6. Guy-Ernest Debord, 1931-1994.
Meanwhile, outside of the spotlight, a somewhat undistinguished small literary movement began an obscure existence in the neglected slums of postwar Paris. Letterism was essentially neo-dadaist in nature: nonsensical, anti-authoritarian, nihilistic, and like their predecessors they were even convened by a Romanian ringleader, the poet Isadore Isue. Contemporary accounts describe a social group which more often resembles a gang of teenage juvenile delinquents than aspiring writers, with more of an emphasis on vandalism and petty crime than on literary production.
This is the point in the story where the young student Guy Debord comes in. He met the Letterists in the early 1950's, around the time they were involved in disruptions of the recently instituted Cannes Film Festival. The Letterist resident experimental film-maker, Gil Wolman, had intimidated the organizers into arranging a screening of his new movie, A Treatise on Slime (for which Jean Cocteau ironically suggested a 'special prize for Avant-Gardism'). Impressed, Debord convinced Wolman to help produce his own avant-garde movie, Howling for De Sade. This film was extremely minimalist (it actually didn't contain any images, moving or otherwise, just a soundtrack with blank frames) and it succeeded in provoking the intended audience reactions of outrage, confusion and boredom .
Debord had a great influence on the Letterist publications of the fifties. He eventually provoked a schizm within the group to form his own faction for the pursuit of his personal cultural project, The Situationalist International, in 1957. He began publishing his own periodical, S.I., which explored the Letterist themes of anti-authoritarianism and anarchy in a more detailed and intellectual manner. This magazine attracted attention from small groups of student radicals across Europe.
Debord was the official raconteur, a charismatic, mesmerizing conversationalist. He was also a subtle manipulator, content to keep you spellbound in his articulate power, but impatient and offended if you threatened to steal the spotlight away. Like Andre Breton before him, Debord now had his own private club, and he proved to be even more autocratic about his control over membership than Breton had been. Despite overtures from interested parties, the total official membership of his group never exceeded a couple dozen, and Debord continually expelled significant contributors to his cause on whim, often on such pretexts as a perceived 'lack of dedication' or 'wrong attitude', but the absolute kiss of death in his group was assured to any member who dared to display a sparkling discourse or sexiness which rivalled the leader as the centre of attention. (We could note that his defenders sometimes justified his behavoir on the pretext that anarchy was not meant to be a mass movement project, that he clearly emphasized that anarchist theory was best served by intimate groups with clearly defined but fluid memberships, and that exiles and rejects were encouraged, perhaps ironically, to continue to pursue the ongoing revolution with their own resources, and the best of wishes).
While the Situationalists often explored similar themes and metaphors as the Existentialists, such as alienation, slime and the absurd, Debord despised them as attention-seeking Nobel-prize-winning media-whores. He also rebuffed the New-Wave film director Jean-Luc Goddard, who later satirized SI polemics in the movie Weekend. Debord expressed contempt for much of the contemporary art and media of his time, condemning most popular music, literature, magazines, television and movies. One of the few film directors which he respected was the poetic but oddly sentimental Marcel Carne, best known for The Children of Paradise. He also expressed a rare appreciation for Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais.
"Down with the world where the guarantee that we won't die of starvation is purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom".
Situationalism was an intellectually dense socio-political philosophy which seduces with superficial simplicity but sometimes tends to elude comprehensive grasp. It is an anarchist theory, suffused in the thorny style of Hegel, and in some aspects inspired by the dialectics of Marx, although Debord often disregarded the nuts&bolts of economic/judicial systems to concentrate on themes of worker/consumer alienation, and in particular a criticism of the pyschological aspects of Capitalism. In this view, the defining metaphoric vehicle of Capitalism was 'The Spectacle', where the dreams, desires and aspirations of the individual were commodified and offered back in a debased form. The boredom and oppression of the concept of 'Work' at a stupid day-job was only rivalled by the banality of what passed for 'Leisure' in a so-called civilized modern culture, a deception achieved when the value of purely visual stimuli succeeds in subverting the other senses. The Platonic project of Situationalism was to encourage the individual to shake off the mass hypnosis of the false dreams and distractions, and to begin to live a 'real' life, in the pursuit of real desires. As would be befitting an anarchist approach, the possible pananceas or solutions were often left to the reader to interpret.
