A Case Study
In Double-Reflection (May 1974) I have sketched out the nature and limits of affective détournement. The present text is an examination of a period of experimentation (January-March 1973) during which many of the points in that pamphlet were first discovered or developed.
In the wake of the crises and breaking up of Contradiction, the inachievements came home to roost. The situationist project, once I stopped participating in it, turned into a wistful infatuation which I hugged to myself like people cling to the memory of a lost love. In modern society the religious consolation tends to take the form of unofficial personal myths that hover half consciously as automatic neutralizers of the daily misery. My past radical activity, by being reduced to a memory, could only be worshipped. And so it joined the other elements of my own particular little compensatory world music, books, etc. as something whose power was undeniable since I was powerless. I had my own little fantasy of escape: If I could just hustle up enough money I would go to Paris. Meanwhile my real everyday life became more and more reified, reduced to a narrower and narrower pattern centering around the needs of my economic and psycho-aesthetic survival.
The return to the Bay Area in December 1972 of some friends who had been in Paris helped to expose this misery. Even if these people were themselves far from a practical resolution, they were able to spark a new effort from me one, from a more or less Vaneigemist perspective, by zeroing in on the specific reification and lack of adventure in my life; the others, ex-comrades of Contradiction, by bringing back to consciousness the excitement of our old activities.
My first tentatives were inevitably diffuse and groping. But in all this I began from an understanding that any personal liberation was condemned to failure without ties to historical practice. Ideologically, at least, I had never abandoned my situationist perspectives. Thus, when I say that I experimented with such and such a therapeutic tactic, it should be understood that the particular tactics in themselves are of less significance than the context in which I aimed at detourning them.
I began to confront different concrete circumstances in rapid succession. It was generally the case that each concrete effort led to another one. Often the connection between them will seem obscure, but in fact the relation is quite direct and often even predictable, since in reality it is not a matter here of a series of accidental problems but of a series of interconnected and mutually reinforcing expressions of repression, of commodity fetishism.
I conducted an examination of my personal psychogeography mapping out for example the repetitions in my daily movements in the city or within my own home taking a bit out of context the early situationist experiments, on the principle that you discover how the society functions by learning how it functions against you. I started introducing arbitrary elements into my behavior, not with the passive surrealist notion of identifying the unpredictable with the marvelous, but in order to shake myself up things like taking a walk to some place I would usually avoid, perhaps even because it was so banal.
I looked over Voyers Reich: mode demploi, which I had read once a year before without thinking much of (owing to the fact that I was already going downhill). There was already an English translation of it, but since it was such a sloppy one I decided to retranslate and publish it myself. However I was still searching for an original theoretical project through which I could pick up again the best strands of my old radical activity.
One legacy from the previous period was a real fetishism of books. From the regard for books as providing the one dependable consolation in a miserable life it was but a step to cling to and identify with the very mass of books themselves (complete sets of favorite authors, etc.) as providing a sort of objective character armor, a commodity bulwark against madness or more extreme pain. In themselves the books were just goods, objects whose value depended on how I used them. But to me they were more than that; in the upside-down reality of my life they were magical, they had a life of their own. One evening, sitting around in my room depressed, I started writing down what my concrete choices were, which led to writing down what was in my way:
. . . I must observe the following with more attention: As I make resolves to change something about my life, to fight some rigidification, reification, commodification, that first resolve has a strong tendency to take a commodified form. For example, the intention to improve my house devolves into a list of things which I need to get. A concern over my sexuality devolves into a new reading list (Reich, Stendhal, etc.). I have virtually played, over the last few weeks, with choosing books and records to sell an anticommodity effort that turned into simply a different list in my head. This last gives me an idea. I will this evening do the same thing, but with so much more ruthlessness as to maybe change that situation qualitatively. (To be continued.)
