Jusqu’à nos temps, la poésie fit une route fausse; s’élevant jusqu’au ciel ou rampant jusqu’à terre, elle a méconnu les principes de son existence, et a été, non sans raison, constamment bafouée par les honnêtes gens. Elle n’a pas été modeste … qualité la plus belle qui doive exister dans un être imparfait! Moi, je veux montrer mes qualités; mais, je ne suis pas assez hypocrite pour cacher mes vices! Le rire, le mal, l’orgueil, la folie, paraîtront, tour à tour, entre la sensibilité et l’amour de la justice, et serviront d’exemple à la stupéfaction humaine; chacun s’y reconnaîtra, non pas tel qu’il devrait être, mais tel qu’il est. Et, peut-être que ce simple idéal, conçu par mon imagination, surpassera, cependant, tout ce que la poésie a trouvé jusqu’ici de plus grandiose et de plus sacré.
Lautréamont/Isidore Ducasse, Les Chants de Maldoror (Chant Quatrième)
For the 175 years of Lautréamont …
Isidore Ducasse and the Count of Lautréamont in the “Poésies”
Raoul Vaneigem (Blackout)
Lautréamont entered literary history by means of Maldoror, and, with the mastery of Isidore Ducasse, the author of the Poésies, he is almost indebted to it for not being excluded from that history.(1) Of the judgments made by critics, how many manage to prove their innocence – through embarrassment or the casualness with which they open the “Préface à un livre futur” with a tacit disavowal – an unconfessed disapproval of the Poésies? None, no doubt, as it is true that their disaffection still appears in their will to subject the delicate processes by which multiple aspects of a single being are differentiated by the mechanisms of a purely formal logic.
Must one recall the dilemma around which the majority of the explanations proposed until now have gravitated? The Poésies followed Maldoror like “merciless revolt” follows “nuanceless conformism” (Camus); the systematic nihilism of the Chants makes it way on a new route under a cynical mystification. In other terms, either Lautréamont renounced revolt or he dissimulated – one couldn’t uncouple the paradox of Rimbaud any better than that, at the cost of a better example. In both cases, such behavior betrays nothing, at least for someone who supposes that, at this ideal point, this is the situation of thinking preoccupied with its own reflections and unconcerned with concrete reality. Yet the problem of the Poésies, as complex as it is, doesn’t at all justify the absence of an objection solution.
No one has dreamed of denying the hold the biological, psychological and social “object” has on Les Chants de Maldoror. No one since the perspicacious study by Léon-Pierre Quint has refused to discern three determinations closely related to the life of Isidore Ducasse mixed into the work: sexual aggression; the increasingly obvious intervention of rational control; and an ethical-ideological content that is precisely centered on revolt. Of course, none of these characteristics manifest themselves in a pure state, with particularities that have been defined once and for all, but, on the contrary, each of them mixes together with the others, subject to the laws of interdependence, in a movement, a progression in which one is only transformed by modifying the others. At each moment, control couples and uncouples revolt and sexual aggression – in a similar process in Kafka, in analyses and syntheses, instinctive dread and conscious responsibility are coupled and uncoupled.
That said, Maldoror ends up in the Poésies. Let us be clear: the “Préface à un livre futur” doesn’t appear as the formal negation or the extension of the Chants, but affirms itself as a surpassing in which Maldoror, although denied, offers – by conserving itself – a synthesis of contradictions that become critical in “Canto VI” and, as a result, reveals itself – through a qualitative bond – as the end result of a transformation that, until disappearance of Maldoror, was purely quantitative.
To someone who reads Maldoror, then the Poésies, it is the disparity that is felt above all; it is a rupture of habituation in the sensations, not a priori in the judgment but, in a curious misunderstanding, it is as a function of this malaise, born from the transitionless passage from tornado to flat calm, that we agree to judge the posthumous work of Isidore Ducasse – it is in the effervescence, the boiling, the Maldororian frenzy that the once-neglected content and meaning of revolt persists – to prejudge the “Préface” and its cold determination according to the passionate intensity of Les Chants. The surprise born from the mastery with which rational control comes to the fore of the work, from the nimbleness in playing with the garrote around the neck of eroticism or the will of “Canto VI” to transform bloodstains into the ink stains that the Poésies will suffice to erase! Because the question is worth being asked: what causes presided over the elimination of all spontaneous, instinctive and uncontrolled elements from the heart of the last work by Isidore Ducasse?
Maybe Ducasse liquidated his sexual problems, the poetry of the pederasts, mid-way between confession and authentic provocation. No doubt he left to active conduct the care of normalizing his psychological state, of reestablishing in himself a balance that had been compromised for too long by the taboos of a society that he detested because it was all-powerful to him. Whatever was the case – and this idea, far from excluding the preceding hypothesis, is united with it in close interdependence – other preoccupations focused his faculties of analysis. As we have seen, the fall of Maldoror had to break the atrocious head-to-head between “me” and solitude, between an exacerbated sensibility and an ocean of hatred and passion. Ducasse discovers – beyond the “me” – the world, ideas and people, from whence comes his quest for a new truth, that of the Poésies and the Sircos-Damé group.
