Guy Debord: When Poetry Ruled the Streets

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.

Guy Debord on the set of 'Critique of Separation', 1960

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.

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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]:

References:

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.

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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]

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McLuhan the Younger: Two New Books

There have been plenty of people touted to carry the mantle left behind by Marshall McLuhan — Neil Postman, Douglas Rushkoff, Paul Levinson, even Jean Baudrillard, but no one has been working more behind the scenes and under the radar to keep his legacy alive than his own son and sometimes co-author Eric McLuhan.

Eric McLuhan has amassed a significant body of work in his own right, including Electric Language (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake (University of Toronto Press, 1997), the forthcoming Theories of Communication (with Marshall), and The Human Equation (BPS Books, 2011; discussed below), among many others.

One of Marshall’s most important and most overlooked works was co-authored by Eric. The posthumously published Laws of Media (University of Toronto Press, 1988). In this book, they tackle the Shannon-Weaver model of communication as needlessly linear (a task I’ve attempted myself), writing, “The Shannon-Weaver model and its derivatives follow the linear pattern of efficient cause — the only sequential form of causality” (p. 87). Formal cause was a lesser known but chronic concern for McLuhan.

[T]he formal causes inherent in… media operate on the matter of our senses. The effect of media, like their ‘message’ is really on their form and not in their content (Marshall Mcluhan in Gordon, W. T., 2005, p. 10).

In Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan (NeoPoiesis Press, 2011), Eric brings together three pieces by Marshall and an extended essay of his own (“On Formal Cause”) that references them, as well as historical context provided by his new introduction and a Foreword by the inimitable Lance Strate.

Aristotle’s definition of formal cause — one of four causes he defined, and the one that contains the other three — reads the “essense, idea, or quality of the thing concerned” (Bunge, iii; what Heidegger would call “the thing thinging”). McLuhan saw Aristotle’s oral orientation conflating formal and final cause. This view and the Shannon-Weaver model are the results of left-brain thinking, and we need a right-brain perspective if we are to cope with the new electronic age. “Communication theory necessarily concerns the study of the public and not of the program,” McLuhan wrote in an unpublished letter to Archie Malloch. “The ‘content’ of any performance is the efficient cause which includes the user or the cognitive agent who is, and becomes, the thing known, in Aristotle’s phrase” (p. 10). He goes on to cite his mentor Harold Innis as the first to show that the alphabet is what split Greek thought between “thinking” and “being” (p. 30). “Literacy become synonymous with Western civilization that divorced ‘subject’ from ‘object’ and thought from feeling, just as the dominant metaphors of mechanism widened the separation of  ’cause’ and ‘effect'” (p. 31). Knowledge of the alphabet distances us from knowledge of formal cause.

And understanding formal cause is tantamount to understanding our new media ecology. It was at the center of McLuhan’s work. Eric writes, “Formal cause is still, in our time, hugely mysterious: The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time” (p. 87). McLuhan wrote, “effects precede causes” (p. 43). The bright light of the future casts shadows on the present from forthcoming events — that’s formal cause.

[Media] Ecology does not seek connections, but patterns. It does not seek quantities, but satisfactions and understanding (p. 8).

Mass media in all their forms are necessarily environmental and therefore have the character of formal causality (McLuhan to Ruth Nanda Ashen, NAC, 1975).

McLuhan mentioned predicting the present in his work several times, and an observance of “daily miracles” like his oft-studied subject Chesterton. He also approached all of this mass-media mess from what amounts to a systems point of view: figures, grounds, environments, anti-environments, sense ratios. He was trying to get outside of it all to see what it was doing from the highest possible vantage point.

So this is all about perspective. And McLuhan pointed out that perspective is a mode of perception that involves a single point of view — or fragmentation, in space and time, in painting and in poetry (Gordon, Hamaji, & Albert, 2007, p. 139).

The perspective is part of what makes The Human Equation by Wayne Constantineau and Eric McLuhan (BPS Books, 2010) so effective: the vantage point, the human as central concern, the human as center of the universe. This is “Book 1: The Human Equation Toolkit,” and the toolkit consists of numerous sets of four related concepts, tetrads, not unlike the ones in Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers’ The Global Village (Oxford University Press, 1992), and those included in the aforementioned Laws of Media. The Human Equation starts with four embodied positions — standing, lying down, sitting, and kneeling — as the basis of all extensions thereof (i.e., media, technology, etc.). Co-authored by the late mime Constantineau, that the book’s foundation is comprised of body positions should come as no surprise.

