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On Wielding the Subversive Scalpel

A Critique of “On Wielding the Subversive Scalpel” by One of Its Authors

What Subversion Really Is


On Wielding the
Subversive Scalpel

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This pamphlet is not a subversive act: it is an exploration of the theory of subversion. This is an important distinction: No subversive act exists within the covers of a book or pamphlet. But out of critical theory, acts flower.

It is, however, no less an act. We do not agree with those who do not make of writing an act, who support the age-old distinction between mind and body, between thoughts and action. Leave such distinctions to Christians and other fossils of the old order.

We have not attempted — for obvious reasons, reasons that will be even more obvious later — to direct the reader in any way. There are no explicit calls to action; really, no actions are specified at all. Our goal (here) is revolutionary clarity.

* * *

I’m not gonna rock the boat,
rockin the boat’s a drag;
I’m gonna sink the boat.

                    —Putney Swope

Picture your social world as a large, well-lit closet / a tunnel extending through society from birth to death / a cave of shadows artificially illuminated / a populous boat adrift in a sea beyond meaning. The sea is an image of the world, a whole world; there is a universe beyond the widest reach of human perception. I do not yet know it / do you?

We live well situated within a world of appearances / we are spectators to a parade of humanized objects & objectified humans; the whole cosmetic array of commodities is a veil about the eyes / is the white set of walls bounding our civilized closet / is a mountain of unwitting oppression through which we senseless burrow. How to relate to the meaning / how to go beyond the mountain / blow it up.

All those who see themselves as being beyond the point of no return, all those for whom the choice was between revolution and suicide and chose revolution, all these confronted then a range of activities to pursue. We present here two dominant poles of the range:


The history of organizing (e.g. “Community Organizing”) is the history of revolutionary failure. We find here the whole boring display of oppositional parasites, representational structures, debate & vote, rules of procedure, and the rest. The New Left is a New Bureaucracy; the counterculture is a counter-hierarchy (&, also, paradoxically, counterrevolutionary). Organization on the left has always been a system of leaders & followers, of the active & the passive, of revolutionary martyrs & their legal defense funders. The existing leftist organizations in this country are by & large mere mirrors of the structures they purport to oppose. There are, of course, degrees of differentiation. Some groups obey Robert’s Rules of Order. Others congratulate themselves for having a “leadership vacuum,” which we suppose means that, leaders or no leaders, they still act as followers. Either way, they lose.

As for those who wish to organize romantic guerrilla bands of armed warriors, in some hollowwood vision of Che Guevara, or out of mere desperation, they will soon find themselves dead. They might as well commit suicide.

But in subversion, we leave behind the interminable argument between the good bureaucrats & the bad ones. By subversion we do not mean, as in its common usage, “overthrowing the government” & replacing it with ourselves. We mean undermining the very addiction, the sick, junkie-like need, to govern or be governed at all. In the end / in the beginning, there are no leaders, no followers: there are only actors.


The Scalpel

“Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction. The marvelous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.”

We live within a society which manifests itself as a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” (Marcuse). We live within a society. All choice is effectively subsumed within a closed system of relation, an absence of contradiction.

The process of socialization is a process by which the society automatically disseminates positive feedback to those who conform to its standards. The junkie feeding his need. Like good rats in some laboratory, we are rewarded for the correct response. Each hour we spend at the job rewards us with the “freedom,” the capability, to buy. Our time is transformed into money, its symbol, which only acquires real meaning when the money is spent. The commodities we buy, the washday miracles & phallic cars & color TVs (or, “alternatively,” suede jackets, stereos & dope), are the concrete reward we receive for a job well done, time well spent on the job. They are the positive reinforcement of our desires. And, just like the junkie, just like the lab rat, the more we get, the more we need. We are never fully satisfied. There is always more to consume. Society produces its own standards, the standards of commodity consumption & its perpetual reinforcement, of socialization through POSITIVE FEEDBACK.

