One Step Forward, One Step Back

Ken Knabb's Pas de deux

In December 2006, Ken Knabb took the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first edition of his Situationist International Anthology (Bureau of Public Secrets: Berkeley, 1981) to publish a "revised and expanded edition." A major development in Anglo-American radical politics, Knabb's Situationist International Anthology was the first such collection of translated texts[1] since 1974, when the ex-situationist Christopher Gray published Leaving the Twentieth Century. Though Gray's selections were far from complete and his translations and commentaries were weak, Leaving the Twentieth Century was also an important work: illustrated by Jamie Reid,[2] it exerted a strong influence on English punk. But unlike Leaving the Twentieth Century, which was not reprinted in its original format, well distributed or widely read, Knabb's Situationist International Anthology became a kind of "Bible" for that part of the English-speaking world that loved and learned from the situationists. It was reprinted once in 1989, and then again in 1995.

The new version of the Situationist International Anthology is both longer (532 pages, up from 406) and smaller (the size of the type has been decreased and there are more lines per page). It includes six "new" texts: one from the pre-1957 period ("Proposal for Rationally Improving the City of Paris"); three from the 1958 to 1962 period ("Theses on the Cultural Revolution," "Another City for Another Life" and "The Use of Free Time"); two from the 1966 to 1969 period ("Contribution to a Councilist Program in Spain" and a selection of graffitied slogans from May 1968). Ten texts that had only been partially translated in the first edition have now been translated in full. They include such important texts as Guy Debord's "Report on the Construction of Situations" and "The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art"; Raoul Vaneigem's "Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature"; and the unsigned "How Not to Understand Situationist Books."[3] Knabb has also greatly expanded his "Translator's Notes" (annotated references to historical events) and his "Bibliography" (Pre-SI Texts, Guy Debord's Films, French SI books, SI Publications in Other Languages, Post-SI Works, and Books About the SI).

And yet the Situationist International Anthology remains a deeply flawed book. It continues to under-represent the SI's "early" period: only a few texts are included from the following issues of the group's French-language journal, Internationale Situationniste: #2 (1958), #3 (1959), #4 (1960), #5 (1960) and #9 (1964). And so Knabb seems rather silly when he criticizes Tom McDonough, the editor of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, for presenting "a misleadingly one-sided selection of 150 pages of SI articles (mostly early ones on art and urbanism, with virtually nothing from the last two-thirds of the group's existence)," precisely because Knabb's book is such a good symmetrical match for it (mostly later articles on politics, with virtually nothing from the first third of the group's existence). Unfortunately, neither book documents such important moments as the formation and subsequent collapse of the Dutch and German sections of the SI.

Knabb's Anthology also under-represents is the SI's "final" period. Absolutely nothing from The Veritable Split in the International (published in 1972) -- not even Vaneigem's letter of resignation[4] or Debord's famous response to it[5] -- is included because, as Knabb says, "anyone who is serious" will want to read it in its entirety. And though forty texts were contributed to the group's "orientation debate" (also called the "debate on organization"), which took place between August 1969 and February 1971, Knabb only includes five of them. Worse still, nothing changed between the 1981 and 2006 editions: Knabb offers us the same five texts and three of them are (still) not offered in their full versions. It is "misleading," perhaps even mendacious, to say that Knabb's translations of two of these five texts -- "Remarks on the SI Today" (27 July 1970) and "Document Beyond Debate" (28 January 1971), both by Debord -- are "excerpted." They are flat-out butcheries,[6] just as Knabb's previously "excerpted" (and now restored) version of Attila Kotanyi's "Gangland and Philosophy" (at one time the only text from issue #4 of the SI's journal) was a bloody murder. Note well that one of Knabb's other crime scenes -- his "excerpted" version of "Maitron the Historian" (from 1969) -- has been dropped from the 2006 version of the Anthology, and without any acknowledgement or explanation whatsoever.

And so, Ken Knabb has a lot of goddamned nerve to haughtily ignore or look down his nose at other translators and readers of the situationists' texts. His "Bibliography" contains such pompous idiocies as these:

The online translations tend to be less reliable than the published ones, but many of the latter are also inadequate. The three main faults are excessive literalness, excessive liberty, and pure and simple carelessness [...] I have not attempted to mention, let alone review, the thousands of printed articles or online texts about the SI. Suffice it to say that the vast majority are riddled with lies or misconceptions, and that even the few that are relatively accurate rarely offer much that cannot be found better expressed in the SI's own writings.

And, as a kind of postscript to "The Blind Men and the Elephant (Selected Opinions on the Situationists)," which he has not updated since 1981,[7] Knabb claims that "most of the recent reactions are as laughably clueless as the earlier ones."

This isn't merely a matter of Ken Knabb's great opinion of himself. It also exposes a basic contradiction in his presentation of the situationists and their writings. On the one hand: "Despite the situationists' reputation for difficulty," he says, "they are not really all that hard to understand." On the other: only Knabb himself is smart, educated, patient or attentive enough to understand the situationists; everyone else is a fucking idiot. Well, not everyone: "In certain regards, however, the general level of comprehension has improved (particularly among those engaged in radical practices), because the [sic] society's increasingly evident spectacularization has made some of the situationists' insights more clear [sic] and undeniable." And there it is folks, the root of the problem: despite everything that the situationists said and did, Knabb does not seem to realize (or remember) that what's important is not "comprehension," especially not its "general level," as if comprehension can be quantified or averaged out. No: what's important is "radical practice." And Ken Knabb hasn't engaged in any "practice," radical or otherwise, since the early 1970s, when he did precisely those types of things that he thought that the situationists would approve of. But the situationists were not prophets of some eternal truth, nor were they scientists who discovered "undeniable" facts. They worked in and for their own time.[8] And the times have certainly changed since 1972.[9] The situationists' texts or theories can't be used today "as is": they can only be useful when they are used, that is, when they are detourned.

25 May 2007

[1] Though most of the surviving documents were written in French, there were also situationist publications in German, Italian, Spanish, Danish and English.

[2] See our comments about Jamie Reid for more about the link between the situationists and the Sex Pistols.

[3] See our translation of this text, which we have preferred to title How situationist books are not understood.

[4] Placed on-line here.

[5] Placed on-line here.

[6] Knabb's "translation" of "Remarks on the SI Today" hacks out more than a third of the original. See for yourself.

[7] Knabb sent a copy to Debord, who didn't seem very impressed with it or its compiler. In his letter to Gianfranco Sanguinetti dated 31 January 1975, he merely stated: "An American has sent me a poster on which he has assembled many very droll citations about the SI (generally unfavorable)."

[8] In a letter to Jean-Francois Martos dated 14 September 1985, Debord wrote: "It is necessary to make it understood how the adventure of the SI was narrowly circumscribed in time; and contrary to many other 'avant-gardes' with pretensions to lead several [subsequent] generations. Literally, it existed from 1957 to 1972. And counting the period of the 'origins,' it existed from 1952 to '57. And here was the profound meaning of the operation of 'dissolution,' which one can say took place between the autumn of 1970 and the first months of 1972."

[9] In a letter to Eduardo Rothe dated 21 February 1974, Debord wrote: "The epoch no longer simply demands a vague response to the question 'What is to be done?' [...] It is now a question, if one wants to remain in the present, of responding to this question almost every week: 'What is happening?'"

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