Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen
On the 30th of June 1952 the film Hurlements en faveur de Sade by Guy Debord premiered in Ciné-Club d'Avant-Gardes at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. The lights in the cinema were switched off and the film began. The screen went white from the light of the projectors and an expressionless voice on the soundtrack announced: "The film by Guy-Ernest Debord, Howlings in favour of Sade …" Another voice continued dispassionately, "Howlings in favour of Sade is dedicated to Gil J. Wolman". A third voice recited "Article 115. When a person shall have ceased to appear at his place of abode or home address for four years, and about whom there has been no news whatsoever, the interested parties shall be able to petition the lower courts in order that his or her absence be declared". The three voices continued reading different text fragments out loud, one after the other, for a couple of minutes. The screen remained white; there were still no pictures. After a couple of minutes with a white screen, a voice recited: "Just as the film was about to start, Guy-Ernest Debord would climb on stage to say a few words by way of introduction. He'd say simply: 'There's no film. Cinema is dead. There can't be film anymore. If you want, let's have a discussion". Following this the screen went black, and there was no sound for a couple of minutes. Already at this point the audience was getting restless - several had protested loudly, others had left, and only a few minutes passed before the director of the film club, Jean Gauliez, stopped Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Indeed, this film by Guy Debord, later leader of the Situationists, was also a provocation and an anti-film more than a film. There were no pictures in the film - the screen was either white or black. The soundtrack consisted of nothing but voices expressionlessly reciting the fragmentary sentences taken from bodies of laws, novelettes, modernistic literature and newspaper notices. There was neither music nor real sound in the film; only voices cut through the silence. The discontinuous 'dialogue' of the voices accompanied the white screen, and when the screen was black there was no sound in the film. The film lasted eighty minutes; the soundtrack lasted twenty. So the film consisted of one hour of blackness and total silence, its final twenty-four minutes taking place in black silence. However, the viewers were not interested in spending this amount of time on the premiere, which ended in chaos and scandal, the film being stopped after less than ten minutes.
This event was paradigmatic for the scepticism of Situationist International toward not just film, but images in general. The Situationists were modern iconoclasts with a prophetic vision of a future communistic society. Therefore, they were revolutionaries in respect to the world at that time, a world they denied. As in Hurlements en faveur de Sade, the Situationists refused to create images, to produce new representations. The absent pictures in Debord's film were intended as a critique of the way in which contemporary culture used the image, which according to the Situationists was the most recent alienating technique of capitalism. As Debord wrote in the Situationists' major theoretical work, La Société du Spectacle, from 1967: "Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself."  According to the Situationists, after the World Wars the Western world had been transformed into a society of images in which products and images formed a synthesis. Fascism's aestheticization of politics and staging of the public had prepared the American-inspired consumer society that became a reality in the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War. As an important element of this reconstruction, European society had become colonized by images, so that people were bombarded by images both outside and inside, at work and in their spare time. In the 1950s, the walls of the city and the home became covered with the images of the advertising industry, which colonized their surroundings far more subtly than Fascism's directly commanding images. In the Situationists' view, this colonization or bombardment transformed mankind and its experience of time and space. Mankind had previously been an autonomous, contemplative subject, but now it was subjected to the image, which suddenly became autonomous and self-sufficient. Image production occupied the conscious and unconscious processes by means of which the subject sensed, desired and understood the world. At the same time this - the sensual world - had become permeated and transformed by the mass reproduction and spread of the image; so visual experience was no longer a question of creating and discovering new forms, but had to do with an already organized appearance. The subject was therefore reduced to a contemplative object, the imagery of the society of spectacle already having been formed and thus not in need of the subject's active efforts to frame and mould. The society of spectacle was a society in which everything, according to Debord, was staged, and in which people therefore merely passively contemplated a world beyond their intervention.
