GUY DEBORD’S LETTERS & LIBRARY

 Guy Debord has been dead twenty-seven years today. In Panegyric, his elegiac autobiography, the author of The Society of the Spectacle famously said that more than anything else his life had been marked by the habit of drinking, by consuming alcohol. “Among the small number of things I have liked and known how to do well,” he said, “what I have assuredly known how to do best is drink. Even though I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than most people who write, but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.”

Yale University’s Beinecke Library houses many black and white photos of Debord, taken in Italy during the 1970s. These comprise part of the archive of the Italian Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Debord’s close friend and political confidant. The images are tremendously evocative of the times, when radical hopes of the previous decade had been dashed and many urban revolutionaries—like Debord and Sanguinetti—assumed a life of free-spirit wandering, of ducking and diving, of creating trouble while trying to stay out of trouble, often taking shelter in the countryside. Very few close-ups of Debord from this period show him not drinking. He’s usually sat in some cheap café or bistro, alongside wife Alice, savouring his beverage, cradling a little wine glass, seemingly relishing every tacit moment, every quiet sip. “It is understood,” he said, “that all of this has left me very little time for writing, and that is exactly as it should be: writing should remain a rare thing, because one must have drunk for a long time before finding excellence.”

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Since Debord’s death, though, it’s become evident that such comments are his own brand of self-mythologising. Not so much about drinking, which was real, truly excessive. More about the rarity of his writing. For what has emerged is how Debord was one of the most prolific letter writers of twentieth-century politics. In 1999, Paris’s Librairie Arthème Fayard began publishing these letters, beginning in September 1951, when Debord was still an enfant terrible making mischief with fellow Lettristes at the Cannes Film Festival, and culminating à la fin—at the very end—with a valedictory communiqué dated 30th November 1994, the day of his suicide.

This correspondence voices deep feeling and lived experience: from intimate love letters, scathing polemics, and everyday pragmatics (one asking Sanguinetti to talk to Debord’s Florentine landlady, asking her to turn on the gas heating prior to his and Alice’s return) to subversive muckraking, political letters about current events and strategy, about present and future writing projects. For over forty years, Debord wrote and mailed off hundreds and hundreds of letters, dispatched telegrams, posted postcards, each one now packed into what amasses to seven whopping volumes—eight, if you include other loose, earlier letters “retrouvées,” those missing from previous volumes, collated in volume “0.”

If Debord was drinking all the while, then as he drank, he wrote. How else could he produce so much? He wrote carefully, by hand, with aplomb, rarely in haste, never slapdash. Taken as a totality, Guy Debord Correspondance offers a wonderful glimpse of a radical life on the hoof, passed in clandestinity—in Florence and Barcelona, in Arles and Paris, in the verdant hills of Chianti and in the little lost kingdom of Champot, his Auvergnat retreat. Forever surrounded by people, in the post and in person, Debord may have been the most sociable recluse who ever lived. He pissed not a few friends and comrades off with ruthless dismissals and savage denunciations; yet plenty more formed his loyal entourage. They trusted him, respected him, enjoyed his company, and he theirs.

The other noteworthy thing, more recently revealed, isn’t that Debord “read a lot”; it’s truer to say that he read enormously, never stopped reading, took immense pleasure from what he read, maybe as much pleasure as he took from drink. Debord never annotated his books, never marked them up or touched them with his pen. Books seemed too precious to him, too pure an interlocutor to be violated. (One thinks of an exiled Machiavelli, telling friend Vettori how he lovingly entered “the ancient court of ancient men [in his library], where, received by them with affection, I feed on the food which is only mine.) Instead, Debord compiled copious notes on little “Bristol cards,” meticulously referencing quotations, adding commentaries, hinting where he might use this wisdom in his own work. Words, sentences, and whole paragraphs are recorded in tiny cursive that assume a specific gravity for Debord, as if they provided personal sustenance, a guide for living rather than for merely citing.

