Yet Another Introduction to the Situationist International

issue #27, 1997

Let us begin with an experiment: search the Internet for the obscure and ambiguous word "situationist."

MetaCrawler reports 45 collated references. Magellan reports 47 results returned. Lycos reports the existence of 409 documents. Excite reports 792 documents found. InfoSeek reports 1,285 sites. (Thanks, folks. Love your engines!)

By any standard, there is substantial interest in the Situationist International (SI), an intentionally obscure but very influential group of avant garde artists and ultraleftist political extremists that was formed in Italy in 1957 and dissolved in 1971 after finding that its members were becoming celebrities, despite their best efforts to the contrary.

At least four major introductions or guides to the SI have already been written and uploaded to the Internet:

1). my own "Intro to the SI" (written in 1984), which can be found at the NOT BORED! website. Consult this text if you are interested in Greil Marcus's 1989 book Lipstick Traces (without doubt the single best work on the SI written in English) and in the situationists' influence on such Anglo-American punk bands as the Sex Pistols, Gang of Four and The Feederz. This introduction to the SI is one of the very few, if not the only one written after 1981 to cause a public scandal.

2). Jamal Hannah's "About the SI," which is located at Jamal's Egoist Communism website. Easily the best of the four uploaded introductions, this short essay emphasizes the appeal of the SI to educated youths, students and intellectual drop-outs (people who would normally have nothing at all to do with revolutionary groups and politics because they are widely perceived to be boring and repressive).

3). Shawn Wilbur's "On the Use of the SI" (1994), which is posted at Shawn's website. Written in the epigrammatic style favored by the situationists (who intended to parody Hegel's epigrams), this text emphasizes the enduring importance of such situationist practices as drifting through urban spaces as a kind of anti-tourism, and subverting advertisements and other forms of spectacular propaganda.

4). Max Anger's "Go 'Beyond the SI' in Ten Simple Steps," which is posted at the Against Sleep And Nightmare website. Very poorly written, riddled with mistakes and typographical errors, and nearly impossible to follow, this text presumes to definitively "critique" and thereby have done with the situationists, which it doesn't really bother to describe or explain in a sustained or fair manner. As such, this text is an excellent example of the quality of much of the writing about the SI that has been published in Anglo-American zines over the course of the last 15 years.

Quite obviously, these four texts do not account for all of the hits in a search for the word "situationist." As a matter of fact, a great many of the articles and reviews currently available on the Internet that mention the magic word concern Guy Debord, a founding member of the SI, its most prolific and influential theoretician, and one of its last remaining members in 1971. Because of Debord's enduringly central role in the development of the SI, and because of the fact that in the post-SI period Debord continued to write and publish short but very potent books, and made several feature length situationist-influenced films, the habit of most students and amateur historians of the situationist movement is to treat the SI as a moment in Debord's life, rather than treat the SI as a group that contained 70 different people, one of whom was Guy Debord. And so many overviews of or introductions to the situationists can be found tucked within reviews of Debord's books, especially his 1967 masterpiece, La Societe du Spectacle, his 1988 follow-up to it, entitled Commentaires sur La Societe du Spectacle, and his 1989 autobiography Panegryque.

An essay such as this new introduction to the Situationist International apparently needs to be (re)written and (re)published every five years or so; no definitive introduction, overview or critique of the SI seems likely to be written. Why is this? One might think it should be easy to summarize definitively a group that no longer exists, that remains fixed in the now-gone post-World War II period. But this isn't the case. It just isn't sufficient to keep reprinting the same old introductions to the SI every time someone new is interested in finding out where he or she should start in his or her own studies. One must start again, each time.

One explanation for the existence of this unusual situation -- which is not necessarily a bad thing (indeed, it seems to be quite a good thing, for it prevents dogmatism) -- is that, ever since the mid-1960s, publishers in the United States and England have been bringing forth waves of translations of situationist books, pamphlets, flyers, wall posters, graffiti and film-scripts. (Though there were British and American sections of the SI, the vast majority of the organization's sections were based in European countries. Since the French section contained the SI's most prolific theoreticians and writers, most of the situationist texts now translated or still awaiting translation into English were originally written in French.)

Significant waves were made in 1981, when Ken Knabb published his Situationist International Anthology, now in its third printing; in 1983, when the small American presses Left Bank and Black & Red reprinted or brought into print new translations of Raoul Vaneigem's 1967 book Traite de savoir-vivre a l'usage des jeunes generations and Debord's La Societe du Spectacle; in 1989, when the Institute for Contemporary Art mounted a traveling exhibition (Paris, London and Boston) of situationist works and produced an exhibition catalogue that included previously untranslated materials; in 1992, when the small English presses Pelagian and Rebel brought forth translations of the film-scripts for each of Guy Debord's six films; and in 1995, when Keith Sanborn produced a subtitled translation of Debord's most celebrated film, La Societe du Spectacle (Simar Films, 1973).

