Taller than him

Or: my life as a biographer.

Rob asked about my reference to writing a biography of Debord. It goes back to the old bastard’s death in 1994. I marked his passing by sending postcards to several people with his dates and the words “Bernard, Bernard, this bloom of youth will not last forever”. More practically, I also wrote to New Left Review asking if they were planning on running something, and if so whether I could write it. (Verso had published translations of the Comments and Panegyric, thanks very largely to Malcolm Imrie; I’d reviewed one and attended the launch for the other, although I never did get my review published.) My letter found its way to Malcolm, who invited me to lunch to talk about it. I duly went to London (in the 1990s half my weekends seem to have been spent between Piccadilly and Euston) with high hopes. The lunch wasn’t sensational – we went to the cheapest Chinese cafe I’ve ever seen, & I paid for myself – but it was productive; by the time I came home I was committed to writing a full-length biography, for Pluto. (Malcolm couldn’t see it working in the Verso list; besides, Pluto was running a series of ‘Modern Masters’-style introductions to modern European thinkers and could use a snappy introduction to Debord.) I put together a rough outline and pitched it to Anne Beech at Pluto; she liked it and we were away. There was some disagreement over the question of an advance; at one point Pluto even sent me their ‘Why we don’t pay advances’ form letter. I eventually persuaded them to pay me an advance anyway (half up front, half on submission of manuscript). I immediately spent the first half on books – a topic which is worth a note in its own right.

NOTE ON BOOKS

I’ve inset this paragraph so that anyone who’s not familiar with Debord can skip it. Seriously, if you don’t know this stuff it’ll just bore you. See you at the next proper paragraph.

After Debord killed himself, his widow Alice Becker-Ho – who changed her name to Debord after his death – devoted herself to getting his work the recognition it deserved. Her efforts have been extraordinarily successful. A 1000-page Oeuvres is now available, along with facsimiles of both his book-form artworks, DVD copies of all his six films, seven volumes of letters (and counting), and complete reprints of the journals Internationale Situationniste and Potlatch. 1995 seems like a very long time ago. The availability of translations wasn’t too bad; things had improved massively since the late 1980s, when there had been nothing out there but Ken Knabb’s Situationist International Anthology, the Black and Red edition of The Society of the Spectacle and the pioneering pamphlet versions of The Veritable Split and the Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition produced by Michel Prigent and Lucy Forsyth. (Fond memories – it was that translation of the Italian preface that turned me on to Debord and, ultimately, to Autonomia.) By the time Debord died, you could also read English renderings of his film scripts, as well as the Comments and Panegyric.

The stuff that hadn’t been translated was harder to get hold of. I remember my first encounter with Alapage.fr. It’s now essentially a French Amazon, but it started life as an email-based ordering service: you mailed them the author you were interested in, they mailed back a list of books available, you mailed them back to say which ones you wanted, and at some later stage some francs would change hands (I never got that far). But even that wasn’t around in 1995 – which was, after all, pretty early in the history of e-business. I found Gérard Berréby’s Documents rélatifs à la fondation de l’Internationale Situationniste in a second-hand bookshop in London and decided (correctly, as it turned out) that I absolutely had to have it, even at the £45 they were asking for it. A trip to Paris (on work business) enabled me to pick up some stuff from Éditions Allia and Éditions Ivrea, although much of it was rather tangential to Debord’s work (I’m the proud owner of a facsimile reprint of Les lèvres nues and a video of L’anticoncept). I also got hold of a copy of Mirella Bandini’s L’estetico il politico, which is one of the key sources on the early years of the SI; locating the publisher and placing an order was quite an undertaking, particularly since I couldn’t really read or write Italian at the time. (My Italian was a lot better by the time I finished reading it.) A couple of years later I tried the same trick with a library copy of Roberto Ohrt’s Phantom Avantgarde – the other key source on the early years of the SI – but Ohrt’s German put up much more resistance than Bandini’s Italian, despite my having done German ‘O’ Level.

But a lot of the good stuff was still out of print; the reprint of Internationale Situationniste dates from 1997. Two lifesavers were an old copy of the Internationale Situationniste volume that I’d borrowed from Lucy Forsyth and some samizdat copies of Lettrist and Situationist documents that Michel Prigent was selling through Compendium. And how I miss Compendium – especially that gloomy basement, where I found Michel’s ‘Port-folio Situationniste’ along with much else from the pro-situ area, some of it even more obscure (instalments of the Encyclopédie des Nuisances, pamphlets by Annie Lebrun). I miss radical bookshops generally: where do people go these days to find pamphlets by Jacques Camatte and John Moore, or the latest from the CWO or the ICC? I guess the answer is that they don’t need to go anywhere – but then, where do they go if they don’t know they want to find pamphlets by Jacques Camatte and John Moore, or the latest from the CWO or the ICC?

