Pseudo-cinema

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Evan Calder Williams


The only real difference between the paintings of apes and my complete cinematographic work to date is its possible threatening meaning for the culture around us, namely, a wager on certain formations of the future.

 

—Guy Debord, Potlatch 29 (1957)1


I. What is Left to be Done
A peculiar declaration to start: Guy Debord both did and did not make six films, at least according to the films themselves. From start to finish, his cinematic practice consisted of persistent activity within a form declared invalid by that very activity. In other words, the production of films that would not stop insisting that, all appearances and tracking shots to the contrary, they weren’t really films. Fitting, perhaps, as both in these filmed works and the texts about them, the engagement with cinema lacks the partisan clarity of either sincere commitment to what cinema might do or cooler disdain of genuine non-participation.2 Instead, his works insistently pose themselves under an obscure and uncertain banner of what negates but does not destroy.

That absent destruction is not for lack of trying, or at least for lack of disavowal, invective, and abnegation. He will alternately declare his works to be “explicitly anti-art-film,” which he poses against “usual documentary practice” (his description of 1959’s Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps), “against the cinema” (the title of the printed collection of his first three scripts), and, most pointedly, “anti-film,”boasting, with tongue not particularly in cheek, of 1961’s Critique of Separation in its opening moments as “one of the greatest anti-films of all time!” And yet, perhaps not in spite but because of this verve for the anti-, the turn “against the cinema” is no turning away, neither from fetish of the auteurish director nor the site of watching. It is a turning on, both in the sense of how a reel rotates on a projector’s spindle, and also in terms of the way in which a projector turns on its own designated process and bites the reel that feeds it. Put otherwise, this is an avowed rejection that cannot be separated from the materials of the cinema itself, its techniques, styles, audience memory, exhibition spaces, and, above all, its leftover footage, whether its final destination is the archive or the dustbin.3 Because his works may well not be films, even if, at the end of the day, they are made of nothing but film, and especially considering that they were drawn from sources that had no qualms about their identity. And his productions may be against the cinema but only as an against that is armed with lens and splicer, not match and gas can. Around the corner from the Watts supermarket, whose guttering flames furnished the Situationist International (SI) with an image of an eminently tangible “critique of urbanism,” the local cinematheque appears relatively unscathed, even if partially looted.

The question to ask of Debord’s engagement with cinema is simple enough: how does a declared “anti-film” relate both to film as such and to other films in particular? How does such an effort at negation—one that rarely produces its own film sequences from scratch but instead organizes recycled footage and still photos—actually engage with the materials it gathers toward abolishing itself, beyond whatever its textual supplement might claim to be doing? After all, the object of critique at hand is nothing internal to the history of cinema as a set of texts or stylistic tendencies. Rather, it resides instead in the connections one finds between concrete social experiences, such as cinema, and the material abstractions, such as the circulation of capital, from which they are inseparable. Ultimately, then, the convenient negation of the anti- in “anti-films” cannot take on that far messier zone of critique it gestures toward: a history of cinema, a history of capital, a history of the metropolis, and a moving, intersecting history of the contradictions of each.

We’ll reframe the argument, then, along the lines of three questions:

1. What historical situation was diagnosed by Debord, in both his writings and his films?

2. What cinematic terrain was mapped and engaged by those same works?

3. How—if at all—do those two zones of critique and analysis come together in the films? Does that point of contact give a plausible response, or pose further questions, to the injunction given at the end of Sur le passage, the one that forms a basic criteria to be posed to any cinema of critique: to “understand the totality of what’s been done, what’s left to do. And to not add other ruins to the old world of spectacles and memories”?

The drive of this essay is therefore to make better sense of Debord’s films through the -film half of “anti-film.” To do so is neither to discuss their merits as films nor to fantasize that they actually broke with “the cinema.”4 The first activity is one that bores me with any films; the second activity is a laughable misprision of the limits of negativity. Rather, my point is to argue that to see the films as just an extension of a non-cinematic practice—be that communist theory or more “practical forms” of social antagonism, like the aforementioned critique of a supermarket—would miss what was of actual relevance about them, especially with regards to those other practices.5

However, before returning to film and its specificities, I want to take an opposite route, one that runs the double danger of being both extra-cinematic and excessively abstract: a long passage through a particular process of capital and a category of Marxist analysis—accumulation—as it is taken up obliquely and imprecisely by the various threads of Lettrism and the SI, Debord’s solo projects especially included. As I have yet to find a convincing reconstruction of this scattered line of thinking in terms of the SI, a detailed move through it seems of real utility. Because only with the architecture of accumulation’s tense stasis in partial place can one start to make decent sense not just of Debord’s cinema but of cinema in general, of the twentieth century’s most extended elaboration of the relationship between the frozen and the moving. In other words, of one of capital’s most fundamental dynamics.

II. An Immense Accumulation of Accumulation
The central problem animating Debord’s thought, both political-economic and cultural, is the concept of accumulation, specifically insofar as it becomes a threat to capital as overaccumulation. It is there in the first sentence of Society of the Spectacle, thenotorious beginning that appears, at first glance, as an inconsequential and glib rephrasing of Marx: “the whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”6 No small portion of that book will be spent trying to say what might be meant by spectacles in the plural, although the term will be primarily taken up in its definite, singular, and universal form, the spectacle. Among the array of inconsistent definitions given, one is of prime relevance, the final thesis (§ 34) of the book’s first section: “The spectacle is capital at such a level of accumulation that it becomes image.”7

The murky stakes—and actual distance from the concept’s future as a banal claim about mass image culture—become clearer if we merge the two statements into a compound definition: the spectacle is an immense accumulation of capital at such a level of accumulation that it becomes image.8

Ascribing significance to this compounded thesis might seem like a faulty ascription of systematic language to a text that assuredly does not function that way. That misses the point, though, in part because reading this book against its grain is more generative than any imitative hagiography, in larger part because it gets at the historical specificity of the material grappled with by “spectacle,” that baggiest of concepts. That specificity is, simply, an immense accumulation of static accumulated capital, also known as overaccumulation.

What exactly is overaccumulation? Accumulation itself can designate the general growth in wealth, in money or commodity form, as a consequence of the circuits of capital—of an individual or a whole system (as in global capital accumulation). But that is simply a halted, visible form of the crux of accumulation: the temporary freezing of capital as either money or commodities before transforming again, one into the other, in the process of circulation. Because, for the system of capital, accumulation that does not’ re-enter circulation is a disaster: it becomes overaccumulation, as the reinvestment of a surplus-value that can no longer generate adequate returns; hence, capital is “hoarded.” Capital and labor alike go unused and yet do not disappear; they merely transform into wealth and life, each a hostile mass waiting for incorporation or destruction. More technically, necessary production becomes relative overproduction, and the necessary population of potential laborers becomes relative overpopulation of those already proletarianized yet unincorporable. As Marx frames it in Volume III of Capital:

Overproduction of capital never means anything other than overproduction of means of production—means of labour and means of subsistence—that can function as capital, i.e. can be applied to exploiting labour at a given level of exploitation; a given level, because a fall in the level of exploitation below a certain point produces disruption and stagnation in the capitalist production process, crisis, and the destruction of capital. It is no contradiction that this overproduction of capital is accompanied by a greater or smaller relative surplus population.9

Just like the rusting tangle of unused railways, the fallow soil of subsidized non-farming, and the unbought meat liquefying in the dumpster, that population become a feature of the present landscape. It is the static appearance of capital’s moving contradiction, a halted moment of its visibility become ornamental. In short, it is an image of capital, because capital can only be glimpsed in its moments of breakdown, when its relations blur into qualified figures: the silent factory, the burning slum, the hunger-striking prison, the barricaded highway, the flooded hospital, the riotous borough, the leaking reactor, the collapsing sweatshop, the looted mall, the teeming dump, the vacant field, the poisoned sea. Each is no longer functional and therefore slowed, hacked, and ground to the halting point of appearance, of becoming landscape and its accepted elements, always teetering on the edge of aesthetic recuperation into the merely natural. Drawn together, these accumulated images make up what gets called totality. And it is from this, from these blockades, shipwrecks, famines, devaluations, and slayings, that antagonistic thought tracks backwards in the direction of a harder sketch of capital’s quotidian obscurity; towards a model of its relentless flow, and a grasp of its cussed perpetuity.10

Overaccumulation has a contentious history in Marxist thought, especially as this history is bound to debates over the tendency of the rate of the profit to fall, itself the sword by which the “truth” of Marxist analysis has often been alleged to live or die. It rests at the heart of the “Downfall theory” (Zusammenbruchstheorie) debates involving Henryk Grossman, Rosa Luxemburg, and Karl Korsch’s11 critique of both, followed later by Paul Mattick’s critique of Anton Pannekoek’s alleged misreading of Grossman.12 Unsurprisingly, given the tenor of his work and his disdain for citation, Debord doesn’t engage with these debates, neither substantively nor otherwise. However, György Lukács, the Marxist with whom Debord deals most explicitly, is deeply enmeshed in the work. As Giacomo Marramao writes, “it is no accident that it is precisely in Lukács’ History and class consciousness that one finds the philosophical equivalent of Grossmann’s great attempt at a critical-revolutionary re-appropriation of Marxian categories.”13

Instead of ill-fated speculation over what Debord might have read, we should ask: what is the relevant relationship of his thought to overaccumulation? The development of the concept in Marx’s own work, in the period between 1857 and 1859, appearing respectively in the Grundrisse and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, offers a way into this.14 The concern in both of Marx’s iterations is with the third function of money (accumulation), beyond the first two (money as medium and money as measure). This third function is occasioned by the prospect of crises, where a discrepancy is said to arise between production and its realization, or between the value of commodities and the price they fetch in sale.

In the 1857 model that derives from the monetary circuit (M-C-M, buying commodities in order to sell them), accumulation is seen as the process through which surplus money “steps outside of circulation” in a “piling up” (Anhaufen), rather than being plowed back into circulation. Of course, it can become capital again, if reentered into circulation, but at the moment of “stepping outside,” it is “money as money,” a means made end in itself. In this version, the problem of the gap between money needed for circulation and money that exists is “solved” by the casting of money out of accumulation and back onto market. As Marx puts it, “Its independence is not the end of all relatedness to circulation, but rather a negative relation to it.”15

By 1859, however, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx’s theory of accumulation had shifted substantially in both conception and emphasis, for the primary reason that it was no longer explained by the monetary circuit but by the commodity circuit (C-M-C). Of particular relevance here is the real emergence of the idea of hoarding in Marx’s work: not the “hoarding principle... necessary as one moment of exchange resting on money circulation,”16 i.e. a piling up of money outside of circulation that is able to be remobilized; but instead hoarding as the creation and piling up of more use-values—including the use-value of money, as medium of exchange—than can be consumed. Money coming to “be money” therefore occurs when it cannot reenter circulation. When it becomes leftover, its use-value is negated even though it still remains. Money shapes the world through its negative presence (quantity withdrawn from circulation) and freezes into a non-productive (i.e. non-surplus value generating) hoard.

The key point is that overaccumulation, as a moment of crisis, is not just overaccumulation of money. It includes and produces other use-values to be piled up to the point of hostile inutility—all of those waste products of circulation, labor, production, and consumption. In short, accumulation is a standing side-by-side of devalued surpluses. On one side, what was pulled from circulation in the past: money, unused means of production, unpurchased commodities. On the other, what will remain barred from circulation in the present: potential laborers. And in a situation wherein something has to give, even a short history of the last centuries reveals that the bodies of the poor—along with cities, farms, and access to subsistence—have proved consistently more dispensable for capital, be it through downturn, famine, or wars civil and world.

