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Guy Debord is really dead

Published in Guy Debord is really dead December 1994


Chapter 2 "Notes for a counter-history of the SI"

The failure of most of the situationists serves to understand the nature of the catastrophe and to run along the crisis. Panic can be an incredible energizer.
Mark Downham, 1988

For which reasons and with a view on what did the SI get together? Few of those who shed words about "situationism" are actually able to answer the question. But it's very easy, it was all about CREATING SITUATIONS, i.e. "temporary settings of life, characterized by a superior emotional quality". The means to this aim were Unitarian Urbanism (an example of which is the "theory of mood-quarters, according to which each quarter of a town should tend to provoke a simple feeling, to which the subject would consciously expose himself"), a "new architecture" (which "shall play on the ambiance effects of rooms, colours, streets, an ambiance connected with the actions they contain") and the psychogeographical exploration of sites ("active observation of today's urban agglomerates and establishment of hypotheses on the structure of a situationist city"). The ultimate aim was "the invention of essentially new games [...] to increase the non-mediocre part of living and reduce null moments as much as possible [...] The situationist challenge to the elapsing of time and emotions would be the bet of being always in advance to changes, ever going further in the game and increasing the touching moments". It was necessary to challenge the capitalist way of life by fostering other desirable ways, "to destroy, by all the hyperpolitical means, the bourgeois ideal of happiness". This was the meaning of Debord's subtle plagiarisms of famous marxian phrases: "Emotions have been sufficiently interpretated: now it's question of finding new ones". This was connected with the outlook of a "quick, continuous increasing of free time, at the height of productive forces reached by our age". "Today the ruling class manages to use the free time won by the revolutionary proletariat, by developing a wide entertainment industry which is an incomparable mean of abasing the proletarians with by-products of ideology and the tastes of the bourgeoisie". Actually, the situationists' purpose was that of discovering new means of action "simply recognizable in the domain of culture and customs but applied in the perspective of an interaction of all the revolutionary changes". The current banal meaning of the word "situationist" has very little to do with this programme. But this term has undergone such banalization because, at a certain stage, the SI itself stopped being globally situationist, and the word followed the process of involution. As everyone knows, from 1957 onwards, the SI repudiated and banished members, behaving as a sect; theory was blatantly detached from praxis, and the organization was left with two members (Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti), and was then dissolved with the public document La véritable scission dans l'Internationale (Champ Libre, Paris 1972). In the following section ("New year's Eve in Naples") I will explore this document: reading it is sometimes like hearing Glenn Miller playing [11]. Let's go back to the point, now. With frequent expulsions the SI was basically aping the Surrealist movement, whose heritage had been imported by the French section together with its judicial language, typical of the Avant-gardes. The expulsions involved other sections of the SI, in particular the German group SPUR. In spite of Debord's words ("We have to eliminate the sectarianism among us that opposes unity of action with possible allies for specific goals and prevents our ifniltration of parallel organisations. Since 1952 to 1955 the Lettrist International, after some necessary purges, has constantly been tending to a sort of absolute rigour, leading to an isolation and an unfruitfulness which were equally absolute, and fostering in the long run a certain conservatism, a degeneration of the spirit of critique and discovery. We have to definitively overcome this sectarian conduct, towards actual actions. It's only by this criterion that we have to find or leave comrades.) [12], since the beginning the French section stood out for its paranoid and conspiratorial strictness; they expected an injection of Hegelian steroids to strenghten theory, and expelled members for futile reasons [13]; in the end, they fostered nothing less than the contemplative attitude and the inactivity they blamed on everybody but themselves. Let's follow the order: the Dutch and the Italian sections were decimated and then sent out before 1960. The Danish Asger Jorn, one of the most important members of the SI, whose texts would certainly surprise readers today [14], resigned in 1961. In Germany, the group SPUR (Trace or Track) caused several scandals and directly outraged the cultural establishment; at the IV congress of the SI (London 24-28 Sept. 1960) the group attacked the French section and in the following 16 months turned out to be the most active section, but they were finally sent out in January 1962 because they refused to let their eponymous review to be administrated in Paris. In March 1962 the former Scandinavian and German sections founded the Second Situationist International, and in the following years they issued two papers (Drakabygget and Situationist Times) and declared the following aim: "...The point of departure is the dechristianisation of Kierkegaard's philosophy of situations. This must be combined with the British economic doctrines, German dialectic and French social action programmes. It involves a profound revision of Marx's doctrine and a complete revolution whose growth is rooted in the Scandinavian concept of culture: This new ideology and philosophical theory we have called situology: it is based on the principles of social democracy in as much as it excludes all forms of artificial prejudice."[15] Stewart Home's comment is:

"...Not only has Europe always traditionally seen itself as the center of the world, but Britain, France, and Germany tend to see th emselves as the hub of this center. Thus, when the SI split in two, from a French or Anglo-American perspective, the specto-situationists based in Paris were seen as the real SI, while the 2nd International centred on Scandinavia could be dismissed as 'foreign to the SI; much more sociable, certainly, but much less intelligent' (IS 8, Paris 1963)." [16]

