The Situationist Beach Beneath the Street

10325403If anyone can rescue the Situationist International from a descent into artistic inconsequentiality, it is McKenzie Wark. I always saw amongst their work sparks of interest, but limited sparks. Dying embers maybe. This shifted some of my thinking, and there is a lot here, I think, that continues to demand theoretical and practical work. Perhaps because it is firmly rooted in practice, written by someone who wishes to change the world. Changing the world is always where I though the Situationists fell down the most, their self-published words and collages  greatly removed from the very really battles then and now shaping the dialectic between our physical environment and our lives and the shape of our thought. Where their work is useful for imagining change, you can find it here, and in a lovely selection of their own words in tom mcdonaugh’s edited collection the situationists and the city. But more on that soon, with more focus on their work itself.

Before Wark I hadn’t quite realised just how much thought the situationists had put into this relationship between space and life, between cities and residents.

As Guy Debord later wrote:

It is known that initially the Situationists wanted at the very least to build cities, the environment suitable to the unlimited deployment of new passions. But of course this was not easy and so we found ourselves forced to do much more.”*

I don’t know that their journey into art and abstraction did in fact do more, but the impulse behind it is clear. But first some situationist basics — basics often left out of accounts of their work I find, as these were basics I did not know:

The Situationist International was founded at a meeting of three women and six men in July 1957. All that remains of this fabled event are a series of stirring documents and some photographs, casual but made with an artist’s eye, by founding member Ralph Rumney.1 The Situationist International dissolved itself in 1972. In its fifteen years of existence, only seventy-two people were ever members. It was born out of the fusion of two and a half existing groups, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, the Letterist International and the London Psychogeographical Society (the last represented by its one and only member, Rumney). Its founding conference took place in Cosio di Arroscia a little Ligurian town where founding member Piero Simondo’s family had a small hotel. Or at least that’s the official story. Debord writes in a letter to Jorn: “I think it is necessary for us to present the ‘Conference at Cosio’ as a point of departure for our distinct organized activity.”2 From the beginning, Debord has a fine hand for the tactics of appearances. (145-146)

And perhaps they were a bit more on the edge of struggle than many others in the French intellectual establishment. I laughed out loud (on the tube no less) at this I’m afraid:

If anything, theory has turned out even worse. It found its utopia, and it is the academy. A colonnade adorned with the busts of famous fathers: Jacques Lacan the bourgeoismagus, Louis Althusser the throttler-of-concepts, Jacques Derrida the dandy-of-difference, Michel Foucault the one-eyed-powerhouse, Gilles Deleuze the taker-from-behind. Acolytes and epigones pace furiously up and down, prostrating themselves before one master—Ah! Betrayed!—and then another. The production of new dead masters to imitate can barely keep up with consumer demand, prompting some to chisel statues of new demigods while they still live: Alain Badiou the Maoist-of-the-matheme, Giorgio Agamben the pensive-pedant, Slavoj Žižek the neuro-Hegelian-joker.5 (17)

It was probably Derrida, the dandy-of-difference that did it. There are a few other digs at academia that I enjoyed immensely:

If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them. That it is a form of bourgeois thought is attested by the status of the real in Lacanian doctrine. (216)

This also:

Reading Foucault is like taking a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance to something or other. Détournement, on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game. (102)

But I think I like with where he is headed with this low theory idea:

What is lost is the combined power of a critique of both wage labor and of everyday life, expressed in acts. What has escaped the institutionalization of high theory is the possibility of low theory, of a critical thought indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world. A low theory dedicated to the practice that is critique and the critique that is practice.” (19)

I also like the rescuing of the group from the great-man driven rememberings, and the placing of them in concrete moments of space and time.

Even when the Situationists are treated as a movement, the supposedly minor figures often drop out of the story, or become mere props to the great men among them. Alternatively, in order to make a coherent narrative and write the biography of a movement as if it were a subject, the differences among its members are suppressed, or turned into the stakes of a mere drama of personalities.9 Here, instead, is a large cast of disparate characters, some more celebrated than others, where Guy Debord and Asger Jorn rub shoulders with Patrick Straram, Michèle Bernstein, Ralph Rumney, Pinot Gallizio, Jacqueline de Jong, Abdelhafid Khatib, Alexander Trocchi and René Viénet. Where they come together, where they create something, is a situation. But situations are temporary, singular unities of space and time. They call for a different kind of remembering. (21-22)

Which has to go alongside Debord’s particular talents for promotion:

Guy Debord spent a lot of time working on how to remember situations, how to document them and keep them in a way that could ignite future possibilities. For the most part, he created legends. ” (24-25)

I quite love this summing up of Debord as well,

Debord was in search, not of the organic intellectuals of the working class, but of what one might call the alcoholic intellectuals of the non-working classes.  (50)

