Deserters in History: Guy Debord
His enemies were work, money and duty. His pastimes were booze and conversation. He invented a revolutionary philosophical concept that bore a striking resemblance to a pub crawl. Is it any wonder that the avant-garde theorist, writer and filmmaker, Guy Debord, is the first subject in our occasional series: Deserters in History?
Guy Debord (1931-1994) would have hated Deserter claiming him, given the depths of our hidden shallows, but something draws us to his anti-work, boozing ethos and the radical group of artists and thinkers that he founded in 1957, the Situationist International (SI).
Born in Paris and raised in Cannes, Debord decided very early on to reject all authority other than his own will. Extremely bright, he only studied subjects that interested him, like history and literature. Imagine having the confidence and presence of mind as a young teen to say ‘Mais, non,’ to double Maths.
As a schoolboy he enjoyed toying with people’s minds; altering street signs to disrupt traffic and disorientate people, the little shit. On leaving school there was a clear Civil Service path available to him; a lifetime of stability, an eternity of mediocrity. Instead he chose to live as a student on the Left Bank, reading, drinking and smoking with other bohemians, students and slackers, while sending his washing back to his mum.
Drunk one night, lying in a gutter in the rain, a girl stopped and warned him he might drown. He asked her to join him so they could die together. That’s how you meet girls in Paris.
Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, was an important text for Debord. To put it very simply, it is a book on the importance of play. And Guy liked to play.
Debord was drawn to the Surrealist movement along with the poets Comte de Lautréamont and Arthur Rimbaud. The former liked to plagiarise and subvert the work of others, a later feature of Situationism, while Rimbaud, fond of absinthe and hashish as he was, wrote, ‘Work no, never, never, I am on strike. I will never work.’ The resonance is deafening.
‘Among the small number of things that I have liked and known how to do well, what I have assuredly known how to do best is drink.’ Guy Debord, Panegyric.
Debord’s boozing wasn’t simply focussed on intoxication and knob gags, like yours or mine. He and his friends were formulating theories about what was wrong with society and how they might subvert it. He was described by an English friend, Ralph Rumney as ‘a pioneer in drinking, in art, in thought.’ Debord and his group of hedonist intellectuals turned their backs on society’s values, smoking kif and hashish, drinking constantly, having feuds, living as outsiders, on general strike from modern life.
Debord would daub the Situationist slogan ‘Never Work’ on Parisian walls. In response to government posters warning ‘Alcohol kills slowly’ he wrote: ‘We don’t give a fuck. We’ve got the time.’
He never went a day without drinking, but was rarely seen drunk, despite often being the last man standing.
‘He liked drunks, even admired them,’ said his first wife, Michèle Bernstein. ‘But he was not one of them.’
Debord wrote of his momnumental drinking: ‘All this left me very little time for writing, and that is exactly as it should be: writing should remain a rare thing, since one must have drunk for a long time before finding excellence.’
Dérive et détournement
Debord gave birth to the psychogeographic movement when he found himself stoned in a park one day and couldn’t find his way out. He saw the place anew, which led to his invention of the dérive (drift), a conceptual reimagining of a city, developed by wandering through it without a plan or purpose, soaking up its essence, enjoying its curiosities, navigating by unconscious forces. His dérives avoided tourist areas, and sought the alleyways and backstreets of the labyrinthine city. They often involved bars and lengthy drinking, and therefore brought to mind the random pub crawl, though they were obviously much cleverer, due to their more poetic title.
Debord considered the dérive a revolutionary strategy and the central activity of psychogeography. Art was dead, but life was art. Psychogeography was ‘the first new art of the future’. Cheers!
Détournement, another pillar of the SI, was a technique in which something, an image for instance, is altered to create a new meaning, like Jamie Reid’s sleeve art for the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen, or Deserter’s mottos for living, such as: ‘Shirk, rest and play’, ‘Work hardly, play hard’ and ‘Seize the day after tomorrow’.
The Situationist International
It’s 50 years since Debord founded the SI, a group of avant-garde, anti-capitalist, but anti-Stalinist, social revolutionaries that wanted to bring down a consumerist society duped by television and advertising into perpetuating mediocrity and nullifying the individual. They were just a bit short of gags.