Still, the potential for contradiction always remains. But for the contradiction to be effective it must be total, it must present a unitary critique of the entire society; anything less is mere meaningless debate. In a society that suppresses revolt through fragmentation, any opposition to specific issues, i.e. fragments, is easily dealt with, easily re-absorbed into the smooth flow of the whole.

The tool of pure contradiction — the focal point through which the eruption of the marvelous contradiction may take place — is subversion, the active manifestation of pure NEGATIVE FEEDBACK to the whole of the established standards of the society. Subversion attempts to present the whole contradiction to the whole society.

We see subversion as a sort of phenomenological scalpel, cutting through the surface of the spectacle of the commodity & bringing to light all the most subtle presuppositions on which the society is based.

The scalpel seeks penetration / who are you under all that clothing / those cosmetics; who are you before a sick society takes you in / makes you / in its image / what you needn’t be; all your surfaces / your social façades / your religious faith / your university learning / your creature comforts / all your addictions to a spectacle which consumes you as you consume its poison gifts / the parasite & its needy host. All this is subjected to the most scorching light in the hopes that you will see it all. All these are appurtenances / are appearances / are a mediation between you & yourself / between who you are & what society would make of you / the standards it would bend you to.

All these are made to turn against themselves in the subversive act by an agent / an action which comes into existence as both recognizable & impossible, familiar & exotic.

In a society where the range of possibility is bankrupt, we demand the impossible. This is our game.

(As society appears without contradiction so does it remain monosexual; contradiction / subversion re-sexualizes the playing.)

But this is not a dialogue; it is a disruption. Once a subversive act takes place it is over, only the echo remains, it exists then either as success or failure. If successful, it is beyond critical discussion. The function of subversion is not pedantic; it is not a game for gurus; it wishes to impose no ideology or position on you. It is a contradicting rather than a contradiction, an action rather than a statement. It is pure negation, a phantom. It wishes only to leave you naked first of all, at a point from which you may begin again from an originary state as an actor, the creative, no longer the passive spectator, the force-fed consumer, the will-less addict, but free & full of power & energy to use it.

The scalpel of subversion slices through the surface/veil of appearances to make an opening, nothing more — an open space just large enough for revolution to pass through.

Again, this feedback, this negative feed-through, this subversive act, is no mere posing of an alternative solution for possible discussion; it is a fierce destruction / a cutting away & incineration of all forms of mediation / of popes, professors, cosmetics & kings; a total transformation or none at all.

We hear so much yea-saying these days about Creativity, that what we need are “Constructive Answers” to our problems. But our problem is all one / is one of all-or-nothing. The machine of hierarchical society is broken beyond repair. Burn it. Take destruction as part of the process of nature / nature’s scalpel / death as much a part of life as birth / destruction the breath before creation.

In cellular structure, uninhibited creativity, the unrestrained reproduction of cells, is cancer. We live in a cancerous society. We need the death & destruction of its old carcass, of all that is obsolete; we need to burn down the slum and clear the ground so that the forest can grow through:


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The Field of Play

Subversion, then, may be seem as a fierce surrealistic disruption of the organization of appearances into an uninterrupted, static, spectacular Reality. We should understand that this organization occurs not only on the macrocosmic level, in social institutions (such as the mass media laying the groundwork for socialization), but also in the individual, in the way one organizes a worldview, an attitude toward the social environment. Hierarchies are found not only in bureaucratic institutions; there are also perceptual hierarchies. The macro- & microcosmic levels of organization are intricately interrelated, they continually feed each other & maintain each other’s existence. We learn, through the process of “growing up,” through education, through all the modes of socialization, to perceive the world according to certain linear patterns of cause & effect / of stimuli & response / “obsessional associational tracks” (William Burroughs). These are the same bureaucratic correct-channels of individuated consciousness down which society “naturally” funnels its positive feedback, its need for conformity. The individual mind learns to believe Madison Avenue; it trusts the mass media. The individual & societal levels of organization reflect each other’s structures, and they will continue to do so until maximal damage is done to their relationship itself. Destroy just one and the other will regenerate it.

