03 February 2012

Guy Debord & The Situationists

Guy-Ernest Debord was a French Marxist writer and filmmaker. He was a founding member of the Lettrist International in 1952 and of the Situationist International in 1957. In all my reading over the decades, I don’t think I’ve ever run across a political philosophy as odd as the Situationists, who had a remarkable influence over one of the most turbulent periods of Western history. I didn’t remember even ever having heard of them until a friend told me he’d been influenced by Debord and the Situationists and I decided to look them up and read about them.

Guy Debord was born in Paris on 28 December 1931. When his father, Martial, a pharmacist, died of tuberculosis in 1936, Debord's mother, Paulette, went with her son to Nice to live with her mother, Lydie Rossi. During World War II, Debord spent most of his youth with his grandmother as they moved from one Mediterranean town to another across Unoccupied France. After Debord graduated high school in Cannes in 1948, where his interest in film began, he started studying law at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), but he hated the school and dropped out in 1950. Married twice, to writers both times, Debord had affairs with many other women—apparently with the acquiescence of his wives (with whom he had “open marriages”). He also had a serious drinking problem which destroyed his health, including severe nerve damage which caused him great pain. Presumably to end the pain, Debord fatally shot himself in the heart at age 62 on 30 November 1994. The French press promptly declared him a celebrity, never before having acknowledged Debord's work or the importance of SI.

Debord joined the Lettrists in 1951, when he was 19. The predecessor to Situationism was founded in 1945 by Romanian-born Isadore Isou (1925-2007, born Ioan-Isidor Goldstein), a few months after he immigrated to France. Isou had started composing his philosophy in the early ’40s as a young art journalist in Romania during World War II. Lettrism, an avant-garde art and literary movement, was based on principles of both Surrealism and Dadaism (the leading figure of which was a fellow Romanian, Tristan Tzara, whom Isou admired). The movement eventually published hundreds of works covering poetry, film, painting, and politics.

(The group’s name has no relation to ‘belle-lettrist,’ more commonly written ‘belletrist.’ Known in French as Lettrisme, the movement’s name comes from the French word lettre, or ‘letter,’ because their early writings centered on letters or other visual or verbal symbols. In English, the name is often rendered as Letterism, which the adherents preferred for English publications, but Lettrism/Lettrisme is common in both languages. LI, the splinter group Debord formed, was known in French as Internationale Lettriste and SI was Internationale Situationniste, also the title of a periodical published irregularly between 1958 and 1969. I’ll be sticking with the Anglicized forms.)

Isou’s theories of Lettrism were very esoteric, full of special words he and other Lettrists invented to describe their ideas. Basically, if simplistically, Lettrism posited that the existing forms of poetry, painting, and music had all come to their logical and creative ends and that nothing new or innovative could be produced by following the old forms. In order for new creativity to develop, the old forms must be broken and new ones take their places. (Though I never read of a connection between Antonin Artaud and the Lettrists, this sounds very much like his argument, too. Artaud, who died in 1948, had, however, been associated with the Surrealists but fell afoul of André Breton and was expelled from the movement. We know that Isou, who formed Lettrism partly from Surrealist roots, had little respect for Breton as well. The Situationists, however, invoked Artaud’s ideas and even quoted from his writings.) In poetry, for instance, the new compositions are characterized by strange or meaningless arrangements of letters, called lettrie, not dissimilar from the poetry of the Dadaists that had been composed since the end of World War I by the likes of Raoul Hausmann or Kurt Schwitters. The idea was to reduce art to its most elemental component—the letter or the sound for poetry. Many Lettrist poems don’t contain readable words, and some not even readable letters: the poets depended on invented characters. Much of this work is really visual poetry rather than anything we’d recognize as literary. Lettrist art also includes sound poetry, installations, calligraphy, rebuses, and what we’d call performance art today. Lettrist painting (such as the work of Maurice Lemaître, a Lettrist founder) resembles abstract art except that it incorporates a great deal of text or letters and symbols, not all of it readable. In Lettrist music, the voice and the shout became the essential elements of the art. To be sure, the distinctions between poetry, visual art, and music is nearly invisible among Lettrist artists (who are often described as hyphenates like poet-painter or composer-poet). Isou himself acknowledged that true Lettrist art might not even be possible in reality, but insisted that the mere contemplation of the possibility would free the creative energy.

