BY Saul Anton in Features | 01 JAN 11
Featured in
Issue 136

Out of Sight

The legacy of Guy Debord and the connections between terrorist strategies, the networked 21st century and historical avant-gardes

BY Saul Anton in Features | 01 JAN 11

One of the most controversial comments made after 9/11 came from the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who told a journalist in Hamburg that the attack was ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos’. His comments caused uproar in Germany, where the association of art with political violence obviously raises troubling historical spectres. Whether or not Stockhausen was right to equate terrorism with art – and it would be disingenuous to deny the conceptual violence of his analogy, which he himself quickly recognized and sought to dampen – his comments point to an uncomfortable truth: for more than a century now, artists and terrorists have shared a common intention to produce reactions of shock in the spectator – in other words, to produce a spectacle. One need only think of the Futurists’ politics, or recall how the Iraq War was initially billed as a spectacle of ‘shock and awe’. Indeed, it is tempting to say that the past decade’s war on terror was a war of terror, in which violence and its mediatized exhibition fused to into one another and become two faces of a single aesthetico-political instrument deployed by states and ‘non-state actors’ alike. It is tempting to describe the ongoing global conflict as the outbreak of the first genuinely avant-garde war, one in which Modernist negation is efficiently integrated into a four-dimensional technological mediasphere conflict that is, to use the lingo du jour, viral.

None of this, of course, is news. Anyone with a glancing familiarity with 20th-century culture and critical thought knows that the intimate relation between mass spectacle and political violence hangs over it like a dark cloud. The list of thinkers who explore this territory is long. In recent years, Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of modernity as a ‘concentrationary’ biopolitics in books such as Homo Sacer (1998) and Remnants of Auschwitz (2002) have achieved iconic status. Before Agamben, there were works such as Paul Virilio’s study of the militarization of seeing, War and Cinema (1984), Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (1967) and Walter Benjamin’s famous 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. All these writings insist in different ways on the continuity between modern communications media and political violence. Moreover, even though the historical avant-gardes are not shy about their use of a rhetoric of destruction, Thomas Crow reminds us that their acts of negation of traditional bourgeois culture have been appropriated by the spectacle from the outset: ‘Legitimated Modernism is in turn re-packaged for consumption as chic and kitsch commodities. The work of the avant-garde is returned to the sphere of culture where much of its substantial material originated […] In the 20th century, this process of mass-cultural recuperation has operated on an ever-increasing scale.’¹ Others see this recuperation in stronger terms. In Architecture and Utopia (1976) Manfred Tafuri identified the Dadaist negation of traditional bourgeois culture as the precondition for a ‘renewed bourgeoisie, capable of accepting doubt as the premise for the full acceptance of existence as a whole, as explosive, revolutionary vitality, prepared for permanent change and the unpredictable.’² For Tafuri, then, the art world may well represent the real shock troops of capital; the front lines of its domination and transformation of the means of production might well be places like Williamsburg and Berlin.

A Bomb exploding during Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War, Iraq, 1991. Anyone with a glancing familiarity with 20th-century culture knows that the intimate relation between mass spectacle and political violence hangs over it like a dark cloud. Courtesy: Getty. 

Today, however, one may well wonder to what extent the 20th-century pas de deux between the avant-garde and ‘society’ remains useful as a framework for thinking about art? If the spectacle has become the basis of a global war and terror, to what extent is negation still the critical gesture that defines the potential of progressive art? Does it even make sense to speak of a critical negation of society, or is the art world today simply a mobile and partly-sponsored research lab for capital? These are the questions ultimately provoked by Stockhausen’s comments.

