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Books: Never mind the boulevards How did a revolutionary guru of

May '68 help to form punk rock? Charles Shaar Murray on a secret
history: The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord by
Andrew Hussey Jonathan Cape, pounds 18.99, 405pp: The Society of
the Spectacle by Guy Debord, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith Zone
Books, pounds 8.50, 154pp

Date: July 14, 2001 Publication: The Independent (London, England) Author: Charles
Shaar Murray

The nation and the world," wrote Dr Martin Luther King Jr in his celebrated 1963 "Letter
From Birmingham Jail", "are in dire need of creative extremists." Guy Debord, founder
and philosopher-king of the Situationist International, may not have been precisely what
Dr King had in mind, but the description fits him as well as any other. The Situationists
were the master sloganeers of the May 1968 uprising in Paris; they were a primary
influence on Malcolm McLaren, who embedded a gleeful homage to their techniques
and tactics in his propaganda for the Sex Pistols, and their concept of detournement -
the subverting of pop-culture imagery by contradictory texts - finds its echo in the
"culture-jamming" of anti-capitalist art terrorists.

The Situationists were cultural terrorists. It was unfortunate for them that they were
often confused with real ones. (A wealthy Italian publisher friend of Debord's did,
however, have a "secret life" in the armed wing of the struggle. His crusade to abolish
his class came to an abrupt end when a bomb he was working on exploded, and he
merely abolished himself.) Their paradoxical, provocative slogans and pronouncements
were designed as weapons to destabilise intellectual rigidity and force others to think
outside the box. "Be realistic," they insisted, "demand the impossible".

There were very few of them; they mostly hated one another; and they all revolved
around Guy Debord. As was appropriate for a group of artists who reached Marx via
Surrealism (with, in Debord's case, Lettrism and Dada not far behind) and led by a man
who acquired much of his Marxism the same way Marx did, from Hegel, they were
prone to splits and expulsions. This tendency played itself out only once Debord had
expelled everyone except himself and one other, who was then deported. Which left

Debord's defining contribution to 20th-century thought is embodied in the subject of his

dense, sparkling 1967 polemical analysis, The Society of the Spectacle. The spectacle
of the title is not simply the media, but almost all culture and debate. "Quite simply,"
wrote Debord, "the spectacle's domination has succeeded in raising a whole generation
moulded to its laws."

In other words: capitalism's most appalling crime is the manner in which it has colonised
our collective unconscious. The tract is made up of 221 numbered paragraphs
occupying 154 pages; if it had been written in the discursive prose beloved of Marx and
Engels, it would probably have been as long as Capital. As it is, the more appropriate
comparison would be with The Communist Manifesto, except that for Debord, in the
words of another Situationist slogan, "the commodity is the opium of the people."

In what Jon Savage describes (in his virtuoso punk exegesis England's Dreaming) as "a
brilliant collage of avant-garde art, Marxist theory and existential obnoxiousness,"
Debord and the Situationists struck out with "manifestos, broadsheets, montages,
pranks, disinformation." Daniel Cohn- Bendit, the activist formerly known as Dany The
Red, may have been the public face of les evenements of May '68, but - despite being
the smallest and least well-organised of the various factions - the Situationists proved
the most influential in terms of defining the moment. They uttered the Big No, and
Debord was their glittering theoretical wing: "The aggressor is not the one who rebels
but the one who upholds authority."

Guy Debord was born in 1931 into a family on the point of ceasing to be wealthy. A
bullying stepfather unwittingly instilled in him a profound anti-authoritarian sensibility
which led him towards the transgressive: first in literature - Goth Boy, of course -- then
in art and, finally, in politics. The primacy of anti-authoritarianism as a governing
principle guided him through the worlds of avant- garde art, and the politics of the salon
and the street.

The Society of the Spectacle demonstrates his mastery of modern Marxism (the section
"The Proletariat as Subject and Representation" is as penetrating a Marxist critique of
Bolshevik-Leninism in theory and practice as one could hope to read) but, ultimately,
Debord was not a Marxist. He recognised that early Marxism provided a uniquely
powerful and flexible set of intellectual tools, perfectly suited for attacking the targets he
had in his sights, and he used them brilliantly, but he was not necessarily committed to
them. The Situationists were utterly opposed not only to Stalinism, but also to Maoism,
Trotskyism, anarchism and just about every other -ism, including their own.

Despite the fact that he repeatedly called for governance by workers' councils, even
though it was blatantly obvious that he would have found such a regime as oppressive
as either liberal capitalism or bureaucratic oligarchy, Debord was not even a socialist.
Quite the reverse: he was an elitist misanthrope endowed with formidable intellectual
and creative powers, and a personal magnetism which rendered him attractive even -
especially - for those to whom he meted out the most dismissive or (to use a word which
recurs in Andrew Hussey's life) "disdainful" treatment.

Furthermore, Debord's snotty elitism helped to isolate him from the most fertile human
ground upon which his cultural seed has fallen. He hated dopers, preferring to achieve
his own intoxication via copious draughts of red wine and calvados; and despised pop
culture in general, and pop music in particular, as another mindlessly vulgar aspect of
the spectacle. If he had been paying more attention, he might have noted that ever
since the advent of Brian Jones, the rock music of the Sixties and after was a natural
homing ground for the kind of nihilist dandies that he so admired in poetry or painting.

Yet it is popular culture which has done most to disseminate his ideas and adapt his
strategies, as writers like Jon Savage and Greil Marcus have pointed out. Gang Of
Four, whose first album Entertainment! came festooned with Situationist-style graphics,
combined dislocated white- boy funk with lyrical explorations of Debordian notions.
Their best-of collection arrived complete with a liner-note by Marcus and the Debord-
derived title of Leaving the Twentieth Century. Even the name of Manchester's most
iconic nightclub, The Hacienda, is a reference to his work.

Debord lived, worked and died over a century after Karl Marx, yet he remains an
irritatingly shadowy figure throughout The Game of War. In his biography of Marx,
Francis Wheen contrives to materialise at the epicentre of the reader's mental
soundstage such a three- dimensional representation of his subject - huge and hairy,
hectoring and harrumphing - that you can practically smell him. Hussey's evocation of
Debord, however, seems nebulous, as opaque as his subject's own daunting but
dazzlingly compacted prose.

This is a scrupulous, energetic and insightful history of a movement centred around one
man. But the man himself remains frustratingly out of focus, out of shot, always
entering, always leaving, the consequences of his actions momentous but the acts of
commission always off-camera.

Guy Debord committed suicide in 1994. Maybe it was the ultimate Surrealist gesture.
Maybe it was the consequences of his persecution by authorities who confused his
theory with the practice of others. Maybe it was the decidedly damp critical reception for
what turned out to be his long-awaited last book. Maybe it was his reaction to the
commodification and acceptance of a lifetime's worth of work which had set its face
against both those things.

Two things emerge from this book. First, that Guy Debord was a visionary thinker who
has helped us all to define the central dilemma of the current era: the conflict between
the demands of the human condition, and the needs of the human heart. And second:
Jesus! What a prick!
A new edition of Charles Shaar Murray's book about Jimi Hendrix, `Crosstown Traffic',
has just been published by Faber & Faber

Copyright 2001 The Independent - London

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