We learn more and more about the SI and what it did during its 14 years as time goes by. Inevitably, changes to or revisions of our most basic conceptions about the situationists have been and will no doubt continue to be necessary. There are several more important situationist books written in French that need to be translated. There are also quite a few very interesting and still untranslated situationist texts in Danish, Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish. And so there will be at least several more waves of English translations to hit these shores over the course of the next decade or so.

Another reason for writing a new introduction to the SI every few years is the fact that situationist literature, like all great art, is far too experimental, unstable and internally inconsistent to be definitely summarized by anyone, no matter the familiarity with French or with the texts themselves, at any time. Something important always manages to escape; all guides to or summarizers of the SI seem doomed to make crucial mistakes, incredible omissions, unfortunate misinterpretations, and poor or hasty judgments. As a writer of two and now three introductions to the SI, I unfortunately speak from experience. (In case you're wondering, I didn't list my 1991 performance-piece "The Situationist Concept of Spectacle, Then & Now" among the existing introductions to the SI because the text of it has not yet been uploaded to the Internet.)

But it is also a distinct possibility that the "problem" of having to write new introductions does not lie with the SI or the nature of its texts. Instead, the "problem" might lie with the changing nature of the society in which we find ourselves, and our relationship to it. As we will see, the situationist project was the beginnings of an attempt to completely abolish both Western capitalism and Eastern bureaucratic communism, and institute true ("anarchist") social democracy for the first time in history. Since the dissolution of the SI, a number of unprecedented events have taken place; the world scene is quite simply no longer what it was over the course of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. In particular, the Soviet Socialist Republics (as well as all of its European satellites) have collapsed and disappeared.

Consequently, the global contrast between capitalism and bureaucratic communism -- sharp during the 1957 to 1971 period -- has become dull. But it has not disappeared: the most populous nation on Earth, and thus one in four people, is still governed by a totalitarian "socialist" bureaucracy. Armed conflicts seem to take place less and less in the geo-political realm and more and more in the socio-economic realm; racial and ethnic hatreds seem to be replacing ideological hatreds. But international class struggle has not disappeared: in Nigeria, in Albania, in Chiapas, in Seoul, and in Rangoon, the laboring classes are now fighting intense, all-out battles against both the military juntas that rule them and the multinational corporations that ruthlessly exploit them. In the midst of (the organized confusion that is) the "post-Cold War period," it seems increasingly difficult to imagine that something other than capitalism has been or will ever be possible. And yet the material preconditions for the emergence of anarchist social democracy grow more ripe every day.

Consequently, we feel the need to tell (again) the story of the Situationist International, a group of anarchists and artists who wished more than anything else to have a clear and accurate description of what capitalism really is and how it functions, and to have a concrete and effective programme by and through which capitalism could be completely abolished, bureaucratic communism could be avoided, and anarchist social democracy could begin.

As we mentioned, the Situationist International was founded in Italy in 1957, a year after representatives from three small but very ambitious European groups met to see what they had in common and what they could possibly do together. The three groups were the Lettrist International (founded in 1952 and based in France), the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (founded in 1953 and based in Italy), and COBRA (founded in 1948 and based in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam [thus the name of the group]). The fact that each of these groups were international in character immediately tells us a good deal about the Situationist International, which established sections in other parts of Europe (Germany and Scandinavia) within the first year of its existence.

From the start, the SI -- a kind of international federation of internationalists -- was intended to be completely free of ties to nations, national identity and nationalism, and therefore the most accurate representation or expression of what was really going on in the world. (Not coincidentally, what was "really going on in the world" was and still is the internationalization of certain conditions and phenomena, usually associated with advanced capitalism, that had previously been restricted to certain countries.) The fact that the three original micro-groups -- as well as the macro-group that they combined to form -- were intentionally kept small (never including more than a dozen members at any one time) tells us that the SI was designed to be as pure, militant and extreme an organization as it was international.