The Poésies materializes the triumph of lucidity over the confused forces of the unconscious – to use Nietzsche’s terms, it consecrates the victory of the Apollonian over the Dionysian. As for Maldoror, it bears the stigmata of the struggle. Never were traces of such a battle more apparent in a literary matter. The lucidity of Lautréamont is completely reflected in his work, it transforms it to the extent that it progresses, that it disengages from Maldoror in order to reconstruct it. If, at the beginning, it limits itself to transforming, to rationalizing the unconscious impulses at the level of consciousness, it rapidly acquires the power to empty them of their contents, to order them according to the premises of an already defined ideological world, that of Evil, that of Maldodor. Nothing marks the rhythm of the work more than the constant regression of the concrete in the face of the abstract. (One example among others: the struggle between Maldoror and the dragon in “Canto III” is translated by the opposition between Evil and Hope, and heralds the ironic commentaries of “Canto IV.”) This realization ceaselessly removes the instinctive, spontaneous elements in order to elevate itself to a discursive autonomy, which is absolute to the point of rejecting the recourse to a concrete experiment with which it was nevertheless in solidarity from the beginning. This is the stage in which Maldoror – the new Rocambole(2) – commits himself to a novel in which, as Ducasse says, “every effect appears in its proper place.”
The interest of “Canto VI” doesn’t mediocrely reside in this double movement, in the simultaneous exposition of a perceived reality, at the time of its impact on consciousness, under a symbolic form and (as a sign, as a concept) chosen as an object of idle speculation, on the one hand, and an increasingly penetrating analysis that leads Lautréamont beyond the “me,” towards the external world, towards the very reality whose echo weakens under the flourishes of the work, under the free play of fiction, on the other hand. A critical stage that is not at all foreign to the genius of Lautréamont and that he dominated with the quite particular talent of expressing (to the point of sarcasm) the troubles of a way of thinking that, under its own reflections, holds tight to the end of a contradictory movement. In fact, naturalistic descriptions and esoteric remarks – the death of Mervyn and the authentic rebus of “Canto VI” – are confined to the same extravagant precision, to the same irony in the details, but the ambiguous laughter of Lautréamont ceases to hide the basic disagreement. On the contrary, it accentuates it; it dilates it as far as antagonism; it serves as an ellipsis that, with the impossibility of ending a verse, marks the desire to begin the poem again.
The Poésies responds to this desire. Ducasse surpasses the contradiction between realism and formalism by elevating it to the level of a philosophical system, no longer on an arbitrary, conventional and unacceptable basis, but through his will to allow objective structures and to treat them through critical observation. The facts, cleared of the lyricism that transforms them and inflates them like sails on the Maldororian sea, will in the Poésies be chosen according to their demonstrative or exemplary value. Touchstone: what bloody narrative, what infamy by Maldoror doesn’t engender, in the torment of Les Chants, the sinister evocation of Troppmann,(3) whose very name – which illustrates the refusal of unbridled revolt – figures in an aphorism in the booklets.
There remains the third contradiction, the one at the level of ideas, on the plane of revolt. This is no longer Maldoror, the imaginary being, the man with jasper lips who is accused, but the entire philosophical system of which he simultaneously serves as illustration and spokesman. One must re-state the problem of Evil upon new information.
Of Evil considered as immanent to the world, Lautréamont kindled an acute, paroxysmal form, of an incredible violence, that he intended to turn against the universal false good conscience, against the drying up of a morality that, according to him, is responsible for maintaining the Supreme Good in a perpetual state of transcendence. Indeed, if Maldodor represents a step towards a better world, he is still excluded from this one. Isn’t it his curse, his torment of the damned, to straddle Mario’s sides without confusing himself with him, to destroy but without seeing the “re-beginning of everyone” so dear to Nechayev(4) rise upon the ruins? Whatever it was, Maldoror, the destroyer of Evil, elevates himself to the level of God, the creator of Evil; he participates in the incessant regeneration of the world like an active supernatural force. Therefore, to the extent that Sublime Revolt lives, grows and develops over the course of the book, a double failure comes forth and makes itself clear. Disassociated from the real by the very character of the work in its decline, the efficaciousness of Maldoror and, consequently, the value of the principle that he represents, twisting vain phrases, manifesting the activity of a fly caught in a spider’s web before being immobilized in a confusion on which, with the aid of literary mastery, pure speculation floats, the acrobatics of formalism, an ersatz version of art-for-art’s-sake that – if it satisfies the vanity of literary men – enlists as false against the intention of the Revolt. Where this is concerned, whether one likes it or not, Ducasse remained a rebel all his life, a man for whom the world had to be changed, and who tried to do so.
