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Essay

The Boy Scout's Guide to the Situationist International:
The Effect The S.I. Had On Paris '68 And All That, Through The Angry Brigade And King Mob To The Sex Pistols

by Tom Vague


DEFINITIONS:

Constructed Situation: a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and game of events.

Situationist: having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. One who engages in the construction of situations. A member of the Situationist International.

Situationism: a meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by anti-situationists.

Psychogeography: the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour on individuals.

Psychogeographical: relating to psychogeography. That which manifests the geographical environment's direct emotional effects.

Psychogeographer: schoolteacher who hacks up his pupils...Sorry! One who explores and reports on psychogeographical phenomena.

Derive: a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through various ambiances. Also used to designate a specific period of continuous deriving.

Unitary Urbanism: the theory of the combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behaviour.

Detournement: short for: detournement of pre-existing aesthetic elements. The integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of these means. In a more primitive sense, detournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which testifies to the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.

Culture : the reflection and prefiguration of the possibilities of organization of everyday life in a given historical moment; a complex of aesthetics, feelings and mores through which a collectively reacts on the life that is objectively determined by it's economy. (We are defining this term only in the perspective of the creation of values, not in that of the teaching of them.

Decomposition: the process in which the traditional cultural forms have destroyed themselves as a result of the emergence of superior means of dominating nature which enable and require superior cultural constructions. We can distinguish between an active phase of the decomposition and effective demolition of the old superstructure - which came to an end around 1930 - and a phase of repetition which has prevailed since then. The delay in the transition from decomposition to new constructions is linked to the delay in the revolutionary liquidation of capitalism.

You'll find the term 'Situationist' liberally sprinkled throughout contemporary agit-prop/pop culture. A lot of people name drop it but what it actually means and where it comes from is never properly explained and mapped out for people. This particular effort is going to be no exception to that. However "Situationist" is most definitely not some arty term that Malcolm Mclaren dreamed up to con people. It goes back many years before Talky Malky's reign of terror and had already been used to far greater effect.

The term came to the attention of certain sectors of the British populus, 5 years before Malcolm Mclaren borrowed some situationist ideas for the Sex Pistols, when on the night or January 12th, 1971 the country, and more specifically the house of Robert Carr, Ted Heath's Secretary of State for Employment, was rocked by two bomb explosions. Old Blighty had, of course, already felt the anti-imperialist anger of the I.R.A. in a similar way. But this was different. The IRA used bomb attacks for very specific purposes; troops out and home rule. The Carr Bombing was undoubtedly connected with Carr's controversial industrial relations bill, but the people responsible were not part of any traditional revolutionary group. All Special Branch had to go on was a communiqué from an organization calling itself "drumroll." "The Angry Brigade- Robert Carr got it tonight. We're getting closer."

Special Branch had heard or them before, but always dismissed them as (relatively) harmless anarchistic cranks. After the Carr Bombing they took them rather more seriously, asking themselves if this was the beginning of something big - the Revolution that people had been predicting throughout the 60's? Special Branch informants and files on political groups were useless. In fact the only real clue they had was a list of targets included in an earlier communiqué: "Embassies, High Pigs, Spectacles, Judges, Property." The third from last term "Spectacles" intrigued one enterprising Special Branch sergeant, who started visiting Liberatarian bookshops and sifting through underground magazines and literature.

The enterprising Special Branch sergeant found that the word Spectacle was a popular slogan, used by a Paris based group known as Situationists, to describe capitalism, the state, the whole shooting match. Owing as much to the Surrealists and Dada as Marx and Bakunin, the Situationists starting point was that the original working class movement had been crushed, by the Bourgeoisie in the West and by the Bolsheviks in the East; Working class organizations, such as Trade Unions and Leftist political parties had sold out to World Capitalism; And furthermore, capitalism could now appropriate even the most radical ideas and return them safely, in the form of harmless ideologies to be used against the working class which they were supposed to represent.

