Debord's Nostalgic Algorithm
Alexander R. Galloway
Published in Culture Machine #10 (2009): 131-156.
await the end of Cinema with optimism,' Jean-Luc Godard announced in
1965. And indeed the end was near. 'The cinema seems to me to be
over,' was Guy Debord's blunt assessment by the spring of 1978.
Much happened in those intervening years, with the progressive
explosion of the middle to late sixties engendering a crisis and
retrenchment in the early to middle seventies. The transformation was
evident in a number of events and pseudo-events: student revolts in
Paris and elsewhere, the French left's flirtation with Maoism and
other militancies, the oil crisis of 1973 and 1974, a painful
renovation in the economic base of developed societies coinciding
with the rise of information networks, and the concomitant changes in
the role of the individual in society.
Debord never recovered from the crisis of the 1970s. His late life
was beset by chronic illness brought on by an ever growing gluttony
in food and drink. He deserted the capital city and grew more
introspective in his work, mixing manifesto with memoir. By March 8,
1978 Debord's former glory as a radical filmmaker and author had
faded. 'The cinema seems to me to be over,' he wrote in a letter.
'These times don't deserve a filmmaker like me' (2005: 451).
times were times of crisis. On March 16, 1978--eight days after
Debord's dalliance about the cinema being 'over'--the world awoke
to a dramatic turn of events. The longtime Prime Minister of Italy,
Christian Democrat Aldo Moro, had been kidnapped during a brazen
intervention by the far left communist militant group the Red
Brigades. In Italy the progressive militancy of the sixties had
metastasized during the following decade into an actually existing
low-level guerrilla war. Moro was held for 54 days. During the
hostage period, Moro appealed to the Christian Democrats to acquiesce
and negotiate with what both the newspapers and government officials
alike called terrorists, that newly evolved form of political actor
so closely associated with the late-modern period. Held in secret and
sentenced to death in a so-called people's trial on or about April
15, Moro received little solidarity from his former government
colleagues, and sensing the immanent culmination of events, the
presumed future president of Italy stipulated that no Christian
Democrat leaders should be present at his funeral. There were none.
body was discovered in the trunk of a red Renault R4 hatchback; he
had been shot ten times. Wistful was the police report: 'The cuffs of
his trousers were full of sand as if he had been walking on a beach
or been dragged across rough soil shortly before his death' (The
New York Times, 1978).
decade of the seventies was long in Italy. It 'began in 1967-68 and
ended in 1983,' recalled
Antonio Negri, the man scooped up by the police in April 1979 and
indicted for the Moro events, then exonerated, then indicted again
and hounded in various forms for the next twenty plus years.
'In 1967-68, as in all the developed countries, the student movement
took to the barricades. However, the breadth and impact of this part
of the movement was not as extensive as in other European countries:
in Italy [...] May 1968 was not a particularly significant
Figure 1: The death of Aldo Moro (The New York Times, 1978).
has been said about Debord being at those May barricades, certainly
in spirit if not also in the flesh, with Situationist graffiti
festooning the pediments of respectable French society. But a front
line militant he was not, and Debord soon left Paris to settle in one
of the hexagon's more remote outposts, the rural Auvergne. There he
stayed for much of the rest of his downhill life, watching the
passing parade from a safe distance. The new social movements of the
sixties, having swollen in importance, were soon met by an iron fist
and eventually crushed by the freshly transformed post-Fordist
economies of the middle to late seventies. If the sixties represented
a certain triumph, the seventies were a decade of defeat. 'The first
to be defeated were the social movements,' remembers Negri. 'Having
cut themselves off totally from the representatives of the
traditional left [...], the social movements were thus dragged into
the abyss of an extremism that was becoming increasingly blind and
violent. The kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro was the beginning of
the end' (1998).
Debord had declined to engage significantly with Negri or Moro, he
had indeed monkey wrenched with the Italian political scene by
helping Gianfranco Sanguinetti author his August, 1975 hoax pamphlet
'The True Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy,' as
well as translating the text from Italian to French. Contrast this
with other French philosophers who were much more vocally involved
with the Italian situation, such as Gilles Deleuze, who intervened
with his September 20, 1977 tract against repression of Italian
leftists, 'Nous croyons au caractère constructiviste de certaines
agitations de gauche' ['We Believe in the Constructivist Quality of
Leftist Militancy']. (Deleuze also published two short pieces in 1979
lobbying for Negri's freedom, and would later more formally
affiliate himself by writing the preface to the 1982 French edition
of Negri's influential book on Spinoza, The
Savage Anomaly [Deleuze,
1977: 149-150; Deleuze, 2003: 155-161,
When he did finally address Moro and the Red Brigades, in his 1979
preface to the fourth Italian edition of The
Society of the Spectacle,
Debord spat on the guerrilla movement, claiming that the Red Brigades
were in fact unknowing pawns of the state Stalinist forces. Writing
to Sanguinetti before the killing, Debord predicted that Moro would
be 'suicided' by his own government, thus allowing the state forces
to consolidate power (known in Italy as the 'historic compromise')
around the common fear of terror and anarchy.
