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Monday, October 06, 2003:

This is a little essay on Guy Debord from the Radical Philosophy website. The address is :

Consumed by night's fire

The dark romanticism of Guy Debord

Michael Lówy

Guy Debord is a time bomb, and a difficult one to defuse. And yet people have tried. And they are still trying. They try to neutralize him, to water him down, to aestheticize him or to deny his originality. It never works. The dynamite is still there, and it might explode in the hands of anyone who picks it up and tries to render it inoffensive.

Here is a very recent example published in a collection edited by Philippe Sollers.[1] Apparently Debord is no more than a 'literary dandy' writer with a dazzling style: 'All that remains of him is litera ture.' In his works, 'the ethic is reabsorbed into the aesthetic'. How can one integrate a revolutionary book entitled La Société du spectacle into this asepticized approach? It's quite simple. You just ignore it. It is not really wor thy of interest because, being an 'impersonal theoretical work', it is not written in the first person singular. What is more, it is too marked by turns of phrase and a lexicon borrowed from the young Marx and Hegel, and they mar the beautiful style. 'Whe n he abandons the great Germans, it shows in his style. For the better.' The author of this essay would rather refer to Rivarol and Ezra Pound than to Marx and Hegel. For stylistic reasons, no doubt.

Others, by contrast, refer only to the book Debord published in 1967, or rather to its title, and reduce its theses to a banal critique of the mass media. What he called the 'society of the spectacle' is not, however, simply the tyranny of television - that most superficial and immediate manifestation of a deeper reality - but the whole economic, social and political system of modern capitalism (and its bureaucratic copy in the East). It is based upon the transformation of the i ndividual into a passive spectator who watches the movement of commodities, and events in general. This system separates individuals from each other thanks to, among other things, a material mode of production that constantly tends to re-create everything - from cars to television - that generates isolation and separation. The modern spectacle, wrote Guy Debord in one of those superb formulations he was so good at finding, is 'an epic poem' but, unlike the Iliad, it does not sing 'the arms and the man'. It sings 'commodities and their passions'.[2]

It may be a truism, but these days it has to be pointed out with some force: Guy Debord was a Marxist. A profoundly heretical Marxist, no doubt, but also a profoundly innovative one. He was open to libertarian insights , but he still claimed to be a Marxist. His analysis of the society of the spectacle owes a lot to Lukács's History and Class Consciousness, which had already made the transformation of human beings into spectators who watch commodities movi ng of their own accord a central part of the theory of reification. Like Lukács, Debord sees in the proletariat an example of a force that can resist reification. Through practice, struggle and activity the emancipating subject breaks the contemplat ive mood. From that point of view, the workers' councils that abolish the divorce between product and producer, between decisions and execution, are the radical antithesis of the society of the spectacle.[3]

In the face of all the neutralizations and castrations, the important thing to remember is that Guy Debord's books - which will still be remembered a hundred years from now - were written by someone who regarded himself as 'a professional revolutionary working in the cultural field'. Under his influence, situationism, that dissident wing of surrealism, fused the best traditions of workers' council communism and the libertarian spirit of anarchism into a movement designed to bring about a radical transf ormation of society, culture and everyday life. It failed, but the imaginary of '68 derived some of its most audacious dreams from situationism.

1. Cécile Guilbert, Pour Guy Debord, Gallimard, Paris, 1996.

2. La Société du spectacle, 66; translated into English as The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Zone Books, New York, 1994.

3. Cf. Anselme Jappe, Guy Debord, Via Valeiano, Marseilles, 1996. This is probably the best book on Debord to date.

Tosh // 9:45 PM

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