Debord’s embrace of aristocratic cultural fragments aptly draws its inspiration from that constellation of thinking so central to Walter Benjamin, in which a seemingly unrelated and anachronistic assortment of various details together gives meaning to a whole.
It is with [Johan] Huizinga particularly that we discover a dimension to Debord’s sensibilities inseparable from the ‘play instinct’ of ceremony and other forms of aristocratic conduct. For Huizinga, all human culture arises in the form of play through which society expresses for itself an interpretation of the world. Conduct of chivalry, braggadocio, costume, etiquette and ritual in the 14th and 15th centuries of France and the Netherlands, for example, had an unmistakable quality of play about them. ‘This is not the ordinary world of toil and care, the calculation of advantage or the acquisition of useful goods’ (Huizinga, 2016: 60). Within such a world, there was a tendency to give style to almost everything, with a certain dignity of ritual to be found in the most mundane activities, themselves saturated by a plethora of formalities yet now raised to the height of a sublime dream. Exclusively allotted to the leisure of an aristocratic class, we nevertheless find here an effort to decorate life with ‘an epic or idyllic colour’ (Huizinga, 1924: 30) in order to showcase its exemplariness. Poetical admonitions on the idea of true nobility were given ceremonial consecration that overflowed with aesthetic value. Even meals were dignified ceremonies on par with liturgical observance, a far cry from any chicken and fries readily available. These flamboyant elements of the aristocratic legacy, always strengthened by their exaggeration, denoted a rich adornment of life, scrupulously observed and, to our eyes, almost childlike in its ludicrousness, yet nevertheless conducted against a vicious and barbaric social existence, veiling a cruel reality under an apparently harmonious life construed as an artwork itself.
Such drama queens. And the idea that suicide is a ‘revolutionary act’ is so utterly lame. The entire bohemian, antinomian, anti-social character of Debord and the SI is perhaps the most relevant but to me least interesting aspect of their thought. For all their puffed up pearl clutching and attempts to preempt the distortion of their work, this entire flashy self-important attitude and contrived air of mystique invited as much. That Debord and his ilk were masters of insult and denunciation certainly bears on the substance of their intellectual project, but I’ve always been curious above all about the philosophical pedigree of their arguments. They deserve a serious interlocutor like Russell, but only just as much as they do supposed ‘recuperators’ like McLaren or Hussey. I’ve never read that thing Debord wrote on Lebovici which you linked, will have to check that out.
When they appeared before a sympathetic audience at the London ICA in the 1960s, a Belgian situationist with poor English made an incomprehensible speech, ending on a characteristically menacing note: you think you have come to judge us, he warned his listeners, but we have come to judge you. "But what is situationism?", a hapless member of the audience wanted to know. That was it for Debord. "We didn't come here to answer cuntish questions," he said, and stormed off to the pub.
As a young man Debord scratched Ne Travaillez Jamais ("never work") on the wall of the rue de Seine - now regarded as an early opus in the Debord canon - and in the usual sense of the word, he never did. Before becoming a successful copywriter, the formidably intelligent Michelle Bernstein supported them both by writing horoscopes for racehorses. Dining chez Debord some years later, a guest noticed that Debord's equally formidable second wife seemed to do all the washing-up. "She does the dishes," Debord explained simply. "I do the revolution."
Protesting became labor, thus naturally, it largely reproduced the sexual division of labor. Almost automatically, we found ourselves doing ladies’ auxiliary shit. We mixed and packaged endless batches of sudecon, we bagged hundreds of lunches, we procured and distributed medical supplies, we cooked huge meals for the protest corps when they got home from their tough worknight posturing in front of a precinct. All the critiques we’ve made here, we made then; we tried to share them with our friends and coworkers who had been sucked into this political theater and pointlessly risked incarceration (and indefinite surveillance) for months after the insurrection died. But of course, we were just girls who read too much, thought too much, and talked too much, party-poopers who didn’t get the importance of their militancy, or maybe just didn’t have the balls for it, and should stay in the kitchen and ‘help the movement,’ or shut up and go away.
What happened to our coworkers is precisely what party-people view as the ideal outcome of a struggle, and simply wish to see repeated on a larger scale: formerly apolitical proles (delinquents, felons, non-voters) were ‘politicized’ — they acquired political understanding… But “political understanding is just politicalunderstanding because its thought does not transcend the limits of politics. The sharper and livelier it is, the more incapable it is of comprehending social problems” (Marx). This political doubling of proletarian consciousness was not an issue of individual ‘upward mobility’ out of the class; our coworkers’ real social situation remained unchanged — we all still work in the same shitty warehouse — but they started living in an illusory political world over and against it, in which the busyness of their dutiful activity and the imagined might of their revolutionary will served to distract from, obscure, and compensate for, their own ongoing daily humiliation [and] impotence…
@version are you reading This is not a Program? I don’t know what Debord thought of Negri, but I know on the whole he was unenthusiastic about the situation in Italy in the 1970s, which Tiqqun shits on him for, as though his being so prevented the outbreak of worldwide revolution.
There is nothing mysterious about why Blooms submit so overwhelmingly to apparatuses. Why, on certain days, at the supermarket, I don't steal anything; whether because I am feeling too weak or I am just lazy: not stealing provides a certain comfort. Not stealing means completely disappearing in the apparatus, means conforming to it in order to avoid the violence that underlies it: the violence between a body and the aggregate of employees, surveillance personnel, and, potentially, the police. Stealing compels me to a presence, to an attention, to expose my bodily surface to an extent that, on certain days, it is just too much for me. Stealing compels me to think my situation. And sometimes I don't have the strength. So I pay; I pay for sparing myself the very experience of the apparatus in all of its hostile reality. I pay with my right to absence.