Situationist International: Review of the American section of the S.I. (Number 1, June 1969)

This modest little 46-page-long pamphlet-sized publication was reprinted in 1993 by Extreme Press (75 NE Going St., Portland, Oregon 97211, which is an address that might be obsolete by now). At the time of the review's original publication, the American section -- based in New York City -- was one of four that constituted the Situationist International. The other sections were located in Randers, Denmark; Paris, France; and Milan, Italy. The American section -- listed in the review as its editorial committee -- included Robert Chasse, Bruce Elwell, Jonathan Horelick and Tony Verlaan.

Admitted into the S.I. at the end of 1968, the American section drew its membership substantially from the Council for the Liberation of Daily Life, which was itself founded in New York City in the fall of 1967. Centered around Robert Chasse [pronounced Chass-Uh], who'd been distributing English translations of key situationist texts (especially the 1966 pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life) since April of 1967, the Council was incredibly prolific. Over the course of one year, it wrote and published The Hall of Mirrors (a collection on the riots in American cities), Chasse's The Power of Negative Thinking -- Or, Robin Hood Rides Again, a leaflet entitled "The Newest School Buildings are Indistinguishable from the Newest Prisons or the Newest Industrial Complexes," a leaflet called "The Jailers Talk of Freedom," a "Reply to Murray Bookchin Concerning His Theories on the Recent French 'Revolution,'" "An Open Letter to Radical Action Cooperative, Students for a Democratic Society, Students, Faculty, Others Engaged by University Life," an "Address to New York City Public School Students," a contemporary historical account called "The Enraged in France," a wall poster entitled Post Mortem Ante Facto and a comic book entitled The Great Late Show of Opposition, which concerned Tony Verlaan's intervention into the spectacle of an International Conference of "revolutionaries" in New York City.

A half-year after being admitted into the Situationist International, the American section published the first issue of its review. Though it went on to participate in the 8th Conference of the S.I., held in Venice, Italy, in late September 1969, and in the very intense internal orientation debates of 1970, the American section never published a second issue. In November 1970, both Chasse and Elwell were excluded from the group for, in the words of the S.I. itself, "having gravely failed the organizational rules of the S.I." [See Debord's 28 October 1970 letter to Verlaan and Horelick for more.] These two ex-international situationists immediately wrote and published A Field Study in the Dwindling Force of Cognition, Where It is Least Expected: A Critique of the Situationist International as a Revolutionary Organization, a document that was never answered by the S.I. It seems that Verlaan and Horelick resigned from the group sometime in 1971, and went on to establish their own journals/small groups, which were called Create Situations and Diversion, respectively. The S.I. quietly itself disbanded in 1972, with the publication of The Veritable Split in the International. [Editor's note: For another interpretation of the SI's end, see At Dusk.] With the exception of the pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life and the book The Veritable Split in the International, Extreme Press's 1993 reprint of the first issue of the American review is the only one of all the texts mentioned above that is currently in print and widely distributed. We must, therefore, be careful to neither under- nor over-emphasize its significance -- a careful balancing act -- while at the same time hoping to engage it in the contexts of NYC in 1969 and NYC in 1996.

As an artefact, the review bears a striking resemblance to the publications of Ken Knabb and the pro-situationist groups with which he was affiliated in the early 1970s: there are no images or pictures whatsoever; the ink and paper is simple black on white; the printing is clear, crisp and clean, proper and dry; in sum, it looks like nothing so much as a college literary arts or poetry magazine. Quite obviously, Knabb et al. based the "economical" look of their publications on those of the American section of the S.I., not the reverse. Not that it matters, really: it's a look and feel that we have instinctively tried to avoid, ever since our first issue.

The contents of the review include "Faces of Recuperation," a polemical critique of the writings of such then-fashionable "revolutionaries" as Baran & Sweezy, Herbert Marcuse and Marshall McLuhan; an exposition by Robert Chasse invitingly entitled "Certain Extraordinary Considerations Contributing to the Understanding of the Devolution of Capitalism and Bureaucratization of Existence"; a translated excerpt from "paragraphs 165 through 179 of our comrade's book, La Societe du Spectacle, published by Buchet-Chastel, 1967"; "And Population Control," an essay that mostly re-presents events and stories covered by mainstream American publications; and "The Practice of Theory," which relates what the international situationists on both sides of the Atlantic have been doing to destroy the spectacle-commodity society. Thus, the review contains three kinds of pieces: critiques of the theories of others; original theoretical expositions; and reports on practical actions taken by the writers of the other two kinds of pieces.

