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ThemesArt and CinematographyDebord
Dismantling the Spectacle: The cinema of Guy Debord
»Ciné qua non«: Guy Debord and Filmic Practice as Theory
Thomas Y. Levin

»The only interesting undertaking is the liberation of everyday life, not only within a historical perspective but for us and right away. This entails the withering away of alienated forms of communication. The cinema, too, has to be destroyed.« [1]

»It is society and not technology that has made cinema what it is. The cinema could have been historical examination, theory, essay, memories. It could have been the film which I am making at this moment.« [2]

1. The Society of the Spectacle

Among the various social practices that serve Guy Debord as paradigmatic instances of what he calls the «society of spectacle,» the most often cited are without doubt television and cinema. Typical in this regard is the American edition of Debord´s paratactic theoretical text »Society of the Spectacle« (hereafter referred to as SoS), where cinematic iconography dominates not only the front and back covers—which incorporate a photograph of spectators at a 3-D movie [3] —but also continues throughout the volume in aseries of illustrations located within the socketed frames of a film strip [Abb und Kommentar zum Bild! 6.2] [4] . However, although cinema is certainly a privileged figure of the society of the spectacle, it is a mistake to assume that Debord´s «spectacle» is synonymous with the «spectacularity» of the filmic medium. On the contrary, as is manifest from the very beginning of Debord´s text, the theoretical concept of spectacle is used to designate a historical, socio-economic condition: «The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images» (SoS, Thesis 37). The confusion surrounding the «spectacle» is to some extent produced by a slippage in Debord´s employment of the term. Sometimes it does refer to the realm of representation, as is evident in the structural analogy of the opening thesis of SoS: «In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.»

However, in the next thesis, Debord differentiates between «images of the world» and «the spectacle in general, [which] as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.» Although this distinction itself merits a close and careful reading, for the present investigation it must suffice to say that the latter use of the expression is allegorical: «The spectacle, as the present social organization of the paralysis of history and memory, of the abandonment of history built on the foundation of historical time, is the false consciousness of time» (SoS, Thesis 158). The conflation in turn stems from Debord´s rhetorical employment of the notion of spectacles qua images or representation to concretize his reading of «spectacle» as the allegory of late capital.

2. Spectacle und Cinema

A characteristic instance of this strategy can be found among the illustrations in the journal Internationale situationniste (hereafter IS)—a rich collection of montage/collage work on pieces of commodity culture, including such détournements [5] as recaptioned or reworked advertisements, comic strips, newspaper photographs, problematic depictions of scantily clad women, illustrations from industrial manuals, graphs,and so forth [6] . In one of the last issues of the journal there is a reproduction of a magazine advertisement for German Eumig home movie cameras [fig 6.3 und Bildunterschrift] whose text reads, «I LOVE MY CAMERA BECAUSE I LOVE TO LIVE: I record the best moments of life and revive them at will in all their richness.» Underneath the image there is a caption entitled «The Domination of Life by the Spectacle» that reads as follows: «This advertisement for Eumig cameras (Summer 1967) evokes very well the petrification of individual life, which has reversed itself into a spectacular economy: the present can now be lived immediately as memory. Time is submitted to the illusory order of a permanently available present and, through this spatialization of time, both time and life have been lost together.» [7]

Here film functions not as the cause but as an illustration, an ‹evocation»›or figure—albeit a privileged one—for a socio-political and epistemological shift that has taken place under late capitalism. An attitude toward the production of spectacle (home movies) is taken as a symptom of a «spectacular economy» (the temporality of an alienated social condition). As Debord puts it, years later, in a veiled reference to this advertisement: «When one loves life, one goes to the movies —see the «Situationists at the movies»[fig. 6.3a]« [8] The resistance to a facile collapsing of cinema and spectacle is imperative if one is to understand the complex relationship between the Situationist International (SI) and the filmic medium. To the extent that cinema is synonymous with spectacle—a spatialization of time, a staging of separation, a fostering of passivity, alienation, and so on—it is simply unacceptable and must be eliminated. Along with similar forms of spectacle, Debord insists that «the cinema, too, must be destroyed« [9]. The question remains, however, to what extent the condemnation of cinema here is a critique of the politics of the «apparatus» analogous to arguments put forth by Martin Heidegger an later by Jean-Louis Baudry and Jean-Louis Comolli regarding the objectification inherent in the very structure of representation. [10] For it might be that what is at issue here is not the cinema as such, but rather a historically specific set of cinematic practices, a certain cinema—classic, commercial, industrialized, narrativized, and so forth.As Debord notes: «It is society and not technology that has made cinema what it is. The cinema could have been historical examination, theory, essay, memories.» [11] This leaves open the possibility of an alternative sort of cinematic activity incompatible with the economy of spectacle, a nonspectacular, antispectacular, or other-than-spectacular cinema. Such a realm of possibility is the precondition of what one might call Situationist Cinema.

