Raoul Vaneigem's Autobiography

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To date, though there have been dozens of detailed histories written about the development of the Situationist International (the “SI”), which went through three overlapping phases between 1957 and 1972, none of them were written by a former member. Furthermore, none of the historians of the SI have been personally acquainted with the most important situationists (Michèle Bernstein, Guy Debord, Asger Jorn, Mustapha Khayati, René Viénet and Raoul Vaneigem), and so they weren’t able to offer accurate portraits of what these semi-legendary revolutionaries were like as people.

Always the exception, Guy Debord – the only co-founder of the organization still a member of it when it disbanded – commented often and extensively about certain moments in the SI’s history (cf. “Notes to serve towards the history of the SI from 1969 to 1971”) and told his readers a good deal about what he himself was like (cf. Panegyric). And so, for a great many years, those who are interested in the situationists as both historical actors and as people have really only been acquainted with Debord and Debord’s evaluations of the others, about whom we’ve known little or nothing other than what Debord himself said about them. Almost unavoidably, Debord has become the face of the SI and the SI has been semi-successfully presented as just one of Debord’s many artistic creations.

With the very recent arrival of what amounts to Raoul Vaneigem’s autobiography – Rien n’est fini, tout commence (“Nothing has ended, everything begins”), published by Editions Allia in October 2014 – all this will have to change. Thanks to Vaneigem, who has given a few interviews before, but has never spoken at such great length about the SI or such “personal” subjects as his parents, his ex-wife, his alcoholism, and so forth, readers can now not only get a sense of what he’s like as a person, but Debord, Bernstein, Khayati and Viénet, as well.

In its original form, this book is credited to both Raoul Vaneigem and Gérard Berréby, who put it together “with the help of Sébastien Coffy and Fabienne Lesage.” Indeed, Rien n’est fini presents itself as a kind of collaboration between Vaneigem and Berréby, as if the two men were equals with respect to the subject at hand. In addition to asking Vaneigem questions and recording and transcribing his answers, Berréby speaks about his own life and opines on a large number of subjects; he footnotes his own remarks (as well as those of Vaneigem); and he adds a large number of photographs and supplementary texts, some of them by Vaneigem himself or others members of the SI, others by people who were close to the situs but not members of the organization (Pierre Lotrous, Jacques Le Glou, Yves Raynaud, Clairette Schock, and Thèrése Dubrule, aka the former Mrs. Raoul Vaneigem), and still others by authors who weren’t situationists and sometimes had little or no relevance to them. As a result, Rien n’est fini ends up being 393 pages long, with every page and every margin stuffed with something.

And yet, despite this great length, density and apparent comprehensiveness, the book’s chronology stops in the mid-1970s, even though Vaneigem wrote and published the vast majority of his 25-odd books since the 1990s. Furthermore, the book lacks most of the standard or traditional elements: there’s no preface, no bibliography and no index. In short, Rien n’est fini is a deformed creation – deformed by the ego of Gérard Berréby, who, it would seem, is ready to rest on his laurels for having published 15 situationist-related titles (as well as dozens of others) over the course of the last 30 years.

My translation tries to ameliorate this deformity. On the one hand, I have removed – that is to say, I have declined to translate – everything that is not relevant to Raoul Vaneigem himself and/or the SI as a whole. Here the reader should not worry: there were no gray areas; no texts that I had reservations about deleting. (As for the texts by the other situationists, they, too, have been translated, but have been posted as separate texts on the NOT BORED! website. Via hypertext links, my footnotes point the reader towards these texts at appropriate moments in the interview.) On the other hand, I have provided an index, a bibliography and this preface. As a result, Vaneigem: Self-Portraits and Caricatures of the Situationist International is shorter, leaner and easier to use than Rien n’est fini.

I’m sorry to say that, despite these improvements, this remains a deformed work, precisely because Vaneigem’s own testimony runs in two different directions. On the one hand, as he recounts his life from his childhood to his decision to join in the SI in 1961 and beyond (as late as 1967, when the book for which he is best known, Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes generations, was published), he is focused, perceptive, interesting and informative, and solidly in favor and proud of what the SI said and did while he was a member of it. But on the other hand, when the chronology crosses 1967 into 1968, he goes back over this same ground and – in remarks that sometimes seem distracted, shallow, tedious and politically correct – condemns not only particular texts (the denunciation of Henri Lefebvre in 1963, the illustrations for “España en el corazón” in 1964, and even the Traité itself, which was completed in 1965), but also the situationist movement as a whole, which he alleges, fell victim to the ideology of “situationism” as early as 1963.

At the end of this rather peculiar, contradictory back and forth, all that is left is Vaneigem himself and the promises that he made to himself “with an unshakeable conviction” when he resigned from the SI in November 1970: “Never again in a group, never again in a community. I will pursue my work alone”; “I focus on individual autonomy, on the creativity of each person.” For his part, Gérard Berréby agrees with the appropriateness of this simultaneous rejection of “community” and embrace of the autonomous “individual” as a strategy. The last lines of his interview with Frédérque Roussel, published by Libération on 1 October 2014, are, “For me, there is no other outcome than an individual solution, which will go against all that these movements have developed. In these times, one only thinks of the collective.”

But the people who are interested in Vaneigem and his books today are interested in him and them because he was a situationist (indeed, one of the most important ones). Generally speaking – and the decision to end the chronology in the 1970s supports the assertion that – people are not particularly interested in what Vaneigem has done on his own since then (even though a couple of his books from the 1980s and 1990s are as good as, if not better than, the texts he published in the 1960s).

And so, to ameliorate the various deformities within Vaneigem’s testimony – his patent rejection of the SI post-1963 and his concomitant rejection of collective engagement as such – I have used dozens of “translator’s notes” to show what unstunted growth might have looked like (especially during and after 1967). I have also used these footnotes to provide directly relevant, accurate and useful information; to clear up or point out potential ambiguities; and to indicate some of what Vaneigem has accomplished since the 1970s.

As a result of all this meddling, this book isn’t so much my translation of Rien n’est fini into English, but a détournement of it. To paraphrase Lautréamont’s Poésies (and Thesis 207 of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle), I have held tightly to the text of Rien n’est fini, used its expressions, erased its false ideas, and replaced them with the correct ones. The final result has been called Self-Portraits and Caricatures because that is exactly what Vaneigem offers in it: portraits of himself and caricatures of the others.


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