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?