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Drifitng with The Situationist International
The Situationist International (SI) was formed at a 1957 conference in Italy. Delegates from few leading avant-garde groups including the Lettrist International and the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus-- the cultural movements that had the greatest impact on the Situationists-- assembled to discuss the crisis in modern culture and life. Deciding they shared a sufficiently similar ideological orientation, they united to experiment with means of aesthetic intervention in contemporary culture with the goal of precipitating revolution and destroying the artificial barriers between art and life. The new SI, whose leading members included Guy Debord, Asger Jorn and Raoul Vaneigem, advanced beyond previous theory to develop a penetrating and sophisticated critique of modern society. The Situationists went on to figure importantly in the events of May 1968. Shortly thereafter, in 1972, the SI disbanded. Their ideas, however, continue to exert influence on contemporary avant-garde groups.
The situationists diverged from orthodox Marxism in stressing the existence of a historical transition within capitalist society from the primacy of structures of production to those of consumption and in theorizing the implications this shift must involve for a radical praxis and movement. This transition clearly alters the nature of power. The situationists accordingly extended the critique of domination and alienation while retaining the basic tenets of historical materialism that revolve around class domination and the need for class struggle. The categories they advanced, bearing striking similarities to the ideas of George Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci and Henri Lefebvre, were those of space, everyday life, the spectacle, and it's antithesis--the constructed situation. The linchpin of the situationist critique of modern society is the concept of the spectacle, a complex term with multiple meanings. Immediately, the term implies some sort of circus or show put on by a few and watched by the masses who stare dumbfoundedly in amusement and amazement. It implies control and passivity, separation and isolation. The "show," in fact, is modern society: "The entire life of societies in which modern conditions of production prevail announces itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles" (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p.1). The term spectacle subsumes all the means and methods power employs, outside of direct force, to relegate potentially political, critical, and creative human beings to the margins of thought and behavior. The spcctacle then is depoliticization par excellence: "The very principle of the spectacle is nonintervention" (S.I. Anthology, p.45). Mesmerized by the wide array of "diversions" offered by the spectacular society, from goods and services to entertainment and conveniences, human beings stray far from thc most critical task: changing the world and liberating everyday life. In the meantime, bureaucratic domination refines and perfects it's techniques.
The origin of the spectacle is found in an emerging commodity society. As outlined by Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, the industrial revolution must be seen in two stages. The first stage marks the transition from precapitalist society, where the commodity has only a marginal economic function, to capitalist society, where it assumes autonomy and begins to dominate social and cultural life. In the second stage, the transition from "early to late capitalism," the commodity assumes "total control." This stage is characterized by the primacy of consumption over production and the creation of an advanced information/communication network that operates unidirectionally. A new human being is created: the consumer. Previously repressed and sublimated desires are now unleashed and "desublimated" (Herbert Marcuse) ideologically so that they can be reshaped and channeled into the circuits of consumption and leisure (It might be noted that this structural shift performs a double function: it resolves a crisis in the accumulation of capital, which imperialism alone could not do, and more generally, it legitimizes the capitalist system.) Alienation, once a consciously experienced and unwanted misery, has now become unconscious, "made comfortable," and multiplied in consumption. Domination, once essentially coercive and economic in nature, is now primarily ideological and cultural: ideological, as the tangible world and machinery of the spectacle sets up above itself an inverted unreality of reified thought and images, which are taken as real; and cultural as the power of this ideological control is disseminated through the cultural apparati of society, especially the media.
A critique of the spectacular society cannot be complete without a critique of its organization of space, specifically the urban milieu. The underlying assumption of this discussion is that space is not neutral terrain that we simply inhabit or stroll through, rather it is, for better or worse, the lived sphere of influence. The general theory of the lived impact of space is termed "psychogeography," "the study of specific effects of geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals" (Situationist International Anthology, p.45). Space is socio-historically specific; different societies will develop different kinds of space. A repressive society can only a produce repressive space. Thus, in capitalist society, the "bureaucratic society of controlled consumption" (Lefebvre), "the space of everyday life is encircled by every form of conditioning" (S.I. Anthology, p.128). Space is a form of domination sui generis both in it's physical layout, which is seen to militate against individual action and social interaction, and in it's general "ambience," which is seen to stultify desire and the imagination. The combined effect is psychic and social fragmentation, combined with reinforced pacification. Thus, space is another form of the spectacle, and the contestation of society begins, as will be noted, with a radical reconstruction ("detournment") of the lived environment, with the supersession of "urbanism" by "unitary urbanism."
