The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Debord, Guy

  • Jeremy Tambling
Living reference work entry


Filmmaker (six films), writer, drinker, part-creator of the Situationist International (SI) and Marxist revolutionary, Guy Debord (1931–1994) remains one of the most influential of Parisian intellectuals postwar, drawing on Dada, as an art of negation, and Surrealism, which he critiqued as having allowed itself to become popular (though with a certain admiration for some Surrealists, including the Belgian Surrealist Marcel Mariën). Acknowledged for critiquing Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), and giving, with those he was associated with, certain new terms which have altered critical theory forever, especially urban theory. Such terms as “situationism,” “psychogeography,” “spectacle,” and détournement (diversion, interruption) and dérive (drift: the art of losing the self in the city), each of which will be defined below, are essential for understanding the modern city and ways in which it has been written about, and the intellectual and revolutionary’s place within it.


Détournement Marxism Paris Psychogeography Revolution Situationism Terrorism The dérive The spectacle Urban design 


Debord’s most famous work, The Society of the Spectacle, appeared in 1967 and was widely credited with having influenced the May 1968 revolts in Paris and other French cities (the occupations by students had earlier started in Strasbourg). Debord was to make a film based on it in 1973 and write Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in 1988. Another film, with the palindromic title In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (“We go round and round in night, consumed by fire”) appeared in 1979 and engaged with the subject of far left-wing terrorism. His last prose text of 1989, a short autobiography, was translated into English as Panegyric (1991).


Debord was born on 28 December 1931 and was to shoot himself on 30 November 1994, finishing a life which had never been orthodox. He was brought up, principally, in Cannes. In 1951, he moved to Paris, where he remained for most of his life, though he died in the Auvergne. Debord was never associated with a university, and his education was what he read for himself and what he learned for himself in bohemian Paris. He was married twice: first to Michele Bernstein and then to Alice Becker-Ho. His first film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade was premiered on October 13, 1952, and shocked and actively provoked audiences both in Paris and at the ICA in London, when it was shown there, as being an attack on cinema. In this film, its title translatable as Howls for Sade, and so drawing attention to a writer and art which may be deemed unusable in any political context, impossible to domesticate (for Sade was imprisoned in different ways by the Ancien Régime, by the French Revolution, and by the Napoleonic regime), there was no image, just alternations from a black to a white screen, and a soundtrack when the screen was white comprising a collage of comments). The last 24 min were of silence and a black screen. One of those influenced by it was the monochrome artist and exponent of “performance art,” Yves Klein (1928–1962). Behind the contrast of white and black was the Ukrainian artist Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), and his “Black Square” (1915), founding art-work of the “Suprematist” movement. Behind performance art is, of course, rejection of the idea of art or film or literature as representation.

A friend of the Romanian-born poet and film-maker Isidor Isou (1925–2007), whom Greil Marcus discusses in his history of punk culture, along with giving a history of the SI, which he sees as influential on punk, Debord was to be one of those who formed the “Lettrist International” in 1953. One of its members was the Russian in Paris, Ivan Chtcheglov (1933–1998), whose pseudonym was Gilles Ivain. He began his “Formulary for a New Urbanism,” published in 1957 in the Situationist International. Chtcheglov, who ended his life in a mental home, believed that “the hacienda must be built” – as a new kind of communal space within a colony – and so promoted the idea” of the future “haçienda” – was the name of a famous Manchester nightclub which ran from 1982 until 1997.

