When we were on the Shenandoa


By Jacques Rancière

Originally published as “Quand nous étions sur le Shenandoa” in Cahiers du cinéma, October 2005. The work of Guy Debord will be discussed by Olivier Assayas and Eric de Bruyn as part of the DISSENT ! series, on 22 November 2013.

What to do with cinema? In the beginning of Hurlements en faveur de Sade (“Howls for Sade”), a radical solution is proposed: “Just as the projection was about to begin, Guy-Ernest Debord was supposed to step onto the stage and make a few introductory remarks. Had he done so, he would simply have said: ‘There is no film. Cinema is dead. No more films are possible. If you wish, we can move on to a discussion’.” Clearly, this solution has been dismissed. The film continues even if we only see a screen without images, only passing from black to white when the silence is interrupted by voices. And the announced howls are in fact phrases, blending – in a surrealist fashion – the immediate lyricism of adventure and love with the explosive force of disparate reproaches. This is how a small temporary flaw furtively passes by, in between a lyrical phrase and a trivial one: “When we were on the Shenandoah.” La Société du Spectacle (“The Society of the Spectacle”) puts this recollection of the Shenandoah back in its context: a scene from John Ford’s Rio Grande between colonel York (John Wayne) and his superior, general Sheridan, who has earlier ordered him, against the Southerners, to burn down the fields in the Shenandoa valley and now instructs him to violate federal laws and chase the Indians on Mexican territory.

All the poetry of Guy Debord plays out between these two phrases. What he was “supposed” to do and didn’t, was put a halt to the screening and declare the end of cinema. This howling tactic of interrupting art is that of dadaism, which declares the end of art in the name of new life. For Debord, it signifies the fault against dialectics: wanting to suppress art without realizing it. The inverse fault is that of surrealism: wanting to realize art without suppressing it, in identifying it with the magic of dream images, lying dormant everywhere in the spectacle of the streets. But the declared impartiality of the dialectician who puts dadaists and surrealists back to back hardly hides a de facto preference for the second path. From his first films up until In Girum Imus Nocte, the narrative form privileged by Guy Debord was that of the voyage, the urban wandering prolonging those of Nadja, Le Paysan de Paris, or “The traveler who crossed Les Halles at summer’s end”*. Indeed surrealism makes us aware of this necessity forgotten by dadaism: that art not only has to exceed itself in life, but in life as art. The surrealist wanderings in the nocturnal Paris point out a strategic place of the art of living that has to come after the art of separation: the recovery of the city, the transformation of architecture in space for voyage and play. However, it forgets that the city is not only a sleeping beauty waiting to be revived. It is the territory of war, and the enemy keeps on shaping it in its image. No enchantment then, in front of the signs or the shopping windows transformed in magic decors. The consumer goods only give to dream the reign of consumption. The lost treasure is that which the enemy has appropriated, but also that of which he has crafted his weapon.


This is what “détournement” means. Détournement is first of all an operation of war. Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman say it in crude terms, while revoking all modernist visions of a subversion supported by the autonomous development of art: “The literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purpose.”* In this sense, the example is not set by Duchamp and Joconde’s moustaches, but rather by Brecht, cutting up classical texts in order to give them an educative value. Détournement does not consist of rendering great culture prosaic or revealing the bare reality of exploitation behind good appearances; It does not want to generate consciousness in unveiling the mechanisms of the world to those who suffer from not knowing them. It wants to recapture these proper assets from the enemy who he has made them into weapons against the dispossessed. The essence of détournement is transformation, feuerbachian and marxist, from alienated predicate to subjective possession. It is the direct re-appropriation of what has been removed from representation. But this proper asset to be reconquered from spectacular alienation is not the work turned into produced object. It is the free action, indissolubly playful and warlike, that the festivals and the tournaments of the Renaissance, celebrated since Taine and Burckhardt as art of life itself*, emblematised better than any work of art, even if “revolutionary”.

Neither has Détournement anything to do with Brechtian “distanciation”. Détournement doesn’t take distance, it does not teach us to understand a world by making it strange. There is nothing to understand behind or below the image; there is only to re-appropriate what is in the image: the represented action, separated from itself. There is only to recapture from the expropriators. Cinema is a privileged terrain for this operation, for two reasons. Because it is in its essence the representation of a an action in the form of images, and because it is the form of occupation of free time which is most perfectly integrated in the architectural forms of the spectacular occupation of space. For Debord, cinema offers “a passive substitute to unitary artistic activity possible today.”* It is this form of active appearance or apparent action in which time and space can be shown as what is directly at stake in a fight between two antagonistic uses.


Nothing more contrary to Debordian poetics then than these contemporary exhibitions put under his patronage, where the spectator has to learn – with the help of little cards put up by the curator – how to “criticize” the message of commercials or television series. Détournement, says Debord, is positive or “lyrical”. But the lyricism is in the content itself of the action, not in the tone of voice or the play of shadow and light. At first sight we could think it’s meant as a mockery of the Hollywood industry: in La Société du spectacle, the three fragments of Johnny Guitar are presented to us, not only in black and white, but also in an atrocious French version in which the hero is supposed to utter phrases such as “Quelle mouche a donc piqué votre ami?” (“which fly has stung your friend?”). And yet it’s the contrary: the casualness in regards to the original shows us that what’s important can not be found in the red and green of the saloon, nor in Sterling Hayden’s relaxed tone. It is in the “content”, in what the action directly presents us in three fragments: the grandeur of the voyage (Johnny’s arrival in the wind), of the game (Johnny, turning over, in reverse shot, does not see Vienna’s empty saloon, but the buzzing playhouse from The Shanghai Gesture), of song and love (evoked in the nocturnal conversation with Vienna). As the exact opposite of the whole Brechtian pedagogy which was en vogue in the 1960’s, détournement is an exercise in identification with the hero.

