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Essay

Why Lettrism?

by Guy-Ernest Debord


It seems necessary to define the post-war period in Europe as one of a generalized failure of attempts at change, in the realm of emotions as much as in the political realm.

At the same time that spectacular technical inventions are multiplying the chances of future constructions as well as the dangers of still unresolved contradictions, one witnesses a stagnation of social struggles, and, on the mental level, a complete reaction against the movements of discovery that culminated around 1930 in the association of the broadest demands with the practical means of imposing them.

From the rise of fascism to the second World War, the exercise of revolutionary means has been deceptive and the regression of hopes linked to them has been inevitable.

Following the incomplete liberation of 1944, intellectual and artistic reaction broke out everywhere. Abstract painting -- a simple moment of modern pictorial evolution in which it only occupies a very meager place -- is presented by all the publicity machines as the basis of a new aesthetic. The alexandrine is dedicated to a proletarian renaissance, in which the proletariat will become outmoded as a cultural form just as the quadriga and trireme have become outmoded as means of transport. The by-products of writing that had caused indignation, and that had not been ready, are getting an ephemeral but resounding affirmation: the poetry of Prevert or Char, the prose of Gracq, the drama of the atrocious cretin Pichette, and all the others. The cinema, in which the various arrangements of scenarios are used as if they were harmonies, proclaims its future lies in the plagiarism of De Sica, and finds novelty -- and, above all, exoticism -- in various Italian films in which poverty has imposed a style of camerawork little different from the habits of Hollywood, but so long after S. M. Eisenstein. Furthermore, it is known that the scholars who otherwise do not dance in caves have given themselves up to laborious phenomenological refinements.

Confronting this dismal and profitable mess, in which each repetition has its disciples, each regression its admirers, each remake its fans, a single group shows universal opposition and complete contempt in the name of the historically necessary supercession of old values. A kind of inventive optimism has taken the place of refusal, affirming itself beyond refusal. It is necessary to recognize the healthy role that Dada assumed in another epoch, despite its very different intentions. We may be told that it is not a very intelligent project to restart Dadaism. But it is not a matter of re-doing Dadaism. The very serious setback of revolutionary politics, linked to the glaring weakness of the working-class aesthetic promoted by the same retrograde phase, has lead to confusion in every field, a confusion that will soon have raged for thirty years. On the spiritual level, the petit-bourgeoisie are always in power. After several serious crises, its monopoly is even more extended than before: everything that is actually imparted to the world -- whether it is capitalist literature, social-realist literature, a false formalist avant-garde that lives on forms that have fallen into the public domain, or wormy and theosophical agonies of certain movements of recently arrived emancipators -- entirely nurtures the petit-bourgeois spirit. Under pressure of the realities of the epoch, it is necessary to finish with this spirit. From this perspective, all measures are good. The outrageous provocations that the Lettrist group has carried out or prepared (poetry reduced to letters, metagraphical recital, cinema without images) unleashes a fatal inflation in the arts.

We therefore joined them without hesitation.

2

While always exercising a praiseworthy intolerance toward the outside world, around 1950 the Lettrist group fostered a fairly serious confusion of ideas among its members.

Onomatopoeic poetry itself, having appeared with Futurism and much later reaching a certain perfection with Schwitters and some others, no longer was of interest as the absolute systemization that was presented as the only poetry of the moment, and so condemning all the other forms to death and giving itself a short shelf-life. Meanwhile, the consciousness of the true role we were allotted to play was neglected by many in favor of an infantile conception of genius and fame.

The tendency still in the majority saw the creation of new forms as the highest value of all human activity. This belief in formal evolution without cause or end, other than in-itself, is the basis of bourgeois idealism in the arts. (The imbecilic belief in immutable conceptual categories lead some ex-members of the group to an Americanized mysticism.) Drawing conclusions that an idiot such as Malraux didn't dare or know how to draw from essentially similar premises, the Lettrists' rigorous application of the benefits of experience brought about the definitive collapse of this formalist demeanor by taking it to its limit, the giddy acceleration of evolution around emptiness, in a clear break from all human needs.

