Situationist International  

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"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness [...]." -- Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, cited in The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord.

This page Situationist International is part of the politics series.Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.
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This page Situationist International is part of the politics series.
Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

The Situationist International (SI) was a restricted group of international revolutionaries founded in 1957, and which had its peak in its influence on the unprecedented general strike of May 1968 in France.

The term 'situationist' is explained by the group as "one who engages in the construction of situations" [1], with not much explanation as to what these situations should consist of.

With their ideas rooted in Marxism and the 20th century European artistic avant-gardes, they advocated experiences of life being alternative to those admitted by the capitalist order, for the fulfillment of human primitive desires and the pursuing of a superior passional quality. For this purpose they suggested and experimented with the construction of situations, namely the setting up of environments favorable for the fulfillment of such desires. Using methods drawn from the arts, they developed a series of experimental fields of study for the construction of such situations, like unitary urbanism and psychogeography.

They fought against the main obstacle to the fulfillment of such superior passionate living, identified by them in advanced capitalism. Their theoretical work peaked with the highly influential book The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. Debord argued in 1967 that spectacular features like mass media and advertising have a central role in an advanced capitalist society, which is to show a fake reality in order to mask the real capitalist degradation of human life. To overthrow such a system, the Situationist International supported the May '68 revolts, and asked the workers to occupy the factories and to run them with direct democracy, through workers' councils composed by instantly revocable delegates.

After publishing in the last issue of the Internationale Situationniste magazine, an analysis of the May 1968 revolts and the strategies that will need to be adopted in future revolutions, the SI was dissolved in 1972.


Contents

History

Situationist International

The SI was formed at a meeting in the Italian village of Cosio d'Arroscia on July 28 1957 with the fusion of several extremely small artistic tendencies, which claimed to be avant-gardistes: Lettrist International, the International movement for an imaginist Bauhaus (an off-shoot of COBRA), and the London Psychogeographical Association. The groups came together intending to reawaken the radical political potential of surrealism. The group also later drew ideas from the left communist group Socialisme ou Barbarie.

The most prominent French member of the group, Guy Debord, has tended to polarise opinion. Some describe him as having provided the theoretical clarity within the group; others say that he exercised dictatorial control over its development and membership; yet others believe that he was a powerful writer but a second-rate thinker. Other members included the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys, the Italo-Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, the English artist Ralph Rumney (sole member of the London Psychogeographical Society, Rumney suffered expulsion relatively soon after the formation of the Situationist International), the Scandinavian artist Asger Jorn (who after parting with the SI also founded the Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism), the architect and veteran of the Hungarian Uprising Attila Kotanyi, the French writer Michele Bernstein, and Raoul Vaneigem. Debord and Bernstein later married.

Situationist Bauhaus

The Danish brothers Jørgen Nash and Asger Jorn formed the Situationist Bauhaus in 1960, purchasing a farm in southern Sweden where they continued with various artistic and political activities.

Second Situationist International

The SI experienced splits and expulsions from its beginning. The most prominent split in the group, in 1962, resulted in the Paris section retaining the name Situationist International while excluding the German section, who as Gruppe SPUR had merged into the SI in 1959. The excluded group declared themselves The Second Situationist International and based themselves at the Bauhaus in Sweden.

While the entire history of the Situationists was marked by their impetus to revolutionize life, the split was characterised by Vaneigem (of the French section), and by many subsequent critics, as marking a transition in the French group from the Situationist view of revolution possibly taking an "artistic" form to an involvement in "political" agitation. Asger Jorn continued to fund both groups with the proceeds of his works of art.

One way or another, the currents which the SI took as predecessors saw their purpose as involving a radical redefinition of the role of art in the twentieth century. The Situationists themselves took a dialectical viewpoint, seeing their task as superseding art, abolishing the notion of art as a separate, specialized activity and transforming it so it became part of the fabric of everyday life. From the Situationist's viewpoint, art is revolutionary or it is nothing. In this way, the Situationists saw their efforts as completing the work of both Dada and surrealism while abolishing both. Still, the Situationists answered the question "What is revolutionary?" differently at different times.

