Guy Debord and Giorgio Agamben – Dialogues I: The Prologue to The Uses of the Body

To bring to light—beyond every vitalism—the intimate interweaving of being and living: this is today certainly the task of thought (and of politics).

Giorgio Agamben

In an intensely rich dialogue, Giorgio Agamben has engaged with the work of Guy Debord in ways comparable to few.  With our recent post on football and the society of the spectacle (click here), we share below the first of a series of such encounters between the two writers.

Below is the “Prologue” of Giorgio Agamben’s recent essay The Uses of the Body (posted on the site, communists in situ); a text in search of a politics beyond the separations of private and public, bare life and politically in-formed life 

1. It is curious how in Guy Debord a lucid awareness of the insufficiency of private life was accompanied by a more or less conscious conviction that there was, in his own existence or in that of his friends, something unique and exemplary, which demanded to be recorded and communicated. Already in Critique de la séparation, he thus evokes at a certain point as intransmissible “cette clandestinité de la vie privée sur laquelle on ne possède jamais que des documents dérisoires” (“that clandestinity of private life regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents”; Debord 1, p. 49/33); and nevertheless, in his first films and again in Panégyrique, he never stopped parading one after the other the faces of his friends, of Asger Jorn, of Maurice Wyckaert, of Ivan Chtcheglov, and his own face, alongside that of the women he loved. And not only that, but in Panégyrique there also appear the houses he inhabited, 28 via delle Caldaie in Florence, the country house at Champot, the square des Missions étrangères at Paris (actually 109 rue du Bac, his final Parisian address, in the drawing room of which a photograph from 1984 shows him seated on the English leather sofa that he seemed to like).

Here there is something like a central contradiction, which the Situationists never succeeded in working out, and at the same time something precious that demands to be taken up again and developed—perhaps the obscure, unavowed awareness that the genuinely political element consists precisely in this incommunicable, almost ridiculous clandestinity of private life. Since clearly it—the clandestine, our form-of-life—is so intimate and close at hand, if we attempt to grasp it, only impenetrable, tedious everydayness is left in our hands. And nonetheless, perhaps precisely this homonymous, promiscuous, shadowy presence preserves the stowaway of the political, the other face of the arcanum imperii, on which every biography and every revolution makes shipwreck. And Guy, who was so shrewd and cunning when he had to analyze and describe the alienated forms of existence in the society of the spectacle, is equally innocent and helpless when he tries to communicate the form of his life, to look in the face and dissolve the stowaway with which he had shared his journey up to the end.

2. In girum imus nocte et consumimir igni (1978) opens with a declaration of war against its time and continues with a relentless analysis of the conditions of life that the market society at the last stage of its development had established over all the earth. Unexpectedly, however, around the middle of the film, the detailed and merciless description stops and is replaced by the melancholic, almost mournful evocation of personal memories and events, which anticipate the declared autobiographical intention of Panégyrique. Guy recalls the Paris of his youth, which no longer exists, in whose streets and cafés he had set out with his friends on the stubborn investigation of that “Graal néfaste, dont personne n’avait voulu” (“sinister Grail, which no one else had ever sought”). Although the Grail in question, “glimpsed fleetingly” but not “encountered,” must unquestionably have had a political meaning, since those who sought it “found themselves capable of understanding false life in light of true life” (Debord 1, p. 252/172), the tone of the commemoration, punctuated by citations from Ecclesiastes, Omar Khayyam, Shakespeare, and Bossuet, is at the same time indisputably nostalgic and gloomy: “À la moitié du chemin de la vraie vie, nous étions environnés d’une sombre mélancolie, qu’ont exprimée tant des mots railleurs et tristes, dans le café de la jeunesse perdue” (“Midway on the journey of real life we found ourselves surrounded by a somber melancholy, reflected by so much sad banter in the cafés of lost youth,” Debord 1, p. 240/164). From this lost youth, Guy recalls the confusion, the friends and lovers (“comment ne me serais-je pas souvenu des charmants voyous et des filles orgueilleuses avec qui j’ai habité ces bas-fonds . . . [I couldn’t help remembering the charming hooligans and proud young women I hung out with in those shady dives . . . ]”; p. 237/162), while on the screen there appear the images of Gil J. Wolman, Ghislain de Marbaix, Pinot-Gallizio, Attila Kotanyi, and Donald Nicholson-Smith. But it is toward the end of the film that the autobiographical impulse reappears more forcefully and the vision of Florence quand elle était libre (“when it was free”) is interwoven with images of the private life of Guy and of the women with whom he had lived in that city in the seventies. One then sees pass by rapidly the houses in which Guy lived, the impasse de Clairvaux, the rue St. Jacques, the rue St. Martin, a parish church in Chianti, Champot, and, once more, the faces of friends, while one hears the words from Gilles’ song in Les visiteurs du soir: “Tristes enfants perdus, nous errions dans la nuit . . . .” And, a few sequences before the end, pictures of Guy at 19, 25, 27, 31, and 45 years of age. The sinister Grail, which the Situationists had set out to investigate, has to do not only with the political, but in some way also with the clandestinity of private life, of which the film does not hesitate to exhibit, apparently without shame, the “pitiful documents.”

