(Paris. Three months.)
During the two and a half years since my previous Paris trip, our Bay Area situ group, Contradiction, had come to an end and we had abandoned the journal and the critiques of the New Left movement and of the counterculture that we had planned. I had gone through a period of depression about this letdown during the latter part of 1972, then a revival of spirits in the first few months of 1973 (described here in my autobiography and in more detail in Affective Detournement: A Case Study). During that latter period I wrote my pamphlet Remarks on Contradiction and Its Failure and translated Jean-Pierre Voyer’s pamphlet Reich: How to Use. (Below is a comic poster I created to publicize the latter.) In the process, my relations with Dan Hammer and Isaac Cronin (ex-Contradiction members), Jeanne Smith (Isaac’s girlfriend), and Tita Carrión (my former girlfriend) had strengthened, while those with my other Contradiction comrades had virtually ended. In early September I made my second trip to Paris.
Once again I stayed at Roger Grégoire and Linda Lanphear’s almost the entire time (except for a few days in a couple of other apartments when the tenants were out of town). Dan, Isaac, Jeanne, and Tita were also in Europe during parts of the time I was there. Dan had passed through Paris but had then gone on to Greece, so I didn’t see him. Isaac and Jeanne were in Paris for the first two or three weeks of my visit. Tita showed up toward the end, a week or two before I returned to Berkeley. I also briefly saw Robert Cooperstein (Tita’s boyfriend), who passed through Paris briefly on his way to Spain, and Javier Veciana (Tita’s former boyfriend, who was then living in Amsterdam).
(To clarify these latter relations: The young Spanish couple Tita and Javier had originally visited our Bay Area group in summer 1971. When Javier went back to Europe a month or so later, Tita stayed with me. She went back to Spain in spring of 1972, then returned to Berkeley later that year. Soon afterwards she met Robert Cooperstein and the two of them lived together for the next several years. She later married another guy, and she and her husband live not far from me in Berkeley. Robert has also remained a good friend of mine during all the intervening years.)
Roger, Linda, and Gérard Lambert had meanwhile become good friends with Jean-Pierre Voyer. I had been inspired by the amusingly audacious style of Voyer’s early activity (the name “Bureau of Public Secrets,” for example, was partly suggested by his notion of publicité), so once I was in Paris I naturally hastened to meet him. In person I found him to be intellectually provocative, but it also seemed to me that he had a tendency to get carried away with his theoretical insights, harping on them to the point that they became ideological. I was also disappointed to learn that he was not following up some of the embryonic ideas that had most interested me in his Reich pamphlet. I realized that if I wanted to see those ideas developed, I would have to do it myself (which I later did to a certain extent in my pamphlet Double-Reflection and in the “Case Study” article).
I did discover that we had one notable lifestyle commonality. I was lucky enough to live in a very low rent Berkeley cottage ($50/month at that time), but Voyer had even that beat. Most of my Paris friends lived in quite cheap apartments, especially considering that they were right in the heart of the world’s most interesting city. Some of this was due to post-World War II socialist legislation: certain dwellings, depending on their age and condition, were legally locked into astonishingly low rents. But Voyer’s situation was extreme even by Paris standards. His room was admittedly tiny, at the top floor of an old building, with no hot water and with the only cold water tap and toilet in the hallway. But his rent was — $13 a month!
Needless to say, Paris, like most other places in the world, is very different now. Many of those old buildings have been destroyed and replaced by sterile expensive highrises, and most of the poorer classes have been forced into the drab and distant suburbs. But back in the 1970s most of my Paris friends seemed to get by without working very much, if at all. Linda had a secretarial job, Roger did a little work for Éditions Champ Libre, Gérard did some freelance translating, many of the others only did occasional odd jobs.
Anyway, Voyer and I initially got along pretty well, with some long one-on-one talks as well as at social gatherings with several other friends of his and of Roger and Linda’s, including Claude Meunier, who had written some pretty good songs on more or less situationist themes. I also hung out a lot with Isa Chaudière, a young woman whom Tita had put me in touch with, and through her I met Francisco (“Chico”) Alves, an exile from fascist Portugal who had translated The Society of the Spectacle into Portuguese. On the whole it was a pretty lively and pleasant scene, including continued discussions centered around Voyer’s ideas and our recent Bay Area adventures. But after a while I became disappointed at where it was going — or rather, at the fact that it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. So I decided to stir things up with an open letter, addressed particularly to Voyer but with copies to our mutual friends and several other people in our milieu. (See the Appendix, below.)
