Theses on Cultural Revolution

by Guy Debord, 1958


The traditional goal of aesthetics is to produce, by means of art, impressions of certain past elements of life in circumstances where those elements are lacking or absent, in such a way that those elements escape the disorder of appearances subject to the ravages of time. The degree of aesthetic success is thus measured by a beauty that is inseparable from duration, and that even goes so far as pretensions of eternity. The goal of the situationists is immediate participation in a passionate abundance of life by means of deliberately arranged variations of ephemeral moments. The success of these moments can reside in nothing other than their fleeting effect. The situationists consider cultural activity in its totality as an experimental method for constructing everyday life, a method that can and should be continually developed with the extension of leisure and the withering away of the division of labor (beginning with the division of artistic labor).


Art can cease being a report about sensations and become a direct organization of more advanced sensations. The point is to produce ourselves rather than things that enslave us.


Mascolo is right in saying (in Le Communisme) that the reduction of the work day by the dictatorship of the proletariat is “the most certain sign of the latter’s revolutionary authenticity.” Indeed, “if man is a commodity, if he is treated as a thing, if human relations are relations of thing to thing, this is because it is possible to buy his time.” But Mascolo is too quick to conclude that “the time of a man freely employed” is always well spent, and that “the purchase of time is the sole evil.” There can be no freely spent time until we possess the modern tools for the construction of everyday life. The use of such tools will mark the leap from a utopian revolutionary art to an experimental revolutionary art.


An international association of situationists can be seen as a coalition of workers in an advanced sector of culture, or more precisely as a coalition of all those who demand the right to work on a project that is obstructed by present social conditions; hence as an attempt at organizing professional revolutionaries in culture.


We are excluded from real control over the vast material powers of our time. The communist revolution has not yet occurred and we are still living within the confines of decomposing old cultural superstructures. Henri Lefebvre rightly sees that this contradiction is at the heart of a specifically modern discordance between the progressive individual and the world, and he terms the cultural tendency based on this discordance “revolutionary-romantic.” The inadequacy of Lefebvre’s conception lies in the fact that he makes the mere expression of this discordance a sufficient criterion for revolutionary action within culture. Lefebvre abandons in advance any experimentation involving profound cultural change, contenting himself with mere awareness of possibilities that are as yet impossible (because they are still too remote), an awareness that can be expressed in any sort of form within the framework of cultural decomposition.


Those who want to supersede the old established order in all its aspects cannot cling to the disorder of the present, even in the sphere of culture. In culture as in other areas, it is necessary to struggle without waiting any longer for some concrete appearance of the moving order of the future. The possibility of this ever-changing new order, which is already present among us, devalues all expressions within existing cultural forms. If we are ever to arrive at authentic direct communication (in our working hypothesis of higher cultural means: the construction of situations), we must bring about the destruction of all the forms of pseudocommunication. The victory will go to those who are capable of creating disorder without loving it.


In the world of cultural decomposition we can test our strength but never use it. The practical task of overcoming our discordance with this world, that is, of surmounting its decomposition by some more advanced constructions, is not romantic. We will be “revolutionary romantics,” in Lefebvre’s sense, precisely to the degree that we fail.


Détournement as Negation and Prelude*

Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman, 1959

Detournement, that is to say, re-employment in a new unity of pre-exisiting artistic elements, has been a permanent tendency of the current avant-garde before as well as after the constitution of the SI. The two fundamental laws of detournement are the loss of importance (going as far as the complete loss of its original meaning) of each autonomous element that is detourned; and, at the same time, the organization of another significant ensemble, which confers upon each elements its new scope.

There is a specific strength to detournement, which obviously derives from the enrichment of the greatest part of the terms by the coexistence in them of their old and immediate meanings -- their double depth. There is a practical utility in the ease of use and the inexhaustible possibilities for re-employment: with respect to the least effort allowed by detournement, we have already said ("How to Use Detournement," May 1956)1: "The inexpensiveness of its products is the heavy artillery with which one batters all of the Chinese walls of the intellect."2 Nevertheless, these points by themselves do not justify the recourse to the procedure that the preceding phrase shows "clashing head-on with all the mundane and legal conventions." There is a historical meaning to detournement. What is it?