Enough. Nearly two hundred miserable, piece of shit books later. It began to get a bit boring. But it is significant how, in a crude, primitive sort of way, Ive come to identify my alienation with some of its most immediate signs (like the workers who destroyed cars, streetlights, etc., in France in 1961). That is, when exceptions are allowed for, I presently have an irrational impulse against my books, records, and house, as if they were enemies of mine. I have actually arrived at a point, as elementary as it might he with other people, where I would have very little problem (a positive enjoyment rather) in getting rid of it all if there were any particular reason to.
Its really funny. I get up and change the record. . . . I come back in here to continue this, and I can hardly stop thinking of books to get rid of. Its practically a compulsion, though a funny not serious one. Its almost, like I sort of mentioned above, that this is, for this particular banality, a first, predictable, necessary stage (a kind of overreaction against) in turning around to fight an alienation, a rigidity. Fuck these things! I actually feel like burning some of them! . . .
(Now, just to continue the path to zaniness, I follow Charlie Parker with Indonesian music. . . . Its very volatile! Look out!) Ah, this music is really crazy! Now, here is a little resolve: I resolve to abolish the list of books and records that I keep, except insofar as it is actually a question (fantastically exquisite wild music!) of remembering something I couldnt otherwise remember. This is a slightly inconvenient, uneconomic measure, but its not so important. On the other hand, it is fun and necessary to break some of these little habits that not only reflect but also reinforce the commodification of my daily life. Heres another: the abolition of my calendar. If theres something really important that I might forget I can write a notice to myself. But for all the routine stuff, forget it, and if I forget it, tough shit!
Now somewhere in the above paragraph, dear reader, I changed to Boogie Woogie Rarities (the very name is a bit fantastic!). Now, I mention this because I feel better with myself than I have in a long time, and this reflects in a sort of companionship I am able to have with this music (particularly this kind of music). Maybe its like the ideological superstructure or reflex corresponding to the real change at the base! Listen, reader (and Im not being abstract here; I know the relatively few people that might ever see this), my zaniness here is my greatest weapon. I enjoy now the thought that you will be laughing at (and hopefully with) me, but I also enjoy even more the thought that some of this will appear so ridiculous that youll practically be made uncomfortable by it. I hope it rocks your wig! I know it does mine! [20 January 1973]
I sold most of the books, but just for good measure, to prevent myself from living this experience merely as an intelligent business transaction, I took a few of them to a public park and burned them. I set up a little sign by the fire on which I wrote Death to the commodity that dominates us! or something like that, and walked away grinning.
I began to evaluate my relations with people what I had to do with them, with what limitations, overdue critiques, etc. In the case of one she happened to be the girlfriend of another ex-Contradiction member I concluded that she was really too much bullshit. Even though my relation with her was rather minimal, it had gone on a long time and had ramifications with some of my other friends. Rather than continue the fakery or merely try to avoid her, I wrote her a letter and sent copies to our common friends:
I should do you the justice of expressing my criticism to you, and my consequent decision to not see you, since I have already done so . . . to other people.
In all the time I have known you, I can hardly remember a moment when you expressed yourself, presented yourself to another, as a real person, as a subjectivity. I have almost never detected any fundamental (petty truths about unimportant, external particulars are obviously another matter) sincerity in your relations with other people. You are always playing roles. Its that simple. I could pick out any random conversation, for example, and remember embarrassing moments when you happened to say the wrong thing not wrong because you were honestly expressing a mistaken opinion, but because you had misjudged what the correct, sociable, or impressive thing to say might be.
My part, or that of others, in tolerating or contributing to these stupid, meaningless, nonsuperseding situations and relations is acknowledged; but that does not excuse you for your central part in them.
What function have the people with whom you have tried to surround yourself served? . . . I think you have used us to try and confirm an image of your independence, through a vague membership in a vague circle of fashionably autonomous people; as when, a month or two ago, you expounded to . . . me how outside of society something had made you feel you, outside society! The only leaps you ever took (short skips into and out of womens lib, revolution, and law school) were about as adventurous, as chancy, as joining a bridge club or trying a new brand. You couldnt be more inside this sickening society.