The figurative “place” in which this two-fold activity takes place we will call the “field of play.” Yippies, who also attempt to create subversive situations, would call it “theater,” a stage, and it is at this point that we begin to mark their failure. They wish, by their own admission, to create a more attractive Spectacle than has been developed by capitalism. But every spectacle demands spectators — the passive, the alienated, the over-fed, the multitude of mimetic followers. The subversive act, in its purity, allows for no spectators; there are no bleacher seats around this field. Spectators are attacked for being just that: it is the spectacle itself, in any mutation, which must be conclusively undermined.

See the field, on its simplest level, as a sort of loom upon which all fragments are interwoven and revealed in a unitary perspective. All possible/necessary connections are made. Subversion devalues each fragmented element in the hierarchy of appearances; each isolated commodity — whether it be an inanimate object or an objectified human, both of which sell themselves on the marketplace — is projected into the significance of the Whole, the totality, the entire unitary field. This is the level at which theory is created, the level of fundamental critique, and thus it serves as the starting point of the act.

It must be made clear that the diagram of the field which follows operates on a purely HORIZONTAL level, and that all relations within it are thus relations of real equals. This is as opposed to the vertical organization of all hierarchies & bureaucracies. Subversion attempts to cut across the vertical plane of leadership & directive, across the whole mystique of Progress raising man above nature, across the ladder of success. (The problem of directive is one reason why the language of this essay aims to be clear but figurative. The energy necessary for the subversive project always belongs to everyone who can realize his own power. But for us to offer scenarios/programs would be to lapse back into old leadership molds. Like the proponents of community organizing, who do the primary work at the same time that they congratulate their constituencies for being so original. Instead, we would like to remind you, comrade, that the burden remains your own.)

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TRUST IN        |       DISTRUST IN          | DISTRUST
                |                            |
             \  |                            |
               \|                            |
THE             |\        THE ACT            |
SPECTACLE    _ _| _\_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _    |
OF THE          |  /                      \  | nihilism
COMMODITY       |/                         | |
               /|                       <-/  |
             /  |                 reflexion; |
                |                    Opening |

<--positive feedback  negative feed-through-->    

We take the area to the left of the dotted line as the status quo, the place to which positive feedback directs us, the given world constituted by an uninterrupted absence of full contradiction. Subversion acts as a corrosive agent on this line, this veil of appearances. It lets the light through in such a way that everyone gravitates to the light; it attempts to create an energy/force which will hurl each individual past Trust in the spectacular arrangement of appearances.

There is a great danger here, if the act is truly powerful, and that is that it could well destroy not only the cosmetic appearances, but the skin as well; then the act has gone too far, surpassing even trust in trust itself. This is the ultimate “paranoid flash,” where all trust is dissolved, and subversive energy loses itself in the stasis of nihilism. And stasis is death.

But instead, like in a game of “Chicken,” the subject/object of the act hurtles across the playing field, propelled by the force of the act, toward certain annihilation/nihilism, & then, at the last possible moment before flying out of the playing field altogether, turns. Turning enables one to see oneself within the process of the act, to see what in truth has just happened. This is a delicate moment, this reflexive turning, and it is upon it that everything else hinges; it is in reflexion without mediation by appearances that the act seeks its relationship to the individual. Here, at this juncture, the open space is created, and the subjects/objects pass through, each to reinhabit his/her own responsibility for & active involvement in the subversive act. We must never be left with the feeling that we were merely acted upon.

In truth, however, none of the lines in the diagram really exist, they are all mere figurative referents, for there are no boundaries to subversion, or, rather, the boundaries are forever in flux, forever changing. We must never be given the chance to fix a final, static Frame (i.e. standard of reference) around the subversive act and call it, say, Art. All frames separate that which is within them from that which is outside of them, as Art is distinct from everyday life. Subversion has nothing to do with Art, but it is quite capable, when necessary, of making use of art. You cannot pin the act down within such a frame; try to do so & we will destroy the frame itself, all the stages & pedestals upon which you try to place it. The field of play must fuse with everyday life. The subversive act is never a thing-in-itself, it is never per se an object of the understanding. Subversion is more like a heat, an invisible force always seeking to create the Opening & being itself the opening it creates.

