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.
The activities of the Lettrist International and the early situationists included the “dérive” (the drift): organized group wanderings through urban terrain, meant to escape, and to provoke the state of mind necessary to contest, modern structures of reification as embodied in dominant architecture, city planning, and the passive habits and routines such structures enforced. An intensely pursued and theorized version of the old Surrealist “strolls,” the dérive was a way for the writers, filmmakers, poets, collagists, and painters who made up the groups to “supersede” both art and work, and thus discover “the geography of real life.” Out of a playful, usually drunken search for whichever streets and alleys called on forth, intimations of utopia would come: the “New City,” the “Hacienda,” which, someday, when revolution brought all the resources of modern technology into ordinary hands, the two bands promised to build. In the meantime, an image of the New City, the city that could be, would help spark the desire for revolution.
Thus Gilles’ cryptic comment to Carole–though, because Bernstein’s book was not a situationist tract but a parody of Pierre Laclos’ novel Les liaisons dangereuses written strictly to make money for the permanently broke Situationist International, neither the group nor its precursor is ever mentioned in its pages, and the commonplace “promène” (walk) is used in place of the arcane “dérive.” In the steps of the 17th-century Précieuses, Debord and his comrades favored made-up words, or old words given new meanings, sometimes almost to the point of a secret language, as a way of developing a critique immune to the recuperative powers of society organized as a spectacle, a show capable of incorporating and neutralizing the most radical negation.
Invented to make money, Gilles went on to invent revolution–or anyway a facsimile. By 1966, the situationists had set forth in their journal Internationale Situationniste (Paris, nos. 1-12, 1958–69) an increasingly violent, seductive critique of modern life, insisting that such things as juvenile delinquency and the Hungarian uprising of 1956 were fragments of a subterranean refusal prophesying the doom of both Western capitalism and Stalinist communism–fragments the situationists promised to make whole. The premises of their critique were rooted in medieval heresies, the early writings of Karl Marx, anarchism, Dada, Surrealism, and Henri Lefebvre’s postwar “Critique of Everyday Life”; the edge of black humor and flee it carried was its own.
To the situationists, alienation had long since left the factory; it was now a sort of virus, propagated by the forces of social control, which colonized even the most seemingly casual, private gestures, this separating each person not only from all others, but even from him- or herself. To them, alienation had become so seamless, so pervasive, that it no longer took a name: it was simply “real life.” But Debord spoke of a “reversible connecting factor” in modern society; he found its potential hidden within the countless alienations that made everyday life, leisure even more poignantly than work, a site both of superficial satisfactions and of the most profound dissatisfactions. The intensifying boredom, irrationality, rage, depression, and hysteria of life in the most advanced societies (assiduously and often hilariously chronicled in the pages of Internationale Situationniste) were to Debord evidence that alienation was not truly accepted as real life, and proof that the desire for real life was irreducible, even when it had no language. To activate the “reversible connecting factor,” to turn society inside out, to pull its string, the speech of real life had to be used, in concert with “exemplary acts”–the apparently trivial, even prankish negations that could spark an irreversible chain reaction of lust and fury, dissolving modern structures of reification in “revolutionary festival,” a new, generalized, permanent version of the Paris Commune of 1871. Given that real life, as the situationists understood it, was not a structure of any sort, but a “situation,” a “sum of possibilities,” a series of moments apprehended in particular times and places, no one could know what form the exemplary act might take. It might be as dramatic and public as the Watts riots of 1965, or as modest and secret as the right graffiti on the right wall, at the right time, in the right place.
Writing in Internationale Situationniste, the critical theorists, agitators, and parodists of the group attracted fans, especially among university students. In the spring of 1966, a small group of them won control of the student union at the University of Strasbourg; their aim was to find out how much trouble they could cause with the union’s $500,000 annual budget, to expose student government as an agency of repression, and then to destroy it. The cabal made contact with the Situationist International at its Paris Headquarters, and began collaboration. Then the fall term began.
