In 1959 Guy Debord and the Danish artist Asger Jorn published Mémoires, ‘a work entirely composed of prefabricated elements’ with ‘supporting structures’ by Jorn. In the jargon of the Situationist International (SI), the avant-garde anti-authoritarian movement they helped form in 1957, it is a work of détournement:
Détournement is the opposite of quotation, of appealing to a theoretical authority that is inevitably tainted by the very fact that it has become a quotation — a fragment torn from its own context and development, and ultimately from the general framework of its period and from the particular option (appropriate or erroneous) that it represented within that framework. Détournement is the flexible language of anti-ideology. (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 208)
Double-page spread from Mémoires (Copenhagen, 1957; RF.2019.b.63), section 2, bright red indicating Debord’s creative energy
Double-page spread from Mémoires section 3, fragments of maps struck through with blue lines, facing a nebulous blue splodge
Wrenched from their original contexts, fragments of texts and isolated images are linked and obscured by roughly applied, bright inks. Not always ‘supporting structures’, Jorn’s paintwork draws connections between fragments, but ‘then Debord’s words and pictures change Jorn’s avenues into labyrinths […] A connection is made, a connection is missed, the reader is lost, the reader enters another passageway, then another’ (Marcus, p. 128).
‘Guinness is good for you’: détourning advertising as the slogan is placed next to the fragment ‘in the daily struggle’
Through his creative reinterpretation of the autobiographical genre, the author enacts the process by which the ‘society of the spectacle’ and the commodification of experience might finally be blown apart to uncover again the unique everyday amidst the alienating capitalist superstructure. As Mémoires’ final fragment puts it, ‘I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’.
Final page of Mémoires
The British Library’s copy of Mémoires has an inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer (1951-2017), an Algerian political activist and author of a number of works inspired by the Situationists and his friendship with Debord.
Inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer in Mémoires
Ouldamer writes: ‘It is a détournement | It was in Ecclesiastes. | And even in Proverbs. | There is still a belief in this rotten “God”. There is nothing, Evy. I love you. | Le Singe [the monkey or the imitator]’. It isn’t clear when Debord gave Ouldamer the copy, of which there were perhaps one thousand in small circulation amongst associates, but their friendship appears to have flourished in the early 1980s. Ouldamer’s presence in our copy shifts the frame of the work and provokes us to think about race, ethnicity and the Algerian crises that were part of the context of both the original publication and Debord’s subsequent gift to Ouldamer.
Algerian intellectuals were already part of the Lettrist International, the SI’s forerunner, including Hadj Mohamed Dahou, who continued into the SI. Compatriot Abdelhafid Khatib wrote a fragmentary first example of a psychogeography in 1958. Thus the Algerian Situationist context was well established when the next generation came to maturity. Between 1953, the year of ‘The Manifesto of the Algerian Group of the Lettrist International’, and Ouldamer’s early activism came Algeria’s hard-won independence in 1962. From this point onwards, the violent suppression of native Algerian rights by French colonists transformed into the suppression of Berber rights by the single-party leadership Front de liberation nationale (FLN) with their exclusive focus on Arabization. This eventually led to the Berber mass activism and strikes of 1980, known as the ‘Berber Spring’.
Ouldamer, a native of the largest Berber region, Kabylia, co-edited a pamphlet entitled L’Algérie brûle! [‘Algeria is on fire’], attributed to ‘un groupe d’autonomes algériens’. In it, they pay homage to the activists for restoring to millions of Berber people a long-restricted freedom of expression. They reveal the illusion of Algeria being the standard-bearer for third world revolution, when it has reproduced ‘all the mediocrities and ignominies shared across all the world’s police states’. The incendiary pamphlet then evokes our inscription as it continues, ‘Les insurgés de Tizi-Ouzou n’ont fait que cracher sur toute cette pourriture’ [the insurgents of Tizi-Ouzou have done nothing else but spit in the face of this rottenness].