3. The Situationist International and the artistic Avant-Garde

The interest in film on the part of the SI must be understood in light of the significance in its genealogy of the artistic avant-garde: an important dimension of what could be called the «Situationist Project» involved the production of (art) works. It was essential, however, that such works be critiques of the current historical moment and contain their own negation—that is, they should be in a sense antiworks. As Raoul Vaneigem phrased it in a statement put forth at the fifth SI conference in Göteborg, Sweden (August 1961): «It is a question not of elaborating the spectacle of refusal, but rather of refusing the spectacle. In order for their elaboration to be artistic in the new and authentic sense defined by the SI, the elements of the destruction of the spectacle must precisely cease to be works of art. There is no such thing as situationism or a situationist work of art nor for that matter a spectacular situationist.» [12] Indeed, the conference members subsequently approved a suggestion by Attila Kotányi to call the products of such aesthetic activity on the part of the SI «anti-Situationist» given that truly Situationist conditions had yet to be realized. Similarly, Debord insists—in a formulation astonishingly reminiscent of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory—that «only the real negation of culture can preserve its meaning. It can no longer be cultural. Thus it is what in some way remains at the level of culture, but with a completely different meaning« [13] . The contradictions and dangers of a radically negative cultural critique that nevertheless insists on the production of (anti)art objects were a topic of continuing polemical debate within the ranks of the SI. Yet they were very aware of what they themselves described as the «[…] ambiguous and dangerous policy whose risks the SI had to run by consenting to act in culture while being against theentire present organization of this culture and even against all culture as a separate sphere. Nor is this most intransigent oppositional attitude and program any less ambiguous and dangerous because it nevertheless has to coexist with the present order.» [14] This strategic concession is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the SI’s relationship to that most compromised medium, the cinema.

4. The Situationistist International and the Cinema

The first official articulation of the SI position on cinema occurs in a subsection of one of the first articles in the first issue of IS in 1958 entitled, indicatively, «For and Against the Cinema« [15] «Cinema is the central art of our society,» the editorial begins, and the formal and anecdotal expression in the cinema as well as it material infrastructure are «the best representation of an epoch of anarchically juxtaposed inventions (not articulated but simply combined).« [16] But rather than making use of the extraordinary capacities opened up by its technical innovations, so the argument continues, the cinema offers a passive substitute to unitary artistic activity, an exponential increase in the reactionary power of nonparticipatory spectacle. The text makes it clear, however, that this could be otherwise: «[…] those that want to construct this [new] world must simultaneously fight the tendency of cinema to constitute the anti-construction of situations (the construction of a slave atmosphere, the succession of the cathedrals) while recognizing the significance of the new technological developments (stereo sound, odorama) which are valuable in and of themselves.» [17]

The opposite of a knee-jerk rejection of cinematic technology as such, the editorial attributes the reactionary state of the medium (the absence of avant-garde developments manifest in the plastic arts and in literature—see «The Two Avant Gardes» by Peter Wollen) to economic and ideological constraints, but also to the social importance of the medium. It is this importance, in turn, that makes it necessary that the medium remain in the control of the hegemonic class. Instead of abandoning film as hopelessly contaminated, the article closes instead with a call for its appropriation. Cinema is likened to architecture (another major SI concern) in terms of its significancewithin daily life, the difficulties facing any attempt at its renovation, and the imperative for just such a transformation. This leads to the following conclusion: «One must therefore struggle to appropriate a truly experimental sector within the cinema. We can envisage two distinct ways of using cinema: first, its employment as a form of propaganda in the pre-Situationist transition period; then its direct employment as a constitutive element of an actual situation.» [18] One could read this as the first, rough outline of a manifesto for an (anti) Situationist film practice.

