:: Article

Retrograde Utopianism, Or a Lost Future?

By Karl Whitney.


Tom McDonough, ed., The Situationists and The City, Verso, 2010.

Tom McDonough’s new reader concentrates on the urban writings produced by the Situationist International over the course of the group’s existence, from its inception in 1957 to its dissolution in the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the events of May ’68. It also briefly surveys some of the urban writings of the Lettrist International, a precursor of the Situationist group that had also been led by Guy Debord. The collection brings together most of this material for the first time in the English language, drawing on recent comprehensive publications of Situationist documents in France.

The Situationists’ focus on the city has been central to McDonough’s choice of documents. He seeks to redefine notions of the Situationists’ urban critique, arguing that instead it persisted throughout the group’s duration.

Traditionally, the Situationists’ urban work has been seen as solely a concern of the early period of the group’s history, associated closely with members Asger Jorn and Constant Nieuwenhuys (known simply as Constant), who brought a theoretical acuity and practical architectural aspirations to Situationist urbanism. As members of the avant-garde Cobra group, they had also been influenced by the ideas of Henri Lefebvre, whose Critique of Everyday Life (1947) had attempted to fuse an avant-garde interest in transcendence with leftist political practicalities.

Subsequently, both members left the group, and Guy Debord brought in Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotányi, who significantly revised the Situationist view of the city. Urban space was now seen as less a site of possibility than a concretization of alienation – it was something to be overcome, destroyed, reconstituted in a radically different form. This form could never be defined, lest the group be accused of a retrograde utopianism.

This rejection of the contemporary city reflected a growing trend in Situationist thought towards the highly alienated conception of the Spectacle, a theory that was most famously outlined in Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), but which begins to make itself known in early Situationist texts, including Vaneigem’s ‘Comments Against Urbanism’ (August 1961), reprinted here by McDonough:

‘Urbanism and information are complementary in capitalist and “anti-capitalist” societies – they organize silence. […] As public relations, ideal urbanism is the projection in space of conflict-free social hierarchy. Roads, lawns, natural flowers, and artificial forests lubricate the wheels of subjection and make them enjoyable. […] This spectacle that it offers us makes Haussmann look quaint, he who could plan no prestige apart from a firing range. This time, it is a matter of scenically organizing the spectacle across everyday life, of letting people live in the frameworks corresponding to the roles that capitalist society imposes on them, of further isolating them by training them, like the blind, to recognize themselves illusorily in a materialization of their own alienation.’

For Vaneigem, urban form was itself a manifestation of the Spectacle, and to participate in creating cities would make one complicit with that system. Later, Debord would echo this perspective closely in the section of Society of the Spectacle entitled ‘Environmental Planning’, and McDonough includes part of a script for Debord’s 1973 film based on Society of the Spectacle, which neatly summarises these ideas.

This withdrawal from practical questions of urbanism was largely a reaction to the perceived utopianism of Constant’s models for an urban form based on Situationist principles. These ideas were sketched out by Constant in the pages of the Situationists’ journal in 1960, and are included in a section designated by McDonough as the ‘Architectural Interlude’.

Although Debord was keen to distinguish Situationist perspectives on the city from those of professional architects or utopian socialists, the group’s urban thought obviously shared characteristics with both.

The founding text of Situationist urbanism had been written long before the group even existed. Guy Debord had broken from Isodore Isou’s Lettrist group, branding the splinter group as the ‘Lettrist International’. In 1953 fellow Lettrist International member Ivan Chtcheglov wrote an imaginative and playful text called ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, which, informed by Dadaism and Surrealism, attempted to reconfigure the historical city as a site of ludic fantasy:

‘We manoeuvre within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of folkloric tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, Mammoth Cave, mirrors of Casino.’ (35)

In this, Chtcheglov was drawing on the dérive – a rapid undirected movement through urban space in search of atmospheric zones of interest. The practice tied in to Situationist notions of psychogeography – the interplay between the subjective imagination and urban space.

Chtcheglov’s article also appeared to be a call for the creation of these new environments: he envisaged mobile cities on tracks that would ‘go down to the sea in the morning, and return to the forest at night’. He called for the experimental attitude of dérive to be transferred into a practical architecture: ‘You will never see the hacienda. It does not exist. The hacienda must be built.’ (33)

Is this a call for the building of a new architecture, or an acknowledgement of the fact that such an imaginative urbanism is impossible? Later on, Debord would effectively shut down the possibility of practical construction of Situationist cities, but for a long time there seemed a real possibility that such cities could actually be built.

Which makes it odd, then, that in his introduction McDonough sweeps many of these questions aside. To the editor, the Situationist International ‘at its most innovative, was not so much concerned with changing modern architecture, as with leaving it behind – the group’s aim here, as in so many other fields of cultural and social endeavour, was to challenge its very premises and accepted ways of thinking’. (2) By the time of Constant’s resignation, a consensus had grown within the group that ‘all prospective models for a future city were doomed in advance to cooptation by the outer reaches of capitalist research and development.’ (22)

McDonough also writes that he doesn’t wish to privilege the ‘architectural interlude’ that he has effectively set in parentheses in the middle of the book. To his credit, McDonough includes later Situationist writings that in part focus on urban space –  including articles about the Paris Commune and the Watts riots – and he also broadens the context by bringing in excerpts from Henri Lefebvre, at one point a major influence on Situationist thinking, and who, in turn, was heavily affected by the group’s work on urban space. McDonough also unearths work by German Situationist Gunther Feuerstein, which, in addition to pieces by Jorn and Constant, illustrates the complexity of Situationist urban thought during this period. These choices make The Situationists and the City the must-have English language collection for readers interested in Situationist urbanism.

However, there are a couple of omissions. I would have liked to have seen the 1956 article ‘Two accounts of the dérive’ included in the collection. It would have illustrated how the practical application of psychogeographical ideas play out in urban space, and shown the importance of Parisian locations to Situationist urbanism: especially the working-class north-eastern quartiers of the city. Similarly, the article ‘Position of the Continent Contrescarpe’ isn’t present, meaning that the specifics of key Situationist locations are somewhat under-explored in this collection. Both of these articles could have been included in the section titled ‘Paris, Modern Myth’, which collects other texts, including the ‘Theory of the Dérive’, which actually appeared in the same issue of the Belgian journal Les Lèvres nues as the two accounts of the dérive and of Contrescarpe. Usefully, though, McDonough does include in this section an excerpt from the writings of urbanist Paul-Henri Chombart de Lauwe – an important influence on the Situationists, and essential to an understanding of the development of their urban ideas.

Although it is largely set aside by McDonough, the so-called ‘architectural interlude’ nevertheless reveals a huge amount about the internal politics of the group, in addition allowing us insight into the difficulties the Situationists, and specifically Debord, had in concretely achieving experimental ideas.

Later, Debord would later muse, nostalgically, ‘could one not have appeased the Situationists around 1960 by means of a few lucidly conceived recuperative reforms, that is, by giving them two or three cities to construct instead of pushing them to the edge and unleashing on the world the most dangerous subversion there ever was?’

By then it was 1973. Asger Jorn was dead, and nothing could be done to open up the blind alleys of the past. The aforementioned quote comes from the article ‘On Wild Architecture’, written after the dissolution of the Situationist group, and thus not included in this collection. Debord’s regret, which is tinged with his usual self-aggrandizement, reveals something one can not ignore: when the dust settled, Debord believed that the ‘architectural interlude’ should have added up to a lot more than that.


Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher 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: Tuesday, March 9th, 2010.