A Critical Return on Guy Debord


By Jan Baetens

On: Jean-Marie Apostolidès, Debord, le naufrageur (Paris, Flammarion: 2015)

The founding father of situationism, a highly politicized neo-avant-garde movement that is said to have played a decisive role in the May 68 turmoil (see the database “Situationist International Online:  http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/) and author of the influential essay The Society of the Spectacle (various editions online, see for instance: http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/pub_contents/4 ), Guy-Ernest Debord is considered one of the most important French thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century. One can guess students know him best from one of the most radical May 68 graffiti: “Ne travaillez jamais” or “Never work”, a principle Debord has held during all his life, for it was always others –family, friends, sponsors– who helped him make his living. The mysteries that surround Debord are numerous: first there is the enigma of the societal impact of his work, hardly known till the publication of his major work in 1967 and certainly much less noticed in that period than that of most other left-wing philosophers and activists; second, there is also the puzzle of his life, which has been the subject of intense efforts of mythification and self-mythification.

It does not come as a surprise that the most recent biography of Debord is written by Jean-Marie Apostolidès, professor emeritus of Stanford University. A specialist of French literature, drama, and cultural theory and history, Apostolidès had already widely published on Debord and situationism, both in fiction and nonfiction (for an example of the former, see for instance his play Il faut construire l’hacienda, 2006, which reconstructs the amazing encounter between Ivan Chtcheglov, a fellow situationist, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former prime minister of Canada –and father of the current prime minister of the country, see: http://www.lesimpressionsnouvelles.com/catalogue/hacienda/). DebordMoreover, his work as cultural historian had made Apostolidès very sensitive to some of the basic aspects of Debord’s key influence on society, such as for instance the shift from a patriarchal society to an anti-patriarchal society and the consequences of that shift for social structures either based on or rebuking authority. In his reading of Debord’s life, Apostolidès ceaselessly stresses a decisive paradox in this regard: the very authoritarian character and behavior of the man (but according to the author: the Peter Pan like capricious and megalomaniac child that Debord has always remained).

The current publication of nearly 600 pages is not only the revised and expanded version of previous, shorter biographical and fictional essays, it is also a critical return on the figure of Debord. The focus of the book is less on the literary and cinematographic work of the author than on his life, meticulously described but also systematically interpreted in light of certain childhood and adolescent traumas (absence of the father, overprotection by competing women, conflict with the stepfather and lasting influence of lost and self-constructed identities). The resulting portrait is devastating, at least from a biographical point of view. Apostolidès does not deny at all the literary and intellectual qualities of his model, but his judgment of the man –crudely egoistic, constantly manipulative–  is extremely negative. In that sense, this fascinating biography only increases the mystery of Debord’s publications, whose style and content leave no one indifferent.