Film as Critical Practice: The Cinema of Guy Debord and the Spectre of the Situationist International
Thomas Y. Levin, Keith Sanborn, Jean-Michel Rabaté, Anthony Vidler
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Listen to a 56 minute recording, or download the file
Thursday, April 06, 2006
Slought Foundation, a non-profit organization rethinking contemporary arts, is pleased to announce "Film as Critical Practice: The Cinema of Guy Debord and the Spectre of the Situationist International," a public conversation and evening of film screenings about the legacy of the Situationist International and the film-theoretical cinema of Guy Debord on Thursday, April 6, 2006 from 6:30-9:00pm. Thomas Y. Levin, Jean-Michel Rabaté, Keith Sanborn, and Anthony Vidler will engage in public conversation, accompanied by video projections of Guy Debord’s second film, "Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps" (1959), and Debord’s fifth film, "Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu’hostiles, qui ont été jusqu’ici portés sur le film 'La Société du Spectacle'" (1975). Unavailable in France since 1984, these films have just been released in newly mastered prints on DVD; English transcriptions will be provided for non French speakers and can be downloaded above in PDF format.
The Situationist International (SI), an international political and artistic movement, emerged in the late 1950s from the confluence of several tendencies which radically redefined the role of art in the twentieth century: the Lettrist International, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, and the London Psychogeographical Association. Building on a critical analysis of Surrealism and Dada, and informed by the insights of COBRA, the Situationists developed their theory and practice through direct artistic and intellectual confrontation with their predecessors and contemporary figures from Lefebvre to Godard. Renewing Marx’s critique of capital, the Situationists viewed the banalization of art as a symptom of the totalizing effect of capitalist alienation. They saw their task as artists and revolutionaries to supersede art as a separate and specialized activity, transforming it so as to become the basis of an invigorated practice of a dramatically new type of everyday life. In the wake of May ’68, which seemed to offer a brief glimpse of the revolutionary upheaval of the quotidian that the SI had long envisioned, the collective project began to falter. Marked by constant scissions and expulsions, the SI dissolved in 1972.
The artist, cultural theorist and activist Guy Debord was the leading member of the Situationist International and author of the group’s most influential text, The Society of the Spectacle (1967). In this seminal tract, Debord develops a critique of “spectacular society” as the moment of the total occupation of social life by the commodity relation. Parallel with his work as the motor of SI activities of all sorts, including the production of the enormously influential collectively-edited magazine Internationale Situationiste (IS), Guy Debord was also a filmmaker. The six films that Debord made between 1952 and 1978 provide a fascinating perspective onto his decidedly critical practice. On the one hand, Debord insisted that the existing cinema had to be destroyed, along with all forms of specialized artistic practice. Yet, on the other hand, Debord and the SI continued to develop strategies for artistic intervention, most notably the militant practice of détournement, a form of plagiaristic citation that recontextualized images and sound from other films and cultural materials of all sorts. The development of Debord’s cinematic anti-aesthetic —from its Lettrist beginnings to its post-SI nostalgia— is a useful barometer of the shifting status and tactical understanding of the aesthetic in the history of the SI. Following the dissolution of the Situationist International, Debord’s films were projected in a small left-bank Parisian cinema dedicated exclusively to his cinematic work. But when his friend, patron, and publisher Gerard Lebovici was murdered in 1984, Debord withdrew his films from circulation in protest. They remained completely unavailable for the next decade until, only weeks after his suicide in 1994, two of them were shown on French television along with a made-for-TV film that Debord had produced together with Brigitte Cornand. This strategy of withdrawal, followed by dissemination on television and, now for the first time on DVD, must, like the works themselves, be examined as a complex media-theoretical intervention.
Please note that "'The Arts of the Future will be radical transformations of situations, or they will be nothing': Guy Debord Cineaste" —a vault installation on display from April 6-May 25, 2006, and featuring original documents and publications of the Situationist International from the collection of Thomas Y. Levin— has been organized in conjunction with this event (here for more information).
“The specialists of cinema have said that my film’s revolutionary politics were bad; the left-wing political illusionists have said that it was bad cinema. But when one is both a revolutionary and a filmmaker, it is easy to demonstrate that their shared bitterness stems from the fact that the film in question is a precise critique of society they do not know how to combat; and the first example of a kind of film they do not know how to make.”