The Situationist International journal was launched in 1958 and ran until 1972, producing 12 issues and a few international conferences; one of its principal founders being Asger Jorn (1914–1973), the Danish artist using many mediums; philosopher and writer; another was the Dutch artist Constant (Constant Nieuwenhuys, 1920–2005), for whom “experiment” in art was all, and who wanted, in terms of urban design, to build the “New Babylon.” Jorn’s significance was to be part already of the group CoBrA (i.e., Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam) – the home cities of Jorn, Chrisopher Dotremont and Joseph Noiret, and of Constant, respectively. CoBrA had been founded in 1948, in Paris, and its energies went into situationism. One British name associated with the Journal, and with the Lettrist International before it, was the Newcastle-born Ralph Rumney (1935–2002) who set up the London Psychogeographical Society; the British art critic most associated with situationism is T.J. Clark, especially in The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1984). Another principal figure in the SI was the Belgian theorist of paranoia, and the follower of Georges Bataille, Raoul Vaneigem. He became as famous as Debord when his book, to be translated literally as “Treatise on how to live for the use of the young” (Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations) appeared in 1967 (in English: The Resolution of Everyday Life). Vaneigem’s subject was equally postwar urbanism: “if the Nazis had known contemporary urbanists, they would have transformed their concentration camps into low-income housing” (quoted in McDough 2002: 120). And also important for the 1968 Paris riots was a Tunisian member of the SI, Mustapha Khayati, with his pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life (1966) – De la misère en milieu étudiant, considérée sous les aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel, et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier: “of the misery of student life, considered under the economic, political, psychological, sexual, and especially intellectual, with some means to remedy them” – which first fired up the students at Strasbourg.

These radicals and Marxists used popular graffiti such as “Never work,” Chtcheglov’s thesis was “we’re bored with the city” – a statement inspired by a hatred of the city’s banalization, especially in the way it was becoming a victim of town-planning, with the regularity and symmetrical patterning associated with Mondrian or Le Corbusier, with the Utilitarian implications for regarding the city that this implies, as well as the Cartesian regularity. The city must be seen rather as a labyrinth, or like a Piranesi construction. Paris, like other cities, had become a dead center, made into a museum, with unacceptable breeze-block type suburbs all around. The car, which was to be banned, save for taxis, and which was the supreme expression of an alienated life, was at the center of everything and negated everything of city life. To break through, and out of all this, was the “Situationists” aim. Drawing on Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1936) – and admiration for Huizinga (1872–1945) extended to his evocation of the medieval, in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919) so that the Situationists idealized masculine heroism, and the medieval, there was, in Chtcheglov and Debord and others an admiration for cities as playful – with reference to Monaco, and Las Vegas, despite the reductionism of what these cities actually stood for. Equally, there was praise for the Bavarian king Ludwig II (1845–1886), who was suspected of insanity, and the patron of Richard Wagner, but the builder of a medieval fairy-tale castle, Neuschwanstein, in the Alps.

The publisher of Society of the Spectacle was Gêrard Lebovici, who financed much of the SI and Debord’s films. Born in Paris in 1932, Lebovici’s mother was a victim of the Nazis, and he himself was Marxist and assassinated on 5 March 1984 in mysterious circumstances, still unsolved – even Debord was suspected. The murder was an indication of the violence which, for Debord, was inseparable from contemporary politics and the city, as it was for Gianfranco Sanguinetti (b.1948), an Italian who was associated with the SI. Debord and Sanguinetti engaged with the question of who bore responsibility for the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in 1969 (a basis for Dario Fo’s farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist) and who was responsible for the death of the Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro killed in Rome in 1978, supposedly by the Marxist terrorist Red Brigade, but with questions remaining: in both cases there was the sense of far right, or government involvement, which could then blame far left groups for bringing terror onto the streets. The philosopher Antonio Negri was one of those arrested on suspicion of belonging to the Red Brigade. Such “terrorist” groups as the Red Army Faction, and the Baader-Meinhof group in West Germany (see Scribner 2007), and, on the other side, the far right Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, who carried out the bombing in Bologna railway station in August 1980, were part of Debord’s contexts, as they were for all those attempting to resist “the spectacle.” His conclusion was that terrorism actually served the interests of the state, since it convinced people that compared with terrorism, everything else of the state must be acceptable (Debord 1998: 24).


