The Situationist International (SI) was an international organization of social revolutionaries made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists, prominent in Europe from its formation in 1957 to its dissolution in 1972.
The intellectual foundations of the Situationist International were derived primarily from anti-authoritarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism. Overall, situationist theory represented an attempt to synthesize this diverse field of theoretical disciplines into a modern and comprehensive critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism. The situationists recognized that capitalism had changed since Marx's formative writings, but maintained that his analysis of the capitalist mode of production remained fundamentally correct; they rearticulated and expanded upon several classical Marxist concepts, such as his theory of alienation. In their expanded interpretation of Marxist theory, the situationists asserted that the misery of social alienation and commodity fetishism were no longer limited to the fundamental components of capitalist society, but had now in advanced capitalism spread themselves to every aspect of life and culture. They rejected the idea that advanced capitalism's apparent successes—such as technological advancement, increased income, and increased leisure—could ever outweigh the social dysfunction and degradation of everyday life that it simultaneously inflicted.
Essential to situationist theory was the concept of the spectacle, a unified critique of advanced capitalism of which a primary concern was the progressively increasing tendency towards the expression and mediation of social relations through objects. The situationists believed that the shift from individual expression through directly lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfillment of authentic desires, to individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities, or passive second-hand alienation, inflicted significant and far-reaching damage to the quality of human life for both individuals and society. Another important concept of situationist theory was the primary means of counteracting the spectacle; the construction of situations, moments of life deliberately constructed for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life and adventure, and the liberation of everyday life.
When the Situationist International was first formed, it had a predominantly artistic focus; emphasis was placed on concepts like unitary urbanism and psychogeography. Gradually, however, that focus shifted more towards revolutionary and political theory. The Situationist International reached the apex of its creative output and influence in 1967 and 1968, with the former marking the publication of the two most significant texts of the situationist movement, The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord and The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem. The expressed writing and political theory of the two aforementioned texts, along with other situationist publications, proved greatly influential in shaping the ideas behind the May 1968 insurrections in France; quotes, phrases, and slogans from situationist texts and publications were ubiquitous on posters and graffiti throughout France during the uprisings.
The term "situationist" refers to the construction of situations, one of the early central concepts of the Situationist International; the term also refers to any individuals engaged in the construction of situations, or, more narrowly, to members of the Situationist International. Situationist theory sees the situation as a tool for the liberation of everyday life, a method of negating the pervasive alienation that accompanied the spectacle. The founding manifesto of the Situationist International, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957), defined the construction of situations as "the concrete construction of momentary ambiances of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality." Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958) defined the constructed situation as "a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events". The situationists argued that advanced capitalism manufactured false desires; literally in the sense of ubiquitous advertising and the glorification of accumulated capital, and more broadly in the abstraction and reification of the more ephemeral experiences of authentic life into commodities. The experimental direction of situationist activity consisted of setting up temporary environments favorable to the fulfillment of true and authentic human desires in response.
The Situationist International strongly resisted use of the term "situationism", which Debord called a "meaningless term", adding "[t]here is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine for interpreting existing conditions". The situationists maintained a philosophical opposition to all ideologies, conceiving of them as abstract superstructures ultimately serving only to justify the economic base of a given society; accordingly, they rejected "situationism" as an absurd and self-contradictory concept. In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord asserted ideology was "the abstract will to universality and the illusion thereof" which was "legitimated in modern society by universal abstraction and by the effective dictatorship of illusion".
The situationist movement had its origins as a left wing tendency within Lettrism, an artistic and literary movement led by the Romanian-born French poet and visual artist Isidore Isou, originating in 1940s Paris. The group was heavily influenced by the preceding avant-garde movements of Dadaism and Surrealism, seeking to apply critical theories based on these concepts to all areas of art and culture, most notably in poetry, film, painting and political theory. Among some of the concepts and artistic innovations developed by the Lettrists were the lettrie, a poem reflecting pure form yet devoid of all semantic content, new syntheses of writing and visual art identified as metagraphics and hypergraphics, as well as new creative techniques in filmmaking. Future situationist Guy Debord, who was at that time a significant figure in the Lettrist movement, helped develop these new film techniques, using them in his Lettrist film Howls for Sade (1952) as well as later in his situationist film Society of the Spectacle (1972).
