B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Bill Brown (Not Bored)
John Clark (Fifth Estate)
REVIEW OF THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE TRANSLATION
Society of the Spectacle
by Guy Debord
translated by Ken Knabb
(Rebel Press, London 2005)
paper, 120 pages, $15
Ken Knabb has devoted his life to the work of Guy Debord. An active post-Situationist since the early seventies, his editing and translation of the Situationist International Anthology has been the most important contribution to the Anglophone understanding of the SI till now. His translation of Guy’s films are now in paperback and he has recently received the rights to translate all of Debord’s works into English. [Not true.KK] The translations of the films were the first fruit of that responsibility but this new translation of Society of the Spectacle is the real golden apple.
If past translations of Debord’s masterpiece have suffered, it is from either being too literal (as in the case of the Black and Red translation) or unnecessarily obscure (as in the case of the one from Zone). Knabb’s translation is an American one meant for an American readership (although ironically Rebel Press is based in London while Zone Books is based in New York). It usually uses fewer words than Zone’s, often making choices that are stripped of a subtlety that would evade and frustrate a first-time reader.
A few examples in detail:
Black & Red: 5
The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschauung which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified.
The spectacle cannot be understood either as a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as a product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images. It is far better viewed as a Weltanschauung that has been actualized, translated into the material realm a world view transformed into an objective force.
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of the world that has become objective.
Let’s review these, as they demonstrate the kind of choices made generally. Knabb chose to translate the German term Weltanschauung which is unusual. Generally if the text you are translating uses terms from another language it is because of a choice that the author is making to be more precise than they are capable of in their own language. To translate that term into a third language prioritizes readability over precision. “It is a worldview that has been materialized” is inarguably more readable than “It is far better viewed as a Weltanschauung that has been actualized,” but the intent of the author seems obscured. Also, is there a substantive difference between something (in particular a worldview) being actualized and it being materialized? It seems as though one, to be pedantic, is a materialist project and the other is a process that isn’t necessarily physical. Is becoming vegan a materialized worldview or an actualized one? Black and Red provides another twist: “It is, rather, a Weltanschauung which has become actual,” providing a term that connotes neither motion (actualized), nor stasis (materialized), but truth.
Naturally the following sentence leavens the potential of widely different interpretations of this aphorism. “A view of a world that has become objective” connects some of the major themes of Debord’s thought; the connection between sight, alienation from the world, and the capitalist system of objectification.
Black & Red: 129
Cyclical time in itself is time without conflict. But conflict is installed within this infancy of time: history first struggles to be history in the practical activity of masters. This history superficially creates the irreversible; its movement constitutes precisely the time it uses up within the interior of the inexhaustible time of cyclical society.
In its essence, cyclical time was a time without conflict. Yet even in this infancy of time, conflict was present: at first, history struggled to become history through the practical activity of the masters. At a superficial level this history created irreversibility; its movement constituted the very time that it used up within the inexhaustible time of cyclical society.
In itself, cyclical time is a time without conflict. But conflict is already present even in this infancy of time, as history first struggles to become history in the practical activity of the masters. This history creates a surface irreversibility; its movement constitutes the very time it uses up within the inexhaustible time of cyclical society.
The last sentence of these translations should remind the reader of the Hegelian contortions of Marx and Debord. These three translations read quite differently as a result. Black and Red reads that “history superficially creates the irreversible,” Zone that “At a superficial level this history created irreversibility,” and Knabb that “This history creates a surface irreversibility.” These may seem like a quibble but it is a very different statement to talk about history creating superficial irreversibility or that at a superficial level history created irreversibility. These nuances thread through the entirety of a side-by-side reading of the Knabb and (especially) the Zone translation. Sometimes the differences are easily identifiable as being about readability and at other times they seem to choose sides in arguments that are obscure and lost in time, but interesting to Debord scholars and persistent readers of the increasing body of English translations of the Situationist International.
Guy’s articulation of our separated world, of our “spectacular” reality, remains the truest theoretical statement of the time we live in and how things ended up this way. Knabb’s translation now sits as the most approachable way to discover Guy Debord, the Situationists, and the body of thought that has relied on this text, including those of the post-Situationists, Primitivists, many anti-state communists, and post-left anarchists.
Aragorn, in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #61
(Berkeley, Spring-Summer 2006)
[This is the complete review. A brief response can be found here.]
ONE STEP FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK
Ken Knabbs Pas de deux
In December 2006, Ken Knabb took the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first edition of his Situationist International Anthology (Bureau of Public Secrets: Berkeley, 1981) to publish a revised and expanded edition. A major development in Anglo-American radical politics, Knabbs Situationist International Anthology was the first such collection of translated texts since 1974, when the ex-situationist Christopher Gray published Leaving the Twentieth Century. Though Grays selections were far from complete and his translations and commentaries were weak, Leaving the Twentieth Century was also an important work: illustrated by Jamie Reid, it exerted a strong influence on English punk. But unlike Leaving the Twentieth Century, which was not reprinted in its original format, well distributed or widely read, Knabbs Situationist International Anthology became a kind of Bible for that part of the English-speaking world that loved and learned from the situationists. It was reprinted once in 1989, and then again in 1995.
The new version of the Situationist International Anthology is both longer (532 pages, up from 406) and smaller (the size of the type has been decreased and there are more lines per page). It includes six new texts: one from the pre-1957 period (“Proposal for Rationally Improving the City of Paris); three from the 1958 to 1962 period (“Theses on the Cultural Revolution, Another City for Another Life and The Use of Free Time); two from the 1966 to 1969 period (“Contribution to a Councilist Program in Spain and a selection of graffitied slogans from May 1968). Ten texts that had only been partially translated in the first edition have now been translated in full. They include such important texts as Guy Debords Report on the Construction of Situations and The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art; Raoul Vaneigems Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature; and the unsigned How Not to Understand Situationist Books. Knabb has also greatly expanded his Translators Notes (annotated references to historical events) and his Bibliography (Pre-SI Texts, Guy Debords Films, French SI books, SI Publications in Other Languages, Post-SI Works, and Books About the SI).
