Come and see Kenny Wilson and Parisian Swing at Leicester Guildhall on 22nd August 2019 8 p.m.. Playing Jazz Standards and Popular Songs from the 1930s to the 1960s. £10 admission. Tickets available from the Guildhall.
Reviewed by Jessie Mann
If you had asked me where I was on Saturday 5th January, I would have been inclined to say at a club in the heart of Paris. Listening to the band, Parisian Swing, I was honestly transported to another time and place, taking in the rich sound of the 1930’s Parisian Gypsy Jazz era.
Being the first band to perform at The Musician in Leicester this year, they certainly kicked off 2019 with a SWING!
The four greatly talented band members performed to an enthusiastic audience that sat at little tables by candlelight and soaked in the atmosphere the musicians created.
With Arthur Tyers and Will Smith on Guitar, Kenny Wilson on the Accordion/vocals, and Mike Whittle on the Double Bass/vocals, this set up was all you needed to listen to some of Django Reinhardt’s most famous songs.
Nuages, a Django classic, set a slow, rich and velvety mood for the couples in the crowd and then the juxtaposition of Mack the Knife, described as ‘a mean song about a mean person’ brought laughter and bounce even over its darker lyrics. Beautifully played with speed and accuracy, each note was phenomenal from the guitars. Smith and Tyers were able to play incredibly fast but each note reached the audience perfectly.
Mike Whittle on the bass enchanted us all with his charisma and passionate dancing with his instrument throughout the evening. During the song It had to be you, each instrument had time to truly be appreciated as the focus was passed from the guitars to the bass, to the accordion. You were able to single out the gifts of each of the band members and appreciate how much talent and hard work goes into what they do.
My favourite song of the night had to be Autumn Leaves, originally by Edith Piaf, which Parisian Swing played with beautiful romantic justice. The audience was transported to a café in Paris with Kenny Wilson’s French vocals and accordion tying the scene together with Parisian passion.
The band played 18 songs from 8:30 onwards with a break halfway in which Music in Leicester was able to interview Mike and Kenny who were buzzing from their first half.
With a quick ‘one-two-three’ the band were off in full swing with upbeat lifts that you couldn’t help tapping and nodding your head too.
The band also played Sweet Sue, Honeysuckle Rose, Minor Swing, Just a Gigolo, Douce Ambiance, Lady be Good and After You’ve Gone. The mix was a real treat for the crowd to experience a taste of the best of Parisian Gyspy Jazz.
After two ‘last’ songs from the band (as the audience asked for more) the evening concluded at 11 and I’m sure many people will be having jazzy-dreams for a long time to come!
I wish the best for Parisian Swing and hope to hear them again!
Bonne chance mes amis!
The plotless beauty of his writing, and its fearless look at the emptiness of his own life, put ‘the Scottish Beat’ on a par with Kafka and Camus.
My scow is tied up in Flushing, NY, alongside the landing stage of the Mac Asphalt and Construction Corporation. It is now just after five in the afternoon. Today at this time it is still afternoon, and the sun, striking the cinderblocks of the main building of the works has turned them pink. The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted.
Half an hour ago I gave myself a fix.
So begins Cain’s Book, Alexander Trocchi‘s incredible novel of existential dread. Young Adam, its predecessor, is better known, but the latter is the “Scottish Beat’s” classic.
Asked to name the best existential literature, most of us would probably say Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or Franz Kafka. But Cain’s Book actually takes the reader one step further into the philosophical world of existential angst than any of them. It positively drowns us in a word of unremitting absurdity and meaninglessness.
A roman à clef, Cain’s Book details the life of one Joe Nechhi, a Glaswegian heroin addict living and working on a scow in New York’s Hudson harbor. It is a book almost entirely devoid of plot: Nechhi occasionally details trips into the city to score heroin, recollects his childhood in Glasgow, or talks of his attempts to write a book. What is incredible about the book is its unrelenting bleakness, and the sheer poetic quality of Trocchi’s writing.
Heroin for Trocchi, as Remainder author Tom McCarthy noted in a lecture on Cain’s Book recently, “is a moveable void: taking that void around the city with him, in him, he ensures that he inhabits negative space constantly. This is his poetic project and it’s also the way his whole perception system works at its most basic level (the two are the same).”