By 1950, a much younger and more left-wing part of the Lettrist movement began to emerge. This group kept very active in perpetrating public outrages such as the Notre-Dame Affair, where at the Easter High Mass at Notre Dame de Paris, in front of ten thousand people and broadcast on national TV, their member and former Dominican Michel Mourre posed as a monk, "stood in front of the altar and read a pamphlet proclaiming that God was dead". André Breton prominently came out in solidarity with the action in a letter that spawned a large debate in the newspaper Combat.
In 1952, this left wing of the Lettrist movement, which included Debord, broke off from Isou's group and formed the Letterist International, a new Paris-based collective of avant-garde artists and political theorists. The schism finally erupted when the future members of the radical Lettrists disrupted a Charlie Chaplin press conference for Limelight at the Hôtel Ritz Paris. They distributed a polemic entitled "No More Flat Feet!", which concluded: "The footlights have melted the make-up of the supposedly brilliant mime. All we can see now is a lugubrious and mercenary old man. Go home Mister Chaplin." Isou was upset with this, his own attitude being that Chaplin deserved respect as one of the great creators of the cinematic art. The breakaway group felt that his work was no longer relevant, while having appreciated it "in its own time," and asserted their belief "that the most urgent expression of freedom is the destruction of idols, especially when they claim to represent freedom," in this case, filmmaker Charlie Chaplin.
During this period of the Letterist International, many of the important concepts and ideas that would later be integral in situationist theory were developed. Individuals in the group collaboratively constructed the new field of psychogeography, which they defined as "the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behavior of individuals." Debord further expanded this concept of psychogeography with his theory of the dérive, an unplanned tour through an urban landscape directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings, serving as the primary means for mapping and investigating the psychogeography of these different areas. During this period the Letterist International also developed the situationist tactic of détournement, which by reworking or re-contextualizing an existing work of art or literature sought to radically shift its meaning to one with revolutionary significance.
In 1956, Guy Debord, a member of the Lettrist International, and Asger Jorn of the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, brought together a group of artistic collectives for the First World Congress of Free Artists in Alba, Italy. The meeting established the foundation for the development of the Situationist International, which was officially formed in July 1957 at a meeting in Cosio. The resulting International was a fusion of these extremely small avant-garde collectives: the Lettrist International, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (an offshoot of COBRA), and the London Psychogeographical Association (though, Anselm Jappe has argued that the group pivoted around Jorn and Debord for the first four years). Later, the Situationist International drew ideas from other groups such as Socialisme ou Barbarie.
The most prominent member of the group, Guy Debord, generally became considered the organization's de facto leader and most distinguished theorist. Other members included theorist Raoul Vaneigem, the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys, the Italo-Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, the English artist Ralph Rumney (sole member of the London Psychogeographical Association, Rumney suffered expulsion relatively soon after the formation), the Danish artist Asger Jorn (who after parting with the SI also founded the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism), the architect and veteran of the Hungarian Uprising Attila Kotanyi, and the French writer Michele Bernstein. Debord and Bernstein later married.
In June 1957, Debord wrote the manifesto of the Situationist International, titled Report on the Construction of Situations. This manifesto plans a systematic rereading of Karl Marx's Das Kapital and advocates a cultural revolution in western countries.
During the first few years of the SI's founding, avant-garde artistic groups began collaborating with the SI and joining the organization. Gruppe SPUR, a German artistic collective, collaborated with the Situationist International on projects beginning in 1959, continuing until the group officially joined the SI in 1961. The role of the artists in the SI was of great significance, particularly Asger Jorn, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Pinot Gallizio.
Asger Jorn, who invented Situgraphy and Situlogy, had the social role of catalyst and team leader among the members of the SI between 1957 and 1961. Jorn’s role in the situationist movement (as in COBRA) was that of a catalyst and team leader. Guy Debord on his own lacked the personal warmth and persuasiveness to draw people of different nationalities and talents into an active working partnership. As a prototype Marxist intellectual Debord needed an ally who could patch up the petty egoisms and squabbles of the members. When Jorn's leadership was withdrawn in 1961, many simmering quarrels among different sections of the SI flared up, leading to multiple exclusions.