The practical action that completely dominates "The Theory of Practice" is the occupation of the Sorbonne in Paris on 13 May 1968, which led to the first nation-wide, general wildcat strike in history. "Those who are acquainted with situationist thought," the American section writes, "found many of the aphorisms that covered Parisian walls [during the occupations] last May familiar, even though the press, large and small, was not about to talk of the origin (or the source of inspiration), reception or spread of these graffiti." In addition to directing its readers to Rene Vienet's "profusely illustrated book," Enrages et Situationnistes dans le Mouvement des Occupations, which had not yet been translated into English, the American section presents its readers with "some of the graffiti," fifteen examples in all. Some of these graffiti aren't recorded or reported by Vienet's book, and so are "new" to us.

There is one "new" graffito that seems to call for comment. It is: "Embrace your love without dropping your guard." A strange thing for a situationist to say, n'est pas? Why isn't it "Embrace your love by dropping your guard" or "Embrace your love so as to drop your guard"? Must we keep our guard "up," even when we embrace our love? Yes, that is what it seems. . . . Even when you are embracing your love, don't drop that guard, soldier!

Shit, we don't need the theories of Wilhelm Reich -- a figure beloved by both French and American pro-situationists in the early 1970s -- to back us up when we say that one can only "embrace one's love without dropping one's guard" if one suppresses what is truly vital, healthy and subversive in love and in the person who is supposedly loved! Only other guarded people would want to be embraced by a guarded person. And that's because being on guard and being in love can not be compatible (bodily and emotional) postures for healthy people. Only neurosis -- a neo-Roman, "naturalized" military guardedness -- can synthesize these two irreconcilably different ways of being alive, of living in a human body. Unfortunately, "the human grandeur produced by the Romans is still impressive in the twentieth century," Raoul Vaneigem points out in one of the many interesting footnotes to his Movement of the Free Spirit; "It continues to exorcize its fundamental baseness by perpetuating the cult of the military will -- that stiffness of the mechanized body that judges, oppresses and condemns adherents to social contempt or incarceration." Even situationist revolutionaries -- armed with spraypaint cans in the midst of a popular insurrection -- can be entangled in the "grandeur" of the soldier: not "dropping your guard" -- this sounds so much like not dropping your pants -- while you "embrace your love" is a subconscious perpetuation of the cult of the military will, not its conscious negation.

Maybe that's it: Don't drop your guard when you are embracing, because that's when you are at your most vulnerable. Vulnerable to what? To something called "desexualization," a kind of debilitating expenditure of the natural spirit, of the sexual essence. The American section writes:

The sexual revolution tends to desexualize. A reaction to the TV screen, the show of life, it in no way escapes it. The excessive agitation which informs this "revolution" passes for looseness, ground[s] for pleasure. But we really witness the triumphant colonization of erogenous zones. Orgasms may be produced at an increasing rate, but only to be consumed immediately in the tension, which passes into pathological rigidity, a general desensitization. Accordingly, the sideshow moves center stage, and the freaks necessarily point the way: penis plaster-casters, amyl nitrate snorted as you come, screw at the drop of a name, for any reason, and the first is to have no reason. Copulation is diversion, a mobile passivity. All but pleasure is here, and the participants grow jaded.

Though this passage about "excessive [bodily] agitation" might sound like something from the pen or mouth of a "conservative commentator" such as William Safire, William Bennett, George Wills or Newt Gingrich, it is from the review of the American section of the S.I. This passage is one of the final segments of the essay "And Population Control."