"Detournement is a game based upon the capacity for devalorization," Jorn writes in his study entitled Detourned Painting (May 1959),3 and he adds that all the elements of the cultural past must be "reinvested" or disappear. Detournement thus at first reveals itself to be the negation of the value of the previous organization of expression. Detournement arises and reinforces itself more and more in the historical period of the decay of artistic expression. But at the same time, attempts to re-employ the "detournable bloc" as a material for another ensemble express the search for a vaster construction, at a superior level of reference, as a new monetary unity of creation.4

The SI is a very particular movement, of a different nature than preceding artistic avant-gardes. On the level of culture, the SI can for example be compared with a research laboratory, and also a [political] party, in which we are situationists and in which nothing that we do is situationist. This is not a disavowal for anyone. We are partisans of a certain future for culture, for life. Situationist activity is a definite trade that we still do not ply.

Thus, since we cannot at all represent a communal style of any kind, the signature of the movement, the trace of its presence and its contestation in the cultural reality of today is above all the use of detournement. At the level of detourned expression, one can cite the modified paintings of Jorn;5 the book "entirely composed of pre-fabricated elements" by Debord and Jorn, Memoires (in which each page reads in all directions6 and in which all the reciprocal connections of the phrases are always left incomplete); Constant's projects for detourned sculpture; [and] in the cinema, Debord's detourned documentary Sur le passage de quelques personnes a travers une assez courte unite de temps. At the stage of what "How to Use Detournement" calls "ultra-detournement" -- that is to say, the tendencies of detournement to apply itself to social and everyday life" (for example, passwords or costume disguises, belonging to the sphere of the game) -- one must speak, at different levels, of Gallizio's industrial painting; [Maurice] Wyckaert's "orchestral" project for an assemblyline painting in which the division of labor is based on the color used; and the many detournements of buildings that will be7 at the origin of unitary urbanism. This would be the place to cite the very "organizational" forms of the SI and its propaganda.

At this point of the world's development, all forms of expression are beginning to become empty and self-parodic. As the readers of this journal have been able to frequently see, the writing of today always has something parodic about it. "How to Use Detournement" announces "one must conceive of a parodic/serious stage in which the accumulation of detourned elements, far from wanting to incite indignation or laughter by referring to the notion of an original work, instead marking our indifference for an original that is empty of meaning and forgotten, is employed to render a certain sublimity."

The parodic/serious brings together8 the contradictions of the epoch in which we find the obligation and the near-impossibility of joiner or leading a totally innovative collective action; in which the most serious advance masked into the double game of art and its negation;9 in which the essential voyages of discovery have been undertaken by people of such touching incapacity.



*  (Unsigned; published in Internationale Situationniste #3, December 1959. Translated from the French and footnoted by NOT BORED! May 2008.)

1 Signed by Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman, 1956; translated by Ken Knabb as A User's Guide to Detournement.

2 See Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto: "The cheapness of the bourgeoisie's commodities is the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate." Debord would detourn Marx & Engels' analogy once again in Thesis 165 of The Society of the Spectacle (1967, film version, 1973): "Capitalist production has unified space, which is no longer limited by exterior societies. This unification is both an extensive and intensive process of banalization. The accumulation of commodities produced in series for the abstract space of the market must likewise break all regional and legal boundaries, and all the corporate restrictions of the Middle Ages that maintained the quality of artisanal production must dissolve the autonomy and qualities of places. This homogenizing power is the heavy artillery that has brought down all the walls of China."

3 Asger Jorn, preface to exhibition catalogue, Galerie Rive Gauche, May 1959; translated by Thomas Y. Levin.

4 As translated by Ken Knabb: "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." Note the deletion of the word monetaire. It would seem that Knabb feared that his readers would think that the situationists wanted to make money, when the author's choice of words in the preceding sentences -- "reinvested" and "value" -- indicates that he knows that Asger Jorn was working on a book called Critique of Political Economy, which attempted to apply Marxist economic categories to the practice of art, and which was self-published in 1960, the year after this was written.

5 See paintings tagged "defiguration" (1959-1962) on this list of Asger Jorn's paintings.

6 The French here -- dans lequel chaque page se lit en tous sens -- is very subtle. sens can mean "directions" or "meanings," which suggests that the words run in all directions and the phrases themselves may have"double" or hidden meanings.

7 Emphasis added. Like "situationist activity" as a whole, "unitary urbanism" is not yet being practiced -- precisely because a revolution has not yet broken out. Ken Knabb misses it: "and numerous detournements of buildings that were at the origin of unitary urbanism."

8 The French word employed here, recouvre, can also mean "recovers" or "recoups."

9 Ken Knabb: "[...] an era in which the most serious ventures are masked in the ambiguous interplay between art and its necessary negation [...]"