Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Guy Debord's Panegyric

(Since Verso has recently reissued Guy Debord's Panegyric in their Radical Thinkers series, I have dug up a review I wrote for the book in 2005, which was originally published in De Philosophia Volume 19, n. 1, 50-51.)


The two volume Panegyric presents both a literary and pictorial representation of Guy Debord’s life, the first providing a brief literary account, while the second is comprised of “iconographical evidence,” which, according to Debord, was to “illustrate and comment on the essential” already found in the first volume. Despite the fact that a panegyric gives neither praise nor blame, Debord was more than aware that some people took to a certain intrigue concerning his life and activity, and it would be hard to deny that he enjoyed this to some extent. He knew how to cultivate this intrigue: in a chapter dedicated to drunkenness he claims that of all his passions, drinking occupied most of his time. Yet, this is (partially) a ruse, as he provides this material only to draw the careless reader away from the substance of the book. Often, these stories can be quite comical: when describing the “sad ordeal” of signing his police statements, he writes, “I here declare that my answers to the police should not be published later in my collected works, because of the scruples about the form, and even though I had no hesitation in signing my name to their veracious content.”

To expect his autobiography to be extensively revealing is to misunderstand Debord. He considered the essentials to be taken care of in The Society of the Spectacle, where he derides a society in which the dividing line between capitalism (and its culture) and ‘the world’ is gradually erased, eliminating all alternatives. With the essentials taken care of, all that remains are details. Alternating between irony, polemic and seriousness, the first volume recounts some of these details from various angles, such as “the passions of love through criminality” or the “fondness for subversion through the police backlash that it continually incurs.” The second volume, of images (published here in English for the first time), demonstrates his restraint. For example, instead of a long soliloquy on May 1968, we are given images of police, propaganda and graffiti. Additionally, we see various photos of Debord, his comrades, and comic strips (my favorite portrays Hegel as a bartender).

Throughout the book, he seems to provide an account of a sort of principled nihilism, or how one survives the society of the spectacle. As he points out, “Nihilism is quick to moralize,” and it seems he is no exception. In the preface to the third edition of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord reminds us that it was “written with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society.” This also seems to be the case with the way he lived. His response the society that surrounded him, as he tells it in Panegyric, was debauchery: drunkenness, criminality and women. But this debauchery is not the ‘moral’ of the story (nor is it anything special); instead, while recounting these events, Debord engages in contorting the language into a polemical and political text. He repeatedly insists on the importance on the literary form of Panegyric against the planned obsolescence of contemporary society, because the literary form is connected to the political form. Like The Society of the Spectacle, it is intended to do harm. There are reasons to find fault with Debord, like the often self-aggrandizing tone, but in many ways, reading Debord remains a breath of fresh air in an era enraptured with constant change, which would push aside his Marxist-Hegelian Society of the Spectacle for postmodernity. We find, in this brief autobiography, Debord recounting his obstinate refusal to give in to the economic tastes of his time and his contributions to avant-garde art, the final being this panegyric.

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