Re: [-empyre-] Why US DAT is Virtual

Great post! I'm not sure if everyone on empyre is interested in the finer points of the IS (Internationale Situationniste) in general and Guy Debord in particular... but since conversation has paused on the other threads I thought I'd make a few comments. Then I got carried away. I don't want to seem to be splitting theoretical hairs but a few statements need correcting or perhaps enriching (just like my original post did). It's also interesting that so many discussions on art and politics sooner or later end up dealing with the real or perceived influence of IS theory and practice...

On 24/10/2004, at 4:41 PM, The pHarmanaut wrote:

Greetings at last from Pharmakopolis. I've been following the dialogue with
interest but unable to participate until now. It's fortunate that the thread
has taken a turn back toward these areas in which I'm deeply embedded.

I barely consider the SI an art movement, or its members, Debord included,
as artists, so it's a bit odd to me how the SI have been appropriated by the
digital arts -- my own work included.

Asger Jorn, the Danish painter with who Debord collaborated on art books such as "Fin de Copenhague" was definitely an artist; he in fact kept on financing the IS long after he resigned. It's generally agreed that there was a purge of the more artistic-minded members of the IS in the early sixties, who became known in the official IS parlance as the "Nashist" faction (shortly followed by the Germans from Spur).

But then again the whole point of the IS was to dissolve specializations (hence the film "Critique de la separation"), life and alienation, and especially the distinction between artists and non-artists.

Debord was technology savvy, which
doesn't mean he was a luddite.

Not quite sure what is meant by that. The statement seems contradictory. Though Debord used modern technology such as the cinema, his writings are imbued with a deep dismay at the way the world is going, to the constant refrain of "things were so much better before". His love of the classical French writing style and his disdain for contemporary, so-called "degraded" forms of language, art and philosophy exemplify this attitude.

He understand the significance of gadgets
that make you feel like you're getting a deal if the car salesman who just
reamed you is doing you a favor by throwing in a key-chain. Now it would be
a USB dongle, and I'm sure Debord would get that. This doesn't mean that he
would fail to welcome some future SI's use of appropriate technologies for
detournement. Perhaps what would surprise him most would be the degree of
integration of technological practice and psychogeography to yield new modes
of cultural, urban detournement.

Once again, it's very hard to imagine him getting on a plane, let alone setting up a website or organizing a locative media "urban detournement". This last phrase is a bit confusing, I think... "Detournement, that is to say the reusing in a new unity of preexisting artistic elements, is a permanent tendency of the current avant-garde, since before the constitution of the IS as since that date" (Internationale Situationniste 3, p. 10). I suppose you could call - at a stretch - a city "preexisting artistic elements" but it is hard to see how it would be concretely "detourned"... wandering around (the derive) with the aid of tech, or without, is fine, but it is not the same as "reusing" something, which I understand to mean modifying it in a concretely discernible manner.

In the few instances where Debord mentions technology and networks, it's usually in terms of state surveillance and control. More generally, the only French situationists still active politically (Rene Riesel and Christian Sebastiani) are loosely affiliated to the Encyclopedie des Nuisances, a journal-group (to which Debord contributed two articles in the eighties, before breaking with Jaime Semprun, the main EdN figure) which is now a publishing house. Being ultra-radical leftists, the EdN people are naturally opposed to all forms of domination, chief amongst which is technologically-driven capitalism. The EdN has translated into French such anti-technology manifestoes as Gunther Anders' "Obsolescence of Man" and Theodore Kaczinski's "Industrial Society and its Future"... No big fans of technology there. The argument goes something like this: technology has come to mean the integration of technical development with science, and the mutual legitimation of both. We live in a world where the accumulated technical knowledge is astonishing, and yet, we are probably much more lacking in technical know-how than our ancestors: technology can only be created and repaired by _someone else_. In other words, technology means techniques which have escaped from our control, and which ultimately dominate us.

And yet much of Debord's writings on
psychogeography reveal a mindset that understands that any technology --
drink, games, role-playing -- that can engineer and sustain collective
hallucinations is a good thing. Unfortunately, this included a basic
gang-mentality, the model of social organization at the heart of the SI,
with Debord its head bully. Does this mean that his work isn't worth
lifting, pasting, correcting?

Psychogeography had little to do with poetics. It is a critical practice and
is always described as such in the work of the SI.

Debord on the Lettrists:

"After all, it was modern poetry, for the last hundred years, that had led us there. We were a handful who thought that it was necessary to carry out its programme in reality, and in any case to do nothing else." (Debord, Panegyric, Chapter II)

I believe the SI saw it
more is a science, and I would read it as a weird science, an occult theory
of manufacturing collective experiences of time, bolstered by what amounts
to the nascent fields of pop cultural and media studies. They saw this
construction of situations as part of the factory of everyday life, and
through a mixture of drop-out culture and student life, sustained poverty
levels of subsistance in order to engage in the manufacture of their
reality. I think that they saw the spectacle precisely as the culture
industry that extends the laws and goals of production into leisure time.

