An Introduction to the Situationist International

NB! #6 1984 *


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This text may be freely reproduced, translated or adapted, even without mentioning the source.

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As recently as the 1940s, art forms which shared punk's ugliness, dissonance, and bohemian roots -- dada and surrealism in the visual arts, existentialism in philosophy, and serialism in music, to name but a few -- were considered scandalous and offensive by middle-class culture. Whatever notoriety these art forms attained in their day, they were suppressed for being attempts to destroy aesthetic, political and moral values. Since then, middle-class culture has come to regard these works of art as "classics," as "realistic" perspectives on society, things to be studied in the universities and copied -- minus their critical edge -- by the advertising industry. As a result, our generation (I am 25) has grown up with the mistaken idea that these gestures of opposition are reified monuments to a dead culture, rather than starting points in our efforts to create a world without alienation or boredom.

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It is highly significant, therefore, that in 1976, when punk took its stand against the English socio-cultural terrain, the most powerful cultural institutions -- EMI and CBS Records, Melody Maker and New Musical Express -- greeted the Damned, the Sex Pistols and the Clash with open arms. With the lone exception of the Pistols, the first wave of punk bands shook, rather than bit, the hands that fed them. The Clash, in particular, have always shown a desire to help those who have rather opportunistically helped them. Eight years later, "punk rock" is a commercially successful form of expression, something that even frat boys and neo-Nazis can like without fear of being considered weird or repulsive. Mohawks, shaved heads and safety pins, not to mention the Clash or John Lydon, can now be seen with increasing frequency on MTV.

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What has happened since the 1940s is that aesthetic production has become fully integrated into commodity production generally. Rather than merely tolerating "art for art's sake," the capitalist imperative to produce fresh waves of ever-more novel-seeming goods, at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation. As a result of these changes in the cultural logic of capitalism, changes brought about by the movement from the monopoly stage to the multinational stage of capitalism, our sense of history, both personal and collective, has been completely eroded. We now live in a perpetual present. Under such conditions, it's nearly impossible to conceive of the future; any traditional attempt to oppose society's development are now secretly disarmed and reabsorbed by that very society.

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The intellectual adjuncts of official Western culture would have us believe that it has only been very recently that anyone has come to understand these dizzying, discomforting and historically original changes in culture, and that it will be many more years before anyone, even revolutionaries, will be able to develop a new set of oppositional tactics. From art magazines such as Artforum and ZG to the sociology departments of Yale and the University of Paris to "alternative" newspapers such as The Village Voice and In These Times, one now sees a torrent of discussion and analysis of these themes, generally lumped under the rubric of "theories of postmodernism." Yet the fact of the matter is that the nature of the cultural logic of multinational capitalism, as well as the nature of the new forms of revolt, have been known for at least 30 years! Preeminent in this regard, and not solely by dint of personal talent, have been a group of extremists collectively known as the Situationist International. It is no coincidence that the recent proliferation of analyses of "postmodernism" have been accompanied, after years of silence, by growing references to the situationists. In a passage equally applicable to the sudden visibility of postmodern culture as it was to the reception of the SI in the early 1960s, the SI wrote that "many intellectuals hesitate to speak openly of the SI because to speak of it implies taking a minimum position. Many of them believe, quite mistakenly, that to feign ignorance of it in the meantime will suffice to clear them of responsibility later."

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Originating in the Lettrist movement in Paris in the early 1950s, the Situationist International was formed in 1957 by a few European avant-garde groups. Over the next decade, the SI developed an increasingly incisive and coherent critique of Western multinational capitalism and Eastern bureaucratic capitalism, its pseudo-opposition. The new methods of agitation developed by the SI were highly influential in leading up to the May 1968 revolt in France. Since then -- though the organization itself was dissolved in 1972 -- situationist theses and tactics have been taken up by radical currents in dozens of countries all over the world, perhaps most notably [for our purposes] in the punk movement in England in the mid-1970s. In this article I will attempt to present a useful selection of excerpted situationist writings and images "detourned" by the SI, as well as to illustrate the SI's origins and development. Anyone who is serious about learning from the SI's example will want to read their writings in their entirety. Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle is available for $2 from Black & Red (POB 02374, Detroit MI 48202); Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life is available for $7 from Left Bank Books (Box B 92 Pike Street, Seattle WA 98101); an anthology of the SI's journal, as well as various postmortem critiques, are available for $10 from Ken Knabb (POB 1044, Berkeley CA 94701); my own attempts to update situationist theory and practice can be sampled for $2 [outdated address deleted].