Sartre, in 1947, 1949, and through to 1964, 1966, 1967, 1972, and 1976, continued to bring out works of philosophy and criticism under the umbrella-title Situations, and Debord’s “situationism” was a rejection of that title, along with Sartre’s sense that a situation was a given, and that a person had to work with it prior to taking action. For Debord, a situation – a collective environment – was what had to be changed, and re-created, because space is not a given. If we are within a space, that has been defined by limits and it is a permitted space (think of shopping malls, which are, of course, privately owned) and that space must, then, be contested. Debord began with the postwar urban condition, a situation in Sartre’s sense implied that the self and its conditions in the world were separate (a Cartesian idea) and that had to be lived with; situationism in contrast starts with the idea that the situation and the self are not separate entities- from this, everything proceeds. One project of situationism was to link up, cartographically, parts of the city completely separated spatially. This was to be associated with the idea of the dérive.

The Dérive and Détournement

The theory of the dérive is that of drift: the city is to be the place for drifting in a development of the idea of the flâneur of the nineteenth-century, and thus making connections between spaces, discoveries that could not be predicted: this and détournement were concepts of the mid-1950s. Détournement means twisting ideas which have already been given perhaps by Establishment art (as punk rock in the 1980s notoriously twisted all such); in this way, in Brechtian mode, as Debord wrote: “ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea and replaces it with the right idea” (Society of the Spectacle 1987: §207). This is a philosophy to be carried over to the use of cities, attempting to turn or twist what is already in them, what is in ruins, what needs to be turned over to new uses. He calls this process “diversion,” which is the opposite of quotation, which is a more reverent procedure altogether, respecting the original building, or space, or document (§208). Détournement, which may even be thought of as montage, works upon “the spectacle” in the visual images it produces, showing these in a mode which criticized the ideology behind them, as with Debord’s films.


Though one of the most misused terms in critical theory and popular writing, “psychogeography” is a crucial concept. It has been appropriated in reactionary modes, as with Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, where it is taken, as so often, in a spiritual sense to imply that a place has an essence (sometimes “spiritual”) which precedes the subject: that “London,” for instance, has a life of its own that continues in the way that a human subject has. But “psychogeography,” a term associated with Asger Jorn, and stemming from 1953, thinks of “the exact laws and precise effects of a geographic milieu, consciously arranged or not, acting directly on the behaviour of individuals” (quoted, Bracken 1997: 53). A housing-estate, a deprived quarter in one of the banlieues, the atmosphere of the Latin Quarter, all these will have conscious and unconscious effects, constructing the person who lives there, and so will the transitions from one place to another (for people taken out of their familiar milieu, those transitions may produce paranoia: and so may a familiar place induce paranoid feelings). Psychogeography ties in with the idea of “everyday life,” which was principally the concept of the Marxist Henri Lefebvre (1905–1991), who profoundly influenced Debord at the end of the 1960s. Everyday life is “what remains after one has eliminated all specialist activities” (Lefebvre, quoted Bracken 1997: 111), and the turn to everyday life is central to situationism, as it is to the work of Michel de Certeau, Raymond Queneau, and Georges Perec, and as it had been in the immediate post-war years, as with Italian neo-realist cinema. One of the films that situationism drew on was The Naked City (1948, dir. Jules Dessin), shown in France as La Cité sans voile (1949), which showed New York in film noir conditions, in a documentary style. One of the interests of situationism, in its pursuit of détournement, was to create a collage of New York and Paris, mapping the two onto each other, in this way defamiliarizing the city (there is again the influence of Brecht here). Situationism both tried to confront the city and to find a way through it, changing the situation. Paris was an abiding fascination, as with the use of the historian Louis Chevalier (1911–2001), The Assassination of Paris (French 1877, English translation 1994).

