"[In the June Insurrection, Paris, 1848] they broke through walls so as to be able to pass from one house to another." -- Sigmund Englander, 1864, History of the French Workers' Association
It's not a difficult image to visualize; any idiot could do it.
Like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain, who spoke prose without knowing it, Mr. Cohn Bendit and the other student radicals were situationists without quite realizing it. According to Guy Debord, around whom the fragile movement circled, "a situationist" is "one who engages in the construction of situations." When students turned the Boulevard St Michel into a lecture hall, or invited workers into the Sorbonne to set up workers' councils, they were being situationists. -- The Economist, June 1998
But Simon Sadler, author of The Situationist City (The MIT Press, 1998; 232 pages; illustrated in black and white only; $35 hardcover only), just can't bring this image into focus, despite the fact that he is a Postgraduate Researcher and Tutor in the Department of Art History at the Open University in Great Britain who pledges (in his own words) "allegiance to academic rigor and objectivity." He makes only two references to the May 1968 revolution in his entire book, and both of those references are glancing. In an academic book that pretends to concentrate on the Situationist International and its close attention to modern architecture and urban planning, this "oversight" -- if that is what it is -- is more than just glaring: it is blinding.
The first reference to the event around which the entire history of the SI (1957 to 1972) revolves appears buried in a paragraph about the mainstream and very uninteresting architectural group Team 10.
By 1967 [Team 10 member Shadrach] Woods was writing in a vein so radical that it might have been acceptable even to situationists. "Our weapons become sophisticated; our houses more and more brutish. Is that the balance sheet for the richest civilization since time began?" In 1968, the year of the political chaos that the situationists claimed to have sparked, Woods assisted students in the removal of his own work from the Milan Triennale.
If the situationists claimed to have "sparked" anything in particular -- which they didn't -- it would not have been the "political chaos" of that one year, 1968. The situationists were interested in neither politics nor chaos; their concerns, rather, were with general social revolution and the new organization of life to come. The situationists had been engaged in anti-capitalist subversion ever since 1957, well before there was a student movement in France; and they continued to be active long after 1968. More to the point: in 1968, while people like Shadrach Woods were evacuating their art work from places like the Milan Triennale, the situationists were occupying buildings such as the Sorbonne and the National Pedogogic Institute, and filling them with their art work (graffiti, posters, banners, et al).
Sadler's second and last reference to the events of 30 years ago appears at the beginning of the last chapter, entitled "Conclusions."
The sort of doubts about planning and [architectural] modernism expressed by situationists have since met with spectacular consensus [...] Many city centers became dominated by leisure use. It was of course a commercial rather than an anarchic leisure, since larger situationist demands remained marginalized by capitalism -- which always seemed likely to be the case, except perhaps for a few heady days in May 1968.
Sadler assumes that his readers know all about those "few heady days," and that he therefore doesn't need to say a thing about them, other than to observe that May 1968 might perhaps have been a striking exception to the normal functioning of advanced capitalism. Of course "larger situationist demands remained marginalized by capitalism": those larger demands concerned nothing other than the immediate destruction of international capitalism and its replacement by a superior form of social organization! Quite obviously, if May 1968 produced even a few heady days in which "larger" situationist demands were no longer marginalized, but were freely heard in the very center of society, any competent academic who pledges allegiance to the flag of rigorous and objective research would focus on May 1968, at least for one solid paragraph, if not for an entire chapter.
But (Assistant) Professor Simon Sadler will have none of it, and this marks him as an unapologetic defender of the capitalist system. His basic attitude towards capitalist society seems to be an echo of the argument made by "some members of Britain's Independent Group," namely, that "mass consumption and the capitalist spectacle were things that intellectuals would simply have to come to terms with if they were to appreciate the revolution taking place in the electric city." By "to come to terms with" Sadler obviously means "to accept without any further questioning."
Sadler's unstated but obvious assumption is that the 1990s are very much like the 1950s, which he characteristically describes as a "time when it was fashionable for avant-gardes to disengage from notions of social revolution." Sadler would have us believe that, by some swing or turnaround that he doesn't trouble himself with defining, exploring, or explaining, it became "fashionable" in the 1960s to be politically engaged, but that this political engagement was fundamentally false, because it was just an empty echo of the 1920s,
when artists, architects, and designers had pursued disparate, open-ended experiments; for a time when the conditions of modern life -- above all, the relationship between "man and machine" -- had been addressed head-on; [...] when fundamental shifts in thought, like those engineered by Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, still felt fresh and vital; and for a time when general revolution was regarded as necessary, even inevitable.
