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Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents
Tom McDonough, ed.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002.
$44.95, £29.95, 514 pages, ISBN 0-262-13404-7.

Andrew Hussey
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

It is now almost ten years since Guy Debord famously shot himself in his lonely farmhouse in Champot in the Haute-Loire, and still yet the cult of Guy Debord and the Situationist International shows no sign of abating. In France and elsewhere recent years have seen a plethora of works dedicated to Debord, ranging from stern academic treatises to wild and sometimes manically devoted scribblings, which in some way echo the ferocious energy if nothing else of the Situationists in their pomp. But isn’t there a point where all of this debate and all of this squabbling starts to look dated? Is it not the case that the Situationist International, to misquote Anthony Burgess, have had their time?

The answer according to Donald Nicholson-Smith and T.J. Clark, both of whom were Situationists in the 1960s, is a resounding ‘no’. Their essay, ‘Why art can’t kill the Situationist International’, originally published in the American journal October, is quite the best thing on offer here. Nicholson-Smith and Clark are not only acutely aware of the dangers and contradictions inherent in Situationist thought and activity, but more importantly understand how these contradictions can be seized on by the ‘society of the spectacle’ and used to undermine or negate the original revolutionary promises made by Situationists. The clearest demonstration of this process at work, they argue, is to be seen in the odious writings of Régis Debray, who has most perfectly completed the seamless transition from Marxist critic to capitalist apologist, all the while using a vocabulary and grammar of critical thought in which he patently no longer believes. Nicholson-Smith and Clark have other targets in their sights, but it is this diminution of the revolutionary potential of the Situationist critique which they most consistently attack.

Other essays here, most notably by Greil Marcus and Thomas Y. Levin, emphasise that whilst, from its foundation in 1957 to its auto-dissolution in 1972, the Paris-based grouping of artists and intellectuals which called itself the Situationist International deliberately remained apart from the main political currents of the era, its activity was and remains explicitly political, even in the narrowest (which means also most focused) sense. Like many of their contemporaries and in particular the Tel Quel group led by Philippe Sollers, the Situationists isolated language as the key agent of revolutionary change. Unlike Tel Quel, however, the Situationists insisted that the 'problem of the colonization of words' was not merely a textual drama but the direct corollary of the lived experience of colonial struggle. In a piece called 'Algeria and writing' they scorned Roland Barthes's contention that the textual transgression could be equivalent to real political revolt. The article was accompanied by a burnt-out car in the streets of Algiers which was covered in FLN graffiti.

And then there are the writings of Guy Debord himself. Most of the pieces reprinted and translated here are active demonstrations of those aspects of Debord’s writing, which seeks to actively undermine writing as a process and return to experience as the defining point of theory. This is in many ways a key Situationist principle. In a garbled and confused essay, the only really poor piece in the collection, Vincent Kaufmann tries to set Debord alongside Mallarmé in this context. But the truth is that Debord never really lives up to the spurious claim made for him, by Sollers, Kaufmann and others, that he was some kind of ‘poet’. He was though, for all his perversity, pretension and paranoia, one of the most clear-headed political thinkers of the last century. And as this volume demonstrates, the work of the Situationist International is not yet finished.

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