In real life, Trocchi seemed very glad to cut himself off from his peers, saying that his only concerns as a writer were “sodomy and lesbianism”, that those were the only interesting subjects in the previous 20 years of Scottish writing and that “I have written it all.”
Sadly, Cain’s Book was his last. As the 60s gave way to the 70s, Trocchi’s addiction to heroin took its toll and his talent lay pretty much squandered. The stories of his wild and tragic life are infamous and extensively documented in many of the leading “swinging 60s” biographies (Marianne Faithfull’s account of doing drugs with Trocchi is one of the best). Despite his addictions, and his sad death at the age of 59, Trocchi left us some of the bleakest, most beautiful writing to come out of the 60s.
In Cain’s Book the writing is all – the words ebb and flow like the inky blackness of the Hudson River. Trocchi’s descriptive powers are mesmerising: one barely even notices the lack of narrative drive until after the book has been put down.
His other books includes some interesting pseudonymous pornography for the Olympia Press. (Titles like Helen and Desire, Sappho of Lesbos and White Thighs deliver their smut with a Sadean political edge.) Young Adam, of course, was turned into a successful film starring Ewan McGregor, and helped to raise the author’s public perception a little. But it’s Cain’s book that best fulfils Trocchi’s hopes for “the invisible insurrection of a thousand minds”.
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
With echoes of the most rapier-like prose written by Marx and Engels (eg “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), so begins Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, the treatise on the modern human condition he published in 1967. It quickly came to be seen as the set text of the Parisian événements of the following year, and has long since bled into the culture via no end of people, from the Sex Pistols to the Canadian troublemakers who call themselves Adbusters.
Its title alone is now used as shorthand for the image-saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures: relative to what Debord meant by it, the term usually ends up sounding banal, but the frequency with which it’s used still speaks volumes about the power of his insights. Put another way, there are not many copyright-free monographs associated with arcane leftist sects that predicted where western societies would end up at 40 years’ distance, but this one did exactly that.
The Society of the Spectacle maps out some aspects of the 21st century directly: not least, so-called celebrity culture and its portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us actually live it. Try this: “As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live.” The book’s take on the driving-out of meaning from politics is also pretty much beyond question, as are its warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion” and the fact that at some unspecified point in the recent(ish) past, “dissatisfaction itself became a commodity” (so throw away that Che Guevara T-shirt, and quick).
But there are also very modern phenomena that fit its view of the world: when Debord writes about how “behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other”, I now think of social media, and the white noise of most online life. All told, the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume – and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme. Not that Debord ever used the word, but his ideas were essentially pointing to the basis of what we now know as neoliberalism.
Some brief history. Debord was the de facto leader of the Situationist International, a tiny and ever-changing intellectual cell who drew on all kinds of influences, but whose essential worldview combined two elements: an understanding of alienation traceable to the young Marx, and an emphasis on what left politics has never much liked: the kind of desire-driven irrationality celebrated by both the dadaists and surrealists. The ideas in The Society of the Spectacle drew on obvious antecedents – Hegel, Marx, Engels, the Hungarian Marxist George Lukacs – and also pointed to what was soon to come: not least, postmodernism, and the “hyperreality” diagnosed by Jean Baudrillard.
To sum up the book’s substance in a couple of sentences is a nonsense, but here goes: essentially, Debord argues that having recast the idea of “being into having”, what he calls “the present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” has led to “a generalised sliding from having into appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.”
Like most of The Society of the Spectacle, you have to read such words slowly, but they hit the spot: he is talking about alienation, the commodification of almost every aspect of life and the profound social sea-change whereby any notion of the authentic becomes almost impossible. Whether their writers knew anything about Debord is probably doubtful, but as unlikely it may sound, one way of opening your mind to the idea of the spectacle is maybe to re-watch two hugely successful movies about exactly the blurring of appearance and reality that he described: The Matrix and The Truman Show.