Two techniques were suggested in this approach to real life:
"Derive" (drift) is a somewhat peripatetic project which could be described as 'The Art of Walking', encouraging the individual to wander aimlessly down narrow streets in the obscure little neighbourhoods of your local metropolis which one would never be otherwise motivated to visit. Debord coined the word 'PsychoGeography' to describe his exploration of the sensations and effects of the individual reacting to the ambiance of an urban environment in an unfamiliar context. Debord intuitively understood that the economy of scale required to effect a meaningful relationship between the individual and the world he lived in. He was an insightful and scathing critic of real estate mechanations and the spiritual cruelty of most urban planning, much of which took the form of ridiculously inefficient idealistic utopian nightmare when not mired in plain banality. He disparaged the grand 19th century urban renewal project of the planner and architect G.E. Haussmann, whose wide boulevards bisected the core of the City of Paris, modernising it for trade (and occupation by conquering armies) while tragically fragmenting the medieval character of old downtown.
"Detournement" (deflection) is a revisitation of Dadaist collage theory with a political twist. While much of Debord's essays made for dense reading, he did explore the idea of using cleverly compressed aphorisms, catch-phases, and revolutionary slogans fitted into the context of images borrowed or stolen from advertising and comic books, with these corporate archetypes subverting their original intent. While Debord's influence in North America has never really been particularly pervasive, recent years have seen the magazine AdBusters pursue some of these ideas passionately.
With this fascination with collage, as well as a loosely systematic critique of modern visual culture, Debord makes an interesting parallel with another intellectual of the same era who was working independently on the other side of the globe: the Saskatchewan farm-boy Marshall McLuhan was then developing an 'integrated media theory' to explain the processes by which the spectacle was affecting modern society and behavoir. Unlike Debord, McLuhan tended to avoid making specific value judgements within the body of his sometimes vague analysis, although privately he admitted to being repelled by the implications of the televised 'global-village' which he depicted, but oddly enough from the reactionary point of view of a devout Roman Catholic medievalist! A non-linear attack on the assumptions of contemporary society would go on to be a characteristic of the Post-Modernist philosophies which often dominate academic discourse today.
While the SI did not specifically advocate the violent overthrow of the state, they were hoping that Capitalism would spontaneously collapse under the weight of its own banality. The events of the late 1960's cruelly fooled them into thinking that this would actually happen.
In 1966 two students of the University of Strasbourg, demoralized by student apathy, cynically submitted themselves as candidates for student council elections on the platform that, if elected, they would squander their budget. They won the vote, and then wrote to the SI asking for advice on the best way to do so; Debord intitially rebuffed them, saying that true revolutionaries should be able to figure out their own plan, but his group then suggested that they spend their budget mass-printing an inflammatory manifesto/screed written by Mustapha Khayati, On The Poverty of Student Life. Millions of copies were distributed, and the document spread like wildfire throughout the educational system, provoking student protests throughout the country. In spite of the fact that they had not technically broken any rules, the Strasbourg students involved were expelled.
In 1967 Debord published his masterpiece, The Society of The Spectacle, a slender but detailed summary of his Situationalist theory.
In 1968, expulsion hearings for student radicals at the University of Paris formed the setting for student protests outside, which degenerated into a massive riot when police security forces indiscriminately busted heads. Soon the entire University was in an uproar. The police response was clumsy and heavyhanded, with much dramatic violence occurring, assuring further chaos. While this unrest evolved, the Situationalists joined the protestors and disseminated their snappy brand of clever propaganda, which overshadowed the worn cliches of the Communist leftists in effectiveness:
"Never Work Again"
"Live Without Dead Time"
"Take your Dreams for Reality"
"We Demand Kitsch, Filth, Original Mud & Chaos"
"This Century does not like Truth, Generosity, Grandeur"
"Revolution is not showing Life to People, but making Them Live"
The most enduring SI catch-phrase, still heard today, is:
"Think Globally, Act Locally".
