by Guy Debord
First, we believe that the world must be changed. We desire the most liberatory possible change of the society and the life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that such change is possible by means of pertinent actions.
Our concern is precisely the use of certain means of action, along with the discovery of new ones that may more easily be recognized in the sphere of culture and manners but that will be implemented with a view to interaction with global revolutionary change.
In a given society, what is termed culture is the reflection, but also the foreshadowing, of possibilities for life’s planning. Our era is at heart characterized by the great distance at which revolutionary political action lags behind the development of the modern potentialities of production, which demands a superior organization of the world.
We are living through a fundamental historical crisis, in which the problem of the rational control of new productive forces, as well as the formulation of a civilization on a global scale, are each year expressed more clearly. Yet the action of the international workers’ movement, on which depends the initial defeat of the exploitative economic infrastructure, has only achieved scattered half-successes. Capitalism is devising new forms of struggle (state intervention in the market, growth in the distribution sector, fascist governments); it is relying on the deterioration in workers’ leadership; it is masking the nature of class oppositions by means of various reformist tactics. In this way, it has up to the present been able to preserve familiar social relations in the great majority of highly industrialized countries, thus depriving a socialist society of its essential material foundation. On the other hand, underdeveloped or colonized countries, which have been engaged en masse over the past decade in a more comprehensive battle against imperialism, are about to achieve a very important victory. Their successes are worsening the contradictions of the capitalist economy and, primarily in the case of the Chinese revolution, are furthering a revival of the entire revolutionary movement. This revival cannot be content with reforms in the capitalist or anticapitalist countries, but, on the contrary, must everywhere amplify conflicts that lead to the questioning of power.
The disintegration of modern culture is the result, on the level of ideological struggle, of the confused paroxysm of these conflicts. The new desires in the course of delineation are conceived in an awkward position: while the era’s resources permit their realization, the obsolete economic structure is incapable of exploiting those resources. At the same time, the ruling class’s ideology has lost all consistency thanks to the bankrupting of its successive conceptions of the world, a situation that inclines it to historical uncertainty; thanks as well to the coexistence of reactionary thoughts that have developed over time and that are, in principle, opposed to one another, like Christianity and social democracy; likewise, thanks to the fusion of contributions from several civilizations that are foreign to the contemporary West and whose value has only recently been recognized. The main goal of the ideology of the ruling class is thus to sow confusion.
In culture—and in using this word we are continually leaving aside its scientific or pedagogical aspects, even if ideological confusion makes them felt at the level of grand scientific theories or broad notions of education; culture for us refers rather to a compound of aesthetics, feelings, and manners, that is, to a period’s reaction to everyday life—confusionist counterrevolutionary processes consist of, simultaneously, the partial annexation of new values and a deliberately anticultural production utilizing the means of large-scale industry (novels, cinema), the natural result of the mindlessness of youth trapped in schools and families. The ruling ideology arranges the trivialization of subversive discoveries, and widely circulates them after sterilization. It even succeeds in making use of subversive individuals: when dead, by doctoring their works; when alive, thanks to the general ideological confusion, by drugging them with one of the blind mystical beliefs in which it deals.
It so happens that one of the contradictions of the bourgeoisie in its stage of elimination is its respect for intellectual and artistic creation in principle, while at first opposing its creations and then making use of them. It needs to preserve the sense of critique and research among a minority, but only with the condition that this activity be directed toward strictly separated utilitarian disciplines, dismissing all comprehensive critique and research. In the cultural sphere, the bourgeoisie strives to divert the taste for the new, which has become dangerous for it, toward certain debased forms of novelty that are harmless and muddled. Through the commercial mechanisms that control cultural activity, avant-garde tendencies are cut off from the constituencies that might support them, constituencies that are already limited by the entirety of social conditions. People from these tendencies who have been noticed are generally admitted on an individual basis, at the price of a vital repudiation; the fundamental point of debate is always the renunciation of comprehensive demands and the acceptance of a fragmented work, open to multiple readings. This is what makes the very term avant-garde, which when all is said and done is wielded by the bourgeoisie, somewhat suspicious and ridiculous.
The very notion of a collective avant-garde, with the militant aspect that it entails, is a recent product of historical conditions that are leading simultaneously to the need for a consistent revolutionary cultural program, and to the need to struggle against the forces that are preventing the development of this program. Such groups are led to transpose a few of the organizational methods created by revolutionary politics into their sphere of activity, and in the future their actions will no longer be able to be conceived without a link to political critique. In this respect, there is a noticeable advance from futurism, dadaism, and surrealism to the movements formed after 1945. All the same, however, one discovers at each stage the same universal will for change, and the same quick breakup when the incapacity to change the real world profoundly enough leads to a defensive withdrawal into the very doctrinal positions whose inadequacy had just been revealed.
