You could catch it
- Panegyric. Vol. I by Guy Debord, translated by James Brook
Verso, 79 pp, £29.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 86091 347 3
- The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Post-Modern Age by Sadie Plant
Routledge, 226 pp, £40.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 415 06222 5
On 22 February 1991, a small ad appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Running in French, just below the much larger announcement of a ‘Search for the Director of the Bancroft Library’ at the University of California at Berkeley, the ad read:
Judging it necessary to disavow the new Editions Lebovici, SEEKS LITERARY AGENT or highly-placed independent editor for books that will expose the modernisation of the society of the ‘integrated spectacle’. Write to ...
There was an irony here. The Bancroft Library was the one place in California – perhaps in the United States – where one could still find the now-yellowing photocopied typescripts of the Sigma project, launched in 1964 by novelist, junkie and self-described ‘cosmonaut of inner space’, the late Alexander Trocchi. Sigma was meant to revolutionise the planet: to bring together cultural dissidents from all over the West, until their various schemes and finally their single voice, seductive and plain, would rise from Sigma’s clandestine circulars into a rumour which would turn into a shout that soon enough would leave the discourse of power and money in doubt. And then anything would be possible.
That voice was Guy Debord’s. In the mid-Fifties, in Paris, he and Trocchi had made common cause. Trocchi had joined the Lettrist International, Debord’s tiny, closed group of Lollardist writers and artists; from 1954 to 1957 they published a brutal, poetic, unyieldingly disruptive little mimeographed newsletter called Potlatch. In 1957, Trocchi became a founding member of the Situationist International, a shadowy pan-European circle of aesthetic revolutionaries, or revolutionary aesthetes – people convinced that by developing a critique in thought to match the ‘critique in acts’ they saw erupting all over the globe, they could detonate a new revolution that would leave Communism and capitalism in twin dustbins of history. Across the next decade, through countless splits, exclusions, recruitments, disappearances, the Situationists, with Debord always at the centre, pursued a carefully composed assault on modern life in all its forms. The attack was noisy, arch and cool, at once vulgar and aristocratic: in a word, exciting. In the pages of the journal Internationale Situationniste, published in Paris from 1958 to 1969 in 12 expertly designed numbers, the band worked the rewrite desk, forcing the News to surrender truths it wanted to hide: the truths that, in the Situationist revision, linked commodities to suicide, art to blindness, wealth to alienation, riot to poetry, nihilism to happiness.
In late 1967, Debord published Society of the Spectacle: 221 theses on social life as a show that rendered all men and women, even those who staged the play, passive spectators and consumers of their estrangement from their own words, gestures, acts and desires. It was a severe, Hegelian treatise. But somehow, perhaps simply in the incisive cruelty of its prose (‘All that was once directly lived has become mere representation ... In a world that has really been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood’), the book was also pop: the ideas moved with the same implacable momentum the Rolling Stones would find a year later in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Society of the Spectacle was discovered, trumpeted, damned and celebrated as the signal text of the student and workers’ uprising in France in May 1968; discovered in the midst of that unshaped revolt, and especially after it, the book lasted. I read it for the first time in 1980, en route to London to talk to the punk group Gang of Four and the singer Lora Logic, and it was as if the story I was after was right in my lap, the complete punk critique of council tenancies, deathly entertainment, ‘at home he feels like a tourist,’ ‘God save history, God save your mad parade.’ It was all there, and yet the critique, in Debord’s cutting words, was already looking back from a future of stone that punk would fail to crack. His critique was as unsatisfied in 1980 as it was in 1967, or as it remains today. ‘A little Yes and a big No’, as George Grosz titled his autobiography. Yes, you can make your own world; no you won’t.