:: Article

Colliding and Clashing, Fucking and Fighting

McKenzie Wark talks to 3:AM‘s David Winters about styles, scenes, theories and tactics in The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso, 2011).

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3:AM: From the outset of The Beach Beneath the Street, it’s clear that the book won’t settle for merely describing its subject, the ‘everyday life and glorious times’ of the Situationist International. What’s on offer is not some autopilot account; it feels more like a strategic derailment. At a performative level, the text seems keen to defamiliarize the SI, pitching the reader into a set of newly disoriented encounters. If style plays a part in all this, could you talk about how the book’s style enacts its arguments? What are the tactical uses of style in writing?

MW: I’m glad you brought that up. It took a long time to find the style. Most writing about the Situationists either rewrites them as academic prose, or else it imitates Debord. I didn’t want to do either. If you read more widely in Situationist related material, fortunately other kinds of writing show up as options. I wanted something that would give a sense of the immediacy of ideas to everyday life, and of the role that different forms of social interaction play in producing this self-critical everyday life. This I think produces that effect of a ‘derailment’ or detour away from received ideas about the whole thing. At the same time, I want it to be seductive, to be a playful, pleasurable read. Certain kinds of sentence can produce that effect. As to which, and how to write them, well, that’s a trade secret!

3:AM: The ‘household names’ of the movement, Debord and Vaneigem, seem to get swallowed up by your story. Familiar protagonists are dislodged by ‘minor’ characters, or absorbed into broader situations: post-war Saint-Germain as a nurturing matrix of practice; Lettrism as more than a mere prehistory. What made you make up your mind to write this kind of account, and how did you work out who and what to include in it?

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MW: There’s plenty of stuff on Debord to satisfy anyone with a case of Debordiana, but it’s more interesting to think about the whole thing as an ensemble piece, with all these different people colliding and clashing, fucking and fighting. It’s striking to me how often books gesture towards some kind of collectivist politics or aesthetics and still treat history as a cavalcade of great men. The Situationists had already thought about this. The concept, and practice, of détournement should put paid to any Great Man theory of history.

What’s more interesting to me is the milieu, the scene. It’s an interesting question as to what kinds of conditions can produce an interesting scene. What combination of cheap rents, cheap drinks, marginal economies, forms of ‘deviance’, and yet access to some kind of learning, some books and galleries – can produce an interesting scene? Saint-Germain was a classic instance of a scene, and I think there’s still something to learn from it about how to produce them. Rather than be nostalgic for a lost milieu, I wanted to look more clinically at what we could learn from that one about producing new ones.

As it turns out, one of the things you need is ‘minor characters’. You need both men and women, straight and not, you need a mixing of the classes. You need a detachment from state, family, school. You need the ‘water trade’, but also a gift economy. You need some derangement of the senses – but probably not too much. This would be a non-romantic approach, a forensic approach to bohemia and its uses. So the characters I include all have their angle, their turn. They make a scene possible. Once you start doing it this way, you find you have the women back in the story. In the case of Saint-Germain you have the North Africans back in the story. The delinquents, the dangerous classes, the teenage runaways. It really gets more interesting when art and theory connect to everyday life lived intensely and under stress. That – in part, at least – is where the Situationist International comes from.

3:AM: It’s true that the book is strongly at odds with nostalgia. ‘Let’s be done with nostalgia for “68”’, you say. Elsewhere you speak of ‘retrieving’ the past, or reactivating it, rather than straightforwardly narrating it. The intention seems to be to rewire our recollection of what we call ‘situationism’, not as the commodity it has perhaps become, but as gift, or potlatch. Is the book then proposing its own politics of memory? How does memory relate to politics, for you?

MW: The Situationist concept of détournement is more than a precursor to remix, sampling and all that. It’s a philosophy of history. It’s about the collective, collaborative appropriation of the past into the present, with no regard for claims to property or ownership. The Beach Beneath the Street applies the concept of détournement to the legacy of the Situationist International itself. For critical theory not to lapse into hypocritical theory, but to give rise to a critical practice, then it has to broach questions of how knowledge is practiced. There’s probably a pdf of the book circulating out there by now. That too is détournement. That too is part of the practice of memory.

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3:AM: The book kicks off with a roll call of canonical ‘theorists’, reduced to caricatures by their academic admirers. You close with a call for ‘low theory’, de-institutionalised theory, geared to the creation of new situations, not ‘new dead masters’. What’s your take on the life of theory today, inside or outside of the academy? Correlatively, what are your predictions for higher education, given its growing precarity? And are emergent ‘para-academic’ sites (say, The Public School, or aaarg.org) examples of ‘low theory’ at work, or not?