And yet the Situationist International Anthology remains a deeply flawed book. It continues to under-represent the SIs early period: only a few texts are included from the following issues of the groups French-language journal, Internationale Situationniste: #2 (1958), #3 (1959), #4 (1960), #5 (1960) and #9 (1964). And so Knabb seems rather silly when he criticizes Tom McDonough, the editor of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, for presenting a misleadingly one-sided selection of 150 pages of SI articles (mostly early ones on art and urbanism, with virtually nothing from the last two-thirds of the groups existence), precisely because Knabbs book is such a good symmetrical match for it (mostly later articles on politics, with virtually nothing from the first third of the groups existence). Unfortunately, neither book documents such important moments as the formation and subsequent collapse of the Dutch and German sections of the SI.
Knabbs Anthology also under-represents the SIs final period. Absolutely nothing from The Real Split in the International (published in 1972) — not even Vaneigems letter of resignation or Debords famous response to it — is included because, as Knabb says, anyone who is serious will want to read it in its entirety. And though forty texts were contributed to the groups orientation debate (also called the debate on organization), which took place between August 1969 and February 1971, Knabb only includes five of them. Worse still, nothing changed between the 1981 and 2006 editions: Knabb offers us the same five texts and three of them are (still) not offered in their full versions. It is misleading, perhaps even mendacious, to say that Knabbs translations of two of these five texts — Remarks on the SI Today (27 July 1970) and Document Beyond Debate (28 January 1971), both by Debord — are “excerpted. They are flat-out butcheries, just as Knabbs previously “excerpted (and now restored) version of Attila Kotanyis Gangland and Philosophy (at one time the only text from issue #4 of the SIs journal) was a bloody murder. Note well that one of Knabbs other crime scenes — his “excerpted version of Maitron the Historian (from 1969) — has been dropped from the 2006 version of the Anthology, and without any acknowledgement or explanation whatsoever.
And so, Ken Knabb has a lot of goddamned nerve to haughtily ignore or look down his nose at other translators and readers of the situationists texts. His Bibliography contains such pompous idiocies as these:
The online translations tend to be less reliable than the published ones, but many of the latter are also inadequate. The three main faults are excessive literalness, excessive liberty, and pure and simple carelessness [...] I have not attempted to mention, let alone review, the thousands of printed articles or online texts about the SI. Suffice it to say that the vast majority are riddled with lies or misconceptions, and that even the few that are relatively accurate rarely offer much that cannot be found better expressed in the SIs own writings.
And, as a kind of postscript to The Blind Men and the Elephant (Selected Opinions on the Situationists), which he has not updated since 1981, Knabb claims that most of the recent reactions are as laughably clueless as the earlier ones.
This isnt merely a matter of Ken Knabbs great opinion of himself. It also exposes a basic contradiction in his presentation of the situationists and their writings. On the one hand: Despite the situationists reputation for difficulty, he says, they are not really all that hard to understand. On the other: only Knabb himself is smart, educated, patient or attentive enough to understand the situationists; everyone else is a fucking idiot. Well, not everyone: In certain regards, however, the general level of comprehension has improved (particularly among those engaged in radical practices), because the [sic] societys increasingly evident spectacularization has made some of the situationists insights more clear [sic] and undeniable. And there it is folks, the root of the problem: despite everything that the situationists said and did, Knabb does not seem to realize (or remember) that whats important is not “comprehension, especially not its general level, as if comprehension can be quantified or averaged out. No: whats important is radical practice. And Ken Knabb hasnt engaged in any practice, radical or otherwise, since the early 1970s, when he did precisely those types of things that he thought that the situationists would approve of. But the situationists were not prophets of some eternal truth, nor were they scientists who discovered undeniable facts. They worked in and for their own time. And the times have certainly changed since 1972. The situationists texts or theories cant be used today as is: they can only be useful when they are used, that is, when they are detourned.
—Not Bored (25 May 2007)
[This is the complete review except for a few footnotes. The latter
can be found at www.notbored.org/ken-knabb.html.]
REVIEW OF PUBLIC SECRETS
Of the few books I’ve read recently, I was particularly intrigued by Ken Knabb’s Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb 1970-1997. I was drawn to this book by my interest in Situationist theory. Knabb has been a key figure in the Situationist movement in the United States, having translated the bulk of the Situationist International’s works into English.
First, I read Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State, his autobiographical sketch, in order to get a better idea of who the person behind all this theoretical writing is — his personal history and development. Throughout the author’s life experience, certain basic themes stand out: his love of learning (particularly self-education through books), and his quest for experience, awareness, consciousness of self and world, and of course, his evolving revolutionary anti-capitalist perspective. It was this critical process that attracted Knabb to the Situationist International in 1969, and later led him to become critical of tendencies within the Situationist milieu. Knabb especially appreciates the S.I.’s dialectical approach. He explains it thus, The dialectical method that runs from Hegel and Marx to the situationists is not a magic formula for churning out correct predictions, it is a tool for grappling with the dynamic processes of social change. It reminds us that social concepts are not eternal; that they contain their own contradictions, interacting with and transforming each other, even into their opposites; that what is true or progressive in one context may become false or regressive in another. He emphasizes the importance of dialectics throughout the book.
