You could catch it

Greil Marcus

  • 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:

GUY DEBORD

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.

Always, it was the pessimism in Debord’s writing – the romance and dispensation of defeat – that kept his little ‘yes’ alive, and it was the little ‘yes’ that gave his big ‘no’ its kick. From the Fifties on, friends and enemies alike called Debord ‘absolutist’, ‘megalomaniacal’, ‘paranoid’ – all the charges were true, proved by his words, and then dissolved by his words as you read. Through the pages of Internationale Situationniste, glee, black humour and the steeliness of a certain reserve drove the progressive chronicle of ‘the collapse of a world’, as if the great day was almost present, issue after issue, waiting only for the next number for the new dawn. In Society of the Spectacle the collapse was a practical impossibility but a moral necessity, an immovable object and an irresistible force. T.J. Clark, in the late Sixties a member of the Situationist International, spoke much later, in 1984, in his book The Painting of Modern Life, of Debord’s ‘chiliastic serenity’; as the Situationists liked to say, ‘the real revolutionary knows how to wait.’

There is great weight in the accumulation of theses in Society of the Spectacle, and also a quickening. One feels the weight of the world as it is as one reads, but also the world straining, breaking, ready, as the Ranters once put it, to turn upside down. But of course there is also everyday life. In Debord’s case this was Editions Lebovici – before the unsolved murder in 1984 of its owner, the film producer Gérard Lebovici, the house was named Champ Libre. From the early Seventies, after the Situationist International broke up, Debord had published his books there, and guided its list as an elegant voice in the wilderness. Then in 1991, Lebovici’s widow made to sell the company and Debord left, taking his books with him, threatening to have all stock on hand destroyed. The house crumbled amid charges of deceit and betrayal, and so Debord cried out, in his little advertisement, from a greater wilderness. He had always held himself out of the light, dodging celebrity if not fame, never appearing on radio or television, declining all interviews, refusing any medium but his own; now his refusals left him isolated before history as well as commerce, before those readers he had, over the years, gathered from all over the world. He spoke in the only voice left to him, the voice of a crank, promising the ‘books that will expose the ...’ precisely as in the small ad that for years has run in every issue of the Nation, the American weekly:

SCHOLARLY BOOKLET PROVES JESUS NEVER EXISTED!

Conclusive proof Flavius Josephus created fictional Jesus, authored Gospels. AMAZING but ABSOLUTELY INCONTROVERTIBLE! Send $5 to ....

The wilderness, though, opened onto a great street. In 1992 Debord contracted with Gallimard, the most prestigious and powerful house in France, both for new titles and the re-publication of his old ones. In September 1992, Gallimard brought out the third French edition of La Société du spectacle, and the next month reprinted his 1988 Commentaires sur la société du spectacle (published in 1990 by Verso as Comments on the Society of the Spectacle). Which brings us to Panegyric, Debord’s last book with Editions Lebovici, and if only for the moment his last word – as cryptic and self-effacing a self-portrait as can be found anywhere.

In his Le Monde review of the French edition of Panegyric, Philippe Sollers jumped up and down (‘the most original and the most radical thinker of our time’), clapped his hands, waved his arms, and finally all but grabbed passers-by by the throat: ‘I bought this book of 92 pages for 80 frs, and I read it immediately, right on the street.’ One can certainly do the same with the English edition – big type and big margins don’t leave room for too many words on its 79 pages – and even if one knows nearly nothing of Debord, or perhaps especially if one doesn’t, one might be drawn to do so. The tone is seductive, the feeling elegiac and the book is never what it seems.

‘All my life I have seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction,’ Debord begins, dramatically, finishing the sentence with a flat no: ‘I have joined in these troubles.’ He speaks as ‘a person who has led an action’ and promises ‘to say what I have done’. ‘I will be compelled to go into some details,’ he says – but he doesn’t. We’re told he was born in Paris in 1931 and, by allusion, that he came into his own there in about 1952. He speaks of ‘the grave responsibility that has often been attributed to me for the origins, or even for the command, of the May 1968 revolt’. That’s about it for conventional autobiography.