So there I was in 1995, books borrowed and advance spent (that didn’t take long), writing the first English-language biography of Debord. What sticks in my mind now is how easy it was. Chapter 1 began with Debord’s encounter with Isidore Isou’s Lettrists and ended, slightly to my surprise, with his break with Isou eighteen months later (I’d been planning to get a bit further). Chapter 2 covered the ‘Lettrist International’ period (1952-7) and Debord’s intense collaboration with Gil Wolman. Chapter 3 dealt with the foundation of the SI and its ‘artistic’ period, from the expulsion of the Italian artists through the purge of the German artists to the split with the Swedish artists; this was the period of Debord’s intense collaboration with Asger Jorn, but also of his involvement with Socialisme ou Barbarie and the recruitment of Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotanyi to the SI. The next period, up to 1967, still intrigues me: this was the period of the Hamburg Theses, when the SI fell back on its French heartland, gave up on art and basically went slightly mad, and yet it culminated in Strasbourg – De la misère en milieu étudiant, Le retour de la colonne Durutti and all. This was also the period in which Debord wrote La société du spectacle – and my Chapter 5 was devoted to analysing the book. Chapter 6 was going to be about 1968; chapter 7 would concentrate on the disintegration of the SI and Debord’s intense collaboration with Gianfranco Sanguinetti; and there would be another couple of chapters on the less busy remainder of Debord’s life, following him into Spain and back to France.

1995 was a busy year: I left a job as a Unix sysadmin and started working as a journalist, and my first child was born (I’d resisted the temptation to call him Guy, although I was planning to dedicate the book jointly to him and to Gil Wolman). Despite these distractions, I made a good start on the book – I’d made it to Cosio d’Arroscia in 1957 by the end of the year. 1996 (when I got Debord as far as 1967) was a pretty good year. In January I spoke at Andrew Hussey and Gavin Bowd’s ghastly but memorable conference at the Haçienda; I remember the lack of heating, Gavin Bowd reading out a statement from Ralph Rumney denouncing both him and Andrew Hussey, Mark E. Smith sitting at the back and heckling Tony Wilson, and Len Bracken reading a statement attacking Greil Marcus which he’d written in French for the benefit of Michèle Bernstein, who wasn’t there (“Le temps n’est pas réversible!”) I also spoke at two other conferences and two seminars, one of them on Brighton beach (I’d gone along to listen to a speaker on Debord, but since he didn’t turn up I ended up filling in). I phoned Ralph Rumney a few times and got a letter from Donald Nicholson-Smith; thanks to Bill Brown I made email contact with Bengt Ericsson, who’d been briefly recruited by J. V. Martin to the SI’s Scandinavian section. Happy days. In 1997 I completed my MA by writing a dissertation on La société du spectacle, a brutally-edited version of which became Chapter 5 of the book. (All the Ducasse had to go, and most of the Hegel.)

After that I hit problems. Following Debord and the SI through the 1960s to the Strasbourg scandal, and even onto the Nanterre campus where he met Henri Lefebvre, was relatively easy; I could have a reasonable level of confidence that I’d seen most of the sources, and feel quite sure there were only a couple of hundred people out there who knew all that I did and more. As soon as the student movement got going at Nanterre – let alone when it reached the Sorbonne – I was out in the open, revisiting ground that had been trodden a hundred times before. As well as the reports in Internationale Situationniste, I had Riesel and Viénet’s Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement and Perlman and Grégoire’s Worker-Student Action Committees, France May ’68: good sources, but not good enough to substitute for a lack of a broader historiographic grounding. To put it bluntly, all I knew about what had actually happened in May ’68 I’d learnt from the Situationists – and even a source as close to their perspective as Fredy Perlman suggested that there were other stories that could be told. I immersed myself in all the literature on the events of May (and June) ’68 that I could find – including several books borrowed from a professor at Salford University who’s since retired to France, one of which I’ve still got. (Geoff, if you’re reading this, drop me a line and I’ll post it back to you.)

