Interview with Andrew Merrifield

Interview with Andrew Merrifield

Born in Liverpool, England in 1960, Andy Merrifield has a PhD from the University of Oxford. He has taught Geography in the United States and UK, and is author of Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Urbanism and Metromarxism. He now lives and writes in the Haute-Loire, France. His Guy Debord is just out from Reaktion.

Readers Loft: What sparked your interest in Guy Debord and the Situationists?

Andrew Merrifield: Many things: personal and political affinity, chance encounter. I remember finding, on a very dull, wet day, The Society of the Spectacle in the News from Nowhere bookstore in Liverpool in the mid-1980s.

At the time, I felt ill suited and ill equipped for the world I was coming of age in. Then, zap, Debord’s little masterpiece fell into my lap. Even though I didn’t get it all at first, bit by bit, thesis by thesis, I devoured it, and it devoured me, helping me learn why, exactly, I felt so ill suited for a normal life; the lesson would never be forgotten. What I loved about Debord back then is something I still love: his completely uncompromising radicalism – as well as his lyric poetry. He remains one of the great literary stylists.

RL: Your book is something of a pilgrimage – would Debord have liked that!?

AM: Frankly, that’s hard to say having never known him personally. But it’s true that my book is a sort of pilgrimage, and I’m happy it is. Debord always surrounded himself with a small, hard-core group of cohorts – close friends (like Gérard Lebovici), Alice (his wife), and selected Situ associates. He roughed a lot of people up in the past, but he remained intimate and loyal with others. (This is obvious by reading the wonderful volumes of his letters recently published in France, which currently stretches to 5 volumes.) He probably would’ve encouraged my book at first, shown interest in what I was doing, but later shut the door in my face, as he was wont to do. Debord wasn’t a man who needed pilgrims.

RL: The Situationist International (SI): art group or political group!? Surely the latter, but what relevance do you think their art and art “criticism” is now? For example, is Asger Jorn still relevant/important?

AM: They were both in their early phases. Their enduring legacy, if there is an enduring SI legacy, is political rather than strictly artistic. In their heyday, they challenged what we might call the “culture” of art, the meaning of artistic production, and the art industry itself.

All their ideas on representation, image and commodity fetishism are still very useful today, of course – in fact they’re more relevant than ever. Asger Jorn’s art is still vital within a certain constituency. But SI never did what they should have done to stay “important” and influential. Their great success was literally to rip apart all that was deemed important and influential in dominant circles. SI’s modus operandi was negation, and this included negating themselves.

RL: What relevance has Debord’s “millenarian extremism” today? Can we get anything partial from a “total critique” without undoing its whole purpose?

AM: “Millenarian extremism” isn’t a term I care for too much. But it seems these days that compromise only means: status quo. Debord’s “extremism” always tried to convert romantic possibility into realistic actuality. He knew that a “total critique,” that desiring the impossible, that reaching for the stars, meant one day we might at least stand upright. Remember, too, he also wrote that there was nothing “extreme” about what he said in The Society of the Spectacle!

RL: Do you think that The Society of the Spectacle is the best critique there is of late capitalism?

AM: That’s hard to say, since there are so many good critiques done by many different people, good people, since the post-war period – if we can see this as the “late” capitalist era. It’s certainly the most original critique – in terms of content and style. For the first-time political economy and political philosophy became lyric poetry. Even when you don’t fully understand Debord’s words and ideas, just flicking through the book itself, seeing its thesis format, is enough to convey that this is something really radical and subversive. For me, it’s the most radical radical book ever written.

RL: At the end of your book, you give a very useful bibliography. Personally, I like Sadie Plant’s book and I think Anselm Jappe’s work is pretty useful too (despite the snarky footnotes). However, both Andrew Hussey and Len Bracken’s work leave an awful lot to be desired. After reading your introduction, where would you point interested readers Andrew?

