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The Life and Times of Guy Debord

Vincent Kaufmann, Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry. University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Hardback, 345pp, £21.00

Reviewed by Mike Rooke

Is there any justification for another book that adds to the already considerable literature on the life and times of Guy Debord? Kaufmann’s stated intention was to avoid the false divisions between the "literary", "artistic" and "revolutionary" Debord, and whilst successful in this, he is by no means the first to achieve it (one thinks of the books by Anselm Jappe and Len Bracken in recent times). Kaufmann’s book though has real strengths. It appreciates the unity of Debord’s life and ideas better than most commentaries, and places Debord and the Situationist International firmly in the context of the history of twentieth century avant-gardes (Dada, Surrealism, Lettrism, etc).

The first part of the book is devoted to the formative "St Germain-des-Pres" years in Paris (1951-3), the years of "pure negativity" when in many ways the essentials of Situationist activity were developed by Debord and his comrades. Kaufmann constructs his account around the thesis of "the lost children" who were intent on discovering a radical form of subjectivity based on a lived rejection of the prevailing capitalist order (later the "spectacle"). The activity of this period centred round "dérive", an idea that owes as much to Ivan Chtcheglov as to Debord. This urban "drifting" aimed at conjuring into being ambiences of place that released radically new forms of communication and emotion. This "technique for objectifying desire" became the means whereby "art" (in its modernist avant-garde forms) was replaced by the art of "life". In its immediacy, and its desire to avoid representation (and thus co-optation) by the "spectacle", it was intent on leaving no traces, no forms. Its aim was a newly invented life ("poetry") that had to be lived, not objectified in artistic forms. The break with previous avant-garde experiments to transcend art was therefore Debord’s starting point. Later in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle he summed this up: "Dadaism sought to abolish art without realizing it, and surrealism sought to realize art without abolishing it. The critical position since worked out by the Situationists demonstrates that the abolition and the realization of art are inseparable aspects of a single transcendence of art" (Thesis 191). This break began with Debord’s collaboration with Isidore Isou and the Lettrists, out of which came the founding of the Lettrist International (1952), followed by the break with Isou, and the founding of the Situationist International in 1957.

In these years, "dérive" ("drift"), "détournement" (subverting the "author" and "work" by appropriating it in changed form), "psychogeography" ("the technique of objectifying desire"), and "unitary urbanism" (the idea of a defunctionalised city which eliminates the separations of work and leisure, private and public, and promotes truly human communication), were given greater theoretical elaboration in collaboration with such figures as Constant, Kotanyi, Khayati and Asger Jorn. Kaufmann’s coverage of these developments is impressively researched and perceptive, and better than most commentaries. Along the way Kaufmann convincingly dispels certains myths – the supposed seminal influence of Henri Lefebvre and "Socialisme ou Barbarisme" on Debord’s conception of situationist activity. Debord’s reason for writing at all was as an activity, albeit taken very seriously, that was purely in the service of "the art of living", something that placed Lefebvre’s more "academic", and S/B’s more "political" orientation outside the Situationist focus.

The core of Kaufmann’s book explores the "border between poetry and revolution", the ground which in Kaufmann’s words, the SI "clung to". It was this of course that defined the uniqueness of the SI. This "border" was the confluence of the avant-garde’s attempt to transcend art, and orthodox Marxism. Each current had reached a point of crisis – surrealism had stagnated, and Marxism had solidified into a Stalinist caricature. Kaufmann gives us sufficient reason to conclude that Debord and the SI, whilst drawing on both these traditions, took up the question of the revolution of life in a radically new way. It represented therefore, in the distance it placed between it’s practice and that of radical "art" and revolutionary "politics", a seminal moment in the re-birth of revolutionary theory in the twentieth century. The achievement of the SI would of course always be limited by the nature of the times, its greatest vindication only coming late with the explosion of 1968, confirming its view that they were only saying what the masses already knew! And this is why the existence of the SI can never be measured by the usual standards of the "left" – mass membership, permanent organisation, "popularity", influence within the established social structures. These were never the aims and intentions of Debord and the SI. As Debord commented after the eventual dissolution of the SI in 1971: "Avant-gardes have only one time; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have enlivened their time without outliving it". All of this is brought out clearly and emphatically by Kaufmann’s study.

The SI experience was not without its limitations. Most generally, as an exploration of radical subjectivity, it left unresolved problems about the practical relation between its activity and that of workers in struggle; although it has to be recognised (as Kaufmann does) that in Paris 1968 the SI did switch its focus away from the Sorbonne to the occupied factories in recognition of where the truly revolutionary possibilities lay. Not unrelated to this "distance" from workers struggles, is the emphasis in Debord’s work on "separation" as the foundation of the "economic system". As a result, an understanding of the specific value form of labour and its product (as the underpinning of "separation") remained undeveloped, and a dialectic of labour that pointed beyond capitalist relations (not the dialectic of orthodox Marxism!) is absent from Debord’s critique of the "spectacle". Kaufmann’s book is weak on this aspect of Debord’s work (and that of Jappe, better).

Kaufmann’s book finishes on the theme that informs his entire commentary – the status of the "work" that Debord has left behind. He takes the view that Debord was not a theoretician in the conventional sense understood by the academic world (or the "left" for that matter). His writing therefore does not conform to the usual standards of scientific objectivity, however defined. What Debord wrote cannot be detached from "the singularity of a lifetime" that was inimitably his own. He created a "poetic" rather than a body of theory. Because he never asked anything of society, nothing he said or did was barred on the grounds of necessary compromise. This was his deliberately chosen course. This is why Debord cannot be appropriated by academia or politics. His opposition to and refutation of the spectacle, both in writing and in his life (the two cannot be separated), was not up for discussion. It simply was. This is how The Society of the Spectacle should be read. Read also Kaufmann’s book. Despite his vagueness over the extent of his agreement with Debord and the SI, this is a penetrating book that will aid an understanding of one of the most unique revolutionaries of the twentieth century.