May 1968

Those who followed the "artistic" view of the SI might view the evolution of SI as producing a more boring or dogmatic organization. Those following the political view would see the May 1968 uprisings as a logical outcome of the SI's dialectical approach: while savaging present day society, they sought a revolutionary society which would embody the positive tendencies of capitalist development. The "realization and suppression of Art" is simply the most developed of the many dialectical supersessions which the SI sought over the years. For the Situationist International of 1968, the world triumph of workers councils would bring about all these supersessions.

An important event leading up to May 1968 was the so called Strasbourg scandal. A group of students managed to use public funds to publish the pamphlet "On the Poverty of Student Life". The pamphlet circulated in thousands of copies and helped to make the situationists well known throughout the nonstalinist left.

The SI's part in the revolt of 1968 has often been overemphasised. They were a very small group, but were expert self-propagandists, and their slogans appeared daubed on walls throughout Paris at this time. SI member René Viénet's 1968 book Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement, France, May '68 gives an account of the involvement of the SI with the student group of Enragés and the occupation of the Sorbonne.

The occupations of 1968 started at the university of Nanterre and spread to the Sorbonne. The police tried to take back the Sorbonne and a riot ensued. Following this a general strike was declared with up to 10 million workers participating. The SI originally participated in the Sorbonne occupations and defended barricades in the riots. The SI distributed calls for the occupation of factories and the formation of workers’ councils but disillusioned with the students left the university to set up the CMDO (The Council For The Maintenance Of The Occupations) which distributed the SI’s demands on a much wider scale. After the end of the movement, the CMDO disbanded.

The Situationist Antinational was published for a short while in the 1970s, after the dissolving of the 1SI in 1972.

Influence

Situationist ideas have continued to echo profoundly through many aspects of culture and politics in Europe and the USA. Even in their own time, with limited translations of their dense theoretical texts, combined with their very successful self-mythologisation, the term 'situationist' was often used to refer to any rebel or outsider, rather than to a body of surrealist-inspired Marxist critical theory. As such, the term 'situationist' and those of 'spectacle' and 'detournement' have often been decontextualised and recuperated.

In political terms, in the 1960s and 1970s elements of Situationist critique influenced anarchists and other leftists, with various emphases and interpretations which combine Situationist concepts more or less successfully with a variety of other perspectives. Examples of these groups include: in Amsterdam, the Provos, in the UK King Mob, the producers of Heatwave magazine (who later briefly joined the SI) and the Angry Brigade. In the US, groups like Black Mask (later Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers), The Weathermen and the Rebel Worker group also explicitly employed their ideas.

In the 1980s and 90s, Situationist ideas were taken up by 'second wave' anarchists. These theorists, such as Bob Black, Hakim Bey, Fredy Perlman and John Zerzan developed the SI's ideas in various directions, but all attempted to remove the perspectives and proposed practices of the SI from a Marxist theoretical context. These theorists were predominantly associated with the magazines Fifth Estate, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed and Green Anarchy, in which they developed these perspectives. Some hacker related e-zines, which like samizdat were distributed via email and FTP over early internet links and BBS quoted and developed ideas coming from SI. A few of them were N0 Way, N0 Route, UHF, in France; and early Phrack, CDC in the US. More recently, writers such as Thomas de Zengotita in "Mediated" wrote something which holds the spirit of situationism, describing the society of the "roaring zeroes" (i.e. 2000-).

Most recently, more politically heterogeneous radical groups such as Reclaim the Streets and Adbusters have respectively, seen themselves as 'creating situations' or practicing detournement on advertisements.