The fact that, during the last half year, I visited with (I can hardly say met) you a half a dozen times is simply one of the most glaring measures of the degree of deadness of my life during that period; I was not deluded, I was simply that desperate for someone to talk to. That unimaginative. Well fuck that! Ill confine my conversations to walls if I cant do any better. . . .
Just one more point before I close. Youre really selfish, in the petty, unenlightened sense. Any favors are for manipulative ends or are grudgingly given or both. No spontaneous generosity.
Youve got a long way to go, baby. [27 January 1973]
Whatever the accuracy or justifiability of this type of letter, the decision to write it, how strong to make it, or even whom to write it to, may have a somewhat arbitrary character, and exaggerations are common (the addressee often being made an absolute foil to what one wants). But the relief and lucidity resulting from the polarizing of a situation are often remarkable.
The next day the search for what to do was suddenly resolved. I wanted to confront the issues of the activities, the crises and the disappearance of Contradiction. Once conceived, nothing could have been more obvious, although in the previous six months I hadnt written so much as a line about Contradiction and had felt uncomfortable whenever I was reminded of it. That first day I wrote over forty pages of narration. I also decided to postpone the Voyer translation until I had publicly settled accounts with the hugely accumulated irresolutions of my old activity.
The next month was mainly devoted to writing my text on Contradiction. Typically I would write at home for a few hours until my mind began to get dull, then I would take a long walk and by the time I ended up at some café I would find myself refreshed and anxious to get back to my writing. (I also found that some plastic restaurant with straight clientele was often more conducive to critical thought than the more hip or sophisticated places where the roles and pretensions were so thick.) However I also continued a more personal research on myself, examining various character traits and affect blocks and experimenting with such techniques as neo-Reichian exercises and writing about myself in third person.
One evening I ate dinner with a couple friends and a friend of theirs. This latter guy was rather typical of that type on the margin of the situ milieu who is just close enough and just sophisticated enough to see which way the wind is blowing and affirm his wholehearted approval of whatever happens to be the latest situationist splash. He was thus running on at the mouth about Voyer, character, passionate subjectivity, etc. I asked him to give me one concrete example of what all this verbiage meant i.e. a practical decision that he had implemented. Thrown into confusion, he ran on about the concrete yes, that was really where it was at, etc. In a few days he, too, got a letter, with copies to mutual acquaintances:
Your packaged, situationistically in remarks on things make me sick. . . . The barrage of utter bullshit with which you dodged any coming to terms with yourself or our situation there . . . cannot in any way be excused by any, say, appeal to nervousness towards me, that you dont know me well enough, etc. If, after all this time, you dont know me well enough to know that you had better be up front with me or shut up, youre an imbecile. The only reason you could have had to be nervous (as opposed to honestly awkward) around me is that you have nothing to present but your pretensions, and with me you were (rightly) afraid that you wouldnt be able to fake them credibly enough.
I have nothing in common with you that I dont have in common with millions of other people; who, moreover, dont make the pretensions you do about those things.
To use a phrase you once hid behind without even knowing what it meant, you have no comprehension of history; you havent the slightest idea how to make it, least of all how to make your own. All your reading of Hegel, Marx, Reich, Debord, ad nauseam, and your ability to talk and write spectacular Vaneigemese means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Its just a shell.
Is there anything inside? [4 March 1973]
I had solved the question of this hanger-on and had put the unclear question of my relation with our mutual friends on a more concrete basis. It was now their problem, and to the extent that they (at first) responded defensively and uncomprehendingly, my independence from their sophisticated impotence was simply confirmed.
In general, a person who is always in the company of others is likely to dissipate his ideas, to lose the faculty of considering and concentrating. I have found that the strongest theoretical rushes often come from a decisive encounter (e.g. with a person or a pamphlet) immediately followed by a few days of solitude. Similarly, in the above case I had effectively thrown myself on my own at a point when my researches were coming to a head.