Unlike the Special Branch sergeant, Malcolm Mclaren obviously did'nt do his homework properly (Or maybe, schoolboy prankster that he is, he did'nt care about the exam results as long as he became a personality cult). However in 1957 the soon to be Situationists did not accept this as the way things would remain, not if they had anything to do with it. In opposition to this process they formed 'the Situationist International': a group consisting mostly of artists, intellectuals and the like (it has to be said), which set out to develop a new way of interpreting society as a whole. (Prior to the S.I. the Lettrists, who predated Punk by almost 30 years sporting trousers painted with slogans).

On the surface the Situationists appear as extremely cynical fatalists. They began by condemning as redundant and articulately destroying anything that came before them. Everything from the Surrealists and the Beat Generation fell in their wake. Yet they had a fundamental, utopian belief that the bad days will end. Their criteria was basically, "if we explain how the nightmare works, everyone will wake up!" An inevitable optimism absent, by the very fact of their existence, from traditional political groups: who always operate on the premise that people are too thick to decide for themselves.

This was how (and why) leading Situationist, Guy Debord formulated his theory of The Spectacle. He argued, in their journal ('Internationale Situationniste') that through computers, television, rapid transport systems and other forms of advanced technology capitalism controlled the very conditions of existence. Hence the World we see is not the Real World but the World we are conditioned to see: THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE (the name of Debord's book). The Spectacle's audience is the lumpen proletariat, the bourgeoisie, even the bosses now merely look at the Show: Real Life: thinking about it as spectators, not actually participating or experiencing it.

Debord saw the end result as Alienation. Separation of person from person; crowds or strangers, laughing and crying together but ultimately isolated from everybody and everything. The Spectacle makes spectators of us all, because we've been conned into substituting material things for Real experiences. However, Debord felt this feeling of alienation could eventually break the stranglehold of the Spectacular society. People were already rebelling against being kept apart by mass culture/ commodity/ consumer society. In the early 60s thousands of young americans questioned their role in middle morality America and dropped out in the anonymous tenements of Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. In 1965, in the Watts suburb of Los Angeles, thousands of black kids burnt down their schools and factories.

To Debord these unconscious revolts against the Spectacle were evidence of it's vulnerability. It wasn't as invincible as it seemed. But before the Spectacle could be overcome it's safety net, Recouperation, had to be dealt with: to survive Spectacular Society has to have strict social control. This is retained, without much fuss, by it's ability to recouperate a potentially revolutionary situation. By changing chameleonlike it can resist an attack, creating new roles, cultural forms and encouraging participation in the construction of the world of your own alienation into the bargain.

For example alternative lifestyles can be turned into commodities. The Haight-Ashbury hippies were eventually packaged off into commodity culture, as, of course, the London punk rockers were a decade later. And, with a lifestyle safely recouperated, after a certain amount of time it can be dusted off and sold back to people, inducing a yearning for the past. The Spectacle had gone that whole step further. For those bored with the possession of mere things, it was now capable of packaging even the possession of experiences: package holidays, community schemes, pop culture.

Spectacular Society is made complete by the recuperation of the environment in which all this must be experienced: The Recouperators realized that people would no longer accept the damage the growth of the Spectacle: heavy industry: was doing to their physical surroundings: the world. Hence environmental recuperation or "Urbanism." This consists of replacing disordered urban-sprawl with more manageable structures; factory-towns, new-towns, shopping-malls, super-markets. Huge areas designed solely for the purpose of work and the creation of profit, with total disregard for the needs or the people forced to service it. The workers kept apart in 'new architecture, traditionally reserved to satisfy the ruling class...for the first time, directly aimed at the poor: 'Dwelling Unit, Sweet Dwelling Unit.' Rabbit hutches designed soullessly to isolate and instill formal misery.

