Skip to main content Start of main content

Guy Debord: Art War

Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord, A Game of War (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith), London: Atlas Press, 2007. Courtesy Atlas Press.
Clodagh Kinsella reviews the recent Bibliothèque nationale de France exhibition of their newly acquired Guy Debord archive.
Screen shot of the RSG computer game Kriegspiel, 2008, an attempt to reinterpret Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord’s Game of War, 1977. Courtesy RSG

By the time the first visitors passed through the hushed corridors of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), the setting for ‘Guy Debord: An Art of War’, the exhibition had already sparked an outcry. Most critiques weighed in on what Raphaëlle Rérolle in Le Monde called the ‘malice’ of the state-run BnF in acquiring the archives of a lifelong enemy of institutions and intellectual property rights.01Others took aim at the manner of the 2011 acquisition – a 2.7 million Euro cheque to his widow Alice Debord and the romancing of rich donors to fund it – or the show’s calculated citation of Debord as a ‘national treasure’.02That the BnF had stamped Debord’s vast archive of reading notes with their logo, while forbidding visitors to take photographs due to copyright infringement, was too much for Antonio Casilli, whose howls of ‘recuperation’ soon bolstered the pro-Situationist chorus.03

As the war was waging outside the BnF’s walls, it was awkwardly ensconced within them too; in keeping with the Sun Tzu reference in the title, ‘Guy Debord: An Art of War’ largely confined its attentions to Guy Debord the strategist. This, alongside theorist and Enragé (with reference to his role in the events of May ‘68), 04was one of the only tags he endorsed, as Giorgio Agamben informed visitors in a panel by the exhibition’s entrance. And yet, despite the bellicose theme, the BnF’s curators seemed conflicted by their task – with an apologia in the same spot admitting that Debord’s entry into a museum context raised the spectre of what it called the ‘mummification’ or neutralisation of his explosive canon. Its effect, like an essay by Mark Francis connected to the Pompidou Centre’s 1989 show on the Situationist International (SI),05was to inspire a certain unease: just as belligerence seems the entrenched response of pro-Situationist collectives, so the urge for self-justification dogs all those who approach Debord’s works; both parties, apparently intimidated by his aura, frequently end up indulging in hagiography.’

It is quite natural that our enemies succeed in partially using us. We are neither going to leave the present field of culture to them nor mix with them. […] We must simply work to make any such exploitation entail the greatest possible risk for the exploiters.Although Debord never intended his writings to be dissected by the academy – The Society of the Spectacle (1967) was written as the theoretical accompaniment to an imminent conflagration, like The Communist Manifesto – he certainly foresaw their recuperation. Displaying a vim seemingly absent in the opposing camp, the Situationists wrote, ‘It is quite natural that our enemies succeed in partially using us. We are neither going to leave the present field of culture to them nor mix with them. […] We must simply work to make any such exploitation entail the greatest possible risk for the exploiters’.06But now, over forty years since the SI disbanded, it is hard to know what risks – beyond bad faith – the BnF or like institutions might run in approaching Debord’s archive. ‘50 years of recuperation’, in the words of McKenzie Wark,07have seen the assimilation of avant-garde Situationist practices such as the dérive and détournement by everyone from anti-globalisation movements like Occupy Wall Street, to culture-jammers Adbusters, the Haçienda nightclub, and Benetton ad man Oliviero Toscani.08

At the same time, despite a counter-insurgency led by luminaries including Régis Debray and Jean Baudrillard, the theories outlined in Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle refuse to go away.09Viewed as the handbook of May 1968, in later life it has been deployed in cultural theory as a vague synonym for the evils of mass media, or roped into conspiracy theories about an ‘inside job’ on 9/11. 10While pro-Situationist collectives may expend their energy sifting rightful heirs such as Julien Coupat11from pretenders to the throne, in reality the BnF’s exhibition was less of an anachronism than a mirror to the SI’s widespread co-option. In fact, as Steve Shaviro depressingly notes, it is precisely the SI’s radical rejection of commercial culture that has made it ‘one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century’.12



Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord, A Game of War (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith), London: Atlas Press, 2007. Courtesy Atlas Press.