They published pamphlets and journals, but not all their energy went into dense theoretical essays. In the real world they vehemently opposed the Algerian War. Debord felt that the working class, the Communist Party and the Unions were not doing enough to end this colonial disgrace. He called for a general strike to end the war. No leader before or since has come up with such an elegantly passive stance to end conflict. Chapeau!
Friends like the Danish artist Asger Jorn, along with Michèle Bernstein, helped fund the SI. It was Jorn who invented three-sided football, a game you know well, transformed by possibilites you had never considered, and currently played regularly in South London.
Although Debord wouldn’t work, Bernstein often did something to keep them going. At one point she wrote horoscopes of horses for a racing magazine in an act of beautiful adsurdity.
‘I do not have Guy’s power to do nothing for a long period,’ she said.
As the Situationists’ influence grew, they were invited to speak at a debate on Surrealism. Debord delivered his talk on screen in which he derided Surrealism and, interrupted by taped applause, announced it dead, prompting a walk out from the audience.
It was a natural progression for the SI to open their own bar in Paris. They toyed with the name ‘The Firm and Resolute No’ (Au non ferme et résolu) before settling on La Méthode. It was a great, brief, success, with Debord holding court at the bar daily, until the realities of running a business saw it close within a few weeks.
While in London in 1960 for the fourth SI Conference – a visit that would include ‘drifting’ around Wapping and Limehouse drinking pints of mild and bitter – the SI were invited to speak at the ICA. They were due to talk at 8pm, but were still in the bar at 9. The talk was eventually given by a drunk Situationist, and was deliberately opaque. Once the pished speaker had staggered off, a member of the audience asked: ‘Can you explain exactly what Situationism is all about?’
Debord replied, softly: ‘We’re not here to answer questions from stupid cunts,’ and the Situationist delegation stood up and left. They thought the evening a great success.
Between – and even during – momentous benders, Debord produced essays, films and books, including his best known tome, Society of the Spectacle. Situationists grew in number throughout France and the rest of Europe. A group of Situationists contested an election to lead the student union at the University of Nanterre with the stated policy of spunking all the money and bankrupting the organisation. To general disbelief, they won. Under Debord’s direction they produced a lavish Situationist publication, emptying the budget and scandalising the French academic community. But that was just the start.
The SI were part of the inspiration behind France’s 1968 student riots that led to the occupation of the Sorbonne and a general strike that brought the country to a standstill. It was a turning point for France that brought a fierce backlash from the country’s ruling conservative tosspots.
Nearly a decade later they inspired Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols to enrage the British Establishment, as well as rouse anarchist organisations all over Europe. Debord was usually unimpressed or furious that his turbid theories had not been fully understood by those who had appropriated them. He gave up on a English chapter when he visited to find it had one committed member, Chris Gray, and two blokes drinking McEwan’s lager, watching Match of the Day.
Depressed by illness, by the hijacking of his work by the unworthy, and by his friend and publisher’s assassination, he drank heavily, although, in fairness, he was doing that anyway.
Drink was part of his problem, but also his solution, the stimulant that delivered excitement, that brought him into intense conversations with friends and strangers alike, as he toured his favourite bars with his second wife, Alice. He asked a healthy looking older friend about his ever youthful looks and was told his friend never drank and ate a lot of yogurt. ‘That’s very good,’ said Debord, pouring himself another large Scotch.
In his last booze-filled years, he continued to create, with his reputation as a writer more exalted than ever. He hated the thought of becoming a national treasure. He found the world endlessly falsified; one where nothing made sense anymore, where dissident voices went unheard. He appreciated that our lives, our moments, our exchanges, are our greatest art. That booze was the transformative agent that revealed life’s magic, whatever they say about yoga.
Reality no longer held a fascination, because it no longer existed. He anticipated the current assault on truth. He had said his piece. In the ultimate act of desertion, he put a bullet in his heart, unwilling to watch himself becoming the object he loathed, a celebrity.
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