Notes and Reviews


Josef Weber and Contemporary Issues
The World Turned Upside Down
Todd Gitlin on the Sixties
A Clueless Life of Kenneth Rexroth
How Not To Translate Situationist Texts


Josef Weber and Contemporary Issues

Contemporary Issues: A Magazine for a Democracy of Content
was published in London and New York from 1948-1970. A sister journal, Dinge der Zeit (Cologne), published many of the same articles in German. The most influential contributor was Josef Weber (1901-1959), who wrote under the pseudonyms Ernst Zander, William Lunen and Erik Erikson.

The CI participants had arrived at some of the same basic positions as Socialisme ou Barbarie and other postwar ultraleftist groups — recognition that the Stalinist regimes were state-capitalist, rejection of the Leninist vanguard-party form of organization, etc. They differed from such groups in also rejecting the notion of class struggle, feeling that it was now a question of a “majority revolution” in which everyone would cease right from the start to participate as workers or whatever their previous status may have been. By “a democracy of content” they meant a genuine, all-embracing, totally participatory democracy (implying the supersession of the state and the commodity system) as opposed to the merely formal representative democracy of present societies.

In addition to disseminating information on all sorts of contemporary issues, from science and education to economic crises and anticolonial movements, CI participants took part in campaigns against atom bomb tests, against West German remilitarization and against South African apartheid. They were also among the first to raise ecological and environmental issues (Murray Bookchin’s first studies on urban overdevelopment and the dangers of pesticides and food additives appeared as CI articles in the 1950s). In 1956 they conducted a vigorous campaign urging armed support for the Hungarian revolutionaries. One of their main theses was that Stalinism and Western capitalism, despite their apparent opposition, operated as a mutually reinforcing “business partnership.” Stalinism (both by policing the regions it controlled and by representing a pseudoalternative that confused and perverted oppositional efforts elsewhere) helped the Western powers maintain their rule, while the latter, despite their show of denouncing “Communist tyranny,” made sure to do nothing to practically aid its overthrow (refusing, for example, to send the antitank weapons desperately needed by the Hungarian insurgents) and, in order to maintain the specter of a credible enemy threat, covered up the fact that Russia and its satellites were actually insanely mismanaged and impoverished — a diagnosis that has recently been glaringly confirmed.

The CI participants strove to organize their radical activities in such a way that they would already embody the essential features of the society they wanted to create; or at least resist as long as possible the constant tendency for any oppositional movement under capitalism to degenerate into a fetish, an end in itself, a bureaucracy concerned with perpetuating itself and protecting its own separate interests. One consequence of this perspective was that they were among the first people to practice systematic anticopyright. They saw their journal not as the expression of a specific group, but as a forum for open-ended public debate. While many publications make a show of inviting feedback, it was the very essence of CI’s strategy. They envisioned the spread of radical-democratic movements as more and more people entered into discussions that were conducted with the strictest openness, honesty and rigor, feeling that such dialogue was already in itself a contradiction to the ignorance and isolation fostered by the system and a prefiguration of new social relations.

As far as I know there was never any contact between CI and the situationists, nor even any mutual awareness until the late sixties. SI members met and then broke with Bookchin in 1967, but Bookchin had by that time left CI and had already begun developing into an anarchist ideologue. The chapter on revolutionary organization in Robert Chasse’s The Power of Negative Thinking (1968) incorporated a number of CI ideas, and in a “Reply to Murray Bookchin” later that year Chasse and Bruce Elwell briefly criticized CI’s notion of majority revolution. In its next-to-last issue (#53, December 1969) CI approvingly reprinted the SI’s On the Poverty of Student Life, stating that while they disagreed with the SI’s continued use of certain traditional terms such as “proletariat” and “workers councils,” they believed that the situationist and CI perspectives were basically much the same.

As indeed they were. It may therefore be interesting to consider some of their differences.

1) CI examined issues in great detail, documenting their statements and patiently responding to questions, objections and misconceptions. The SI was far more concise, typically mentioning in passing some point CI might have taken a whole article to deal with. Some of this difference can of course be attributed to the difference in periods: the SI had less need to go into detail about the horrors of colonialism or the dangers of nuclear radiation because such information was already fairly well known (in part because of earlier publications such as CI). But it’s also a matter of different strategies. The CI method is most appropriate when it’s necessary to prove one’s case and refute official apologists. The situationists, seeing that such debates often functioned as diversionary spectacles, felt it was more urgent to cut through the glut of information and zero in on a few essential points. They knew that once they had done this other people would be inspired to pursue their own radical ventures in their own areas of competence or concern (including carrying out more thorough investigations where necessary).

