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Guy Debord

(1931—1994)


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(1931–94)

French Marxist, activist, film-maker, social commentator and philosopher. Born in Paris, he was raised by his mother and grandmother in the southern resort towns of Nice, Pau, and Cannes. In Pau, situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Debord studied at the same lycée as his future hero the Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), author of Chants de Maldoror (1868) and Poésies (1870) from which Situationism's watchword that plagiarism is necessary was lifted. Shortly after the war, he moved back to Paris, ostensibly to study law at the University of Paris, though he never took study seriously, preferring instead a Bohemian life.

In 1951, at a film festival in Cannes he met Isidore Isou, Romanian eccentric and founder of the Lettrist International movement. Debord joined the movement and quickly asserted himself as one of its most inspired proponents. At first, the movement found sustenance in Surrealism's channelling of the unconscious, but in a pattern that was to be replayed again and again in Debord's life this was soon rejected in favour of Dada's polemical lampooning of established values. The movement founded its own journal Potlatch, named after the Native Americans' feast discussed by Marcel Mauss in his influential work Essai sur le don (1925), translated as The Gift (1954). Debord's first film produced in 1952, Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howlings in Favour of Sade), was a Lettrist exercise in anti-cinema.

Lettrism ended without a bang and barely a whimper in 1957 at a meeting with the remnants of the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (led by Asger Jorn, who had also been involved in COBRA) at a remote Italian village. There, ‘in a state of semi-drunkenness’, as Debord would later famously put it, Situationism was formed with a show of hands by five votes to one. The idea of the situation, which was to be the focus of the group's artistic and political activities, was the product of a commingling of two antithetical sources: Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of the situation and his rival Henri Lefebvre's demand for the transfiguration of the everyday. Lefebvre, with whom Debord formed a short-lived but intense friendship, was probably the most important living influence on Debord. Not only in terms of ideas, but also in terms of contacts: it was through Lefebvre that Debord met the two other key figures of Situationism, Raoul Vaneigem and Constant Nieuwenhuys.

Debord's name will forever be associated with Situationism, in spite of the fact that the group dissolved in 1972 amidst bitter, factionalist infighting, much of it provoked by Debord himself, who had a talent for the caustic put-down. Not the least reason for this is the fact that the concepts or practices of détournement (turnaround/reversal) and dérive (drift), which they invented as a means of protesting against what they saw as the encroachments of capitalism upon the authenticity of life, continue to be mobilized by cultural activists today. Culturejamming and adbusting are perfect examples of détournement. Similarly, Situationism's notion of psychogeography, an experimental procedure for mapping the city from the perspective of desire rather than habit and obedience to design, still has its enthusiasts among cultural geographers some 50 years after it was first mooted.

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Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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