Lars Diurlin | The contemptuous dishonesty of the image
The contemptuous dishonesty of the image. by Lars Diurlin
The nature of situationism and its founder Guy Debord are exceedingly elusive, and they also constantly endeavoured to be precisely this. A genuine avant-garde movement never stops, that is self-evident. However, while showing due deference, the undersigned shall make a brave attempt to slow down, if only for a very brief moment, this movement and fix it onto paper. In connection with a biennial focusing on photography we will now see examples of both the contemptuous dishonesty of the image and the society of the spectacle that replaces reality when the space around us congeals, when the subjective reality of life becomes an objectified image – what Debord calls the society of the spectacle. Debord encounters lettrism We begin our journey in the vernal sun of Southern France, where we meet the recently arrived, youthful and cheeky lettrist movement, created in post-war Paris by the almost megalomaniacal artist Isidore Isou. Isou took over when Dadaism and surrealism ceased to add something new to avant-garde art and the critique of it. Isou felt that Baudelaire annihilated the anecdote, Verlaine poetry, Rimbaud metre, and Tristan Tzara the word. If Tzara’s Dadaism, with its onomatopoetic declamations, saw its task as breaking down poetry into disconnected and meaningless albeit complex ‘words’, Isou wanted to go even further and, as the movement’s name indicates, free the smallest component: the letter. Isou was also a film-maker, and in 1952 he was at the Cannes film festival to make sure that his controversial Traité de bave et d’éternité would actually be screened. And it was, accompanied by the eager boos of the audience, in a true avant-garde manner.
Someone who did not boo was Guy Debord, who was in the audience this night. However, only the four-hour-long soundtrack of the film was ‘shown’, because the pictorial material had not been finished on time. This was, however, totally in line with Isou’s complete contempt of photography, and he proclaimed, ‘At a time when humanity is completely obsessed with beautiful images the task is to destroy these images’. When the potential of a form of art becomes saturated it only adds an obese excess, and Isou likened the medium of film to a fattened pig that would soon die of its own accord in a metabolic explosion of fat and disgusting matter caused by an intestinal obstruction. The cinematic image must, like literature, be deconstructed and broken down into its smallest common denominators, through what Isou called the aesthetics of discrepancy cinema: a mastication, digestion, and regurgitation of yesterday’s masterpieces. To a changed Paris Completely captivated, Debord chose to accompany Isou and his ilk back to Paris, and settle down in the shabby artists’ quarter, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which was also a haunt of various members of the Paris underworld.
The powerful centrifugal force of urbanism was in the process of casting out unwanted elements from the centre to gigantic and cold banlieues – all in order to pave the way for the automobile, the constant authority of the street network, where humanity, inside these claustrophobic cast metal forms, has succeeded in isolating itself from the surrounding world, now also when outside the home. Alongside the street is the advertising sign, the mainstay of capitalism that completes the décor of consumerism. The prevailing economic ideology is materialised in architecture, spatially uniform and functional à la the architect Le Corbusier. No unwanted elements must hinder the Big Brother-like gaze of the spectacle across a naked, austere Alphaville of reality. And where did all the people who previously populated the city streets really go? The society of the spectacle, with its recently created domesticated fantasies, literally moved into the home during this time, in the form of diverse mass-media phenomena, and with them came humanity. Here, there had now been constructed an artificial need for staying within the isolated hearth of the home, where, after a day’s work, one is confronted with the ‘entertainment’ of the spectacle, which, like a veritable Sandman, transforms one’s household goods into a quiet bear’s den. And in the street outside, humanity’s absence echoes, desolately as in the dehumanised landscapes in the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico.
Nevertheless, during the first years of the 1950s, Saint-Germain-des-Prés at any rate offered, to a certain extent, the possibility of disappearing, of going underground – one way to escape the petrifying Gorgon’s gaze of the spectacle. This desire to shun the limelight and to the greatest extent possible avoid being canonised would become fundamental for situationists in general and for Debord in particular. Because the spectacle negated life, the spectacle would in itself also be negated. Debord emphasised that what constituted the traces of one’s life, be it art or footprints along the ever more uniform streets of Paris, only benefited the bloodhounds of the police. Paris had undergone a relentless urban metamorphosis. On the one hand, the surrounding environment seems to come to a halt and become fixed in sterile cement blocks carefully placed to create the correct geometry, and on the other hand, contradictorily enough, the city is perceived to be ever more ephemeral.
