Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4
DEBORD remains known to the English reader, if at all, as one of the leaders of the tiny Situationist International (SI), a body that produced some almost completely incomprehensible texts and exerted a temporary influence over a group of students during the May 1968 uprising in France. Having presided over the inner life of an “international” that consisted to a large degree of expelling its members for minuscule political deviations and thereafter producing supremely obscure texts denouncing them, Debord went on to dissolve the rump of the SI in a self-conscious parody of Marx’s winding up of the First International. The dissolution more closely paralleled the break-up of the Beatles, with the main lyricists’ parts being taken by Debord and his long time collaborator Raoul Vaneigem. Out of this career of wreckage and refusal, through processes that are difficult to understand, Debord became a kind of image of a certain kind of revolutionary attitude. In fact he became everything he must have hated to become – a projection not a person, projected by those who hated what they thought he wrote while failing to understand it, projected onto those who sought a cipher of revolution without wishing to make the effort to understand it.
The volume in review here consists of Books 1 and 2 of a projected larger work. Book 3 was said to be completed, and material in progress existed for other sections. This remaining material however was destroyed at or around the time Debord killed himself, at the end of November 1994, either by Debord or according to his expressed wishes. Book 2 is a collection of photographs and images that bear a relation to the text of Book 1, with some additional captions and quotations. Standing alone, it would carry no value. Discounting the pages of Book 2, we have about 65 pages of text that are to represent Debord’s account of himself, his times, his actions and refusals to act.
Debord and the other situationists are best read in the most banal of circumstances: the re-reading that led to this review was begun on the westbound platform of the Central Line at Liverpool Street, at 10:48 a.m. on 28/12/05. I was on the way to the Tate Modern to see the Rousseau exhibition – imaginary predators in imaginary jungles circling compassless in the Saatchi shark tanks. Part of the situationists’ legacy is an acute awareness of the contrast between the worthless everyday and the full human potential of life – its intensity and variety, contrast and brightness. Part of their failure lies in their inability to relate to this contrast with anything more political than (richly merited) contempt.
Debord took the trouble to provide the reader with a clarification of the term “panegyric”; it goes beyond “eulogy” in so far as it “entails neither blame nor criticism”. My Collins English Dictionary goes, if anything, a little further, in defining panegyric as a “formal public commendation”. Debord certainly succeeds in the aim of excluding “criticism” from his text; there is no attempt to evaluate or assess his own actions or refusals to act. (This may be more valuable than it seems on the surface – the refusal to act and to explain refusal may be a way through the pro-situ mind-game, in which experienced players challenged newcomers to set down their positions, and then queried their follow up action on the basis of individualistic judgement. Is your critique radical enough to bring down the universe? Then why have you not launched upon it? Is it not? Then why have you not thought far enough?) He intended, as he describes it in the early parts of Book 1, to say what he did, what he wanted, what he loved, and he expected that all else would follow. With only the stump of his work we cannot take a view on whether he might have succeeded in such an enormous task. And if it is unfair to judge the failure of the whole by the survival of the part, the writer (and destroyer) not the reader must accept the blame and criticism.
Over twenty years ago I made a series of photographs, in Epping and Hainault Forests, and in Greenwich Park, of old trees pollarded and coppiced. My idea was to try to show the thwarted rhythmical power of the parental parts of the tree in contrast with the scarred, sedimented (but ecologically enriched) survivor. In some cases these old trees had lived through nearly four centuries of “management”. Debord himself was responsible for the destruction of his own text and his stump promises much that later sections were intended to deliver.
It would be a Borgesian exercise to attempt to reconstruct a memoir from the surviving introduction and the often disputed biographical information, but we can point to certain significant absences as well as presences. Debord states very early “My method will be very simple. I will tell what I have loved, and, in this light, everything else will become evident and make itself well enough understood.”
He loved to drink, and his most lyrical section is devoted to the pleasures of drinking and of drunkenness (an important distinction). In a passage that deserves to be remembered, he writes “Although I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than many people who write, but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.” Some of the judgements arrived at after a lifetime of dedicated drinking seem to me to be open to dispute. To raise up Pilsen as the greatest of beers, above the monastery beers of the lowlands and the white beers of Germany creates a difference with him as severe as any that his politics might. But in concluding his chapter on drink he mourns the destruction of splendid local beers, spirits and wines by the expansion of industry, and their replacement by undistinguished multinational products. “The bottles, so that they can still be sold, have faithfully retained their labels; this attention to detail gives the assurance that one can photograph them as they used to be – but not to drink them.” (The small group that used to foregather with me in the Bulldog in Oxford, following WSL national aggregates, to quaff the now extinct Courage Reading bitter will endorse vigorously.) Here is the theory of the spectacle, presented more concisely, concretely and movingly than in all the pages of his 1967 The Society of the Spectacle and his 1988 commentary thereon.
Alcohol seems to have been the only intoxicant from which he benefited. Hashish and opium, well known to the bohemian heroes of his youth, seem not to have appealed to him, and he writes nothing of the psychedelics, either synthetic or natural. At one point his mask slips and he describes some of his critics as “a group of English drug addicts”.
Larger absences from the collection of what Debord loved present themselves – the proletariat never engaged his emotion, nor yet did Marx, nor any of his collaborators in the SI or earlier in his career, among the Lettrists. Cinema, to which he contributed some characteristically difficult works, did not receive his love.
Debord expends a short chapter on the interests to be enjoyed in the study of war. He had invented a board game “Kriegspiel” that he considered to have enshrined the lessons of this study. Compared to the computer war games on the market, his invention seems simple to the point of superficiality. Having attempted a few times to play it, I can confirm that it presents one of the key aspects of war – surprise – more ruthlessly than any army of programmers have achieved. If R.C. Bell were able to update his classic Board and Table Games, then Kriegspiel would certainly receive a honourable description. To those jaded chess and go-moku players whose hearts have leapt with pleasure at encountering the Mancala or Owari games, I commend Debord’s invention. In the labyrinth of delights that men have invented to stroke their brains to glow, to parody the soul in a soulless world, it is a wondrous conurbation of blind alleys.
Book 1 then, promises much – it promises facts and precise details, none of which are delivered. The claims made for its “classical” style are not without merit – the language and style are dignified, spare and precise (also formal as befits the definition of panegyric) even when considering the author’s own mortality. The translator allows the jarring Americanism “every which way” into the text at one point, but otherwise does an excellent job. Debord remarks on page 8, “the ability to make oneself understood is always a virtue in a writer”. True enough. It was not always a virtue that Debord possessed.
In summary, much more of a memorial than a memoir. To have lost so much of the history in Debord’s final potlatch is very regrettable, and not to have had his definitive assessment of the central aspects of the whole situationist project is sad indeed. Towards the end of his text, Debord writes “no-one has twice roused Paris to revolt” – an historical insight from which Trotsky might have learned, if not gained. For his contribution to having once roused it, Debord should be remembered.
1. Translated by James Brook and John McHale.
Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011