To gain a more detailed understanding of the motivations behind the SI espousal of film as a revolutionary weapon, one must examine remarks scattered throughout their publications. In one of the more programmatic of these statements, the concluding section of the article «The Situationists and the New Forms of Action against Politics and Art,» René Viénet argues that the SI must make use of the cinema—»the newest and without doubt most useful means of expression of our epoch«—as a didactic, analytic, and critical tool: «Among other possibilities, the cinema lends itself particularly well to studying the present as an historical problem, to dismantling processes of reification. Historical reality can, of course, be apprehended, known and filmed only in the course of a complicated process of mediations […] This mediation would be difficult if the empirical existence of facts themselves was not already a mediated existence, which only takes on an appearance of immediateness because of and to the extent that, on the one hand, consciousness of the mediation is lacking and, on the other hand, the facts have been uprooted from the network of their determinations, placed in an artificial isolation and poorly linked together again by the montage of classical cinema. It is precisely this mediation, which has been lacking, and inevitably so, in pre- Situationist cinema, which has limited itself to so called objective forms or representation of politico-moral concepts, whenever it has not been a merely academic type of narrative with all its hypocrisies.» [19]

5. The Visual-acoustic détournement

Viénet´s conception of an SI film practice enlists thespecific capacities of the medium (above all, photographic documentation, voice-over, and analytic montage) to expose the always already mediated status of the seemingly immediate and «natural» world constructed in classical, or pre-Situationist, cinema. The present is studied as a historical problem, history is recast as a problem of representation, and, above all, the practice of representation itself is continuously subjected to critical interrogation. This staging of mediation takes the form of a work on other mediations, primarily by means of cinema´s elective affinity to the important strategy of citation and reinscription referred to as détournement. Indeed, in a programmatic essay, the editorial collective of IS goes so far as to say that «the signature of the movement, the trace of its presence and its contestation in contemporary cultural reality…is first and foremost the employment of détournement.» [20]

It is in this capacity for visual-acoustic détournement that cinema finds its single most important justification as an instrument of SI activity. As Debord and Gil J Wolman confirm in their user´s guide to this hallmark SI activity, among the various vehicles for détournement such as posters, records, radio broadcasts, and comic strips, none lends itself better than cinema: «It is obviously in the framework of the cinema that détournement can attain its greatest efficacity, and undoubtedly, for those concerned with this aspect, its greatest beauty.» [21] As will become evident below, such détournement can take a number of forms. On the one hand, in he double movement of this «powerful cultural weapon» the context and meaning of both insignificant phenomena (newspaper clippings, advertisements, quotidian phrases) and significant elements (citations from Marx or Saint-Just, a sequence from an Eisenstein film) can be displaced and estranged before being subsequently reinscribed and transformed through radical juxtaposition.

On the other hand, entire films can be «detourned»: Debord and Wolman propose «Birth of a Nation,» for example, because of its combination of formal innovations unprecedented in the history of cinema with a racist plot that is utterly intolerable. Rather than censoring it, they suggest, it would be better to detourn it as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a sound trackthat made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan than, they point out, continue in the United States to this very day. [22] Détournement could also be used, they go on to say, for the filmic rewriting of history and in order to illustrate theoretical claims. [23] In an early text there is also an amusing suggestion as to how one can recuperate hopelessly commercial films through the use of détournement as a mode of spectatorship. At one point during the itinerary of a derive, one should stop into a movie theatre for slightly less than an hour and interpret the currently playing adventure film as follows: «[…] let the heros be some more or less historical people who are close to us, connect the events the inept scenario to the real reasons which we understand are behind the actions, and connect them also to the events of the current week. Here you have an acceptable collective distraction[…]» [24]

6. Filmic Practice

Besides détournement, however, there are a number of other arguments for the importance of the cinema within the corpus of SI writings. Viénet insists that the SI must require each of its members to be just as capable of making a film as writing an article because film is just as powerful and accessible a polemical medium as articles, books, leaflets, or posters. Moreover, he argues, such cinematic experience would in turn «intensify» the written articulation of the same problems. [25] In an untranslated text entitled «For the Debate on Orientation, Spring 1970: A Note on the First Series of Texts,» Debord makes a similar argument, convinced that the production of films is important not only for rhetorical but also for financial reasons. [26] Under the heading «Le cinéma,» the last of a series of «Modest Propositions,» he writes: «Each film could give one or two Situationists working as assistants the opportunity to master their own style in this language; and the inevitable success of our works would also provide the economic base for the future production of these comrades. The expansion of our audience is of decisive importance.» [27] For these and other reasons Debord claims that of the many young filmmakers in various countries attempting to use film as instruments of revolutionary critique, at present:«Only the positions and methods of the Situationists (as formulated in the theses by René Viénet in our previous issue) have direct access to a contemporary revolutionary usage of the cinema—although political and economic conditions can of course still pose problems.» [28] The claim is fleshed out n a series of LI and SI film reviews of movies by Julien Duvivier, the «cinematographic ruin» [29] (an indignant critique of «Marianne de ma jeunesse»), Federico Fellini (a pan of «La Strada»), Agnès Varda («La pointe courte» faulted for its vacuous politics), Alain Resnais (praised for «Hiroshima mon amour» then lambasted for «L´année dernière à Marienbad»), Norman McLaren («Blinkity Blank» accused of plagiarizing the Lettrist cinema), and Jean-Luc-Godard, «the dumbest of the pro-Chinese Swiss» (attacked in a number of articles for his cinematic politics, especially in «A bout de soufflé» and «Le gai savoir»). [30] The greatest insight into the «contemporary revolutionary usage of the cinema» by the SI, however, is to be had from the films they themselves—that is, first and foremost Guy Debord—made. «Je veux un ciné qua non!» [31]