Aside from a first-name-only reference to Debord’s second wife, no comrade, associate, enemy, friend or lover is ever named directly. His best-known attachment and his most famous book are mentioned – once each, and only in a single broken quotation from a 1972 Nouvel Observateur: ‘The author of Society of the Spectacle has always appeared as the discreet but indisputable head ... at the centre of the changing constellation of brilliant conspirators of the Situationist International, a kind of cold chess player, rigorously leading ... the game whose every move he has foreseen.’ But this panegyric-in-miniature is dismissed as a particularly egregious example of ‘the police form of knowledge’ – even if a reader might suspect it’s meant to be read for precisely what it says.

Panegyric is in fact a whole book of quotations, akin to Debord’s first book, Mémoires, which was published in 1959. In that book – a cryptogram about the first year of the Lettrist International, covering 1952 and 1953 – Debord simply cut up books and magazines for quotes and pictures which were overpainted by his Situationist comrade Asger Jorn, the late Danish artist. Not a word carried an author’s name; as in Panegyric, there was no identification of affiliations or travelling companions. Still, compared to Mémoires, Panegyric reads like an ordinary book. Most of the quotations are identified. You can tell Debord’s words apart from those of others. Or so it appears, until he warns that ‘at a critical moment in the trouble of the Fronde, Gondi ... improvised happily before the Parlement de Paris a beautiful quotation attributed to an ancient author, whose name everyone vainly searched for, but which could be best applied to his own panegyric: In difficillimis Reipublicae temporibus, urbem non deserui; in prosperis nihil de publico delibavi; in desperatis, nihil timui.’ He himself translated it as ‘In bad times, I did not abandon the city; in good times, I had no private interests; in desperate times, I feared nothing.’ The warning pays off near the end of the book, when Debord, speaking of ‘men more knowledgeable than I’, launches into yet another long quotation – this time a blind one, because he is quoting himself.

What is going on here is this: having introduced himself as a figure of history, a man of deeds and events, Debord – who ended Mémoires with the faint words ‘I want to speak the beautiful language of my time’– immediately turns himself into a literary construct. I don’t mean that he is engaging in any sort of structuralist conceit. Rather, when he says his quotations are meant ‘only to show fully of what stuff this adventure and myself are made’, he enters a history of his own making; the noisy megalomania of Panegyric’s first-sentence claim to a world stage becomes a quiet conversation with the past. Debord disappears into the shades of a host of writers; as he takes on their shadows, they take on his. It is in this sense that Panegyric is almost purely literary, in this sense that one need know or care nothing of the author to be captured by it: Debord is seeking to hi-jack his era into timelessness, and to pull that off he must be at once emotionally specific and otherwise hazy. So if again and again one is reminded of Machiavelli, it is not the author of The Prince or The Discourses, a man of affairs trying to make something happen, but the author of The History of Florence and of those strange letters: the man who could write ‘I love my native city more than my own soul,’ who corresponded with the ancients so vividly one can imagine him waiting patiently, day by day, for their replies. Thus Debord’s story is a story of loss, defeat and patience, and so intense that after a bit there is little need to ask how, who, why, what for. Often insisting he is more than history (‘I wonder if even one other person has dared to behave like me, in this era’; ‘it could almost be believed ... that I was the only person to have loved Paris’ – compared to this, ‘No one has twice raised Paris to revolt’ is no boast but a modest apology), Debord seeks its sleep – the sleep of Sleeping Beauty.

The divisions in Panegyric, then – chapters on ancestors, infamy, military strategy, exile and alcoholism, for example – don’t mean much; a language is being spoken here, there is no account being settled. But one chapter, beginning, ‘In the zone of perdition where my youth went as if to complete its education,’ is the centre of the book – the power centre, the place that anchors every quotation, that gives to Debord’s lines which fly their wings.

As he did in Mémoires, in his second film, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps (1959), and in his last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (‘We Dance in a Circle in the Night and Are Consumed by the Fire’, 1978), Debord returns once more to the site of the beginning of his ‘entry into play and public life’ – returns again to the first years of the Fifties, when, as he said in In girum, ‘There was, then, on the left bank of the river ... a neighbourhood where the negative held court.’ He returns obsessively, as if he will never get to the bottom of this moment, never succeed in making the milieu give up its secrets. It was a setting, Debord once wrote, where one could feel the world turning; whenever he writes of it, he instantly summons up the fortune and danger of, once, having been in the right place at the right time.

