“And he who becomes master of a city used to being free and does not destroy her can expect to be destroyed by her, because always she has as pretext in rebellion the name of liberty and her old customs, which never through either length of time or benefits are forgotten, and in spite of anything that can be done or foreseen, unless citizens are disunited or dispersed, they do not forget that name and those institutions…”
Machiavelli, The Prince
“Mais (la Terreur) tient une vertu, qui passe de loin ses défauts: dans un domaine, trop souvent livré à la manie comme à la complaisance, elle refuse profondément le hasard, l’ombre, la confusion.” [But the Terror has a quality, which offsets by far its shortcomings: in a domain too often open to fashion and complacency, it rejects chance, shadow, confusion.]
Jean Paulhan, Les Fleurs de Tarbes
A week ago I was lucky enough to walk the streets of Paris on the left bank. In search for the house of Jean Paulhan, near the Arènes de Paris, I walked along rue Jussieu and rue Linné, next to Paris University VI, and the stage for ranged battles between rioting students and the “CRS” in May 1968. It was not my purpose on that day to reminisce about the May “events”. I was not then a witness, being away in the army, and more preoccupied by other events not far from the border between Southern Germany and what was then Tchekoslovakia. Yet something of what I had just read in the “Fleurs de Tarbes”, Paulhan’s treatise of the “Terreur dans les Lettres”, made me think of the leaders of the failed revolution.
Images of police violence against unarmed demonstrators, in Brazil and Turkey, push me to reflect. Is there a historical linegage between the 1968 students revolt, and the movements of the past five years, Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the protests in Istanbul or Sao Paulo? The world has changed immeasurably since 1968, has it not?
And slowly I thought of him. Those changes, he predicted, he wrote the theory of it, in a series of statements, films, posters, in a movement that was influential, sometime leading the flow of events.
Guy Debord was born in Paris in 1931, and took his own life in 1994. His ashes were scattered in the waters of the Seine, the river he loved. He published “The Society of Spectacle” in 1967, on the thresshold of the events that were to shake up the worlds’s capitals. This text anticipates the control of mass media over people’s life, and a kind of consumerism, now familiar to all of us to the point of denial, that would obliterate real life and intellectual thought. Debord is generally described as a marxist theorician. He certainly accepted Marx’s analysis but went much further, inasmuch as Marx predicted the downfall of an economic régime under the weight of its own contradictions, while Debord is deeply pessimistic about the prospect of libération: the Spectacle has already triumphed, has substituted itself to what used to be our reality, is the new reality. The political movement he contributed to founding, Situationism, perdures.
He wrote: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” “As the indispensable decoration of the objects produced today, as the general exposé of the rationality of the system, as the advanced economic sector which directly shapes a growing multitude of image-objects, the spectacle is the main production of present-day society.”
Debord’s written and film work is a call to clarity, to the realisation that we are now enslaved to the Spectacle. His historical idol was Retz, the rebellion leader of the 17th century France, the “Frondeur”, the hero of another failed revolt.
About Debord (in English):
- La Société du Spectacle – Dossier de Presse du Film  (situationnisteblog.wordpress.com)
- The Spectacle of Disintegration (newstatesman.com)
- Destroy Boredom: Punk Rock and the Situationist International (dangerousminds.net)
- #7: cyberculture’s nascent revolution (specktral.wordpress.com)
- ” Dérive et pyschogéographie “. Conférence d’Emmanuel Guy à l’occasion de l’exposition ” Guy Debord. Un art de la guerre ” à la BnF / ” Dérive and pyschogeography “. Conference from Emmanuel Guy in the framework of the exhibition ” Guy Debord. Un art de l (spacefiction.wordpress.com)