At this point disgruntled trade unions across the city spontaneously erupted in wildcat strikes. Transit stoppages brought the city to a standstill. Chaos ruled. Riots swept downtown Paris, which returned to the barricades of 19th century political tumult. The ecstatic Situationalists were intoxicated with the thought that their theories about the downfall of Capitalism and the evolution of a new state of natural freedom were coming true...
...and then it was over.
Their dreams were deflated when General DeGaulle returned from abroad, enthusiastically received by crowds in a welcoming parade, promising order and a return to 'business as usual'. Suddenly, after a few weeks of pure anarchy, Paris returned to the Capitalist system with barely a whimper. The revolution evapourated into nothingness, and the demoralized SI slumped into a phase of post-revolutionary disillusion. Debord dissolved the organization a few years later in order to concentrate on drinking wine and designing board games.
At the nadir of his fortune, Debord met the friend and patron who would revitalize his later career. Gerard Liebovici had been obsesssed with art and radical politics in his youth, until his father begged him to inherit the family business. Once he had achieved success in commerce, he was searching for involvement in new creative publishing projects when he was introduced to Debord. With this new financial backing Debord was able to return to experimental cinema, and they produced a feature length documentary film version of the book, The Society of the Spectacle.
Tragedy struck when Liebovici was murdered in a hitman-style assassination. To Debord's obvious disgust, several right-wing tabloid newspapers baselessly accused him of involvement, until officially cleared of suspicion by the police.
Guy Debord was profoundly disturbed by the loss of his friend, and left Paris to retire to a lonely country farmhouse, perhaps in emulation of those stoic philosophers of the late Hellenic era who advocated detachment from human involvements. His final book, Commentaries on The Society of The Spectacle, defiantly reiterated how regrettably vindicated his earlier prophecies were. In it he pessismistically described the new era of the 'Accelerated-Spectacle', where the Capitalist system had finally evolved beyond an intuitive manipulation of spectacular distractions to converge into one monolithic fully-fused comprehensive spectacular organism (One metaphoric example of the fruition of the accelerated-spectacle occured in the 1980's when, upon viewing a fictional Hollywood Rambo movie, the senile president of the United States announced in apparent sincerity that he was proud that America had won the Vietnam war in the end... With a sprinkling of irony, the bitter cynicism of American politics of that time now seems almost quaint in retrospect, perhaps compared to American politics in the early 21st century).
In the late 1980's I was introduced to the idea of The Society of The Spectacle in the form of a pop song by the Toronto band Klo, a vaguely amusing thought considering that Debord sometimes tended to be dismissive of the medium of popular music. Christopher Butterfield of Klo went on to use some of Debord's texts as the basis for abstract choral compositions.
In 1989 music journalist Griel Marcus published the book Lipstick Traces, a passionate essay describing the influences of Dadaism and Situationalism on the Sex Pistols and the English Punk-Rock scene of the late 1970's. Marcus makes a spirited case by citing Malcolm MacLaren's references to Debordian theory and Johnny Rotten's use of confrontational anarchist symbolism, although it might be noted that Debord himself ignored this cultural phenomenon and was not at all compelled to personally take credit for this noisy and commercially cynical manipulation of the mechanism of the Spectacle. Old-school Situationalists have sometimes complained about Marcus' loose interpretation of their theories, but his enthusiasm for the subject have done more than anyone else I know of to promote these ideas to a wider audience.
Isolated and terminally ill, Debord committed suicide in 1994.
The Accelerated-Spectacle effected a noticable expression in 2001, when the consumption of dramatic televised imagery resulted in a temporary mass-paralysis of the North American continent. Surprisingly, the great volume of commentary resulting somehow avoided mentioning Situationalist thought.