The French section promptly described the purges as parts of the conflict between its 'revolutionary' component and the 'artistic' one. As far as art was concerned, the SI had actually slightly less idealistic positions than "nashists" (the spiteful name the Second SI was given) [17] and both the internationals claimed to be revolutionary. The SI certainly issued more coherent and radical statements, and claimed the founding of Workers Councils (they borrowed this claim from Socialisme ou Barbarie) although "they never really did anything to actually put them into practice " [18]; the 2nd SI lacked a consistent theory (probably because they feared to become as dogmatic as their French cousins) and aimed at the immediate realisation of Unitary Urbanism and of the sperimental behaviour connected with it. Both sections inherited only a part of the originary situationist programme, and both of them failed. The SI seems to have had a wider influence than the 2nd SI on the 1968 movement and on the following experiences, but this is due to a mistaken judgement, i.e. post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The well-known scandal of Strasbourg, 1966, certainly inspired those who, two years later, pulled up the paving on the streets of Paris; it's also true that the Situationists coined some of the best slogans of the movement; nevertheless, the effect of their practical critique on the events of those days has been overrated. If the influence of the Situationists had really been so determinant, it would be hard to explain the large re-emergence of Maoism and Trotskism in the following months, and especially the crisis in which the SI went through until its dissolution 3 years later. Actually when the events of May '68 began, the SI was already down in the maelström of inconsistency, and its structural problems didn't enable them to re-emerge. The French comrades of the Encyclopédie des Nuisances, whose critique of the SI is certainly very different from the one we're developing here, have masterfully outlined this inconsistency: "Situationist theory criticized politics without caring too much for the means of its revolutionary realisation (leaving it to the Workers Councils, which were very far from being founded); as a consequence, it was left undeveloped as regards tactics and the search of necessary compromises: both the external ones (i.e. the convergence between a radical theory still in the making and a radical practice which was, in its turn, fragmentary and incomplete) and the internal ones (i.e. the methods of organisation which make the coherent appropriation of the critique possible). The myth of a total fusion of theory and practice, which the SI believed to have actually realised, and the myth of a revolution which will actuate this fusion in society at one go, - the latter being the historical counterpoint of the former- heavily affected the understanding of what the Situationists should have actually done together" [19]. But the EdN doesn't seem to reckon that expulsion and the frequent derision of those who had refused (even if only partially or intuitively) such promethean hallucinations were among the very causes of the coming and persistence of those evil myths. Those "former situationists" were first defined "indulgent" and "inefficient" [20] and finally trapped in art and idealism, while their contribution - mixed to the theoretical rigour of the French members - would have given the situationist programme newer and wider opportunities of application and success.

The role of the 2nd SI and of the other expelled members has been underestimated and ignored for a long time. Especially in Italy, nobody knows much about it. Apparently the excommunication still has a strong influence and the francocentric perspective is still operating. Soon after the split, both the SIs kept on promoting scandals as a political weapon. But, while the Strasbourg scandal (a fucking stroke of luck which was very well exploited and propagandised) gave the Paris-based one a thrust which allowed them to wash their bollocks in the 1968 agitations, the other couldn't go further what today we would call a "kreative" approach and slowly imploded. And yet it had an indirect influence on the '68 movement both in Europe and all over the world, as well as many of the other ex-members did. Dieter Kunzelmann, former member of SPUR and contributor of Situationist Times, helped to found the Kommune 1 in West Berlin; the Kommune 1 appealed lots of young people, challenged the marxist-leninist positions of the SDS and contributed to give that organisation -and the whole German movement- anti-authoritarian connotations [21]. Some years earlier the Dutch former member of the SI, Constant (the one Debord most derided, sometimes rightly), had an important role in the crucial PROVO movement in Amsterdam (1965-67): before being recuperated by the omnivorous institutions of that town, this movement offered the worldwide counterculture efficient and unpredictable ways of action [22]. In London, King Mob issued several pamphlets and a tabloid paper (King Mob Echo) and provoked many events: for instance they caused street riots giving out fake news to the papers or expropriated department stores disguised as squads of Santa Klauses. Malcolm McLaren was a fan of King Mob: he would exploit Punk showing he had learned the Strasbourg lesson, in all its positive and negative features. Thanks to this influence McLaren and Jamie Reid (the Sex Pistols art director) "they refined the taste for for new practices of communication' - manifestos, leaflets, collages, pranks, wrong information - which gave a growing feeling that the state of things could be shaken, if not irreversibly transformed" [23]. The expelled situationists didn't end up in the trashbin of history. Being consistent with the several francocentric historical accounts [24] would mean to say that these groups and movements put into practice remnants of second-class theory and owed their radicality to the pale blue blood they were left with after quitting the right salons. But, if we said that, we wouldn't be serious: we would be pro-situs. Critical theory is not "transcendental", it moves in real contradictions with the virus of exemplary action; it's true that had the whole situationist programme been re-charged in the social struggles, it would have accelerated the events, but this failed assault on totality must be put down to all the situationists, including Debord, Sanguinetti and Vaneigem. And what is more, every salon is intrinsecally wrong.

