Under the paving stones, the myth
By Karl Whitney.
McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, (Verso, 2011)
The Situationist International had a short, fairly obscure, history, and, fittingly, the group’s critical afterlife has been long, repetitive and, for the most part, unenlightening. The group’s own insistence on their exceptional status has ensured reluctance on the part of critics to investigate biographical details, or to widen the scope of inquiry to take in other avant-garde groups or intellectual influences. Perversely, the Situationists – the group that helped to evacuate notions of originality from art through the practice of détournement – appear in many biographies as true originals, eclipsing other groups and artists, wholly grasping the twentieth century in ways that no others could.
McKenzie Wark tends to present the Situationists in similarly glowing terms. But one of the best aspects of his pithy, often self-consciously lapidary, book is his intriguing investigation of some of the byways of Situationist historiography, including his examination of the writings of the Danish artist, and founding Situationist, Asger Jorn, the parallel ideas of philosopher Henri Lefebvre – particularly with reference to the situation and the Lefebvrian ‘moment’ – and the efforts of Jacqueline de Jong, after her parting of ways with the group, to establish the multilingual Situationist Times. There’s also a welcome assessment of Michèle Bernstein’s two novels, written about the Situationists and their milieu.
Asger Jorn is an especially interesting figure in the history of the Situationists: seventeen years older than Debord, he had worked for Fernand Léger, and, briefly, in Le Corbusier’s studio. In the post-war period, his involvement with the Cobra group had seen him engage with notions of everyday life, influenced by the writings of Henri Lefebvre, primarily his Critique of Everyday Life (1947). The early days of the Situationists were greatly influenced by the efforts of Cobra to combine a concern with everyday life with the revolutionary potential of the early Surrealists. (The Situationist International was constituted in 1957 from Guy Debord’s Letterist International and a number of other small groups.)
Clearly, in this account of the Situationists’ intellectual formation, Lefebvre appears pivotal, and Wark discusses his ideas very well. Lefebvre’s concept of the ‘moment’, outlined in his Critique of Everyday Life Vol. 2 (1961) is one which ‘tries to achieve the total realization of a specific possibility’ but ‘exhausts itself’ in the act of pursuing that goal. In Wark’s description, Situationist leader Guy Debord conceived the ‘situation’ as similar to the moment but without the exhausted collapse back into the everyday: it would be a modification of reality that stuck. Wark rightly points out Lefebvre’s growing awareness of the reduced status of the moment in his Introduction to Modernity (1962), where he drew attention to technology’s role in reducing the possibility of critique in everyday life, creating a system that he calls, citing Debord, the ‘spectacle’.
And here is where we hit a problem: the Situationist notion of the spectacle, outlined as early as 1961, but described most famously in Debord’s 1967 text The Society of the Spectacle, is avoided, by and large, by Wark’s text, (it’s referenced only three times). Yet, what seemed to have happened to the Situationists in the early 1960s was a turn away from urban possibility towards a conception of modern society as an inauthentic projection. In part, this turn happened because many of the founding members, most notably Jorn and Constant Nieuwenhuys, had either resigned or were fired from the group. In their place, Debord recruited theorists such as Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotanyi, who marked a new, even less conciliatory stage in the Situationists’ history.
This later Situationism is barely covered, and instead we get descriptions of Constant’s New Babylon project – plans for a highly automated city based on principles of play – which had initially been outlined in the pages of the Internationale Situationniste journal and was elaborated further after he left the group. To Wark, Constant’s project is ‘the most thorough negation, not of the world of the late twentieth century, but of a world which is only just now coming into being.’ Debord, on the other hand, emerges as a shadowy figure who, early on in the history of the movement, secured the role of secretary of the group and exercised a steely ideological control over its activities.
Part of the Situationists’ appeal is their seemingly uncanny ability to accurately predict the future. Thus, Wark – author of A Hacker Manifesto – writes that ‘every kid with a BitTorrent client is an unconscious Situationist in the making’; sometime Situationist Alexander Trocchi’s postal round-robin, where messages were circulated along with copies of previous correspondence, is seen by Wark as a precursor to blogging; meanwhile, Constant ‘intuits some things about what will turn out to be the internet’. While all of these points are arguable, it’s hard to say that they’re central to an understanding of the group. Certainly, the Situationists’ attitude towards intellectual property is hugely relevant in an era when digital reproduction has dragged information towards the ‘free’ model, and Wark addresses this well in sections on the implications of détournement – the re-use and modification of fragments of already existing texts and images in the creation of new works – for political practice.
But, the question persists in dealing with the Situationists: can the disruption on the level of representation implied by practices such as détournement actually be seen as revolutionary? Without talking of the reasons for the turn towards the pessimism of the spectacle, one runs the risk of repeating the false starts of the past. Ultimately, Wark’s book reveals the unruly legacy of the Situationists: with many of their ideas appearing to remain relevant to the contemporary world, no biographer wishes to put them to sleep through fixing them into a historical framework. Thus, the Situationists are cursed and blessed: always seeming our contemporaries, apparently escaping the twentieth century and bleeding into the next, and yet seeming more distant, and less knowable, than ever before.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 15th, 2011.