The first major split was the exclusion of Gruppe SPUR, the German section, from the SI on February 10, 1962. Many different disagreements led to the fracture, for example; while at the Fourth SI Conference in London in December, 1960, in a discussion about the political nature of the SI, the Gruppe SPUR members disagreed with the core situationist stance of counting on a revolutionary proletariat; the accusation that their activities were based on a "systematic misunderstanding of situationist theses"; the understanding that at least one Gruppe SPUR member, sculptor Lothar Fischer, and possibly the rest of the group, were not actually understanding and/or agreeing with the situationist ideas, but were just using the SI to achieve success in the art market. the betrayal, in the Spur #7 issue, of a common agreement on the Gruppe SPUR and SI publications.[sentence fragment]
The exclusion was a recognition that Gruppe SPUR's "principles, methods and goals" were significantly in contrast with those of the SI. This split however was not a declaration of hostilities, as in other cases of SI exclusions. A few months after the exclusion, in the context of judicial prosecution against the group by the German state, Debord expressed his esteem to Gruppe SPUR, calling it the only significant artist group in Germany since World War II, and regarding it at the level of the avant-gardes in other countries.
The next significant split was in 1962, wherein the "Nashists," the Scandinavian section of the SI led by Jørgen Nash, were excluded from the organization for lacking the theoretical rigor demanded by the Franco-Belgian section of SI led by Guy Debord. This excluded group would later declare themselves the 2nd Situationist International, basing their organization out of Sweden. Journalist Stewart Home, who favored the "Nashists" and considered Debord a "mystic, an idealist, a dogmatist and a liar" wrote that while the 2nd Situationist International sought to challenge the separation of art and politics from everyday life, Debord and the so-called 'specto-situationists' sought to concentrate solely on theoretical political aims.
By this point the Situationist International consisted almost exclusively of the Franco-Belgian section, led by Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. These members possessed much more of a tendency towards political theory over the more artistic aspects of the SI. The shift in the intellectual priorities within the SI resulted in more focus on the theoretical, such as the theory of the spectacle and Marxist critical analysis, spending much less time on the more artistic and tangible concepts like unitary urbanism, détournement, and situgraphy.
During this period the SI began having more and more influence on local university students in France. Taking advantage of the apathy of their colleagues, five "Pro-situs", situationist-influenced students, infiltrated the University of Strasbourg's student union in November 1966 and began scandalising the authorities. Their first action was to form an "anarchist appreciation society" called The Society for the Rehabilitation for Karl Marx and Ravachol; next they appropriated union funds to flypost "Return of the Durruti Column", Andre Bertrand's détourned comic strip. They then invited the situationists to contribute a critique of the University of Strasbourg, and On the Poverty of Student Life, written by Tunisian situationist Mustapha/Omar Khayati was the result. The students promptly proceeded to print 10,000 copies of the pamphlet using university funds and distributed them during a ceremony marking the beginning of the academic year. This provoked an immediate outcry in the local, national and international media.
The Situationists played a preponderant role in the May 1968 uprisings, and to some extent their political perspective and ideas fueled such crisis, providing a central theoretic foundation. While SI's member count had been steadily falling for the preceding several years, the ones that remained were able to fill revolutionary roles for which they had patiently anticipated and prepared. The active ideologists (“enragés” and Situationists) behind the revolutionary events in Strasbourg, Nanterre and Paris, numbered only about one or two dozen persons.
This has now been widely acknowledged as a fact by studies of the period, what is still wide open to interpretation is the "how and why" that happened. Charles de Gaulle, in the aftermath televised speech of June 7, acknowledged that "This explosion was provoked by groups in revolt against modern consumer and technical society, whether it be the communism of the East or the capitalism of the West."
They also made up the majority in the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne. An important event leading up to May 1968 was the scandal in Strasbourg in December 1966. The Union Nationale des Étudiants de France declared itself in favor of the SI's theses, and managed to use public funds to publish Mustapha Khayati's pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life. Thousands of copies of the pamphlet were printed and circulated and helped to make the Situationists well known throughout the nonstalinist left.
Quotations from two key situationist books, Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Khayati's On the Poverty of Student Life (1966), were written on the walls of Paris and several provincial cities. This was documented in the collection of photographs published in 1968 by Walter Lewino, L'imagination au pouvoir.
Those who followed the "artistic" view of the SI might view the evolution of the 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.
Though the SI were a very small group, they were expert self-propagandists, and their slogans appeared daubed on walls throughout Paris at the time of the revolt. 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 Council For The Maintenance Of The Occupations (CMDO) which distributed the SI’s demands on a much wider scale. After the end of the movement, the CMDO disbanded.
