What is 'Situationism'?

"If you have now understood that there is no situationism, then you have not wasted your evening." The IVth Conference of the SI (#5).

"Are you Marxists? Quite as much as Marx when he said, 'I am not a Marxist.'" I.S. (#9).

Nine years ago a movement was born that is quite close to certain aspects of the libertarian movement and very far from other aspects. Why don't we speak of it? It seems that this silence is linked, on the one hand, to the very powerful theoretical aspect of the texts by the Situationist International, and, on the other hand, to situationist preoccupations that appear to interest only a small minority. What are the causes? One of the most important among them is, without doubt, the fact that professional revolutionaries from Lenin to Bakunin have always separated politico-economic action from action in culture. In their opinion, one must at first change the material basis of life and only occupy oneself with the rest (the problems of art and style of life) in a second phase, without seeing that they thus leave "culture" in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

We all know that the possibilities of productivity have progressed in the same way that all of the technical sciences have brought capitalism to its advanced form of over-consumption, which is obligatory to its survival and this in all the sectors of production, from the automobile to armaments and the work of art; all sell themselves, all buy into the ultima ratio[1] of a world in which the commodity extends its rule. Quality disappears to the profit of quantity; the use-value of the object (for example: the automobile) disappears behind its exchange-value.

The SI only exists in relation to the society of consumption that currently spreads over the planet by imposing its behaviors (conditioned liberty), its habitat, its work, its diversions and its spectacle. The situationists condemn (in principle) the lack of efficacity of current political struggles and categorical claims because they are partial and do not contest the social construction as a whole. Herbert Marcuse, whom the SI studied, summarizes the position of current society faced with the problem of "culture":

In the cultural domain, in place of a total desublimation, one sees the unitary order of this society at work. There is an identity or better a confusion between leisure time and work time, so much so that man fundamentally no longer finds during his leisure time what was offered to him at work: one permits him all modes of behavior necessary to permit him to work more. Above all, he will identify his spirit with business. In literature, in art, the impossibility of communicating in a reified language[2] will aggravate itself more. And even all acts of accusation against society can no longer express themselves without being immediately and inevitably transformed into a best-seller,[3] that is to say, directly absorbed by the market, bought, sold, paid for by the same society that it critiques.[4]

If the situationists were among the first to have perceived that power claims to take hold of free time (diversions), they were the first to clearly formulate a position of attack against this form of appropriation. Power needs to have its products and passivity consumed by its "spectators" (read: the proletariat); thus, the constant propaganda of the style of bourgeois life is one of the principle bases of the alienation of the "massified" proletariat. Thus the SI has something to say: "Revolutionary thought must critique everyday life in bourgeois society: spread another idea of happiness" (I.S. #2). Because, up to the present, the old ways of life of the old society still reconstitute themselves, even among revolutionaries. For the SI, it is necessary to change the exterior and the interior: "Communication between people isn't assured by communal political programs, even in the most anti-hierarchical and libertarian groups" (I.S. #6). The appearance of the Provo movement, which troubles sociologists so much, thus corresponds to the experimental value of life expressed by the SI, but as much as the situationists try to systematize and coordinate theory and action, the Provos are spontaneous and little theorized in action and thus easily recuperable by power. It seems that the word 'recuperation' is a key word by which to understand the situationists -- power creates nothing, it [simply] recuperates. If we can say that the formation of the First International was a (positive) copy of the international[ism] of the exploiters, the situationists recuperate in the opposite sense of power, taking elements from very different domains: sociology, political economy, psychoanalysis, urbanism, etc., so as to form a coherent and critical whole. "The qualitative is our striking force" (I.S. #8), and thus arrives at a global formulation of this society (the project being inseparable from its own critique).