Let us make clear that in designating a field, an act, we do not mean to imply that these acts are necessarily isolated, individual acts. Incredible damage can & must be done to the smooth flow of the Spectacle by using sequential activity in which subversion should attempt to disrupt the progression of associations and appearances by inserting nonlinear, seemingly random elements into the linear flow. Beneath a guise of logic, do what is most illogical. Expectations & trust in the ordered flow will crumble.

Neither is the field of play ever a closed system, formulaic & conclusive. Subversion does not mystify or immortalize itself. Rather, subversion is the activity of an agent or group which realizes itself in its own supersession. Subversion returns to itself not as itself, not as it was born, but changing, reconceived in a limitless perspective. The field of play is constituted such that even the subversive agents themselves cannot be immune from the cutting edge of the act: subversion subverts even its makers. It is the only language, the only gesture, which is so volatile that it always bears within itself its own critique. Its force is this: pleasure seeking itself.


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The Identity of the Players

“Personality is a persona, a mask. The world is a stage, the self a theatrical creation . . . Personality is not innate, but acquired. Like a mask, it is a thing, a fetish, a fetishistic object or commodity.”
—N. O. Brown

Personality is not innate, but acquired. In modern society, however, individuals inevitably make the mistake of confusing the mask with the life it masks; personality becomes a sort of psychological body, one we believe to be naturalistically determined. But personality is in truth only the presentation of appearances to the social world, a presentation which is itself a re-presentation, in psychological form, of the socializing process.

“Who reduces the life of a man to such a pitiful chain of clichés? A journalist, a policeman, a popular novelist? Not in the least. It is the man himself who decomposes his day into a chain of poses more or less consciously chosen from the dominant stereotypes. Consciousness lost in a seduction of successive images, he turns away authentic pleasures to gain, by a passionately unjustifiable asceticism, an adulterated joy, too demonstrative not to be a façade. The roles assumed one after the other procure for him a titillation of satisfaction when he succeeds in modeling them loyally on the stereotypes. He draws the satisfaction of a role well fulfilled from his vehemence to become estranged from himself, to sacrifice himself.” (Raoul Vaneigem)

The set of relationships between personality & society can be pictured as a gyre of escalating alienation from authenticity. At its early stages, the development of social identity is a process in history, with a realized past & a realizable future. The personality of the individual is in flux proportionate to the flux of the society at large. The child & the adolescent imagine, &, to a degree, act out a series of roles, all of which in some way symbolize their assimilation of positive feedback. Even the adolescent’s role of “rebel” — unless the rebellion is total, stemming from a unitary critique — is by & large a mere stage of social development that will end on the sacrificial altar of alienated labor.

Marx informed us that capitalism reproduces itself on all levels of organization, both bureaucratically & in the individual consciousness. It is in this sense that he understood neurosis as the product of social disintegration. In a society whose driving force embodies, in part, alienation from authenticity, the chief means of protecting oneself is to accept such alienation as the “natural” state of things. Besides, it is easy to accept an alienation so comfortable, so full of nice things, as ours. Personality is the manifestation of this acceptance, it is the form of alienation; personality/identity can here be seen as an organism’s defense against a hostile environment: “the oyster’s identity is his shell” (Burroughs).

But when these identities are made conscious & articulated by, say, the mass media in a situation comedy or a commercial, then they become stereotypes. The series of roles becomes the absolute Role. The spectacle takes roles that are, in the first place, abstractions, and reifies them even further. The situation loses even a sense of historical change: “In the degree that the role conforms to a stereotype, it tends to fix itself, to take on the static character of its model. It has no present, no past, no future because it is a time of pose and, so to speak, a pause in time...” (Vaneigem). The individual, in embodying the stereotype, embodies his own abstraction; he wills himself, through his mask, to recapitulate his own alienation. This two-fold relationship between role & stereotype feeds itself, back & forth, gyrates out of control.

