A Palinode for the Bureau

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A little over two years ago I applauded Eric-John Russell’s review of Ken Knabb’s revised translation of The Society of the Spectacle, saying:

Knabb’s attempt to make Debord’s work more accessible seems to have ossified it – perhaps inadvertently.

On further reflection, I now believe this assessment was wrong. Indeed, unless we reckon with the context of Debord’s work in a similar fashion to Knabb (a context moreover receding rapidly into an inaccessible past accessible only through its various and often contradictory representations), we will make no sense of it, either as a work of its time or as a work of continuing relevance.

To be absolutely clear, it is my previous assessment that I now consider in error. Russell’s review, despite some rhetorical exaggeration (‘everything is listed in the back’) raised both the advantages and disadvantages of Knabb’s latest edition of Debord’s book. My cheering of Russell from the sidelines, however, emphasised only what I then unfairly characterised as the ‘increasing inadequacy of Knabb’s translation of the Situationist project’.

In his review, Russell raised some important questions about the way ideas are presented in capitalism, in particular those ideas deployed in the critique of capitalism, and how such critical ideas can be overwhelmed by the lack of considered reflection, as well as the often implicit and explicit attention given to the ownership of ideas (rather than their critical use). Nonetheless, I hailed Russell’s criticisms in a sectarian spirit which ultimately undermined the critical worth of my comments. Moreover, I now believe that Russell’s key criticism of the purported deficiency of Knabb’s revised translation is wrong. This is not to say there is no critical worth in Russell’s review; rather it is to draw attention to my maladroit interpretation and use of it.

In the review, Russell drew attention to Knabb’s addition of many explanatory footnotes. For Russell, this addition was unquestionably problematic:

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.

Nonetheless, Russell appeared to be caught between acknowledging the usefulness of Knabb’s explanatory notes, and decrying what he perceived as their implicit prohibition of discovering the multiple sources of Debord’s détournements:

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.

Russell’s point that ‘[o]urs is, without fail, an epoch without the strength to pause in the presence of an idea’ is well made. However, it is questionable whether one can hold Knabb’s translation to account for this.  During the time of the SI—1957-1972—Situationists were resistant to the overly exegetical apparatus of academic citation, preferring to use and re-use ideas rather than inter them and endlessly interrogate them for little or no purpose. However, the SI’s time has passed, and the references and context of the SI are often lost to those of us who did not participate in the movement of 1968 and its immediate aftermath. Indeed, today, in order to make sense of the SI, one needs to excavate the historical context of the SI itself, not to mention the many and varied references and détournements that draw upon a vast array of literary, philosophic and political antecedents. With Knabb’s new translation, remarkably free of annoying in-text footnotes, a reader can easily choose to read Debord’s work as it was originally presented, largely free of citations—or not, as the case may be. The overly abstract conception of such a reader, implicit in Russell’s review, seems to preclude the possibility of multiple readings, i.e. readings that variously pay attention to the notes, or ignore them depending on the perceived needs or desires of particular readers and their context. No doubt The Society of the Spectacle can be read in a non-reflective fashion. However, Russell over-burdens Knabb’s scholarly footnotes with a role that is almost certainly beyond either their intent or purpose.

Russell is on firmer ground when he identified some striking lacunae in Knabb’s footnotes, such as the absence of clearer references to the notion of ‘alienation’ used by Debord, his debt to Lukács’s notion of the ‘contemplative attitude’, and the central importance of Marx’s early and mature work in Debord’s conceptualisation of the past dominating the present in societies of commodity production. Similarly, I raised in my original post the question of providing a more complete picture of Debord’s 1967 text, by including translations of Debord’s later reflections on this work in his later Preface to the fourth Italian edition (1979), and his book length Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988). Certainly, it is here that we can criticise Knabb’s presentation. Additionally, we can take issue with his translation, and contest the efficacy of his choices in the name of clarity and fidelity to the original. But to question the need for a comprehensive scholarly supplement to The Society of the Spectacle, particularly in the midst of so much sloppy and mendacious “scholarship” on Debord and the group, surely only contributes to the confusion that reigns around commentary on the SI and its bequest to the present.

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