Book of the Week (3): the Situationist tactic of ‘detournement’

Not the destruction of the sign, but rather destruction of the ownership of the sign.

* Book: The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. McKenzie Wark. Verso, 2011.

A third and last excerpt from Ken Wark’s new book:

“For past works to become resources for the present requires their use in the present in a quite particular way. It requires their appropriation as a collective inheritance, not as private property. All culture is derivative.

Rather than chiseling language down to its bare elements, Debord and Wolman propose something else. Not the destruction of the sign, but rather destruction of the ownership of the sign. “It is necessary to eliminate all remnants of the notion of personal property in this area.” Detournément offers “an ease of production far surpassing in quantity, variety and quality the automatic writing that has bored us for so long.”

A crucial détournement is from Marx and Engels’ famous ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ (1848): “The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.” The inflation introduced by detournément, even more than that of Letterism, is the development that undermines bourgeois culture in turn.

Capital produces a culture in its own image, a culture of the work as private property, the author as proprietor of one’s own soul. Detournément sifts through the material remnants of past and present culture for materials whose untimeliness can be utilized against bourgeois culture. But rather than further elaborate modern poetics, detournément exploits it. The aim is the destruction of all forms of middle class cultural shop-keeping. As capital spreads outwards, making the world over in its image, at home it finds its own image turns against it.

It’s easy to miss the significance of this claim, buried as it is in a text that spends quite a bit of time on the poetics of detournément. Debord and Wolman discuss a metagraphic composition by Debord, a memorial for Kaki, and talk about the way classified ads about bars for sale contribute to the affect of a remembrance for a suicide. ‘Détournement: A User’s Guide’ could be reduced, in other words, to a somewhat limited and clinical statement about intertextuality. Tom McDonough: “To carry class conflict into the realm of language, to insist upon the central place that realm occupied in the collective construction of the world to be made, to announce the arrival of a ‘literary’ communism’ – these were the inseparable aims of Situationist detournément.”ii Quite, but it is all too easy to elide the significance of literary communism, which is not merely something added to modernist poetics. It is its undoing. It brings class struggle both in to and out of language.

Détournement is the opposite of quotation. Like détournement, quotation brings the past into the present, but it does so entirely within a regime of the proper use of proper names. The key to détournement is its challenge to private property. Détournement attacks a kind of fetishism, where the products of collective human labor in the cultural realm can become a mere individual’s property. But what is distinctive about this fetishism is that it does not rest directly on the status of the thing as a commodity. It is, rather, a fetishism of memory. It is not so much commodity fetishism as co-memory fetishism. In place of collective remembrance is the fetish of the proper name. Détournement restores to the fragment the status of being a recognizable part of the process of the collective production of meaning in the present, through its combination into a new meaningful ensemble.

Key to any practice of détournement is identifying the fragments upon which it might work. There is no necessary size or shape to an element to be détourned. It could be a single image, a film sequence of any length, a word, a phrase, a whole paragraph. What matters is the identification of the superior fidelity of the element to the ensemble within which it finds itself. Détournement is in all cases a reciprocal devaluing and revaluing of the element within the development of a unifying meaning. Détournement is the fluid language of anti-ideology, but ideology has absolutely nothing to do with any particular arrangement of signs or images. It has to do with ownership.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) undermines the romantic theory of authorship by speaking of discourse as a distribution of author functions. For Foucault, a statement is authorized by a particular form of discourse, a regime of truth, a procedure for assigning truth-value to statements. Its not hard to see why this captivated the minds of academics. It made the procedures in which academics are obsessively drilled the very form of power itself. It is as if that by which academics are made, the shaping of their bodies to desks and texts, that about which they know the most, even more than they know their allotted fields, was the very index of power.

Reading Foucault is like coaching in a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance, to something or other. Détournement, on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game.

The device of détournement restores all the subversive qualities to past critical judgments that have congealed into respectable truths. Détournement makes for a type of communication aware of its inability to enshrine any inherent and definitive certainty. This language is inaccessible in the highest degree to confirmation by any earlier or supra-critical reference point. On the contrary, its internal coherence and its adequacy in respect of the practically possible are what validate the symbolic remnants that it restores. Détournement founds its cause on nothing but its own practice as critique at work in the present. Détournement creates anti-statements. For the Situationists, the very act of unauthorised appropriation is the truth content of détournement.

It goes without saying that the best lines in this chapter are plagiarized. Or rather, they are detourned. (It hardly counts as plagiarism if this text itself gives notice of its own offense – does it?) Moreover many of these detourned phrases have been corrected, as Lautréamont would say. Plagiarism upholds private property in thought by trying to hide its thefts. Détournement treats all of culture as common property to begin with, and openly declares its rights. Moreover, it treats it not as a creative commons, not as the wealth of networks, not as free culture or remix culture; but as an active place of challenge, agency, strategy and conflict. Détournement dissolves the rituals of knowledge in an active remembering that calls collective being into existence. If all property is theft, then all intellectual property is détournement.

Not surprisingly, official discourse has a hard time with it. The decline of critical theory in the post-war years is directly correlated to the refusal to confront détournement as the most consistent approach to a knowledge made by all. The meandering stream that runs from the Letterist International to the Situationist International and beyond is the course not taken, and remain a troubling memory for critical thought. The path not taken poses the difficult question: what if one challenged the organization of knowledge itself? What if, rather than knowledge as a representation of another life, it was that other life?

Meanwhile, détournement has become a social movement, outside of official discourse, in all but name. Here the Situationists stand as a prophetic pointing of the way towards a struggle for the collective re-appropriation and modification of cultural material. One that need only become conscious of itself to re-imagine the space of knowledge outside of private property. Every kid with a bitorrent client is a peer-to-peer Situationist in the making. What remains is the task of closing the gap between a critical theory gone astray, still caught up in the model of knowledge as property, and a popular movement that cannot quite develop its own consciousness of its own power. There might be a link between so-called plagiarism and progress after all.”

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