epitomizes the social contradictions of the whole world' (2007:
96), warned Debord. Moro
was an emblem of the newfound asymmetrical conflicts plaguing
developed nations, from France's Algerian uprising in the 1950s, to
scores of militant splinter groups, bombings, and airplane
hijackings. The tactics are called 'asymmetrical' or 'unconventional'
because they no longer resemble the customs of so-called civilized,
oppositional conflict, in which professional armies meet in known
theaters of conflict to thrash out victory in blood and arms. With
his life obscured today by the romantic mist of apotheosis, it is
easy to forget that Debord was something of a fading violet when it
came to actual conflict. He preferred the mischievous potshot to the
Molotov cocktail. But the raw heroic drama of militancy forever
excited him. Like many political thinkers, it was the thrill of
revolution that was so seductive, of the possibility that this
depraved life might one day be cast off and refashioned anew. 'I am
very interested in war,' Debord confessed unapologetically in his
late autobiographical work, Panegyric,
amid glowing citations from Carl von Clausewitz on the emotional
intensity of going to battle. 'I've thus been studying the logic of
war. And I even had some success, already some time ago, in realizing
the essence of these processes in the context of a simple chessboard'
his fascination with war was not ironic and indeed perhaps
uncritical, it's plausible to assume that Debord knew of Engels'
famous assessment of Clausewitz, contained in a 1858 letter from
Engels to Marx. Clausewitz's approach to philosophy was 'odd,'
cautioned Engels, but 'per
se very good.' More
than anything else, war resembles commerce, he told Marx. 'Combat is
to war what cash payment is to commerce; however seldom it need
happen in reality, everything is directed towards it and ultimately
it is bound to occur and proves decisive' (Marx
& Engels, 1929: 241).
as Moro lay in the trunk of the Renault R4, Guy Debord was at his
rural home playing board games and toying with the idea of fashioning
one of his own. The backdrop of European militancy in the seventies
makes Debord's penchant for playtime all the more delicious. One
such game was Djambi. Djambi
is a distinctly
late-modern game. It is played on an extruded chess board of nine by
nine squares. It proceeds, not bilaterally as chess, but
multilaterally with four players. The game tokens are not modeled on
the medieval court of kings, queens, knights, and bishops, but
instead on the various political actors that make up our advanced
liberal democracies: the news reporter, the provocateur, the activist
militant, and the assassin. If the Moro events were to be distilled
and simulated in the form of an intellectual diversion, as chess did
for feudal skirmishes--and of course in doing so anesthetizing the
player from any immediate knowledge or experience of political
for Djambi,' Debord wrote on May 7, 1978 to his friend and benefactor
Gérard Lebovici in a letter otherwise disdainful of the game. 'As
long as the only goal of the game is to eliminate all the others,
there can exist but one absolute mode of winning, which can't be
shared in any way, to the point that in this game of trickery, you
can't trick anyone. The rules suffer from a contradiction between
the game's totalitarian goal and its representation of the
struggles of an "advanced liberal democracy"' (2005:
462). The ridiculous
subtext of Djambi was clear to Debord: How could a board game ever
correctly model the types of complex political dynamics encircling
France, or Italy, or what Lyotard in his book on postmodernity would
soon call 'today's most advanced societies'? What is to be done, when
the power elite goes global in order to hide itself from the base of
society? What is to be done, when control and organization are no
longer hierarchical or repressive, but instead have migrated into
flexible, rhizomatic networks?
fact at that moment, Debord was intensely focused on trying to work
through the challenges of advanced liberal democracy, and
particularly how armed struggle could be simulated in the form of
simple parlor games. The cinema was over, he had concluded. A new
format was required. So in the winter of 1977, after having been a
filmmaker and author, Debord did something rather unconventional for
a leftist intellectual, he formed his own company for making games.
Not chess exactly, but a variation of his own design, dubbed first in
his notes the Kriegspiel and later more formally The Game of War.
'I insist on the opportunity to
throw the Kriegspiel into the stunned world as soon as we can,'
Debord wrote to Lebovici. 'It's quite obvious that its time has
come' (2005: 451).
In January 1977, the two founded the company 'Strategic and
Historical Games' and set out to produce an edition of the game.
Debord's 'Game of War' is a Napoleonic chess-variant played by two
opposing players on a game board of 500 squares arranged in rows of
20 by 25 squares; by comparison, a chess board is eight by eight,
while a 'go' board is nineteen by nineteen. Like chess, the Game of
War contains game tokens of varying strengths and speeds that one
must maneuver across a grid landscape in an attempt to wipe out one's
enemy. Unlike chess, one must also maintain 'lines of communication'
that crisscross the terrain, keeping all friendly units within
transmission range of one's home bases. (Debord reportedly also
finished a naval warfare game called Jeu de la bataille navale,
however the game was never committed to paper and is now lost.) 'The
surprises of this Kriegspiel seem to be inexhaustible,' he confessed
later in his memoir Panegyric.
