The Return of the Durutti Column (Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti), was a four-page comic by André Bertrand that was handed out at Strasbourg University in October 1966 during a student protest at the opening the school year. This provocative piece of détournement was published and distributed with the help of a number of students sympathetic to Situationist ideas who had joined a local chapter of the student organization AFGES (Association fédérative générale des étudiants de Strasbourg). The students illegally used 5,000 francs of the organization’s money to print numerous copies of their comic along with 10,000 copies of the pamphlet The Poverty of Student Life written by the Situationist Mustapha Khayati. This action along with their protests across campus prompted a court order to close AFGES. The judge’s ruling concluded:
One has only to read what the accused have written, that these five students, scarcely more than adolescents, lacking all experience of real life, their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories, and perplexed by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant, and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgments, sinking to outright abuse, on their fellow students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, the governments and political systems of the whole world. Rejecting all morality and restraint, these cynics do not hesitate to commend theft, the destruction of scholarship, the abolition of work, total subversion and a world-wide proletarian revolution with “unlicensed pleasure” as its goal.
The actions taken by the university and the police to suppress the student protests in Strasbourg backfired and soon protests by students sympathetic to the ideas of the Situationists began to crop up in Jussieu (near Lyon), Nanterre, and in the massive protests that shut down Paris in May 1968. Up until this time the Situationists, led by Guy Debord, consisted of only a small loyal following of like-minded intellectuals, but the media attention from the protest in Strasbourg launched the group into international notoriety as several disconnected student protests became synonymous in the imagination of the general public as “Situationist.”
Unlike the long convoluted arguments put forward in their political manifestos, Situationist inspired comics, such as The Return of the Durutti Column, had an irreverent style that visually encapsulated the ideas of the group in an accessible manner. The comics conveyed the Situationist strategy of détournement, which was a means to deviate or redirect official, normative communication from its intended path. In practice détournement was a way of quoting or “plagiarizing” existing images and text so that the original material was subverted into something quite different. The idea owed much to the Dada movement’s use of collage in the 1920s as well as a growing cynicism toward the hyperbole of the contemporary mass media (as found in MAD magazine).
The use of détournement within the a comic strip format was exceptionally effective in the French context since virtually everyone exposed to this strip would havegrown up reading Astérix, le Gaulois, Tintin, Lucky Luc, Spirou and a host of others. Aswith many comic books of the era, these texts validated essentially safe, bourgeois values while at the same time exhibiting certain gallic sense of humor. The idea of détournement had been first discussed by Debord in 1956 and altered comics had been published in Situationist journals for many years prior to the Strasbourg protests. What distinguished The Return of the Durutti Column from these earlier altered comics was its irreverent humor and ironic sophistication. The wide dissemination and imitation by other student protests in France was key to establishing The Return of the Durutti Column’s legacy as one of the seminal publications of the student protests of the 1960s.
Reading the comic today is difficult because much of the meaning is framed by the specific events surrounding the Strasbourg protests. One suspects that many of the images used in the comic had special meaning to the Strasbourg students and have ceased to resonate with readers today. In this translation, wherever possible footnotes have been attached to the lower right corner of panels for which the meaning requires further elaboration.
1. A black panel with speech bubbles is labeled at the bottom with the words “Paris Match” – apparent humorous reference to the French weekly magazine founded in 1949 and immensely popular through the 1950s though in significant decline through the 1960s. The magazine’s moto was « Le poids des mots, le choc des photos » and was most popular for its simultaneous coverage of world events and celebrity lifestyles. The Situationists would have considered it a quintessentially “bourgeois” publication deserving little more than ridicule, a magazine worth stealing perhaps but certainly not worth buying. One voice mentions “UNEF” - Union nationale des étudiants de France – the primary national student union in France founded in 1907 as an umbrella organization to unify the various AGEs (Associations générales d’étudiants) that existed and still do in each city where there is a university. Historically the most noteworthy action of the UNEF was its annual meeting on May 27, 1968 at which nearly 40,000 students came together in the Stade Sébastien Charlety in Paris for one of the most significant and politically charged events of the May ‘68 student revolt. Another voice in the dark panel mentions Abraham Moles (1920-1992) who held doctorates in physics and philosophy. He was a pioneer in the field of communication aesthetics who at the time of the publication of this comic taught sociology and psychology at the University of Strasbourg. He is perhaps best known for his work in electroacoustics in particular his invention of the “morphophone,” an electronic echo chamber as well as his theories on the dynamics of “kitsch.” Moles had been singled out by the protesting students for particular scorn, on one occasion pelting him with tomatoes as he lectured.
2. A panel with a photo of a woman smiling while covered in soap suds. Below the panel are the words “Positif” – a popular monthly French film magazine founded in 1952 and still in production today. It was known in its early years primarily for its leftist political language due in part to the fact that the review was managed not by professional journalists but by university academics and students interested in film both as an art form and a medium of popular culture.