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Debord read plenty, and painstakingly labelled thousands of these fiches, classifying them into dossiers such as “Poetry, etc”; “Machiavelli and Shakespeare” (like Marx, Debord was an avid reader of the great English bard); “History”; “Philosophy, Sociology”; “Strategy, Military History”; “Marxism”; and “Hegel.” These cards have since found a protective home in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, curated as a labour of love by Laurence Le Bras, who now oversees “Le Fonds Guy Debord,” an archive of the dead Situationist revolutionary deemed a French “national treasure” in 2009. Yet the “library of Guy Debord”—what he read, why he read what he read, what he took from what he read—isn’t just lying dormant in some forgotten Parisian basement: in 2018, the independent publisher, Éditions L’échappée, began unearthing Debord’s reading list, reprinting his fiches de lecture in what has already filled three handsome volumes, Stratégie (2018), Poésie, etc.(2019), and Marx/Hegel (2021), each exceeding 500-pages, each illustrated with facsimiles of Debord’s own handwritten cards. (Two further tomes, Histoire and Philosophie, are eagerly awaited.) All this constitutes nothing less than a marvellous public treasure, a veritable feast for Debord fans, letting us lean over his shoulder, ponder a revolutionary brain at work, lay witness to the same sort of dogged, behind-the-scenes intellectual labour that Marx, another independent scholar, had carried out in the British Museum.

In one letter to Eduardo Rothe (21st February 1974), Debord says that theoreticians might now want to make better use of Thucydides, Machiavelli and Clausewitz alongside Marx, Hegel and Lautréamont. It could be, he says, that such philosophers of war and societal breakdown, of cunning realpolitik, are better suited to a contemporary capitalism that operates more deviously and ideologically than anything Marx ever analysed. Clausewitz and Machiavelli are incisive and decisive for demystifying the cynical society of the “integrated spectacle,” where what was once diffuse or concentrated has now combined into a singularly potent force, incorporating the whole world and conditioning everybody under its treacherous economic sway.

Machiavelli warned that the common defect of men in fair weather is to take no account of storms. The crafty Italian Renaissance strategist was a prophet of storms, taught the shrewd how to manoeuvre through heavy weather, how to keep one’s head throughout. Debord mused a lot on storms, and Machiavelli helped him ride a few, offering lessons about discretion and deception, about how to avoid snares and frighten off the wolves. Fittingly, then, the first volume of Debord’s Library opens its leaves to “Strategy,” to the history and practice of war, with Machiavelli and Clausewitz starring.

The latter infamously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and Debord agrees, yet revels in the maxim’s reversal: that politics is the continuation of war by other means, another brand of warfare, a game of strategy and chance, of attack and defence, requiring intense study and courageous practice. “I’ve been very interested in war,” he said in Panegyric, “in the theoreticians of strategy, but also reminiscences of battles and in the countless other disruptions history mentions, surface eddies on the river of time.” Debord had studied war for years, read broadly and widely around military history, been fascinated by the logic of war, by its domain of danger and disappointment, by a reality that leaves no room for facile optimism.

For years, too, he’d collected little metal toy soldiers, something first wife, Michèle Bernstein, always teased him about. (On one fiche, Debord writes: “I’ve a side of me that’s entirely puerile. I rejoice in cards, in wargames and little lead soldiers. I also love grander games: art, cities, and overthrowing society.”) Debord’s own cinematic undertakings splice clips from movies he’d adored in his youth: battleship cannon fire, cavalry charges and troop formations, Custer’s Last Stand and the Charge of the Light Brigade all bring the folly and fortunes of war to Paris’s divine comedy of the 1950s. He’d even patented his own war game, Kriegspiel, modelled on Clausewitz’s writings, presenting “the forces in contention and the contradictory necessities imposed on the operations of each of the two parties.” “I have played this game,” Debord said, “and, in the often difficult conduct of my life, have utilised lessons from it.” Kriegspiel, he quipped, may well be the only aspect of his oeuvre that has any lasting merit.

Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war. So speaks Clausewitz, from the heart as well as the head, from first-hand combat experience gained in the Napoleonic era, when he served as a Prussian field soldier. In 1806, Clausewitz was captured by the French, yet by the age of thirty-eight (in 1818) he’d risen to the rank of Major-General, already playing a pivotal role in the resurrection of Prussia and in Napoleon’s final waterloo at Waterloo (1815), earning him an impressive cameo in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Clausewitz was bookish and smart and operated as effectively in Berlin’s intellectual circles as on any battlefield. His approach to war was distinctively dialectical, weaving into his “realist” account the frailties of human nature and the uncertainty of the physical world. (Napoleon’s worst enemy, Clausewitz said, was bad weather.)

Debord scrutinised the Prussian strategist’s posthumous masterpiece, On War, a classic that also impressed Marx & Engels, and Lenin & Trotsky. Yet in Stratégie we see Debord prioritising Clausewitz’s shorter pamphlets, seemingly following the Major-General’s own urging: “that no combat exemplifies the process of strategic thought as clearly as the Campaign of 1814 in France.” Many of Debord’s fiches transcribe Clausewitz’s delineations of Napoleon’s Grande Armée campaigns of 1812, 1814 and 1815. One of Debord’s oft-cited phrases hails from Clausewitz’s latter work: “In every strategic critique, the essential thing is to put oneself exactly in the position of the actors.” Another favourite, suggestive about Debord’s understanding of theory’s relationship to practice, flagged up at the close of The Society of the Spectacle, the film, is: “To repeat what we have often said, here as in all practical matters, theory has the function of informing the practitioner and to educate their judgement, rather than assist them directly in the execution of their tasks.”

***

Michèle Bernstein often said of her ex-husband that behind his cold-fish demeanour, his sangfroid, lay a deeply passionate romantic. Poésie, etc., with a reading list steeped in the romantic tradition, confirms the like, demonstrating Debord’s passion for the poetic, for sensual refrains of the life-spirit, whether in prose or verse. Debord loved a beautiful turn of phrase, and, like Baudelaire, wanted to speak the fine language of his siècle, bawl it out in the streets, in the public realm. He says it was modern poetry that brought him and his Situationist comrades into the streets in the first place; and we can hear this poetic refrain, jubilantly and forlornly uttered, in films like Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unite de temps (1959), Critique de la séparation (1961), and, especially, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), Debord’s masterpiece threnody on Paris, his chip off Dante’s block: “Midway through the path of life we were surrounded by a sombre melancholy, expressed in such sad and mocking lines, in the café of lost youth.”

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Many entries in Poésie, etc. are, as we’d expect, bad-boy staples: Lautréamont and Cravan, Villon and Poe, Rimbaud and Baudelaire; there’s Lacenaire, too, and Dante, of course, whom Debord read in Italian, as well as Apollinaire, an adolescent favourite, together with those sages of the finite aspects of time, with its slipping away: Omar Khayyam, Jorge Manrique, and Li Po (Chinese T’ang Dynasty poetry gets its own separate annex in Poésie, etc.). “Perhaps you still retain the cheerfulness of youth,” said Li Po, “but your hair is already white; and what is the use of complaining?” “We come in like water,” wrote Omar Khayyam, “and leave like the wind.”

Not a few pages of Poésie, etc. cover the beloved Greek, Homer, and favoured Brits, read in translation (Debord had no English): Shakespeare, Swift, Carroll, de Quincey, Lowry (Under the Volcano), as well as an unexpected Thackeray (The Book of Snobs) and Graham Greene (Brighton Rock). There are multiple fiches for French classicists Bossuet, Pascal, and Chateaubriand, lesser numbers for German romantics Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin, and begrudging entries for André Breton, on his Manifestos of Surrealism and Anthology of Black Humour. (I say “begrudging,” because Debord admired and disdained the Pope of Surrealism in equal measure; he could never quite reconcile his love-hate relationship with son semblable, son père. The same might be said of Jean Cocteau.)