It’s also an idea to read The Revolution of Everyday Life by Debord’s one-time accomplice Raoul Vaneigem, which works as a companion piece to The Society of the Spectacle. Vaneigem writes more in a more human register than Debord, and is a more straightforward propagandist:
“Inauthenticity is a right of man … Take a 35-year-old man. Each morning he takes his car, drives to the office, pushes papers, has lunch in town, plays pool, pushes more papers, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, greets his wife, kisses his children, eats his steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love, and falls asleep. Who reduces a man’s life to this pathetic sequence of cliches? A journalist? A cop? A market researcher? A socialist-realist author? Not at all. He does it himself, breaking his day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes.”
The words point up something very important: that the spectacle is much more than something at which we passively gaze, and it increasingly defines our perception of life itself, and the way we relate to others. As the book puts it: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
How we confront the spectacle is a subject for another piece: in essence, the Situationists’ contention was that its colonisation of life was not quite complete, and resistance has to begin with finding islands of the authentic, and building on them (though as what some people call late capitalism has developed, such opportunities have inevitably shrunk, a fact captured in the bleak tone of Debord’s 1989 text Comments on the Society of Spectacle, published five years before he killed himself). In truth, the spectacular dominion Debord described is too all-encompassing to suggest any obvious means of overturning it: it’s very easy to succumb to the idea that the spectacle just is, and to suggest any way out of it is absurd (which, in a very reductive sense, was Baudrillard’s basic contention).
What is incontestable, though, is how well the book, and Debord’s ideas, describe the way we live now. The images that stare from magazine racks prove his point. The almost comic contrast between modern economic circumstances and what miraculously arrives to disguise them – the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics – confirms almost everything the book contains. My battered copy features a much-reproduced photograph from post-war America: an entranced cinema audience, all wearing 3D glasses. But when I read it now, I always picture the archetypal modern crowd: squeezed up against each other, but all looking intently at the blinking screens they hold in their hands, while their thumbs punch out an imitation of life that surely proves Debord’s point ten thousand times over.
Will Self takes a walk through the banlieues of Paris and is astonished by the prescience of Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which so accurately describes ‘the shit we’re in’
A small green tent was pitched on the small daisy-spotted patch of greenish grass. It looked tidily enough done; suitable perhaps for a summer rock festival. But this was just outside the Saint-Gratien RER station, north of the rundown riverine port of Gennevilliers, on the outer whorl of the Parisian fingerprint; and the tent – which had the limp-wristed bough of an evergreen touching its flysheet in benediction – was quite clearly being lived in.
The mental picture the non-Parisian has of the city’s banlieues is framed by the fictive: gangster movies such as La Haine, or TV cop shows such as Spiral that do battle with similar Danish, Swedish, British and, of course, American vehicles, in a race to see which can sandblast its respective society with the greatest quantity of grit. But within this framing, content and dimensionality are provided by recent history, and in particular by the widespread rioting of 2005 that thrust these under-imagined locales on to TV screens worldwide. Not since the événements of 1968 had Parisian street fighting commanded such attention, but whereas the soixante-huitardscould be characterised as the vanguard of a stillborn revolution, the young second-, third- and probably fourth-generation immigrants who chucked molotov cocktails at the flics and the CRS during the émeutes neither donned, nor were measured up for, any such ideological camouflage.
Instead, the violent eruption of the Parisian banlieues was anatomised by reference to a body politic sickening with pathological metaphors. Implicitly, explicitly … ineluctably, the rioters were the Muslim Other, which, having been almost accidentally ingurgitated as part of the colonialist couscous, was now playing havoc with Gallic digestion. The French state had found itself – willingly or not – as a fellow-traveller on the neocons’ coach trip to the rapturous intersection of medieval chiliasm and Fukuyama’s neoliberal end-point.
Walking from the RER station towards the Seine, I passed not through what the fictive might lead you to expect, but rather low and hummocky hills, the swoop of a B-class road, outcroppings of commerce, small apartment blocks, car parks, duff public sculpture, off-cuts of quasi-open space – over it all an ambiguous miasma of street furniture and signage: this was France, certainly, but a France at once decoupled from any sense of pays, and divorced from the least suggestion of the urbane. In a comparable district of London – picture, if you are able to, Ruislip or Hounslow, Abbey Wood or Enfield – there would be myriad subliminally registered cues, all of which would combine to force on the spectator the unavoidability of her metropolitan condition. In London, the interwar spread of municipal socialism through the arteries of the tube system was accompanied by the soft-modernism of the suburban stations and Harry Beck’s matching diagram, which completes their connectivity. In London, the map really is the territory, because the territory really is the map. Not here.
