Polemicist Guy Debord spent his life hating his fame
When avant-garde filmmaker and intellectual provocateur Guy Debord shot himself to death last November at the age of 62, it may have been because he was finally becoming—to his great dismay—a celebrity. As the founder and perhaps the most widely read polemicist of the Situationist International, a pan-European association of far-out artists and leftist writers who played a pivotal role in the student uprisings of 1968 in Paris, he had long been the subject of intense scrutiny; but unlike many other artists, activists, or intellectuals in his place might have done, Debord shunned the media spotlight and spent his entire post-1968 life in the shadows. Why? Because, as his most famous collection of essays, Society of the Spectacle (published in French in 1967 and in English by Black & Red, 1983) argues, the media and the cult of celebrity are instruments of the existing order’s mandate to keep us all hypnotized and passive. Debord would have no part of it.
Lingua Franca (March-April 1995) notes that most of Debord’s theories about what he termed the “spectacle”—that never-ending torrent of advertisements, media events, entertainment, and communication technologies that takes up all of our “free” time and separates us from the fruits of our labors, from one another, and even from ourselves—were worked out in “a demimonde of barflies, criminals, and utopian co-conspirators, a sizable number of whom had been incarcerated, at one time or another, in prisons and madhouses.” In choosing to spend his life with criminals and madmen, Debord may have been desperately seeking unmediated reality. For, as he writes in Society of the Spectacle, “in societies where modern conditions of production prevail . . . everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” The real itself has been “inverted” by the spectacle until “life” is nothing but a magazine, “true” is a cigarette, and “the real world” is a so-horrible-it’s-fascinating faux documentary on MTV.
Mediation itself—not simply showbiz or TV—was Debord’s real bugaboo. In the society of the spectacle, existence is always and everywhere mediated by images designed to encourage passive consumption, and thus rob our lives of direct experiences, emotions, and relationships. We speak with words the spectacle has put in our mouths and gesture with motions we’ve seen at the movies. Once we lived life; today we watch it. It’s a mistake to imagine, Debord writes in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso, 1990), that despite occasional excesses, the media is inherently a valuable—or at least neutral—public service, since it facilitates communication. For Debord, the media is never neutral, since it always replaces direct communication. Anticipating e-mail and the Internet in Society of the Spectacle, Debord worries that “if the administration of this society and all contact among men can no longer take place except through the intermediary of this power of instantaneous communication, it is because this communication is essentially unilateral”; in other words, it’s one-way communication from “the state” to each of us. The spectacle not only disallows dialogue, according to Debord, it is “the opposite of dialogue.” It is a monologue of “the existing order’s uninterrupted dialogue about itself.”
According to an obituary in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed (Fall-Winter 1994-95), Debord wrote his own epitaph in the autobiographical Panegyric (Verso, 1991): “All my life I have seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction,” he wrote there. “A doctor of nothing, [I] have firmly kept myself apart from all semblance of participation in the circles that then passed for intellectual or artistic.” In an incident recounted by Bob Black in his book Beneath the Underground (Feral House, 1994), Debord, asked at a 1961 situationist exhibit at the London Institute for Contemporary Arts just what “situationism” was all about, replied, “We’re not here to answer cuntish questions,” whereupon he and his compatriots walked out. In a widely imitated attempt to prevent their artwork from being commodified, the Situationist International bound its books in sandpaper (so that they would destroy any other books on the library or bookstore shelf) and sold paintings by the meter. None of these or the group’s other strategies worked for very long, as it turned out, but many of them—as documented in the Situationist International Anthology, edited by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981)—are fascinating attempts to use the media against itself.
Demonstrating their preference for everyday life “situations” (as opposed to museums and galleries) as spheres for critique and intervention, the situationists actually infiltrated the French students’ association at the University of Strasbourg in 1966 and spent its treasury printing and distributing On the Poverty of Student Life, a satirical tract credited with helping incite the events of two years later. The uprisings of 1968 failed to change the world—indeed, according to Debord’s Comments, they only provoked the spectacle to learn “new defensive techniques” (one immediately thinks of the Mercedes company’s use of Janis Joplin’s anti-materialist song “Mercedes Benz” in a recent ad). But May ‘68 did succeed in drawing attention to the situationists, who, in response to their growing popularity, disbanded in 1972. Debord kept himself well hidden in the years following, and after the murder of his patron and friend Gerard Lebovici in 1984, he refused to allow his own films to be shown.
But if Debord wanted above all else not to be famous, why did he make films and write books in the first place? Surely not to please or fascinate; anyone who has actually seen Debord’s first film, Howlings in Favor of Sade (1952), a mostly black screen accompanied by a dull, repetitive soundtrack, or tried to read Society of the Spectacle, which is written with an ever-increasing opacity seemingly designed to push readers out, rather than drawing them in, will understand that Debord's work was always profoundly anti-spectacle.
But, as Debord wrote toward the end, in a world unified by modern communications technology one cannot go into exile. In the early part of this decade, he allowed his books to be republished (they met—alas—with great success), and in 1994, according to Anarchy, he even agreed to participate in a documentary film on his life and times. Had the spectacle finally caught up to him? Lingua Franca thinks so, speculating that Debord may have been driven to suicide “from the contemptuous realization that [his work] was already a classic.” Maybe so, but it's more likely that Debord was just a bitter man who couldn’t stand the world he so accurately described or the fact that his theories were in the end of interest only to hipster intellectuals and had no effect whatsoever on the ever-increasing power of the society of the spectacle.