Revolutionary Recreations: The Myth of Situationism
Jonathan Cape, 2001. Hardback, 420pp, £18.99.
Reviewed by Andrew Coates
[NOTE: Andrew Hussey pointed out to me after this was published that I could have been a lot harder on the situationists' belief in the revolutionary potential of marginals.
He has since published many excellent books, notably in Paris.
I can only express complete agreement with comrade Hussey's statement in the Guardian yesterday.]
I suppose my starting point has to be that there is no doubt that Dieudonné is not so much a comedian but, rather, an attention-seeking racist and an antisemite. He certainly isn’t funny any more, if he ever was. He is, however, an expert in provocation, and that’s what his latest acts and statements, including the famous “quenelle”, are all about. More to the point, what he is really doing is testing the limits of French law – specifically the Loi Gayssot of 1990, the so-called loi anti-négationniste, which, among other things, effectively makes Holocaust denial (négationnisme in French) a crime. The belief system of Dieudonné and those of his followers is that the “French establishment” uses the memory of the Holocaust to exercise power over the marginalised populations of France and to reinforce Jewish interests. No one is trying to stop him believing this or expressing his views. The Loi Gayssot does, however, place limits on how far an individual can claim that crimes against humanity, as defined at the Nuremberg trials, did not happen – and that is the point of law that Dieudonné is challenging with his propaganda.
POLITICS REDUCED to boosting the free circulation of capital, the commercial landscape overshadowed by multinational logos, virtual wars fought as a spectator sport a little too close to the blood steeped arena, and it is hard to escape the over-abundant products of globalisation.
Nor that these wonders have more than a touch of the unreal: “Capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image”, as the major Situationist text, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), put it.1
With capitalism’s onward march across the planet, whatever the cracks and fissures, a section of the left has retreated back to ’60s romanticism, railing against the one-dimensional choices on offer. A world in which only a total refusal, a “défi”, is the basis for revolutionary politics. Almost a universe where Jean Baudrillard, who owes a heavy debt to Situationism, can declare the 11 September massacre an eruption against the all-engulfing security order to attempt to “force a change in the rules of the game”. And, sententiously, that the bombing of Afghanistan is, like the Gulf War, a “non-event” (Le Monde, 3 November 2001).
A somewhat less dramatic challenge was represented, or rather, self-represented, by Guy Debord (1931-1994), and the body he led, and destroyed, the Situationist International (1957-1972). Andrew Hussey’s The Game of War follows a flurry of books published on Debord, some highly critical, in France (Le Monde, 23 March 2001). To the British author his fascination with Debord and the Situationists stemmed from admiration at their “bravery, resourcefulness, poetry and sheer contempt for the veneer of civilisation” (p.5).
Civilised media types fell over themselves puffing this volume, with lengthy reviews appearing in the broadsheets and Radio Three devoting a programme to Debord.
It is indeed an exceptionally well-written biography, sensitive and knowledgeable about Debord’s French cultural milieu (though shakier on the politics) and written in a lucid style remote from academic jargon. Hussey demonstrates, nevertheless, when one has undertaken some serious investigation into the substance of Debord’s theories and politics, the fragility of that “bravery”. His concluding assertion, that by explaining the “eternal present” as spectacular reification, the Situationist No.1 presented “the clearest and most penetrating diagnosis of the causes and the nature of the most extreme forms of contemporary alienation” (pp.372-3), is, unfortunately, wholly misguided.
There is no point in indulging these myths, and now is a good time for some settling of accounts with la bande à Debord. Hussey contrasts the abolition of history and politics by the “post-modernist philosophy” of the Socialist Society with the “glamorous nihilism” of the Situationists (p.5). Hilary Wainwright may have her faults, and he is not totally wrong to criticise those Soc-Soc meetings (I speak as an attendee), but post-modernism owes much to Situationism and little to the British New Left.
In fact Situationism was one of the most weightless and culturally absorbed efforts of the avant-guard left, its central oeuvre now stocked up in a Walpurgis Night of ghostly incarnations on the Web, mulled over by keyboard revolutionaries. Far from bathing in the illumination of the origins of the nunc stans, a sad dipsomaniac Debord went to his grave carrying on his late ’80s ranting about the “growth of secret societies and networks of influence”. His theoretical legacy to parapolitics, the conviction that there were “thousands of plots in favour of the established order”, is to be taken literally. For the Spectacle, he had long concluded, Mafia-style conspiracy had become “part of its very functioning”.2 This may make for good biographical gossip; it is the basis for very feeble politics.