2) CI was more “tolerant.” While the SI rejected many forms of dialogue as a waste of time and often broke with people on rather subtle grounds, CI participants were generally willing to patiently discuss issues with any person of good faith. It should be noted, however, that CI did not avoid some heated breaks and polemics, and that Weber in particular was every bit as caustic as the situationists when it came to denouncing the duplicity of people in positions of power or influence. This is not the place to go into this complex issue — which I have discussed elsewhere and which has been dealt with in detail in several SI articles — except to say that while I temperamentally incline to the more mellow CI approach and feel it may be appropriate in many situations, I think it has to be recognized that the SI’s “ruthlessness” had a more powerful impact in challenging people to stand on their own feet.

3) Culturally, CI was more traditional than the SI. Seeing dadaism, surrealism and other modern avant-garde tendencies as little more than delirious symptoms of capitalist decomposition, Weber harkened back to the best values of classic humanistic culture, enthusing over Rabelais and Sterne and Diderot, analyzing Wagner’s Ring cycle as symbolic of the rise and fall of bourgeois society, satirizing his bête noire Thomas Mann in Goethe-style verse, embellishing his diatribes with lengthy quotes from Heine and William Cobbett. The situationists were, of course, also familiar with the best cultural achievements of the past, but they used them much more sparingly, detourning only the occasional pertinent insight and considering the source more or less irrelevant. I think this difference is largely a matter of taste. I happen to enjoy Weber’s 50-page article on Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, but most people would probably prefer the situationists’ conciseness.

4) There’s no question that the SI was far more influential. Not only have few people today ever heard of CI, I don’t believe it was very well known even at the time. Despite some promising beginnings, it never succeeded in engendering any significant “movement for a democracy of content” (though it may have contributed indirectly to the notion of “participatory democracy” that emerged in the early sixties). On the other hand, such modest influence as it did have seems to have been almost totally exemplary.

In any case, I believe that this 22-year experiment provides a rare combination of rigor and open-mindedness that we can still learn from. I still find the old CI articles both refreshing and informative, which is more than I can say for most other radical publications, old or new. And Weber is one of the most brilliant and provocative radical theorists I have ever read, though I realize that his idiosyncrasies are not to everyone’s taste.

The volumes of Contemporary Issues are unfortunately not available anywhere except in a few major libraries, and it is unlikely that any of the material will be reprinted in the near future. For now I have put online Weber’s The Great Utopia (1950), which served as the group’s initial basis for discussion. If enough interest is expressed, I may later upload some more.

[I later added two much longer Weber articles: The Problem of Social Consciousness in Our Time and Appeal for an English Edition of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. I have also added an article by Marcel Van der Linden about the Contemporary Issues group: The Prehistory of Post-Scarcity Anarchism: Josef Weber and the Movement for a Democracy of Content (1947-1964). A reply by Janet Biehl, contesting Van der Linden’s account of the Weber-Bookchin relation, can be found here.]



The World Turned Upside Down

In the millenarian revolts of the late Middle Ages the religious “mass-psychology” elements seem — at least from this distance — to predominate over the personal, individual aspects. Active though they were, the insurgents tended to see themselves as pawns in a larger supernatural struggle. In the English Revolution (1640-1660) religion is still the ostensible frame of reference, but there seems to be a greater “individuation” emerging. It is the first revolution that has a really modern feel to it. Everything is being called in question, and far more widely and explicitly than at any previous time in history. No longer do we have to depend on court records or enemy polemics to infer the viewpoints of the rebellious tendencies. People are speaking for themselves and they are making sure that they get heard. (One London bookseller of the time collected more than 23,000 different polemical tracts and pamphlets published between 1641 and 1662.)

