Guy Debord: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of a Brilliant Crank

Guy Debord, the prime mover behind the Situationist International, died 20 years ago this year. His legacy is more relevant than ever.

Christopher Byrd lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, The Guardian, and other...

||Guy Debord

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Guy Debord (1931-1994), the filmmaker, revolutionary, writer, and consummate drinker who is most often identified as the secretary and guiding figure of the Situationist International (S.I.), as well as the author of the books The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988). Debord was a refusenik who never held a day job; he was drawn to politics but contemptuous of established political parties. A born polemicist, he thought wage-earning was a euphemism for wage slavery and that human beings deserved better than representative government; we deserve direct democracy.

His example, however quixotic, calls into question how far any of us are willing to go to better our circumstances. Surely this is worth considering, since life under global capitalism is, for most of the population, precarious at best—a point that no longer even seems worth qualifying. We live in an age of dizzying economic inequality, manmade ecological disasters, and political deadlock. The fact that so many of us might agree with that statement while remaining relatively apathetic has everything to do with Debord’s project, as well as with that of one of his intellectual successors, Jonathan Crary, the Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University, about whom more later.

Primarily, Debord longed to see the social order pass. He wanted a life without “dead time,” so he positioned himself as the enemy of the daily grind, a scourge to consensus. The “spectacle” was his name for the network of socio-cultural-economic forces with a vested interest in keeping people ensnared in a set of permissible routines: go to work, go home, watch TV, cheer on your favorite political team and, between those obligations, buy something.

The spectacle was Debord’s conceptual gift to the public, a tool to get people thinking about ideology. He dared his contemporaries to imagine a different life for themselves, one that was not defined by their participation in consumer society or fealty to prosperous, self-serving politicians. Concessions and deference were not his forte. Thus, to pass through his works or those of the S.I. is, at best, to apply a loofah to one’s ideological makeup and, at worst, to feel shoved into a game of ideological jousting waged by nihilists.

To recap: the S.I. was a geographically diverse but selective mix of artists and intellectual revolutionaries that cavorted mostly about Europe. In all of its 15 years, no more than 72 people could claim the honour of having been in the S.I. The clique was born out of the coming together of a few tiny avant-garde groups—mainly the Letterist International and the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus—in Cosio d'Arroscia, Italy, in July 1957. (In its initial formation, the S.I. was composed of six men and three women.)

As a member of the Letterist International, Debord had professed that art was dead: the important thing was to live an adventurous life according to one’s tastes, rather than subsisting on the consolations of art. Still, he found common terrain with the artists of the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus who wanted to use art and theory to open new doors for “experimental activity,” using architecture and other forms of technical knowledge to enrich people’s lives in novel ways.

Debord wrote in one of the organization’s founding documents, “Toward a Situationist International,” that one of the S.I.’s goals “can be defined summarily as the invention of a new species of games. The most general aim must be to broaden the non-mediocre portion of life, to reduce its empty moments as much as possible.” Inspired by the legacy of Marx and the history of the avant-garde (e.g. Lautréamont, dada, surrealism), the Situationists looked to pierce the skin of mundane existence, to extract as much nectar from life as possible. In the pages of their journal, International Situationniste, they espoused four primary concepts to subvert the tedium of life under the politico-cultural paradigms of their time: unitary urbanism, dérive, psychogeography, and détournement.

The “spectacle” was his name for the network of socio-cultural-economic forces with a vested interest in keeping people ensnared in a set of permissible routines.

The Situationists railed against the homogenization of urban landscapes: the partitioning of the city into areas consecrated to specific activities (industry, commerce, residency, etc.). Unitary urbanism was the banner under which the S.I. promoted a vision of life as play: dynamic environments that encouraged spontaneous participatory games. Founding Situationist Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys’s “New Babylon Project” offered architectural models and drawings for what future cities might look like. Imagine gigantic erector sets or playgrounds full of ladders and walkways that encouraged people to engage more with the public space they moved through, rather than dart from home to work. 

Both dérive and psychogeography were meant to thrust this critique out of the theoretical realm through the practice of going outside and placing one foot in front of the other. To dérive was to drift. All it demanded was an appetite for walking and a willingness to pocket away thoughts of schedules and destinations. The idea was to cultivate a purposeful displacement and experience one’s surroundings in ways outside of the usual patterns of everyday existence. To chart the effects of these surroundings upon one’s mood was to practice psychogeography.