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The misfortune of the situationists' theory and that to which comparable movements of revolutionary intellectuals in the past succumbed were ultimately reunited in the very nature of their failures. Just as with Marxist thought and other, later attempts at revolutionary critique, all the results of the SI's efforts wound up knowing a complete inversion of their meaning in the 1970s, so as to now constitute nothing more than a particular brand of cultural verbiage in the generalized false communication imposed on men and women by existing conditions, as much in their acceptance of these conditions as in their revolt against them. A case in point is the band the Feederz, who proclaim with great self-satisfaction that "the situationists were a big influence on us," despite the fact that the Feederz have done violence to the integrity of the situationists' theory by turning it into an ideology, into situationism. "Such people," the situationists proclaimed, "are extremely handicapped and uninteresting compared to those who may not be aware of the SI but who unflinchingly confront their own lives." One must invert the Feederz's song "Dead Bodies," itself an inversion of one of the SI's theses, to get at its real truth (i.e., that any attempt to apply an ideology to current conditions is necrophilous by definition). To pursue this line of thought (and thus clear up any misconceptions about the situationists' ideas about revolutionary violence): the real truth of the Feederz's song "Destruction Unit," once it has been inverted to correct for itself inverted perspective, is that unarmed dissatisfaction, which goes so far as refusing the false activities offered by the work-a-day "world" without being able to reinvent human activity upon other bases, is indistinguishable from capitalist advertizing and twice as odious when it is advocated by so-called revolutionaries.

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An objection might very well be made that the writing and publication of this article will encourage spectacular, imbecilic (a la the Feederz) or otherwise inappropriate uses of the situationists' theses and example. My hope is that by intentionally nourishing these inappropriate uses of the SI, I will thus dialectically create the possibility of better uses of it. To be blunt: everyone reading this article must realize that the situationists are in the past. By extinguishing the security afforded by self-satisfied references to the SI, or to any external authority, for that matter, it is hoped that each revolutionary feels as I do: namely, that he or she has to take responsibility for his or her own thoughts and actions. This is necessarily the first step toward autonomy and the possibility of forming truly revolutionary organizations without militants, followers or sycophants.

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"The new revolutionary theory," the situationist Mustapha Khayati wrote in 1966, "cannot advance without redefining its fundamental concepts. 'Ideas improve,' says Lautremont. 'The meaning of words participates in the movement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author's phrase, makes use of his or her expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.' To salvage Marx's thought it is necessary continually to make it more precise, to correct it, to reformulate it in the light of a hundred years of reinforcement of alienation and the possibilities of negating it." The situationists, in their attempts to develop a coherent critique of society as it really is, plagiarized the writings of Marx, Hegel, Fourier, Lewis Carroll, Sade, Lautremont, the surrealists, Henri Lefebvre, Georg Lukacs -- in short, from anyone whose basic impulse was to theorize the totality of society. Yet, unlike nearly all of the theorists and artists from whom they plagiarized, the situationists critiqued society without the pull of allegiances or the fear of reprisals. The SI never pretended to have a monopoly on intelligence, but on its use.

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The touchstones of Marxist-situationist theory are these: A). That all forms of capitalist society, be they corporate or bureaucratic, are in the final analysis based on the generalized and -- at the level of the masses -- stable division between directors and executants: those who give orders and those who carry them out. B). That subsequent to the total domination and colonialization of nature by technology (a victory that freed mankind from having to struggle to survive), the directorate, its hand forced by capitalism's need to locate and exploit new raw materials and new markets for its products, began its domination and colonialization of human nature. The only other alternative was for the directorate to admit that the battle against nature had been won and that the directorate itself was no longer necessary or even desirable. C). That the domination and colonialization of human nature took the form of a consumption-based society, rather than a production-based society; this "new" society the situationists called the society of the spectacle. D). That the alienation which, in the 19th century, was rooted in economic misery had, in the 20th century, become located in false consciousness. E). That this false consciousness believes that "everyday life" (i.e., one's personally selected ensemble of commodities and ideologies) is separate from "history" (i.e., the sum total of that which is accomplished at and by work). And F). That the society of the spectacle perpetuates itself by compensating those denied the opportunity to make history with more and more commodities, all of which are fundamentally unsatisfying because the ideology of survival remains coded within them.