-- Guy Debord, Refutation of All the Judgments, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film "The Society of the Spectacle" (1975)
"[Debord’s 1984 withdrawal of his films] certainly had the effect of generating a substantial aura around the films: no better way to render films mythical than to ostentatiously withhold them. One could also argue, however, that the elimination of the possibility of witnessing the films as phenomenal events served effectively to reduce a certain auratic effect that they undoubtedly had when one could still see them. Since Debord had published the screenplays a few years earlier, together with a very small number of images, in a 1978 volume entitled Oeuvres cinématographiques complètes, 1952–1978, the removal of their spectacular dimension, of the films as a celluloid record of polymorphous détournements, was a way to insist on their fundamentally textual status, by eliminating even the vestigial but undoubtedly powerful acoustic aura of Debord reading his own words in the voice-over. [...] In his letter to me in 1987 he had explained that one of the reasons why he felt he could no longer risk having his films in circulation was due to «structural changes» in the film industry having to do with the pressures of television. Unwilling to risk having his films simply inserted into the banalizing continuum of what Raymond Williams called the televisual «flow,» by withdrawing his films he effectively guaranteed for himself the ability to control their rigorous refusal of the televisual dispositif, at least until that time when he could both provide them with the necessary frame (his first and only work for TV) and, as he had effectively told me in our correspondence in 1987, when he was no longer alive. In so doing, i.e. in insisting on his own death as a precondition for the work of the ciné-fils to appear in the televisual dispositif that was effectively synonymous with at least one of the deaths of cinema, Debord revealed the history of his engagement with cinema as a critical performative reflection on the cultural politics of the cinema across the complex history (before, with and after) of its multiple dispositifs."
-- Thomas Levin, Debord and the Dispositifs of Cinema
Thomas Levin is a Professor in the Department of German at Princeton University since 1990. He specializes in media and cultural theory, the Frankfurt School, art history, and acoustics and technics. A former fellow at the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (Vienna) and at the Institute for Advanced Study (Budapest), in 1999 Levin was chosen by the Dutch Ministry of Culture to be "artist-in-residence" at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, where he developed a project entitled "Celluloid Rembrandtiana" that investigated the dynamics of cultural nationalism and mass media through a program of over a dozen films on Rembrandt (1920 to 1999) subsequently shown at the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt/Main, at the Arsenal Kino in Berlin, and more recently at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In 2000-01, he was the academic director of the Berlin Consortium for German Studies at the FU-Berlin, where Levin studied the origins of synthetic sound in the late 1920s, and theoretical issues posed by the advent of digital imaging. He has curated "CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother," a major international exhibition which was on view at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe through late February 2002. Publications and curatorial projects related to the aesthetic politics of surveillance include "Anxious Omniscience" at the Princeton University Art Musuem, and "9/11 + 1: The Perplexities of Security" at Brown University's Watson Center. In November 2005, he organized a one-day conference at the Louvre Museum in Paris entitled "Photographie, Prison, Pouvoir: Politiques de l'Image Carcérale" which re-examined the history of the "carceral image" in the wake of Abu Ghraib. Levin is currently writing a book about the film-theoretical cinema of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Levin's article for Media Art Net, "Dismantling the Spectacle: The cinema of Guy Debord," is available online.
New York-based media artist Keith Sanborn teaches in the Program in Visual Arts at Princeton University. Selected for both the 1991 and 2002 Whitney Biennials, his films have been shown at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, Colone's Kunsthochschule für Medien, and New York's Millenium Film Workshop. His work is also regularly included in festivals, such as the Rotterdam Film Festival and the Mostra de Video Independent in Barcelona. As an independent curator, Sanborn organized "Film Modernism and Its Discontents: A Perspective From Paris" at Exit Art, New York, in 1990, and the film program for the 2002 Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen. Sanborn is a translator of the writings and films of both Guy Debord and René Viénet, and he has published in Artforum (February 2006) a consideration of the DVD box set of Debord's complete films, recently released in France by Gaumont. The article (free registration required) is available online.
Jean-Michel Rabaté, a Senior Curator at Slought Foundation, is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania since 1992, and has authored or edited twenty books on Modernism, Bernard, Joyce, Pound, Beckett, Lacan, Derrida, psychoanalysis and literary theory.
Anthony Vidler is the Dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union since 2001. Vidler was a member of the Princeton University School of Architecture faculty from 1965-93. He was appointed the William R. Kenan Jr. Chair of Architecture at Princeton in 1990, and professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at UCLA in 1993, with a joint appointment in the School of Architecture in 1997. He is a historian and critic of modern and contemporary architecture, specializing in French architecture from the Enlightenment to the present. He has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a Getty Scholar, at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in 1992-3. His publications include The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment (Princeton Architectural Press, 1987), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Architecture and Social Reform at the End of the Ancien Regime (MIT Press, 1990), The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (MIT Press, 1992), Antoine Grumbach (Centre Georges Pompidou, 1996), and Warped Space: Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture (MIT Press, 2000).
This program was made possible in part through the generous sponsorship of the Department of English and Cinema Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Program organized by Thomas Y. Levin and Aaron Levy with assistance from Bryan Welton (Philadelphia Film Society).
Thomas Y. Levin, Aaron Levy
Media files on the Slought.org website are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Thomas Y. Levin, et al. "Film as Critical Practice: The Cinema of Guy Debord and the Spectre of the Situationist International." Slought Foundation Online Content. [06 April 2006;
Accessed 21 May 2013]. <http://slought.org/content/11323/>.