(Eng) FRANCE 1968 - EXTRACTS (3) (Fr), (Cast)

neil birrell (neil@lds.co.uk)
Sat, 16 Dec 1995 05:55:41 +0100

The situationalist groups were one of the influences of the movement in May
'68 in France. Guy Debord, a major influence, commited suicide almost
exactly a year ago. Here we reproduce an obituary which appered earlier this
year in FREEDOM (translations to follow). Are his ideas still of interest?
Again you decide.


We don't know how he died and still less why. We only know that Guy
Debord, around evening time on Wednesday 30th November, took his life;
the life that in the last few years he himself - perhaps the last of
the Situationists still partly faithful to his own image of the resolute
enemy of the society of the spectacle - helped to make more mysterious,
more evanescent more elsewhere. Paradoxically one could say that in
reality death has brought him back to life, in the sense that it has
re-established the human reality (death being our common destiny) of
a character whose notoriety and uncompromising stance of refusal would
make of existence a long theatrical piece, in which he would improvise
up until the end. But who was Guy Debord? There are several answers, but
at the same time such answers would preclude the understanding of his
identity as indefinable. Writer? Film director? Situationist? 'Doctor
in nothing...' as he liked to define himself in one of his latest books?
Of course all those things, but simply because they are 'things' - which
comes down to things he did - they certainly do not reveal the whole man.
It isn't for nothing that the numerous French dailies which reported the
news of his suicide, not only didn't say how or why he died, neither did
they say anything about him, limiting themselves to an inventory of the
things he did, the things he said, how he did them, how he said them but
forgetting to say who, Guy Debord, was. In reality it was the self-imposed
mystery which created the impenetrable and adventurist aura, barely
available to the media and prone to violent argument; Guy Debord
liked to hide his true self behind a blanket of gossip, speculation
and even spite in his dealings with others, and to never let it see
daylight. For the rest, for someone who wrote a book: The Society of
the Spectacle, where the world is seen as a spectacle - which is to
say a false image which the economic system produces of itself in
order to dominate society - visibility was to be totally denied.
Thus the rare photos which he consciously planned so that they
should be published in his lifetime - were the most hazy in the
world and to a fair degree made him look younger than his real
age. Certainly, invisibility was imperative!
It was not by chance that his first public work was a film Hurlement
en faveur de Sade (1952), in which there is no picture and the
spectator - truly stupefied by this purely surrealist provocation -
watched an alternated sequence of white and then black screens, whilst
listening to a mixture of atonal dialogues involving numerous people
leading up to a silent, black screen for 24 minutes. This was the first
gauntlet against the spectacle thrown down by Guy Debord who fought this
battle throughout his life; a death sentence for the cinema, at the time
considered as the essence of the artistic product of bourgeois society
and for that reason the extreme synthesis of its values in full
decomposition, since it expressed not the construction of a situation
which aimed to shed light on everyday life but rather a system of
falsification of reality in order to suppress it and supplant it by
means of a series of images aimed at cutting the individual off from
his daily existence and making of him an illusory participant in the
spectacle of consumer society in his role as good/product of the
The setting up in 1957 of the Situationist International was partly
the logical consequence of these artistic presuppositions. Coming out
of the European cultural milieu as the convergence of several artistic
experiences (COBRA, the Lettrist International, the Movement for Bauhaus
Cinema, the London Psychogeographical Society) the SI from day one aimed
to represent - above all via Debord who was the editor of its statement
of principles - a critique of art brought into being by the necessity of
superseding it by creating liberated situations in which life can
effectively experience its own possibilities and not become enclosed
in the repetitive role models that the society of the spectacle
constructs in order to dominate and exploit. But already in those
early years the different heads of the SI quarrelled amongst
themselves and Debord - who alone amongst them represented the
most coherent position with his objective of achieving a total
critique of art and a whole culture skewered towards the production
of values separated from everyday life (and for that reason incapable
of achieving its own radical transformation) - came out better from
confrontations with those who presupposed the replacement of art as
simply a repeat of the architectural and urban argument which aimed
to make works of art no longer on canvas but in the physical space of
a city.
But the first years of the 60s saw a U turn in the politics of the
SI, and coincided with Debord's political phase, which saw an achievement
of sorts in making of the organisation - now nearly purged of any artistic
content - the rallying point between the experience of the European
cultural avant guard and the experience of politico-revolutionary
groupings, in France represented by some journals (Arguments and
Socialisme et Barbarie) of a revisionary Marxist leaning. These=20
were the years when Debord participated in the seminars of Lefebvre
at Nanterre and during which he developed his critique of daily
life which had already been expounded by this philosopher and
sociologist from Nanterre in the late 50s. The critique of everyday
life - the baby sister of theories of alienation/separation produced
by the spectacular society, became the theoretical underpinnings of
the SI and the theme of his most famous book, already mentioned, in
which the theoretical and organisational experience of the workers
council ... represented the political and revolutionary d=82nouement of
the situations theory. The Strasbourg scandal and Paris 68 showed not
so much that Debord and the SI were gaining influence (as has always
been claimed by the historical hagiographer of the movement), but
rather the fortuitous meeting - and in many ways prospicious - between
the combative and revolutionary practice of the movement of 68 and the
necessity to find an outlet for situationist theory. If there had been
no May 68 in France, would the SI have become what it seemed to be after
the event (that is the high point of modern revolution)? And would the
work of Debord have come to seem clairvoyant and prophetic, as was
claimed by numerous commentators who proclaim his books on the social
spectacle to be the only texts able to give a sense - sorry: a vision
- to what happened in the East as well as the West? All these
considerations lead back to the unanswered question of who Guy
Debord was; a man who, at the age of 62, decided to put an end
to his life and to foreclose his real life story asking forgiveness
for his own mistakes. But the truth of his story will still have to
be reconstructed by reference to his work which he has left to
posterity with the intention of becoming the first invisible personality
of the society of the spectacle. Will we ever know the truth?

FAI Milan
Trans from Le Monde Libertaire 21 Dec. 94