In short, personality is role. Once this is understood, we need no longer be trapped by our own identities, we need no longer confuse personality with authentic self, and we are thereby free to use identity as a tool in the subversive act. Let us take, as a metaphoric model for the subversive agent/actor, the mythological character of Proteus, “first man,” the prophetic old man of the sea who is remembered chiefly for his ability to assume new roles at will, to create viable disguises, to use appearance against the organization of appearances, which allows the agent/actor to move freely within the world of the Spectacle.

It is not only the field of play which resists being placed within a Frame: a distinguishing feature of the subversive act is that the actors themselves remain operationally invisible. They must assume countless disguises so as to avoid being caught, both physically (as by the police) and by an understanding which still has its roots in the standards of the Spectacle, i.e. which consigns the actors & their acts to the rigid finality of an absolute definition which is, in effect, irrelevant. It should be of no concern to the subjects/objects of the act who its agents are; their concern should be with their own lives. For the identity of the players can never be distinguished from the act itself, or from the field on which it takes place. The agents/actors/players must have a crystal-clear understanding of their roles, the specific identities they assume in the subversive act. They must always make explicit to themselves an exacting understanding of all their identities, because if once they become lost in their roles & forget them as roles, then the Spectacle has reclaimed them.

When the Yippies were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, they appeared in a variety of disguises, or to be more accurate, costumes: Vietcong soldier, Latin American guerilla, Santa Claus, & so on. Through their costumed identities, they were able to turn the hearings into a comedy, a farce of themselves. In other words, they created a mini-spectacle. That is the way in which their act was recuperated; that is the frame which was put around it. If they had wanted to do real subversive damage, they might have gone as CIA agents, dressed in suits & ties, with forged official documents proving that they were, in fact, government operatives. (This is, of course, a gross example, but we refuse to be more specific.)

The subversive agent/actor has no wish to create theater, guerrilla or otherwise. The costumes of the Yippies are not viable disguises, & they know it, whereas a suit & tie & short hair are. Necessary invisibility can only be achieved when the roles assumed are so transparent that they never appear to be roles at all, but rather, identities as “real” as anyone else’s. Anything less than transparency, and the subversive act is reduced to absurdity. The Spectacle, quite simply, must not know nor be able to find out who its enemies are. In refuting the value of restrictive appearances, the actors/agents move to make themselves invisible to those who can see only appearances; the Spectacle cannot defend itself against them.

Modern man realizes himself largely through identifying himself with his possessions, and, furthermore, through identifying himself by his possessions. A man’s wealth is measured by the impoverished objects he accumulates into his life. He dresses himself in various uniforms, surrounds himself with a house, & fills the house to overflowing with commodities, all of which are meant to speak to the world for him. Commodities define & mediate for him his roles in the Spectacle. His possessions, in effect, possess him, he cannot escape them, because they constitute his mask, and he cannot distinguish the mask from the self.

Zen monks & others, in refusing to be owned by possessions, have for centuries taken vows of poverty, so that they could effectively remain free of the world of appearances, “maya,” the illusory Spectacle. The subversive agents/actors, however, do not wish merely to remain ascetically free from the Spectacle: they believe they can never be free until the Spectacle itself is crushed, so they continually intercede between men & their possessions, they persistently cut the bonds that chain a man to things & make of him, thus, a Thing.

We have said before that the force of subversion is the force of pleasure seeking itself. This is the playful energy that moves us away from slavery to things & thingness, away from slavery to appearances & their spectacular arrangement, away from all forms of alienation, and toward a society so constituted by change that we can continually realize our authentic natures. We find the energy to create the subversive act in the passion of play, such as disguises becoming a means of playing with identity. The quality of the act is in the pleasure it brings: if you make a social revolution, do it for fun. Subversion is a two-edged scalpel, a dialectical tool of a revolution that grows from our revolutionizing our daily lives. It is both the weapon of a pure negativity seeking to destroy the Spectacle through the game, and a mode of positive being which, by totally refusing the Spectacle, projects itself into a new order.

