Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review by Mahkno

The Spectacular World of Bill Brown: A Review of the NOT BORED! Anthology

by Makhno
NOT BORED! Anthology 1983-2010
by William J. Brown
Colossal Books, 586 pp., $25.00
February 2011

In our contemporary Internet-saturated world of tweets, blogs and on-line journals, where the satisfaction of posting nearly instantaneous comments and replies is just a mouse-click away, and almost anyone can find a web site to suit their particular ideological or cultural niche, it would be easy to forget the crucial role that zines have played for decades in helping to form and inform a radical alternative culture in North America (and perhaps elsewhere, as well). In the early to mid-1960s, for example, there were Horseshit and Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. When punk music arrived in the '70s, there must have been a veritable explosion of zines. Cheap, amateurish layout and crude typography are common characteristics of this format, which seems appropriate for their marginal and ephemeral position in our consumer society. To a certain extent, the medium is the message.

How many zines have we seen come and go after only a few issues, or even just one? How many can we name that have been published consistently, for almost thirty years? Bill Brown's NOT BORED! has been a labor of love and rage since 1983, when he was a graduate student and part-time local journalist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Combining his interests in politics, pop music, art, and critical theory, NOT BORED! has offerred reviews, rants, reports on Brown's own projects, détourned graphics (more on that, later), and often-insightful analysis. However, it wasn't until after the first issue came out that Brown discovered, by way of a book review by Greil Marcus, what the true purpose of his zine was to be. The book reviewed by Marcus was Ken Knabb's The Situationist International Anthology, and thus NOT BORED! became, and has remained, a "Situationist fanzine".

At that time, according to Brown, there wasn't much literature by or about Situationists available in English: just Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life, and the Anthology. My own Situationist reading has been limited to the first two, a portion of the third, Rene Vienet's Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement: Paris, May, 1968, and (just recently) Debord's later essay, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Brown has become something of an expert on the Situationists, having read, it seems, everything available in English and French written by them, and at least translations of the Italian and German works.

As Brown tells it, the SI (Situationist International) went through three distinct phases in its 15-year existence between 1957 and 1972: first, the artistic phase, in which SI members concentrated on applying critical theory to art, and developed two of their signature concepts, détournement and the dérive; secondly, a political phase, as the SI fashioned itself as a properly revolutionary organization; and, finally, post-May 1968, when the Situationists debated and came to terms with their own role in the revolutionary events in Paris in that year. Each of these phases involved splits or "exclusions" in the small group - sometimes amicable, sometimes not. Public denunciations of ex-members were not uncommon.

Détournement is the technique of reappropriating cultural artifacts such as cartoons, advertising, music, film, and even buildings to deliver radical, subversive messages. The graphics in NOT BORED!, some of which are reproduced in the Anthology, are one example; another is the Situationist Hong Kong gangster film, Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, which I saw in Chicago a few years ago, along with The Society of the Spectacle. The dérive is an exploration of physical and social space informed by critical theory, for the purpose of identifying underlying connections of class, capitalism, State power, etc. In addition to détourned graphics, Bill Brown has also, along with a group of comrades, engaged in a radical graffiti campaign at State University of New York at Buffalo, a report of which is included in this collection. He has worked with two other Situationist-inspired groups, as well: the New York Psychogeographical Association (based on the dérive), and the Surveillance Camera Players, who stage dramatic works in front of surveillance cameras (which are, of course, ubiquitous in New York City, as they are in Chicago). Brown also includes in the book a description of how he recorded a "Situationist" symphony in his apartment. Unfortunately, it can never be released for copyright reasons.

Unlike the original issues of NOT BORED! (which I have not seen), the Anthology is a thick paperback in glossy black, with the title spelled out in cut-and-paste style on the front, and on the back, surprisingly enough, a quote from Thucydides on the writing of history (the significance of the quotation becomes clearer when one reads Debord's essay, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle). The book is arranged both thematically and chronologically, in sections called "Local Interventions", "Internecine Polemics", "The Situationist International", "Book Reviews", "Musicians", and "Miscellaneous". Within each section, the selections move from oldest to most recent. I was very interested in "Local Interventions" which described the ways that Brown and his comrades have put Situationist theory into practice, as well as analysis of local issues such as squatting and gentrification. The next section deals, of course, with the theory and history of the SI in great detail. The book reviews take up about half of the Anthology, and some of them are quite good. I particularly enjoyed the ones on Cornelius Castoriadis, Henri Lefebvre, and Elizabeth Byrne Ferm. The section on musicians reviews a few of the author's favorite groups or invididuals, except for the humorous polemic, "Radio Noriega". I think the piece on Kurt Cobain was a bit of a stretch - trying to draw an analogy between him and victims of the Nazi concentration camps. The "Miscellaneous" section was a mixed bag: some of it insightful, some amusing, and a few things I didn't care for at all.

