Summary and Keywords
The term détournement is most associated with a European, mainly Paris-based avant-garde group called the Situationist International (SI), which was founded in 1957, went through three distinct phases, played a key role in the May ’68 massive general strike in France, and eventually dissolved in 1972. Guy Debord was the SI’s singular leader and its most important theorist. Debord’s 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle is the best-known work produced by an SI member. In it, Debord develops his theorization of what he called the Spectacle, which is capitalism in its economic, political, social, and cultural totality. Debord argued that culture—especially visual and popular culture—played a central role in transforming citizens into consumers and passive spectators in all spheres of their lives. In societies saturated by seductive visual representations and permeated by an endless staging of spectacles, all that matters to those in power is that people consume commodities and become politically malleable and stupefied. The Spectacle works to transform everyday life into a continuous experience of alienation, passivity, mindless consumption, and political non-intervention. An apt cinematic reference for the Spectacle is the film The Matrix.
Debord’s theory seems to preclude any possibilities for challenging or contesting the Spectacle, but Debord also theorized that such possibilities (situations) could be created in everyday life, and détournement was the critical anti-art that Debord and his friends practiced for the purpose of critiquing and challenging the alienating, pacifying, spectator-inducing, socially controlling forces of the Spectacle. For Debord, détournement was by definition an anti-spectacular action and creation that sought to subvert the debilitating effects of the Spectacle’s life-draining power. During the SI’s first phase (1957–1962), members of the SI created many détournements that contested the dominance of what they believed was a crucially important sphere within the Spectacle—that of the Art World. The SI’s détournements took many forms, including films, comics, paintings, graffiti, novels, and public interventions and scandals. Eventually, during its second phase (1962–1968), the SI called for a détournement of the streets and of everyday life through strikes and protests. Of their role in the events of May’68, the SI wrote that it brought fuel to the fire. During those events, ten million people walked off the job, engaged in wildcat strikes, and brought the country—and the Spectacle—to a standstill. For Debord and the SI, May ’68 was the ultimate construction of a revolutionary situation in which détournement contributed to the radical transformation of everyday life, if only for a brief time. So détournement is an important practice in the service of combatting the Spectacle and dismantling capitalism. In terms of qualitative research, détournement has a set of resemblances to several qualitative methods and perspectives, including the aesthetic and arts-based research approaches of bricolage, collage, critical media literacy, and public pedagogy, to name a few.
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