The “teeming freedom” described in Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution (Penguin, 1972) is sometimes almost reminiscent of the countercultural revels of the 1960s — people flipping out in all sorts of fantasies, some obviously deluded (thinking they are a prophet or a new Messiah) but others more or less consciously “tripping,” playing with new roles, following out the most extreme implications of the extremist ideologies being preached on every side. There is a widespread sense of irony: many of the remarks cited by Hill sound like they may have been tongue-in-cheek responses to conservative observers. It is often hard to distinguish between those who genuinely saw things in apocalyptic religious terms and those who merely used those terms as a cover for more worldly ventures — probably in many cases they themselves were not clear. Levellers, Seekers, Ranters, Quakers, Diggers and countless other sects and tendencies fluctuated and intermingled. Many people seem to have been shopping around, rapidly passing from one trip to another just like moderns do. Despite the persistence of things like blasphemy laws and compulsory church attendance (often impossible to enforce), thousands of ordinary people, not just marginal bohemians, were doing outrageously unconventional things you couldn’t get away with today in many parts of the world. Distinctions between sacred and profane were blurred — religious questions were discussed in alehouses, some maintaining that God spoke to them when they were drunk; others took off their clothes in church in imitation of Adam and Eve. Manners were in flux. (Vestiges of this could be seen for centuries after in the Quakers’ refusal to take off their hats for anyone, on the ground that such a gesture would be idolatrous, and in their “thee/thou” language, which expressed their refusal to use what was then the more subservient “you” form even in speaking to social superiors.)  Social and economic hierarchies were challenged — most coherently by the Digger Gerrard Winstanley, but more or less radically by many others who could not help seeing the contrast between spiritual teachings and material realities: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” A conservative polemicist lamented that the radical elements “have cast all the mysteries and secrets of government . . . before the vulgar (like pearls before swine), and have taught both the soldiery and people to look so far into them as to ravel back all governments to the first principles of nature. . . . They have made the people thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.”

Christopher Hill has written several other interesting books on the period (on Cromwell, Milton, Bunyan, etc.) and has edited Winstanley’s The Law of Freedom and Other Writings (Penguin, 1973). A briefer discussion of Winstanley and the Diggers can be found in chapter 10 of Kenneth Rexroth’s Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (Seabury, 1974).



Todd Gitlin on the Sixties

Todd Gitlin’s The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (University of California Press, 1980) is in some ways more useful than Chomsky’s books on media falsification. While Chomsky concentrates on direct “textual” falsification, Gitlin pays more attention to subtler “contextual” aspects (e.g. misleading “framing” of news stories) and their interrelation with radical actions. Chomsky deals mostly with coverups of Third World atrocities, which though of course very significant for the people involved, are for practical purposes mere spectacles in relation to his fans (passive spectators who take pride in passively consuming more accurate information than is passively consumed by ordinary spectators and in passively rooting for more “progressive” politicians). Gitlin’s book deals with less dramatic but more immediately practical concerns — Did this or that New Left tactic foster more conscious radical participation? Did a certain type of media coverage confuse matters so as to discourage such participation? — concerns that might be pertinent to one’s own choice among alternative actions. While Chomsky never really challenges either his readers or the “masses” in general, Gitlin brings them into the examination. The question is not only how did the media manipulate the New Left, but why were the New Leftists susceptible to such manipulation? How did their tactics and forms of organization lend themselves to it? What alternatives were possible?

Unfortunately Gitlin does not make the best use of his findings. Instead of questioning “leadership” as such, he merely seeks to counteract its abuses (“the movement was not clear about the difference between legitimate leadership and authoritarianism”; the base “failed to give clear signals to its leaders”). Instead of confronting the spectacle system, he gropes for some middle ground between the catering to the media by the Yippies and other celebrity-leaders and the honorable but ineffectual abdication from leader-celebrity positions by such people as Mario Savio and Robert Moses. “Between abdication and the pyramiding of celebrity, there remained one slender choice: to try to use the media straightforwardly to broadcast ideas, without getting trapped in celebrity’s routines. . . . The question arises then: in what circumstances could movements succeed in holding their leaders accountable, keep them from departing into the world of celebrity, and encourage them instead to use the media for political ends while minimizing damage to leaders and movement both?” (p. 178).

Gitlin has long been aware of the situationist critique of the spectacle (his 1971 article on the topic is cited in “The Blind Men and the Elephant”), but he never mentions it in this book, presumably in order to make his own coinage, “the floodlit society,” sound more original. By thus depriving himself of the coherent perspective that could have tied his scattered insights together, he falls back into sociological inanities. One of the surveys he cites concluded that people who did not take part in an antiwar demonstration “tended to accept the media version of the events; demonstrators, however, did not. In other words, audiences with less direct experience of the situations at issue were more vulnerable to the framings of the mass media” (p. 245, his italics). Did we need a survey to tell us that? Following academic protocol, he avoids any but the most cautious generalizations (“This would seem to indicate that . . .”; “In his article on such-and-such, so-and-so has suggested that . . .”) — generalizations which “need to be further researched” in further grant-supported studies (hint-hint). In this upside-down little world a fact is not recognized until it has been officially processed. Even regarding events that he himself lived through, Gitlin says: “We are left to make inferences without much information. No systematic observations were recorded, no systematic inventory of audiences made, no before-and-after surveys pursued . . .” (p. 140).