I should probably end the blog on that high note, but no. Still, alcohol and drugs play a heightened kind of role that makes me wary, as I usually find they make people intensely boring. But some of the other things on this list are interesting:

Here are some techniques for discovering the way into the total semantic field that they détourned, alone or in combination: alcohol (Debord), opium (Trocchi), psychosis (Chtcheglov), mania (Spur), synaesthesia (de Jong), fatigue (the dérive), obsession (Constant), love (Bernstein), revolution (May ’68), solitude (late Debord). (361)

I’ve already posted some of the choice insults hurled at Le Corbusier, but there is quite a lot of insight here about just why he should be their sworn enemy — because of so much in common:

Le Corbusier was the bête noire of the whole Situationist project, but it is worth pausing to consider what the thinking of Le Corbusier and Chtcheglov had in common. Le Corbusier wrote that “architecture, which is a thing of plastic emotion, should, in its domain, also begin at the beginning, and use elements capable of striking our senses, of satisfying our visual desires, and arrange them in such a way that the sight of them clearly affects us through finesse or brutality, tumult or serenity, indifference or interest.”4 This understanding of the city as a totality of sensory and emotional affects, this at least they share. (57)

There is also this curious passage I am still pondering, since I am in the midst of writing a little about their relationship to France as Colonial power and to the struggle of Algerians — which is to say, their lack of one in any but a very tangential way which is vaguely disapproving of it all. Wark writes:

A Situationist ethnography has its own distinct methods. It emerges out of Debord’s close study of Saint-Germain delinquents. It adopts their habits, their ethnos, and turns it into method. The Letterist International are ethnographers of their own difference, cartographers of an attitude to life. This life did not lie outside the modern, Western one, but inside, in the fissures of its cities. It did not yearn for a primitive life from before history, but rather for one that was to come after it. In the life of the Saint-Germain delinquents’ tribe could be found particles of the future, not the past, and not from some colonial Donogoo Tonka but from the very epicenter of what history had wrought: the colonization of everyday life at the heart of empire. (61)

I am still not sure how this fits with the times they were living in, not clearly demarcated or described here, sadly. The civil war with Algeria, freedom fighters who have taken up arms and are giving their lives on a massive scale in both Algeria and France itself to free themselves from a physical colonization, the fall of French government after government through their failure to subdue this revolution, the curfew against Arabs. These highlight a difference treated very differently than any the situationists might have experienced. It bothers me immensely, this privileged ability to think completely outside life and death struggle, with the exception of Abdelhafid Khatib of the Algerian section. And so I think something vital is missing from this description — and yet it contains much to think about all the same:

What meaning can there be in the freedom to walk at night, through the Paris of the mid 1950s, the curfew of the occupation lifted and the curfew of the Algerian war not yet descended? The dérive appears almost as if it is a direct answer to this question. The dérive is the experimental mapping of a situation, the trace of the probabilities of realizing a desire. There is still the police to contend with, and delinquent Letterists and their friends would occasionally end up in jail for the night. But the dérive is more than the no-man’s-land between consciousness and facticity, for-itself and in-itself, freedom and constraint. It is rather the flux, the monist dialectic, which produces as one of its effects the experience of the gap between in-itself and for-itself in the first place.

Practices like dérive, détournement and potlatch, which will become the defining practices of the Situationist International, produce among other things the possibility of new concepts outside of Sartrean dualism. The interest is not in consciousness and its freedom, but in the production of new situations as an end in themselves. (140-141)

This brings us to the dérive and almost past it (apologies for liking dérive so much more than détournements), but I hadn’t yet stumbled across the meanings of the word itself:

It’s a curious word. A note in the Letterist International’s journal Potlatch gives some of its resonances. Its Latin root “derivare” means to draw off a stream, to divert a flow. Its English descendants include the word “derive” and also “river.” Its whole field of meaning is aquatic, conjuring up flows, channels, eddies, currents, and also drifting, sailing or tacking against the wind. It suggests a space and time of liquid movement, sometimes predictable but sometimes turbulent. The word dérive condenses a whole attitude to life, the sort one might acquire in the backwaters of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. (62-63)

I like thinking of it as a new way of being in the world, a new practice:

The dérive cuts across the division of the space of the city into work, rest and leisure zones. By wandering about in the space of the city according to their own sense of time, those undertaking a dérive find other uses for space besides the functional. The time of the dérive is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. It is a time that plays in between the useful and the gratuitous. Leisure time is often called free time, but it is free only in the negative, free from work. But what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive. The breakaway Letterist International created a new practice, a new way of being in the world, out of which to derive a new kind of practice. (68)

I like thinking of it as a new kind of knowledge:

