nothingness.org

Shoplifting

Published in 1995


Note:
Commissioned by Régis Debray for publication in the first issue of Cahiers de Médiologie, this text which, in the spirit of its commission, was supposed to defend Guy Debord, was refused in its present state. The author was accused of ad hominum attacks. Defend Debord, yes. But without naming names. (AV..)


If the historic moment described by Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle was no longer current, no one would read this short treatise anymore, no one would talk about it, not even to joke among friends in grand depreciation and arrogant derision. It would be forgotten like an empty bottle, dead skin. But these are troubled times. It so happens that several people, pursuing different goals, have recently taken up the situationist these of Guy Debord. Thirty years after they were written, of course, but as if they had just made their way to the top of their desks and their intellectual preoccupations.

Does it take 30 years to read a book whose brevity they themselves once snidely denounced? Does it take 15 years to understand it objectively, and another 15 years to understand it subjectively? Or did it just take more than a quarter-century for them to admit it to the company of important books? Or did they (but no, that's impossible) have to wait until its author killed himself, the Van Gogh of Champot still lukewarm, to pick up on his legacy? A beautiful involuntary elegy in any case, this anachronism of thought which now stabs, as if it were an entrée, at a new editorial phenomenon, a subversive thought at its best and brightest peak, the thirtieth anniversary of Society of the Spectacle.

Let us examine this army of French thought now in the midst of deconstructing the Debordian myth. A deconstruction, dear friend, which first of all tarried too long, a Debord, second of all, to whom we did not pay enough attention, whose influence, we are told, will be enormous with the young, and who will sell more books than us now that he is published by that little miser Antoine Gallimard. That one there, I can assure you, does not have his father's stuff. Fortunately, we are still around, us, his living authors, to defend his merchant honor from up on high.

But let us observe, and examine. A hotshot salon-hopper like Gallimard has, for example, found the trick: there is scarcely a paper to be found in which he isn't announcing his great love for Guy-Ernest Debord. In the course of his grandiloquent elegies, the term "situationism" curiously never passes his lips. The perfect word for a game of Scrabble between friends on the island of Ré, but too complicated for the general public? No. It's a matter of isolating the artful dodger Debord, passing silently over his status as theoretician -- or mastermind -- and "masperising" him (as the group called it), hanging him dead or alive in the gallery of great writers of this century, mummifying him in literary criticism. A banal spectacular strategy to dissolve content into form, tendacious but cold praises to better smother the flames of the cause, a consecration of the rigidity of the pen to hide the blade of the knife. After all that, it should not be surprising that our Gallimardesque has forcibly enrolled Debord in his new crusade -- a certain war of taste -- a pitiless battle which, for all we know, must truly be ravaging the most pillaged arrondissement in Paris, the 6th, in which it can doubtless be said that many unfortunate people are to be found. But let's pass over him, whose pettiness is hardly dangerous since he is only acting in his own interests.

Let us instead follow step-by-step another cream-covered thinker who, without pity, has taken to the content as well as to the style, of Society of the Spectacle. It is true that, to excuse his rashness, he's a much milder salon-hopper than the first. He blames the style for being alternately sophomoric and prophetic. Which is, naturally, to speak very highly of the divinatory virtues at work in the preparatory classes at the Ecole Normale Supérieure; but also to congratulate. For it's rare to accord prophetic allure -- even just a little bit -- to 30-year old propositions. So Debord engages in sophistry, according to our man. But about what? Nothing we don't already know, apparently. It was all there in Feuerbach, in the young Marx. (In his declaration of theft, our commissary, friend of literary property, nonetheless forgets to let us know from what ancient spoils the anti-Marxist pages of Society of the Spectacle are derived.) We would willingly add, to complete his denunciation, that all of Society of the Spectacle was already in Sun Tze or Balthasar Gracian; that Debord, theoretician of détournement, never attempted to hide that fact; that strategy is an ancient art that consists of articulating -- in ever-new fashion -- well-known defenses in the face of modern attacks.

Debord isn't describing another world. He is describing the same world having surreptitiously inverted its tactics of domination. That is why he has no need for new ideas; the old ones suffice so long as you imagine them inverting themselves; hence the abundance of inverted terms in his prose, conducted like a game of chess (each fragment being the equivalent of a "move").