Why did Lautréamont reject the puppet Maldoror, the Revolt of Laughter, the literary insurgent? This is easily explained. If Ducasse could hope for a reader who was close enough to his conceptions that he would lend an attentive ear to the words insidiously murmured by his hero to the child of the Tuileries (“Is it that you don’t want to dominate your fellows one day?” and “Virtuous and meek means lead to nothing”), then at least he surely thought otherwise when he let Maldoror get caught up in the role of nihilist buffoon. The scene of crazy Aghone is revealing on this point: “What was Maldoror’s aim? (…) To get a rock-solid friend, naïve enough to obey his smallest command,” Ducasse wrote and then added, “It was Aghone himself that he had to have.” Maldoror, reduced to seeking his audience among the crazy, allows us to presume a second reason for his rejection. The immobility of total revolt here joins up with the vanity of the violence unilaterally exercised against Evil.
Since Good, in the final analysis, can only be born through the self-destruction of Evil, “the premises are radically false.” It is only a step from this to the Poésies, to the acceptance of the good and the recognition of its appetition(5) as the first principle in the future negation of Evil. As for the mythic aspect, deprived of power, it disappears in favor of direct language, a clear and concise way of thinking, which only retains from the unreal the sometimes-utopian content of the aphorisms and maxims, which are resolutely directed towards action.
Ducasse didn’t choose to enter into revolt or to renounce it, but passed from the thesis/antithesis opposition to a synthesis that forms the revolt in the Poésies. If this book proceeds along a route that is in conformity with the reality of the world in which it lives, we need not conclude that it praises to the skies or even that it accepts – due to some psychological mystery? – the state of affairs against which he unleashed Maldoror, against which (and with equal fervor) the anarchist Émile Henry(6) would throw his hatred and his bomb twenty-five years later. It is certain that violence has lost its attraction, but without preventing the continuation of the will to oppose the forces of Evil with the desire to accede to (and to get humanity to accede to) a better life. It appears clearly that we have a right to speak of opposition here, to immediately reconsider the Poésies in the context of the era in which it was born. We too often forget, in addition to the fact that the aphorisms draw their meanings from the context and the system elaborated by Ducasse, that his refusal of war is contemporary with the warmongering press campaigns of 1870, that the ridicule of the “novelists of the court of assizes” points its finger at Houssaye, Augier, Dumas and others who closely followed the Troppmann trial (see the account in La Marseillaise, 28 December 1869).
Not only does good sense legitimate this recourse to the historical milieu, but the facts themselves demand it. As we have seen, if the internal causes constitute the basis for the changes, the condition(s) of these changes must be sought in external causes. Once you have analyzed the passage from a liquid to a gaseous state, the study of the temperature required for such a transformation is necessarily called for. Likewise, one must explain the external influences by which the Poésies differentiates itself qualitatively from Maldoror.
Though it did not overwhelm Ducasse as much as one has claimed, the failure of Les Chants de Maldoror still plays a very important role in his determination. Not that one must imagine, dictated by a desire for glory, a complacent palinode, but because the refusal of the book by the public and by the censors renders concrete, proved in practice, the vanity of a Revolt that has already been denounced in the work and in the thinking of the author. “Everything has fallen into the water. This makes me open my eyes,” he wrote to Darasse. Why not let his pen disappear under the pelt of an anonymous intellectual? Because, at the same time as the failure of Maldoror, the success of the ideas developed in the Poésies were affirmed in the minds of Ducasse and his entourage. When he drafted his booklets, Lautréamont was no longer alone. His “philosophy of poetry,” he knew, had attracted the adhesion of a literary group, a movement of young people whose still-uncertain ideas were expressed in the journals La jeunesse, which became L’Union des Jeunes, and L’Avenir littéraire, philosophique et scientifique. The directors of these journals were none other than Alfred Sircos and Frédéric Damé, both mentioned in the dedication to the Poésies. The goal? An editorial in La jeunesse makes it clear: “We therefore work, brothers, to give to humanity its beautiful prerogative: love. I speak to you, soldiers of intelligence: writers, poets, publicists, artists . . . It is only today that progress in the moral order can begin.” Ten degrees more in the style and we are at the level of the Poésies. One could also compare the massacre of the “big soft heads of our century”(7) to Damé’s advice: “The best means of fighting this moral decadence that invades us is to study the modern press that has so contributed to this sad result.” The Poésies tends to affirm itself as the manifesto of an innovative movement, and Ducasse appears to be the most lucid and consequential person in it. Doesn’t he proclaim his affiliation with the team of “moral improvement” when he writes the following in the famous exergue to the Poésies, “I replace melancholy with courage, doubt with certainty, despair with hope, maliciousness with goodness, complaints with duties, skepticism with faith, sophisms with the coldness of calm, and pride with modesty,” which echoes the preamble to one of the journals (“The future – that is to say, Evil giving way to Good, the Ugly giving way to the Beautiful, the Small giving way to the Big”)?