Knabb introduces the book with an overview of how we got to this absurd position, that is, capitalism — what it is, how it is degrading our lives, etc. He goes over some radical history, referring back to Marx’s primitive accumulation, in Capital I. He looks at various corrupted attempts at revolution (Stalinism, Leninism) to define what revolution is not. He then mentions some of the more effective revolts through time — Italy 1920, Spain 1937, and France 1968 are a few examples. He suggests problem-solving strategies, including writing pamphlets — getting one’s ideas out there (part of what inspired me to write this zine), and again underlining the need for dialectical analysis, including self-examination.
I was especially enamoured of Ken’s Affective Detournement: A Case Study, an account of his several-month-long Reichian experimentations in critical self-analysis. He examined his personal psychogeography, on the principle that you discover how society functions, by learning how it functions against you. I thought, wow, here’s an intelligent radical theorist who is actually examining his flaws, criticizing his own past, and trying to break out of his rigidity/‘character armor’ and habitual behaviors. This is something we should all engage in, and often. I was moved to laughter by such passages as, I particularly aimed at countering any defensive seriousness by constantly holding up to myself the absurdity and silliness of my ego. Sometimes, when no one else was around, I would walk down the street singing free-associations and laughing at myself.”
After reading that, a friend of mine said, “Ah, but I do this even when others are looking.” People have different thresholds for overcoming their “biologic rigidity.” Nonetheless, its refreshing to see those who talk or write about “liberation” actually practicing it (or at least striving to achieve self-liberation).
In Joy of Revolution,” Knabb enthusiastically puts forth anti-hierarchical revolution as the only sane solution to capitalist insanity. He gives an idea of how this global social change might unfold and also sketches out how a post-revolutionary world could look. He strikes me as very optimistic about what technologies would be retained in a liberated society, when he proposes that, airplanes would be kept for intercontinental travel (rationed if necessary) and for certain kinds of urgent shipments, but the elimination of wage labor will leave people with time for more leisurely modes of travel — boats, trains, biking, hiking. Though I agree with the latter part of that statement, I find it hard to believe that a truly rational society would continue to use airplanes, which are highly polluting machines, without significant alterations to make them much less polluting. However Ken does suggest that a lot of technologies would be phased out, ecologically improved, and redesigned for human rather than capitalistic ends. In any case, he states that these are merely some ideas of how a liberated society may work out, and they are not an exact blueprint. Knabb’s idea is that, once we’ve finally conquered the mundane stumbling-block that is capitalism, revolution will present us with far more interesting problems to grapple with, An antihierarchical revolution will not solve all our problems; it will simply eliminate some of the anachronistic ones, freeing us to tackle more interesting problems.
The latter part of the book is a collection of previous publications by Knabb and other Situationist-influenced people, including critiques of certain non-dialectical aspects of the Situationist milieu — such as the fad it later degenerated into, or its inadequate critique of religion.Knabb also includes his own critique of religion, specifically “engaged Buddhism, and an introduction to the works of revolutionary thinker, poet and literary genius Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth is certainly an unusual gem of an individual, particularly in U.S. history, who I had not looked into prior to reading Public Secrets.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone, especially those interested in anti-capitalist/revolutionary theory. It is a clear, straightforward, honest, well-written, and dialectical composition.
—Oliah Kraft, Allergic to This World
REXROTH ON THE WEB
Although Kenneth Rexroth complained considerably about new technologies in his later years, his work has enjoyed good fortune on the World Wide Web.
In 2000, I put an expanded version of Morgan Gibson’s study Kenneth Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom online at my Light and Dust site. . . . At the time I put Gibson’s study on-line, Ken Knabb had made a good start on his Rexroth Archive. By securing permission to reprint significant amounts of work from the Rexroth Trust and New Directions, Knabb was able to build what to me is the most thorough and useful site for a 20th Century poet on the web today. As much as this is the result of Knabb’s hard work and judicious choices, it also reflects and enhances characteristics of Rexroth’s personality and opus.
The large volume of reprints at Knabb’s site inherently make it an ideal resource for Rexroth’s fans. But the fans aren’t the most important people on the web. The first of the major virtues of the site comes from the way it uses web technology to bring new readers to Rexroth. Knabb has a large mailing list, and sends out notices when he adds new entries to the site. The entries, in turn, get listed in search engines quickly enough. At the present time, search engines form the literary world’s most important source of access to new material. Knabb can get a sense of how this works from reader feedback. Within days of the addition of Rexroth’s essay on Henry Miller at the site, Knabb received dozens of e-messages from people with comments such as, This is the best thing I’ve seen on Miller. Who is this guy Rexroth, anyway? Knabb includes articles Rexroth wrote for newspapers and other now difficult to find sources, often in conjunction with current events. When the Taliban dynamited Buddhist statues, for instance, Knabb put up an article by Rexroth on the Buddhist art of the region. For Rexroth, poetry was news that stayed news in a literal sense as well as in the more abstract sense that Ezra Pound meant the phrase. Seeing Rexroth as a poet and essayist in love with the world, the varieties of his interests and his ability to comment on just about anything succinctly and memorably, mean that in the infinitely indexed and cross-referenced environment of the web he will always find new readers. Rexroth perpetually recommended books, paintings, music, religious and political organizations to his acquaintances. The web allows him to continue to do that long after his death. . . .
If the web seems a medium almost designed for Rexroth, Rexroth’s suitability to it makes important comments on the nature of readers and literature today. At a time when literature turns in on itself as a cabal of theorists, readers demonstrate that they have not given up on poetry. There are still plenty of people who want to read Homer and Montaigne, Tu Fu and Sappho, major figures in the development of Christianity as well as Buddhism, Utopian Communalism and Song Dynasty science, The Tale of Genji and the Kalevala. The list now includes people whose first publications Rexroth arranged or whom he first reviewed. If he has the most useful 20th Century author’s site on the web, he earned it.