The vexed relationship between the map and the territory suffuses The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which argues that not only authentic social relations, but even the bricks and mortar that frame them, and the tarmac that connects one to another, have all been replaced with their representation; a 1:1 scale model. Moreover, for Debord, as a sequel to the paralysis of “historical development”, the contrast between town and country has become submerged in a sclerotic suburbia. He is at pains to point out that this annulling is no cod-utopian “supersession” but rather an “erosion … visible in the eclectic mélange of … decayed elements”.
From the beige depths of a heavily shuttered house beside a hillock from which I could spy the Eiffel Tower, a deep, dark voice spoke: “Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez?” I suppose, had I been the ghost of Jane Jacobs I would have experienced this as reassurance: the eyes, even if unseen themselves, remained on the street. But, instead, I muttered pacifications: “Nothing … just having a look … about”, then walked on down and around the hill through a scree of crushed fag packets, centrifugally impelled aluminium trim and the petrified tears shed by long dead cars. Dragon’s teeth were sewn across the scabrous roadway – I queased between them and found myself within 100 metres of the riverbank. The A15 soared overhead: two pilotisplanted this side of the river, the next pair on the far bank, its two carriageways separated by curved air. Up there was the city, conceived of however you so pleased. Down here, however, was this un-place, an inter-zone, under-imagined and thus free to be itself. Sprays of cherry blossom mimicked by tangles of wire and a shaggy pelt of weedy grass. Two small brown kids sat beside an oblong concrete depression filled with dank water, one had her hair tied in pigtails. They were playing with tin cans, cups and a bucket. Beyond them, right on the river’s edge was their Paris: a bidonville of shacks built from bits of scavenged packing cases, plastic tarpaulin, car tyres and all sorts of other stuff.
Many of its most sympathetic readers experience The Society of the Spectacleas a concerted howl of disgust. I cannot agree – for me it is the Spectacle that, far from being the creation of some malevolent or false god, emerges instead as the hero of the piece, inasmuch as any hero can be conceived of as the unconscious product of insensate historical processes. The Spectacle, Debord writes, “is the heart of the unrealism of the real society”. We are all jammed up against the plate glass of the Spectacle, our faces crushed as we “lèche-vitrine” in search of the same old commodified poison.
The entirely manmade nature of the world from which the individual subject experiences alienation is not, for Debord, a factual programme to be passively viewed on the TV screens of the global village, but a belief that is actively entered into. It is the genius of Debord to have characterised the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post-industrial manifestation. The Society of the Spectacle reads – if you will savour a cliche – as fresh as paint. Debord’s analysis of time itself as a series of epochs is dizzying: such “pseudo-festivals” as sporting events (the Olympics springs immediately to mind), act to convince the denizens of the Spectacle that they are still living in a cyclical and eternal go-round, while only the anointed few, the celebrities, are imbued with the attributes of money and power that signify the ability to make choices – to progress into a better future. “Being a star,” Debord writes, “means specialising in the seemingly lived.” Sound familiar, “Sir” Peter Bazalgette?
But it is most of all in its analysis of the ideology of the Spectacle that Debord’s text repays close reading. It is the Spectacle’s genius to have “turned need against life” and thus effected “the separation and estrangement between man and man”. Hence the Spectacle’s embrace of economics as the only form of instrumental – indeed “scientific” – knowledge worth possessing; hence ritual obeisance made before the gods who will confer growth, and hence the fact that more or less any contemporary western politician – from Hollande, to Merkel, to Cameron, to Obama, and back again – who had eyes to see, could find their own Caliban image raging back at them from the pages of The Society of the Spectacle.