Debord, having joined Isou’s movement in 1951 and then making a film for him (Hurlements en faveur de Sade or Howls in Favor of Sade, 1952), formed a splinter group, the Lettrist International, in 1952 and went his own way. In 1957, Debord again bolted and established the Situationist International. In fact, LI had almost nothing in common with Lettrism; it was more a preliminary organization to SI, whose basic tenets LI anticipated. The name was pretty much ironic. Though Debord and his rebels had already formed LI secretly, the split occurred openly when Debord’s faction disrupted a Charlie Chaplin press conference at the Hotel Ritz in October 1952, denouncing Chaplin as a “fascist” and “emotional blackmailer” for the sentimentality of his work. (Chaplin was in Paris on a publicity tour for Limelight, having been hailed by the public all over Europe and having met Queen Elizabeth, to whom he had bowed as required. Before he left Europe, however, U.S. Republican vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon had accused the Democratic administration of President Harry Truman of being soft on communism and Congress labeled Chaplin, a British subject, subversive and prohibited him to reenter the U.S.) Isou tried to distance himself and the original Lettrists from Debord’s group, but Debord and his supporters bolted and formally founded LI in December.

Membership in Debord’s LI ranged across a broad spectrum of the arts and various social and political ideologies, but their main commonality was their youth (they averaged in their early 20’s when LI was formed in ’52) and their rejection of religion. They’ve occasionally been seen as the French counterparts to the American Beats. (I think the comparison is superficial. The Beats were almost all writers of one kind or another, had no organization that even pretended to represent their philosophy—if they can even be said to have had one—and they had no strong political agenda beyond a libertarian need to write and live as they pleased.) Actually, what LI seems more to resemble is the literary and artistic arm of the Occupy movement—although that’s a simplistic comparison as well. One of the leaders of Occupy Wall Street acknowledged the influence, explaining, “The idea came from the Situationist movement” who “use their wits, and they find ways for making people laugh, and think about the paradigm shift just through the power of their wits.” There was also a streak of the anarchic fun of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters (which didn’t come along until 1964), as the crashing of the Chaplin press conference demonstrates. Most of the LI members’ time, however, was spent in bars in Saint-Germain-des-Prés; in fact, their official headquarters (later also the center of SI) was the Tonneau d'Or, a bar on the Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviéve (which LI supporters adamantly called "Rue de la Montagne-Geneviéve" to flaunt their disdain for religion). If they weren’t drinking, the LI devotees were wandering around Paris, sometimes for hours or even longer. We’ll see that this activity was the initiation of the dérive, a central principle of Situationism (and, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll leave the definition and description of this tenet till I get to SI shortly). Other Situationist principles and practices had their origins in LI.

In July 1957, LI officially merged with two other international avant-garde organizations to form the Situationist International with Debord as the guiding figure of the new movement’s activities and philosophy. Debord and his cohorts put out the first issue of Internationale Situationniste the next June, publishing their new terms and concepts (many of which had originated in LI) and setting out their goals. At the outset, the aim of SI was to blur the boundary between art and culture, and daily life, making them part of one continuum. (There was more to this goal, of course, and I’ll try to simplify it as I attempt to describe it all. Most of SI philosophy has been published, and much of it is still in print, but the fact is that not only SI publications but many of the efforts to explain or analyze their beliefs and practices are impenetrably dense, especially when it comes to SI’s jargon and arcane language. It doesn’t help that most of SI thought originated in French, which often doesn’t translate cleanly into English.)

When SI first formed, it was a predominantly aesthetic movement, concerned with the place and condition of art and creativity in modern life. It wasn’t until later, around 1962, that SI developed a political and social component, basically applying its aesthetic principles to life and politics. By 1968, the year of the student uprisings in Paris (in which SI was intimately involved), the group had become almost entirely revolutionary. Many other leftist groups even beyond France had begun to adopt their ideas, turning SI precepts to their own purposes.