(Rexroth symposium, Kanda University, Japan, October 2007)
REVIEW OF SECRETS PUBLICS
Ken Knabb has so thoroughly assimilated French language and culture that I sometimes have the impression that I’m talking with a compatriot. He does, however, retain that eminently North American quality of speaking clearly and directly, without showing off his intelligence or drawing attention to himself. Does this mean that his work is a sort of “Situationist International for Dummies”? No, although it could undeniably serve as such — anyone who is unfamiliar with the SI, or radical critique, or the American counterculture should put his book at the very top of their reading list.
But Secrets Publics is also the work of a particular individual. Knabb’s successive writings reflect the development of a perspective that is both penetrating and personal. His seemingly casual tone should not make us overlook his variety of experience and erudition, nor his agility and subtlety. Knabb is personally involved in everything he writes, always present as a participant rather than a mere witness or observer. This is what enables him to tackle the most diverse topics while remaining low-key and grounded.
—Jean-Pierre Depétris (October 2007)
[Another more extensive article by Jean-Pierre Depétris]
[Other French reviews of Secrets Publics]
2007 AND I
In an attempt to understand my life and the society in which I find myself, I read widely. Amongst other things, I took in academic social science, fashionable theorists such as Zizek and Negri, less fashionable figures such as Takis Fotopoulos, old Marxists such as Korsch, newer strands of Marxism such as that of CLR James, Castoriadis, and the Italian theorists of the 60s and 70s, plus a selection of contemporary anarchists and non-Leninist communists. Although I found some fragments of illumination here and there (for example, in the work of a group of British sociologists who have looked at the development of a hedonistic night-time economy to replace the decayed heavy industrial economy of parts of Britain), I was driven to the conclusion that only the work of the situationists provided a substantial basis for a critical theoretical engagement with the alienations of the ordinary person in advanced capitalist societies.
Looking around for contemporary material that draws on situationist theory, I soon found that the individuals who had been associated with the “Declaration Concerning the Center for Research on the Social Question” and the “Notice Concerning the Reigning Society and Those Who Contest It” and who had largely been responsible for extending situationist theory after the demise of the SI had largely abandoned the field. The one exception, of course, is you. I see that you have refined and added to your invaluable translations of the situationists (especially with your translation of The Society of the Spectacle) and that you added a number of new works of your own (notably the autobiography and “The Joy of Revolution”) in a new style that evidently aims for greater simplicity of expression. However, my sense is that in the post-Notice period you have somewhat stepped back from a critical examination of the development of contemporary alienation (and the resistance to it). Relatedly, you seem to have grown publicly rather uncritical about your own cultural consumption (Rexroth, rock-climbing, meditation, folk music, etc). This is not to say that there is no criticism at all, but at least some your personal enthusiasms touch on important developments in commodity society about which you are silent. For example, meditation would appear to be one facet of a constellation of “non-material” and non-mundane consumption that now offers distinction, enlightenment or patient resignation to sectors of society who have either satisfied their basic needs to their own satisfaction or consumed the more ordinary and tangible commodities to the point of nauseous exhaustion. Moreover, in an age in which ecological pressures, and the patent failure of increased consumption to produce a better quality of life, might yet dictate a general shift away from resource-intensive consumption, “spiritual” practices might perhaps best be thought of as an avant-garde laboratory for the reformed alienation of coming years. Your own experience might shed light on these hypotheses. . . .
Looking further afield, I see numerous new translations of texts by the SI and former members of the SI albeit that the majority appear to be execrable (Bill Brown in particular has converted the unavailable into the unreadable on a quite industrial scale). Sadly, there appears to have been very few fresh and incisive applications and developments of situationist theory in recent years. Worse still, elements of the academy have taken up the situationists with gusto, transforming abstracted and misunderstood fragments of that theory into material for empty speculation, disarmed analysis, inconsequential debate, and the approval-seeking displays of bored students in search of qualifications.
(January 2008 letter to Ken Knabb, posted at the authors blog)
[The same blog also features our subsequent correspondence about some of these issues: A Discussion with Ken Knabb.]
WHEN IN ROME . . .
Pope Guy Debord announced in the last official tract of the Situationus Internationalus, Veritable Split In The International, that his shit doesn’t stink and neither do his ideas. One example among dozens in this work of nuanced self-worship contrasts the sublime perfection of the official Situationist organization with the tragic frailty of its acolytes, “The truest cause of the misfortune of the spectators of the S.I. does not stem from what the S.I. did or did not do”. Raoul Vaneigem, today’s featured Situationist anti-star, did not display Debord’s global arrogance, his view of the Situationists is focused on an organizational failure, “I broke [off] because the radicality that had been the priority in May 1968 was in the process of dissolving into bureaucratic behavior.” He maintains a tacit acceptance of the entire body of theoretical work, hovers magisterially above the entire post 68 scene and picks and choses mainly irrelevant coffee house themes to glorify as a senior statesman beyond reproach.
Since the fateful year of MCMLXXI, Debord’s cardinals, including monsignors Ken Knabb and Donald Nicholson-Smith, have been charged by papal bull (shit) with placing the blame for the continuation of this shitty world elsewhere, i.e. everywhere else.
