'Correspondence' by Guy Debord

Publié le par la Rédaction

Steal this book

Now that Semiotext(e) -- after thirty years of ignoring Guy Debord and the other members of the Situationist International in favor of such ex-Maoist "post-structuralists" and "post-modernists" as Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault -- has published its translation of volume I (June 1957-August 1960) of Guy Debord's letters, I know you fuckers are expecting me -- the guy who has been translating and uploading these letters to the Internet for free for the last four years -- to write one of my patented, very detailed and thoroughly devastating 5,000 word critiques. But frankly I can't be bothered. And so y'all are going to have to content yourselves with the following list, presented en vrac:

1) The entire volume is presented exactly as it was in the original French, which means this volume says that it is the first of six such volumes, when in fact seven were necessary;

2) The translators have reproduced all of Alice/Fayard's footnotes, but have added none of their own; untranslated texts that are referred to by Debord have been left untranslated; the book also does not include an index or a list of "Who's Who"; as a result, the people, publications and events described can be unnecessarily difficult to follow;

3) The back cover claims that these letters are "published here for the first time in English," as if what appears on the Internet is not "published" and therefore isn't real and/or doesn't exist;

4) The back cover insists that the Situationist International was a "cultural" avant-garde, a "cultural movement" with a "cultural mission," and completely ignores and thereby falsifies its political character -- and this at a time when Guy Debord continues to inspire and be cited by political revolutionaries in France and Greece, who would not recognize themselves in, nor would they settle for, what Semiotext(e) calls "a complete transformation of personal life within the Society of the Spectacle" (emphasis added);

5) After waiting to see how well this book sells -- McKenzie Wark's preface suggests that it will be marketed to "today's individualist sensibility," "to an ear trained by the Cold War to protect its precious individualism," "the individualist sensibility of what Debord will call 'bourgeois civilization,' " and (worst of all) "the contemporary reader" -- Semiotext(e) is going to try to convince Alice/Fayard that publishing translations of all seven volumes in their entirety isn't commercially viable, and that, after 1969, "superfluous" letters will need to be edited out,
[Email correspondence with Semiotext(e)'s Hedi El Kholti, 20 January 2009] thus placing the full weight of the series on the first two or three volumes, which of course will be complete;

6) The overall effect of this operation will be just like Tom McDonough's Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, which emphasized the early "artistic" SI at the expense of the later "political" SI, but much worse because Debord's entire life will be reduced to what he did between 1957 and 1967, and the English-speaking world will once be deprived of the opportunity to learn about the explicitly political work Debord did in Portugal in 1974 and 1975, Italy in 1975 and 1976, Spain in 1980 and France in 1986 and 1987;

7) Of course, Guy Debord himself would have hated such a weighting, which not only concerns the SI, but his whole life. He would have been familiar with it from Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces (1989) and the various exhibitions of "situationist" art works held at the Pompidou Center and the Institute for Contemporary Arts that same year. And, even worse for Semiotext(e), Debord diagnosed the motivations behind such weightings in his letter to Pascal Dumontier dated 24 October 1989: "This exhibition wanted to evoke the origins of the SI by refusing and hiding its destiny. 'Becoming is the truth of being.' This phrase by Hegel can be applied, even better than elsewhere, to revolutionary efforts (and often to their detriment, of course). The museographs have thus assembled the 'artistic victims' sacrificed by the SI, who -- except for [Asger] Jorn, who was not a victim, but one of the lucid protagonists -- wouldn't ever be gathered together in a museum if they had not once upon a time had such important and bad associations. Which are only important and bad thanks precisely to May 68."