At the minimum, it is undeniable that the ‘spectacular’ dimension of 20th-century mass culture is currently morphing into something that lacks an endoskeleton and can take any shape it likes, like a new generation Terminator. McLuhan’s medium-message is fragmenting into a dizzying variety of information packets delivered and consumed in ways that were difficult to imagine in the 1960s. More crucially, however, the relation between producers and consumers is in the midst of being entirely revolutionized, leading to the near-wholescale liquidation of what Frankfurt School theorists referred to as the ‘culture industry’. Blogging, social networking, tweeting and so on has flattened the hierarchy between producer and consumer. The culture industries – journalism, music, television, advertising and even cinema – primarily driven by the recuperation of the avant-garde into commodities and kitsch are being ‘rationalized’ and liquidated. The same functions are now being performed for free. The fans, critics, collectors and spectators who characterize 20th-century culture are becoming nodes in a network that realizes Warhol’s dictum regarding fame in a diminished and crepuscular version – one reserved for one’s circle of friends. Not everyone, as Joseph Beuys suggested, is an artist, but everyone has been given a technological form of self-expression and the status of a cultural worker whose taste will be archived and data-mined.

How do we think about this shift from a top-down structure into a viral mass-culture network in which the spectacle is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere – and perhaps soon reduced to a letter-box image displayed on a universal communicator device modelled on the iPad? Is this a game-changer for avant-garde practice, or just another turn of the same screw?

To answer these questions, it might be useful to consider the work of one of the avant-garde’s most mythical figures, the artist-thinker and self-proclaimed ‘strategist’, Guy Debord, the leader of the Situationist International (si) and author of Society of the Spectacle (1967). A law-school drop-out who participated in and soon broke with the Lettrist International centred in the early 1950s on the left bank of Paris, in 1957 Debord formed the si with a small group that counted, at different junctures, figures such as the Dutch painter Asger Jorn, the visionary architect Constant Nieuwenhuys, and, later, the art historian T. J. Clark. Ostensibly a collective endeavour, the si was nevertheless more Debord than anyone else. In addition to making a handful of films, including Society of the Spectacle (1973), Debord directed nearly all of its ‘activities,’ as its ‘secretary’ and edited its journal, the Internationale situationiste. The opening lines of the book are perhaps as good a place to start as any to begin to get a sense of his approach to the question of the spectacle: ‘The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.’³

(Left to right): Guy Debord, Michele Bernstein and Asger Jorn of the Situationist International, 1960. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation. Courtesy: Verso.

I cannot hope to do justice here to the full scope of Debord’s thinking, but it’s possible to glimpse the sharp difference between his conception of the spectacle and that of media theorists such as McLuhan, for whom the spectacle amounted to the product and effects of the mass culture produced, regulated and dominated by communications technologies such as television, cinema and radio. For Debord the spectacle amounted to something far greater, ultimately nothing less than the whole of life in modern capitalist society, the form that structures social relations and society as such. Thus, for example, it was not cinema that produced the modern spectacle, but rather, the society of the spectacle that has given rise to cinema in its current incarnation: ‘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.’4 As Thomas Y. Levin has noted, while cinema and television may well be privileged figures of the spectacle, in point of fact, they are merely expressions of a specific social situation. The spectacle is ‘not a collection of images,’ but rather ‘a social relation between people that is mediated by images’.5 In other words, for Debord, the notion of spectacle was not any particular technology or form of media, but rather the general condition of representation that includes within it the consumption of mass-produced images that we commonly associate with television, for instance, or the Hollywood ‘dream machine’.

In many respects, it is tempting to see Tafuri’s skeptical diagnosis of the avant-garde’s complicity with modern capitalism as being equally applicable to Debord and the si, who undeniably continued previous avant-garde gestures of negation. At the same time, the practices of the dérive, defined as ‘transient passage through varied ambiances,’ and détournement, defined as ‘the integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu,’ are not reducible simply to acts of negation. Instead, they are attempts to create situations, and they extended the gesture of production beyond the purview of art, opening social forms to renegotiation as historical forms by revealing their underlying aesthetic foundations. In these, Debord the guerilla making raids on the perimeter of the occupying power is doubled by the romantic seeking the cozy warmth of direct and unmediated experience. One can easily object, of course, that there is no such thing as immediate experience, and yet, it was in the name of ‘life’ that Debord denounced previous vanguard movements as mere art: ‘Dadaism sought to abolish art without realising it; Surrealism sought to realise art without abolishing it. The critical position since developed by the Situationists demonstrates that the abolition and the realisation of art are inseparable aspects of a single transcendence of art.’