Their mandate is to provide logic to the illogical, rationale to the irrational, the appearance of truth to the lie. Sound familiar? They have been given the task of dealing with the question of how a radical movement could fail to achieve its self-proclaimed goal — the destruction of the spectacle and the commodity — without that failure in any way implicating “the most radical ideas of our time.” And their approach is simple: talk about anything and everything but that historical link and never allow the subject to come up. This is how the vaudevillian career of Knabb with all its huckstering eclecticism makes sense. Why else offer us this furiously paced spectacle of a weekly concert hotline, manic cheerleading for the rambling life of a beatnik, the autobiography of a mild mannered friend of boredom, and his goofy chronicles of computer dating exploits, if not to create misdirection from the obvious — the core ideas that the cardinals have curated for us over decades are old, stale, tired, no longer radical, and this charade is ultimately all an exercise in misdirection, a slight of hand, a diversion, a can-can dance to keep us around. And this is how the issuance of a forty five year old classic can be seen. Where are the new classics?
Outside of the Vatican, if theory and consciousness are real forces in the world dedicated to destroying this society, theory must accept responsibility for every day that the world goes on in this insufferable and inhuman way. Our misery is our fault. The scandal of the cardinals and their followers consists of believing that it is possible for the thought of the SI to be correct while the enemies of the Situationists still rule, as if the question of the truth of the critique is not a practical question, a question of its power and of the annihilation of its enemies.
Another reason the cardinals believe that the critique of the SI is perfect is as simple as this: they have no choice. They have no new ideas themselves and have never had any, and to praise the perfection of their worn out catechism passes as an act of radical commitment and makes them look busy. But this inability to conceive of a dynamic critique of changing social conditions not only takes the form of the endless repetition of received ideas and their mechanical application to whatever social situation arises, it also consists of the active suppression of a critique of the SI and of the world. Knabb, who 40 years ago assumed the role of curator of the museum as well as popularizer and explainer of all things Debordicus and Situationus, in particular is guilty of withholding sacrilegious ideas that threaten to undermine the Church. (Of course, the benignly literary Nicholson-Smith would rather provide us with the umpteenth translation of Vaneigem than help make available a single sentence that could shed light on why radical subjectivity has failed to produce a radical world.) Knabb’s familiarity with the writings of Jean Pierre Voyer date from 1972 when he translated Reich: How To Use. His purposeful and conspiratorial silence on the subsequent work of Voyer and his pointed refusal to bring texts such as There Is No Society Of The Spectacle into the arena of theoretical debate, while he feigns to be a partisan of serious critical discussion, is not accidental or incidental any more than priests buggering young boys. Knabb is the Church’s official censor and suppressor of critical theory and he is comfortable in the role.
Jean Pierre Voyer, author of There Is No Society Of The Spectacle, who was once picked by Debord to be his successor, and who was excommunicated when he dared criticize the catechism, is today the creator of a coherent body of work that addresses the most important critical and philosophical issues of our time. His writings will be introduced to an American audience in an anthology to be published by Little Black Cart in early 2014. This text will appear in that anthology.
(pamphlet distributed February 2013 at appearances of Donald Nicholson-Smith in San Francisco and Oakland,
discussing his new translation of Vaneigems The Revolution of Everyday Life)
REVIEW OF THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE: ANNOTATED EDITION
The Society of the Spectacle
Translated and annotated by Ken Knabb
Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, 2014. 150pp., $15 pb
As a book whose reputation tends to eclipse its actual content, The Society of the Spectacle has always, since its original 1967 publication, bitterly contended with its interpreters and the society that its two hundred and twenty-one short theses diagnose. Any chatter surrounding the work or its author, Guy Debord, bears uncoincidental pertinence to the book’s central protagonista society for which the public relations industry affirms a priori models of commensurable social discourse at odds with accommodating perspectives decidely intent on its abolition. It is of little curiosity then why Debord’s writing has always proceeded with the caution and meticulous precision of a war strategist. For example, in introducing his 1988 amendment on the development of the spectacle, Debord forewarns his reader that, “I obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, I must take care not to give too much information to just anybody. Our unfortunate times thus compel me, once again, to write in a new way. Some elements will be intentionally omitted; and the plan will have to remain rather unclear. Readers will encounter certain decoys, like the very hallmark of the era” (Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, London, Verso, 1998).
One gets the sense that Debord almost doesnt trust any sentence immediately after it has been written. This puts the reviewer in the curious position of having to evaluate less a lucid argument on the development of Marx’s critique of the fetish character of the commodity social form, than something more closely resembling a riddle whose author provocatively flatters himself for “never engaging in any activity that could pass for socially honest” (Debord, This Bad Reputation, 2010).
It is with Ken Knabb’s newest edition of The Society of the Spectacle however that Debord’s purportedly opaque critique of reified social life under postwar capitalism is potentially illuminated. Here, and through his own online publishing platform “Bureau of Public Secrets,” Knabb presents both an updated version of his ownwhat is a thirdEnglish translation of the book, as well as a featured set of annotations collecting together the theoretical and historical references and allusions implicitly or explicitly embedded within the text. (Knabb’s first print rendition sans annotations was published by Rebel Press in 2004.) The annotations consist, on the one hand, of additions by Knabb and others clarifying various contextual references, and on the other, of an incorporated list of all citations and appropriations Debord himself assembled in order to best equip translators of the book. (Unfortunately, the edition never specifies which annotations were collected by Debord, and which ones were editorially added over the years.)
With conscious neglect for any professional standards against plagiarism, both Debord and the Situationist Internationalwhose ideas clamorously permeated the social upheaval of May 1968infamously utilized the cultural language of society in order to undermine its own apparent stability. Through this practice of détournementwhose predecessors are found in prewar avant-garde collage as much as within the movement of immanent criticism found in Hegel and Marxthe lies of a society are refuted by what it says about itself. If to quote is to lack the belief and daring of one’s own authority, détournement is to concede that one cannot help but speak the language of an alien authority and nonetheless attempt to unravel it from within.