To pose a definition, then, in the terms of Debord’s work: spectacle means the relation of accumulation to itself,17 insofar as it simultaneously instantiates, threatens—yet also withholds—a potentially general breakdown of circulation.18  

More crucially, it shapes the concept of separation itself, as central a mechanism of Debord’s thinking as it was for other heterodox communist thinkers throughout the twentieth century. Capital depends on separation, because it can only become a value-producing relation—a relation itself being a binding mechanism of the separated, “brought back” (referre) to each other under the sign of unity—on the condition of having driven and maintained a wedge of separation that splits in terms of class, gender, race, time (labor and “free”), terrain (city and country), and on from there.

“Organic” as such separations may come to seem, they are needed only insofar as separations impel, rather than impede, the circulation of capital. And impel they do, against much-fêted narratives of the interpenetration of previously discrete zones of life. For instance, capital will always require the structure of gender division so as to naturalize unwaged reproductive work into the category of the housewife (the subject who works on the reproduction of subjects other than herself, and despite the fact that this work is always unpaid). It does so even as the social coherence of the nuclear family unit—itself a brief historical emergence morally fixed as endpoint of natural progression—goes to pot in much of the global north.

Separation is functional, though not because it keeps antagonists apart. Rather, separation works because it produces the conditions for its apparent violation. Separation draws, in one and the same stroke, both a canyon and its bridge, the latter to be crossed as the necessary exceptions; or,  capital’s four major unremunerated extractions: the wage, the colony, the family, and the city. The wage provides the image of total quantification and free sale that makes possible surplus-value, the portion of thieved time that alone justifies the capitalist’s expenditure on the full “fairly paid” day. National boundaries exist in order to enable their breach in colonial violence, “humanitarian intervention,” and resource theft. The family complex serves to produce the base condition of value and abstract labor—proletarianized labor-power—in a temporal zone delimited from direct market mediation and the real subsumption of labor.19 And the ideology of city and country erects the screen behind which urban plans generate rent differentials to enable land speculation, while sprawl—i.e. the logic of the metropolis as visible, infrastructural, and extensive—evacuates any significant difference between the designated sites. These four exceptions are the prime laws by which the capital relation reaffirms itself, and so it is that separation only becomes a problem when it cannot adequately guarantee that relation’s movement, when it becomes static and comes into visibility as overaccumulation and its all its   shades of the devalued, scrapped, and junked.

Spectacle, then, designates both this becoming visible and the temporary triumph over stasis. Having split what was never a coherent unity to start,20 separation becomes the grounding condition for circulation. However, this crowded separation threatens itself by barring exit from its total logic: the more that piles up, the more there is of it that cannot truly touch or integrate. So it stands next to itself “a pseudo-world apart,” only and ever to be bridged tautologically in a self-reinforcing cycle, while the excess of that cycle spills out and out.

However, to say that spectacle designates not just the threat of long-term stasis but also separation’s productive force is to recognize how the term concerns not a general condition of capitalism but a distinct historical period: the three decades following the second World War and its discernible trendlines. Unlike earlier twentieth-century thinkers more rigorously concerned with overaccumulation and collapse theory, Debord was living, writing, and filming during the golden years of global capital and its extremely “healthy” reinvestment of surplus-value into new production, which was triply fed by post-war Marshall Plan-backed reconstruction efforts, tremendous internal migrations to furnish industrializing sectors with swelling ranks of mass workers, and new consumer markets that thickened the relation of workers and capital to include that of consumers and capital in an unprecedented way. In short, this was the period in the twentieth century when solutions to overaccumulation proudly bared themselves at their most advanced and robust.

It is therefore little surprise that the task of Debord’s analysis, far as it was from actual economic analysis, was to make sense of possible antagonism in this period of scarcity’s alleged defeat, a time when, for increasing portions of the global north, the relevant “poverty” was that of experience, not available calories as such. This is the dilemma tackled by thesis 115 in Society of the Spectacle, which is worth quoting at length:

New signs of negation are proliferating in the most economically advanced countries. Although these signs are misunderstood and falsified by the spectacle, they are sufficient proof that a new period has begun. We have already seen the failure of the first proletarian assault against capitalism; now we are witnessing the failure of capitalist abundance. On one hand, anti-union struggles of Western workers are being repressed first of all by the unions; on the other, rebellious youth are raising new protests, protests which are still vague and confused but which clearly imply a rejection of art, of everyday life, and of the old specialized politics. These are two sides of a new spontaneous struggle that is at first taking on a criminal appearance. They foreshadow a second proletarian assault against class society. As the lost children of this as yet immobile army reappear on this battleground—a battleground which has changed and yet remains the same—they are following a new “General Ludd” who, this time, urges them to attack the machinery of permitted consumption.21

On these grounds, the relevant critique—both in essays and in the streets—will be posed in the negative: not in terms of overaccumulation itself (as the negation of circulation, appearing as a static image of capital) but in a two-fold negation that arises from a system trying, and partially failing, to manage fully the contradictions of the avoidance of stasis. “The failure of capitalist abundance” exacerbates both that generalized poverty of experience and a continued incapacity to adequately propitiate working class antagonism, in spite of a then historically unprecedented access to goods, food, and services.22 At the same time, “new signs of negation” start to show themselves, not to mourn or return to traces of lost experience but to turn against previously active structures of antagonism, such as unions and party, and the process and circuits of massified consumption. The mode that this refusal will take, in theory at least, is sabotage, now unbound from designated sites of labor and let loose into the general sphere of reproduction.

Here lies the real tension internal to Debord’s thought. It is an analytical framework centered on the negative potential of separation (as accumulation gone too far), yet it is based on and written in decades when that separation seemed under managed and, according to Mandel, “neocapitalist” control able to neutralize the toxic energies of its side-effects. Those brief foreshadowings about a “second proletarian assault” can hardly ward off the claustrophobia sketched at more length, especially given the wholly vague quality of the proposals on revolutionary organization via the workers’ council that conclude the long section on “The Proletariat as Subject and Representation.”

The thought as a whole therefore arrives under the sign of a revolutionary pessimism, doubtful about whether or not these peculiar “material conditions” still have the alleged capacity “to blow this foundation sky-high.”23 However, it will not abandon the potential forces stored within this bound separation, pursuing it instead across registers and away from the relation of capital to a relation to history. The crux of that second relation is the hanging question: how do materials negated in the past persist into and constitute a present “immobilized by non-history”?24

To borrow a distinction I’ve made elsewhere, this concerns the gap between destruction and negation, destruction indicating the active labor of dismantling an entity or form, negation the undoing of bonds of historical coherence that support and reproduce those entities or forms.25 These bonds include a full range of elements:  naturalized conceptions of exchange; cops; racial demonization; consumer credit; architectural style; foisting of vacuums and amphetamine on housewives; and, above all, the prescriptive overlay of a descriptive category, such as “the working class,” onto the persons it describes.

Undoing these bonds (the process of negation) is an act at once conceptual and material.

Consider an example from the center of the long Italian 1970s: the critique of unwaged domestic labor pushed by communist feminists. This required both a conceptual negation (an attack on a certain interpretation of capital, which called into doubt capital’s restrictive focus on the wage) and a material threat to the unspoken support mechanisms (housework for free, as well as affective care, “motherly love,” and sustaining domestic violence). The second threat is critical because such mechanisms allow the wage to be imagined by a dominant Marxist interpretation as the lynchpin of struggles against capital and by workers themselves, as a “living wage” adequate to support the family as a unit. However, such total processes of negation are not acts of autonomous will, projects of autonomy aside. They took their cue from crises (housing, 130% price increase in consumer goods between 1910 and 1977, oversaturation of industrial sector, etc.) and the long-scale breakdowns of social and communal forms. For instance, the collapse of an agrarian structure of everyday life and work for the majority of Italians (and Europeans) across the 20th century made the reproduction of potential workers less a concrete material benefit for the family (in terms of sharing farming duties with parents and eventually providing for them in older age) than it once had been, thereby negating the coherent tie between the reproduction of labor-power as such, to be employed on farm or factory, and its benefit for a specific family.

It was on these grounds that bearing and raising children started to appear unmistakably what it long had been: working for free to furnish capital with the corporally individual and legally free—and therefore disposable and exploitable—units of labor-power it needed, to be reduced to carne di cannone (cannon fodder) when too plentiful or left to starve and hustle en masse in baracche (shanties) when the market got itself glutted. And so, aided by the corrosive critical turn of those writings, the care for loved ones showed itself as the hidden grunt work underlying the postwar economic “miracle,” all those ex machina muscles and cranesstraining to make a monstrously bloated deus appear on the world historical stage as if under its own steam.

This kind of negation is both an inherent quality of modernization (the destruction of the bonds of experience, communal forms, and subject positions) and the more specific terrain of a uneven line of anti-state, radical, and left-communist political thought that lays its focus on such shifts. In this conception, the roots of which lie in interwar council communism, the subsequent post-war French and Italian extension/critique of it, and productive interference with anarchist traditions, the revolutionary process is not envisioned as a building-up of working class power to the point of seizing state and industry (which itself has been “accelerated” into full productive capacity). Instead, the process of communism unbinds the capital relation from all its secondary processes and structures, such as the raising of children or the rezoning of the city, without which it cannot function. It enacts this unbinding not in theory alone but through a hostile and highly practical realignment of “the secondary” against itself, as the mother refuses mothering and the barricade uses the city to block the city: sabotage, in other words. From this follow two further possibilities: salvage (the hijacking and counter-assemblage of those rare elements of apparatuses not wholly determined by the conditions of surplus-value) or wreckage (knowing what can only be of use when melted down to its component materials).

However, as this follows from a condition—social decomposition, general hostility, and interruption of circulation—already determined beyond the will of the negators, the situation is antagonistically charged but not politically coherent. And as such a process of negation leaves the negated intact and in place, merely without its guaranteed reproduction by other structures and relations, if such a situation is not seized and exacerbated by a mass of those antagonistic to the social order, the negated will not “wither away.”

It is this dynamic—that tension between destruction and negation, especially how the process of the latter does not guarantee the former—that I see at the center of the thought gathered, articulated, and occasionally fended off by the SI, as well as the aspect most worth excavating and think through now. The gambit of the SI was to begin with a condition obvious enough to any radical history, that the extension into either salvage or wreckage is neither neither guaranteed nor frequent. But the key move from there was to grasps how the historical sequence they were writing and thinking in put the negated back into circulation more efficiently and completely than ever before, as capital no longer denies or wards off of the prospect of overaccumulation. Instead, that prospect is openly acknowledged and incorporated into the total reproduction of capital, a cynical shrug of self-display and plowing ahead that undergirded the boom years’ Stimmungen, its haze and circuits of moods, affective disposition, and cultural complicity.