MW: A lot of readers are quite shocked by this. Apparently one can be irreverent about just about anything these days except the Great Philosophers. Makes one wonder what role the notion of a Great Philosopher plays in the culture. And of course for a thinker to be Great they have to become a Philosopher. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are now, apparently, philosophers. This would be enormously surprising to Marx, of course, who was anything but.

It would appear critical theory retreated so far into the academy that it became legitimate to simply accept its conventions and protocols without question. This might not be tactically wise. Universities are complicated beasts that serve a lot of functions, not all of them terribly friendly to critical thought and practice, as the Situationists well knew.

I’m interested in what one can do within universities. I inhabit one myself. The internal politics of universities is a pretty vast and complicated terrain. And yes, I am interested also in para-universities, in the re-invention of knowledge practices outside of it. But perhaps more important is the relationship between the two. Aaarg.org or The Public School depend on universities, and I would argue, universities benefit from these para-institutional sites as well. (Marx, Freud and in some ways Nietzsche came back to the university from without.) Critical theory and practice requires a tactics of invention, a détournement of available resources.

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3:AM: Your own détournement of Marx reads, ‘The world has only changed philosophy. The point, however, is to interpret it.’ Elsewhere, in your reading of Lefebvre, you say that ‘philosophy might be nothing other than making contemplation into a moment.’ Could you expand on what these statements mean, how they relate to each other, and what sets them apart from the recuperation of philosophy you’ve outlined above?

MW: There’s two kinds of philosophers. Those who think there are two kinds of philosophers and those who don’t. I call the two kinds High Theory and low theory. High Theory accepts the institutional space of the university and works within it. (Hence even Derrida is High Theory. The relentless worrying away at the question of the university is entirely within the university. There is nothing outside the university.)

Then there’s low theory, in which the invention of concepts and practices happens at the same time. (Deleuze is High Theory, but Guattari is low theory.) I think low theory has a much better claim on the ancient tradition of philosophy than High Theory. Philosophy begins outside of institutional forms. (Socrates is low theory. But Plato is High Theory.) Scholastic philosophy is generally High Theory, but the heresies of which Vaneigem is so fond are low theory. This of course is all very schematic, but you get the idea.

Philosophy is not just the question: what is the good life? It is practices of the good life. Or practices towards the possibility of a practice of the good life. It is contemplation crystallized into a moment, as Lefebvre says. The founding of the Situationist International is a philosophical act. Its splits and fissures are, among other things, about decisions between practices. To me that’s much more interesting than picking clean the bones of that fascist Heidegger.

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3:AM: You’re especially attentive to the literary dimensions of your subject, from the prose and poetics of Lautréamont and Isou to Trocchi‘s Project Sigma, which you call an ‘overcoming of literature’. Are any comparable overcomings taking place today? Here in the UK, the literary establishment peddles versions of ‘psychogeography’ that sometimes seem politically anaemic. What would a literature of situations look like now?

MW: The funniest thing I’ve read in years is Stewart Home‘s Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie. That seems to me to have the right spirit, in the way that it stages a smackdown between détournement and internet spam. It’s not clear who wins, or who Home intends to win, but I think it’s brilliant the way it shows how language is actually working now. The way Home turns literary modernism aside to use it for partisan purposes I think is one of the viable strategies.

Otherwise I think you have to step back from the Sits to Lukács on the historical novel. I’m a great admirer of Luther Blissett‘s Q and the Wu Ming Foundation novels. I think there’s viable lines one could still explore coming from Michèle Bernstein and Alex Trocchi, so I wrote about both as writers. Anything has to be better than Will Self’s Ramblings of a Solitary Wanker.

3:AM: True. And are there any other practices you’d point to? Nowadays, narrowly reformist forms of activism all too often lack negative capability, failing to name utopia as ‘no place’, the opposite of what’s out there. Meanwhile, work goes on reworking itself in the image of a ‘leisure’ that began as a bastardized image of work. If life is elsewhere, does it still make sense to ask where it is?

MW: I think that’s one of those situations where if one has to ask, one’s never going to see it. I’m also wary of the fact that everyday life is best lived out of the spotlight. I’m not all that interested in adding to the list of things considered cool enough to be alternative consumer objects. So while I’m happy to name-check artists or writers, everyday life is another matter. One just does it. One does one’s best. One studies previous scenes and their tactics, but then it’s just a question of getting on with it. It will not be heroic or theatrical. Nor is it self-denying or moralizing. It’s just a question of the withdrawal of certain situations in part from the commodity’s reach. There’s generally a richness of concepts, affects and perceptions that feels both familiar yet unprecedented, and most likely unrepeatable. That’s usually a sign one is on the right track.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
McKenzie Wark teaches at The New School in New York City, and is the author of several acclaimed books including A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory.

Images from Totality for Kids courtesy of Kevin C. Pyle.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

me-by-regents-canal-2009

David Winters is a writer of fiction and criticism, and a co-editor at 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 6th, 2011.