First came Le Retour de la colonne Durutti (The return of the Durutti Column), a bizarre comic strip, half sophomoric college humor and half pure anarchism. Originally it was plastered across the walls of Strasbourg as a kind of ultragraffiti; later it was reproduced and distributed across the West. Next came De la misère en milieu étudiant (On the poverty of student life), a text credited to the student union but in fact written by situationist Mustapha Khayati when the Strasbourg students proved unable to produce their own manifesto; in various editions in various languages it would ultimately run to 500,000 copies. The original publication was as sober in form as it was virulent in content: boiling nearly a decade of situationist critique into 28 explosive pages, the perfectly printed little pamphlet condemned all forms of social organization from scholarship to Maoism and challenged its readers to realize Lautréamont’s call for a “poetry made by all” by inventing a world of “revolutionary festival” and “untrammeled desire.”
The result was an international scandal. Professors, administrators, government officials, priests, editorialists, Communists, and bourgeoisie united to denounce the atrocity, and eventually the courts took control of the student union and dissolved it. To Khayati, on the scene and speaking to reporters as “K.,” it was a “little experiment”; to British situationist Christopher Gray it was a “modest attempt to create the praxis by which the crisis of this society as a whole can be precipitated. . . . . A situation was created in which society was forced to finance, publicise and broadcast a revolutionary critique of itself, and furthermore to confirm this critique through its reactions to it.”
Strasbourg student André Bertrand’s Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti combined an account of the student-union coup with a dazzling summation of situationist theory. The strip was suffused with arcane references: the Durutti Column, led by the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti (Bertrand couldn’t spell) during the Spanish Civil War, had moved from “village to village destroying the entire social structure, leaving the survivors to rebuild everything from scratch”; Raoul Vaneigem had named it the Situationist International’s “guiding image” in 1963. The basic arcane reference was both practical and a pursuit of the secret language that situationists were after: that is, the strip was a version of the technique, originating in the Lettrist International, of “détournement” (diversion, distortion, misappropriation, theft, subversion). In its simplest form, this meant the recombination of disparate “preexisting esthetic elements. . . . the integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu.” Crudely, it suggested new speech balloons for old cartoon characters, a favorite form of illustration in Internationale Situationniste. “Ultimately,” Debord had written in 1956 with Gil J Wolman, “any sign or word is susceptible to conversion into something else, even its opposite.” In Bertrand’s hands, photos, drawings, etchings, cartoons, paintings, even tapestries (even the Bayeux Tapestry) from the whole of Western culture were pillaged and “detourned” both to destroy the authority of that culture and to transfer its authority to the attempt to subvert it. Bertrand meant to combine a shock of recognition with a shock of displacement, thus activating the reversible connecting factor, and bringing on the irreversible chain reaction: to change the world by changing an image. Not making art, but playing with it, Bertrand was having a wonderful time.
And so, in Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti, with the lines from Bernstein’s novel placed in the mouths of appropriated movie cowboys, the Cowboy Philosopher came into being. Bernstein’s dialogue on the dérive was yet another arcane reference–no mention of her book had ever appeared in situationist publications. More to the point, the combination of words and images was striking, the most confusing and intriguing panel in a very brilliant production. The Lettrist International and the situationists had always referred to the dérive as an “adventure”; here, Bertrand took Debord and the others who had once drifted through the streets of Paris and awarded them horses, saddles, chaps, and ten-gallon hats–all the accoutrements of the hero. The panel was meant to work as an esthetic proof of the situationist bet that in the right situation the most unlikely people, everyone bored and enraged by the spiritual poverty of his or her own everyday life, would begin to talk about the most important things, and then, together, begin to act on that conversation. A cowboy discussing reification–if that wasn’t the New Man, in quest of the New City, what was?
The Cowboy Philosopher was almost ready to begin his journey; only a detail remained to be added. In 1967, Christopher Gray translated De la misère en milieu étudiant into English and published it, with excerpts from Bertrand’s strip for illustrations, as Ten Days that Shook the University: The Situationists at Strasbourg. Looking back on Gray’s version, one can begin to see not just how the metaphor was shaped, but how it began to shape itself.