De Musset’s play Lorenzaccio, meanwhile, seems to remind Debord of past Florentine sojourns, of ill-fated flings: “Goodbyes, goodbyes without end, the shores of the Arno are awash with so many goodbyes!” Debord had a bit of a penchant for Gogol, the Russian satirist: “Be a living soul not a dead one,” Gogol scribbled on a scrap of paper, only days before starving himself to death; Debord enjoyed the cautioning, finding pleasure in another, zany Gogol line, from Diary of a Madman, framing, perhaps, the integrated spectacle: “I’ve discovered that China and Spain are the same thing and it’s only ignorance that makes people take them for two separate countries.” (Inside the left margin of the Gogol card is a curiously urgent note-to-self, written in January 1989: “Read quickly The Government Inspector, The Quarrel [Between the Two Ivans], then Nevsky Prospect; reread The Overcoat.)

Pierre Mac Orlan, another fav, helps Debord appreciate the poetics of war. The former’s Le bataillonnaire (1931), the infantryman, re-enacts the Great War through the lens of a young working-class Parisian, Georges Lougre, a Pigalle pimp and loser. When Lougre enlists, the proximity of death has him soon revalue his life. The futility of war is evident enough, even for men of little learning. But a richer meaning is gradually discovered through the tacit camaraderie he finds with fellow Joyeux, a shared melancholy every combat soldier feels, feels in their bones, a strangely poetic sensibility: le cafard, evoked by Mac Orlan’s lyrical prose and sentimental songs. It’s the doldrums of men without women, of men who mightn’t see tomorrow, men who recognise the difficulty of ever returning to civilian ways, yet, at the same time, can’t really settle into military life, either. “Soldiers, true soldiers,” says Mac Orlan, “aren’t conscious of their real worth. Very few love adventure. However, at certain hours, you might believe that they understood the tragic beauty of their itinerant fate.” Near the novel’s end, a train ride lulls Georges into introspection, “reviving in him,” Mac Orlan says, “the slackers he knew from the past, the desperate and often burlesque characters who roamed the streets of his youth, those of a Montmartre now entirely wiped out.”

Debord always insisted he preferred Musil to Proust; but Poésie, etc. equally reveals he’d nonetheless poured over Proust, was intimate with À la recherche du temps perdu, perhaps having more sympathy for Proust than he cracked on. At least for Swann, the Proustian dandy who chose not to live amongst elegant bourgeois but opted instead for the Bohemian Quai d’Orléans, a disreputable spot in the eyes of Swann’s snobbish peers. None of this would’ve been lost on Debord. He knew the Quai well, had it feature frequently in his films, panned at dusk. It was an image of Paris he was particularly fond of.

Another surprise is Debord’s intensive reading of The Bible, especially the Old Testament. His fiche on “The Books of Kings,” presumably dating from the mid-1970s, witnesses him grappling with the title of In Girum Imus Nocte, wondering if The Bible’s Latin “et consumimur igni” means “we will be consumed by fire, or maybe the reverse, that the fire consumes us.” Elsewhere, two vertical lines, Debord’s chief method of emphasis, home in on “The Book of Proverbs”: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” all of which sounds like a reworking of In Girum’s closing sequences.

***

Surprising in Poésie, etc., too, because of its categorisation, is Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. Debord mobilises Mumford’s text from 1961 as a masterpiece of fine prose as well as fine ideas, reading it fresh off the French press (translated in 1964), since his dialogue with Mumford is couched in the drafting of La société du spectacle (1967), shorthanded by Debord as “SduS.” “For the Society of the Spectacle,” Debord tags his first Mumford fiche, richly annotated by a young mind clearly energised by the history of cities, by its shift from the Greek polis to the American Megalopolis, from the birth of municipal liberty to its death throes. The City in History stakes out the contours of SduS itself. “Universal history was born in cities,” says Debord in Thesis #176, following Mumford, “whose climatic moment was the decisive victory of the city over the countryside.” “But if the history of the city is the history of freedom,” Debord continues, “it is also the history of tyranny, of a state administration that controls the countryside and the city itself. The city is the locus of history because it is both the concentration of social power, rendering possible an historical undertaking, and a conscience of the past.”