It is now clear that, as a matter of fact, the sexual revolution was not a "reaction to the TV screen" or to the generalized "show of life." Revolution isn't "reaction" to anything, especially not to television; revolution is either radically transformative action or it is counter-revolution. This is especially true for the sexual revolution, which was clearly a force of radically transformative action in untold numbers of people's lives. Though it carried with it sufficiently ample amounts of desperation, self-deception, and unpleasure to make it appear that it was a half-hearted rejection of out-dated sexual mores and everyday practices, the sexual revolution was far more than that. Indeed, an indication of the extent to which the sexual revolution actually escaped or managed to encompass, without being reducible to, spectacle in the late 1960s/early 1970s can be detected in the simple fact that it is now universally agreed that "the sexual revolution" is over and has been over for years. It's show on the TV screen of life was canceled back in the mid-1980s by Reaganism and AIDS. It's show had to be canceled, despite the fact that the business of colonizing and commodifying erogeneity has become a major industry. The sexual revolution was (and still is) part of the "excessive," long-term process in which human beings finally learn and allow themselves to love their own bodies, and thus the bodies of others as well.

The sexual revolution is far from over, despite or precisely because the official end of the spectacle of the sexual revolution has been announced and enforced. Much to the embarassment of both left-wing and right-wing Puritanical Americans, the "sideshow" has taken solid hold of center stage; the "freaks" no longer simply "point the way," but have appeared on stage as the main attractions, the standard fare, Dennis-fucking-Rodman, man. And real sex freaks they are, too, not phonies whose freakishness consists in making plaster casts of penises (this is a scene right out of Dustan Makavejiv's WR: Mysteries of the Organism) or taking special drugs when they have sex. These are transvestites, transsexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals, people into piercings, tattoos, domination, submission, discipline, role-playing, masochism, sadism, fetishism and exhibitionism. There hasn't been a desensitization going on here in America -- in New York -- for the last 25 or 30 years, there's been a resensitization to the incredible diversity and creativity of the human faculty of sexual desire!

Small wonder, then, that the American situationists (if not the European situationists as well) just could not understand why the insurrection of May 1968 ended in implosion, and not from an explosion caused by outside forces. The Occupations Movement of 1968 was defeated from within. Why did it so differ, in this respect, from other "festivals" such as the Paris Commune? In "The Practice of Theory," the American section writes:

But if the events [of May-June 1968] revealed the abandonment of the two organizations (trade unions and mass party) that appropriated the struggle of the proletariat in the preceding century, they also revealed the left-overs of the idea that "leaders" such as they had are somehow necessary to advance the movement into the proletarian project. There was talk, suggestions, incipient movements toward self-management, sketches of things to come. [But] the [workers'] councils did not emerge. What occurred was the anticlimactic and reticent movement back to work, the elections and the selected repressions.

Note that the writers do not even formulate the question: Why did this happen? All we get from them is encouragement and a forced-sounding optimism: "The possibilities announced in France, naturally, will emerge again -- and not only in France." But why should we be convinced that the same thing will not happen again?

The American and French situationists were at a total loss here because they had shallow understandings of the awesome durability of human personality traits and structures, and of the real complexities of desire and its managed repression. This is another of the graffiti from May 1968, relayed by the American section with implicit approval:

Man is neither the good savage according to Rousseau, nor the pervert according to the Church. He is violent when oppressed, he is gentle when he is free.

Very simplistic thinking here, even for a piece of graffiti. All one has to do with "Man" or human beings is not oppress them, or free them from their oppression. Once freed -- which seems like an easy enough thing to do, like opening a closed but unlocked door -- "Man" will be gentle, non-violent and, of course, well adjusted. Or, rather, "Man" will split into two neat little groups: the gentle, non-violent and well-adjusted revolutionary comrades, and the violent, still-oppressed and maladjusted recuperators. All one has to do here is exclude the recuperators -- that should be enough. For, other than the recuperators, who would feel the need to supervise or even think twice about all those gentle, non-violent and well-adjusted revolutionaries?

Quite obviously -- or, if you prefer, from what we know of the May 1968 occupations movement -- things just ain't that simple. As a matter of fact, "things" are about as complicated as the situation in Bosnia, where the lifting of Communist oppression promptly cleared the way for vicious racial, religious and ethnic hatreds to rule the day unfettered. And no excuses -- along the lines of, "it can and must only be 'left-over ideas' from previous times that holds the proletariat back from its historical mission" -- will make the problem we are trying to identify any easier to solve, ignore or dismiss. The problem does not, in any case, have to do with ideas that just won't go away. It has to do with desires, personality structures, and physical postures that won't go away as fast as might be hoped, dreamed or expected. Significantly, the only passage in The Movement of the Free Spirit that indicates Vaneigem's awareness of an obvious but obviously difficult to accept fact -- that some people, perhaps even most people, can not or will not discard their repressive psycho-physical postures, even in the midst of a revolutionary uprising -- is a passage in which he insults and condescends to such people. For Vaneigem, and possibly for other situationists as well, all one can say about these people is that they are "ill-prepared for independence and poorly schooled in the art of deciding their own fate." Doesn't this strongly suggest that "revolutionaries" such as Vaniegem -- instead of condescending and dismissing, and remaining aloof -- should be actively engaged in the slow and painful process of preparing and schooling these people in the art of deciding their own fate, at which he is presumably highly skilled?