In “Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action,” the manifesto of Situationism published in June 1957, Debord wrote: “First of all we think the world must be changed. We want the most liberating change of the society and life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that this change is possible through appropriate actions.” The Situationist maxim was that society engenders the very “desires, tastes, and aspirations” of people through advertising, making them identify with fictional constructs generated by the publicity industry so that they “internalized craving [they] did not truly have.” Debord described the life of the ordinary citizen as dull and predictable, dictated for him by a society which had become reduced to what he called a “spectacle”: little more than a sham dressed in the trappings of living. To change this world, Debord and the Situationists proposed organizing “situations,” which he defined as “the concrete construction of momentary ambiances of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality,” a kind of installation-cum-Happening. The original idea was for various artistic disciplines to come together to create these “situations” that would transform people’s outlooks and “change life.” Debord’s idea was to get people involved in their own lives again. In popular culture, Debord alleged, the passive spectators are led to identify with a hero so that they’ll live through the fictional figure and not themselves become active. The Situationist drive was to prevent society from allowing an active hero, a Rambo or a Batman, say, or Thelma and Louise—or even a Hamlet or a Nora Helmer for that matter—to do their living for them. The media had made these images attractive; they are derived not from life, but from movies, TV, advertisements, and magazines, invented elsewhere by the “Society of the Spectacle” and foisted on ordinary people who absorb them passively. Getting the spectators to take an active role in their own lives defeats this societal control mechanism, leading eventually, the Situationists hoped, to revolution and the downfall of the “Society of the Spectacle.”

In the 1967 booklet The Society of the Spectacle, a collection of “theses,” Debord described this as a society “in which the consumption and contemplation of images has replaced all forms of human communication.” A spectacle, as theater folk know, is a show (in French, it’s another word for ‘play’) and for a show to take place there must be active participants and inactive watchers whose participation is only vicarious. Only the small group who organize the spectacle—that would be the establishment—have an active role while the large majority—the rest of us—are spectators. In order to perpetuate the spectacle, the authorities manipulate the images and symbols we see and to which we are conditioned to respond. “The spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images,” wrote Debord. He meant that the spectacle wasn’t just TV or advertising or movies or images in popular magazines, but everything, the world we see around us. As one of the leaders of SI said, “To us, you understand, it was all spectacle; advertising was not worse than anything else.” The Society of the Spectacle, according to the Situationists, promotes a false sense of both happiness and freedom, an image of the real thing. In other words, we aren’t living an actual life, but the image of a life prescribed by the authorities who regulate society. The use of a theatrical word evokes the very artificiality of the existence we’re all led to pursue, as if we were all living a collective Truman Show life.

A good illustration might be the character of Jason in Jean Anouilh’s 1953 version of Medea. (I don’t know that Anouilh specifically subscribed to either Lettrism or Situationism, but there are some parallels between those movements and Existentialism, of which Anouilh was a proponent, particularly in the notion that people need to be engaged in their own lives. “Choose,” demand the Existentialists; “Soyez engagés”: “Be engaged!”) Jason wishes to exchange the chaotic life of the rootless outsider for a settled existence in which he embraces comfort and the illusion of “happiness, poor happiness” by abiding by the conventions of people like Creon, the King of Corinth, who establish rules to maintain order. “I want to accept now,” he tells Medea, who insists on seeking out her true self regardless of what the consequences are. Jason longs for an orderly life within the “Society of the Spectacle” and the conflict with Medea’s rejection of pretense is ultimately tragic. Medea, despite her horrific acts, is still the heroine of the play because she takes direct action that is true to her nature, however violent and destructive; Jason remains the man of compromise, the sell-out.

