Reviewed by Pierluca D’Amato
French Marxist, philosopher and filmmaker, Guy Debord is probably best known for his crucial critique of modern society, The Society of the Spectacle and its expansion decades later in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. His interests in the links between class struggle, social alienation and the power of media however, have informed a series of lesser-known essays and the six films Debord wrote and directed between 1955 and 1978. The most interesting of these films consisted of patchworks of images and quotations Debord collected from a number of heterogeneous sources and assembled together to vehiculate his critique for the fetishization of bourgeois lifestyle and the conditions of the unsuspecting and defenceless spectator of capitalist power. Debord was also one funding members of the Situationist International, a collective of artists and intellectuals founded in 1957 that shared the same antagonism for the society of the spectacle. The vast array of creative activities devised by the group aimed at contrasting the passivity that the spectacle induces in individuals as a form of domination, with their ideas and slogans that would help ignite the Parisian revolt of May 1968.
It is in the light of these coordinates that makes Stratégie most interesting. This volume, edited by Laurence Le Bras, and recently published by Èditions l’échappée under the specifically founded series ‘The library of Guy Debord’, offers the reader a meticulously glossed collection of reading notes produced by Debord. Since his twenties and for the rest of his life, Debord had in fact the habit to copy and annotate passages from his readings, classifying them in separate dossiers and store them for later use, either to further reflect on the material or as preparatory material for his works. Written in the first instance on pieces of paper torn from notebooks and on little rectangular cardboards, these notes are all conserved in the Manuscript department of the French National Library and will see the light in other edited collections that group the material according to their themes and original classification (‘Poetry’, ‘Marxism’, ‘History’, ‘Philosophy’, etc.). Stratégie presents the material collected by the author in conjunction with his readings of strategic and historic accounts of wars and battles, passages on military tactics and critical fragments from the pens of Niccolò Machiavelli, Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tsu and other commentators.
Debord started focusing specifically on war commentaries and strategy compendia around the 1970s, but his interest for tactics and the adoption of military images had been recurrent elements in his work since his early years. This partially testifies for Debord’s tendency to assimilate the skillset of a strategist to that of the political theorist, whose concepts must be tactically disposed on the battlefield of daily life, conform to the terrain of specific struggles and eventually be put to work to guide concrete action.
As highlighted by Emmanuel Guy, expert in Debord’s multifaceted interests for war and author of the postface to the collection, it is from the beginning of the 1970s that Debord starts reflecting more explicitly on the importance of the literature of strategy. This indicates the attitude of an author in the face of the aftermath of May ’68. In those years, it started in fact to become evident that the impetus of the masses can easily fade away if it is not channelled through a strategy guiding them in the delicate aftermath of their most violent insurgence. Important indication of Debord’s interest for the topic was the declaration of intent exposed in a letter he sent to Eduardo Rothe, fellow member of the Situationist International:
The main task I seem to be considering now is – as the complementary opposite of The Society of the Spectacle, that has described the immobile alienation (and the negation implicit therein) – the theory of historical action. It means to push forward, in its moment that has arrived, the strategic theory. At this stage, and to speak here schematically, the basic theoreticians to pick up and develop are not so much Hegel, Marx and Lautréamont, but Thucydides – Machiavelli – Clausewitz. (456)
What interests Debord in this type of readings has to do with the need to find the means necessary to reach political goals and to concretise the social changes whose image have mobilized the masses in the first place. The link between politics and tactics that these works on military strategy can offer, constitutes then a mediation whose principles must be discovered and internalised with exercise to bridge the gap Debord felt between political thought and concrete action in the years following 1968. From this perspective, war commentaries and strategic treaties become a collection of examples from which it is possible to extract useful models to adopt and deploy in the many forms war manifests itself. Since the times of Machiavelli or Sun Tsu, in fact, the context in which conflict has been understood has broadened: increasingly, these contexts have become those of class wars and big battles have become episodes of urban guerrilla. With the words of The Invisible Committee, then, we should think that for Debord as well, ‘War is not carnage, but the logic that regulates the contact of heterogeneous powers. It is waged everywhere, in countless forms, and more often than not by peaceful means’ (Comité Invisible 2015: 138). In his autobiography, Debord writes in fact the following:
I have been very interested in war, in the theorists of strategy but also in recollections of battles or the many other conflicts history mentions – surface eddies on the river of time. I am not unaware that war is the domain of danger and disappointment, perhaps even more so than the other sides of life. This consideration has not, however, diminished the attraction that I have felt for that particular side. And so I have studied the logic of war. Moreover, I succeeded, a long time ago, in presenting the basics of its movements on a rather simple board game: the forces in contention as well as the contradictory necessities imposed on the operations of each of the two parties. I have played this game and, in the often difficult conduct of my life, I have drawn a few lessons from it – I also set myself rules of the game for this life, and I have followed them. (Debord 2004: 55-6)
This board game, which appears to be at the centre of a collection and ludic re-activation of classic strategic knowledge, is named Kriegspiel, or Le Jeu de la Guerre, a wargame on which Debord started working assiduously from the dissolution of the Situationist International in 1972. Although his Kriegspiel is not the most known product of Debord’s genius, the case can be made to take it up again and consider its meaning in conjunction with the significance that strategic literature can have for its players, that is, in the real life struggles for which the game helps to prepare. The mechanisms of the game are based on the insights Carl von Clausewitz elaborated in his work On War, essentially based on his experience in the Napoleonic campaigns. The game was conceived as providing an educational function for strategic matters and was meant to support a generation of individuals struggling against the spectacle and the various forms oppression embedded in the battlefield of the information society.