 

Footnotes

The notes marked by a ** didn't appear in the original text: they were appended by the author during the foul-proof reading.

[11] This phrase is incomprehensible in English; Glenn Miller was a trombone player, right? Well, "trombone" is also the Italian metaphor to mean a windbag, one that is puffed up etc.**

[12] All the quotations since the beginning of the paragraph are from: "Rapport sur la construction des situations et sur les conditions d'organisation et action de la tendence situationniste internationale" (1958), in: Mirella Bandini, L'estetico il politico - da Cobra all'Internazionale situazionista, L'Officina, Torino 1977.

[13] The case of the Englishman Ralph Rumney, who founded the first London Psychogeographical Association, reminds of the Theatre of the Absurd. In 1958 he was sent out because, when his first son was born, he turned in his psychogeographical survey of Venice a couple of days after the 'deadline'. Nine years later, the whole British section was expelled in unbelievable circumstances, allegedly described by Fred and Judy Vermorel in: The Sex Pistols (Tandem, London 1978).

[14] See expecially Open creation and its enemies, translated and prefaced by Fabian Tompsett, Unpopular Books, London 1993.

[15] Nash, "Who are the Situationists?", in "Times Literary Supplement", London. Quoted in: Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture, AK Press, Edimburgh 1991, p.39, and p.41.

[16] Stewart Home, in the previously quoted work, uses the term "spectosituationists" (from "spectacle") to distinguish the SI from the Second SI.

[17] "The current use of the term art treats it as a sub-category of these disciplines; one which differentiates between parts of them on the basis of perceived values. Thus, the music of Mozart is considered art,while that of Slaughter and the Dogs is not. This use of the term art, which distinguishes between different musics, literatures, &c, emerged in the seventeenth-century at the same time as the concept of science. Before this, the term artist was used to describe cooks, shoe-makers, students of the liberal arts &c. When the term art emerged with its modern usage, it was an attempt on the part of the aristocracy to hold up the values of their class as objects of 'irrational reverence'. Thus art equated with truth, and this truth was the world view of the aristocracy, a world view which would shortly be overthrown by the rising bourgeois class [...when the bourgeoisie] appropriated the concept of art it simultaneously transformed it. Thus beauty more or less ceased to be equated with truth, and became associated with individual taste. As art developed, 'the insistence on form and knowledge of form' and 'individualism' (basically romanticism) were added to lend 'authority' to the concept as a 'particular, evolving, mental set of the new ruling class'. Thus, rather than having universal validity, art is a process that occurs within bourgeois society and which leads to an 'irrational reverence for activities which suit bourgeois needs'. This process posits 'the objective superiority of those things singled out as art, and, thereby, the superiority of the form of life which celebrates them, and the social group which is implicated' [...] This is a conclusion very different to that reached by the specto-situationists [which wanted to realize art] If art, from a materialist perspective, is a process which occurs in bourgeois society, there can be no question of its realisation. Such an idea is mystical since it implies not only that art has an essence, but that as a category it is autonomous of social structures. To undertake its realisation and suppression is an attempt to save this mental set at the very moment the category is abolished. Art disappears from the museums only to reappear everywhere! (Stewart Home, op. cit. The internal quotations are from: Roger L. Taylor, Art: An Enemy of the People, Harvester Press, Sussex, UK 1978.

[18] Manoscritti Antieconomici e antifilosofici, quoted above.

[19] Encyclopédie des Nuisances, Considerazioni storiche sull'Internationale Situationniste, edizioni 415, Torino 1994 (formerly: "Abrégé", Encyclopédie des Nuisances # 15, Aprile 1992. For info: Encyclopédie des Nuisances, 74 Rue de Ménilmontant, 75020 Paris, France.

[20] La véritable scission..., op. cit.

[21] Some references to the Kommune 1 can be found in: Richard Neville, Play Power, Jonathan Cape, London 1970, republished by Paladin, London 1971. As regards the anti-authoritarian consciousness of the German '68 movement, see Hans-Jurgen Krahl, Konstitution und Klassenkampf, Verlag Neue Kritik KG, Frankfurt a. M. 1971.

[22] See Richard Neville, op. cit. and Fernanda Pivano, Beat Hippie Yippie - Dall'underground alla controcultura, Rizzoli, Milano 1978.

[23] Jon Savage, England's Dreaming, ?

[24] For a good example of a debord-centred and servile historical account, see Jean-François Martos, Histoire de l'Internationale Situationniste, ed. Gérard Lebovici, Paris 1989.

 

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