An eye for an eye . . .

from our sinister friends at prole no prole…

fig. 1. A photo reproduction of Asger’s Jorn’s modified painting, ‘Le canard inquiétant’ (The Disquieting Duck).

Originally posted on prole no prole

If an eye for an eye is the motto of revenge, it can also be bad advice. On 29 April 2022, a white nationalist attacked Asger Jorn’s 1959 painting The Disquieting Duck (shown above in Jorn’s form). Jorn’s ‘modification’ (also ‘disfiguration’) was on display at the Museum Jorn in Denmark. Lex talionis: just as Jorn ‘disfigured’ a pre-existing nineteenth century style idyll, so too Jorn suffers disfiguration.

An obvious interpretation is that a Danish painting is reclaimed by a Danish nationalist for his own cause—he affixed his own likeness and signed his name in permanent marker. In the rush to exploit an increasingly excluded populace and the last remnants of a near exhausted natural world, capitalists, their managers and fascist proxies advise us to ramp up the…

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Once more on the Hamburg Theses

fig. 1. Hamburgum.

[You can read my translation of Debord’s The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 here]

The plans announced in my last post with an eye to the 60th anniversary of the first publication of Internationale Situationniste no. 7 have been held up a little. Most obviously and unfortunately by the fact that I contracted covid shortly after posting. More pertinently by what I would call a certain lack I identified in the project of publishing new translations of articles from Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS no. 7).

For instance, I was struck by the spectral presence of what is arguably the pivotal situationist ‘document’, one whose shadow is cast over the entirety of IS no. 7: namely, the mysterious Hamburg Theses.

Published in April 1962, IS no. 7 marked the definitive turn of the SI toward the task that would take it up to May 1968: the relaunch of a revolutionary movement. However, whereas the seventh issue cements this turn, the turn itself had been underway for a good two years. In part, this can be seen in the arguments that raged over the significance of art that reached a peak at the 5th Conference of the group in August 1961. In part, it emerged from Debord’s participation in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group over 1960 and 1961. The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 were a response to both aspects of the SI’s evolution.

In two of the three documents that I have translated from IS no. 7, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (The Role of the SI), and Attila Kotányi’s ‘L’Étage suivant’ (The Next Stage), the Hamburg Theses are explicitly cited, even though no clear details of their content are revealed. As was discovered by Thomas Y. Levin in 1989, the Hamburg Theses never existed as a finished document. To the end of better contextualising these documents, I’ve decided to post a new translation of Debord’s 1989 note on the Hamburg Theses.[1]

In early September 1961, as the story goes, Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem were on their return from the recently concluded 5th Conference of the Situationist International (SI). Having embarked, at the conferences end, on a drunken drift (dérive) across the Kattgatt sea from Göteborg to Frederikshavn, the three situationists, in the wake of the acrimonious discussions over what exactly constituted ‘anti-situationist’ activity (and why artistic activity under current circumstances constituted a subsection thereof), wended their way to Hamburg.[2] There, ‘in a series of randomly chosen bars in Hamburg over two or three days at the beginning of September 1961,’ Debord, Kotányi and Vaneigem composed the aptly named Hamburg Theses.[3]

The chief argumentative thrust of the Theses would find its way into other works by the situationists. Debord, in his 1989 note, handily summarised the non-existent ‘document’:

[T]he ‘Theses’ were conclusions, voluntarily kept secret, of a theoretical and strategic discussion that concerned the entirety of the conduct of the SI. […]

Deliberately, with the intention of leaving no trace that could be observed or analysed from outside the SI, nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down. It was then agreed that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: ‘Now, the SI must realise philosophy’. Even this phrase was not written down. Thus, the conclusions were so well hidden that they have remained secret up until the present. […]

The summarised conclusions evoked a celebrated formula of Marx from 1844 (in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel Philosophy of Right). It meant that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement destroyed in the first half of our century; and therefore, that it would be better to count on the SI alone to relaunch a time of contestation as soon as possible, by way of revitalising all the basic starting points that were established in the 1840s. Once established this position did not imply the coming rupture with the artistic ‘right’ of the SI (who feebly desired only to repeat or continue modern art) but rendered it extremely probable. We can thus recognise that the ‘Hamburg Theses’ marked the end of the first period of the SI—that is research into a truly new artistic terrain (1957-61)—as well as fixing the departure point for the operation that led to the movement of May 1968, and what followed.[4]

Two things need to be said in clarification of the foregoing.