I set about a more deliberate experimental psychoanalytical program, inspired largely by the reading of Character Analysis. The more I experimented in the direction of adventure, the more I became aware of what a zombie I was in the compulsive patterns of my thinking, gestures, etc.* I began to get a more precise idea of my character by fighting it, by inference, by a triangulation which pointed to a repressive psychophysical formation which was the coherent source of the various apparently unconnected irrational symptoms. Only, whereas Reich treats character in a somewhat self-contained way, I took character to be in a dynamic with the society; not something which could be dissolved in itself, because it doesnt exist in itself, but rather as a sort of internal correlative to the commodity-spectacle. I adopted the tentative formula: The anticharacter struggle must arm itself, the revolutionary movement must break its own blocks.
I set pen and paper by my bed so Id be ready to write down my dreams immediately upon waking. The next day, after writing them down I tried a free-associative analysis of them, noting where I felt blocks to various topics (e.g. suddenly feeling tired, remembering other things I need to do, receiving decoy insights). Some of these associations brought back the memory of childhood sexual fantasies, which I proceeded to reenact. Once I had slipped myself back in under childhood, memories repressed for years succeeded one another.
The next evening, feeling the need to act a little in the external world to maintain and concretize my perspective amidst all this psychologizing, I snuck into the stupid movie WR: Mysteries of the Organism and wrote some graffiti that would be seen as the audience filed out after the show:
WATCHING WR MAKES YOU
NOT THE SPECTACLE OF THE DISSOLUTION
OF CHARACTER, BUT THE DISSOLUTION OF
CHARACTER AND THE SPECTACLE
With the intensification of my self-analysis, I began to feel more vibrant, a more erotic being (to the point of for the first time being able to affectively imagine homosexual pleasure, which for me was equivalent to having a more appreciative rather than repressive attitude toward my own body). I would sometimes see people going out of their way to meet me and I often started conversations with strangers without caring if anyone thought I was crazy. While normally rather unobservant of other peoples gestures, I became pretty sensitive to them because I was more sensitive to my own, and I began to counter my typical trait of dominating, unilateral conversation. (Of course no matter how open you are, it still takes two, and some content, to make a dialogue; so most of these encounters didnt come to much after brief, sometimes exciting beginnings.)
One effect of my increased self-understanding was that I was better able to detect and combat psychological irrationalities in my text on Contradiction. For example, I found that in criticizing my own past I had a tendency to overemphasize Point-Blank, as providing a sort of absolute foil to me. It became obvious, when I honestly examined my feelings and even dreams, that I had an irrationally excessive attitude toward them: they were at once threat and concretized realization of numerous tendencies that I could see in myself. However poor their activity, its very existence was a reflection of my impotence.
This attitude was objectively reinforced by the fact that the paucity of genuinely situationist texts and activity in America lent a disproportionate apparent importance to the various confusionist manifestations which were identified in the popular mind with the SI. As long as these manifestations were few and far between I could envision exhaustive critical denunciations of them, seeing myself as a restorer of the purity situationist theory formerly seemed to have when not very many people in America knew about it. The straw that broke the camels back, shortly before, had been the New Morning special situationist issue. I wrote the following telegram to myself and pasted it on the wall in front of my desk.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! NO MORE!