The Spectacle

Debord’s Marxism was influenced by Hegel and by Georg Lukács, especially with the latter’s History and Class Consciousness (1922). For Lukács, Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism,” where objects are treated, in the capitalist market, as if they were real, quasi-animated things (and correspondingly, people – workers – are treated as things), has become in the twentieth century, “reification,” where everything now has the objectified character of the thing. People’s relationships with each other are consequently objectified, alienated, forcing them into a separateness from each other. A similar analysis works through Benjamin, in the Arcades Project, and was to be a feature of “Western Marxism” (as with Adorno, Gramsci, and Althusser). In Debord, the sense of everyday life is that it has been reified (made “thing”-like), frozen into objectivity, and called “the spectacle,” where everything has become an image. The image does not just relate to television, a technology completed by 1927, nor just to cinema, or advertising, or photography; it implies that there is nothing to see but an image (i.e., there is no access in reality beyond it) and the image reflects back the self that capitalism creates. In this way, Debord critiques Daniel Boorstin’s much more local (though still useful) critique of the image, in his book of that name (subtitled A Guide to Pseudo-Events, 1962), as something which conceivably may be got past – see The Society of the Spectacle §198–§199–§200. The place where the image is seen is the city.

The Society of the Spectacle, comprising 221 theses, in nine chapters, begins by calling the spectacle “the concrete inversion of life … the autonomous movement of the non-living” (§2), absolutely permanent. It is a “negation of life” (§10), and “the opposite of dialogue” (§18), allowing no return, nothing of what Mikhail Bakhtin in his writings on the novel would think of multi-voicedness, or polyphony, or “dialogism.” It institutionalizes “separation” (§25) and its success in doing that is “the proletarianisation of the world” (§26). The proletariat have no inside knowledge as to what is going on: they have no trade secrets; they know they are on the outside, and so it is with the spectacle (the way this is even more the case with new digital media, that people are wholly excluded from what is going on there: a planned ignorance worth reflecting on). And the more this alienation continues:

The less [the spectator] understands his own existence and his own desires. The eternality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his, but those of another who represents them to him. That is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere. (§30)

The first chapter ends saying “the spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image” (§34). Section 36 discusses commodity fetishism, a leading theme of the second chapter, which refers too to “the perfected denial of man” (§43). Cities are clearly no longer places to live in; but that does not mean there is an alternative to them. §59 refers to “banalization” within modern society as the result of “the society of the spectacle” (§57). And the person who embodies such banalization is “the celebrity” (§60 – see also §193), the star who is no more than image. In such a section, Debord comes close to Adorno, on the negativity of the highly managed “culture industry.”

The fourth, and longest chapter, “The Proletariat as Subject and as Representation” returns to an earlier theme and asks about the possibility of a working-class movement which could counter this and be truly revolutionary. It is followed by “Time and History,” which speaks of “frozen societies” (§130), and they are so because of the triumph of the bourgeois revolution, of which Marx had spoken in The Communist Manifesto (1847), as that which had shaped cities and civilizations in its own mode. In §176, Debord quotes Marx saying that “the subjection of the country to the city” was one of the achievements of the bourgeois revolution. It gives, as the next section argues, a sense of time as ongoing and therefore in the gift of those who have it. It is the spectacle which gives this false sense of having time and of being inside progress (§158). Similarly, it gives, as the next section (VII) argues, “unified space” – that which the idea of the dérive must contest (§165). Society appears to eliminate “geographical distance” (§167); distance is handled in a way which negates it by tourism which is “nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal … the same modernisation that removed time from the voyage also removed it from it the reality of space” (§168). Urbanization, as a making homogeneous city-spaces, conquers “the restless becoming in the passage of time” (§170 – quoting Hegel). Urbanization is a way of separating workers who had been brought together in city-space. Evoking Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, Debord thinks of “factories and halls of culture, tourist resorts and housing developments” as ways of serving (creating) a “pseudo-community” (§172); this is where Debord critiques an “authoritarian” tendency in modern architecture (§173):