Other than their determined internationalism, the LI, the IMIB and COBRA shared a deep devotion and commitment to two things: modern art and radical politics, both of which are fundamentally utopian in nature. The problem for these groups was that, in the decade or so after the end of World War II, precious few (if any) of the existing or traditional forms of modern art and radical politics were not irretrievably lost to corruption, exhaustion or collaboration with Big Business, Nazism or Stalinism. Wherever one looked -- in both pro-capitalist political parties and "socialist" alternatives to them, in both the workplace and in leisure time -- elites, larger-than-life leaders and huge, impersonal bureaucracies were increasingly dominating, controlling and ruining the lives of individuals. Utopia literally was nowhere.

The solution to this daunting problem was obviously to reject mere tinkerings with existing forms, and to re-invent both modern art and radical politics from scratch. But how? By finding a way of combining them into a unified project in which art and politics could be begun again -- but begun again in such a way that they would enrich and strengthen each other, rather than misunderstand, attempt to control or dogmatically deny the relevance of each other, which had happened all too often in the past.

Following the direction pointed out in the late 1940s by the Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre, who had been a Surrealist partisan in his youth and had not lost his feel for art, the Situationist International based their unified project in the demands and expectations associated with everyday life and the subjectivity of individuals, rather than in those demands and expectations associated with history and the objectivity of so-called Progress. For the SI, both modern art and radical politics had to be exciting, satisfying and effective immediately, in the here-and-now, in life as it is, day after day, for the majority of society -- and not in some far off future, some Heaven, or some period after the Great Revolution.

Art and politics that continued to defer the delivery of satisfaction and human enrichment , while all the time making promises and proclaiming that delivery was nevertheless certain, had to be abolished. Those forms, which the situationists called "spectacular," were designed to obscure the fact that so-called Progress had long ago produced the material preconditions needed to make everyday life in the modern world a paradise on Earth, rather than a living hell. Since no one else was around or willing to do it, the SI took upon itself the burden of starting the onslaught against "the society of the spectacle" (the irrational society that intentionally perpetuates that which is outmoded, obsolete and decomposed), quite confident that others would soon join in. Slightly more than a decade after the organization's founding, it became clear that, in a word, the SI was right. Social revolution was and still is both desirable and possible.

The members of the Situationist International came up with several names and phrases that designated the new hybrid of art and politics (i.e., the new forms of social life) they visualized. The most important of these designations was the "constructed situation," which the SI would define in the first issue of its journal as "a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events." It was from this central and yet deliberately vague notion that the name "situationist" was derived. A situationist is "one who engages in the construction of situations," who has "to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations," as well one who is a member of the SI.

A fundamental and thus very productive ambiguity is thus created: though there are situationists, there can be no "situationism" -- in the SI's words, no "doctrine of interpretation of existing facts," no dogma to learn and repeat -- precisely because situations truly worthy of the Twentieth Century had not yet been constructed. Such situations would have to be constructed BEFORE one could derive a dogma or doctrine of interpretation from them. Thus "there is no such thing as situationism," the SI declared in the first issue of its journal; "the notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists." But if we withdraw the very idea of situationism, how can we speak of "the theory of constructing situations"? What theory can there be?

Perhaps a concrete example of a situation that was actually constructed would help clarify the issue. But this, precisely, was the SI's problem (and its greatest strength, because the problem allowed the SI to adapt to changing circumstances over the course of 15 years): though it could find a great many historical examples, the SI was never in complete agreement on what an ideal constructed situation really was. As a result, the SI could never quite agree on the precise nature of the situations its members, and the organization as a whole, should be engaged in constructing. But rather than letting this fact become an obstacle to action, the SI produced all kinds of passageways that might lead to a constructed situation, whatever that might be.

For clarity's sake, let us postulate, as others have done, that the history of the SI has three distinct stages. (Note, this postulation is rejected by Thomas F. McDonough in his article "Rereading the Situationists, Rereading Debord.") In the first stage (1957 to 1961), the members of the organization dedicated themselves to creative expressions of the new hybrid of art and politics. Over the course of these few years, they produced a staggering quantity and variety of art-based political ("synthetic") works: issues of their journal, tracts, pamphlets, scrapbooks, tape-recorded presentations and lectures, conferences, exhibitions, paintings, drawings, architectural models and plans, films, boycotts, disruptions of "spectacular" cultural events, etc. etc. In this first stage, a constructed situation was akin to what became known in the United States as a "happening" -- an interactive performance that was politically radical to the extent that it was a synthesis of all available means for the sole purpose of satisfying real, human desires -- though the situationists expected their happenings to encompass, fill and transform entire neighborhoods, and not just entire performance spaces. In other words, the construction of a situation was something that required the cooperation and participation of relatively large groups of people.

