The Premonition of Guy Debord

Franco Berardi Bifo

Ten years ago, on November the 30th, in an article on Debord's death, I wrote: 'Debord's suicide is nothing more than his suicide and it is illegitimate to interpret it as a moment of his thought'. Really, it is wrong to interpret a such complex gesture as suicide on the basis of the simple complications of politics and philosophy. Having said that, today we not only have to think about the theoretical inheritance of situationism, but also about the premonition that the gesture contained. Today we can re-read the whole experience of situationism as a premonition and a painful foreboding.

The situationist movement dissolved when Paris walls started featuring the graffiti 'power to the imagination'. 1968 was realising the dream of historical vanguards, Dadaism and Surrealism: the dream of the abolition of art and the routine of daily life and above all of the fusion of the two; the dream of a life where difference prevailed on repetition. But, as we later found out, imagination became crystallised in the Image and the predominance of the image paralised the imagination. Machines of homologated production of the Image have infiltrated the collective mind and wired it up by introducing psychic, linguistic and relational automatisms. We must recognise this: real society is no longer capable of imagining anything that has not been produced in the laboratories of the Global Homologated System.

In his most celebrated work, Debord called this homologating effect of imagina(c)tion the "Spectacle". The Spectacle is what must be seen but can never be lived.

The '68 generation leaves behind a tragic inheritance. The expectation of happiness was constitutive of the culture of that generation. Born after the most devastating war in history, it pledged to never suffer such inhuman violence again. This expectation was belied twice however. Firstly, the construction of singular communities of extra-historical happiness (situations) was not pursued. It was not scientifically organised, because we (dialectically) expected happiness from history, from the realisation of communism and from the arrival of a non-alienated totality. Secondly, history is not the place for happiness, and this guarantees the unhappiness of dialecticians.

Had it not been Hegelian, situationism would have begun to shirk from history and its totalising pretensions, so as to deprive totality of exploitation and war. What else does "situation" mean after all, if not this: an existential space that is imagined and construed according to rules that do not obey any principle of totality? But '68 (and situationism) was unable to think itself as flight, subtraction and active desertion. It wanted to think of itself as a new totality in the making.

Debord was the last Hegelian, the last great dialectician, even though he could paradoxically perceive the formation of a field where dialectics is no longer effective, neither in interpretation nor in practice.

The current reality of semio-capitalism unfolds through the digital transformation of communicative production and bears no resemblance to a dialectical negation, nor indeed does it proceed to a process of totalisation. On the contrary, what dominates the social universe of the web is fragmentation. The expectation of dialectics became a trap and prevented the cognitive, productive, imaginative and existential power from turning into positive of forms of situations that were happily singular. Post-68 society now has this capability.

Thus the productive power of cognitive labour rebelled against the existence and happiness of cognitive workers, the power of the spectacle of social communication revolted against social communication intended as a process of life sharing.

Debord saw the limit of the dialectic, but he did not want to overcome it, to go beyond, to exit from the obsession with the historical totality, and to go freely on his path. When I say Debord here, I want to say all of us, who were not (neither are or maybe never will be) able to free ourselves from Hegel and the historical horizon. Punk consciously carried on the path of the situationist movement and perceived the dissolution of every possible future totality. The slogan "no future" signalled that no tolerable totality would ever be possible. And suicide has become a diffuse social behaviour, or even a weapon against others and against oneself: the only road of flight from the intolerable suffering of an existence from which all sense has been extinguished.

Translated by Arianna Bove from Rekombinant

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