August 28, 2002
Blast from the past
Love is a drug
Writers Bite Back
Envisioning an urban utopia of "post-scarcity adventure"
By Jeremy Smith
WHAT IS A city? An amalgam of buildings and streets knit together by the stories people tell themselves. A running dialogue between imagination and economics, the individual and the social, nature and machines. A Venn diagram of cultures, histories, and architectural styles, in which most of us live within many circles that define our vertical and horizontal limits, invisibly shaping our behavior and hopes. The cities of advanced capitalism are all these things accumulated until they become what Guy-Ernest Debord called the "spectacle": "a social relationship between people, mediated by images."
In 1958 an aerial photograph of Paris appeared in the first issue of the journal Internationale situationniste under the title "New Theater of Operations in Culture." It is an image of the city as an ideological battlefield, pitting the power of capital against the aspirations of the dispossessed. Founded in 1957 by a group of young poets, painters, filmmakers, and café philosophers who met in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris, the Situationist International began its life by constructing new ways to live freely in dystopian capitalist cities.
Led by filmmaker and philosopher Debord, the situationists called their experiments "situations": "moment[s] of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and game of events." In pursuit of situations, the S.I. broke up classrooms, church services, and press conferences; scrawled evocative slogans on walls and clothes; and created films and events that diverted elements of everyday life into new and displacing contexts, all in an effort to reveal the hierarchies of power that the spectacle concealed.
In a leap its theorists would have denied was mystical, situationism sought moments that would transcend the limits of scarcity and geography imposed by capitalism "that Northwest Passage," cultural critic Greil Marcus writes in a new anthology from MIT Press, "that unmarked alleyway from the world as it appeared to the world as it has never been." For the S.I., art was meaningless unless it could change the conditions of powerlessness in which most people live. On the other side of the nightmare, the situationists envisioned an experimental, technological utopia of shifting environments and post-scarcity adventure.
Their influence peaked in the spring of 1968, when Paris, then all of France, shook with slogans and tactics inspired by the S.I., bringing the government of Charles de Gaulle to its knees. The S.I. broke up in 1972, isolated and defeated, but its global influence persists. Tony Wilson, hero of the recent film 24 Hour Party People, named his club the Hacienda, in which rave culture was born, after a line from 19-year-old situationist Ivan Chtcheglov's "Formulary for a New Urbanism": "The hacienda must be built," creating a place of continuous drifting and "changeable decors." Here in the Bay Area, probably the most contested urban space in the country, one can see the situationist influence blended with many others in law-breaking transgressors like Critical Mass, Berkeley Liberation Radio, and the Billboard Liberation Front, as well as in punk and DJ culture. The situations created by their participants are counterspectacles that suggest new social relationships free of exploitation or top-down control. (Or at least, that's the theory.)
While hagiographic oral history and cross-pollinating political action keep the legacy alive, situationism has also benefited from a steady stream of often nostalgic reprints, anthologies, and retrospectives. Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, edited by former S.I. member Tom McDonough, is a sprawling and disorganized selection of writings by and about the S.I. In his introduction McDonough calls for the S.I.'s critics and disciples to move "beyond the stale categories into which we have compartmentalized our thought on the Situationist International." While his collection barely approaches this monumental task, it still contains crucial situationist texts and fascinating commentary, particularly the essay by Greil Marcus quoted above, which serves as a wise orientation to the S.I.; an interview with situationist precursor Henri Lefebvre; Jonathan Crary's solid reappraisal of the concept of the spectacle; and an analysis of the lost films of Debord. (The anthology missteps by concluding with useless sectarian twaddle in "Why Art Can't Kill the Situationist International," by two former S.I. members, about which the less said, the better.)
Iconic Bay Area press City Lights is also publishing a series of interviews with peripheral S.I. figures called Contributions to the History of the Situationist International and Its Time. The most recent, The Consul, is a conversation with English painter Ralph Rumney. Like the first volume in the series, Jean-Michel Mension's The Tribe, it is a slight but still charming little book, full of anecdotes that will interest only fans and scholars of the S.I.
