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In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.

As the trendy language of virtuality and the simulated hyperreal becomes the lingua franca of academe, art scene, and mass market, Guy Debord, author of the much misrepresented Society of the Spectacle and most notorious of the Situationists, has been eclipsed by other cult figures of critical theory. Falling into neglect are Debord's subtle--and sobering--insights, the hard-edged critique that posed a cautionary analysis of society moving toward image consumption in complicity with the delusions of late capitalism. With the glitzy dystopic vision promised by post-Modern trash, who wants to listen to these nay-sayings when offered an easy, exhilarating dose of fin-de-siecle hedonism in its stead?

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni presents Lucy Forsyth's English translation of the script for Debord's film bearing this title. Produced by Simar films, the work was shown in Paris in 1978, but distribution was mired by tabloid scandal and personal tragedy. It was funded largely through the auspices of Gerard Lebovici, a wealthy intellectual who promoted Debord and his Situationist activities and who, in 1984, was found mysteriously murdered in his car. Debord was smeared in the press, where it was suggested he was responsible for the death of his patron, publisher, and friend. Later cleared of any formal charges, Debord, in the wake of the negative atmosphere generated by these events, withdrew his films from circulation, swearing they would never again be made available to the French public.

During the early '80s, Forsyth attempted to stage a presentation of the film in London. In addition to her translation of the script, this book records that failed project. Forsyth's vision of a "situation" included Orson Welles reading the film-script narration while Debord's visual track was projected. Welles' ironic sense of his own self-production as historical and phenomenal spectacle was to provide a grounding reference for even those audience members dim enough to have no idea who Debord was or wherein his importance lay.

The script displays Debord's own unsettling interrogation of his historical condition and his equally compelling reflection on processes of cultural change. Manifesting a personal nostalgia for the postwar Paris of the '50s, which provided the impetus for the Situationist community, Debord describes it as a place where "people . . . did not live on images," a time when the "modern commodity had not yet come to show all that can be done to a street." Commenting repeatedly on the passage of time--as historical process understood in reference to his individual life--Debord states, "I have loved my epoch, which will have seen all existing security vanish, and everything which was socially ordained melt away."

The film's visual track largely consists of stock footage, "pillaged," to use Forsyth's word, from various sources and occasionally intercut with images of Debord. These visuals are described in the interlining of the book's text, communicating a semblance of the original film, so that Debord's sense of juxtaposition--of images of Andreas Baader and Gudrun Enslin with the text "the best of youth dies in prison," or a clip of Zorro escaping a posse to the sound of a statement about the difficulty of defining a revolutionary stance--comes through.

Debord's central theme--the interrogation of how we are subjects of and in history--is intertwined with his critical attack on the transformation of society into commodified spectacle. This is a work with the scope and profundity of The Education of Henry Adams, or of Emma Goldman's Living My Life, a text by an individual who has shaped history and yet regards its processes critically: Debord both questions and believes the premises according to which he lives his life as critical practice.

Johanna Drucker teaches 20th-Century Art History at Columbia University.
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Author:Drucker, Johanna
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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