PRINT April 2005


Guy Debord

WHILE THE NAME of Guy Debord has become one of the mindlessly repeated mantras of the past four decades via the invocation of his important and influential Society of the Spectacle (1967), he is little read and even less understood. The publication in English, for the first time, of both volumes of Debord’s autobiographical Panegyric (which originally appeared in French in 1989 and 1997, respectively) remains, nonetheless, an event of note. Volume one was previously published in 1991 by Verso in a slightly different version, but this represents the first publication in the English-speaking world of volume two of which I am aware. While a quick read of it will not provide a cocktail-party substitute for a thorough study of Society of the Spectacle, in finding one’s way in the spectacle of which Debord speaks, Panegyric will at least give those who have appreciated something of Debord’s insights the opportunity to enlarge their understanding of his aims, his accomplishments, and his methods.

No one who has taken the trouble to read Debord’s own words and has valued them will ever be satisfied with a translation of them. It’s not simply that he is “untranslatable” but rather that few possess his sense of culture, of politics, of history, and even fewer have taken the time to try to understand his point of view. To make things more difficult, Debord and others formed in the crucible of the Situationist International often wrote, like the medieval Provençal troubadour poets, in a kind of trobar clus, a secret language enmeshed in a network of allusions and associations designed to exclude outsiders from a full understanding of what is at stake. In Panegyric, Debord alludes to this problem several times: once, by mentioning the rules of conduct for the Knights Templar, another time by referring to Romany’s differing rules of truthfulness for insiders and outsiders, and yet another by making a pointed demonstration of his fluency in the argot of the “dangerous classes” used by François Villon and his associates.

Not entirely by coincidence, both Debord’s first wife, Michèle Bernstein (a member of the Situationist International herself), and his widow, Alice Becker-Ho (also closely associated with that group), wrote texts on argot and secret languages, relating them specifically to Debord and the SI.

In Panegyric, Debord, while more direct in some ways, remains allusive, and his references range from the Cardinal de Retz to Ibn Khaldûn. In his earlier work, Debord deploys the strategy he helped invent, détournement—the extended and undocumented montage of textual plagiarisms, a radical transformation of the practice of allusion. The word détournement is itself arguably a kind of détournement—a radical extension of its preexisting meaning of hijacking, embezzlement, and leading morally astray. The practice of quotation, which Debord announces he will adopt in this text, is, he tells us, “useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs,” like the present. Allusion, he tells us, “should be reserved for times richer in minds capable of recognizing the original phrase and the distance its new application has introduced.” Nonetheless, while the disclosure of his sources does technically transform those allusions into citations, thus removing one level of difficulty for the curious, those who have not partaken of his world will remain adrift within it. Debord continues to transform his sources, imparting his own sense of history in the process. For recognizing a quotation is not the same as getting a Google hit; a quotation must still be judged by the distance its new application introduces. To understand that distance, one must be willing to study the context from which it has emerged, not the simple fact of its emergence. To distinguish the mindless repetition of received ideas from their radical subversion, one must be possessed of a sense of history.

Debord constructs a world through a particular understanding of the texts he invokes and the new correspondences among them he has elaborated over a lifetime. It is the pursuit of those correspondences that is at stake for a reader who would follow him where he leads. This passage from allusion to quotation represents a small but important shift in Debord’s public positioning of his work, which early on proclaimed itself content—in its citationless evocation of the past—“to render a certain sublimity.” While it is not a change in his pessimistic assessment of his era, it is a recognition that his work has reached a wider currency than it held when the SI was formed in 1957; it opens the door to those willing to do some reading and thinking.

The most dedicated translator, then, faces the difficult and unusually thankless task of mediating between maintaining faithfulness to the original, insofar as he or she understands it, and serving as an intermediary for those who do not but might wish to understand something of Debord and his world. For to remain faithful means to keep certain secrets and to retain a certain nuance, while performing the service of an intermediary means, in some measure, betraying both secrets and nuance. Mediation was but poorly esteemed by the Situationist International, though they themselves did not shy away from exploring the labyrinths of language and translation.

