Guy Debord

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Guy Debord
Guy Ernest Debord

(1931-12-28)28 December 1931
Paris, France
Died30 November 1994(1994-11-30) (aged 62)
Education University of Paris (no degree)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Letterist International
Western Marxism/Ultra-left
Main interests
Class struggle
Commodity fetishism
Social alienation
Social theory
Notable ideas
Debord's Will.jpg

Guy-Ernest Debord ( /dəˈbɔːr/ ; French: [gidəbɔʁ] ; 28 December 1931 – 30 November 1994) was a French Marxist theorist, philosopher, filmmaker, critic of work, member of the Letterist International, founder of a Letterist faction, and founding member of the Situationist International. [1] [2] He was also briefly a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie .


Debord is best known for his 1967 essay The Society of the Spectacle .


Early life

Guy Debord was born in Paris in 1931. Debord's father, Martial, was a pharmacist who died when Debord was young. Debord's mother, Paulette Rossi, sent Debord to live with his grandmother in her family villa in Italy. During World War II, the Rossis left the villa and began to travel from town to town. As a result, Debord attended high school in Cannes, where he began his interest in film and vandalism. [3]

As a young man, Debord actively opposed the French war in Algeria and joined in demonstrations in Paris against it. [4] Debord studied law at the University of Paris, but left early and did not complete his university education. After ending his stint at the University of Paris, he began his career as a writer. [5]

Involvement with the Lettrists

Debord joined the Lettrists when he was 18. The Lettrists were led dictatorially by Isidore Isou until a widely agreed upon schism ended Isou's authority. This schism gave rise to several factions. One of them, the Letterist International, was decidedly led by Debord upon Gil Wolman's unequivocal recommendation. [6] In the 1960s, Debord led the Situationist International group, which influenced the Paris Uprising of 1968, during which he took part in the occupation of the Sorbonne. Some consider his book The Society of the Spectacle (1967) to be a catalyst for the uprising. [7]

Founding of the Situationist International

In 1957, the Letterist International, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, and the London Psychogeographical Association gathered in Cosio d'Arroscia (Imperia), Italy, to found the Situationist International, with Debord having been the leading representative of the Letterist delegation. Initially made up of a number of well-known artists such as Asger Jorn and Pinot Gallizio, the early days of the SI were heavily focused on the formulation of a critique of art, which would serve as a foundation for the group's future entrance into further political critiques. The SI was known for a number of its interventions in the art world, which included one raid against an international art conference in Belgium during 1958 [8] that included a large pamphlet drop and significant media coverage, all of which culminated in the arrest of various situationists and sympathizers associated with the scandal. In addition to this action, the SI endeavored to formulate industrial painting, or, painting prepared en masse with the intent of defaming the original value largely associated with the art of the period. In the course of these actions, Debord was heavily involved in the planning and logistical work associated with preparing these interventions, as well as the work for Internationale Situationniste associated with theoretical defense of the Situationist International's actions. [9]

Political phase of the Situationist International

With Debord's 1967 work, The Society of the Spectacle , and excerpts from the group's journal, Internationale Situationniste, the Situationists began to formulate their theory of the spectacle, which explained the nature of late capitalism's historical decay. In Debord's terms, situationists defined the spectacle as an assemblage of social relations transmitted via the imagery of class power, and as a period of capitalist development wherein "all that was once lived has moved into representation". [10] With this theory, Debord and the SI would go on to play an influential role in the revolts of May 1968 in France, with many of the protesters drawing their slogans from Situationist tracts penned or influenced by Debord. [11] [12]

After the Situationist International

Published by Editions Gerard Lebovici (1990) In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.JPG
Published by Éditions Gérard Lebovici (1990)

In 1972, Debord disbanded the Situationist International after its original members, including Asger Jorn and Raoul Vaneigem, quit or were expelled. (Vaneigem wrote a biting criticism of Debord and the International. [13] ) Debord then focused on filmmaking with financial backing from the movie mogul and publisher Gérard Lebovici (éditions Champ Libre), until Lebovici's mysterious death. Debord was suspected of Lebovici's murder. He had agreed to have his films released posthumously at the request of the American researcher, Thomas Y. Levin. [14]

After dissolving the Situationist International, Debord spent his time reading, and occasionally writing, in relative isolation in a cottage at Champot with Alice Becker-Ho, his second wife. He continued to correspond on political and other issues, notably with Lebovici and the Italian situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti. [15] He focused on reading material relating to war strategies, e.g. Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, and he designed a war game with Alice Becker-Ho. [16]