Gray’s translation of Bernstein’s dialogue as it came out of the Strasbourg cowboy’s mouth was not literal. He let the picture change the text: the cowboy “Nope” replaced Bernstein’s literate “No.” More vitally, Gray’s familiarity with the Situationist International’s secret language allowed him to change Bernstein’s flat and Bertrand’s anomalous “promène” (which, regarding a man on horseback, can at best mean “ride”) back into what the word was meant to mean: the “I drift” of Gray’s cowboy is what Bernstein’s Gilles would have said (“Je me dérive”) if Bernstein, writing for money, hadn’t had to fashion Gilles for the market. For the first time, then, the metaphor speaks in its own tongue–and, buttressed by the English-language cliché of the “drifting cowboy” (the Drifting Cowboys were, among other things, Hank Williams’ band), what the cowboy is saying about his struggle against reification is at once more recognizable and more displacing than it ever was in French. The real anomaly of the panel–the real tension implicit in the mysterious juxtaposition–comes forth. The Cowboy Philosopher moves out, into a drift that, so far, has taken him through almost two decades, and halfway around the world.
Figure 1. The Strasbourg scandal left students across France waiting for the next act. In late 1967 and early 1968, at the University of Nanterre, in the Paris suburbs, Situationist International (SI) followers calling themselves “les enragés” fomented campus disruptions that led directly to the general wildcat strike of May 1968–when first students, then factory workers, then clerks, then artists refused work, took to the streets, or occupied their workplaces and turned them into laboratories of debate, thus creating a revolutionary festival (or, as Gary U.S. Bonds put it in 1962, a “Seven Day Weekend”), and bringing France to a standstill.
In the early days of the revolt, the enragés and the SI gained control of the “Liberated Sorbonne,” using it much as the Strasbourg students had used their student union. They issued astonishing manifestos, made impossible demands–the difference being that this seemed to be less an experiment than a chance to make history: a chance to begin it again from the beginning. Soon, though, they walked out in protest against the timidity and bureaucratization of the Sorbonne assembly. Reforming as the Conseil pour le maintien des occupations they published tracts, warnings, posters, and “detourned” comic strips.
Here, they reappropriate the Cowboy Philosopher from Strasbourg, but the poetry is gone. The point is just macho toughness: the-situationist-revolutionary-is-a-gunslinger. Despite the strip’s use of détournement as its subject matter (“Isn’t this a manifestation of a new concept of revolutionary practice?,” etc.), the metaphor, less than two years into its body, begins to die. Suddenly armed by the revolt the SI had predicted, the cowboy doesn’t need to philosophize. Created as a talisman of the reversible connecting factor, as the SI dream of a new Paris Commune came true the metaphor began to reverse itself, to separate back into its original constituent elements.
Figure 2. The Cowboy limps on. In 1971, May ’68 was a fading chimera, and the SI was effectively defunct (the SI had dreamed history; then history woke up and went back to work). In San Francisco, SI epigones from Berkeley attempt to reuse the Cowboy Philosopher to spark change-life-not-wages demands in a wildcat AT&T strike. The cowboy is not convincing; Marx is given a six-shooter, but he’s far more lively in the contemporaneous Monty Python sketch “World Forum”–where, along with Mao Zedong, Lenin, and Che Guevara, he agonizes over questions on workers’ control of factories and English football trivia in an attempt to win a “complete lounge set.” “What is not superseded,” the SI liked to say, “rots.”
Figure 3. In 1970, SI fan Jamie Reid cofounded the journal Suburban Press in the huge London planned suburb of Croydon, focusing on a situationist critique of city planning as a spectacularization of alienation (a cartoon showed a Godzilla-like figure perched on a cosy Croydon cottage: “His Frank Sinatra collection,” read the accompanying poem on the Croydonite, “turns into weird death chants”). In the first number of Suburban Press, a comic strip shows two consumers making gestures of consumption in the Tate Gallery; behind them, Andy Warhol’s cowboy Elvis aims his gun straight at them.