'It might be the only thing in all my work--I'm afraid to admit--that
one might dare say has some value' (1993:
his letters and notes Debord referred to the game as the
'Kriegspiel,' borrowing the German term meaning 'war game.' But when
the game was fabricated and released in France, Debord officially
titled it 'Le Jeu de la guerre.' A short discussion on the most
appropriate translation of the game comes in Debord's letter of May
9, 1980 to Lebovici. After reviewing the English proofs, the last
question remaining was the English title: 'The Game of the war' or
'The Game of war'? 'We must choose the more generalizing and glorious
title,' he insisted. 'Even if kriegspiel
is the most
"linguistically" exact, it doesn't fit at all
serious exercise by commanders," but wargame
connotes "an infantile little game played by officers"'
Figure 2: Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord playing the Game of War (Becker-Ho &
the assistance of Lebovici, Debord produced the game in a limited
edition of four to five during the summer of 1977. The edition
included an 18 by 14 1/4 inch game board and player tokens fashioned in
copper and silver metal. The game was fabricated by a certain Mr.
Raoult, a Parisian artisan whom Debord trusted implicitly, referring
to him as the 'intrepid Raoult,' and admiring him for his
'politeness, rationality, and capacity to recognize what is essential
in the matter at hand' (2005:
426; 2006a: 26-27). By the
end of June, 1978, after a set back due to poor health, he finished
drafting a written copy of the game rules. 'I am sending you soon the
rules for the Kriegspiel,' he wrote to Lebovici. 'Its main section,
given over to a juridico-geometric writing style, has cost me
innumerable headaches' (2005: 466).
As illustrated also in his jab at Djambi, Debord was thus intimately
aware of the true reality of games, that they are a conjunction of
two elements: the 'juridical' element, meaning the spheres of
politics and law, and the 'geometrical' element, meaning the realm of
mathematical processes and spatial logics. This was no longer an
intervention in spectacle or in narrative, as were his films, but now
an intervention at the level of a 'juridico-geometric' algorithm,
that is, at the level of a finite set of rules that, when executed,
result in a machine able to simulate political antagonism.
game board is divided into a northern territory and a southern
territory, each with a single mountain range of nine squares, a
mountain pass, three forts, and two arsenals. In addition each
faction has nine infantry, four cavalry, two artillery (one footed
and one mounted) and two transmission units (one footed and one
mounted). Each combat unit has an attack and defense coefficient, and
may move either one or two squares per turn depending on the type.
The forts, arsenals, and mountains are welded to the game board, and
thus immobile. The combat and non-combat units are mobile and may be
positioned in any desired formation prior to the beginning of a
radiate lines of communication vertically, horizontally, and
diagonally. In addition, transmission units propagate any line of
communication aimed at them. All units must remain in direct
connection with their own lines of communication, or be adjacent to a
friendly unit in communication. If stranded, a unit goes out of
communication and becomes inert. The lines of communication are
immaterial constructs, and thus have no game token to represent them.
Instead they must be mentally projected onto the game board by each
player. Like the 'knight's tour' in chess, the lines of
communication are in essence a network of patterns superimposed onto
the basic grid of squares, helping to determine where and how each
piece may move. As the game unfolds, these patterns can and will
shift, adding to the complexity of possible games and possible
metal game of 1978 is stunningly modernist in its formal simplicity
and reduction of ludic function into plain, abstract shapes. The
cavalry units, far from aping a horse, are represented by a tall wire
spike, mounted on a hexagonal base, while the infantry are
represented by an upright, snubbed peg, affixed to a square base. To
indicate their communicative duties, the transmission units sport a
crisp flag, protruding at ninety degrees. The artillery are equally
spare: a horizontal hollow tube to indicate a cannon barrel. The most
representational design is reserved for the mountains and the forts,
the only two elements not aligned to a faction: the mountains are
hulking chunks of metal, appealingly chiseled to bring out miniature
crevices and peaks; the forts resemble gallant storybook parapets,
hexagonally cut for the North faction, and solidly square for the
South. The mountain passes have no representational form at all, but
are merely the absent spaces residing at gaps in the mountains. None
of the pieces displays any sort of ornament, or additional engraving
or color. All of them conform to an extremely muted, almost ascetic,
game proceeds in turns. A player may move up to five units each turn,
followed by a single attack against an enemy unit. An attack is
determined by summing all the offensive power in range of an enemy
target square, then subtracting this number from a summation of all
the defensive power supporting the same target square. Offensive and
defensive power emanates from a unit in a straight line, either
vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. If the offensive power is
less than or equal to the defensive power, the unit resists. If the
offensive power is two or more, the unit is destroyed.