With his notion of the society of spectacle or the spectacular market society, Debord attempted to update Western Marxism, the analyses of which concluded that during the twentieth century capital had subjugated everything. Capital did not just produce commodities, work tools and raw material; it also produced labour. Mankind had thus become totally dependent. According to Debord, the dominance of capital had become complete through the general commodification of fetishes, through the production and consumption of material and symbolic 'commodities' that all had the quality of representations or images. In this process in which society was no longer justified with reference to the hereafter, the opposition between use-value and exchange-value disintegrated; it was no longer possible to distinguish between original and copy, between true and false. According to Debord, this meant that the subversive potential of art had disappeared. Through the spectacle, capitalism and cultural production had formed a false synthesis. Cultural production had become assimilated into the production of commodities, and there was no longer any 'outside'- such as the surrealists' subconscious - from which art could criticize capital. Art was no longer a place beyond the form of the commodity where a certain liberty was accessible.
For Debord there was no longer anything beyond commercial culture's logic of production, which had absorbed all art forms. It was therefore illusory to expect art to negate the logic of production, art now being merely a reservoir for ideological manoeuvres rather than creative resources. The space from which art had previously mobilized critique had been occupied. It was a serious problem for every artistic practise, even if they saw themselves as anti-artistic and critical, as did the Situationists. But at the same time it was also a possibility, the Situationists being especially well positioned, as it were, to understand the new symbolic terms of production that became a reality after the Second World War in Europe. Debord's and the Situationists' starting point in the tradition of the artistic avant-garde meant that originally they almost intuitively, and later more and more theoretically, understood how art and culture had come to play a key role in the self-symbolization of society. The Situationists nevertheless remained dependent on a metaphysical idea of an absolute reality, and the more they desperately asserted the existence of a more essential reality, the more obvious and visible the vision became, thus becoming trapped among the images of the society of spectacle.
The real strength of the society of spectacle compared to earlier societies was precisely culture and its production and reception of images, for with culture the dominant order could create 'empty' images, that is, images of a subject that did not have any subjectivity other than the images. For Debord the 'solution' to this historical problem of society going into a visual oscillation was to abandon art as a separate sphere for exercising creativity. The Situationists refused the artistic praxis. It was simply impossible to create artworks; only the avant-garde position remained. The avant-garde was the vanguard of humanity, its head, which, because it had wrenched itself free from figurative idols, had a prophetic vision of the future. The avant-garde was a little, select band that had had a vision of the arrival of the communists. So they had the historical necessity on their side and claimed the nearness of what was to come, which would cancel the past and put an end to pure survival.
Society's recuperation of artistic expressions should be confronted with the avant-garde's appropriation of society's representations. This appropriation, labelled détournement by the Situationists, was not intended to innovate the artistic creative process; on the contrary, it was an anti-artistic technique by which to destroy and scandalize not just culture but the entire world. Bourgeois art should therefore not simply be negated as had been done by dada and surrealism earlier; it should be used for concrete propaganda aims. This operation was reserved for a few experts. Debord was not in doubt: the time had come to affirm the historical necessity and abandon the obsolete pseudo-communication of art. According to Debord, only by transcending art in a Hegelian sense could one be faithful to the tradition of artistic revolt. He therefore consistently maintained that art should be negated and realized in revolutionary theory and practise, while at the same time insisting that this transcendence of art could not be delayed to a later time in history, but had to take place here and now. Art could no longer make do with heralding a coming society.