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Debord, like Mumford, thinks the modern desire to control and commercialise urban life is facilitated by the liquidation of historical memory, by the instigation of a collective forgetting, the spectacle’s principal arm. He cites Mumford citing Emerson: “The city lives by remembering.” (In parentheses, Debord quips: “the inverse is true!”) Mumford says the spectacle is ingrained in city life, was there in Roman gladiatorial games, and developed over time with assorted precessions and pageants, bread and circuses that have culminated in our own mass adoration of the gadget commodity. Debord makes a fascinating pairing of Mumford and his contemporary Karl Wittfogel, bringing each to bear on understanding the despotism of the spectacle and modern urban life. Wittfogel’s important book Oriental Despotism appeared four years before The City in History, and if its title left little doubt about the book’s subject matter, the subheading merely hammered things home even more: “A Comparative Study of Total Power.” Large-scale urban planning initiatives and resource control (especially water management), Mumford and Wittfogel say, necessitate highly centralised organising bodies, statist autocracies that can administer total power. Throughout history, in both the East and the West, under state communism and state capitalism, managerialist bureaucracies have seized power and managed to recreate built environments in their own image, imposing their despotic will on citizens.

Wittfogel was a German-born Marxist historian who moved to the United States during the Second World War. For years, he taught at New York’s Columbia University, quickly turning renegade, becoming a virulently anti-communist conservative. By the 1950s, he was happily testifying at McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, denouncing, amongst other people, fellow sinologist Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins geography professor. As such, it’s curious why Debord would want to insert pages and pages on Wittfogel in his Marx/Hegel library? (Lukács, for one, detested Wittfogel, calling him a “vulgar materialist”; the feeling was mutual: Lukács, for Wittfogel, was a fluffy idealist.) Debord’s fiches on Oriental Despotism almost outnumber those on Marx himself and one might wonder why? Perhaps because Debord and Wittfogel both share profoundly anti-Stalinist and anti-Maoist tendencies, and Debord plainly liked the provocation of placing him alongside humanist Marxists, flagging up the threat of dogmatic centralism in its ranks.

Many notations in Marx/Hegel hark back to the late 1950s, when, in a little black moleskin carnet, Debord, a twentysomething radical, was meticulously compiling the citations of another twentysomething radical, a young Karl Marx. Marx/Hegel represents a sort of Debordian Grundrisse, notebooks never really intended for the public light of day. Each text is united in its engagement with Hegel. Debord, too, was something of an unofficial pupil of the mighty German philosopher, studied him closely, and his dossier on Hegel runs to a bulky 118 pages. Yet Debord, like Marx, was no idealist, and took from Hegel the logic of the dialectic, its form rather than its content. Entering Debord’s dialectic is like plunging into a Dantesque labyrinth, full of twists and turns, rhyme and reason, inversions and subversions, theses and antitheses that constantly bite off one another’s tail, that loop and curl incessantly, as if the whole Marxist-Hegelian canon were fair game for negation, for Debord’s brilliant détournements.

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Dense reflections on Lukács’s focus on reification, on the triumph of the world of things over the world of people. Lukács’s ground-breaking History and Class Consciousness (1923) helped Debord frame the link between the alienation of urban subjectivity and the commodification of city space. Spectacular society, says Debord, is a hyper-reified version of Lukács’s world, a reality of separation, which the young Marx had stressed in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844): workers separated from their activity, from the products of their labour, from their fellow workers, even from themselves. Reification happens when something is denied, taken away from a thinking subject, displaced into an object, into a thing external to the self, against the self, something that forcibly sunders mind from activity, mind from itself. Here unity spells division. And yet, Debord projects theories of alienation and reification onto a more ambitious and sinister plane of immanence. Henri Lefebvre had brought the commodity-form to bear on “everyday life,” extending Marx’s notion of abstract time (value), having it incorporate abstract space; now, suggests Debord, abstract space is itself another aspect of the spectacle: “The spectacle is the other side of money; it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities.” “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity had attained the total occupation of social life.”

