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Dead Bored: Debord’s Dead!

Andrew Hussey on the death of a turbulent thinker.

All followers of pop culture will know that 1994 was a good year for death: not on a par with 1969-70 (Jim, Jim, Janis), but epochal enough as the heroes of slackjawed moron culture, on both sides of the Atlantic, mumbled endlessly about smack’n’suicide and Kurt ’n’ Courtney. Suicide wasn’t only an Anglo-American obsession: on the other side of the Channel, the death of Guy-Ernest Debord, who shot himself in the head in his lonely farmhouse in the Haute-Loire on November 30th 1994, shocked the remnants of the 1968 generation in France, throwing a whole generation of ageing politicos and postmodernists into mourning and confusion.

Debord’s death was a shock and also a mystery. Debord was intensely secretive about his private life: even his closest associates were unaware of his house in the Haute-Loire and how much time he spent there; many of the generation of ’68 had assumed he was already dead. Added to this are the gloomy facts of his personality: he drank heavily; he was aggressive and sometimes vindictive, he was prone to depression; he talked of his work being ‘finished’. The anecdotes and apocrypha, provided by friends and acquaintances to the French press on news of his death are intended to celebrate his penchant for Bacchic excess but, as did the recent tributes to Peter Cook, evoke only terminal melancholy and doomy gloire: Debord drinking at cafes in the Marais (“he was a marvellous conversationalist” says an artist chum: isn’t that what they always say about ranting, arty-politico pissheads?); Debord drunk and vituperative at another cafe in the Marais, thrown out for shouting at the patron; a Rock’n’Roll Hegelian Oliver Reed.

Debord was a poet, filmmaker and, most prominently, one of the founding members and leading theoretician of the Situationist Intemational (SI), a revolutionary group of artists and thinkers, which from its inception in 1957, went on to shape and inform a great deal of revolutionary thinking and strategy in the turbulent world of the French Left in the 1960s. Debord’s career stretches from the 1950s to the present day and is the history of French radical thought outside orthodox Marxist circles.

Debord’s public and private life was entirely predicated upon the single-mindedness of his revolutionary intentions. Born in Paris in 1931, he first came to a kind of prominence amidst the turbulence of the Parisian Avant-Guarde scene in the 1950s. His first association was with the Lettristes, a floating group of ‘delinquent intellectuals’ led by the megalomaniac Romanian poet Isidore Isou and dedicated to Dada-like acts of provocation. Debord broke with Isou in 1952 and, with such later Situationists as Gil Wolman and Michèle Bernstein formed L’internationale lettriste (LI). From 1954 to 1957 this group produced the bulletin Potlatch, in which many of the ideas of the SI found their first expression.

Most notably, this proto-Situationist group were angered by the failure of Avant-Garde movements to transcend the relation between art and revolution and blur the distinctions between art and everyday life This was not new: Debord’s teacher in the 1950s, the leading post-war Marxist philosopher and former Surrealist Henri Lefèbvre had already tackled these problems in Introduction à la critique de la vie quotidienne in 1947 and been marginalised by the Communist Party who considered his ideas (rooted in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts which Lefèbvre had translated in the late 1920s) to be ‘romantic’. Debord shared Lefèbvre’s reading of the insufficiency of the revolutionary demands made on daily life, but, through the LI and then the SI, wanted to demand much more ambitious changes in the organisation of society.

The SI was founded in 1957 at a congress which brought together the International Movement for an Imaginary Bauhaus (IMIB), the London Psychogeographical Society (LPS), and the LI. Initially drawn together by a shared interest in the revolutionary possibilities of social space, these groups coalesced into the SI. The new group covered a wide field: from 1957 to 1967 its members wrote articles discussing cinema, language, Algeria, Vietnam, town planning and China. SI conferences aimed at establishing theoretical positions supported by ‘evidence’ from everyday life. Debord’s writings for the SI up to and including 1967 exemplify this collision between critical theory and social forms of transgressive revolt: the central paradox at the heart of Situationist discourse.