At Argenteuil centre-ville, I found echoic pedestrian underpasses, faux-19th century streetlamps of twirled iron and postmodern apartment blocks built of scaled-up children’s construction toys. I walked on across the oxbow of Gennevilliers, still feeling that I was nowhere at all in particular – standing beside a grocery store or an office block, then crossing between parked cars. The bridge across the re-encountered Seine that led to Clichy was lined with cheerful window boxes, planted with a gaily patriotic tricolour of blooms pinker, pinker and pinkest. Where there are window boxes there must, of course, be a window – this one framed the mirrored cuboids of La Défenseto the west, structures that might have been designed expressly to conform to the Debordian paradigm.
And then, some way past the Porte de Clichy, I was quite suddenly – if at an indefinable point – in Paris, a city to this day that defines itself by the micro-associations of its smaller parts: the awning of an alimentation, a drain cover, the angle of a pissing dog’s leg, the furl of paper around a stick of bread, the white apron around a smoking waiter – quite as much as the high extravaganza of its grand boulevards and gold-leafed public buildings. Rereading The Society of the Spectacle, I was struck yet again not only by Debord’s astonishing prescience – for what other text from the late 1960s so accurately describes the shit we’re still in? – but also wondered how it was that his dérives across the Paris of the time could have so attuned him to the way in which the urban environment of the near future would become quite so decoupled from any element of the felt or experienced life. After all, Pariswas by no means the most Spectacular city of the late 1950s and early 60s; indeed, it’s still not on an equal footing to London. Unplanned London, which has just arrived at its square miles of parametrically designed junk space, its CCTV-overseen gated business cantonments and Chinese party cadre-owned luxury encampments, its logo skyscrapers and purpose-built “iconic” tourist destinations.
It occurs to me that Haussmann’s attempt to impose civic order and authority on the medieval jumble of mid-19th century Paris had not only paved the way for the Spectacle, but it had also afforded its – and his – enemies with the material to rip up for their barricades. There seems a nice congruence between the go-rounds of the Grands Boulevards and centrifugal/centripetal current of French theorising, whereby notions given form in the cafes of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the classrooms of the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure swirl out in widening circles from the metropolis, only to then gurgle back in again, before eventually disappearing up the arses of their originators.
Seen like this, The Society of the Spectacle is at once the bastard progeny of the French Enlightenment – out of Diderot, by means of the Napoleonic Code – and a salutary reminder of how the pursuit of some millenarian ideological purity only ever results – if successful – in the rumbling of tumbrels; or, if a failure, in its wholesale co-option by its stated enemies. That we no longer hear quite so much about “the spectacle” as shorthand for any of the following: the ludic element of consumer society, the post-ideological character of western “democracy”, the web-cum-matrix woven by the internet, the glocal character of late capitalism, may be because Debord’s concept has now been so thoroughly appropriated – one might fairly say détourned – that there’s nothing left of it but its coldly numerical bones.
Had Debord not shot himself in 1994 in his rural fastness of Bellevue-la-Montagne, he probably would have turned his gun on the likes of Tony Wilson and Malcolm McLaren (and no doubt me as well); pop music impresarios whose much-trumpeted situationist influence – such as it was – consisted only in a series of pranks, that, while they may have given succour to the culturally anomic nonetheless only resulted in the profitable sale of records, posters and other memorabilia. I doubt, somehow, that either Wilson – chiefly known for managing Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, and setting up Factory Records – or McLaren, rather more famous for his role as the Sex Pistols’ svengali, can have subjected The Society of the Spectacle to a sustained critical reading. Had they done so, they would’ve realised that their antics were anathema to Debord; that the playful elements of situationist practice – the bowdlerising of cartoons, the daubing on walls of whacky slogans, the exaltation of drunkenness – were only ever to be sanctioned if constitutive of a genuine insurrection, such as the few short weeks of 68, and as precursors of that revolution of everyday life (to adapt the title of the competing situationist theoretical work, written by Debord’s greatest rival, Raoul Vaneigem), which was to follow the final and complete dissolution of the Spectacle.