In his later book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam, 1987) Gitlin abandons this silly pseudo-objectivity and gives a good account of the decade via his own experiences as a participant (among other things he was an early SDS leader). To at least some extent he sees behind the spectacular appearances, recognizing how misleading it is to see the sixties in terms of a few famous events and celebrities:

But none of this was more than the newsworthy surface of a social upheaval. The once-solid core of American life — the cement of loyalty that people tender to institutions, certifying that the current order is going to last and deserves to — this loyalty, in select sectors, was decomposing. . . . People lacking the slightest affiliation with the organized Left were saying to hell with the rules, redefining (as C. Wright Mills had once hoped) private troubles as public issues, viewing old bonds as bondage and snapping them, going public with their varieties of suffering. . . . In Vietnam, while some troops followed orders to the point of massacring civilians, others “fragged” particularly tough officers. Anthropologists declared their independence of the CIA, city planners consulted for community organizations; physicists tried to find work outside the military; graduate students protested requirements. High school students wore forbidden buttons, seminary students joined the Ultra Resistance, wives left husbands, husbands left wives, teenagers ran away from parents, priests and nuns married (sometimes each other), and people who didn’t do these things talked with, and about, people who did. As soldiers confronted officers, so did reporters confront editors; doctors, hospitals; patients, doctors; prisoners, guards; artists, curators. From subversive questions welled up picket lines, sit-ins, a vast entangled web of organizations, collectives, publications, conferences, a great storm of nonnegotiable demands and radical caucuses and participatory democracy and “getting my head together.” [pp. 343-344]

Passages like that give a good idea of what was going on, without any need for “before-and-after surveys.” Gitlin’s political analysis is no great shakes (it might roughly be characterized as mainstream New Leftist before the Stalinoid degeneration) and he admits that he had relatively little experience of the countercultural aspects of the movement (which I feel were ultimately more important than the narrowly political aspects). But within those limits his book is one of the more informative accounts of the period.

His most recent book, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (Holt, 1995), is a welcome contribution to the much-needed critique of Political Correctness.



A Clueless Life of Kenneth Rexroth

“Was Mark Twain schizophrenic? Van Wyck Brooks established his own critical reputation with a book proving that he was. T. S. Eliot, who has provided two generations of professors with their thin stock of ideas, said he was. . . . From the point of view of a small office in a provincial English Department, with rows of Henry James and Soren Kierkegaard on the shelves and hapless coeds slipping exercises in Creative Writing under the door — from this elevated point of view, Mark Twain certainly looks very queer.
       I think this is all balderdash. Too few critics of his own kind have written about Mark Twain. What he suffers from in the midst of this twentieth and American century is a lack of peers. . . . He was a man of the world. He was a man of the nineteenth-century American world where Presidents chewed tobacco and billionaires couldn’t spell. . . . The amateur psychoanalysts of Mark Twain . . . can’t understand this man who was hail fellow well met with cowboys and duchesses. . . . Since they are terrified even at a cocktail party given by another Literary Personage and have no social presence whatsoever and go into rages when their very freshmen can’t see the relevance of the
Summa Theologica to Deerslayer, they think Mark Twain must be a fraud and crazy to boot.”  (Rexroth, Mark Twain)

Rexroth, too, was a man of the world — a world rather different from Twain’s, but just as far removed from the petty inanities of academia that he so hilariously lampooned. And he has suffered from the same lack of true peers. Most of the people who have written about him have no conception of what he was really all about. If they like his poetry they are blind to his politics; if they like his politics they are puzzled by his mysticism; if they like his mysticism they are shocked by his earthiness. But few have been as hostile and uncomprehending as his own biographer, Linda Hamalian (A Life of Kenneth Rexroth, Norton, 1991).