Along with their obvious Dadaist and anarchist links, the Situationists claimed a debt to Bertolt Brecht. The situation, like Brecht’s Epic Theater, from which Debord derived the concept, was meant to disrupt the spectator’s programmed passivity and inspire a sense of engagement. The situations weren’t the actual goal in themselves, but a catalyst, a passage to a new, thoughtful, critical life (just as Brecht intended his Epic Theater to make people stop and think anew about the circumstances on display rather than jump mindlessly to programmed conclusions). It was meant as a way to shake up the passive observer, to make people take an analytical or critical look at their daily lives and go after their real goals rather than the artificial ones the spectacle has made them want. (Just to further the theatrical connection, the inspiration for the term ‘situation’ was in part drawn from Jean-Paul Sartre, an Existentialist philosopher. In his 1947 essay “For a Theater of Situations,” Sartre wrote: “But if it’s true that man is free in a given situation and that in and through that situation he chooses what he will be, then what we have to show in the theater are simple and human situations and free individuals in these situations choosing what they will be.” Choose! Be engaged!)

The avant-garde artists of SI were expected to bring their technical and artistic talents together to create the situations, actual and psychological environments that would give people a chance to experience a moment of real, spontaneous living, a glimpse of “the nonmediocre part of life.” (This was also a way for art and life to come together in an everyday circumstance.) The Situationists insisted that the spectacle was artificial, but the situation was authentic. Of course, there was a huge element of anarchism in the construction of situations since they weren’t authorized or planned with city permission; they were very much like guerrilla theater, except that the performers were ordinary people who happened on the situation as they made their ways through the streets of Paris. So while the Situationists were combatting the spectacle, they were also subverting the conventional passage of the city plan, a tactic we will see was called the dérive. Unlike the structures, both concrete and social, of the spectacle, the situations of SI were “ephemeral, without a future; passageways,” observed Debord. Additionally, if the situations had no future, they had no past, either. They were unconnected to the past or tradition or history—they were sui generis and had to be negotiated without reference to anything the encounterer had seen or done before. It required active participation; it was present and actual. This made those who passed through a situation, at least for the moment of the experience, “livers,” as Debord called them, instead of watchers or receivers.

As I noted earlier, when he was still leading the Lettrist International, Debord devised the activity he called the dérive, a concept of pyschogeography. (Psychogeography is another Situationist idea, fairly self-explanatory from its name, which I’m not going to discuss. One of the two other groups that amalgamated with LI to form SI was the London Psychogeographical Association.) This was another method of subverting the spectacle and of experiencing life without the control mechanisms of established society and it became one of the central principles of SI. The dérive (French for ‘drift’; from dériver, ‘to divert’) consists of wandering randomly through different parts of the city in order to absorb the life that is there and subvert the prescribed organization of architects and mapmakers to follow the wanderer’s own imagination. Ignoring the city planners’ intent that the plat force people to be more controlled and orderly, the dérive also subverts the established educational system. As laid out in the 1958 essay "Theory of the Dérive," Debord wrote, “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” (The descendants of the Spanish and Mexican settlers in the American southwest have a similar practice, though with a different motivation. They “go paseando,” wandering the countryside without apparent plan to experience whatever fate sends their way. From what I gather, the Australian native practice of going “walkabout” isn’t dissimilar, though I don’t believe either custom has the deliberately anarchic aspect that’s part of the dérive.) The pace of the dérive is leisurely so that the wanderer can absorb the atmosphere of the surroundings as she passes through. The point is to become aware of the different emotional response the stroller has to the environment in contrast to the predetermined way he might have reacted before when following the formal plat. (There seems to be a vague relation between the dérive and the more current pastime of parkour where the idea is to use radically alternative means to traverse an area, but parkour is a sport not a philosophical tactic and it requires speed and skill by the traceurs, while the dérive is unhurried and doesn’t demand athleticism to practice.)

