On the Passage of a Few Persons
Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time
Voice 1: This neighborhood was designed for the wretched dignity of the petty bourgeoisie, for respectable occupations and intellectual tourism. The sedentary population of the upper floors was sheltered from the influences of the street. The neighborhood itself has remained the same. It was the external setting of our story, where a few people put into practice a systematic questioning of all the works and diversions of a society, a total critique of its notion of happiness.
These people also scorned “subjective profundity.” The only thing that interested them was a satisfactory concrete expression of their own lives.
Voice 2: Human beings are not fully conscious of their real lives. Groping in the dark, overwhelmed by the consequences of their acts, at every moment groups and individuals find themselves faced with outcomes they had not intended.
Voice 1: They said that oblivion was their ruling passion. They wanted to reinvent everything each day; to become the masters and possessors of their own lives.
Just as we do not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, we cannot judge such a period of transformation by its own consciousness. On the contrary, this consciousness must be understood as reflecting the contradictions of material life, the conflict between social conditions and the forces of social production.
Advances in the harnessing of nature were not yet matched by a corresponding liberation of everyday life. Youth passed away among the various controls of resignation.
Our camera has captured for you a few glimpses of an ephemeral microsociety.
Knowledge of empirical facts remains abstract and superficial as long as it is not concretized by being related to the whole situation. This is the only method that enables us to supersede partial and abstract problems and get to their concrete essence, and thus implicitly to their meaning.
This group lived on the margins of the economy. It tended toward a role of pure consumption, particularly the free consumption of its own time. It thus found itself directly involved in qualitative divergences from ordinary life, but deprived of any means to influence those divergences.
The group ranged over a very small area. The same times brought them back to the same places. No one wanted to go to bed early. Discussions continued on the meaning of it all. . . .
Voice 2: “Our life is a journey, in winter and night. We seek our passage . . .”
Voice 1: The literature they had abandoned nevertheless exerted a delaying influence, expressed in some affective formulations.
Voice 2: There was the fatigue and the cold of morning in this much-traversed labyrinth, like an enigma that we had to resolve. It was a trompe-l’oeil reality through which we had to discover the potential richness of what was really there.
On the bank of the river evening began again; and the caresses; and the importance of a world without importance. Just as the eyes have a blurred vision of many things and can clearly see only one, so the will can strive only imperfectly toward diverse objects and can completely love only one at a time.
Voice 3: No one counted on the future. It would never be possible to be together later, or anywhere else. There would never be a greater freedom.
Voice 1: The refusal of time and of growing old automatically limited encounters in this narrow and contingent zone, where what was lacking was felt as irreparable. The extreme precariousness of their methods for getting by without working was at the root of this impatience which made excesses necessary and breaks irrevocable.
Voice 2: We can never really challenge any form of social organization without challenging all of that organization’s forms of language.
Voice 1: When freedom is practiced in a closed circle, it fades into a dream, becomes a mere image of itself. The ambiance of play is by nature unstable. At any moment “ordinary life” may prevail once again. The geographical limitation of play is even more striking than its temporal limitation. Every game takes place within the boundaries of its own spatial domain.
Outside the neighborhood, beyond its fleeting and continually threatened changelessness, stretched a half-known city where people met only by chance, losing their way forever.
The girls who found their way there, because they were legally under the control of their family until the age of eighteen, were often recaptured by the defenders of that detestable institution. They were generally locked up under the custody of those creatures who among all the bad products of a bad society present the most ugly and repugnant appearance: nuns.
What makes most documentaries so easy to understand is the arbitrary limitation of their subject matter. They confine themselves to depicting fragmented social functions and their isolated products. In contrast, imagine the full complexity of a moment that is not resolved into a work, a moment whose development contains interrelated facts and values and whose meaning is not yet apparent. This confused totality could be the subject matter of such a documentary.
Voice 2: The era had attained a level of knowledge and technologies that made possible, and increasingly necessary, a direct construction of all the aspects of a mentally and materially liberated way of life. The appearance of these superior means of action, though they remained unused because of the delays in the project of abolishing the commodity economy, had already revealed the obsolescence of all aesthetic activity, whose ambitions and powers had both dwindled away. The decay of art and of all the old codes of conduct had formed our sociological background. The ruling class’s monopoly on the instruments we needed in order to implement the collective art of our time had left us completely outside the official cultural production, which was devoted to illustrating and repeating the past. An art film on this generation can only be a film about its lack of real creations.
