Guy Debord was the avant-garde’s Christ.

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem

Tomb for Guy Debord

Traduit par Jordan Lee Schnee

Date de parution : 11.07.2019


Guy Debord was the avant-garde’s Christ. He was immolated by his own ideology, which he more than anyone (Tzara, Duchamp, Artaud, the Viennese Actionists…) had pushed to its extremes. He covered all of its possibilities, all of its impasses. His extreme attempts were neither successes, nor failures. Today, his path should be evaluated through other methods: the ones left to us in the wake of the avant-garde’s disappearance.

To put it as Reiner Schürmann does: truth is a “conflictuality without agreements.” It is within Debord’s insurmountable contradictions, whose political, aesthetic, and existential preoccupations were unfailingly coherent, that we must hunt for the truth which he left as his legacy. Guy Debord was the long-distance runner of the avant-garde’s dead-end streets. This is the reason that his path, one more sinuous and complex than its radicality would make it seem at first glance, is exemplary of everything that the avant-garde will have been. To understand why the specters of the avant-garde haunt us unceasingly, we must relentlessly analyze the “Debord issue.”

Bourgeois, but disinherited; an aristocrat at heart turned idle alcoholic, Debord hung around in seedy bars and embraced the cause of the proletariat, of which he was a mere “lumpen” piece. He never worked, yet devoted his life to Stakhanovist labor in the negative as no one else before him. (“I would have been an excellent professional, but at what profession?”) Like all the avant-gardists, and foremost among them, Debord was a disciple of the clean slate. Nevertheless, he made “détournement” the principal weapon of the situationists: everything is recyclable. We create exclusively from leftovers; in language worthy of the heights of seventeenth century French prose (Bossuet, Pascal). All past art and poetry, reinterpreted in the sole light of its being updated—if it were not declared outdated; film (there were almost no “original” images in his films); the comic strip (Hegel as the owner of a sleazy club).

So, Debord’s language. Neither Joyce, nor Artaud, nor Guyotat found grace in his eyes. Revolutionizing daily life went hand in hand with a haughty conservatism regarding language. Debord did not attain prose (in the sense that Mallarmé, on the subject of the “Hugo issue,” says “we attained verse.” Mallarmé will atomize to the point of no return). Destruction was his Beatrice, and yet the situationists’ innovation was one more radical than any of the other avant-garde’s. The “building of situations”: all (or nearly all) contemporary art has become situationist.

It is not enough to say that “détournement” has become the favorite weapon of the publicist, the television comedian, or the cynical “contemporary artist.” Perhaps this stems from the terrible paradox that Debord is dead, among many other paradoxes; but there is no question about it. The situationists called this “recuperation” in their jargon. Recuperation is a History-based “Hegelian ruse,” a double negation: it is a hijacking of détournement—the way the system effectively “recuperates” all of the avant-garde’s tactics in order to facilitate the flow of merchandise, a unique form of contemporary social relations which all the avant-gardists relentlessly fought against.

The novel can only come about through the destruction of the past. This was the avant-garde’s dogma, one as much aesthetic as it was political (don’t forget that it was Lenin and not Dada who honored this guiding principle of the twentieth century). “Going beyond art” was young Debord’s mission, one he followed until the end of his life: an oxymoron for an art form that would supersede art without conserving any of it. The contradiction was obvious; it is the contradiction of the whole avant-garde. Yet the fact remains that in its beautiful sleepwalking unconsciousness, the failure of avant-garde was its very success: the countless procedures that are its legacy. As Serge Daney writes: “Only those who have come across formal violence early enough—as long as it is in the context of a life, their own—will end up learning that this violence, too, has a “background” (...) Form is desire, the background is just the canvas when we are no longer there.”

We have inherited all the forms created by the twentieth century’s avant-garde, and we use them “democratically” (in the Agambian sense). No longer going beyond, rather arranging procedures that were verified and extended by the movement(s). We go around in circles in the night of capital, of clear ecological suicide, consumed by the information inferno (the generalized “live” image-making of art, as in both small and grand narratives “in real time”). Yet the fact remains that these strategies (détournement, occupation, codification, etc.) can be, in certain places, reappropriated for non-commercial use.

