On the 50th Anniversary
of the Founding of the Situationist International

"It is vain to want to revive a Situation that was valid 45 years ago. And especially when the people who occupy themselves with this 'restoration' are only chefs who do not know how to cook." -- Raoul Hausmann, letter to Guy Debord, dated 5 April 1963.

"Surrealism is obviously alive. Its creators are still not dead. The new people, more and more mediocre, it is true, claim kinship with it. Surrealism is known to the public as the extreme of modernism and, on the other hand, it has become an object for university studies. It is indeed one of the things that live at the same time that we do, like Catholicism and General de Gaulle. [...] The real question is thus: what is the role of surrealism today?" -- Guy Debord, Supreme Height of the Defenders of Surrealism in Paris and the Revelation of their Real Value (December 1958).

Exactly 50 years ago today -- on 28 July 1957 -- the Situationist International (SI) was founded in Cosio d'Arroscia, a small village in Italy. Is it not senseless to celebrate such an event? The SI disbanded in April 1972, and so is no longer with us. Several of its most important members (Asger Jorn, Constant, and Guy Debord) are dead. When the organization was in existence, it existed both in and against its era;[1] it was never intended to last beyond it.[2] To the extent that the SI's era has passed, so has the SI itself. There is no going back.

Over the course of those 15 years, the SI changed a great deal. It is commonly agreed that the organization went through three distinct stages (and so one might say that there were three Situationist Internationals, without considering the "Second Situationist International," which was formed in 1960 by several people who had been excluded from the "First" SI). Between 1957 and 1961, the SI both theorized and made revolutionary art; between 1962 and 1968, it both produced and disseminated revolutionary theory; and, between 1969 and 1972, it both theorized and participated in the post-1968 revolutionary movement. There were different, even conflicting tendencies within each of these three periods: between 1957 and 1961, there were intense debates between Jorn and Constant, that is to say, between the painters and the architects/urbanists; between 1962 and 1968, there were conflicts of style and tone that pitted Debord against Raoul Vaneigem, that is, dialectical epigrams against narrative exposition; and, between 1969 and 1972, there were splits between those who wanted to the SI to stay small or even shrink in size (most of the French section) and those who wanted it to grow (the American section).

Such was the richness of the SI. This richness -- the group's incredible fertility -- is why one marks and celebrates the anniversary of the organization's founding.

But when one speaks of the SI, one most often has the SI of the 1962-1968 period in mind. Did not Debord himself say that "one can not speak of 'coherence' in the first years of the SI," because coherence was only achieved in "the period begun in 1962 and in large part as a project that was more or less verified later on"?[3] It was, of course, during the SI's "middle" period that Vaneigem wrote and published Treatise on Living for the Younger Generations[4] and Debord wrote and published The Society of the Spectacle. More so than the essays published in Internationale Situationniste, these are the texts -- plus Mustapha Khayati's pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life (written and published in 1966) -- for which the SI is best known.

Each of these famous books elaborates its own theory: Vaneigem's Treatise elaborates the theory of "everyday life"[5] and Debord's Spectacle elaborates the theory of "the spectacle."[6] But the former was in fact not a theory, but a concept; and, furthermore, it has not changed or been developed since the early 1960s. Everyday life was and remains an empty "terrain" (really, a block of time) that is occupied by and with passionless, joyless and meaningless activities: primarily work and the consumption of commodities. The revolution of everyday life was and remains the quest by individuals for a certain lifestyle, for time freed from the necessity of working and for consumption freed from the necessity of buying commodities.

On the other hand, "the spectacle" was indeed a theory, and Debord changed and developed it twice over the course of twenty-odd years. (One must not forget that the 15 years of the SI's existence is matched by the 15 years of diligent and high-quality activity that Debord personally engaged in between 1973 and 1988.) In 1967, the spectacle -- a stage of capitalist society in which super-abundant wealth is displayed and wasted instead of being used to revolutionize that society -- was defined as a binary opposition (and cooperation) between the diffuse spectacle of the "democratic" West and the concentrated spectacle of the "totalitarian" East. In 1973, in Debord's film The Society of the Spectacle, the spectacle was shown to be a stage that could be and indeed was actually being contested all over the world, in both the West (especially France) and the East (especially Poland).[7] And, in 1988, in Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, the spectacle[8] was defined as an "integration" of the diffuse and concentrated brands.