There’s nothing in this that should surprise us. More than once Ducasse had to entertain such questions with Alfred Sircos, the only sufficiently clairvoyant critic to praise the publication of the first Canto from Maldoror and who had written the following under the pseudonym of Epistémon: “This work will not be confused with the other publications of the day: its originality, little shared, is guaranteed to us.” Second testimony concerning the relationships that united the two men: the booklets were published at the librairie Gabrie, 25 Passage Verdeau, precisely where L’Union des Jeunes had its offices. Aware of the support and effectiveness that his system of thought had encountered, Ducasse no longer had any reason to postpone a complete elaboration of the new views that would overwhelm his contemporaries. The “Préface à un livre futur,” by joining up with the timid conceptions of the Sircos-Damé movement (still unorganized), surpasses that movement towards a more original solution to the problem, a solution received from Maldoror and determined to no longer set itself aside from the concrete, from the real struggle, namely a militant organization whose rules of action would be made precise in a subsequent development of the Poésies. This is why any subsequent study must be based upon, not only the Maldoror-Poésies dialectic, but also the historical context in which it was born, on the interactions of the epoch and the psychological and ideological evolution of Lautréamont. Thus, we must admit that the Poésies is above all addressed to the men of the crumbling Second Empire, just as Fourier’s Théorie de l’Unité Universelle demands, as a preliminary, the support of contemporary philanthropists, but on the condition that we understand how the fumbling work of Ducasse reflects the slow realization of the oppressed, how, alongside Maldoror, a monstrous individualism – a will to live for oneself in defiance of the others, a milieu of a world in which each person lives in fear of the others – gives birth to and develops the desire to live for all, to realize oneself in a society in which the general interest anticipates individual interests. Thus conceived, any analysis will ultimately end in making it clear that Maldoror and the Poésies appear, in the final analysis, as the reflection of a double tendency in the anarchist movement, its perpetual oscillation between pure violence and reformist utopia.
1 Isidore Ducasse was born in Uruguay in 1846; he died in Paris in 1870. Les Chants de Maldoror was published in 1868-69 and the Poésies in 1870. For an English translation of both in a single volume, see Les Chants de Maldoror, trans. Guy Wernham (New Directions, 1943).
2 A fictional character created by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail (circa 1858-1859) and associated with fantastic adventures. “To sing of Adamastor, Jocelyn, Rocambole, is puerile” (Poésies, included in Maldoror, trans. Guy Wernham, New Directions, 1943, p. 314).
3 Jean-Baptiste Troppmann was a French spree killer who was executed on 19 January 1870. He was a kind of hero to the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who refers to Troppmann in God and the State.
4 Sergey Nechayev (1847-1882) was a Russian revolutionary and nihilist.
5 Cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric, in which desire has two aspects: appetite and volition.
6 Émile Henry (1872-1894) was a French anarchist. On 12 February 1894, he set off a bomb at the Café Terminus in a Parisian train station. He was executed three months later.
7 Poésies, included in Maldoror, trans. Guy Wernham, p. 318.
Originally published in Synthèses, #151, Brussels, December 1958. Reprinted in Raoul Vaneigem and Gérard Berréby, Rien n’est fini, tout commence (Allia, 2014). Translated by NOT BORED! 15 November 2014.
A User’s Guide to Détournement
Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman
Les Lèvres Nues #8 (May 1956)
(Translated by Ken Knabb; Situationist International Online)
Any reasonably aware person of our time is aware of the obvious fact that art can no longer be justified as a superior activity, or even as a compensatory activity to which one could honorably devote oneself. The reason for this deterioration is clearly the emergence of productive forces that necessitate other production relations and a new practice of life. In the civil-war phase we are engaged in, and in close connection with the orientation we are discovering for certain superior activities to come, we can consider that all known means of expression are going to converge in a general movement of propaganda that must encompass all the perpetually interacting aspects of social reality.
There are several conflicting opinions about the forms and even the very nature of educative propaganda, opinions that generally reflect one or another currently fashionable variety of reformist politics. Suffice it to say that in our view the premises for revolution, on the cultural as well as the strictly political level, are not only ripe, they have begun to rot. It is not just returning to the past which is reactionary; even “modern” cultural objectives are ultimately reactionary since they depend on ideological formulations of a past society that has prolonged its death agony to the present. The only historically justified tactic is extremist innovation.
The literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes. It is, of course, necessary to go beyond any idea of scandal. Since opposition to the bourgeois notion of art and artistic genius has become pretty much old hat, [Duchamp’s] drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa is no more interesting than the original version of that painting. We must now push this process to the point of negating the negation. Bertolt Brecht, revealing in a recent interview in the magazine France-Observateur that he made some cuts in the classics of the theater in order to make the performances more educative, is much closer than Duchamp to the revolutionary orientation we are calling for. We must note, however, that in Brecht’s case these salutary alterations are narrowly limited by his unfortunate respect for culture as defined by the ruling class — that same respect, taught in the newspapers of the workers parties as well as in the primary schools of the bourgeoisie, which leads even the reddest worker districts of Paris always to prefer The Cid over [Brecht’s] Mother Courage.
It is in fact necessary to eliminate all remnants of the notion of personal property in this area. The appearance of new necessities outmodes previous “inspired” works. They become obstacles, dangerous habits. The point is not whether we like them or not. We have to go beyond them.
Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations. The discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrate that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. Restricting oneself to a personal arrangement of words is mere convention. The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used.
It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of those fragments in any appropriate way, leaving the imbeciles to their slavish preservation of “citations.”
Such parodic methods have often been used to obtain comical effects. But such humor is the result of contradictions within a condition whose existence is taken for granted. Since the world of literature seems to us almost as distant as the Stone Age, such contradictions don’t make us laugh. It is therefore necessary to conceive of 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.