First, the two extant English translations of Debord’s note on the Hamburg Theses contain mistranslations of a crucial phrase rendered in the last paragraph, above. In these earlier translations, ‘qu’il ne faudrait donc plus compter que sur la seule I.S.’, became, ‘that it was therefore no longer necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Reuben Keehan), and, ‘that it would no longer be necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Not Bored!). As I noted in my last post, Keehan and Not Bored’s translation have the unfortunate result of inverting the meaning of the phrase in question—arguably the pivotal phrase concerning the import of the Hamburg Theses for the future of the SI.

This mistake alone justifies a new English translation. Nonetheless, I feel that the confusion of these earlier translators was understandable. The phrase in question is a particularly convoluted one in the French.

Nonetheless, the meaning of this phrase in relation to the entire sentence of which it is a part—its internal coherence if you will—should give one pause. For instance, the idea that one would no longer count on the SI alone (as Keehan and Not Bored rendered the phrase in question) does not clearly follow from the preceding clause to which it is the conclusion, i.e., ‘that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement’. Perhaps these translators believed that Debord was talking here of the revolutionary movement they proposed to relaunch as opposed to the relaunching itself? Certainly, the SI never suggested that they alone would constitute such a revolutionary movement. However, Debord was not claiming here that the SI would alone constitute such a movement. Rather, he was arguing that given the way that the artistic and political contemporaries of the situationists remained beholden to forms of artistic and political spectacle that were recuperated and ‘destroyed in the first half of our century’, these contemporaries were more likely not to be involved in the relaunch of such a movement. Thus, it would be better to count on the SI alone.

Further, in the seventh issue of Internationale Situationniste, the situationists made the case for actual existence of the forces which would make up such a revolutionary movement—passively, in terms of the sheer weight of the increasing proletarianization of the world, and actively in so far as elements of this proletariat were being driven to revolt, albeit sometimes in less than ‘orthodox’ fashion. Thus, the SI put much store in what was then, in the early 1960s, signs of a burgeoning youth rebellion across the advanced industrial world, as well as the increase in ‘wildcat’ strikes already extensively commented upon by comrades in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.[5]. The question then, from the situationist’s perspective, was one of ‘organis[ing] a coherent encounter between the elements of critique and negation (whether as acts or as ideas) that are now scattered around the world’.[6] However, such an organisation was, perforce, distinctly opposed to the various authoritarian and hierarchical conceptions of a political or artistic avant-garde beloved of much of the contemporaneous far-left, whether Marxist or anarchist. Underlining this anti-hierarchical sense, the situationists would later say of their role, ‘[w]e will only organize the detonation: the free explosion must escape us and any other control forever’.[7]

fig. 2. Detail of a map of Hamburg.

Secondly, critics have—perhaps justly—been confused when Debord in his 1989 note initially speaks of the Hamburg Thesis as being ‘the most mysterious of all the documents that emerged from the SI’ (my emphasis), only to later clarify that ‘nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down’.[8] Debord speaks of the Hamburg Theses as a ‘document’ in an ironic fashion, in order to underline not only its non-existence in written form, but more pointedly to draw attention to this non-existence as its most singular and enduring quality.

In the same note, Debord wrote that the Hamburg Theses ‘were a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, who hitherto had all given the impression of being eager to explain themselves’.[9] The question, however, was never one of refusing ‘to explain themselves’, as the ongoing publication of Internationale Situationniste testifies.[10] Debord would explain the avant-garde nature of the Theses by underlining the positive nature of the destructive truth of the Hamburg Theses in a letter to Vaneigem:

we agreed not to write the Hamburg Theses, thereby all the better to impose in the future their central significance to our project. Thus, the enemy will not be able to feign approval of them without great difficulty.[11].