Figure 3: Guy Debord, The Game of War. Photograph: Alexander R. Galloway.
the lines of communication, which require a certain amount of mental
energy to be maintained in the imagination of each player, the combat
mechanic for the game requires a nontrivial amount of player
arithmetic, particularly as multiple units are involved in attack and
defense at any given moment.
player wins the game by either (A) destroying all enemy combat units,
or (B) destroying the enemy's two arsenals. Although not mention in
Debord's rulebook, it is possible to deduce one additional win
state: a player wins if the enemy's two relays are destroyed and
all enemy combat units are offline. Alternately if both sides agree
to quit, the game is a draw.
stressing the symmetrical quality of Clausewitzian warfare, Debord at
the same time noted that the terrain of the game board should be
asymmetrical. Here is revealed Debord's talent for game design. His
aim was to achieve balance through asymmetry, such that the game
would not lapse into predictable strategies and styles of play. Thus
while certain approaches are better than others, there is no
'optimal' overall formation in the game. Instead, one plays through a
series of compromises, always having to adjudicate between
'contradictory necessities' (2005: 352). For each offensive movement
of aggression, one's rear flank becomes that much more vulnerable.
This dialectical tension was part of what Debord aimed to achieve
with the game. Thus, the two mountain ranges in the game are arranged
asymmetrically: North's mountain cleaves the terrain sharply
between east and west, inhibiting lateral movement but leaving a
cramped passage across the top; South's mountain is a wall
expelling downward advances and making any penetration into its
territory difficult. But more important is the placement of the
arsenals. South's two arsenals are split wide apart and held flush
to the baseline, while North's two arsenals are staggered closer to
the middle. This makes for two very different styles of play. South
must run a split defense, or else sacrifice one arsenal and bunker
down with the remaining one. North, on the other hand, can use the
terrain to its advantage, gaining protection from the mountains
(which block fire) plus a defense boost from the mountain pass in
range of its westerly arsenal.
years after the game first appeared in limited edition, it was
mass-produced on cardboard with wood tiles. In that year, 1987,
Debord and his wife Alice Becker-Ho also published a book devoted to
the game. An unconventional text, the book consists of over a hundred
annotated diagrams showing snapshots of the game during each round of
a complete match played by the duo. At the end are appendices
containing the game rules and strategy tips. In 1991 Debord ordered
all his published works destroyed, including this book. But after
Debord's death and under Becker-Ho's stewardship, the French
publisher Gallimard reissued the book in 2006 as Le
Jeu de la Guerre: Relevé des positions successives de toutes les
forces au cours d'une partie.
After remaining untranslated for twenty years, an English edition of
the work appeared a year later from Atlas Press, translated by Donald
Nicholson-Smith, an ex-Situationist with whom Debord had kept in
touch over the years.
1986, as his publishing house was suffering hard times in the wake of
the death of Gérard Lebovici, Debord suggested a scheme to Floriana
Lebovici, Gérard's widow, to relieve the publisher's debts by
commercializing the Game of War. It was merely a business matter,
Debord wrote, like Monopoly. 'Or is my judgment of the strategic, and
thus economic, value of this Kriegspiel distorted by a certain
indulgence? We shall see' (2006a:
448-449). But while Debord
and Lebovici had originally formed a company around the game
(Strategic and Historical Games), it is unclear how serious they had
ever been about making the game commercially viable. Debord never
trusted Kessler, the intellectual property lawyer hired to assist
with the game. 'You worry me greatly by bringing up "strange
things about Kessler,"' he wrote in 1985 to Floriana Lebovici.
'Of anyone in the world, Kessler is in the best position to swindle
us' (2006a: 306).
In the end the game was never commercialized in any serious way.
distilled to a simple essence, Debord believed that the Game of War
represented in gamic form all the necessary principles of war. He did
admit however that three things were missing from his near perfect
simulation: climate conditions and the cycles of day and night; the
influence of troop morale; and uncertainty about the exact positions
and movements of the enemy. 'That said,' he continued, 'one may
assert that the [Game of War] exactly reproduces the totality of
factors that deal with war, and more generally the dialectic of all
conflicts' (Becker-Ho &
Debord, 2006: 151).
Debord's ambitions for the game were grandiose. By evoking the
'dialectic of all conflicts,' he was appealing backward to the power
of 1968 and the days of the Situationist International, but also
forward to the game's future potential in training and cultivating
a new generation of militants.
the game was missing more than just climate conditions. In fact
viewed against the silhouette of Debord's other work, it is
surprisingly square. The spirit of 'wandering' or 'hijacking,' from
the Situationist days, is absent in the game. There is no mechanism
for overturning society, no temporary autonomous zones, no workers'
councils, no utopian cities, no imaginary landscapes of desire, no
cobblestones, and no beach, only grids of toy soldiers fighting a
made-up war in a made-up world.