Around 1962, the membership and direction of the SI began to change, in part as a result of the organization's strict policy of excluding and breaking with people who seemed more interested in avant garde art than in radical politics, and in part as a result of the new types of people who approached the SI with the intent of joining it. Stated crudely but accurately: radically experimental artists were out and radically experimental theorists were in. The scission or break was so deep that a group of more than half a dozen excluded situationists (the so-called Nashists) constituted themselves as the Second Situationist International. Under this name, these ex-situationists continued to be active for several years, publishing The Situationist Times from Amsterdam. But very little attention was or has recently been given to the Second International, which incidentally was never officially disbanded.

In the second stage of the (First) Situationist International's history, which lasted from 1962 to 1967, the group's emphasis shifted from producing art-based political works to developing the critical theory of the spectacle. Consequently, the situationists' theatre of operations moved from the exhibition space to the university classroom. In 1965, the SI assisted in attacks on renowned cyberneticians who intended to speak at the University of Strasbourg. The following year, the SI wrote On the Poverty of Student Life, the publication of which was, thanks to a group of student radicals at the University of Strasbourg, paid for by their student union (which was not amused). The culmination of this period of agitation among the intelligentsia was the nearly simultaneous publication of two books of situationist theory: Debord's La Societe du Spectacle and Vaneigem's Traite de Savoir-vivre. In these works, and in the essays published in the SI's journal during this period, the best example of what a constructed situation is became a popular insurrection such as the 1871 Commune of Paris, the Kronstadt Rebellion of 1921, or the 1956 Workers' Councils of Budapest.

It was with this orientation that the SI went forth into 1968, during which it met and participated in the festival-like Parisian occupations movement of early May 1968, which triggered an unprecedented general wildcat strike that paralyzed all of France for several weeks and almost toppled the French government. Unlike so many others (including no doubt the members of the Second SI), the situationists weren't taken by surprise when this clearly anarchist rebellion broke out and took hold of the populace -- they had been predicting the rebellion's unlikely arrival for more than a decade. As a result, the SI was able to act quickly and yet with confidence and effectiveness during the May Events; its members could plainly see the importance of the event, which so many commentators since then have been determined to dismiss as minor, localized, even nonexistent. Conversely, because the SI's devotion to resuscitating the international revolutionary movement had been unwavering, the rebellion could not fail but to have certain distinctly situationist features (such as the Enrages' use of politico-poetic graffiti and slogans, images taken from and turned against popular culture, and demands for the radical alteration of the patterns of everyday life).

The third period of the SI (1968 to 1971) was largely taken up with accurately reporting, documenting and interpreting what had happened in Paris and elsewhere in France during May 1968. Because of the clarity and severity of their take on the rebellion, the situationists -- in Rene Vienet's 1968 book Enrages and Situationists in the Occupations Movement and in the 12th and, as it turned out, last issue of their journal (September 1969) -- produced both the most knowledgeable and the most useful accounts of it. But the SI was not sure what its own next step should be, now that "the much anticipated revolution" had arrived; indeed, its members weren't even sure if the SI could or should, in the aftermath of May, continue to exist as it had before.

The beginning of 1970 saw the organization polling itself on these questions. By the end of the year, Raoul Vaneigem had resigned and several members had been excluded for being too "contemplative," that is, being too taken with their status as stars of May 1968. In 1971, the remaining members of the SI decided to dissolve the group and pursue their respective activities as unaffiliated individuals. The following year, the group published The Veritable Split in the International, within which there were in-depth analyses of everything of interest -- the May 1968 revolt, the situationists' spectacular visibility, the resignation of Vaneigem and the issues it raised, etc. -- with the exception of the SI's quiet and unexpected decision to disband. (Note: a different interpretation of the SI's last few years and end can be found elsewhere.)

Other options for the group clearly included acclimating themselves to their unwanted celebrity and learning how to use it to further their aims, or arming themselves, going underground and becoming terrorists, as several ultraleft groups in France, Germany, Italy, England and the United States did in the 1970s. But these options were no doubt rejected as absurd. The only choice left was to disappear -- to return to the nowhere out of which their movement had so unexpectedly emerged -- as quietly as possible. So quiet is the farewell to the SI contained in Debord's 1973 cinematic adaption of La Societe du Spectacle that you might miss the fact that celebrating the rise and fall of the SI is the film's raison d'etre.

Neither fetishizers nor deniers of their past, unsullied by both nostalgia for the 1960s and the blood of murdered people, the situationists managed to go out much as they had come in: e.g., masters of their own fate. Thus it seems to us now that their project can be resumed at any time and by anybody who has the ambition, the vision and the commitment to do so.

