SB: What I like about Debord–and let’s face it, on the evidence of your biography he doesn’t appear to be someone who wanted to be likeable–was that although he used irony often, he was never ironic. He never succumbed to that eminently postmodern posture.
AH: What I admired most about Debord–and there is certainly much to dislike–was his brilliant and unflinching lucidity. Most people give in–get jobs in universities, work in the media, and pay lip service to radical thought which generally isn’t radical at all (our postmodern mates–now looking as dated as the era they grew up in). Debord stared it all down. He wasn’t a kind or charming man, but he was brave and for all the solipsism and braggadocio in the last books, he was true to himself. A figure out of time.
SB: In the years since Debord’s death, information technology has finally reached a mass audience. You could look at this as yet another evolutionary stage of vicarious culture, with people glued to their computer monitors instead of participating in authentic life. But isn’t there something different going on? I’m thinking about the way digital photography uncovered the torture at Abu Ghraiib prison and the way Russ Kick at www.TheMemoryHole.org diffused the photos of U.S. military dead being shipped back from Iraq in flag-draped coffins. Do you think the profusion of blogs and personal websites could make Debord’s pessimistic vision less pertinent?
AH: No. Quite the contrary–it’s not really about how information moves or the speed at which information moves, but who controls that information. The Internet is a useful safety valve–nothing demonstrates this better than industrialised porn–but never really a challenge. I think Debord would certainly have regarded it as rather a form of imprisonment. As in all prisons, subversive activity takes place–from De Sade to contemporary blogs–but it is all rather contained. Even al-Qaeda doesn’t spend as much time on the net as everyone thinks.
SB: I’ve noticed from your home page, that you’ve spent quite a lot of time recently in North Africa as British Council Writer-in Residence for Morocco. I was wondering if this experience made you re-evaluate the scope of Debord’s and the Situationists’ thinking. Doesn’t contempt for a sated civilization seem rather rarefied after encountering the realities of life on the Arab street?
AH: Yes and no. It’s interesting that Debord is now finding an audience in the Arab world, where he was largely unknown for a long time. The anti-colonial politics of the SI is very complex: they had Jewish backers but many key texts were written by Arabs and they had key supporters in Algeria in the mid-60s (the historian Mohamed Harbi was probably the most influential).
In some ways the SI were prophets of contemporary conditions–an early text calls for Iraqis in Baghdad to burn the Koran! Unfortunately, much of Debord’s chiliastic vision is being distorted in the name of Islamism, which he would have detested. I have recently interviewed Tariq Ramadan (seeNew Statesman) who clearly and slyly quotes Debord to support his vision of the West in decline. This is pretty much equivalent to distortions on the far Right but far more potent.
SB: Staying with North Africa, in the Observer late last year, in a piece you wrote about street boxing in Marrakesh, you noted the rise of al-Qaeda in what was once considered a moderate Islamic state. What’s remarkable about this, I think, is that we assumed the trajectory for developing nations was that the old faiths and traditions would go out the window as youth tried to emulate the conspicuous consumption of the West. This seems to be happening in China–but in places like Morocco it looks like youth is embracing a way of thinking that is not just anti-Capitalist but apparently medieval in its austerity. Is this the most authentic (and frightening) rejection of the society of the spectacle?
AH: This, probably, is why Debord should be, and is, read in Arabic. Reading Debord is really the way out of Islamism rather than way in. But there are certainly enough people like Roger Garaudy and the neo-Situs of the Right who promote the opposite. There’s a nasty little shop in Paris called Librairie du Savoir where you can find the latest anti-Semitic neo-Situ rubbish on September 11th. But all of that kind of distortion was predicted by Debord. The Situationist texts on Algeria from the 1960s are however still worth reading for what they say about the choice faced by Arab revolutionaries in the mid-1960s and the deliberate and mistaken turn away from experimental politics (autogestion, which briefly flared in Algeria) and the cynical ‘retour aux sources‘: Islam!
SB: Finally, considering that Debord had a particular problem with the epithet”artist”, would he find it galling that he is admired today as much for the way he said things as for the substance of his writings? He seems to be part of that particularly French tradition of misanthropic, brilliant writers that stretch from Louis-Ferdinand Céline to Michel Houllebecq.
AH: All the Situationists I have ever met hated Houellebecq with a vengeance (it’s pretty much reciprocal from what I know of Houellebecq). But Debord loved Bataille and Lautréamont, and I think he quite consciously in his final years fixed himself in that tradition. Nothing chez Debord happens by accident.