There can be little doubt that Knabb’s newest version evokes these methodological aspects of Debord’s work. As an exercise somewhere between defilement and homage, Debord utilizes an array of philosophical, historical and literary sources to critically outline the extent to which the commodity economy has, through the twentieth century, developed its fetish character into a social form mediated by images. As Debord writes, the spectacle “is nothing other than the economy developing for itself. It is at once the faithful reflection of the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers” (§16). Debord’s notion of a society of the spectacle nonetheless remains a largely misunderstood diagnosis of the phenomena of reification. Knabb’s annotated edition thereby assists in elucidating the book within a theoretical tradition that, if left at the surface of Debord’s allegedly cryptic formulations, is often buried by the disciplinary efforts of postmodernism, media or cultural studies, or simply as a step in the history of avant-garde movements. Instead, even a momentary glance at the annotations yields an unrelenting critical heritage for Debord that principally follows the intellectual line of Hegel, Marx, Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and the twentieth century workers’ movement. Unyieldingly looming is the perspective of totality and the inextricable adherence the movement of history has with the self-conscious realization of human freedom. Indeed, beginning with the initial sentence of the book, it is Marxwith Hegel following close behindthat is Debord’s single most referenced source.
The annotations allow a novice readerunequivocally the edition’s most suitable recipientto become privy not only to the intellectual prowess Debord brandishes for the tradition of modern dialectical thought and its corresponding battles within the First, Second and Third Internationals, but also for his attention to a range of other ventures in the social sciences and humanities. Facilitated by the annotations, the reader can move through the text and discern an eclectic composition of sociology, urbanism, historiography, psychoanalysis, political theory, philosophy, and literature, including the masterly stylists of the aphoristic tradition. Amid his panoramically chosen sources however, Debord finds only selective affinity, commandeering voices to serve his own purpose as a puppeteer might manipulate the wooden legs of an otherwise lifeless figure. Hegel’s fragments on love are used to articulate social isolation (§29), while the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid now lament the topsy-turvy world of commodities (§66); Machiavelli is employed to make explicit the implicit scientism of the utopian socialists (§83), while Heraclitus helps demonstrate the inability of petrified thought to grasp the antagonistic essence of its own society (§195). Such a method, now exposed through Knabb’s edition, acquires a particularly concentrated elucidation in Debord’s penultimate chapter wherein an uncredited verbatim passage from Lautréamont’s Poésies masquerades as its own thesis: “Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a part in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one” (§207).
For Debord, who weighed his words more carefully than most, the technique of détournement carries the legacy of critical theory insofar as it speaks the language of contradiction by contradicting. By undermining and conflicting with the original meaning of his sources, Debord affirms, through his partisan analysis, the stimulus of negative thought unafraid at turning the gun on its own presumptions. The Society of the Spectacle’s own affinity to this tenet of dialectical thought is most clearly expressed in the following thesis, itself an appropriation of a passage from Marx’s Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital: “The very style of dialectical theory is a scandal and abomination to the prevailing standards of language and to the sensibilities molded by those standards, because while it makes concrete use of existing concepts it simultaneously recognizes their rediscovered fluidity and their inevitable destruction” (§205).
Aside from Debord’s prepared compilation of sources, Knabb’s added notations and commentary vary in both quality and merit. Most common are remarks that provide unmentioned allusions, such as §20 for which Knabb informs the unfamiliar reader of the overtones of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. Also worthwhile are the comments which offer, however abbreviated, explications on the concept of an individual thesis, for example in §3 whereby Knabb calls attention to a particular characterization of the spectacle as definably heterogeneous, or in §64 which briefly explains Debord’s use of the term “bureaucratic capitalism.” Another notable example concerns the epigraph of Chapter 3, an excerpt from the postwar journal of the Chinese Communist Party whose use Knabb clarifies in accordance with the theme of the chapter itself. On more than one occasion, the most fruitful aspects of Knabb’s commentary consist of listing Debord’s sourced material, some sober speculation on the meaning of its usage, an esoteric historical anecdote, general conceptual clarification, and references to other Situationist writing. Indeed, the references to additional Situationist material are probably the most invaluable components of Knabb’s additions.
Some of these commentaries nonetheless fall short, such as §104, which merely supplies a curt intuitive definition of “state capitalism” and offers no further information on the concept’s history. Some referenced associations remain largely speculative as to whether or not Debord actually had such sources in mind, or whether or not they are merely editorial extrapolations. These commentaries often portray passages as alluding to common idioms or dictums that bear no real implication for the content of the book, while others appear wholly arbitrary. For example, when, in §134, Debord refers to “divisions among Greek communities,” Knabb feels inclined to mention Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War; or in §178, when a description of the inherent importance of journeying elicits from Knabb a passage from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. Most regrettable however are Knabb’s overt and excessively didactic notations, which are on the cusp of resembling condensed Wikipedia entries. While some are more tolerable than others, such as explanations of the Fronde (§140), condottiere (§46), or the Lysenko fiasco (§108), some approach the swindle of a narrow edification, for example the biographical introductions to Marx and Engels (§78-79), a factory-standard narrative on the Spanish Civil War (§94), or a simplistically barren definition of urbanism (§169). Many notations simply list the years of birth and death of historical figures. Even if Knabb’s edition is most appropriate for readers utterly unaccustomed to Guy Debord, annotations explaining whom Stalin was seems to, perhaps justifiably, expect the worst from his readership (§70). Deservedly or not, since Knabb’s English translation is generally thought to be more pedagogic than the two other English translations of the book (Fredy Perlman of Black & Red in 1970/1977 and Donald Nicholson-Smith for Zone Books in 1994), his annotations do little to change this opinion.