3. “Durutti Column”- allusion to the Durruti (note misspelling) column, the largest anarchist column formed during the Spanish Civil War. The column was lead by Buenaventura Durruti and consisted of 6,000 volunteers organized into centuriae or militias many of which were composed of foreigners and often named after influential anarchist thinkers. The Centuria Sébastien Faure was composed of French and Italian volunteers including Simon Weil, the Centuria Erich Mühsam of Germans and the Centuria Sacco and Vanzetti of Americans.
4. A panel with a man with a woman in his lap with his hand on her thigh has the words Positif below (See note 2).
5. A panel with a photo of Lenin which is an excellent example of détournement as it is employed throughout this comic. The original photo manipulated in this image was of Lenin speaking in Red Square on November 18, 1918 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. In particular, it should be noted how Lenin’s right hand has been redrawn and extended into the previous panel for obvious effect. The speech bubble mentions the J.C.R - Jeunesse communiste révolutionaire – politically far left student organization with Troskyist leanings. The group was formed from the remains of the Union des étudiants communistes when this group was excluded from the Parti communiste français for having refused to back François Mitterand’s bid for the presidency in 1965. The JCR was closely aligned with the Ligue communiste until the French government in June 1968 invoked the Loi du 10 janvier 1936 sur les groupes de combat et milices privées (Law of January 10, 1936 concerning armed groups and private militias) in an effort to disband both groups. This action was not without irony in that the law was originally enacted to control right-wing extremist groups.
6. Reproduced here is a portion of the bylaws for A.F.G.E.S. These appear to be the rules that were broken by the protesting students when they used the organization’s money to produce this comic.
7. Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos, No. 49 Duendecitos (Hobgoblins). In this series of prints Goya intended to point out the cruel stupidity in human nature.
8. Another derogatory reference to the J.C.R. (see note 5).
9. The photograph of two cowboys on horseback is George Hamilton and Arthur O’Connell in the movie A Thunder of Drums (1961). The dialogue between the two cowboys is actually a quote from the Situationist Michèle Bernstein's chic lit parody All the King’s Horses (1960). Bernstein was married for a while to the Situationist leader Guy Debord and her novel is one of very few contributions of a woman to the Situationist’s literary output. This image is perhaps the most famous of the entire comic in that it seems to appear in every discussion of both situationist thought and the use of détournement as a visual device. In 1978 an English Punk band named themselves The Durutti Column and used this image for the cover of their first album released in 1980.
10. The photograph of Jules Ravachol (1859-1892) makes him appear like a respectable academic when in fact he was a French anarchist implicated in numerous bombing attacks aimed at the government, the police and the courts. Arrested in Paris in April 1892, he was tried and executed by guillotine on July 11 of the same year. Witnesses reported that he refused the services of a priest and walked to the guillotine singing a popular anarchist song. As he shouted, “Vive la re . . .,” the blade came down and his head rolled into the basket. Unconfirmed reports say that half of his head that had been preserved in formaldehyde at the École de médicine de Paris was stolen and later found nestled against the foundation of the Panthéon.
11. This image is drawn originally from the tapisserie de Bayeux. The panel depicts a banquet held by William (the not quite yet conqueror) surrounded by his barons and the Bishop Odon who is blessing the wine and food. The banquet takes place after William has arrived in England, constructed an armed fortress but prior to the fateful battle with Harold. Within the context of the comic the image is one of extreme, smug confidence on the part of the ruling classes represented here by members of the royal class, high ranking clergy and the military – all members of the “international occult” referenced in the text and suggesting through détournement elements of excessive wealthy, political ambition and military power combined with church sanctioned authority.
12. The painting by Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapolous (1827), is a classic example of orientalist decadence. Here is shown Sardanapolous, the last king of Assyria, as he calmly looks on while all of his wealth is destroyed and his concubines murdered. The ironic reference to Marxist thought as a “critique of everyday life” is intended to underscore the disparity between theory and action. This comic is essentially a call to action especially with the final underlined text, “It’s your turn to play.”
13. On the Wretchedness of Student Life . . . (De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier), was a 29 page political brochure written primarily by Mustapha Omar Khayati, a militant Tunisian member of the Situationist International and close associate of Guy Debord. He left the organization in 1969 for Jordan where he joined the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. One year after the original French publication an English translation was published in London entitled, Ten Days That Shook the University - The Situationists at Strasbourg. This publication included the complete text of the pamphlet and selected panels from the comic with translation. In 1976 Khayati contested the commercial publication of the pamphlet by Éditions Champ Libre claiming that such publication was a violation of the original intent of the work which was published, as were most Situationist texts, without copyright.