Introduction to Guy Debords
Complete Cinematic Works
If we ever get out of this mess and manage to create a sane, liberated society, future generations will look back on Guy Debord as the person who contributed to that liberation more than anyone else in the twentieth century.
Guy Debord (1931-1994) was the most influential figure in the Situationist International, the notorious group that played a key role in catalyzing the May 1968 revolt in France. The impact of his writings has been profound, and sufficiently evident for those who know how to look behind surface appearances. His equally remarkable films, however, have been much less well known, at least until now.
This is due to the fact that they have scarcely been accessible. The first three films were rarely shown, although the first one provoked a few brief scandals in the 1950s. The three later ones were shown somewhat more extensively in Paris in the 1970s and early 1980s, but few people elsewhere ever had a chance to see them. Then in 1984 Debord’s friend and publisher Gérard Lebovici (who had also financed his last three films) was assassinated. Angered by the response of the French press, which spread rumors about Lebovici’s supposed “shady associates” and in some cases even hinted that Debord himself might have had something to do with the murder of his friend, Debord withdrew all of his films from circulation. Except for a few private showings no one saw any of them again until 1995, when two of the films (along with a recently completed video) were broadcast on a French cable channel shortly after Debord’s death. Pirated video copies of those three works have circulated since that time, but the actual films remained inaccessible until 2001, when Debord’s widow Alice began the process of rereleasing them.
Technically and aesthetically, Debord’s films are among the most brilliantly innovative works in the history of the cinema. But they are really not so much “works of art” as subversive provocations. In my opinion, they are the most important radical films ever made, not just because they express the most profound radical perspective of the last century, but because they have had no real cinematic competition. Many films have exposed this or that aspect of modern society, but Debord’s are the only ones that embody a consistent critique of the whole global system. Many radical filmmakers have given lip service to Brecht’s notion of provoking spectators to think and act for themselves rather than sucking them into passive identification with heroes or plots, but Debord is virtually the only one who has actually achieved this goal. With the partial exception of a few distinctly lesser Debord-influenced works, his films are the only ones that have made a coherent use of the situationist tactic of détournement: the diversion of already existing cultural elements to new subversive purposes. Détournement has been widely imitated, but usually only in confused and half-conscious ways or for purely humoristic ends. It does not mean merely randomly juxtaposing incongruous elements, but (1) creating out of those elements a new coherent whole that (2) criticizes both the existing world and its own relation to that world. Certain artists, filmmakers, and even ad designers have used superficially similar juxtapositions, but most are far from fulfilling (1), much less (2).
Debord’s works are neither ivory tower philosophical discourses nor knee-jerk militant protests, but ruthlessly lucid examinations of the most fundamental tendencies and contradictions of the society we live in. This means that they need to be reread (or in the case of the films, reseen) many times, but it also means that they remain as pertinent as ever while countless radical and intellectual fads have come and gone. In the decades since the original publication of The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the spectacle has become more pervasive than ever, to the point of repressing virtually any awareness of pre-spectacle history or anti-spectacle possibilities. “Spectacular domination has succeeded in raising an entire generation molded to its laws” (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle).
As a result of this new development, statements by Debord that used to be dismissed as extravagant or incomprehensible are now with equal superficiality dismissed as trite and obvious; people who used to claim that the obscurity of situationist ideas proved their insignificance now claim that their notoriety demonstrates their obsolescence. But those who think that the situationists have been coopted because a few fragments of their works have been displayed in museums, dissected in universities or discussed in the media probably haven’t bothered to reread them lately.
Our agitators disseminated ideas that a class society cannot stomach. The intellectuals in the service of the system — themselves even more obviously in decline than the system itself — are now cautiously investigating these poisons in the hope of discovering some antidotes; but they won’t succeed. They used to try just as hard to ignore them — but just as vainly, so great is the power of a truth spoken in its time. . . . Don’t ask now what good our weapons were: they remain in the throat of the reigning system of lies. [In girum]
I venture to say that the same will prove true with Debord’s films, despite all attempts to neutralize them.
As the most penetrating diagnostician of the present age, it is hardly surprising that Debord has become increasingly notorious, nor that this notoriety consists so largely of hostile rumors about his personal life and ludicrous misconceptions about his projects and perspectives. Fortunately, he is quite capable of explaining and defending himself, so I don’t believe there is any need here for me to try to do so in his place.
I will, however, take the liberty of quoting him one more time in order to refute one of the most gross and prevalent falsifications, which presents him as an artist or literary stylist who passed through a radical phase but supposedly later became disillusioned and resigned:
From the very beginning I have devoted myself to overthrowing this society, and I have acted accordingly. I took this position at a time when almost everybody believed that this despicable society (in its bourgeois or bureaucratic version) had the most promising future. And since then I have not, like so many others, changed my views one or several times with the changing of the times; it is rather the times that have changed in accordance with my views. This is one of main reasons I have aroused such animosity on the part of my contemporaries. [In girum]
Even those who complain about Debord’s “obscurity” should be able to understand that statement easily enough.
I do not claim that Debord is beyond criticism, merely that most of the criticisms made of him thus far have been erroneous or irrelevant. It should go without saying that passively venerating him is contrary to everything he stood for. The point is to assimilate what he has to say, use what seems pertinent, and ignore what does not. The real issue posed in these films is not what Debord did with his life, but what you are going to do with yours.
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The original French edition of these film scripts contains no notes or other texts. For the present edition I have added some documents (all by Debord) and other related material. Although I have generally refrained from interpretive commentary, I have included relatively full informational notes, including the sources of most of the references and détournements that I am aware of, and all of Debord’s own annotations to In girum. I would appreciate hearing about any errors or omissions in the notes and receiving suggestions for improving the translations.
The French edition presents the scripts in a rather complex interlinear manner. For technical reasons I have rearranged them into two separate columns. The left column presents the main voice-over text (usually spoken by Debord himself). The right column describes the corresponding images as well as occasional other material (music, subtitles, text frames, passages from other films). An image or sequence of images begins during the line of spoken text directly across from its first line and continues until another image is indicated. The illustrations, located at the end of each film script, are the same ones selected by Debord for the French edition.
These translations will also be used for subtitling the films. As this book goes to press the timing and other specifics of the subtitling and distribution have yet to be determined, but if all goes well it is likely that English-subtitled versions of the films will be available sometime in 2004. Up-to-date information can be found at my “Bureau of Public Secrets” website: www.bopsecrets.org.
Thanks to Alice Debord, who made the welcome decision to rerelease the films and who did me the honor of asking me to translate them; to Michèle Bernstein, James Brook, Daniel Daligand, Alice Debord, and Mateusz Kwaterko, who provided information, criticisms and suggestions; to Jeanne Smith for the superb book and cover design and for technical assistance in implementing the script layout; and to the folks at AK Press for taking on what has turned out to be an unusually challenging (though exciting) project. A salute also to the previous translators and others who helped disseminate the scripts and video copies when the films were unavailable and virtually unknown.
Introduction to Ken Knabbs new translation of Guy Debords Complete Cinematic Works (AK Press, June 2003). For more information, see Guy Debords Films.