The usefulness of destroying formalism from within is clear: it does not leave any doubt that the intellectual disciplines, whatever interdependence they share with the rest of the movement of society, are subject to the relatively autonomous crises arising from the discoveries necessitated by their proper determination as technique. To judge everything as a function of content, as we are being invited to, is to return to judging acts as a function of their intentions. If it is certain that the explanation of the normative character and persistent charm of various aesthetic periods must always be looked for alongside the content -- and the change in the times, or of contemporary necessities, makes other contents touch us, leading to a revision of the classification of the "great epochs" -- it is no less certain that the power of a work during its own time would not solely depend on its content. One can compare this process with that of fashion. After half a century, for example, all costumes belong to equally outdated fashions, from which contemporary sensibility can rediscover all sorts of appearances. But everyone notices the ridiculousness of the feminine bearing of 10 years ago.

Thus the "precious" movement, despite being obscured by the scholastic lies of the Seventeenth Century -- and just as the forms of expression that they had invented, which are as strange as can be to us today, are coming to be recognized as the principal current of ideas of the "Grand Siecle" as a result of the need that we feel for the constructive overthrow of all aspects of life -- uncovers the way that emergent Capital contributed to this development through behavior and decor (conversation and strolling as privileged activities, and, in architecture, the differentiation between living places, changes in the principles of decoration and furniture). On the contrary, when Roger Vailland wrote "Beau Masque" in a Stendalian tone, despite its almost estimable content, it had only a passing chance of pleasing as a prettily-made pastiche. That is to say, he, no doubt contrary to his intentions, addressed himself to intellectuals with outdated tastes. And the majority of criticism that foolishly attacked the content, praised the prose style.

We will return to this historical anecdote.

3

From this fundamental opposition -- which is definitely the conflict of a sufficiently new way of living one's life against an ancient tradition of alienating it -- there arise antagonisms of all sorts, which are provisionally smoothed out in view of general action that is amusing and that, despite its awkwardnesses and insufficiencies, is positive.

Certain ambiguities also arise from the humor that some people place (and others do not place) in their chosen affirmations for their stupefying aspect. Although completely indifferent to any nominal survival through this or that famous literature, we write so that our works -- which are practically nonexistent -- remain in history, with as much certainty as those histrionic people who would become "eternal." What's more, we declare on all occasions that we are beautiful. The baseness of arguments that are presented to us in the film clubs and elsewhere do not give us the opportunity to reply seriously. Elsewhere we continue to have plenty of them.

The crisis of Lettrism, announced by the semi-open opposition of the old farts to the experimental cinematography, which, to their discredit, they judged to be "unstylish" violence, broke out in 1952 when the Lettrist International (which regrouped the extreme faction of the movement in the shadow of a magazine of the same name) distributed injurious texts at a press conference held by Chaplin. The aesthetic Lettrists, now in the minority, were not in solidarity with this action -- leading to a break that their lame excuses did not succeed in postponing or subsequently healing -- because, according to them, the creative role carried out by Chaplin in the cinema placed him beyond criticism. The rest of "revolutionary" opinion reproached us once again, because the work and person of Chaplin still appeared to them to remain in a progressive perspective. Since then, many of these people have revised this illusion.

To announce the senility of doctrines or the people who have given their names to them is an urgent and easy task for those who have retained the taste for resolving the most alluring questions posed by our day and age. Whatever the impostures of the Lost Generation, which showed itself between the last war and today, it is condemned to debunk itself. Nevertheless, having recognized the bankruptcy of the critical thought that these frauds have found before them, Lettrism has contributed to their more rapid oblivion. It is by no means strange that the presentation of an Ionesco, re-making several scenic excesses of Tzara thirty years later and twenty times more stupid, does not get a quarter of the distracted attention. There are several years to go before we reach the exaggerated corpse of Antonin Artaud.

4

The words we make up during this epoch unfortunately tend to limit us. Without a doubt, the term "Lettrist" is a difficult description for people who have no particular esteem for this kind of sound effect, and, except on the soundtrack of a few films, have not made use of it. But the term "French" seems to give us exclusive links with this nation and its colonies. Atheism has been qualified as "Christian," "Jewish" or "Islamic" with disconcerting ease. And we are obviously locked within a more or less refined "bourgeois" education, if not such ideas, then at least such vocabulary, as well.

Thus a good number of terms will be used guardedly, despite the evolution of our researches and our usage (leading to refinement) of many waves of followers: Lettrist International, metagraphy and other neologisms that excite the fury of all sorts of people. The first condition of our agreement is to keep such people a long way from us.

It could be objected that we are propagating an arbitrary, stupid and dishonest confusion among the intellectual elite. We are confronted by people ready to ask us, "What exactly do you want?" with a concerned and protective air that is immediately destroyed by such a question. But, in the certainty that no literary or journalistic hack has seriously occupied him or herself with what we have been carrying out for a number of years, we know that any confusion has in no way been engendered by ourselves. And, on the other hand, it pleases us.

