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Détournement as a Qualitative Research Method

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.

Keywords: détournement, critical art, qualitative methodology, Spectacle, psychogeography, the dérive, Situationist International, Lettrist International, Guy Debord, culture jamming, public pedagogy


I begin this article with a brief overview of the Situationist International (SI), an explanation of Guy Debord’s theorization of the Spectacle, and some definitions of the anti-spectacular critical art known as détournement. Next, I provide some examples of détournements created by Debord and other members of the avant-garde groups he led. I then discuss how in 1989 the SI as an organization, and specifically its détournements, emerged as the focus of scholarship in several academic disciplines, including education. Finally, I explain that détournement has a set of resemblances to several qualitative methods and perspectives, and it shares qualitative research’s commitment to transform the world. I end with suggestions for possibilities of future research in education involving détournement.

The Situationist International

The Situationist International (SI) was a Paris-based artistic and political avant-garde group that formed in 1957, went through three distinct phases during its existence, and dissolved in 1972. The SI became infamous for the role it played in fueling the student protests at the University of Strasbourg in 1966 with the publication and circulation of its polemical pamphlet “On the Poverty of Student Life,” which is subtitled “Considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy” (written by Situationist member Mustapha Khyati). The SI’s “modest proposal” was subversion in the service of the revolutionary project of dismantling capitalism. In 1967, Guy Debord, who co-founded the SI and became its leader and principal theorist, published his book The Society of the Spectacle, which became a kind of Communist Manifesto for radicalized students throughout France. A year after Debord published The Society of the Spectacle, student protests at the University at Nanterre and in Paris at the Sorbonne mushroomed into a massive wildcat strike which saw over ten million workers—two-thirds of the entire French workforce—walk off the job, occupy factories, and protest in the streets, demanding the right to control all aspects of their labor and lives. Debord and several members of the SI were among those who occupied the Sorbonne and battled police in the streets, and the SI published an account of its role in the events in a book titled Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May ’68 (Vienet, 1992 [1968]). In the aftermath of May ’68, however, the SI’s cohesiveness began to unravel, and in 1972, Debord formally dissolved the group with the publication of the book The Real Split in the International.

The Spectacle

Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967, is the best-known work by an SI member. The book comprises 221 numbered “theses” of varying lengths, from a single statement to a few paragraphs. Debord does not define “the Spectacle” in any particular thesis, so reading the whole book is the only approach that will lead to a meaningful understanding of the totality of what Debord means by “the Spectacle.” Though Debord’s theorization of the Spectacle is “not easily susceptible to paraphrase” (Jappe, 1999, p. 5), the following passage by Greil Marcus (1989) from his book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century is among the better efforts:

“The spectacle,” Debord said, was “capital accumulated until it becomes an image.” A never-ending accumulation of spectacles—advertisements, entertainment, traffic, skyscrapers, political campaigns, department stores, sports events, newscasts, art tours, foreign wars, space launchings—made a modern world, a world in which all communication flowed in one direction, from the powerful to the powerless. One could not respond or talk back, or intervene, but one did not want to. In the spectacle, passivity was simultaneously the means and the end of a great hidden project, a project of social control. On the terms of its particular form of hegemony the spectacle naturally produced not actors but spectators: modern men and women, citizens of the most advanced societies on earth, who were thrilled to watch whatever it was they were given to watch. (p. 99)

Marcus’s paraphrase identifies specific spectacles that contribute to the global Spectacle, and it emphasizes the “great hidden project, a project of social control” that is central to Debord’s theory. Debord’s theory seems to preclude any critical expression of individual or group agency, but Debord (2003 [1972]) also explained that despite “the alienation of everyday life, the opportunities for passion and playfulness to find expression are still very real” (p. 138). And the “critical art” that Debord (1963) and the Situationists practiced to critique and contest the alienating, separating, pacifying, spectator-inducing, socially controlling forces of the spectacle is called détournement.


Debord’s most developed explanation of détournement appeared in 1956 when he co-published an article with Gil Wolman titled “A User’s Guide to Détournement,”1 which was published in the Belgian surrealist journal Les Levres Nues (The Naked Lips). (At the time, Debord and Wolman were members of the pre-SI group they had co-founded called the Lettrist International.) In the article, Debord and Wolman explained that the process of making a détournement—i.e., to détourn, or the act of détourning—entailed reusing artistic and mass-produced elements to create new combinations or ensembles:

Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations. . . . [W]hen two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. . . . The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used. (p. 15)

Elisabeth Sussman (1989) highlights the discursively “violent” quality of détournement, stating: “Détournement (‘diversion’) was [a] key means of restructuring culture and experience . . . Détournement proposes a violent excision of elements—painting, architecture, literature, film, urban sites, sounds, gestures, words, signs—from their original contexts, and a consequent restabilization and recontextualization through rupture and realignment” (p. 8, italics in original).

