Living with dead time. The Situationists believed they could change the world. They ended up destroying themselves. Will Self on the death of the avant-garde

The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord

Andrew Hussey <em>Jonathan Cape, 420pp, £18.99 <

When did the avant-garde die? It sounds like a title for the sort of frothy filler you might find, nowadays, fringing the review pages of any mainstream newspaper - and that, in itself, confirms the avant-garde's demise. But if you were looking for a plausible date, place and motive for the auto-destruction of that current which laid claim to being - by virtue of exclusivity, originality and audacity - the radical harbinger of cultural and political change in European society, it would have to be on 30 November 1994 in a large, gloomy farmhouse in the large, gloomy, remote French department of the Auvergne, where, as day faded into night, Guy Debord, once the leader of the Situationist International, put a gun to his breast and stopped his heart for ever.

Why now should we be concerned with Debord and the Situationists? After all, the balance of his life - with its freeloading hermeticism, its programmatic alcoholism and its sly peripatetics - exemplified little more than a useless appendix to the cultural rebellions of the 1960s. Certainly, Debord himself (and the tight little cabal he assembled around him) believed that the Situationist International had been pivotal in Les Evenements of May 1968, and that it was merely a failure in tactics (plus, naturally, the woeful, blinkered condition of the people) that had prevented their groupuscule from finding itself at the vanguard of a global revolution.

It is difficult for any remotely objective assessment to support this view. But our continued interest in Debord should be motivated by the plangent, awful truth that he was substantially right about the character of individual life under "late capitalism" (and what a woefully optimistic ascription that now seems). His magnum opus, The Society of the Spectacle, reads today as a more accurate description of contemporaneity than it can have appeared in the pre-internet, pre-cable, pre-mobile phone era of the late 1960s. Written in 221 propositions - like the bastard apothegms sired by Wittgenstein out of Marx and Hegel - any one of them painfully scrapes away at the margarine of false consciousness gumming up our faculties. Take No 16, for example: "The spectacle subjects living human beings to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway. For the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing for itself - at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers."

The Society of the Spectacle accurately foretold the capitu-lation of the "Russian bureaucracy" and presented a pene-trating critique of globalisation long before the term had even been coined. Debord's conception of the "spectacle" as a self-perpetuating delusional system, implicit in the commodification of human experience, transmitted by the market, and powered by a senseless alliance between "profit" and "progress", was framed as a politico-philosophic theory. But in its manic Manichaeism, and its natty nihilism, its true lineaments owed more to abstract art than academic abstraction.

Which is why it should come as no surprise to English language readers who approach Debord and situationism for the first time, through Andrew Hussey's biography, to discover that the closest Debord ever got to a lecture theatre in the Sorbonne was to occupy one in May 1968. Although a Parisian by birth, Debord spent his childhood and youth in provincial disarray, as his young, widowed mother looked for ever more comfortable familial berths in Vichy France. Spurned by the last of his stepfathers, young Debord's idea of a prank to celebrate his baccalaureate was to break into a church and profane the sacraments.

When Debord arrived in Paris in the early 1950s, it was loosely under the auspices of the faction of anti-artists who styled themselves as "Letterists". These were the prankster progeny of Isidore Isou, a Romanian Jewish emigre whose project of anti-literature (reminiscent of Brion Gysin's and William Burroughs's invocation to "rub out the word") and anti-art put them squarely in the lineage of the French avant-garde from Dada to surrealism. Debord latched on to them, took control, created a splinter group - the Letterist International - and expelled Isou. This was to be the pattern of all future incarnations of the groupuscule, and it is this tendency that confirms Debord as the true heir of Andre Breton, because situationism, like surrealism, was a tentacular squid of a movement, propelling itself forward with regular and successive expulsions. Of the eight revolutionary samurai who assembled at Cosio d'Arroscia in Italy in 1957, to inaugurate the Situationist International, all were eventually expelled, except for Debord himself, who eventually dissolved the bitter pill altogether.