And so we are confronted with a troublesome series of observations: though the theory of the spectacle began as an exclusively situationist theory (no one else elaborated it), it ended up as Guy Debord's theory.[9] Unlike both the concept of "everyday life" and the Situationist International itself, the theory of spectacle moved beyond the 1960s and so did not pass away with them. More than that: with the development of the theory of the integrated spectacle, "situationist theory crosses over its disintegration point."[10] That is to say, situationist theory -- purely situationist theory, undeveloped situationist theory, situationist theory that bases itself too heavily or solely upon the revolution of everyday life -- finally became spectacular, finally became "situationism."

* * *
"Is it worth the bother of saying this again? There is no 'situationism.' I am myself only a situationist due to the fact of my participation -- at this moment and in certain conditions -- in a community practically grouped together in view of a task, which this community will or will not know how to accomplish [...] The SI is obviously composed of very diverse individuals and even several discernable tendencies of which the relations of force have sometimes changed. Without doubt, its entire activity is only pre-situationist. We do not in any way defend 'creations' that belong to someone and still less to a single one of us: on the contrary, we find it very positive that the comrades who have joined us have already, by themselves, attained an experimental problematic that blends ours. The surest symptom of idealist delirium is, moreover, the stagnation of individuals, supporting or quarreling for years about the same values, because they are the only ones to recognize them as the rules of a poor game. The situationists leave them to their dust-ups." -- Guy Debord, "Concerning Several Errors of Interpretation."[11]

Such a split -- friends of Guy Debord, on the one hand, and adherents to situationism, on the other, with no situationists to be found on either side -- was clearly visible during the polemic surrounding the Encyclopedia of Nuisances.[12] Unlike Debord and his friends, who were deeply interested in the political events taking place in Spain, Poland and Italy during the 1980s, the Encyclopedists were preoccupied with situationist texts (from the pre-1962 period!) and abstract concepts.[13] Significantly, the bone of contention between the two groups was an event: the French student movement of November-December 1986, in particular, the occupation of the Sorbonne and the erection of barricades in the Latin Quarter on 6 December. While the Encyclopedists were highly critical of these actions for reasons of "theory," Debord and his friends valued these actions for their practical boldness.[14] One might have expected that the reverse would have been the case: the Encyclopedists on the side of "action" and Debord et al on the side of "theory." But the times had changed, and so had Debord.

The same split exists today, even though Guy Debord himself is dead. There are a great many adherents to situationism and, though there are important differences between them, they share several of the preoccupations and limitations of the Encyclopedists. Here is a brief sketch, which excludes writers who do not consider themselves to be either adherents to situationism or friends of Debord and who have written texts about the SI that are openly hostile (Stewart Home, Bob Black, Simon Sadler, etc.):

Ken Knabb. This fellow has spent more than 25 years polishing his translations of the texts published in Internationale Situationniste, and in 2002 he offered yet another translation of Debord's 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle (it had previously been translated by Fredy Perlman and then by Donald Nicholson-Smith). But Knabb seems completely uninterested in (translating) Debord's work after 1972: his collaboration on the "Censor" pamphlet,[15] his Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of "The Society of the Spectacle,"[16] his virtually unknown 1980 intervention in favor of imprisoned libertarians in Spain,[17] his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, etc etc. Knabb's interest in (translating) Debord's films, most of which were made and released after 1972, does not undermine the validity of our reproach: these are mostly lyrical-poetic works, redolent of the SI's first period, and not strategic interventions, redolent of its third.

Retort. This is the name taken by a group of Anglo-American academics who are utterly fixated on Debord's 1967 book, and seem to be completely uninterested in Debord's post-1972 work. As we have pointed out,[18] this bias renders their analyses of "September 11th" completely boring and reactionary. Despite their name, this group's members do not dialogue or "engage in polemics" with people who disagree with them.[19] Not surprisingly, Retort's politics are explicitly Leftist, not revolutionary.

