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.’

Ironically, the second or ‘political’ phase of the Situationist International has contributed most to the group’s legendary status. This period, which culminated in the ‘revolutionary game’ played out during the events of May 1968, began in earnest with the ‘scandale de Strasbourg’ in 1966, when students inspired by the Situationists took control of the students’ union. Their demands were simple: ‘abolish everything’ and ‘destroy the university’. On the orders of the Situationists in Paris, there was a series of carefully choreographed provocations on the campus, followed by the publication of a tract – On the Poverty of Student Life – written largely by the Tunisian Situationist, Mustapha Khayati, with amendments by Debord. It called for ‘the destruction of study, the suppression of work and total subversion’. Students were urged to steal books and food. In keeping with the idea of the potlatch, the production of the pamphlet consumed all the student union’s funds. Copies were presented by well-dressed representatives of the union to the Bishop of Strasbourg, the city’s chief of police and the rector of the university as they filed into the Palais Universitaire for the opening ceremony of the university term. A further round of chaos ensued in the form of a ‘revolutionary festival’, which eventually brought the university to a standstill.

The Strasbourg scandal won the Situationists national and international notoriety. Debord ordered Khayati to leave Paris for Strasbourg. He arrived in dark glasses and a leather jacket, calling himself ‘K’, and held several press conferences on campus. He described himself as an ‘adviser’ to the students and the events at the university as ‘a little social experiment’. France Soir decided that the students were being manipulated by ‘a shadowy conspiracy’ of ‘ultra-revolutionaries’. Le Monde referred darkly to a mysterious political movement known as ‘international situationism’. ‘How many are there?’ Le Républicain Lorrain inquired. ‘Where do they come from?’ For a fleeting moment, two years later, as they manned the barricades of the rue Gay-Lussac, daubed their slogans on walls across the Left Bank and engaged the enemy in the Paris streets, the Situationists understandably thought of themselves as the avatars of high postwar revolutionary theory.

Since 1968 the literature on the Situationist International in the English-speaking world has tended to present the movement as a dead avant-garde, a museum piece. Similarly in France, although Situationist writings have been a significant influence on such Post-Modernist figures as Baudrillard, Virilio and Marc Augé, Situationism itself, with its demands for perpetual revolutionary conflict, is often considered as no more than a primitive antecedent of the subtler, more nuanced Post-Modern critique of a world ‘in which commodities circulate without meaning’. Like that of their Dadaist and Surrealist ancestors, the Situationists’ status as heroes in the contemporary imagination depends entirely on the failure of the group’s revolutionary ambitions.

This is why, according to Simon Sadler, it is important to recognise that the demands the Situationists made were, above all, aesthetic. The politics worked out in the beautiful silver-plated issues of the Internationale situationniste are drawn in almost equal measure from Henri Lefebvre’s speculations on social space and the early materialist writings of the young Marx, which Lefebvre had translated into French. They emerge, therefore, directly out of a preoccupation with reintegrating an aesthetic system into daily life. ‘From now on,’ the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem wrote in 1967, ‘the analysts are in the streets.’

During Situationism’s ‘artistic period’, the total transformation of everyday life meant the practice of ‘revolutionary anti-Modernism’, assaulting art as ‘commodity-spectacle’ by defacing paintings by other artists. This activity, developed mostly by Debord and Jorn, was known as ‘détournement’, a word best translated as ‘diversion’, ‘re-routing’ or ‘kidnapping’. The Situationist ‘détournement’, which creates ‘a new working-out of pre-existing elements’, is not, as is the case in literary or artistic Post-Modern idiom, a form of ironic quotation, but the opposite: creative vandalism, or what the Situationists thought of as ‘critique at work in the present’. As Jorn and Debord argued, there could not be, strictly speaking, any Situationist art, but only a Situationist use of art. In the same way, there could be no fixed Situationist ideal of everyday life, but only a series of détournements of ‘actually existing’ daily life. The opening shots fired by the Situationists during the ‘artistic phase’ of their war against culture took the form of a critique of urbanism, and the first site of Situationist guerrilla activity was the city itself.

In some cases, the city meant London, where, following in the footsteps of their hero De Quincey and guided by a drug-addicted fellow traveller, the Scots writer Alexander Trocchi, the Situationist International reported on the ‘unitary ambience’ of Limehouse and protested against the planned destruction of Chinatown. It also meant Amsterdam, where the Dutch architect Constant Nieuwenhuis, who had originally coined the term ‘situationist’, collaborated with Guy Debord and experimented with sketches for an imaginary city he called New Babylon – an endlessly fluid series of spaces or ‘sectors’, ‘a floating city’ defined by the imperatives of need and desire. Venice, too, was much admired by the Situationists for the dream-like quality of its architecture, where Ralph Rumney took up his camera and stalked Alan Ansen, Beat poet, paedophile and intimate of William Burroughs, publishing the finished product as a systematic collage called A Psychogeographic Map of Venice. More often than not, however, the city meant Paris.