The people there, Debord says, were wastrels. What brought them to their stage was ‘modern poetry ... We were a handful who thought that it was necessary to carry out its programme in reality’ – to drive its stampede towards dissolution straight through all the walls of social life.

An angry queen of France once called to order the most seditious of her subjects: ‘There is rebellion in imagining that one could rebel.’

   That is just what happened. Another, earlier contemner of the world, who said that he had been a king in Jerusalem, had touched on the heart of the problem, almost with these very words: the spirit whirls in all directions, and on its circuits the spirit returns. All revolutions go down in history, yet history does not fill up; the rivers of revolution return from whence they came, only to flow again.

To read Guy Debord for the writer he is one must untangle this mix of guff, preening, simplicity and profundity. One must be able to open oneself to the shocking eloquence of ‘All revolutions go down in history, yet history does not fill up’ (‘Toutes les révolutions entrent dans l’histoire, et l’histoire n’en regorge point’ – the rhythm may actually be stronger in James Brook’s unpretentious translation). Even if the allusion is clear – to Ecclesiastes 1.6-7, ‘All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full’ – one must be ready to entertain the notion that Debord’s version, at least for our place and time, is better.

This is, of course, not modern poetry, but old-fashioned poetry. The image of history as a magic cauldron that cannot be filled is more than a lot of good writers leave behind; as it stays in one’s mind as one reads, if it does, the rest of Debord’s little book takes its shape. From year to year, from deeds to exile, from hangover to glorious binge, from calumny to celebration, the cauldron empties, becomes a gong, is struck, and sounds the call of lost youth: ‘One could feel certain that we would never do any better.’ It’s corny, like so much of Debord’s best work; if he is, as Le Monde called him in 1988, ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, that is because one of the things he refuses to give up is romanticism. All that really means, though, is that he refuses to pretend the world has satisfied the demands he and others once made on it; quietly, he writes to keep those demands loose in the world, to let the world be judged by them.

To go back even to the ambiguities and discontinuities of the Situationist critique itself, after Debord’s collage-writing, is to feel steady and clear, especially in Sadie Plant’s hands. The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Post-Modern Age is a precise explication of the Situationist attack on modern alienation, based mostly on Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (1967, known in English as The Revolution of Everyday Life). ‘The situationist spectacle prefigures contemporary notions of hyperreality,’ Plant writes, ‘and the world of uncertainty and superficiality described and celebrated by the Post-Modernists is precisely that which the Situationists first subjected to passionate criticism.’ Turning the Situationist ‘no’ against itself, Post-Modernism offers ‘a manual for survival’; the Situationists remain the last utopians, haunting our every compromise.

Plant makes sense of this; she never loses the thread of likelihood in the maze of dreamy possibilities. But while The Most Radical Gesture is far superior to such bone-dry tomes as Jean-François Martos’s Histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste and Pascal Dumontier’s Les Situationnistes et Mai 68: Théorie et pratique de la Révolution – both published by Editions Lebovici under Debord’s aegis – it is disembodied. ‘One would never know from reading that book that anyone ever laughed, that anyone was ever young,’ said a founding member of the Situationists of the Martos volume; one would hardly know from reading Plant that actual individuals, capable of loyalty and betrayal, certainty and doubt, had anything to do with the writing that, finally, is what is left of the grand Situationist project.

Believing, in Plant’s words, in ‘the possibility of a life of playful opportunity in which the satisfaction of desires, the realisation of pleasures, and the creation of chosen situations would be the principal activities’ – believing that, as the half-century turned, the time was ripe for everyday life to replace the canvas or the page as the site of experiment and creation – the Situationists were cranks, doomed to history’s back alleys. Debord’s pathetic little ad in the TLS was coded in his grandiosity. What was not coded, however, were the actual words by which the Situationist project was shaped and pursued – their heat and light – or those which Debord is still writing. It’s scary to read the words of cranks; they’re like a disease, and you could catch it. But that was the idea then, and that is the idea now.