Reid also designed artwork for Berkeley’s Point-Blank! group, and published a comic-book version of a pseudo-SI/pseudo-Reichian text on sexual liberation. On one page, seven mounted cowboys discourse simultaneously on their wish to “Do away with the roles and identities handed out by the phallos.” The vagueness of the picture barely kept the metaphor alive, but the discontinuity regained its poetic tension: why were these people talking about this? In 1974, working with London boutique-owner Malcolm McLaren (whose designs had included T-shirts emblazoned with slogans from May ’68), Reid helped design and publish Christopher Gray’s Leaving the 20th Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International (London: Free Fall, 1974), the first English-language anthology of situationist texts. The next year, they launched the Sex Pistols.
The Sex Pistols were an SI-inspired art project mean to activate the reversible connecting factor: “to eradicate the hierarchy that ran rock,” as Dave Marsh put it; “ultimately, to eradicate hierarchy, period.” Reid designed the band’s record sleeves, posters, handbills, and, in 1977, Anarchy in the U.K., a promotional tabloid named after the Sex Pistols’ first single and produced in imitation of the fanzines that had already sprung up around the group. On the page devoted to the Sex Pistols’ Paris shows (“Je suis un anarchiste”), Reid returned to secret language for a homage: “Anarchy needs co-ordination,” read a scrawl on the bottom left corner, “Where is Durutti?” The Cowboy Philosopher was invisible, but still talking–if only in code.
The code became babble with McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s pornographic T-shirt, here modeled by Sex Pistol Sid Vicious; legends on the shirt read, “for soldiers prostitutes dykes & punks,” and, for the cowboy dialogue, “Ello Joe, Been anywhere lately?” “Nah, It’s all played aht Bill Getting to straight.” The drawing may have been lifted from a gay magazine; given McLaren’s connections with Reid and Christopher Gray, the reference to the Cowboy Philosopher is unmistakable. And the dialogue neatly sums up where the cowboy has been for the last decade: nowhere.
Figure 4. After 12 years in the wilderness, the Cowboy Philosopher returns. SI fan Tony Wilson, inspired by the pop music bricolage set in motion by the Sex Pistols, started Factory Records, and released a sampler EP. In a punk context (i.e., the redirection of rock ‘n’ roll away from managed entertainment toward a nihilist critique of everyday life), the discontinuities of the Strasbourg cowboy, even in French (or precisely because they are communicated in French, which in the UK, and with the cowboy appearing as a blind reference, is the basic discontinuity), seem to promise absolute possibility.
Later, Wilson covered the walls of the Factory rehearsal studio with huge blowups of Bertrand’s Cowboy Philosopher, as a talisman of what he meant his bands to accomplish. After that, he opened a nightclub in Manchester: the Hacienda.
Figure 5. With the Sex Pistols, defunct as of January 1978, only a memory, others took up their project. The Gang of Four, from Leeds, England, included guitarist Andy Gill, a student of art-history professor T.J. Clark, himself formerly a member of the SI. On the sleeve of the first Gang of Four lp, the Cowboy Philosopher (seemingly John Wayne, in silhouette, in three progressively zoomed panels, until his whited-out face is head-to-head with the Indian’s redded-out face) reappears, and with new force. The legend surrounding the panels reads, “The Indian smiles, he thinks that the cowboy is his friend. The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him.” If the various permutations of the Cowboy Philosopher metaphor up to this point were like rock ‘n’ roll cover versions, this is the first answer record. The Gang of Four argue that the actions of the cowboy–not just Bertrand’s hero, but John Wayne’s cowboy, the culturally empowered, iconically representative agent of the dominant structures of reification–are inherently philosophical; no matter what the cowboy does, Gill and Gang of Four signer Jon King are saying, he represents power. The cheap use of the Cowboy Philosopher by the Conseil pour le maintien des occupations comes home–and, for the first time, the Cowboy Philosopher stands on his head.