It was of course as an expression of this radical lack of faith in the image that the 'lacking' images in Hurlements en faveur de Sade should be understood. For, like other artistic media, film had, according to Debord, been recuperated, neutralized, by the society of spectacle. In fact, film was more than anything else an example of the society of spectacle's ability to make use of potentially revolutionary media to freeze history and create anti-situations. The technical possibilities of film were used in a contra-revolutionary way to change mankind into a passive object. In spite of the anti-auratic entertainment aspect of film, in the course of merely thirty years film had acquired its own value and had become the ideal example of the spectacular. In the dark space of the cinema the viewer was fixed in front of the screen. This voyeuristic fixation was far more effective than the fragmented forms and discontinuous stories of the individual films. The cinema had become, according to Debord, the cathedrals of modernity, reducing mankind to an immobile, isolated viewer. For this reason film should be negated. Debord declared war against film: Contre le cinéma, as he entitled a book collection of his film manuscripts. This did not mean, however, that the Situationists merely renounced film as a hopeless and contaminated undertaking. In respect to their theories of false and true images, film should be appropriated and wrenched free from the dominance of the spectacle. It was precisely not film itself that was contra-revolutionary, but rather the way the society of spectacle used film. Another revolutionary film was potentially possible. The reappropriation of film necessarily entailed negating the contemplative aspects of film. Hurlements en faveur de Sade was this kind of reappropriation, an anti-film that frustrated the contemplative immersion of the viewer and caused indignation. There was no film, as it were, if by film we mean the presence of pictures. There was nothing but the blackness of the cinema and the white light of the projector. The representations that the projector normally projects were absent and in their place was nothing but the projector itself, 'liberated' from the representations that normally cover up its presence. Hurlements en faveur de Sade therefore radically exposed the organization of the cinema. There were no pictures to contemplate. Debord had cut away the primary characteristic of film, the picture, leaving the viewer with a kind of virtual film that was to continue on the street. Debord temporally occupied the cinema and interrupted the circulation of false images. The black and white screen served as a barricade that prevented the voyeuristic viewer from attaining the spectacular film. The passifying use of film should be stopped in order to make it possible to go from one-way communication to conflict and scandal, to a 'debate', and finally to authentic dialogue. Debord was provocative in the etymological sense of this word: he called forth other voices. Other voices in the individual viewer, voices that the society of spectacle had lulled to sleep. Debord's intention was thus to suspend the normal functioning of film in order to use the suspended film to create critical awareness, a critical awareness that the viewers themselves were to create. Debord himself had left the cinema and was only present as absence in the film's dialogue: "Just as the film was about to start, Guy Ernest Debord would climb on stage". So not only the pictures were absent, Debord was too. Not even the director was present to start the debate. He had become invisible, had retreated from the spectacular light of the cinema. Debord the director went on strike. The film creator did not create a film, but blocked the cinema so that no film was shown at all. With Hurlements en faveur de Sade Debord caused a paradoxical appearance/disappearance. The first real sentence in the film was also the legal definition of disappearance: Article 115. It was not just the film that remained virtual, but also Debord the director. Thereby an intact space of potentiality opened up. The absence of a work and an author exposed an opening in the frozen time of the society of spectacle. It was hoped that in this opening a critical awareness would be created in the viewer.
Debord and the Situationists felt that it was no longer possible to create pictures. The content - love, community, freedom - was lacking. By destroying experience the society of spectacle had destroyed mankind and ravaged everyday life. Insofar as modern life had been exploded into bits and pieces, the image had to be too. Previously such an important ally in the mental revolution, the image was now nothing but a privileged figure for the society of spectacle, a paradigm for reducing mankind to a passive viewer. This was why it was necessary to occupy the cinema and destroy the spectacular images.
Translated by Stacey Cozart
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1 Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), p. 12.
Giorgio Agamben: "Le cinéma de Guy Debord", Image et mémoire. Dijon-Quetigny: Hoëbeke, 1998, pp. 65-76.
Mikkel Bolt: "(Ex)appropriation af verden. Det Tredje Riges skuespil og situationistisk film", Agora , no. 2/3, 2001, pp. 93-128.
Antoine Coppola: Introduction au cinéma de Guy Debord et de l'avant-garde situationniste. Arles: Sulliver, 2003.
Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle , trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1995.
Guy Debord: Society of the Spectacle and Other Films , trans. Richard Parry. London: Rebel Press, 1992.
Allison Field: "Hurlements en faveur de Sade: The Negation and Surpassing of Discrepant Cinema", Substance , no. 90, 1999, pp. 55-70.
Thomas Y. Levin: "Dismantling the Spectacle: The Cinema of Guy Debord", in On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972, ed. Elisabeth Sussman. Cambridge, Mass. & London: MIT Press, 1989, pp. 72-123.
Jean-Michel Mension: La Tribu. Paris: Editions Allia, 1998.
Mario Perniola: I situazionisti. Il movimento che ha profetizzato la 'Società dello spettacolo'. Rome: Castelvecchi, 1998.
Maurice Rajsfus: Une enfance laîque et républicaine. Levallois-Perret: Éditions Manya, 1992.
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