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.