Perhaps more precisely than spectacle, the situation as a whole—a particularly political judgment on the failure of enacted destruction and an aesthetic interpretation of the unfulfilled decay of forms—is grasped by the SI as the historically specific period of generalized “decomposition.” Unlike overaccumulation, decomposition is a central and explicitly articulated concept in the wider domain of the SI’s thought. Like many of the ideas whose source they would rather not acknowledge, it comes from Isidore Isou, their once comrade-in-Lettrist-arms later disowned. Isou argued that, in McKenzie Wark’s paraphrase:

All forms—aesthetic and social—move from a stage of amplification to one of decomposition. In the amplification stage, a form grows to incorporate whole aspects of existence. The amplified form shapes life and makes it meaningful. During the period of decomposition, forms turn on themselves and become self-referential. Forms fall from grace and from history. As the form decomposes, so does the life to which it once gave shape.26

This model remains wholly intact Situationist writing even after the break with Isou.27 (If anything, what get unfortunately left behind are the key dynamic of Isou’s amplification as a process of mutual subsumption: social, aesthetic, and political forms incorporate categories, activities, and other forms in ways that transform the latter into confirmations and alterations of the forms that envelop them.)28

The move from Isou’s theory of decomposition to that of the SI, if the latter can be described as roughly unified, occurs in two ways:as generalization, a process centered on the trajectory of specific forms, such as abstract labor or the mass audience, to a total cultural and social logic; and also as repetition, adding a third phase where forms may well have fallen “from grace and history” but do not disappear from the present situation. As the “definition” of decomposition provided by the SI in 1958 puts it, decomposition is the

process in which traditional cultural forms have destroyed themselves as a result of the emergence of superior means of controlling nature that make possible and necessary superior cultural constructions. We can distinguish between the active phase of the decomposition and effective demolition of the old superstructures—which came to an end around 1930—and a phase of repetition that has prevailed since that time. The delay in the transition from decomposition to new constructions is linked to the delay in the revolutionary liquidation of capitalism.29

In other words, without destruction/“revolutionary liquidation,” no new construction is possible because any construction could only confirm what already is. So the negated— lacking coherence and historical adequacy but not force—goes nowhere.  It is raised through repetition into a style, an assemblage of operations across different instances that become newly and retroactively coherent through this repetition.

The most visible site of, and the source of the SI’s thinking on this is the arts, specifically the autophagic fate of the historical avant-garde:

the solutions put forward by reactionary trends ultimately boil down to three attitudes: a continuation of forms produced by the crisis of dadaism and surrealism (which is merely the developed cultural expression of a state of mind that spontaneously arises everywhere when past ways of life, the reasons for living accepted until then, collapse), a settling into the mental ruins, and finally the long look back.30

This “settling into the mental ruins,” followed by the melancholic contemplation of its trajectory, pursues an end-game without end in sight. Unable to generate further motion on the basis of its own energies, it produces instead a “general cultural picture, wherein we see a state of decomposition […]that has arrived at its final historical stage.”31  

Of course, things go from worse to worst. Because it lacked the prospect of novelty (a newness that, for the SI, would have entailed the further dissolution of the categories both within art and of art itself), the negativity of the avant-garde can only become fêted and massified.

At this moment, decomposition shows nothing more than a slow radicalization of moderate innovators toward positions where outcast extremists had already found themselves eight or ten years ago. But far from drawing a lesson from those fruitless experiments, the “respectable” innovators further dilute their importance.32

However, barely-veiled swipes at Godard notwithstanding, this state of recycled decrepitude isn’t purely damning, provided one could learn to ride the negative tiger: “The positive significance of the modern decomposition and destruction of all art is that the language of communication has been lost.”33 Anticipating the analyses of both Massimo Cacciari and Giorgio Agamben, the SI’s conceptualization of the destruction of experience—the collapse of the conditions of communication, to employ Walter Benjamin’s framing—raises a discrete possibility that lies in the new use of those repeated materials through montage, bypassing the absent “language of communication” that had situated them in prior cultural traditions and social formations. This is the particular grounding of détournement.

[Détournement] arises and grows increasingly stronger in the historical period of the decomposition of artistic expression. But at the same time, the attempts to reuse the “detournable bloc” as material for other ensembles express the search for a vaster construction, a new genre of creation at a higher level.34

With this practice, an answer to, and further articulation of, historical negation poses itself: not by new construction as such but as a passage through the echo chamber of the negative toward a “new genre of creation,” which incorporates the materials freed up by decomposition into “other ensembles.”

However, this will not enable the construction of a common language merely transposed to a minor key because

a common language can no longer take the form of the unilateral conclusions that characterized the art of historical societies—belated portrayals of someone else’s dialogue-less life which accepted this lack as inevitable—but must now be found in a praxis that unifies direct activity with its own appropriate language.35

In terms of concrete activities, this “praxis” not only involves the celebrated construction of situations, dérives, and the like, but also a continued activity of working on and with negated materials. However, because this activity requires “its own appropriate language” and also access to the common language of experience that has been severed, this can only emerge on the basis of those materials themselves. One will have to learn to take a cue or two from that maligned and disarmingly active waste-heap. This condition in particular bears most directly on Debord’s film works: above all, their decision to be composed of pieces pulled from other films. The question this raises and that this essay pursues, is of the degree that these works finds a language within those scraps and their montaged junctions, rather than a pre-existent one merely laid over them.

What, finally, are the consequences of this decomposition? First, it bleeds over from a discrete sphere of cultural consumption into zones of circulation as such, especially the city, because “the technical organization of consumption is only the most visible aspect of the general process of decomposition that has brought the city to the point of consuming itself.36 Second, it generates a crisis of a coherence between judgment and its historical situation, meaning that it is not only the construction of the new comes that comes into corrosive doubt. So does critique itself:

The crisis of modern culture has led to total ideological decomposition. Nothing new can be built on these ruins. Critical thought itself becomes impossible as each judgment clashes with others and each individual invokes fragments of outmoded systems or follows merely personal inclinations.37

This situation, one rendered grossly liberal by Gianni Vattimo, prepares the ground for a general nihilism, not because of the total extension of the negative but because even negation can no longer find a grounding and merely slips instead between “fragments of outmoded systems.”38

Third and finally, this erosion of critique generates a major collapse of the sense of being historical—especially of being vanguard, galloping at the front lines of social transformation—into mere confirmation of the present. According to one of the bleakest lines penned by Debord: “It is no big deal to be up to date: one is only more or less part of the decomposition.”39 And as decomposition indicates the separation of historical presence from present materials, one has no choice but to be anti-historical. The only question is whether that takes place beneath a false flag of imagined rebellion (knowing how to “go too far” just far enough) or through truly taking on that collapse as given yet incomplete.

However, what is the particular mechanism undergirding this motion of decomposition in its period of repetition? Still drawing from Isou’s schema, it is better understood as a coming apart that does not threaten but reassures what Debord calls the “coherence of the separate.”40 This phrase appears in his attack on Leninism:

As the coherence of the separate, the revolutionary ideology of which Leninism was the highest voluntaristic expression governed the management of a reality that was resistant to it; with Stalinism, this ideology rediscovered its own incoherent essence. At that point, ideology was no longer a weapon; it had become an end in itself. But a lie that can no longer be challenged becomes insane.41

If one can temporarily ignore the simplistic character of Debord’s take on Leninism and the party, the underlying mechanism identified is crucial. First, something is separated from its referent. The revolutionary party and the proletariat refer to each other but are no longer unified in a common process of social war. Second, the party remains operative and coherent in this separation, for reasons that can only and ever be understood as particular to a historical conjuncture. An image of antagonistic process undone from its purpose, it becomes an end in itself: it becomes ideology. Third, the party-as-ideology still “governs the management” of a reality resistant to it, articulating the concerns and drives of a present situation in terms of a past arrangement when it was, in fact, articulated by the party. Finally, and crucially, the party—as the apparatus of “revolutionary ideology”—rediscovers its historical presence in a stable incoherence, having developed new support mechanisms. Fully decoupled from the processes that brought it about, the party can no longer be challenged. In terms of revolutionary practice, this is, obviously, a wholesale disaster. In terms of capitalism, it is one of the fundamental operations through which seemingly outmoded forms prove functionally dominant toward new ends.

This process just described at length constitutes the historical mechanism I would argue is the most significant contribution of the SI to thinking history. I’ll term this simply the pseudo. Unlike decomposition, the use of pseudo- is never theorized in the SI’s texts and appears instead as a recurrent prefix. It is one, we should note, that also plays a crucial role in the texts of Adorno (“pseudo-individuality,” “pseudo-activity”)42 and especially Kracauer (“pseudo-luster,” “pseudo-coherence,” “pseudo-middle,” “pseudo-reality,” “pseudo-life”). But in Debord’s writing, it becomes a rhetorical obsession, appearing no less than forty-five times in Society of the Spectacle and furnishing one of its central concepts (“pseudo-cyclical time”).

The form of the pseudo can be understood alongside Debord’s chiasmatic description of a “visible negation of life; a negation of life that has become visible.”43 The echo of my earlier analysis of accumulation should be clear enough. However, this echo should not be taken as an act of negation that makes itself visible, a noticeable subtraction or destruction, a famine or riot in the present. The pseudo is the present condition of a past negation that did not decay but became image, a negated term that remains in circulation. It is this obstinate persistence that forms the second half of the general process of separation, the answer accumulation gives to itself, enabling the outmoded to circulate as if living and curse the living as if undead.

Such is Debord’s account of the working class in the moment of the Bolshevik revolution, “the moment when an image of the working class arose in radical opposition to the working class itself.”44 The point of this is, like the analysis of Leninism cited above, is to identify both a splitting (proletarian hatred and a bureaucratic articulation of proletarian hatred) and a freezing. The “image of the working class,” which crucially contains both sides of that split, continues to assert itself as the correct elaboration of proletarian hatred, long after its form can no longer accurately describe and extend that antagonism across drastic shifts in historical terrain.       

Another concrete example from Society of the Spectacle helps clarify this process: “As urbanism destroys the cities, it recreates a pseudocountryside devoid both of the natural relations of the traditional countryside and of the direct (and directly challenged) social relations of the historical city.”45 The fact that urbanism has concrete proponents and flesh-and-blood designers changes nothing, given that it makes little sense to imagine some diabolical planner choosing to impose the pseudo.46 Rather, the present city (the accumulated and lived outgrowth of the historical city that had challenged and “negated” the social content of the countryside) is destroyed by the return of what was incompletely negated—not just the countryside, but the binary of the city and the countryside—and therefore is capable of reimposing its rule. 47 Such a destruction is possible because the pseudo-countryside lacks both sides of the historical contact that would allow substantive engagement with and negation of it. It lacks the “natural relations of the old countryside,” and it lacks the social relations that the historical city had challenged. The pseudo-landscape becomes auto-referential, one more part of capital’s “enormous positivity.”

Yet to be clear, what comes back, in an entirely non-spectral fashion, is neither historical backsliding in the direction of “precapitalist” relations, nor a new configuration of the countryside that responds in innovative ways to the impasses of the urban, much as one finds in Soviet disurbanist theory. It also is not equivalent to the oft-proposed cultural logic of the postmodern in which “the countryside” would belong to a defanged regime of relatively neutral signs emptied of their historicity. No, the pseudo is the imposition of negated historical material, lacking not its particular qualities but the social relations and texturesit both emerged from and gave shape to—including those of the city it comes to dominate under the labor of urbanism. In its most recent iteration, this manifests itself in thousands of heirloom chickens kept lovingly on Brooklyn rooftops, regarded quizzically by trash-fed pigeons.

What cuts against this? After all, the negation of the pseudo can’t itself be a negation, as the structure of the pseudo incorporates its own negation as a principle of its preservation. What then? The operation, as mentioned before, is that of sabotage, only explicitly present in the writings of Debord and others of that circle at rare moments.48 But despite providing the ground for détournement as outlined above, a wider inquiry into sabotage makes clear both the range and limits of this cultural technique.