For Debord the spectacle amounted to nothing less than the whole of life in modern capitalist society.

What can transcend art and mediate ‘life’? Is such a project nonsensical from the beginning and does it result in the imperial expansion of the art world? This question is not entirely simple, but Debord offers clues. In a letter to André Frankin of January 26, 1960, he writes: ‘I think that the “progressive” notion of the book excluded the pursuit of perfection, and any sort of completion. Formally and practically theoretical thought seeks its expression in a system of fragments, it seems to me. I am pleased with your comments about Passage [On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time, 1959] because criticism – or praise – has no true interest than when it emerges onto a collaborative perspective.’6 The ‘system of fragments,’ as it happens, is none other than Society of the Spectacle, where he pursues the thought in the following way: ‘Détournement is the antithesis of quotation, of a theoretical authority invariably tainted if only because it has become quotable, because it is now a fragment torn away from its context, from its own movement, and ultimately from the overall frame of reference of its period and from the precise option that it constituted within that framework. Détournement, by contrast, is the fluid language of anti-ideology. It occurs within a type of communication aware of its inability to enshrine any inherent and definitive certainty. This language is inaccessible in the highest degree to confirmation by any earlier or supra-critical reference point.’7 A lot of ink has been spilled on the status of citation in art, but here Debord identifies détournement not simply as appropriation in the name of cultural critique, but rather as a gesture that breaks the image down, turning it into a practice of writing whereby it no longer answers to the purposes of instrumental or political power and fails to support the creation of conceptually hardened positions.

The fragment, it seems, fails to become a work, and cannot therefore become the citational basis for a theoretical or aesthetic judgment. What is created in the situation is a momentary passage that cannot become the aesthetic basis of a political position because it takes the form of a phrase, words situated amongst each other. It is in this, it seems, that Debord sought to transcend the complicity of the avant-garde and the spectacle as he defines it. The fragment can be identified with no medium and no conceptual formation, and as a result, in spite of his reputation for semi-Stalinist purges in the si, it seems to resemble a messianic paradigm generally associated with thinkers such as Benjamin instead of more directly engaged figures such as Brecht. The fragment implies a poetics of art that does not seek to create an aesthetic shock in the spectator – and does not, contrary to recent ideas about ‘participation’, imagine a spectator at all. It should, moreover, also be distinguished from the highly fragmentary nature of what takes place and what is exchanged in the sphere of social media. The primary difference, it is tempting to say, is that whereas the former produces an aestheticized social experience that fully integrates expression and taste into an economic model of spectacle, Debord’s notion of the fragment is expressly set against information and only opens onto ‘life’ insofar is it interrupts the closed-circuit of information and sharply calls into question the fantasy of an archive identical to the society that produces it. In this, it recalls Nietzsche’s praise of the salutary effects of forgetting. For this reason, however, to remain true to this idea of language implies the paradoxical need to resist elevating Debord to an exemplary model for either art practice or a theory of politics. Rather, one is tempted to see in him a figure who plays ‘in blissful blindness between the fences of the past and future.’8

1 Thomas Crow, ‘Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,’ in Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p.35
2 Cited by Thomas McDonough ‘Ideology and the Situationist Utopia’, his introductory essay to Guy Debord and the Situationist International, ed. Thomas McDonough (Cambridge, mit Press, 2002), p.x
3 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), p.12
4 Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, in Oeuvres cinématographiques completes, 1952–78 (Paris, Editions Champ Libre, 1978), p.207–8
5 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p.146
6 Guy Debord, Correspondence: The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957–August 1960) (Los Angeles, Semiotexte 2009), p.320
7 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p.146
8 Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On the Utility and Liability of History for Life,’ in Unfashionable Observations (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995), p.88

Saul Anton writes about contemporary art and culture for many publications. He is former senior editor at BOMB Magazine and the author of Warhol’s Dream (2007) and Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens (2015). He teaches at the Pratt Institute, New York.