The fourth important concept of Situationism is détournement, which allows artists to appropriate material created by others and redirect its purpose and meaning, like recaptioning a comic strip, in order to detach it from its usual cultural perspective and provide a kind of Brechtian distancing. (The word is French for ‘misappropriation,’ from détourner, ‘to circumvent’ or ‘deflect.’) It’s another method of making people reject the alienating environment to which they’ve become desensitized and oblivious and build new associations with the objects they encounter in their daily lives. A prime, if obvious, example are Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymades” like his Fountain, a urinal he selected and mounted as a piece of art. (I always think of Woody Allen’s What's Up, Tiger Lily? as a light-hearted application of détournement.) The new work comments on the détourned work, usually as a way to negate its meaning or deride its importance, so the original piece must be generally familiar to the public. Variations of the tactic have become familiar in this country in politics, especially in attack ads, and advertising. (One immortal example was the phrase “Where’s the beef?” which was originally conceived in 1984 to sell hamburgers in the TV commercials for Wendy’s restaurant chain. In the 1984 Democratic presidential primary campaign, former Vice President Walter Mondale used the phrase to great effect against Senator Gary Hart as a comment on Hart’s lack of substance.) In détournement, the new work closely resembles the original one and may even be an exact duplicate with selected details changed or added, unlike a parody, which only alludes to the détourned original. Therefore, Duchamp’s Dadaist “Mona Lisa” poster, L.H.O.O.Q., can be seen as détournement, but Fernando Botero’s original painting of the same subject is not. Ironically, when SI became significantly involved in political causes after 1968 and unrelated leftist activists began to use Situationist tactics, adapting them for the new groups’ own purposes, SI itself became the victim of détournement.

As I hinted above, the Situationists weren’t without a sense of humor (which is what reminded me of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters). They made up their own games, usually to subvert the prescribed games society determines we should play. The Situationists were not trying to lead society anywhere, though; they were trying to break it. In 1958, for example, Debord and one of his SI colleagues published Mémoires, a book made up entirely of détourned elements. The text ran in all directions with sentences that broke off and passages superimposed on one another; connections among the quotations were never explained; the images, absconded from every conceivable source, seemed unrelated to each other or the text. As the ultimate gesture of disdain, the book was bound in a sandpaper cover so that it damaged the books next to which it was shelved. When Debord was still a member of Isou’s Lettrists, a group of younger adherents showed up at Notre Dame for Easter Mass, which was being televised across the country. One Lettrist, dressed as a priest, mounted the podium and addressed the congregants, announcing, “Brothers, God is dead,” and began calmly discussing the implications of that development for several minutes before the worshippers understood what had been happening.

Détournement had what perhaps was an unintended consequence. Because the Situationists (and their progenitors, the Lettrists) philosophically encouraged plagiarizing the artworks of others for the Situationists’ own purposes, virtually anyone could be an “artist.” This Situationist contention meant that art had no special value in Situationism above, say, advertising or sign-painting. The Situationists, who had begun as an aesthetic movement, mistrusted art, perceiving it as having been “co-opted” by the spectacle as a false image of beauty. By isolating the beautiful and spotlighting the positive, art, Situationists felt, enabled the spectacle to divert the public’s attention from the truth and the dishonesty that really surrounded them. Art, in the Situationists’ view, supplied the establishment the tools to maintain the spectacle. Debord saw that the forms of art had been adapted by advertising and marketing and used to sell consumers goods or propaganda. It is, after all, artists who make the images used in advertising and public relations. Even as avant-garde artists developed innovations and new techniques or tactics, the spectacle absorbed them and co-opted them. The Situationists pointed to the artists’ presence in museums and galleries, auctions, and academies as evidence of their participation in the spectacle. Genuine forms of “art” for the Situationists were the flyer and graffiti.

And despite the clear theatricality of the situations that were fundamental to Debord’s philosophy, SI had the same reservations and distrust of theater as it did of the other arts, using theories of both Brecht and Artraud to show how theater, too, had been taken over by the spectacle because conventional theater performances appeared to be real events but weren’t. It is what contemporary American playwright Mac Wellman calls the “non-event” in the theater which presents “the banality of the received idea, the time-honored, the enshrined, the ‘classical’”; it provides for a “manipulated response” that can be controlled by the establishment. The Situationists believed that Brecht and Artaud both wanted to destroy the theatrical spectacle. The Happening by the likes of Allan Kaprow and John Cage, on the other hand, was a non-repeatable performance in which the presentation was an actual event, with no pretense or artificiality. These were the theatrical models of the situations, not the plays of the Paris stages.