It begs the question: Why was
this game relatively unadventurous, while Debord's other work so
experimental? Can this be explained away through an analysis of media
formats, that Debord had a certain panache for radical filmmaking and
critical philosophy, but lapsed back into the predictable habits of
the bourgeois parlor game when he tried his hand at game design?
Did Debord simply lose his radical zeal late in life, his Hegelianism
finally winning out over his Marxism? Why, when the guerrillas were
staging assassinations in Italy, was Debord playing with toy soldiers
there a link between Moro's killing and Debord's late work? Of
course there was none, nothing more than a coincidence of dates. Yet,
this very incompatibility frames in stark relief a crisis within the
work: Why an objet
d'art instead of a
number of explanations are possible. For example, it is possible that
the abrasively anachronistic Debord was simply restaging the same
Trojan Horse logic he had used many times before. He was well known
for masquerading inside the very thing he found most repulsive. For
example the 'reactionary' form of cinema was taken up by Debord
precisely in order to critique that same medium of spectacle. Perhaps
now he was merely making a 'reactionary' game in order to explode the
logic of play from within.
it is plausible the game was never intended by Debord to be a
theoretical proposal, and therefore should not be evaluated as one;
the game existed simply to train militants. Thus if, in Debord's
view, any tactical
training helped unlock radical consciousness, then it mattered little
that the Game of War stresses Clausewitz (instead of Sun Tzu) or the
legacy of the Napoleonic wars (instead of Parisian street revolts).
admitted that the game was bound to an historical period: 'This
doesn't represent wars of antiquity, nor those of the feudal
period, nor modern warfare refashioned by technology after the middle
of the nineteenth century (railways, machine guns, motorization,
aviation, missiles)' (Becker-Ho
& Debord, 2006: 149).
In other words the game refers to warfare as it was practiced in the
early and middle modern periods up to about 1850. The 'classic
equilibrium' of the eighteenth century was his model, a mode of
warfare best represented by the Seven Years' War, and characterized
by symmetry, regularity, professional armies, the preciousness of
personnel, and the importance of supply stockpiles (Debord, 2005:
So the Game of War
indeed historically specific. But it is historically specific for a
century long past, not the century in which Debord was living. (As
Philippe Sollers quipped later: Debord wasn't interested in the
twentieth century.) In comparisons made between the game and chess he
accentuates the question of historical specificity. He positions
chess firmly in what the French term the 'classical' period,
consisting of kings and corporal fiat, while the Game of War belongs
to a time of systems, logistical routes, and lines of communication.
In chess 'the king can never remain in check,' but in the Game of War
'liaisons must always be maintained' (Becker-Ho
& Debord, 2006: 165-166).
Spatial relationships between pieces are indeed paramount in chess,
the 'knight's tour' serving as a classic mental projection of
pattern and recombination. Debord preserved this spatial relationship
approach, but he stepped it up a notch. The 'liaisons' in the Game of
War are not simply the projections of possible troop maneuvers, but a
supplementary layer linking far off fighters back home. In this sense
chess's king is an intensive node, one that must be fortified
through the protection of its allied footmen. But Debord's arsenals
are extensive nodes; yes, they too must be protected, but they also
serve as the origin point for a radiating fabric of transmission. The
body versus the liaison--this is not unlike the sorts of historical
arguments made about the shift from early modernity to high or late
modernity (i.e. the 'disciplined' modern body as opposed to the
postmodern 'line of flight'). Chess presents a set of challenges in
proximity to a consecrated corpus, a prize, but the Game of War is a
game of decentralized space itself, the assets of war strung out in
long lines and held together by a tissue of interconnection.
in this light, the game seems less nostalgic for bygone eras. The key
is the network of lines of communication, a detail of game design
entirely lacking in a game like chess. Superimposed on the game
board, the lines simulate the communication and logical chains of
campaign warfare; Debord's rules stipulate that all pieces on the
board must stay in contact with a line, else risk destruction. (Even
'go,' a game that is largely about spatial patterns and
relationships, lacks the concept of an extended ray or any sort of
network phenomenon.) 'This "war" can be fought as much on
the plane of communication as that of extensible space,' writes
McKenzie Wark (2008) on the Game of War. Thus while perhaps tenuous,
a sympathetic reading of Debord would be to say that the game's
communication lines are Debord's antidote to the specter of
Napoleonic nostalgia. They are the symptomatic key into Debord's
own algorithmic allegory--or allegorithm, if the term is not too
clunky--of the new information society growing up all around him in
the 1970s. In short, Debord's Game of War is something like 'chess
required intense strategy, but it was ultimately too boring for
Debord. The Game of War 'is completely contrary to the spirit of
chess,' he explained. 'Actually it was poker I was trying to imitate.