The present is already the time of the self-destruction of the urban milieu. The explosion of cities which cover the countryside … is directly regulated by the imperatives of consumption. The dictatorship of the automobile has been stamped into the environment with the domination of the freeway, which dislocates old urban centres and requires an ever-larger dispersion… enormous shopping centres … temples of frenzied consumption… flee as soon as they in turn become overburdened secondary centres. But the technical organization of consumption is only the first element of the general dissolution which has led the city to the point of consuming itself. (§174)

There is nothing said here that has not increased its relevance since 1967, and in this quotation it can be seen how Debord attached consumption to the idea of the spectacle: consumption being a way in which people perpetuate their alienation; imagining, thanks to the power of the image, that they are fulfilled through shopping. And for Debord, “urbanism destroys cities and re-establishes a pseudo-countryside which lacks the natural relations of the old countryside as well as the direct social relations which were directly challenged by the historical city” (§177). This thesis, of urbanism versus the city, is central to Debord’s analysis of what needs to be challenged: certainly urbanism “is” the spectacle, and the city, if it can be rediscovered, may just resist it.

Chapter 8 looks at art in such conditions where communication has become impossible, seeing in the baroque, for instance, art which has lost its center (§189), which means that it must assert itself in its own right. That art has become museumified points to its failure; the Situationists have gone beyond Dada and Surrealism in a “supersession of art” (§191), which is necessary because art has now become part of the spectacle (think how art-festivals and tourism go together). Art might call attention to history, but the function of the spectacle is “to make history forgotten within culture” (§192). Hence, only “the real negation of culture can preserve its meaning” (a wholly Hegelian statement) – “it can no longer be cultural” (§210). That getting out of the art-world is the only way “art” can escape the spectacle.

The last chapter discusses “Ideology” which takes the form of the spectacle: ideology is the way that people are made to see their lives, rather than the reality of their lives (§215). It produces a cultural schizophrenia: “in a society where no one can any longer be recognised by others, every individual becomes unable to recognise his own reality. Ideology is at home: separation has built its world” (§217). There can hardly be a starker way of finishing the text, with this Lacanian sense of the spectacle as what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls the “mirror stage” (§218) which flatters a person’s sense of self – as an image does in a mirror – but which has left the person in a world of unreality. This “inverted truth” – as the mirror inverts everything (§221) – is what only a Marxist new community can contest, and to bring about revolution in the atmosphere of terrorism is the dilemma Debord wrestled with.

Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

In 1988, Debord returned to the subject of his now notorious, much translated book, and wrote a short reflection on it in 33 sections, where he sees “the spectacle” as having advanced inexorably, though still reduced, in many people’s writing about it, to a synonym for “the media.” Debord speaks about the “integrated spectacle,” seeing it as seamless and pervasive throughout, and says it has five features: incessant technological renewal (there is a new awareness of digital technology in this insight), integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy (it is never possible to know what is going on), unanswerable lies, and an eternal present (Debord never lets up on the forgetting of history encouraged by the spectacle, and the loss of memory) (Debord 1998: 11–12). The book enlarges on these themes, all of which have urban resonances, but, negatively, neither it nor the earlier book give a sense of a genealogy of “the spectacle” (Crary 1989). With the result that “the spectacle” may seem too complete, too airtight a thesis, too totalizing (an aspect of Debord’s Hegelianism, perhaps) for there to be the possibility of resistance to it.

Debord differed from many within the SI, and writers and artists associated with it, in that whereas many looked to create a new integrated urban life, often with ludic and utopist ideas within it, for him, the city was more the most vivid expression of the spectacle, and this was not something that could be resisted, save by political and revolutionary action. And with the end of the Cold War, the opportunities for even thinking about ways of resisting American triumphalism- for this, as exemplifying the spectacle, have now advanced from that to what Jean Baudrillard was to call “hyperreality” (where there is only the image; and we see and live with only the copy of the copy, the simulacrum; the image having replaced reality). In that sense, Debord’s life seemed to end negatively, but a huge achievement remains.



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Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeremy Tambling
    • 1
  1. 1.LondonUK