Ironically, perhaps, Debord engaged in another art form, closely allied to theater, which he diverted not just to Situationist purposes but to Situationist style: cinema. Debord began his fascination with movies when he was a boy in Cannes. He was allowed to do little, he’s said, but go to the movies, but he found them so boring that he often left in the middle. Then he joined the Lettrists just at the time that Isadore Isou was making films (and one contingent was entering into a campaign against moviemaker Charlie Chaplin). To the Lettrists and the Situationists, cinema was a principal agent of the spectacle, perhaps its strongest weapon, and stood for everything that the Lettrists and SI had to defeat. Debord made his first film for Isou in 1952, Howls in Favor of Sade, which “might be called an attempt to drive the film audience to screams by a sadistic deprivation of images.” The film is two imageless hours of either a completely black screen or a completely white screen over which is recited about 20 minutes of phrases from newspapers, the writings of James Joyce, the French code civil, and lines from the John Ford movie Rio Grande. I haven’t seen many of Debord’s films—they’re extremely hard to sit through—but I viewed a few when I was researching Situationism because they were so fundamental to Debord’s work. I can say that the ones I watched were much like Howls. Debord made several films, or anti-films as some critics characterized them, over his lifetime, and he had an influence on several contemporary movienmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard (who didn’t acknowledge the debt). According to Christopher Phillips, a senior editor of Art in America, Debord “actively explored a number of techniques—such as film flicker, the physical manipulation of the film surface and radical disjunctions of sound and image—that later became staples of European and American experimental cinema.” Three of his other five films are described by Phillips:

  • On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time (Sur un passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps), 1959, is the result of a compilation/collage technique . . . . The film combines footage collected from newsreels, film trailers and advertising clips with voice-over readings from pop sociology books and science-fiction novels.”
  • Critique of Separation (Critique de la séparation), 1961, provides . . . a critique of the documentary film genre. Using a rapid succession of readymade images—press photographs, comic strips and documentary film footage, for example—as well as voice-over citations, the film challenges the spectator to use these fragments to fashion a new, critical way of apprehending narrative cinema.”
  • “[In] The Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle), 1973, . . . [t]he soundtrack has Debord reading passages from the book as well as new material, along with quotations from Clausewitz, Machiavelli and Marx. The image track consists entirely of preexisting footage taken from a variety of sources: fashion commercials, Vietnam war newsreels, European film classics and Hollywood cowboy epics.”
Debord made two more films after the dissolution of SI, the first a 1975 commentary on the criticism of Society of the Spectacle. The last film Debord made, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (We Turn in the Night, Consumed by Fire), made in 1978, was largely autobiographical and has been called his most beautiful film. (The title is a famous Latin palindrome and riddle known as "the Devil's verse," but in girum imus can be translated as ‘we wander,’ possibly a reference to the dérive.) Debord starts by addressing the audience, telling them in quiet tones “I will make no concessions to the public in this film.” The camera then turns to the audience itself in a sense, showing images of moviegoers. Debord then talks about his life, setting himself forth as different from the audience, their opposite. The text, as with Debord’s other films, is interrupted by still photos and film clips mostly taken from existing sources (that is, détourned). Like all of Debord’s work, In girum imus is an indictment of a vulgar reality in which advertising imagery takes the place of authenticity.

Before his suicide, Debord made a video documentary called Son art et son temps (His Art and His Time) focusing on social issues in the 1990s. The darkly autobiographical film has been seen as a suicide note. It was completed by Brigitte Cornand, a documentarist, and aired as Guy Debord, son art, son temps on French television in January 1995. A commentary on television itself, Guy Debord uses images from familiar TV exploitations such as the Tiananmen Square face-off and a Columbian girl trapped in a mud slide.

