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Guy Debord is really dead

Published in Guy Debord is really dead December 1994


Chapter 3 "A New Year's Eve in Naples"

The present day wretchedness works retroactively -- Karl Kraus

It is necessary to examine and deconstruct the "Thèses sur l'Internationale Situationniste et son temps" (the text leading the Dance Macabre of La véritable scission...) in order to understand how Debord's style developed into a fossilised poetics of rancour and how he consequently declined in The Bore. First of all it must be said that the "Thèses" are a kitsch piece of writing. We're using 'kitsch' in its classic meaning, as re-proposed by Tommaso Labranca in his book Andy Warhol era un coatto - Vivere e capire il Trash [Andy Warhol was a urban hillbilly - Living and grasping Trash-culture] (Ed. Castelvecchi, Rome 1994). The post-'68 SI and Debord/The Bore were kitsch because they meant to get rid of shit and misery from the grounds of self-historicisation, on which they unceasingly spread references to Marx's and Bakunin's First International (the title itself of the "circulaire publique" is one of these references). Situationists tried to emulate a high model, but sensationally failed (does an international with only two members make sense at all?): they obtained a trash effect (failed emulation, inconsistency, maximalism... There were all the ingredients)[25]; but for the fear that they might have been identified with their failures (with trash, with misère), they attributed whatever they considered low and poor to other people and to other causes: pro-situs stupidity, the impotence of the former members, the "delay" of the real movement compared to the situationist programme and so on. No doubt the result was kitsch, i.e. the failed attempt to get rid of shit in one's life, the attempt of those who are "surrounded, sinking and choking with shit (the trash) and fight an everyday strenuous battle to hide it" (Labranca, op. cit.). The "Thèses" are a kitsch masterpiece which slides down "the dogmatic slope leading to judge history according to an external rule (e.g. councilist teleology); following this approach the SI and its supporters too often considered the wide and active subversive movement merely from the point of view of its delay compared to the Situationist historical programme; the Situationists failed to see that this 'delay' actually was a criticism of that programme (especially of its abstract generality) as if the only task of the movement were to follow the schedule they had previously laid down: briefly, as if revolutionary theory had nothing left to learn from the actual revolutionary movement". [26]. In fact, this is kitsch. Thesis 2 states that "never had such an estremistic project spread like wildfire in an apparently ostile period, taking so quickly the supremacy in the struggle of ideas - which is a product of clss war history. Not only theory, style and the model of the SI have now been adopted by thousand of revolutionaries in the main developed countries, but, it's much more significant that the whole modern society seems to be persuaded that the outlook of the Situationists are true, both to realize them and to fight them." Thesis 3 explains: "The SI has been successful simply because it expressed the 'real movement that abolishes the present state of things' and because it has been able to do it which means that it started to make the subjectively negative part of the process, its wild side, understand its unconscious theory. [...] Then, it's not a theory of the SI we have, but the theory of the proletariat". The no. 6 adds: "[for the Holy Alliance between the owners of society], as for its partners, a new age has begun: They found out that the occupation movement, unfortunately, did have some ideas, and those ideas were situationist." After the boastful talk at the beginning, the theses from 10 to 20 consist in some clear considerations about economy, pollution, about the "symptoms of the crisis", and workers struggles. For instance, thesis 17 very clearly states that "today, pollution and the proletariat are the two concrete aspects of the critique of political economy." It's from thesis 21 that we step into the kitsch (not to get out of it anymore): "when all the conditions of social life change, the SI is in the middle of this changement [sic!] and sees the conditions in which it acted evolving faster than all the rest. None of its members could ignore it or thought about denying it, but actually many of them didn't want the SI to be touched. They were not guarding the past situationist activity, but its image". From here to thesis 44 we have a long tirade against pro-situs and the "contemplative" former members, especially Raoul Vaneigem. The beginning is promising: "it was an inescapable consequence of the historic success of the SI that it were, in its turn, contemplated, and that in such contemplation the unconditional critique to whatever exists were positively appreciated by an ever-widening section of the impotence, which had become itself pro-revolutionary." But thesis 22 is quite revealing as well; after reading it we're left with an aftertaste of an excusatio non petita [unrequired justification, t.n.] :"no historical thought can be sure in advance to escape from misunderstanding or falsification. It doesn't want to impose a definitely coherent and complete system, and especially it doesn't expect to appear so precise to prevent stupidity and bad faith to each of those who will deal with it: therefore it will not be able to impose one universally true interpretation. Such an idealistic claim can only be supported by a dogmatism which is doomed to fail; dogmatism is the opening defeat of such a thought. Historical struggles, which rectify and improve every theory of this kind, are grounds for mistaken and limited interpretations and for interested rejections of an univoc meaning. Thus truth can't be established, without becoming operative force." This piece of reasoning ends up with the idea that the SI theory [i.e. the theory of the proletariat, as stated in thesis 3], even if it's often misunderstood and warped, "will be able to reappear in all its authenticity every time history will be ready for it, starting from today. We've stepped out the age when we could be falsified or rubbed off without appeal, because our theory can now count, in good and evil, on the collaboration of the masses."