And yet it's obvious and inevitable that there will be problems with any concerted attempt to apply the theory and practice of the Situationist International to contemporary struggles in America. Let us concentrate on four of the most important of them.

1). The Situationist International organized and conducted itself as an avant garde group, indeed, as if it were going to be the very last of this century's many avant garde groups. Though it was militant about maintaining (the appearance of) equality among the members of the group, the SI was nevertheless an elite group of revolutionaries. It sought to recruit the most promising people and to expel those who after a period of time were falling to make good on their promise. The problem here is that America is a country without an avant garde tradition. The cultural movements that do very well here are anti-elitist, inclusive and "of the times" (rather than "ahead of the times"). Little groups -- no matter how grand their names and ambitious their programs -- are easily, indeed routinely lost in a country the size and breadth of the USA. And so, if the example of the SI is to be brought to or adopted in America, would-be situationists must find a way of building a heterogenous, populist movement that is not theoretically nor organizationally incoherent as a result of its inclusiveness.

2). The Situationist International emerged from a culture in which both the State and the private sector were in the business of funding, distributing and exhibiting works of modern art. Thus there were in this culture two possible agencies of what the SI called "recuperation": i.e., the turning of rebellion into money. To combat both of these agencies of recuperation, the SI found it increasingly necessary as it developed to renounce the practice of art (even the practice of such situationist art techniques as detournement, drifting and psychogeography) and to denounce those who practiced it without sufficient regard for the dangers associated with recuperation. The problem here is that, in America, the State has never really been in the modern art business; only the private sector is used to recuperate the wounding attacks and dangerous demands that are made through art. And so, if there are to be American situationists, they need to less dogmatic than the original situationists when it comes to the production of art, but without losing awareness of the crucial function of recuperation.

3). The Situationist International emerged from a political culture that had a long tradition of anarchist struggle against both private and bureaucratic capitalism. Though European anarchism had won no decisive battles or launched any successful revolutions, in the 1957 to 1971 period it remained an active social tendency with its share of followers. As a result, the SI could use anarchism -- something from which it strove to kept its distance at all times -- as something to define and clarify the SI's own position with respect to the dominant institutions of society. The problem here is that America -- despite its traditional lawlessness and individualism, and despite its own an anarchist tradition (which stretches from Benjamin Tucker and William Godwin to the Industrial Workers of the World and Dwight MacDonald) -- is strongly and deeply suspicious of anarchism, which it routinely confuses with terroristic violence against the State. And so would-be American situationists must define and practice anarchism in such a way that both "rugged individualists" and anti-bureaucratic anti-capitalists such as themselves can feel comfortable with it.

4). The Situationist International emerged from a culture that had powerful trade unions and a strong labor movement. Though these unions were dominated by the parties of the detested Communist Left, the SI could count on two things: the members of the rank-and-file were accustomed to talk of class consciousness, class struggle and revolutionary socialism, and so could easily understand the publications of the SI; the rank-and-file members of the union, as well as the theorizing intellectuals employed by the various Communist parties, were excellent candidates for recruitment into the SI or independent manifestations of the anarchist revolutionary project. The problem here is that, though nearly all of America's major labor unions were founded by socialists, these unions are A). drastically weakened after decades of concerted anti-labor political and economic policies; and B). no longer controlled nor even fought for by organized Communist Left groups, which have themselves been in steady decline for many years. Americans who would be situationists therefore must not count on workers to be familiar or comfortable revolutionary themes and rhetoric, and must not automatically or necessarily look to the unions and the "socialist" political parties for readers, contributors, recruits or people to man the barricades, all of whom must come from elsewhere.

But to change one's expectations in these specific ways is to embrace anarchism and to admit that Marxism must not only be "detourned" (brought up-to-date), but finally dispensed with as well. One has every right to wonder what might remain of the situationist project after the changes proposed here have been made. In particular, one would be correct to ask, "What is 'situationist' about a situationist theory and practice that is no longer tightly focused on the proletariat and the ways in which the Stalinist parties prevent it from fighting effectively against both private and bureaucratic capitalism?" The answer would appear to be "Nothing other the various tactics and techniques the SI introduced to the revolutionary movement." It may turn out that, just as they claimed, the situationists were in fact much closer on the strategic level to Marxism than they were to the anarchism of Bakunin, Proudhon and Blanqui. It may also turn out that the recent global collapse of Marxism as a revolutionary theory of action took the SI down with it, and that only anarchism can help us now. But this should not dissuade us from trying to apply what the situationists did to contemporary America. Indeed, it should encourage us, for it means that, when we are done, what we have come up with will truly fit our time, place and situation.



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