The effect of hitting 1968, in short, was to make me stop writing and concentrate on reading. What was worse, for me, was that I reached 1968 in 1997; by this time Alice Debord and Patrick Mosconi were starting to get the posthumous Debord publishing industry into gear. I read the first volume of Debord’s Correspondance (1952-7) and realised with a sinking feeling that I’d only written a history of the works; I’d gone straight from the end of the first issue of Internationale Situationniste to the beginning of the second one, for example, skipping over six months of Debord’s life. And now, there it was. It would all have to be rewritten, some time. Actual biographies of Debord were starting to pile up, too. I read Anselm Jappe’s, both in the original Italian and in the revised French edition (those books were a lot easier to get hold of by now). I didn’t read Len Bracken’s or Andrew Hussey’s English language biographies; I doubt I’d agree with Hussey’s approach (see our LRB correspondence). I’ve been told that Christophe Bourseiller’s biography is pretty much the best of the bunch, but I didn’t read that either. After a while there was just too much to keep up with, or catch up with.

For several years Pluto got back to me periodically to find out whether the book was ready yet; not yet, I said, maybe next year. One year, in a fit of optimism, they even announced it; as a result you can still, apparently, find it. Eventually I came clean and the contract was cancelled.

Someone once asked me what I’d like to write about after I’d finished the Debord biography. I said I’d like to write a biography of Cornelius Cardew. I’m not sure where that came from; I’d never read Stockhausen serves imperialism, never heard anything he’d recorded with AMM, and basically knew no more about Cardew than the next Wire reader. Still don’t.

Still seems like a good idea, though.

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11 Comments

  1. yorksranter
    Posted 11 March 2008 at 11:53 | Permalink | Reply

    In January I spoke at Andrew Hussey and Gavin Bowd’s ghastly but memorable conference at the Haçienda; I remember the lack of heating, Gavin Bowd reading out a statement from Ralph Rumney denouncing both him and Andrew Hussey, Mark E. Smith sitting at the back and heckling Tony Wilson, and Len Bracken reading a statement attacking Greil Marcus which he’d written in French for the benefit of Michèle Bernstein, who wasn’t there

    Cool.

  2. Posted 11 March 2008 at 12:30 | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this. Also, I haven’t forgotten about your questions on law and communism, I intend to write a post about it soon.

  3. Posted 12 March 2008 at 10:19 | Permalink | Reply

    at one point Pluto even sent me their ‘Why we don’t pay advances’ form letter

    If I read anything funnier than that today, it’ll be one hell of a day.

  4. Posted 12 March 2008 at 18:20 | Permalink | Reply

    I didn’t think it was that funny – I mean, they were quite open about it being a form letter. There were a number of different reasons, though, which may have been what made me think I could get away with pushing it.

  5. Posted 13 March 2008 at 22:03 | Permalink | Reply

    A brilliant post. I’m guessing Pluto didn’t send people around to extract monies to cover their advance… :)

  6. Jussi Jalonen
    Posted 15 March 2008 at 12:17 | Permalink | Reply

    “Incomplete Adventure”? Well, there’s a suitably ironic title.

    When I made a contract for biography, I wrote my own form letter: “Why I don’t do these things for free”. Positively enough, my ability to place a price on my work was what convinced the employers that I’m their man.

    So, I gave them their money’s worth. I finished the research in six months, during which I also found out things that the relatives of the protagonist had never heard of. The actual writing took three months; and I also found a commercial publisher right after it, sparing my employers the expenses of self-publishing.

    Nota Bene, this wasn’t intended as a swagger. The experience was still of the sort that made it easy to understand why these projects don’t always get finished.

    Cheers,

    J. J.

  7. Posted 16 March 2008 at 22:00 | Permalink | Reply

    The Hussey is near the top of my books to read next pile.
    Is it any good?

  8. Posted 16 March 2008 at 23:38 | Permalink | Reply

    It may be terrific for all I know – I still haven’t read it. The exchange of letters I mentioned above should tell you what I think of Hussey as a Debord scholar.

  9. Posted 23 January 2009 at 16:32 | Permalink | Reply

    Hi, Phil, are you still around? Best wishes, Bill.

    • Phil
      Posted 31 January 2009 at 13:12 | Permalink | Reply

      Still alive and kicking, but not doing much on the pro-situ front – or any other front apart from teaching Criminology & singing folksongs (you’ve got to have a hobby). How are you doing?

  10. Posted 9 April 2011 at 09:08 | Permalink | Reply

    Good effort. My eyes have wandered over the pages of Society of the Spectacle but I’m not sure if that counts as reading it as I don’t think much sank in.

    If you really wanted to know what the CWO and ICC were up to you should have shopped at Housmans though, as a left communist worked there for many years.

One Trackback

  1. By I väntan på … « Arcadia on 28 July 2008 at 15:31

    […] att ämnet fyllde mig med viss leda. Inte Debord i sig, mer detta att skriva om. Dock hittade jag en intressant utläggning av Phil Edwards, som en gång planerade skriva en biografi om Debord men gav upp. När jag läste hans inlägg, […]

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