Where our intellectual is right is where he criticizes the insurrectional Society of the Spectacle for being a little short on the details of its imagined insurrection. But if Guy Debord short-circuits the passage from the "practice of theory" to "practical theory," it is precisely because theory, as just as it is, is used to describe the battles we lose every day instead of those we will win tomorrow. And it still bears mention that a revolution in France, though a failure, closely followed the publication of Society of the Spectacle (which our intellectual pretends to be unaware of, perhaps because at the time he found himself unluckily on the other side of the world?).

Many things have aged in Society of the Spectacle, notably the Workers' Councils, around which Debord dreams of reorganizing society without the spectacle. Thirty years along, the spectacle has eaten itself to the core, has itself become spectacular merchandise; so thoroughly that, 25 years after the paving stones of Paris saw students marching to reclaim "the right to be lazy", the same pavement is scarcely astounded to discover others, sons of the former, proclaim in equally violent manner "the right to work", then abandon the hostile movement as soon as the legislature promises them a more liberal enslavement. "Men resemble their times moreso than their fathers," writes Debord in 1988, in his Commentaries. So goes spectacular strategy, getting down to business with the very poetry of life: in these sad times, we're serious at age seventeen.

But at the end of these attacks, the true nature of our critique finally appears: for what does he most reproach Guy Debord? For not having "invented" a science like he did; for having lived on the strength of a little book, an eternal thinker, "doctor of nothing." Debord's work is dry, curtailed perhaps, like his life; but the unstoppable strength of its author was to have understood that such a work would be worth nothing without the existence that goes with it, and that the excellence of the one necessarily corresponds to the excellence of the other. The "Heidegger trial" would not be possible with Debord. And few men in this century have known how to maintain such a "living-writing."

It wasn't sufficient to describe the Society of the Spectacle with reason; one had to live in the rationale of not entering it, and in the ambition to conspire to destroy it. At a time when the cops and the fatigue-clad military patrol Paris with machine guns in hand, it can seem futile to champion Debord's "living-writing" so much. But no, if the military patrols Paris with machine guns in hand, it's because our intellectuals have not known how to live-write: neither live well, nor write well. Spectacularized in turn, brought back in the sense desired by domination, these are the same who scoff at Debord and write little books to the glory of De Gaulle. The same ones who no longer know how to read the world, not even Le Monde.[1] In which case they would have discovered the detailed account of the non-life of Khaled Kelkal, as it was told by a German sociologist; and understood that what we name here, pinching our noses, "traditionalism," is only the quickest solution for falsely reintegrating a life truly dissolved, separated, reified: "The world of reification is the world deprived of a center, like the new towns that decorate it." (Raoul Vaneigem, "Basic Banalities", 1962!) In which case they would have known, in the accounts of revolt in the suburbs, in reading of the fatal dérive of Audrey Maupin and Florence Rey (in whose squat they found pamphlets calling for the creation of workers' councils), that thesis 115 of Society of the Spectacle still has certain virtues: "The new signs of negation multiplying in the economically developed countries, signs which are misunderstood and falsified by spectacular arrangement, already enable us to draw the conclusion that a new epoch has begun: now, after the workers' first attempt at subversion, it is capitalist abundance which has failed. When anti-union struggles of Western workers are repressed first of all by unions, and when the first amorphous protests launched by rebellious currents of youth directly imply the rejection of the old specialized politics, of art and of daily life, we see two sides of a new spontaneous struggle which begins under a criminal guise. These are the portents of a second proletarian assault against class society. When the last children of this still immobile army reappear on this battleground which was altered and yet remains the same, they follow a new "General Ludd" who, this time, urges them to destroy the machines of permitted consumption."

Is not the act of refusing to make theory and the reality of these mini-revolts at work every day coincide with one another tantamount to doing the work of separation for which power finances (what Debord calls "the material basis of inverted truth") its police-like troop of intellectuals and academics? We read Debord to know the ending. Similarly, dear inverted dreamers, we read you to know the beginning of the end.


Unpublished text, 1995. To appear in the first issue of «Cahiers de Médiologie» (1996). © Arnaud Viviant.
Translated December 1997, a.h.s. boy

 

Footnotes

[1] A pun, obviously, "Le Monde" (French daily newspaper) translating as "The World"

 

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