Ida Börjel THE SABOTAGE MANUALS (2013)

Danish Translation by Henrik Majlund Toft & Mathias Kokholm/English translation by Jennifer Hayashida

Field Notes on Ida Börjel’s ‘Sabotage Manuels’


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Thursday, 18th March, 2021. One hundred and fifty years since the Paris Commune. In their theses on the Paris Commune, Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi & Raoul Vaneigem are keen to stress its success in the short-lived collective joy but permanent record of a radical break with governing, self-policed ideas:

THE STORY OF the arsonists who during the final days of the Commune went to destroy Notre-Dame, only to find themselves confronted by an armed battalion of Commune artists, is richly provocative…Were those artists right to defend a cathedral in the name of eternal aesthetic values — and in the final analysis, in the name of museum culture — while other people wanted to express themselves then and there by making this destruction symbolize their absolute defiance of a society that, in its moment of triumph, was about to consign their entire lives to silence and oblivion?.... (1962)

…Would artists today make the same mistake as those defenders of Notre-Dame'? Of the arsonists, no stumps remain to mourn. Today, to honour the commune would be to mould a new ‘partition of the sensible’ (Rancière), and barricade oneself off from such mis-invested sentiments. Whether that's the kitsch gesture of overturning a car, or even if ‘intentional stupidity goes against human nature’. (Börjel, 16)


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What would constitute the sabotage of a poetry review? Normally, it would be a) pretending to be objective but really having something personal involved, or b) making a good work seem bad or a bad work seem good. Point: a) It’s always personal, and b) the latter always happens. I am compelled to promote Ida Börjel and whatever I do or say will only detract, deflect or worse yet, dominate the interpretatiojn of the work. Hence, Steven J Fowler’s short-film


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Teaching. The Danish translation of Ida Börjel’s ‘Sabotage-manualerne’ was born from a poetry workshop, or ‘poesifabrik’, in a small Danish design school in Krabbesholm. Teaching sabotage—on the one hand, any school is a rich site for the redistribution of social wealth: one could systematically seek to demoralise and upset the ones who come with the most cultural capital, and try to build up those considered conventionally disadvantaged. This might be in the proper spirit of the would-be arsonists or pétroleuses of Notre-Dame. The school could also be a perfect location for a kind of ludic anarchist mayhem—give back the wrong homework, invert the grading rubrics, disrupt the timetables, spike the coffeemachine. Such tactics already tacitly accept the reality of a return ticket. A teacher might sabotage one school and up sticks when things get on top. But why barricade oneself off into a fixed idea? If it is true that the reader of the ‘Sabotage Manuals’ is positioned as a voyeur in the sidelines cheering on those who have the most to lose, then it is also that true none of us have risked enough. Even the poorest have the freedom to starve. Remove this and it’s paternalism all the way up.



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The Danish translation features hidden texts fabricated by her students and enfolded into the paper dust jacket. Like a map. What do children see as sabotage? I make out a few references to farm animals and pollution and such. Maybe some reference to a Satanic Mill. Plus an equally valid inversion of what's in the Sabotage Handbook: Stupidity is human nature. Perhaps only. There is a list of names of those who worked on the text but no claims of authorship. Collective anonymity. Strength in numbers. Pride in their handiwork, but no risk. No culpability. We all fail, or. Who knows who they are? Once the dust jacket is removed there are no visible distinguishing marks.



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The Sabotage Manuel sequence mostly works with source texts expertly sliced and diced and bookended by two opposing key reference points: The first, ‘The Sabotage Handbook’ authored by Elisabeth Gurley Flynn for The Industrial Workers of the World in 1919 and, the second, ‘The Simple Sabotage Field Manual’ for the American Office of Strategic Services, published in 1944, and declassified in 2008. No one put their name to the latter. The government agent can always go back home and disappear. So can you.




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The Sabotage Manuals themselves are unrestricted and uncontained, as if the text itself resists becoming a tourist attraction through constantly revised editions with major changes for each new language. The Danish version assembles and incorporates the work of her students, her translators, her publishers, and even an art-historian from the Royal Academy of Arts. The uncut pages means the reader has to tear it open. A book which becomes common and escapes what Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten call 'the carceral frame' of the finished product.




