Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Game of War. Guy Debord and the Society of the Spectacle.

It is somehow grimly appropriate that ten years after he shot himself through the heart, Guy Debord, an acute analyst of how the media can blandly neuter transgressive figures, has become a ‘celebrity’. Surrounded by calumnies and myths, the one-time leader of the Situationist International (SI) has become indelibly associated with the euphoria of the Parisian uprising of 1968 and the volatile, often bloody politics of the 1970s.

Yet when the smoke clears, the work will be waiting. Debord’s most famous book, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), consists of 221 aphoristic paragraphs that describe, with Cartesian lucidity, how “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”.

Shane Barry discussed the implications of the revolutionary’s legacy with Dr. Andrew Hussey, author of The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord .


SB: Ten years after his death, Debord’s influence has never seemed greater: the éminence grise of the events of May ‘ 68 has morphed into the godfather of the anti-globalisation movement. (My friends in Italy testify to his status among activists there). But I’m not sure if the connection between the protesters of today and those of 1968 is clear-cut.

There seems to be a huge difference in tone and style: Debord and many of his contemporaries were steeped in an educational system that was basically nineteenth century. They may have detested its conservatism, but at least it gave them the intellectual tools to dissect the society emerging before their eyes. (I’m thinking of the surreal street poetry that seems to be the most poignant artefact of 1968.)

In contrast, the slogans and thinking of contemporary protest often seem captive to the very society and structures being condemned. Is this comparison fair to either?


AH: Probably. Except that what really lingers from the Situationist adventure is a theoretical framework which I still don’t think has been properly grasped by even those contemporary anti-globalisation activists who espouse and use the slogans and so on in the service of their own protests. More precisely, the notion of the spectacle and then the integrated spectacle, as theorised and developed in the 1960s and 1970s, is emblematic of our era.

No one understands this better than Al-Quaeda, whom the Situationists would have despised (the texts on Italian terrorism tell you all you need to know about the alleged– fabricated –links between the SI and terrorists). But, like the SI and others before them, they have grasped how fragile our civilisation is, and that the seamless movement of the spectacular society can be stopped.

SB: In a recent entertaining article on the 1970s,Dazed and Confused: the 1970s and the Postmodern Turn, the writer, Vince Carducci, quotes two writers on the difference between modernism and postmodernism:

In Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, art historian T. J. Clark writes about modernism’s two overarching desires: It wanted its audience to be led toward a recognition of the social reality of the sign [. . .]; but equally it dreamed of turning the sign back to a bedrock of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity which the to and fro of capitalism had all but destroyed. []

Postmodernism embraces the notion that the experienced world is itself culture all the way down, as ethnographer Clifford Geertz expresses it, abandoning hope that there might be another, more authentic world to get back to.

If you broadly accept those two definitions, it would seem that Debord was a modernist, maybe one of the last. Like Marx, he argued for a world unshackled, in his case, freed from the artificiality of the spectacle. He didn’t think it was culture all the way down. But like Marx, he was equally fuzzy about what the replacement would look or feel like.


AH: [Debord was] Definitely a modernist, with everything positive and negative that the term brings with it. I remember one afternoon, years ago, with Isidore Isou in Paris, talking about Debord and utopia, saying that Debord was the last thinker to have really grasped what the promise of the avant-garde was all about–and that this made him the last genius. I don’t know whether he was a genius, but it is remarkable really that he could ever have been inducted into the Anglo-American academy of post-modernism. The texts couldn’t be clearer.

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