These difficulties may have even attracted the many translators who have approached Debord, myself among them. Some have attempted to re-create Debord’s literary style by assembling their own parallel set of stylistic devices in English, at times losing sight of his meaning, while others have pretended a spurious neutrality as they shift the meaning of his words through strategic editorial omissions or disingenuous prefaces. The new Verso edition of Panegyric at least avoids the latter, less conscionable of these pitfalls. While their work is not utterly flawless, the translators are to be commended for their stylistic efforts and textual research in attempting to bring this complex text into English.

We might call Panegyric Debord’s memoirs, had he not already made use of that title himself quite early in his career in an even more oblique work. A panegyric, as Debord reminds us, quoting Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française, “expresses more than eulogy. Eulogy no doubt includes praise of the person, but it does not exclude a certain criticism, a certain blame. Panegyric entails neither blame nor criticism.” Debord goes on to explain: “My method will be very simple. I will tell what I have loved; and, in this light, everything else will become evident and make itself well enough understood.”

Well, not quite so simple; certain transpositions are required. In the seven chapters of volume one, Debord speaks of language through strategy, the passions of love through criminality, the passage of time through alcoholism, the attraction to places through their destruction, the fondness for subversion through the police repression it incurs, growing old through the sphere of war, and decay through economic development.

While Debord is eloquent in exploring all these familiar passions, the chapter on alcoholism is perhaps the most profound and immediate. Debord is proud of his drinking and frequently invokes Li Po, who hid his fame in taverns, as an illustrious predecessor. He even metaphorically stakes his literary reputation on it: “Although I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than most people who write, but I have drunk much more than most people who drink. I can count myself among those . . . ‘who got drunk only once, but that once lasted them a lifetime.’” Debord also observes that, in spite of his superlative levels of excess, no one, except one group of drugged-out Englishmen, ever criticized his writing as betraying the signs of his drinking. But the real revelation comes a bit later: “At first, like everyone, I appreciated the effect of mild drunkenness; then very soon I grew to like what lies beyond violent drunkenness, once that stage is past: a terrible and magnificent peace, the true taste of the passage of time.” It is his investigation of that passage of time, in his life and in his era, which lies at the heart of this text.

In volume two, besides elaborating and decoding some of the tactics and strategies of volume one—including the analysis of themes and metaphors presented here two paragraphs above—Debord provides us with images of his world, “a set of iconographical evidence.” This set consists of a wide variety of images—maps, drawings, paintings, collages, cartoons, photographs, manuscript pages—in combination with various texts. The project has elements of both the public and the private: a personal photo album but one infused with a critical vision worthy of Benjamin’s Arcades Project or Brecht’s War Primer. On one level, his aim is again simple: “People will at last be able to see what I looked like at various ages of my life, the kinds of faces that have always surrounded me, and what kind of places I have lived in.” On another, he wishes to strike a blow against the “reigning deceptions of the time,” which are “on the point of making us forget that the truth may also be found in images.” And it is a complex truth. But most important: “Of all the truths which go to make up this [second] volume of Panegyric, it will be acknowledged that the most profound resides in the very manner of assembling and presenting them together.” Volume two provides not only a textual commentary on volume one but a dialectical leap from it into a qualitatively new method of apprehending his world. These images and their manner of presentation challenge our mental agility in a new way. The layout artists and editors who sought to re-create the visual impact of volume two were largely successful in their creation of an English-language version of it, though a close comparison with the original reveals notable missteps.

Volume three, which was a work in progress at the time of Debord’s suicide, was destroyed after his death at his instructions. In it, Debord was to have cleared up several details concerning his life and work that still remained obscure at the end of volume two. Though the loss of that text, even incomplete, is very great, one may doubt that, from an author who compares his project to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the resolution would have been a simple one. In any case, Debord’s taking of his own life to end the physical suffering caused by what he describes as “alcoholic polyneuritis”—while it may be read as the final chapter in a life of independence and self-will—should not be read as a literary event.

Keith Sanborn is a lecturer in the program in visual arts at Princeton University; he has translated several of the films of Guy Debord, René Viénet, and Gil Wollman into English.

In conjunction with Verso’s publication of Panegyric, Anthology Film Archives in New York will present a program of Situationist films, from April 28 to May 1, including a rare re-creation of Debord’s lost first film/performance, Howls for Sade (1952). For details, see


Guy Debord, Panegyric, vols. 1 and 2, trans. James Brook and John McHale (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 192 pages.