Another valuable definition that emphasizes the “criminal” connotations of the term “détournement”—connotations intended by Debord and Wolman—comes from Thomas Levin (2002 [1989]), who wrote a chapter titled “Dismantling the Spectacle: The Cinema of Guy Debord” and provided this definition: “In French, détournement—deflection, turning in a different direction—is also employed to signal detours and to refer to embezzlement, swindle, abduction, and hijacking. The criminal and violent quality of the latter four connotations are closer to the SI practice of illicitly appropriating the products of culture and abducting or hijacking them to other destinations” (p. 110, footnote 6). Levin’s statement about the illicit character of détournement echoes Debord and Wolman’s description of détournement as “the first step toward a literary communism,” a phrase that refers to the plagiaristic aspect of détournement. Debord and Wolman also stated that détournement often clashes “head-on with all social and legal conventions” by ignoring copyright in its appropriation of textual elements and objects to make new combinations. They explained that when it comes to making a détournement, it is “necessary to eliminate all remnants of the notion of personal property,” and they explicitly celebrated and encouraged this transgressive practice by quoting a favorite line written by one of their literary heroes, Isadore Ducasse (aka, the Comte of Lautreamont, 1846–1870), who declared in his novel Maldoror, “Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it.”

Détournements Created by Debord and Others Before and After the Founding of the SI

Looked at today, the critical purposes of many of the SI’s détournements—which were tied to the specific events that the SI engaged in during its time in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s—can only be fully understood if the SI’s historical, political, cultural, and economic contexts are explained, which is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, and with that caveat stated, I will present some examples of the SI’s détournements.

Comic Strips

One favorite type of détournement involved comic strips, about which Debord (1963) wrote, “Comic strips are the only truly popular literature of our century,” adding that the development of Situationist comics was one method of “détourning the very propositions of the spectacle” (p. 274). Détourning comics mainly entailed rewriting the text in the speech bubbles or the captions of the comic strips. For example, the most well-known comic strip is titled “The Return of the Durutti Column,”2 and one particular frame that has appeared in many publications is Figure 1, a détourned screen shot from a Hollywood western titled A Thunder of Drums (1961).

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Figure 1. Durutti.

Détourned comics appear in nearly all of the twelve issues of the SI’s journal, Internationale Situationniste, which was published from 1958 to 1969.

Advertisements & Photographs

Along with détourning comics, the Situationists also détourned advertisements and photographs, typically ones that they appropriated from newspapers or magazines. Their method of détourning images was to add either speech bubbles or captions. For example Figure 2.

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Figure 2. I Love My Camera.

The text in the advertisement is “I love my camera because I love to live” and “I record the best moments of life to revive them at will in all their richness.” To this advertisement, the SI added the title “The Domination of the Spectacle over Life” and the caption: “This advertisement for Eumig cameras (summer 1967) evokes very well the petrification of individual life that has reversed itself into a spectacular economy: the present can now be lived immediately as memory. Time is submitted to the illusory order of a permanently available present and, through this spatialization of time, both time and life have been lost together.”3 This détournement still holds up if one replaces “camera” with “smartphone.”

Maps and “Space”

Debord also détourned maps as part of an adventurous spatial détournement practice that he called the dérive (or “the drift”).4Debord (1958) generally defined the dérive as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. . . In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, to let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (p. 62). The purpose of a dérive was to discover new “psychogeographical” sensations. Debord (1955) defined “psychogeography” as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether conscious or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” (p. 8). One type of dérive involved creating “psychogeographic maps” based on previous dérives. The best known such map is titled The Naked City (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. The Naked City.

David Pinder (2005) explains that these “maps are composed out of segments cut from existing maps of the city to show particular areas. Between these segments are red arrows that point toward some places, away from others, and that link and curl around locations.” Just as dérives were disruptive of the functionalist and sanctioned uses of urban space, the “maps disrupt cartographic discipline and order; their broken and fragmented appearance refuse the coherence imposed by the spectacle. They challenge urban meanings and the representational regimes by means of détournement” (p. 153).


Along with the dérive, another method of détourning public spaces was with graffiti. The most famous example comes from early 1953 when Debord was a member of the pre-SI group the Lettrist International. Debord expressed the group’s desire to avoid becoming wage slaves within the Spectacle when he scrawled the phrase “Ne Travaillez Jamais!” (“Never Work!”) along a wall on the rue de Seine (Figure 4).5

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Figure 4. Never Work.