Sadler wants his readers to believe that the days of genuine revolution were already long-gone in 1968, when even the "peculiarly risque" and "seductive" Situationist International -- which stood out in such marked contrast to all the Maoists, Stalinists, Leninists, and Trotskyists of the time -- "seemed rather old-fashioned" because of its "preoccupation with class," its "belligerent class-consciousness." For Sadler, there is no point in talking about any of it in the 1990s -- when all of Marxism itself is completely outdated; when international capitalism is triumphant; when general revolution is neither possible nor even desirable. "Though history denied us" -- once and for all, Sadler makes it seem -- "the opportunity to spend our leisure time wandering around situationist space," he writes, "we have been offered the chance to while away our free time in cyberspace, with its potential to produce a version of social space with even greater finesse than [the situationist Constant's] New Babylon."
The central paradox of The Situationist City is this: if class-conscious, general revolutionary movements were old-fashioned in the 1960s and are as dead as a door-nail in the 1990s, then why bother with the situationists at all? Why not throw the SI out along with the rest?
Quite clearly, Sadler would love to do just that, for, in his eyes, the situationists were idiots. "It was almost by default, creditable to the eccentricity, complicity, and tenacity of psychogeographical technique" -- and not to the situationist inventors of psychogeography, apparently -- "that situationism yielded any worthwhile social geography," he writes. As for Debord:
When [he] drew our attention to the wonders of the Metro map of Paris, and when he collaged into Memoires an old map of London's railway network, he might have been construed as offering some insight into the capital and social growth of cities. But he more likely enjoyed the way the drifting nets of track reminded him of psycho-emotional meanderings generally.
It is as if Debord were a precocious child or a monkey that can paint abstract images; a being incapable of even understanding such big words as "capital" and "social growth," which must only be used by fully-qualified adult humans, who, of course, know what these words and images really mean.
To Sadler, the situationists were dangerous idiots, "anarchic" people to be neither trusted nor under-estimated, despite their child-like obsessions with games and play: "Like revolutionaries before them" -- like all revolutionaries, it would appear -- "situationists had no compunction about using the same tactics as the authorities that they rebelled against," Sadler writes. "Early situationism did indeed threaten to replace the totalitarian ideologies of capitalism and communism with a new totalitarian ideology of situationist play, enforced by peer pressure and the situationist appropriation of space." In a revealing phrase, Sadler writes metaphorically of "card-carrying members of the SI," but it is clear that he is trying to get his readers to believe that his metaphor is to be taken literally and seriously: the situationists, no matter what they said or even did to the contrary, were no different from the Communists.
And so Sadler -- good defender of the capitalist order that he is -- seizes upon every opportunity available to him to slander, insult, ridicule or dismiss the situationists. According to Sadler, who loves to dispense his "objective" value-judgments while playing the role of psychologist, the situationists "seem to have had difficulties getting on with 'everyday' citizens"; they were "among the most megalomaniac heirs of urbanism"; their "encounters with the ghetto could be immature or deliberately provocative"; Debord was "overambitious"; the SI's ambitions were "preposterous"; some of their texts (especially the ones written in collaboration with other situationists) are "schizophrenic," rather than self-contradictory. . . .
Perhaps the most telling series of "objections" to situationist theory and practice that Sadler makes is the one in which his personal discomfort with the situationists as people is made clear.
In relating their visions the situationists relied, of course, on a sympathetic relationship with one another and with their audience [...] Anyone who has really lived understands psychogeography, it was assumed, and anyone will understand it once they have experienced real life. This simply assumed that we all want the same things from the city, and that our experience and knowledge are homogenous; in short, that we are the sort of person who was attracted to the SI or, more to the point, that we should be that sort of person [...] More than anything this high-mindedness revealed the social descent of the situationists -- from the avant-garde, the flaneur, and the connoisseur -- which they combined with the tiresome cockiness of youth.
Here Sadler -- a person who has become visible precisely and only because of his putative "interest" in "situationism" -- is telling us that he is, in short, not the sort of person who is attracted to the SI, that is to say, someone who wants to destroy capitalism and replace it with a superior form of social organization. He's telling us -- no, he's whining -- that he bitterly resents the fact that -- when it comes to the "field of study" that he's marked off as his own, the hot little bit of intellectual property called "situationism" -- it is expected that he should have to be such a person. To make sure we know how bloody unfair the whole thing is, Sadler lets it be known that the situationists themselves had "no class"; that they were stupid and arrogant enough to give up their class privileges and "descend" down the socio-economic ladder; and that they were no better than the "students" (cocky louts and layabouts, one and all) that, every semester, poor university professors such as Simon Sadler are forced to instruct in classes on the elementals of art history and architecture. Why do people have to be so bally principled when it comes to this situationist stuff? Sadler wants to know. Why can't I have my cake and eat it, too?