The rather haughty tone of this letter now seems rather silly to me, but it reflects the intensity of our concerns at that time — and it was also, of course, mostly tongue in cheek. There are a number of in-group allusions to Voyer’s idiosyncratic style (e.g. referring to people as “citizens” instead of “comrades”), to his pamphlet Reich: How to Use, and to the drafts of the book that he was working on at the time (tentatively titled Encyclopédie des Apparences, but eventually published as Introduction à la Science de la Publicité).
For a few days my letter did indeed stir up a flurry of self-questionings among the people involved, but ultimately things didn’t really change, and from that point on my relations with most of them cooled.
Meanwhile, one day while all this was going on Daniel Denevert knocked on my door. He had discovered a copy of my pamphlet Remarks on Contradiction at the “Kiosk Cluny” (a little newsstand on Boulevard Saint-Michel in front of the old Cluny monastery which, besides the usual mainstream magazines and newspapers, was known for also selling massive quantities of situ journals and pamphlets). He was so struck by it that he had decided to translate it into French. Then he ran into Chico Alvez, learned that I was in Paris, and got my address from Isa. Daniel and I immediately hit it off. Not only were we in close accord on virtually all the issues regarding the situationist scene, but it turned out that he was the author of an anonymous pamphlet that I had already read and greatly appreciated (Pour l’intelligence de quelques aspects du moment) and he was about to publish a new pamphlet developing some of the same themes in more detail: Théorie de la misère, misère de la théorie.
Daniel introduced me to his wife Françoise Denevert and the two other members of their group, the Centre de Recherche sur la Question Sociale (CRQS: Center for Research on the Social Question), Joël Cornualt and Nadine Bloch, and I spent much of the next few weeks with them. Toward the end of my trip Tita showed up, and it was her camera that enabled us to take these photos from a final gathering at the Deneverts’ (with another friend of theirs, Paulette Cudek).
I returned to Berkeley a few days later, in early December.
(Open letter to Jean-Pierre Voyer and friends)
October 1, 1973
Ken Knabb to Jean-Pierre Voyer (copies to concerned persons)
I have just received the outline of your Encyclopédie and I find — as with your Preface — nothing essential to criticize — at least of that which I understand. But it seems appropriate for me to clarify a few points on my activity in relation with your work; as well as some matters regarding the current scene in Paris — which latter, in fact, are not entirely unrelated to the first thing.
It seems to me that the object of my current researches is in some respects complementary to that of yours. However, when I attempted to discuss these researches with you it seemed that you were — if not precisely opposed to them — not interested. This may represent some real opposition between us or it may be more a matter of misunderstanding. Let me briefly outline my theses, my points of departure.
I begin from a phenomenon which we have all noted: When an individual practices theory there is a tendency for “the two poles of daily life (to be) abolished simultaneously.” This experience is such a gas, so ecstatically exhilarating, that one question inevitably recurs: How could I have forgotten this? How could I have once engaged in this genre of activity and then stopped? This is perhaps the most central theme of my Remarks on Contradiction. And in suppressing my own malaise and that of Contradiction — by realizing the pamphlet — I made use of the notion of character according to you as well as according to Reich. Quite simply I had to several times break resistances to writing it (or, more precisely, to completing it) and I did this in large measure by utilizing (with a few significant alterations) Reichian character-analytic techniques. This is not the place to go into detail on the numerous tactics I tried — in many cases very gropingly, since to my knowledge I was the first person to have attempted precisely this type of activity. My own activity — and above all its failures — was my primary data (and in fact continues to be). Several times I broke that vicious circle you referred to.