By 1972, Gianfranco Sanguinetti and Guy Debord were the only two remaining members of the SI. Working with Debord, in August 1975, Sanguinetti wrote a pamphlet titled Rapporto veridico sulle ultime opportunità di salvare il capitalismo in Italia (English: The Real Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy), which (inspired by Bruno Bauer) purported to be the cynical writing of "Censor", a powerful industrialist. The pamphlet argued that the ruling class of Italy supported the Piazza Fontana bombing and other covert, false flag mass slaughter for the higher goal of defending the capitalist status quo from communist influence. The pamphlet was mailed to 520 of Italy's most powerful individuals. It was received as genuine and powerful politicians, industrialists and journalists praised its content. After reprinting the tract as a small book, Sanguinetti revealed himself to be the true author. In the outcry that ensued and under pressure from Italian authorities Sanguinetti left Italy in February 1976, and was denied entry to France.
The Spectacle is a central notion in situationist theory, developed by Guy Debord in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle. In its limited sense, spectacle means the mass media, which are "its most glaring superficial manifestation." Debord said that the society of the spectacle came to existence in the late 1920s.
The critique of the spectacle is a development and application of Karl Marx's concept of fetishism of commodities, reification and alienation, and the way it was reprised by György Lukács in 1923. In the society of the spectacle, the commodities rule the workers and the consumers instead of being ruled by them. The consumers are passive subjects that contemplate the reified spectacle.
As early as 1958, in the situationist manifesto, Debord described official culture as a "rigged game", where conservative powers forbid subversive ideas to have direct access to the public discourse. Such ideas get first trivialized and sterilized, and then they are safely incorporated back within mainstream society, where they can be exploited to add new flavors to old dominant ideas. This technique of the spectacle is sometimes called recuperation, and its counter-technique is the détournement.
A détournement is a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International, and consist in "turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself," like turning slogans and logos against the advertisers or the political status quo. Détournement was prominently used to set up subversive political pranks, an influential tactic called situationist prank that was reprised by the punk movement in the late 1970s and inspired the culture jamming movement in the late 1980s.
The Situationist International, in the 15 years from its formation in 1957 and its dissolution in 1972, is characterized by a Marxist and surrealist perspective on aesthetics and politics, without separation between the two: art and politics are faced together and in revolutionary terms. The SI analyzed the modern world from the point of view of everyday life. The core arguments of the Situationist International were an attack on the capitalist degradation of the life of people and the fake models advertised by the mass media, to which the Situationist responded with alternative life experiences. The alternative life experiences explored by the Situationists were the construction of situations, unitary urbanism, psychogeography, and the union of play, freedom and critical thinking.
A major stance of the SI was to count on the force of a revolutionary proletariat. This stance was reaffirmed very clearly in a discussion on “To what extent is the SI a political movement?”, during the Fourth SI Conference in London. The SI remarked that this is a core Situationist principle, and that those that don't understand it and agree with it, are not Situationist.
The SI rejected all art that separated itself from politics, the concept of 20th-century art that is separated from topical political events. The SI believed that the notion of artistic expression being separated from politics and current events is one proliferated by reactionary considerations to render artwork that expresses comprehensive critiques of society impotent. They recognized there was a precise mechanism followed by reactionaries to defuse the role of subversive artists and intellectuals, that is, to reframe them as separated from the most topical events, and divert from them the taste for the new that may dangerously appeal the masses; after such separation, such artworks are sterilized, banalized, degraded, and can be safely integrated into the official culture and the public discourse, where they can add new flavors to old dominant ideas and play the role of a gear wheel in the mechanism of the society of the spectacle.
According to this theory, artists and intellectuals that accept such compromises are rewarded by the art dealers and praised by the dominant culture. The SI received many offers to sponsor “creations” that would just have a "situationist" label but a diluted political content, that would have brought things back to order and the SI back into the old fold of artistic praxis. The majority of SI continued to refuse such offers and any involvement on the conventional avant-garde artistic plane. This principle was affirmed since the founding of the SI in 1957, but the qualitative step of resolving all the contradictions of having situationists that make concessions to the cultural market, was made with the exclusion of Gruppe SPUR in 1962.
The SI noted how reactionary forces forbid subversive ideas from artists and intellectuals to reach the public discourse, and how they attack the artworks that express comprehensive critique of society, by saying that art should not involve itself into politics.
The first edition of Internationale Situationniste defines the constructed situation 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 happening, and later identified it in historical events such as the Paris Commune in which it exhibited itself as the revolutionary moment. The SI's interest in the Paris Commune was expressed in 1962 in their fourteen “Theses on the Paris Commune”.