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The touchstones of Marxist-situationist practice are these: A). That during the 1910 to 1925 period, in the form of dadaism and surrealism, modern art had already revealed and, on the plane of ideas, destroyed the workings of the society of the spectacle. B). That the failure of modern art, on the plane of actions, to make good its promise to destroy spectacular society is inseparable from the failure of the workers' movement of that same era. C). That post-surrealist modern art, if it doesn't link up with the workers' movements of the current era, cannot help but be boring, sterile and openly apologetic for multinational capitalism. D). That there is most definitely a modern workers' movement; the problem is that clinging to outdated notions of who the modern proletariat is prevents everyone from seeing what it is doing. E). that the modern proletariat, which more often than not revolts out of boredom, does not yet know that it encompasses nearly everyone. And F). That, when situations are constructed (this is the derivation of the term "situationist") in which the freedom of modern art is put into practice, the modern proletariat will come to know what it truly is and will realize that it wants to live modern freedom rather than be a spectator of it.

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One can discern three main periods in the situationists' development. In the first, which preceded the actual formation of the International in 1957, the situationists devoted themselves to derives, to drifting through the city for days, weeks, even months at a time, trying to find what the Lettrist Ivan Chtcheglov called "forgotten desires": images of play, eccentricity, secret rebellion, negation. The derives were part of a self-conscious attempt to organize a new vision of everyday life; this was a process that ordinarily took place without self-awareness. In the second period, which stretched from 1958 to 1962, the situationists experimented with the supersession of art. These experiments took four forms: 1). the imposition of additional or altered speech bubbles on pre-existing photocomics; 2). the promotion of guerilla tactics in the mass media; 3). the development of situationist comics; and 4). the production of situationist films. Accompanying this article, one will find several examples of "authentic" situationist cartoons and photocomics. (I've placed the word authentic in quotes because the whole point of situationist comics is that anyone with an understanding of what distinguishes them from mere parody or satire can produce "authentic" examples themselves.) In the third period, which extended from 1963 to 1968, the SI developed a theory and practice of the exemplary act. Citing, celebrating, analyzing and, as often as possible, lending practical support to such exemplary acts of refusal as the Watts riots of 1965, the Algerian Revolution of 1966 and the resistance of students to the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1967, the SI made explicit their belief that the only successful revolutionary movement would be an international one. Some of these actions led nowhere; some -- like the assaults the SI itself made against French cyberneticians at the University of Strasbourg in 1966, and against sociologists at the University of Nanterre in 1967 -- led to May 1968, which was the first wildcat general strike in history, and the largest general strike that ever stopped the economy of an advanced industrial society.

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Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the SI was its steadfast refusal to reproduce internally the hierarchical conditions of both the "world" of the commodity and the various self-styled "workers" parties which claim to oppose it. "The SI cannot be a massive organization and it will not even accept disciples as do the conventional radical groups," wrote an unidentified situationist in 1963. "One of the classic weapons of the old world, perhaps the one most used against groups attempting to alter the organization of life, is to single out and isolate a few of the participants as 'stars.' We have to defend ourselves against this process, which has an air of being 'natural.' Those among us who aspired to the role of stars or depended on stars had to be rejected. The SI will only organize the detonation; the free explosion must escape us and any other control forever." True to their word, when the explosion came in 1968, the situationists, unlike others involved in the insurrection, didn't trade their victory for whatever rewards the momentarily defeated spectacular society offered them. Rather, the SI struggled against reformism in an attempt to define the revolt's most radical possibilities, which meant that, in the end, the situationists would leave behind the most radical definition of all that May 1968 could have been, but wasn't.