It is evident that even the tiniest taste of adventure — of unity of thought and practice — makes spirit come to people. (Witness the infinite variety of religions, therapies, fads which appear — momentarily — as definitive solutions to their converts; though their satisfaction is naturally mutilated and soon disappointed.) In fact, the same phenomenon operates with revolutionaries; and unfortunately, up till now, with almost the same degree of unconsciousness. The moments of real consequence, originality, excitement, accomplishment come to us almost exclusively by accident. It is almost always “pour une cause fortuite.” That is why we see over and over the innumerable cases of capable comrades sinking into lethargy, bullshit, impossibly grandiose schemes in the middle of miserable situations which they never begin to face concretely. And all this with hardly a protest! Why is it that one individual crosses that unmistakable line into “genitality” — by writing a leaflet, starting a conversation, composing a letter or a disruption, or otherwise stirring the repressed into consciousness with all the delightful, intense results — while fifty other people in the same situation don’t — escaping the most elementary and urgently called-for things to be done?
Because we don’t know what to look for and how, we remain unconscious agents of history. It is not just the workers but also we who lack only the consciousness of what we have already done and of why we haven’t done what we haven’t. Our first question should be: “Why don’t we revolt more?”
That, in a word, is the object of my investigation. I might add that if I fail in this it will not be through lack of material; it will be simply a confirmation in negative of my theses; if I fail others will come after me who will know why. Being a secret agent is a risky business!
In any case, in the context of this problem your curt response that you were “not interested in psychoanalysis” seems about as intelligent as if I were to respond to your use of Hegel by saying that I wasn’t interested in philosophy. I would think it would go without saying that I pose my undertakings on the foundation that you have already put Reich on his feet.
To put that undertaking more positively, I want to detourn all these things — from Reich down to far less prestigious sources (e.g. religions, other “therapies”) — in the direction of material towards a phenomenology of the subjective side of the practice of theory.
* * *
Your enthusiastic approval (even if with some criticisms) of the poster “We’re Tired of Playing With Ourselves” was rather surprising to me. I can only infer from this a theory-practice separation: You are the theorist of publicity and in relation to you the poster represented “practice” — perhaps the first that aimed explicitly at being a practice of publicity. What makes this relation bizarre is that the actual content of the poster is more “Knabbist” than my positions; i.e. it more strongly affirms “anti-character struggle” (breaking individual blocks, attacking petrification in personal relations among friends and comrades, etc.) and with less understanding of such tactics in the context of social revolution. Effectively, they treated character as a separate notion. Hence the almost universal misunderstanding of their poster as in some sense offering an individual therapy. The responses, in fact, prove only one thing: that the poster was poor, only an ill-digested spectacle of Making Misery Public. The notion of using them as data or as a point of departure for further projects I can only attribute to —
a) on the parts of Isaac, Danny, Roger and Gérard, an unimaginative inertia which — combined with various lacks, notably of practical activity and strategical intelligence — leads them to follow whatever the latest situationist splash is (pamphlet, theory, person) to the point of talking about (but usually not even realizing) imitations of it deprived of the original context.
b) on your part, the above-mentioned theory-practice split: You maintain a far lower level of rigor with these comrades than in your theoretical work; which is a decided factor in reinforcing your isolation. Effectively these people have only existed as passive and approving sounding boards for you. It is thus that none of them have been able to provide the criticism that you are looking for: because in relation to you none of them has any autonomy. I can’t help but think, for example, that if you had made even as much of a critique of their poster as Danny and Isaac already had before they came to Paris (but forgot in the exhilaration of your approval) that none of them would have been exchanging the various ridiculous, incoherent, and positively giddy notions of “studying,” reporting, translating, etc., etc., the responses. A theorist of publicity should take a more rigorous and aggressive position toward the publicity of his theory.
I might add that the relatively poor activism (it’s usually not even realized activism) which was tolerated by you, who have been the only one aside from myself who has been achieving anything, was consistent with a widespread confusion regarding Claude’s songs. Almost everybody I talked to was under the impression that these were attempts at revolutionary songs (in which context I developed and made several criticisms of them). Then I learn from you that they are “just songs,” i.e. to make money, period. I bring this up simply to note that this is just another activity, along with the poster and its various projected devolutions, which, as long as it is neatly dissociated from your theoretical work, is relegated to an unclear and uncriticized heap of messy practice. The same applies in your relation to my activity: full and excellent cooperation apropos of your text; degree zero apropos of all the rest.