Lautréamont advanced so far in this direction that he is still partially misunderstood even by his most ostentatious admirers. In spite of his obvious application of this method to theoretical language in Poésies — where Lautréamont (drawing particularly on the maxims of Pascal and Vauvenargues) strives to reduce the argument, through successive concentrations, to maxims alone — a certain Viroux caused considerable astonishment three or four years ago by conclusively demonstrating that Maldoror is one vast détournement of Buffon and other works of natural history, among other things. The fact that the prosaists of Figaro, like Viroux himself, were able to see this as a justification for disparaging Lautréamont, and that others believed they had to defend him by praising his insolence, only testifies to the senility of these two camps of dotards in courtly combat with each other. A slogan like “Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it” is still as poorly understood, and for the same reasons, as the famous phrase about the poetry that “must be made by all.”
Apart from Lautréamont’s work — whose appearance so far ahead of its time has to a great extent preserved it from a precise critique — the tendencies toward détournement that can be observed in contemporary expression are for the most part unconscious or accidental. It is in the advertising industry, more than in a decaying aesthetic production, that one can find the best examples.
We can first of all define two main categories of detourned elements, without considering whether or not their being brought together is accompanied by corrections introduced in the originals. These are minor détournements and deceptive détournements.
Minor détournement is the détournement of an element which has no importance in itself and which thus draws all its meaning from the new context in which it has been placed. For example, a press clipping, a neutral phrase, a commonplace photograph.
Deceptive détournement, also termed premonitory-proposition détournement, is in contrast the détournement of an intrinsically significant element, which derives a different scope from the new context. A slogan of Saint-Just, for example, or a film sequence from Eisenstein.
Extensive detourned works will thus usually be composed of one or more series of deceptive and minor détournements.
Several laws on the use of détournement can now be formulated.
It is the most distant detourned element which contributes most sharply to the overall impression, and not the elements that directly determine the nature of this impression. For example, in a metagraph [poem-collage] relating to the Spanish Civil War the phrase with the most distinctly revolutionary sense is a fragment from a lipstick ad: “Pretty lips are red.” In another metagraph (“The Death of J.H.”) 125 classified ads of bars for sale express a suicide more strikingly than the newspaper articles that recount it.
The distortions introduced in the detourned elements must be as simplified as possible, since the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements. This is well known. Let us simply note that if this dependence on memory implies that one must determine one’s public before devising a détournement, this is only a particular case of a general law that governs not only détournement but also any other form of action on the world. The idea of pure, absolute expression is dead; it only temporarily survives in parodic form as long as our other enemies survive.
Détournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply. This is the case with a rather large number of Lautréamont’s altered maxims. The more the rational character of the reply is apparent, the more indistinguishable it becomes from the ordinary spirit of repartee, which similarly uses the opponent’s words against him. This is naturally not limited to spoken language. It was in this connection that we objected to the project of some of our comrades who proposed to detourn an anti-Soviet poster of the fascist organization “Peace and Liberty” — which proclaimed, amid images of overlapping flags of the Western powers, “Union makes strength” — by adding onto it a smaller sheet with the phrase “and coalitions make war.”
Détournement by simple reversal is always the most direct and the least effective. Thus, the Black Mass reacts against the construction of an ambiance based on a given metaphysics by constructing an ambiance in the same framework that merely reverses — and thus simultaneously conserves — the values of that metaphysics. Such reversals may nevertheless have a certain progressive aspect. For example, Clemenceau [called “The Tiger”] could be referred to as “The Tiger called Clemenceau.”
Of the four laws that have just been set forth, the first is essential and applies universally. The other three are practically applicable only to deceptive detourned elements.
The first visible consequences of a widespread use of détournement, apart from its intrinsic propaganda powers, will be the revival of a multitude of bad books, and thus the extensive (unintended) participation of their unknown authors; an increasingly extensive transformation of phrases or plastic works that happen to be in fashion; and above all an ease of production far surpassing in quantity, variety and quality the automatic writing that has bored us for so long.
Détournement not only leads to the discovery of new aspects of talent; in addition, clashing head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle. The cheapness of its products is the heavy artillery that breaks through all the Chinese walls of understanding. It is a real means of proletarian artistic education, the first step toward a literary communism.
Ideas and creations in the realm of détournement can be multiplied at will. For the moment we will limit ourselves to showing a few concrete possibilities in various current sectors of communication — it being understood that these separate sectors are significant only in relation to present-day techniques, and are all tending to merge into superior syntheses with the advance of these techniques.
Apart from the various direct uses of detourned phrases in posters, records and radio broadcasts, the two main applications of detourned prose are metagraphic writings and, to a lesser degree, the adroit perversion of the classical novel form.
There is not much future in the détournement of complete novels, but during the transitional phase there might be a certain number of undertakings of this sort. Such a détournement gains by being accompanied by illustrations whose relationships to the text are not immediately obvious. In spite of undeniable difficulties, we believe it would be possible to produce an instructive psychogeographical détournement of George Sand’s Consuelo, which thus decked out could be relaunched on the literary market disguised under some innocuous title like “Life in the Suburbs,” or even under a title itself detourned, such as “The Lost Patrol.” (It would be a good idea to reuse in this way many titles of deteriorated old films of which nothing else remains, or of films which continue to deaden the minds of young people in the cinema clubs.)