This on the one hand, but, on the other, the result of the most important avant-garde “supersessions” in all the grandest senses of the word (“let anything age for a century or two, and it will become beautiful,” said Duchamp, with his usual cynical genius) is the following: the supposedly outdated past persists, in the form of an enormous trash heap, and the “radical innovator” has nothing left to do except pick through the garbage like a vagrant (“second stage” Debord, for example; “large glass” Duchamp; Anselm Kiefer; etc.), creating a habitable environment (“I will have to use quotations quite extensively”).

So the Life and Death of the avant-garde have retroactively found themselves in point-by-point synchronicity with the realization of ecological suicide, which is still impending unless we radically change the way in which we inhabit the Earth. I have always been intrigued by the incongruity of the title given by Debord to his book Refuse and Rubble: Unpacked Upon the Release of the Film In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni. It simply collects press either praising or “abasing” his penultimate film (which we recall was Guy Debord, His Art and Times). I found the title clumsy, incongruous sounding. Today, the answer is obvious: Debord saw the mote in his neighbor’s eye but not the plank in his own. He did not see that in order to develop his anti-artistic, or “disarticulating” art (as Lacoue-Labarthe says, translating Adorno), he should have dealt with refuse himself (classic prose, commercial art like movies and comics, money...), and rubble too (old Paris, old wine, old heterosexual macho mores...). May 1968 destroyed everything of the old values: I, Guy Debord, only have to rejoice in this while deploring it at the same time: a double bind which, like any double bind, can only lead to psychosis, or death. Whoever would like to destroy everything in the ancient world actually finds themselves to be in a field of ruins (which now constitute the world and everything in it); and they are condemned to rebuild, not on top of the ruins, as all the avant-gardists after Lenin and Dada had hoped, but with them. Hence the almost exclusive concern of this last Debord for ecological problems. Foreclosed lucidity.

Basically, the avant-garde finds itself in the same epochal situation as knowledge does. No physicist is capable of knowing the state of quantum physics as a whole. No mathematician can say exactly where their field stands. The idea of an encyclopedia (see this issue’s interview with Philippe Sollers) died with the end of the eighteenth century in France and with Hegel (“absolute knowledge”) in Germany. Film history was made (Godard, Daney) at a time when cinema was becoming impossible to make. In 2019, painting is “back” but without normative processes which instruct painters to employ one technique instead of another (which was the case in the impressionist and cubist eras). The avant-garde, however, was the “exorbitant” claim to a historical knowledge of art that would prescribe what was to be done here and now with a teleprompter’s accuracy. On this point, as on so many others, it was the expiration of the avant-gardist schema (in the Kantian sense) that paradoxically granted Debord preemptive access. He went the furthest in experimenting within the twentieth century’s dominant aestheto-political schema, just as romanticism was the dominant schema of the nineteenth century.

No more art history (the only gauge of the current legitimacy of avant-garde action), because the avant-garde was all too successful (the best thing that can happen to a vanguard, said Debord, is “to have made its time,” literally). No more history, because the avant-gardists produced a succession of innovative forms that were unable to communicate the content that they conveyed (this is what has been quite pertinently called “postmodern.”) All twentieth-century trends, from Rousseauian installationism (Beuys’ “everyone is an artist”; Pommeureulle; Filliou, etc.) to performance (generalized actionism); from dadaism (in its popularized version punk, for example) to simulationism (well beyond its mainstays, Sherman or Koons), from abstract painting to appropriationism, and on and on, almost to infinity. All trends now coexist “democratically,” perhaps even ecstatically in their formal availability (we are all spoiled children who are ignoring each other). They not only coexist, but collaborate and interact with varying degrees of promiscuity (this is what Baudrillard beautifully termed contemporary art’s “insider trading”) and what Bourriaud impeccably diagnosed as “relational aesthetics.”