The first edition of Internationale Situationniste defined psychogeography as "the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behavior of individuals." The term was first recognized in 1955 by Guy Debord while still with the Letterist International:
The word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle as a general term for the phenomena a few of us were investigating around the summer of 1953, is not too inappropriate. It does not contradict the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature. Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world. Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The charmingly vague adjective psychogeographical can be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.— Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography
By definition, psychogeography combines subjective and objective knowledge and studies. Debord struggled to stipulate the finer points of this theoretical paradox, ultimately producing "Theory of the Dérive" in 1958, a document which essentially serves as an instruction manual for the psychogeographic procedure, executed through the act of dérive ("drift").
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... But the dérive includes both this letting go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.— Ken Knabb
SI engaged in a play-form that was also practiced by its predecessor organization, the Lettrist International, the art of wandering through urban space, which they termed dérive, whose unique mood is conveyed in Debord’s darkly romantic meaning of palindrome. Two excursions organized by Andre Breton serve as the closest cultural precedents to the dérive. The first in 1921, was an excursion to the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre with the Parisian Dadaists; the second excursion was on May 1, 1923, when a small group of Surrealists walked toward the countryside outside of Blois. Debord was cautious however to differentiate between the derive and such precedents. He emphasized its active character as “a mode of experimental behavior” that reached to Romanticism, the Baroque, and the age of chivalry, with its tradition of long adventures voyages. Such urban roaming was characteristic of Left Bank bohemianism in Paris.
In the SI's 6th issue, Raoul Vaneigem writes in a manifesto of unitary urbanism, "All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops—the geometry". Dérive, as a previously conceptualized tactic in the French military, was "a calculated action determined by the absence of a greater locus", and "a maneuver within the enemy's field of vision". To the SI, whose interest was inhabiting space, the dérive brought appeal in this sense of taking the "fight" to the streets and truly indulging in a determined operation. The dérive was a course of preparation, reconnaissance, a means of shaping situationist psychology among urban explorers for the eventuality of the situationist city.
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The situationists observed that the worker of advanced capitalism still only functions with the goal of survival. In a world where technological efficiency has increased production exponentially, by tenfold, the workers of society still dedicate the whole of their lives to survival, by way of production. The purpose for which advanced capitalism is organized isn't luxury, happiness, or freedom, but production. The production of commodities is an end to itself; and production by way of survival.
The theorists of the Situationist International regarded the current paradigm of work in advanced capitalist society as increasingly absurd. As technology progresses, and work becomes exponentially efficient, the work itself becomes exponentially more trivial. The spectacle's social function is the concrete manufacture of alienation. Economic expansion consists primarily of the expansion of this particular sector of industrial production. The "growth" generated by an economy developing for its own sake can be nothing other than a growth of the very alienation that was at its origin.
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Twelve issues of the main French edition of journal Internationale Situationniste were published, each issue edited by a different individual or group, including: Guy Debord, Mohamed Dahoiu, Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, Maurice Wyckaert, Constant Nieuwenhuys, Asger Jorn, Helmut Sturm, Attila Kotanyi, Jørgen Nash, Uwe Lausen, Raoul Vaneigem, Michèle Bernstein, Jeppesen Victor Martin, Jan Stijbosch, Alexander Trocchi, Théo Frey, Mustapha Khayati, Donald Nicholson-Smith, René Riesel, and René Viénet.
The first English-language collection of SI writings, although poorly and freely translated, was Leaving The 20th century edited by Christopher Gray. The Situationist International Anthology edited and translated by Ken Knabb, collected numerous SI documents which had previously never been seen in English.
Rooted firmly in the Marxist tradition, the Situationist International criticized Trotskyism, Marxism–Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism from a position they believed to be further left and more properly Marxist. The situationists possessed a strong anti-authoritarian current, commonly deriding the centralized bureaucracies of China and the Soviet Union in the same breath as capitalism.
Debord's work The Society of the Spectacle (1967) established situationist analysis as Marxist critical theory. The Society of the Spectacle is widely recognized as the main and most influential Situationist essay.
The concept of revolution created by the Situationist International was anti-capitalist, Marxist, Young Hegelian, and from the very beginning in the 50s, remarkably differently from the established Left, anti-Stalinist and against all repressive regimes.