I believe that this is why McKenzie Wark's preface is preoccupied with the theme of exclusion, which is mentioned and discussed a total of eight times in the course of a 22-page-long text: he knows full well that, had Debord been alive, he would have tried to prevent and, failing that, would have publicly denounced, such blatantly reactionary moves as those made by Fayard and Semiotext(e);

8) Just like the yellow journalism of Stewart Home, Andy Merrifield, Andrew Hussey, and Nathan Heller, McKenzie Wark's preface to this volume is hostile and suspicious, presenting Debord as if he were a career-minded, manipulative Communist-Party-style apparatchik. Does Semiotext(e) seriously think "the contemporary reader" is going to be interested in and want to buy a book by such a caricature?

9) Wark's preface (which we suspect was actually written by Sylvere Lotringer)
[In an email sent 22 january 2009, Wark maintained that he is the one who wrote it. Tant pis.] mentions none of the considerable controversy that, from start to finish (1999 to 2008) surrounds the publication of this series of volumes: a) the fact that in 1999 Alice/Fayard suppressed a book by Debord's former historian and friend Jean-Francois Martos, who actually produced a real volume of correspondence in which two people exchange letters; b) the fact that Michele Bernstein refused to allow any of Guy's letters to her to be printed, which completely undermined the integrity and legitimacy of the entire project, given the unique importance of this woman to Debord's life, politics and thought; c) the fact that none of the letters addressed to Alice herself, Jacqueline de Jong or Michele Mochot-Brehat are included, either; d) the fact that Debord's former friend and physician Michel Bounan condemned Alice in 2000 because Fayard is merely the publishing arm of a huge corporation that makes and distributes military weapons; and e) the fact that, in 2006 and 2007, Debord's former friend and collaborator Jean-Pierre Baudet -- as a protest against all of the above, but especially the fact that Alice/Fayard's "Correspondence" is not a correspondence precisely because none of the letters addressed to Debord are included -- insisted that none of the letters Guy addressed to him be included in Volumes 6 and 7, and that his name be replaced by an "X" in those instances when he is referred to;

10) the entire book is thus both an Orwellian suppression of these relevant and important historical events, and an implicit validation and approval of the similar suppressions that preceded it and made it possible.

Bill Not Bored, 22 January 2009.

'Correspondence' Reveals Portrait

'Correspondence' by Guy Debord (Semiotext(e))

Correspondence is not the way of communication in the 21st century. More and more is said with buzz words and abbreviated slang. It’s getting easier to forget that there was a time when subtle, deliberately constructed letters, ripe with frustration and emotion, were the common form of exchange.

Guy Debord lived in such a time. Born in Paris in 1931, he was a founding member of both the Lettrist International and Situationist International movements, and he wrote letters—a lot of them.

The SI movement attempted to use art for social and political change. Indeed, SI embraced propaganda—what they saw as “arts as a means”—within and without the organization. Unlike other movements before them, this group aspired towards action rather than the formation of a set of doctrines, resisting the term “situationism.” Their ideology—actively creating “situations” around them, refusing to be taken in by the “dead time” of everyday routine—even allegedly helped spark France’s May 1968 Revolution.

“Correspondence” traces Debord’s interactions with other key members of the movement as he worked to create and sustain SI from 1957 to 1960. These letters not only show the behind-the-scenes development of this highly influential organization; they serve as a sort of manifesto, revealing the deliberation required for artistic innovation in this environment.

The collection of letters presented in “Correspondence” does an excellent job of shedding light upon the less glamorous aspects of being an architect of culture. When one things of the avant-garde, there is an image of the creative, carefree bohemian that naturally comes to mind. But as McKenzie Wark points out in the introduction to the letters, Guy Debord was as much a secretary as a theorist or an artist: “Deadlines, delays, and debts... Of all the roles he chose for himself, not to mention those assigned to him by posterity, the one that receives the least attention is that of secretary.”

Debord’s correspondences reveal a leader who is a stickler for details—more politician than artist. Many letters find Debord nagging the various members of SI for projects that have not met their deadlines, and in many others he catalogues how many copies of a certain article need to go to specifically designated places. There are few letters of great philosophical weight to be found. A typical letter from Debord to the members of SI reads: “Following up to what I wrote to you on 5 February, we need to hurry editing the journal, for which texts should be returned to the printer by March 15th.” For Debord, control of procedure is essential.