Painting (Art)

Another kind of détournement was what SI co-founder and Danish painter Asger Jorn called “modifications,” which were inexpensive oil paintings that Jorn bought at flea markets and modified with his own painted additions. Jorn “modified” these paintings either by painting a grotesque or ghostly figure onto the painting somewhere, adding Jackson Pollock-like paint splatters or drips, and/or adding print text as a caption to a painting he had modified in other ways. Karen Kurczynski (2008) explains that “Jorn’s ‘Modifications’ rejected not painting itself, but specifically the idea of modernist painting, which was increasingly declaring itself ‘avant-garde.’” She adds that Jorn’s modifications “operated in direct opposition to the institutionalization of modernism in the postwar period” (p. 299).

The other painter who created détourned paintings was Giuseppe Gallizio, an Italian painter who was Jorn’s friend before the SI was formed (Gallizio was also a co-founder of the SI). To discover new uses of emerging technologies for artistic purposes, Gallizio developed what he called “industrial painting,” which entailed having a machine that Gallizio had invented “paint” on huge rolls of canvas as they were fed through the machine. The long rolls of canvas were intended to be sold by the yard and to be used to beautify buildings and landscapes. Gallizio’s paintings were intended to détourn “the rationalist and neo-constructivist currents of the time, re-evaluating the formerly surrealist domains of free expression, experimentation, and individualism” (Bandini, 1989, p. 68 in Sussman).

Galleries and Museums

Along with the spatial détournement of cityscapes through the dérive was the détournement of the privileged spaces of the Art World, namely art galleries and art museums. A famous example involved a gallery exhibition of Gallizio’s industrial paintings in 1959 at the fashionable Drouin Gallery in the upscale Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood in Paris. The exhibit held great potential for bringing attention to the SI’s anti-art détournement interventions, and Debord expressed to Gallizio that his “paintings must be the most stunning, the most shocking possible,” adding that “nothing can be too violent because we have presented you [in Paris] as the most violent painter of the 20th century.”6 Debord made several suggestions about how the gallery should be transformed. He envisioned using “rolls of industrial painting . . . to cover all the walls” of the gallery; incorporating “new scents”—“pleasant” and “uncommon” ones—to organize the “olfactory ambiances in the gallery”; preparing “a new aperitif” to offer visitors as refreshments; and coming up with some “useful music” for auditory effects.7

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Figure 5. Gallizio as Mad Scientist.

Figure 5 shows Gallizio, who was also a chemist, as a “Mad Scientist.”

When the exhibit opened, the white walls, the floor, and the ceiling of the entire gallery were covered with 150 yards of Gallizio’s industrially painted canvas, which meant that all natural lighting had been blocked out, creating a darkened “cavern” experience within the gallery space. Dim artificial lighting made the gallery visually navigable for visitors, and this darkened environment was also altered in auditory ways by ambient music that was produced by a Theremin (an early electronic musical instrument that one controlled without having to touch it, modulating its electronic signals with hand movements, sending signals to speakers to produce the musical sounds). Gallizio had created new perfumes that female models hired for the event sprayed in the proximity of visitors interested in experiencing the new aromas. Gallizio also concocted a special aperitif for visitors to sip as they perused the walls covered with the abstract, colorful painterly creations. The female models wore dresses made from the rolls of canvas, revealing how painting could become part of one’s everyday life as clothing.

The exhibit can be interpreted as an attempt to détourn the typical experience of going to a gallery, which is usually staged to be a pleasant event for visitors. And the exhibit seems to have succeeded in its détournement effort. For example, a review published by an art critic who attended the exhibit described the ambiance as being “suffocating, vehement, and violent,” and according to Frances Stracey, smoking was forbidden because the gallery “was literally a dangerous place, due to the highly combustible chemical resins and varnishes used to seal in the broken mirror and glass fragments embedded in the thickly encrusted allover painted surfaces . . . The clean air of the rarefied gallery [was] undone by the sticky, cloying atmosphere of this rather hellish enclosure.”8