This short book is rife with odd new perspectives on our media, culture, our place in the universe, and indeed our bodies themselves — much like so many of Marshall McLuhan’s own odd shorter works.

This year marks the centennial of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, and his work is as relevant now as it ever was. Here’s to everyone who’s keeping his legacy alive, especially his son Eric McLuhan.

References:

Bunge, M. Causality: The Place of the Causal Principle in Modern Science. Metaphysics, 32, Bk. 1, ch, iii.

Gordon, W. T. (2010). McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum Books.

Gordon, W. T. (2005). McLuhan Unbound, #14. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

Gordon, W. T., Hamaji, E, & Albert, J. (2007). Everyman’s McLuhan. New York: Mark Batty Publisher.

Heidegger, M. (1971) Poetry, Language Thought. New York: Harper & Row.

McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. & Powers, B. R. (1992). The Global Village. Oxford University Press.

National Archives of Canada. (1975, July 2). Marshall McLuhan to Ruth Nanda Ashen.

The Greatest Actor of All Time: Nicolas Cage

Few actors have had careers anywhere near as diverse and dynamic as Nicolas Cage. A member of the Royal Coppola Family, Cage has been in everything from goofy teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) to mind-blowing, block-busting adventures like National Treasure (2004). His acting agility is abetted by his willingness and ability to take on challenging roles that other thespians of his caliber wouldn’t think of accepting — and pulling them off without dumbing them down. As Roger Ebert once put it,

There are often lists of the great living male movie stars: De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there. He’s daring and fearless in his choice of roles, and unafraid to crawl out on a limb, saw it off and remain suspended in air. No one else can project inner trembling so effectively…. He always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.

The filmic examples are seemingly endless, so instead of surveying his career in its entirety, I will concentrate on three representative films: Raising Arizona (1987), Matchstick Men (2003), and the indisputable greatest movie of all time, Con Air (1997).

Francis McDormand once said that one can’t make any money working on a Cohen Brothers film. While I’m sure that’s changed since (this statement was made pre-Fargo), I think most would agree that for an actor, working with Ethan and Joel Cohen is an honor, a privilege, and an opportunity to establish oneself artistically. No one has done this more fervently in one film than Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. With his career stretched out before him like a sleepy kitten, Cage took on the lead role in a film that would define one of the many facets of his style as an actor. H. I. McDunnough is a good-for-nothing, two-bit thief who falls in love with a police officer hell-bent on raising a family. After an intermittent courtship involving H. I.’s lengthening rap sheet, the ultimately infertile couple marry and attempt to have children. Seeing a news story about a couple who has more offspring than they can handle, they decide to steel one. Hi-jinks ensue, and the doomed H.I. is caught between his old ways as a thief and his new life as a family man, with the two inextricably intertwined like so many lovers’ legs.

In the similarly quirky Wild at Heart (the plot of which I always confuse with True Romance, perhaps because of their similarly Westbound plots and blonde love interests), Cage would almost reprise this role. He was to all but abandon this kind of character later in his career, save maybe Adaptation (2002) and, our last stop, Matchstick Men (2003).

What did he abandon the weirdness for? Action, of course, and Cage’s crowning achievement, Con Air (1997) is jam-packed with it. This Jerry Bruckheimer vehicle crashes and burns in the best possible way: right into Las Vegas! Where else are you going to see oddball jokesters like Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle, and John Leguizamo teamed-up with powerhouse hunks like John Travolta, Vin Diesel, and Ving Rhames, alongside A-list actors like John Cusak,  John Malkovich, Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, and Nicolas Cage in the same movie? Bob Stephenson is even in here! What happened to the casting director on this star-studded screen scorcher? Fired for awesomeness? How about the screenwriter or the director?

The Ridley Scott-directed Matchstick Men (2003) tells the story of an obsessive-compulsive con man getting conned out of everything. Sam Rockwell plays the partner-cum-con (Frank Mercer) who uses a young girl, Angela (played by Alison Lohman), posing as Roy Waller’s (Cage) estranged daughter. Matchstick Men (and Adaptation, pictured below, by proxy) is less important for Cage’s role per se than it is for his role at the time it happened: dead in the middle of a string of Cage-fronted action movies. In the midst of constant reminders of his action-hero status, Matchstick Men recalled a younger, weirder Nicolas Cage, and reminded everyone of his immense on-screen strengths.

So, in brief, Nicolas Cage is the greatest actor to ever entertain a darkened theater. I dare you to come up with a stronger, more genuine, more diverse body of work.

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“…I was just admirin’ your cage.” Here’s the trailer for The Greatest Movie of All Time, Con Air (1997) [runtime: 2:23]:

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