Like Benjamin, the Surrealists or indeed Baudelaire, the Situationists saw Paris as a topos which contained both poetic and political possibilities, at its margins as well as its centre. But unlike their precursors, the Situationists also saw the city as a future battleground for the conflict over the meaning of modernity. It is this battle for urban space, in a literal and metaphorical sense, which in many ways defines the Situationist adventure. Sadler devotes a great deal of energy to explaining how the Situationists developed the techniques of ‘psychogeography’ – a variety of activities, artistic and practical, which aimed at destabilising the ‘spectacular’ organisation of the city.

The Situationists began by reading maps of Paris made by those who had tried to order and control the capital. They included a ‘scientific’ survey from 1652, a plan from 1739 and the Plan de Paris of 1956: all were cut up and reassembled according to the dictates of ‘objective chance’ to make a disordered work which, as Sadler puts it, told ‘the Situationists what the city felt like’. They also devised their own maps from scratch. One of the best known is a screen-print, The Naked City: illustration de l’hypothèse des plaques tournantes en psychogéographie. The title of the piece was ‘kidnapped’ from a famous American documentary of 1948 about hard-boiled cops at work in New York City. This film is distinguished by the camerawork in its opening shots, which swoop across the cityscape of New York at night, focusing on incidental details before returning to the broad cinematic canvas. In their own (still) version of The Naked City, Debord and Jorn sketch a fragmented picture of Paris which borrows the technique of the film and presents a bird’s-eye view of the city. However, unlike the camera in the original, which zooms in to focus on parts of the city pullulating with life, the Situationists use the aerial perspective to commemorate a Paris which is about to disappear for good. The Naked City is a map which has been détourné and it is intended to function as the negative reflection of De Gaulle’s programme – the so-called ‘re-conquest’ of Paris – which decanted the working classes from Saint Lazare, Gare du Nord and Place de la République to the suburbs: it depicts a city which is being emptied of human activity and which is in the process of becoming a dead site, a city without a telos.

‘Psychogeography’ was also a way of inscribing the city with the magical or poetic significance which was essential to the subjective meaning of the site. The most important psychogeographic technique was the dérive, or ‘drift’, in the course of which groups of Situationists would float across Paris in the pursuit of anarchy, play, poetry: ‘Paris without spectacle’. It was Debord who scrawled ‘Ne Travaillez Jamais’ on the wall of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1953 to mark the frontier between the city as Situationist playground and capitalist work-camp. Other Situationists reported on ‘dérives’ as if they were military actions behind enemy lines and described how they had ‘marked’ their sites. The most favoured, which included the rue du Xavier-Privas, the Square des Missions Etrangères and the Canal Saint-Martin, had a baroque, sometimes labyrinthine character. Like the Surrealists, with their fondness for covered passageways and their vision of the city as a medieval maze, the Situationists strove for an aesthetic that subverted the organising principles of the modern city and at the same time, like the dream architecture of Piranesi, moved the observer to ‘salutary states of awe, melancholy, joy or terror’.

Sadler’s elegant, accurate and well documented account of Situationist practice has an important precedent in T.J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Clark, briefly a member of the English section of the Situationist International in the late Sixties, argues in strict Situationist terms that what is described as modern art originated in the encounter between the ‘nouveau consommateur’ society of late 19th-century Paris and a generation of artists deeply sceptical of the new city, its Haussmannisation and its facile pleasures. ‘Flânerie’, or strolling about the city in search of pleasure or entertainment, was emblematic of the sudden separation between the poetic and the modern, the subject and the spectacle. It was at this point of separation, Clark argues, that Paris began to be strangled by the demands of modernity.

However, the flânerie which Clark described, and which others have since compared to the Situationist dérive, is essentially an ironic activity: the flâneur remains at a fixed distance from the pleasures he (and it is always he) observes and consumes. This distance is, for 19th-century flâneurs, the prerequisite of urban pleasure: Alfred de Musset, in imitation of De Quincey, described flânerie as a process of self-detachment, in which the subject gives himself up to the ‘spectacle du moment’: ‘J’ai flâné dans les rues: j’ai marché devant moi, libre, bayant aux grues’ (‘I strolled around, I walked ahead of myself, free, gaping at the whores’).

