OBITUARIES : Guy Debord
Monday 02 January 1995
It can certainly be said that Debord drank too much, wrote too little and developed an incisive critique of the socio- economic order which he saw dominating 20th-century life. Defining this order as ``the spectacle'', Debord spent the 1960s undermining it with the Situationist International, an intriguing coalition of artists, writers and revolutionaries whose influence later fed into the anarchist cultures of punk, cyberpunk, and some of the more wayward elements of the arts and post-modern theory.
As a young film-maker in Paris, Debord worked with the Lettrist International's Isidor Isou and Maurice Lamaitre on the line of anti-art experimentation which had its sources in Dada and Surrealism. After writing numerous articles, making films includingHurlements en Faveur de Sade (1952), and editing several editions of the journal Internationale Situationniste, he published The Society of the Spectacle in 1967. The Revolution of Everyday Life, a more flamboyant book by Debord's co-conspirator Raoul Vaneigem, appeared in the same year. Twelve months later, France was on strike and revolution was in the air. And if neither the Situationists nor the events of May 1968 brought the social order down, they certainly had an extraordinary impact on both thepolitical underground and theoretical developments which came in their wake.
With typical affected arrogance, Debord considered his critique of 20th-century capitalism to be brilliant. Much of this conceit was quite justified. Drawing on Situationist interests in the avant-garde, architecture, urban planning, cinema, and Marxist theory, Debord defined the spectacle as the high-point of a process of alienation and commodification which turns people into spectators, even of their own lives. Although his work can seem steeped in alcoholic nostalgia for some notion of a long-lost self, Debord is at his most effective when he insists that the desire for wholesale change emerges as the inevitable and subversive product of a social order which then has the problem of containing it.
Suicide is not always an act of despair, but it seems likely that Debord's last move was made in the weary belief that such fundamental change would never come. In his terms, the revolution had failed, and Comments of the Society of the Spectacle, published in his late 1980s, made the spectacle seem even more entrenched than it had been 20 years before. But there are enormous and unprecedented shifts afoot for the social order he defined so well. Debord's spectacle was frozen in place by the complicitybetween market interests and those of the state, and driven by the imperatives of the Cold War and television. It was an order which was governed by the West, and predates the emergence of Pacific Asia, the crisis of the state, the anarchy of the Interne t, the interconnectivities of dance culture and other Generation X adventures, and an underworld of discontented renegades for whom Watch Only TV, like Read Only Memory, is no longer the only thing to do.
Debord spent his last years in the heart of rural France. No doubt the world looks different from there. But the real tragedy of his death is that, even as the spectacle was coming undone, Debord seems to have believed its own hype about its immortality.Debord loved war games, and was a great strategist. It is a shame that he will miss the adventures to come.
Sadie Plant Guy Debord, writer and film-maker: born Paris 28 December 1931; died 30 November 1994.
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