Book Review: Guy Debord

Maximum Rocknroll
275, April 2006

Guy Debord 
Andy Merrifield
Reaktion Books, Critical Lives Series

Writing a good biography, like Andy Merrifield’s Guy Debord, requires a balance of humility and hubris. The latter is necessary to undertake the project of capturing and synthesizing a subject’s entire life, but the former must offset the potential for hubris itself to cloud a writer’s judgment about the subject. Guy Debord himself balanced hubris and humility with aplomb. As a writer, Debord never sought the material rewards capitalist society bestows upon its darlings exactly because, as a revolutionary, he sought the destruction of that society. In 1979, twelve years after the publication of Debord’s most important work, The Society of the Spectacle, he explained the purpose of the book in the preface to an Italian edition: “Those who really want to shake an established society must formulate a theory that fundamentally explains it.” Debord wrote in 1992 that readers of that theory, “should bear in mind that it was written with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society.” The hubris. “There was never anything outrageous, however, about what it had to say.” The humility.

Merrifield’s is the third biography of Debord in English and it is the first to convey a feeling of Debord’s milieux, from his youth and the Letterist International years in Paris, through the Situationist International (SI) years and the revolutionary period of 1968, and the years after, which he spent in Paris and the French countryside as well as in Italy and Spain. Over the last decade, in reading nearly every text by Debord and the SI translated into English as well as a great deal of interpretive work, it has struck me that the key to understanding Debord is that he was deeply hurt by the destruction of both tangible and intangible elements of Paris that came with France’s entry into post-industrial capitalism. The whole country was uneasy with the developments of the postwar period, including the colonial disasters in Algeria and Indochina. Debord trenchantly described the changes in the urban environment, everyday life of the worker, the world of art, and the relationship between France and global capitalism, and he described what was to be done about these changes.

The rapid modernization of France and its attendant dislocations and unevenness is arguably the best overarching explanation for why the country was, in May 1968, the site of both the largest wildcat general strike in an industrialized country and, as Debord wrote, “the increasingly complete withering of state power for nearly two weeks.” His thought navigates a terrain between nostalgia for the loss of what in nonpolitical terms might be called “home” and hopefulness for the future’s resolutions to the problems this loss engendered. We know now, as Debord’s 1988 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle argues, that the future revolutions that would transform society have grown only more distant with the worldwide consolidation of spectacular power and its destruction of alternatives. Merrifield, with his many glosses of the references and quotations in Debord’s writing, captures Debord’s fascination with plumbing history in an effort to supersede the present. For a complex exegesis on the Hegelian origins of Debord’s ideas, read Anselm Jappe’s Guy Debord. For a peek into what made this brilliant revolutionary tick, read Merrifield’s book.

I have two minor complaints, however. First, Merrifield seems to have translated some passages of Debord’s writing rather differently from any of the available English translations. In some cases, I can understand why he would do this (there are some bad translations out there), but, for example, Merrifield’s “The spectacle is capital to such a degree that accumulation has become an image,” is quite different from Ken Knabb’s “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.” If I understand what Merrifield’s rendition means, it’s a far less radical thesis than Knabb’s version. Second, I wish this book were a bit more academic. As Merrifield notes, Debord hated the academy and was never a member of it, but that doesn’t mean his biographer should eschew footnotes for previously unpublished biographical details! Even if Debord’s widow had related the anecdote, I wish I knew she was the source. Anyway, this is a complaint that will not bother most readers.

Everyone, in the end, benefits from Merrifield’s excursions into Spanish poetry, the history of the perpetually dispossessed Roma, and the French weather, because these are among the things that inspired Debord even though he may have written about them only in passing. I recommend that anyone who reads The Society of the Spectacle also check out this biography. It is not perfect; it should have been longer, with more in-depth political history of the eras of Debord’s life (and of the world) pre- and post-’68 and perhaps a bit on Debord’s legacy. But the book will nevertheless be much appreciated between first and second reads of The Society of the Spectacle. The power of Debord’s writing when I first encountered it was that it seemed so stark and original. Knowing that it has historical antecedents and was the product of a specific time and place does not diminish that power. Instead, it makes it all the more impressive that such cool, clear prose could come from someone so passionate about the world he loved even as he watched it disappear. Merrifield captures much of what is left unsaid by Debord, the happiness and melancholy that are abstractly present beneath the surface of his political theories.

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