Détournement as Negation and Prelude
Détournement, the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble, has been a constantly present tendency of the contemporary avant-garde, both before and since the formation of the SI. The two fundamental laws of détournement are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element which may go so far as to completely lose its original sense and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.
Détournement has a peculiar power which obviously stems from the double meaning, from the enrichment of most of the terms by the coexistence within them of their old and new senses. And it is very practical because it’s so easy to use and because of its inexhaustible potential for reuse. Concerning the negligible effort required for détournement, we have already noted that the cheapness of its products is the heavy artillery that breaks through all the Chinese walls of understanding (A Users Guide to Détournement, May 1956). But these points would not by themselves justify recourse to this method, which the same text describes as clashing head-on against all social and legal conventions. Détournement has a historical significance. What is it?
Détournement is a game made possible by the capacity of devaluation, writes Jorn in his study Detourned Painting (May 1959), and he goes on to say that all the elements of the cultural past must be reinvested or disappear. Détournement is thus first of all a negation of the value of the previous organization of expression. It arises and grows increasingly stronger in the historical period of the decomposition of artistic expression. But at the same time, the attempts to reuse the detournable bloc as material for other ensembles express the search for a vaster construction, a new genre of creation at a higher level.
The SI is a very special kind of movement, different in nature from preceding artistic avant-gardes. Within culture, the SI can be likened to a research laboratory, for example, or to a party in which we are situationists but nothing that we do can yet be situationist. This is not a disavowal for anyone. We are partisans of a certain future of culture and of life. Situationist activity is a particular craft that we are not yet practicing.
Thus the signature of the situationist movement, the sign of its presence and contestation within contemporary cultural reality (since we cannot represent any common style whatsoever), is first of all the use of détournement. Examples of our use of detourned expression include Jorns altered paintings; Debord and Jorns book Mémoires, composed entirely of prefabricated elements, in which the writing on each page runs in all directions and the reciprocal relations of the phrases are invariably uncompleted; Constants projects for detourned sculptures; and Debords detourned documentary film, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time. At the stage of what the Users Guide calls ultra-détournement, that is, the tendencies for détournement to operate in everyday social life (e.g. passwords or the wearing of disguises, belonging to the sphere of play), we might mention, at different levels, Gallizios industrial painting; Wyckaerts orchestral project for assembly-line painting with a division of labor based on color; and numerous détournements of buildings that were at the origin of unitary urbanism. But we should also mention in this context the SIs very forms of organization and propaganda.
At this point in the worlds development, all forms of expression are losing their grip on reality and being reduced to self-parody. As the readers of this journal can frequently verify, present-day writing invariably has an element of parody. As the Users Guide notes: It is necessary to envisage a parodic-serious stage where the accumulation of detourned elements, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.
This combination of parody and seriousness reflects the contradictions of an era in which we find ourselves confronted with both the urgent necessity and the near impossibility of initiating and carrying out a totally innovative collective action an era in which the most serious ventures are masked in the ambiguous interplay between art and its necessary negation, and in which the essential voyages of discovery have been undertaken by such astonishingly incapable people.
Le détournement comme négation et comme prélude originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #3 (Paris, December 1959). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.