Simply put, sabotage indicates the use of means designed for a specific end, and which only exist as such, against that end. For example, when one “over-salts” the soup: the combined means of salt and cook, which are only present in the restaurant to work on edible materials to increase the value of that food, ruin the edibility, and therefore profitability, of the food itself.49 (Simply torching the restaurant where one works is not sabotage, cathartic as it surely would be.)

Sabotage is therefore the verso of the pseudo, the push toward decomposition posed against its principle of preservation. The pseudo preserves social order by taking up an entire image, such as “the countryside” or “the working class,” as an end toward which prior means had been mobilized. It transforms the image into a means against that end (pseudo-life against life) and toward a different end: the maintenance of the capital relation as such. Sabotage refuses this transposition of means into an end, insisting instead on the particular qualities of things as in excess of the ends they were designed for. It does not mobilize images but rather entails a continual process of negation. Sabotage takes a unified process—the circulation of capital in general—which is opened up by decomposition. Sabotage thus turns its elements against themselves, thereby both lessening the coherence and dynamism of a form—insofar as, following Isou’s model, it now incorporates less of the world—and frees up those elements for some other possible use. And so, sabotage is not the pseudo’s “visible negation of life” but the coming into visibility of negation’s means: techniques decoupled from life or purpose, unfrozen potentials and hostilities, and materials for whatever process of social war.

In short, if sabotage is to mean anything, both in the industrial and cultural sense, it will lie in a dual assertion. First, the means—the materials of a process—contain more than a simple expression of their end. Second, the lead can only be given by the means themselves and that their peculiar texture allows for an attack on those ends from within the process of its reproduction. The relevant question, then, that this poses is that of the relation between means and ends, of their potential identity and difference in a period when the logic of the pseudo has transformed that very relation.

As my exposition should already make clear, however, while the critical framework of decomposition and détournement provide materials to approach this question, it cannot respond in a compelling way. Instead, it answers the first assertion of “means as more than means to an end” by drawing an uncritical line between humans and other elements of capital, fetishizing the creative, albeit restricted, vitality of they who labor or play. The result is that this theory has to posit that, although humans are historically determined (i.e. subjects of labor-power) and produced by primarily unwaged human labor (i.e. reproductive labor), these keepers of that mysterious “life” are capable of breaking with determination while products of human labor, including highly complex ones such as films, are considered nearly identical to the system of separation that conditions them.  

In terms of the second assertion—sabotage as driven by the peculiarity of those materials—the theory will show itself too little interested in the textures of what it also derides, asserting, in addition to that unquenchable spark of life, an incoherent divide between “real life” and “pseudo-life,” conveniently forgetting that going to the cinema, for instance, is entirely part of the flow of real life and quotidian experience.

However, my ultimate interest is not in the correctness of this thought but, on one hand, the historically particular situation it confronts, and, on the other, the operations within Debord’s films themselves that gesture away from the theory and toward a different kind of negative energy and elaborated contradictions, one buried within the history of film style itself. Because it is in the films themselves, separate from the words their narrators intone about the cinema but not separate from the fact of that voice, which an inquiry into and through a new wasteland of accumulation will be posed with more rigor than elsewhere in his thought.

III. Que faudrait-il prouver par des images?
The specificity of film, as a means, is movement. Even when an image does not move, as many do not in Debord’s films, it is not a still image per se but a negation of the moving image: a set of constant frames, each of which could give different information but do not. Yet, these moving images are themselves a moving negation, emerging as they do from an enormous accumulation of halted frames accelerated to the point that they either regain a semblance of motion (reanimation) or take on a movement they lacked to start (animation). From the start, then, the moving image of film is what I will call from here on a pseudo-image. It is a negation (i.e. the halting of motion) not destroyed but accumulated to such a degree that it impels another negation of motion: the fact that movie-going requires viewers who come to a specific site and pay to stay there, neither to witness a singular performance/work of art nor to own the means of transmission (TV and radio). They come to rent time in that location. There, they watch the exhibition of a commodity that exists in multiple, one that specifically depicts an imitation of “natural” movement. The qualification of “natural” that emerges only retroactively with the development of the cinema is therefore not recognized as lost until the period of mechanical reanimation. For a thought like Debord’s, which depends on a persistent homology of micro and macro, this can only be considered an affirmation of pseudo-life, straight from the technical apparatus through the logic of consumption to the entire historical situation of that mass of scrap made to dance. Cinema is the a-subjective form of this, only able to “uselessly consume itself in amassing the images time brings”; a technical passivity that mirrors its audience’s experience.50 Fittingly, then, Debord claims that the “cinematic spectacle” is “one of the forms of pseudo-communication (developed, in lieu of other possibilities, by the present class technology.”51                   

However, as we have seen, the spectacle “cannot be understood as an abuse of a mode of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass diffusion of images.” So, too, the image is not equivalent to visual images.52 Instead, we confront a problem of the historical mode of the image as the capture of a fleeting present into historical fixity and one thereby capable of becoming outmoded yet presently operative: of becoming pseudo.

This pseudo-image is the basic unit of spectacle, from molecule to system, articulated variously as an effect of accumulation, the basis of ideology,53 and the total logic of a period made manifest: “a Weltanschauung which has become effective, materially translated[…] a world vision which has become objectified.”54 The image is not constructed but is a consequence of the negative, an operation of unbinding. One does not make images. One encounters them, dodges them, works on them. The question follows: what is the relation between the pseudo-images of cinema and the images of capital? Can such images be sabotaged? And if they cannot, what else would make it worth attacking the cinema from within?

In other words, why make films, “anti-” or otherwise?

Given Debord’s association of the image with more literal forms of spectatorial passivity and historical stasis, it is no surprise that the cinematic image is read not as source of resistance but as curse. The fundamental question posed, however, is that of proof: to what degree are images necessary, as opposed to the idea of an image as contingent and self-evident; as opposed to a notion of the image as that which requires the supplement of narration or exegesis? In other words, if severed from their context, do images carry within them anything more than a busted and baleful remnant of their lost motion?

In certain lines of aesthetic and film theory, this is taken up as the problem of “monstration” (self-showing/self-evidencing). André Gaudreault, for instance, in his interpretation of forms of vision in early cinema, distinguishes between images that narrate (through temporal editing) and images that “monstrate,” or show.55 The latter requires a supplement, whether that be an external narrator (as was the case in certain national cinemas, like France, Japan, and Korea), the use of inter-titles, or—as was to become the case everywhere—the gradual partitioning off of monstrative cinema into specific generic categories (experimental film and, in the case of narratively-secured individual sequences, horror, musical, and action). Jean-Luc Nancy, on the other hand, wants to assert this monstration as a property of all images and argues that they bear a monstrous “pre-sense” that the human animal nevertheless processes towards a narrative end.56

For Debord, however, the answer is different and three-fold, and given against itself in the narration of his last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978).57

First, the image itself is decried as giving proof to lies: “Existing images only prove existing lies.” However, the particular phrasing is important: existing images, which refers to both actually pre-existing film (the found materials that make up most of his films) and to newly produced film in accordance with “images” of the world order. Moreover, such images themselves are routinely disdained as being valueless or trash: “I am simply stating a few truths over a background of images that are all trivial or false. This film disdains the image-scraps of which it is composed.” Second, it will be asserted that truth does not need to be, or even can be, proven by images. The narrator sneers, “there are still some cretins […] who claim that it is ‘dogmatic’ to state some truth in a film unless it is also proved by images.” More plainly: “What needs to be proven by images?” Third, both truth and proof are operative and necessary categories, despite the fact that images fail in the face of them. But how does one speak truth, how does one prove? As the narration states “dogmatically” (its own self-description): “Nothing is ever proved except by the real movement that dissolves existing conditions—that is, the existing production relations and the forms of false consciousness that have developed on the basis of those relations.”58

In short, proof will come through the ruination of the existing in the movement of negation. This is the exact opposite of the image, which can only prove the justifications of the existing truths as tautological confirmations of “existing production relations.” To state truths, “dogmatic” or otherwise, one must speak in negation’s voice while simultaneously trying to inflect away from a self-same nihilism of decomposition, one that merely enables the recurrent dissolution of the singular that forms the crux of exchange.

IV. Alleged Inadequacy
Still, though, after the black and white screens of Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952), Debord’s films will be composed of images, images that have exited their circulation (as newsreels, newspapers, or feature films) and hence have ceased to participate in the circulation of capital directly. It is on this ground that his cinema is directly put into contact with the problems of circulation and accumulation raised before: regardless of what the films will do with this material, the substructure of their composition is a contact with a real and ongoing process through which commodities (reels of film) transfer their value over time, are pulled from market, and yet are not destroyed. Practices of recycled cinema are in a prime position to process the circulation of capital more generally because they begin quite literally with the scraps of a specific industry, the cinema, that is itself marked more than almost any of the 20th century by a long meditation on how to profit from the repeated circulation of fixed capital (the “movie,” physically manifested in the reels) without it entirely and irrevocably transforming back into money capital. The question is therefore not if  Debord’s films work on this rubbish but how. What do they do with their specific grounding condition, the aftermath and resilience of elements in circulation? What is the actual specificity of these films, their mode and method?

The first sequence after the credits of Sur le passage, the film that sets the groove to be followed by the next four films over the next nineteen years, provides the exemplar.59 It opens with a stable shot of the facade of a building in Paris (over which is written “PARIS 1952” on the surface of the film itself). This is a moving image, in three senses: the static motion of animated stoppage in general, due to the technology of cinema; the movement of people on the sidewalk; and, after a two-second pause, the motion of the camera itself, as it pans right across the building over the course of fifteen seconds before coming to rest again. Next, three shots, broken by cuts: the outside of a building, the entrance to a metro, and a view onto the upper stories of apartment buildings (coupled with another pan to the right). During this sequence, a voice, one of three “somewhat apathetic and tired-sounding voices”,60 intones, describing and qualifying the neighborhood being explored at that moment.

Fig. 1

The film then cuts to a proper pseudo-image raised to further visibility and contradiction: a filmed photograph of four figures seated around a table, drinking, smoking, leaning against each other. [Fig. 1] String music (Handel) begins. The camera holds steady before the photo, zooms in to a detail (wine spilled on the table) before panning down and then tracking up over the surface of the image.61 [Fig. 2]

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

This sequence of camera movements is followed by a cut, leaping to the right side of the image, to hold on a face. The sequence is followed by further cuts, all of which are framed onto the faces of the figures, jumping closer and closer in, picking out details (a clutched cigarette, eyes, a face before panning down to wine) [Fig. 3], with the frame wavering slightly (the combined agitation of the camera’s handheld movement and the projector’s rattle). The camera then zooms out from a close-up of the spilled wine [Fig. 4] and pans left to recreate the original framing of the entire photo. In an abrupt cut, an answer is provided by a semi-reverse shot: not onto the photographer herself, but onto a position on the other side of the table, framing close on the woman whose back was to the audience/camera. Lastly, another pseudo-image, one unhalted even once further: a filmed still from a film, of Isidore Isou himself as “Daniel” in the foundational Lettrist film Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951).62 The voice, meanwhile, has not stopped: it becomes a different one—Debord himself, “more sad and subdued”—before switching back to the former, to the voice that both describes and ignores what is shown.

