Situationists

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 2 07:53:23 MDT 2001


(God willing, if I live so long to complete this project on 
anarchism, I hope to do a chapter on the Situationists. Perhaps the 
title of my study will be "The Importance of Being Dull". Heavy irony 
symbol inserted here.)

New Statesman
Book Reviews
Will Self Monday 27th August 2001  

The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord
Andrew Hussey Jonathan Cape, 420pp, £18.99 
ISBN 022404348X

The Map is Not the Territory 
Alan Woods and Ralph Rumney Manchester University Press, 204pp, £25

When did the avant-garde die? It sounds like a title for the sort of 
frothy filler you might find, nowadays, fringing the review pages of 
any mainstream newspaper - and that, in itself, confirms the 
avant-garde's demise. But if you were looking for a plausible date, 
place and motive for the auto-destruction of that current which laid 
claim to being - by virtue of exclusivity, originality and audacity - 
the radical harbinger of cultural and political change in European 
society, it would have to be on 30 November 1994 in a large, gloomy 
farmhouse in the large, gloomy, remote French department of the 
Auvergne, where, as day faded into night, Guy Debord, once the leader 
of the Situationist International, put a gun to his breast and 
stopped his heart for ever.

Why now should we be concerned with Debord and the Situationists? 
After all, the balance of his life - with its freeloading 
hermeticism, its programmatic alcoholism and its sly peripatetics - 
exemplified little more than a useless appendix to the cultural 
rebellions of the 1960s. Certainly, Debord himself (and the tight 
little cabal he assembled around him) believed that the Situationist 
International had been pivotal in Les Evenements of May 1968, and 
that it was merely a failure in tactics (plus, naturally, the woeful, 
blinkered condition of the people) that had prevented their 
groupuscule from finding itself at the vanguard of a global 
revolution. 

It is difficult for any remotely objective assessment to support this 
view. But our continued interest in Debord should be motivated by the 
plangent, awful truth that he was substantially right about the 
character of individual life under "late capitalism" (and what a 
woefully optimistic ascription that now seems). His magnum opus, The 
Society of the Spectacle, reads today as a more accurate description 
of contemporaneity than it can have appeared in the pre-internet, 
pre-cable, pre-mobile phone era of the late 1960s. Written in 221 
propositions - like the bastard apothegms sired by Wittgenstein out 
of Marx and Hegel - any one of them painfully scrapes away at the 
margarine of false consciousness gumming up our faculties. Take No 
16, for example: "The spectacle subjects living human beings to its 
will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway. 
For the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing for itself 
- at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and a 
distorting objectification of the producers."

The Society of the Spectacle accurately foretold the capitulation of 
the "Russian bureaucracy" and presented a penetrating critique of 
globalisation long before the term had even been coined. Debord's 
conception of the "spectacle" as a self-perpetuating delusional 
system, implicit in the commodification of human experience, 
transmitted by the market, and powered by a senseless alliance 
between "profit" and "progress", was framed as a politico-philosophic 
theory. But in its manic Manichaeism, and its natty nihilism, its 
true lineaments owed more to abstract art than academic abstraction.

Which is why it should come as no surprise to English language 
readers who approach Debord and situationism for the first time, 
through Andrew Hussey's biography, to discover that the closest 
Debord ever got to a lecture theatre in the Sorbonne was to occupy 
one in May 1968. Although a Parisian by birth, Debord spent his 
childhood and youth in provincial disarray, as his young, widowed 
mother looked for ever more comfortable familial berths in Vichy 
France. Spurned by the last of his stepfathers, young Debord's idea 
of a prank to celebrate his baccalaureate was to break into a church 
and profane the sacraments.

When Debord arrived in Paris in the early 1950s, it was loosely under 
the auspices of the faction of anti-artists who styled themselves as 
"Letterists". These were the prankster progeny of Isidore Isou, a 
Romanian Jewish emigre whose project of anti-literature (reminiscent 
of Brion Gysin's and William Burroughs's invocation to "rub out the 
word") and anti-art put them squarely in the lineage of the French 
avant-garde from Dada to surrealism. Debord latched on to them, took 
control, created a splinter group - the Letterist International - and 
expelled Isou. This was to be the pattern of all future incarnations 
of the groupuscule, and it is this tendency that confirms Debord as 
the true heir of Andre Breton, because situationism, like surrealism, 
was a tentacular squid of a movement, propelling itself forward with 
regular and successive expulsions. Of the eight revolutionary samurai 
who assembled at Cosio d'Arroscia in Italy in 1957, to inaugurate the 
Situationist International, all were eventually expelled, except for 
Debord himself, who eventually dissolved the bitter pill altogether.

In the decade and a half that Debord spent mapping the intellectual 
and physical hinterland of Paris, he and his fellow boulevardiers 
devised their own lexicon of gnomic terms to describe the ways in 
which the "spectacle" might be thwarted: to "drive", or "drift" 
across the city was to rediscover an existential relationship with 
place; to analyse this subjective relationship was to practise 
"psychogeographie"; while to distort - and therefore subvert - the 
attributes of the spectacle itself was to "detourne". Looked at one 
way, this was the Gallic beatnik-cum-proto-hippy version of Timothy 
Leary's invocation to "turn on, tune in and drop out"; but whereas 
the American version became mired in drugs, psycho-babble and 
mysticism, the French surfed on a wave of Hegelian dialectics and 
absinthe.

(full review: http://www.aldaily.com/, under "Dig those 
Situationists")

-- 
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 09/02/2001

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org





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