There is plenty of evidence for Debord’s failings in The Game of War. Romance and a longing for the barricades of May ’68 aside, the attraction of the Situationists lies in three principal dimensions: their critique of cultural artefacts (from representation to urbanism), their sketch of the Spectacle, and their strategy (such as it was) to transform everyday life and politics.
In their cultural roots, the Situationists emerged from an even more obscure artistic movement called Letterism. This operated in ’50s France, according to its Romanian chief founder, Isidore Isou, to promote radical artistic “auto-destruction”, chiselling language down to its basic sounds to form the amplitude of an artistic effect. Hussey describes well the rag-week nature of their exploits (disrupting a mass at Notre Dame in 1950), and their self-importance.
The results of further experiments can best be judged by those who have heard them, or seen their cinematic production (and Debord’s early efforts), though, fulfilling their objective, they do not seem to have endured. Yet, if there is little artistic legacy left, it can be argued that the histrionics and small group narcissism of the last avant-gardes deeply marked the Situationists’ approach to these triple domains.
Guy Debord began his critique of consumer culture by ploughing through the legacy of avant-garde artistic movements, Dadaism and Surrealism, and their confrontation with modern society. From exposing the underside of contemporary life, he offered a vision of an alternative. The journal Internationale Situationnisteappeared in 1958. Its programme was grounded in the “construction of situations”. This involved the discovery of inner wishes, “in order to make them real”, to “free people’s desire to play”, a break from the hypnotism of the pantomime of conditioned conformism.<sup3< sup=”"> Their International was a micro society centred on a way of life, as Hussey observes, with parallels to that of the gypsy scholars of the middle ages. A central practice of the group around the review was derived from an earlier Lettrist pursuit, the “dérive” (“drift” in this instance – unguided motion/activity). Described by Hussey as those who “would float around Paris in the pursuit of anarchy, play, poetry” (p.91), it involved for the Situationists copious quantities of alcohol, “the transformative agent which released subjectivity and objective change into the city” (p.145).
Echoing as much the habits of a certain Karl Marx on a Soho pub crawl as the crapulous squalor of François Villon, this practice has been of course at the heart of British leftist activity for several centuries. Less familiar is the concept of “unitary urbanism” to which the dérive was loosely connected. This was the vision of an environment which creative subjectivity could mould “a new free architecture”.
As Hussey describes it, this implied the rebinding of social and aesthetic qualities in the organisation of urban conditions, making cities into free spaces for play, and passion, a “chance meeting-place of various castles, ravines, lakes”, in which we would drift. The tyranny of town planning and the materialisation of capitalist domination of time and space were challenged by this “psychogeography” (rendering time and space in terms of the human psyche).
What may be charitably described as a leftist Disney World would eventually emerge from the “setting apart of a small number of areas where people are free to relax and to recognise themselves and one another as they really are”.4 It is significant that this concession to something that might actually be tried out in reality – as counter-cultural experiments that took place in the low countries and Scandinavian lands – was not written by Debord but by Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotanyi.
Another legacy to the counter-culture was “détournement” (twisting round), subversion of advertising and cultural products by imitation. Hussey regards this as an original contribution, making waves in the anti-globalisation movement, though there are certainly precursors in photomontage and radical 1930s cultural militancy. More typically the Situationists, following their 1966 intervention in the University of Strasbourg and the publication of The Misery of Student Life, inserted strident messages about alienation and revolution inside comic strips. They designed the template for generations of unreadable and pretentious student leaflets all over the world.
These suggestive, if limited, forays into the theories of urbanisation and cultural studies are striking in despising the passivity of the “public” and for the Situationists’ own description of themselves as the “livers”. Vaneigem tried to bridge the gap through the liberation of everybody’s multiple desires, notably in his celebrated The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967 – original title, Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage de jeunes générations). He has continued this neo-Fourierian project right to the present, most recently in attempting a fully rounded conception of human rights (Déclaration des Droits de l’Etre Humain, 2001). Debord tried to discover more political methods to end the division between the reified and the savoury remnant in his defining work, The Society of the Spectacle, published the same year. Social relations are mediated by images that have covered the “entire surface of the world”, leaving people to stare at their reflections; from this cavernous gaol we will be led to the sunlight of reality, if we would follow.