While both books cover a range of topics, they are particularly valuable for the light they shed on the S.I.'s maddeningly vague urban theory and practice, which has been dealt with extensively only in Simon Sadler's 1998 book, The Situationist City. This is surprising, given the centrality of the city to the history of the S.I.
Rumney (who died this year, shortly before the book's publication in English) was the founder and sole member of one of several organizations that merged to form the S.I., the London Psychogeographical Society. Psychogeography, Rumney says, "is concerned with places and the emotional states they provoke," a study of how behavior relates to environment. At the founding meeting of the S.I. in Cosio, Italy, Rumney proposed a "pyschogeographic exploration of Venice" that would "de-spectacularize Venice by suggesting unknown routes through it."
"Psychogeography wasn't a new discovery," Rumney says, "it has always existed." Like the surrealist map of the world drawn in 1929, in which continents and countries assume whimsical proportions and Paris is depicted without France, pychogeographic maps were playful representations of psychological as well as physical space, showing only what was relevant to the geographer's experience. These radically subjective maps which had titles like The Naked City or Discourse on the Passions of Love are stories akin to pop songs or lyric poetry, not tools for finding a way that is predefined. It sounds like narcissistic fun, and it probably was, but like all situationist activities, it had a political purpose.
According to the S.I., the cities of bureaucratic capitalism were designed to discipline and pacify their populations. They were also, the S.I. said, crushingly dull. One of the situationists' key innovations was to make boredom a political issue. In such a city, people became spectators of their own lives, living through the things they could afford to buy. It's a way of life that concentrates itself today in spaces like San Francisco's Metreon, a post-mall detached from any actual commerce. You don't go to the Metreon to get the things you need or even want, but to gaze at images of technology and excess, to experience the jouissance and temporary contentment induced by the spectacle of consumer culture. Noisy and gleaming, it's the closest thing many people have to a public space, but one in which they are rendered socially invisible and politically silent.
The S.I. sought to confront this silence, Marcus writes, by practicing "a radical de-conditioning: to demystify their environment and the expectations they brought to it." The primary tool for psychogeographic mapping was the dérive (drift), in which the geographer would give herself up to "the pull of the city" seeking what Chtcheglov called "forgotten desires." The dérive could be an aimless stroll, an alcoholic bender, or a way of living one's entire life the important thing was to engage critically and creatively with the environment in which you found yourself, circulating throughout neighborhoods segregated along lines of class and culture, accessing all parts of it.
The goal, Marcus writes, was "to fashion a new version ... of how people organized their wishes, pains, fears, hopes, ambitions, limits, social relationships, and identities, a process that ordinarily took place without consciousness." [Emphasis added.] For the young mostly male bohemians of the S.I., this entailed living without jobs, money, or even a fixed address, drunkenly sifting through the back alleys, catacombs, and cafés of Paris and other cities, a lifestyle well documented by Rumney in The Consul. "Boredom," went one slogan of May '68, "is counterrevolutionary," an ultramodern method of social control, and the situationists did whatever it took to live lives full of surprise and poetry.
The situation was not supposed to be an art form that could be integrated into the wider capitalist spectacle, recuperated in museums, or acted out in theaters for the benefit of paying spectators (although contemporary performance art has certainly tried to adapt the form for this purpose). The situation could only be made and experienced by active participants. "The role of the 'public,' if not passive at least a walk-on, must ever diminish, while the share of those who cannot be called actors but, in a new meaning of the term, 'livers,' will increase," Debord writes. In many respects the situation is simply a metaphor for a life lived fully and with eyes open, a prescription for adventure.