Additionally lamentable are Knabb’s missed opportunities for having a set of notations accompany The Society of the Spectacle. For example, Debord’s frequent description of alienation as the recession of activity into mere contemplation might have been best supplemented with notation on the strong role that the “contemplative stance” plays for Lukács in History and Class Consciousness. Additionally, in §156, Debord utilizes Marx’s concept of dead and living labor for which Knabb in the notation oddly quotes the Communist Manifesto for its phrase, “the past dominates the present’instead of making the more explicit connection to Volume One of Capital and the role of surplus labor in the accumulation process. Finally, the last chapter examines a specific notion of ideology, and at one point, Debord compares it to Karl Mannheim’s concept of “total ideology.” Left unexamined are the exact differences between the two understandings of ideology.
On the whole, one cannot help but grasp a dramatically different tone in Knabb’s latest edition as compared with those that came before it. A principle of dissection reigns over the experience of uncovering what Debord’s thorny critique might afford. By the end, the annotations have submerged the subtlety of détournement simply into an aggregated pastiche. Since everything is listed in the back, one no longer stumbles upon an idea that, for instance, looks vaguely familiar and compels the reader to reflectively grapple with its meaning. Instead, the resonance of the ideas collapses against a disenchanted laundry list of proprietorship of who said what. One is prohibited from wandering through the edition and is incessantly tempted to jump to the end and prematurely spoil the identity of the killer. Ours is, without fail, an epoch without the strength to pause in the presence of an idea. As a tutorial to the theoretical work of the Situationist International and Debord, Knabb’s edition irrefutably excels. However, as a work that takes seriously the notion that there is peril in revealing too much all at onceand that perhaps revolutionary critique should be an impartial burden rather than easily adaptable to prevailing modes of discourseKnabb’s edition is remiss to have forgotten that sometimes less is more.
in The Marx and Philosophy Review of Books (Kent, England, January 12, 2015)
[This is the complete review.]
THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE RECONSIDERED: GOOD MARX OR BAD MARX?
The Society of the Spectacle
Newly translated and annotated by Ken Knabb
Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014. 150 pages. $15
For those interested in Situationist ideas, this is an auspicious time to reconsider Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, originally published in 1967. Ken Knabb’s recently revised translation is a valuable resource for the study of Debord and the Situationists.
The Situationist International lasted from 1957 to 1972 and had an effect far greater than its relatively small numbers (about 70 members) would suggest. Situationism (a term the Situationists rejected, preferring to be ists without an ism) had its roots in artistic and cultural movements such as Dada, Surrealism, and Lettrism, and political movements such as Marxism, anarchism, council-communism, and utopian socialism.
Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem were the best-known figures, and Debord’s book and Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life are the most famous and influential works. Knabb, known for his translations of Debord and other Situationists, calls Debord’s text, “the most important radical book of the 20th century.” Knabb has not only improved his already very competent and readable 2004 translation, but has also added extensive and useful notes. Debord was sometimes vague about his sources, so Knabb has tracked them down, often adding helpful comments on their significance. Furthermore, he has included extensive background and bibliographical information on radical and revolutionary history. He also cites other Situationist texts on various topics, which is extremely useful, since there is an unfortunate tendency to equate all Situationist ideas with those of Debord.
Situationism reached many impasses, yet made a huge contribution to the development of radical thought. It still has crucial lessons for the left, and anarchists in particular. If the Situationists had done nothing else, it would be enough that they showed the fecundity of the encounter between Marxism and anarchism, and the folly of being naïvely and reactively “against Marx” in the name of anarchism. They show us why we need to be for Marx for the sake of anarchism, and against Marx for the sake of Marx.
After almost a decade of theory and provocation, the Situationists moved to the center of the political stage in 1966, when Situationist-influenced students at France’s University of Strasbourg published Mustapha Khayati’s historic text, On the Poverty of Student Life. It had a radicalizing influence on the student movement and foreshadowed the major social convulsion about to come. Two years later, the Situationists, in alliance with the radical student group, the Enragés, emerged as a major force in the May-June 1968 French General Strike that mobilized over ten million people and nearly toppled the Gaullist regime.
They achieved lasting fame through their role in street fighting and occupation of the Sorbonne, and especially for their slogans and posters that covered the walls of Paris. Ones such as, “The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution,” and, their most famous, “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” still echo today.
The Situationists introduced a number of concepts that revolutionized the left’s imaginary landscape. They took up Marx’s idea of social alienation and developed it into what they called “the critique of separation.” Inspired by utopians like Fourier and by surrealism, they focused on the need for the total destruction of repressive forces and for the liberation of desire.
Their central theme was the dominance of the commodity in capitalism. They updated Marx’s idea of the fetishism of commodities, arguing that not only does the commodity become an alien force that dominates the human, the whole system of commodities fuses into an overwhelmingly powerful imaginary reality called the Spectacle.
Against this Spectacle they proposed the creation of “situations” that would be the “radical negation of the element of competition and separation from everyday life,” and would prefigure “the future reign of freedom and play.”
But what they did more concretely was called détournement, which means “diversion,” or, perhaps more pertinently, “embezzlement.” The idea is to appropriate something in a subversive manner, which they did most notably with comics. They substituted revolutionary slogans or absurdist comments in the speech bubbles of comic characters — and the rest is radical history.
Another major Situationist concept is psychogeography, which gave birth in practice to the tactic of psychogeographical exploration of the city through the dérive, or drift. A dérive is “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” This quest for the strange and the marvelous was to have a major influence on radical and avant garde cultural tendencies.