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If the May 1968 insurrection was the realization of the Situationist International and the confirmation of its theses and tactics, then this realization was also the end of the SI. Though the situationists used their theories about the society of the spectacle as rules of thumb in the construction of their organization, they did not apply them to the very activity of theory formulation. The backlash generated by the confirmation of situationist theory threw the SI, which was generally unprepared to resist self-satisfaction, into incoherence, impotence and finally massive psychological repression of the whole experience, without their ever having asked themselves what was happening to them.

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In the aftermath of the May 1968 revolt, two things have happened which are of great importance to the readers of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll. The first is that revolution has moved from being an apparently marginal phenomenon to a visibly central one. The underdeveloped countries have lost their apparent monopoly on contestation; but the "Third World" revolutions haven't stopped; they have simply become modern and are resembling more and more the struggles in the advanced countries. The formerly isolated gestures of revolt against what seemed to be isolated alienation and boredom now know themselves to be international and proliferating. It is this global visibility which has once and for all shattered the ideologies that saw revolution everywhere but in the proletariat. The second aftermath of May 1968 is that this society, which proclaimed its well-being in the 1950s, is now officially in crisis. Everything that the situationists said about art, the proletariat, the spectacle, is broadcast everywhere -- minus the essentials. Revolutionary theses don't appear to be what they really are (the ideas of revolutionaries), but rather appear to be images seen in unexpected outbursts of lucidity on the part of the rulers, the stars and vendors of illusions. The very fact that EMI Records, the biggest and most conservative label in England, agreed to release "Anarchy in the U.K." is confirmation of this hypothesis.

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The genius of the Sex Pistols -- the style that distinguished them from their contemporaries in the English punk movement of the mid-1970s -- was their thorough understanding of society's weaknesses in the aftermath of May 1968. By making explicit reference to the MPLA, the UDA and the IRA, "Anarchy in the U.K." accomplished several things at once: it restored revolutionary ideas as the product of revolutionaries; it pointed out the visibly central nature of revolution to modern society; and, by asserting that dissatisfaction with society is either profound or it is nothing, it revealed the true desperation behind society's official proclamations that it's in a state of crisis. Like the situationists before them, the Sex Pistols didn't exchange the ground "Anarchy in the U.K." won for them for whatever rewards society offered them. Rather, the Pistols progressively upped the ante: by asserting, in "God Save the Queen," that the function of sacred thought has been taken over by ideology; by challenging, in "Pretty Vacant," the cult of the image; and finally, in "Holidays in the Sun," by demanding the right to make history now. Once again like the situationists, the Sex Pistols only organized the detonation; they -- Johnny Rotten, at least -- allowed the free explosion to escape them. If one can believe Malcolm McLaren, who once told Melody Maker that "it's wonderful to use situationism in rock 'n' roll," the connection between the Pistols and the SI is a solid one.

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Earlier in this article I asserted that punk is dead, that it is no longer at all shocking to middle-class culture, and that it and its hallmarks can now be seen with increasing frequency on MTV. Quite obviously, the same cannot be said for the hardcore movement. Yet the hardcore movement's days may be limited if we don't act fast. Already one can detect in it the same weaknesses which crippled and ultimately destroyed punk: namely, the fact that the vast majority of the people involved in it haven't theorized their relationship to the "world" of the commodity. In the absence of such a critique, the hardcore movement has found itself under the tutelage of a small clique of dubious leaders who have tried to maintain their visibility by developing an ideology of anarchism, a salad thrown together out of the mildewed leftovers of a feast they've never known. Since anarchism can never be more than a period of wavering between two extremes -- one leading to submission and subservience (as in Jello Biafra's mayoral campaign), the other leading to permanent revolt (the Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off") -- it is most definitely not the ground upon which to build a revolutionary movement. An example? East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys: "You'd be surprised how many people think we're serious. 'Kill the Poor' was Number 4 on the charts in Portugal. We think the government promoted it." To save itself, from its external enemies as well as its internal enemies, the hardcore movement must revolt against its own leaders, which means dumping people like Frank Discussion and Ian MacKaye; it must reduce its numbers, which means de-emphasizing "scene building"; it must increase the quality of its numbers, which means that each person should be able to understand his or her own relationship to the totality of social life; and it must internationalize its reach, which means linking up with the revolutionary forces of the modern proletariat. Quickly! I have already taken up too much of your time.

Editor's Note


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