The problem of language is at the heart of all the struggles between the forces striving to abolish the present alienation and those striving to maintain it. It is inseparable from the very terrain of those struggles. We live within language as within polluted air. […] Words work — on behalf of the dominant organization of life. Yet they are not completely automated […] they contain forces that can upset the most careful calculations. Words coexist with power in a relation analogous to that which proletarians (in the modern as well as the classic sense of the term) have with power. Employed by it almost full time, exploited for every sense and nonsense that can be squeezed out of them, they still remain in some sense fundamentally alien to it.
Situationist International, ‘All the King’s Men’, Internationale Situationniste #8 (Paris, January 1963).
Language is the poisoned air we live in. In spite of all our jokers, words don’t play; and in spite of Breton, they don’t make love except in dreams. Words work, to the profit of the dominant organisation of life.
All the King’s Men, Internationale Situationniste #8 in 1963
The experience of the empty leisure produced by modern capitalism has provided a critical correction to the Marxian notion of the extension of leisure time: It is now clear that full freedom of time requires first of all a transformation of work and the appropriation of this work in view of goals, and under conditions, that are utterly different from those of the forced labor that has prevailed up till now (see the activity of the groups that publish Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, Solidarity in England and Alternative in Belgium). But those who put all the stress on the necessity of changing work itself, of rationalizing it and of interesting people in it, and who pay no attention to the free content of life (i.e. the development of a materially equipped creative power that goes beyond the traditional categories of work time and rest-and-recreation time) run the risk of providing an ideological cover for a harmonization of the present production system in the direction of greater efficiency and profitability without at all having called in question the experience of this production or the necessity of this kind of life. The free construction of the entire space-time of individual life is a demand that will have to be defended against all sorts of dreams of harmony in the minds of aspiring managers of social reorganization.
In 1963, Debord received a letter from the Cercle de la Librarie demanding money for copyright infringement: Debord was accused of having taken the photo of the “Ne travaillez jamais” graffito published in the Internationale Situationniste journal from one of a series of postcards of Parisian scenes with “funny” captions. As in fact he had. However, in a brilliantly crafted response, Debord argued that since he was the author of the original graffito (something for which he claimed he could produce several witnesses), it was in fact the photographer and the publisher who had infringed his copyright. Rejecting the whole of intellectual property law, Debord magnanimously announced that he would not press charges, but he insisted that the publisher remove the “funny” caption from the postcard: “Les conseils superflus.” This advice to stop working was anything but superfluous, and the caption was offensive. As he probably anticipated, Debord never heard from the publisher again.
Art can be realized only by being suppressed. However, in contrast to the present society, which suppresses art by replacing it with the automatic functioning of an even more passive and hierarchical spectacle, we maintain that art can really be suppressed only by being realized.
Source: Oeuvres. Gallimard, Paris, 2006; Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor.
In 1953 Debord painted on a wall on the Rue de Seine the slogan “Ne travaillez jamais,” “Never Work.” He considered this bit of graffiti of tremendous importance throughout his life, including it in his autobiography, Panégyrique. The three words contain an entire program, and he was jealous of the graffiti’s use and abuse. The following letter is in response to a postcard issued containing it.
To the Cercle de la Librairie 117, bd Saint-Germain Paris 6
Paris June 27, 1963
The Bernard printers have sent me your letter of June 21, 1963, by which you a demand 330 F indemnity for non-observation of the law on artistic property. In fact, issue 8 of our revue contains, on page 42, the photograph of an inscription on a wall, “NEVER WORK,” a photograph drawn from a postcard by Monsieur Buffier, whose name is not mentioned and whose prior authorization was not requested.
It is the case that I am personally the author of that inscription on the Rue de Seine, whose origin, if necessary, could be established by ten or fifteen eyewitnesses. You understand that under these conditions I, in good faith, did not think I had to request prior authorization for reproduction, even if the latter was less onerous than the sum you have now fixed (according to the scale established in 1962 by the press union for periodicals with a circulation of less than 10,000, the photographic reproduction for less than a half page costs 20F).
I can only approve your defense of artistic property, which is too often ignored. I would like to say that in this regard the photo published in Internationale Situationniste is reframed in such a way that it only reproduces the part of Monsieur Buffier’s postcard that concerns the document properly speaking ( the inscription itself), this by excluding those characteristics which confer on this post card the artistic imprint unique to Monsieur Buffier. That is, the framing he chose and also the title he gave this subject, the post cards in this series all having, in the lower left of the image, an integrated inscription which comments on its meaning (in this case, “Superfluous advice”). As for the third element, it is acknowledged that in measuring the artistic responsibility of a photograph – by which I mean the choice of a subject – it would appear that on this point I can claim creative property which equals, and probably eclipses, the merits of Monsieur Buffier artistic taste, limited in this case to a simple reproductive choice.
To get to the heart of this question of artistic property, I would like to assure you that I in no way want to demand a portion of the receipts for the sale of this postcard or indemnities for its unauthorized reproduction here and there. But there is another aspect, in my eyes more important. The inscription in question was done in another period, and without any ambiguity it was presented by the avant-garde Situationist movement (cf. the title of this illustration on page 42 of our revue) as a serious sign of the artistic climate of an era, and as a moment in the development of the theories of this artistic movement, theories which have a pretension to a certain seriousness. But Monsieur Buffier, by his personal interpretation of this inscription, and which does not figure in issue 8 of the InternationaleSituationniste, spreads it about in his humorous way. Monsieur Buffier’s title, in fact, is “Superfluous advice.” Given that it is well know that the great majority of people work, and that said work is, despite the strongest repulsion, imposed on the near totality of workers by a crushing constraint, the slogan NEVER WORK can in no way be considered “superfluous advice.” This term of Monsieur Buffier’s implies that such a position is already unquestioningly followed by all, and thus casts the most ironic discredit on my inscription, and consequently my ideas and those of the Situationist movement, whose French language revue I currently have the honor of editing.
In the case then that this question can’t be settled amicably, as you say, it seems to me that, forced to prove that the original of this inscription should be attributed to me, I would be within my rights in demanding that you stop selling the postcards that present the fallaciously humorous interpretation, at least until he has printed on them a mention recognizing the serious intentions of the original author.
As for an amicable settlement, which I prefer, it seems that its modalities in the first place depend on the position that Monsieur Buffier adopts when he becomes aware of this additional information concerning our reciprocal rights and obligations in this affair, which I request that you transmit to him.
En bon amoureux du langage, j’affectionne tout particulièrement les mots que je ne connais pas. Il en existe – et pourtant des communs – dont la signification m’échappe encore. Saltimbanque, disruptif, arriviste, situationniste, magnanime. Je ne cherche surtout pas à les démystifier, ce sont des trésors d’ignorance. Peut-être faut-il chérir ce qui nous conserve légèrement en retrait de l’érudition. Mégalomanie m’a longtemps été étranger. Quelle déception, le jour où j’ai connu son sens, de m’apercevoir qu’il m’allait plutôt bien.