Anselm Jappe, Donald Nicholson-Smith translator, Guy Debord, PM Press, 2018, $21.95.
When Anselm Jappe wrote Guy Debord in 1993, it was widely hailed as the first serious intellectual biography of the principal figure of the Situationist International (SI). Six years later, when the University of California Press published an English translation, Stewart Home1 declared it “both the most boring and by far and away the most stupid book to be written about a situationist to date.” On the other hand, Ken Knabb2 praises Jappe’s effort as “the only book on Debord in either French or English that can be unreservedly recommended.”
Obviously it needs another review.
Home takes issue with Jappe’s ‘postmodernist’ conceptions of class struggle. Indeed, Jappe’s big criticism of Debord is his fealty to Marx on every question, including the role of the proletariat. Jappe was, after all, writing just after the collapse of the USSR and well after the political horizons of the world Communist movement had receded. While Eric Hobsbawm and the Communist Party of Great Britain were able to admit that “the Trotskyists were right,” Tony Cliff answered Ernest Mandel’s appeal to regroup the fractured movement with a characteristically simple “Go fuck yourself.” An era of confusion, the radical theory of the 1990’s and early 2000’s were just as much dominated by Laclau & Mouffe, Hardt & Negri as the 1960’s and 1970’s were by Sartre, Marcuse, and Fanon. One can certainly fault Jappe for giving in to the irresistible urge to find a new method, unencumbered by the wreckage of history; for not seeing the necessity of salvage. Beyond this rebuke however, Home has little left to say of value. Knabb gets it right, Guy Debord is a book which can be unreservedly recommended.
It can at least be unreservedly recommended to a Marxist.
Jappe begins by immediately establishing the distance between Debord and the numerous “self proclaimed enemies of the world” of his generation which have “fallen rapturously into the welcoming arms of academia or television.” It is a fact that the police always showed far more interest in Debord than did “the agencies responsible for the diffusion of ideas.” There is a desire by some on the left (and in the academy) to relegate Debord and the Situationists to a comfortable life in a harmless realm of purely artistic expression; a realm which can only be harmless to a philistine, artistic or not. The reality is these were people who lived and operated on the margins of society, not just of mainstream socialism. Debord wrote in his autobiographical Panegyric, “more than half the people I knew well had sojourned one or more times in the prisons of various countries…” and further that “...the number of my friends killed by bullets constitutes an uncommonly high percentage, leaving aside military operations.”
Jappe also makes a special effort to distance Debord from the apologists of the reigning order who have sought to speak the language of radical criticism against radical practice. The Situationists called this recuperation3, and for Jappe, the worst offender of is Jean Baudrillard, who appears to dedicate himself to proving the vanity of resistance. Throughout the book, Jappe reminds us that for Debord, theory is a weapon.
The purpose of Jappe’s biography is not to dwell on the history of the SI, or of Debord’s personal life. Rather is to obstruct the attempts by others to minimize Debord’s revolutionary commitment, in order to emphasize activities like psychogeography4 and détournement5, which seem harmless in the hands of anyone not hell-bent on the destruction of the social order. While Jappe writes that Debord’s 1967 work, The Society of the Spectacle was crippled by “its allocation of a central place to class structure and the revolutionary role of the proletariat,” he also agrees with Debord’s analysis of capitalist society. The proposition that the logic of capital has come to dominate not just labor but every single aspect of human existence, has remained fundamentally sound.
Who today feels like an active participant in the shaping of their own lives? Who feels, not like a spectator of events, not like a consumers of a second rate pseudo-reality, but instead that they are truly agents of their own experience? Who today does not feel the crushing weight of capitalist exploitation? Who finds meaning in their alienated, transactional relationships with other people, with culture, with nature? Variants of these themes have become so widespread as to be almost cliches. And yet are they not the defining features of everyday life? Unlike dozens of academics, filmmakers, and “culture-jammers,” who urge people to “wake up” from some sort of real-life-Matrix, Debord, the Marxist, saw his role as describing the mechanisms of society to people already in struggle against it. Situationist strategy was a matter of “adding fuel to the flames.” The Situationist slogan, “Our Ideas Are Already In People’s Heads,” was a vote of confidence in a proletariat already engaged in struggle against capital. For Debord, the task was merely to observe, describe, and to participate.
Debord was contending with a world that had found it necessary to erect a representation of popular power and individual fulfillment from East to West; a twin hydra of concentrated6 and diffuse7 spectacle respectively, standing in for authenticity and agency. His contention was simple; the persistence of the commodity form is a virus infecting everything. No sphere of human existence is free from its domination and in order to retain its domination, it has to perpetually declare itself nonexistent.
In writing a genuinely political biography of Debord, Jappe performed a great service to the revolutionary movement during a time of utter confusion. From the outset, Jappe endeavored to rescue Debord (and his collaborators) from years of bad faith and from attempts to repurpose him for “post-Marxism,” or simply for “art,” by retracing developments in the critique of alienation from Marx to Lukacs to Debord. In other words, Jappe’s book repositions Debord squarely within Marxism’s ruthless critique of everything existing. From the discovery of “The Young Marx” in 1932, via the publishing of his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the themes of alienation, commodity fetishism, and the critique of everyday life have been the concern of revolutionaries in the avant garde for a long time.
Jappe wrote glowingly that, “One of the last voices of an old kind of social criticism, Debord was at the same time one the first voices of a new stage.” Jappe’s effort to demystify Situationism remains important for this reason. By dedicating the entire first section of the book to the threads connecting Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, to Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, through Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, to Debord’s Society of The Spectacle, Jappe illustrated a continuity of revolutionary theory which, he insists, must not be broken. He tells the reader that Marxism is a methodology; a framework for analyzing and acting upon the world as it is before us. It is possible to locate Debord somewhere outside of this legacy only to the extent that one either rejects Marxism outright, or else deals only in Marxism’s catechistic vulgarizations.