The relative success of the Situationist International during les évènementsalso sowed the seeds for the détournement of The Society of the Spectacleitself. I say relative success because it can be doubted – and will always be disputed – the extent to which Debord and his loose confraternity of freelance bully-boys and wannabe revolutionists actually succeeded in either manning the barricades themselves, or screwing the courage of the mob to CRS’s sticking post. But the important thing was that the situationists were perceived as having been in the thick of things – as instigators and ideological choreographers of the distinctively ludic elements of this particular civil disorder. The sneering, de haut en bas reception of The Society of the Spectacle on its publication the year before in French, was followed the year after by its rhapsodic one when it appeared in translation. By then, of course, the game was effectively up – something Debord, a man obsessed by war games and strategising, undoubtedly grasped. The Society of the Spectacle so far as being an animator of events, had in a matter of months become simply another text to be subjected to scores, hundreds, thousands of exhaustive academic analyses. The best that could be said for the thing – from its author’s point of view – was that the royalties paid his wine bills, and helped to supplement a lifetime of unabashed – and indeed, self-righteous – sponging.
Of course, The Society of the Spectacle still animates serious protest to this day – or, rather, since to admit to having been one of the Invisible Committee that authored the highly Debordian The Coming Insurrection (2007) is to court arrest on those grounds alone, the very style of the earlier work remains inflammatory. As to its content, The Coming Insurrection has nothing much to add – how can it, when, as I say, never before has Debord’s work seemed quite as relevant as it does now, in the permanent present that he so accurately foretold? Open his book, read it, be amazed, pour yourself a glass of supermarket wine – as he would wish – and then forget all about it, which is what the Spectacle wants.
This is the film made of Guy Debord’s book “The Society of the Spectacle” which is one of the main texts of the Situationist International.
On the brink of working class and student insurgency came Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the radical book of the 1960s, perhaps the most radical radical book ever written. Its 221 strange theses give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of an epoch in which unity spelt division, essence appearance, truth falsity. A topsy-turvy world where everything and everybody partook in a perverse paradox. Debord mocked the reality of this non-reality, an absurd world in which ugliness signified beauty, stupidity intelligence, subjecting it to his own dialectical inversion, his own spirit of negation. This was theory that identified enemy minefields and plotted a Northwest Passage, getting daubed on the walls of Paris and other cities during May 1968: “POWER TO THE WORKERS’ COUNCILS,” “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “THE END OF THE UNIVERSITY.”
Its refrains were all over the modern high-rise environment at the University of Paris-Nanterre, a classic scene of urban isolation and separation, a “suburban Vietnam,” where a peripheral new town university coexisted with working-class slums and Arab and Portuguese shantytowns. The place was sterile, sexually and socially repressive, and totalitarian. This was the spirit of a society without any spirit. The same centralisation, hierarchy, and bureaucratic obsession persisting in the educational sector persisted in other aspects of the French state. Tough rules governed student dorms and freedom of movement; classes were overcrowded, resources stretched; professors were distant, student alienation rife. The right-wing Gaullist regime attempted to modernise the economy, in line with Common Market membership, and unemployment was growing.
At the University of Strasbourg, two years prior, a handful of Situationists had intervened; angry students of Henri Lefebvre and friends of Debord. They’d riled and denounce, tried to revolutionise students with an influential pamphlet called “On the Poverty of Student Life—Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual and especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for its Remedy.” They’d infiltrated the National Union of French Students (UNEF), accused students at Strasbourg of pandering to a society dominated by the commodity and the spectacle. Student poverty was a poverty of ideas, a poverty of guts. Students were really “submissive children,” labour-power in the making, without class consciousness. They accepted the business and institutional roles for which the “university-factory” prepared them, never questioning the system of production that alienated all activity, products, people, and ideas. The Situationist’s text struck a chord; translated reprints extended its audience, notably to the U.S., Britain and Italy. In Strasbourg, the document caused a scandal; a coterie of students refused to be integrated. Critical awareness gathered steam over the next year and a bit, until, in late March of 1968, it blew a gasket at Nanterre.