But poor, tortured Simon Sadler just can't throw the Situationist International into the trashcan of history along with the Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists and all the rest; it appears it would be really fucking stupid to do so. The SI is just too valuable to Sadler personally as just another upwardly-mobile young professional who needs to "distinguish" himself from the others; as a proletarianized "intellectual" who dreams of becoming one of the elite. The Situationist City -- which is obviously an illustrated version of his recently completed Ph.D. dissertation -- is not the only thing he has written about the SI: far from it. Indeed, in 1993 Sadler wrote his (still unpublished, alas) M.A. dissertation on the subject of "'Situationism' and Architecture" for his professors at the University of Central England. Sadler also wrote a paper entitled "The Situationist City" for the Association of Art Historians, which met in Birmingham, England, in 1994. In other words, dangerous idiots though these situationists might have been, they are helping one Simple Simon Sadler make an academic career for himself as The Young Architectural Historian Who Specializes in "Situationism."
Not surprisingly, Sadler -- judging from his work in The Situationist City -- hasn't troubled himself to learn very much about the SI over the course of the last few years. The pages of his book, like the streets of any major city, are littered with garbage. Rather than try to present in an organized fashion the various pieces of garbage we have retrieved from Sadler's "book" ("trashcan in book form" would be a more accurate description), we will just dump out a few of the pieces that are the most revealing of its general ambience and odor.
--- Sadler is willing to make conclusions based on the following suppositions -- "if situationist testimony is to be believed," "if the claims for three-month drifts were true," and "if situationists spent as much time drifting as they claimed" -- without bothering to test them, that is, without bothering to conduct an interview or two with a living situationist such as Constant or Michele Bernstein, and, no doubt, without really believing that the situationists actually did any of the incredible stuff that they claimed to have done.
--- In one part of his book, Sadler writes that world-renowned painter Asger Jorn "apparently concentrated upon the production of situationist theory rather than of genuine situationist works, and hopelessly ambitious projects rarely went much further than the written idea." In a footnote to this staggeringly ignorant remark, Sadler adds, "the only 'situationist' productions of Jorn were some exercises in 'detourned' painting." But, in yet another part of his badly-edited book, Sadler informs his readers that Jorn "modified his own house in Albisola, Italy, between the late 1950s and the early 1970s" -- thereby creating the situationist Garden of Albisola, which inspired Guy Debord to write "On wild architecture" in 1974.
--- Debord's unforgiving "attitude" about bad books and poisoned food, according to Sadler, has "its roots in the Marshall Plan era, when the French left chose to drink wine instead of Coke as an act of defiance against 'Coca-Colonisation.'"
--- The "comparable moments of euphoria and fete actually present in the memories of Lefebvre and of many situationists" to the Paris Commune of 1871 were "the 1936 election victory of the French Popular Front, and the liberations of 1945." (For Debord's fiercely critical comments on the French Popular Front -- the election of which he believed to have been a disaster for the French working class -- see Refutation of all judgments brought to bear on the film 'Society of the Spectacle,' the extraordinary film he made in 1975.)
Despite the fact that he is boring, lazy, ill-informed and willfully ignorant (even for an academic), Sadler has been published, and -- happy coincidence! -- by a publisher that since 1994 has also published or agreed to distribute two important situationist-related books: Donald Nicholson-Smith's translation of Debord's 1967 book Society of the Spectacle and a translation of Raoul Vaneigem's 1986 book The Movement of the Free Spirit. Quite obviously, the "utility" of someone like Sadler -- the reason that you would publish a bad book by him and not a good book by someone else -- is not who he is, nor even what he has written or done, but the simple and arbitrary fact that the timing of the appearance of his manuscript was fortuitous.
As far as academic career moves go, Sadler's specialization in architectural "situationism" has been very well-timed, and very successful. Thirty years ago, no one in the academic fields of "postmodern" architecture knew or cared about the situationists. As Sadler himself notes, "situationism was conspicuous by its absence from Experimental Architecture, the key retrospective account published in 1970 by Archigram's Peter Cook." It has only been in the last ten years -- since the exhibits of situationist artifacts at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris -- that "situationism" has really begun to catch on as "something new" among architectural historians. Sadler's bibliography lists four articles on the subject of "situationism" that have been published in highly-respected urban planning or architectural journals over the course of the last four years.