Jorn and Debord collaborated on two books. The first was Jorn’s Fin de Copenhagen.9 Debord was identified on the title page as “Counselor for the Technique of Détournement.” According to Jorn (1999), he and Debord made the book in twenty-four hours.10 In the first phase, they cut up several national and international newspapers and magazines for collage material. They juxtaposed headlines and fragments of print text with a variety of images, most of which were fragments from advertisements, including bottles of alcohol, packs of cigarettes, a bar of soap, a container of coffee, and so on. Other images relate to travel (a car, a luxury cruise ship, and an airplane). Several comic-strip frames appear throughout the book, parts of a cut-up map, and cut-outs of various types of people (a soldier, a naked woman, cowboys, and so on). During the second stage of the creative process, Jorn dripped various brightly colored paints onto the thirty-two collaged pages of the book in an action-painting process that alluded to Jackson Pollock. Claire Gilman (1997) observed that “Fin de Copenhagen, with its inter-spliced cartoons and advertising slogans, must be seen as a commentary on,” and a détournement of, “consumer society associated, in this way, with Pop gestures” (p. 43).11


In “A User’s Guide to Détournement,” written when television ownership and viewing in France was far from widespread, Debord and Wolman (1956) stated that it was “obviously in the realm of the cinema that détournement can achieve its greatest efficacy, and undoubtedly, for those concerned with this aspect, its greatest beauty.” They added, “The powers of film are so extensive, and the absence of coordination of those powers is so glaring, that almost any film that is above the miserable average can provide matter for innumerable polemics among spectators or professional critics” (p. 19). Debord made six films between 1952 and 1973, and the exemplar of détournement at work in a film is his fourth film The Society of the Spectacle (1973),12 made after the SI dissolved. The film is a cinematic translation of his 1967 book of the same title. Levin (2002 [1989]) explains that the soundtrack of the film is made up mainly of Debord reading about half of the 221 theses that comprise his book. This soundtrack accompanies an “image track that presents an unending stream of détourned visual material,” all of which are “exclusively found materials.” Discussing one selection of materials from the first part of the film, Levin lists the following images:

Street scenes, publicity stills (the majority focusing on the objectification of women), scenes from American Westerns and from Soviet and Polish films, fashion commercials, news footage of Nixon meeting Mao, the Sorbonne General Assembly in May ’68, the earth filmed from space, astronauts, a police panoptical headquarters with TV monitors showing Metro stations and streets, the footage of the “live” murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, speeches by Giscard d’Estang . . . [and] Castro, bombing runs in Vietnam, and a depiction of a couple watching television. One also encounters sequences appropriated from numerous classics from film history, including Battleship Potemkin, October, New Babylon, Shanghai Gesture, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Rio Grande, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Johnny Guitar, and Confidential Report. (p. 382)

Debord’s film is thoroughly imbued with the spirit and transgressive logic of détournement. According to Levin, “Debord’s film is simultaneously a historical film, a Western, a love story, a war film—and none of the above; it is a ‘critique without concessions,’ a spectacle of a spectacle that as such, like a double negative, reverses the (hegemonic) ideological marking of the medium” (p. 396).13

May ’68

Most of the détournements discussed above were made during the SI’s first phase (1957–1962). Debord and other SI members created their détournements to contest the dominance of what they believed was a crucially important sphere within the Spectacle—that of the Art World. Eventually, during the SI’s second phase (1962–1968), Debord became more focused on bringing about a détournement on a grander scale, that of the streets and of everyday life through strikes and protests. Such a grand détournement took place in France in May of 1968. Of their role in the events of May ’68, the SI wrote that it brought fuel to the fire. During those May 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 for the SI, détournement was an indispensable weapon to be deployed in the service of smashing the Spectacle and imploding capitalism.

The SI in Academia

After the SI’s dissolution in 1972, the group was written about mainly in relatively obscure, “underground” publications in Europe and the United States, as Simon Ford (1994) showed in his book The Realization and Suppression of the Situationist International: An Annotated Bibliography, 1972–1992 (pp. 64–115 contains dozens of specific references). That “underground” attention underwent a sea change within the context of the media-fueled nostalgia in France surrounding the 1988 anniversary of May ’68, when a retrospective exhibition about the Situationist International was held in museums in Paris, London, and Boston in 1989. The exhibition was titled On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International, 1957–1972, which is also the title of Elisabeth Sussman’s (1989) edited book that was part of the Boston exhibition.14 This travelling retrospective marked the end of the SI’s relative obscurity in academia and the group’s “entry into the official culture of institutional curricula” (Ford, 1994, p. xvi). Since 1989, scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines have produced an extensive literature about the SI and its ideas and critical practices of détournement.