The world around us is moving at an ever increasing pace, but in the same predictable direction. In the middle of this oxymoronic paradox of conformist changeableness, in this by commercialism ravaged battlefield with its inverted trenches in the sky, we find Debord, cursing what is happening before his eyes to the city of Paris. To him, the street represented a vivid meeting place for people, not on the move, but on voyages of discovery. Through dérive, drifting, one should venture out into the nooks and crannies of the city and succeed in voluntarily becoming lost, and thus, like Thomas De Quincey’s opium eater, try to find the North-West Passage of real life – an attempt to find a place outside the spectacle and reveal the indistinct craquelure in the spectacle’s falsified image of reality, to find the scratches in the representation. Toward an art without works; a total negation It is no exaggeration to claim that Debord’s first film is almost as far from the, in popular parlance, established concept of ‘film’ as one can get. It is an anti-film. An anti-work. A negation. If Isou claimed to be able to give shape to nothingness, Debord managed to go one step further in Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952). The film contains no images whatsoever, is seventy-five minutes long and consists of a white image shown whenever voices are heard on the soundtrack. When there is silence it is also completely black. The final scene consists of twenty-four minutes of silence. As can be expected, the audience did not sit quiet and still during the screening at Ciné-club d’Avant-Garde. The chairman of the film club cut the screening short fairly quickly, but at any rate those present had the time to listen to the opening proclamations of the film, read by Isou: ‘Just as the screening began, Guy-Ernest Debord should have stepped out in front of the screen and given an introduction. Had he done so, he would have said, “There is no film. Cinematic film is dead. Film can no longer be created. If you wish we can discuss this matter.”’ Consequently, Debord had deprived the audience of its voyeuristic pleasures, caused a break in the fetishising attitude of the passive viewer to representations, to the cinematic image, where the viewer prefers the representation to reality, the copy to the original – a veritable alarm clock for the somnambulists in the cinema’s auditorium. Like a Brechtian verfremdungseffekt but produced without a work, just a sudden empty interval in the otherwise seamless repetitive representation of cultural consumption. Thus Debord begins a hostile relationship with this contemplative observer of the spectacle’s images. What took shape now was an aesthetics of obscurity, a true art of living. An art without works. From now on, no art would be created, only lived, and Debord’s only permanent work during the subsequent years was a 1953 statement of position scribbled in crayon that well summarises Debord’s refusal to incorporate himself in the machinery of the market: ‘Ne Travaillez Jamais!’.
Can the revolution be materialised? The ambition to revolutionise everyday life contradicts the reluctance to be seen. One enters the stage, but once in the spotlight one is struck by the idea that the gaze of the audience has the power to congeal one’s being, to canonise one’s art, one’s thoughts, and thus one immediately becomes a part of yesterday, and yesterday’s revolution is completely uninteresting – the oh so precarious problematics of the avant-garde. The works of Debord, the lettrists and later the situationists are continually struggling with the fact of their own concrete existence. Debord’s second film, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps (1959), remains distanced from its audience and consciously hides from our gaze and refuses to adopt the ‘natural’ form of film: ‘Of course one could have made a film about this. But even if this film would have become just as incoherent and unsatisfying as the reality it reflects, it would nevertheless have remained a recreation – as poor and false as this bad tracking’, we hear Debord’s laconic voice-over proclaim while we witness a deliberately poor shot.
If Sur le passage… primarily problematised film itself as a medium, we find this societal lack of context clearly and distinctly accounted for, as well as embodied and reflected, in the third film, Critique de la separation (1961). This film is quite simply deliberately unsatisfactory in its expression, because one can only demonstrate the actual defectiveness of society, demystify and de-fetishise it, by means of an unsatisfactory image – a kind of mimesis of incoherence, which could be translated as a mimicking of society’s lack of coherence, of context. The more coherent and satisfactory the film, the more passive the spectator. Debord’s films are not broken mirrors that fragmentarily reflect a homogeneous reality, but a complete reflection of a fragmentary, crackled ‘reality’. This problematics shines through even regarding situationism as a whole. It is never as mercurially difficult to grasp as when it has just assumed an almost veritable form, best illustrated a bit into Debord’s fourth film, La Société du spectacle (1973), when suddenly white letters against a black background inform the viewer that ‘If the rhythm of the film now continues, then maybe a certain cinematic value would emerge. But it will not continue.’ Debord’s lack of trust in the cinematic image is not completely dissimilar to his countryman Jean-Luc Godard’s contempt for it. Godard often calls attention to the dishonest qualities of the image, for instance in British Sounds (1968): ‘The photograph is never a reflection of reality, only an image of it’, and similarly in Vent d’Est (1969), ‘Ce n’est pas une image juste, ce juste un image’. But where Godard is content with the awareness implicit in declaring that an image is a lie, a representation and nothing more, Debord goes further.
The image is to Debord not juste un image but possesses an inherent beguiling power that petrifies and at the same time conveys and enhances a ceaseless boredom, a continual alienation. But it is also important that for Debord it is really not the image in itself that is criticised. It is not the tool in itself that alienates the worker. It is not the commodity in itself that alienates the consumer, but the prevailing ideology that functions as a beguilingly beautiful wrapping paper. Here we come close to how the image is draped as a consumable commodity, de facto without content. Only the exchange value of the pseudo-needs is interesting for the spectacle; the real usefulness, the service value, has had to completely give way to the image’s illusion of utility. Debord writes in his magnum opus, the book The Society of the Spectacle from 1967, that ‘the real consumer has become a consumer of illusions. The commodity is this materialised illusion, and the spectacle is its general expression.’ For the film to become an analytic and critical tool, Debord used the device of détournement, which one can claim is the most important contribution of the situationists to the art world (something that was of course not their intention!). Instead of making new art, one would thus now make use of already existing works. Bearing this in mind, a person who is well read in art history immediately thinks of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s art-critical works, such as the moustache on Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q. (1919).