The revolution, then, is nothing less than the destruction of the spectacular, the exposure and transcendence of the ideological. The thrust is at everyday life. To call for and attempt to organize a class struggle along the traditional Marxian political lines while the proletariat is still in the throes of the spectacle is clearly to place the cart before the horse. As matters now stand, the proletariat neither desires nor sees the need for revolution. Cultural revolution is not a substitute for the overthrow of capitalism, but it is a necessary first step. The revolutionary transformation of everyday life is not reserved for some vague future, but is placed immediately before us by the development of capitalism and its unbearable demands" (ibid., p.75). How can this be accomplished? For the Situationists, the way the spectacular can be exposed is through the creation of nonspectacular ruptures. These are called "situations." The situation is a demonstrative breaking of the spectacular, which permits the expression of desires and emancipated possibilities that everyday life has suppressed.
An example of a situation-creating technique is the dérive. The dérive is the first step toward an urban praxis. It is a stroll through the city by several people who are out to understand the "psychogeographical articulation of the modern city" (ibid., p.5). The strollers attempt an interpretive reading of the city, an architectural undcrstanding. They look at the city as a special instance of repressed desires. At the same time, they engage in "playful reconstructive behavior" (ibid., p.50). Together they turn the city around. They see in the city unifying and empowering possibilities in place of the present framentation and pacification. This "turning around" or détournment is a key strategic concept of the Situationists. Détournment is a dialectical tool. It is an "insurrectionalstyle" by which a past form is used to show its own inherent untruth-- an untruth masked by ideology. It can be applied to billboards, to written texts, to films, to cartoons, etc., as well as to city spaces. Marx used it when he "turned Hegel on his head." He used the dialectic in the study of history to expose the ideological nature of Hegel's idealism. The Situationists use détoumement to demonstrate the scandalous poverty of everyday life despite the plenty of commodities. They attempted to demonstrate the contrast between what life presently is and what it could be. They wanted to rupture the spell of the ideology of our commodified consumer society so that our repressed desires of a more authentic nature could come forward. The situation is based on liberated desires rather than alienated ones. What these desires are cannot be stated a priori. They will emerge in the revolutionary process of situation-creation, of détournment . Presumably, communality, unification, and public urban space will emerge as more desirable than commodification, fragmentation, and privatization.
Art will be crucial in this endeavor. But here art as human interaction, art as the creating of new spaces and forms of communication therein, takes precedence over art that produced physical products like paintings, statues, or texts, which can themselves be easily commodified. Everyday life itself must be transformed into art, must become poetry. Technology is not rejected here. It becomes a necessary condition for the liberation of everyday life and merges with art in a "unitary urbanism" that seeks to create and establish new forms of behavior. The urban space, of course, includes factories. There, workers must détourne the situation- turn it on it's head-- by asserting control over their own space and electing their own councils. It is only by this direct, situation-creating action that workers can avoid looking at the revolution as a spectacle, that they can become active agents in the process of détoumement, It is this, on a wide scale, that the Situationists hoped to trigger by their cultural action on the level of everyday life. What they looked toward ultimately was an "anti-statist dictatorship of the proletariat," which would integrally reconstruct the space of the territory according to the emancipated desires of the people themselves. This was, for them, the city.
The Situationists looked upon themselves as a catalyst. They tried to find a way to break through the ideological structure that was exacting such strongcontrol over the proletariat. Ultimately, however, the problem lay in capitalism and commodity fetishism. The final solution would be in the hands of an active and conscious proletariat. In this sense, the Situationists remained much more profoundly Marxist than the Frankfurt School, which also stressed ideology and culture but gave up on the proletariat as an agent of change. Dissipated through factionalism, purges and resignations, the Situationists did not remain together long enough to mount their experiments on any serious scale. While they were together, they often seemed to be spending more time in attacking virtually every other group and intellectual on the left than dérive and détournement. They also left something to be desired in terms of analytic rigor and concept clarification. For example, they did not rigorously confront thc problem of the proletariat with other segments of society captivated by everyday life. But in developing the concept of the spectacle as far asthey did, they provided a useful analytical tool for understanding contemporary capitalist society. Moreover, their theory and praxis of the situation, dérive and détournement constitute an imaginative advance in political tactics suited to that society. Thier work both desires and requires further experimentation and development.
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