Now that I have mentioned what I like about the Anthology, I have to make a few criticisms, some relatively minor, but others more serious. First, the editing could have been a little better: a few missing or extraneous words, spelling mistakes ("Bryne" for "Byrne"), etc. Still, for a book that's nearly six hundred pages long, it's not bad. Secondly, Brown occasionally lets his polemical tendencies get the better of him, and can come across as petulant and defensive. This is particularly evident in the "Internecine Polemics" section. Next, there are a couple of concepts which I believe he should revisit: the role of technology in a free society, and the nature of the "revolutionary organization". Brown says at one point, very emphatically, that capitalist technology cannot be used for liberatory purposes. Now, to be consistent, he would either have to reject technology altogether, or make a clear distinction between what does and does not count as "capitalist" technology, which he never does. Furthermore, he seems to be ambivalent about the notions of technological progress and material abundance. At times, he sounds as if he believes the old Marxist fairy tale that if we just distributed the benefits of industrial society fairly, then nobody would ever have to work again, and we would have peace, liberty, and justice for all. Well, automation and industrial advances have done just the opposite: we work longer and harder (if we can find work), and not just because of the capitalist system. No matter how goods and services and the means of production are organized, that level of production simply cannot be maintained without an enormous expenditure of time and labor, not to mention the adverse health effects and the dwindling of natural resources.

Brown also appears to be a little confused about just what a revolutionary organization is, or what its purpose should be. In part four of "The Society of the Virtual Spectacle", he lays down some conditions for an ideal revolutionary organization:

(1)...revolutionary organizations must be international in composition and action, and must include members of as many countries as possible.
(2)...revolutionary organizations must be small....exclusions are regrettable but absolutely necessary, as are breaks with "outsiders" who are hostile to our existence, program or actions, or who continue to collaborate with third parties with whom we have broken
(3)...Revolutionary organizations must be real communities that exist in face-to-face situations: they cannot exist on-line, that is, in or on list-servs, posting boards, or chat rooms. Such communities must strive to produce their own food, clothing, and housing...

That's quite a lot to ask for from one small affinity group, which is what he seems to be describing, or is it an urban commune? That part about exclusions, breaks, and ostracism sounds very authoritarian, and very much in the spirit of Guy Debord and the SI. If this is to be a genuine small urban commune (then why call it an "organization"?), producing their own food, clothing, and housing is going to be quite a feat. Did the Surveillance Camera Players or the New York Psychogeographical Association meet all these criteria?

Finally, my most serious objection is to Brown's on-going obsession with conspiracy theories, which evidently has its roots in Debord's late essay, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Here, I will be blunt. While The Society of the Spectacle is a very important and influential theoretical work, the Comments is a steaming pile of horseshit. In the latter piece, Debord produces one interesting idea - the distinction between the "concentrated Spectacle" (represented by Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union), the "diffuse Spectacle" (represented by the United States), and the "integrated Spectacle" (developed by France and Italy since the 1960s) - and then goes on writing pages and pages of paranoid nonsense about the fundamental role of secrecy in modern capitalist/technological societies. Now, of course, secrecy, surveillance, and infiltration of radical groups do play a huge role in State operations, but Debord turns secrecy and conspiracy into metaphysical principles, and seems to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. The most oppressive aspects of capitalism and the State have never been a secret, and even the recent Wikileaks disclosures have told us very little that we didn't already know. Brown's writing is at its weakest when he is discussing topics such as the Illuminati, Masonic lodges, or the 911 Truth Movement.

All these objections aside, however, the NOT BORED! Anthology is still worthwhile reading for anarchists. It contains a lot of very good writing, some of which has heretofore only been published on the NOT BORED! web site (http://notbored.org/index1.html). Despite what I said earlier, Brown does have some good critiques of technology, He is sympathetic to anarchist activity in squatting and the Black Bloc, hates advertising and consumer society in general, and has a healthy contempt for work. Although I might not classify him as an anarchist, he is resolutely anti-authoritarian, and certainly no friend of the Left. At its best, his work uses critical theory, humor (sometimes), and passion to encourage what he and I both long for: a revolution of everyday life.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


The caption to this illustration, originally published in NOT BORED! #28, December 1997 and reprinted after the "Local Intervention" section of the Anthology, is incorrect. The text wasn't taken from the writings of Henri Lefebvre, but those of the Lettrist International, in particular, the group's October 1955 letter to the editor of the Times concerning the proposed destruction of the Chinese district in London.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Complimentary copies sent out