Various "Anti-Conspiracy" Pro-Situationists. Like the members of Retort, these are people who -- during their denunciations of what they call "conspiracy theories" concerning September 11th -- demonstrate their lack of knowledge or interest in both Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of "The Society of the Spectacle" and Comments of the Society of the Spectacle. As if the Italian section of the SI never published Is the Reichstag Burning? such people claim that "conspiracy theories" are either non-situationist or anti-situationist.

Various Neo-Anarchists. Here we have in mind such groups (or participants in such actions as) "Reclaim the Streets," "Carnival Against Capitalism," The Yes-Men, The Rev. Billy, et al -- that is to say, most of what used to be called "the anti-globalization movement." These are Leftists and former-Marxists who are strongly influenced by the pre-1962 situationists, who call themselves "anti-authoritarians" because it is a good marketing strategy, and who are single-mindedly obsessed with defective or toxic commodities, evil corporations and economic globalization, and yet absolutely unconcerned with concentration camps, fascism, the "refugee crisis" and other properly political problems. They are also openly disdainful of September 11th "conspiracy theories."[20]

Jordan Levinson. This is a neo-anarchist who refers to Debord as "de Bore," who gloats about the fact that Debord "offed himself," and excoriates "the impotent rhetoric of dead fools from 40 years ago," and yet uses the email address situationist@email.com and insists on uploading his bad translations of situationist texts to a website that is full of advertisements and that deposits cookies and pop-up windows for commercial products on the hard-drives of the people foolish enough to access it. Levinson is an excellent example of a "Vaneigemist": full of rage and resentment, terrified of being judged or correcting himself, and content with things (virtually anything, of whatever quality) as long as they is free.

Raoul Vaneigem. To the casual observer, or even the moderately well-informed person, Vaneigem resigned from the SI in November 1970 and never looked back, that is to say, pursued his ideas and projects positively and progressively, not negatively or in reaction to (his resignation from) the group to which he belonged and derived whatever notoriety he possesses. Only those who have tracked Vaneigem's collaborations with the virulent anti-Debordist and madman Jean-Pierre Voyer -- and Vaneigem's use of pseudonyms (not simply "Ratgeb" or "Jules-Francois Dupuis," but "Pierre Bree" and "Jacques Vincent") in these collaborations[21] -- would know that his resignation has both determined and ruined much of what he has written since 1970.[22] (We fear that something similar is in play where Donald Nicholson-Smith is concerned.[23])

Though the adherents to situationism are awful and awfully frustrating, it is not at all comfortable being a "friend of Debord." (Note that we realize that we are certainly not Debord's only "friends," who also include Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Francois Martos and all of the various people who wrote articles about the obviously conspiratorial aspects of September 11th from a "situationist" -- that is to say, "Debordist" -- perspective.) The many causes for this discomfort are not all "theoretical"; they all do not have to do with the inappropriateness or counter-revolutionary aspects of the cult of personality, hero-worship, etc., especially where this particular person is concerned. Around 1990 or so -- but not before then, we are sure of it -- Debord became seriously depressed, paranoid, moralizing and very dull. These qualities can certainly be discerned in his letter to Jean-Francois Martos dated 26 December 1990, and they quite simply ruined Son Art et Son Temps, the TV program he made with Brigitte Cornand in 1994, shortly before his suicide. No doubt Volume 7 (1988-1994) of his Correspondance, which will be published in 2008, will show that these were not isolated episodes, but typical of the man's last few years. There will be no point in denying it.

* * *
"For the moment, you must observe all the treatments or regimes that are called for, even the severe ones. We will soon come to Italy, which, I hope, will encourage you. If a culpable indifference to what you can do in the world or a deplorable sense of humor causes you to still play with the idea of suicide, you must consider other alternatives. You know that I have always allowed, with a very great facility and nearly an equal spirit, that life separates me from many friends and several girls whom I have loved. But I tolerate death very poorly." -- Guy Debord, letter to Gianfranco Sanguinetti dated 25 September 1974.

But this does not mean that Debord's theory of the spectacle should be renounced or abandoned: far from it. Never before has it been so clear that "our" society -- the one we are forced to live in and create against our will -- is the society of the spectacle. And so our task should be developing a theory of the spectacle as it is today. A step has already been taken in this direction by McKenzie Wark in his book A Hacker's Manifesto (2004), in which the author speaks of "the vector." Adopting this term, we might speak of "the vectoral spectacle," but this is clearly inadequate: the relation of the vector (a spatial metaphor) to digital technologies is not clear. And so -- drawing upon such easily comprehensible (and relevant) terms as virtual images, virtual memory and virtual reality -- we propose the virtual spectacle," the spectacle at its point of virtuality.

Following the gestures of Chapter I of the "Censor" pamphlet and Chapter V of Comments on the Society of the Spectacle -- both of which list and briefly discuss five new characteristics of the society of the spectacle -- we end by offering five observations about what is new since 1988.

1) Torture. This is no longer a crime, forbidden by international law and secretly perpetrated on a select few people ("high value" terrorists held in military or CIA prisons, that is to say, people from whom specialized information "needs" to be extracted); it is now an officially approved form of "information gathering" practiced by the agents of the United States government, a "necessary" component of the "war against terrorism." But torture is also becoming the mainstay of the cultural spectacle in all its forms -- "body-centered" performance art, "aggressive" advertising, "adult" entertainment and "extreme" sports -- and so is now inflicted upon a growing number of people.[24] This is generally self-inflicted torture, and so appears different from the torture inflicted by the State. But, to the extent it can be just as painful to watch someone inflict pain upon themselves as it is to watch someone inflict pain upon someone else, self-inflicted torture is part of the same "theatre of cruelty" (should we say, the same "theatre of operations"?) as State torture. Torture is the official art form of the society of the spectacle.

2) Sonorization. Harsh sounds or annoying music can be (is being) used as an instrument of torture designed to extract information, especially if is used to deprive detainees or prisoners of sleep. But, like torture itself, sound is everywhere these days: not just "muzak" in the elevator and the supermarket, but electronic prompts, recorded voices and "sound effects" coming from every single computerized device, and -- of course -- everything is done by or with computers these days. Silence is disappearing, even from "silent movies," which have had soundtracks forced upon them (the auditory equivalent of "colorization"). Worse still, these sounds are not "natural" or recorded by analog recorders: they are digitally created sounds, simulated, and they sound "better" or "more realistic" than the real things. In the society in which the spectacle has reached the stage of virtuality, even sound becomes "spectacularized."

3) Slowness. It is obvious that digital technologies have accelerated the speeds of all kinds of delivery systems: for example, messages or bombs can now be sent 'round the world in a matter of seconds. Time itself seems to be accelerating. And yet some things are not speeding up, but are slowing down. For example: the progress of selecting the ultimate winner on the American Idol TV show now seems to take forever, and the "primary season" in American presidential politics now begins in the summer of the year preceding the actual elections. Surely such a slow pace in both "elections" guarantees greater income (advertising revenue and donations, respectively). But does not this slow pace -- a kind of torture -- threaten to exhaust people's interest? Perhaps this is precisely the intention. In a society in which everything (superficial) must change so that nothing (fundamental) changes, speed is the negation that the spectacle carries within itself.

4) Accidents. Technological development accidentally creates accidents on a large scale: the invention of the automobile was also the invention of the automobile crash; the invention of the airplane was also the invention of the airplane crash, etc. Because capitalist technological renewal is deliberate, the accident becomes easily foreseeable; and because such renewal is incessant, the scope of the foreseeable accident becomes wider and deeper. The "vector" here is clear: spectacular accidents will take place globally: not just anywhere in the world, but all over the world at the same time. Thus, there is a certain symmetry or integration between the technological accident and deliberate acts of terrorism, which can be defined as the interruption of everyday life by acts of war. It will become increasingly impossible to distinguish, say, an "accidental" explosion at a nuclear power plant and a deliberate act of sabotage at such an installation. In the society of the spectacle, terrorism and everyday life become indistinguishable.

