Review of Ken Knabb’s Spectacle

Cover: Society of the Spectacle

UPDATE, 10 October, 2018. I have since repudiated some of the criticisms I leveled at Ken Knabb in the following review. See on this blog A Palinode for the Bureau  for more details.

Eric-John Russell has reviewed Ken Knabb’s recent translation of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Russell raises some good critical points, primarily directed at Knabb’s scholarly notations and commentary:

On the whole, one cannot help but grasp a dramatically different tone in Knabb’s latest edition as compared with those that came before it. A principle of dissection reigns over the experience of uncovering what Debord’s thorny critique might afford. By the end, the annotations have submerged the subtlety of détournement simply into an aggregated pastiche. Since everything is listed in the back, one no longer stumbles upon an idea that, for instance, looks vaguely familiar and compels the reader to reflectively grapple with its meaning. Instead, the resonance of the ideas collapses against a disenchanted laundry list of proprietorship of who said what. One is prohibited from wandering through the edition and is incessantly tempted to jump to the end and prematurely spoil the identity of the killer. Ours is, without fail, an epoch without the strength to pause in the presence of an idea. As a tutorial to the theoretical work of the Situationist International and Debord, Knabb’s edition irrefutably excels. However, as a work that takes seriously the notion that there is peril in revealing too much all at once – and that perhaps revolutionary critique should be an impartial burden rather than easily adaptable to prevailing modes of discourse – Knabb’s edition is remiss to have forgotten that sometimes less is more.

In the comments section of Russell’s review an anonymous commentator asks the pointed question “who is the killer?” Knabb’s attempt to make Debord’s work more accessible seems to have ossified it – perhaps inadvertently.  No doubt Debord’s contribution to the project of the revolutionary transcendence of capitalism is past, but we are faced nonetheless with the difficult task of how best to represent it in the context of attempting to continue a similar project. This is the only way we can make his contribution live; to put his ideas back into play; to use them and in the using surpass them. Knabb has hitherto done much to rescue the Situationists from the oblivion of academic autopsy and historical forgetfulness, but one wonders if his latest tinkering is just taxidermy. For instance, though he writes that The Society of the Spectacle is “the most important radical book of the twentieth century” he has so far shown no interest in translating Debord’s attempts to extend his 1967 work. And so we should ask why his latest translation is bereft of the substantial Preface to to the fourth Italian edition (1979); or why Debord’s book length Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) rates only the briefest of references. Indeed by bracketing Debord’s attempts to understand the transformations of the spectacle set in train precisely by the post 1968 rebellions that the Situationists contributed so much to, Knabb has helped to transform the Situationist project into a timeless and therefore lifeless ‘classic’.

Unfortunately Russell’s good review is occasionally upset by his use of a convoluted or unclear expression:

Any chatter surrounding the work or its author, Guy Debord, bears uncoincidental pertinence to the book’s central protagonist – a society for which the public relations industry affirms a priori models of commensurable social discourse at odds with acccommodating perspectives decidely intent on its abolition.

Despite this he is to be applauded for drawing attention to the increasing inadequacy of Knabb’s translation of the Situationist project into mere words.

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9 Responses to Review of Ken Knabb’s Spectacle

  1. Grant McDonagh says:

    hey there. this just turned up on my f/b page. thought u might be interested grant

  2. Ben Rosenzweig says:

    The anthology Knabb put together and translated was my introduction to the SI, more than two decades ago, and it was one of the central reasons I could never think of their radical desire for the abolition of capitalism and creation of communism as somehow a secondary aspect of their project(s). I remember a few years later reading someone’s draft Honours thesis, on the SI and aesthetics in some sense, and seeing the ‘political’ almost totally erased, and being a bit shocked. Made them seem less politically motivated – in the broad sense – than the Surrealists. Or perhaps even the Cubists.

    • antyphayes says:

      It depends on what you mean by “politically motivated”. I like this self-description of the group from the circular published announcing the expulsion of Attila Kotányi in December 1963:

      all the hypocrites on the artistic side feign to treat us as politicians, and, on the political side, reassure themselves by reproaching us for being artists and dreamers. Their common point is that they speak in the name of artistic or political specialisation, the one as dead as the other.

      The SI became clearly anti-political and anti-artistic from 1962, and yet they continued to use artistic and political means. In the latter case this can be seen in the fact that they maintained an organisation, published a journal, “intervened” in debates over contemporary political cultural and economic questions, attempted to build relations with other revolutionary organisations, etc. However their perspective was always clearly an anti-political one, i.e. that the “political” was a fetishized practice which flowed from a focus on state power.

      So I am a little unclear what you mean by “totally erased”. Do you mean that they ceased to engage at the level of the “abstract universal” (in the sense that Marx criticised the “political” in ‘On the Jewish Question’)? Or do you mean that they desired and worked toward the erasure of the political as a alienated and fetishized “realm” of human practice?

  3. Ben Rosenzweig says:

    Neither, Anthony. My reference to the ‘broad sense’ of the political was supposed to refer, albeit vaguely I suppose, to the terrain not of that reified ‘politics’ opposed to economy or private sphere or in some way a specialist category, certainly not ‘politicians’, but to a concept that would include the anti-political. The opposition referred to not being between politics and anti-politics, between revolutionary desire, movement, theory on the one hand, and depoliticisation on the other. The reference to erasure of the political, as I think was less vague in my comment, was about seeing a text ABOUT the SI which reduced them to a narrow concept of aesthetic motivation, and in that sense erased their desires which were, in the sense to which I was referring, political. It was a comment about seeing the SI reduced to, as it were, a depoliticised art movement of some sort.

    • antyphayes says:

      Ok, my mistake.

      The erasure of the anti-political ‘political’ practice of the SI is fairly common. Usually it comes from those sympathetic to the perspective of the artists in the ’62 split. The point of my quote in the reply, and of my current research, is to highlight the peculiarities of their “anti” politics and art, in order to fend off those who want to see the SI through, perversely enough, either an artistic or political lens.

      But yes, I agree, it is shocking if sadly predictable.

  4. antyphayes says:

    From a forthcoming translation by NOT BORED! of Nothing Has Ended; Everything Begins, by Raoul Vaneigem and Gérard Berréby:

    La Société du Spectacle isn’t a bible, but a text that merits being renewed, analyzed, constantly revised. Debord himself showed this necessity, since he wrote the Commentaires [sur la société du spectacle].’ (Vaneigem interviewed by Berréby)

  5. antyphayes says:

    From The Counter-Situationist Operation in Diverse Countries (IS no. 8, January 1963):

    ‘There are already certain people who, through laziness believe they can freeze our project into a perfect program, already here, admirable, uncriticizable, before which there is nothing more to do. Except to declare themselves even more radical of heart, by abstaining, since everything has already been said by the SI, one cannot do better. On the contrary, we not only say that the most important questions that we will ask are still to be found — by the SI and by others — but also that the most important of what we have already been found has still not been published, due to our lack of means of all kinds’.

  6. Pingback: A Palinode for the Bureau |

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