Film Studies and Debord’s Cinematic Détournements

Debord’s six films are the focus of much academic literature, and most of the analyses interpret the films through a détournement framework.15 To fully understand Debord’s filmmaking purposes, it is necessary to know that the main influence on Debord when he was conceptualizing his first film (Howls in Favor of Sade, 1952) was Lettrist leader Isidore Isou, who practiced what he called “discrepant cinema,” and whose film Treatise on Slime and Eternity (1951) is permeated with détournement strategies. The best source about “Lettrist” films is Kaira Cabañas’s (2014) book Off-Screen: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde. Cabañas explains that Lettrist’s films “defied cinema’s established conventions (e.g., continuity editing, synchronized sound, screen), and sometimes the necessity of its image support (i.e., film), in order to generate new conditions and communities of viewing (p. 3).16

Thomas Levin’s (2002 [1989]) chapter “Dismantling the Spectacle: The Cinema of Guy Debord” is exemplary and unsurpassed as the most in-depth and elaborate introduction to Debord’s theory of cinema and his films. Levin fully contextualizes Debord’s first film in relation to Isou’s and the other Lettrists’ films, and then he analyzes the rest of Debord’s films in relation to the circumstances and events that Debord was intervening in by making his films. Levin’s most developed analysis is of Debord’s film The Society of the Spectacle (1973). For analyses of individual films (or comparisons of two or more), the 2013 special issue of the online journal Grey Room is excellent.17 Each article elaborates the following passage from the journal’s introduction about the meaning and importance of Debord’s filmmaking practice:

Debord’s film scripts mine his earlier writings and often represent the most synthetic presentation of his theoretical work. The films themselves, with their use of print sources, newsreel footage, iconic films from the history of cinema, adulterated personal photographs, and film sequences shot by Debord himself, at once complicate and complete the still-too-theoretical framework of these writings. At once their capitulation and supplementation, the films are Debord’s theory both distilled and raised to a higher power.

(J. Smith, 2013, p. 13)

Several articles have also been written about one or another of Debord’s films (including McDonough, 2007; Stob 2014; and Winestine, 2009).

Art History and the SI’s Anti-Art Détournements

Academics in art history have also produced a good deal of literature that discusses the SI’s critiques of art and the aims of their détournement practices. One excellent book is Frances Stracey’s (2014) Constructed Situations: A New History of the Situationist International.18 Stracey interpreted Debord’s Mémoires, published in 1957, as an example of the SI’s “liquid model” of “self archiving,” undertaken to thwart the spectacular (i.e., recuperative) “conventional forms of historical memorialization” and to ensure that the SI would not “disappear completely from historical memory” (p. 19). Stracey also analyzed Gallizio’s “industrial painting” method, which entailed a quasi-automated process of mass-producing abstract paintings on large rolls of canvas that were subsequently cut up and sold by volume. She also described an intended anti-art exhibit called “Destruction of the RSG-6” that took the form of a large labyrinthine installation designed to simulate being in an atomic fallout shelter and to engage museum goers in a harrowing, disorienting experience as they passed through it. Stracey also examined the SI’s graffiti and photography practices, including Debord’s famous “Never Work!” scrawl on a Paris building, and the erotic images of females (détourned from popular magazines and newspapers) that appeared in most of the twelve issues of the SI’s self-published journal, Internationale Situationniste.

Another book that includes chapters about specific SI détournements is Sussman’s (1989) On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International, 1957–1972, which has chapters about Jorn’s “modification” paintings, Debord’s Mémoires, and Gallizio’s industrial painting. In an expansive chapter covering all aspects of the SI, Peter Wollen’s “Bitter Victory: The Art and Politics of the Situationist International” includes discussions about all the major détournements produced by the SI. One more important book is Karen Kurczynski’s (2014) The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn: The Avant Garde Won’t Give Up. Along with her superb selective biography about Jorn (who became a well-known, financially enriched artist in Europe, and was an enduring patron of the SI after he resigned in 1962), Kurczynski brilliantly explains Jorn’s “modification” paintings and the détournement theories that informed his critical practice. She also discusses Jorn and Debord’s collaboration on Jorn’s Fin de Copenhagen and Debord’s Mémoires. One more book worth mentioning is Mark Wigley’s 1998 The Hyper-Architecture of Desire, which is the definitive introduction to and analysis of SI member Constant Nieuwenhuys’s massive and decades-long engagement with an architectural model called New Babylon, which embodied the SI practice of the dérive as a central structuring theory.