The "historic success" of the SI would then consist in having persuaded the masses to "collaborate" their own theory, i.e. with themselves. The SI decreted nothing less than the end of proletarian alienation and self-misunderstanding! The 'theory of the proletariat' had not been formulated by the proletarians, but, in the end, they contributed to its co-elaboration. 'Co-' means 'together with.'... With whom? Who was co-starring in this elaboration if not the SI? Here comes again the old-fashioned "consciousness brought from outside", and, standing against the light, the decrepit figure of the "separate intellectual" who "goes towards the people" Then, what did 'of the proletariat' mean if not the determination of a subject-matter? It was a theory 'on the proletarians' rather than a theory 'by the proletarians'. Furthermore, in spite of the sparse references o "historical struggles", this theory turned out to be metahistorical, ready to reveal itself at every right time. But, at a conscious level of the text construction, the SI refused all this (separation, metahistoricity...) and Debord and Sanguinetti seemed to perceive the inconsistency: therefore they come along with the excusatio non petita: "OF COURSE, it's OBVIOUS that we've never believed..." They tried to hide the trash and, as soon as even a little of it re-emerged, they rushed to say: "This is not what we are!" This is really kitsch. Let's get down now to the crucial part of the tirade against pro-situs, who "let everybody know that they entirely approved the SI, and are not able to do anything else", and who "own only their good will". Here the first explicit reference to the dissolution of the SI appears: "Had the SI kept on acting as before, it would have risked to become the last spectacular ideology of revolution and be used as a pillar of this ideology: The SI would have then risked to hinder the real situationist movement:: revolution" (thesis 26 ) It is then said that pro-situs contemplate the image of a "situationist aristocracy" they wish to enter and this "appearance of hierarchic values" is put down to the former members (expecially Raul Vaneigem) who claimed to be venerated ("mystical status") only because they had belonged to it. Thus pro-situs as well as vaneigemists are "the outcome of the general weakness and lack of experience of the new revolutionary movement" (thesis 32). The following piece is an analysis of the social origins of pro-situs, with some interesting observations (the difference between new 'cadres' and old petit bourgeois). It ends with thesis 38, leaving room for a criticism of the ill composition of the SI and the incapacity of some of its members. This is the beginning of thesis 42: "The contemplative members of the SI were acquired pro-situs, because their imaginary activity was, in their opinion, confirmed by history and by the SI". Thesis 44 sheds light upon that statement: "Those who, instead of asserting and developing their true personality criticising and developing what the SI does and could do anytime, lazily chose a systematic approaval, only wanted to keep up the appearance through the imaginary identification with the result." Here ends the 'tirade'. The last theses, from 45 to 61 are the conclusion: it is recognised that the SI hasn't been able to be egualitarian; nevertheless it avoided to become a power and is one of the few revolutionary organizations in history that "didn't burn itself with the fire of hierarchy". (thesis 52). Thesis 53 says that: "situationists are now everywhere,and their aim is everywhere [...], we don't have to grant anymore whether these people are Situationists or not, because we no longer need it, and because we never enjoyed that. [...] The very term Situationist was used in social war only to instil a certain number of projects and ideas". After a bunch of variations on this theme, thesis 58 strongly asserts: "the real split in the SI is the same to be actually recognized in the large and shapeless movement of protest: the split between the whole revolutionary reality of the age