Although Debord later took a more sober view of Situationist involvement in the events of 1968, those engaged in Situationist activities at the time saw the disturbances as proof of their theory of the revolutionary potential of mass boredom “to pay back all the unsettled debts of history.” However, in the four short years after 1968, Debord developed a hatred for the soixante huitards who had become fired up by Situationist rhetoric but understood none of their arguments or analyses. He termed these ‘non-revolutionaries’ situphiles, and, with a series of successive and decisive exclusions, finally finished with the group in 1972. With the appropriation of Situationist language by terrorist organisations in the UK and Europe, Debord expressed his hostility towards the emergent European factions in The veritable split in the International, which he co-wrote with the Italian Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti. This hostility found its corollary in the murder of Debord’s friend and publisher, Gérard Lebovici in an underground car park off the Champs Élysées in 1984. This assassination was linked by certain quarters in the French press to the terrorist group Action Directe and, by association, to Debord himself. Angered and disgusted by this turn of events, Debord declared that none of his films would ever be seen again.

In an immediate reaction to the news of Debord’s suicide, Philippe Sollels declared that Debord was a “great revolutionary poet” who in the tradition of Rimbaud, Lautreamont and Artaud was a “suicide of society”. This was not hyberbole: the Situationist adventure, like Dada and Surrealism (whose ‘saints’ were indeed Rimbaud and Lautreamont), was posited upon transgression of social order and stood against the ambitions of Marxist theory to reshape society rather than to rethink it. Situationist theory, as found in the twelve editions of L’internationale situationniste edited by Debord, conceived of alienation as an essential function of consciousness, parodied Althusser, Levi-Strauss and the shibboleths of Structuralism; and took from Dada and Surealism a playful and passionate disregard for idealism. Most importantly, and all ancient punk warriors, like Jamie Reid and Malcolm McLaren will know this, boredom is raised to the level of revolutionary principle.

If Debord matters it is because he has been hailed by Baudrillard and Lyotard as a prophet of the postmodern condition. Although postmodernism is in many ways at odds with the urgency of Situationist ideas, there is a common language. This should be no surprise: Baudrillard and Lyotard developed their ideas at the same time and in the same circumstances as Debord: Lyotard was involved with Socialisme ou Barbarie and then the mouvement du 22 mars, the two groups which lay closest to the Situationist antipathy for the orthodoxies of nineteenth century Marxism. Both Baudrillard and Lyotard have taken from the Situationist critique ways of destabilising established hierarchies of genre or thought which reassert the primacy of the Situationist urges to pleasure, poetry and play. The difference is that where postmodernism sees these pursuits as ends in themselves, the Situationist critique sees these pursuits as active agents of transformation and revolution.

Debord had a notion that all human relations are mediated by images – from TV, newspapers and advertising. He called this the ‘spectacle’. In the original L’internationale situationniste we find it argued that the innocence of the ‘spectacle’, which hypnotises and paralyses the observer, is the key to its potential for transformation by the revolutionary pursuit of pleasures. But this ceased to be the case a long time ago. In 1988, Debord published Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in which he discusses the way in which the original ‘spectacular society’ has changed its representation of itself: “it prefers to be feared. It knows full well that ‘its innocent air has gone forever’ ”. Whereas the postmodernists delight in the jouissance of knowing that meaning is constantly deferred, Debord is disappointed by the lack of possibilities for change offered by the postmodern reading of the ‘spectacle’; there is even a sense in which the tactics of postmodernism reinforce the hypnotising power of the ‘spectacle’.

The paradigm of this is Seventies revisionism in French political and cultural life. Those archetypal Parisian Eighties show-off types, the BCBGs (Bon Chic Bon Genre) and NAPs (an acronym of the ultra-posh Parisian districts Neuilly Auteuil Passy), are gone forever. They have been replaced by the Ballabourges who imitate their hero, ‘oncle’ Edouard Balladur, the would-be President who cuts an avuncular figure as a kind of Gallic Alf Roberts. The Ballabourges dress up in Prisunic and C&A apparel; the men wear blazers and tweed jackets in the ‘style anglais’; the women dress like Margaret Rutherford; the Ballabourges embrace non-politics and are making their own assault on culture a particularly neat example of how Debord’s ideas on how general categories of value and meaning in political discourse are ‘frozen’ in the late capitalist world where nothing makes sense.

© AJ Hussey 1996

Andrew Hussey teaches French Studies at Huddersfield University, specialising in the Situationists.

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