The Resurrection of Guy Debord


This appeared in the Guardian Books blog on 18 March 2009:

The Resurrection of Guy Debord

The situationist arch-rebel has finally been recognised as a ‘national treasure’ in France – but would he have appreciated it?


Guy-Ernest Debord would be spinning in his grave — had he not been cremated following his suicide in 1994. The arch-rebel who prided himself on fully deserving society’s “universal hatred” has now officially been recognised as a “national treasure” in his homeland.

The French government has duly stepped in to prevent Yale University from acquiring his personal archives, which contain almost everything he ever produced from the 1950s onwards: films, notes, drafts, unpublished works and corrected proofs, as well as his entire library, typewriter and spectacles. The crowning jewel is, of course, the manuscript of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord’s devastating pre-emptive strike on virtual reality. The small wooden table on which his magnum opus was composed is also thrown in.

It’s difficult to convey how bizarre it is to hear Christine Albanel — Sarkozy’s minister of culture — describing the revolutionary Debord as “one of the last great French intellectuals” of the second half of the 20th century. A love-in between a resurrected Andreas Baader and Angela Merkel would be only marginally more surprising. Then again, intellectuals have been something of a Gallic speciality ever since the Dreyfus Affair. They’re accorded the privileged status usually reserved for the likes of Bono on these shores. Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral, in 1980, attracted some 50,000 punters. I doubt whether Noam Chomsky or Tom Paulin will top that.

But however incongruous her position, Madame Albanel is spot-on: no one — not even his sworn ideological enemies — can deny Debord’s importance. Even though the young prankster soon turned into a curmudgeonly old soak, his influence is all-pervasive. In fact, it was precisely because he hated the modern world with a passion that he was able to analyse it so presciently. “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he observes in the opening pages of The Society of the Spectacle — a statement that’s only grown in truth since he made it, back in 1967.

Howls for Sade, his first movie, certainly was not “mere representation”. It was the cinematographic equivalent of a meeting between Yves Klein’s monochromes and John Cage’s 4′ 33″: the screen remains blank throughout — all-white when there is some dialogue and all-black the rest of the time. During the last 20 minutes, the film plays itself out in total silence and obscurity.

Guy Debord co-founded not one, but two, radical movements: the Lettrist International (1952) and the more famous Situationist International (1957), which popularised concepts such as “dérive” and “détournement”. The situationists’ hour of glory was undoubtedly the student uprising of May 1968, which they partly shaped, but their influence has kept on growing ever since, from Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid‘s work with the Sex Pistols to the current crop of British psychogeographers (Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Stewart Home et al) via Factory Records and The Idler‘s anti-work ethic.

In 1959, Debord and the artist Asger Jorn published Mémoires, which was bound in sandpaper so that it would attack any book placed next to it. For years, this lethal dust jacket served as a perfect symbol of Debord’s abrasiveness: he was the ultimate outsider whose ideas could never be assimilated by the mainstream. So what went wrong?

The official recognition of Debord’s work tends to dissociate the revolutionary from the writer whose classical prose style has been compared with that of great memorialists such as Saint-Simon. This negates the situationist belief that politics, literature and art must go hand in hand: “The point is not to put poetry at the service of revolution, but to put revolution at the service of poetry”. Revolution was supposed to lead to the “supercession of art” by enabling human beings to live poetry and become works of art. From this point of view, Debord belongs to the tradition of dadaists and surrealists such as Jacques Vaché, Arthur Cravan or Boris Poplavsky.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Oscar Wilde famously wrote. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” The French have long made this aphorism their own, as exemplified by the reception given to the likes of Rimbaud, Céline, Jean Genet or Dennis Cooper. It seems that the only crime an author can commit on the other side of the Channel is poor writing — although you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.