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An artistic practice conceived by the Situationists for transforming artworks by creatively disfiguring them. In ‘A User's Guide to Détournement’ (1956), Guy Debord, a key Situationist theorist, and Gil Wolman, argue that détournement has a double purpose: on the one hand, it must negate the ideological conditions of artistic production, the fact that all artworks are ultimately commodities; but on the other hand, it must negate this negation and produce something that is politically educative. It achieves negation in two main ways: either it adds details to existing works, thus revealing a previously obscured ambiguity, or it cuts up a range of works and recombines them in new and surprising ways. The enemy of this practice is, however, sheer novelty, and it is this that must be guarded against in producing the negation of the negation. The Situationists take the position that the literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for what they term partisan propaganda purposes, by which they mean the promotion of radical politics. The advantage of détournement, Debord and Wolman argue, is that it is cheap but powerful and that makes it a weapon anyone can use to break through what they famously call the Chinese walls of understanding. Marcel Duchamp's moustache on the Mona Lisa is regarded as consistent with this aim, but too tame; similarly, Bertolt Brecht's re-staging of classical plays by Shakespeare is regarded as a crucial prototype, but again it is seen as being too conservative. The poète maudit Lautréamont (pen-name of Paris-based Uruguayan writer Isidore Ducasse) is generally regarded as the main precursor; his Les Chants de Maldoror (1868) is cited by Debord and others as the perfect example of an extended détournement. The main exponent of the practice of détournement was Danish painter Asger Jorn who, along with Guy Debord, was one of the founders of the Situationist movement. See also cognitive mapping; dérive ; deterritorialization; flâneur.

Further Reading:

K. Knabb (ed.)Situationist International Anthology (2007).S. Plant The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International and After (1992).

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