Beyond the reactionary posturing, another – equally entrenched – point was raised during the pro-Situ scrimmage. New York collective NOT BORED! translated and détourned Laurent Wolf’s interview in Le Temps with the two curators of the show,13using the resulting text to repeatedly highlight their accent on Debord as a figure of the artistic avant-garde rather than a revolutionary Marxist. ‘He participated in political action staring [sic] at the beginning of the 1960s. Then, after the dissolution of the Situationist International, he belonged more and more to the literary field’, asserted Emmanuel Guy (one of the curators).14And later: ‘Debord’s strategy was to find a way to transmit a discourse of emancipation’. As NOT BORED! summarily pointed out, these comments ignore Debord’s participation in politics at least as early as the formation of the Lettrist International in 1952, not to mention throughout the 1970s and 1980s, after the SI’s dissolution. More critically, they ignore the nature of Situationist praxis – which, NOT BORED! asserts, ‘includes both “discourse” and action’.

These comments ignore Debord’s participation in politics at least as early as the formation of the Lettrist International in 1952, not to mention throughout the 1970s and 1980s, after the SI’s dissolution. More critically, they ignore the nature of Situationist praxis – which, NOT BORED! asserts, “includes both ‘discourse’ and action”.

This point was succinctly put by two one-time Situationists – T.J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith – in their 1997 essay ‘Why Art Can’t Kill the Situationist International’.15Here they set themselves against ‘the established notion of some sort of epistemological (and practical) break in the SI’s history, taking place in the early 1960s, by which “art” gave way to “politics”, arguing instead that, ‘It was the “art” dimension, to put it crudely – the continued pressure put on the question of representational forms in politics and everyday life, and the refusal to foreclose on the issue of representation versus agency – that made their politics the deadly weapon it was.’ Critically, they claim that it is the established Left – and not the art world, erroneously assumed to be the SI’s greatest enemies in the 1960s – that has obscured this fact, matching each of its ‘received notions’ about the SI with the corollary truths that the Left is trying to hide.16The essay was penned partly in response to a 1989 article in the New Left Review by Peter Wollen,17related to the SI exhibition he co-curated at the Pompidou that year; the latter focused almost exclusively on the Situationists’ aesthetic credentials.18

Claire Fontaine, La Société du Spectacle brickbat, 2006, brick, inkjet print on archival paper, 100 × 50 × 33mm approx. Photograph: Farzad Owrang. Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

It is to be regretted that ‘Guy Debord: An Art of War’ – arriving, unlike the Pompidou exhibition, with the full sanction of former Situationists including Michèle Bernstein, Debord’s first wife, and Jacqueline de Jong, co-founder of Spur with Asger Jorn – failed to move the debate on, or even make steps to acknowledge it. If the Pompidou exhibition – just 17 years after the SI’s dissolution – came too early for their legacy to be properly understood, then the same cannot be said of the BnF, who might have nodded at the sheer volume of SI-related material 19currently being produced, or likeminded movements from Tiqqun to Clare Fontaine.20But, like the current ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’ show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the institution’s embrace of its radical subject was suffocating – a one-way transaction revealing little about the SI’s real ramifications for the present. Instead, as intimated by NOT BORED!, ‘An Art of War’ adhered to the familiar art/politics binary, with reminders of Debord and the SI’s two successive periods a recurring thread. Meanwhile, to bridge the two apparently irreconcilable fields contained within Debord’s archive, the curators mustered the theme of strategy – symbolised by the prominent positioning of Debord’s reading notes and Game of War.