L’Algérie brûle! (Paris, 1981) X.809/55238
L’Algérie brûle! was published by Debord’s longstanding publisher and friend Gérard Lebovici at éditions Champ Libre, Paris. It appeared early in 1981, by which time Ouldamer had been arrested, ultimately to serve one year in prison for breaking article 144 of the Algerian penal code, which is cited on the back flap of his next book, Offense à President. The law forbids citizens to attack the honour of authorities ‘by words, gestures, threats, […] even by writings or drawings not made public’. This book was written in Paris, Ouldamer’s new home following his release, where his friendship with Debord developed. In March 1984, Lebovici was assassinated. Debord rigorously investigated the circumstances of his friend’s death, all the while encouraging Ouldamer to publish his work with the same publisher, now run by Gérard’s widow Floriana under the name éditions Gérard Lebovici.
Mezioud Ouldamer, Offense à Président (Paris, 1985), YA.1987.a.18728
The success of Offense à President led Ouldamer to work on the book that would spark the most reaction, Le Cauchemar immigré dans la decomposition de la France [‘The Immigrant Nightmare in the Decomposition of France’]. Debord again offered advice throughout. One letter from Debord on 9 May 1985 invites Ouldamer to the small hamlet of Champot, adding that his girlfriend would also be welcome. Is this the ‘Evy’ mentioned in Ouldamer’s inscription in Mémoires?
Le Cauchemar immigré dans la décomposition de la France (Paris, 1986), YA.1987.a.3700
Le Cauchemar immigré inspired Debord to pass his own comments on the politics of immigration that had risen to the surface, especially since 1983’s March for Equality and against Racism. Debord’s ‘Notes on the “immigrant question”’ were written in response to Ouldamer’s ideas and are probably more famous today than the work that inspired them. Ouldamer’s matter-of-fact delivery is similar to Debord’s as he writes ‘the spectacle of a nightmarish immigration dominates every mind, to the extent that immigrants themselves have begun to give in to this image’. The last lines of Le Cauchemar immigré are indeed taken from Debord’s last lines of his notes to Ouldamer. The gist is, will the earth’s future inhabitants emancipate themselves from the current hierarchical and repressive system, or ‘will they be dominated by an even more hierarchical and pro-slavery society than today?’ Sharing a militancy, Debord and Ouldamer close by saying, ‘we must envisage the worst and fight for the best. France is assuredly regrettable. But regrets are useless.’
Ouldamer’s inscription in the BL’s copy of Mémoires arguably offers a détournement of its own to Debord and Jorn’s détournement. At the very least, this contextual history reinserts global and racial dynamics into a work of the European political avant-garde, in which the Algerian crises of the 20th century arguably often only played a sub-textual role. If Mémoires ‘wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’ then that language was surely not just the fragmented artistry of Paris, but also the Arabic and the Berber languages of Algeria.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
References / Further reading
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, 1994), YC.1994.b.6105
Guy Debord, Correspondance [vol. 6, Janvier 1979 – Décembre 1987] (Paris, 1999-2010), YF.2008.a.37298
Nedjib Sidi Moussa, ‘In Memoriam Mezioud Ouldamer’, in Textures du Temps
Erindringer om Asger Jorn, ed. by Troels Andersen and Aksel Evin Olesen (Silkeborg, 1982), X.425/4198
Greil Marcus, ‘Guy Debord’s Mémoires: A Siutationist Primer’, in On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972, ed. by Elisabeth Sussman (Cambridge, MA: 1989), YC.1992.b.1936
Boris Donné, Pour mémoires: un essai d’élucidation des Mémoires de Guy Debord (Paris, 2004), YF.2004.a.15028
Tom McDonough, ‘The Beautiful Language of my Century’: Reinventing the Language of Contestation in Postwar France, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, MA: 2007), YK.2007.a.9440
Bart Lans and Otakar Mácel, ‘The Making of Fin de Copenhague & Mémoires: The tactic of détournement in the collaboration between Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’ (Delft, 2009)
Ella Mudie, ‘An Atlas of Allusions: The Perverse Methods of Guy Debord’s Mémoires’, Criticism 58 (2016), pp. 535-63