In the decade and a half that Debord spent mapping the intellectual and physical hinterland of Paris, he and his fellow boulevardiers devised their own lexicon of gnomic terms to describe the ways in which the "spectacle" might be thwarted: to "drive", or "drift" across the city was to rediscover an existential relationship with place; to analyse this subjective relationship was to practise "psychogeographie"; while to distort - and therefore subvert - the attributes of the spectacle itself was to "detourne". Looked at one way, this was the Gallic beatnik-cum-proto-hippy version of Timothy Leary's invocation to "turn on, tune in and drop out"; but whereas the American version became mired in drugs, psycho-babble and mysticism, the French surfed on a wave of Hegelian dialectics and absinthe.

Hussey's biography is an authentic and exhaustive account of Debord and his milieu, carefully tracing the fissioning and fusing of these tiny cliques. To begin with, I feared that the book would suffer from the gee-whizzery of a confirmed "Situphile" - which Hussey un-doubtedly is. However, despite his absorption in the cloying atmosphere of Rive Gauche intel- lectualism, he has managed to turn his privileged access to Debord's two long-term companions, Michele Bernstein and Alice Becker-Ho, to good account. The back end of Debord's life was marked by still more misanthropy, a series of interventions in Italian revolutionary politics and French publishing, and the tightening psychic vice of a serious drink problem. Debord lived off the largesse of a series of patrons, and perhaps because of this - as much as his utter repudiation of the spectacle he had delineated - he preferred to step out of his own time, inhabiting a sort of Renaissance of the imagination.

Hussey is exhaustive and accurate, but when it comes to perceiving the most salient psychological facts about his subject, he is hamstrung by his membership of the avant-garde fan club. Further, it hardly seems to impinge on Hussey that Debord was childless. But then, so were Sartre and Beckett, while Burroughs saw his only son die - and with Nietzsche, the lack of issue goes without saying. Indeed, I think a plausible case can be made for childlessness and addiction being the central modalities around which the modern existential philosophies coalesced. It is difficult to maintain the ultimate futility and purposelessness of existence when you're confronting a packet of Wet Ones and a bemerded little bum. Youth may make us morally nauseous (and spawn its concomitant "culture"), but parenthood makes deontologists of us all. The typing of the family as an irredeemably "bourgeois" institution was - for Debord et al - just one way of dignifying their own refusal to commit. Looked at another way, parenting is not simply a con perpetrated by the spectacle, but the very authentic, subjective experience that the majority still experiences, and which entirely vitiates its alienation.

Ralph Rumney, whose meandering dialogues with the late Alan Woods form the core of The Map is Not the Territory, is not, technically, childless. It may have been his determination to remain a visual artist that led to his being the first to be expelled from the Situationist International (for Debord, art was, naturally, merely another aspect of the omnipotent spectacle), or it could have been - as he says himself - the character of his relationship with Pegeen Guggenheim, the daughter of the more famous Peggy. It was Pegeen's suicide in 1967, while married to Rumney, that led to his loss of custody of their son, Sandro. But perhaps it was also this that has allowed Rumney to remain preserved in the aspic of alcoholism and activism, a living fossil of pre-Sixties bohemianism.

A talented art critic, Woods seems to have regarded Rumney as something of a sacred monster. Travelling to his home in Manosque, in the south of France, to listen to the old reprobate discourse interminably on his work, Woods prompted Rumney to give substance to a life conceived of wholly as an avant-garde project. With his sojourns in Venice, Paris, Sicily and Soho, his endless quaffing, quibbling and questing, Rumney (the son of a Yorkshire clergyman) epitomises a sincere commitment to permanent psychic revolution that seems unthinkable in our more prosaic, been-there-done-that era. Much of what Rumney says about the avant-garde makes perfect sense, and even if he was pissed, he was at least there when Debord's anti-movie Howling in Favour of Sade was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1957. However, it's just as well that Rumney conceives of his life as art, because judging from the examples reproduced in this handsome volume, his actual art is complete pants.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot