Guy Debord, Panegyric, translated by James Brook (Verso, £8.95)

Sadie Plant, The most radical gesture: the Situationist International in a postmodern age (Routledge, £10.99)

Heroes are often disappointing in the flesh - they seem smaller than they should be, greyer, less imposing. The man whose books you've been collecting for the past decade and this little guy chain-smoking in the corner, they surely aren't the same person. Somebody must be mistaken, and it begins to look like it's you.

Looked at maturely, lack of glamour comes as no surprise: you weren't really expecting a god among men, were you? But this is no ordinary man - or at least a man with no ordinary past - and you do expect that to make a difference. His conversation ought to have a heroic quality, ought to give some sense of all he's seen and done. At the very least you expect a few references which only initiates could make out (initiates including you, of course). Is he going to tell you that he always liked Alex's fiction, or that he met Christian the other day?

No, he isn't. He is going to tell you about what he got up to as a lad, "between the rue du Four and the rue de Buci, where our youth went so completely astray as a few glasses were drunk". He's going to tell you that things aren't what they were: "when the tide of destruction, pollution and falsification had conquered the whole surface of the planet... I could return to the ruins that remained of Paris". When it's not Paris it's war ("I have been very interested in war, in the theoreticians of its strategy, but also in reminiscences of battles"); when it's not war, God help us, it's his past loves ("I fell in love very unexpectedly, perhaps because of her beautiful, bitter smile").

Panegyric, from which the quotations above are taken, is an autobiography of a sort - a remarkably uninformative sort. The book includes chapter-length digressions on drinking and the art of war, a passage rendered into the French of Villon and incessant quotations from French Revolutionary oratory; it takes pages for Debord even to put off imparting some information. "I wonder if even one other person has dared to behave like me, in this era", Debord writes, and surely few other autobiographers have. What there is of Debord's life story is told laconically at best, and punctuated by outright refusals to elaborate: "I had occasion then to read several good books, from which it is always possible to find by oneself all the others, or even to write those that are still lacking. This quite complete statement will stop here." Thank you and goodnight.

Of the books Debord has written, including a 1967 work of theory entitled The society of the spectacle, the book says little or nothing; the same goes for his work as a film-maker and his role as (to quote the Nouvel Observateur) "the discreet but indisputable head... of the changing constellation of brilliant conspirators of the Situationist International". True, the quotation above is reprinted (and disavowed) by Debord. There is also a passing remark that "no one has twice roused Paris to revolt"; this seems designed to place Debord among those who have managed the feat once, but no evidence is offered. On first reading this seems a weird, unprepossessing and slight work, which is not assisted by a translation of quite staggering literalness; one might expect writing with the felicity of previous translations of Debord, but, as Brook has it, "one would be wrong". The book is likely to attract few who do not know about Debord, and to repel many who do.

This is a curious thing to have to say of an autobiography, and makes it easy to suspect simple incompetence. The possibility of a more interesting explanation is indicated by the opening lines of Debord's previous book, Comments on the society of the spectacle: "These Comments are sure to be welcomed by fifty or sixty people; a large number given the times in which we live and the gravity of the matters under discussion". In fact the English translation of the Comments was publicised throughout the British anarchist and libertarian left milieus; combined sales of the translation, in the Verso edition and the (illegal) pamphlet version produced by a certain Pirate Press, can hardly have fallen short of four figures. With this memoir, however, Debord will certainly have achieved obscurity. Some investigation of the career which Debord avoided recounting in Panegyric and the achievements he failed to enumerate may explain why he seeks it.

In 1957 Debord was in at the founding of the Situationist International (SI), the organisation to which Sadie Plant has written a useful and comprehensive introduction. Reflecting its origins in the artistic avant-garde, the SI's politics initially focussed on the social function of the arts, which they argued alienated people's ability to construct their own lives by focussing attention on the superior creativity of an artistic élite2. Debord's 1967 book introduced the concept of the "spectacle" ("not a collection of images but a social relation among people, mediated by images"), which generalised the alienation of creativity into the basic principle of contemporary society: "the spectacle is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity". Working, shopping or voting, we are assisting in the circulation and consumption of images, and thereby perpetuating our own alienation. The alternative was the creation of "situations", a situation being defined as "a moment of life constructed through the collective creation of a unitary ambience and a game of events".

There are echoes here of currents in architecture and performance art, but for the SI this was only half the story. Idealising subjectivity, the SI saw the rejection of boredom and the refusal of constraints as inherently positive, and social outsiders as their natural allies. Together with the privileging of dream, desire and adventure which they inherited from the surrealists, this produced in some of their works an extraordinary hooligan poetry. In the words of one of the key pre-SI texts, "We are bored in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun"; the situationists had seen Eternity through the bottom of a glass. (It is worth noting that a situation is defined as a moment of life. "Tout le monde a du génie à 20 ans", reads a borrowed line in Debord's 1957 work Mémoires; and everyone, after a few drinks and in the right company, has created a situation or two). These libertine tendencies were given particular force by being combined with a Marxist analysis of society. The creation of situations across society as a whole would begin with a general strike and workplace occupations - something which, motivated by the rejection of boredom and alienation, could happen at any time. Whatever the situationist contribution to inspiring, promoting or (heaven forfend) organising the events of May 1968, the SI could at least claim not to have been surprised.

