Tuesday 11 March 2008

A spectacular failure

Critical Lives: Guy Debord, by Andrew Merrifield

Guy Debord was an alcoholic French intellectual whose Situationalist group played a modest role in the dramatic events of May 1968 in Paris. In the 1970s he became a radical film-maker and spent the aftermath of those tumultuous times in rural seclusion until committing suicide in 1994. Sections of the modern culture industry find his writings inspirational. Indeed, a number of people think his insights and predictions about the direction of modern society are becoming more relevant every day. In this line, Merrifield’s biography is largely a panegyric.

Merrifield dutifully relates Debord’s abject life story. He was born in 1931 in Paris’s rundown 20th arrondissement. His bourgeois family had their wealth wiped out by the Great Crash of 1929 and his father died of tuberculosis when he was four. In 1939, Debord’s family travelled south to Vichy France to escape the war. Afterwards, Debord enrolled at the Sorbonne ostensibly to study law, though he attended few lectures, obtaining a more thorough grounding in intellectualism in the cafés of the capital, and amid glasses of absinthe and packets of Citanes – graduating from existentialism through surrealism to Situationalism during the 1950s.

Debord founded the Situationalist International (SI; Debord preferred the term Situationalist to the now more common ‘Situationist’) in 1959, and ran it like a feudal lord, recruiting retainers and purging them on a whim from his fiefdom. After the pinnacle of May 68, Debord wound up the SI in 1972 to become involved in the world of radical publishing and film-making. He was bank-rolled in this by Gérard Lebovici, a trendy left-wing millionaire businessman of the same ilk as Richard Branson and Anita Roddick, but Lebovici was murdered by unknown assailants in 1984. Debord was unfairly accused by a hostile Paris press of involvement in the crime, and he successfully won a number of libel suits against them. His last decade was spent in pastoral retreat, as he sought relief from the constant media intrusion, steadily immersing himself in drink until quietly doing himself in.

Debord’s cultural insights were always more interesting than his political career and personal shortcomings. Fortunately, Merrifield focuses his main attention on them. Debord was determined to improve on Marx by making art more political. His most famous work, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), argued the central role of the commodity in capitalism as analysed by Marx had been replaced by the spectacle. This novel phenomenon was a social relation between people mediated by images, not by money as in Marx’s day. Authentic life had been replaced by imaginary misrepresentations. The proletariat had been bought off by materialism, but the prosperity pledged by advertising and consumerism was a bogus deception. Debord wanted to foster a revolutionary response to this decadent state of affairs. But how? - class and liberation struggles by his definition were a series of vacuous and therefore invalid impressions. If everything physical was a delusion, then struggles had to be artistic since only the imaginary really existed. Debord believed avant-garde surrealist art had the capacity to subvert the system. By creating artistic happenings, or ‘situations’, it was possible to deflate the raft of illusionary spectacles which the powers-that-be sustained to render us compliant and receptive to their demands.

Did Debord improve Marx? He believed historical materialism wasn’t the basis of every society; in modern society materialism was simply another illusion. When did the Situationalists think modern society changed from being based on material commodities into one based on the spectacle? Debord was vague about this since his views of authentic human interaction were essentially primordial. Merrifield makes the point that Debord’s favourite hero, Cardinal de Retz, helped organise the 17th century Fronde (French for ‘catapult’), the popular but unsuccessful movement led by the aristocracy against the tame version of modernity instigated by the absolutist French monarchy.

Debord was also enraptured by the work of French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who wrote The Gift (1925). The book researched the ‘potlatch’ customs of the native peoples of the North-West seaboard of the USA. In the mid-1950s, Debord brought out a periodical entitled Potlatch because he envisaged this ceremony, where chiefs from different tribes compete to give away ever bigger gifts of furs and blankets, to be a direct negation of capitalist values (Merrifield, p25). Debord believed genuine human interaction was still possible in the society of the spectacle. The problem was his examples of authentic experiences turn out to be either aristocratic or primitive, and from cultures preceding modernity. Debord thought modern society devoid of meaning. As far as he was concerned Marx didn’t need improving, he was entirely wrong about capitalism all along.

The year after his book was published Debord got the chance to put his theories into practice, or ‘praxis’ as he called it. The stunts organised by the Situationalist International during May 1968, when student riots in Paris and workers’ strikes across the country threatened to bring down the French government, brought Debord to the world’s attention. President Charles de Gaulle restored order by drafting tanks onto the streets, but the damage had been done. To many people around the world, ‘Danny the Red’, the Sorbonne and Debord’s Situationalists briefly became role models for global youthful rebellion. Some detractors even blamed the SI for inciting the whole episode in the first place, an accusation that they were noticeably reluctant to deny.