7. Guy Debord as a filmmaker

Yes. Guy Debord, theorist and critic of the spectacle par excellence, was—as he himself often pointed out—a filmmaker. [32] It is a most curious and rather ignored fact that besides writing, organizing and editing the IS, adjudicating schisms, and denouncing traitors and fools, Debord also directed no less than six 35mm black and white sound films over a period of twenty-six years from 1952 to 1978 and had plans for numerous others as well. [33] If it seems surprising, it is no accident: these films were attended by only a very few in Paris, have rarely been seen outside France, have never been screened in the US, and have provoked almost no critical literature whatsoever beside a number of more or less incidental newspaper reviews. [34] To some extent this is due to the fact that the films are hard to watch (for reasons that will become clearer below). But until recently, at least, the films could be seen. Indeed, Debord´s patron and friend Gérard Lebovici—a French film producer whom he had met in 1971—not only supported Debord´s work by financing what was effectively a Situationist press, Editions Champ Libre (now called Editions Gérard Lebovici), he also bought acinema—the Studio Cujas in Saint-Germain-des- Prés—that projected Debord´s complete cinematographic production on a continuous and exclusive basis. This lasted only through 1984, however, when following the mysterious and still unsolved murder of Lebovici in a parking garage off the Champs Elysées, Debord suddenly withdrew his films in a gesture of protest and mourning classically Situationist in its decisiveness. Incensed by the murder of his friend and by the manner in which the press reported it, he then wrote Considérations sur l’assassinat de Gérard Lebovici (Reflections on the assassination of Gérard Lebovici) in which he announced that «the outrageous manner in which the newspapers have discussed his assassination has led me to decide that none of my films will ever be shown again in France. This absence will be the most fitting homage.» [35] Today all efforts to view the films in Paris prove futile: the distributor acknowledges that he has the prints but requires Debord´s permission to screen them and this permission, for reasons that must be respected, is not to be had. [36] While Debord´s films are thus now strictly speaking invisible, they fortunately are not entirely unavailable since Debord published detailed scenarios of his film works in both journals and books on a number of occasions. The first three scenarios appeared in a volume entitled (indicatively) Contre le cinema (Against the cinema) [fig. 6.4] published by the Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism in 1964, [37] and in 1978 the scenarios of all six of Debord´s films were made available in the collection Oeuvres cinématographiques completes, 1952–1978 (Complete cinematographic works). [38] With only one exception, which will be articulated below, the study of Debord´s anti-spectacular cinema is forced to take recourse to the only available traces, the appropriately nonspectacular textual scenarios.

8. Postface: Debord and the Dispositifs of Cinema

Debord’s 1984 withdrawal of his films of course poses the question as to why his outrage at the murder of Lebovici would be best served by retracting them, by making them unavailable in France? Perhaps it was just a practical matter—Debord recognizing that without Lebovici´s funding, his own private cinema (in fact nothing less than the ultimate cinematic dispositif,a sort of ciné-Bayreuth St. Germain auteur palace) might have to close, leaving him with effectively no place to show the films anyway, so rather than simply have their unavailability imposed by banal material conditions, he would take the initiative and make their very public withdrawal from (an already very limited) public circulation an ethical gesture. Irrespective of intention, it certainly had the effect of generating a substantial aura around the films: no better way to render films mythical than to ostentatiously withhold them. One could also argue, however, that the elimination of the possibility of witnessing the films as phenomenal events served effectively to reduce a certain auratic effect that they undoubtedly had when one could still see them. Since Debord had published the screenplays a few years earlier, together with a very small number of images, in a 1978 volume entitled Ouevres cinematographiques completes, 1952–1978, the removal of their spectacular dimension, of the films as a celluloid record of polymorphous détournements, was a way to insist on their fundamentally textual status, by eliminating even the vestigial but undoubtedly powerful acoustic aura of Debord reading his own words in the voice-over.