(The most recent article listed by Sadler, Thomas F. McDonough's "Rereading Debord, Rereading the Situationists" -- which is, in Sadler's words, one of "the important additions to the literature" published as his book went to press -- was lambasted in NOT BORED! #27 May 1997. The two other "important additions to the literature" mentioned by Sadler are both books published in Barcelona in 1996 and edited by Libero Andreotti and Xavier Costa: Situationists: Art, Politics, Urbanism and Theory of the Derive and other situationist writings on the city. Both books clearly demonstrate that the situationists' interest in architecture and urbanism remained a central feature of their program before 1957, from 1957 through 1972, and beyond. "It may be argued," Andreotti writes, "that the core animating principles of the movement, which were so clearly spelled out at the start, remained essentially unchanged; among them, a passionate rejection of all forms of utilitarian economism, an understanding of the city as a space of play and human self-actualization, and a faith in the possibilities of urban space to generate moments of genuine democratic participation." Later and overtly "political" situationist writings -- such as "The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy" (1965), which Sadler relegates to a mention in a caption to an illustration -- are included by Andreotti because they "locate urban issues in the wider perspective of radical change advocated by the SI.")
And so -- to make his on-going personal exploitation of the situationists work, despite his strong dislike of the situationists and much of what they stood for -- Simon Sadler must carefully "watch his step," must "walk a very thin line" in The Situationist City. He has to take his readers on a tour that is both rewarding and thorough-going (not to mention "rigorous and objective," and "fastidiously academic"), but he also has to make sure that the readers' footsteps never deviate from the intended path, that the readers' eyes never stray from what is being presented and accidentally glimpse something that they should not see, and that the readers' minds should not wander and find themselves in a place that is not supposed to exist.
To keep his readers "on the straight and narrow," Sadler has got two kinds of rewards. Every so often, he will claim that -- despite the fact that they were dangerous idiots, worthy of being constantly insulted and ridiculed -- the situationists were occasionally right. "Despite the initial popularity of grands ensembles and villes nouvelles like Sarcelles and Mourenx," a caption to an illustration taken from the SI's journal declares, "situationists correctly predicted their long-term social and architectural failure." Nowhere in his book does Sadler elaborate or follow-up on this provocative statement. Elsewhere, Sadler notes in passing that, "exactly as the situationists seemed to be warning us, the social is implicated in the aesthetic: Jussieu's nightmarish corridors, vertiginous stairwells, and campus deserts, fashioned from beton brut to meet the demand for popular higher education, barely conceal an indifference for their users."
The situationists, Sadler occasionally points out, were also right when they judged reformist architectural groups and movements to be without real value. The architectural proposals of Constant Nieuwenhuis, Sadler says, echoing Debord's critique of the Dutch situationist, do indeed have "a whiff of reformism about them." Even "later situationism" is credited with being right on occasion. In the course of a discussion of Constant, Sadler quotes Reyner Banham: "In one sense they [the later SI] were right [about Constant, who was forced to resign from the SI in 1961]; once you begin to clothe the naked concept of homo ludens in usable equipment, and to connect the constructed situations to the power mains, the result is liable to look remarkably like a swinging affluent society and its mobile, leisure-seeking citizens." (Sadler wishes to make it appear that situationists both "early" and "late" were themselves merely "swinging" "leisured nomads," instead of the fiercest critics of empty capitalist "happiness.")
The other means by which Sadler tries to keep his readers from drifting away from him is to throw into his tour guide's patter a few "interesting" tidbits garnered second-hand from other academic sources: in 1956, the situationist Guiseppe Pinot-Gallizio arranged for Constant to design an encampment for a group of Gypsies who lived in Alba, Italy; during the Paris Commune, the "lateral piercing" of buildings was used by the insurgents as a way of creating routes of travel that could not be cut off by the army; and, in the minds of the situationists active in the 1957 to 1961 period, "psychogeography was merely a preparation, a reconaissance for the day when the city would be seized for real." Any one of these tidbits could have been -- but was not -- used to launch a very interesting and relevant discussion of situationist architectural theory -- especially the last one, which concerns the use of psychogeography in the placement and defense of barricades in the Latin Quarter on the night of 10 May 1968.
Sadler's tour of The Situationist City is certain to be canceled for lack of interest. In any book about the Situationist International (which, in addition to being an apparently infinitely rich source of both imaginative ideas in their own time and inspiration in ours, was also quite skilled at making thieves and robbers quickly regret any ill-advised "borrowings" or plagiarism from the work produced by its members) -- be that book written by a genuinely sympathetic writer such as Greil Marcus or Sadie Plant, by a supposedly "neutral" writer such as Len Bracken or Simon Sadler, or by an openly conniving bastard like Stewart Home or Bob Black -- the chances of readers loosing their way and finding something "inconvenient" are good, very good indeed.