The Letterist International invent a new kind of knowledge, a street ethnography, whose primary method is the dérive. What the dérive discovers is psychogeography: the lineaments of intersubjective space. In place of the chance encounters of the surrealists, they create a practice of play and strategy which invents a way of being, outside of commodified time and outside of the separate disciplines of knowledge—including geography. Henceforth the city will not be a site for fieldwork but a playing field, in which to discover intimations of a space and time outside the division of labor. The goal is nothing less than to invent a new civilization which will make a mark on historical time with the grandeur of the Temple of the Sun. (75-76)

Of course ‘The dérive was an intervention against geography as much as against psychoanalysis.’ (71) And thus:

“Psychogeography is a practice of the city as at once an objective and subjective space. It is not the city as mere prompt for surrealist reveries. Nor is it a thing apart, to be dissected by social science, no matter how well-meaning. The city of Debord, Chtcheglov and their friends is a complex beast, always in process, with its own rhythms and life cycle, as it is for Chombart.(74)

City as form AND process, change, movement. All those things most academics had never seen before. I had never realised just how much in dialogue this movement was with the thinking and theorising of Henri Lefebvre, cited continually these days as a kind of founder of the “spatial turn” and an end to treating space as simply a backdrop or container.  I knew a vague relationship but they complement each other so well, surely drove each other on. What I have always loved about Lefebvre is his understanding of this:

In Lefebvre the real is the fulcrum of action …It is by attempting to transform everyday life that the contours of the real are encountered. (217)

It is in struggle that we encounter the limits — they are only imagined until we actually try and shift something. I imagine they are not really where many academics believe them to be. This is where I think the usefulness of Lefebvre’s thought and Situationist practice may come to the fore, but only where linked to the brutal fighting now taking place in almost all cities — over segregation, displacement, gentrification, redevelopment or actual occupation. Not to displace play, but to ensure it helps us fight harder against injustices, rather than make it easier to submit to them or worse benefit from them, even as others suffer.

This is why I have always been sceptical of so much of this movement, why this slogan of Debord’s has always bothered me, though this is perhaps its best possible defense:

Debord’s first major work, by his own later accounts, was a simple three-word graffiti that translates as “Never work!”23 Rather than reduce the working hour, avoid it as much as possible. But if there is no work, then there is no leisure either. It is rather like Nietzsche’s annunciation of the death of God which is also the death of a certain understanding of Man, since God and Man form a conceptual couple, each made in the other’s image.24 Debord’s “Never work!” frees time from its binary form of work time and leisure time. The dérive then becomes the practice of lived time, time not divided and accorded a function in advance; a time inhabited by neither workers nor consumers. (69)

Still. I am still thinking it through, still sifting for what is meaningful. A few last thoughts —

Psychogeography made the city subjective and at the same time drew subjectivity out of its individualistic shell. It is a therapy aimed not at the self but at the city itself…

And it is a collective one. The derive is best carried out in groups.I like the idea of the collective, though the Lettrists and Situationists spent a lot of energy fighting amongst themselves and expelling people from the movement.

Wark makes this final point, and I am still not sure what i think about it, but again, find it worth thinking about:

The Letterist International discovered the power of a kind of negative action. They show what cannot be done within the limits of actually existing capitalism. (81)

and again

“The Letterist International passes on to the Situationist International the practice of a negative action, which lays bare the gap between everyday life in twentieth century capitalism, and what it leaves to be desired. (110)

Did it? Perhaps it did.

A few other tidbits — the city as pinball machine:

Debord and Wolman had already proposed a détournement of pinball, in which the “play of the lights and the more or less predictable trajectories of the balls would form a metagraphic-spatial composition entitled Thermal Sensations and Desires of People Passing by the Gates of Cluny Museum Around an Hour After Sunset in November.”13 They abandoned this idea, for Paris was already a pinball machine. All that remained was to bounce around it like a shiny silver ball, and find its psychogeographic centers of gravity. (185)

We too stumbled around the Cluny Museum at regular intervals in our brief Paris stay. So returning to this made me laugh.

I knew nothing of this playfulness with language, but I like it:

Produced outside of the Situationist International and without Trocchi, the Situationist Times turned out to be a somewhat different beast. It was multilingual, and even its English-language texts were written in what one might now call netlish—transnational English unapologetically cast as a second language patterned after the writer’s first language.25 The era of French as the lingua franca of the avant-garde was over. (271)

The book ends on a good note as well, with what continues of the situationist project today, détourned as of course, it must be:

What continues unabated, regardless of what anyone writes, is the détournement of the Situationist project. Beneath the pavement, the beach. Wherever the boredom with given forms of art, politics, thought, everyday life jackhammers through the carapace of mindless form, the beach emerges, where form is ground down to particles, to the ruin of ruins. There lies what the old mole is always busy making: the materials for the construction of situations. (366)

Of the many things I’ve been reading on the legacy of the situationists lately, this is far and away the best.

[Wark, McKenzie. (2011) The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. London: Verso.]

* From Guy Debord, “On Wild Architecture,” in Elizabeth Sussman (ed.), On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957–1972, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1989, p. 174.”


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