These were some of the questions that concerned me when I started working on Debord´s films in the late 1980s—and which led me to write to Debord via his publisher to inquire whether as a young American scholar I might be allowed to see the films. While I respected his ban on their screening in France, surely this would not preclude (so I wrote to him) an interested party such as myself showing them outside France say, in Germany? Debord´s response—and to my astonishment I actually did get a response which was the beginning of a long correspondence and, later, friendship—was that his insistence on France had been a function of his particular annoyance with the response of the French press: «Naturally,» he wrote in his letter of May 29, 1987, «I should have said: never again anywhere.» This ban would, of course, only be in effect as long as he was still alive, since one could hardly reproach him for what transpired after he was no longer around. That was in the late 1980s—and while I did ultimately get to see the films, albeit on video, at Debord´s summer residence in Champot in the haute Loire, it was not until years later that I realized justhow prophetic that letter was.

On November 30, 1994, in that same complex where I had enjoyed the privilege of being Debord’s guest and where I had been given full access to the films and had spent many an evening discussing (and above all drinking) till late into the night, Guy Debord took his life. Not even five weeks after his death, on January 9, 1995 Canal +, the French commercial television station, broadcast a rather remarkable program: a ‹final› made-for-TV work called «Guy Debord: Son Art et Son Temps» which Debord had produced together with a young director Brigitte Cornand, and following this, both the 1973 film «La Société du Spectacle» and the 1975 follow-up «Réfutations.» In other words, Debord´s films were suddenly not only shown, but shown on television (and then on CANAL +, perhaps the most commercial of French channels) with the result that they suddenly became widely available as video copies. What was previously radically inaccessible was now massively available, disseminatable, analyzable—which is to say, the films suddenly began to operate in a post-cinematic dispositif.

The fact that Debord’s final mediatic intervention was a televisual one raises the important question—the detailed treatment of which I cannot undertake here—as to how all his films, and especially the later ones, must be understood at some level in terms of their agonistic relationship to television, the mourning of the cine-fils at the (first) death of cinema in the age of televisuality, which is to say the end of what Raymond Bellour has so aptly called the «magical parenthesis» of a specific «classical» cinematic dispositif. The various new instances of televisual dispositifs catalogued in some of the later Debord films—in the metro, in the police traffic control center—stand in dramatic tension with the cinephilic catalogue, listed in the opening credits, of films which are then cited—often at some length—later on: John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Josef von Sternberg, Raoul Walsh, Orson Welles, Sam Wood—all of them classics of an economy of the image which, as such, was already then becoming increasingly anachronistic in the wake of its displacement by the omnipresence of the televisual and its particular syntactic and semantic logics. In a sense one could say that this anachronism was already implicit in the meta-cinematic gesture,which was the practice of ciné-detournement, the citation of images from the history of cinema. It could also explain why in his televisual testament Debord chose to present the totality of his cinematic ouevre simply in terms of the basic formal gesture of «Hurlements» (see the «Hurlements en faveur de Sade»)—because it is here, in the anti-image politics of his Lettrist success de scandal that the essentially cinematic character of his fascination (literally, the black and white of the celluloid strip) is manifest as such.

Given Debord’s deep suspicion of the televisual, why then would his films suddenly reappear after his death on TV? In his letter to me in 1987 he had explained that one of the reasons why he felt he could no longer risk having his films in circulation was due to «structural changes» in the film industry having to do with the pressures of television. Unwilling to risk having his films simply inserted into the banalizing continuum of what Raymond Williams called the televisual «flow,» by withdrawing his films he effectively guaranteed for himself the ability to control their rigorous refusal of the televisual dispositif, at least until that time when he could both provide them with the necessary frame (his first and only work for TV) and, as he had effectively told me in our correspondence in 1987, when he was no longer alive. In so doing, i.e. in insisting on his own death as a precondition for the work of the ciné-fils to appear in the televisual dispositif that was effectively synonymous with at least one of the deaths of cinema, Debord revealed the history of his engagement with cinema as a critical performative reflection on the cultural politics of the cinema across the complex history (before, with and after) of its multiple dispositifs.

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