It must be said -- though we hated reading this bad book on the situationists more than reading any of the others -- there is no small degree of drama in Sadler's dilemma and the peculiar ways in which he tries to resolve it.
The constructed situation [Sadler writes] would plunge its participants into an examination of individual and collective consciousness: redeeming Shakespeare's famous dictum that "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players," the Lettrist International envisaged the construction of situations as a twenty-four-hour tragedy played out for real.
As it played out in reality, the story of the Lettrist International was in fact a romance, a love story that came true. About Debord in 1957, Sadler writes this:
He was desperately casting around for a way out of the impasse of five years of lettrist activity. And about five years after that he was instrumental in escaping another impasse, redefining situationism as a "non-art" movement [emphasis in original].
But even Simple Simon knows that Debord got himself out of the labyrinth in 1957, when the Situationist International superceded the Lettrist International, just as he got himself out of the labyrinth again, in 1962, when the Situationist International transformed itself into the type of organization that both expected and could act effectively during the revolution (which, as we all know, did indeed break out in France in May 1968).
And so, dear readers of mine, let us see how Simon Sadler, the protagonist in a tragedy of his own making, is the cause of his own undoing. . . .
Right from the start, the situationists were very clear on these points: that a "situationist" is someone who "engages in the construction of situations," someone who is "a member of the Situationist International"; and there is no such thing as "situationism," which would be -- in the words of the first issue of Internationale Situationniste -- "a meaningless term improperly derived" from the word situationist, as well as "a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts." According to the situationists, "the notion of situationism is obviously devised by anti-situationists."
In his apology to his fellow academics for his "the reductionist tactics," Sadler writes:
I have suppressed the considerable differences among avant-garde groups that contributed to situationism, instead drawing out their common ground. And I have claimed this common ground for situationism because the nexus of ideas that I want to explore in this book was almost completely formulated in the decade before the Situationist International finally inaugurated it as a program. Subsequently [sic] I have chosen to identify the people who formulated these ideas as "situationists."
Throughout his book, Sadler refers to "situationists," and not to the situationists, thereby destroying the carefully established and diligently maintained boundary constructed by the SI between its members and people who had ideas or methods that might be construed as similar to those that they held or used. Consequently, all kinds of people ignored or even explicitly repudiated by the SI are referred to as "situationists." Alain Touraine -- described by the SI as "foaming at the mouth and howling," in the midst of the agitation at Nanterre in March 1968, "I've had enough of these anarchists and more than enough of these situationists! Right now I am in command here, and if one day you are, I will go somewhere else where people know what it means to work!" -- has a nice, comfortable place in The Situationist City, among other "situationists." So does Henri Lefebvre -- dismissed by the SI in the same breath as Touraine -- whose work Sadler describes as "so seamlessly assimilated by situationism, and vice versa, that for the purposes of this discussion it is hardly possible or useful to distinguish the two."
(In a telling footnote to this strikingly ignorant and lazy remark, which clearly suggests the uselessness of his own book, Sadler reports that Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas -- the translators and editors of Lefebvre's Writings on Cities, published posthumously in 1996 -- are "correct in their opinion that 'the relationship between Lefebvrian and Situationist concepts awaits a serious study' and it will doubtless be forthcoming." In the meantime, Sadler seems to think he can say whatever he likes about the relationship between Lefebvre and the situationists, without fear of being contradicted by a "serious" authority on the subject. He is wrong.)
With the exceptions of Simon Sadler, the other architectural historians who are, like him, only now discovering the situationists, and Stewart Home (author of What is Situationism?), all of the writers who have approached the subject in recent years have respected the SI's wishes that the distinction between "situationist theory" and "situationism" be observed. Insensitive or simple readers may find no difference between the two phrases, because it is thought that the difference would, no doubt, directly concern the situationists: i.e., either they were ideologues (builders of an "ism"), or they were thoroughly anti-ideological (nomads of free thought). But the real difference between the two phrases has more to do with the consciousness of the SI's readers than with the situationists themselves: i.e., either the readers -- like the situationists themselves -- are enemies of all "isms," but especially such "isms" as Leninism and Stalinism, and are therefore quite willing to give the SI the benefit of the doubt on this score, or the readers are people who believe that it is impossible for anyone to be thoroughly anti-ideological (nomads of free thought), and who therefore think, without any further investigation, that the situationists had to have been ideologues.