So if the Situationalists were right and Marx wrong, why did Situationalism fail? Why is France, if not Europe, not Situationalist right now? This issue of Debord’s failure is not addressed by Merrifield, who seeks only to embellish the great man’s legacy. But Situationalism failed in two senses: first, its aim of subverting capitalism through alternative imagery was misconceived, so, second, it became a sanitised alternative and was fully absorbed into capitalism.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from 1968, it is that imagery alone cannot bring down capitalist rule. Firstly, it is not true the modern world is purely vicarious. If imagery is celebrated indulgently in the West, this was only possible because of a tremendous leap forward in mass production in the post-war boom (now sustained in part by the development of the BRIC countries). Secondly, you cannot effectively challenge bourgeois irrationalism with an alternative version of irrationalism, however stylish. As even the Situationalists acknowledge with their category of ‘recuperation’, any seditious image can be integrated into the system almost as soon as it is created. This can be seen today in the ‘guerrilla’ advertising campaigns promoted by those giant corporations who publicise their brands by having them initially daubed as graffiti, illegally fly-postered, or packaged as personal videos on MySpace and YouTube.

Indeed, Situationalism has failed twice, having been unsuccessful more recently as a motif of the millennium culture industry. Its radical politics are too big a grand narrative for people to swallow these days. But how did Situationalist ideas get assimilated into the contemporary culture industry in the first place?

An English section of the SI was founded by art critic TJ Clark, among others. It quickly collapsed, but by the mid-1970s there were other more famous English Situationalists out and about. Impresario Malcolm McLaren and his partner, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, helped launch punk rock. The writings of authors JG Ballard, Ian Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd were influenced by the Situationalist concept of psychogeography: drifting aimlessly through the city on a whim rather than planning a definite journey from one landmark to another. In the States, the Wachowski brothers’ film series – the Matrix – replicated the Situationalist notion that modern reality is a saccharine fantasy underpinned by abusive reality. In the world of art, the pranks of graffiti artist Banksy derive from the SI’s ‘detournements’ of 1968. Likewise, so do the ‘Buy Nothing’ days of Adbusters and Culture Jammers that are linked to the anti-globalisation campaigners and ‘Stop the City’ activists from Seattle to Gleneagles. Merrifield refers to their campaigns against G8 summits and the McDonalds burger chain as examples of Situationalism’s continuing relevance (p64, p138).

These street protesters form the stage army of a movement that reaches far into the corridors of Western power: the culture industry. Ever since Debord died, the establishment has been trying to create vehicles to reengage its constituents. The culture industry has proven to be its most effective instrument in this project. From high street fashion, football and celebrities to TV soap operas, works of art, film and the digital scene, the system has been utilising arts politically to engage with mass audiences and cultivate their loyalty to the system. Necessarily, to ensure the success of this crusade, Western culture has had to undergo a serious revision. No longer does it keep itself stuffily aloof from hoi polloi. Its proponents are not afraid to appear anti-capitalist and are more than ready to identify globalisation with fundamentalism. The former’s enthusiasm for branded commodities is equated with the latter’s religious zeal. Western culture seems to have morphed into emphasising democratic inclusiveness, multicultural diversity, environmental sustainability and concern for the victims of modern life.

By adopting the logos, symbols, slogans and art forms favoured by radicals like the Situationalists, the Western ruling class seeks to acquire street cred. The politicised art advocated by Debord has captured the affections of everyone from European premiers to anti-globalisation protesters. From being a revolutionary ideology in the 1960s, Debord’s ideology was reshaped into a harmless political brand in the 1990s: a State Situationalism which merges the conformist Spectacle with the SI’s radical sloganeering.

The art-loving political classes, albeit a significant body in continental Europe, do not comprise the entire cultural corps in the West. Today French art is nowhere internationally, whereas British visual art leads the world. Chinese contemporary art, for example, seems to have emerged under the sway of Anglo-Saxon aesthetics. European-based Situationalism fails because it is subsidiary to the main artistic trend in global culture, an indirectly commercial art that is resistant to the blandishments of power politics, with its sordid back-handers for ticking the correct political boxes, its flash celebrities and tacky award ceremonies. This trend is best represented by the likes of Damien Hirst and Charles Saatchi.

The reason French art no longer impresses is that it’s directly subsidised by government largesse. With a few high-profile exceptions, British artists have kept their distance from official initiatives such as ‘Cool Britannia’ and the Tate/Turner cultural combine. They remain deeply sceptical of any political sponsorship of the arts and prefer to steer well clear of Big Cultural Messages. Occasional contributions to charitable causes form the only evidence that British artists possess any social consciousness. For its part, by keeping these artists on a very long leash, Whitehall avoids giving the French kiss of death to its precious cultural industry. The value the British art scene continues to place on its detachment from politics tends to reflect the American ethos of cultural independence rather than the continental influence of State Situationalism. The conspicuously apolitical Andy Warhol has always been more important to London than Guy Debord or, for that matter, Joseph Beuys, the key continental political artist. Significantly, it looks as if the next generation of oriental artists seem to be following the apolitical Anglo-American cultural tradition rather than Debord’s Situationalist brand.

Merrifield’s lacklustre book is unlikely to rectify Anglo-America’s apathy towards political art. Situationalism has made a moderate impact on intellectual circles internationally, but Debord never achieved the same iconic level outside France. I suspect the majority of Brit artists, if given his name, would respond ‘Who’s he?’. Maybe because he is also bored by his subject, Merrifield’s book often strays into other territory. The author seems more interested in pursuing the ideas and projects of Debord’s surviving wife, Alice Becker-Ho, than in delineating those of the great man. Maybe Merrifield should have written her biography instead. Critical Lives: Guy Debord is at its most uncritical when it insists on the continuing relevance of Situationalism in our millennium.


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