Figure 6. Disseminated everywhere as a mystery in the late ‘60s, by the early ‘80s, when the revolutrionary transformation of life that the Cowboy Philosopher was supposed to spark had become a joke, and the punk carrier of the notion had become an arcane reference to the pop charts that punk had failed to conquer, the Cowboy Philosopher became a joke as well. Working according to SI precepts of détournement, the satirical comics group Biff turns the Cowboy Philosopher into a satire of himself. Thus reconstructed, the metaphor was sold across the West as a postcard, a poster, and a T-shirt. Paradoxically, as a joke, the metaphor stays in the saddle.
Figure 7. The joke continues: Baxter makes the cowboy so philosophical he ceases to be a cowboy.
Figure 8. As a joke, the Cowboy Philosopher mutates, and turns history into a cartoon. Bill Barminski makes Hitler, Hermann Goering, Charles de Gaulle, and Winston Churchill into cowboys, and, on the terms his strips set up, Tex Hitler triumphs because he has a superior philosophy (“I’m plumb irritated with democratic thinkers,” says “Jingles Goering,” joining Marshal Hitler’s campaign). The cowboy diffuses back into the seamless culture he was once invented to destroy; he has forgotten his own name. Now he is truly drifting–drinking wherever his endlessly “detourning” shape takes him.
Figure 9. In 1985, the Mekons, the first Leeds punk band, precursors and comrades of the Gang of Four, released an album about the exiled persistence of the punk dream of the transformation of art and life, which was a situationist dream, which was part of a very long line of projects to turn art into life and life into art. On the label, John Wayne reappears out of the Gang of Four’s entertainment! He is fat now (this is probably a still from True Grit), shadowed by stars, a half-moon, and the towers of giant apartment complexes, fruits of the city planning that, three decades before, the Lettrist International and then the SI had, through the dérive, meant to escape, and then contest. But that was a long time ago. Now the cowboy is mute, squinting, old, unsure of himself–but, circling him on the Sin label (a parody of the Sun label, which in 1954 released Elvis Presley’s first record), cowboys gallop free: ghost riders in the sky. On the album itself, the band sings, “Over the horizon, I saw John Wayne ride / Darkness and doubt / Just followed him about.”
Figure 10. The Cowboy changes his philosophy. The context is Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle’s rejection of the Free Speech Movement, which in 1964 had turned the Berkely campus into a laboratory of crisis and critique–a perfect example, the SI had written in De la misère en milieu étudiant, of the exemplary act, of a fragment of a truly modern revolution which lacked only the theory the SI meant to provide. Searle supported the Free Speech Movement in 1964, but now he sees it as a black hole–not as an event with its own limited and reasonable goals, but as the first manifestation of a contagion of irrationality that led directly to May ’68, and, he tells us, from there to the academic embrace of such fashionable, relativistic French sophistries as poststructuralism, semiology, and deconstructionism: those ‘60s students haven’t changed they’ve just turned into professors. They’re dangerous, says Searle, here dubbed “The Sherrif of Commonsense,” in an image that shows him as the cowboy in his reclaimed American identity, shooting down the frog poseur like Indiana Jones casually plugging the Arab swordsman. As the residue of the likes of Berkeley ’64, Strasbourg ’66, and French ’68, the insistence of the new French philosophers that nothing is as it seems, that anything can be turned into its opposite, may, Searle believes, be laying the ground for a reappearance of those long-gone revolutionary nihilisms–”festivals,” Searle calls them. “The only way to deal with the touching, moving, and utterly sincere imbecility of such religious outbursts,” he says, “is by way of a relentless exposure of their preposterousness.”
Strange echoes in those words: that muscled hyperbole had been the situationist style. That voice could have been heard all through the pages of International Situationniste, carrying the SI’s millenarian critique of what it called the “Old World,” which, in 1985, was still the only world anybody knew. Unhorsed, the frontier closed, the cowboy takes what work he can get. It is, for the moment, as far as the story goes.
A few phrases appear in a novel. Years later, they are grafted onto a found movie still. A metaphor– certain imposed, ironic, anomalous tension between a text (“philosophy”) and an image (“the cowboy”)–appears. Soon enough it is available to anyone. Willing to do what it’s told, it also somehow tries to hold its shape.
