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Guy Debord, 1931-1994

Guy Debord, 1931-1994
Guy Ernest Debord took his own life on the afternoon of

be preceded by an address from its maker: ‘There is no film,

Wednesday, 30 November 1994. He was 62 and knew that he

Cinema is dead. There can be no film.’

was dying of a form of polyneuritis brought on by his chronic

The SI was never a large group, but it did have considerable

alcoholism. As he remarked in a final letter incorporated into the

influence. The Situationist pamphlet On the Poverty

last film he made, in collaboration with Brigitte Cornand (Guy

L(le (1967) is often regarded as the text that launched a thousand

Dehord, son art, son temps), this was not a disease contracted as

cobble stones in May ’68. It was first published in Strasbourg,

a result of a moment’s imprudence: ‘On the contrary, it takes a

where self-declared Situationists had been elected to the

stubborn, life-long obstinacy.’ Debord described himself in 1989

students’ union council on the maximalist programme of

as one who ‘had written much less than most people who write,

‘Abolish everything’. Other influences are perhaps less expected:

but who had drunk much more than most people who drink’.

Born into a bourgeois family that was almost ruined by the

the artwork created by Jamie Reid for the Sex Pistols in the Royal
J ubi lee year of 1977, for instance, owes a direct debt to the

crisis of the early 1930s, ‘writer, strategic thinker and French

techniques of detournement developed by the SI, even though

adventurer’, Debord drifted through adolescence before coming

Reid cheerfully admits to understanding nothing of Situationist

into contact with the Lettrists and COBRA. The Lettrist

theory. Detournement (,diversion’, ‘subversion’, but also

International was a Dada-like group intent upon a form of

‘corruption’, as in ‘corruption of minors’) involves a creative

cultural subversion and provocation with the everyday

use of plagiarism, and the subtle alteration of the texts of comic

environment as its theatre: COBRA (the name derives from

books or cartoons to give them a startlingly subversive meaning.

Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam, where most members were

It is a helpful reminder that, despite Debord’s deep pessimism,

based) a collective of avant-gardists dedicated to the

Situationism does have its ludic side, as exemplified by Raoul

revitalization of art’s revolutionary role. It was from this heady

Vaneigem’s Revolution


L(le (1967).

mixture that the Situationist International (SI) emerged in 1957,

Debord’s Socie(. . . qlthe Spectacle is an exquisite distillation

with Debord as one of its principal theorists. One element in

of Lukacs’s Marxism and the theories of alienation associated

Situationism can be traced back to the Dada-surrealist tradition:

with the young Marx. Debord also draws heavily on the writings

the more overtly political element in Debord’ s work owes much

of personal favourites such as Machiavelli, Clausewitz and Sun

to his brief involvement with Socialisme ou Barbarie, the tiny

Tse’s writings on the art of war. The book consists of 221

but influential neo-Trotskyist group founded by Castoriadis in

numbered paragraphs or theses, honed to a classical perfection

1949. (Lyotard and Baudrillard, whose work owes not a little to

that has all the chill eloquence of the aristocrats who stalk

Debord, are only two of its better-known veterans.) The term

through eighteenth-century novels like Laclos’ Les Liaisons

‘Situationism’ involves a reference to Sartre’s ‘being-in-

dangerellses. It is primarily a study of how the accumulation of

situation’, the implicit accusation being that philosophers have

images – the spectacle – has become more important than the

interpreted situations rather than changing them.

accumulation of commodities. What was once a lived experience

Debord did write relatively little and remains a somewhat

now exists as a spectacle unfolding at a distance. The spectacle

mysterious figure, often invoked in leftist debates, but rarely

is a concrete inversion of life, the autonomous movement of the

centre-stage. His first and most renowned work is Society qlthe

non-living. Debord’s argument has a lot in common with

Spectacle (1967) and many of his later writings are attempts to

Marcuse’s critique of the one-dimensionality of capitalist society

justify both its theses and the many splits, expulsions and mutual

and is equally pessimistic. Ultimately, the spectacle can

denunciations that punctuated the history of the SI until its final

incorporate even its own subversion: fifteen minutes of fame can

demise in 1972. In his later years, Debord lived in relative

be deadly for the would-be subversive. By the end of his life,

seclusion in the Haute-Loire, but continued to snipe at both

Debord appears to have reached the conclusion that the only

master-thinkers like Sartre and Lacan and the institutionalized

remaining subversives were the militants of Act Up and the so-

Left. The six films he made are rarely seen outside specialist

called cassellrs – the dispossessed youth who inhabit the grim

circles and exemplify a hard-core experimentalism: the first,

suburbs that ring Paris, and whose occasional destructive

Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) consists of white blanks

incursions into the city would have certainly delighted the

alternating with soundless dark sequences. The final dark

surrealists, who longed to see the Cossacks watering their horses

sequence runs for twenty-four minutes. A voice-over informs

in the fountains of the Place de la Concorde.

the patient (or frustrated) viewer that the projection was meant to


David Macey

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