Critical comments on "At Dusk: The Situationist Movement in Historical Perspective" (1975)

At Dusk: The Situationist Movement in Historical Perspective was written and published in January 1976 by David Jacobs and Christopher Winks, members of the Berkeley-based, situationist-inspired group Perspectives (a later incarnation of Point Blank). We here at NOT BORED! didn't even know of this text's existence before it arrived in the mail one day in January 1997 (a gift from fans of the SI in Stuttgart, Germany). It isn't mentioned or discussed by any of the commentators who have published major essays, books or catalogues in the last 15 years -- with the sole exception of Simon Ford, author of The Realization and Suppression of the Situationist International: An Annotated Bibliography 1972 - 1992, who refers to it as a "key and extensive text" that "contains an extensive critique of Situationist concepts." And so we began distributing second-generation photocopies of "At Dusk" to people we thought would be interested in them.

Perspective was one of several situationist-inspired groups active in the Berkeley area in the early 1970s. The Council for the Eruption of the Marvelous, Contradiction (of which Ken Knabb was a member) and Negation (which later became known as For Ourselves) were also based there. (It appears that the groups founded by former members of the American section of the SI -- Tony Verlaan's Create Situations and Jon Horelick's Diversion -- were both based in New York City, just as the American section had been.) "In the ensuing war of succession after the collapse of the SI [in late 1971]," Jacobs & Winks write, "each [of these groups] was to assert its claim to the situationist throne." There was a rash of exclusions and breaks. "However justified some of the breaks may have been," Ken Knabb writes in Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb: 1970 - 1997, "the whole situ scene ended up looking pretty silly when virtually every individual disdainfully split from virtually all the others." Silly is not the word. Try inconsequential.

A good bit of "At Dusk" is devoted to critical assessment of all the pretenders to the (American) situationist throne, including Perspectives itself, but especially Ken Knabb and Daniel Denevert. (A honest masochist, Knabb begins the section of his new book reserved for "Selected Responses" to his work with a large but obviously heavily-edited quotation from "At Dusk".) But the interest of Jacobs & Winks' book lies in what they have to say about the SI in the years after 1968. "At Dusk" challenges a notion that is almost universally accepted by and repeated in the "official" literature on the situationists: the dissolution of the SI sometime in 1971 was a triumph of self-determination, a carefully considered decision, a tactic that had an important part to play in the broader situationist strategy. To Jacobs & Winks, the SI's dissolution was an "inglorious demise," an embarrassment rather than a triumph, a collapse rather than a disbanding. Why? Because the Situationists did not disband when the getting was good -- in 1969, after they had carefully documented, expanded upon, and evaluated the occupations and wildcat strikes of May 1968, but before they had embarked upon their disastrous "orientation debate" of 1970-71. Why should the SI have disbanded in 1969? Because that was when the split between their theory of revolution (the way things should have been going) and the revolution itself (the way things were actually going) became acute. Because the SI did not disband in 1969, but staggered on for a few more years, its sunset has been colored with bad blood, bad theories and bad reputations.

"At Dusk" identifies two aspects of The Veritable Split that destroyed the SI. The first aspect is social in nature, and concerns the situationists' personal distance from (Jacobs & Winks' words) "the class to which they ascribed fantastic powers," namely, The Proletariat. It might have been amusing and productive to define the SI as "a union of workers in an advanced sector of culture," as Guy Debord did in his 1958 text "Theses on the Cultural Revolution," but it was preposterous and obfuscatory to do so in 1969. "At Dusk" calls our attention to the fact that, "during the orientation debate of 1969-1971, a situationist could say [with a straight face], 'We are at the intersection point of all classes, and thus, we are no longer in any class.' " The obvious facts are these: the situationists were members of and defectors from the class known as the intelligentsia, which owes its independent existence and status to the general division of labor in capitalism; the situationist "project" or "movement," despite its fascination with society's productive sectors, was a radical intellectual current against and within the society it contested; its primary adherents were and still are drawn from the cultural, professional and educational sectors of society, and not from the industrial and manufacturing sectors.

The situationists never faced these facts, even when the facts, not to mention the end of their international revolutionary organization, were staring them right in the face. "At Dusk" points out that Debord & Sanguinetti's 1971 text "Theses on the SI and Its Time," the very last document issued in the name of the SI, is remarkable for A). its stubborn refusal to even consider the possibility of re-thinking situationist theory in light of the obvious and simple facts that students find this "proletarian theory" more alluring, provocative, inspiring and useful than workers do; and B). its patronizing tone and hostile attitude toward the efforts made by fans of the SI (or "pro-situs"), who are attacked in much the same way that the effectiveness of student rebellion was ridiculed in the 1966 situationist pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life. The real problems confronting the SI were obviously elsewhere -- either that, or the SI was doomed to collapse precisely because these were in fact its most pressing problems.