Metagraphic writing, no matter how outdated its plastic framework may be, presents far richer opportunities for detourning prose, as well as other appropriate objects or images. One can get some idea of this from the project, conceived in 1951 but eventually abandoned for lack of sufficient financial means, which envisaged a pinball machine arranged in such a way that the play of the lights and the more or less predictable trajectories of the balls would form a metagraphic-spatial composition entitled Thermal Sensations and Desires of People Passing by the Gates of the Cluny Museum Around an Hour after Sunset in November. We have since come to realize that a situationist-analytic enterprise cannot scientifically advance by way of such works. The means nevertheless remain suitable for less ambitious goals.
It is obviously in the realm of the cinema that détournement can attain its greatest effectiveness and, for those concerned with this aspect, its greatest beauty.
The powers of film are so extensive, and the absence of coordination of those powers is so glaring, that virtually any film that is above the miserable average can provide matter for endless polemics among spectators or professional critics. Only the conformism of those people prevents them from discovering equally appealing charms and equally glaring faults even in the worst films. To cut through this absurd confusion of values, we can observe that Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history of the cinema because of its wealth of new contributions. On the other hand, it is a racist film and therefore absolutely does not merit being shown in its present form. But its total prohibition could be seen as regrettable from the point of view of the secondary, but potentially worthier, domain of the cinema. It would be better to detourn it as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which are continuing in the United States even now.
Such a détournement — a very moderate one — is in the final analysis nothing more than the moral equivalent of the restoration of old paintings in museums. But most films only merit being cut up to compose other works. This reconversion of preexisting sequences will obviously be accompanied by other elements, musical or pictorial as well as historical. While the cinematic rewriting of history has until now been largely along the lines of Sacha Guitry’s burlesque re-creations, one could have Robespierre say, before his execution: “In spite of so many trials, my experience and the grandeur of my task convinces me that all is well.” If in this case an appropriate reuse of a Greek tragedy enables us to exalt Robespierre, we can conversely imagine a neorealist-type sequence, at the counter of a truck stop bar, for example, with one of the truck drivers saying seriously to another: “Ethics was formerly confined to the books of the philosophers; we have introduced it into the governing of nations.” One can see that this juxtaposition illuminates Maximilien’s idea, the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat.
The light of détournement is propagated in a straight line. To the extent that new architecture seems to have to begin with an experimental baroque stage, the architectural complex — which we conceive as the construction of a dynamic environment related to styles of behavior — will probably detourn existing architectural forms, and in any case will make plastic and emotional use of all sorts of detourned objects: careful arrangements of such things as cranes or metal scaffolding replacing a defunct sculptural tradition. This is shocking only to the most fanatical admirers of French-style gardens. It is said that in his old age D’Annunzio, that pro-fascist swine, had the prow of a torpedo boat in his park. Leaving aside his patriotic motives, the idea of such a monument is not without a certain charm.
If détournement were extended to urbanistic realizations, not many people would remain unaffected by an exact reconstruction in one city of an entire neighborhood of another. Life can never be too disorienting: détournement on this level would really make it beautiful.
Titles themselves, as we have already seen, are a basic element of détournement. This follows from two general observations: that all titles are interchangeable and that they have a decisive importance in several genres. All the detective stories in the “Série Noir” are extremely similar, yet merely continually changing the titles suffices to hold a considerable audience. In music a title always exerts a great influence, yet the choice of one is quite arbitrary. Thus it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make a final correction to the title of the “Eroica Symphony” by changing it, for example, to “Lenin Symphony.”
The title contributes strongly to the détournement of a work, but there is an inevitable counteraction of the work on the title. Thus one can make extensive use of specific titles taken from scientific publications (“Coastal Biology of Temperate Seas”) or military ones (“Night Combat of Small Infantry Units”), or even of many phrases found in illustrated children’s books (“Marvelous Landscapes Greet the Voyagers”).
In closing, we should briefly mention some aspects of what we call ultradétournement, that is, the tendencies for détournement to operate in everyday social life. Gestures and words can be given other meanings, and have been throughout history for various practical reasons. The secret societies of ancient China made use of quite subtle recognition signals encompassing the greater part of social behavior (the manner of arranging cups; of drinking; quotations of poems interrupted at agreed-on points). The need for a secret language, for passwords, is inseparable from a tendency toward play. Ultimately, any sign or word is susceptible to being converted into something else, even into its opposite. The royalist insurgents of the Vendée, because they bore the disgusting image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, were called the Red Army. In the limited domain of political war vocabulary this expression was completely detourned within a century.
Outside of language, it is possible to use the same methods to detourn clothing, with all its strong emotional connotations. Here again we find the notion of disguise closely linked to play. Finally, when we have got to the stage of constructing situations — the ultimate goal of all our activity — everyone will be free to detourn entire situations by deliberately changing this or that determinant condition of them.