The Situationists' answer to "Urbanism" 'was the reconstruction or the entire environment, according to the needs of the people that inhabit it. Their answer to modern society was to be nothing short of the "REVOLUTION OF EVERYDAY LIFE" (the title of the companion book to 'The Society Of The Spectacle' by Raoul Vaneigem). Unlike traditional revolutionary groups, the Situationists were not concerned with the improvement of existing society, or reforming it. They were interested in destroying it completely and pulling something new and better in it's place. No half measures. No gestures. No immediate solution.

The Situationist programme began where art ended. They argued that mechanization and automation had potentially eliminated the need for all forms of traditional labour: leaving a gaping hole, now known as leisure time. Rather than fill this hole with 'Specialist Art', the Situationists wanted a new type of creativity to come out of it, which would be inseparable from everyday life. This new environment has to be brought about by the 'construction of situations'. Never an easy one to grasp that. Basically it's confronting the Spectacle with it's own irrelevance;

"To make the World a sensuous extension of man rather than have man remain an instrument of an alien world, is the goal of the Situationist Revolution. For us the reconstruction of Life and the rebuilding of the World are one and the same desire. To achieve this the tactics of subversion have to be extended from schools, factories, universities, to confront the Spectacle directly. Rapid transport systems, shopping centers, museums, as well as the various new forms of culture and the Media, must be considered as targets for scandalous activity."

Areas For Scandalous Activity; Strasbourg University, 1966.

So by appropriating a bit of Marx, a bit of anarchist practice, plenty of Dadaism (Situationist practice owes more to Groucho Marx than Karl), even some Rimbaud, and by refusing absolutely to have anything to do with traditional hierarchies and the transfer of power from one ruling elite to another, the Situationists were ready to become a social force. By the mid-60's they were looking around for opportunities to intervene in existing radical situations; in order to speed up the inevitable collapse of the Spectacular Society.

Their first major opportunity arose in 1966 at Strasbourg University; a notoriously inactive careerist student body but with a leftist student union. 5 Pro-situ students infiltrated the union and set about scandalizing the authorities. They formed an anarchist appreciation society, appropriated union funds for situationist inspired flyposters and invited the SI to write a critique of the university and society in general. The resulting pamphlet, "On The Poverty Of Student Life (Ten Days That Shook The University)" was designed to wind up the apathetic students by confronting them with their subservience to the Family and the State. And it was none too subtle about it;

"The whole of (the Student's) life is beyond his control, and for all he sees of the World he might as well be on another planet...Every student likes to feel he is a bohemian at heart; but the student bohemian clings to his false and degraded version of individual revolt. His rent-a-crowd militancy for the latest good cause is an aspect of his real impotence...he does have marginal freedoms; a small area of liberty which as yet escapes the totalitarian control of the Spectacle; his flexible working hours permit adventure and experiment. But he is a sucker for punishment and freedom scares him to death: he feels safer in the straightjacketed space-time of the Lecture Hall and the weekly essay. He is quite happy with this open prison organized for his benefit...The Real poverty of his Everyday Life finds it's immediate phantastic compensation in the opium of cultural commodities...he is obliged to discover modern culture as an admiring spectator...he thinks he is avant-garde if he's seen the latest Godard or 'participated' in the latest 'happening'. He discovers modernity as fast as the market can provide it: for him every rehash of ideas is a cultural revolution. His principal concern is status, and he eagerly snaps up all the paperback editions of important and 'difficult' texts with which mass culture has filled the bookstore. Unfortunately, he cannot read, so he devours them with his gaze.'"