Unfortunately, ever since the publication and meek acceptance of the untenable propositions contained in "Theses on the SI and Its Time," insulting students and their "pro-situ" milieu has been an obligatory "situationist" gesture. Indeed, paying lip service to the masochistic proposition that "in a society that has learned to 'look' situationist, we are all pro-situs" has become de rigeur in certain scenes. Ken Knabb is as good an example as anyone else: "There is hardly a thesis in the Debord-Sanguinetti portrait of the pro-situ (in Theses on the SI and Its Time) where I do not recognize myself -- in the present and far too much right now!" he gushes in "Remarks on Contradiction and Its Failure" (1973). Such guilt! Such intense self-hatred!

Is all of that really called for? The facts say "No." In France and elsewhere in May 1968, and ever since then and all over the world (in Mexico City, in Seoul, in Belgrade, in Tianamen Square, and again in France), high school and college students have been there, fighting for freedom and justice, year after year after year -- while The Proletariat has not. And, as a matter of fact, these students have not been "contesting the totality of capitalism," as the SI expected and tried to demand of all revolutionaries. These students, much like the activist members of the working classes, have been concentrating on specific demands, on issue-based actions, on local issues and grievances -- in other words, on all the things the SI arrogantly dismissed as spectacular, reformist and recuperative.

And yet, though they had plenty of time for hindsight and re-evaluation, neither Guy Debord nor any of the other situationists ever considered the possibility that they were wrong when it came to what they insisted on calling the "poverty" of student rebellion. This brings us to the second aspect of the split that destroyed the SI; this aspect is theoretical, and it concerns the fundamental nature of capitalism. "The initial theses of the SI concerning the post-war period of capitalist development," Jacobs & Winks remind us, "were centered around the concept of the 'cybernetic welfare state,' which postulated that this period involved the increasing rationalization of social processes, a progressive modernization of social administration which would result in the stabilization of the capitalist order . . . [and] a continuous program of social reform: [in short,] with the elimination of 'irrational' features of the past (e.g., material and intellectual privation and overtly repressive authority), capitalism would realize an anti-Utopia based on economic prosperity." It would not really necessary to develop a new critical theory of capitalist production if one lived in a society governed by a cybernetic welfare state: (a detourned version of) Karl Marx's should be sufficient. It would, however, be necessary to develop of a new critical theory of capitalist consumption. And this in fact is what the theory of "the spectacle" is: a critical theory of consumption, but not of production.

In the analysis of Jacobs & Winks, the SI didn't imagine that the movement toward the emergence of the cybernetic welfare state might be reversible. "By taking what were then [in the 1940s, '50s and '60s] only provisional conditions of capitalist development to be in fact permanent tendencies," Jacobs & Winks point out, "the situationists converted what was at best a working hypothesis into 'theoretical' doctrine, into a perspective which appeared as absolutely conclusive." For a long time, this "situationist" perspective appeared to be as accurate as it was conclusive, and so the SI was a powerful anti-capitalist (and anti-Stalinist) agent at a time when there were virtually none.

The theory of the spectacle began to become obsolete in the early 1970s, when international capitalism -- under pressure from its enemies and unable to manage itself -- was, to quote Jacobs & Winks, "forced to reassess its expectations, and the ideology of unlimited abundance which served as a compelling incentive during its most recent expansionary cycle [was] summarily dispensed with. . . . On the command of capital, a more subdued scenario is devised: all available resources are directed towards the stabilization, through remedial actions, of the economic status quo." At least in America, the changes were decisive. Just to name two of them: the labor unions, rather than being used to integrate The Proletariat into the economic spectacle, were destroyed; and the Democratic Party, rather than being used to integrate The Proletariat into the political spectacle, was publicly sold out to Big Business. Austerity, not abundance, has ruled the day ever since. As a result, issues once thought by situationists to be of decidedly secondary importance -- material poverty, wage demands, contract givebacks, rent control, and health benefits (just to name a few) -- are once again of primary importance. Conversely, the importance of issues relating to social authority, spiritual poverty and commodity consumption is no longer unquestionably paramount.

In his preface to the third Italian edition of his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, written in 1979, Debord himself recognized the change in capitalism's direction, but it did not mean that he had to re-formulate either the critical theory of the spectacle or his book in light of these developments. They were for him superficial developments only. Debord again showed a spectacular gift for denial in 1988, when he claimed in his Comments that The Society of the Spectacle still didn't need to be updated in light of recent events -- save for the apparently painless insertion of a middle position called "the integrated spectacle" in between "the concentrated spectacle," on the one hand, and the "the diffuse spectacle," on the other. After reading "At Dusk", you realize (again?) that this isn't "modern theory": this is bullshit. How's this for a basic banality? Fuck "reconceptualizing" situationist theory! From now on, we establish new bases for the ruthless critique of all that exists.



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