5

Insofar as this "intellectual elite" of modern Europe has at hand today an approximation of intelligence and a modicum of culture, the confusion of which we have spoken no longer holds sway. Those of our companions from years gone by who try once again to draw attention to it or simply to live by their pens have become idiotic in order to fool the world. They sadly ruminate upon the same attitudes that will be re-used more quickly by others. They don't know how a method of renewal refreshes life. Ready to abandon everything to appear in the "New New French Review" -- like clowns kindly presenting their tricks because their quest never leads anywhere -- they lament the fact that they never find a place in this swamp, such as that of Etiemble (the consideration that has even been granted to Caillos) or the appointment of Aron.

There is even cause to believe that their last ambition will be to found a little Judeo-plastic religion. With a bit of luck they will wind up as some sort of Father Divine, as Mormons of aesthetic creation.

Let's pass on from these people who have amused us in the past. The amusements that overtake a man are an exact measure of his mediocrity. Baseball or automatic writing, what does it matter? The idea of success, when it is not tied up with the most simplistic desires, is inseparable from a complete overthrow at the global level. The remnants of successful breakthroughs always strongly resemble worse blocks. What we find more valuable in our actions is to succeed in undoing our many habits and ingrained associations. It could be said that it is rare enough for people to set their life (that part of their life in which they are allowed a choice) in harmony with their feelings and views. It is good to be fanatic about certain things. At the beginning of the year, an orientalist-occultist magazine spoke of us as "the most misty spirits, anemic theoreticians of the virus of 'supercession,' otherwise purely of a verbal effect." It is good that the effect of those who embarrass these creeps is not merely verbal. Naturally, you do not have to dynamite the bridges of the Ile de Louis to accentuate the insular character of this locality or, on the opposite bank, to complicate and embellish the brickwork of the Bernard quay. We do what is most urgent with the limited resources we have at the moment. Thus, by contradicting various meatheads who approach us, by putting to a quick end the confusionist attempts at "joint action" with us, by completely doing without indulgence, we prove to those same individuals the necessary existence of the virus in question. But, if we are ill, our detractors are dead. While on this subject, let us clarify an attitude that certain people, among the most avoidable, have reproached us for: namely the expulsion of not a few participants in the Lettrist International and the systematic allure obtained by this kind of penalty.

In fact, we find it appropriate to take positions rather close to all the aspects of life that present themselves to us. Among all the positions that we take, some of them are held dear by us, just as some of our lines of research are held dear. All other modes of friendship, of worldly relationships, or even of good manners leave us indifferent or disgusted. Objective shortcomings in this sort of agreement can only be sanctioned by a break. It is better to change one's friends than one's ideas.

In the final analysis, judgment is made according to the life that is led. The promiscuities that the expelled people have for the most part accepted or accepted again, and the generally dishonest arrangements that in extreme cases have been underwritten, give the exact degree of gravity to our quickly resolved disagreements and perhaps to the importance of our pact with each other as well.

Far from defending ourselves from making of these hostilities personal matters, we declare on the contrary that the idea that we have human relations obliges us to make these issues personal in nature and determined by definite questions of ideas. Those who resign from the Lettrist International condemn themselves: we have nothing to rage about and nothing to excuse.

The Lettrists who have been cast aside begin to make quite a large number. But there are infinitely more people who live and die without ever having a chance to understand and take part. From this point of view, each person is responsible for whatever talents they have. Should we put up with pathetic individual resignations out of sentimental considerations?

6

From the above, one will understand that our business is not a literary school, a new form of expression, or a modernism. We are concerned with a way of living that will take place through explorations and provisional formulations, which are themselves only exercised in a provisional way. The nature of this enterprise forces us to work in a group and to show ourselves a little. We wait for many people and events that will come. We also have another great force: we no longer wait for a mass of known activities, for individuals and institutions.

We have a lot to learn and we must experiment as much as possible with forms of architecture as well as with rules of conduct. Nothing agitates us less than the elaboration of a doctrine: we are sufficiently far from explaining ourselves, let alone explaining those things that would support a coherent system that would integrate the novelties that appear to us worthy of giving passion.

However it is put, it will be understood that we must start with everything. It has also been said that humanity has never posed problems that it cannot resolve.

 

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