* * *
Although I have addressed this letter to you, I have in some measure done this merely to simplify my expressions. It obviously equally concerns several other people who are receiving it. Non-exclusive list: Roger Grégoire, Linda Lanphear, Gérard Lambert, Dan Hammer, Isaac Cronin, Jeanne Smith, Claude Meunier, Tita Carrión.
* * *
If we take the last part of this letter as being at least an appropriate means of my formulating a few basic theses as well as exposing them as a basis for discussion to some other comrades (crois-tu qu’il est bon d’anticiper de telle manière sur de tels sujets?), then I can state that it is not accidental that such a simple, useful, and to me interesting idea (in your sense of the word) arose out of the same movement in which Isaac, Jeanne, and I recovered for the first time in a long while some moments of exciting, subversive complicity. For both results, we had to intervene in our own concrete situations. We had to challenge Linda (which pushed her to just enough autonomy to make her mutter that maybe we should leave because we “have different lives”); Roger and Gérard (endless bullshit, never any results); Isaac and Danny (cf. above and Isaac’s letter); Jeanne (abdication of aggressive involvement and intervention in her situation); the general petrification of the Rue Fagon scene (intransparencies, dissimulations, with various material and ideological bases, going back for over a year but never really adequately confronted and expressed by any of the numerous people passing through it); and the petrification of our own relations with each other and our — up till then — passivity and impotence in confronting all this. Etc. In a word, the living had to kick the dead; that’s how spirit came to us.
* * *
The predominant strategy of living of the people I know in Paris is to merely extend a few traditional modes of behavior to new terrains. For example, a sort of neo-aristocratic “self-respect” is extended to politics (cf. the process of “breaks”). The social relations of the people up till such an explosion point are purely conventional (patronizing of women; misery and/or absence of sexual relations relegated to a private problem; virtual absence of ongoing challenges/critiques at all levels). What is needed, I think, is a little more untraditional behavior in the old terrains. As Marx put it: “Play catches up with life, life catches up with play, and one outrageous act leads to another” (The Class Struggles in France: 1972-73).
* * *
Citizen, let me make myself clear: I have no quarrel with the substantial part of your activity. You have accomplished — and show every sign of continuing to accomplish — tasks of historic import; something which is rare in these difficult times. If you follow a strategy, a mode of living, which differs from what I find appropriate, tolerable, and fruitful, I can only say, like Lincoln said when people complained about General Grant’s drinking whiskey, “If that’s what makes him win so many battles, then I’d like to send him a case of the stuff.” However, I consider that some of the matters posed here call for consideration and clarification on your part.
As for the other people who will see this letter (and you will know what applies to whom):
— Citizens, I’m afraid I must insist: No more pretentious talk about big projects before you have accomplished some little ones.
— Down with the blasé attitude (going up to the point of unconsciousness) toward the things we do every day, the way we live, our “personal” and especially sexual lives. Any collection of hippies taking an acid trip together has more fun. We may be weighed down by the absence of publicité, but do we have to add to that our own stupidity and lack of imagination? Is this the way to find love in Paris?
— And please, citizens, a little more attention to tactics, strategy. What is said is related to to whom and under what circumstances it is said. Take away the first and last paragraphs, and “We’re Tired...” was more or less a letter like this (i.e. to a dozen comrades). Turned mechanically into a poster to everybody (according to the imprecise formula: When in doubt, make misery public) without appropriate alterations and it becomes the flop we all know: a merely symbolic action. Between the two poles — address to oneself (notes) and address to all citizens — there are innumerable modes of communication (leaflet, conversation, disruption, open letter, etc.) with vastly complicated and differing effects. Calculate the ramifications, short and long term, “personal” and “social,” of what you do. The point is not to say a lot; it is, as Citizen Korsch has well put it, to discover and elucidate the nexes, the crossroads, the choices, the things that “make a difference.”
— Down with the scandalous absence of criticality, of cruelty, in our daily relations! As Hegel said in his Phenomenology of Spirit, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.”
Catch me if you can —
Account of Ken Knabb’s 1973 Paris trip.