A final key Situationist idea is récuperation, or cooptation. Debord’s depiction of the Spectacle’s seemingly infinite powers of cooptation implicitly predicted what would inevitably befall the Situationists’ own ideas. As these were absorbed into consumer culture and academia, we would ultimately see neo-Situationoids busily accumulating cultural capital by (in their terms) “detourning” and “recuperating,” rather than subverting and coopting.
But Situationism is found today not only in the museum of cultural critique. It has also continued to shape radical politics. In France, it has had an important influence on the Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee groups and its mark is evident in their much debated texts like “The Call” and The Coming Insurrection.
In the U.S., the influential 2009 California student strike text,“Communiqué From an Absent Future,” echoes in some ways the radical critique of The Poverty of Student Life. And CrimethInc, the American decentralized collective of autonomous cells, which has been a significant radicalizing force for many young anarchists, would be unthinkable without the Situationists.
The Society of the Spectacle remains a historic work for its highly advanced and sophisticated critique of both corporate and state capitalism. When the Situationists launched their critique of the Spectacle, both Marxist and anarchist thought were mired in obsolete analysis based on an earlier stage of historical development.
The Situationists were far ahead of the left in general, and the anarchists in particular, in shifting away from the one-sided focus on the repressive state, repressive productionist culture, and authoritarian ideology as the salient mechanisms of domination and instead highlighted the role of domination through commodity consumption and the consumptionist imaginary. Debord must also be given credit for his ferocious demolition of Leninism, which was only strengthened by his use of radicalized Marxian categories in his critique.
Debord also deserves credit for his position on the key issue of popular power. When one reads Debord, one learns, perhaps misleadingly, that the Situationists placed all their world-historical bets on something called “Worker Councils.” Despite the term “worker,” they recognized the importance of organizations in both the workplace and in the local community.
Moreover, they defined the term council not as an elected representative body, but rather as a democratic, participatory assembly of workers or local community members that remains the true locus of power. Long before Murray Bookchin made his “libertarian municipalism” a big and supposedly novel deal, the Situationists presented a strong defense of the communal assembly as the key popular institution.
Here, they were both prior and superior, in that they stressed the importance of both workplace and community general assemblies, while Bookchin lapsed into an abstract idealist fetishism of the municipality. On this point, Debord deserves credit for pointing the way toward the needed synthesis of the most radically democratic aspects of the anarcho-syndicalist and anarcho-communist traditions.
But, there were from the beginning serious flaws in Situationist thought and practice. There quickly developed a “real split” between the critical dimension and the creative, transformative side, and this proved historically disastrous.
The Situationists seemed to think that an aesthetic and intellectual elite could focus on theory, critique and subversive adventures, while the proletariat could somehow be counted on to revolt — eventually. As a result of this split, the Situationist legacy has been on one side an extreme aestheticization, a non-engaged ironicism, a vanguardist cultural elitism, a Left spectacularism, and a depoliticizing cooptation by a sterile oppositional culture and by hip academia.
On the other side has been an activist tendency toward insurrectionism, groupusculism, hypermarginalization, and organization “at a distance” from the real life of the community and the real direction of history.
What was always missing in the highly masculinist Situationist image of revolt were the dimensions of community and care, and the positive moment of engagement in processes of social and ecological regeneration.
The Situationists negated the historical agency of women and indigenous and traditional peoples in particular, but they also gave little recognition to the creativity of the masses of people who live under the existing system of domination, neglecting the dimensions of personal and communal life that the spectacle does not succeed in colonizing. They present an image of a humanity that seems almost helpless in the face of the overwhelming power of the Spectacle, left only with the hope for the miracle of a revolution somehow triggered by radical critique and marginal projects of provocation, creative vandalism, and insurrection.
Despite this problematical legacy, the Situationist and Situationist-influenced texts offer indispensable lessons. As resounding calls for radical negation and uncompromising critique, they possess an energy and imaginary force that most of the left can’t begin to aspire to. They have inestimable value for their capacity to traumatize, to destabilize, to shake the reader out of the paralysis of the everyday, and to inspire.
Problems arise with the lack of direction or the misdirection that comes after the inspiration. But without the inspiration, we remain nowhere (the preferred destination under capitalism).
The strengths of Situationism — its critical and visionary power — comes in large part from its ability to cross-fertilize the anarchist and Marxist traditions. An awareness of the failures of Marxist theories of the state, party and class should not obscure anarchists understanding of the significance of Marx as a philosopher of liberation.
The Situationists’ development of his ideas of alienation, commodity-fetishism, and reification within an anti-authoritarian context, and their ability to think in terms of dialectical contradiction and radical reversal, demonstrates this significance quite strikingly.
I love the irony of big corporations’ raving (in the name of profit) about the virtues of The Society of the Spectacle: There are now three translations of the work in print, and it has penetrated the intellectual popular culture to a certain degree.
You can now find ads all over the internet that mindlessly repeat the same clichés about the book. A long blurb begins by touting the book as “the Das Kapital of the 20th century.” The major purveyors all agree totalistically with every last word of the long spiel.
Even Knabb’s claim that it is “the most important radical book of the twentieth century,” is a rather grandiose claim. Nevertheless, The Society of the Spectacle is somewhere up there with the most influential works, and one might certainly wish that it had actually left Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, Mao’s Little Red Book, and Guevara’s Guerilla Warfare, in the dust.
in Fifth Estate (Detroit, spring 2015)
[This is the complete review.]
[Earlier opinions on the BPS (1975-1996)]
[Earlier opinions on the BPS (1997-2005)]
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