Writer, filmmaker, instigator, and revolutionary, Guy Debord is probably best known for his involvement with the Situationist International (McKenzie Wark calls him their “secretary”) and their concepts of the dérive and détournement, the former of which is one of the core ideas of psychogeography, and the latter of which went on to define the culture jamming movement. Their slogans were the words on the walls during the May 1968 uprisings in France. They published the proto-Adbusters of the time, and their spirit hangs heavy over the work of Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Joey Skaggs, The Yes Men, Kembrew McLeod, and other postmodern-day culture jammers and media hackers alike. Greil Marcus (1989) puts them in the lineage of resistance movements: Dada, Surrealism, Situationists, punk rock. Wherever we attribute his influence, Debord lived and loved in line with the thoughts he wrote.
Debord’s best known and best selling book is The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, 1994; originally published in 1967), and the “spectacle” concept it defined have remained a mainstay of media criticism ever since. Debord biographer Anselm Jappe (1999) wrote, “The spectacle does not reflect society overall; it organizes images in the interest of one portion of society only, and this cannot fail to affect the real social activity of those who merely contemplate these images” (p. 7). Debord (1994) himself wrote, “All that was once lived has become mere representation” (p. 12). Does that sound familiar? It should. He continues, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 12). Defined as such, the spectacle sounds a bit like fellow French thinker Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra, does it not? Debord clarifies, writing that the spectacle has two foundational attributes: “incessant technological renewal” and the “integration of State and economy” (1998, p. 11-12). Nonetheless, Debord’s work has yet to receive the widespread reverence it deserves.
One might be surprised that I implicitly seem to compare myself, here and there, on a point of detail, with some great mind of the past or simply with personalities who have been noted historically. One would be wrong. I do not claim to resemble any other person, and I believe that the present era is hardly comparable to the past. But many figures from the past, in all their extreme diversity, are still quite commonly known. They represent, in brief, a readily accessible index of human behaviour or propensities. Those who do not know who they were can easily find out; and the ability to make oneself understood is always a virtue in a writer.
– Guy Debord, Panegyric 1, p. 8.
One recent attempt to remedy Debord’s unsung unrest comes in the form of Vincent Kaufman’s biography Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (The University of Minnesota Press, 2006; now available in paperback). Kaufmann assumes the role of “unqualified reader,” as he claims no previous fascination or familiarity with Debord. This perspective gives him and his book a unique approach among books about the Situationists. Lacking an “ideological axe to grind” Kaufman sees as imperative to understanding Debord and his life of rebellion, fortunes, misfortunes, adventures, exploration, drifting. “Perhaps it is only by boat that we can really lose ourselves,” he writes, recalling Slavoj Zizek’s metaphor for postmodern rootlessness, and Debord’s persistent pursuit of authentic experience. Of the numerous biographies of Debord and books about Situationists, Kaufman’s is among the best, most thorough, and makes a great introduction to his work and their world.
“I wrote less than those who write,” Debord once said, “but I drank more than hose who drink.” The title of his sixth and final film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), is a palindrome that he roughly translated to “we turn in the night and are consumed by fire.” If any one phrase could sum up the way the man felt about our media-mad, modern world, that one would do.
When Poetry Ruled the Streets: This clip from Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) features Adam Goldberg and Nicky Katt as two of the gang of four, and Hymie Samuelson as Guy Debord. [Quicktime clip. Click the image to play; runtime: 2:30]:
Debord, G. (1994). The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.
Debord, G. (1998). Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. New York: Verso.
Debord. G. (2004). Panegyric 1 & 2. New York: Verso.
Debord, G. (2009). Correspondence: The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957 – August 1960). Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Jappe, A. (1999). Guy Debord. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Kaufmann, V. (2006). Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Linklater, R. (Writer/Director). (2001). Waking Life [Motion picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Marcus, G. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wark, M. (2008). 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. New York: FORuM/Princeton Architectural Press.
Apologies to Andrew Feenberg and James Freedman for stealing the title of their book for this post. Here is a mini-documentary of Feenberg’s time in Paris in the late 1960s and his archive of posters therefrom. [runtime: 8:36]