Let’s Not and Say We Did

Wayne Spencer’s call for the formation of a “new Situationist International” (5 March 2010) is an embarrassment. It embodies everything that is wrong with post-situationist thought, and I wouldn’t blame anyone if they dismissed that thought on the basis of it.

Towards a New Situationist International is wrong about the proletariat: the “defining quality of proletarian life” is not “a craven acceptance of the separate commodity economy and the state as unchangeable givens” (Spencer’s thesis #1), but a constant struggle to make a living in an unlivable world. Spencer’s attention is on ideology, not socio-economic conditions, and -- with respect to the proletariat -- he places himself outside of it, as a nay-sayer to its "craven" acceptance, not inside, as an inmate in the same prison.

His text is wrong about the current state of the class struggle: the “discontent with the petty and idiotic lives” that we are obliged to lead is not “buried” (thesis #2), but front-page news: the student occupations movement in America; the on-going rioting and social strife in Greece; the popular demonstrations against the government in Iceland; the social movements in France against detention centers and expulsions; et al. Spencer speaks of a world that was destroyed more than 40 years ago.

His text is wrong about the current state of critical theory: “revolutionary theory” has not “almost completely failed to keep abreast of developments within advanced capitalism” (thesis #3); it is incorrect to say “revolutionary theory and practice stands at present in a state of perfectly scandalous dereliction” (thesis #6). In point of fact, since the dissolution of the SI, revolutionary theory has gone on to produce useful critiques of artificial terrorism, nuclear power, and political sovereignty, as well as such useful concepts as biopolitics, deterritorialization, and the integrated spectacle. Spencer speaks as if revolutionary theory stopped cold in 1972, which of course would come as a surprise (or insult) to Guy Debord, the ex-situationist who continued to develop “situationist” theory well after the SI dissolved and who personally associated with at least one other major critical theorist of the era (Giorgio Agamben). As for revolutionary practice, which Spencer hardly mentions, the revolutionary movement has produced tactics that were unknown before 1972: Black Blocs, flashmobs, and computer viruses, among many others.

His text is wrong about the situationists: one cannot speak of “the thought” of the SI, as Spencer does (thesis #4), because that “thought” changed several times between 1957 and 1972: after Debord’s contact with Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1960 (the theme of workers councils); after the admission of Raoul Vaneigem in 1961 (the critique of everyday life); after the break with Henri Lefebvre in 1963 (the abandonment of unitary urbanism); after the admission of young revolutionaries and anarchists in 1966 and then again in 1968 (the emphasis on student life, occupations and general assemblies); and, of course, after the birth of the “pro-situ” phenomenon (the critique of the cadre). Spencer speaks as if everyone understands what “situationist theory” is, but he himself fails to outline its basic principles.

His text is wrong about post-situationists: “situationist thought” has not been “abandoned by individuals with revolutionary intent” (thesis #5). It certainly hasn’t been “abandoned” by ex-situs such as Raoul Vaneigem, Jacqueline de Jong, Donald Nicholson-Smith, and T.J. Clark, or by first-generation pro-situs such as Michel Bounan, Ken Knabb and Michel Prigent (not to mention yours truly, who accounts himself a second-generation pro-situ). Spencer makes no mention of the French anarchist website Jura Libertaire: it consistently mixes together news items about current anti-capitalist and/or anti-state actions with situationist texts from long ago. The situationists are also dear to those (do not doubt their “revolutionary intent”!) who maintain the websites called Les Amis des Nemesis, Jules Bonnot de la Bande, and Debord-Encore. Spencer writes as if he doesn’t read any other language than English. (Was his text translated into any other language? Not even French?! How “international” can this be?)

His text is anti-situationist when it comes to matters of organization: the SI never allowed its members the abilities to carry out “theoretical and other practical actions […] in the individual names of those who produce them, and on their responsibility alone” and/or “carry out projects outside the framework of the international and to form other associations to do so” (thesis #7). Spencer writes as if he wants to found an organization that is “situationist” in name only, no matter how well he recites certain catechisms (thesis #8).

Last, but not least, his text is worse than a monologue: it is a sterile dialogue with himself (“it might be objected that such a proposal”; “it might also be objected”; “if I fail to heed these weighty objections”) (thesis #9). This echoes Spencer’s own situation: not a member of any organization, no matter how small, but an isolated individual. It is easy to foresee what would take place at a “conference between interested parties” that was based upon written answers to Spencer’s five questions, so much so that a face-to-face meeting wouldn’t be necessary (or so he claims): there would be a deluge of useless paper. Everyone would read what had been written and submitted, sure. But who would judge what was good and what was bad? Spencer himself? Note well his sudden recourse to the word “we” when the subject of whom to “exclud[e] from the outset” comes up. “We might save ourselves a little time by excluding from the outset anyone who . . .” (thesis #10). I have a better idea. Let’s exclude from the outset anyone who would exclude anyone from the outset.

Bill Not Bored
16 March 2010

On 23 March 2010, I received a lengthy reply from Wayne Spencer. Its conclusion is the following critique, which I reproduce without comment.

"No doubt Bill Bored can be assured that he is not speaking to himself. He presents his work at galleries. He lectures at subsidized cultural events. He speaks to the press and appears in documentary films. He leads walks. He stages plays and displays placards before passers-by and surveillance camera workers. He complains that his civil liberties are not upheld. He translates and comments. But after 25 or so years of presenting tepid social critique to spectators who have evinced no practical dissatisfaction and passively view his activities with no practical revolutionary purpose in view, nothing in the way of revolutionary contestation has been achieved. His efforts do not disrupt the processes by which his own life becomes foreign to him, however briefly. Nor do they attack the processes by which his audiences' lives become foreign to them. Yet he continues untroubled by the compatibility of what he does with the persistence of the society of alienation and takes no steps to turn against his palpably inadequate praxis. Indeed, he seems quite content with the cultural and pseudo-oppositional niche he has found within that society. For him, it seems, revolution is a process that is satisfactorily unfolding at some distance from the everyday life around him and will one day deliver salvation to his door. All this is very different from the views that prompted my proposal for a new international association of situationist revolutionaries. It is no surprise that Not Bored views that proposal with contempt."

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