Behind all of these activities lay the concept of détournement, or appropriation. One could detour one’s environment by introducing into it a new activity—say, hold a potlatch in the lobby of a bank or replace the soundtrack of an action movie with one full of revolutionary chatter, like René Viénet did in Can Dialectics Break Bricks (1973). The success of a détournement can be reckoned by how well it works to short-circuit processes of societal conditioning (the reverence for intellectual property rights, for example).

During the early ’60s, the more playful aspects of the S.I.—like the proposals for movable cities—faded as the visual artists in the group (such as Constant) resigned or, as was more often the case, were expelled. (The byzantine rationalizations for these expulsions were recorded in the pages of International Situationniste, which you can now find online.) Debord, who knew something of vanity, affirmed that he had no truck with artists who kept one foot in the art world, or with anyone who boasted of their ties to the S.I. for the purpose of advancing their careers. As Vincent Kaufman noted in his book Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (2001), after the artists’ departures, which were pretty much a done deal in 1962, “situationism gradually became an art without works, an art of idleness, an art of pure critique, an art of destruction and self-destruction. And in that sense it was, more than ever, Debord’s art.”

By the mid-’60s, the S.I. was absorbed in criticizing the social order. They positioned themselves as the avant-garde, wielders of the most radical theories. Hell, they thought someone like Godard was a joke. (A note for cinéastes: Debord ended his first film, Howls for Sade (1952), with a 24-minute sequence of negation—no sound, no image, nothing but black projected on screen. By comparison, you can see how Week-end (1967), Godard’s anti-capitalist film, could be construed as being late to the soirée.)

When the protesters of May 1968 occupied factories, universities, and cultural institutions around France, the Situationists’ moment arrived. Their slogans were spray painted on walls and their texts found wider readership. They proudly saw their theories become praxis, no matter if the workers and the students didn’t know what “praxis” was or had never heard of the S.I. What mattered was that there was a crack in the spectacle—a breach that had spurred people to stop working and begin airing their desires and grievances. The amount of influence the S.I. actually exerted in the run-up to and throughout that fabled month is much debated. What is certain, however, is that in its aftermath a larger spotlight was cast on the group.

They positioned themselves as the avant-garde, wielders of the most radical theories. Hell, they thought someone like Godard was a joke.

Despite a surge in interest in the S.I., Debord chose to live off the grid. He didn’t submit to interviews or make television appearances. Remaining true to his high valuation of flux and transience, he dissolved the S.I. in 1971. He was wary of seeing the movement grow complacent or predictable. And as the editor of the group’s magazine, he was frustrated at having to wrangle contributions from the half-dozen or so members who hadn’t been expelled by the '70s. “And now that we can flatter ourselves on having acquired the most revolting celebrity status among this rabble [the left],” he noted in 1972, “we will become even more inaccessible and clandestine. The more famous our theses become, the more obscure we ourselves will be.”

Debord grew steadily disgusted by the political atmosphere of the ’70s as it wore on. He had reason to feel extra agitated, because he knew that he was a target of government surveillance. In his 1978 film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, he gave full rein to his spleen, upbraiding his viewers for their complicity in their own subservience. The language was much more direct than the aphorisms he deployed in The Society of the Spectacle:

Misled about everything, [the public] can only spout absurdities based on lies — these poor wage earners who see themselves as property owners, these mystified ignoramuses who think they’re educated, these zombies with the delusion that their votes mean something.

How harshly the mode of production has treated them! With all their “upward mobility” they have lost the little they had and gained what no one wanted. They share poverties and humiliations from all the past systems of exploitation without sharing in the revolts against those systems. In many ways they resemble slaves, because they are herded into cramped habitations that are gloomy, ugly and unhealthy; ill-nourished with tasteless and adulterated food; poorly treated for their constantly recurring illnesses; under constant petty surveillance; and maintained in the modernized illiteracy and spectacular superstitions that reinforce the power of their masters. For the convenience of present-day industry they are transplanted far from their own neighborhoods or regions and concentrated into new and hostile environments.

A decade later, in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, he crystalized his enmity toward the world: “Beyond a legacy of old books and old buildings […] there remains nothing, in culture or in nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry.”