The pamphlet went on to dismiss the university as "The Society for the propagation of ignorance...high culture with the rhythm of the production line...With out exception the lecturers are cretins...bourgeois culture is dead...all the university does is make production-line specialists. But on the positive side, it pointed out that away from student life, in the Real World, working class kids were already rebelling against the boredom of everyday life;

"...the 'delinquents' of the world use violence to express their rejection of society and its sterile options. But their refusal is an abstract one: it gives them no chance of actually escaping the contradictions of the system. They are it's products - negative, spontaneous, but none the less exploitable. All the experiments of the new social order produce them: they are the first side-effects of the new urbanism; or the disintegration of all values; or the extension of an increasingly boring consumer leisure; of the growing control of every aspect of everyday life by the psycho-humanist police force; and of the economic survival of a family unit which has lost all significance.

"The 'young thug' despises work but accepts the goods. He wants what the spectacle offers him - but NOW, with no down payment. This is the essential contradiction of the delinquent's existence. He may try for a real freedom in the use of his time, in an individual assertiveness, even in the construction of a kind of community. But the contradiction remains, and kills (on the fringe old society, where poverty reigns, the gang develops it's own hierarchy, which can only fulfill itself in a war with other gangs, isolating each group and each individual within the group). In the end the contradiction proves unbearable. Either the lure of the product world proves too strong, and the hooligan decides to do his honest day's work: to this end a whole sector of production is devoted specifically to his recuperation. Clothes, records, guitars, scooters, transistors, purple hearts beckon him to the land of the consumer. Or else he is forced to attack the laws of the market itself either in the primary sense, by stealing, or by a move towards a conscious revolutionary critique of commodity society. For the delinquent only two futures are possible: revolutionary Consciousness, or blind obedience on the shop floor."

However existing student rebels, such as The Dutch Provos, the British 'Committee of 100' and the Berkeley students got the thumbs down: Basically for fighting the symptoms (Nuclear Arms/ the Vietnam war/ Racism/ Censorship) not the disease: And specifically for their tendency to sympathize with western society's apparent enemies; China especially whose cultural revolution pamphlet considered "a pseudo-revolt directed by the most elephantine bureaucracy of modern times." (it did begrudgingly have a good word for the Committee of 100's "Spies for Peace" scandal: where, in 1963 the anti-nuke movement invaded secret fallout shelters reserved for the British government.)

Summing up, "On the Poverty..." outlined the solution as confronting the present social system with the negative forces it produces;

"We must destroy the Spectacle itself, the whole apparatus of the commodity society...We must abolish the pseudo-needs and false desires which the system manufactures daily in order to preserve it's power."

Using appropriated union funds, 10,000 copies of the pamphlet were printed and handed out at the official ceremony, to mark the beginning of the Strasbourg academic year. There was an immediate outcry. The local, national, and international press condemned it as incitement to violence, which of course it unashamedly was. The Rector of the University said they should be in a lunatic asylum. The students responsible were expelled and the student union closed by court order.

The presiding Judge pronounced; "The accused have never denied the charge of misusing the funds of the student union. Indeed, they openly admit to having made the union pay some 650 pounds for the printing of 10,000 pamphlets, not to mention the cost of other literature inspired by the 'International Situationniste'. These publications express ideas and aspirations which, to put it mildly, have nothing to do with the aims of a student union. One only has to read what the accused have written, for it is obvious that these five students, scarcely more than adolescents, lacking all experience of real life, their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories, and perplexed by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgements, sinking to outright abuse, on their fellow students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, the governments and political systems of the whole world, rejecting all morality and restraint, these cynics do not hesitate to commend theft, the destruction of scholarship, the abolition of work, total subversion and a worldwide proletarian revolution with 'Unlicensed pleasure' as it's only goal.

"In view of their basically anarchist character, these theories and propaganda are eminently noxious. Their wide diffusion in both student circles and among the general public, by the local, national and foreign press, are a threat to the morality, the studies, the reputation and thus the very future of the students of the University of Strasbourg."

Areas For Scandalous Activity; Paris '68 And All That.

"This work is part of a subversive current of which the last has not yet been heard. It's significance should escape no one! In any case, as time will show, no one is going to escape its implications!"

-Raoul Vaneigem, "The Revolution Of Everyday Life"

 

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