Yes, this is the debt the IS owes to Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Marcuse... the original theoreticians of mass cultural representation... Hollywood / Nuremberg.

Mechanization and automation only lead to their virtual duplicates in the
space of the spectacle -- the celebrity network -- which then influence the
identity-formation of the workers et al. And so the SI turn to detournement
as a way to critically read this spectacular duplicate of labor time now
passing as leisure, even as they promoted their own sub-spectacular lives.

Mathieu, I'm concerned by your collapsing of the "revolutionary potential of
collage / detournement". Collage and detournement are quite different

Mea culpa! I was writing too quickly. I meant "collage OR detournement". They both have a revolutionary potential - though not the same.


I think you have to watch it with Virilio because using Debord and SI as
founding fathers of an intellectual terrorism grants too much credit to
their mystique. Please check out Kristin Ross's excellent analysis, _May '68
and Its Aftermaths_, an astounding treatment of the insurrection, strikes,
occupations, and their ultimate diffusion via the media coverage of New
Philosphers and their post-May '68 accounts and readings. Debord and the SI
were one of a vast handful of small groups printing pamphlets, broadsides,
memos, and posters. Ross makes Debord's claims to have somehow led May '68
absolutely ridiculous, somehow instigated AND organized the mass uprisings
that united the peoples across several major districts and social castes of
Paris. He was, after all, a self-aggrandizing and arrogant drunk, by all
accounts. More radical than any SI member I read about was Felix Guattari,
who was running money for the Algerians. Whether that makes him a terrorist
depends largely on whose politics you follow. But fighting for the end of
the French empire made the French Algerians vital allies to workers, farmers
(it wasn't just urban; there was a huge agricultural component), students,
artists, popular press, communications industry, and others.

The Lettrists used to go and smoke hash with the Algerians. As Jean-Michel Mension says in his narrative of those days, "La Tribu" (The Tribe): "We were the exception. taking part in the life of the the North Africans, was a very clear way of opposing the bourgeoisie, the assholes, the French."

Though he certainly had delusions of grandeur, I don't think Debord ever said he "led" May 68. There were so many people involved, that this claim seems quite ridiculous. At the same time, so many left-wing groups were either maoist, trotskyite, whatever, that the IS was at least fairly original, and autonomous. The main other French group who combined Marxism with anti-authoritarianism was Cornelius Castoriadis' "Socialisme ou Barbarie". But they did not have the staying power of the IS. The great prestige of the IS, which was so clearly disproportionate to its actual numbers, was due to the quality of their writing (Vaneigem, Khayati author of the Strasbourg "Misery of Student Life" brochure, Debord himself), the originality of their ideas (where would Baudrillard be without the theory of the spectacle?) and their inflexible attitude when it came to any compromise with the dominant system.

Neither I nor Virilio asserted that Debord and the SI were the "founding fathers" of intellectual terrorism - instead, Virilio uses Debord as a particularly good example... I think he's absolutely right. To wit, here is Alex Trocchi, talking to Grail Marcus in his book, "Lipstick Traces" (one of the only books I know of featuring interviews with real live situationists):
"Guy thought the world was going to collapse on its own, and that we were going to take over," Trocchi said in 1983. "I wanted to do that - to take over the world. But you can't take over the world by excluding people from it. Guy wouldn't even _mention_ the name of people I was involved with - Timothy Leary, Ronnie Laing. I remember the last letter he sent to me: 'Your name sticks in the minds of decent men'. He was like Lenin; he was an absolutist, constantly kicking people out - until he was the only one left. And exclusions were total. It meant ostracism, cutting people. Ultimately, it leads to shooting people - that's where it would have led, if Guy had ever 'taken over'. And I couldn't shoot anyone." (p. 387)

And here is Guy-Ernest Debord himself, concluding his first article, in the first issue of Potlatch, the Internationale Lettriste's punkzine:
(After having attacked a variety of people - from right-winger Mauriac to left-winger Camus): "Ce qui manque a ces messieurs, c'est la Terreur". ("What these gentlemen need, is the Terror": the period during the French revolution where 20,000 people were executed).

This kind of certainty is what made - makes - Debord's writing so seductive - diamond-hard... As he wrote in his 1979 introduction to the Italian translation of Society of the Spectacle:

"Il n’y a pas un mot à changer à ce livre dont, hormis trois ou quatre fautes typographiques, rien n’a été corrigé au cours de la douzaine de réimpressions qu’il a connues en France. Je me flatte d’être un très rare exemple contemporain de quelqu’un qui a écrit sans être tout de suite démenti par l’événement, et je ne veux pas dire démenti cent fois ou mille fois, comme les autres, mais pas une seule fois." (Not one word need be changed in this book... I am pleased to be a very rare contemporary example of someone who has written without being immediately contradicted by events, and I don't mean contradicted one hundred or one thousand times, like the others, but not once").