In these two minutes, wherein the most famous visual aspects of Debord’s films—the montage of borrowed newsreel footage, snippets from mainstream film, and images from advertisements—are pointedly missing, we have a set of operations that makes up what I argue is the actual specificity of that cinema, which passes through the history of film style itself, bringing into this negatively filmed space a set of historically distinct orders and modes of vision.

What operations? First, at the very outset, the camera stays in a fixed position while motion is staged or occurs in front of it—a technique that characterizes the tableau-framing of most early cinema until around the end of the First World War. In many films toward the end of this period, directors such as Louis Feuillade (Les Vampires) supplemented the fixed camera with staging-in-depth. However, across the teens, the majority of films, with notable exceptions such as Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 Cabiria (1914), one does not find an actively mobile gaze. Two techniques of mobile vision will be pushed by disparate efforts in global film production, predominantly from the start of 1920s through the end of silent cinema. In the first, the shot—and therefore the physical camera along with it—moves without cutting: it changes its angle from a fixed point (a pan, such as the opening shot of the building), or it changes its location (a tracking shot, such as the movement over the photo). The pan operates a form of mobile vision to be made more potent by the tracking shot, as the latter serves to negate its prior perspectives through the shot’s persistence across time. The camera gains new spatial coordinates from which it is impossible to consider the visual field from the previous angle, even with a pan back toward the original position.

The other mode is, of course, montage, the cutting-together of the dissimilar. This mode has two significant functions in Debord’s films. One is the technique most commonly associated with him: the joining together of disparate materials (“scraps”) pulled from the dump of visual culture or else out of active circulation. Here, though, montage manifests its other function in the firm of analytical editing, or découpage:cutting within the same space to reveal more information about it, which is performed both in the urban space of the neighborhood and also over the surface of the still photo.

Lastly, as in all of Debord’s films, there is sound, of three types: music; the sound proper to the “stolen” footage; and, above all, the voice of the narrator. The last sound practice is a supplementary voice that has been interpreted, for almost the entirety of cinema’s history,63 as a betrayal of what cinema can and should do. As François Jost says, “l’image montre, mais ne dit pas”—the image shows, but it doesn’t speak—and open narration is the threat of this confirmation.64 Such voice-over narration has been perennially mocked as the move of the hack or dogmatist, speaking, ultimately, not only of one film’s failure but also of the alleged inadequacy of the image as such, the inability of cinema to express what “should” have been constructed with image and dialogue alone.

V. Still Films
Of these various operations performed by Debord’s films, Giorgio Agamben will focus on montage alone in his attempt “to define certain aspects of Debord’s poetics, or rather of his compositional technique, in the area of cinema,” in his suggestive but flatly wrong account.65 As with my attempt here, Agamben asks after the “close tie between cinema and history,” but his and my answers are as different as our methods. I want to contest his reading and clarify what I understand as that genuinely close tie to be.

What does Agamben assert? At the basis of the argument is an essentially Benjaminian conception of the “dialectical image” as the “very element of historical experience.” This image is then linked to cinema as a specific technology via a Deleuzian account of the “image-movement,” an image that bears a “dynamic tension” of being cut not out of but within history within itself.66

Agamben uses this idea to ground three further concerns. The first concern is to insist on a messianic conception of history, and with it, a messianic conception of the image, “charged with history because it is the door through which the Messiah enters.”67 In his version of things, the prospect of each image providing this point of contact through itself depends on the coming into visibility of the image as means. It is an exhibition of the image “as such” (a qualification that shapes his entire mode of thought), as a “zone of undecidability between the true and the false” and therefore approaching the state of “imagelessness” that shows nothing but the “being-image of the image.”68 The second concern is to insist that this image is the cinematic image and that this framework is both the “situation of cinema” and the “messianic task of cinema,” which Debord confronted and explored, one that he shares “with the Godard of Histoire(s) du cinéma.”69 The third concern is to claim that it is specifically montage that makes possible a connection between cinema and history, as well as the approach toward “imagelessness” that one finds in the work of both Debord and Godard. This interpretation emerges from how their montage relates to the “transcendentals”—i.e. to “the conditions of possibility for something”—of montage: repetition and stoppage, which Agamben grasps as the transcendental conditions of cinema’s animated halting as such.

From this point on, Agamben asserts, “cinema will now be made on the basis of images from cinema,” and the work of those such as Debord and Godard will approach the image as such by taking on its means as without end.70 Crucially, the means are not montage as a technique, directed toward the end of narrative, but the image processed and revealed as image by montage: “images from cinema,” picked up and repeated. So unlike the expressive act fulfilled when, “the means, the medium is no longer perceived as such,” but “the image worked by repetition and stoppage is a means, a medium, that does not disappear in what it makes visible. It is what I would call a ‘pure means,’ one that shows itself as such.”71

Elsewhere in Agamben’s work, “pure means” will be named “gesture,” although the term curiously never appears in his text on Debord. The gesture is a mode in which “nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.”72 Repetition and stoppage in Debord and Godard, then, will be the transcendentals to be endured and supported, and “the image worked by repetition and stoppage”—which, crucially, for Agamben remains tied to montage—becomes the gesture, through the becoming visible of the means of montage as such.73

To assert this, in the case of Debord’s films, implies that the assembly of the pseudo-image, via montage, would restore it as montaged image to history and allow it to exceed its status as either pseudo-motion or the movement of the negative itself. It would mean, therefore, going against what Debord actually said about his own work within cinema, including in the films themselves.

To be sure, one shouldn’t automatically trust Debord more than Agamben when making sense of what the films actually do, which is something other than what they were supposed to do. But one should also aim to assert claims that actually correspond to how those cinematic operations work, as opposed to how they might correspond with one’s preferred theory of history. And that actual correspondence is as markedly absent from Agamben’s position as are other crucial elements of Debord’s cinematic practice.

Consider the comparison made three times: that of Debord to Godard, uneasy bedfellows if there ever were, at least from Debord’s perspective. Agamben claims that their cinema is:

a power of stoppage that works on the image itself, that pulls it away from the narrative power to exhibit it as such. It is in this sense that Debord in his films and Godard in his Histoire(s) both work with the power of stoppage.74

There is no doubt that Godard and Debord are both working with the separating of the pre-existing/found/recycled/stolen image from its narrative end. But how?

Regarding Histoire(s) du cinéma, the means of this “power of stoppage” aren’t even on film: as Agamben neglects to remember, it is a video project and visibly so, from the texture of the image to the use of effects particular to that medium. Nevertheless, even discounting that, the two main operations of stoppage in Godard’s practice are fundamentally different from Debord’s. First, Histoire(s) slows down the borrowed footage so that it creeps by, often one frame at a time. Yet as it is video, rather than film, the image does not go black in the space between frames,75 a film-specific condition of shuttering darkness that forms the crux of Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade. In Histoir(e)s, the image remain, halted,  awkwardly caught between media. (Most of the material Godard uses is from films telecine-ed to video, such that the video preserves the flicker of film despite being a medium that can “avoid” that effect.)  Second, Histoire(s) layers images and generates interference between layers, both in the use of iris cuts and in the dense texture of overlays from stills or films, drawn from different sources and points in the cinematic century. They blur and occlude one another, moving at different speeds rather than being subjected to a unifying frame rate. In this unvanishing slowing and thick interference, Histoire(s) brings montage to simultaneity and proximity, packed into a single frame, and it is this entire image that moves or halts unevenly across time. In the case of Godard’s Histoire(s), then, Agamben’s theory is apt, because there is no other cinematic work in the last century so explicitly and extensively engaged with the texture of messianic time as a means of montage and historically determined “mediality” through which the restoration of history comes.

However, what is the constitutive form of stoppage in Debord? It is there in that sequence of Sur le passage described above: the filming of a still image and an analysis of its surface as though it were a volumetric space to be entered, by cutting closer onto different portions and panning or tracking over its surface.76 But such entrance is barred to the pseudo-image of a filmed image or screen, to the flatness that will be treated as though depth. Moving reveals no new visual data. It just points, a deixis to direct the eye to what refuses to change.

Why isolate this, as opposed to montage, as the crucial operation? Consider the effect it generates. At the start of Sur le passage, similar means are used, but the motion of the camera looks at urban space and opens up information that previously could not be seen. We understand, for good reason, that the camera is moving in three-dimensional space. The same, however, holds for the analysis of the photo. We move in three-dimensional space in front of a flatness, faced with a surface and stoppage that can’t be breached and can only repeat itself. It will take a reverse shot to provide new information, but that too will be stuck and static. (A missed opportunity in the film: a reverse shot to the back of the photograph, to its imageless side...) Because once this procedure has been introduced, it constitutes a second screen that cannot be evacuated, as if whatever we see, even that which is explored as if in space and depth by a camera, is projected on a flat surface, a second screen that a second camera films.

This logic of the pseudo is contagious, and it spreads, such that retroactively, even the preceding neighborhood shots become film of filmed images, not film of a city. Light and angle threaten to become off-screen glare and anamorphic distortion. Cinema will indeed be made on the basis of images from cinema, but as a negation and secondary imitation of cinematic experience. We watch our own separation as process.

That is the “situation of cinema” Debord confronted, and it runs fully counter to a messianic conception of history. Like that conception, it frees up the hostilities buried within what appears as depth by means of insisting on its surface as means. But it does not understand that pseudo-image as the point of entrance for history’s salvation. Rather, it is simply a leveling down to the ground of ruins that have long been the case.

VI: The Ekphrastic Gesture
Returning once more to the frame for this whole investigation, that of accumulation and its impasses, the technique of the “second screen” I am isolating here is important insofar as it  works to formally narrow the gap between negation and destruction by conditioning all images  as if they were leftover, ruined, or fragmented, even when filmed anew. The second screen therefore transforms the pseudo—the space of that gap—from a peculiar property to a general condition, finding it everywhere it looks. As suggested, the danger of this kind of creeping negation is that it threatens to becomes identical to a specifically capitalist process of valorization, rendering all potentially commensurable in an unbinding that ends in the bad universality of exchange. The next aspect of this cinematic practice, beyond whatever Debord or others claimed for or about it, is a doubling-back into the filmed materials, the off-screen, and the connections between, precisely in order to extend negation toward real decomposition, rather than preservation and dominance of the inadequate (ideology).

There are three specific moves made by the films worth identifying on this front, of special relevance because each gestures to real uncertainty about that declared dismissal of the image.

First, return: worrying away at a single still image; coming back to it recurrently over the film’s span. This can both hint toward the presence of an unknown something to be grasped in even the most industrial of images and also generate something like a partial Kuleshov effect, insofar as the same visual data takes on different expressivity in relation to what surrounds it. This is particularly evident in In girum, with the image of the family in the living room to which the film returns incessantly, as well as the image of the boy shopping with what is coded as his mother. As remarked in the textual description (“Reprise de la photographie publicitaire déjà longuement étudiée, de la famille d’employés moderns dans sa pièce principale, avec lent travelling vers le centre”), this is thought as a reprise, a taking up again that finds its wider echo at the end of the film where text printed on screen insists that it is “to be taken up again from the beginning.”77 Yet this reprisal generates only a further gap between a potential expression and an apparent opacity, as if to tell the viewer again and again that there is more to see without ever giving that more itself in its particularity. The repetition through the same image only hollows it out further, until it is just a point of rhythm, a touchstone between sequences.

