A memoir compiled with “the grating effect of broken glass.”1 This is how the Danish painter and a founding member of the Situationist International (SI), Asger Jorn, describes Mémoires (Memoirs), the artist book that he collaboratively produced with Guy Debord, published in a limited capacity in 1959 and distributed freely among friends according to the competitive gift-exchange ethos of the potlatch.2 An incendiary or inflammatory function is an unusual one for the typically reflective genre of the memoir, but Mémoires is not a conventional work in any sense of the term. Composed entirely from prefabricated visual and textual elements (or perhaps shards is more appropriate in light of Jorn’s analogy) and collaged into an enigmatic, open-ended narrative, the book loosely traces a formative period in Debord’s youth—namely, the evolution of his inaugural avant-garde movement the Lettrist International (LI). Today, Mémoires is frequently characterized as a work of refusal. From its rejection of the labor of authorship and the intimate subjectivity of the memoir mode to its refusal of the status of literature and its circumventing of the reifying effects of official histories, the gestures of negation inherent in the work are manifold.
Yet negation in the Situationist project is rarely an end in itself but rather a prelude to a more elusive something else, and this is also true of Mémoires, which, to quote Jorn again, Debord used “as an opening.”3 In this essay, I depart from the primary emphasis on the visual scheme of Mémoires, which has preoccupied art scholars in their analyses of the book, in order to focus upon the relationship between the literary content of the work, most specifically its détournement of novelistic sources, and the critical theory that emerges amid the voids and gaps of the book’s allusive material. As one of the key Situationist methodologies, détournement names the “integration of present or past artistic productions into a [End Page 535] superior construction of a milieu”4 and involves a devaluing and revaluing of existing cultural material through their diversion into a new context.
Combined with the destabilizing interplay of text and image, détournement in Mémoires works to perform a potent critique of representation and the monumentalizing tendencies of the memoir genre. In this essay, however, I wish to emphasize the extent to which Mémoires is also deeply connected to the avant-garde imperative to forge new modes of communication capable of performing a radical critique of society while resisting the instrumentalized application of language. It is within this more (re)constructive context that the détournement of novelistic sources arguably plays an important overlooked role in enunciating the critical theory underlying Debord’s autobiographical project.
For Debord, critical theory names the description, interpretation, and dissection of existing social conditions that in the Situationist project forms the basis of a critique to be “directed against every aspect of alienated social life.”5 With regard to the novel (and the pursuit of literature more broadly), the Situationists questioned its critical capacities and frequently denounced it in their journals as an obsolete form. Yet the proximity of the novel to the events of everyday life meant that it was not without interest for them, and in the early days of the Lettrist International a number of novels assumed heightened importance during their dérives (drifts) as literary cartographies provided a means through which to passionately disrupt the utilitarian treatment of space.6
In the context of Mémoires, I argue that the détournement of the novel plays an important role in illuminating, and intervening into, the historical development of the “alienated social life” that the Situationists sought so strenuously to critique and transform. This premise that détourned novelistic sources work to enunciate critical theory in Mémoires will be specifically explored in the context of the détournement of nineteenth-century Anglophone literature dealing with narratives of urban adventure, alongside the détournement of the romance genre. From the Amazonian heroines of seventeenth-century romance fiction to the femme fatales of 1950s’ pulp novels and the amour fou (mad love) muses of...