Abolish everything!

Andrew Hussey

  • The Situationist City by Simon Sadler
    MIT, 248 pp, £24.95, March 1998, ISBN 0 262 19392 2

It is not by chance that the history of the Situationist International reads like an account of a military campaign. During their first, ‘artistic’ phase, which ran roughly from the group’s foundation in 1957 through to the early Sixties, the Situationists were at war with what they contemptuously termed ‘the civilisation of the image’. Their enemies, in ascending order of importance, were work, leisure, boredom, advertising, modern art and, above all, the tendency of cultures of mass production to turn real life into an endless series of frozen gestures or ‘spectacles’. Their originality lay in the claim made in 1967 by Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle that the forces of ‘spectacular domination’ could be fought and defeated on their own terms. Unlike their close contemporaries in the postwar French Left, Socialisme ou Barbarie, the group led by Cornelius Castoriadis, the Situationists saw their project both as a critique of modern capitalism and its alienating social processes, and as a set of solutions that the dead language of classical French Marxism was unable to provide. The war against the ‘spectacular society’ was to be a long one: ‘The fact is that a critique capable of surpassing the spectacle,’ Debord wrote, ‘must know how to bide its time.’

The Situationist International was founded in July 1957 at a meeting in a bar in Cosio d’Arroscia, high in the Ligurian Alps. The meeting brought together eight representatives of three deliberately mysterious groups. The largest was the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, led by the Danish painter Asger Jorn, which had its base in the Italian towns of Albisola and Alba. The members of the Imaginist Bauhaus had all had close links or been influenced by the Cobra (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) group who experimented with variants of Expressionism. The slogan they borrowed from Cobra, as they retreated to their semi-rural idyll in Northern Italy, was: ‘In a barbarian age, to paint like a barbarian.’

The second group was the Lettrist International, led by Guy Debord. It was based in Paris and was both extravagantly literary and metropolitan. The International Lettrists published their own cheaply mimeographed journal Potlatch, which had impressed Asger Jorn when Debord showed him copies in 1954. Debord had taken the title from Marcel Mauss’s Essai sur le don: he was very struck by Mauss’s account of the destruction visited on the micro-economic systems of North American Indian tribes by the ‘potlatch’ and saw this game, which began as ritualised exchange and ended in humiliation, as the perfect metaphor for modern life. In this spirit, Potlatch itself was ‘a sumptuous gift’ which was not for sale: it might be sent to you (the Lettrists picked names from the Paris phone directory) or handed to you in a bar on the rue du Four by a member of the group. The Lettrist International was highly politicised; it despised the official Marxism of the French Communist Party; its proclaimed affections were for Sade and Saint-Just; it called, with or without irony, for the restoration of the Terror as the only true revolutionary value.

The third ‘group’ at Cosio was the London Psychogeographical Committee, a rather notional affair represented by its only known member, the Newcastle-born artist Ralph Rumney. Rumney was a close friend of Debord and the Lettrists. Moving between Paris and London, he provided a crucial link with the avant-garde circles associated with the ICA, then at its Dover Street address. Rumney took photographs of the meeting at Cosio which portray the delegates in various symbolic or ludic sites around the village; the most famous shows the group, with Debord and his wife (and chief collaborator) Michèle Bernstein at the centre, staring down into the camera from the edge of a sheer drop, in front of a dilapidated house.

What brought these disparate elements together to embark on the first phase, commonly known as the ‘artistic’ phase, of the Situationist International was a shared belief that contemporary avant-garde movements had betrayed their original commitment to revolution. The Situationists aimed at reinstating revolution, not as metaphor but as lived experience, at the heart of the avant-garde programme. ‘There has been a notable progression from Futurism through Dadaism and Surrealism to the movements formed after 1945,’ Debord told the delegates in Cosio, warning of the difficulties ahead and identifying the failure of previous avant-gardes as a failure of nerve: ‘At each of these stages one discovers the same totalising will for change; and the same crumbling away, as the inability to change the world profoundly enough seems to lead to a defensive withdrawal.’ Situationist strategy, Debord argued, would, by contrast, be an endless, ever-changing series of offensive actions, which created ‘situations without a future’, confusing and wrongfooting the enemy. ‘We will wreck this world,’ the Situationists declared in an early manifesto. ‘It is simply a question of courage.’

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[*] California, 188 pp., £10.95, 6 September, 0 520 21205 3.