Others unthinkingly followed the paths learned once and for all, to their work and their home, to their predictable future. For them duty had already become a habit, and habit a duty. They did not see the deficiency of their city. They thought the deficiency of their life was natural. We wanted to break out of this conditioning, in search of different uses of the urban landscape, in search of new passions. The atmosphere of a few places gave us intimations of the future powers of an architecture that it would be necessary to create in order to provide the setting for less mediocre games. We could expect nothing of anything that we ourselves had not altered. The urban environment proclaimed the orders and tastes of the ruling society just as violently as the newspapers. Man unifies the world, but man has extended himself everywhere. People can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is animated. Obstacles were everywhere. And they were all interrelated, maintaining a unified reign of poverty. Since everything was connected, it was necessary to change everything through a unitary struggle, or nothing. It was necessary to link up with the masses, but sleep was all around us.
Voice 3: The dictatorship of the proletariat is a relentless struggle, bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educative and administrative, against the forces and traditions of the old society.
Voice 1: But in this country it is once again the men of order who have rebelled and reinforced their power. They have been allowed to aggravate the grotesqueness of the ruling conditions according to their will, embellishing their system with the funereal ceremonies of the past.
Voice 2: Years, like a single instant prolonged to this moment, come to an end.
Voice 1: What was directly lived reappears frozen in the distance, engraved in the tastes and illusions of an era and carried off with it.
Voice 2: The appearance of events that we have not created, of events that others have in fact created against us, now obliges us to be aware of the passage of time and its results, to assess the transformation of our own desires into events. What differentiates the past from the present is precisely its out-of-reach objectivity. There is no more should-be; being has been consumed to the point of ceasing to exist. The details are already lost in the dust of time. Who was afraid of life, afraid of the night, afraid of being taken, afraid of being kept?
Voice 3: What should be abolished continues, and we continue to wear away with it. We are engulfed. Separated from each other. The years pass and we haven’t changed anything.
Voice 2: Once again, morning in the same streets. Once again the fatigue of so many similarly passed nights. It is a walk that has lasted a long time.
Voice 1: Really hard to drink more.
Voice 2: Of course one might make a film about it. But even if such a film succeeded in being as fundamentally incoherent and unsatisfying as the reality it dealt with, it could never be more than a re-creation — as impoverished and false as this botched tracking shot.
Voice 3: There are now people who pride themselves on being authors of films, as others were authors of novels. They are even more backward than the novelists because they are unaware of the decomposition and exhaustion of individual expression in our time, unaware that the arts of passivity are over and done. They are sometimes praised for their sincerity since they dramatize with more personal depth the conventions of which their life consists. There is talk about “liberating the cinema.” But what does it matter to us if one more art is liberated to the point that Tom, Dick or Harry can use it to complacently express their servile sentiments? The only interesting venture is the liberation of everyday life, not only in a historical perspective, but for us, right now. This project implies the withering away of all the alienated forms of communication. The cinema, too, must be destroyed.
Voice 2: In the final analysis, stars are not created by their talent or lack of talent, or even by the film industry or advertising. They are created by the need we have for them. A pathetic need, arising out of a dismal and anonymous life that would like to enlarge itself to the dimensions of cinematic life. The imaginary life on the screen is the product of this real need. The star is the projection of this need.
The advertisements during intermissions are the truest reflection of an intermission from life.
To really describe this era it would no doubt be necessary to show many other things. But what would be the point?
The point is to understand what has been done and all that remains to be done, not to add more ruins to the old world of spectacles and memories.
New translation by Ken Knabb of the voice-over soundtrack of Guy Debords second film, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps (1959).
The complete script of this film, with illustrations, detailed descriptions of the images, and extensive annotations, is included in Debord’s Complete Cinematic Works (AK Press, 2003). For further information, see Guy Debords Films.
Translation copyright 2003 by Ken Knabb. (This copyright will not be enforced against personal or noncommercial use.)