5) Refugee camps. People or, rather, masses of people, whole populations, can be forced to become refugees by "man-made" accidents, natural catastrophes, market ("crop") failures, civil wars, invasions, occupations, etc. etc. They flee en masse and are forced to stay in "temporary" camps, which are maintained by friendly hosts. This is a doubly dangerous situation for the refugees: that which is only temporary easily becomes permanent; and refugee camps can easily become hotbeds of "terrorism," which are then turned into concentration camps so as to protect the "security" of their hosts. What happens when the "accident" of mass displacement becomes a global phenomenon? The "vector" of the virtual spectacle points towards a single, giant, transnational concentration camp.[25]

28 July 2007

[1] "It is necessary to make it understood how the adventure of the SI was narrowly circumscribed in time; and contrary to many other 'avant-gardes' with pretensions to lead several [subsequent] generations. Literally, the SI existed from 1957 to 1972. And, by counting the period of the 'origins,' it existed from 1952 to '57. And here was the profound meaning of the operation of 'dissolution' that one can say took place between the autumn of 1970 and the first months of 1972." Guy Debord, letter to Jean-Francois Martos dated 14 September 1985.

[2] One wouldn't know this from the way the SI's texts have been translated into English. Take, for example, Ken Knabb's butchery of Michele Bernstein's No Useless Indulgences. Despite the facts that this short text was written by one of the SI's founders and published in the very first issue of the group's journal, Knabb saw fit to remove -- to leave untranslated -- all of this text's references to the people outside the SI who were held up for ridicule (Francoise Giroud, Georges Mathieu and Michel Tapie). Knabb's intentions were obvious: to present to the English-speaking world only those passages that were "timeless," that were not "tied" to France in the 1950s, even if that meant leaving half of this short text untranslated.

[3] See Debord's letter to Juvenal Quillet dated 11 November 1971.

[4] Better known as The Revolution of Everyday Life.

[5] Sources for this theory included Henri Lefebvre's The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume I (published in 1947) and The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume II (published in 1962).

[6] Sources for this theory included Georgs Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness (1926) and Georges Bataille's "The Notion of Expenditure" (1933).

[7] In a letter to Eduardo Rothe dated 21 February 1974, Debord sketched out the differences between the pre-1968 and post-1968 periods as follows: "The epoch no longer simply demands a vague response to the question 'What is to be done? [...] It is now a question, if one wants to remain in the present, of responding to this question almost every week: 'What is happening?' [...] The principle work that, it appears to me, one must engage in -- as the complementary contrary to The Society of the Spectacle, which described frozen alienation (and the negation that is implicit in it) -- is the theory of historical action. One must advance strategic theory in its moment, which has come. At this stage and to speak schematically, the basic theoreticians to retrieve and develop are no longer Hegel, Marx and Lautreamont, but Thucydides, Machiavelli and Clausewitz."

[8] As we have noted in our translation of the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord uses the word "spectacular" to designate this integrated form and to distinguish it from its constitutive parts.

[9] It is difficult to not refer here to Debordist theory. Surely Debord himself would have said, following Karl Marx's famous declaration "I am not a Marxist," that he was not a Debordist and that "Debordism" did not exist.

[10] See remark attributed to Serge Quadruppani in Jean-Francois Martos' letter to Debord, dated 11 September 1990.

[11] Published in Internationale Situationniste #4, June 1960. For some reason, this text remained untranslated until a few days ago, when we ourselves translated it.

[12] Founded in 1984 -- in the aftermath of the assassination of Debord's publisher, film producer and friend Gerard Lebovici -- by the ex-situationist Christian Sebastiani and Debord's friend Jaime Semprun, the Encyclopedia of Nuisances published many essays of "situationist" inspiration, including three by Debord himself: Abat-Faim, To Abolish and Ab Irato.

[13] Take for example the perfectly awful essay entitled Abundance.

[14] See the essay entitled The Encyclopedia of Powers, which was written by Jean-Francois Martos and Jean-Pierre Baudet, with help from Debord.

[15] Written by the ex-situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti. See our translation of this important and yet often over-looked work from 1975.

[16] Written and published in 1979, and translated into English shortly thereafter.

[17] Click here for our translation of Aux Libertaires.

