Late in 1978, a record by four post-Sex Pistols bands from Manchester, England, arrived in the mail; inside the sleeve was a perforated sheet of four stickers. One, titled “The Return of the Durutti Column 1967” (the Durutti Column was one of the bands), caught my eye: a cartoon credited to “Situationist Group,” made from a movie still of two mounted cowboys and comic-strip speech balloons filled with dialogue in French. I couldn’t read French, neither “Durutti Column” nor “Situationist Group” meant anything to me, but I was somehow taken with the thing–with its dreamtime, deadpan incongruousness. It was a metaphor of something; I didn’t know what. I tore on the dotted line and stuck the picture on my tape recorder as a talisman of whatever it might eventually reveal.
I know now that this metaphor had been taking shape for almost 20 years, and that it is still changing shape today; one of the things the sticker revealed, it turned out, was its own story. That story, such as I have been able to piece it together, follows. In some ways it might be better to let the story tell itself, without citation, captions, explanations, or even translations–to let the cowboy travel light, for it’s by traveling light, without the baggage of explanations or translations, that the cowboy has made it through time. In the course of his travels, though, the cowboy has picked up another sort of baggage: himself. Each time he made a stop, he took on a new incarnation, which took its place on the cowboy’s horse. By now that horse carries a whole crew of phantoms, each of which originally appeared in a discrete moment in time, a moment with its own context, its own memory, which no longer exists. In other words, the story is a mystery: a conversation between characters altogether unaware of each others’ existence–a conversation, moreover, which often takes place in code, the meaning of which the characters have themselves forgotten. This is blind baggage, which means, “sealed book.” Who could resist the chance to open it?
The story beings in code: in a passage from Michèle Bernstein’s Tous les chevaux du roi, a little-noticed novel published by Buchet/Chastel in Paris in 1960. Geneviève, the first-person narrator, and Gilles, her husband, are talking with Carole, a young woman they’ve just met. Carole speaks first:
––Et Gilles. . . . .Quand travaille-t-il?
Et se tournant vers lui:
––De quoi t’occupes-tu au juste? Je ne sais pas bien.
––De la réification, répondit Gilles.
––C’est une grave étude, ajoutai-je.
––Je vois, observa Carole admirative. C’est un travail très sérieux, avec de gros livres et beaucoup de papier sur une grande table.
––Non, dit Gilles, je me promène. Principalement, je me promène.
(“And Gilles. . . . when does he work?”
And turning toward him:
“What is it you really do? I don’t get it.”
“Reification,” Gilles replied.
“It’s an important study,” I added.
“Yes,” he said.
“I see,” said Carole with admiration. “It’s very serious work with thick books and a lot of paper spread out on a big table.”
“No,” Gilles said. “I walk. Mainly, I walk.”)
“Gilles” represents the cowboy in his first guise, but he doesn’t know it yet; at this point, the verbal side of the metaphor that will the philosopher into a cowboy doesn’t know it is seeking an image. All there is is a sense of movement, in a milieu the novel barely hints at: the milieu of the “Situationist Group.”
Reification, the Marxist scholar Tom Bottomore writes, it the “most radical and widespread form of alienation characteristic of modern capitalist society,” the transformation of “human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man-produced things which have become independent of man and govern his life.” Clearly this calls for thick books on a big table, but “Gilles” works on reification by “walking” because the character is based on Bernstein’s then husband, Guy Debord, best known today for his book La société du spectacle (The society of the spectacle, Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 1967). When Tous les chevaux du roi was published, Debord was the central member of a small avant-garde organization called the Situationist International (Western Europe, the UK, later the USA, 1957–1972); earlier, he had led a tiny band called the Lettrist International (Paris, 1952–57). Both groups attempted to manifest an esthetic and social critique that would lead to a “truly modern” revolution, a mass refusal of boredom and alienation that would replace art and commodity production, leisure and work, with the “creation of situations,” the latter defined as moments of life “concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambience and a game of events.” It was part of a very long line of projects, more or less moribund since the 1920s, to turn art into life and life into art.