Preoccupied with delving into Rexroth’s marital problems and denouncing his supposed sexism, Hamalian shows little interest in the exemplary aspects of his life and little knowledge of most of his areas of activity. She can hardly bring herself to say anything good about him without offsetting it with something demeaning. If she is forced to mention the fact that he translated several volumes of Chinese and Japanese women poets and even went so far as to project himself into a feminine persona in his “Marichiko” poems (which would seem to give him better “pro-woman” credentials than most other contemporary male poets), she interprets this as a belated attempt to compensate for his “woman-as-object perspective” (p. 353). If one of his wives writes him a letter full of love and admiration, she doesn’t ask herself if this suggests that he might have had some redeeming qualities; she snaps: “Indeed, Rexroth was fortunate to have such pure devotion, whether he deserved it or not” (p. 185). Except for this recurring “antisexism” theme, there is no topic that she explores in any depth or even seems to care much about. On the rare occasions when she interrupts her scandal-mongering to discuss his writings her remarks are usually trite and sometimes embarrassing. She describes “two” Rexroth essays on Henry Miller, for example, without noticing that they are exactly the same essay, which was simply reprinted in two different books (p. 134); and bases a bizarre misinterpretation of his poem “Yugao” (one of the characters in The Tale of Genji) on the supposition that it refers to the Sanskrit term yuga (p. 161).

She is even more oblivious to Rexroth’s political activities. His early IWW agitation, his diverse radical ventures during the thirties, the antiwar Randolph Bourne Council that he formed during World War II, all get nothing but the briefest of passing mentions. Any halfway sympathetic biographer would have pounced on such intriguing topics, about which we still know frustratingly little and which would have put Rexroth in a very favorable light in comparison with the political misadventures of so many of his generation. His years of helping conscientious objectors similarly pass almost unnoticed — of the two or three times the topic is mentioned, one, typically, is because it happens to come up in some correspondence cited to demonstrate how inconsiderate he was to one of his wives (p. 214). The crucially important Libertarian Circle gets a few scattered passages totaling three or four pages, of which, as usual, a significant portion is devoted to uncritically quoting any unfavorable rumors she has happened to dig up. It never seems to occur to Hamalian that outspoken critics make lots of enemies, and that in presenting different versions of events one has to take into account people’s political antagonisms and personal grudges (in addition to their possible faulty memory, self-serving reinterpretations, etc.).

To give just one example: Rexroth attributed the breakup of the Libertarian Circle to maneuvers by some supposed anarchists who came out to San Francisco from New York, and he claimed that he later discovered evidence that they were actually Communist Party members assigned to sabotage it (An Autobiographical Novel, pp. 520-521). This is certainly a credible possibility — the Stalinists routinely did such things and worse. Was Rexroth right or was he exaggerating or fantasizing (as, admittedly, he sometimes seems to have done)? One might suppose that the logical way to find out what really happened would be to check with other people who had taken part in the Circle. Hamalian, however, resolves the question in the same remarkably simple way she resolves most of the marital and other disputed matters in her book: by assuming that anyone who has a bad word to say about Rexroth must be right. She contacts the very persons he accused of being Stalinist saboteurs and unquestioningly accepts their assurance that he was mistaken! (A Life, pp. 181, 402.)

Hamalian’s book reminded me of Arthur Mizener’s similarly hostile biography of Ford Madox Ford — a figure Rexroth greatly admired and resembled in more ways than one. Alan Judd has since rectified the latter injustice in an intelligent and sympathetic account (Ford Madox Ford, Harvard, 1991) that, without glossing over Ford’s foibles, manages to convey the qualities that are so interesting about him. I hope someone will do the same for Rexroth.

[For a more detailed critique of Hamalian’s biography, see John Solt’s With a Tabloid Biographer Who Needs an Oeuvre?]



How Not To Translate Situationist Texts

In the Situationist Bibliography I mentioned that most situationist translations are inadequate. It would be tedious to go through them all in any detail, but here are brief examples of the three main faults: excessive literalness, excessive liberty, and pure and simple carelessness.