The methods that we have briefly dealt with here are presented not as our own invention, but as a generally widespread practice which we propose to systematize.
In itself, the theory of détournement scarcely interests us. But we find it linked to almost all the constructive aspects of the presituationist period of transition. Thus its enrichment, through practice, seems necessary.
We will postpone the development of these theses until later.
All the King’s Men
Guy Debord (Blackout)
The problem of language is at the heart of all the struggles between the forces striving to abolish the present alienation and those striving to maintain it. It is inseparable from the very terrain of those struggles. We live within language as within polluted air. Despite what humorists think, words do not play. Nor do they make love, as Breton thought, except in dreams. Words work — on behalf of the dominant organization of life. Yet they are not completely automated: unfortunately for the theoreticians of information, words are not in themselves “informationist”; they contain forces that can upset the most careful calculations. Words coexist with power in a relation analogous to that which proletarians (in the modern as well as the classic sense of the term) have with power. Employed by it almost full time, exploited for every sense and nonsense that can be squeezed out of them, they still remain in some sense fundamentally alien to it.
Power(1) presents only the falsified, official sense of words. In a manner of speaking it forces them to carry a pass, determines their place in the production process (where some of them conspicuously work overtime) and gives them their paycheck. Regarding the use of words, Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty correctly observes: “The question is which is to be master — that’s all.”(2) He adds that he himself (a socially responsible employer in this respect) pays overtime to those he employs excessively. We should also understand the phenomenon of the insubordination of words, their desertion or open resistance (manifested in all modern writing from Baudelaire to the dadaists and Joyce), as a symptom of the general revolutionary crisis of this society.
Under the control of power, language always designates something other than authentic experience. It is precisely for this reason that a total contestation is possible. The organization of language has fallen into such confusion that the communication imposed by power is exposing itself as an imposture and a dupery. An embryonic cybernetic power is vainly trying to put language under the control of the machines it controls, in such a way that information would henceforth be the only possible communication. Even on this terrain resistances are being manifested; electronic music could be seen as an attempt (obviously limited and ambiguous) to reverse the domination by detourning machines to the benefit of language. But there is a much more general and radical opposition that is denouncing all unilateral “communication,” in the old form of art as well as in the modern form of informationism. It calls for a communication that undermines all separate power. Real communication dissolves the state.
Power lives off stolen goods. It creates nothing; it coopts. If it determined the meaning of words, there would be no poetry but only useful “information.” Opposition would be unable to express itself in language; any refusal would be nonverbal, purely lettristic. What is poetry if not the revolutionary moment of language, inseparable as such from the revolutionary moments of history and from the history of personal life?
Power’s stranglehold over language is connected to its stranglehold over the totality. Only a language that has been deprived of all immediate reference to the totality can serve as the basis for information. News(3) is the poetry of power, the counterpoetry of law and order, the mediated falsification of what exists. Conversely, poetry must be understood as direct communication within reality and as real alteration of this reality. It is liberated language, language recovering its richness, language breaking its rigid significations and simultaneously embracing words and music, cries and gestures, painting and mathematics, facts and acts. Poetry thus depends on the richest possibilities for living and changing life at a given stage of socioeconomic structure. Needless to say, this relationship of poetry to its material base is not a subordination of one to the other, but an interaction.
Rediscovering poetry may merge with reinventing revolution, as has been demonstrated by certain phases of the Mexican, Cuban and Congolese revolutions. Outside the revolutionary periods when the masses become poets in action, small circles of poetic adventure could be considered the only places where the totality of revolution subsists, as an unrealized but close-at-hand potentiality, like the shadow of an absent personage. What we are calling poetic adventure is difficult, dangerous and never guaranteed (it is, in fact, the aggregate of behaviors that are almost impossible in a given era). One thing we can be sure of is that fake, officially tolerated poetry is no longer the poetic adventure of its era. Thus, whereas surrealism in the heyday of its assault against the oppressive order of culture and daily life could appropriately define its arsenal as “poetry without poems if necessary,” for the SI it is now a matter of a poetry necessarily without poems. What we say about poetry has nothing to do with the retarded reactionaries of some neoversification, even one based on the least antiquated modernistic forms. Realizing poetry means nothing less than simultaneously and inseparably creating events and their language.
In-group languages — those of informal groupings of young people; those that contemporary avant-garde currents develop for their internal use as they grope to define themselves; those that in previous eras were conveyed by way of objective poetic production, such as trobar clus and dolce stil nuovo(4) — are more or less successful efforts to attain a direct, transparent communication, mutual recognition, mutual accord. But such efforts have been confined to small groups that were isolated in one way or another. The events and celebrations they created had to remain within the most narrow limits. One of the tasks of revolution is to federate such poetic “soviets” or communication councils in order to initiate a direct communication everywhere that will no longer need to resort to the enemy’s communication network (that is, to the language of power) and will thus be able to transform the world according to its desire.