Along with books, the SI has been written about in several art-oriented journals including Substance, October, Oxford Art Journal, Grey Room, and others. For example, Vicas (1998) discusses the main differences between the surrealists’ practices of collage-making and chance poetry creation (the “exquisite corpse”) and Debord and Wolman’s theorization of détournement, which were that détournement sought to do more than merely disorient and shock someone: it sought to engage with “the context-specific expectations of the audience” through a more calculated juxtaposition of elements to bring about new meanings (p. 400). Rasmussen (2006) explained Debord’s vision that the SI sought “to fuse the negative spirit of Dada with the creative capacities of Surrealism in order to negate and realize art” (p. 10); Gilman (1997) interpreted Jorn’s “modification” détournement paintings as testaments “to the end of the art work as a critical arena—to its failure to speak as a revolutionary tool” (p. 39); Pezolet (2010) analyzed Gallizio’s industrial painting; McDonough (2005) considered Debord’s détourned map The Naked City as a new radical cartography embodying the intertwined tactics of psychogeography and the dérive, a map that fragmented and arranged “the topography of Paris, forcing it to conform to the imperious will of the subject,” as well as overlaying “other places and times, producing the delirious interpolation of disparate geographies” (p. 17); Jappe and Nicholson-Smith (1999) compared Theodore Adorno’s and Debord’s opposite views about the role of art in society; and Ray (2012–2013) discussed the SI’s practice of détournement in relation to the “dissonant modernism” of Adorno and the estranging practices of Brecht, all three of whom serve as “models for resisting the political neutralization of art and for challenging the power of the capitalist art system” (p. 83). Other articles about art and the SI are Clark and Smith (1997), Grindon (2015), Kaufmann (1997), and Kennedy (2009.

The Spatial Détournement of Psychogeography and the Dérive

The détournement of urban spaces through psychogeography and the dérive are also the focus of many scholarly articles. The best introductions to détournement in the form of psychogeography and the dérive are Andreotti and Costa’s (1996) Theory of the Dérive and McDonough’s (2010) The Situationists and the City. Between these edited volumes, both include nearly everything the SI wrote about psychogeography and the dérive. Another book well worth reading for explanations and analyses of psychogeography and the dérive is David Pinder’s (2005) superb Visions of the City, which presents a fascinating narrative about the urban utopian visions that have been central to western European visions of cities for centuries. Pinder fully explains that psychogeography and the dérive were détournement strategies that Debord and his friends developed against the modernist architectural forms and city planning of Le Corbusier, who Pinder discusses and explains over several chapters. Pinder’s narrative eventually reaches the LI and SI groups in their 1950s Paris milieu, and in the chapters “Situationist Adventures” and “The Great Game to Come,” Pinder contextualizes psychogeography and the dérive both geographically and culturally in Paris as well as (through the earlier chapters) historically and antagonistically against Le Corbusier and the broader set of modernizing and rationalizing forces that had come together in postwar France to bring about what Debord saw as the assassination of Paris.19

I also want to highlight the excellent article by Casey Ryan Kelly (2014), who interprets the 1969 American Indian invasion of the island-prison of Alcatraz as an enactment of spatial détournement on several levels. The “Proclamation” they read was a serious yet “tongue-in-cheek” détournement of colonial texts and discourses that took “a mocking form of misappropriation whereby fragments of Euro-American texts were redeployed in a manner that not only exposed their service to colonialism but also demonstrated that such texts should not be seriously engaged” (p. 172). Spatial détournements also manifested themselves when the eighty-nine Indians at Alcatraz engaged in “insurrectional performances” which included “protestors running through the cell blocks, drumming in the exercise yard, chants of ‘Red Power,’ boatloads of Indians evading a naval blockade, and graffiti tags reading ‘You are on Indian land!’” (p. 169). Kelly also discusses two more recent examples of détournements by American Indians. One occurred during the height of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement when “American Indian participants in the Albuquerque branch of OWS successfully lobbied to change the group’s name to (Un)occupy Albuquerque in order to reframe and connect economic injustice to an enduring legacy of colonization.” The other example is “The 1491’s,” a musical group whose “parodies of country & western and disco feature images of young Indians dancing in public space, dressed in scantily clad and stereotypical outfits,” which satirically embodies “the commodified image of Indians” and “deprives them of their descriptive power” (p. 185).

