Tag Archives: Guy Debord

My generation and Paris

We were born in the safe interval between catastrophes. Which is worse? To have been born in a catastrophic moment and live life at all times informed by danger, fear, and the necessities of bare survival, or to have been born in a moment and place of relative safety and bounty. My generation, many of us the children of war refugees, Holocaust survivors, war survivors in Europe, or of survivors of the Great Depression, was steeped in the history of the previous catastrophic era, but we grew up in a golden moment of post-war middle class relative security and cultural possibility. Now darkness descends: fascism, austerity, poverty, war, extremism, the eradication of symbols of civilization by men and the eradication, by men, of the planet as a site for human existence. Is it worse for us born in an illusory moment of security or for those beginning their lives, born into a transitional moment of lingering entitlement but growing desperation?

Among responses to what happened yesterday evening in Paris, are shock, horror, grief, but also a condemnation of the West for its causative historical policies of colonialism and exploitation, its recent history of senseless war, and its lack of interest in anything that happens any place but at its core. Behind that lurks something else, a critique of the Enlightenment as the philosophical source of Eurocentric domination, something that one encounters more particularly in the one place that has any concern for the Enlightenment, that is to say academia. It is a contradictory discussion, whose terms are largely determined by Western thought, much of it emerging from Paris since the Seventeenth Century and particularly since the French Revolution. Last night the familiar meme, “Today we are all French, Today we are all Parisian…” began to appear, just as monuments around the world were illuminated in the tricolor of the French flag. And certainly anyone who critiques the Enlightenment, just as anyone who is interested in democracy, is going to use French thought to do so, which is to say, largely, Parisian thought.

I am not qualified to engage with the critique of the Enlightenment. But I did receive a French education. That was my “formation” (pronounced as the French word meaning education and training). I later turned away from it yet my mind was formed and marked by that education.

This morning I reached for some of the books from my education at the Lyçée Français de New York and then some of the other books that have been so central to so many of us.


First I got on a little step ladder  to get down from an upper shelf my trusty Lagarde & Michard readers from high school at the Lyçée. I loved these books. Do I remember anything from them enough to discuss or teach? No, and yet when I open them I see the work that we did every week, reading these texts, doing “explication de texte,” being formed by thought and a detailed approach to language about thought itself. They do place human thought at the center of the world. The text most frequently quoted by my students the past few years is Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, where human agency and participation in events is decentered. This is an interesting and importantly egalitarian view, and yet the earlier human centered philosophy is still instructive and even necessary.

Yet here is Blaise Pascal‘s “Le Roseau Pensant,” which posits man as a frail thing, dignified only by his capacity to be self-aware of his mortality and to think. Below that, from the Lagarde & Michard reader, a holographic reproduction of a piece of paper found in the lining of Pascal’s jacket upon his death, the Memorial.




Below that I found two copies of René Descartes’ Discours de la méthode.




From my readings of the past three decades, in another part of my library:


My generation grew up into the spirit of 1968. It was our time. We lived Paris and its philosophy through the films of Jean Luc Godard and also in a different way those of  François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer. The CalArts I attended in 1971, as I realized much later, represented the flowering, in America, of the spirit of ’68, in its approach to freedom within learning and teaching. Most graduate students today still read Debord‘s The Society of the Spectacle and thoughts on détournement are metaphorically traced over the street plan of Paris.

…and in this thread I am not even addressing the importance of French and French based visual art, but…






All graduate students in visual arts or media studies are assigned Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility.” Few immerse themselves in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a massive, unfinished, mythical,  collection of research about the early years of commodity culture studied through the cultural history of Paris in the Nineteenth Century.




I find that some things are hard wired to an extent that is surprising. I’ve never lived in Paris, have only spent a few weeks there my whole life, and for various reasons and tropisms I became as much of an Anglophile as my sister Naomi Schor became a Francophile, but its role in my parents life and in that of my sister–her red-covered arrondissement map of Paris was one of her most treasured possessions–and the particular role that it plays in the history of the civilization that was the focus of my education from first grade through the final year of the Lyçée, “Philo,” is evidently so deep that I feel a particular spike of hysteria and rage when I hear news of terrorist attacks in Paris. I feel rage at many of the violations of civilization that we experience, from the deep sin the USA committed in waging the Iraq War, for which we will pay for decades, to the destruction of Palmyra, to the near daily mass shootings in the USA. As it is, post 9/11, fear of terrorism inflects my movements in the city, and if that fear is realized in a manner like what has occurred in Paris and elsewhere around the world, I would be under the bed with fear. But apparently Paris occupies a special space in my imaginary.

My father Ilya Schor came to Paris on a grant from the Polish government in 1937. My mother Resia Schor joined him in 1938. Here they are that winter, Place de la République, near where one of the attacks in Paris took place last night.


