Guy Debord was the avant-garde’s Christ. He was immolated by his own ideology, which he more than anyone (Tzara, Duchamp, Artaud, the Viennese Actionists…) had pushed to its extremes. He covered all of its possibilities, all of its impasses. His extreme attempts were neither successes, nor failures. Today, his path should be evaluated through other methods: the ones left to us in the wake of the avant-garde’s disappearance.
To put it as Reiner Schürmann does: truth is a “conflictuality without agreements.” It is within Debord’s insurmountable contradictions, whose political, aesthetic, and existential preoccupations were unfailingly coherent, that we must hunt for the truth which he left as his legacy. Guy Debord was the long-distance runner of the avant-garde’s dead-end streets. This is the reason that his path, one more sinuous and complex than its radicality would make it seem at first glance, is exemplary of everything that the avant-garde will have been. To understand why the specters of the avant-garde haunt us unceasingly, we must relentlessly analyze the “Debord issue.”
Bourgeois, but disinherited; an aristocrat at heart turned idle alcoholic, Debord hung around in seedy bars and embraced the cause of the proletariat, of which he was a mere “lumpen” piece. He never worked, yet devoted his life to Stakhanovist labor in the negative as no one else before him. (“I would have been an excellent professional, but at what profession?”) Like all the avant-gardists, and foremost among them, Debord was a disciple of the clean slate. Nevertheless, he made “détournement” the principal weapon of the situationists: everything is recyclable. We create exclusively from leftovers; in language worthy of the heights of seventeenth century French prose (Bossuet, Pascal). All past art and poetry, reinterpreted in the sole light of its being updated—if it were not declared outdated; film (there were almost no “original” images in his films); the comic strip (Hegel as the owner of a sleazy club).
So, Debord’s language. Neither Joyce, nor Artaud, nor Guyotat found grace in his eyes. Revolutionizing daily life went hand in hand with a haughty conservatism regarding language. Debord did not attain prose (in the sense that Mallarmé, on the subject of the “Hugo issue,” says “we attained verse.” Mallarmé will atomize to the point of no return). Destruction was his Beatrice, and yet the situationists’ innovation was one more radical than any of the other avant-garde’s. The “building...