The SI in (Though Mostly Absent From) Education

Academics in the field of education have written almost nothing about the SI or, more specifically, about détournement. What is surprising is that some subfields in education, such as public pedagogy or critical media literacy, have not yet seriously engaged with the work of the SI. And when the SI is explicitly referred to in these subfields, the reference is quite superficial. Take the example of public pedagogy, which by definition is a discourse focused on the teaching and learning that takes place beyond the traditional institutions of education (universities, public schools, private schools, etc.). If any group was engaged in public pedagogy, it was the SI, as I have shown in the section “Détournements Created by Debord and Others Before and After the Founding of the SI.” But the SI is almost absent in the discourse about public pedagogy. This near-total absence is revealed by the massive Handbook of Public Pedagogy (Sandlin, Schultz, & Burdick, 2010) which is composed of 65 chapters and is over 700 pages long. A few gratuitous mentions of Guy Debord, détournement, and the Situationist International appear in the book, but the only chapter that seems to engage with an idea related to Debord and the SI is Jennifer Sandlin and Jennifer Milam’s (2010) “Culture Jamming as Critical Public Pedagogy.” But again, their engagement is superficial at best. The chapter lacks any reference to the work of Debord (which would have been apt when the term “spectacle” appears) or to work produced by any members of the SI. Instead, the authors define détournement through the writings of Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters and author of Culture Jam (Lasn, 1999).

The SI and détournement are not, however, totally absent from education scholarship. The most extensive engagement can be found in the edited book Détournement as Pedagogical Praxis (Trier, 2014). This edited volume includes an introduction that articulates the practice of détournement with Slavoj Zizek’s “short circuit” critical readings of popular culture with “high” theory (1992, 2006), and with Stuart Hall’s (1997) theorization of a counter-representational strategy that entails “taking images apart” by going “inside the image itself,” occupying “the very terrain which has been saturated by fixed and closed representation,” and trying to turn the stereotypes “against themselves.” The goal is “to open up, in other words, the very practice of representation itself” in order to “subvert, open, and expose” the stereotype “from inside.” The affinities between this strategy and détournement are unmistakable. In the other nine chapters of the book, the contributing authors explain how they created détournements and incorporated them into a pedagogical situation for the critical purpose of challenging problematic representations race, ethnicity, gender, and so on.

For example, in “Juan Skippy: A Critical Détournement of Skippyjon Jones,” Amy Senta discussed challenging media stereotypes of LatinXs by creating a détournement of the award-winning children’s book Skippyjon Jones (2003). In “The Hollywood Indian Goes to School: Détournement as Praxis,” Trey Adcock described a pedagogical project that challenged Hollywood’s long history of stereotyping Native Americans; his détournement created a clever dialectical interplay between negative Hollywood representations and the comical dialogue of the film Smoke Signals. The overall effect is a powerful subversion of Hollywood’s racist depictions of Hollywood’s Indians. In “Détournement as Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy and Invitation to Crisis: Queering Gender in a Preservice Teacher Education Classroom,” Ashley Boyd described a pedagogical project that incorporated a détournement that juxtaposed media clips that reinforce typical gender stereotypes with clips that disrupt the stereotypes. Through the détournement, Boyd explored and challenged the powerful role that media play in gender stereotyping. This same process of designing détournements and incorporating them into pedagogical situations occurs in the rest of the chapters, too.

Détournement as a Qualitative Research Method

For the Situationists, détournement was an embodiment of theory and practice united in praxis, and the spirit (or specter) that animated the SI’s critical inquiries, as described throughout this article, can be discerned in Denzin and Lincoln’s (2011) expression of the creative desires and political orientation of qualitative research’s “interpretive camp”:

We interpret, we perform, we interrupt, we challenge, and we believe that nothing is ever certain. We want performance texts that quote history back to itself, texts that focus on epiphanies; on the intersection of biography, history, culture, politics; on turning-point moments in people’s lives . . . . We have a political orientation that is radical, democratic, and interventionist. (pp. 10–11)

The Situationist International was most certainly a “radical, democratic, and interventionist” group that created détournements that were constructed to be “performance texts that quote history back to itself.” Other resemblances can be found in Debord and Wolman’s (1956) article “Method of Détournement,” wherein they articulated several ideas that resonate with certain core commitments and practices of qualitative research methods and perspectives. An example is the quoted passage from earlier in this chapter about the “making new combinations” out of a plethora of existing texts and materials. This process resembles the qualitative method of bricolage: “The interpretive bricoleur produces a bricolage; that is, a pieced-together set of representations that are fitted to the specifics of a complex situation” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011). I also think that the SI’s multimedia and interdisciplinary approaches to creating détournements—which produced détourned comics, films, paintings, novels, photographs, advertisements, and more—resemble interventionist practices of critical media literacy (Knobel & Lankshear, 2008) and public pedagogy (Sandlin, Schultz, & Burdick, 2010). These are just a few examples of how détournement can be conceptualized and understood as having affinities with more recognized qualitative research methods of inquiry.