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May 1970

The original edition of On Wielding the Subversive Scalpel, which was published anonymously in an edition of 1800 copies, was partly set in poetic lines with no capitals and rather minimal punctuation. In order to make it easier to follow, I have reset it as prose text and restored ordinary capitalization and punctuation.

A Critique of
“On Wielding the Subversive Scalpel” 
by One of Its Authors

“Thus the spectacle would be caused by the fact that modern man is too much of a spectator. Boorstin does not understand that the proliferation of the prefabricated ‘pseudo-events’ which he denounces flows from the simple fact that, in the massive reality of present social life, men do not themselves live events. It is because history itself haunts modern society like a specter that one finds pseudo-history constructed at every level of consumption of life, to preserve the threatened equilibrium of the present frozen time. . . . The critical theory of the spectacle can only be true by uniting with the practical current of negation in society; and this negation, the resumption of the revolutionary class struggle, will become conscious of itself by developing the critique of the spectacle which is the theory of its real conditions.”
            —Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, theses 200 and 203

I have hesitated for some time to write a critique of On Wielding the Subversive Scalpel not because its mistakes do not warrant such a project but because the pamphlet was an expression of all the incoherence of an “organization” of which I was a participant and whose mystifications and delusions I wish to expose in their fullness. I was reluctant, then, to tear this bit of pseudo-situationism from its history, the organizational confusion of the Council for the Eruption of the Marvelous. However, the increasing number of enthusiastic responses and the reprinting of part of the pamphlet in an issue of It Ain’t Me Babe has made a critical supersession necessary. I don’t want to feel responsible for those who attack the spectacle with a dull knife.

The numerous incoherencies of this pamphlet, its anti-nihilist nihilism (“propelled by the force of the act, toward certain annihilation/nihilism”), its numerous vague references to an unnamed collectivity, its spectacular literary style of “daring” imagery (“a populous boat adrift in a sea beyond meaning”), its Burroughsian conception of personality as stimulus and response (“We learn . . . to perceive the world according to certain linear patterns of cause and effect / stimuli and response”), its anti-art protestations which never suggest the possibility for the realization of generalized creativity, are all the inevitable consequence of a method which is lacking nothing but dialectic, an understanding of past and future and of the production of the material world. The history of class struggle, of the attempts of the proletariat to negate its own alienation, is nowhere acknowledged in a pamphlet which claims to deal with social revolution. Once the “analysis” removes itself from the development of history, from the world of conflicting social forces, its task can only be that of justifying and ameliorating its lonely position outside of social practice.

The nihilism of the “subversive” method is the necessary consequence for those actors who imagine the other as “passive, well-fed” spectators of the parade of commodities. For in throwing out the producers the pamphlet must also throw out production. Alienation is described as “the commodities we buy, the washday miracles and phallic cars and color TVs, are the concrete reward we receive for a job well done, time well spent on the job.” The reproduction of daily life, the unconscious self-enslavement of the proletariat, is reduced to a response to the reward of the commodity. The production and consumption of the commodity are separable conceptually and tactically, but their unification as the passivity of participatory nonparticipation is the essential lie whose negation is necessary for the end of class society, the only revolutionary project, a possibility which the pamphlet never considers.

On Wielding the Subversive Scalpel rejects “scenarios/programs” as hierarchical and then, while pretending to be above organizing, substitutes its own manipulative practice, the awakening of the “mimetic followers” to the possibility of transforming their own daily lives. To anyone living in the real world this limited experiment is only the prelude to the real beginning of creative activity and worldwide experimentation. The real possibility of the supersession by the workers of their passive creativity is confused with the needs of the authors for a more interesting form of “nonhierarchical” activity. The project of nihilism becomes the project of everyone, if only by the omission of a discussion of revolutionary organization. Thus “this subversive act is no mere posing of an alternative solution for possible discussion: it is a fierce destruction / a cutting away and incineration of all forms of mediation / of popes, professors, cosmetics and kings; a total transformation or none at all.” Or “the machine of hierarchical power is broken beyond repair. Burn it. . . . We need to burn down the slum and clear the ground so that the forest can grow through.” But the new world is not like the forest, it does not grow without the conscious negation of class society by the practice of a social organization which is at once the active negation and the supersession of hierarchical power. This organization can only come from those who produce the material conditions which enchain them, the only class which can end class society, the proletariat.*