On Friday, March 22nd, assorted Situationists, young communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, and Maoists invaded the university’s administration building, and began occupying it. The week before, the “Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International” had been established. Its members put up posters and scribbled slogans on the walls of Nanterre and the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter: “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY,” “NEVER WORK,” “BOREDOM IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY,” “TRADE UNIONS ARE BROTHELS,” “PROFESSORS, YOU MAKE US GROW OLD,” “IF YOU RUN INTO A COP, SMASH HIS FACE IN.” In early May, “the March 22 Movement” met with UNEF at the Sorbonne. The authorities tried to break up the meeting; instead they only unleashed its latent power. The gendarmerie mobile poured into the Sorbonne’s courtyard and encircled its buildings. Several thousand students fought back, inside and outside, ripping up paving stones on the street. Skirmishes broke out elsewhere, spreading both sides of the Seine, flaring up at Châtelet and Les Halles. On May 6 and 7 a huge student demonstration took over the Boulevard Saint Michel and thoroughfares near rue Gay-Lussac; protesters overturned cars, set them ablaze, dispatched Molotov cocktails, and manned the barricades.
On May 13 there was a one-day general strike. With the French Communist Party (PCF) and general worker’s union (CGT) joining the action, “student-worker” solidarity suddenly looked possible. Situationists and students took over the Sorbonne. On one revered fresco they emblazoned the caption: “HUMANITY WILL ONLY BE HAPPY THE DAY THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG BY THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST.” Exams had been cancelled at the barricades; sociologists and psychologists became the new cops. Next day, in Nantes, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant occupied their factory and locked out the bosses. Meanwhile, Renault workers at Cléon in Seine-Maritime followed suit. Then the Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne launched a wildcat action, halting newspaper distribution. Workers’ councils linked up with students’ councils, becoming comrades in arms. The working class, at last, declared its unequivocal support for the student movement when rank and filers at Renault-Billancourt took over France’s largest factory.
By May 20 strikes and occupations became contagious. Nationwide, around 10 million workers downed tools and froze assembly lines. France seemed on the precipice of revolution; a festival of people was glimpsed. Alienation was cast off, momentarily; freedom was real; capitalised time abandoned. Without trains, cars, Metro and work, leisure time was reclaimed, time lived. Students and workers seized the contingent situation, acted spontaneously, created new situations, realising something what no trade union or party could ever do, or wanted to do. And yet, as quickly as things erupted, they were almost as speedily repressed, by state and bourgeoisie, soon backed by the Communists and the CGT. The optimistic promise, the beach beneath the paving stones, had dissipated, for now. The music was over. There was no other side to break on through to.
The occupation of Paris was, and still is, seen throughout the world as an event of historical significance. Solidarity between workers and students had for a moment expressed itself; so too direct action militancy and student internationalism. From the LSE to Berkeley, from Columbia to Nantes, from the Sorbonne to Barcelona, dissatisfaction had spread like wildfire. At the same time, The Society of the Spectacle’s demands, as Debord would write (with Gianfranco Sanguinetti) in The Veritable Split in the Situationist International (1972), “were plastered in the factories of Milan as in the University of Coimra. Its principal theses, from California to Calabria, from Scotland to Spain, from Belfast to Leningrad, infiltrate clandestinely or are proclaimed in open struggles…The Situationist International imposed itself in a moment of universal history as the thought of the collapse of a world; a collapse which has now begun before our eyes.”
In old photos of the student occupations of the Sorbonne, Debord is visible in the thick of the action, lurking with intent. He was no student himself, nor was he particularly “youthful”: in May 1968, Debord, the freelance revolutionary, was thirty-six, older than a lot of junior professors, and almost twice the age of many student leaders (like Daniel Cohn-Bendit). He must have seemed like an old guy to many kids, somebody’s dad drinking in the student bar. Already his appearance had started to deteriorate. Surrounded by a large crowd of student activists, we can see him standing side on, without glasses, wearing a white jacket. His face is a lot puffier than a decade earlier; a boozer’s physiognomy was rapidly becoming apparent. By comparison with other ’68ers, who were mere political toddlers, he was a veteran provocateur.
Debord and other Situationists were genius agitators and organisers, and their presence was felt, practically and theoretically. The spirit of The Society of the Spectacle was there, even if some kids had never read nor fully understood it. On the other hand, Debord was frequently the most sectarian, invariably falling out with allies—especially falling out with allies, being most ruthless with old friends and former comrades. “Guy was a very tenacious person,” Jean-Michel Mension, a past oustee, remembered in his Situationist memoir The Tribe. “He was already very hard—very strict in the way he conceived of existence with this person or that.” There “were certainly jokers who became part of Guy’s group merely because they were friends of so and so, people who had no business there and who lasted only six months or a year before Guy found them really idiotic and kicked them out.”