Identification might seem easy, dealing with the lanky hero of a filmmaker who recaptures, par excellence, the “good” America – the militant America of the artists of the Farm Security Administration or the busted America of Fitzgerald’s little brothers* – all the more so because Debord skips the shooting lesson given by Johnny to young Turkey. But this is no longer true in the case of two other westerns illustrating La Société du Spectacle: They Died with Their Boots On and Rio Grande. The first is a monument, put up by Walsh, glorifying the very controversial general Cluster, played by the very reactionary Erroll Flynn. The second is perhaps not this anticommunist vindication of the times of the Korean war that Joseph McBride sees in it*. But this film, with the emblematic John Wayne, is the most anti-Indian of all of Ford’s westerns. Yet neither of them are there to denounce American imperialism. Both of them are, on the contrary, entirely positive. Rio Grande’s hero witnesses his family life being torn apart by the fire in the Shenandoa valley, but the fragment of the dialogue that Debord has cut out leaves no trace of that. Deciding on how to pass the border prohibited by federal law, the two officers simply take up their responsibilities in the face of history just as they have done, in the years before, by burning down the valley.


It will be said that the reader of Clausewitz shows its true colors. But here, Clausewitz is not the theoretician of the exploits of war. He is a witness to the risky appointment with history. The dialogue of the officers is there to illustrate the art of “historical communication”, shattering the one-on-one encounter of power with itself, embodied by the official tribunes of the Soviet Communist Party. History, of which young Marx once said it was the only science, is for Debord the only great art, the treasure which was already celebrated by Herodotus and illustrated in the film by Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano, before being illustrated by the images of May 68. It is the art of the time appropriated in its irreversibility. From colonel York’s tent, the camera takes us directly to the Serment du jeu de paume (“The Tennis Court Oath”)*. And there is no more question of strategy in They Died with Their Boots On. On the contrary, the virtue of Custer is here to ignore all strategy other than this one: to always take place in front of one’s troops. The film asks us to totally identify ourselves with the officer who runs or gallops forward, saber in the air. The “propaganda film” is itself a playful and warlike action. It already effectuates the re-appropriation to which it invites: the transformation of the passivity of the image into lively action. The transformation of the spectator in actor, this is the matrix image of all thinking linked to the “overtaking of art”. In the first issue of the Internationale Situationniste, a short text entitled “Avec et contre le cinéma” (“With and against the cinema”) dreamed of the new contributions that these technical improvements, of which there was a lot of talk in the 1950’s, could provide us with: cinérama, 3D or this “circarama” with which the spectator could project himself “in the center of the spectacle”.

Of course the image does not topple over in direct action and the film remains a film. The “center” takes on a whole other sens in In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. If Custer still moves forward with his saber in the air, it’s no longer to break through the lines of the Southerners. It’s to stray right into the heart of the ambush where his army will be surrounded and wiped out by Sitting Bull’s Indians, just as the “light brigade”, celebrated in Curtiz’ film, throws itself on Balaklava under fire of Russian canons. The war sequences are now sequences of defeat: the city of the future has become a city of the past, similar to the studio reconstructions in Les Enfants du Paradis; and Johnny Guitar’s music has become the ballad of lost children, sung by the chained troubadour in Les Visiteurs du Soir. Surely we know that repeated defeats can always prepare us for a unforeseeable time of more lucid fights. Coming back to the starting point of the palindrome, finishing with the passage through sea customs and with the words “to be taken up again from the beginning”, it’s not announcing the victory of cyclical time over the time of living history, of the Odyssey of the return to the Iliad of war exploits. The fact that the trajectory of the hero, in Hegelian terms, ends up in the sand of finitude confirms the grandeur of those who have been able to completely identify their lives with the assumption of the irreversible. The essential is to having been on the Shenandoa, to which one doesn’t go back twice. As far from the contemporary activism of artistic performances as from the imaginary museum à la Godard, the art of history remains the only great art. In remounting the course of aesthetical utopia, the heir of Cobra and lettrism has diverted the identification of art and life as far as possible from the beliefs of his contemporaries.


Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

* Films of Guy Debord with English subtitles can be found on UBUWEB.
* Ken Knabb’s translation of “Mode d’emploi du détournement”can be found on bopsecrets.org
* “Avec et Contre le cinéma” was published in ‘Internationale situationniste’, 1958-1969, Champ Libre, 1975.
* Nadja is the second novel published by André Breton, in 1928. Le Paysan de Paris is a surrealist book about places in Paris by Louis Aragon, published in 1926. “La voyageuse qui traversa les Halles à la tombée de l’été” is taken from Bréton’s poem ‘Tournesol‘.
* Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford was published in 2003.
* French philosopher and critic, Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893), and English historian Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–1862) were both notable advocates of the “positivistic” school of historical writing.
* The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was an effort during the Great Depression to combat American rural poverty. It is famous for its small but highly influential photography program, 1935–44, that portrayed the challenges of poverty.
* The Battle of San Romano is a set of three paintings by the Florentine painter Paolo Uccello depicting events that took place at the Battle of San Romano between Florentine and Sienese forces in 1432.
* The Tennis Court Oath (Serment du jeu de paume)was a pivotal event during the first days of the French Revolution.
* films mentioned: Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941), They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1941), Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950), The Charge of the Light Brigade (Michael Curtiz, 1936), Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945), Les Visiteurs du Soir (Marcel Carné, 1942)