Debord’s political maneuvering within the organization also becomes clear when his exchanges with various people, addressing the same issue, are viewed side-by-side. While he claims that SI has no need to “fabricate fake disciples,” he is constantly trying to appease and manipulate his colleagues. He often addresses Pinot Gallizio, the elderly, successful painter of the early SI as “Carissimo, Grande e Nobile,” which translates to “dearest, great and noble.” The collection also serves to show his willingness to disown the members when they prove a hindrance to the Situationist movement. Within a month of the latest flattering address to Gallizio, Debord writes to another member that the old painter’s show was “manifestly a reactionary farce.” Through his letters, Debord is presented as unafraid to share with members the issues he is having with others; he comments each time that the addressed member has known all along that the recently expelled member would prove to be trouble.

Insofar as SI was essentially Debord’s brainchild, the movement shares its creator’s calculating nature. SI aimed to shock. As Debord wrote; “the element of surprise is essential and will ensure our success.” The falling out between Debord and Gallizio occurred because the latter had ceased to shock his audience. Debord excitedly writes about the possibility of a scandal whenever a new exhibit is being planned. Indeed, SI is cited as an instigator in the fashionable rise of anarchism of the 70s. This behind-the-scenes view of SI captures the irony of birthing a movement with both artistic and political aspirations—the perceived spontaneity of creative drive is inherently contradictory to the labored machinations of political planning. In this way, “Correspondence” shows the struggle to resolve structure with chaos, Marxism with Surrealism— this is the general project of Situationist International.

While “Correspondence” serves to paint a vivid portrait of an artist of the political bent and the ways he brought his movement to fruition, his practical leadership qualities render much of his correspondence patently dull. Many of the letters are laundry lists of tasks that must be tackled by the addressed; at times they can sound like office work rather than the start of an artistic revolution.

Nonetheless, “Correspondence” presents a friendly introduction to Situationist International, by virtue of the fact that these letters constitute a portrait of the original Situationist. Through his correspondences, Guy Debord delegates and manipulates those closest to him, he is deliberately creating a situation in the name of great social and political change.

Susie Y. Kim - The Harvard Crimson, February 20, 2009.

The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957–August 1960)

Guy Debord
Translated by Stuart Kendall
Introduction by McKenzie Wark
The MIT Press / Semiotext(e), December 2008
Yesterday, the police interrogated me at length about the journal and the Situationist organization. It was only a beginning. This is, I think, one of the principle threats that came up quickly during the discussion: the police want to regard the SI as an association in order to set about its dissolution in France. I protested, emphasizing that the artistic movement was never legally constituted by moral individuals in a declared association. Not being constituted, the SI cannot be officially dissolved, but they tried to intimidate us heavily. It seems they take us for gangsters!
—from Correspondence
This volume traces the dynamic first years of the Situationist International movement—a cultural avant-garde that continues to inspire new generations of artists, theorists, and writers more than half a century later. Debord's letters—published here for the first time in English—provide a fascinating insider's view of just how this seemingly disorganized group drifting around a newly consumerized Paris became one of the most defining cultural movements of the twentieth century. Circumstances, personalities, and ambitions all come into play as the group develops its strategy of anarchic, conceptual, but highly political "intervention."
Brilliantly conceived, this collection of letters offers the best available introduction to the Situationist International movement by detailing, through original documents, how the group formed and defined its cultural mission: to bring about, "by any means possible, even artistic," a complete transformation of personal life within the Society of the Spectacle.
About the Author
Writer, filmmaker, and cultural revolutionary, Guy Debord (1931–1994) was a founding member of the Lettrist International and Situationist International groups. His films and books, including Society of the Spectacle (1967), were major catalysts for philosophical and political changes in the twentieth century, and helped trigger the May 1968 rebellion in France.

Publié dans Debordiana

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