Debord likewise dissed former pal Henri Lefebvre, the Nanterre Marxist professor, denouncing him as an “agent of recuperation.” He said the sexagenarian philosopher had stolen certain Situationist ideas. Debord reckoned Lefebvre’s take on the 1871 Paris Commune was almost entirely lifted from SI’s pamphlet, “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” Lefebvre recalled in a 1987 interview. “I was close to the Situationists…And then we had a quarrel that got worse and worse in conditions I don’t understand too well myself…I had this idea about the Commune as a festival, and I threw it into debate, after consulting an unpublished document about the Commune that is at the Feltrinelli Institute in Milan.”
Both Lefebvre and Debord believed the Commune some sort of historical antecedent of 1968. For seventy-three days, between March and May of 1871, when Prussian forces at war with France surrounded Paris, the city had become a liberated zone of people power. The barricades went up, even across Haussmann’s mighty boulevards, amid the carnivals and pranks. Freely elected workers, artists, and small business owners were suddenly at the helm. Their rally cries were territorial and urban; their practice was festive and spontaneous. The Communards, until the National Guard massacred 20,000 of them, launched a revolt in culture and everyday life, demanded freedom and self-determination, crushed Louis Napoleon’s authority as he’d once crushed their freedom, occupied the streets, shouted and sang for their “right to the city.”
For the first time, it looked like a working-class revolution wasn’t merely possible, but imminent. In “Theses on the Commune,” Debord said the Situationists believed that the “Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth-century” (Thesis #2). “Underlying the events of that spring of 1871,” he went on, “one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of ‘governmental’ politics as on the level of their everyday life.” “The Commune,” Thesis #7 said, “represents the only realisation of a revolutionary urbanism to date.” It “succumbed less to the force of arms,” the next thesis explained, “than to the force of habit.” “Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement,” continued #11, importantly, “can easily prove that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been fulfilled. They forget that for those who really lived it, the fulfillment was already there” (emphasis in original). “The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune,” #12 stated, “must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the prevailing political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the interdependence of all the prevailing banalities that it blasted to pieces.” “The social war of which the Commune was one moment,” declared the penultimate #13, “is still being fought today. In the task of ‘making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune’ (Frederick Engels), the last word is still to be said.”
In the wake of May ’68, Debord released a film version of The Society of the Spectacle, dedicating it to wife Alice Becker-Ho, whose beautiful image, clad in flat cap, leaning on a wall with a cigarette drooping nonchalantly from her mouth, fills one frame. It evokes an Alice-cum-Brando’s Wild One pose: “Alice, whattya rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” The film’s dialogue closely follows Debord’s original text, but the rapid-fire captions, disarming classical music, and exaggerated footage make it visually stunning. There are battle scenes and moody vistas of Paris, spliced between images of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Castro, all giving speeches; Debord plainly disapproves. There are news clips from the ’68 Renault strike, with workers locked inside the factory by the unions; scenes from the Bourse alive with frenzied traders, participating in money mayhem; there’s a vision of the Tower of Babel amid pitched battles from Vietnam and Watts (Los Angeles), circa 1965; Paris’s streets are ablaze, and students can be seen fighting cops; there are burning barricades at night, the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, street altercations in Italy in the 1960s, Italian police leaping from jeeps, truncheoning a crowd of young people; West German security forces patrol another street, while Soviet tanks push back German workers in Berlin in June 1953.
The Society of the Spectacle, the movie, sealed a magical era for Debord. “Whoever considers the life of the Situationists,” he contended a few years later, “finds there the history of the revolution. Nothing has been able to sour it.” It was how it’d been for the Communards, who really lived it, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfillment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in ’68, and now the music was over. Nothing could sour it. Yet as the dust settled from 1968, emptiness prevailed in the ruins. Many soixante-huitards suddenly found themselves stuck between the rock and the hard place, between a degenerative past and an impossible future. For a moment, the dream of spontaneous freedom became real, in wide-awake time. An instant later, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.