In cultural terms, the SI's influence has been even greater, if more diffuse. The list of cultural practices which claim a debt to the SI is almost limitless, but there are some prominent examples:

  • Situationist ideas exerted a strong influence on the design language of the early punk rock phenomenon of the 1970s, for example. To a significant extent this came about due to the adoption of the style and aesthetics and sometimes slogans employed by the Situationists (though these latter were often second hand, via English pro-Situs such as King Mob and Jamie Reid). Other musical artists have attempted to more directly include buzzwords from the SI's critical theory into their lyrics, such as Swedish hardcore band Refused, The International Noise Conspiracy and the Welsh rock band The Manic Street Preachers.
  • Situationist urban theory, defined initially by the members of the Internationale Lettriste as 'Unitary Urbanism', was extensively developed through the behavioural and performance structures of the workshop for non linear architecture during the 1990's. Using Glasgow and London as experimental testing grounds, the protagonists of the workshop redefined the psychogeographical terrain of the urban cityscape in relation to its emotive resistivity.
  • Situationist practices allegedly continue to influence underground street artists such as gHOSTbOY, Banksy, Borf, and Mudwig, whose artistic interventions and subversive practice can be seen on advertising hoardings, street signs and walls throughout Europe and The United States. The aforementioned use stencil graffiti.

Classic Situationist texts include: On the Poverty of Student Life, Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, The Revolution of Everyday Life, and The Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb. The initial English-language text, although poorly and freely translated, was "Leaving The 20th Century" edited by Chris Gray.

As many of the original Situationist texts tend to be carefully written, some people have found them dense and inaccessible. However, during the early 1980's English Anarchist Larry Law produced a series of 'pocket-books' under the name of Spectacular Times which aimed to make Situationist ideas more easily assimilated into popularist anarchism. Some people, however, feel that Law significantly reduced their cohesiveness by this process.

Influential figures

Michele Bernstein · Ivan Chtcheglov · Constant Nieuwenhuys · Guy Debord · Jacqueline de Jong · Asger Jorn · Attila Kotányi · Jørgen Nash · Charles Radcliffe · Ralph Rumney · Alexander Trocchi · Raoul Vaneigem · René Viénet

Contemporary

Contemporary Situationist praxis is split between pro-situs, situlogists and psychogeographers.

Criticism

Critics of the Situationists frequently assert that their ideas are not in fact complex and difficult to understand, but are at best simple ideas expressed in deliberately difficult language, and at worst actually nonsensical. For example anarchist Chaz Bufe asserts that "obscure situationist jargon" is a major problem in the anarchist scene.

Key ideas in Situationist theory

Ideas central to Situationist theory include:

