01 May 2021

Debord and Wolman—Détournement

Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman
"A User's Guide to Détournement" (1956)
in Situationist International Anthology (2006)
trans. and ed. Ken Knabb
pp. 14-21
It is not just returning to the past which is reactionary; even "modern" cultural objectives are ultimately reactionary since they depend on ideological formulations of a past society that has prolonged its death agony to the present. The only historically justified tactic is extremist innovation. (14)
Unfortunately it is not only our various underlying "ideological formulations" which are products of the past but also the whole of our knowledge. Hence "extremist innovation" can be extreme only relative to current conditions; it cannot be any more or less rooted in the dead past than can any other point on this continuum.
Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can be used to make new combinations. The discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrate that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. Restricting oneself to a personal arrangement of words is mere convention. The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the juxtaposition of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used.

It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of those fragments in any appropriate way, leaving the imbeciles to their slavish reference to "citations." (15)
Imbeciles being now and forever a sizable majority, I would imagine the fate of this device to be thusly sealed. If the artist has such high (that is, concrete) hopes for their productions, then it is up to them to design imbecile-proof strategies for realization of this objective. Even the notion that "a relationship is always formed" is perhaps too charitable; some relationship or other may arise, but different imbeciles may harbor different imbecilities; and in extreme cases the "juxtaposition" itself may not be perceptible, or not equally to all. Again, the specificity of the intent necessitates a proportionate degree of responsibility taken by the artist. One does not detect a great deal of affinity here with the notion of responsibility, however.
the tendencies toward détournement that can be observed in contemporary expression are for the most part unconscious or accidental. It is in the advertising industry, more than in the domain of decaying aesthetic production, that one can find the best examples. (16)
A strikingly early mention of the affinity between marketing and pastiche. Much later, J. Wagner would remark in class that by the late 1980s Hollywood literally "couldn't afford NOT" to incorporate bits and pieces of damn near everything. So there is something prophetic here, but also a motivated inability to dig deeper and ask whether the appearance of these techniques first in the area of marketing is ACTUALLY accidental/unconscious, or whether the techniques are not in fact DEFINED by this marketing orientation. And from there it is but a small step to question the conceit to a total fluidity of relationships between détourned elements; if this were possible, advertising would not be limited to a few very particular tropes, nor would the industry need to expend nearly so much effort researching in order to determine which tropes might work.
the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements.


The idea of pure, absolute expression is dead... (17)
A characteristically Debordian irreverence for engaging with dynamic social processes on their own terms is very much on display here. He can see that absolute expression is dead, but not that "original contexts are every bit as dynamic and varied. The theory of détournement is every bit as dependent on being grounded at some archimedean point as is the romantic conception of expressive communication through artworks. Far from rejecting pure/absolute expression, the authors seem intent on using the pure/absolute/monolithic element in stultified marketing-oriented culture as a springboard to communicate tractability. And yet as monolithic as mass culture seems to get, this has remained impossible.
Détournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply. ... The more the rational character of the reply is apparent, the more indistinguishable it becomes from the ordinary spirit of repartee... (17)
Very true as far as it goes, but this should also be a clue that this is, as the above points would have it, not very far at all. If the "rational" and the semantic spoil the fun, this is because their own conceits to objectivity are immediately exploded when deployed in this way. The various irr-/pseudo-rational alternatives are not more effective, they merely conceal the process more completely, protecting their conceits.
It is a real means of proletarian artistic education, the first step toward a literary communism. (18)
This seems about right, actually. A "first step" in the sense of being inherently elementary, juvenile, unripe. Yet still the authors are ambiguous on the question of agency: is the prole to practice détournement as a vehicle of social and cultural agency, or merely to passively consume the expertly crafted détournements of Debord and Wolman according to the "laws" set down in these pages?
...Griffith's Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history of cinema because of its wealth of innovations. On the other hand, it is a racist film and therefore absolutely does not merit being shown in its present form. But its total prohibition could be seen as regrettable from the point of view of the secondary, but potentially worthier, domain of the cinema. It would be better to détourn it as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activiites of the Ku Klux Klan... (19)
A smart and totally reasonable proposal which has become, alas, completely untenable on account of the trigger warning crowd, and also by way of what R. Gombin calls "total contestation." Debord having had a hand in establishing the latter, and also in declaring the death of film years before this article appeared, one wonders if this passage is not an instance of Wolman getting a word in edgewise. In any case, the Trigger Warning phenomenon is an apt devil's advocate avenue for contemporary skeptics of the cult of détournement, since it renders the proposal here totally untenable, intentions be damned.
In itself, the theory of détournement scarcely interests us. But we find it linked to almost all the constructive aspects of the presituationist period of transition. Thus its enrichment, through practice, seems necessary. (21)
The reluctant virtuoso defers. Détournement is simply an idea whose time has come. Artistic innovation, expression, and aesthetics are no longer possible, hence a bounded inventory of cultural artefacts with stable meanings from which may be selected and juxtaposed any and all of them according not to the personal whim of the artist but to the demands of the political situation.

[from a notebook, probably 2018]

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