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Critique of Separation

Guy Debord

Dansk-Fransk Experimentalfilmskompagni (1961)

Translated by Ken Knabb

WE DON'T KNOW what to say. Words are formed into sequences; gestures are recognized. Outside us. Of course some methods are mastered, some results verified. Quite often it’s amusing. But so many things we wanted have not been attained; or only partially and not like we thought. What communication have we desired, or experienced, or only simulated? What true project has been lost?

The cinematic spectacle has its rules, which enable one to produce satisfactory products. But dissatisfaction is the reality that must be taken as a point of departure. Whether dramatic or documentary, the cinema functions to present a false, isolated coherence as a substitute for a communication and an activity that are absent. To demystify documentary cinema it is necessary to dissolve what is called its subject matter.

A well-established rule is that anything in a film that is said other than by way of images must be repeated or else the spectators will miss it. That may be true. But this sort of incomprehension is present in all everyday encounters. Something must be specified, but there’s not enough time and you are not sure of having been understood. Before you have said or done what was necessary, the other person’s already gone. Across the street. Overseas. There will never be another chance.

After all the dead time and lost moments, there remain these endlessly traversed postcard landscapes; this distance organized between each and everyone. Childhood? It’s right here; we have never gotten out of it.

Our epoch accumulates powers and dreams of itself as being rational. But no one recognizes these powers as their own. No one becomes an adult — there is only the possible eventual transformation of this long restlessness into a routine somnolence. Because no one ceases to be held under guardianship. The problem is not that people live more or less poorly, but that they live in a way that is always out of their control.

At the same time, it is a world in which we have been taught change. Nothing stops. It changes more every day; and I know that those who day after day produce it against themselves can appropriate it for themselves.

The only adventure, we said, is to contest the totality, whose center is this way of living, where we can test our strength but never use it. In reality no adventure is directly formed for us. The adventures form part of the whole range of legends transmitted by cinema or in other ways; part of the whole spectacular sham of history.

Until the environment is collectively dominated, there will be no individuals — only specters haunting the objects anarchically presented to them by others. In chance situations we meet separated people moving randomly. Their divergent emotions neutralize each other and maintain their solid environment of boredom. As long as we are unable to make our own history, to freely create situations, striving toward unity will introduce other separations. The quest for a central activity leads to the formation of new specializations.

And only a few encounters were like signals emanating from a more intense life, a life that has not really been found.

What cannot be forgotten reappears in dreams. At the end of this type of dream, half asleep, the events are still for a brief moment taken as real. Then the reactions they give rise to become clearer, more distinct, more reasonable; like, so many mornings, the memory of what one drank the night before. Then comes the awareness that it’s all false; that “it was only a dream”; that there are no new realities and no going back into it. Nothing you can hold on to. These dreams are flashes from the unresolved past. They unilaterally illuminate moments previously lived in confusion and doubt. They strikingly publicize those of our needs that have not been answered. Here is daylight, and here are perspectives that now no longer mean anything. The sectors of a city are, at a certain level, decipherable. But the personal meaning they have had for us is incommunicable, like all that secrecy of private life regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents.

Official news is elsewhere. The society sends back to itself its own historical image as a merely superficial and static history of its rulers. Those who incarnate the external fatality of what is done. The sector of rulers is the very sector of the spectacle. The cinema suits them well. Regardless of its subject matter, the cinema presents heroes and exemplary conduct modeled on the same old pattern as the rulers.

All existing equilibrium, however, is brought back into question each time unknown people try to live differently. But it’s always far away. We learn of it through the papers and newscasts. We remain outside it, confronted with just another spectacle. We are separated from it by our own nonintervention. It makes us disappointed in ourselves. At what moment was choice postponed? We haven’t found the arms we needed. We have let things go.

I have let time slip away. I have lost what I should have defended.

This general critique of separation obviously contains and covers some particular memories. A less recognized pain, the awareness of a less explainable indignity. Exactly what separation was it? How quickly we have lived! It is to this point in our unreflecting history that I bring us back.

Everything that concerns the sphere of loss — that is to say, the past time I have lost, as well as disappearance, escape, and more generally the flowing past of things, and even what in the prevalent and therefore most vulgar social sense of the use of time is called wasted time — all this finds in that strangely apt old military expression, en enfants perdus, its meeting ground with the sphere of discovery, of exploration of unknown terrains; with all the forms of quest, investigation, adventure, avant-garde. It is the crossroads where we have found and lost ourselves.

All this, it must be admitted, is not clear. It is a completely typical drunken monologue, with its incomprehensible allusions and tiresome delivery. With its vain phrases which do not await response, and its overbearing explanations. And its silences.

The poverty of means has to plainly express the scandalous poverty of the subject.

The events that happen in individual existence as it is organized, the events that really concern us and require our participation, are generally precisely those that merit nothing more than our being distant, bored, indifferent spectators. In contrast, the situation that is seen in some artistic transposition is rather often attractive, something that would merit our participating in it. This is a paradox to reverse, to put back on its feet. This is what must be realized in acts. As for this idiotic spectacle of the fragmented and filtered past, full of sound and fury: it is not a question now of transmitting it — of “rendering” it, as is said — in another neatly ordered spectacle that would play the game of neatly ordered comprehension and participation. No. Any coherent artistic expression already expresses the coherence of the past, already expresses passivity. It is necessary to destroy memory in art. To undermine the conventions of its communication. To demoralize its fans. What a task! As in a blurry drunken vision, the memory and language of the film fade out simultaneously. At the extreme, the miserable subjectivity is reversed into a certain sort of objectivity: a documentary on the conditions of noncommunication.

For example, I don’t talk about her. False face. False relationship. A real person is separated from the interpreter of that person, if only by the time passed between the event and its evocation, by a distance that continually increases, that is increasing at this very moment. Just as the conserved expression itself remains separated from those who hear it abstractly and without any power over it.

The spectacle in its entirety is the era, an era in which a certain youth has recognized itself. It is the gap between this image and its results; the gap between the vision, the tastes, the refusals and the projects that previously defined it and the way it has advanced into ordinary life.

We have invented nothing. We adapt ourselves, with a few variations, into the network of possible courses. We get used to it, it seems.

No one has the enthusiasm on returning from a venture that they had on setting out on it. My dears, adventure is dead.

Who will resist? It is necessary to go beyond this partial defeat. Of course. And how to do it?

This is a film that interrupts itself and does not come to an end.

All conclusions remain to be drawn, everything has to be recalculated.

The problem continues to be posed, its expression is becoming more complicated. We have to resort to other measures.

Just as there was no profound reason to begin this abstract message, so there is none for concluding it.

I have scarcely begun to make you understand that I don’t intend to play the game.