The Situationist International: Forty Years On
Socialism and Democracy
Vol.26, No.1 (March 2012)
Mackenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (London/New York: Verso, 2011).
Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Spectacular Capitalism: Guy Debord and the Practice of Radical Philosophy (London/New York: Minor Compositions/Autonomedia, 2011).
In the 40 years since the dissolution of the Situationist International (SI), its perspective and legacy have been discussed in perhaps two dozen books and many dozens of scholarly and general interest articles. Virtually all those sources fall into one of two categories: those that emphasize the SI’s early artistic period and its connection to the avant-garde, and those which focus on its later “political” period. The situationist concepts elaborated by its early supporters were the derive (drifting), détournement (diversion), psychogeography, unitary urbanism, and the construction of situations. While those concepts continued to play a role for the later SI, it was much more concerned with critiquing reification, the commodity and the spectacle as well as advocating total self-management in the transformation of everyday life.
The artistic period loosely coincides with the fifties during which avant-garde precursors such as the Letterist International coalesced to form the SI in 1957 and continued up through 1961. During that time, the SI was more bohemian and mainly involved with interventions in the art world. By 1962, the largely German, Dutch and Scandinavian artists had been excluded by the Francophone theorists around Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. It is rarely mentioned that this change in perspective came after Debord’s brief involvement with Castoriadis’s Socialisme ou Barbarie group and his exposure to the council communist idea of self-management (autogestion). Vaneigem then published a two part article called “Basic Banalities” in the SI journal in 1962 and 1963, which would become the basis for his book. As a pamphlet entitled The Totality for Kids, this was the first major situationist text translated into English (in 1966).
In 1965, the SI began circulating clandestine French-Arabic texts into Algeria and published “Decline and Fall of the Spectacular-Commodity Economy,” celebrating the Watts uprising in Los Angeles. The following year, student partisans of the SI gained control of the student union at the University of Strasbourg and asked for its help to critique the university. The situationist Mustapha Khayati, with some help from Debord, wrote On the Poverty of Student Life, which, together with a comic strip, The Return of the Durruti Column, was published with student funds. This devastating critique of modern society put the SI on the political map, so to speak, and is still the best short introduction to its ideas.
At the end of 1967, the two major works of situationist theory – Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life – were both published, and within six months these works, together with On the Poverty of Student Life, had had a major impact on the entire extra-parliamentary opposition that then exploded on the scene with the events of May 1968 in France. During that month, the situationists and their enragés allies played a significant part in challenging the old left bureaucrats who were trying to prevent the extension of the wildcat general strike. After the decline of May ’68, the situationists collaborated to analyze the events in a book which appeared under René Viénet’s name, followed by “The Beginning of an Era”, another essay on that subject written by Debord but published anonymously in the SI journal, Internationale situationniste. In spite of having expanded its membership after ’68, the SI then went through the long crisis of its orientation debate which culminated in the dissolution of the organization. Why this little summary of the SI’s political period, which constituted two thirds of its existence? Because with the exception of brief mentions of Watts and Viénet in his final chapter, Mackenzie Wark’s new book, although well-researched, is virtually devoid of analysis of the SI in the 1960s.
The Beach Beneath the Street is essentially a history of the SI’s 1950s’ precursors and its first few years; hence its subtitle is something of a misnomer. The focus on the artistic avant-garde is both a strength and a weakness of the book. It is certainly true that the SI emerged from this milieu and that these artists contributed to its early perspectives. However, none of these bohemian adventures would matter much or be remembered if the SI hadn’t developed its more political views during the sixties. By denigrating this time, as Wark does, he leaves out the SI’s most important writings and most prolific period. Why this gap in his book? A possible explanation can be found in two notes, where he states, “A great account [of the SI] can be found in the seminal Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces” (165, n3), which he later refers to as “a pioneering account of the Situationists” (175, n23). That book is the worst thing ever written on the situationists, making a dubious connection between its radical perspective and a totally co-opted punk rock. In other words, it is easy to see from one of Wark’s prime influences why he overvalues the cultural avant-garde and downplays the “Marxist” SI. By doing this, he neglects Debord and raises marginal artists to the status of major theorists.
Wark structures his book with an Introduction and twelve chapters, all except the last dealing with the SI’s formative phase. The first few chapters comment on its prehistory in the fifties and take up at least a quarter of the total pages – in my opinion, too much for such a short work. Two non-consecutive chapters discuss the Danish artist Asger Jörn and they are probably the best in the book. Jörn helped found the SI in 1957 and supported it financially even after he resigned a few years later, but his obscure situationist texts have until recently been difficult to find in translation. Wark does a good job summarizing Jorn’s views and making his theory of aesthetic economy available to readers. Another worthwhile chapter provides a précis of two works Henri Lefebvre wrote while he was collaborating with the SI. Although he was never an SI member, and their split with him was acrimonious, his focus on capitalism’s increasing colonization of everyday life became a pillar of situationist theory.
There were few women in the SI, so it is significant that Wark devotes most of two chapters to Michèle Bernstein and Jacqueline de Jong. Bernstein was another founding SI member and was Debord’s wife through most of the organization’s existence, but instead of discussing her theoretical and practical contributions, Wark spends nearly the entire chapter reviewing scenarios from her two parody novels and speculating as to whether they reflected on her life with Debord. This is a gross injustice to Bernstein and not even worthwhile from a literary perspective. Wark devotes inordinate space to the situationists who left before 1962. He follows Jacqueline de Jong through her early situationist involvement, her collaboration with the excluded Scandinavians who formed the so-called Second Situationist International and her publication over several years of The Situationist Times in English. However, the contrast between the eclectic mediocrity of that publication and the rigorous critique of modern society presented in the SI’s French journal is so dramatic that the neglect of the latter at the expense of the former severely weakens this section.
Two other situationists are discussed in chapters devoted to them: the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi and the Dutch urbanist Constant. Trocchi was known for about a half dozen erotic and beat novels before drug addiction took its toll on his creativity. His one major contribution to the SI journals and another one describing his Project Sigma were probably the last worthwhile texts he wrote before his ignominious drug decline. By the time Trocchi proposed Project Sigma, the other situationists had already moved on to a more sophisticated critique of the spectacle and the culture industry. The penultimate chapter returns to the book’s beginnings with the critique of modern architecture and town planning by Constant and his New Babylon project. Constant can be given credit for incorporating Johan Huizinga’s ludic element into situationist theory, and Wark considers him part of the early SI’s “left wing,” but his contributions didn’t extend much beyond considering urbanism as a total environment.
Wark titles his chapter on the founding of the SI “A Provisional Micro Society,” an apt metaphor, but although he recognizes that “Becoming a situationist required a certain rigor” (64), he never confronts whether its form of organization lived up to its revolutionary ideal. That question only peripherally comes up with the early exclusion of the artistic factions but emerged as fundamental to the crisis of the organization that developed between 1966 and 1972. Wark has very little to say about this. Only in the final chapter does he bring in the SI’s analyses of the Watts riot and May ’68 in France but he barely mentions the key situationist concept of generalized self-management. There is no discussion about how this would fit into a wider strategy against capitalism or how the SI attempted to move beyond merely “shocking the bourgeoisie.”
Guy Debord was the only one to remain an active member of the SI during its entire 15 year existence and was its most important theoretician, yet this book devotes little attention to his post-1960 writings. In the Introduction, Wark even cavalierly asks, “Do we really need another commentary on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle” (4)? The answer is yes! The concept of the spectacle was developed during the period of post-war affluence and any effective use of it as a critical tool has to take account of the changes in capitalism over the last forty years. Debord’s own attempt to update the concept in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle is largely inadequate. The question has also been raised whether the situationists painted the spectacle as too monolithic by underestimating the resistance to it. I think such critics have overestimated the resistance and downplayed co-optation, but either way, that issue deserves to be fully discussed in any book on the SI, which Wark does not do. Finally, most discussions of the situationists and the spectacle focus on the first three chapters of Society of the Spectacle but ignore the crucial fourth one, the longest in the book. That chapter gives an encapsulated history of the workers’ movement over the last two centuries, critiquing its bureaucratic deformations and laying the groundwork for the SI’s vehement anti-Leninism and advocacy of generalized self-management and workers’ councils. While recent structural changes in capitalism might call into question the preeminence the SI gave the council form, there is no doubt their support for increased participatory democracy is one of the things that still makes their views relevant today.
In this history of the SI there is a cast of hundreds of characters; in the real history of the SI there would be no more than a few dozen. The inclusion of all these additional people gives the book a gossipy and superficial tone. While it would be worthwhile in any work on the situationists to shift some emphasis away from Debord and towards other members, Wark goes to the extreme of virtually ignoring Debord in the 1960s. Those situationists he does focus on are all from the early artistic period. There is no discussion of Raoul Vaneigem and Mustapha Khayati and very little of René Viénet, after Debord the three most important situationists of the political period. The question remains why does the early SI hold such a fascination for so many commentators, not just Wark? A preliminary answer would recognize the difference between a merely cultural critique of capitalism, which is not only compatible with bohemianism but actually requires it, and a critique that would not be satisfied tinkering on the margins of society but aims at nothing less than its total transformation. Anyone adhering to the latter view would be expected to be more supportive of structural change and to understand how co-optation limits the effect of cultural criticism. The fact that such a view is difficult to sustain in modern capitalist society does not abrogate its necessity or the inadequacy of the merely cultural perspective, which the later SI transcended. Since Wark’s book is mainly a cultural history, its value will be limited for those supporting fundamental social change.
Although it might seem unlikely that two books on the Situationist International would appear at virtually the same time, we nevertheless face that situation with the recent publication of Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s Spectacular Capitalism. This short book features the anticopyright practiced for many situationist writings and can be freely downloaded from at least two Internet sites. From the viewpoint of the political interpretation of the situationists, Spectacular Capitalism raises more important questions than Wark and at least makes more progress toward answering them. In his Introduction, Gilman-Opalsky (hereafter Gilman) begins by defining capitalism, socialism and anarchism on the way to demonstrating how the true meanings of those terms have been perverted by spectacular distortions. Under spectacular capitalism, ideology (or distorted thought) dominates over theory or philosophy. For Gilman, this is where the importance of Guy Debord comes in, because “the future of socialist politics depends. . .on philosophy” (26). He wants to use situationist thought to expose the “mythology” (17-18) of capitalism and “deconstruct the spectacle of socialism” (27). Gilman recognizes that many other commentators on Debord’s work – I would single out Wark – have “ignored its political core” and hence he sees his book as part of a “rescue mission” (23) which will restore the “praxis of radical philosophy” (24). Debord is considered an antidote to what he describes as the post-World War II collapse of revolutionary movements.
This perspective is developed further in his third chapter, but there are some problems with this that need to be addressed here, especially the dating of this collapse at the end of World War II – much too late in my opinion. The situationist critique of revolutionary movements goes back at least to Marx’s time (as Debord discussed in the fourth chapter of Society of the Spectacle) but certainly must begin no later than 1914, when most European social democratic parties abandoned proletarian internationalism and supported World War I. Many of the dissidents who did not go along with the war ended up forming new communist parties after the Russian Revolution but this was further complicated by the authoritarian and hierarchical organization of those parties. From a situationist point of view, the difference between Leninism and Stalinism is minimal because the former paved the way for the latter. Gilman’s historical account here is weak and his discussion of this devolution too schematic.
While he mentions Kronstadt and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, he doesn’t really develop the situationist argument that radical democracy, specifically workers’ councils, is possible because it has been realized, however briefly, during numerous twentieth century uprisings. There is no mention of what the situationists considered the greatest of those experiments, the Spanish Civil War, and very little elaboration of their role during May ’68. Gilman quotes Debord’s critique of the Chinese bureaucracy in the 1960s, but appears not to know that René Viénet translated Harold Isaacs’s classic work on The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution into French in 1967. Since the appearance of Society of the Spectacle that same year, many libertarian socialist and anarchist sources that Debord drew on for his analysis have been translated or reissued in print form and now increasingly are on the internet, supplemented by new scholarship. Debord’s original theoretical distinction between the diffuse spectacle of the West and the concentrated spectacle of the East, applies for the nearly 75 year span ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. In making his argument about the state-administered capitalism of the East, Gilman uses a quote from Jacques Camatte but doesn’t seem to be aware that he came out of a neo-Bordigist (ultra-left) tendency that gained prominence after May ’68. The most important post-’ 68 representative of this tendency was Gilles Dauvé (aka Jean Barrot), who is known for a rather orthodox Marxist critique of the SI’s overemphasis on consumption. Gilman’s sketchy historical overview and ambivalence toward Marxism is evident here and elsewhere in his book. He also criticizes what he calls “positivistic dialectical thinking” (102, 108), but it is unclear what he means by linking those two, usually diametrically opposed, terms. I assume this might refer to the scientistic Marxism that Western Marxists like Debord opposed, but a text stressing the importance of philosophy for radical politics should have made this clearer.