Second, reversal: the reverse shot,” which is identified in In girum… , along with “a tracking shot across the fleeting ideas of an era,” as the only other element of the “language of this outdated art” that he “wishes to preserve.”78 In particular, the films aim for a reverse shot that has been heretofore lacking, from what does not get to see to what is hidden from being seen: cutting to the other side of the table, angling back from “the viewpoint of the monument,” or, at the start of In girum, looking back at the cinema audience through the projection screen as if it was a one-way mirror. This reversal cuts back against the second screen (i.e. the treatment of all images as re-filmed and belonging to another original source). It also complicates the return to the same image, making of it a composite reverse shot out from within that “image-scrap” onto the other materials that surround it, a shot that turns out to be surprisingly mobile. The combination of the return and the reversal therefore opens up the prospect of moving from the total stasis of the pseudo-image towards a more inflected decomposition.

That actual movement comes with the third mode: ekphrasis, or the description in one medium of a text or object from belonging to another medium. Here ekphrasis takes the form of narration, description, and commentary, both outside the films (their “screenplays”) and spoken within them. If one side of Debord’s cinema turns on the analysis of the still image, ekphrasis is its inseparable other, its formal insistence on the surplus of images. And like that analysis, both the voice within the films and their external textual apparatus are entirely missing from Agamben’s reading, for the simple reason that they are incompatible with it.

Why call this ekphrasis? Ekphrasis has its roots in the rhetorical training of antiquity, like the gesture (in the plain sense) a supplemental device for discourse, a means of expression. Moving into the twentieth century, though, and through its theorization by Leo Spitzer, it came to be understood as “‘une transposition d’art’, the reproduction through the medium of words of sensuously perceptible objets d’art (ut pictura poesis).”79 Ekphrasis indicates a poetic mode in and of itself. For Murray Krieger, it designates an operation to “interrupt the temporality of discourse, to freeze it during its indulgence in spatial exploration”80 while in Siglind Bruhn’s more recent work, she pushes ekphrasis beyond the linguistic to mean simply, “representation in one medium of a real or fictitious text composed in another medium.”81 In short, ekphrasis has moved, as a concept, from means as expression to the process that makes means visible as such. The echoes of the questions posed earlier should be clear, and for good reason, as Debord’s cinematic practice is ekphrastic through and through, although its transposition is also rendered internal to a single medium and technology, composing anti-film out of film and describing film through anti-film.

Ekphrasis is present in a more restricted sense, as well. First, the films are transposed into and published as text, complete with descriptions of the images, meaning that after Debord banned the films’ future screening in France in 1984, they came to exist only ekphrastically,82 doubling back into the films themselves in their absence. But this happens even before that ban. One of the peculiar qualities of the texts is how they draw forth, or ascribe, extra qualities to the described images that are by no means apparent. Examples of this range from the minor ascription of the plausible but not visually explicit (the term “workers” used to describe the lounging figures in advertising photos),83 to the purpose of objects interpreted in line with an analysis of spectacular life (the suggestion box that receives only “praise”), to the binding of visually neutral material with a pointedly hostile interpretation.

This last use is the most crucial for Debord’s method. Consider this image from In Girum, over which the camera tracks slowly from left to right.

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

In the text version, this undeniably awkward mealtime scene is described as, “A couple of workers receive another: their malicious gazes avoid each other,” with no mention of the track.84 The voice on the soundtrack, conversely, makes no mention of those “malicious gazes,” and, discomfiting as the image is with the refusal of gazes to meet, the coding of “malice” is far from automatic.  But just prior to this shot, a cut-in on a photograph of a mother smiling at her son in in the supermarket isolates her face, as the voice intones, “Behind the façade of simulated rapture among these couples and their progeny there is nothing but looks of hatred.”85 The description “malicious gazes that avoid each other” in the text therefore does more than add a rather apt coding to the odd photo of the meal. It also draws an explicit linkage between the previous image-scrap and this one, a linkage that is only provided ekphrastically by the narration (through the claim of familial “looks of hatred” and therefore the introduction of hostility into the sequence). That absence of the qualifier “malicious” becomes part of the connection, a process of rendering visible the relation of separation, such that montage both does and does not perform a joining function. So it is that malice rears its head, not because of the specifics of this family gathering, but because of a structural disjunction between the image as both too determined by other elements in a sequence and too monadic to express its particularity in a common language. Ekphrasis is at once the name of and articulation through this fundamental condition.

Like the introduction of the second screen, when the hanging possibility of disjunctive and missing ekphrasis is opened up, it spreads the possibility that every image in the film might contain elements to which we will either remain blind or that will be mistaken for as significant. This will turn out to be the case even with the apparently critical, including that very technique of analytically editing the filmed still. In the text of Sur le passage, the scene discussed earlier is evoked in the following terms: “A photograph of two couples, drinking wine at a café table, is studied by the camera, in the style of an art film.”86 Given that Debord described Critique of Separation as, “a rather explicitly anti-art-film about the unaccomplished work of this era,”87 and that Sur le passage is not stylistically different in any significant way from Critique, the voice over suggests that we are turning in place, in an auto-circuit of self-discrediting. As was promised by the generalization of decomposition, critique is hobbled. But even recognizing this, and the prospect of avoiding it, requires that ekphrastic gesture as expressive of the conditions of the means themselves. On that ground alone, the gap between these films and their texts suggest will the sabotage of the image and the decoupling of means and ends become actually possible. Contra Agamben, means as such will require a dislocated gesture for.

A strange condition emerges. If we judge Debord’s work on the terms it asserts (that proof of the real movement of the dissolution of capital) and assume that this film does actually aim to contribute to inflecting, not just reflecting on, that process, to leave this qualification out, or merely implicit, would suggest a trust in the image as in excess of itself, as monstrative, itself capable of providing the materials for an ekphrastic judgment that takes its coordinates between the dual processes of accumulation and decomposition.

VII. Wreckers Write their Names Only in Water
This too comes undone, though, because of the voice. The voice—whether narrating, off-screen, or acousmastic—haunts the radical cinema of France far more than most nations, and the lineage of Lettrist film within which Debord’s practice began turned entirely around on this problem. Consider Isou’s Traité de bave et d’éternité and Gils Wolman’s Anticoncept (1952), the two films placed before Hurlements in the “crib sheet for the history of film” given within by Hurlements itself. Traité spends the majority of its time ranting about “discrepant cinema,” the need to subvert the primacy of the image (“The coherence between the images must be severed!”), and plots to ruin the correspondence between sound and image, all of which work to prioritize sound as the prime element of cinema.88 Anticoncept has no image other than blank illumination on a weather balloon while a voice on the soundtrack rambles.89 Lastly, there is Hurlements en faveur de Sade itself, in which the image is even more absent and consists merely of alternations of black and white screens accompanied by voices and silence.90

As such, Debord’s cinematic practice starts from the assertion of a full separation between image and voice, and it moves from this inaugural principle to spend the rest of the films asking: what might it mean to find a connection between sound and image? What would it mean to critique, not just reaffirm, that separation? Here, that “close tie of history and cinema” for which Agamben searches only wrongly becomes more thinkable. The separation of voice and image, the basis of this ekphrastic transposition, arrives not only from a debate internal to cinema but from the very impossibility of taking on the separation of overaccumulation in thought and anger. In Book 2 of Capital, Marx makes the point that circulation—i.e. the transformation process of capital that makes possible accumulation and avoids its stasis—confronts us as an autonomous movement and dynamic, alien to those through whose labor and consumption it passes. As overaccumulation is simply the effects the transformation process’ failure, it both opens up to recognition what otherwise escapes notice—being identical to the order of things—and yet cannot furnish its own critique of the scattered and non-integrating materials it brings to light. That critique will require a set of transpositions, bringing the discrete and halted together in a different register before wrecking that false identity and moving it again. 

Hence, in Debord’s work, these transpositions move successively as follows: from circulation into over-accumulation (possible crisis, and its avoidance, as historical specificity); into a theory of history (the relation of accumulated materials to themselves); then into cinema as the prime medium in which to confront this; then to the limits of that cinema, by means of a recycled cinema practice; and finally, to a process of getting restlessly stuck between available means of expression (image and voice) until it is possible to realize the status of these means themselves as part of the historically particular process of incomplete negation.

In short, this film practice attempts to grasp how techniques do not serve only their immediate end of cinema, or even the obvious end of profit, but also a general logic of relation itself (the “coherence of the separate”) on which capital turns ceaselessly. The task of showing this chain will belong to a pseudo-cinema, of which Debord’s efforts were one type, which will be able to stage that logic, and all its transpositions, in time.

What is the connection, one ventured by the films themselves, between ekphrastic voice and pseudo-image? It ranges from loosely connected (speaking about consumption over images drawn from advertisements) to the diagonally illustrative (war over a Hollywood Western) to loosely disconnected but linkable (the phrase, “what must be abolished continues…” over riot footage in Sur le passage). For the most part, the relevant viewing experience is one of watching and hearing an assemblage of independent voices and images, all aware of each others’ coexistence in a common duration, bound together yet still separated, not congealed or fused into a unity. Their relation describes accumulation itself, as materials rest side by side yet bereft of an ability to make real contact or generate motion beyond mutual visibility. Debord’s point regarding Critique of Separation remains crucial here: “The relation between the images, the spoken commentary and the subtitles is neither complementary nor indifferent. It should be seen as itself critical.”91 The critique of relation—the pseudo-unity of separation—will lie in shuttling between image and voice,92 not in the content of either one or the other. However, such relation has to remain visible because critique must follow the same path as its materials if it is to avoid coming unstuck from historical specificity. A full collapse of connection cannot occur. If it did, the critical practice would become itself another echolalia of accumulation, one more self-portrait of capital sketched in just slightly more bilious hues.

The envisioned passage out of this deadlock comes in two distinct forms, one explicitly proposed by the narration, the other buried within the texture of the films themselves. On one side, there is the notion of poverty of means, described in Critique of Separation as “intended to reveal the scandalous poverty of the subject matter.”93 This responds to the fact that even if one were to make a film that, “succeeded in being as fundamentally incoherent and unsatisfying as the reality it dealt with, it could never be more than a re-creation — as impoverished and false as this botched tracking shot” (Sur le passage). But it is telling how this cuts against a fantasy of willfully impoverished means and knowing failure: after all, to succeed at incoherence is just to recreate what was already an imitation.

What exactly is meant by “impoverished”?  That tracking shot is, curiously enough, one of the few parts filmed for this work, rather than collaged from other sources. Indeed, the tracking shot is rather botched, especially compared to the footage borrowed from studio productions. However, it is obvious enough that “poverty” here means more than either the quality of the images (in terms of an aesthetic standard established by the film industry) or the ability to procure the funding to approach those effects more “properly.” Poverty, we should recall, first designated not a negative condition of property—not having something—but an inability to produce or generate, as in “poor soil.” It is only under capitalism that we see the full collapse of  property and production, insofar as the ownership of capital is the condition for the purchase of materials and labor power. The impoverished, in the age of capital, is therefore that which cannot produce, cannot impel circulation, and cannot add more to the world. Cut out of the process, it ceases to participate in the transformation process. To adopt a cinematic “poverty of means” would mean to refuse participation with the circuits of capital, to work instead with what has already been shoved to the side, whether because botched or exhausted of its value. It does not make anew.

The films will claim to fold the sense of the impoverished into the voice itself. However, what of the earlier claim to be “stating of a few truths,” as well the tenor of the entire cinematic practice? For even if the images have been genuinely chosen with indifference, merely an impoverished grasp of what’s at hand, the words obviously were not. Because the speech—its ranging material, its philosophical tools, its rhetorical complexity, even and especially its “tiresome delivery”—is precisely calibrated, an advanced means that was most certainly produced for this film.