Debord starts his 1967 work with a revisited version of the first sentence with which Marx began his critique of classical political economy, Das Kapital. In a later essay, Debord will argue that his work was the most important social critique since Marx's work. Drawing from Marx, which argued that under a capitalist society the wealth is degraded to an immense accumulation of commodities, Debord argues that in advanced capitalism, life is reduced to an immense accumulation of spectacles, a triumph of mere appearance where "all that once was directly lived has become mere representation". The spectacle, which according to Debord is the core feature of the advanced capitalist societies, has its "most glaring superficial manifestation" in the advertising-mass media-marketing complex.
Elaborating on Marx's argument that under capitalism our lives and our environment are continually depleted, Debord adds that the Spectacle is the system by which capitalism tries to hide such depletion. Debord added that, further than the impoverishment in the quality of life, our psychic functions are altered, we get a degradation of mind and also a degradation of knowledge. In the spectacular society, knowledge is not used anymore to question, analyze, or resolve contradictions, but to assuage reality. Such argument on the Spectacle as a mask of a degrading reality has been elaborated by many Situationist artists, producing détournements of advertising where instead of a shiny life the crude reality was represented.
Situationist theorists advocated methods of operation that included democratic workers' councils and workers' self-management, interested in empowering the individual, in contrast to the perceived corrupt bureaucratic states of the Eastern bloc. Their anti-authoritarian interpretation of Marxist theory can be identified with the broader council communist and libertarian Marxist movements, themselves more broadly termed as left communism.
The last issue (1972) of the Situationist International journal, featured an editorial analyzing the events of May 1968. The editorial, written by Guy Debord, was titled The Beginning of an Era, probably as a detournement reference of Nachalo (The Beginning), a Russian Marxist monthly magazine.
Former situationists Clark and Nicholson-Smith (British section), argued that the portion of the moderate Left that is the "established Left", and its "Left opinion-makers", usually addressed contemptuously the SI as "hopelessly young-Hegelian".
The Situationist International was differentiated from both anarchists and Marxists. In spite of this, they have frequently been associated with anarchism. Debord did a critical assessment of the anarchists in his 1967 The Society of the Spectacle. In the final, 12th issue of the journal, the situationists rejected spontaneism and the "mystics of nonorganization," labeling them as a form of "sub-anarchism":
The only people who will be excluded from this debate are... those who in the name of some sub-anarchist spontaneism proclaim their opposition to any form of organization, and who only reproduce the defects and confusion of the old movement—mystics of nonorganization, workers discouraged by having been mixed up with Trotskyist sects too long, students imprisoned in their impoverishment who are incapable of escaping from bolshevik organizational schemas. The situationists are obviously partisans of organization—the existence of the situationist organization testifies to that. Those who announce their agreement with our theses while crediting the SI with a vague spontaneism simply don't know how to read.
According to situationist Ken Knabb, Debord pointed out the flaws and merits of both Marxism and anarchism. He argued that "the split between Marxism and anarchism crippled both sides. The anarchists rightly criticized the authoritarian and narrowly economistic tendencies in Marxism, but they generally did so in an undialectical, moralistic, ahistorical manner... and leaving Marx and a few of the more radical Marxists with a virtual monopoly on coherent dialectical analysis—until the situationists finally brought the libertarian and dialectical aspects back together again."
The SI poses a challenge to the model of political action of a portion of the left, the "established Left" and "Left opinion-makers". The first challenging aspect is the fueling role that the SI had in the upheavals of the political and social movements of the 1960s, upheavals for which much is still at stake and which many foresee as recurring in the 21st century. The second challenging aspect, is the comparison between the Situationist Marxist theory of the Society of the Spectacle, which is still very topical 30 years later, and the current status of the theories supported by leftist establishments in the same period, like Althusserianism, Maoism, workerism, Freudo-Marxism and others.
The response to this challenge has been an attempt to silence and misinterpret, to "turn the SI safely into an art movement, and thereby to minimize its role in the political and social movements of the sixties".
The core aspect of the revolutionary perspectives, and the political theory, of the Situationist International, has been neglected by some commentators, which either limited themselves to an apolitical reading of the situationist avant-garde art works, or dismissed the Situationist political theory. Examples of this are Simon Sadler's The Situationist City, and the accounts on the SI published by the New Left Review.
The concept of revolution created by the Situationist International was anti-capitalist, Marxist, Young Hegelian, and from the very beginning in the 1950s, remarkably differently from the established Left, anti-Stalinist and against all repressive regimes. The SI called in May 1968 for the formation of Workers councils, and someone has argued that they were aligned with council communism.