Future Research

As mentioned earlier, apart from the edited book on détournement (Trier, 2014), the SI’s theorization and practice of détournement is almost non-existent and remains a rich terrain to explore in Education. The Situationists’ détourned comics, films, paintings, photographs, advertisements, novels, and public spaces (the dérive as a spatial détournement) embody a radical blending of critical aesthetic practices that anticipate those embodied in the fields of cultural studies, public pedagogy, and critical media literacy. And the SI itself, as an organization that worked collectively over a fifteen-year period, can be studied for the ways the group sustained itself as an evolving collective association of individuals committed to the same “radical, democratic, and interventionist” visions and practices that are at the core of many current groups in education (such as the Special Interest Groups affiliated with AERA).


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                                                                                                                                (1.) This article appears in the 2006 edition of Ken Knabb’s edited book Situationist International Anthology, but in several previous editions, the article was titled “Method of Détournement.”

                                                                                                                                (2.) A facsimile of the whole comic strip is reproduced in Simon Ford’s (2005) book The Situationist International: A User’s Guide (p. 115), though the print text in the speech bubbles and captions are in French, which limits the meaning for a reader who reads only English.

                                                                                                                                (3.) Translations are from Levin (2002, p. 325).

                                                                                                                                (4.) The best book about the dérive is Libero Andreotti and Xavier Costa’s (1996) edited work Theory of the Dérive and Other Situationist Writings on the City, and the most important article in that book is “Formulary for a New Urbanism” by Ivan Chtcheglov (aka Gilles Ivain), which had a great influence on Debord’s theorizing of the dérive.

                                                                                                                                (5.) This photograph, which Debord did not take (it was taken by someone who was passing by), has been reproduced in many works about the SI and its pre-history (e.g., Ford, 2005, p. 23; Marcus, 1989, p. 175; Mension, 2001, p. 232; Pinder, 2005, p. 145; and many more). It also appears in issue eight of the SI’s journal Internationale Situationniste (1963, p. 42) with this caption: “Preliminary Program to the Situationist Movement.” Debord (2004) also included it in his book Panegyric: Volumes 1 & 2, p. 84.

                                                                                                                                (6.) Debord (2009, pp. 71–72) (letter dated January 8, 1958).

                                                                                                                                (7.) Debord (2009, p. 79) (letter dated January 30, 1958).

                                                                                                                                (8.) Stracey (2014, pp. 89–90). The art critic’s description is quoted by Stracey.

                                                                                                                                (9.) See: Fin de Copenhagen.

                                                                                                                                (10.) See Jorn (1999), “Guy Debord and the Problem of the Accursed.”

                                                                                                                                (11.) After Fin de Copenhagen, Debord and Jorn collaborated on another collaged book titled Mémoires. Debord is identified as the author, with Jorn described as providing the structural support (“Structures Portantes D’Asger Jorn”). On the title page appears the important statement, “This book is composed entirely of prefabricated elements.” See: Memoires.

                                                                                                                                (12.) Howls in Favor of Sade (1952), On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time (1959), Critique of Separation (1961), The Society of the Spectacle (1973), Refutation of All the Judgments, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film The Society of the Spectacle (1975), and In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978). The scripts of these films can be found in Knabb (2003) and at Knabb’s website, Bureau of Public Secrets, and the films themselves are on YouTube and Ubuweb.

                                                                                                                                (13.) It is important to mention here the Romanian poet, filmmaker and provocateur, Isodore Isou, who founded the avant garde group called the Lettrists, which Debord was a member of (he joined in 1950). Isou’s film Treatise on Slime and Eternity (1950) deployed various techniques of détournement, and the film arguably deeply influenced Debord’s own filmmaking. It is also important to note another cinematic détournement by SI member Rene Vienet titled Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

                                                                                                                                (14.) It is also the title of Debord’s second film, which he made in 1959.

                                                                                                                                (15.) Guy Debord: Complete Cinematic Works: Scripts, Stills, Documents, translated and edited by Ken Knabb (2003), is an excellent source. Debord’s film scripts are also available at the Bureau of Public Secrets website, which is a website of SI writing that Knabb has curated for years.

                                                                                                                                (16.) Another invaluable article about the Lettrists’ films that sets the stage for an exploration of Debord’s films is Andrew Uroskie’s (2011) article “Beyond the Black Box: The Lettrist Cinema of Disjunction.”

                                                                                                                                (18.) This book is actually a collection of mostly previously published articles that Stracey reworked for the book before she passed away of cancer in November of 2009 (see “Series Preface” to the book, p. x).

                                                                                                                                (19.) The Assassination of Paris is the title of a book on urbanism in Paris by Louis Chevalier, published in 1977.