3. The autobiographical intention was, however, already present in the palindrome that gives the film its title. Immediately after having evoked his lost youth, Guy adds that nothing expresses its dissipation better than that “ancient phrase that turns completely back on itself, being constructed letter by letter like an inescapable labyrinth, thus perfectly uniting the form and content of loss: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. ‘We turn in the night, consumed by fire’” (Debord 1, p. 242/165–166).

The phrase, at times defined as the “devil’s verse,” actually comes, according to a short article by Heckscher, from emblematic literature and refers to moths inexorably drawn by the flame of the candle that will consume them. An emblem consists of an impresa—which is to say, a phrase or motto—and an image; in the books that I have been able to consult, the image of moths devoured by flame appears often, yet it is never associated with the palindrome in question but rather with phrases that refer to amorous passion (“thus living pleasure leads to death,” “thus to love well brings torment”) or, in some rare cases, to imprudence in politics or war (“non temere est cuiquam temptanda potentia regis,” “temere ac periculose”). In Otto van Veen’s Amorum emblemata (1608) a winged love contemplates the moths who hurl themselves toward the flame of the candle, and the impresa reads: brevis et damnosa voluptas.

It is thus probable that Guy, in choosing the palindrome as a title, was comparing himself and his companions to moths who, amorously and rashly attracted by the light, are destined to lose themselves and be consumed in the flame. In The German Ideology—a work that Guy knew perfectly well—Marx evokes this image critically: “and it is thus that nocturnal moths, when the sun of the universal has set, seek the light of the lamp of the particular.” It is thus all the more striking that, despite this warning, Guy had continued to pursue this light, to stubbornly peer into the flame of singular and private existence.

4. Toward the end of the nineties, on the shelves of a Parisian bookstore, the second volume of Panégyrique, containing iconography—by chance or out of an ironic intention of the bookseller—was next to the autobiography of Paul Ricoeur. Nothing is more instructive than to compare the use of images in the two cases. While the photographs in Ricoeur’s book depicted the philosopher solely in the course of academic conferences, almost as though he had had no life outside them, the images of Panégyrique aspired to a state of biographical truth that concerned the existence of the author in all his aspects. “L’illustration authentique,” the brief preamble informs us, “éclaire le discours vrai . . . on saura donc enfin quelle était mon apparence à différentes âges; et quel genre de visages m’a toujours entouré; et quels lieux j’ai habités . . . .” (“An authentic illustration sheds light on a true discourse. . . . People will at last be able to see what I looked like at various stages of my life, the kinds of faces that have always surrounded me, and what kind of places I have lived in . . . .”; Debord 2, p. 1691/73–74). Once again, notwithstanding the obvious insufficiency and banality of its documents, life—the clandestine—is in the foreground.

