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Semiotext(e)'s translation of Guy Debord's letters

by NOT BORED! Friday, Jan. 23, 2009 at 6:45 PM

the entire book is thus both an Orwellian suppression of these relevant and important historical events, and an implicit validation and approval of the similar suppressions that preceded it and made it possible.

Steal this book

Now that Semiotext(e) – after thirty years of ignoring Guy Debord and the other members of the Situationist International in favor of such ex-Maoist “post-structuralists” and “post-modernists” as Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault – has published its translation of volume I (June 1957-August 1960) of Guy Debord's letters, I know you fuckers are expecting me -- the guy who has been translating and uploading these letters to the Internet for free for the last four years -- to write one of my patented, very detailed and thoroughly devastating 5,000 word critiques. But frankly I can't be bothered. And so y’all are going to have to content yourselves with the following list, presented en vrac:

1) the entire volume is presented exactly as it was in the original French, which means this volume says that it is the first of six such volumes, when in fact seven were necessary;

2) the translators have reproduced all of Alice/Fayard's footnotes, but have added none of their own; untranslated texts that are referred to by Debord have been left untranslated; the book also does not include an index or a list of "Who's Who"; as a result, the people, publications and events described can be unnecessarily difficult to follow;

3) the back cover claims that these letters are "published here for the first time in English," as if what appears on the Internet is not "published" and therefore isn’t real and/or doesn’t exist;

4) the back cover insists that the Situationist International was a "cultural" avant-garde, a “cultural movement” with a “cultural mission,” and completely ignores and thereby falsifies its political character – and this at a time when Guy Debord continues to inspire and be cited by political revolutionaries in France and Greece, who would not recognize themselves in, nor would they settle for, what Semiotext(e) calls “a complete transformation of personal life within the Society of the Spectacle” (emphasis added);

5) After waiting to see how well this book sells – McKenzie Wark’s preface suggests that it will be marketed to “today’s individualist sensibility,” “to an ear trained by the Cold War to protect its precious individualism,” “the individualist sensibility of what Debord will call ‘bourgeois civilization,’ ” and (worst of all) “the contemporary reader” -- Semiotext(e) is going to try to convince Alice/Fayard that publishing translations of all seven volumes in their entirety isn't commercially viable, and that, after 1969, "superfluous" letters will need to be edited out, thus placing the full weight of the series on the first two or three volumes, which of course will be complete;

6) The overall effect of this operation will be just like Tom McDonough's Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, which emphasized the early "artistic" SI at the expense of the later "political" SI, but much worse because Debord’s entire life will be reduced to what he did between 1957 and 1967, and the English-speaking world will once be deprived of the opportunity to learn about the explicitly political work Debord did in Portugal in 1974 and 1975, Italy in 1975 and 1976, Spain in 1980 and France in 1986 and 1987;

7) Of course, Guy Debord himself would have hated such a weighting, which not only concerns the SI, but his whole life. He would have been familiar with it from Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces (1989) and the various exhibitions of “situationist” art works held at the Pompidou Center and the Institute for Contemporary Arts that same year. And, even worse for Semiotext(e), Debord diagnosed the motivations behind such weightings in his letter to Pascal Dumontier dated 24 October 1989:

"This exhibition wanted to evoke the origins of the SI by refusing and hiding its destiny. 'Becoming is the truth of being.' This phrase by Hegel can be applied, even better than elsewhere, to revolutionary efforts (and often to their detriment, of course). The museographs have thus assembled the 'artistic victims' sacrificed by the SI, who -- except for [Asger] Jorn, who was not a victim, but one of the lucid protagonists -- wouldn't ever be gathered together in a museum if they had not once upon a time had such important and bad associations. Which are only important and bad thanks precisely to May 68."

I believe that this is why McKenzie Wark’s preface is preoccupied with the theme of exclusion, which is mentioned and discussed a total of eight times in the course of a 22-page-long text: he knows full well that, had Debord been alive, he would have tried to prevent and, failing that, would have publicly denounced, such blatantly reactionary moves as those made by Fayard and Semiotext(e);

8) Just like the yellow journalism of Stewart Home, Andy Merrifield, Andrew Hussey, and Nathan Heller, McKenzie Wark's preface to this volume is hostile and suspicious, presenting Debord as if he were a career-minded, manipulative Communist-Party-style apparatchik; does Semiotext(e) seriously think "the contemporary reader" is going to be interested in and want to buy a book by such a caricature?

9) Wark's preface (which we suspect was actually written by Sylvere Lotringer) mentions none of the considerable controversy that, from start to finish (1999 to 2008) surrounds the publication of this series of volumes: a) the fact that in 1999 Alice/Fayard suppressed a book by Debord's former historian and friend Jean-Francois Martos, who actually produced a real volume of correspondence in which two people exchange letters; b) the fact that Michele Bernstein refused to allow any of Guy's letters to her to be printed, which completely undermined the integrity and legitimacy of the entire project, given the unique importance of this woman to Debord's life, politics and thought; c) the fact that none of the letters addressed to Alice herself, Jacqueline de Jong or Michele Mochot-Brehat are included, either; d) the fact that Debord's former friend and physician Michel Bounan condemned Alice in 2000 because Fayard is merely the publishing arm of a huge corporation that makes and distributes military weapons; and e) the fact that, in 2006 and 2007, Debord's former friend and collaborator Jean-Pierre Baudet -- as a protest against all of the above, but especially the fact that Alice/Fayard’s "Correspondence" is not a correspondence precisely because none of the letters addressed to Debord are included -- insisted that none of the letters Guy addressed to him be included in Volumes 6 and 7, and that his name be replaced by an "X" in those instances when he is referred to;

10) the entire book is thus both an Orwellian suppression of these relevant and important historical events, and an implicit validation and approval of the similar suppressions that preceded it and made it possible.


Bill Not Bored
22 January 2009
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