Just before Debord's death, he filmed (although did not release) a documentary, Son art et son temps (His Art and His Times), an autobiography of sorts that focused primarily on social issues in Paris in the 1990s. It has been suggested that his dark depiction of this period was a suicide note of sorts. Both Debord's depression and alcohol consumption had become problematic, resulting in a form of polyneuritis. Perhaps to end the suffering caused by these conditions, Debord died by suicide on 30 November 1994, shooting himself through the heart. This was not the first time he attempted to end his life. [17]

Debord's suicide is as controversial as it is unclear. [18] Some assert it was a revolutionary act related to his career. Due to his involvement with the radical Situationist International (SI), as well as his sadness at 'the society as a spectacle' being considered a cliché in later life, many think that Debord felt hopeless about the very society he was trying to shed light on. Debord was said to be "victim of the Spectacle he fought". [19] Among the many commentaries on Debord's demise, one scholar noted: "Guy Debord did not kill himself. He was murdered by the thoughtlessness and selfishness of so-called scholars (primarily trendy lit-criters) who colonized his brilliant ideas and transformed his radical politics into an academic status symbol not worth the pulp it's printed on…" [20]


Written works

Guy Debord's best known works are his theoretical books, The Society of the Spectacle [12] and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle . In addition to these he wrote a number of autobiographical books including Mémoires, Panégyrique, Cette Mauvaise Réputation..., and Considérations sur l'assassinat de Gérard Lebovici . He was also the author of numerous short pieces, sometimes anonymous, for the journals Potlatch, Les Lèvres Nues, Les Chats Sont Verts, and Internationale Situationniste. The Society of the Spectacle was written in an "interesting prose"[ clarification needed ], unlike most writings in that time or of that nature[ citation needed ]. For Debord, the Spectacle is viewed as false representations in our real lives. The spectacle is a materialized worldview. The spectacle 'subjects human beings to itself'. [21]

Debord was deeply distressed by the hegemony of governments and media over everyday life through mass production and consumption. He criticized both the capitalism of the West and the dictatorial communism of the Eastern Bloc for the lack of autonomy allowed to individuals by both types of governmental structure. Debord postulated that Alienation had gained a new relevance through the invasive forces of the 'spectacle' – "a social relation between people that is mediated by images" consisting of mass media, advertisement, and popular culture. [5] The spectacle is a self-fulfilling control mechanism for society. Debord's analysis developed the notions of "reification" and "commodity fetishism" pioneered by Karl Marx and Georg Lukács. [22] Semiotics was also a major influence, particularly the work of his contemporary, Roland Barthes, who was the first to envisage bourgeois society as a spectacle, and to study in detail the political function of fashion within that spectacle. [23] Debord's analysis of "the spectaclist society" probed the historical, economic, and psychological roots of the media and popular culture. [12]

Debord's first book, Mémoires , was bound with a sandpaper cover so that it would damage other books placed next to it. [24]


Debord began an interest in film early in his life when he lived in Cannes in the late 1940s. Debord recounted that, during his youth, he was allowed to do very little other than attend films. He said that he frequently would leave in the middle of a film screening to go home because films often bored him. Debord joined the Lettrists just as Isidore Isou was producing films and the Lettrists attempted to sabotage Charlie Chaplin's trip to Paris through negative criticism.

Overall, Debord challenged the conventions of filmmaking; prompting his audience to interact with the medium instead of being passive receivers of information. As a matter of fact, his film Hurlements exclusively consists of a series of black and white screens and silence with a bit of commentary dispersed throughout. [25] Debord directed his first film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade in 1952 with the voices of Michèle Bernstein and Gil Wolman. The film has no images represented; instead, it shows bright white when there is speaking and black when there is not. Long silences separate speaking parts. The film ends with 24 minutes of black silence. People were reported to have become angry and left screenings of this film. The script is composed of quotes appropriated from various sources and made into a montage with a sort of non-linear narrative.

Later, through the financial support of Michèle Bernstein and Asger Jorn, Debord produced a second film, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps, which combined scenes with his friends and scenes from mass media culture. This integration of Debord's world with mass media culture became a running motif climaxing with "The Society of the Spectacle". Debord wrote the book The Society of the Spectacle before writing the movie. When asked why he made the book into a movie, Debord said, "I don't understand why this surprised people. The book was already written like a script". Debord's last film, "Son Art et Son Temps", was not produced during his lifetime. It worked[ clarification needed ] as a final statement where Debord recounted his works and a cultural documentary of "his time".

Complete Cinematic Works (AK Press, 2003, translated and edited by Ken Knabb) includes the scripts for all six of Debord's films, along with related documents and extensive annotations.