Less the randomness of poker and more the powerful sense of battle'
(Becker-Ho & Debord,
2006: 166). Chance has no
place in the Game of War; after an opening coin toss to determine who
moves first, the game plays out dice-free.
ultimately what attracted Debord to the Game of War was not an
argument about historical periodization. In his view a game can only
ever be about general principles, and thus abstract war simulations
like chess were more apt than the actual historical reenactments of
specific Napoleonic campaigns. Knowing precisely how Prussia fell was
uninteresting to Debord. But knowing the abstract, general rules of
antagonism, that was the key. Still, 'abstract and general' did not
mean 'theoretical' for Debord. He considered theory to be an inferior
form, one beholden to passing fancy, to perpetual obsolescence. This
is why Debord was so enamored with war. 'War' for Debord means 'not
theory' (just as for Napoleon war meant 'not ideology').
War is that thing which is non-vague. It springs from the heart and
from a sensible and practical empiricism. It finds presence in the
execution of things. War is the opposite of the absolute. War is
special term so dear to late-twentieth century progressive movements.
not a philosopher,' Debord confessed to Giorgio Agamben, 'I'm a
2006: 36). Or as he put it
in In girum imus nocte
et consumimur igni,
his final film which was produced concurrent with the game: 'no vital
periods ever began from a theory. What's first is a game, a
struggle, a journey' (Debord, 1999:
Debord incorporated footage stolen from Hollywood scenes of epic
pitched battles. One such film sampled by Debord was Michael Curtiz's
The Charge of the Light
Brigade of 1936, a
movie adapted from the Tennyson poem of the same name, which itself
mythologized the notorious and bloody defeat of the British Cavalry
in 1854 during the Crimean War. What does it mean to hijack such
horse-mounted heroics and crosscut them with footage of the Game of
War? As Debord wrote later with only a hint of irony, 'in a very
heavy-handed and congratulatory way, The
Charge of the Light Brigade
could possibly "represent" a dozen years of interventions
by the Situationist International!' (1999:
66). This 'representation'
takes center stage in the Game of War, in the form of the cavalry
game tokens, the most powerful units in the game due to their
elevated speed and special 'charge' ability resulting in compounded,
focused damage of up to 28 attack points. Through the game he was
able to relive, in a mediated environment, the types of heroic
monumentality attained in his previous interventions. But what a
cruel narrative arc, that what started on the streets of Paris must
end in an abstract plane of combat coefficients and win-loss
percentages. 'The SI is like radioactivity,' he joked in a letter to
one of his Italian translators. 'One speaks little of it, but detects
some traces almost everywhere. And it lasts a long time' (2006a:
Figure 4: Michael Curtiz (director).
The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936. Film still.
game is a machine, but a book is never a machine. Of this Debord was
certain. 'No matter how often one would want to replay them,' he
wrote in the preface to the 1987 book devoted to the game, 'the
operations of game play remain unpredictable in both form and effect'
& Debord, 2006: 7).
In Debord's view there is a stark difference between the Game of
the pastime of military reenactment, wherein a specific historical
battle is restaged with little unpredictability in its outcome. The
reenactment of a specific historical event was uninteresting to
Debord. His desire was not that of a nostalgia for a past event.
Rather, he sought to model, in a generic and universal way,
antagonism itself. 'Those who are well-versed in strategy,' he wrote,
'will see in operation here an actual model of warfare' (Becker-Ho
& Debord, 2006: 7).
1987 book is a meditation on losing. But who lost the match, Alice or
Guy? Unfortunately no explicit answers exist in the text as to who
played the North faction and who played the South. But one may say
with precision: Debord played the South. He is the one who perishes
in the end.
how is it possible to make such a claim? To explain it I must detour
slightly toward a matter of some delicacy. It concerns a number of
mistakes that exist in the Becker-Ho and Debord book of 1987,
mistakes which largely persist in both the 2006 French reprint of the
book and in the 2007 English translation.
In addition to a few minor graphical errors, the book contains one
patently illegal move, plus five additional moves that, while more
subtle in nature, are also illegal given a proper interpretation of
the game rules.
The first illegal move concerns turn 9' (turns are numbered 1, 1', 2,
2', 3, 3', etc.). A southern infantry unit moves to position I17.
However, infantry can only move one square at a time, and thus the
book would require that one of the infantry units move two squares.
The five additional illegal moves are as follows: the K15 infantry in
move 14'; the L12 cavalry in move 17'; the I9 infantry in move 35';
the J10 infantry in move 36'; and the J14 infantry in move 46'. In
each of these instances, the unit in question would be thrust out of
communication during the course of the player's turn. However,
according to the game rules, non-communicable pieces are inert and
cannot move. Thus there is an impasse: in order for these five moves
to be legal, one would have to overlook one of the game's rules
governing the 'online' and 'offline' nature of units. So, assuming
that all game rules must be followed, these five moves must be marked
are two final details worth underscoring. First, all of these
mistakes are committed by the same player, the southern player; North
commits no fouls. Second, (almost) all of these mistakes remain
unremedied through multiple authorial and editorial stages: Becker-Ho
and Debord's original playing of the match in question; Debord's
documentation of the match and his writing of the annotations
contained in the book; then three subsequent rounds of editorial
oversight, in 1987, 2006, and 2007. Yet after all that, roughly one
out of every eight full turns documented in this book contains an
error. How could this be? How could so many mistakes pass through
five rounds of scrutiny? Would we forgive him if Society
of the Spectacle contained
a nontrivial mistake in logic on every eighth page?