Sadler shrewdly argues that the Situationist practice of dérive is characterised by an active hostility to any representation of urban experience. The dérive is in fact defined by the drunkenness of the subject (in a recent essay, Patrick ffrench described it as ‘an analytic pub crawl’) and his or her relation to an environment which has lost shape, meaning or form. It is a negation of the city as a place which invites the subject to remain detached from the object of its gaze. In this sense, Situationist practices, unlike the intoxicated but de-politicised wanderings of Musset or De Quincey, involve a political intoxication that aims to reinstate lived experience as the authentic register of a city. The dérive disorders and disorients the subject, and in doing so, brings about a collision between poetry and mediocrity. Dérive is an exercise in spatial projection, a rediscovery of the city as a labyrinth. Like Surrealist poetry, it is a collective undertaking which rigorously separates objects from their functions. It creates an urban topography of fragmentation and dispersal.

Sadler assembles material from a variety of participants in the Situationist International. It was nonetheless the charismatic personality of Guy Debord that shaped the Situationist adventure. Situationist tactics, whether artistic or political, were most often the result of a collective decision, but Debord was in many ways the mastermind. After he committed suicide in 1994, a mischievous collection of his book and film contracts, most of them unfulfilled, appeared – he had agreed to the idea before his death – accompanied by an afterword in which he identifies himself with ‘le bateleur’, the magician, mountebank or acrobat of the Tarot pack. The occult significance of this identification is minimal – the Tarot is still played as a game in France and Northern Italy – but the art of the game, which is to conceal rather than reveal, has a bearing on Debord’s strategy. He did not see himself and his colleagues as members of a progressive vanguard aiming to lay bare the contradictions at the heart of consumer capitalism and the ‘colonisation of everyday life’. Nor, as far as we know, was he happy to be thought of as a moralist and a master of French prose. The Situationist project was, rather more simply, to insist that the world was not as it seemed. Debord’s thinking constituted a kind of ‘negative totality’ which, as Anselm Jappe remarks in his excellent Guy Debord (1997), makes him, like Horkheimer or Adorno, a renegade Hegelian who reactivated ‘an art of negation’ as a working political principle. When, in The Painting of Modern Life, Clark speaks of Debord’s ‘chiliastic serenity’, it is precisely because his theoretical positions were in constant evolution, developing in absolute opposition to whatever social or political orthodoxies predominated at the time. But he was far from being the prophet of Post-Modernity that many admirers in the English-speaking world imagine. In his introduction to a new translation of Jappe’s book by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Clark speaks of Debord as a thinker who engaged with the future as well as the present and whose time is yet to come.[*]

The Situationist City also seeks to make connections between Situationist ideas and developments in mainstream architecture. Architectural theorists such as Constant Nieuwenhuis and Aldo van Eyck – a member of Cobra and a ‘post-rational’ architect whose Amsterdam Children’s Home, built in 1960, was loosely based on Situationist principles – read many of the movement’s texts and participated in its debates. But this was not the same as being directly involved in Situationist activities, and despite Sadler’s efforts to marry the Situationist project and the ideas of those who, like Britain’s Archigram group in the Sixties, used the term ‘situation’ in their theoretical writings, Situationist theory and practice are consistently opposed to mainstream currents in urban theory.

Sadler is good on the prophetic Situationist critique of urban planning, which has its roots in Debord’s sense that cities must be rescued from the condition of ‘historical absence’ – by which he meant the inability of subjects to participate in their own history. The main problem of the contemporary urban planner was neatly predicted by the Situationists in 1967 as the endless transfer of commuters, vehicles and commodities across a cityscape in which ‘human movement is something to be consumed and deprived of its temporal aspect.’ ‘Historical absence’ can be invoked to describe architecture as well as urban planning. Sadler includes a sympathetic account of Baudrillard’s Situationist-inspired critical essay on the Pompidou Centre (he called it ‘a carcass of signs and flux’), constructed on the ruins of the Situationists’ beloved Halles and the embodiment of the urban spectacle they found so inimical. It was Beaubourg which, to the fury and scorn of many former Situationists, hosted the first major retrospective of Situationist work in 1989.

Since Debord dissolved the Situationist International in 1972, the central concern of former members and associates has been to defend themselves from Post-Modern readings which assimilate Situationism to Fredric Jameson’s definition of Post-Modern thinking on art as ‘a new depthlessness which finds its prolongation in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum’. Anticipating the point at which Situationism would be stripped of its revolutionary potential, Debord argued for a tactical withdrawal. ‘We will become even more inaccessible, even more clandestine,’ he wrote in the final communication of the Situationist International. ‘The more our theses become famous, the more we ourselves will become obscure.’

The fact that traces of Situationist theory can now be found in almost all forms of cultural discourse, from architecture to the social sciences, has not devalued the currency of Situationist thinking. Indeed, in a world where lack of ideology is the dominant value, the demand made by the Situationists for a political language of negation as well as contradiction is scarcely an anachronism. It may even be true, as they believed, that the Situationist International offers the most authentic political language of the period. ‘It is not historians who judge,’ Debord wrote in exile from Florence, the ‘ideal Situationist city’, ‘but history – that is to say, those who make it.’

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