The point is not to put poetry at the service of revolution, but to put revolution at the service of poetry. It is only in this way that revolution does not betray its own project. We don’t intend to repeat the mistake of the surrealists, who put themselves at the service of the revolution right when it had ceased to exist. Bound to the memory of a partial and rapidly crushed revolution, surrealism rapidly turned into a reformism of the spectacle, a critique of a certain form of the reigning spectacle that was carried out from within the dominant organization of that spectacle. The surrealists seem to have overlooked the fact that every internal improvement or modernization of the spectacle is translated by power into its own encoded language, to which it alone holds the key.
Every revolution has been born in poetry, has first of all been made with the force of poetry. This phenomenon continues to escape theorists of revolution — indeed, it cannot be understood if one still clings to the old conception of revolution or of poetry — but it has generally been sensed by counterrevolutionaries. Poetry terrifies them. Whenever it appears they do their best to get rid of it by every kind of exorcism, from auto-da-fé to pure stylistic research. Real poetry, which has “world enough and time,” seeks to reorient the entire world and the entire future to its own ends. As long as it lasts, its demands admit of no compromise. It brings back into play all the unsettled debts of history. Fourier and Pancho Villa, Lautréamont and the dinamiteros of the Asturias (whose successors are now inventing new forms of strikes),(5) the sailors of Kronstadt and Kiel, and all those around the world who, with us or without us, are preparing to fight for the long revolution are equally the emissaries of the new poetry.
Poetry is becoming more and more clearly the empty space, the antimatter, of consumer society, since it is not consumable (in terms of the modern criteria for a consumable object: an object that is of equivalent value for each of a mass of isolated passive consumers). Poetry is nothing when it is quoted; it needs to be detourned, brought back into play. Otherwise the study of the poetry of the past is nothing but an academic exercise. The history of poetry is only a way of running away from the poetry of history, if we understand by that phrase not the spectacular history of the rulers but the history of everyday life and its possible liberation; the history of each individual life and its realization.
We must leave no question as to the role of the “conservers” of old poetry, who increase its dissemination while the state, for quite different reasons, is eliminating illiteracy. These people are only a particular type of museum curator. A mass of poetry is naturally preserved around the world, but nowhere are there the places, the moments or the people to revive it, communicate it, use it. And there never can be except by way of détournement, because the understanding of past poetry has changed through losses as well as gains of knowledge; and because any time past poetry is actually rediscovered, its being placed in the context of particular events gives it a largely new meaning. In any case, a situation in which poetry is possible must not get sidetracked into trying to restore poetic failures of the past (such failures being the inverted remains of the history of poetry, transformed into successes and poetic monuments). Such a situation naturally seeks the communication and possible triumph of its own poetry.
At the same time that poetic archeology is restoring selections of past poetry, recited by specialists on LPs for the neoilliterate public created by the modern spectacle, the informationists are striving to do away with all the “redundancies” of freedom in order to simply transmit orders. The theorists of automation are explicitly aiming at producing an automatic theoretical thought by clamping down on and eliminating the variables in life as well as in language. But bones keep turning up in their cheese! Translating machines, for example, which are beginning to ensure the planetary standardization of information along with the informationist revision of previous culture, are victims of their own preestablished programming, which inevitably misses any new meaning taken on by a word, as well as its past dialectical ambivalences. Thus the life of language — which is bound up with every advance of theoretical understanding (“Ideas improve; the meaning of words participates in the improvement”) — is expelled from the mechanical field of official information. But this also means that free thought can organize itself with a secrecy that is beyond the reach of informationist police techniques. A similar point could be made about the quest for unambiguous signals and instantaneous binary classification, which is clearly linked with the existing power structure. Even in their most delirious formulations, the informationist theorists are no more than clumsy precursors of the future they have chosen, which is the same brave new world that the dominant forces of the present society are working toward — the reinforcement of the cybernetic state. They are the vassals of the lords of the technocratic feudalism that is now constituting itself. There is no innocence in their buffoonery; they are the king’s jesters.
The choice between informationism and poetry no longer has anything to do with the poetry of the past, just as no variant of what the classical revolutionary movement has become can anymore, anywhere, be considered as part of a real alternative to the prevailing organization of life. The same judgment leads us to announce the total disappearance of poetry in the old forms in which it was produced and consumed and to announce its return in effective and unexpected forms. Our era no longer has to write poetic directives; it has to carry them out.
- The French word pouvoir can mean power in general, but it can also refer to the ruling powers, the ruling classes, the ruling system, or the particular regime in power.
- Through the Looking Glass (chapter 6).
- The French word information also means “news.”
- Trobar clus: hermetic troubadour style. Dolce stil nuovo: 13th-century Italian poetic school culminating in Dante.
- Asturias: mountainous region in northwest Spain where workers (primarily miners) carried out an extremely radical and violent insurrection in October 1934. They were referred to as dinamiteros because they often used sticks of dynamite for lack of other weapons.
In the early 1960s a later generation of Asturian workers carried out a daring series of wildcat strikes against the Franco regime. On the latter movement, see Guy Debord’s unpublished article “La Grève asturienne” (Oeuvres, pp. 657-662).
“All the King’s Men” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #8 (Paris, January 1963). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006).
A reading of the first song of Les chants de Maldoror (in french) …