Guy Debord will not be missed
With the suicide of Guy Debord, the last of the classic Western European radicals is dead. Debord shot himself in the head last November. In what is now almost a tradition for French thinkers, he first completed a television program about himself and his work, to screen on Canal Plus.
Debord is best known for his classic book The Society of the Spectacle, which recently appeared in an authorised English translation from Zone Books, but is best known for the underground edition circulated for many years now by a bunch of Detroit anarchists called Black & Red.
The first line of that book states that "the world appears as an immense accumulation of images." It goes on to trace in outline a society in which being has been transformed into having, or in other words in which the whole of culture and everyday life has been brought to market. But further, Debord says that having has now been transformed into appearing. This is the society of the spectacle. Taking Hegel's fundamental belief that "what is rational is real and what is real is rational," Debord rewrites it ironically for our times as "that which appears is good, that which is good appears." The whole of culture has been separated from everyday life and now appears as an endless stream of marketable images. This was Debord's melancholy diagnosis, more than 20 years ago now, of the shape of things to come.
Debord was a classic radical in the sense that his critique of contemporary society was total and uncompromising. Nothing short of revolution could save it from itself. Debord has few illusions in the end about the fate of revolution, and none at all about the Stalinist societies that claimed revolution as their patrimony. His was one of the most consistently anti-Stalinist voices of the 60s. Still, Debord had faith in the moment of revolutionary interruption to reveal the reverse image of the society of the spectacle, at least for a moment. A society in which the products of people's actions are not divorced from them. A society where to act is to be free and to be free is to act.
The 'velvet revolution' in Czechoslovakia was a sublime example of a Debordian moment. His writings still have far more to say to us about the great upheavals in Eastern Europe and China of 1989 than any number of 'moderate' chest-beaters.
The Situationist International that Debord led was the last of the avant garde movements of the modern era that combined a revolutionary rhetoric in politics and art. Art that has become a thing apart from everyday life was a lifeless parody of itself to the Situationists. This movement was so uncompromising in its demands on its adherents that one by one all its members were expelled. I like to believe that in the end Debord even expelled himself. Situationist art at its best was a provocation that worked by taking icons and styles from the flotsam of pop culture and turning it against itself. The postmodern art moves and music styles, of appropriating pop images, collaging and cutting them up, are all tame versions of the art the Situationists took to the streets in the heady days of Paris in May, 1968.
"There is nothing they won't do to raise the standard of boredom" was a famous Situationist slogan of the day. Debord can be credited with reintroducing the notion of boredom to critical thinking about contemporary culture. Drawing on Baudelaire and Schopenhauer, Debord saw boredom as the state that inevitably results once the necessities of food and shelter have been resolved in industrial society. In this he was fundamentally a pessimist.
Schopenhauer thought that freedom from necessity would drive us to suicide or murder, and given that the only thing that holds anyone's attention in the spectacle any more are serial killers he may not have been wrong. In contrast Debord thought that seizing the reality studios of culture and taking to the barricades were the last alternative to the slow death of boredom. Pessimist philosophy is the dark underside of European thought of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Debord is at the end of a long line of radical, outsider thinkers whom the academy ignores or refashions to suit its more modest tastes.
Debord counted it an honour to have been arrested in all of the major European countries. In his remarkable autobiography Panegyric (published in English by Verso) he mused on whether the statements he was obliged to make in police stations should be included in his collected works. He rejects this notion out of "scruples about the form." He never held an academic post. His partner Michelle Bernstein supported him for a while by writing pulp novels and working in advertising -- making successful images for the spectacle the Situationists so detested. For most of his later years he lived on the largesse of a private patron -- a rare institution in this age of the professionalised intellectual. He withdrew all of his remarkable film work from circulation upon the sinister death of his patron from a gunshot wound.
A former Situationist colleague, the art historian T. J. Clark once summed up Debord's style as "chilliastic serenity." Certainly the Situationists saw themselves as the inheritors not only of the revolutionary avant gardes but also of the radical Christian sects like the Chilliasts who at the drop of a hat would seize hold of a town and turn its rules of life upsidedown. They were the last believers in the Western world in the redemption of life from vanity by direct action.
After being expelled from the Situationists, Clark taught art history in England. Among his students were a bunch of snot-nosed layabouts who went on to form one of the seminal post-punk bands, The Gang of Four, who pioneered the kind of oppositional music performed today by Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi and Luscious Jackson. Only in the Gang of Four's hands, the uncompromising rhetoric was always undercut with an equally whithering irony. In his books In The Fascist Bathroom and LIpstick Traces, San Francisco critic Greil Marcus has traced the connection between Debord's Situationist provocations and post punk culture. His writings are a good guide to the savage irony that saved the 'Situ' movement from the moralising posturing of so much so called indy or alternative culture today. Ironically, for a radical urging the overthrow of a culture with which he was bored as much as he was disgusted, Debord has made a classic contribution to the tradition of oppositional thought.!
In his later years Debord thought the society of the spectacle was become something total and complete unto itself, something created out of rational rules of commerce that was in every sense radically false. In a thoughtful and bitter epigram, he said that "the goal of the spectacle today is to turn revolutionaries into secret agents and secret agents into revolutionaries." Now that we know how much the secret police in various Eastern European counties had to do with the so-called opposition movements, Debord's statement has a bitter ring of truth.
If I am right in stressing Debord's intellectual pessimism, then his suicide appears not as an aberration but as an act entirely consistent with his life and work. European thought has lost its last great outsider. On what basis could one reject the whole of society today? What redemptive option, no matter how spurious, could save a culture that is not only completely dominated by state and market, but which could now hardly function at all without such crutches? Who now could walk the streets of Paris the way Debord did, and feel the Paris commune stirring beneath the pavement as if it were only yesterday?
Those of us who made our pacts with the spectacle could at least look to Debord and know how far inside the system we were. We could see that we had become what we beheld. Now there is no longer any such mad marker of the fate of intellectual vanity. This is why Guy Debord will not be missed.Vivian Southwood
Vivian Southwood is a writer, broadcaster and all-round slave to the spectacle.
Department of Ongoing Digital Situations