At the heart of the exhibition, laid out in an oval ‘reading room’, were hundreds of small white Bristol cards onto which Debord had copied salient passages from texts for future reference. Spanning themes from ‘Machiavelli & Shakespeare’ to ‘Strategy’, particularly ripe lines were treated to the annotation ‘dét[ournable]!’ in the margin. Although conveying his literary erudition, the notes – frozen in walls of suspended glass – made for a strangely static display, forcing visitors to make like Debord’s ‘Homo Spectator’ to decipher their inscrutable scrawl.21Marrying a peremptory treatment of the contents of Debord’s works with a focus on their visual – commodifiable – interest, the reading room provided an apt synthesis of the BnF’s presentational tactics. As a corollary, too often the exhibits in Debord’s archive (an undeniably rich resource in the right hands) were treated to a clumsy, passive censorship. Symbolically, Fin de Copenhague (1957),22which announced both the SI’s interventionist techniques and revolutionary typography, simply remained a closed book. Films like the prose poem In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, created by Debord in the 1970s with his publisher/patron Gérard Lebovici, fared a little better, albeit annexed (in the name of democracy?) to an un-ticketed pen outside the exhibition.

Although conveying his literary erudition, the notes – frozen in walls of suspended glass – made for a strangely static display, forcing visitors to make like Debord’s “Homo Spectator” to decipher their inscrutable scrawl.Unlike the Pompidou exhibition and another held by the Centraal Museum Utrecht in 2006,23 the BnF’s focus was firmly on Debord rather than the Situationists. (The publicity shot was symptomatic, as the ‘prime mover’ of the SI emerged in a Photoshopped swathe of sepia from an image of his collaborators in drab greyscale.) But it was a move that ran the risk, as Olivier Beuvelet put it, of ‘making him appear as a party leader without an army’. 24In the event, sections on the two avant-garde movements Debord founded – the Lettrist International (1952–1957) and the Situationist International (1957–1972) – were relegated to chronological displays that stressed the historical dimension of his collective adventures. Accordingly, key SI techniques like the dérive, psychogeography and the related concept of unitary urbanism were seriously underplayed; the only trace of the latter was a maquette of architect Constant Nieuwenhuys’ utopian ‘New Babylon’. At its foot, arrows attached to the floor shunted visitors to other display cases: less invitations to drift, it seemed, than imprecations to move towards the next exhibit.

After charting the events and failure of May ‘68, the last rooms markedly lost momentum. For most critics this period is synonymous with Debord’s retreat from politics, and return – via the autobiographical Panégyrique (1989) – as a man of letters adopted by figures including Philippe Sollers and Michel Houellebecq. 25In fact, Debord was never so prolific as after the SI’s dissolution, marshalling his attention to subjects as diverse as the Red Brigades, climate change and Manuel Noriega. It would be hard to condense these opaque later texts, often tagged pejoratively as conspiracy theory, in a gallery context, but their exclusion only exemplified the BnF’s purposefully light grasp of Debord’s politics. Instead it closed its campaign with a copy of his Game of War, or Kriegspiel,26of which only a handful were ever made. Finally providing the synthesis that the strategy theme had grasped at throughout, the game represents, in McKenzie Wark’s words, ‘an expression in a new form of something both the early “artistic” and later “political” phases of the Situationist International had in common […] namely, a concept and a practice of strategy’.27The game’s aim, rather than conquering territory, is to disrupt the enemy’s lines of communication; it was hard to forget that the BnF – less through its preservation, than its presentation of Debord’s archive – had done just that, ensuring that the ‘Art of War’ concluded, (un)spectacularly, in stalemate.