5. One evening in Paris, when I told her that many young people in Italy continued to be interested in Guy’s writings and were hoping for a word from him, Alice responded: “on existe, cela devrait leur suffire” (“we exist, this should be sufficient for them”). What did she mean by: on existe? Certainly, in those years, they were living in seclusion and without a telephone between Paris and Champot, in a certain sense with eyes turned to the past, and their “existence” was, so to speak, entirely hidden in the “clandestinity of private life.” And again, shortly before his suicide in November 1994, the title of the last film prepared for Canal Plus: Guy Debord, son art, son temps does not seem—despite the truly unexpected phrase son art—completely ironic in its biographical intention, and before concentrating with an extraordinary vehemence on the horrors of “his time,” this (sort of) spiritual last will and testament reiterates, with the same candor and the same old photographs, the nostalgic evocation of his past life. What does it mean, then: on existe? Existence—that concept that is in every sense fundamental for the first philosophy of the West—perhaps has to do constitutively with life. “To be,” writes Aristotle, “for the living means to live.” And centuries later, Nietzsche specifies: “To be: we have no other representation than to live.” To bring to light—beyond every vitalism—the intimate interweaving of being and living: this is today certainly the task of thought (and of politics).

6. The Society of the Spectacle opens with the word “life” (“Toute la vie des sociétés dans lesquelles règnent les conditions moderns de production s’annonce comme une immense accumulation de spectacles”; “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles”; Debord 3, §1), and up to the end the book’s analysis never stops making reference to life. The spectacle, in which “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” (§1), is defined as a “concrete inversion of life” (§2). “The more his life is now his product, the more he is separated from his life” (§33). Life under spectacular conditions is a “counterfeit life” (§48) or a “survival” (§154) or a “pseudo-use of life” (§49). Against this alienated and separated life, what is asserted is something that Guy calls “historical life” (§139), which appears already in the Renaissance as a “joyous rupture with eternity”: “in the exuberant life of Italian cities . . . life is experienced as enjoyment of the passage of time.” Already years previously, in Sur le passage de quelques personnes and Critique de la séparation, Guy says of himself and his companions that “they wanted to reinvent everything every day, to become masters and possessors of their own life” (Debord 1, p. 22/14), that their meetings were like “signals emanating from a more intense life, a life that has not truly been found” (p. 47/32).

What this “more intense” life was, what was inverted and falsified in the spectacle, or even what one should understand by “life of society” is nowhere clarified; and yet it would be too easy to reproach the author for incoherence or terminological imprecision. Guy is doing nothing here but repeating a constant attitude in our culture, in which life is never defined as such but is time after time articulated and divided into bios and zoè, politically qualified life and bare life, public life and private life, vegetative life and a life of relation, so that each of the partitions is determinable only in its relation to the others. And perhaps it is in the last analysis precisely the undecidability of life that makes it so that it must each time be decided politically and singularly. And Guy’s indecision between the secrecy of his private life—which, with the passing of time, had to appear to him as ever more fleeting and undocumentable—and historical life, between his individual biography and the obscure and unrenounceable epoch in which it was inscribed, betrays a difficulty that, at least under present conditions, no one can be under the illusion of having resolved once and for all. In any case, the stubbornly sought-after Grail, the life that is uselessly consumed in the flame, was not reducible to either of the opposed terms, neither to the idiocy of private life nor to the uncertain prestige of public life, and it indeed calls into question the very possibility of distinguishing them.

7. Ivan Illich has observed that the conventional notion of life (not “a life,” but “life” in general) is perceived as a “scientific fact,” which has no relationship with the experience of the singular living person. It is something anonymous and generic, which can designate at times a spermatozoon, a person, a bee, a cell, a bear, an embryo. It is this “scientific fact,” so generic that science has given up on defining it, that the Church has made the ultimate receptacle of the sacred and bioethics the key term of its impotent foolishness. In any case, “life” today has more to do with survival than with the vitality or form of life of the individual.