Here, the Theses are spoken of as a trap to the unwary. There is no question that their conclusions became a part of the explicit weaponry of the SI, and yet it was forever put out of reach, an authority impossible to appeal to just as the SI worked hard to disabuse those who, perhaps inevitably, had begun to treat them as authorities. As the group would later write, in an article moreover that took its title from the Hamburg Theses:

It is quite natural that our enemies succeed in partially using us. We are neither going to leave the present field of culture to them nor mix with them. The armchair advisors who want to admire and understand us from a respectful distance readily recommend to us the purity of the first attitude while they themselves adopt the second one. We reject this suspect formalism: like the proletariat, we cannot claim to be unexploitable under the present conditions; the best we can do is to strive to make any such exploitation entail the greatest possible risk for the exploiters.[12]

By refusing to publish a document called the Hamburg Theses, and so being less that ‘eager to explain themselves,’ Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were gesturing at what was coming to be a central aspect of the situationist project as they understood it.[13] In IS no. 7, in the wake of the Hamburg Theses, they wagered that, ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[14] This sentence has proved puzzling for many readers, some of whom have read it ungenerously as yet more evidence of the SI’s megalomania. However, by 1961 the situationists around Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were beginning to conceive of the particularities of their project as a moment of a more general revolutionary contestation dispersed in time and space. Which is to say, as a moment of the forces of refusal and rebellion that were real products of the spread and development of capitalist alienation.

Contrary to Lenin and Trotsky, for example, and for that matter a fair amount of anarchist theory too, the SI did not see themselves as bringing a theory of revolution to the working classes. Rather, like Marx they held to the idea that such a theory and practice itself emerged from the experience of the alienated and conflictual nature of proletarian life. The young Marx had argued, in words echoed and approvingly used by the SI, that ‘[t]heory can be realised in a people only insofar as it is the realisation of the needs of that people’; thus, ‘[i]t is not enough for thought to strive for realisation, reality must itself strive towards thought’.[15] At best, the SI saw itself as a particularly coherent moment of the struggle for theory from below whose practical truth they found posed not only in their own faltering experiments in unitary urbanism and the constructed situation, but even more so in the wildcat strikes of workers as much as the then flourishing counter cultures of alienated working-class youth.

In opposition to many of their leftist and intellectual contemporaries, the situationists did not see that alienation was being ameliorated or revealed as an idealist delusion, but rather that it was ramified and multiplied with the intensification and extension of capitalist production and consumption across the globe. The question, then, was not one of educating the proletariat in the guise of the eternal sacrifice of the intellectual leader, but rather participating in the clarification and cohering of a fractured and dispersed contestation that was already underway.

And so, the peculiar and not so peculiar situationist sense of the ‘avant-garde’. In artistic, political and military terms, ‘avant-garde’ had come to designate those ‘in advance’ of the main body. In the Leninist and Stalinist vernaculars, it indicated the necessary gap between the merely social democratic consciousness of the worker and the avant-garde consciousness of the revolutionary who would lead the worker to the promised land. For the situationists, the notion of avant-garde, to the extent that it had come to merely justify an unchallenged hierarchy amenable to a capitalist division of labour, had ceased to be of any use. As Debord would put it some years later in The Society of the Spectacle,

Proletarian revolution depends entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as understanding of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses. It requires that workers become dialecticians and put their thought into practice.[16]

Which is not to say that the SI rejected its avant-garde role, but rather that it rejected the then dominant conceptions of what constituted a political or artistic avant-garde. Against both, Debord would pose that, ‘now, the first realisation of an avant-garde is the avant-garde itself’.[17] To have itself as its ‘realisation’, instead of the fetish of the art-object or theoretical manifesto, was simply to emphasis the true, ultimate object of the avant-garde. For the SI this was precisely the communist society it saw as the necessary condition for the realisation of the project first outlined in the hypothesis of the constructed situation back in 1957. The question, then, was one of realising the project of communism (or at least the situationist conception of such) and so abolishing the need for such an avant-garde like the SI—an abolition, moreover, that would be embodied in the realisation of a mass revolutionary movement. As they phrased it in IS no. 8, the situationist avant-garde would be ‘a party that supersedes itself, a party whose victory is at the same time its own disappearance’.[18]

The resonance with Marx’s notion of the realisation and abolition of philosophy is palpable—as Debord noted in his 1989 note on the Theses. Marx’s early conception of the intersection of a radical philosophical project and a proletariat struggling to overcome their respective alienations and separations amidst the commercial wastelands of a fledgling industrial capitalism would become a central point of refence for the situationists. Indeed, Debord considered that in Marx’s notion of the congruence of the self-abolition of philosophy and the proletariat could be found a process akin to the various artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries—all of whom appeared to move inexorably toward the progressive destruction of traditional aesthetic and artistic truth. It is here, in the artistic lineage of the SI that one can, perhaps, find the formal antecedents of the Hamburg Theses—the ‘height of avant-gardism’ as Debord called them.