Screen shot of the RSG computer game Kriegspiel, 2008, an attempt to reinterpret Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord’s Game of War, 1977. Courtesy RSG


  • Raphaëlle Rérolle, ‘A chacun son Debord’, Le Monde, 21 March 2013, available at
  • The press release from the BnF emphasised the paradox of Debord’s institutional co-option in a peculiar act of self-justification. ‘Paris, 2013. On the banks of the Seine river, Guy Debord’s work is listed as a national treasure. The man becomes part of the spectacle that he constantly denounced. Along with him, though, he brought his art of war.’ Published 14 November 2012, available at
  • Casilli considers the BnF press office’s approach to reproduction rights a sinister reflection of the ReLIRE project they launched in March 2013. Although its aim – to digitise out-of-print books by twentieth-century authors – seems admirable, in fact the e-books will be sold from September 2013 if uncontested by the holders of copyrights. Thus, says Casilli, the State exposes culture to market recuperation – a particular affront to Debord and the SI, whose journals always asserted a policy of no copyright. See Antonio A. Casilli, ‘La BnF, Guy Debord et le spectacle schizophrène du droit d’auteur’, BodySpaceSociety [blog], 23 March 2013, available at
  • The Art of War is an ancient treatise on military strategy written by the Chinese general Sun Tzu, who was active under the Zhou dynasty. Debord became increasingly preoccupied with such strategic texts in his later years; besides Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, he was particularly fond of quoting the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. The latter’s imprint is seen most clearly in Debord’s strategic training tool, the Game of War. See Sun Tzu, The Art of War (trans. Thomas Cleary), Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala, 2005.
  • Les Enragés, named after a group led by Jacques Roux during the French Revolution, were behind the student demonstrations that rocked Nanterre University in March 1968. They were heavily influenced by the Situationists and Debord, and together they participated in the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne, spearheading the revolt which erupted in Paris and beyond in May ’68. Whether or not Debord himself manned the barricades during the violent street fights of that time, the Situationist spirit – and their slogans – were the permanent backdrop to the conflict. See René Viénet, Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement (trans. Loren Goldner and Paul Sieveking), New York: Autonomedia, 1992.
  • The Pompidou exhibition opened in February 1989, before heading to London and Boston. It was conceived by the scholar and critic Peter Wollen and the curator Mark Francis – both of whom penned an introductory statement on the Situationists in two anthologies released in tandem with the Boston and London exhibitions. As Peter Smith points out, Francis’ remarks in the Boston catalogue rather awkwardly justify the exhibition’s rationale – namely ‘to expose to the light things that have run the risk of acquiring the patina of nostalgia and the glamour of neglect’ – to cover the fact that neither Debord nor any other former Situationists had participated in its planning. Furthermore, both Francis and Wollen invoke the technique of Potlatch to legitimise themselves, but the exhibitions and catalogue offers only ‘normative representations, reverential in tone, recuperative in effect’ whose ideological positions are ‘conveniently distanced from those of the SI’. See Peter Smith, ‘On the Passage of a Few People: Situationist Nostalgia’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.14, no.1, 1991, pp.118–125, p.118.
  • Collectively written statement in Situationist International Anthology (ed. and trans. Ken Knabb), Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, p.1
  • See McKenzie Wark, 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.
  • Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters is known for its spoofs of popular advertising campaigns, e.g. a Calvin Klein spot starring an anorexic Kate Moss and the words ‘Feed me’. Staff at the magazine originally created the #OCCUPYWALLSTREET hashtag on Twitter, and when its editor invoked the Situationists, they were repeatedly linked to the protests, for good or ill. In the 1980s and 1990s, Toscani raised the profile of Benetton’s multicoloured knitwear with shock campaigns that fused social commentary with commerce, deploying subjects dying of AIDS and death row inmates. Meanwhile, Factory Records (owners of Manchester’s Haçienda nightclub) featured acts like the Durutti Column, who were named after a Situationist comic, and employed sandpaper sleeves as per Asger Jorn and Debord’s book Mémoires (1959). The Haçienda itself realised Situationist Ivan Chtcheglov’s claim in Formulary for a New Urbanism (1953) that ‘The haçienda must be built’.
