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Review of Len Bracken's Guy Debord: Revolutionary

by Bill Brown

LEN BRACKEN'S "GUY DEBORD: REVOLUTIONARY" (Feral House, 1997) is a competent, clearly-written "critical biography" by a writer who is sympathetic to his subject and tells his story without prejudice, jargon, or rumor-mongering. Thanks to its strict reliance on a chronological narrative structure, which moves from "The Formative Years (1931-1957)" to "The Situationist Years (1958-1972)," and ends with "The Clandestine Years (1973-1994)," the development of the book is easy to follow. Two-hundred-and-sixty-six pages long, it is handsomely designed, well-illustrated, and well-made. It contains a bibliography, an index, and relatively few typos. Most notably, the book includes as an appendix the entirety of a never-before-translated text by Debord, i.e., "The Game of War" (1987), which describes the rules of a 19th century-style board game (kriegspiel) that Debord invented. Scattered throughout the book are several previously untranslated texts, including letters, articles for Potlatch, taped lectures and tracts by Debord, parts of Debord's 1993 book "This Bad Reputation" and "Guy Debord: His Life and His Art" (Cornand's TV documentary), articles by Isidore Isou, letters by Gil Wolman, excerpts from Debord & Jorn's Memoires, flyers for LI exhibits, etc etc. There's even a picture of Raoul Vaneigem.

THOUGH "GUY DEBORD: REVOLUTIONARY" INCLUDES new material by Debord, it tells us nothing new about him -- nothing, that is, that attentive readers of Debord's published works didn't already know. And that isn't very much, as we all know: Debord said very little about himself, even in his putative autobiography, Panegyrique. And so the only "place" to go, if you want to compose a biography of Debord, would be to the people who knew him well. People like Alice Becker-Ho, his widow; Michelle Bernstein, his ex-wife; and Raoul Vaneigem, Rene Riesel, and Rene Vienet, the members of the Situationist International with whom he collaborated. Right? This is what Greil Marcus did before he wrote Lipstick Traces (1989); it is the interviews with people like Henri Lefebrve, Alexander Trocchi, Gil Wolman and Michele Bernstein that make Marcus's portraits of Guy Debord so vivid and compelling, and that makes Marcus's book such good reading and good research. (In the years since Lipstick Traces was published, Lefebvre, Trocchi, Wolman and Debord, of course, have died.)

BRACKEN EVIDENTLY HAD ACCESS TO PEOPLE in Europe (principally one Jean-Noel Clement, as well as the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and the Silkeborg Kunstmuseum in Denmark) who had and granted him access to never-before-translated texts. (Bracken says nothing about his methodology.) But no one of any consequence is interviewed in his book. Perhaps the surviving ex-members of the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals refused to be interviewed by Bracken for this book; perhaps no one Bracken came in contact with knew Debord personally; or perhaps Bracken never saw the necessity of interviewing human beings, as well as reading and interpreting cultural artifacts, for "Guy Debord: Revolutionary." It appears that no one was "looked up in the phone book" -- both Greil Marcus and Tim Clark live in Berkeley, California; Bruce Elwell and Donald Nicholson-Smith live in New York City; Raoul Vaneigem lives in Brussels; etc. etc. -- and interviewed "just for this book."

AS A RESULT, ALL OF THE FIRST-PERSON accounts of what Debord was really like as a person, that is, outside of the carefully constructed portraits of himself that he placed in his writings and films -- the interviews with and quotes from Henri Lefebvre, Michelle Bernstein, and Alex Trocchi -- were originally recorded and published by other writers, in particular Greil Marcus, from whose book Bracken also borrowed over half-a-dozen pictures of Debord and his closest associates. (And yet Bracken nevertheless directs some confused criticism towards Marcus!) Because Bracken's portraits of Debord-the-person are composed of collages of pre-recorded material, they have a cheap, second-hand quality, and the book that contains them has a closed, claustrophobic feel. Debord never "lives" in the pages of Bracken's book. All Debord does here is create cultural artifacts that, when broken into pieces that are then arranged chronologically, seem to say something meaningful about the uniqueness of the personal life of their creator, but don't really.

PROUDLY ADVERTISED AS "THE FIRST BIOGRAPHY [of Debord] in any language," Bracken's book may quickly become obsolete. It doesn't include key material published before it came out, such as Kristen Ross's 1983 interview with Henri Lefebvre, which was finally published in October's Winter 1997 special issue on Debord and the situationists, or Pierre Guillaume's 1995 article about Debord, which suggests that Debord might have been sympathetic to historical revisionist takes on the Holocaust. (Indeed, Bracken's book contains nothing at all about the on-going and alarming appropriation of Debord by the Far Right in France.)

DEBORD'S PANEGYRIQUE II WILL BE PUBLISHED in France soon, though it is unlikely that it will help any biographer's efforts. Perhaps someone who can interview the people who were close to Debord will write a real, personal biography of Guy Debord -- if such a thing is actually needed in the first place. (A biography of Debord seems oxymoronic, an exercise in futility.) But until a real biography appears or is translated from whatever language in which it is written (French, Italian or Spanish), Len Bracken's "Guy Debord: Revolutionary" is a novelty; it will be "in demand," talked about by all the right people, assigned a role to play in the spectacle. It will surely garner some positive reviews in the American bourgeois print media. It may even be assigned reading by professors who would teach Society of the Spectacle in their classes. But it won't make anyone FEEL what Debord felt, namely, the necessity of social revolution.


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