The game is played on a rectangular board that represents a battleground, which is divided in 500 equal squares and crossed by two 9-squares pieces resembling mountain ranges that occupy different positions. The goal is to capture the arsenals or the fortresses of the adversary. What is crucial is that each player has to keep in place its own network of communication between the arsenals and the mobile units. The lines of communication composing these networks are blocked by environmental factors (the mountains) and can be interrupted by the adversary in order to capture one’s pieces. The idea of preserving the integrity of one’s lines of communication is therefore fundamental for a successful tactic to be implemented. The opening strategy, the capacity to exploit the terrain and to distract one’s adversary are only few of the strategic skills required and whose development is promoted by the boardgame, which represents the concrete terrain on which spectacular capitalism has to be fought and in which the players experiment with different configurations of relations of communication and combat. Strategic knowledge of the past was then transposed by Debord in a ludic matrix the use of which guaranteed the re-activation of tactical wisdom and its adaptation to the battlefields of modernity.
Mobilising a fundamental concept for Debord and the Situationist International then, Stratégie should really be read as the preparatory material for strategic détournement: ‘The détournement is then conceived not so much as a writing practice, but as a reading practice, permanent reactualisation, through the rewriting of the literature of the past’ (462). With Debord’s own words, in fact, the operation of
detournement serves as a reminder that theory is nothing in itself, that it can realize itself only through historical action and through the historical correction that is its true allegiance […] Détournement is the opposite of quotation, of appealing to a theoretical authority that is inevitably tainted by the very fact that it has become a quotation – a fragment torn from its own context and development, and ultimately from the general framework of its period and from the particular option (appropriate or erroneous) that it represented within that framework. (Debord 2005: 113-4)
Proletarians struggling for emancipation, activists trying to overthrow the bastions of bourgeois supremacy, to outflank the spectacular bulwarks of post-industrial exploitation are invited by this publication to engage in a new experiment, in a new productive way of reading that in a certain sense prescribes the betrayal of the authors read by Debord. How is it possible, for example, to outflank the lines of communication of the enemy in the complex scenario we are all plunged into since the diffusion of the internet and of the portable technologies for its daily use? Clearly, the model for this battle cannot be the one adopted by Napoleon in Austerlitz’s battle of 1805, but fortunately, as notoriously claimed by Debord, ‘Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false ides, replaces it with the right one’ (Debord 2005: 113).
The importance of this book is distributed then on three levels: from the point of view of what it says about Debord, it deepens our understanding of his work and its gestation, but gives also a clear image of the author as a reader; the quotes here collected are really telling about his tastes and method. Most of all, however, Stratégie embeds Debord’s invitation to the re-activation of strategic knowledge of the past. To conclude with the words of Emmanuel Guy: ‘Debord elaborates from his readings an interface between theory and practice, an object to be activated’ (467) and adapted to current circumstances, because since strategic thought has its origin in practice, it is to practice that it has to be put again.
13 December 2019
- 2015 To Our Friends Robert Hurley (Ed), South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).
- 2004 Panegyric: Volumes 1 & 2 London; New York: Verso
- 2005 The Society of the Spectacle Ken Knabb (Ed), London: Rebel Press.