  • Critiques of the book have generally cited its vague meta-narrative and excessive debt to an unfashionable Hegelian-Marxist model of social and historical change. Débray, the father of mediology (a positivist sociology of mass communications) views the spectacle as a platform for man to discover truths, rather than the evil it was for the Situationists. Baudrillard, meanwhile, claims that Debord’s comments on the media technology of the 1960s, however apt at the time, have been superseded by a new regime of postmodern simulation, where reality and image have collapsed into one. In his words: ‘We’re threatened not by separation or alienation, but by total immersion.’ Jean Baudrillard, Fragments: Conversations with François L’Yvonnet (trans. Chris Turner), London: Routledge, 2004, p.19.
  • Jeff Kinkle notes that Debord scholars such as Len Bracken – author of The Shadow Government: 9-11 and State Terror (Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2002) – are just as prone to using his work to bolster conspiratorial takes on September 11 as well-known conspiracy theorists like David Ray Griffin and Webster Griffin Tarpley. Typically, although Bracken correctly depicts Debord’s integrated spectacle as shot through with conspiracies, he underplays its reliance on ‘disorganized certainty’ and disinformation – topics Debord approached increasingly in later texts – which leads him into dangerously vague, ‘paranoid’ ground. See Jeffrey Kinkle, ‘Spectacular Developments: Guy Debord’s Parapolitical Turn’, PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, London, 2010, pp.30–31, available at
  • Julien Coupat’s EHESS thesis on The Society of the Spectacle (‘Perspective et critique de la pensée situationist’, DEA dissertation, L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, 1997) was insightful enough to be included by Luc Boltanski in the influential The New Spirit of Capitalism. He went on to found the Tiqqun collective, which produced Situationist-inspired analyses such as the ‘Theory of the Young-Girl’, before removing to the rural village of Tarnac in central France (echoing Debord’s retreat from the consumer spectacle of Paris). In 2008, along with the rest of the so-called Tarnac 9, he was implicated in the sabotage of TGV cables. Somewhat notoriously, the charge was based on his presumed authorship of the anonymous manifesto The Coming Insurrection (2007), published by the Invisible Committee. For an analysis of the filiation between Tiqqun and the Situationists, see
  • Stephen Shaviro, ‘Michael Jackson’, The Pinocchio Theory [blog], 28 June 2009, available at
  • Laurent Wolf, ‘Guy Debord “la recherche d’une vie meilleure”’, Le Temps, 27 April 2013, available at
  • Laurent Wolf, ‘Guy Debord, “the search for a better life”’ (trans. NOT BORED!), NOT BORED!), 2 May 2013, available at
  • T.J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith, ‘Why Art Can’t Kill the Situationist International’, October, vol.79, Winter 1997, pp.15–31, p.29.
  • The four received notions or ‘propositions’ about the SI can be summarised as follows: that it was an art movement which strayed belatedly into art politics; it remained more interested in petty exclusions than the wider political realm; its utopian politics of everyday life can essentially be reduced to the famous 1968 graffiti slogans; its theory – especially Society of the Spectacle – was hopelessly totalising. The four truths that they mask revolve around the Left’s dubious taste – from progressive representational regimes (Peter Fuller, John Berger, Tel Quel… ) to Anti-Hegelian movements (semiotic Maoism), its failure to deal with its disastrous Leninist past, and its inability to pose the question of revolutionary organisation in the present.
  • See Peter Wollen, ‘The Situationist International’, New Left Review, 174, March/April 1989, pp.67–93. Versions of this article appeared in the Boston anthology On the Passage of a Few People Through a Brief Moment in Time. The Situationist International 1957-1972 (ed. Elisabeth Sussman), Boston: The MIT Press/ICA, 1989, and An Endless Adventure… An Endless Passion… An Endless Banquet: A Situationist Scrapbook, (ed. Iwona Blazwick), London and New York: ICA/Verso, 1989.