For decades, official discourse in the Communist world was quasi-religious. Innovative theory was relegated to a sectarian or academic existence. Lukacs had to disavow his work regarding reification and commodity fetishism, for which he is best known today, in order to remain inside the Communist mainstream. All around the edges of 20th century Communism could be found critical insights and developments in Marxist theory which were worked out and engaged with in isolation from the mass movement. But over the almost thirty years since the collapse of the USSR, the once marginalized, dissident trends of the socialist left have all failed to move beyond the maintenance of their own various orthodoxies, in defiance of the increasingly open playing field before them.
Our reappraisal of Debord and engagement with Situationism shouldn’t be in service of this.
The purpose of salvage is to repurpose that which might perhaps still be of use, and much of Situationism is salvageable. Jappe’s book is a helpful tool in the operation. His exposition of the concept of spectacle and his brief overview of the SI’s history, both provide the reader with an introductory, but working knowledge of an often intimidating body of theory. From spectacle – diffuse, concentrated, and integrated8 – to time under the rule of commodity, Debord wrote plenty for which one often might feel unprepared at first. As a political biographer, Jappe takes this well into account. He leaves Debord’s personal life aside to focus entirely on his political trajectory. Anyone who finds themselves interested in details of Debord’s love of alcohol and literature, or his interest in tabletop strategy games, can find them in Panegyric, which while self-aggrandizing, seems as honest an account as a person of any import can write of themself. Anyone interested in scandal (and able to read in French) can read Jean-Marie Apostolidès’ controversial biography, Debord : Le naufrageur.9
The reasons to read Jappe’s book are intensely political.
Jappe’s short history of the SI, in Part Two, is familiar enough. In the 1950’s they were avant-garde students and dropouts, who drunkenly wandered the cities in search of glimpses of real life, behind the facade of a perfectly ordered society. In the 1960’s they turned to more overtly revolutionary activity, primarily in the form of agitprop in service of a coming “second proletarian onslaught on class society.” This was especially so during the French near-revolution of 1968, in which they were enthusiastic participants. Neither a vanguard mass party, nor a horizontal “leaderless” morasse, the SI intended itself to be a Conspiracy of Equals, which existed only to articulate the ideas already in people’s heads. They never sought to build a permanent “representation of the real struggle” but rather worked only to “organize the detonation” and to disappear into the “common festival of revolt.” By 1972, they had splintered and dissolved.
Like the Communist League after the defeat of the Springtime of Peoples, the SI exited the stage when they felt their moment had passed. As Debord said, “No one has twice roused Paris to revolt.” The SI did have had members in several countries who might have played roles -- as their Italian section did in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969 -- in the upheavals of the 1970’s, had they maintained. The SI hemorrhaged members at rate inverse to their rising popularity. Debord’s infamous intolerance played a large role, as did the SI’s obsessive combat with “all fake social critics and pseudo-revolutionaries.” Considering the innumerable sterile sects today which can boast of proud origins, it’s likely better that the SI felt they deserved to exist only while they did.
Debord outlived the organization by two decades in a largely self-imposed exile from public activity. He said he would find it “just as vulgar to be an authority in the resistance to society as to be an authority within society itself.” Jappe’s biography gives these years as much attention as the Situationist heyday. After taking a moment to discuss Debord’s six films, the majority of Part Three considers developments in Debord’s political thought in the more difficult years. A keen observer and critic, Debord studied the developments in class society throughout the dark age of the 1980’s. His 1988 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle rounded out the critique of spectacular society -- discussing terrorism, the security state, and the wholesale disappearance of proletarian opposition -- but has received far less attention than the original, likely because of its relatively bleak outlook.
Jappe sees Debord’s continuing relevance in the fact that “he supplies a new foundation for the contention of the young Marx that political economy is the ‘denial of man accomplished.’” While expressing his own reservations with certain Marxist categories which he sees as historic, rather than contemporary, Jappe recognizes that Debord can only be properly understood when his theories are located within Marxist thought overall. Jappe’s biography should be appreciated for its thorough appraisal of Debord as a political theorist and his insistence that Debord’s place in history is within Marxism, past, present, and future. Debord had said from the outset he saw fit to devote himself to the overthrow of society. The few places where Jappe’s own political assessments fall short are more than made up for in his admiration of Debord; someone who consistently sought to participate in the destruction of capitalism.
English artist, writer, and activist formerly associated with the Neoist Alliance.
American critical theorist known for translating and anthologizing Situationist literature.
The systematic trivialization and sterilization of criticism for the purpose of its absorption into the system.
The study of the effects of geographical setting acting on the mood and behaviour of the individual.
Hijacking the expressions of the capitalist system for the purpose of revolutionary agitprop.
Domination via absolute ideology, cult of personality, and police terror.
Domination via stage-managed discourse, commodified leisure, and organized consumption.
The synthesis of concentrated and diffuse spectacle that characterizes modern Late-Stage Capitalism.
Apostolidès’ treatment of Debord as a predatory and sexually perverse petty tyrant who held the proletariat in contempt is contested perhaps most notably by Debord’s closest collaborator in life, Gianfranco Sanguinetti.
Jason Netek is a longtime socialist, activist, and nuisance from Texas. After a period of wandering the Earth, doing as little as possible, he moved to Hollywood to contribute to the cultural emasculation of Christian civilization. He is a former member of the Red Wedge editorial collective.