"Freedom" and "oppression" are intertwined in such a complicated fashion that it will take the concerted, total and united efforts of several generations to decisively separate one from the other, so that the latter can be negated once and for all, and that the pleasures of the former can be fully and genuinely experienced by everyone -- "recuperators" and "revolutionaries" alike. We should be careful to note that these remarks do not even take into account the fact that many of the new residents of the United States -- people who have immigrated from Russia and China, among many other countries -- have neither personal nor collective memories of what it is like to live in a putatively democratic nation, not to mention in total freedom!

These realizations obviously have consequences. At the very least, we must expose and refute all naive, fanciful or uncritical theorizing about "workers' councils," including the "situationist" theorizing of Raoul Vaneigem. In De la greve sauvage a l'autogestion generalisee, 1974 (translated and published in 1981 as Contributions to the revolutionary struggle intended to be discussed, corrected and principally put into practice without delay), Vaneigem insists that:

A) The object of sabotage and misappropriation, whether practised by the individual or the group, is the unleashing of a wildcat strike. B) Every wildcat strike must develop into a factory occupation. C) Every factory occupied must be appropriated and turned promptly to the services of revolutionaries. D) By choosing delegates (who are subject to instant recall and mandated to collate decisions and to oversee their implementation) the assembled strikers lay the groundwork for a radical reorganization of society . . . into a society of universal self-management.

Ironically, this spelling-out of "The ABC of revolution" (the phrase is Vaneigem's) narrows rather than broadens as it unfolds. While the imaginary revolution is spreading and deepening -- no doubt all over the "world" -- Vaneigem's "revolutionary" scenario is fixated upon the fucking factory workers. It's like the worst of Karl Marx: the factory workers should do this, that and then this for the revolution to realize its full liberatory potential. That's just great. But what about the people who work, but not in factories? And what about the people who "never work"? Where are they all in this scenario? More to the point, where is Raoul Vaneigem? How can he be part of the groundwork for a radically-reorganized society if, prior to the advent of the occupations, he refused work and thus maintained no real connection to means of production? What exactly does he have to occupy, appropriate and "self-manage"?

Unfortunately, we find a great deal of "councilism" in the review of the American section as well. These are the very last lines in the entire review:

We do not maintain that the individuals participating in a wildcat strike, or a university insurrection or an antitourist potlatch, come out of their experience recognizing it for what it really is. The real opposition, which is not aware of itself as such, is recuperated and reintegrated. The routine of daily life, not to mention the teachings of the leftish marionettes, erodes a memory and turns it into show. The realization of all past moments of proletarian insurrection will not exist outside the appropriation of all power by the councils of workers.

We maintain that, if the individuals participating in a wildcat strike, a university insurrection or an anti-tourist potlatch can not or do not come out of their experiences "recognizing it for what it really is," then this says far more about the vagueness and abstractness of the situationists' definition of the true essence of these all-too-rare occurrences, than it does about the desensitizing powers of "the routine of daily life" and the necessity of having situationist specialists-in-revolution on the scene to "preserve" those seedling memories and keep them from somehow growing into a "show." We maintain that these all-too-rare "festivals" need not be "recognized" at all, by anyone: they need only be lived deeply, pleasurably and fully. And finally, we maintain that it will not be, indeed can not be, "the councils of workers" who will someday appropriate all power and realize the unfulfilled promises and dreams of all past moments of proletarian insurrection. It can and will only be the federated councils of human beings. These councils may be modeled upon or perfections of the efforts to devise and engage a group therapy. First on the list of things for the group to deal with: sexuality.

Click here for a bibliography of American pro-situationists, 1967 to the present.



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