Futurism, whose influence was propagated from Italy in the period preceding the First World War, adopted a disruptive attitude toward literature and the arts, an attitude that did not fail to provide a large number of formal novelties but that was founded only on an exceedingly oversimplified use of the idea of technological progress. The childishness of the futurists’ technological optimism evaporated along with the period of bourgeois euphoria that sustained it. Italian futurism plummeted from nationalism to fascism without ever achieving a more complete theoretical vision of its time.
Dadaism, contrived in Zurich and New York by refugees and deserters of the First World War, wished to be the refusal of all the values of bourgeois society, whose bankruptcy had just become so glaringly evident. Its drastic expressions in postwar France and Germany focused mainly on the destruction of art and writing and, to a lesser extent, on certain forms of behavior (intentionally idiotic shows, speeches, walks). Its historical role was to have dealt a mortal blow to the traditional conception of culture. The almost immediate breakup of dadaism was necessitated by its wholly negative definition. However, it is certain that the dadaist spirit has determined a part of all the movements succeeding it; and that an aspect of negation, historically associated with dadaism, must end up in every subsequent constructive position as long as those positions manage to resist being swept up by the force of social conditions that would impose the mere repetition of crumbling superstructures, whose intellectual verdict has long since been declared.
The creators of surrealism, who had participated in the dada movement in France, did their best to define the grounds for a constructive action starting from dada’s emphasis on moral revolt and the extreme erosion of traditional means of communication. Arising from a poetic application of Freudian psychology, surrealism extended the methods it had discovered to painting, to film, and to some aspects of everyday life—and then, in a diffuse form, it extended them much further. Indeed, for an enterprise of this nature, it is not a question of being absolutely or relatively right, but of succeeding in catalyzing for a certain time the desires of an era. Surrealism’s period of progress, marked by the liquidation of idealism and a momentary rallying to dialectical materialism, ceased soon after 1930, but its decay only became manifest at the end of the Second World War. Since that time, surrealism had spread to a rather large number of countries. It had, moreover, inaugurated a discipline whose severity must not be overestimated, moderated as it often was by commercial considerations, but which nevertheless remained an effective means of struggle against the confusionist mechanisms of the bourgeoisie.
The surrealist program, asserting the sovereignty of desire and surprise, offering a new practice of life, is much richer in constructive possibilities than is generally thought. Certainly, the lack of material means of realization seriously limited the scope of surrealism. But the spiritualistic outcome of its first agitators, and above all the mediocrity of its epigones, oblige us to search for the negation of the development of surrealist theory in its very origin.
The error that is at the root of surrealism is the idea of the infinite wealth of the unconscious imagination. The reason for the ideological failure of surrealism was its having wagered that the unconscious was the long-sought chief power of life. It was its having consequently revised the history of ideas, and its having stopped there. We now know that the unconscious imagination is poor, that automatic writing is monotonous, and that the whole genre of the “unusual,” which the changeless surrealist trend ostentatiously parades, is extremely unsurprising. Strict fidelity to this style of imagination ends by reducing itself to the very opposite of the modern conditions of the imaginary, that is, to traditional occultism. The extent to which surrealism has remained dependent upon its hypothesis regarding the unconscious can be measured in the work of theoretical investigation attempted by the second-generation surrealists: Calas and Mabille link everything to the two successive viewpoints of the surrealist experience of the unconscious—the first to psychoanalysis, the second to cosmic in- fluences. As a matter of fact, the discovery of the role of the unconscious had been a surprise, an innovation, and not the law of future surprises and innovations. Freud had also ended by discovering this as well when he wrote, “Everything conscious wears out. What is unconscious remains unvarying. But once it is set loose, does it not fall into ruins in its turn?”
Resisting an apparently irrational society in which the rupture between reality and still loudly proclaimed values was carried to ridiculous lengths, surrealism made use of the irrational to destroy that society’s superficially logical values. The very success of surrealism played a big part in the fact that the former’s ideology, in its most modern aspect, has renounced a strict hierarchy of artificial values, but makes open use, in its turn, of the irrational and of surrealist survivals at the same opportunity. The bourgeoisie must above all avert a new departure of revolutionary thought. It was conscious of the threatening nature of surrealism. It enjoys certifying, now that it has been able to disperse it into standard aesthetic commerce, that surrealism reached the furthest point of disorder. It thus cultivates a manner of nostalgia for surrealism, at the same time that it disparages all new enquiry by automatically reducing it to surrealist déjà- vu, i.e., to a failure that for it can no longer be questioned by anyone. Rejection of the alienation of the society of Christian morality led a few men to a respect for the fully irrational alienation of primitive societies; that’s all. It is necessary to go further and rationalize the world more, the first condition for making it exciting.
excerpt from the book: Guy Debord and Situationist International
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