Insofar as a sacral remainder has crept into it in this way, the secret that Guy pursued has become even more elusive. The Situationist attempt to bring life back to the political runs up against a further difficulty, but it is not for this reason less urgent.

8. What does it mean that private life accompanies us as a secret or a stowaway? First of all, that it is separated from us as clandestine and is, at the same time, inseparable from us to the extent that, as a stowaway, it furtively shares existence with us. This split and this inseparability constantly define the status of life in our culture. It is something that can be divided—and yet always articulated and held together in a machine, whether it be medical or philosophico-theological or biopolitical. Thus, not only is private life to accompany us as a stowaway in our long or short voyage, but corporeal life itself and all that is traditionally inscribed in the sphere of so-called intimacy: nutrition, digestion, urination, defecation, sleep, sexuality. . . . And the weight of this faceless companion is so strong that each seeks to share it with someone else—and nevertheless, alienation and secrecy never completely disappear and remain irresolvable even in the most loving life together. Here life is truly like the stolen fox that the boy hid under his clothes and that he cannot confess to even though it is savagely tearing at his flesh.

It is as if each of us obscurely felt that precisely the opacity of our clandestine life held within it a genuinely political element, as such shareable par excellence—and yet, if one attempts to share it, it stubbornly eludes capture and leaves behind it only a ridiculous and incommunicable remainder. The castle of Silling, in which political power has no object other than the vegetative life of bodies, is in this sense the cipher of the truth and, at the same time, of the failure of modern politics—which is, in reality, a biopolitics. We must change our life, carry the political into the everyday—and nevertheless, in the everyday, the political can only make shipwreck.

And when, as it today happens, the eclipse of the political and of the public sphere allows only private and bare life to subsist, the clandestine, left as sole master of the field, must, insofar as it is private, publicize itself and attempt to communicate its own no longer risible documents (though they remain such), which at this point correspond immediately with it, with its identical days recorded live and transmitted on screens to others, one after another.

And yet, only if thought is able to find the political element that has been hidden in the secrecy of singular existence, only if, beyond the split between public and private, political and biographical, zoè and bios, it is possible to delineate the contours of a form-of-life and of a common use of bodies, will politics be able to escape from its muteness and individual biography from its idiocy.

From the UbuWeb site, Debord’s 1978 film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is a 1978 film by the situationist Guy Debord, the title of which is a medieval Latin palindrome meaning “we turn in the night and are consumed by fire”.

The film opens with an excoriating attack on the cinema-going public and its world, and on conventional cinema itself. However, the bulk of the film is given over to Debord’s quite personal reflections on his life, loves and times, taking in his early pre-situationist years in the Sant-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris, the Situationist International, and the various European locales in which he lived after the dissolution of the International in 1972.

Like The Society of the Spectacle, In girum combines a spoken text with a series of static images and film clips (the latter largely taken from existing sources). However, as Debord pointed out in a 1989 note in the critical edition of In girum:

“The situation shifts in In girim due to several important differences: I directly shot a portion of the images; I wrote the text specifically for this particular film; and the theme of the film is not the spectacle, but real life. The films that interrupt the discource do so primarily to support it positively, even if there is an element of irony (Lacenaire, the Devil, the fragment from Cocteau, or Custer’s last stand). The Charge of the Light Brigade is intended to crudely and eulogistically ‘represent’ a dozen years of the SI’s actions.

As for the use of music, even though it is detourned like everything else, it will be felt by everyone in the normal way; it is never distanciated and always has a positive, ‘lyrical’ aim.”

This version of the film differs from earlier versions in that Debord’s French voiceover has been replaced by an English-language narration by the American actress, Dore Bowen. The text spoken by Bowen is drawn from Ken Knabb’s translation. That translation also provides occasional subtitles for non-English dialogue within the film clips that Debord borrows and intertitles. The visuals appear to have been drawn from the French Gaumont DVD. Editing and production on this new version were by Konrad Steiner.

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