To begin with the latter, the Autonomedia/Rebel edition of Viénet’s Enragés and Situationists is particularly sloppy. It contains quite a few elementary linguistic errors — global = “total,” not “global” (p. 78); tout le monde = “everyone,” not “the whole world” (p. 97); etc. Several illustrations have incorrect captions — “Committee for the Maintenance of Occupations” should be “Sorbonne assembly” (p. 6); “1881” should be “1871” (p. 8); “portrait by Riesel” should be “portrait of Riesel” (p. 33); “Beneath the abstract lives the ephemeral” should be “Down with the abstract, long live the ephemeral” (p. 75); “You want to protect the bureaucrats’ future” should be “You want to safeguard your future bureaucratic careers” (p. 111). There are numerous typos (on p. 72 alone Kiel, Kronstadt and the Mulelists are all misspelled); clumsinesses (on p. 18 “The action is yours to take” should be “It’s your turn to play”); confusions (Debray is given a premature burial on p. 78: “funeral orations for [should be by] the stupid Régis Debray”); and general carelessnesses (in note 2 on p. 16: “Despite the S.I.’s obvious development of the historical thought issuing from the method of Marx and Hegel, the press insists on lumping the situationists with anarchism,” the italicized words are missing). The Appendix includes most of the documents from the original edition, but not all of them, and there is no indication of the omissions. In the biggest blooper of all, which it is hard to imagine how anyone with the slightest awareness of the situationists could have let slip by, the back cover blurb refers to the SI as a “radical student group”!

Even if such mistakes seem minor, they add up. Each one is reproduced every time the text is copied or reprinted. Each one has the potential to waste the time of thousands of readers, who each have to puzzle over what is really meant and may fail to grasp some key point or even end up acting on an erroneous assumption. If it’s an important text, sooner or later someone else is going to have to redo it. Why not do it right the first time?

(I should perhaps mention that I was asked to check this translation. I did not respond because I was approached in an obnoxious manner. In any case, I’m not interested in rescuing other people’s sloppy work, which would usually mean redoing it from scratch. The few instances in which I have agreed to check others’ translations have been when I knew that those translations had already been very conscientiously done.)

The translations issued by Chronos Publications are the most obvious example of excessive literalness. The reader would never guess that Debord and Sanguinetti are very eloquent writers, and that Debord in particular is almost always extremely lucid. The Chronos translators (Michel Prigent and Lucy Forsyth) deserve credit for striving for the maximum accuracy. But after rightly beginning by going over the original word by word to make sure they’re getting every nuance, they fail to step back and try to figure out how an articulate person would say the same thing in English. This may require completely recasting a sentence, taking into account the context, the flow of the whole paragraph, and the different idioms and syntaxes of the two languages, as well as watching out for all the false cognates (words that seem to be the same but actually have different meanings). Literal does not always mean accurate.

The clumsiness of the Chronos translations is so obvious to any native English speaker that it hardly needs any demonstration. Lucy Forsyth’s translation of Debord’s last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (Pelagian Press, 1991), is on the whole perhaps somewhat of an improvement over her earlier Chronos collaborations, but many passages are still marred by the same awkward overliteralness:

Oeuvres cinématographiques complètes (Champ Libre pp. 209-210, Gallimard pp. 213-214):
      Pour justifier aussi peu que ce soit l’ignominie complète de ce que cette époque aura écrit ou filmé, il faudrait un jour pouvoir prétendre qu’il n’y a eu littéralement rien d’autre, et par là même que rien d’autre, on ne sait trop pourquoi, n’était possible. Eh bien! Cette excuse embarrassée, à moi seul, je suffirai à l’anéantir par l’exemple.

Forsyth version (p. 20):
      In order to justify even in the slightest the complete ignominy of that which this epoch will have written or filmed, one day it will have to be claimed that there was literally nothing else, and by this token even that nothing else, one isn’t quite sure why, was possible. Oh well! Myself alone, I shall be the only one to consign this awkward excuse to oblivion, by example.

Suggested version [now included in my new translation of Debord’s Complete Cinematic Works]:
      What this era has written and filmed is so utterly contemptible that the only way anyone in the future will be able to offer even the slightest justification for it will be to claim that there was literally no alternative — that for some obscure reason nothing else was possible. Unfortunately for those who are reduced to such a clumsy excuse, my example alone will suffice to demolish it.

In the first sentence Debord is obviously referring to the ignominy of the writing and cinema of the entire present era (past and present as well as its presumed continuation into the future). The future-perfect tense translated with awkward literalness by Forsyth (“that which this epoch will have written or filmed”) is grammatically necessary in French to accord with the retrospective viewpoint of future apologists, but it is not necessary in English and only confuses the matter. Eh bien is one of those transitional interjections that is often best omitted in translation; but if it is translated it should be “Well,” not “Oh well,” which has a totally different meaning. It functions as a sarcastic lead-in to the next sentence, the implied sense of which is something along the lines of “Well, unfortunately for them...” In the last sentence Debord is not saying that he will necessarily be the only example (there could conceivably be others), but that even if he is the only one, his example alone will suffice.

