisions and born in 1967, recounts that reading Debord made him understand that he was “a child of the society of the spectacle.” And how not to be a “dupe” of the traps of the system. The writer and critic Cécile Guilbert, born in 1963, has published a nice essay titled Pour Guy Debord (Gallimard, 1996), in which she highlights the vitality of the discourse of Debord, a remarkable stylist. A strength and a power of subversion to which a writer like Philippe Sollers, who has often written about Debord (notably in Le Monde), is also very sensitive. Finally, among the youngest people, the publishers of the interdisciplinary journal Gruppen claim his “intellectual heritage [which is] indispensible for understanding the epoch,” according to Pierre-Ulysee Barranque, one of those publishers, 29 years of age.

For the Surpassing of Art

But it is in the artistic domain that Debord’s thought exercises the greatest influence.[8] Because the Situationist International, a little like the Surrealists in their time, wanted above all to be a revolutionary avant-garde devoted to the surpassing of art. Debord is notably the director of several films, including In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978). Today, a filmmaker like Olivier Assayas is passionate about the works of Debord, the cinematic part of which he has reissued on DVD. There is nothing of Debord’s films in those of Assayas, in any case nothing visible, but the influence is claimed. “It is a personal reflection that nourishes my writing practices, my observation of society, my cinematic practices,” the filmmaker says.

In his films as in his texts, Debord largely used détournement: the recycling of phrases or images from other works, not in the form of quotations or tributes, but with the goal of producing a new object. This insolent practice, which proceeded from a rejection of intellectual property, has had a number of emulators in art. In 1981, the American Sherrie Levine caused a scandal: she re-photographed famous images by Walker Evans, in the 1930s and 1940s the inventor of the “documentary style” in photography. In 1993, the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon created an installation called 24 Hour Psycho,[9] in which he used Psycho, the film by Hitchcock, but played it back so slowly that it lasted twenty-four hours. Finally, that same year, Michel Hazanavicius, the future director of OSS 117 and The Artist,[10] released Le Grand Détournement, which was entirely composed of scenes borrowed from American films and given new dialogues.

Urban “Dérive”

Détournement is also present in the graphic works and the cartography that was dear to the situationists. A great surveyor of towns, Guy Debord vituperated against the parceled-out, commodified town. His conception of urban “dérive” and non-standardized itineraries has interested sculptors such as Anna Guilló, associate professor at Paris-I and publisher of the journal of art and aesthetics Tête à tête, which is of Debordian inspiration. According to this young woman, the situationists have unexpected inheritors in street art[11] – Space Invader,[11] for example. Street artists haven’t inevitably read the great texts by Debord, but their way of elaborating graphic itineraries on the walls of the city goes back to Debord in two ways: it is a form of urban “dérive,” a way of marking out the territory by leaving traces, and also [a way of] making art come down into the streets, which is what the situationists advocated.

More broadly speaking, Anna Guilló emphasizes that a large part of contemporary art is pervaded by the aesthetic of the “situation.” Artists, she says, “create environments as a form of art. Most often their works become configurations, distributed through the Internet or by performances, rather than objects in the classical sense of the term.”

A Diffuse Posterity

And so? One could say, of course, that the thought of Guy Debord ended in failure, since the revolution hasn’t happened. The destruction of the society of the spectacle, which he called his wish in his book, hasn’t taken place.[13] But this thought has also known a diffuse posterity: it has infiltrated into the lives of individuals, into their way of looking at the world, into their very sensibilities. Guy Debord has become a classic: his texts are published; his films are visible; and his archives will soon be displayed.

The most critical of his admirers will not fail to observe that Debord had prepared this quasi-“Pantheonization”: he kept copies of his letters and, while still alive, sent a part of his personal documents to the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, which keeps the archives of revolutionary movements. And yet, even as a classic, his thought hasn’t lost its corrosive virtues. In sum, a stick of dynamite that continues to cause fear, to seduce and to fascinate, long after its author ceased to brandish it.

[1] English in original.

[2] English in original.

[3] English in original.

[4] English in original.

[5] It was the French anti-terrorist police who made this claim in an attempt to justify their arrest and preventive detention of Coupat; in point of fact, the book in question was written by a person or a group of people who preferred (and still prefer) to remain anonymous.

[6] English in original.

[7] English in original.

[8] Missing from the following discussion are artists, performers and musicians who are explicitly socio-political in their motivations: Gang of Four, the Sex Pistols, Banksy, Voina, Pussy Riot, the Metropolitan Indians, the Surveillance Camera Players, Ztohoven, the Yes Men, Barbara Kruger, et. al.

[9] English in original.

[10] English in original.

[11] English in original.

[12] English in original.

[13] Depending on how you look at it, it is either completely astonishing or entirely predictable that the author fails to mention May 1968, which – at the very least – proved Debord’s contention (widely dismissed before then) that revolution had not been eradicated from the horizons of advanced capitalist societies and, in fact, was more necessary and desirable than ever before. As a result, her article also fails to mention the markedly situationist character of the subsequent revolutionary upheavals in Italy (1969-1977), Portugal (1974), Spain (1975), etc.

(Written by Raphaëlle Rérolle and published in the 21 March 2013 edition of Le Monde. Translated from the French and footnoted by NOT BORED! on 4 April 2013.)

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