Here again, in a book called Situationism’s Bitter Victory, Debord’s double bind: quoting Arthur Cravan, he laments that soon the only people one could meet in the street would be artists (and, let us add: artists of the self). It would hardly be possible to meet a single human being. However, this is what the avant-garde, Debord and the situs desired in the first place: for everyone to be the artist of their own existence. In other words: we have inherited all the possible forms of the avant-garde (these are the “specters”), and we invest them with whichever content we desire.

A fashionable thinker argued in the media that he did not give much credence to the present era’s “transgression.” One way of ratifying the avant-garde’s burial. This diagnosis seems to make sense; but at a time when the “yellow vests” are confronting us with unprecedented “popular situationism” in France, let us take another look. They indirectly yet relentlessly prove that the corpse of the avant-garde’s plan is not only still moving, but has held up well: avant-garde forms can be invested with the vanity of merchandise (the “spot-modern”) and they can also be invested with both the art world and in the contemporary political agora as new content. Challenging, subversive, transgressive at just the right moments.

In the arena of contemporary artistic production alone—in galleries and modern museums, in film and in theater—no trend can claim to have “superseded” the others, as was the case during the twentieth century (as the situs and Debord themselves claimed, with more arrogance and more accuracy than their main competitors). This would then suggest that the forms invented by the avant-gardists were emptied of their individual contents (Tzara does not address the same things as Braque, Artaud does not have the same concept of The Revolution as Isou does, Malevich does not assign the same function to his art as Eisenstein, who does not see things the same way Mayakovsky does, etc.).

Thus, but only thus, the whole history of the avant-garde turns out not to have been an abject failure, quite the contrary; because parallel to the grand-scale theater of destructive operations (“destructionism” is one of the rare avant-garde movements that was never born), innumerable forms appeared which allow us to reinhabit the world, and even, in some places, to reinvigorate it.

So there was only a “funeral for the avant-garde” in appearance, because there can be successful funerals. That forms are emptied of their contents has been a near-“biological” law throughout the history of artistic formalisms. (In the case of the avant-garde it was usually “revolutionary” content across the board.) This in no way stops us or our contemporaries from investing these forms with entirely new contents that are more unique than ever. We are all, in this sense, “trash pickers.” The “yellow vests” and the participants of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement are not content (as in Lyotard) to invest in the specters of “small narratives” like the rest of us. They show that these forms can also become a collective “grand narrative,” one that stands up to the suicidal one-upmanship of Capital and market “appropriationism.” So, we can fill these forms however we see fit. We can add to this the cynical praise of Capital, merchandise, and the “people-ization” or generalized “reality-TVization” of our lives (what French art critic Éric Troncy calls “realityism”). We can fill them with our personal stories, protests, or the tales of perfect crimes: whatever we want. So, we are talking about what has been called a subject (and, let us add to that, restating Schürmann, a fundamentally anarchic subject). Basically, none of these gestures can claim to beat the competition (“disproportionate,” Debord said, lucid about the pitifulness of his own megalomania) at the last minute (meaning, usually in ridicule: the famous “dung heaps of History” where the avant-gardists threw themselves at each other to see who was king of the pile. They are the only ones still standing. The proof: everyone uses them).

In the meantime, let us return to the “yellow vest” movement, the most important that has appeared since May ‘68. The “yellow vests” invest all the historical forms of dissent with disparate contents, from Revolution to xenophobia, from the most egotistical calls for revenge to the most altruistic pleas, from a desire for more purchasing power to one seeking to short-circuit the systematic collusion between politicians and banks, from hatred for women and gays to demands for direct democracy: it makes no difference here. What we should notice is how a whole people has reclaimed, whether conscious of doing so or not, all of the avant-garde’s methods: occupation (and therefore installation), as well as actionism (a boxer using his techniques to devastate members of the National Police Force), agitprop and performance, détournement and pranks, the list goes on.