Today, a dozen copies of the NOT BORED! Anthology were mailed out. One went to the designer of the book cover. Another went to the guy who designed the logo used on the cover. (It also appears on this blog: look to the right.) Still another copy went to the person who took the photo of Bill that is reproduced at the end of the book. One copy went to the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, to which all previous issues of NOT BORED! have been donated. Two copies went to potential translators in France. Two copies went to well-established American authors who are familiar with the situationists. One copy went to a potential reviewer who is not a well-established author, but active under a pseudonym in the anarchist scene. One copy went to a former professor. And, not last but least, two went out to people who bought copies! THANKS.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Nice notice from Blurry Books

My dear friend Michael Rosenthal has written a nice notice concerning my recent efforts.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A photo of Bill Not Bored

T-shirt says, "I AM NOT BORED." Photo by Leon Brown, 1983.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Basic information about the book

Published February 2011 by Colossal Books, Cincinnati, OH.
695 pages long, including 68 full-page black-and-white illustrations and an index.
$25 postage included.
Checks/money orders payable to "Bill Brown." POB 140041 Brooklyn NY 11214.


Preface (1996)
Preface (2010)

Local interventions

Nectarine Ballroom (Ann Arbor)
Against Ondine/Warhol (Ann Arbor)
The UB Graffiti Scandal (Buffalo)
Bulletin From Rewrite (NYC)
Squatted Buildings (NYC)
Squats Evicted (NYC)
Unabomber for President (NYC)
A Unabomber for President Banner (NYC)
Fucking Ugly Buildings (NYC)
Decrees of the NYPA (NYC)
Pedestrian Barricades (NYC)
Drifting with the NYPA (NYC)
Yuppie Go Home (NYC)
Debord Film Screening (NYC)
Turning Over a New Leaf (NYC)

Internecine Polemics

The Pro-Situs
Situationist Films
Guy Debord's Films
Keith Sanborn's $30 Bootlegs
Stewart Home
Bob Black
An Expose of Bob Black

The Situationist International

An Intro to the SI
Guy Debord's Comments
Charles Radcliffe's Heatwave
At Dusk: The Situationist Movement
Yet Another Intro to the SI
The English Situationists
Pierre Guillaume
50th anniversary of the SI's Founding
The Virtual Spectacle
Dispensing with Clausewitz
Professor Galloway's Latest Stupidities
To Guy Debord in Hell
Guy Debord in 2009
Re: Wayne Spencer's Proposal

Book reviews

TJ Clark, The Painting of Modern Life
Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces On a Cigarette
Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity
Raoul Vaneigem, Movement of the Free Spirit
Unabomber, Industrial Society and Its Future
Dennis Rodman, As Bad As I Wanna Be
Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings, Vol. I
Thomas F. McDonough, Guy Debord and the SI
Len Bracken, Guy Debord: Revolutionary
Jamie Reid, Peace is Tough
Angelo Quattrochhi, The Beginning of the End
Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Veritable Report on the Last Chance
Simon Sadler, The Situationist City
Jacques Attali, Noise
Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings, Vol. II
Norman Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
TJ Clark, The End of an Idea
Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings, Vol. III
Michael Perlman, The Invention of Capitalism
Thomas Pynchon, Vineland
Jean-Michel Mension, The Tribe
Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share
Allan Antliff, Anarchist Modernism
Lester Bangs, Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste
Kurt Cobain, Journals
Paul Virilio, The Strategy of Deception
Paco Ignacio Taibo, '68
Greil Marcus, Like A Rolling Stone
Paul Virilio, Art and Fear
Paul Virilio, Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles
Tom McDonough, Guy Debord and the SI
Elizabeth Byrne Ferm, Freedom in Education
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer
Henri Lefebvre, Writing on Cities
Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology
Raoul Vaneigem, A Declaration of the Rights
Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land
Guy Debord, Correspondence (June 1957-August 1960)
Greil Marcus, When That Rough God Goes Riding


David Bowie
Gang of Four
Radio Noriega
Sinead O'Connor
"Rough Music"
Gang of Four Return
Os Mutantes
Pete Townshend
Lou Reed
The Cure
Led Zeppelin
Kurt Cobain


41 Curses, Crises & Conspiracies of Everyday Life
United Auto Workers on Strike
The Violence in Seattle
Rebuilding the World Trade Center
The Relevance of Antonio Negri
Foucault's Discipline and Punish
A Critique of Neo-Anarchism
Cynical Proposals for the Advertising Industry
Text About Guy Dauve Censored