Guy Debord

Review

 

Guy Debord
by Anselm Jappe
English translation by University of California Press, London, 1999
Paperback / 188pp / £11.50 / ISBN 0-520-21205-3

During the events of May 1968 in France, the Situationists claimed (with a degree of justification) that their ideas were in everybody's heads. In the 'revolutionary/direct-action' milieu it would probably be true to say that ideas about the Situationists are in most peoples' heads - mostly that they wrote obscure, incomprehensible books and had something to do with the worker and student revolts in France; the flip side of that attitude being an interest or knowledge that sometimes borders on obsession. The Situationist International (SI) - of which Debord was one of the founders, and arguably its most lastingly important theorist, has made an extremely important contribution to revolutionary theory in the last thirty years. Concepts such as the 'Spectacle' and their incisive analyses of the alienation and misery present in life and work in affluent capitalist society, as well as the role played by revolutionaries (and those who claim to be) have if anything become more relevant as time has passed. They deserve to be read and understood by as many people as possible and not to be left in the hands of a few 'specialists'. As Jappe points out, they are one of the few political groups from their time not to have disappeared into historical oblivion; "...it is clear that the Situationists were the only people at that time to develop a theory and to a lesser extent a practice whose interest is not merely historiographical but remains a potential relevance today." (p.81) I think that it's something of an overstatement to say they were the only group; for example the autonomia movement in Italy was extremely important theoretically and even more so practically. In that, as with the SI, its historical moment has passed, there is plenty to be salvaged and reworked for the present situation.

 

Situationist ideas are still used all over the place; in texts, articles and agit-prop by radical groups as well as by an ever increasing army of academics, commentators and 'theorists' who demonstrably have nothing useful to say, but have nevertheless created a minor publishing industry which feeds on the SI (and has done so ever since its disbanding in 1972). They have sought to reduce the SI and its principal theorists to the status of cultural or artistic avant-gardists, precursors of punk or proto-post modernists; conveniently forgetting that the central point of their project was nothing less than total social revolution. Jappe is not totally separate in that he seems to be an academic of sorts, and his book occupies a slightly contradictory position in that it is both part of the SI 'industry' and against it at the same time. However it stands out by giving due recognition to those parts of the SI's theory which others of his type appear to find hard to stomach - the centrality of class struggle for example.

For anyone wanting to get to grips with Debord and the SI, Jappe's book is an excellent place to start. Whilst I would hesitate to say that there is a single 'correct' way of interpreting the SI, it seems clear that some versions are in keeping with the way it was intended to be understood, whereas others try to fit it into political and cultural currents that are blatantly incompatible. Fortunately Jappe's book falls into the first category; it is far superior to the recent woeful effort by Stewart Home and the slightly better one by Sadie Plant,[1] as well as the no doubt well-intentioned but inadequate biography of Debord by Len Bracken.[2] The number of useful books and analyses of the SI, its development, its place in history and its ongoing influence and relevance (or at least those which are available in English) can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Of the original texts (which should definitely be read first-hand if you're interested), Debord's Society of the Spectacle is the most important, but The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem is more widely read because of its more accessible style. In addition around a third of the articles from the journal Internationale Situationiste are collected in the Situationist International Anthology[3] and are well worth looking at.

Jappe's book isn't really a biography in the usual sense of the word; he includes some biographical detail as it relates to Debord's theory and practice, but avoids going over ground that has been pretty well trodden in other books (Bracken's for example). If you're looking for salacious or amusing anecdotes then this isn't the book for you.

Jappe successfully gets to grips with the content of Debord's and the SI's activity in a way that is accessible and doesn't require a vast amount of prior knowledge or an extensive vocabulary of obscure jargon in order to understand it. Debord has got a somewhat undeserved reputation for having an impenetrable and complex writing style - a myth which Jappe goes a long way towards refuting by examining the major concepts in Society of the Spectacle and other works, and putting them in the context of a wider historical basis and in terms of the SI as a whole.

