Is Detournement still useful?

Detournement is what to do when money collapses into a presidency of images.

The post-truth era has two means of antagonism: serious journalism and Detournement. They’re salt and pepper for the Trump-era. So, we antagonists must think critically about journalism and Detournement. Let’s think of journalism elsewhere. The questions here are: what is Detournement? why should we care? what kinds of Detournement are there? And how can we practice it?

In itself, the theory of Detournement scarcely interests us. But we find it linked to almost all the constructive aspects of the era we live in now. Thus its enrichment, through practice, seems necessary.

The first thing to know is that art can no longer be justified as a superior activity, or as a compensatory activity to which one might honorably devote oneself.

Reformist politics are insufficient to change the structural power dynamic in society that oppress some groups but not others; and they foster propaganda which, though seeming radical, actually supports the status quo. In such a context, we look to the only historically justified tactic, which is extremist innovation.

One such extremist innovation is the Detournement tradition. Detournement creates anti-statements. Detournement sifts through the material remnants of past and present culture for materials whose untimeliness can be utilized against bourgeois culture. It’s a technique, a means to an end. It attacks a kind of fetishism where products of collective human labor can become a mere individual’s property. Detournement restores to a fragment — a little peice of content — the status of being a recognizable part of the process of the collective production of meaning in the present, through its recombination into a new meaningful ensemble. By reinventing new contexts and meanings, content and context reciprocally devalue and revalue each other. By unhinging content from its context, Detournement becomes a useful tool for anti-ideology. Ideology, after all, doesn’t have to do with a particular arrangement of signs and images, it has to do with ownership. And by fucking with the idea of ownership at the level of content, a basic form of human value, we develop a technique for dealing with the violence that ownership affords in many forums, be those literary, artistic, social, economic, or political.

The image of capital, the spectacular, has us going in circles. It’s necessary to go beyond the cheap populism of scandal. Making scandalous art doesn’t help in an environment that fetishizes scandal. Art that used to be considered radical is now in fashion with the elite class. It’s no longer useful because it’s no longer radical.

So, we must now push this process to the point of negating the negation. Certain beloved radical artists of the past are more aligned with the ruling class than with the revolutionary politics that made their art some vibrant. For example, the white-male supremacy of mid-century modernism; and for example, the highest grossing hip-hop artists tend to be silent on issues of Blacks Lives Matter. Only after the movement had unstoppable momentum could it be perceived as an audience, a market, rather than an electorate, a public. Sound familiar?

Adoration of artists who are not radical is an obstacle, and too must romanticizing of a radical past is a bad habit. The point is not whether we like them or not. The point is what we learn from them, and what we critique. We can use any work we want from the past, but as artists we have to go beyond extending the work of past generations.

Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can be used to make new combinations. It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a past work of art or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one. Sample what you want to, make up what you don’t have, and alter whatever content is out there to do what must be done. Make something radical enough to upset the current power structures.

In the past, some of these combinations have been very funny. Adbusters has made many worthy examples; and its worth keeping in mind that these combinations can be funny because they involve contradictions within a taken-for-granted context. Examples from esoteric material is really not so funny, so it’s difficult to make them effective. The more effective combinations envisage a parodic-serious relationship 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.

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There are two main categories of detourned elements, minor détournements and deceptive détournements.

Minor Detournement is the Detournement of an element which has no importance in itself and which thus draws all its meaning from the new context in which it has been placed. For example, a press clipping, a neutral phrase, a commonplace photograph.

Deceptive Detournement, (also called premonitory-proposition Detournement) is in contrast to the Detournement of an intrinsically significant element, which derives a different scope from the new context. A pop song by Janet Yellen, for example, or a talk show hosted by Obama.

Extensive detourned works will thus usually be composed of one or more series of deceptive and minor détournements.

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Several laws on the use of Detournement can now be formulated.

1. Keep it simple because the main impact of a Detournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements. The idea of pure, absolute expression is dead; it only temporarily survives in parotic form as long as our other enemies survive.

2. Detournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply. The more the rational character of the reply is apparent, the more indistinguishable it becomes from the ordinary spirit of repartee, which similarly uses the opponent’s words against him. In the post-truth era, go so untruth that you’re back to truth.

3. Detournement by simple reversal is always the most direct and the least effective.

All kinds of art forms (e.g. films), medias (ads), ideas (e.g. titles), objects (e.g. clothing), and other subjects can be detourned. Even political situations can be detourned.

If Detournement were extended to urbanistic realizations, not many people would remain unaffected by an exact reconstruction in one city of an entire neighborhood of another. Life can never be too disorienting: Detournement on this level would really spice it up.

In closing, we should briefly mention some aspects of what we call ultra-Detournement, that is, the tendencies for Detournement to operate in everyday social life. Gestures and words can be given other meanings, and have been throughout history for various practical reasons. Feel free to make so much helpful change, that language conforms to you.

— Steve van Eck, McKenzie Wark, Gil Woolman, Guy Debord

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