There was no separation between the artistic and the political perspectives. For instance, Asger Jorn never believed in a conception of the Situationist ideas as exclusively artistic and separated from political involvement. He was at the root and at the core of the Situationist International project, fully sharing the revolutionary intentions with Debord.
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 in Listen Anarchist! that "obscure situationist jargon" is a major problem in the anarchist movement.
Debord's analysis of the spectacle has been influential among people working on television, particularly in France and Italy; in Italy, TV programs produced by situationist intellectuals, like Antonio Ricci's Striscia la notizia, or Carlo Freccero's programming schedule for Italia 1 in the early 1990s.
In the 1960s and 1970s, anarchists, communists, and other leftists offered various interpretations of Situationist concepts in combination 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 (including Charles Radcliffe who later briefly joined the English Section of the Situationist International), 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.
Anarchist theorists such as Fredy Perlman, Bob Black, Hakim Bey, and John Zerzan, have developed the SI's ideas in various directions away from Marxism. These theorists were predominantly associated with the magazines Fifth Estate, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, and Green Anarchy. During the early 1980s, English anarchist Larry Law produced the Spectacular Times pocket-books series, which aimed to make Situationist ideas more easily assimilated into the anarchist movement. Later anarchist theorists such as the CrimethInc. collective also claim Situationist influence.
Situationist urban theory, defined initially by the members of the Lettrist International as "Unitary Urbanism," was extensively developed through the behavioural and performance structures of The Workshop for Non-Linear Architecture during the 1990s. The re-emergence of the London Psychogeographical Association also inspired many new psychogeographical groups including Manchester Area Psychogeographic. The LPA and the Neoist Alliance along with the Luther Blissett Project came together to form a New Lettrist International with a specifically Communist perspective. Around this time, Unpopular Books and the LPA released some key texts including new translations of Asger Jorn's work.
In cultural terms, the SI's influence has arguably been greater, if more diffuse. The list of cultural practices which claim a debt to the SI is extensive, but there are some prominent examples:
For the first four years of the SI's existence, the pivot of the group was the collaboration between Debord and Asger Jorn, who complemented each other well precisely because they were so different.
Con il suo Rapporto... del 1957, Debord definisce programmaticamente le basi teoriche del situazionismo. ...
Nel Rapporto di Debord si legge inoltre una durissima critica allo sfruttamento capitalistico delle masse anche nel tempo libero attraverso l'industria del divertimento che abbrutisce la gente con sottoprodotti dell'ideologia mistificata della borghesia.
A description of the portion of the Left at clash with the situationists is found in note #4:
In particular the key issue, of how and why the situationists came to have a preponderant role in May 1968—that is, how and why their brand of politics participated in, and to an extent fueled, a crisis of the late-capitalist State—is still wide open to interpretation.
The word "Left" ... much of the time is used descriptively, and therefore pessimistically, to indicate a set of interlocking ideological directorships stretching roughly from the statist and workerist fringes of social democracy and laborism to the para-academic journals and think tanks of latter-day Trotskyism, taking in the Stalinist and lightly post-Stalinist center along the way.
In May 1968, the Situationist-inspired Paris riots set off "a chain reaction of refusal" against consumer capitalism.
L'I.S. diventa il detonatore, il reiferimento spesso taciuto per ragioni settarie, la fabbrica di metafore entrate nel linguaggio comune che ne ignora molto spesso l'esatto senso: e su tutte valga la metafora debordiana della nostra societa' come "societa' dello spettacolo".
the Situationist International, the political and revolutionary movement that was at the origin of the events of May 1968
...the enragé Guy Debord, the leader of the situationists, the most nihilistic, the most destructive of the anarcho-surrealist movements, probably the principal promoter of subversion of 1968.
the situationists, a movement of libertarian tendency that was one of the detonators of the May '68 events.
The Situationist International is the vanguard of the student movement.
it has largely been forgotten that, as early as February, the riots at Nantes showed the real face of these 'situationists,' fifteen hundred students under red and black flags, the Hall of Justice occupied...
By far the greatest influence that the theory of art and aesthetics exercised upon the protest movement of students and left-wing intellectuals was in all likelihood that of the Situationists, something which practically nobody recalls today.