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Hence, collective voice, or in the spirit of what Lotte L.S. calls The We Of A Position. All or none of it is hers. True, Börjel compiles it, but even the concept and the arrangement is deliberately loose rather than the smooth ventriloquist acts which glosses many a people’s history. Same goes for the voices drawn from the past (--the historical records Börjel commits to verse) and the voices of the present (the new contributors who distribute authorship). The violently modernised fables and the ambiguous placard slogans are also a part of this: texts for which it makes no sense to reify with the Author function. WHO DECIDES or WASH THE HANDS


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It might be helpful to take the O.S.S. ‘Simple Sabotage Field manual’ as a starting point. Frightening because real, the O.S.S, were a proto-CIA unit, who function as a synecdoche for avant garde statepolicing. The CIA really do have tactics that were designed to disrupt and demoralise and destroy the minds of their enemy in granular detail. If the CIA could do this to its own citizens in the past (see, for example, the assassination of Malcolm X) then they are doing it today. As sure as Putin employs a young avant garde modern-day Prospero to create dramatic tension on the Russian stage by funding conflicting liberal, left & right wing organisations. In her own act of literary distortion, Börjel detournes the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog into a crass struggle for recognition between a lion who holds the monopoly of violence and an ape who would prefer not to. How they might map onto the current political landscape is left unclear.



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Börjel has effectively detournéd the OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual for our domestic use at home and in the workplace. It has a dazzling effect, like the first time you learned of Althusser’s ingenious inversion of power: if power flows everywhere, then everywhere can function as a site of resistance. Resistance might mean simply slowing down. A micro-sabotage to defuse a micro-aggression. Naturally, at this level, the enemy becomes a little hard to make out.



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What disturbs us most is our instinctive repulsion at ‘the waste’. Anyone can potentially make trouble by slowing down meetings, or doing things ‘to the letter’, or by secretly vandalising objects ranging from the large (you should see the impressive effects of lime juice on a ship's steamer) to the small (sticking a penny on the contact point in a light socket then replace the lightbulb). Who hasn’t been annoyed in a work meeting, whether by someone’s irritating meticulousness or slovenliness? Is this annoyance a product of an internalised capitalist production regime? Are we annoyed on behalf of our company? If being stupid does not come natural, but is relative to an objective, then it is is usually not our own.

pretend that instructions are difficult

even if they are simple


do not help each other


do it poorly (Börjel, 33/34)



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If no-one imagines the destruction of capital through dumb piecemeal acts, we can at least consider dismantling our drive to professionalise. But what if the work we do in the schools, in the hospitals, in the police, can't always already be seen as wage slavery? This is not to deify the workplace as some pseudo-Gothic Cathedral, but what if the workplace was a collective apparatus which could empower if wielded correctly? If this were so then it would be naïve to down tools forever. When should the strike stop? What should we preserve from work? Why just burn things down?







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pretend that instructions are difficult

even if they are simple


do not help each other


do it poorly (Börjel, 33/34)

Or, what if our work was being made deliberately bad? From formal to real subsumption but with a malicious intent honed in on power than pure efficiency. Then the spectre in the workplace is the ghosts of OSS, ensuring we don’t identify with our work or workplace or site of collective focused resistance too strongly; so we are made to resent our own efforts and retreat back into modern life just enough to feel demoralised, dissapated, unable to do anything but chicken-feed small acts of rebellion for no obvious benefit for any state whatsoever. And then back to work. Sabotage. To weld the people into one single unconquerable and all-destructive force – this is our aim, our conspiracy, and our task. (Sergey Nechayev ‘The Revolutionary Catechism’, 1869). I HEREBY CARNIVALIZE THIS CITY if THEY PRETEND TO TEACH US AND WE PRETEND TO LEARN


Danish version of Ida Börjel’s ‘Sabotage-manualerne’ translated by Henrik Majlund Toft & Mathias Kokholm,

can obtained from Antipyrine


English version of Ida Börjel’s ‘Sabotage Manuals’ is partly available for free at Commune Editions


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