Almost invariably when the SI and May '68 are discussed -- as with much, pub
lically visible, politically-edged work -- comments come up about the
diffusion of the counter-culture through re-appropriation by the culture
industy. Debord circumvented this cooption my creating almost unreadable and
unviewable works. And not because they are so so intense or offensive. They
are unbearably boring for the most part. I mean those detourned comics! And
yet their very boringness acts as a shield from the attention of the mass
media and hence, the spectacle. And once you see through the negation of
recuperation that IS juxtaposition, you're IN THE SITUATION. It's an
excellent and too rare tactic.

I personally find Debord's films quite poetic. Certainly all his work after his Hegelian period is not at all boring. From the mid-1970s with "In Girum...", the 1980s Commentaries and his masterpiece, the Panegyric. One of the most clearly "free" (for want of a better word) pieces of writing I have ever read is the following paragraph, which unfortunately does not translate very well. The original is classically perfect; it just flows.

"Who, in our century, could fail to be aware that he who finds it in his interest to affirm instantly anything at all, will say it any which way? The immense growth in the means of modern domination has so marked the style of its pronouncements that if the understanding of the progress of the sombre reasonings of power was for a long time the privilege of people of real intelligence, it has now inevitably become familiar to even the most dull-witted. It is in this sense that the truth of this report on my times will be only too well proved by its style. The tone of this text will in itself be a sufficient guarantee, for everyone will understand that it is only by dint of having lived in such a way that one can master this kind of account." (Panegyric, Chapter I)

As explained in the Viénet article, detournement is both against art and
politics, but it doesn't evoke quite as much terror as Breton's definition
of random public shootings as the ultimate surrealist act. Even after Debord
boots out Vaneigem, the SI are still about the production of situations that
somehow escape the spectacle's negation.

As documented in the last IS text, "La veritable scission dans l'Internationale Situationniste" by the time Vaneigem resigned (1970) the IS was on its last legs, with most situationists content to bask in the prestige of being cutting-edge while not actually doing much at all: what Debord and Sanguinetti (the last two left standing) called the "contemplative situationists".

This only marginally turned into an
activist negation of the spectacle on the part of the SI through acts of
appropriation and plagiarism. Debord's target is the category of the
historical, which operates in philosophy as the spectacle's analog. History
is embedded into the philosophical discourse of theory through the agency of
the quotation mark, and this is precisely what Debord counters with
detournement, which is little more than the practical denial of authorship.

“Not only does détournement lead to the discovery of new aspects of talent, but moreover, by confronting head-on all the social and judicial conventions, it cannot fail to appear as a powerful cultural instrument in the service of a well-understood class war (…) the first sketch of literary communism” (Debord and Woman, "Mode d'emploi du detournement")

Process is all - see the General Public Licence...

The author for Debord, especially star-authors like Marx, function as the
celebrities of theory. Celebrities exist out of the flow of actual life,
they are like ghosts. To quote Marx was to allow a ghost into Debord's work
and render Marx's words into the shadow of meaning; for Debord to erase
Marx, to write through Marx, to CORRECT Marx, appears to be a way to sustain
and foster a living situation.

By the time the SI shamed Chaplin, he probably deserved it. He HAD become a
sentimental fraud, a known womanizer, and worse, a star. He was the
blueprint for the entertainment industry and the spectacle of press that
surrounds it. And it was stardom, the SI concluded, that DEFINES fascism.
Celebrities are invariably fascists of the imagination. Categorically.
Mickey Mouse. Steve Canyon. Johnny Depp. Michael Moore. Charlie Chaplin.
Karl Marx.


Right. So, once again, the pure "rebel" is justified in destroying - in the name of revolution, art, whatever abstraction... another human. For that is what is meant (see Trocchi). If anyone bothered to read this to the end, I want to go back to what someone wrote a little while ago... Perhaps it is representation itself which has become problematic? Hijacked by the mass media, by the culture jamming of corporate advertising and by the distortions of state power… Perhaps now is the time to generate tools for experiencing something other than a message, an argument, or a conceptual provocation? But what?



empyre forum

Dr Mathieu O'Neil
Visiting Fellow
Centre for New Media Arts (CNMA)
Peter Karmel Building
Childers St
The Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200 Australia

T: +61 02 6260 6124
F: +61 02 6247 0229
ANU new media group weblog:

This archive was generated by a fusion of Pipermail 0.09 (Mailman edition) and MHonArc 2.6.8.