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Last Curtain Call for Guy Debord

by Gianfranco Marelli


We don't know how he died and still less why. We only know that Guy Debord, around evening time on Wednesday 30th November, took his life; the life that in the last few years he himself - perhaps the last of the Situationists still partly faithful to his own image of the resolute enemy of the society of the spectacle - helped to make more mysterious, more evanescent more elsewhere. Paradoxically one could say that in reality death has brought him back to life, in the sense that it has re-established the human reality (death being our common destiny) of a character whose notoriety and uncompromising stance of refusal would make of existence a long theatrical piece, in which he would improvise up until the end. But who was Guy Debord? There are several answers, but at the same time such answers would preclude the understanding of his identity as indefinable. Writer? Film director? Situationalist? 'Doctor in nothing...' as he liked to define himself in one of his latest books? Of course all those things, but simply because they are 'things' - which comes down to things he did - they certainly do not reveal the whole man. It isn't for nothing that the numerous French dailies which reported the news of his suicide, not only didn't say how or why he died, neither did they say anything about him, limiting themselves to an inventory of the things he did, the things he said, how he did them, how he said them but forgetting to say who, Guy Debord, was. In reality it was the self-imposed mystery which created the impenetrable and adventurist aura, barely available to the media and prone to violent argument; Guy Debord liked to hide his true self behind a blanket of gossip, speculation and even spite in his dealings with others, and to never let it see daylight. For the rest, for someone who wrote a book: The Society of the Spectacle, where the world is seen as a spectacle - which is to say a false image which the economic system produces of itself in order to dominate society - visibility was to be totally denied. Thus the rare photos which he consciously planned so that they should be published in his lifetime - were the most hazy in the world and to a fair degree made him look younger than his real age. Certainly, invisibility was imperative!

It was not by chance that his first public work was a film Hurlement en faveur de Sade (1952), in which there is no picture and the spectator - truly stupefied by this purely surrealist provocation - watched an alternated sequence of white and then black screens, whilst listening to a mixture of atonal dialogues involving numerous people leading up to a silent, black screen for 24 minutes. This was the first gauntlet against the spectacle thrown down by Guy Debord who fought this battle throughout his life; a death sentence for the cinema, at the time considered as the essence of the artistic product of bourgeois society and for that reason the extreme synthesis of its values in full decomposition, since it expressed not the construction of a situation which aimed to shed light on everyday life but rather a system of falsification of reality in order to suppress it and supplant it by means of a series of images aimed at cutting the individual off from his daily existence and making of him an illusory participant in the spectacle of consumer society in his role as good/product of the spectacle.

The setting up in 1957 of the Situationist International was partly the logical consequence of these artistic presuppositions. Coming out of the European cultural milieu as the convergence of several artistic experiences (COBRA, the Lettrist International, the Movement for Bauhaus Cinema, the London Psychogeographical Society) the SI from day one aimed to represent - above all via Debord who was the editor of its statement of principles - a critique of art brought into being by the necessity of superseding it by creating liberated situations in which life can effectively experience its own possibilities and not become enclosed in the repetitive role models that the society of the spectacle constructs in order to dominate and exploit. But already in those early years the different heads of the SI quarrelled amongst themselves and Debord - who alone amongst them represented the most coherent position with his objective of achieving a total critique of art and a whole culture skewered towards the production of values separated from everyday life (and for that reason incapable of achieving its own radical transformation) - came out better from confrontations with those who presupposed the replacement of art as simply a repeat of the architectural and urban argument which aimed to make works of art no longer on canvas but in the physical space of a city.

But the first years of the 60s saw a U turn in the politics of the SI, and coincided with Debord's political phase, which saw an achievement of sorts in making of the organisation - now nearly purged of any artistic content - the rallying point between the experience of the European cultural avant guard and the experience of politico- revolutionary groupings, in France represented by some journals (Arguments and Socialisme et Barbarie) of a revisionary Marxist leaning. These were the years when Debord participated in the seminars of Lefebvre at Nanterre and during which he developed his critique of daily life which had already been expounded by this philosopher and sociologist from Nanterre in the late 50s. The critique of everyday life - the baby sister of theories of alienation/separation produced by the spectacular society, became the theoretical underpinnings of the SI and the theme of his most famous book, already mentioned, in which the theoretical and organisational experience of the workers council ... represented the political and revolutionary dnouement of the situationist theory. The Strasbourg scandal and Paris 68 showed not so much that Debord and the SI were gaining influence (as has always been claimed by the historical hagiographer of the movement), but rather the fortuitous meeting - and in many ways prospicious - between the combative and revolutionary practice of the movement of 68 and the necessity to find an outlet for situationist theory. If there had been no May 68 in France, would the SI have become what it seemed to be after the event (that is the high point of modern revolution)? And would the work of Debord have come to seem clairvoyant and prophetic, as was claimed by numerous commentators who proclaim his books on the social spectacle to be the only texts able to give a sense - sorry: a vision - to what happened in the East as well as the West? All these considerations lead back to the unanswered question of who Guy Debord was; a man who, at the age of 62, decided to put an end to his life and to foreclose his real life story asking forgiveness for his own mistakes. But the truth of his story will still have to be reconstructed by reference to his work which he has left to posterity with the intention of becoming the first invisible personality of the society of the spectacle. Will we ever know the truth?

Translated from Le Monde Libertaire 21 Dec. 94

 

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