The voice therefore is not any more impoverished than that tracking shot, at least in the conventional sense. But poverty insists on the conditions of visibility, because it does not circulate and transform, beginning instead from what obstinately survives, beyond its usefulness for capital.

The voice exists in the present as if already having past through that worsening of dissolution that is the condition for truth. To speak truth, to speak with dissolution means to make poverty visible, through the unbinding of means and ends, involves trying to speak in the key of poverty: in the present, yes, but the side of the present out of joint with the time of circulation. It is not pre-figurative, it does not hail a time beyond capital accumulation, but it does help to flesh out that gap between negation and destruction, the very same gap presented, albeit obscurely, by the reels of used film themselves, those small reservoirs of time, memory, and technique that have already transferred the value frozen in them by labor.

The highly complex use of voice, and its relation to the accompanying text, suggests that the ekphrastic gesture is needed in order to keep producing paths for thought between the elements that are otherwise without relation, that are other than mutual stasis. But to make that non-relation heard will require the full deployment of what remains in the ruins of “what’s been done, what’s left to do,” its complex of styles, techniques, and unexpected resonances. DIY such an ekphrastic film may be, but only insofar as it can take serious object lessons from the pieces it cobbles together.

As for Debord’s particular type of pseudo-cinema, I want to suggest that it ultimately hits a basic impasse predicated on and produced by its own convictions: it ends up doing what it set out to undo. Specifically, in refusing to seek the same elaboration of advanced sabotage in terms of inherited cinematic images, Debord’s pseudo-cinema compromises the real force of negativity that it nevertheless seeks.

The crux of this problem lies with Debord’s oft-repeated claim of indifference toward the specificity of images. That claim remains incomplete and is countered elsewhere: for instance, in the assertion that because the spectacle “has deported real life behind the screen, [...]I have tried to ‘expropriate the expropriators,” which requires recognizing, amongst other things, that “Johnny Guitar evokes real memories of love.”94 The means may be inseparable from the requirements of capital accumulation that conditions, but the love is real; it is an effect that is not reducible to its cause. Moreover, there are instances, such as a remarkable river>bubble bath>solar flare>riot montage sequence in Sur le passage that make evident just how strong the drive toward poetic association is. The willingness to focus on individual qualities and aspects of even the most opposed materials creates unexpected affinities and leads to, in this case, the sketching a acid Leopardian totality that reaches from a soap commercial to the very extinction of thought in the cosmos to the arching smoke of a tear gas canister in the suppression of a riot.

Despite these moments, the work is cursed by what remains the dominant conception of détournement from the SI’s early theorization of this practice: détournement is minor (“an element which has no importance in itself,” such as “a press clipping, a neutral phrase, a commonplace photograph”) or deceptive (“an intrinsically significant element, which derives a different scope from the new context,” such as a “slogan of Saint-Just, for example, or a film sequence from Eisenstein”).95 The failure arrives in this very disjunction and this unwillingness to look within the element that has “no importance in itself” for what could be opened up as a means distinct from its end. To be able to free the element as means would constitute an other mode of détournement, one absent in Debord’s theory and yet inconstantly present in the practice. I will call it sabotaged, in order to mark a practice that starts from the situation of decomposition and accumulation described previously. Insisting that the reproduction of capital itself generates both the accumulated materials and the separation that guarantees their partial reproduction, those materials decouple from their ends to pile up as so many means outmoded, used, or currently hemorrhaging value. This is neither messianic nor utopian: it is instead the sign of an awareness that through the attempt to speak of that inadequacy, through that ekphrastic slippage, the supersession of nihilism finds some purchase on small qualities at odds with their ends.

More concretely, this method—one that can be seen occasionally in these particular films but that is above all a critical practice extending to how the total history of cinema is read and critiqued—requires a different kind of looking at its materials. Consider the stills from In girum, in particular those rabbits who receive no comment from voice or text, held by one figure with a “malicious glance” and by a fourth figure who goes as unremarked on as the bunnies themselves: it is neither the couple nor the other worker, but the girl who sits. Perhaps neither the rabbits nor the girl changes the argument for which the photo was incorporated and mobilized. That is of little import, because what does matter are the consequences of a kind of looking that disavows the thick heterogeneity of what it borrows, arranges, and sends back out into circulation. Against that, I am arguing for a kind of looking that will spend time with those rabbits, the downcast eyes of that girl, the way the fire and the electric light blur toward each other in some atavistic magnetism, the dizzying overload of patterns, and the ceramic rabbits decorating the table. It is a kind of looking particular to the unnamed mode of détournement, the sabotaged. This way of looking is committed to seeing what is actually there, not what ought to be. Only in so doing do we occasionally latch onto details and histories that may well not belong in the given narratives and categories by which we navigate, categories such as “workers,” “malice,” or even, and especially, “cinema.”

There is a moment in In girum, when, over an image of Ivan Chtcheglov (“inventor” of the dérive, attempted dynamiter of the Eiffel Tower), a voice says, “Wreckers [naufrageurs] write their names only in water.” Naufrageurs is a peculiar term. It does not refer to those who wreck their own ships, whether by accident or intention, nor does it refer to those who “break” ships on land for raw materials worth salvaging. A naufrageur is one who willfully misleads a ship to disaster, giving false directions while by pointing it straight toward the shoals. Crucially, wreckers are not on the ship. They float alongside or stand ashore. They write their names only in water, only where a ship once was: indifferent to history’s restoration, the wreckers are those whose acts of negation swallow their own trace.

Several decades later, it seems clearer than ever that there is no shore on which to stand, that wreckers must either go down with the ships or content themselves to watching the present continue unabated in its disaster. It is also clearer that the sea has never been empty, and even less so now: it is crowded with wreckage, with unwanted populations, millions of hours of footage, cities that have been gutted-wide, and seeping landfills, even as new vessels get built, plow through, and go down amongst the waste, all without the aid of wreckers. What is not as clear is how we are to relate to that leftover wreckage, what we are to do with it. Debord wrote in 1957 that, “Nothing new can be built on these ruins.” The truth of that has not changed. So the question, simply, is whether or not something new can be built with these ruins, something to enable the dissolution of circulation and reproduction as such. It is a question about the relation of capital, but it is also a question of and for the cinema. Whether or not it can be answered by the practice of cinema itself, as opposed to the full cessation of that practice, remains an open question.


Evan Calder Williams is a writer, theorist and artist. He is completing a dissertation, The Fog of Class War: Cinema, Circulation, and Communism in Italy’s Creeping ’70s, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of two books, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse and Roman Letters, and he writes for Film Quarterly, Mute, La Furia Umana, and The New Inquiry. He has presented performance work at the Whitney Biennial, the Serpentine Gallery, and Artists Space. He will be a visiting scholar at the Center for Transformative Media at the New School, where he is researching for a new history of sabotage.