  • Tom McDonough points out that the Pompidou exhibition was motivated in part by the then-vogue for Baudrillard, whose earliest writings clearly bore the imprint of the Situationists. By 1989, however, Baudrillard had become an apologist for postmodern culture – and thus the exhibition made an effort to link the SI’s historical material to the recent ‘Pictures Generation’ including Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman instead. McDonough’s analysis of the show is dismissive, claiming that its attempt to frame the SI as an aesthetic phenomenon ‘reached its greatest absurdity perhaps in the display of the run of Internationale Situationniste, the group’s journal, under glass – the commodification as much as the preservation of this critical theory’. See Tom McDonough, ‘Unrepresentable Enemies: On the Legacy of Guy Debord and The Situationist International’, Afterall, Issue 28, Autumn/Winter, 2011, pp.42–55, p.45.
  • 2013 saw the publication of SI-related texts including McKenzie Wark’s The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso: London, 2013) a re-issue of Michèle Bernstein’s second novel La Nuit (Paris: Allia, 2013 [first published 1961]), and an English translation/détournement of the latter, respectively The Night / After the Night (London: Book Works, 2013).
  • Claire Fontaine – which lifts its name from a series of iconic school notebooks – is a Paris-based collective founded in 2004. Eschewing romantic notions of the artist, the collective occupies an ironic persona: that of a ‘ready-made artist’ that speaks in the singular third-person feminine. The collective often weighs in on issues of labour, production and politics, as in ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ (2006), which featured neon signs spelling out the title phrase in provocative languages varying on the venue, e.g. Arabic in post-9/11 New York, and Romany in Naples. See
  • The spectacle concentrates on appearance and sight, with ‘capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’ one of The Society of the Spectacle’s most famous lines. Debord gives its model citizen – a bipedal primate who likes to look – the scientific name ‘Homo Spectator’. See Guy Debord, ‘Preface to the Third French Edition’, Society of the Spectacle (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith), New York: Zone, 1999, p.9 [originally published by Buchet-Chastel, 1967].
  • Produced by Asger Jorn and Debord (named ‘technical adviser for détournement’) in a spontaneous 24-hour spree, Fin de Copenhague was a new kind of collage book, made up of colourful streaked and splashed pages interspersed with billboard signs, cartons and comic strips all detached from their original context. A striking critique of materialism, it is fantastically rare: only 200 were printed by Permild & Rosengreen in Copenhagen, although it has twice been reprinted (1986 and 2001) by Éditions Allia in Paris.
  • ‘IN GIRUM IMUS NOCTE ET CONSUMIMUR IGNI. Het verloren paradijs van de Situationistische Internationale’ was held at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht from 15 December 2006 until 11 March 2007. The exhibition was co-produced by the Musée Tinguely in Basel
  • Olivier Beuvelet, ‘Debord at the BNF, or the Art of Diversion’ (trans. NOT BORED!), NOT BORED!, 4 April 2013, available at Originally published on Mediapart [blog], 31 March 2013, available at
  • Houellebecq’s interest in Debord seemed to stem less from his powers as a scribe, and more from the fact that he was ‘a perfect and dedicated drinker’ – as outlined at length in Debord’s autobiography Panégyrique (Paris: Editions Gérard Lebovici, 1989). See Andrew Hussey, ‘Situation Abnormal’, The Guardian, 28 July 2001, available at
  • Debord referred to the game as the Kriegspiel. Alice Becker-Ho and Debord’s Le Jeu de la Guerre (Game of War) was first produced with the assistance of Gérard Lebovici in a limited edition with tokens in silver plated copper during the summer of 1977. Ten years later a cardboard version was published alongside a book of rules: Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord, Le ‘Jeu de la Guerre’: Relevé des positions successives de toutes les forces au cours d’une partie, Paris: Editions Gérard Lebovici, 1987. The board game and book of rules were translated into English by Atlas Press in 2007. The screen shot of the RSG computer game interpretation shows the opening formation of the game as first recorded in Le ‘Jeu de la Guerre’: Relevé des positions successives de toutes les forces au cours d’une partie. See,