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.
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 isnt 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 cant 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 Debords 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.