and all the illusions about it." Finally, the conclusion: "Stop admiring us as if we were able to be above the age, and let this age scare itself, looking at its own actual image" (thesis 60); "Whenever we consider the life of the SI we'll recognize the history of revolution in it: nothing could make it bad" (thesis 61). The "Theses" end with the last fireworks, just as a New Years' Eve in Naples, and here as well - when the booze has gone - dead and wounded are counted up and people realize that the 1st of January is not different from December 31st, that there has been no catharsis, no palingenetic entrance in a new age [27]. The pompous sentences had only to convince the SI survivors they didn't have to pay for their massimalistic narrow-mindedness, and couldn't even back the criticism against pro-situs: the "contemplation" of the SI and the ideological endorsement to its programme were not a "part of its historical success", on the contrary this meant the very failure of the situationists to co-ordinate theory, praxis and organization. The reproduction of pro-situs and the passiveness of some members of the SI were inescapable, written in the DNA of the group, which had been manipulated and deviated at the times of the purges (not with biogenetic skills but, as naïvely as Josef Mengele injecting phenol in the pupils of Jews to give them an Arian look.). It was also pathetic and tardy to state that the SI "couldn't be above its age", because, for years they behaved as if whatever happened couldn't but confirming the soundness of their theory. Concluding: the SI had done everything possible to be contemplated, then it pretended not to welcome the offers of its suitors, in order to frustrate and turn on their desire, to keep the game moving. Of this soap-opera love game (terribly thrash), Raoul Vaneigem got tired in 1970,and left the group writing: "It's enough for me to ascertain my inadeguacy in improving this movement - which I've always considered condition of my radicality. [...] I'd rather make again the bet that my adherence to the SI had delayed: to get totally lost or totally re-build my coherence, and do that only for the sake of rebuilding it with the largest number of people I can (24). Being a hedonist, he understood that, after May 68, new girls to seduce had come to town, and that custom had changed; instead of waiting to yield until her flesh was wrinkled, youth had vanished, and the old suitor had run away, it was much wiser to join the fray of "new sex". The spinsters of the would-be crochet club which the SI was going to become, fell back on the tale of "the fox and grapes": "We didn't want suitors! We weren't the ones to provoke them, but Miss Vaneigem! Anyway, we were ever so good-looking that it was natural that somebody tried to to seduce us..." It's an irriverent allegory, for sure, but not a false one. Anyway, the dissolution of the SI did not shake the world.

 

Footnotes

The notes marked by a ** didn't appear in the original text: they were appended by the author during the foul-proof reading.

[25] According to Tommaso Labranca, Trash culture is unsophisticated popular culture. It obviously is coarse and inconsistent, thereby it has to be buried under tons of "good taste". The middle class is as trashy as the working class, but the latter is not ashamed of it, while the former wants to hide the trash, poses as being thoroughbred and becomes kitsch. The characteristics of 'proletarian' Trash culture are unintentional genre cross-fertilisation, incongruity, aesthetical maximalism and emulative syndrome.**

[26] Encyclopédie des Nuisances, op. cit.

[27] In southern Italy, especially in Naples, the New Year's Day culminates with destruction of any old house furniture, which is thrown down from the balcony. In addition to this, the midnight hour is saluted by a real guerrilla of fireworks, petards and firecrackers. Some are found wounded or dead. This clearly is a pagan cathartic feast which Christianity took good care not to suppress.**

 

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