Thirty-years Debord’s senior, Lefebvre was something of a godfather figure for the youthful Situationist. They’d befriended one another, developed a warm friendship for a while, spent nights together, communed with each other. Debord seems to have read most of Lefebvre’s weighty oeuvre; his all-time favourite is Lefebvre’s own all-time favourite: La somme et le reste (1959), the philosopher-sociologist’s two-volumed intellectual autobiography. “At present,” he told Situ pal André Frankin, in a letter dated 14th February 1960, “I am reading La somme et le reste. It is very interesting, and close to us—here I mean: the theory of moments.” A week on (22nd February), Debord wrote the same Frankin a long, detailed letter, analysing Lefebvre’s “theory of moments,” and now we can scrutinise for ourselves, from Debord’s numerous fiches, the source of these comments. Debord’s discussion is very technical and very serious: it’s the 1960s, after all, and you sense the political stakes are high, on the brink of something. Debord thinks Lefebvre’s moments are more durable, more precise, purer than the Situationist’s notion of situations; yet this might be a defect. Situations are less definitive, potentially richer, more open to mélange, which is good—except, says Debord, how can you “characterise a situation?” Where does it begin and where does it end? 

***

Over half a century has unfolded since Debord wrote a lot of these notes. Highly technical debates around Marxist theory seem less challenging nowadays, less pertinent, and many ideas in Marx/Hegel no longer strike as the intellectual bombshells they doubtless were in their glory days. Debord would never again read Marx or Hegel with the same ferocity and intensity as in the runup to and aftermath of SduS. The book sealed a magical era for him. “Whoever considers the life of the Situationists,” he contended a few years later, “finds there the history of the revolution. Nothing has been able to sour it.” It was how it’d been for the Communards, who really lived it for 73 days, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfilment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in the situations of May 1968, and now the music was over. Yet as the dust settled from the street-battles, an emptiness prevailed in the ruins. Many soixante-huitards suddenly found themselves stuck between the rock and the hard place, between a degenerative past and an impossible future. For a moment, the dream of spontaneous freedom became real, in wide-awake time. An instant later, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.

In late Debord, Marx and Hegel recede, have been steadily replaced, superseded, by the likes of Clausewitz and Machiavelli, Cardinal de Retz and Baltasar Gracián. Resistance for Debord hereafter became more a question of strategy, something more poetic—we might say more ontological, a state of being rather than an act of theory, a dilemma about how to live out a poetic life now, in spite of it all. It’s maybe one reason why I found Marx/Hegel less intriguing than the earlier two volumes of Debord’s library. It’s maybe why, too, the most enduring lesson we might take from Debord is precisely how to endure; it isn’t so much his Situationist muckraking as the more stoical lesson he can teach us about how to stay true to our nature in desperate times, how we might resist the dominant values of these desperate times, how we might do it with fellow kindred. Debord never lived to see the most desperate times of all, those of the current moment. He was lucky. He never witnessed fake news or Reality TV or the unashamed rise of the populist Right, with imbeciles like Trump and Johnson. He anticipated them, of course, and in Poésie, etc. (p57) there’s an entry that heralds their passing, that offers us wishful thinking about their passing. It comes from The Bible, from the Old Testament’s “Book of Daniel,” and Debord uses it in the conclusion of his preface to the “Fourth Italian Edition of The Society of the Spectacle.”

Fingers of a human hand appear and begin writing on a wall. King Belshazzar watches as the hand daubs mysterious words, rather as Debord had daubed on rue de Seine all those years ago: ne travaillez jamais. The King’s face turns pale. He’s so frightened that his knees start knocking. Nobody knows what the words mean, not even the wise men of Babylon. Nobles are baffled. Enter Daniel, who can explain riddles, interpret dreams and resolve difficult problems. You, Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, he says; you praised gold, have drunk the wine of your people, deceived them. That is why the inscription on the wall says: MENE, TEKEL, PERES.

MENE means your days are numbered and your reign is about to end; TEKEL means you have been weighed on scales and found wanting; PERES means your kingdom is to be divided, spread amongst the just. “Under each project of the present society,” Debord signs off, “one sees everywhere inscribed the words MENE, TEKEL, PERES.” Thus the writing is on the wall. The days of this society are numbered. Its merits have been weighed and found wanting, a lot wanting. Is it only a matter of time, then, before the knees of its rulers knock and their reign crumbles with them?

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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1 Response to GUY DEBORD’S LETTERS & LIBRARY

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Very interesting piece by Andy Merrifield about Guy Debord’s reading and writing.

    Like

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