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Guy Debord (Biography) by Anselm Jappe (Book Review)

Anselm Jappe: Guy Debord
translated into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith with assistance from the author (University of California Press 1999)

The situationists declared somewhere that boredom was counter-revolutionary. They forgot to add that it is also wearisome and stupid. Jappe’s squib is both the most boring and by far and away the most stupid book to be written about a situationist to date – and in saying this I’m conscious of the fact that the competition consists largely of art monographs and the throughput of Andrew Murray Scott. Aside from the fact that it is printed on paper of some character – soft, off-white and pleasant to touch – about all that can be said in favour of Jappe’s handbook is that it is not a biography at all. The publishers puff Jappe’s guff as an intellectual biography – but a low-brow, one-sided and woefully inadequate introduction to situationism would be a more accurate description.

Jappe’s writ consists of fourteen chapters divided into three sections. Unlike the Situationist International which was made up of several different national sections (some of which contained as many as five or six members!), Jappe’s focus is more limited, he concentrates on one man – Guy Debord. Jappe’s three leaden sections are preceded by a forward in which T. J. Clark announces: “The room on the rue Saint-Jacques where The Society of the Spectacle got written was at once an austere cell – with nothing on the shelves, I remember, but a few crucial texts… laid open at the relevant page – and the entryway to Debord’s minuscule apartment, through which friends and comrades continually passed.” So Clark “was there”, he was on “visiting terms” with Debord, and he “remembers” – perhaps he even spent the night in the room in which The Society of the Spectacle got written. Given Clark’s emphasis on gossip and “authenticity (“I was there!”), it seems unlikely that he understood much of what he heard on the rue Saint Jacques – indeed, there are no traces of anything as developed as an unhappy consciousness in his recent prose.

The actual translation begins well enough with a red-herring: “Guy Debord, though, must surely be numbered among the very few people deemed quite beyond the pale.” Since the pale invoked in this racist metaphor is the area outside Dublin that escaped English influence, the intention is presumably to place Debord in the company of such literary luminaries as George Moore and Shan O’Casey. After this almost serviceable joke, Jappe limps though the notion of commodity fetishism so tritely that it will bore the pants off middle-aged punk rockers, let alone anyone already familiar with Marx, Lukács and Debord: “The first sentence of The Society of the Spectacle is a détournement of the first sentence of Capital…..Likewise, Debord substitutes the word ‘spectacle’ for the word ‘capital’ in another sentence borrowed from Marx.” Ad nauseam. However, Jappe not only adopts a plodding approach to his subject, he simultaneously fails to be thorough about it. Despite stressing Debord’s reuse of the content of texts by Marx, this clown doesn’t bother to note that in the case of Marx (and other writers drawn upon in this way by the situationists such as Thomas De Quincey), it is not simply content but also method and form that is being taken up. For example, it has long been a banality to describe The Communist Manifesto as an anthology of revolutionary rhetoric since many of its most effective slogans are borrowed – “the workers have nothing to loose but their chains” and “the working class has no country” come from Marat &c. &c..

After pondering the meaning of Debord’s seminal text The Society of the Spectacle over thirty-six tedious pages, Jappe finally works up enough spunk to state what he sees as its flaw, while simultaneously outlining his own “post-modern” position on class: “Debord clearly points up, if succinctly, the unconscious nature of a society ruled by value. At the same time, however he bases himself on the aspect of Marx’s thought that assigns a central role to the concepts of ‘classes’ and ‘class struggles’… such struggles are merely struggles over distribution within a system that nobody now seriously challenges… the modern individual is truly a “man without qualities.” able to assume a multitude of interchangeable roles… One may be at one and the same time a worker and a co-owner of a firm… Even the ruling classes have lost all mastery, and now the only thing at stake in economic competition is a more comfortable place within the general alienation.” Jappe hasn’t quite grasped that Debord, Marx and many others configured class struggle as a means of overthrowing the economy, so it would be a mistake to think that this joker has arrived at the same position as Jacques Camatte – who starting from Bordiguism eventually declared it was humanity’s task to destroy capitalism – since rather than sliding from a communist perspective into metaphysics, Jappe’s outlook is thoroughly bourgeois from the beginning.