THE LATEST SITUATIONIST REHASH IN THE NEW MORNING IS THE LAST STRAW STOP HENCEFORTH I REFUSE TO JUMP ONTO THIS NAUSEATING HERE AND NOW STOP I ONLY RECONSTITUTE WITHIN MYSELF THE DELIRIUM BY IN THIS WAY TRYING TO COMBAT THE DELIRIUM WHICH RECONSTITUTES ITSELF WITHIN THE VERY POSITION WHICH CLAIMS TO COMBAT IT STOP I WILL REMEMBER THAT THIS LITTLE SIDE SHOW IS NOT AS SERIOUS AS IT WOULD LIKE TO THINK IT IS STOP IT IS SIMPLY ONE OF THE MORE BACKWARD MANIFESTATIONS OF AN INCREASING RADICALISM IN THE SOCIETY STOP I HAVE NO THEORY TO DEFEND STOP I HAVE ONLY MYSELF TO DEFEND STOP THEREFORE I WILL DEAL WITH THIS SORT OF THING WHEN IT FORCES ITSELF ON MY ATTENTION BY DIRECTLY COMBATING MY ACTIVITY STOP BETTER TO PUNCH THESE PEOPLE IN THE FACE OR LAUGH AT THEM THAN WASTE MY TIME AND ENERGY RUMINATING OVER HOW TO EXPOSE THEM STOP MAY THE SPIRIT OF BEETHOVEN TO WHICH I HAVE BEEN LISTENING WHILE TYPING THIS AND WHICH PERHAPS INSPIRED ME IN THE FIRST PLACE STAY WITH ME STOP THAT IS TO SAY WHEN I AM DOING SOMETHING GRAND THESE LITTLE NUISANCES WILL FALL INTO THEIR PROPER PLACE STOP POINT-BLANKISM IF I CANT BRING ABOUT YOUR DOWNFALL BY MY OWN PROJECTS THEN IM A PRO-SITU STOP SINCERELY LUDWIG VAN KNABB [18 February 1973]
The critique of Point-Blank in Remarks on Contradiction, which originally could have made a pamphlet by itself, was accordingly condensed to just enough to specify a few main tendencies in nascent American pro-situationist activity, as represented by those who were at the moment their most substantial and visible manifesters; and to kick up a little polarizing polemic.
Similarly, other elements of Remarks that would have expressed mere psychological compensation were eliminated or at least trimmed down. I avoided discussing certain matters the real purpose of which would have simply been to put a better face on my activities or to prove that I was capable of handling such and such a topic.
During the second week of March I was at fever pitch, with an energy I had not had since childhood. At every point I tried to pull the rug out from under myself. I particularly aimed at countering any defensive seriousness by constantly holding up to myself the absurdity and silliness of my ego. Sometimes, when no one else was around, I would walk down the street singing free-associations and laughing at myself. I was possessed, oscillating between a joyful lucidity and a fear of flipping into insanity. My character became almost tangible to me and reacted with physical symptoms as well as theoretical bribes (like the third-degree complementary team of torturer and sympathetic guy who regrets the unpleasantness, which could be dispensed with if one would only be reasonable). On the one hand, the critical-analytical tactics (daily dream analysis, etc.) began to become repetitive and lose their force and I began to lose the initiative necessary to continually supersede them. On the other, the bribes became almost more than I needed or could handle. The text on Contradiction, issuing from the released repression of so many events in our past, had begun to take on proportions that threatened to engulf me, like the projects in Contradiction that got so large that we ended up getting sick of them and unable to complete them. (The continuous addition of material to a text often also serves as a defensive buffer, surrounding and neutralizing the more daring and incisive formulations.) So insofar as I could grasp and control the situation, I took Remarks as the pay in exchange for the in-any-case inevitable characterological re-formation. Taking the long chronological narrative as raw material, I quickly rewrote the piece, this time concentrating not on the history of Contradiction but on what I had to say about it, the conclusions I could draw from it. I also applied many of the analytical techniques I had been using on myself to the writing of the pamphlet (brainstorming, etc.).
With the completion and publication of Remarks, the characterological equilibrium albeit perhaps somewhat loosened or stretched had largely reestablished itself.
* Cf. the numerous science-fiction stories where humanity is prey to some sort of psychological parasite. Often the protagonist, become temporarily free, experiences a surge of intelligence and power: the parasite sustains itself by keeping man ignorant, unaware of his real capacities. Much of the fascination of such stories stems from the fact that they externalize as a literally alien force the domination of present humanity by the commodity (just as that related genre, the android story, presents literal machines which are virtually indistinguishable from humans).
From Bureau of Public Secrets #1 (January 1976). Reprinted in Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.