Like psychogeography, Situationism includes a number of other concepts than the four I’ve outlined. In my understanding of the movement, however, these four are the most significant to the group’s philosophy and I’ll let interested readers follow up on the additional details of SI on their own. The main point of Situationism, it seems to me, is to reanimate people so that we live the lives we want to, not what artist David Wojnarowicz called the “pre-invented world” makes us want, and to see the spectacle for the artificial environment that it is. (I’m not suggesting that Wojnarowicz was a Situationist. Although I think a lot of what he did and said aligned with Situationism, I’ve never seen his name connected with SI, which disbanded when the artist was only about 18.) Anything that accomplishes that, that revolutionizes the public, is Situationist by definition. The Situationists contended that through authentic and radical works of art which defied prevailing societal beliefs, they could lay the groundwork for an upheaval in perspective that would launch a social and political transformation. To accomplish this, they couldn’t just stand back and criticize the way things were; they had to bring down the establishment from inside. According to the Situationist belief that any free act is revolutionary and superior to submission to the spectacle, even violence can be a legitimate expression of autonomy. (Hence Anouilh’s Medea as the heroine of her play.) Raoul Vaneigem, one of SI’s principal theoreticians, even saw the role of Situationism as the equivalent in the realm of ideas to the violent savagery of juvenile delinquents. (In this view, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, depicting a world so dehumanized that its citizens are programmed to behave acceptably through Skinnerian conditioning, can be seen as a Situationist film. In this dystopia, Kubrick suggested, the sole outlet for actual human action is violence, since it’s the only behavior a person remains free to select. Programmed behavior, the director said, is not truly human: “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man”; and Sartre wrote: “The most moving thing the theater can show is a character creating himself, the moment of choice.”)

In March 1968, a group of students at the Sorbonne began agitating for changes in the administration of the school. The activists occupied the administration building and the school authorities called the police. The resistance of the students spread beyond the campus and enveloped the entire city, first among other students and then to the labor movement which was reacting against the French communist control of the unions and the repressive regime of the De Gaul government. (Situationism, though fiercely anti-capitalist, wasn’t blind to the dishonesty and deception of the non-capitalist world. They saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia as merely the replacement of one falsehood by another, which manipulated the public with its own form of the spectacle.) In May 1968, the unrest broke out into the largest general strike in the country’s history and “May ’68” became the term that meant leftist uprisings around the world, from Western Europe to Latin American to the United States—even though in each country, the causes and goals were different. Among the French student militants, Debord’s 1967 treatise, The Society of the Spectacle, became the exegesis of the discontents of the radicals that had triggered the events of May ’68. Early that month, several Situationists, including Debord, met with the Committee for the Occupation of the Sorbonne and issued a call for students and workers to organize to topple the Gaullist government. This was the first time in its history that SI gained national and even international prominence, their name and the names of their leaders appearing in the press and on the lips of both the radicals and the rightist opposition. Many Situationist slogans were spray-painted on the walls of Paris and became watchwords around the world for youth revolutions that never had any relationship to SI. Situationism became, in a sense, the chief philosophical cornerstone of the student uprisings. Debord, however, saw this prominence and the way that other groups had adapted Situationist tactics and slogans as evidence that SI had itself become part of the spectacle. The only way to defeat this, Debord concluded, was to dissolve SI, and after publishing one more issue of Internationale Situationniste in 1969, he disbanded SI in 1972. (It was also true that by that time, SI had expelled so many of its core members, including many of its founders and leaders, over factional disputes that there were only a handful left.) The Situationists’ influence in art, literature, and politics, however, continues even to today.

[In 1999, a theater troupe called the Rude Mechanicals (known as the Rude Mechs) of Austin, Texas, produced Lipstick Traces: A Second History of the 20th Century, a stage performance based on the 1989 book by Greil Marcus. The book, which focuses on the social upheavals of the 1960s, includes many connections to Debord and the Situationists. Lipstick Traces was performed in New York several times, most recently May 2001 (at the Foundry Theatre). Ben Brantley of the New York Times described the show as a “smart, spirited examination of punk rock and its antecedents.”]

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