In 1959 Guy Debord and the Danish artist Asger Jorn published MĂ©moires, âa work entirely composed of prefabricated elementsâ with âsupporting structuresâ 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 dĂ©tournement:
DĂ©tournement 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 â 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. DĂ©tournement is the flexible language of anti-ideology. (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 208)
Double-page spread from MĂ©moires (Copenhagen, 1957; RF.2019.b.63), section 2, bright red indicating Debordâs creative energy
Double-page spread from MĂ©moires 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 âsupporting structuresâ, Jornâs paintwork draws connections between fragments, but âthen Debordâs words and pictures change Jornâs avenues into labyrinths [âŠ] A connection is made, a connection is missed, the reader is lost, the reader enters another passageway, then anotherâ (Marcus, p. 128).
âGuinness is good for youâ: dĂ©tourning advertising as the slogan is placed next to the fragment âin the daily struggleâ
Through his creative reinterpretation of the autobiographical genre, the author enacts the process by which the âsociety of the spectacleâ and the commodification of experience might finally be blown apart to uncover again the unique everyday amidst the alienating capitalist superstructure. As MĂ©moiresâ final fragment puts it, âI wanted to speak the beautiful language of my timeâ.
Final page of MĂ©moires
The British Libraryâs copy of MĂ©moires 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 MĂ©moires
Ouldamer writes: âIt is a dĂ©tournement | It was in Ecclesiastes. | And even in Proverbs. | There is still a belief in this rotten âGodâ. There is nothing, Evy. I love you. | Le Singe [the monkey or the imitator]â. It isnât 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. Ouldamerâs 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 Debordâs subsequent gift to Ouldamer.
Algerian intellectuals were already part of the Lettrist International, the SIâs 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 âThe Manifesto of the Algerian Group of the Lettrist Internationalâ, and Ouldamerâs early activism came Algeriaâs 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 âBerber Springâ.
Ouldamer, a native of the largest Berber region, Kabylia, co-edited a pamphlet entitled LâAlgĂ©rie brĂ»le! [âAlgeria is on fireâ], attributed to âun groupe dâautonomes algĂ©riensâ. 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 âall the mediocrities and ignominies shared across all the worldâs police statesâ. The incendiary pamphlet then evokes our inscription as it continues, âLes insurgĂ©s de Tizi-Ouzou nâont fait que cracher sur toute cette pourritureâ [the insurgents of Tizi-Ouzou have done nothing else but spit in the face of this rottenness].
LâAlgĂ©rie brĂ»le! (Paris, 1981) X.809/55238
LâAlgĂ©rie brĂ»le! was published by Debordâs longstanding publisher and friend GĂ©rard Lebovici at Ă©ditions 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 Ă President. The law forbids citizens to attack the honour of authorities âby words, gestures, threats, [âŠ] even by writings or drawings not made publicâ. This book was written in Paris, Ouldamerâs new home following his release, where his friendship with Debord developed. In March 1984, Lebovici was assassinated. Debord rigorously investigated the circumstances of his friendâs death, all the while encouraging Ouldamer to publish his work with the same publisher, now run by GĂ©rardâs widow Floriana under the name Ă©ditions GĂ©rard Lebovici.
Mezioud Ouldamer, Offense Ă PrĂ©sident (Paris, 1985), YA.1987.a.18728
The success of Offense Ă President led Ouldamer to work on the book that would spark the most reaction, Le Cauchemar immigrĂ© dans la decomposition de la France [âThe Immigrant Nightmare in the Decomposition of Franceâ]. 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 âEvyâ mentioned in Ouldamerâs inscription in MĂ©moires?
Le Cauchemar immigrĂ© dans la dĂ©composition de la France (Paris, 1986), YA.1987.a.3700
Le Cauchemar immigrĂ© inspired Debord to pass his own comments on the politics of immigration that had risen to the surface, especially since 1983âs March for Equality and against Racism. Debordâs âNotes on the âimmigrant questionââ were written in response to Ouldamerâs ideas and are probably more famous today than the work that inspired them. Ouldamerâs matter-of-fact delivery is similar to Debordâs as he writes âthe spectacle of a nightmarish immigration dominates every mind, to the extent that immigrants themselves have begun to give in to this imageâ. The last lines of Le Cauchemar immigrĂ© are indeed taken from Debordâs last lines of his notes to Ouldamer. The gist is, will the earthâs future inhabitants emancipate themselves from the current hierarchical and repressive system, or âwill they be dominated by an even more hierarchical and pro-slavery society than today?â Sharing a militancy, Debord and Ouldamer close by saying, âwe must envisage the worst and fight for the best. France is assuredly regrettable. But regrets are useless.â
Ouldamerâs inscription in the BLâs copy of MĂ©moires arguably offers a dĂ©tournement of its own to Debord and Jornâs dĂ©tournement. 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 MĂ©moires âwanted to speak the beautiful language of my timeâ 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 â DĂ©cembre 1987] (Paris, 1999-2010), YF.2008.a.37298
Nedjib Sidi Moussa, âIn Memoriam Mezioud Ouldamerâ, in Textures du Temps
Erindringer om Asger Jorn, ed. by Troels Andersen and Aksel Evin Olesen (Silkeborg, 1982), X.425/4198
Greil Marcus, âGuy Debordâs MĂ©moires: A Siutationist Primerâ, 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 DonnĂ©, Pour mĂ©moires: un essai dâĂ©lucidation des MĂ©moires de Guy Debord (Paris, 2004), YF.2004.a.15028
Tom McDonough, âThe Beautiful Language of my Centuryâ: Reinventing the Language of Contestation in Postwar France, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, MA: 2007), YK.2007.a.9440
Bart Lans and Otakar MĂĄcel, âThe Making of Fin de Copenhague & MĂ©moires: The tactic of dĂ©tournement in the collaboration between Guy Debord and Asger Jornâ (Delft, 2009)
Ella Mudie, âAn Atlas of Allusions: The Perverse Methods of Guy Debordâs MĂ©moiresâ, Criticism 58 (2016), pp. 535-63