In the second section of his circular, Jappe provides a plonkers guide to the history of the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals. Since this material is well known and more reliable versions of it can be found elsewhere, it is best ignored beyond noting a couple of points. Firstly, page 117 sees the return of the anti-Irish cliché that appeared on page 1: “In his Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (1979), Debord analyzed the part played by the abduction of Aldo Moro and the function of the Italian Communist Party in the resolution of the state crisis; his conclusions are generally accepted today, but at the time they were completely beyond the pale.” The repetition of this racist metaphor – this time without the qualification “deemed” – cannot be excused as an almost serviceable joke, since it is typical of the inept prose style of Jappe’s translator. It seems unlikely that either Jappe or Nicholson-Smith are conscious racists, it is more probable that they’re unaware of the origins of this hackenyed phrase, and that recourse to it twice in such a small primer betokens a carelessness about language completely at odds with their ostensible subject. The other point to note about the second section is that Jappe implies the Situationist International was “anarchistically inclined”. and attempts to position it between “anarchism and communism”.

Like sections one and two of Guy Debord, section three is aimed at people who are devoid of common sense and all historical knowledge – it should go without saying that it provides further low-brow, one-sided and wildly inaccurate fantasies from the felt-tipped pen of Anselm Jappe. For example, Jappe raves: ”socialist thought in France was traditionally less Marxist than elsewhere, much to the benefit of such authors as Proudhon and Fourrier…” This claim is utterly spurious, since elsewhere might be the British Isles, where socialist thought was also “less Marxist” to the benefit of scribblers like Carlysle, Ruskin and Morris; or Spain where socialism was “less Marxist” to the benefit of complete scumbags such as Michael Bakunin; or North America where socialism was “less Marxist” to the benefit of Edward Bellamy and Henry George; or India &c. &c.. What’s more, bolshevism has long been the dominant force within Marxism and since this tendency is distinguished by its Bakuninist methods of organisation, it is necessary to denounce most of those who call themselves Marxists for their unreconstructed anarchism. One might argue – pointlessly – about whether or not the situationists were Marxists, what is of consequence is that they were communists and belonged to the ultra-left; which is why Debord in his well known critique of Bakunin made in theses 91 and 92 of The Society of the Spectacle condemned anarchism as “an incoherence too easily seen through”. Jappe understands nothing of this – and nor do T. J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith, as is evident from a piece of hack work they jointly knocked up for the art rag October (#79) entitled “Why Art Can’t Kill The Situationist International”.

Jappe has appended an “Afterword to the English-Language Edition” that sums up much of what is wrong with his enterprise: “With the exception of Asger Jorn, all the other Situationists would probably be forgotten today were it not for the association of their names with the SI, and hence with Debord.” Whatever level one takes this on – including the spectacular level Jappe has staked out as his terrain – this is stupid. Clearly what interests Jappe is the bourgeois notion of great men, since many former members of the Situationist International are still alive, and of those that are dead none have passed out of living memory. But even on the level of bourgeois “posterity” and bourgeois “history”, Jappe – as usual – is wrong. For example, an ongoing interest in Alexander Trocchi (who died fifteen year ago) quite unrelated to his membership of the SI, is evident from the fact that new editions of both his literary and his pornographic novels continue to appear in English. Likewise, two rival Edinburgh publishers have issued biographies of Trocchi in recent years and one of these was accompanied by a Trocchi reader. Trocchi is also treated as a major figure in a number of more general literary and “counter-cultural” histories such as Paris Interzone by James Campbell and his involvement with the “beat generation” and “sixties underground” arouses far more interest than his membership of the SI, which many anglo-american commentators ignore completely. One might continue in this fashion all the way down to former Situationist T. J. Clark, who not only provided the forward for the English language edition of Jappe’s rant but is also an insipid – and hence academically well regarded – art historian, whose published works include The Absolute Bourgeoisie.

Jappe’s rhetoric shows this would-be “intellectual biographer” to be trapped in the ruins of bourgeois culture. Jappe emphasises Debord’s “style”, “language” and “tone”, as well as talking wildly about “erudition”, “beauty” and “Debord’s aristocratic spirit”. Jappe wants to promote and defend Debord as a great man. He understands nothing of the Situationist International as a collective project, in short he knows nothing of communism – and thus it comes as no surprise that his wretched fan-letter to a dead man is just another worthless commodity which announces its own obsolescence on the final page: “Recently a bizarre cult of Debord has arisen, threatening to transform him into a pop idol, a sort of Che Guevara for the more refined taste…” If Jappe was more intelligent he might be able to name some of those responsible for this state of affairs. Biography is, after all, the penultimate bourgeois literary form – and the most that can be said in Jappe’s favour is that he fails on his chosen terrain.

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One thought on “Guy Debord (Biography) by Anselm Jappe (Book Review)

  • a negative review?! by Stewart Home?! will blunders never cease. . . .

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