Later and less well-known works such as Comments on Society of the Spectacle as well as others which have yet to be translated into English are also covered. There is an interesting section on Debord's films which are hardly ever seen and are unavailable in English in screen form, although some scripts have been translated.

Jappe could be criticised for focusing on Debord and thereby personalising a political group. However he manages to avoid the major pitfall for writers coming from a revolutionary perspective - adopting the position of a loyal follower (those who became known in the 1970s as 'pro-Situs') of a static set of 'holy' ideas that can't be questioned, instead of accepting that these ideas and practices need to be superseded where necessary, just as they superseded previous revolutionary theory. Passive worship of Debord as an iconic figure has always been part of the 'pro-Situ' scene. To a great extent he was the SI, so concentrating on his contribution is understandable, even if it does tend to feed into the creation of a personality cult, "...threatening to transform him into a pop idol, a kind of Che Guevara for the more refined taste." (p.167) A problem that Jappe recognises even though he is in some way part of it.

Now that he is safely dead Debord is being gradually resurrected as an elegant stylist and avant garde artist by the cultural and academic circles that he avoided and mocked, and who maintained a 'conspiracy of silence' about him while he was alive. In this way it becomes possible to assimilate both Debord and the SI back into the fold of respectability, to portray them as politicised artists who made a valuable if unorthodox contribution to society in their 'artistic phase' and then to; "...take cover behind vague generalities when it comes to characterising the Situationists' critique of society, or explaining its pertinence (to which full lip service is nonetheless paid.)" (p.161)

Radical groups who only emphasise the aspects of the SI which relate to 'art', 'play' and poetry - i.e. those most closely associated with Raoul Vaneigem, the "unhappy theoretician of an art of living"[4] - are almost as bad. The SI at its best understood and incorporated the need for play, desire and creativity within the context of revolutionary class struggle - without that context all that's left is an empty pretension and individualism that's really part of this society, not against it.

Jappe doesn't really have any concrete suggestions for the present or future practical relevance of the SI, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, "The continued attempts by organised knowledge either to dismiss or co-opt the SI, itself provides evidence of the enduring antagonism of their ideas, as does the conscious echo of their approach in a number of contemporary struggles."[5]

In 1967 the French academic Henry Lefebrve, who previously had been close to the SI, asked if "they really imagine that one fine day or some decisive evening people will look at each other and say, "Enough! We are fed up with working and being bored. Let's put an end to this!" Maybe it happened once, at dawn on 18 March 1871, [the beginning of the Paris Commune] but that particular set of circumstances can never recur." (p.101) Words he no doubt regretted a year later; as Jappe points out, "Even though another May 1968 has not yet occurred, the fact remains that the conditions which occasioned the first have not disappeared, and should the day come when peoples' desire to control their own lives drives once again into the streets, not a few of the SI's precepts will surely be recalled." (p.101).

Notes

1) What is Situationism?: A Reader edited by Stuart Home (AK Press, Edinburgh, 1996) and The Most Radical Gesture - The Situationist International in a Post-Modern Age by Sadie Plant (Routledge, London, 1992). Plant's book is well meant but remains within the realm of cultural studies. Home's book contains two worthwhile pieces, one being Jean Barrot's 'Critique of the Situationist International' the other one being 'The End of Music' by Dave and Stuart Wise. Jappe seems not to like Barrot, but I think it's an excellent text, a little bit harsh maybe and not as accessible as Jappe, but well worth reading nonetheless. The rest of the book isn't worth bothering with; Home's contribution being nothing but a series of snide attacks on the contributors and the SI - even the title is a knowing provocation.

2) Guy Debord - Revolutionary by Len Bracken (Feral House, USA, 1997)

3) Situationist International Anthology translated and edited by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, USA, 1981)

4) 'Critique of the Situationist International' by Jean Barrot, p.24 in What is Situationism?: A Reader.

5) 'Whatever happened to the Situationists?' in Aufheben, No.6, Autumn 1997, p.48.

 

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