Transgressive heroism is over? So what about sexuality? What about the Egyptian woman who photographed herself defecating on an Islamic State flag, or the Tunisian woman who posted her topless photo on social networks? Homosexuality is more or less accepted in our Western countries, but the fact remains that in many countries people are imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for being gay (Schürmann writes, “it is in the name of Nature, the normative fantasy for a whole age, that sodomites are burned in the Middle Ages”); and the fact that in our liberal democracies, the rate of suicide for homosexual adolescents is four times higher than the one for “hetero” boys and girls. What about masochists? What about poor women who are too liberated in their sexuality? How about male bisexuality, which is accepted so much less “naturally” than female bisexuality? How to make moral and legislative rulings on zoophilia and paedophilia? These questions are themselves disparate ones, but they prove that the question of the play between transgressive/legislative, one constantly revived by the avant-garde, is not outdated at all, but has its “best” days ahead of it. Which is to say, it is also a game of reprisal, whereby people who openly declare their sexuality can expect to be lynched as often as not. The truth is very simple: even in our “liberal” “democracies,” sexuality is no less stained with taboos than before. If we reconsider the matter through the magnifying glass of the “Debord issue,” it is easy to squeeze his unhealthy macho sexuality for a “people” argument that many of the divisions in the Situationist International were based on sexual issues that were not so rosy (Debord as the “Freudian leader of the horde,” who wanted to have his share of all his cohort’s spouses): yet this remains a small part of the magnified picture. No one can do it all, we must act together or not at all (“relational aesthetics”). That is how one of the avant-garde’s “Wagnerian” illusions went. Take care, meanwhile, to not throw the post-postmodern baby out with the bathwater: the stone thrower’s glass house always comes crashing down. The transgressive game (“The most dangerous game,” according to an excellent exhibition devoted to situationists in Berlin) did not die with the avant-garde: with the avant-garde, it only began. The avant-garde died expressly so that we could all play at it: and this is what the “yellow vests,” more or less consciously, have “understood.”

All aesthetic possibilities were exhausted by the avant-garde. There is no (“postmodern”) melancholy to be nourished from this state of affairs; because the avant-gardes, as was their function (Lenin misinterpreted this), have “blended in” with the first line of attack, inventing countless aesthetic forms which they bequeathed to each of us, to what we must dare call: the people. As per usual, the transition from art to politics will, and is already taking place (“Occupy Wall Street”, the “yellow vests”).

The history of the avant-garde movements, like that of romanticism before them, is therefore the history of heroism, of heroisms in the plural, which is to say the singular: each time a certain artist or group of artists (I feel the urge to write team) “jumps into the fray” of social conventions (they have been called “bourgeois” in the past with good reason) to question the mores that hold the existing state of things together (Laws; the “words of the tribe” Mallarmé would say) and to invent in passing a form for attacking these conventions. These forms are now intended for common use (Agamben’s “use”).

All aesthetics imply politics. Debord would have “known” this better than anyone of the twentieth century. That is to say he would have experienced this truth blindly, like an illuminated, sleepwalking Oedipus. The avant-garde was transgression’s heroic side, taking its cues from Rimbaud, Sade, Baudelaire; Lautréamont’s gestures.

Now, in the twenty-first century, transgressive heroism will be everywhere. Its avant-garde form consisted of challenging the Law at its limits. This is how the absolute democratization of situationist intuitions, the “yellow vest” movement, makes its strategic points.

So we have all become situationists. Debord is dead. Long live Debord!

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Mehdi Belhaj Kacem

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem

est un auteur et philosophe franco-tunisien. Il a écrit son premier roman Cancer à l’âge de 20 ans. Avant la parution de son second roman, 1993, il s’est tourné vers la philosophie, et il a publié ces dernières années nombre d’essais controversés, dont, parmi les plus récents, Dieu : La mémoire, la techno-science et le Mal (2017), et Artaud et la théorie du complot (2015). Il est responsable, avec Jean-Luc Nancy, de la nouvelle série ANARCHIES publiée par DIAPHANES.