In The Society of the Spectacle we are informed that “The origin of the spectacle is the loss of the unity of the world” (Thesis 29), that it is the “concrete manufacture of alienation” (Thesis 32), and that “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life” (Thesis 42). The working class is going to have a hard time becoming a “liver” in these conditions, or to become the “class of consciousness” (Thesis 88) that Debord postulates.
In any case, the twin forces of Stalinism and Fascism (Thesis 109) have annihilated the revolutionary workers’ movement. Trotskyism is a hopeless return to a lost Leninist illusion. The proletariat’s “externalised power” helps to “reinforce capitalist society, not only in the form of its labour but also in the form of unions, of parties, or of the state power it has built to emancipate itself” (Thesis 114). Yet there is hope. By rejection of all “congealed externalisation and all specialisation of power”, and a “total critique of separation” it can rediscover the power of negation. This would require theory to be “lived by the masses”, for “workers to become dialecticians” (Thesis 123).
The Society of the Spectacle is not an original work. George Lukács’s concept of reification and class consciousness, the “critique of everyday life” of the independent Communist theoretician, Henri Lefebvre, and the critical, pro-self-management Marxism of the 1950s review Arguments (which published most of the texts that were the basis for the ’60s “new left”) breathe through its pages.
The Game of War evokes Nietzsche as a source for the concept of the Spectacle, and one takes this on Hussey’s authority (though the German term “Shauspiel” has narrower theatrical connotations). This debt leads one to suspect that any “revaluation of values” undertaken by Debord, carried with it something of the same disdain for the vulgar herd who lacked any negative strength. A weakness for the trappings of genteel learning is much in evidence. There are, Hussey admiringly notes, citations and reference to Machiavelli, “the Spanish renaissance poet and courtier” Baltasar Granciàn, Shakespeare, “the distinguished American professor of history who held a chair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology” Louis Mumford, and Fourier, proving, he informs us, its “originality” (p.218).
Régis Debray has argued that the theoretical framework of The Society of the Spectacle is derived from Ludwig Feuerbach.5 He has in mind The Essence of Christianity (1841), in which religion is explained as a process by which human properties are discharged onto a God, viewed as a nature apart from its creator. Liberation is the return of divine predicates back to human reality.
Debord’s assertion that the unified power of the workers’ councils could bring back human practice – without any clear details about this would happen – from spectacular alienation has something of the same flavour. But the spectacle is not only God. The Society of the Spectacle could also be the object of Feuerbach’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy (1839) which attacked the Hegelian system as the “absolute self-externalisation of reason”.6 Debord’s categories exist in the purest state of objectification: the circuits of capital, their transformation into commodified images, and universal permeation, are laid out without any greater detail than be gleaned from browsing and thinking over a few well chosen texts.
Institutions, from Stock Exchanges, Banks, States to Factories, from the Labour Process to the Media, are animated by the flow of images, but not illuminated by their detailed mechanisms. This “expressive totality” works with one simple contradiction (between practice and reification) throughout its entire unified fabric. The twist is that the crystallised forms of the Spectacle have always won until now, and have prevented real oppositions emerging. Or so it is bookishly affirmed.
Debord was not only sterile academically. The major 1960s Situationist writings are possibly unique in combining a virulent workerist streak (in contrast to say other studies of the consumer society, such as Marcuse’s), with a savage dismissal of the existing workers’ movement and its real (as opposed to potential) opposition to specific capitalist structures and policies. They are marred by reliance on rhetorical devices, such as antithesis (the world is at once “present and absent”) and bathos (the Spectacle is a “mere appearance”, reduced to the “empire of modern passivity”, yet it, as befits the emperor, “bathes endlessly in its own glory”). By the stroke of a pen, the struggle over the working day, over welfare, over partial reforms, as “externalisation” is written off.
The Situationists’ moment of glory was the events of May ’68. To Hussey their sloganising made the “events unique” (p.241). Such rhetoric was certainly unleashed at full throttle. Styling themselves after the French Revolution’s Enragés, their writings imitated Hébert’s Père Duchesne. Hussey unfortunately invariably renders their most frequent insults, “con” or “connard”, as “cunt”, which makes them speak the language of Trainspotting, rather than the average French colloquialisms they are.