Jonathan Crary quotes these words in 24/7 (2013), a brilliant meditation on how capitalism is reaching ever deeper into our lives. Crary uses the concept of 24/7 to evoke what it’s like to live in a world that prides itself on continual access to commodities and people. “There are now,” he observes, ”very few significant interludes of human existence… that have not been penetrated and taken over as work time, consumption time, or marketing time.”

One detects in this stance an update to Debord’s totalizing critique. Of issue to both thinkers is how we internalize ideologies—or models of what constitutes a normal, desirable life—that benefit institutional powers more than ourselves. Though Crary could hardly be said to hector his readers, he, too, picks at the mental traps that make it difficult to fathom, let alone realize, new forms of political action. His study of how spectacular society has reconfigured itself for the Internet age is a natural outgrowth of his earlier work, which explores how our concepts of perception and attention have changed over time, benefiting politico-economic powers

In his first book, Techniques of the Observer (1990), Crary provides a sort of prehistory of the spectacle. He contends that, between the Renaissance and the first half of the 19th century, the way people thought about human perception changed. Crary argues that “classical” models of vision and intellectual introspection, which circulated from the late 1500s to the late 1700s, were predicated upon a more or less coherent subject—an inviolate “I”—and the ideal of a stable, orderly world. With references to texts by Goethe, Schopenhauer, and others, he sketches how this model collapsed in the 19th century under a swarm of scientific postulations, philosophical suppositions, and artistic representations that stress the body’s active role in selecting, editing, and interpreting the stimuli streaming at it.

Notice how corporations that collect massive amounts of profitable data off their client base are the ones that speak loudest about empowering folks to live out their own unique lives. Today’s spectacle has co-opted what it means to express one’s individuality.

In his subsequent book, Suspensions of Perception (1999), he considers what happened in the 19th century when large numbers of people flocked to cities and industrialization grew apace. With reference to scientific texts, mass entertainments, and other materials, he analyses how a growing body of institutional knowledge about how human perception operates met with questions about how to best coordinate large bodies of workers and govern over mass populations. Out of this came scientific management focused on improving worker efficiency, and other technical methods of managing people’s attention. A contemporary example of how industry uses sensory data to advance its aims is eye-tracking software that measures how people respond to advertisements and store layouts. The spectacle is built on such efforts to refine enticements.

Obviously, if you want to know how to exploit people, it helps to know what captures their attention. In Suspensions of Perception, Crary makes the case that “modern distraction” is, paradoxically, an effect of processes aimed at harnessing human attention. In that book, as well as 24/7, he is passionately critical of the rise in diagnoses of so-called Attention Deficit Disorder, contending that there is something duplicitous about our society’s privileging of multitasking and endless consumption on the one hand and its pathologizing of distraction on the other. Selling solutions to the problems it created is, of course, another facet of the spectacle.

Crary departs from Debord with regard to the demands the spectacle places upon the consumer. Whereas Debord equated the spectacle with a system for producing passive consumers, Crary argues that our 24/7 society demands that leisure time be active. Our hyper-connected culture, with its ubiquitous customer reviews, comment threads, and multiple avenues for broadcasting one's preferences, drafts consumers into marketing the brands they consume.

We’re all familiar by now with at least some of the beguiling range of resources that governments and corporations have to shadow our movements. Yet, what might be less noticeable, or a seeming fait accompli, are the ways in which we’re constantly solicited, even incited to voluntarily expose nearly every aspect of our lives all in the name of empowerment—the ideological watchword of the present. Notice how corporations that collect massive amounts of profitable data off their client base are the ones that speak loudest about empowering folks to live out their own unique lives. Today’s spectacle has co-opted what it means to express one’s individuality.

In 2012, the Guardian ran an article by Catherine Bennett that worried over the coercive nature of social media: “Not on Facebook? What kind of sad sicko are you?” She concludes her piece with the observation, “It's three years since Zuckerberg told Kirkpatrick: ‘The days of you having a different image for your work friends and co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.’ When people who resist this version of human identity are filed instantly under weird, that end appears to be pretty much here.”

Zuckerberg’s ideology, like all ideologies, depends on the smooth surfaces over which our thoughts coast without reflection. What makes Crary’s work and Debord’s so vital is that it gives substance to the moments of our lives that might otherwise go unremarked upon, with the hope that we could live more consciously. For all of the rhetoric that fires their social critiques, the questions they leave us with are as old as philosophy itself: Is this life you always wanted? And if it not, what are you willing to do about it?

Christopher Byrd lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, The Guardian, and other publications.