According to Debord, L.H.O.O.Q. is, however, not more interesting than the original painting, and, considering the hasty incorporation of Duchamp’s negations into the bourgeois art canon, their power as negation have also immediately decreased and they have instead become spectacular visual objects of consumption, forever museologically petrified. Literally speaking, détournement is a redirection of the substance within an object for the creation of a new context with a self-critical and subversive purpose. To Debord détournement was less an artistic instrument than a purely political tool, such as when the paving of the streets of the city was redirected against the administrators of urbanism during the spring of revolt in 1968. Nothing must congeal, neither being, nor creation, nor time. What characterised situationism was a strictly upheld line against any kind of artistic productivity. This all but phobic fear of the spotlight, of objectification, of immobility, of canonisation, is a result of what the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács calls the phenomenon of reification. Here a relationship between static objects is created, commodities that are given a so-called ‘ghostly objectivity’. What is reified goes through an objectification, is fixed, and ends up outside the subjective living world, and constitutes what Debord called ‘the society of the spectacle’ in which society is transformed into a negation of life that has become visible. In simple terms, if one sees the spectacle on the one hand and real society on the other as a pair of opposites, then the former is a false homogenised representation of the latter, conveyed through images, that totally occupies humanity’s time and space – an image that has a monopoly on appearing, a flattering one-way communication that never receives an answer.
The spectacle has divided the unity of the world into reality and image, but continually struggles to present a polished semblance of pure objectivity – that the ideology that has been embodied in the spectacle not only is the true one, but merely is. Because the capitalist production of commodities has accumulated a surplus (which has been the situation in the Western world for a long time), it suddenly demands cooperation from the worker also outside the working time of the production sphere, through which the worker’s free time becomes consumption time, and together working time and consumption time thus form an uninterrupted occupation of life. The more spare time you have, the more the spectacle will endeavour to occupy also this time through the creation of ‘needs’, resulting in empty consumption and pointless entertainment. Lukács also tackles how time is thus reified. Time to Debord becomes nothing other than commodity time in a consumable disguise. That is to say, time becomes a commodity and consequently a congealed image of being. The spectacle is thus capital of such a degree of accumulation that it becomes image. From nothing and back again Here we begin to understand why the creation of images is such an incredibly problematic area for Debord.
The empty white and black film frames of Hurlements en faveur de Sade are filled with conclusive signification, with far greater meaning than the dishonest superficiality of the spectacle. These negations would also recur in each and every one of Debord’s subsequent films, which constantly deprive us of the voyeuristic pleasures we have become accustomed to when we go to the cinema. ‘The audience never find what they are attracted by. They are attracted by what they actually find’, says Debord in his fifth film, Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu’hostiles, qui ont été jusqu’ici portés sur le film ‘La société du spectacle’ (1975). This claim works in all contexts where the commodity has been draped in the desirable packaging of the spectacle, but not however with respect to occasions when the viewer finds the image of nothing, just a non-consumable black hole, completely without any means of identification. Because we need these pleasures of the image. The more banal the spectacle makes work, everyday life, and our entire lived environment, the more this has to be compensated for by a consumption of images. We thus in the end consume a non-authentic image of ourselves, in other words a stereotype, that functions as the spectacle’s veritable cast, modelled on the symbol of the ostensibly experienced: the celebrity, who according to Debord produces the unobtainable results of societal work by imitating the by-products that in some magic way have been placed as goals beyond work itself – power and leisure time.
But in reality we only have stereotypes to choose from, more like unchangeable Happy Families-cards, drawn for life. If one allows this vision of the human position in society to influence one, as Debord and the situationists did, then it cannot be denied that a certain hopelessness manifests itself. This melancholy feeling also echoes throughout all of Debord’s works. If one then contemplates the fact that there is no way out except for a total revolution of everyday life, something that we all deep inside know will never happen, then the situationist Raul Vaneigem’s resigned, almost suicidal words no longer jar as falsely as at a first reading: ‘A life built on passion can never be belittled. Such a life should rather be taken than allowed to quietly turn to dust’. Debord eventually committed suicide in 1994. Nor did Debord ever come closer to total negation than in his first film. All of his subsequent works were merely futile attempts to give shape to the same negation, attempts that were in advance doomed to failure. Perhaps it was this resignation that led Debord to write his Mémoires already in 1958 – as though everything thereafter was simply a repetition of what had once been. One can see Debord’s entire oeuvre as one single circular movement, from nothing back to nothing, indicated in the palindrome of the title of Debord’s last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), and manifested in the final text of the same film: ‘To be gone through again. From the beginning’.