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Unrepresentable Enemies: On the Legacy of Guy Debord and the Situationist International

Unrepresentable Enemies: On the Legacy of Guy Debord and the Situationist International

Text by Tom McDonough

On 1 November 1996, a short missive appeared in the letters section of the French newspaper of record, Le Monde. Signed by Alice Becker-Ho, Guy Debord’s widow, and Patrick Mosconi, who had been charged with establishing his literary estate, it took up the question of the legacy of the founder of the Situationist International and read, in part:

Debord’s legacy poses no problem. Only Debord himself poses a problem. […] There’s nothing to build on, or rehabilitate, or embellish, or falsify. There is, finally, only Debord, his art and his time as he has revealed them, and that is obviously much more than all these people can support. […] There are no heirs. Debord must inherit Debord.1

This statement of Debord’s absolute singularity was, on the one hand, a central element of the estate’s conflict with his publisher since the early 1990s, the venerable house of Gallimard. The ‘legacy’ in question concerned, quite specifically, the rights to his work, and only two months later Becker-Ho and Mosconi would announce their break with the publishers over offense taken at the fictional representation of Debord in a mystery novel they released.2 On the other hand, however, the issue was broader than this

particular dispute. The vision of legacy detailed here was profoundly curtailed: Debord, having devoted himself by the late 1980s to the aestheticisation of his life

— to conceiving of his life as an artwork
— would have no inheritors, just as he had refused all inheritances, whether familial
or cultural. This was the myth of Debord that became dominant in the years

following his suicide in late 1994, at least among a group of influential critics and historians: foremost among them Philippe Sollers, who wrote a series of important articles on Debord for the French literary press beginning in the late 1980s and even produced a television documentary on him in 2000 with Emmanuel Descombes, and Vincent Kaufmann, who in 2001 published a biography of Debord with the estate’s blessing.3 Both concurred in seeing their subject as a great author-essayist, memoirist and moralist in a long line of classical French writers, and one who, in Kaufmann’s words, ‘conceived his books and films so that there is literally nothing to repeat. He has produced an oeuvre that wants to be irrefutable, an oeuvre whose deepest meaning is to refute and at the same time to challenge those who approach it’.4 Such a writer, it seems hardly necessary to repeat, leaves no legacy.

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Yet there is another possible answer to this question of inheritance, one that is not ordered by patrilineal filiation and its refusal, one that is not about the claiming of Debord’s mantle, but which takes his work as a point of departure for reading — and struggling — in the present. This answer necessitates a return to the late 1980s, to the conjunction of two events: first, the publication of Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in October 1988, a book that was generally regarded derisively as evidence of the senescence of its author and his model of critical thought; and second, the travelling exhibition

‘on the Passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time — The Situationist International, 1957—1972’ that debuted at the Centre Pompidou a few months later and was the first to display the history of the group to a large public, and which reconstructed the SI as a precursor to the appropriation practices of North American art of the 1980s.

These are two moments that — at the time — appeared to have nothing to say to one another, that failed to see each other; more than twenty years later, however, we can recognise that their curious non-dialogue would open out onto the panorama of Situationist-inspired practices that have flourished over the past decade, from the writings of the so-called Imaginary Party to the artwork of Claire Fontaine.

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