The situationists are at the center of a debate that must open on to the theoretical and practical possibilities of the revolutionary movement. Paradoxically, they are the only ones to affirm that the revolutionary movement has disappeared: "If there is something derisive in speaking of revolution, this is obviously because the organized revolutionary movement disappeared long ago from the modern countries, in which the possibilities of a decisive transformation of society are concentrated" (I.S. #6). The situationists do not claim to constitute a party. Their disabused tone with respect to what they call the old revolutionary movement explains itself by their historic classification: "One can accept that the classic workers' movement began fifty years before the official constitution of the [First] International, with the first liaison of the communist groups from several countries that Marx and his friends organized in Bruseels in 1845. And that it was completely finished after the failure of the Spanish revolution, that is to say, the day after the 'May Days' in Barcelona in 1937" (I.S. #7).

Situationist activity can be qualified at first sight as anti-cultural; this aspect is less clear when one knows that the founders of the movement were "artists" who came from the Lettrist left, partisans of the supercession of art. The Situationist International was constituted on 28 July 1957 at the Conference at Cosio d'Arroscia. Composed of the Lettrist International and other avant-garde artistic movements: Cobra, the Imaginist Bauhaus, and the Psychogeographical Institute. From their inception, the situationists arrived at the conclusion (subsequent research, the "Potlatch" journal, 1954-1957) that it isn't a question of producing works of art, but realizing life as a work of art, life liberated from restraints in the sense of a great game. For the situationists, this could only happen in a collective manner, in having the possibility of utilizing the modern means of production in the free construction of the milieu: "The construction of situations begins beyond the modern collapse of the notion of spectacle. It is easy to see at which point the principle of the spectacle is attached to the alienation of the old world: non-intervention. Inversely, one sees that the most valuable revolutionary investigations in culture have sought to break the psychological identification of the spectator with heroes, to involve the spectator in activity. . . . Thus, the situation is made to be lived by its constructors" (I.S. #3).[5]

The situationists were led to critique surrealist activity, as much as artistic activity produces commodities and as much as revolt put in the museum: "The success of surrealism lies in the fact that the ideology of this society, which is the most modern on its face, has abdicated to a hierarchy of artificial values, but in its turn feels itself to be openly irrational" (I.S. #4).[5] The situationists were also led to critique the "crazy love" style: "Participation in this bourgeois propaganda that presents love as the only possible adventure in modern conditions of existence. . . ." (I.S. #2).

The situationists give a precise meaning to the words that they employ -- detournement, derive, unitary urbanism, constructed situation, spectacle. One of the words that is constantly used to designate the ensemble of conditioning is "spectacle," which is used for both the cultural activities and the politics of this world. [Asger] Jorn summarizes it thus: "But what is the truth of this spectacular conflict? John Kenneth Galbraith, occupied with the administration of strategic bombardments in the war, an officer of military security, medaled as he must be, confessed in his book The affluent society[6] that modern capitalism, believing itself to be anti-socialism, today holds fast to several obviously Marxist dogmas, ignorant of their origin and always cursing Karl Marx. One can see in parallel how Russian society, believing itself always Marxist, has actually cursed Marx by honoring him."[7] In the system of compensation generalized in this world, we can cite the extreme point of this "collaborationism" of power: "The two camps do not actually prepare for war, but the unlimited conservation of this equilibrium, which is in the image of the internal stabilization of their power. It goes without saying that this will involve the mobilization of gigantic resources, since it is imperative to always raise higher in the spectacle the possible war." (I.S. #7).

We indicated at the beginning of this article that there were certain aspects far from the libertarian movement. It seems that there is no concordance on the term "ideology": "Everywhere the ideologies of the old world are critiqued and rejected, but nowhere is 'the real movement that suppresses existing conditions' free from an 'ideology' in Marx's sense: ideas that serve the masters."[8] To seize what this implies, it is necessary to re-locate this phrase into the context in which men used it in their time: Hegel, the end of philosophy; Kierkegaard, the end of theology (concept of anguish); Marx, the end of ideology. The situationists reclaim these themes in "supercession," that is to say, it is a question for them of actually realizing these disappearances by the creation of another life. All of these problems being no more than the problems of man's prehistory. It is a question of a return of these elements to their origins, which are, moreover, little understood. For example, Sartre calls himself a "Marxist," but isn't since he believes in philosophy.