Extremist and totalitarian (terms I use descriptively, not pejoratively), the situationists sought to erase the distinction between art and living and indeed, all such oppositional separations, from work and play to ego and collective. "Surely, the powers of a situation will broaden considerably in time and in space with the realizations of unitary urbanism or the education of a situationist generation," Debord writes with a hope he would later problematize as soft-headedly utopian. Throughout his early work, Debord speaks of collecting "data" from the dérive, or "researching" the psychogeography of cities, but his pretensions to rigor fell to pieces whenever his hoped-for future confronted the actually existing present. To his credit, Debord never shied away from this confrontation, exploring it in films and essays. While pretending to be analytic, psychogeography and the dérive owed more to the dream. Like all European avant-gardes of the 20th century, the S.I. attempted to marry Aristotelian and Platonic paradigms, struggling to fuse the magical with the empirical, the organic with the machine. Like most marriages, it was a battleground and yet another opposition that the S.I. heroically failed to resolve.
Debord uses the term "unitary urbanism" to describe a method more bluster than realized of building cities based on situations. (In his interview Henri Lefebvre says it "consisted of making different parts of the city communicate with each other.") Sculptor and architect Constant was one of the few situationists to attempt a utopian projection of their ideas. In "A Different City for a Different Life," other essays and drawings, he demands a city of adventure and collective creativity. Sounding more like a bong-hitting Jules Verne than a Marxist builder of boulevards, Constant rhapsodizes about a city he calls "New Babylon," where labyrinthine, modifiable sections induce unified ambience through the control of sound, lighting, and weather. Increasing automation "will create a need for leisure" that demands "a continuous construction on pillars ... in which premises for living, pleasure, etc., are suspended ... leaving the ground free for circulation and public meetings." Space travel, Constant writes, "may influence this development, since bases established on other planets will immediately raise the problem of sheltered cities." Liberated from work, living a continuous dérive without a fixed place of residence, the noncitizens of Contant's city roam where they please and alter their environment at will.
Much of this imagery is shocking; it is not what one is led to expect by other situationist writings. In the texts that appear throughout Guy Debord and the Situationist International, the situationist city never quite coheres into a vision to guide those who might wish to make it flesh. Worse, there is something repellent in Constant's New Babylon and in the universalizing totality for which all situationists strove. There are no neighbors in the city of situations, no dirt, no greenery, no culture outside the situation itself nothing that would sully cigarette-smoking perfection of their Parisian ideal. And as McDonough points out in his iconoclastic introduction, unitary urbanism actually had a great deal in common with that of its supposed enemies, particularly in its yearning for technology to liberate humanity from nature and our own sense of self, striving to mold the subject through environmental manipulation. Constant was pressured to resign from the S.I. in 1960, his urban designs criticized as "public relations for the integration of the masses into capitalist technological civilization," but his work remains integral to the situationist legacy. "Was this a mere 'deviationist seed,' as the SI wished to see it," McDonough asks, "or an indication of the fundamentally unified project of that civilization and its 'negationist' avant-garde?"
The answer to McDonough's question is not simple: the tensions in S.I. thought cannot be simply wished away. The situationists only wanted what could never exist, never accepting a period of transition, a process of change. "Our position is that of combatants between two worlds," writes Raoul Vaneigem, situationism's most intelligent rhetorician, "one that we don't acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist." The situationists needed a bridge over which the whole world could cross, but found only the tiny raft of the dérive, on which they could ride the currents of the city and history. "Our hope was always to change the world," Rumney says at the conclusion of his interview. "That pretension is now defunct.... It is rather the world which is going to change man's [sic] very nature."
And yet despite its failures, the situationist city retains its power, both as critique and inspiration. There are really two situationist cities: one architectural, which doesn't amount to much, and the other metaphorical. "The first truly revolutionary act," Rumney says, "was the creation of metaphor," the superimposition of imagination on reality, the speaking of one thing as if it were another, in order to understand more clearly its meaning. This metaphorical situationist city the one expressed in psychogeographic maps suggests that by losing ourselves in existing cities, embracing our desires, and uniting through travel that which capitalism has divided, then we might discover what is already revolutionary in the city around us. In knitting those fragments together, the situationist city says, then we might seize control of our own lives.
Jeremy Smith, former publisher of Dollars and Sense magazine, is the director of membership services at the Independent Press Association.
Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents
Edited by Tom McDonough. MIT Press/October Books, 448 pages, $44.95.
By Ralph Rumney. City Lights Books, 124 pages, $12.95 (paper).