On 29 January 2009, fifteen years after his death, Christine Albanel, Minister of Culture, classified the archive of his works as a "national treasure" in response to a sale request by Yale University. [26] [27] The Ministry declared that "he has been one of the most important contemporary thinkers, with a capital place in history of ideas from the second half of the twentieth century." [28] Similarly, Debord once called his book, The Society of the Spectacle, "the most important book of the twentieth century".[ citation needed ] He continues to be a canonical and controversial figure particularly among European scholars of radical politics and modern art.[ citation needed ]


Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Situationist International</span> International organization of social revolutionaries (1957–72)

The Situationist International (SI) was an international organization of social revolutionaries made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists. It was prominent in Europe from its formation in 1957 to its dissolution in 1972. The intellectual foundations of the Situationist International were derived primarily from libertarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism. Overall, situationist theory represented an attempt to synthesize this diverse field of theoretical disciplines into a modern and comprehensive critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Détournement</span> Artistic style

A détournement, meaning "rerouting, hijacking" in French, is a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International, and later adapted by the Situationist International (SI), that was defined in the SI's inaugural 1958 journal as "[t]he integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Letterist International</span> Parisian collective of radical artists and cultural theorists, precursor to Situationists

The Letterist International (LI) was a Paris-based collective of radical artists and cultural theorists between 1952 and 1957. It was created by Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman rejoined by Jean-Louis Brau and Serge Berna as a schism from Isidore Isou's Lettrist group. The group went on to join others in forming the Situationist International, taking some key techniques and ideas with it.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Psychogeography</span> Creative view of the built environment that emphasizes playfulness and dérive

Psychogeography is the exploration of urban environments that emphasizes interpersonal connections to places and arbitrary routes. It was developed by members of the Letterist International and Situationist International, which were revolutionary groups influenced by Marxist and anarchist theory as well as the attitudes and methods of Dadaists and Surrealists. In 1955, Guy Debord defined psychogeography as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." One of the key tactics for exploring psychogeography is the loosely defined urban walking practice known as the dérive. As a practice and theory, psychogeography has influenced a broad set of cultural actors, including artists, activists and academics.

Lettrism is a French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the mid-1940s by Romanian immigrant Isidore Isou. In a body of work totaling hundreds of volumes, Isou and the Lettrists have applied their theories to all areas of art and culture, most notably in poetry, film, painting and political theory. The movement has its theoretical roots in Dada and Surrealism. Isou viewed his fellow countryman Tristan Tzara as the greatest creator and rightful leader of the Dada movement, and dismissed most of the others as plagiarists and falsifiers. Among the Surrealists, André Breton was a significant influence, but Isou was dissatisfied by what he saw as the stagnation and theoretical bankruptcy of the movement as it stood in the 1940s.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Asger Jorn</span> Danish painter, sculptor, ceramic artist, and author

Asger Oluf Jorn was a Danish painter, sculptor, ceramic artist, and author. He was a founding member of the avant-garde movement COBRA and the Situationist International. He was born in Vejrum, in the northwest corner of Jutland, Denmark, and baptized Asger Oluf Jørgensen.

André Frankin was a Belgian Lettrist and Situationist.

Raoul Vaneigem is a Belgian writer known for his 1967 book The Revolution of Everyday Life.

<i>Dérive</i> Unplanned urban exploration tour

The dérive is an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants stop focusing on their everyday relations to their social environment. Developed by members of the Letterist International, it was first publicly theorized in Guy Debord's "Theory of the Dérive" (1956). Debord defines the dérive as "a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gruppe SPUR</span> Group of German painters

Gruppe SPUR was an artistic collaboration formed by the German painters Heimrad Prem, Helmut Sturm, and Hans-Peter Zimmer, and the sculptor Lothar Fischer in 1957. They published a journal of the same name Spur.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Isidore Isou</span> Romanian-born French poet, dramaturge, novelist, director, economist and visual artist

Isidore Isou, born Isidor Goldstein, was a Romanian-born French poet, dramaturge, novelist, film director, economist, and visual artist. He was the founder of Lettrism, an art and literary movement which owed inspiration to Dada and Surrealism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Unitary urbanism</span> Critique of built environment studies advanced by the Letterists

Unitary urbanism (UU) was the critique of status quo "urbanism", employed by the Letterist International and then further developed by the Situationist International between 1953 and 1960.

