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The Tombs of Guy Debord (Working Title 3.3)

The Massachusetts Review presents the latest Working Titles e-book: THE TOMBS OF GUY DEBORD by Jean-Marie Apostolidès, translated by Laure Katsaros and René Kooiker—available this week!

“Montaigne had his quotations; I have mine,” Guy Debord claimed in his autobiography, Panégyrique (75). Throughout his work, he made such frequent use of quotation, paraphrase, and literary allusion—at times openly, more often than not covertly—that I believe it is crucial to shed light on these techniques before analyzing his ideas in greater depth.

Why did Debord delight in borrowing other people’s words? How did his own writing relate to the sources he quoted? Why did he never openly acknowledge his references, and how does this change the status of the literary technique? If, on the one hand, he refused to defer to the authority of his sources, on the other he revived an idea or turn of phrase that would have fallen into obsolescence if not for his game of détournement.

The Theory of Détournement

Beginning in 1956, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman pioneered the use of quotation as part of an overarching technique called détournement. In the first issue of the journal Situationist International, the term is defined as follows:

Détournement: Short for “détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements.” The integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres (IS 13).

Détournement came in the wake of avant-garde practices, yet it also broke with them. Inspired by Dadaist collage and the automatic writing of the Surrealists, it went one step further. To this end, Debord returned to Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautréamont, the forefather of détournement, claiming that the radical nature of this writer had never been grasped: “A catchphrase like ‘Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it’ is as poorly understood, and for the same reasons, as the famous saying about poetry, which ‘must be made by all’” (Documents 303-4). Debord systematized Ducasse’s technique so single-mindedly that he undermined the very idea of intellectual property. He did not just oppose the economic traditions based on copyright; he wanted to shake the bourgeois concept of value to its foundations. The practice of détournement places all artworks of the past on an equal footing, toppling their hierarchy. It undermines the concept of a masterpiece, which in turn minimizes the importance of models in art and literature at large: “Thus the practice of détournement, above all, negates the initial value of a given expression or turn of phrase” (IS 78). Lastly, this technique enacts a revolutionary process, eradicating social hierarchies in the practice of art because it allows anyone to make poetry: “It is a genuinely proletarian way to teach artistic practice, the first step toward a literary communism” (Documents 305).

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