three masterpieces of détournement
Admittedly, only the last of these three works — the unparalleled Can Dialectics Break Bricks? — is truly an example of détournement in the classic sense, but all three of them do engage in the practice of using borrowed material for purposes wildly different than those they were originally intended for. Détournement is a technique that was pioneered by the Letterist International (the precursor to Situationism) in the 1950s, and it consists primarily of the appropriation and subversion of capitalist culture and the media apparatus that props it up. As Guy Debord and Gil Wolman write in “A User’s Guide to Détournement” (a manifesto that almost reads as if it could have been written by the Free Culture Foundation),
It is in fact necessary to eliminate all remnants of the notion of personal property in this area. The appearance of new necessities outmodes previous “inspired” works. They become obstacles, dangerous habits. The point is not whether we like them or not. We have to go beyond them.
Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can be used to make new combinations. The discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrate that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. Restricting oneself to a personal arrangement of words is mere convention. The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the juxtaposition of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used.
It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of those fragments in any appropriate way, leaving the imbeciles to their slavish reference to “citations.”
Such parodistic methods have often been used to obtain comical effects. But such humor is the result of contradictions within a condition whose existence is taken for granted. Since the world of literature seems to us almost as distant as the Stone Age, such contradictions don’t make us laugh. It is thus necessary to envisage a parodic-serious stage where the accumulation of detourned elements, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.
The video at the top of the page, called “Building a Human,” is by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz. Though not explicitly political, it still manages to raise the kinds of questions found in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the opening sequence of Shaun of the Dead; that is, once the general population of working people have been turned into hollowed-out zombies by the disciplinary wasteland of capitalist society, how can we tell who are the ‘real’ people and who are the pod zombies? Is a robot that experiences love and pain more human than the biologically authentic model who doesn’t? Capitalism, as Marx so rightly defined it, is the state in which human labor is transformed into capital and returns as an alien power that now dominates the very workers responsible for its production in the first place: “The labourer therefore constantly produces material, objective wealth, but in the form of capital, of an alien power that dominates and exploits him [ . . . ].” Can there be a better example of this than Arpoovian Shebber-Shenty’s evil plan to get human workers to build the objects of their own destruction and then electrocute them for their troubles?
Of course, like all great works of détournement, “Building a Human” is hilarious, playing off of retro-kitsch to get the point across. The particular brilliance of Popper and Serafinowicz’s choice of the moai as source of alien domination is it’s evocation of the 1970s when there was still enough of an aura surrounding primitive objects of cult worship that you could end up with such seemingly contradictory productions as the famous 1972 Brady Bunch episode, “Hawaii Bound,” in which Bobby finds a small tiki charm that actually turns out to be a taboo fetish of ultimate evil, and Erich von Daniken’s ultimately racist book Chariots of the Gods?, in which he speculates that the incredible architectonic productions of ancient civilizations were actually made by space aliens, because surely the (mostly non-European) people who made them couldn’t really have been that technologically sophisticated.
David Blaire’s 1991 movie Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees uses a mixture of found footage and live action scenes, often altered with primitive computer effects or interspersed with early computer animation. The film, released in 1991 and made during the Gulf War, is a complex meditation about history, identity, civilization, language, technologies of communication, war, bombs, bees, the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and the mark of Cain. The movie was written and edited by Blaire over the course of six years, a great deal of it constructed improvisationally as connections between the found materials he was using made themselves evident. The connections that Blaire finds among his materials mirror one of the central themes of the film, which is that through language and the transmission of thought, all things become connected (and controlled). Television broadcasts the voices of the dead, both literally (those who have died still appear on television) and figuratively (all language is in some sense dead language in that it’s inherited from those who are no longer on the planet), and through these broadcasts we become connected to the dead, and to the hive mind.
The movie follows Jacob Maker, a beekeeper who programs combat simulation machines for the army, as he discovers that the bees have implanted a special television in his brain. Through the medium of bee television Jacob discovers that the dead are trying to control him, to turn him into a bomb with a mission to kill: “The X-shaped gun sight floated before my eyes. I was Cain. That was my mark. God would protect me from my victims.” As Jacob moves toward his ‘destiny’ as a force of destruction, his identity becomes fluid. The “I” becomes a bomb, becomes living figures in the past, becomes a consciousness that absorbs signals and the voices of the dead. Disconnected from the body, the I moves everywhere: to the Moon, to the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was tested, to the Tower of Babel, to the World of the Dead. He eventually finds the deity, who sees the world as transmission, and he emerges in Iraq, in 1991: ” I followed my enemies through the bee television to emerge in the air above Basra, southern Iraq, in the year 1991. Now I was going to kill. That was my job. I spoke the code that changed the bee television into a weapon with the image of my special enemy engraved upon it.” Blaire’s movie ‘stars’ William Burroughs as a photograph of Jacob’s grandfather, and Burroughs’s notion that “language is a virus” is a key to understanding this film. You can read more about the film on WAXWEB, as well as order the DVD and watch the complete film in segments. Or you can watch the complete film on YouTube here. It’s a film that takes patience, but the rewards are amazing.
Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, a 1973 Situationist production by René Viénet, takes the 1972 kung-fu movie The Crush and appropriates it for the proletarian revolution. The versions circulating on the net all seem to come from poor-quality VHS sources, but I had a chance to see a print of it once at the PFA and it was absolutely glorious to watch on the big screen. There are a couple of sources on line offering DVDs, but I have my suspicions that they simply contain the same bad VHS print as you can find anywhere else. Part of the brilliance of Can Dialectics Break Bricks? — aside from its amazing comic timing and fantastic deployment of leftist in-jokes — is that it uses source material that itself very often mirrors the concerns of the international left of the 60s and 70s: the exploitation of peasants by rich landholders; violence against women and the resistance of women to traditionally subservient social roles; the abuse of the law by the ruling classes to justify and enable their depredations; the relationship of love and enjoyment to revolutionary practice during times of conflict; and, of course, the partisan philosophical and political differences that arise between rival factions.
One of my favorite line in the movie comes when one of the peasant revolutionaries is killed and his comrade says: “Cruel fortune. To die and never see the city hall in flames.” I’ve always wondered if this line is an unconscious reference to Mizuta Masahide’s famous haiku —
Barn’s burnt down —
I can see the moon.
Most likely not. And yet still, I love the resonance.
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Tags: "A User's Guide to Détournement", "Building a Human", alienation, aliens, Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, capitalism, Chariots of the Gods?, David Blaire, detournement, Erich von Daniken, experimental video, film, Gil Woman, Gulf War, Guy Debord, haiku, independent film, kung-fu, Marx, Mizuta Masahide, moai, movies, Peter Serafinowicz, revolutionary thought, Robert Popper, Situationism, subversion, the mark of Cain, video, Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees, William Burroughs