<i>The Society of the Spectacle</i> (film) 1973 film by Guy Debord

La Société du Spectacle is a black-and-white 1974 film by the Situationist Guy Debord, based on his 1967 book of the same name. It was Debord's first feature-length film. It uses found footage and détournement in a radical Marxist critique of mass marketing and its role in the alienation of modern society.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Michèle Bernstein</span>

Michèle Bernstein is a French novelist and critic, most often remembered as a member of the Situationist International from its foundation in 1957 until 1967, and as the first wife of its most prominent member, Guy Debord.

Gérard Lebovici was a French film producer, editor and impresario.

Gil Joseph Wolman was a French artist. His work encompassed painting, poetry and film-making. He was a member of Isidore Isou's avant garde Letterist movement in the early 1950s, then becoming a central figure in the Letterist International, the group which would subsequently develop into the Situationist International.

<i>Mémoires</i> 1953 book by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn

Mémoires (Memories) is an artist's book made by the French social critic Guy Debord in collaboration with the Danish artist Asger Jorn. Its last page mentions that it was printed in 1959, however, it was printed in December 1958. This publication is the second of two collaborative books by Jorn and Debord whilst they were both members of the Situationist International.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Situationist prank</span> Practical joke intended to subvert media culture

Situationist prank is a term used in the mass media to label a distinctive tactic by the Situationist International, consisting of setting up a subversive political prank, hoax or stunt; In the terminology of the Situationist International, stunts and media pranks are very similar to situations. The détournement technique, that is "turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself," was the essential element of a situationist prank. The Situationist tactic of using détournement for subversive pranks is such a distinctive and influential aspect of the Situationist International, that they are sometimes labeled as a group of political pranksters.

Situation is a concept developed by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It refers to "how ritualized action might be avoided or at least confronted consciously as contrary to the subject's freedom of nihilation". It was first expressed in his 1943 work Being and Nothingness, where he wrote that:

[T]here is freedom only in a situation, and there is a situation only through freedom [...] There can be a free for-itself only as engaged in a resisting world. Outside of this engagement the notions of freedom, of determination, of necessity lose all meaning.

<i>Hurlements en faveur de Sade</i> 1952 French film

Hurlements en faveur de Sade is a 1952 French avant-garde film directed by Guy Debord. Devoid of any images, the film was an early work of Lettrist cinema.


  1. "Dead Bored: Debord's Dead! Andrew Hussey on the death of a turbulent thinker". Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  2. "Never Work by Guy Debord 1963". Retrieved 1 March 2022.
  3. Bourseiller, Christophe. "Vie et Mort de Guy Debord". Agora.
  4. "Pierre Guillaume Remembers Guy Debord". Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  5. 1 2 Jappe, A (1999). Guy Debord, Concept of the Spectacle. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  6. Bourseiller, ibid
  7. Andreotti, L. "Review: Leaving the twentieth century: The Situationist International." Journal of Architectural Education, 49(3), p. 197.
  8. Internationale Situationniste No. 1, June 1958, pages 29–30,
  9. Debord, Guy. Correspondence: The Founding of the Situationist International. Semiotext(e). 2008.
  10. Guy Debord (1967). "Society of the Spectacle".
  11. Knabb, Ken. Situationist International Anthology. Bureau of Public Secrets, 2007.
  12. 1 2 3 Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Zone Books, 1995.
  13. "The Veritable Split in the SI", 1972
  14. Guy Debord, "Reflections of the Death of Gérard Lebovici"
  15. "Guy Debord". Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  16. Le Jeu de la Guerre: Relevé des positions successives de toutes les forces au cours d'une partie – Guy Debord, Alice Becker-Ho – Livres. ASIN   2070776514.
  17. McDonough (2002). Guy Debord and the Situationist International.
  18. Andrew Hussey. "The suicide of Guy Debord | Books". The Guardian . Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  19. Baker (August 2001). "The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord". The Guardian . Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  20. "Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration [1995–2001]". 11 October 2014. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  21. Debord, Guy (2002). The Society of the Spectacle. Canberra : Hobgoblin Press.
  22. [ bare URL PDF ]
  23. Philippe Sollers "L'antifascisme de Barthes", Le Monde // Hors-Série Roland Barthes, Juillet-Août, 2015
  24. "the new shelton wet/dry". 10 January 2013. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  25. Winestine, Zack (2009). "Howls for Guy Debord". Film Quarterly. 62 (4): 14–15. doi:10.1525/fq.2009.62.4.14.
  26. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2 October 2009. Retrieved 19 May 2009.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  27. Gallix, Andrew (18 March 2009). "The resurrection of Guy Debord". The Guardian . London. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  28. Journal Officiel de la Republique Francaise du 12 fevrier 2009 (texte 120)
  29. "". Archived from the original on 7 September 2007. Retrieved 24 May 2007.

Further reading