Simon Sadler, who falls into the second category of readers, has one and only justification for referring to "situationism" throughout his book:
The situationists' caution about a 'situationism' was a clever way of reminding themselves of the dangers of becoming 'academic' in their procedures, a fate that had befallen their avant-garde predecessors, the surrealists, 'policed' as they were by their spokesman Andre Breton. But as a way of throwing academics off the scent forty years later -- well, no tactic could be more misguided than denying the existence of situationism. Academics are precisely the people with the time and inclination to unravel such riddles.
Only a seriously ill-informed, guilt-ridden, and totally self-absorbed academic could think that the situationists were obsessed with being recuperated by academia and by academia only. "Situationism" in fact represented the dangers of the recuperation of situationist theory by such diverse institutions as the art "world" (the galleries and the art magazines far more than the professors of architecture and art history), the "world" of newspapers and journalism, and, most importantly, the "world" of the "Communist" and "Socialist" political parties and their theorists -- all of which responded to the SI while it was still in existence, and not "forty years later," as have the riddle-unraveling academics with plenty of free time on their hands. (Note that Breton and surrealism had flirted with and were recuperated by the French Communist Party in the 1930s, well before they before they were recuperated by academic art historians and Madison Avenue.)
Quite obviously, if the SI disbanded in 1972, its members could not still be using the term "situationism" forty years after its original refusal or anti-coinage to throw academics "off the scent." (Off the scent -- of what exactly?) The only people who are properly using the term "situationism" in the 1990s are "the radicals who have carried the candle for situationist ideas since the demise of the Situationist International" (Sadler's words); they typically use the term to condemn enterprises such as Sadler's. In a sweeping and preemptive counter-dismissal, Sadler refers to these candle-holders as "Pro-situs," whom -- Sadler boldly predicts -- will not like his book at all.
Many Pro-situs [Sadler writes] seem uncomfortable that they and their discourse are largely products of academia, even when they are its anti-products [...] They apparently wish to direct the full force of the class war against academics.
More obsessive self-absorption on Sadler's part: "Pro-situs are uncomfortable with academic books on the situationists because these books reveal the source of 'situationism' in academic discourse." If this were true -- and it isn't, because the sources for such crucial situationist concepts and practices as the derive and psychogeography lie in modern art, not in academic histories or interpretations of it -- then there would be no reason for Sadler's book to exist in the first place. In other words, if the premise of Sadler's pop sociology were true, then The Situationist City would have been a book called The Postmodern City and it would have been about how so very interesting and relevant the architectural theories and writings of Reyner Banham and the Independent Group, Archigram, Team 10, and the Smithsons (the theorists and movements with whom Sadler is most comfortable) are. There would have been no need at all to refer to the situationists, except perhaps in a snide footnote or two.
No: if pro-situs such as myself hate The Situationist City, it is because Sadler wants to have it both ways, at all times. He wants to write a "fastidiously academic book" (though this will offend the uncomfortable Pro-situs), and yet, at the end of his introductory chapter, he wants to settle in comfortably with the highly-principled Pro-situs so that his readers won't, you know, get the wrong idea.
I hope that this [Sadler writes of the three-part organization of his book] makes the book fairly easy to follow. But in case it settles readers' ideas about situationism too much
-- and consequently ends the demand for bad books about the situationists --
I end this introduction by siding with my imaginary Pro-situ detractors. Early situationism was never quite as containable as this book might make it seem [emphasis added].
To insulate himself against the obviously valid claim that -- because he nevertheless decided to refer to situationist theory as "situationism" throughout his book -- he wrote it in bad faith, Sadler wants his readers to know that the fault with "situationism" lies squarely and completely with the situationists, and not with him.
But for all the propagandist brilliance of situationist critique, virtual incomprehensibility was an inherent feature of the situationist architectural project. Situationists were nearer the mark than they realized when they said that "situationism" did not exist. At the center of the project was a methodological vacuum, a groping for the nonspectacular, some kind of everyday "other." [...] The situationist process envisaged can barely be claimed to have occurred. There wasn't even any evidence that a situation was ever constructed as prescribed. The program that situationists set themselves was so ambitious and uncompromising that it condemned itself to failure [...] And if the Situationist International couldn't even decide how to construct a situation, it seemed unlikely that they would agree upon how to transform the city itself [...] The best that Internationale situationniste could suggest for those wishing to carry on envisaging the situationist city was that they return to the principles of detournement.
But the situationist architectural project is easily comprehensible by anyone willing and able to see where it leads, which is straight to such revolutionary insurrections as the one in France in May 1968. "We have invented the architecture and the urbanism that cannot be realized without the revolution of everyday life -- without the appropriation of conditioning by everyone, its endless enrichment, its fulfillment," Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotanyi wrote in "Elementary program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism," a text from 1961 paid little attention by Sadler. When the precondition was met or when it began to be met -- when the revolution of everyday life broke out in Paris and then in other French urban areas (especially Nantes) -- the situationist city began to be constructed, or, rather, situationist cities began to be constructed as detournements of existing cities. To make it plain: a street barricaded against intrusions by the police is a detourned street.