[18] See both An Unkind Reply to Retort and its follow-up, Another Unkind to Retort, neither of which the group has seen fit to respond to.

[19] "I think this serious and fundamental relation between struggle and truth, the dimension in which philosophy has developed for centuries and centuries, only dramatizes itself, becomes emaciated, and loses its meaning and effectiveness in polemics within theoretical discourse. So in all of this I will therefore propose only one imperative, but it will be categorical and unconditional: Never engage in polemics." Michel Foucault, lecture notes for 11 January 1978, in Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978 (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007), pp. 3-4.

[20] For more on this subject, see A critique of neo-anarchism.

[21] Cf. Echecs Situationnistes (1988). In 1976, Mustapha Khayati denounced Gerard Lebovici for reprinting On the Poverty of Student Life. For a taste for their resentment and envy, read the note on this matter falsely attributed to Lebovici.

[22] See our review of Vaneigem's truly awful book called A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings, published in 2000.

[23] Most well-informed people will known that, in his last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), Guy Debord included a picture of Donald Nicholson-Smith -- who was excluded from the SI in December 1967 -- among pictures of other ex-situationists whom he remembered fondly (Asger Jorn, Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio and Attila Kotanyi).

In a letter to Jon Horelick and Tony Verlaan dated 28 October 1970, Debord remarked that "Certain [excluded] comrades were very sympatico and had some real capabilities. Their participation could be of great value in certain general circumstances many times described by us. I am thinking, for example, of Donald [Nicholson-Smith] and Eduardo [Rothe]: they were excluded, one and then the other, two years apart, for having totally failed to live up to an accord on a specific problem, an accord that they agreed to after very extended discussions."

In a letter to Nicholson-Smith himself dated 16 February 1978, Debord declared, "But beyond the 'organizational' plane on which this regrettable discord arose, you certainly remember that I always accorded you the greatest confidence in all the qualities that I recognized in you, and not only your intellectual talents. Of course, as everything continues, I find nothing surprising in the fact that you are still in the same historic party." The two men agreed to work together on translations of Debord's texts that would be published by Gerard Lebovici's Editions Champ Libre. After a series of exchanges concerning Nicholson-Smith's rather stiff financial requirements, Debord (and Lebovici, too) soured on the arrangement.

In a letter to Lebovici dated 27 May 1979, Debord wrote: "What you have seen in Donald appears to me to confirm the entire picture: bitter discontent at lacking so much in his life, due to my fault in a certain way. This conclusion is reinforced by his lack of eagerness to telephone me. And when he does so, I will respond that I am absent, and that the moment is not quite suitable, but there is nothing pressing. I leave it to you to manage things the best you can on the purely professional level and still remain prudent. Because he who has not known how to affirm himself by himself, over the course of twelve years, must thus necessarily associate with the most jealous of our enemies." It appears that "the most jealous of our enemies" is a reference to Raoul Vaneigem.

It is certainly true that, in the aftermath of this affair, Nicholson-Smith translated Vaneigem's Treatise of Living for the Younger Generations into English (it was published in 1983 as The Revolution of Everyday Life); and, in 1999, he translated Vaneigem's crappy little book A Cavalier History of Surrealism. In 2002, Nicholson-Smith translated a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, a person whom Debord detested. . . . It is in this light that one should remember that Nicholson-Smith's translation of Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, 1993) does not read like Debord, but like Vaneigem. That is to say, it might be an act of revenge.

[24] See Paul Virilio's book on pitiless art.

[25] This is such an important theme that we will need to take it up and develop it in another essay. For the moment, we will limit ourselves to noting that the problems of mass dislocations and huge refugee camps lie outside -- and even render irrelevant -- "traditional" Leftist/neo-anarchist preoccupations with 1) multi-national corporations and 2) either the weakening or the strengthing of boundaries between nations ("globalization"). In refugee camps, the capitalist economy (work and the consumption of commodities) does not exist: food, water and basic services, if they exist at all, are provided by humanitarian aid organizations. And because refugees camps operate under states of exception, in which the law is suspended, one cannot say that the democratic/capitalist State governs such camps. A world of refugee camps is thus not the world turned upside-down: it is the world turned inside-out.

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