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.