Heroes?Posted: August 7, 2010
One of the heroes of my misspent youth was Guy Debord (picture at right) who was born right before WW2 and killed himself in 1994. Debord was a French film maker, artist, philosopher, sometimes poet, dreamer and social agitator whom most people would describe as a ‘Marxist’ but from what I know of him, he was more playful and irreverent than most Marxists I have met (perhaps more of a Groucho Marxist than a Karl Marxist).
I first heard of him years ago when I happened to read an excerpt of Greil Marcus’ book, “Lipstick Traces” in a magazine, got hooked and had to run out and buy the book so I could read the rest. In Lipstick Traces, Marcus interweaves history, philosophy and art criticism, going through the Surrealists and Dadaists and post war European malaise to discover the roots of punk rock, because something in his mind made him realize the world could or might be different when he heard the Sex Pistols sing “Anarchy in the UK.” When he started digging, he discovered other revolutionaries, including religious heretics, artists, madmen, ranters and predictors of the apocalypse and I discovered much of this fascinating history through Marcus’ book, which I devoured. Marcus is a music critic who has written for magazines like Rolling Stone, and he can pull this off because he is much smarter than I could ever hope to be and endlessly curious — unafraid to draw parallels between Johnny Rotten and medieval heretics and thereby trace the current in the cultural river, trying to divine where it came from and where it might go, rather than just saying, “So and so’s new record is cool so why don’t you buy it…”
Through Marcus, I discovered Debord, whom I considered a kind of artistic and philosophical kindred spirit at the time. Debord grew up in post war France, with rampant Western consumerism battling inflexible Socialist ideaology from the East — and he found both to be empty charades at best, death in life at worst. The west offered the ‘freedom’ to have whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, but intruded in our lives with constant demands that we embrace it’s consumerist ideology. Debord found Soviet Europe similarly oppressive — both East and West offered a life of drudgery and although the bars of the social “prison” were more nicely gilded in France than in Soviet East Germany, Debord didn’t want to live in either of those places.
He wrote a book called, “Society of the Spectacle,” in which he claimed that in the west we lived in a culture of constantly created desires and projected images and messages that replaced our own dreams and imagination. I don’t know if he ever got the chance to read Pahulniak’s ‘Fight Club,‘ (I think it was published after Debord’s death), but Debord was Tyler Durden long before Pahulniak was even born. “Society of the Spectacle” was bound in sand paper — so when you put it in a shelf with other books, it would slowly destroy the other books whenever you pulled it out or put it back. Debord also made films in which he intentionally fucked with and frustrated the viewer. He wanted to shake people out of what he thought was a sleepwalker’s existence. He and his friends collaborated on projects and created an artists collective they called The Situationalist International (or S.I. for short). You can still read their stuff online. They would collaborate on poems, collages, ‘zines and activities. Debord proclaimed that the ultimate Situationist activity was just wandering the world. He said, “We drift.” Maybe that sums up what they did — the artistic freedom to do nothing. Modern day Lollards. I can relate to that.
Years have passed and I’m afraid I mellowed a bit. Unlike the Johnny Rotten of “Anarchy in the UK,’ I no longer “want to destroy the passer by…”
Right! NOW! ha ha ha ha ha
I am an anti-christ
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want but
I know how to get it
I wanna destroy the passer by cos I…
I wanna BE anarchy! (u.s.w.)
These days, I’d be reluctant to join a fight club because I’d be afraid of getting my teeth knocked out (funny how that specific fear scares me the most). Have I given up? Gotten lazy? Sold out? Or was it all just an affectation of youthful bravado on my part? I suspect all of the above.
Debord’s own story does not seem to have ended happily. Years of heavy drinking and drug use took their toll on his health. His critical stance became more and more exacting as the years passed and collaborators became enemies for having violated the groups increasingly stringent ideological standards. Once you were out of the S.I., the existing members were forbiodden to even mention your name. The society founded on creative collaboration eventually became an ideological cult with Debord at the center. I think eventually The S.I. consisted of just Debord alone. Sick, old and probably bored and lonely, he killed himself. Honestly, as much as I admire the man’s brilliant ideas, I suspect he followed them all the way to their natural conclusions…. and I don’t want to end up like that.