What strength the metaphor has is in the way the discontinuity of its juxtaposition is made to see at once natural and odd. Juxtaposition, after all, is a basic tactic of 20th-century avant-garde art: “Things are not as they seem.” Most often the discontinuity is simply visual: if, as Hegel put it, Napoleon was “Zeitgeist on horseback” (the first Cowboy Philosopher, predating the cowboy himself?), then one could paste Napoleon’s head onto a cowboy’s body to make the point. But the discontinuity in Bertrand’s picture is more complex, which is why the elements of his juxtaposition have been separating and recombining for twenty years.
Bertrand’s original construction of the Cowboy Philosopher tells you that cowboys don’t talk philosophy, but that they should–and that they and everyone else should live philosophy out: “No, I drift.” As opposed to the noisy Dada violation of Napoleon’s head on a cowboy’s body–a discontinuity that by virtue of its noise is easily grasped, and as easily deflected–the more quiet violation of the cowboy with a speech balloon filled with cryptic philosophy makes a tiny breach in the received, prefabricated cultural assumptions anyone brings to the metaphor. Because the metaphor cannot be immediately deciphered, it festers. Since received cultural assumptions are hegemonic propositions about the way the world is supposed to work, the quiet metaphorical discontinuity is, depending on how you look at it, either a small joke on cultural forms, or a sign that reality can be transformed. Napoleon’s head on a cowboy’s body is a sterile one-line, like Ronald Reagan’s head on Rambo’s body: it is a one-way metaphor based on identifications already fixed in the mind of whoever might respond to the juxtaposition, and as such it is not really a juxtaposition at all, much less a metaphor. The Cowboy Philosopher is an open-ended metaphor of the most unlikely people talking about the most unlikely things–and no one knows where such a conversation ends.
Where it began, though, is clear–almost weirdly clear. Bertrand’s application of Bernstein’s dialogue (meant to capture the spirit of Debord) seems like a fortuitous accident, and maybe it was. But the identification of the philosopher and the cowboy was there from the start–separated, the two sides of the metaphor looking for each other like blind men in a labyrinth. In Bernstein’s novel, some pages after the conversation about Gilles’s “drift,” is a paragraph that sums up the situationist critique of everyday life in the modern world, capturing both the impoverishment of modern alienation and its spectacular seductions. Gilles is off with Carole, his new paramour; his wife Geneviève, the narrator, is on her own.
The afternoon loomed up empty before me. Luckily, a theater on my street was playing a Western so old I knew it had to be good. For a modest sum, I assisted in the invasions of China; in the efforts of an army which triumphed without losses over backward terrorists hiding in the underbush, disavowed by everyone; in a presidential inauguration and an international tournament. Then the smile of Colgate toothpaste brought us back to the feature; the lion roared on the screen; and the cowboy hero won his heroine in ninety minutes.
So Bernstein wrote in 1960; but in 1954, with Debord’s Lettrist International caught up in its drift, the identification of the cowboy and the philosopher was not separated, but already whole. That identification had been made in Potlatch, a mimeographed Lettrist International sheet too obscure for Bertrand to have known. This means that as he tried to find an image to dramatize the situationist critique, the identification was coded in the critique, and that without knowing it, he deciphered the code.
On August 10 1954, in the smudge pages of Potlatch #8, Debord, Bernstein, and the four or five other members of the Lettrist International found themselves talking about the Holy Grail–locked up, they said, in “God’s prison.”
At the same time [the LI wrote], we like to think that those who sought the Grail weren’t dupes. Their DERIVE is worthy of us–we have to recognize their capricious journeys, their passion without purpose. The religious makeup falls away. These knights of a mythic Western were out for pleasure: a brilliant talent for losing themselves in play; a voyage into amazement; a love of speed; a terrain of relativity.
The shape of a table changes faster than the reasons for drinking. Our tables aren’t often round, but someday, we’re going to build our own “castles of adventure.”
In many ways, the story of the Search for the Grail prefigures a way of life that is altogether modern.
The story of the Cowboy Philosopher is its own story; it is also a story of the times it drifted through.