  • Situgraphy and Situgraphology: Drawing from the artistic Lettrist praxis of hypergraphy as well as older developments in mathematics and topology in Henri Poincare's Analysis Situs , the main theorist of the SI Asger Jorn formulated theories of plastic, anti-Euclidean geometry and topology which was at the heart of Situationist critiques of urbanism and other manifestations of contemporary capitalist culture and politics.
  • The Situation: this concept, central to the SI, was defined in the first issue of their journal as "A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events." As the SI embraced dialectical Marxism, the situation came to refer less to a specific avant-garde practice than to the dialectical unification of art and life more generally. Beyond this theoretical definition, the situation as a practical manifestation thus slipped between a series of proposals. The SI thus were first led to distinguish the situation from the mere artistic practice of the beat happening, and later identified it in historical events such as the Paris Commune or the Watts riots, and eventually not with partial insurrections, but with total revolution itself. SEE ALSO Situlogy
  • The Spectacle: Debord's 1968 book The Society of the Spectacle attempted to provide the SI with a Marxian critical theory. The concept of 'the spectacle' expanded to all society the Marxist concept of reification drawn from the first section of Marx's Capital, entitled The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof and developed by Georg Lukács. This was an analysis of the logic of commodities whereby they achieve an ideological autonomy from the process of their production, so that “social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.” (Marx, Capital) Developing this analysis of the logic of the commodity, The Society of the Spectacle generally understood society as divided between the passive subject who consumes the spectacle and the reified spectacle itself.
  • Recuperation: "To survive, the spectacle must have social control. It can recuperate a potentially threatening situation by shifting ground, creating dazzling alternatives- or by embracing the threat, making it safe and then selling it back to us"- Larry Law, from The Spectacle- The Skeleton Keys, a 'Spectacular Times pocket book.
"Ha! You think it's funny? Turning rebellion into money?" -- The Clash, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.
Recuperation is the process by which the spectacle takes a radical or revolutionary idea and repackages it as a saleable commodity. An example of recuperation, it could be argued, was the 1989 Situationist exhibition staged in Paris, Boston, and at the ICA gallery in London's Mall, wherein both original situationist manifestos, and contemporary Pro-Situ influenced works (records, fanzines, samizdat-style leaflets and propaganda) were presented in a way that reinforced the prestige of the art establishment, for passive public consumption. This event of course contrasts sharply to the occasion when the Situationist International gave a presentation at the ICA themselves, which famously ended when an audience member asked the group "what is situationism?" to which Guy Debord responded "we are not here to answer cuntish questions" before marching off to the bar. Although all would agree that a lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1989 with regard to the image of the SI in the media, another example that might be cited would be the exhibition and other events on "The SI and After" that were staged by the Aquarium art gallery in London in 2003.
A longer-lasting example, it could be argued, would be the "Hacienda" nightclub in Manchester (1982-1997). Highly commercially successful, this was named by its owner, British music-industry businessman Tony Wilson, after a reference in the 1953 work "Formulary for a New Urbanism" by Ivan Chtcheglov. Millionaire Wilson's company Factory Records was one of the sponsors of the 1989 ICA exhibition (along with Beck's beer). Later, in 1996, he allowed a conference on the SI to be staged at the Hacienda night-club. Veteran Situationist-influenced critics of recuperation were not surprised to learn that Wilson had invested funds in collecting Situationist-linked artworks, including Debord's "Psychogeographical Map of Paris" (1953), some of which he allowed to be shown in public at the Aquarium event in 2003. An index of the financial astuteness of such speculation is the fact that there are now dealers in artworks and fine books who count Situationist-linked works among their specialities.
  • Detournement: "short for: detournement of pre-existing aesthetic elements. The integration of past or present artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no Situationist painting or music, but only a Situationist use of these means.", Internationale Situationiste Issue 1, June 1958.
One could view detournement as forming the opposite side of the coin to 'recuperation' (where radical ideas and images become safe and commodified), in that images produced by the spectacle get altered and subverted so that rather than supporting the status quo, their meaning becomes changed in order to put across a more radical or oppositionist message.
The concept of detournement has had a popular influence amongst contemporary radicals, and the technique can be seen in action in the present day when looking at the work of Culture Jammers including Adbusters, whose 'subvertisements' 'detourn' Nike adverts, for example. In this case the original advertisement's imagery is altered in order to draw attention to said company's policy of shifting their production base to cheap-labour third-world 'free trade zones'. However, the line between 'recuperation' and 'detournement' can become thin (or at least very fuzzy) at times, as Naomi Klein points out in her book No Logo. Here she details how corporations such as Nike, Pepsi or Diesel have approached Culture Jammers and Adbusters (sometimes successfully) and offered them lucrative contracts in return for partaking in 'ironic' promotional campaigns. She points out further irony by drawing attention to merchandising produced in order to promote Adbusters' Buy Nothing day, an example of the recuperation of detournement (or of culture eating itself) if ever there was one. Klein's arguments about irony reifying rather than breaking down power structures is echoed by Slavoj Zizek. Zizek argues that the kind of distance opened up by detournement is the condition of possibility for ideology to operate: by attacking and distancing oneself from the sign-systems of capital, the subject creates a fantasy of transgression that "covers up" his/her actual complicity with capitalism as an overarching system.

Quotations

List of SI slogans
  • "Live without dead time" - Vivez sans temps mort - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires" - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "What beautiful and priceless potlatches the affluent society will see -- whether it likes it or not! -- when the exuberance of the younger generation discovers the pure gift; a growing passion for stealing books, clothes, food, weapons or jewelry simply for the pleasure of giving them away"- Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life
  • "Be realistic - demand the impossible!" - Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible! - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "Beneath the paving stones - the beach!" - Sous les pavés, la plage! - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "Never work" - Ne travaillez jamais" - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "Down with a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation has been purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom." - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth"- Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life

Bibliography

SI writings

Writings on the SI


See also

Activities or publications that share Situationist ideas

See also - Anarchism and the arts




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