At the other extreme, Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translations are in quite fluent English, but he sometimes takes too many liberties.

La Société du Spectacle (thesis #18):
     Là où le monde réel se change en simples images, les simples images deviennent des êtres réels, et les motivations efficientes d’un comportement hypnotique. Le spectacle, comme tendance à faire voir par différentes médiations spécialisées le monde qui n’est plus directement saisissable, trouve normalement dans la vue le sens humain privilégié qui fut à d’autres époques le toucher; le sens le plus abstrait, et le plus mystifiable, correspond à l’abstraction généralisée de la société actuelle. Mais le spectacle n’est pas identifiable au simple regard, même combiné à l’écoute. Il est ce qui échappe à l’activité des hommes, à la reconsidération et à la correction de leur oeuvre.

Black and Red version (1977):
      Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior. The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs; the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present-day society. But the spectacle is not identifiable with mere gazing, even combined with hearing. It is that which escapes the activity of men, that which escapes reconsideration and correction by their work.

Nicholson-Smith version (Zone, 1994):
      For one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings — tangible figments which are the efficient motor of trancelike behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present-day society’s generalized abstraction. This is not to say, however, that the spectacle itself is perceptible to the naked eye — even if that eye is assisted by the ear. The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction.

Suggested version [now part of my new translation of the complete book]:
      When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings — dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to use various specialized mediations in order to show us a world that can no longer be directly grasped, it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special preeminence once occupied by touch; the most abstract and easily deceived sense is the most readily adaptable to the generalized abstraction of present-day society. But the spectacle is not merely a matter of images, nor even of images plus sounds. It is whatever escapes people’s activity, whatever eludes their practical reconsideration and correction.

Nicholson-Smith’s rather free recasting often provides an illuminating slant on Debord’s text, but sometimes at the cost of obscuring the dialectical structure and sense of the original. Thus, his first sentence may help concretize the meaning by presenting it in terms of a particular spectator, but it may at the same time give the erroneous impression that the spectacle is merely a matter of various individuals’ states of mind rather than an objective global reality. In the last part of the sentence, I think the addition of “figments” is an acceptable liberty (the word is included in the original Marx-Engels sentence that Debord is detourning here); but such figments are not necessarily tangible, the point is that they have taken on a life of their own. And efficientes has here the sense of Aristotle’s “efficient cause” — direct, immediate, proximate — rather than the usual English sense of the word “efficient.” In the second sentence, speaking of “the spectacle’s job” is perhaps a good way to clarify the point being made; but that point is muddled when saisissable (“graspable”) is rendered as “perceptible” (if we can see something, it is obviously perceptible, but it may not be directly graspable). In the last two sentences it is a matter of what the spectacle is (according to Debord, not “by definition”), not whether it can be seen or heard. In fact most spectacles obviously can be seen or heard; the point is that the spectacle — the spectacle in the broad sense of the word — is not limited to that, but encompasses whatever recedes beyond our grasp, beyond our control, whatever escapes or eludes human activity (“immune from” is not quite right, and I don’t see what the added word “projected” is supposed to mean in this context).

This is admittedly one of Nicholson-Smith’s shakier passages. In many cases his translation represents an improvement over the Black and Red version, which sticks closer to the original but includes quite a few errors and unclarities.

I don’t wish to demean these particular translators, all of whom have gone to considerable trouble to disseminate valuable texts. There is not a single translator of situationist writings who has not made some similar errors, and many have done worse. (In general, most of the online versions are even sloppier than the printed ones.) Translation is a notoriously difficult and thankless task. Often there is no exact equivalent between the two languages and the best one can do is try to choose the least inadequate rendering. I don’t claim that my own translations are perfect, nor am I proposing to do any new ones. (For the time being I’m busy fine-tuning my previous SI Anthology versions as I put them online.) But I do think that most situationist translations still fail to attain the accuracy and lucidity that these texts merit. A bit more care, comrades!

March 1999


These pieces were originally drafted in the early 1990s, but were not included in Public Secrets because they didn’t seem to fit in well with the overall plan of that book. They are being published here for the first time.

No copyright.

[French translation of this text]