What can explain this blindness?
me stress in passing that the identification of these mistakes is not
meant to be a mere schoolmarm act of one-upmanship, pointing out
that Debord and Becker-Ho failed to publish a typo-free book. It is
much more than that. What must be understood is that the
identification of these mistakes reveals a very different sort of
textual 'fact' than one might reveal in the identification of a typo,
a misspelled word, or even a minor grammatical blunder in a work of
literature. These mistakes are not orthographical or even simply
syntactical in nature. They are algorithmic. Which is to say, they
deal not with a relatively localized condition of correct writing
(in, for example, the case of a misspelled word), but with the
correct execution of rule-bound action. The correct execution of
rules is rarely ever localizable; it implies dramatic repercussions
in the diachronic progression of the artifact in question, be it a
game or other action-based text. Traditional texts are not
executed--I will happily allow the Derrideans in the room to blanch
at such a claim--and therefore the status of a fault in an
algorithmic text is of a very different order than the status of a
fault in a traditional text. For example, a false move or an incident
of cheating in a game will essentially invalidate the game from that
point onward. As any school child knows, cheating taints a game to
such a degree that any outcome will 'not count.' One is obligated to
'start over.' Thus I would not think it too dramatic to assert that
the Becker-Ho and Debord book of 1987, in some basic sense, does not
count. We must call for a do over. (But is this not in the end the
most Derridean claim of all, that the text is, in some actual,
demonstrable way, flawed to the core?)
me summarize: first there is a hypothesis on the table (that Debord
played the South), and second there is a set of exegetical
observations (that the Becker-Ho and Debord book of 1987 contains a
number of nontrivial mistakes). But where does this lead?
common assumption that people make when learning of the mistakes in
the Game of War book is that Debord must have played North. The
argument goes roughly like this: since Debord was the game designer
and had been playing the game, or some form of it, since the middle
1950s, he would be so intimate with the game rules, that he would not
break any of them. This line of reasoning locates Debord as the
northern player, and Becker-Ho the southern.
such an argument is somewhat persuasive, I want to offer a different
argument that strikes me as ultimately more persuasive. I want to
suggest that instead of relying on a psychological rationale (what
Debord did or did not know, what he did or did not intend, etc.), it
is more productive to rely on a structural--or we might even say an
algorithmic--rationale. The mistakes are not so much a red herring as
they are decoys for what is actually happening. Instead of a style of
mind, therefore, let us speak instead of a style of code. Let us
speak of algorithmic and structural aesthetics.
to this algorithmic aesthetics is the concept of optimization, that
is, the notion that in any rule-based system there is always an
optimal state of affairs in which the structure at play is exploited
to the fullest. In the case of the Game of War, optimal troop
formations are identified by crystalline shapes such as latices,
ladders, X-formations, crosses, and wings. The reason for this is
straight forward. The game rules (which are an algorithm of a certain
sort) define states of affairs. In particular they define things like
attack coefficients and defensive coefficients, plus the
commutativity of these power coefficients to both friendly and enemy
players across the grid of the game board. Since attack and defense
propagate in straight lines, the game tends to privilege formations
with strut shapes, such as latices and crosses. These structures can
be described as crystalline in the sense that they offer a highly
organized, local micro-structure (for example, a cross) that may be
iterated multiple times to create durable material forms. 'Crystal'
aesthetics, then, is an aesthetic of the superego: it mandates
optimal material behavior through the full execution of rules. If an
algorithm is sufficiently simple, the point of maximal exploitation
may be known. If a gamer is sufficiently experienced with the rules
of a game he or she will learn the point of maximal exploitation and,
since it is in his or her interest, will enact these techniques of
optimal exploitation as often as possible. For example in the Game of
War, this crystal aesthetics appears via unit formations in the shape
of crosses, ladders, and wings. Figures
7-8 demonstrate the
southern player's affection for such formations. The same southern
formations are also seen in figures 5-6, which derive from the
'Explanatory Diagrams' section of the game rules (which we know were
authored by Debord, not Becker-Ho), in which the southern player is
the 'protagonist,' even if for purposes of explanation. The northern
player displays none of the same ticks anywhere in the book.
Figure 5: Visualization of combat relationships
for the southern player in Guy Debord's The Game of War, 'Explanatory
Diagrams, Figure 5' (Becker-Ho & Debord, 2007: 33).