Much as the Comte de Lautréamont and Stéphane Mallarmé had announced and celebrated the shipwreck of language and poetry in Les Chants de Maldoror and Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, as Kazimir Malevich had paused on the representational abyss of the destruction of the art-object in his painting White on White, and as André Breton caught sight of the marvellous amidst the drab of everyday art and alienation, so too Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Attila Kotányi and Alexander Trocchi pushed on to the limits of expression given the prison house of the commodity and its various alienations. To manifest the anti-manifesto, and to leave nothing to posterity but the fading and fallible memory of the passage of a few persons through a rather brief unity of time.

As a young Letterist, Debord had set his sights on destroying the cinema, making a film in which the Letterist effacement of the cinematic image was taken to its extreme. In his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade(1952), all the images were eliminated to leave a blank screen during its projection, variously white or black depending on the dialogue that was left to occasionally mark the film’s 80-minute run. A few years later, reacting against the nihilist tendencies of his Letterist and International Letterist days, Debord argued that the coming Situationist international must constitute ‘one step back’ from such an ‘external opposition’ to art.[19] The point, for Debord, was never one of re-entering the artistic domain under the banner of the SI but rather investigating the possible uses to which artistic practices could be deployed in developing the situationist hypothesis of the constructed situation. Having increasingly encountered the limits of such experimental use between 1957 and 1961, Debord and his circle forced the issue, breaking the SI away from the artistic morass it had fallen into in order to better chart the new waters of an avant-garde practice at once political and artistic—as much as it proposed, simultaneously, to supersede both. However, this was not a return to the heady days of Letterist nihilism. And the Hamburg Theses is perhaps the most singular proof of this. When Debord spoke of it as ‘the most mysterious, and also the most formally experimental [text] in the history of the SI’,[20] his reference was no longer the impasse of formal destruction that he had faced in his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Rather, the Hamburg Theses, even as it embodied the destruction of form, posed the positivity at the heart of the situationist project: namely, that most pressing question of how best to bring about a social order conducive to the free play and construction of situations as outlined at the founding of the SI.

Anthony Hayes
May, 2022

This post also appears here.


[1] Two slightly different versions of Debord’s 1989 note exist. The first, published in 1997, excised the name of the original addressee, Thomas Y. Levin, from the text of the note. The second, published in 2008, reinstated the full text of the note as it was originally conceived: as a letter addressed to Thomas Y. Levin in November 1989. See, respectively, Guy Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989],’ in Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997; Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, Novembre 1989—Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste),’ in Correspondance, volume 7, janvier 1988 – novembre 1994, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2008.

[2] Internationale Situationniste, ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg,’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962).

[3] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[4] This is an excerpt from my new translation of Debord’s 1989 note/letter on the Hamburg Theses. For details of the original French version, see footnote 1, above.

[5] See, respectively, ‘Unconditional Defence’ and ‘Instructions for an Insurrection’, both from IS no. 6 (August 1961). For more on the brief relationship between the SI and Socialisme ou Barbarie, see Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement,’ in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, ed. Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, London: Pluto Press, 2020.

[6] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’, IS no. 9, August 1964.

[7] Situationist International, ‘The Counter-Situationist Campaign in Various Countries (excerpts)’, IS no. 8 (January 1963).

[8] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[9] Ibid.

[10] As Debord noted in a letter to his old Letterist comrade, Ivan Chtcheglov, even though publishing the journal could be ‘tiresome’ and prone to ‘inevitable defects’, it remained ‘one of our only weapons’, ‘a living voice […] to envision supersessions more precisely’. Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Ivan Chtcheglov, 30 avril 1963,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001.

[11] Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Raoul Vaneigem, 15 février, 1962,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001, p. 127. Italics in the original.

[12] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’, IS no. 9 (August 1964).

[13] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[14] Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962).

[15] Karl Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction [1844],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works Vol. 3, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 183.

[16] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 4, thesis 123.

[17] G.-E. Debord, ‘L’avant-garde en 1963 et après,’ in Guy Debord Œuvres, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[18] Situationist International, ‘Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature’, IS no. 8 (January 1963).

[19] Guy Debord, ‘One Step Back [1957],’ in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2004.

[20] Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, 1 septembre 1989.’