AM: Anybody interested in Debord should read all those texts you’ve mentioned, and then make their own judgment. Each one is different and has its virtues and defects. Of course, people should read the man himself, in French if they can. Otherwise there are good English translations around. I’ve always had a soft spot for Fredy Perlman’s 1970 Black & Red Books translation of The Society of the Spectacle, faults notwithstanding; Malcolm Imrie’s version of Comments on The Society of the Spectacle is excellent, as is James Brook and John McHale’s Panegyric – Volumes 1 & 2; Ken Knabb’s recent translation of Debord’s film’s (now available on DvD in France!) is good; another Debord text worth studying comes from that wonderful independent American publisher, Tam Tam books: Considerations on the Assasination of Gerard Lebovici. And, of course, people can go off and read my book if they want!

RL: Do you think there was anything suspicious about Debord’s suicide?

AM: That’s been hinted at, and it makes a good story, but I don’t believe it’s true. He and his wife had a pact, and he was dying anyway, of an alcohol-related illness. His widow talks about his suicide with a mixture of sadness and pride – that it was a magnificently poetic final act.

RL: For an individualist, Debord often seemed to need a partner – Raoul Vaneigem, Gianfranco Sanguinetti and, in different ways, Alice Becker-Ho and Gérard Lebovici. In your research, did you get a sense of what made the man “tick”?

AM: That’s a question I hope my book tries to answer, so it’s difficult to give an adequate response in a few lines. He was, before all else, an “oppositional” character, somebody who wouldn’t compromise, even with himself. “Stoic” is a word we could use. He did what he did, as he himself said; he was an example of what our era didn’t want. That inspired him in his opposition, which was somehow in his nature.

He was, I believe, a man of the moon: dark and brooding, but also romantic and in love with life, though not in a happy-go-lucky way. His love of life is something most Situ fellow travelers fail to mention, seeing him only as a kind of anarchist intent on pure destruction – which is just one bit of the enigma. Debord was like the scorpion in the scorpion and the frog parable; he uses it in the film version of The Society of the Spectacle, citing Orson Welles’ “Mr. Arkadin”. In my book, I suggest that the answer to the question of, Who was Guy Debord? is best found the other side of the wall that surrounded his country house at Champot, rather than in the backstreets of 1950s’ Paris, formative as they were.

RL: What are you working on now? What is coming next?

AM: My book on the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre is forthcoming in March 2006, through Routledge, New York. And I’m looking for a publisher for a book on John Berger I’ve just started. Another quirky biography, I hope, called John Berger’s Motorcycle.

RL: What is the best thing you have read recently? Who is your favourite author?

AM: That’s tough, since I read all sorts of stuff, all the time. I live in France, so that includes French stuff. Recently I read Kundera’s splendid Le Rideau and García Márquez’s marvelous Mémoire de mes putains tristes. I’ve been re-reading John Berger, too, like G, which still strikes me as mightily impressive in its conception, but befuddling in its meaning; King is a very underrated novel of his. My favourite author? God, there are so many, from different periods of my life, from Dostoevsky and Céline, Joyce and Henry Miller, to Isaac Babel and Robert Pirsig. Now, I’d list Pierre Mac Orlan, and, of course, Debord would be there, too. I still read Marx for fun, and Berger gives me enormous pleasure.

RL: Has the internet changed the way you work/read? Do you have any favourite websites?

AM: I have to admit that I’m not a big high-tech person. I use the Internet as a tool, rather sparingly. (In rural France, dial up is desperately slow, which prevents heavy Internet usage.) But Google is amazing, and I’ve discovered all sorts of things I’d never have discovered otherwise. Perhaps most of all is that the Internet has transformed my book-buying habits: I’ve found old gems from on-line bookstores, and these days most of my purchases are done electronically.

RL: Anything else you’d like to say?

AM: Thanks for asking me such interesting questions …

RL: Well, thank you for your time Andy, and for your interesting answers. All the best.