Figure 6: Visualization of combat relationships
for the southern player in Guy Debord's The Game of War, 'Explanatory
Diagrams, Figure 6' (Becker-Ho & Debord, 2007: 34).
hypothesis, then, is less to indicate precisely that Debord played
the south side and Becker-Ho played the north. And there is little
value gained in trying to demonstrate that he was a more skilled
player than she, or vice-versa. This would amount to little more than
petty intra-marital speculation, and to what end. The hypothesis is
that both the south player and the author of the game rules are the
same person, because they both display the above described
crystalline style of game play. Debord is that player and hence
in the end the mistakes (turns 14', 17', 35', 36', and 46') are
something of a red herring. In identifying play styles it is much
more important to identify higher-level algorithmic skill (knowledge
of how rules can be exploited for optimal game states), than it is to
worry over small, largely technical mistakes.
Figure 7: Visualization of combat
relationships for the southern player in Guy Debord's The Game of War,
Turn 22' (Becker-Ho & Debord, 2007: 83).
Figure 8: Visualization of combat
relationships for the southern player in Guy Debord's The Game of War,
Turn 44' (Becker-Ho & Debord, 2007: 127).
does this not lead to a new contradiction, that the very same
crystalline player, who knows the optimal troop formation throughout
the course of the match, and who displays a 'macho' algorithmic
affect, is the same player who repeatedly makes small mistakes (turns
14', 17', 35', 36', and 46')? How could this be? Wouldn't this seem
to invalidate the notion that the crystalline player is an
algorithmic agent first and foremost?
answer requires a sense of how algorithmic knowledge works. The
answer lies in the fact that it is possible for a single individual
to be skilled at upper-level knowledge of pattern formation and
rule-bound behavior, while still failing at more demanding, highly
technical execution of those operations. Programmers often work in
this manner: most programmers have a cultivated sense of algorithmic
knowledge, and yet even the most skilled programmers are unable to
identify certain bugs that for the machine are trivial to identify.
There are machines and then there are machines. In the case of
Debord, we have a crystalline player who is adept at the level of
game play (that is, the programmer's level), but who, like most of
us, is never truly a machine at the level of the Real.
Debord plays the South. He is the one who loses in the end. But he
doesn't just lose, worse, he throws in the towel, punishing himself
with a stern lecture on the necessity of better strategic knowledge
and planning. The final annotation of the match appears at the moment
of South's concession:
South ceases its hostilities. It's time now for him to reflect on
the operations of the campaign, recalling the unchanging theories of
war, in order to understand the string of circumstances, the
assumptions, and maybe also any relevant mental traits recognizable
in his command, that this time led the North to victory (Becker-Ho
& Debord, 2006: 127).
are these relevant mental traits? Has he gone mad? Or worse--has she?
One wonders if Debord ever really won anything, or if the entire
history--the Situationist International and all the rest--was always
leading up to this end and this end alone. First cinema and
philosophy, and finally the bourgeois parlor game.
the domain of simulation and modeling is always something of a bitter
pill for progressive movements. This is the root anxiety lurking
beneath the surface of Debord's game. The left will always be
deceived in the domain of abstraction. This is not to say that Spirit
or the logos are
by necessity contrary to progressive political movements.
Nevertheless the lofty realm of rational idealism has always been
something of a hindrance to those suffering from the harsh
vicissitudes of material fact. And here one must revisit a long
history indeed, of traditionalism versus transformation, of
philosophy versus sophistry, of essence versus process, of positivism
versus dialectics, of social science versus 'theory,' and so on.
art movements are very good at beginnings, but terrible at endings.
As Debord said in 1978 amidst his losses (the death of the SI, the
'end' of the cinema, his expanding waistline and vanishing sobriety):
'avant-gardes have but one time' (1999: 47).
might say something similar about leftist cultural production in
general: (1) the left is forever true in the here and now, always in
the grip of its own immediate suffering, but (2) it will forever be
defeated in the end, even if it finds vindication there. This is why
Debord can occupy himself with both 'struggle' and 'utopia.' It is
also a window into why Debord became obsessed late in life, not with
street revolt, but with the sublimation of antagonistic desire into
an abstract rule book. It is not that the past is always glorious and
the future antiseptic. Quite the opposite, both past and future are
internally variegated into alternately repressive and liberating
moments. For the left, the 'historical present' is one of immediate
justice won through the raw facts of struggle and sacrifice. In
short, the historical present is always true,
but forever at the same time bloody.
But the future, the utopian imagination, is a time of complete
liberation forged from the mold of the most profound injustice. In
short, utopia is always false,
but forever at the same time free.
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Alexander R. Galloway is an author and programmer. He is a
founding member of the
software collective RSG and
creator of the Carnivore
and Kriegspiel projects.
The New York Times recently described his
work as 'conceptually sharp, visually compelling and completely attuned
to the political moment.' Galloway is the author of
Protocol: How Control
Exists After Decentralization (MIT, 2004),
Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic
Culture (Minnesota, 2006), and a new book coauthored
with Eugene Thacker called
The Exploit: A Theory of
Networks (Minnesota, 2007).
He teaches at New York University.