In order to prevent his readers from turning down the Street of Modern Urban Insurrection, Sadler tries to cut the situationist city into pieces, to create "off-limits" zones, in short, to separate the situationist city from itself.
For those who don't know or need reminding: the 15-year-long history of the Situationist International is commonly divided into three periods: 1957 to 1961, during which the SI was primarily focused on modern art and its revolutionary legacy; 1962 to 1967, during which the organization developed its critical theory of contemporary capitalist society; and 1968 to 1972, during which the members of the group participated in the May 68 insurrection and attempted to deepen, broaden and spread it to other countries.
Sadler's announced intentions in The Situationist City are to cleanly separate the first period ("early situationism") from everything else that follows it (he doesn't distinguish between the middle and late periods, and prefers to call them both "later situationism"), to cherish a simulacrum of "early situationism," and to belittle and mock "later situationism" for its abandonment of its own architectural theory.
I reserve for academics [not for the Pro-situs!] my apology for the reductionist tactics of this book [Sadler writes]. I have concentrated on the earlier phase of situationism, when art, architecture, design, and urbanism were still primary concerns for the movement [...] This book takes perverse care in extracting situationist architectural theory from a revolutionary program that attempted to confront the ideological totality of the Western world --
-- and failed (that is, if you stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that May 1968 actually happened).
[...] Over time [the SI, Sadler writes] sidelined the art theory that had been the springboard of the entire endeavour [...] The intensely critical turn situationist theory took after the first few issues of Internationale situationniste effectively terminated the direct situationist interest in art and urbanism [...] It seemed that the Situationist International quickly lost control of its architectural theory [...] In this book I concentrate on the early situationist program and so try to save it from the obscurity to which it was later banished by the Situationist International.
There is a point to be made here. In fact, Henri Lefebvre had already raised it in an interesting and forceful way in an interview conducted with him in 1983 by Kristin Ross, who, for some reason, waited until 1997 before she got it published in October 79 (special issue on Debord and the SI).
After 1960 . . . [the situationists, Lefebvre reported] abandoned the theory of Unitary Urbanism, Unitary Urbanism only had a precise meaning for historic cities like Amsterdam that had to be renewed, transformed. But from the moment that the historic city exploded into peripheries, suburbs [...], the theory of Unitary Urbanism lost any meaning. I remember very sharp, pointed discussions with Guy Debord, when he said that urbanism was becoming an ideology. He was absolutely right, from the moment when there was an official doctrine on urbanism [...] That doesn't mean that the problem of the city was resolved -- far from it. But at that point [the situationists] abandoned the theory of Unitary Urbanism. And then I think that even the derive, the derive experiments, were little by little abandoned around then, too.
Unlike Sadler, Lefebvre clearly appreciates the fact that the SI's apparent abandonment of Unitary Urbanism and their other architectural theories (the derive and psychogeography) in the early 1960s was based on a carefully-reasoned and highly-principled argument. This argument, spelled out in detail in "Critique of Urbanism" -- a crucial text published in Internationale situationniste #6 (August 1961), not included in Ken Knabb's Situationist International Anthology, but available in both October 79 and Theory of the Derive and other situationist writings on the city -- holds that:
Confrontation with the whole of present-day society is the sole criterion for a genuine liberation in the field of urban architecture, and the same goes for any other aspect of human activity. Otherwise, "improvement" or "progress" will always be designed to lubricate the system and perfect the conditioning that we must overturn, in urbanism and everywhere else.
Sadler gives his readers the impression that the SI's rejection of urbanism was executed in isolation, that it wasn't part of a long-term, systematic and largely successful attempt to protect the revolutionary core of situationist theory from immediate recuperation by reformist and neo-liberal forces in the capitalist system. Sadler doesn't believe that recuperation is a real concern, of course. Both times that he uses the word, it appears enclosed within doubtful quotation marks; the second time he uses it, "recuperation" is quickly dismissed as a "highfallutin" word. (I'm serious: "The situationists found highfallutin reasons for their failure to meet this requirement," Sadler writes in the voice of a country hick about a complex installation the SI wanted to put in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. "They would withdraw from 'recuperative' space, their journal said.") Furthermore, Sadler refuses to admit that the "supposedly historic split between pro-art and non-art factions" in the SI around 1962 was in fact a real split: it was "in fact rather a crude representation of the difficulties that had been inherent in situationism." After 1962, Sadler insists, "Debord and the Debordists," who had "an increasing stranglehold on the movement," did not "question directly the universalizing assumptions of the situationist project," but struck out "the most visible reminder of its fracture: the continued production of it."