*The necessity for the total destruction of hierarchical power and the commodity economy remains with us. The traditional revolutionary workers’ movement failed to bring about this transformation of the world. At its most advanced moments (Russia 1905, Kronstadt 1921, Spain 1936, and Hungary 1956), however, it did outline the form that the revolution to come will take: the absolute power of workers councils. This antihierarchical form of organization begins from the direct democracy of the popular assembly and federates internationally by means of strictly mandated, immediately revocable delegates. In this way it avoids the possibility of the emergence of a new ruling class of bureaucrats or specialists.


What Subversion
Really Is

“The dictatorship of the fragmentary makes détournement the only technique serving the totality. As a revolutionary gesture, détournement is the most coherent, the most popular, and the best adapted to revolutionary praxis. Following a sort of natural evolution — the passion of the game — it leads to the most radical action possible.”
                                               —Raoul Vaneigem, Treatise on Living

What is talked about here as “subversion” is in French détournement subversif (subversive diversion or deflection). The initial conception of détournement derived from Lautréamont’s continual deflection of individual elements into new perspectives in Maldoror. It was but a step from this to pick up where Dada left off and take cultural fragments (by definition separate from the totality of social life) and divert them into the perspective of that social totality. For example, a Rembrandt painting could be made to say, “Humanity won’t be happy till the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat.” This is entirely different from “revolutionary art,” which uses separate, manipulative forms to propagate ideas of separate power, of an “alternative” manipulative social form. The movement attempts to create or take over — it struggles for — positions of dominance, instead of using them (if at all) to destroy themselves.

The Strasbourg scandal in France, 1966, was an exemplary subversive action. Some individuals, due to general student apathy, got themselves elected to the student union on no program. They then used university funds to run off ten thousand copies of the Situationist pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life, which they distributed on orientation day. They also announced that their only “program” was the dissolution of the irrelevant, bureaucratic student union. Nothing more.

Thus, the original anti-cultural range of activity could be extended into “politics.” But the point is not to devalue anything just because it is ontologically “fragmentary,” but specifically this: The capitalist system creates a specific kind of hierarchy of fragments whose existence is determined by their position in that hierarchy. Human beings, as well as the wealth they create, are reduced to the quantitative, the cash nexus, reducing the individual’s “life” to a collection of banal gestures, a sum of roles. The Spectacle (analogous to religion in the feudal period) presents a false worldview: that happiness is measured by the number of impoverished objects possessed, for example; “everything has its proper place.” Subversive détournement does not seek to throw confusion into the Spectacle or into the consciousnesses of the alienated persons who produce and consume it. If a pretty woman on an advertising poster is altered so that “she” talks about her manipulative raison-d’être in the commodity system, the purpose is to make things clear. The fragment is made to expose itself in the perspective of the real possibility to change the system totally through the conscious, nonhierarchical action of the proletariat.

It should finally be mentioned that the importance of détournement is partly due to the fact that the traditional revolutionary movement’s failure showed the need for new tactics. Reformism and pseudo-revolutionary Leninism have demonstrated that entering the arena of power results in integration into the hierarchical system. The trade unions and mass parties contain revolt and actually consolidate the system by presenting the illusion of opposition to it. Subversive détournement, consequently, does not enter the system to change it. It playfully turns it against itself; at the same time that revolutionary organizations in relation to the proletariat begin to pose and solve the positive questions of supersession, and to solve them always in antagonism to the dominant system.


The two texts by Isaac Cronin and “Frederick Engels” (i.e. Ken Knabb) were issued together November 1970.

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