In the libertarian movement, preoccupation with these themes is practically nonexistent. Why? Because it seems that there is a fixation on the political action of Marx at the time that he was denounced as an enemy by Bakunin, and that there is also little interest in dialectical reasoning. It doesn't seem that the situationists envision it in the same way: "Plagiarism is necessary: progress implies it. It stays close to the phrase of an author, makes use of his expressions, effaces a false idea, replaces it with an exact one."[9] "To know Marx's thought, it is always necessary to specify it, correct it, reformulate it in the light of a hundred years of reinforcement of alienation and the possibilities of its negation. Marx needs to be detourned by those who continue his historic route and not quoted stupidily by the thousand varieties of recuperators" (I.S. #10). Here we are on a terrain that has barely been verified by libertarian thought, wrongly, without doubt.

It is certain that the revolutionary movement needs to reconsider its own givens as a function of its era. If situationist propositions do not encourage an excessive enthusiasm, perhaps they are permitted an exact re-evaluation of these times, which must be "our" era.


[1] Translator: "last argument" or "final accounting." Latin in original.

[2] Reified: see Definitions [below]: reification.

[3] Translator: English in original.

[4] "Are we not men?" Text by Marcuse, I.C.O. #52 and #53.

[5] G.-E. Debord. Report on the Construction of Situations, June 1957.

[6] Translator: English in original.

[7] Text by [Asger] Jorn: "Guy Debord and the problem of the accursed." Introduction to the presentation of three films by Debord in a book published by the Institute for Comparative Vandalism, Guy Debord against the cinema.

[8] "Address to the revolutionaries of Algeria and all countries," November 1965.

[9] Lautreamont. Poetry.

[10] Translator: Guy Bodson's full name was Guy Antoine Bodson.

Some definitions

What does the word situationist mean? -- ". . . the term situationist, in the sense of the SI, is exactly the contrary of what in Portugeuse one currently calls a 'situationist,' that is to say, a partisan of the existing situation, Salazarism" (I.S. #9).

Situationism. -- Word deprived of meaning, abusively forged by derivation from the preceding term. There isn't any situationism, which would signify a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously conceived by antisituationists.

Derive. -- Manner of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: technique of hasty passage through various ambiances. More particularly, this designates the duration of a continuous exercise of this experiment.

Detournement. -- An abbreviation of the formula: detournement of prefabricated aesthetic elements. Integration of current productions of the arts into a superior construction of the milieu. In this sense, one can not have situationist painting or music, but a situationist usage of these means. In a more primitive sense, detournement in the interior of the old cultural speheres is a method of propaganda that testifies to the usage and the loss of importance of these spheres.

(Last three definitions, I.S. #1.)

Unitary urbanism. -- "Unitary urbanism is not a doctrine of urbanism but a critique of urbanism."

"If the Nazis had known contemporary urbanists, they would have transformed the concentration camps into H.L.M. [Translator: social housing blocs.] But this solution appears too Mr Chombart de Lauwe. Ideal urbanism must engage each person, without malaise or revolt, towards the final solution of the problem of Man." ("Comments against urbanism," I.S. #6.)

Reification. -- The term reification designates the multiple situations in which the human being sees himself snatched away from himself, rendered a stranger to himself, submitted to 'another thing,' surrendered to abstraction or split. Reification constitutes the limit-case of alienation, in which man tends towards the condition of a thing.

(Written by Guy Bodson and published in Le Monde Libertaire #127, December 1966. Footnotes by author, except where noted. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! September 2005.)

To Contact NOT BORED!
ISSN 1084-7340.
Snail mail: POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998