[...] gioco al coplotto, alla manipolazione dei media, alla beffa, alla "grande truffa," o al detournement—inventato dai situazionisti e ripreso dai punk—che appunto del situazionismo sono talvolta concreti continuatori. Pensiamo in questo senso al fin troppo noto caso, esagerato dai media, ma paradigmatico, del manager dei Sex Pistols, Malcom McClaren, a partire dal quale, nell'estate del 1977, si scateno', con grande scandalo, il lancio del gruppo dei Pistols in pieno Giubileo della regina, e l'interesse della stampa per la nascente scena punk. Tuttavia, anche in questo caso non si tratta, come invece è stato spesso sostenuto, di freddo "gioco a tavolino", di cinismo, di furbo lancio di un prodotto da parte di chi aveva studiato i media e lavorava sulla guerriglia semiologica (cfr. Fabbri P. 2002, p. 40), di una tattica che sarebbe poi stata facilmente sfruttata e fatta propria da quel momento in avanti dall'industria culturale mainstream.
Nel 1972, quindici anni dopo la sua fondazione ... l'Internazionale Situazionista si scioglie in quanto organizzazione. Durante questi anni, il movimento, caratterizzato da un'ideologia dell'estetico e del politico di matrice marxista e surrealista, produce una quantita' consistente di scritti teorici, opuscoli, libri, film e lavori artistici nel campo della pittura e della progettazione di interventi nella dimensione urbana. Di grande rilievo è il ruolo degli artisti, tra cui in particolare Asger Jorn, Constant e Pinot Gallizio;
Per la prima volta dopo il surrealismo, arte e politica vengono affrontate insieme in termini rivoluzionari. ... L'idea chiave è quella della 'costruzione di situazioni' ... L'urbanesimo unitario ... Fondamentale è la 'ricerca psicogeografica': studio delle leggi esatte e degli effetti precisi che l'ambiente geografico, coscientemente disposto o no, attua direttamente sul comportamento affettivo degli individui.
the IS was to attempt an analysis of the modern world from the point of view of everyday life. ... The critique of everyday life is not intended to be purely an analysis; it is supposed to lead on to a revolutionary praxis. ... On SI analysis of consumerism: This process causes an accelerating degradation of everyday life.
[...] reagire all'avvilita condizione dell'uomo nel sistema capitalista.
Question: "Le profezie di Guy Debord a proposito della Società dello spettacolo si avverano sotto i nostri occhi: il governo si occupa della «percezione» delle cose da parte dei cittadini più che della sostanza materiale, dei bisogni, dei fatti. L’invenzione dell’«emergenza sicurezza» è un caso lampante. Come pensi ci si debba muovere in questo scenario?"
Answer: "Come suggeriva Debord: con pratiche di vita alternative."
On book Society of Spectacle: ”l’analisi più lucida e severa delle miserie e della servitù di una società—quella dello spettacolo, in cui noi viviamo—che ha esteso oggi il suo dominio su tutto il pianeta”
The concept of revolution created by the Situationist International is that of total contestation of modern capitalism.
Non a caso l'I.S. sorge ed e' coeva alla denuncia dello Stalinismo.
So far as Wollen is concerned, the anger was provoked by his essay on the history of the SI, and specifically his three-sentence treatment of the organization in its last decade. We think he should look again at these sentences (which conclude some thirty pages of discussion of the SI's place in modern art), and ask himself whether they are not lofty, contemptuous, and dismissive. That's how they read to us. They seem to epitomize—and, in view of their publication history, to enshrine—a certain effort to turn the SI safely into an art movement, and thereby to minimize its role in the political and social movements of the sixties. Like Wollen, presumably, we think that those up-heavals are of much more than historical interest, and every day they are traduced and trivialized by the culture industry. Much is at stake, therefore. We wanted to denounce a loose conspirancy of silence and misrepresentation which has been the response of a portion of the Left to the challenge that the SI poses to their model of political action.
I think you probably know that his work [Debord's] is read now more than when he was alive. At least that's the case in France. I don't know if he's read in the States, but in France he's read as presenting a precise critique and political analysis of the media, of the becoming-spectacle, the exploitation of the 'show' in politics and in the media, and television.
What's interesting is that in France people, especially the writers or the intellectuals who are often asked to appear on TV—sometimes almost every day—they [reflexively] mention Guy Debord as their master, and I hate this! So I never quote Debord when I'm on TV, and I'm almost never on TV—so I guess that's how, in my way, I'm true to Debord.
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