The first chapter is a previously published essay devoted to Jean Baudrillard which I would counterpose to the rest of the book. Aside from slight references to the influence of Debord and Henri Lefebvre on Baudrillard, there is not much else to support his relevance for radical politics, especially when he is known for the abandonment of collective action, the “futility of all praxis” and “a refutation of all radical projects” (38). Baudrillard’ s pseudo-radical epistemology, with its “reality agnosticism” (40), its questioning of truth and the continuing viability of history, is a derivative postmodern fad that adds little new to Montaigne’s famous question more than four centuries ago: What do I know? Baudrillard merely takes that skepticism to its nominalistic conclusion. And Baudrillard’s jargonistic speculations on the media do not hold a candle to the eminently more readable media critiques found in Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) and Daniel Boorstin’s The Image (1961). Even his much vaunted attack on Marx’s productivism in early works such as The Mirror of Production can be traced to arguments worked out by Castoriadis in the early 1960s. Gilman correctly states that Baudrillard’s thought is “a post-Nietzschean perspectivism for the complete abandonment of normative political philosophy” (40). What attracts him to Debord instead is that he (Debord) didn’t abandon such normativity, which any radical politics requires. In a nutshell, without it one doesn’t have the ability to choose one social system over another. It is no surprise, then, when Gilman concludes that “Baudrillard is the wrong turn” (58) and asks us to “selectively” forget about him. My question is, why not just completely forget him? In a note near the end of this section, Gilman says it would be useful to “devote a similar study and rescue mission to Vaneigem” [as to Debord] (60, n16), and that is exactly what should have been substituted for this chapter.
The remaining chapters contain the heart of Gilman’s argument; they explain the importance of Debord and situationist theory for developing a radical philosophy and praxis. Debord’s value lies in his reformulation of Marxist theory and his explanation of the post-World War II weakening of socialism. Although Gilman raises important political questions in these chapters, there is some ambiguity and overlap in the arguments, and some of his insights are not developed. Essentially, he tries to answer four questions: First, what kind of revolutionary subject are we talking about? Second, what kind of revolutionary organization is possible today that can avoid the extremes of co-optation into the system or else remaining on the margins of society? Third, even if the first two questions are satisfactorily resolved, how can one critique the system in the absence of a radical mass media? Finally, will crisis tendencies within capitalism develop into radical alternatives, or can they be artificially created to help stabilize the system by re-engineering societies for greater control and austerity? Gilman rejects Marx’s crisis theory without much argument but seems to accept the much shakier conspiratorial theory of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Given that over the last few years we’ve experienced the worst economic conditions since the Depression with little domestic turmoil, it does not appear likely that crisis conditions alone will undermine capitalist ideology.1
The situationists expanded their definition of the revolutionary subject beyond the industrial working class but retained its centrality in the production process as essential for social transformation. Decades of deindustrialization now requires a new definition of the revolutionary subject, which Gilman initiates here, and he is aware that a more amorphous category such as a “multitude” doesn’t resolve the problem of class analysis. However, I am skeptical of his belief that third world groups like the Zapatistas are some kind of new vanguard and that “the new revolutionary subject will not hail from the US” (119). This kind of prediction violates his own maxim against any ideology that provides predetermined answers (97). For the second question, he rejects the monolithic Leninist party but his suggestions for revolutionary organization – an “international network of people,” “a council format” (82, 84) – don’t get much beyond the SI’s “Minimum Definition of Revolutionary Organizations” (1966). When one recognizes how easily criticism can be co-opted and how far the depoliticization of the public sphere has progressed, you can see the difficulty of answering the third question. Again, Gilman raises the right issues but doesn’t flesh them out enough. What attracts him to Debord is the emphasis on new forms of communication (104) such as film and comics, and techniques like détournement to subvert those forms. He talks about “cultural warfare,” “politicizing sub-cultures,” “innovative forms of protest,” and “guerrilla creativity” (68, 81, 84, 107) without much detail, not even about what Debord and the situationists did that exemplified those ideas. The book is clearer than Wark about co-optation, even warning that “lifestyle and consumer choices” (75) are not a threat to the political system. He understands that latter-day updates of situationist methods such as culture jamming and AdBusters are usually “tepid at best” (83). There is also a final inconsistency here that needs to be mentioned. While Gilman states that “political action must transcend the conventionally textual” (107) and stresses “the critical role of the meta-textual” (116), one of his conclusions is that “Debord’s writing was his real legacy” (121). But the meta-textual is too superficial and at best only complements the more rigorous critique of society that can be made through reading and writing. Enlightenment rationality trumps Dadaist disgust for any long-term and detailed critique of the structure of society. Gilman vacillates between these two views, but that is the dilemma faced by anyone interested in radical politics in today’s world.
The simultaneous appearance of two books on the Situationist International demonstrates that its theory and practice can still provide a starting point for those interested in fundamental change, which is needed more than ever.
1. Since this passage was written, the Occupy Wall Street Movement has raised the prospect of major upheavals in response to our deteriorating economic situation. For a positive description and assessment of that movement by a well-known supporter of the situationist perspective, see the essays posted under “Occupy Everywhere” at the Bureau of Public Secrets website.