But theories are only made to die in the war of time. Like military units, they must be sent into battle at the right moment; and whatever their merits or insufficiencies, they can only be used if they are on hand when they’re needed. They have to be replaced because they are constantly being rendered obsolete — by their decisive victories even more than by their partial defeats. Moreover, no vital eras were ever engendered by a theory; they began with a game, or a conflict, or a journey.

Bureau of Public Secrets: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, a film by Guy Debord, 1978; English tr. of the film soundtrack by Ken Knabb, 2003. This translation is under copyright, but the copyright will not be enforced against personal or noncommercial use. For more information see also at BoPSecrets.org: “Guy Debord’s Films”. In the film, this sentence is said at 25m55s.

This excerpt is quite poignant. Maybe it has to do with the way it reveals the “finitude” of theories, which echoes our own. Knowledge or theories, contrary to what is sometimes believed, do not escape time: they too has a youth, a mature period, a finished lifespan. Here’s the original French version which for some reasons I find even more evocative:

Mais les théories ne sont faites que pour mourir dans la guerre du temps : ce sont des unités plus ou moins fortes qu’il faut engager au juste moment dans le combat et, quels que soient leurs mérites ou leurs insuffisances, on ne peut assurément employer que celles qui sont là en temps utile. De même que les théories doivent être remplacées, parce que leurs victoires décisives, plus encore que leurs défaites partielles, produisent leur usure, de même aucune époque vivante n’est partie d’une théorie : c’était d’abord un jeu, un conflit, un voyage. (éd. Gallimard, Paris, p. 25-26)

For Guy Debord, this is a point of method. One cannot say that he or she “finally” understood a theory (or an author for that matter), as in the phrase: “I finally understood Debord”. The reason is twofold. On one hand, the understanding is worth something for the individual who stands in a specific context at a given time. Since the individual and the context both change over time, so must the understanding. On the other hand, the theory itself (the work of an author) has not a fixed and inalterable usefulness: it may be crucial for a moment and obsolete the next.

Those ideas are at the heart of what is the “situation”: it is not simply about seizing fleeting opportunities, but more importantly about creating them in accordance to one’s goal or desire. For more about the relation between this theme and the film In Girum… see the manuscript fragment of December 22, 1977: “The Themes of Debord’s Film In girum imus nocte…. One can also watch the film with English subs at UbuWeb.

This crucial point was already present 25 years earlier in a manifest Debord cosigned with some others (including the founders of the newly formed Internationale Lettriste). Indeed, beside the comment about the human condition and the refusal to discuss, the other interesting thing that stands out in this short manifest is the repetitive mention of the passing of time. It’s something one cannot refuse to compose with: Isodore Isou, it is said in the manifest, was repudiated because of his desire to leave something permanent behind. Everything changes and nothing remains1. Here’s the manifest:

Lettrist provocation always serves to pass the time. Revolutionary thought is not elsewhere. We pursue our little uproar in the limited beyond of literature, and it is necessary to do better. Naturally it is to reveal ourselves that we write manifestos. Impertinence is a quite beautiful thing. But our desires are perishable and disappointing. Youth is systematic, as one says. The weeks spread themselves out in straight lines. Our encounters are by chance and our precarious contacts lose themselves behind the fragile defence of words. The earth turns as if nothing exists. To say it all, the human condition doesn’t please us. We have dismissed Isou, who believes in the utility of leaving traces. All that maintains something contributes to the work of the police. Because we know that all the ideas and behaviors that already exist are insufficient. Thus, current society divides itself into lettrists and informers, of whom Andre Breton is the most notorious. There are no nihilists, there are only powerless people. Almost everything is off limits to us. The abuse [detournement] of minors and the usage of narcotics, like all of our gestures generally speaking, are pursued to surpass the void. Many of our comrades are in prison for theft. We stand against the pains inflicted upon the people who have become aware that it isn’t absolutely necessary to work. We refuse discussion. Human relations must have passion, if not terror, as their foundation. (NOT BORED!: Internationale Lettriste, no. 2, Paris, February 1953, “Manifest” signed by Sarah Abouaf, Serge Berna, P.-J. Berlé, Jean-L. Brau, Leibé, Midhou Dahou, Guy-Ernest Debord, Linda, Françoise Lejare, Jean-Michel Mension, Éliane Papaï, Gil J. Wolman. Unofficial English translation provided by NOT BORED! an autonomous, situationist-inspired, low-budget, irregularly published, photocopied journal. No copyrights)

And the original French version of this manifest to be even more poetic in its expresson. Here’s the very same selection:

LA PROVOCATION LETTRISTE sert toujours à passer le temps. La pensée révolutionnaire n’est pas ailleurs. Nous poursuivons notre petit tapage dans l’au-delà restreint de la littérature, et faute de mieux. C’est naturellement pour nous manifester que nous écrivons des manifestes. La désinvolture est une bien belle chose. Mais nos désirs étaient périssables et décevants. La jeunesse est systématique, comme on dit. Les semaines se propagent en ligne droite. Nos rencontres sont au hasard et nos contacts précaires s’égarent derrière la défense fragile des mots. La Terre tourne comme si de rien n’était. Pour tout dire, la condition humaine ne nous plaît pas. Nous avons congédié Isou qui croyait à l’utilité de laisser des traces. Tout ce qui maintient quelque chose contribue au travail de la police. Car nous savons que toutes les idées ou les conduites qui existent déjà sont insuffisantes. La société actuelle se divise donc seulement en lettristes et en indicateurs, dont André Breton est le plus notoire. Il n’y a pas de nihilistes, il n’y a que des impuissants. Presque tout nous est interdit. Le détournement de mineures et l’usage des stupéfiants sont poursuivis comme, plus généralement, tous nos gestes pour dépasser le vide. Plusieurs de nos camarades sont en prison pour vol. Nous nous élevons contre les peines infligées à des personnes qui ont pris conscience qu’il ne fallait absolument pas travailler. Nous refusons la discussion. Les rapports humains doivent avoir la passion pour fondement, sinon la terreur. (Internationale Lettriste, no. 2, Paris, Février 1953: “Manifeste”, PDF)

• • •

Starting March 27, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is holding the exhibition Guy Debord, an art of war (March 27-July 13, 2013). I’m not sure what Debord would have thought of it. See the French (PDF) and English (PDF) press releases for more information. There’s also a 22 pages press kit available where I found the poster display below (French only: PDF 1.7MB).

The photo used for this poster was taken during the London conference of the Internationale situationniste, on September 1960. It was first published in ‘Internationale situationniste’, n° 5, Décembre 1960. From left to right: Attila Kotányi, Hans-Peter Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Jørgen Nash and behind him Maurice Wyckaert, Asger Jorn, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm and Jacqueline de Jong. Photographer unknown. Archive BnF, Fonds Guy Debord.
The photo used for this poster was taken during the London conference of the Internationale situationniste, on September 1960. It was first published in ‘Internationale situationniste’, n° 5, Décembre 1960. From left to right: Attila Kotányi, Hans-Peter Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Jørgen Nash and behind him Maurice Wyckaert, Asger Jorn, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm and Jacqueline de Jong. Photographer unknown. Archive BnF, Fonds Guy Debord.

• • •

See also:

• • •

1. Platon, using what is considered today to be an apocryphal quote from Heraclitus: “all things move and nothing remains still” (πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει, Cratylus, 402a, tr. by Harold N. Fowler, London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1921)↩︎︎

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