It is my belief that most likely they would have lived their life based in Paris, returning to Poland to visit family, if it were not for the war. They fled Paris in either late May or early June, 1940, a few days ahead of the German Army. One of the many things I forgot to ask my mother was which day, exactly. Her memory was excellent, particularly for those few weeks of their life, from their departure from Paris, by the Porte d’Orléans, on one of the last trains or the last Métro, then on foot through Orléans, down to Bordeaux, towards the Spanish border, to their arrival in Marseilles in August 1940, where they stayed until October or November 1941, then on through Spain to Lisbon, arriving in New York December 3, 1941.


There are some books I have, but perhaps this is the moment to confess I have not read them.


I will open to a page of Jacques Derrida‘s Archive Fever.


Through chance operations I find this paragraph, in which “the process of archivization” matches and is matched by “anarchiving destruction.”

The news from Paris is one of the many blows to our sense of the loss of reason and hope of our time, yet the day is followed by the day, and one has to figure out how to make the days count even if the idea of accumulating material for the human archive is increasingly revealed as a fantasy.



While working on a syllabus on a winter’s afternoon

Turn on the radio, or rather listen online to “A Beautiful Symphony of Brotherhood: A Musical Journey in the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” broadcast today on WNYC in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I listened twice, once as I did the work I describe below, and again as I wrote this brief text.

This afternoon I took advantage of the quiet of this day, a National holiday in the cold of mid-winter, to scan reading material for my spring semester seminar. I’m beginning with a reading of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, because it remains a fascinatingly structured, astonishingly prescient, predictive book, giving a portrait of a society that in my memory was not as true when he wrote it as it is now. But from my experience the book can leave students with a sense of hopelessness, since it provides no solutions, there is no exit, resistance is futile. So this semester I want to explore an idea I have had for some time: the applicability of the concept of non-violence to art. I’m certainly not looking to propose pretty peaceful meditative pictures. Rather I want to bring attention to the model of patricidal Oedipal rebellion as central to many avant-garde gestures. I want to look to principles of non-violence as a political strategy to think of ways of existing in without slavishly adhering to the values of a market-driven, spectacular, declarative art economy. So today I was scanning some of the last chapters of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.

In one chapter, de Certeau reiterates some of Debord’s vision of a society written by occulted forces that negate individual agency.

This institution of the real no longer has its own proper place, neither seat not ex cathedra authority. An anonymous code, information innervates and saturates the body politic. From morning to night, narrations constantly haunt streets and buildings. They articulate our existences by teaching us what they must be. They “cover the event,” that is to say, they make our legends (legenda, what is to be read and said) out of it….These narrations have the twofold and strange power of transforming seeing into believing and of fabricating realities out of appearances. A double reversal. On the one hand, the modern age, which first arose out of a methodic effort of observation and accuracy that struggled against credulity and based itself on a contract between the seen and the real, now transforms this relation and offers to sight precisely what must be believed. Fiction defines the field, the status, and the objects of vision. The media, advertising, and political representation all function in this way. (de Certeau, 186-7).

But de Certeau’s theme is that there exists a knowledge that precedes theory and which  retains voice even when speech attempts to subsume it. It is the same knowledge that causes the city dweller to inscribe living patterns of usage onto the grid of the planned city.

In turn, the “voice” will also insinuate itself into the text as a mark or a trace, an effect of a metonymy of the body … a transitory fugitive, an indiscreet ghost, a “pagan” or “wild” reminiscence in the scriptural economy, a disturbing sound from a a different tradition, and a pre-text for interminable interpretive productions.

On the radio, “A Beautiful Symphony of Brotherhood: A Musical Journey in the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” is an incredibly informative and moving education in history through music, and in the  power that art can have in a political movement. There are so many miraculous passages in this program: the sweet contralto and slow tempo of Marian Anderson singing “My Country ’tis of Thee” on Eastern Sunday April 9th, 1939 to an integrated crowd of 75,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, the deep uncanny voice of Odetta singing in the same spot twenty-four years later at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963 to a crowd of 300,000. “Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom over me, and before I’ll be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.”

As I scan some pages from Mark Kurlansky’s  Non-Violence: The History of A Dangerous Idea, so dangerous there is no proactive word for it, only a word defined by the primacy of its opposite, violence, I listen to the music that Dr. King listened to on the car radio as he drove alone to Montgomery, Alabama for his first job interview: Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor: Regnava del silencio,” which, he later wrote, transformed the monotous drive into a radiant experience. On one of the pages I scan for my students, Gandhi is quoted as writing: “Given a just cause, capacity for endless suffering, and avoidance of violence,  victory is certain.” “Capacity for endless suffering” is key in my thoughts here, not to focus on the meditative as it sometimes appears in contemporary culture, as a panacea, but on the power of grief when it is expressed as does Mahalia Jackson, heard in this program singing at King’s funeral, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” his favorite song, which he had once requested be sung at his funeral. Every word, every syllable, every sound has meaning, deep meaning. Here is voice, both literal and metaphorical. It was listening to such voices and such “voice” when I grew up that made me believe in the power of art, in the power of language (for the good not only the bad or the stupid), in criticism too and even outrage, but never cynicism.