Notes
1 Guy Debord, “One More Try If You Want to Be Situationists (The SI in and against Decomposition),” trans. John Shepley, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002), 58. A note on sources in general: in keeping with the spirit of the materials and for ease of both access and English-reading reference, I cite wherever possible the translations by Ken Knabb made available on his Bureau of Public Secrets site. However, where I think the translation misses something important, I substitute another translation or provide my own.
2 I draw a distinction throughout between films and the cinema. Films are moments in the total process of cinema, which designates a temporal, experiential, economic, and spatial circuit that far exceeds what happens in the film and attends more, for example, to what happens on the film, the scratches it gathers in its repeated screenings.
3 Perhaps the most reasonable definition is that offered by Asger Jorn in his introduction to Debord’s Contre le cinéma: the films “are like long experimental notes on the development of the general theory of détournement.” Asger Jorn in Guy Debord, Contre le cinema (Aarhus: Institut Scandinave de vandalisme compare, 1964), 6.
4 For the record, I’m generally uninspired by them as films, even as I'm specifically convinced that they tackle some of the fundamental questions about the relation of cultural products, capital, time, and the difficult negation of all three. The films of Massimo Dallamano, Doris Wishman, and Alexander Kluge all help me think better about capital than Debord’s, but none of them as explicitly—not to mention ham-fistedly—point to the three-fold problem of accumulation, pseudo-negation, and sabotage. As such, rather than take Debord's films as difficult investigations, I take them as something of a convenient first principle for thinking cinema alongside the negation of capital, a primer to be thought with and eventually put to the side in favor of more sustained engagements with the cinema, both from the industrial and critical side.
5 This is the ground of a Marxist approach on its best days: the requirement to found critique on the terms, and with the materials, of the forms and relations critiqued, an occupation of enemy territory, a turning of the cannons inward. And this is certainly the case with these films themselves, which aim to do so through the joined scraps of two distinct archives, one hermetically personal, one generically public as can be.
6 Guy Debord, Société du spectacle, in Guy Debord, Jean-Louis Rançon, Alice Debord, and Vincent Kaufmann, Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), 466. Translation is my own.  
7 Ibid., 775.
8 Like the issue of spectacles/spectacle, I write this here without the plural: in part because the issue of homology is raised but also because spectacle is the relation of accumulation to itself. It can neither be truly plural nor can there be a quantity of it. Hence the strange linguistic form: you can’t have a quantity of spectacle in the singular, but to have a quantity of spectacles would be like having a mass of frozen relations that have no substance other than as relation. Damned if you do...
9 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, and David Fernbach (London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1981), 364.
10 It’s little surprise that those who want to “reject” art, conflating art as market form with art as a practice of drawing these difficult lines from exception toward law, condemn themselves to their ongoing irrelevance as surely as those who insist on “creative” protest of the zombie-banker-costume variety.
11 See Karl Korsch, “Ueber einige grundsatzliche Voraussetzungen für eine materialistische Diskussion der Krisentheorie,” in Proletarier Zeitschrift für Theorie und Praxis des Ratekommunismus 1 (1933); Paul Mattick and Antonie Pannekoek, Zusammenbruchtstheorie des Kapitalismus oder revolutionares Subjekt (West Berlin, 1973). A translation of the former (“Some Fundamental Presuppositions for a Materialist Discussion of Crisis Theory”) is available on the MIA. Korsch, Karl­, “Some Fundamental Presuppositions for a Materialist Discussion of Crisis Theory,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1933/crisis-theory.htm
12 Paul Mattick, “The Permanent Crisis—Henryk Grossman’s Interpretation of Marx’s Theory of Capitalist Accumulation,” International Council Correspondence 1.2 (1934): 1-20. For an important text on this, see the second chapter (“Marx’s Crisis Theory”) of Paul Mattick’s 1974, Economic Crisis and Crisis. Online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1974/crisis/ch02.
13 Giacomo Marramao, “Political Economy and Critical Theory,” Telos 24 (Summer 1975): 64.
14 The account I give here is heavily indebted to Arie Arnon’s text concerning Tooke’s influence on Marx’s theory of money. Arie Arnon, “Marx’s Theory of Money—The Formative Years,” History of Political Economy 16 (1984): 555-575.
15 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (rough Draft) trans. Martin Nicolaus, (London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1993), 217.
16 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in Karl Marx and Martin Nicolaus. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) (London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1993), 816.
17 “It is no more than the economy developing on its own behalf,” as phrased in the film version of The Society of the Spectacle.
18 That's the grounding source for the recurring figure of spectacle as tautological, a map identical to its territory, a self-portrait.
19 I borrow the language of “indirect market mediation” from Maya Gonzalez, whose work on this question has been as crucial for my thinking as it is for many others.
20 Given that the destruction of modes of communal belonging that occurs across the development of capital does not imply a prior identity of humans and nature, economy and community, public and private, and the like. Rather, capital capitalizes on the separation that was there previously, finding ways to make that gap productive: the space between each becomes a zone of circulation, as the city/country, north/south, white/brown, and especially male/female distinctions that divides all become ways of justifying differential rates of exploitation without which no movement of capital can occur.
21 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/4.htm
22 Later in his life, Debord focused increasingly on pollution, itself evidence of the hidden cost of that borrowed time and the capacity to keep production costs low enough to pay most workers a high enough wage to engage in “permitted consumption.” See Guy Debord, A Sick Planet, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Seagull Books, 2008).
23 Marx, Grundrisse, 703.
24 Debord, Society, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/9.htm.
25 Evan Calder Williams, “An open letter to those who condemn looting,”http://socialismandorbarbarism.blogspot.com/2011/08/open-letter-to-those-who-condemn_10.html
26 McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (London: Verso, 2011), 13.
27 Particularly in terms of the negation of forms generating their auto-referential turn as well as the suspect vitalism of a substance of “life” to be shaped and separated from false life. This will curse the SI’s thought and contribute to an inadequate model of spectatorial “passivity.”
28 The factory as locus of the real subsumption of labor is the most famous instance of this and for good reason, given the complex, and historically transforming, interpenetration of abstract form and material processes.
29 SI, “Definitions,” trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/1.definitions.htm
30 Guy Debord. “One More Try If You Want to Be Situationists (The SI in and against Decomposition),” in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002), 35.
31 Ibid., 51. A more comprehensive version of this thought should take into account the increasingly desperate search on the part of the culture industry for “foreign influences” and the crowd-sourcing of user-generated novelty. In other words, dancehall and lolcats...
32 Ibid., 52. Or, as he puts it sneeringly, “[t]he best-known art appearing in our time is controlled by those who know ‘how far to go too far,’” France being identified in particular as “undergoing the most advanced phenomena of the general cultural decomposition that, for various reasons, is being manifested in its purest state in western Europe.” Ibid., 52-53.
33 Debord, Society,http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/8.htm.
34 SI, “Détournement as negation and prelude,” trans. Ken Knabb, http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/315.
35 Debord, Society, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/8.htm.
36 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 96. In a fitting homology, urbanism will itself track this logic out, both responding to and shaping the city: “Like aesthetics, whose course of decomposition it is going to follow, [urbanism] can be considered as a rather neglected branch of criminology.” SI, “Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism,” trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/6.unitaryurb.htm.
37 Guy Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action,” http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/report.htm
38 On such grounds: “The supersession of nihilism is reached by way of the decomposition of the spectacle; which is precisely what the SI is working on.” (SI “Le Questionnaire.”) Internationale Situationniste #9 (1964). Trans. Ken Knabb. Online at: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/9.questionnaire.htm
39 Debord, “Situationists,” 53.
40 Debord Society, trans. Nicholson-Smith, 73.
41 Ibid., 73.
42 On this word, see Jason Read, “The Jargon of Authenticity.” Online at: http://www.unemployednegativity.com/2009/10/casual-reader-of-adorno-and-i-am-afraid.html.
43 Debord, Société, 768, my translation.
44 Debord, Society, trans. Nicholson-Smith, 74.
45 Debord, Society, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/7.htm.
46 Although the architecture of contemporary business parks and neo-yuppie waterfront condos might beg to differ...
47 “Economic history, whose entire previous development centered around the opposition between city and country, has now progressed to the point of nullifying both. As a result of the current paralysis of any historical development beyond the independent movement of the economy, the incipient disappearance of city and country does not represent a transcendence of their separation, but their simultaneous collapse. The mutual erosion of city and country, resulting from the failure of the historical movement through which existing urban reality could have been overcome, is reflected in the eclectic mixture of their decomposed fragments that blanket the most industrialized regions of the world.” Debord Society,http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/7.htm.
48 In Debord’s own texts, most famously in thesis 115 of Society of the Spectacle quoted above. But it is Raoul Vaneigem who takes it up at length, albeit framing it as potentially negative, requiring the influence of the councils to prevent the “sabotage of production”: “The councils represent order in the face of the decomposition of the state, whose form is being contested by the rise of regional nationalisms and whose basic principle is being contested by social demands. To the pseudoproblems they see posed by this decomposition, the police can respond only by estimating the number of deaths. Only the councils offer a definitive solution. What prevents looting? The organization of distribution and the end of the commodity system. What prevents sabotage of production? The appropriation of the machines by collective creativity.” He therefore has to distinguish between this damage to production - his position not involving a full critique of the machinic assemblage as such - and the prospect of a “positive sabotage,” one that is guided, in a seriously suspect way, by the “law of immediate pleasure”: “It’s time to begin the positive sabotage of spectacle-commodity society. As long as our mass tactics stick to the law of immediate pleasure there will be no need to worry about the outcome.” Raoul Vaneigem, “Notice to the Civilized Concerning Generalized Self-Management,” trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/12.selfman.htm
49 This is the example given by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Cf. Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, Sabotage: the conscious withdrawal of the workers’ industrial efficiency (Chicago: I.W.W. Pub. Bureau, 1917), 13.
50 Debord, Oeuvres, 1346, my translation.
51 Guy Debord, “For a Revolutionary Judgment of Art,” trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/breathless.htm.
52 Debord, Société, 768, my translation.
53 I.e., “the despotism of a fragment imposing itself as the pseudo-knowledge of a frozen whole.” Debord, Société, my translation, 857.
54 Guy Debord, Society of the spectacle, trans. Black & Red, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm.
55 André Gaudreault, “Narration and Monstration in the Cinema,” Journal of Film and Video 39 (Spring 1987): 29-36.
56 Jean-Luc Nancy, Au fond des images (Paris: Galilée, 2003), 46-47.
57 Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/ingirum.htm.
58 A crucial note: dissolution, not decomposition. Because decomposition frees elements from their coherence but leaves those elements intact, it always risks the recomposition of the same order it undid. Dissolution stands instead for the next step after decomposition: the breaking apart of what remains intact, however non-guaranteed.
59 This is not the film’s true beginning. The first pseudo-image of the film is resolutely economic and cultural-industrial: a quite standard credit sequence, over which a set of voices speak (a discussion during the Third Conference of the SI in Munich, we learn from the technical notes) We should note that this includes the listing of Debord as the director, a problematic designation that was never absent from any of this films, seemingly unable to translate the attack on the auteur-logic of French art film back to his supposed negation of it. Such is a curious element of Debord’s practice, as well as that of the Lettrists and the SI more widely. The notion of truly anonymous or collective writing was generally absent: even the unsigned pieces still featured the initials of their specific authors.
60 Guy Debord, “Technical Notes on Guy Debord’s First Three Films”, trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/technotes.htm
61 This track may appear as technically a pan, but even if it is achieved by a tilting of the camera, it has the effect of moving over the image. Besides, due to its extreme proximity, it lacks the noticeable distortion of a pan over an image.
62 The source of this image goes unremarked in the transcript.
63 The exception being the early cinema popularity of extra-cinematic narrators, such as the Japanese benshi and French bonimenteur, who stood beside the screen and supplemented the images with narration and commentary. See: André Gaudreault, Georges Méliès, and Jacques Malthête, Cinéma Et Attraction: Pour Une Nouvelle Histoire Du Cinématographe (Paris: CNRS, 2008). Later, noir, melodrama, and sci-fi will make a good effort, but only with retroactive canonization will they get taken seriously.
64 André Gaudreault  and François Jost, Cinéma Et Récit: II (Paris: Nathan, 1990), 79. My translation.
65 Giorgio Agamben, “Difference and Repetition: on Guy Debord’s film,” in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, 313.
66 Ibid., 314.
67 Ibid., 315.
68 Ibid., 319.
69 Ibid., 315.
70 Ibid., 315.
71 Ibid., 318.
72 Giorgio Agamben “Notes Gesture,” in Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience (London: Verso, 1993), 57.
73 Agamben “Difference,” 318.
74 Ibid., 317.
75 Let’s not forget that when watching film, one spends a good portion of the film's running time watching a blank screen, in the total dark, due to the shutter mechanism of a projector.
76 It appears in numerous places throughout the films. Two particularly clear examples of its varied utility are the King Arthur still and the aerial photograph of Paris in Critique of separation.
77 Guy Debord, “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni,” in Debord, Oeuvres, 1344. My translation.
78 Ibid., 1349.
79 Leo Spitzer, “The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ or Content vs. Metagrammar”, Comparative Literature 7.3(1955): 207.
80 Murray Krieger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), 7.
81 Bruhn, Siglind, “A Concert of Paintings: Musical Ekphrasis in the 20th Century,” Poetics Today 22:3 (2001): 559.
82 On this point, see Thomas Levin, “‘Ciné qua non’: Guy Debord and Filmic Practice as Theory,” www.medienkunstnetz.de/themes/art_and_cinematography/debord/scroll/.
83 “Advertising photograph of a couple of modern workers, in their main room, where their two kids are frolicking.” Debord, “Girum,” 1336. My translation.
84 Debord, “Girum,” 1339. My translation.
85 Ibid.
86 Debord, “Passage,” 470. My translation.
87 In a letter to André Franklin. Included in Guy Debord, Correspondence, Volume 1 (Paris: Fayard, 1999), 302-303.
88 As spoken in Anticoncept, “The cinematograph had arrived at that stage, when in 1951 Isou destroys photography in favor of sound.” Isidore Isou, Anticoncept, http://www.notbored.org/anticoncept.html
89 A representative excerpt:I trench your belly with hands tied I asphyxiate you we share the foul air I flush the toilet on my siphonal memory persists a whiff of shit.” Full script available online at: http://www.notbored.org/anticoncept.html.
90 For the move from Isou’s “discrepant” cinema to Howls, see: Allyson Field, “Hurlements en faveur de Sade: The Negation and Surpassing of “Discrepant Cinema”,” SubStance 28.3 (1999): 55-70.
91 Guy Debord, “Technical Notes on Guy Debord’s First Three Films,” trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/technotes.htm.
92 And subtitle, although it plays a minor role in the films.
93 It is worth noting that Debord is far from the only practitioner of recycled cinema to use the language of “poverty,” although others, like Bruce Conner, foreground a more practical sense of poverty (one that certainly played a role in Debord's production). In an interview, Conner explains:When I decided to make my first film [A Movie] I discovered how difficult it was to get the footage. I had virtually no money. I was working as an usher in a movie theatre for a dollar an hour. My wife was working with me at a hot dog stand.  It’s really a poverty film: it was made from footage from newsreels, documentaries, sports events, movies, everything. They were films condensed down into two-and-a-half minute silent reels, which were actually cheaper than buying black and white film and processing and printing it. It cost about $3 for a 100-foot reel; to shoot film it would have cost about $13 bucks per roll, and I didn’t have a camera. So this was the most economical way of getting material. ;I borrowed a camera to shoot the titles and that’s how I made the film.” “‘Worthwhile Insanity’: On Collage Filmmaking and Arthur Lipsett, An Interview with Bruce Conner.” Online at: http://www.incite-online.net/does2.html
94 Debord “The Use of Stolen Films,” trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/stolen-films.htm.
95 Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, “A User’s Guide to Détournement,” trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/detourn.htm.