Sadie Plant's exhaustive investigation of the history and pre-history of the SI demonstrates the remarkable breadth and coherence of the situationist analysis. The point is further sharpened by contrast with the post-modernists who followed. Plant considers post-modernism as a reaction to the failure of the May '68 events, and by extension of all-encompassing - "totalising" - social critiques such as that advanced by the situationists. Baudrillard, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, old uncle Foucault and all share, on Plant's reading, a kind of anxiety of critique. No area must be excluded from criticism, areas formerly considered neutral least of all: sexuality, identity, language all come in for analysis in terms of power relations. The field of criticism rapidly expands to include the absolute values on which criticism itself is implicitly based - values such as freedom, authentic experience or truth - and the critic is critiqued. For Lyotard any "totalising" critique is ipso facto "totalitarian" (a labelling surely assisted by certain none too sophisticated ideas about Marxism); instead he proposes "drifting out of critique". Baudrillard goes one better, asserting (but not, of course, arguing) that criticism is impossible in any case, and therefore not worth worrying about.

There is a fugal quality to this, a sense of a willed retreat. As Plant shows, Baudrillard's "hyper-real" - a seamless social totality, within which concepts of "authentic", "unalienated" or "real" experience have no meaning - resembles nothing so much as a description of Debord's spectacle from its own point of view; or rather, from the point of view that there is no other point of view. The potential for self-deception and bad faith is obvious. In the Comments Debord writes of a "lateral critique, which perceives many things with considerable candour and accuracy, but places itself to one side... it must seem to find much fault, yet without ever apparently feeling the need to reveal its cause". This is Baudrillard to the "life".

The opposition of Debord to Baudrillard is just, but too easy. Rather more interesting are the continuities between situationists and post-modernists. The anxiety about authenticity on which the post-modernists have built their project was the situationists' Achilles heel. The situationist analysis rested on an opposition between inauthentic and authentic forms of life, the spectacle on one side and situationist activity on the other; but what qualified as authentic situationist activity? This - unanswerable - question ultimately broke the SI. The first break came in 1961 when the SI, whose membership then consisted largely of active artists, ruled that "situationist art" could not exist in non-situationist conditions. Between now and the revolution, any would-be situationist art would inevitably be transformed by the spectacle into an inauthentic travesty of itself, making matters worse. After 1961 what remained of the SI concentrated its activities in the field of theory, but there too the inauthentic loomed: theory was felt to be under constant threat from its spectacular negation, ideology. "Theory" here stands for the creative use of ideas, "ideology" for passive adherence to systems of thought: it's a perfectly clear distinction, until you try to apply it empirically. It seemed simple enough at the time, though: those of whom the SI approved were theorists, everyone else a mere ideologue.

After the events of May '68, in the course of which the SI had acquired an inflated reputation and a large periphery of admirers, things came to a head. For the SI to admit its new-found acolytes to membership would be to acknowledge them as potential theorists; yet the very act of admiring the SI manifested a hopeless - ideological - passivity and thus disqualified them from this honour. In 1972 Debord cut the knot by forcing the dissolution of the SI. Situationist theory, no longer being practised by capital-S Situationists, would henceforth be safe from misappropriation. The name of "situationist" could legitimately be claimed by no one; the theory could do its work in silence.

After 1972 the situationist analysis went underground; it would only leach into the mainstream a decade and a half later. In the mean time the situationist texts were not too hard to find. The hard part was working out what you could actually do with them - you debarred yourself from emulating the situationists merely by wanting to. It is absurdly gratifying to realise that Debord has had similar problems. Debord's work since 1972 includes a book about a war-game of his own devising and a filmed version of The society of the spectacle. Recapitulation and withdrawal: theorist's block.

And so to Panegyric, a work whose progressive abandonment of its purpose attests to its writer's self-imposed difficulties. Autobiographies inevitably privilege the past over the present and writer over readers; that, after all, is what they're for. For Debord, however, this would be conducive to passivity and the denial of the present moment - in a word, would be inauthentic. Such a book - a story of past successes and failures, telegrams sent and films shown - might even gain a large and admiring audience. This would be the worst possible outcome: it would set Debord alongside Baudrillard, Bush or Madonna, an iconic part of the machineries of modern passivity. Accordingly Debord refuses the role of historical actor in his own life, giving us neither the great deeds nor the insider's trivia. Instead we have a celebration of the pure subjectivity of the situationist, the intransigence of the twenty-year-old genius; instead we have panegyric. A typical passage asserts, "Even though I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than most people who write; but I have drunk much more than most people who drink." This is glamour untainted by history: a portrait of the revolutionary as genius and libertine, a tale of drink and desire.

Some fine writing can be glimpsed through the (deliberately?) unfriendly translation; I liked the description of extreme drunkenness as "a magnificent and terrible peace, the true taste of the passage of time". However, Panegyric is chiefly remarkable as a missed opportunity. There are signs that Debord is aware of the corner into which his own theory has painted him; in the final chapter he intimates that the book was only intended as a self-portrait, and that the promised autobiography will appear in a subsequent volume. If I am right and such a work could only be produced by overcoming the theoretical self-contradictions of the situationist project - a project which still represents one of the most challenging developments of twentieth-century Marxism, and perhaps the most genuinely political product of the artistic avant-garde - the second volume of Guy Debord's autobiography will be a major work in its own right. Of the first, the most that can be said is that it illuminates the vast and trivial quandaries with which our most radical movements baffle themselves.