For his part, Henri Lefebvre -- even though the SI consigned him to the trashcan of history in 1962 -- couldn't disagree more with Sadler. The split and re-grouping of the SI in 1962 was "more than a transition, it was the abandonment of one position in order to adopt the exact opposite one," Lefebvre is quoted as saying. "Between the idea of elaborating an urbanism and the thesis that all urbanism is an ideology is a profound modification." Debord might say that between the two ideas, within the profound modification of one by the other, is the adventure of the dialectic.
But neither Simon Sadler nor Henri Lefebvre are willing to admit that the SI made tremendous strides as a revolutionary organization committed to the overthrow of global capitalism in the 1962 to 1967 period, that is to say, when they stopped considering the "problem of the city" in the context of individual behavior and started considering it in the context of global conditions. Though Lefebvre, unlike Sadler, doesn't refuse to acknowledge the facts that (a) the May 1968 revolution took place and (b) it was clearly "situationist" in its use of public space, Lefebvre still speaks of the SI's "abandonment of the problem of the city," and refuses to acknowledge that it was precisely their insistence on the importance of life in the capitalist city that allowed to the situationists to play such an important role in May 1968 (the urban revolution in which "situationist architectural theory" was directly tested by being put into practice).
So Sadler is simply doing capitalism's ideological dirty work when he claims that, dentist-like, he is "extracting situationist architectural theory" so as to save it from the Situationist International, which was so stupid as to deform and abandon it. Sadler is trying to turn one of the SI's greatest successes -- its evolution within and beyond the limited "artistic" framework in which it was originally conceptualized -- into one of its failures. He is suppressing the later SI's attempts to go beyond architecture -- to go beyond their own architectural theory -- so as to remain in control of "his" privileged subject matter and consequently his personal niche as the architectural historian who specializes in "Situationism."
To do this, Sadler needs to create the impression that, in the years leading up to 1968, the situationists wasted their time with talk of revolution. In a pointed comparison between the SI and Team 10's Aldo van Eyck, Sadler states that van Eyck -- despite the presumably situationist-like "revolutionary threat" contained in a statement he had issued in 1947 -- "had preferred to reshape space in the here-and-now, under the respectable patronage of De 8 (a Dutch CIAM group), rather than await the revolution." Sadler's unstated but obvious point seems to be that, were it not for the historical accident or aberration commonly referred as the May 1968 revolution, the situationists would have been exposed as frauds, and people like Aldo van Eyck -- not the situationists -- would have achieved the fame that they deserved but were deprived of. "Ironically," Sadler writes, "Debord, virtually the inventor of the constructed situation, obstructed maneuvers to construct one, as if he suspected that it was of little revolutionary value: that its realization would, indeed, be faintly ridiculous." In Sadler's view, Debord and the SI didn't actively make history: their passive hands were forced by it.
Were it not for the deus ex machina of the May 1968 revolution, Sadler wants us to know, the situationists would have been exposed as (gasp!) architectural conservatives. Sadler, confusing the activities of the Lettrist International with those of the SI, writes:
Most of the architecture and spaces that were endorsed by situationists existed by chance rather than by design: back streets, urban fabric layered over time, ghettos. Perhaps situationist exemplars could not adequately be synthesized, abstracted, or even "detourned" -- only preserved, the passing of time itself being an architectural agent, the fourth-dimensional attribute of use, weathering, and legend that psychogeographers keenly noted. Probably most situationists [except for Debord and the Debordists, no doubt] realized the near-impossibility of constructing truly situationist architecture.
But we are not embarrassed by the facts that the situationists were not builders, that their architectural theory was "nothing more" than the direct application of detournement to already existing buildings and streets, and that -- in pre-revolutionary periods -- their architectural practice was "nothing more" than the protection of certain areas of the city from destruction. The situationists were not architectural specialists, and their "programme" didn't require experts for its execution. Anybody can detourn a building or a street; anybody drift through the city and find a place in it that should be protected from the ravages of capitalism.
"If we wish to know more, we must descend to the streets ourselves," Sadler writes, as if he's actually been there. But he hasn't; and it is quite plain that the very idea of "descending" to the streets terrifies him more than any haunted house has ever disturbed the dreams of little children.
[LETTRIST INTERNATIONAL ARCHIVE] [SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL ARCHIVE]