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
interest but unable to participate until now. It's fortunate that the
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
as artists, so it's a bit odd to me how the SI have been appropriated
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
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
reamed you is doing you a favor by throwing in a key-chain. Now it
a USB dongle, and I'm sure Debord would get that. This doesn't mean
would fail to welcome some future SI's use of appropriate technologies
detournement. Perhaps what would surprise him most would be the degree
integration of technological practice and psychogeography to yield new
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
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
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
of manufacturing collective experiences of time, bolstered by what
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
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
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
space of the spectacle -- the celebrity network -- which then
identity-formation of the workers et al. And so the SI turn to
as a way to critically read this spectacular duplicate of labor time
passing as leisure, even as they promoted their own sub-spectacular
Mathieu, I'm concerned by your collapsing of the "revolutionary
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
founding fathers of an intellectual terrorism grants too much credit to
their mystique. Please check out Kristin Ross's excellent analysis,
and Its Aftermaths_, an astounding treatment of the insurrection,
occupations, and their ultimate diffusion via the media coverage of New
Philosphers and their post-May '68 accounts and readings. Debord and
were one of a vast handful of small groups printing pamphlets,
memos, and posters. Ross makes Debord's claims to have somehow led May
absolutely ridiculous, somehow instigated AND organized the mass
that united the peoples across several major districts and social
Paris. He was, after all, a self-aggrandizing and arrogant drunk, by
accounts. More radical than any SI member I read about was Felix
who was running money for the Algerians. Whether that makes him a
depends largely on whose politics you follow. But fighting for the end
the French empire made the French Algerians vital allies to workers,
(it wasn't just urban; there was a huge agricultural component),
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
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
lically visible, politically-edged work -- comments come up about the
diffusion of the counter-culture through re-appropriation by the
industy. Debord circumvented this cooption my creating almost
unviewable works. And not because they are so so intense or offensive.
are unbearably boring for the most part. I mean those detourned
yet their very boringness acts as a shield from the attention of the
media and hence, the spectacle. And once you see through the negation
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,
As explained in the Viénet article, detournement is both against art
politics, but it doesn't evoke quite as much terror as Breton's
of random public shootings as the ultimate surrealist act. Even after
boots out Vaneigem, the SI are still about the production of
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
appropriation and plagiarism. Debord's target is the category of the
historical, which operates in philosophy as the spectacle's analog.
is embedded into the philosophical discourse of theory through the
the quotation mark, and this is precisely what Debord counters with
detournement, which is little more than the practical denial of
“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
Process is all - see the General Public Licence...
The author for Debord, especially star-authors like Marx, function as
celebrities of theory. Celebrities exist out of the flow of actual
they are like ghosts. To quote Marx was to allow a ghost into Debord's
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
and foster a living situation.
By the time the SI shamed Chaplin, he probably deserved it. He HAD
sentimental fraud, a known womanizer, and worse, a star. He was the
blueprint for the entertainment industry and the spectacle of press
surrounds it. And it was stardom, the SI concluded, that DEFINES
Celebrities are invariably fascists of the imagination. Categorically.
Mickey Mouse. Steve Canyon. Johnny Depp. Michael Moore. Charlie
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?
Dr Mathieu O'Neil
Centre for New Media Arts (CNMA)
Peter Karmel Building
The Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200 Australia
T: +61 02 6260 6124
F: +61 02 6247 0229
ANU new media group weblog:
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