If it is these words which remain in most recollections of the period, including the anthologies that regularly appear, it is difficult to find many activists greatly concerned about this tiny organisation. Hussey concentrates wisely on Situationist manoeuvring in student politics, such as the Sorbonne Occupation Committee – the workers’ occupation councils safely distant – where they were one amongst a gaggle of leftist groups. The clashes between the unions, workers and the Gaullist regime, the scepticism of the CGT and PCF towards the student leaders and the university militants’ hostility towards the Communists (amply justified in both directions) took place in spheres remote from the Situationists’ field of vision.
Hussey remarks that “twenty years after the events Debord assigned the Situationists and himself the central role in the drama of the streets”. He regarded it as a time when “absolute change could occur” (p.247). The failure lay in that intellectuals and students had been unable to understand the nature of the enemy. Unable to face the totality they had crumbled. An aesthetic and absolutist approach to politics, where most of your own side are the tentacles of the Enemy (from anarchists to Stalinists), may also be counted as less than successful.
Debord’s record as a revolutionary, such as it was, is pretty dismal even by the low standards set by this vainglorious rancour. If their slogans made an impact their activities has little resonance.
At times The Game of War’s account of his role in the Situationist International resembles that of Netchayev’s murderous conspiracy as rewritten by Dostoevsky in The Devils. There were seductions, manipulations, money dragged from the pockets of wealthy benefactors, beatings, and expulsions. The author, Jean Maitron, has his flat smashed up in his presence, for some slight. This died down as the early ’70s saw the Situationists wind up their organisation. To survivors, “the idea of a collective enterprise had collapsed”. Debord retreated into ever more snobbish and esoteric exercises.
He was indulged by the impresario and publisher, Gérard Lebovia, who presented him with the imprint Champ Libre. Amongst those who collected these books, I can testify, were a few who truly appreciated the courtly elegance of Casteligone which Debord took to mirror his own aristocratic gentility.
Tasting fine wines and eating gourmet food – still permanently intoxicated – Debord slumped into alcoholic grossness, playing war games in his country retreats. Lebovia’s mysterious gangland killing drove him to further misogyny. It is without surprise that we learn of Debord’s deep-rooted sexism (coming out with the hoary old “she does the washing up, I make the revolution”), and love of behaving badly (being nasty to anyone who tried to carry on his political work). To his credit Hussey reveals this side of Debord’s personality, a factor no doubt responsible for the threats he incurred from the remaining unconditional admirers of, as he calls Debord, the Prince of Division.
The Situationist had slumbered into the world of parapolitics. His last lieutenant, the Italian, Gianfranco Sanguinetti, has published On Terrorism and the State(English edition, 1982) alleging that the Red Brigades were a state invention. This, not unreasonable, claim was, however, supplemented by some of Debord’s own notions, which gradually implicated the spectacle into a conspiracy of self-maintenance. As Hussey states, “the concept of the spectacle implies of course that someone had put the spectacle in place” (p.372). The “of course” aside, what does this imply? That Debord far from pioneering a new form of romantic Marxism, or avant-garde experimental politics, had ended up a conspiracy theorist. Obsessed with drink he sunk rather than rose with it. He was obese. Like a 17th century squire he suffered from gout.
For Hussey, Debord’s suicide on 4 October 1994 was an act of gravitas in a world that had left no choice for Revolution. It was appropriate that the “logic which had consistently dictated the rules of Debord’s war against the spectacular society [that] … his first and foremost appearance on television was in the form of a suicide note” (p.374). Perhaps, as Jean Baudrillard glossed the concept of the Spectacle, he had come to realise that he too was part of the “hyper-real”, the absorption of forms of expression, political struggle and labour, into a universe of simulacra. Yet more fittingly we can summarise him in different language: a legend in his own lunchtime, not a legendary life.
1. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black and Red, 1973. Thesis 34.
2. Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, translated by Malcolm Imrie, Verso, 1990, pp.74, 82.
3. Christopher Gray, ed, The Construction of Situations. Leaving the Twentieth Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International, Free Fall Publications, 1974.
4. Ibid, p.29. Signed by Vaneigem and Kotanyi. I note that Hussey’s index misspells Vaneigem’s name Vanaigem.
5. Régis Debray, “Remarks on the Spectacle”, New Left Review 214, 1995.
6. Ludwig Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy”, in Lawrence S. Stepelevich, ed, The Young Hegelians, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p.107.