The Society of Situationism
Even if a constituted situationist theory had never existed as a possible source of inspiration,
the system of commodity consumption implicitly contains its own situationism.
(Daniel Denevert, Theory of Poverty, Poverty of Theory)
The second proletarian assault on class society has entered its second phase.
The first phase beginning diffusedly in the 1950s and culminating in the open struggles of the late sixties found its most advanced theoretical expression in the Situationist International. Situationism is the direct or implicit ideologization of situationist theory, within the revolutionary movement and in the society as a whole.
The SI articulated the whole of the global movement at the same time that it participated as part of it in the sector where it found itself, taking up the violence of the delinquents on the plane of ideas and giving immediate practical follow-through to its theoretical positions. It thus presented a model to the revolutionary movement not only in the form of its conclusions but also in exemplifying the ongoing negating method; which method was the reason that its conclusions were almost always right.
In generating among many of its partisans the same exigencies that it practiced itself, and in forcing even the most unautonomous to become at least autonomous from it, the SI showed that it knew how to educate revolutionarily. In the space of a few years we have seen a democratization of theoretical activity that was not attained if it was even sought in the old movement in a century. Marx and Engels were not able to incite rivals; none of the strands of Marxism maintained Marxs unitary perspective. Lenins observation in 1914 that none of the Marxists for the past half century have understood Marx is really a critique of Marxs theory, not because it was too difficult but because it did not recognize and calculate its own relation with the totality.
The very nature of the situationists mistakes exposed and criticized by them with pitiless thoroughness is a confirmation of their methods. Their failures as well as their successes serve to focus, elucidate and polarize. No other radical current in history has known such a degree of intentional public theoretical debate. In the old proletarian movement consequential theoretical polarization was always the exception, the explosion that came out contrary to the intentions of the theorists themselves and only as a last resort when the very continuation of a factitious unity was visibly no longer possible. Marx and Engels failed to dissociate themselves publicly from the Gotha Program because the asinine bourgeois papers took this program quite seriously, read into it what it does not contain and interpreted it communistically; and the workers seem to be doing the same (Engels to Bebel, 12 October 1875). Thus, in defending by silence a program against its enemies, they defended it equally against its friends. When in the same letter Engels said that if the bourgeois press possessed a single person of critical mind, he would have taken this program apart phrase by phrase, investigated the real content of each phrase, demonstrated its nonsense with the utmost clarity, revealed its contradictions and economic howlers . . . and made our whole Party look frightfully ridiculous, he described as a deficiency of the bourgeois press what rather was precisely a deficiency of the revolutionary movement of his time.
The concentrated expression of present historical subversion has itself become decentralized. The monolithic myth of the SI has exploded forever. During the first phase this myth had a certain objective basis: on the level on which it was operating, the SI had no serious rivals. Now we see a public and international confrontation of autonomous situationist theories and ideologies which no tendency comes close to monopolizing. Any situationist orthodoxy has lost its central referent. From this point on, every situationist or would-be situationist must follow his own path.
The first critiques of situationism remained fundamentally ahistorical. They measured the theoretical poverties of the pro-situ up against the theory of the first phase. They saw the subjective poverties and internal inconsistencies of this milieu, but not its position as related to the sum of theoretical and practical vectors at a certain moment; they failed to grasp this first nondialectical application as the qualitative weakness of the ensemble, as a necessary moment of the true. Even Theses on the SI and Its Time in so many respects the summation of the first phase at its point of transition into the second scarcely broaches the properly historical aspect of situationism.
At each stage of the struggle the partial realization of the critique generates its own new equilibrium point with the ruling society. As the theory escapes its formulators, it tends through its autonomous ideological momentum to be run through all possible permutations and combinations, though principally those reflecting the new developments and illusions of the moment. Caught in the transition of the first phase to the second, the pro-situationists in the post-1968 ebbing of May period were the embodiments of the inertia of a confirmed theory. This ideological lag in which the partisans of situationist theory failed to confront the new developments in their own practice, that of the proletariat and that of the society as a whole measured the weakness of the situationist movement; while the unprecedented quickness with which it engendered its own internal negation effectively sabotaging itself in order to affirm the explosion that had already escaped it and clear the grounds for the new phase marks its fundamental vindication.
The pro-situationists saw the issues of the second phase in terms of those of the first. In treating the new, widespread and relatively conscious worker struggles as if they were isolated nihilist acts of an earlier period, which therefore lacked first of all the proverbial consciousness of what they had already done, the pro-situs only showed that they lacked the consciousness of what others were already doing and of all that was still lacking. In every single struggle they saw the same simple, total conclusion and identified the progress of the revolution with the appropriation of this conclusion by the proletariat. In thus abstractly concentrating the intelligence of human practice above the complex process of the development of class struggle, the activist pro-situs were the would-be bolsheviks of a fantasized coup of class consciousness, hoping by this shortcut to bring about the councilist program whose implications they overstepped out of incomprehension or impatience.
The SI did not apply its theory to the very activity of the formulation of that theory, although the very nature of that theory implied its eventual democratization and thus put this question on the order of the day. In the aftermath of May neither the SI nor the new generation of insurgents it had inspired had really examined the process of theoretical production, either in its methods or its subjective ramifications, beyond a few vague, empirical rules of thumb. The backlash of the partial realization of situationist theory flung them unprepared from megalomaniac delirium, to incoherence, to chain-reactions of contentless breaks, to impotence and finally to the massive psychological repression of the whole experience, without their ever having asked themselves what was happening to them.
Even if the SI attracted many poorly prepared partisans, the very fact that such a mass of people with no particular experience in or aptitude or taste for revolutionary politics thought to find in situationist activity a terrain where they could engage themselves autonomously and consequentially confirms the radicality of both the theory and the epoch. If the situationist milieu has manifested so many pretensions and illusions, this was merely the natural side-effect of the first victory of a critique that burst so many pretensions of and illusions about the ruling society.
To the extent that the ideologies of the first phase suppressed anything to do with the situationists including therefore the concepts most explicitly associated with them the eventual discovery of the situationist critique had the contrary exaggerated effect of giving the situationists an apparent monopoly of radical comprehension of modern society and its opposition. Hence the adherence to the situationist critique had the abrupt, fanatical character of a sudden religious conversion (often with a corresponding ulterior rejection of it in toto). In contrast, the young revolutionary who now adheres to situationist positions tends to be less subject to this fanatical excess precisely because diverse nuances of situationist struggle and of its recuperation are a familiar aspect of his world.
In the second phase, revolution has moved from being an apparently marginal phenomenon to a visibly central one. The underdeveloped countries have lost their apparent monopoly of contestation; but the revolutions there havent stopped, they have simply become modern and are resembling more and more the struggles in the advanced countries. The society that proclaimed its well-being is now officially in crisis. The formerly isolated gestures of revolt against apparently only isolated misery now know themselves to be general and proliferate and overwhelm all accounting. 1968 was the moment where the revolutionary movements began to see themselves in international company, and it was this global visibility that definitively shattered the ideologies that saw revolution everywhere but in the proletariat. 1968 was also the last time major revolts could seem to be student revolts.
The proletariat has begun to act by itself but as yet scarcely for itself. Revolts continue to be, as they have been over the last century, largely defensive reactions: the taking over of factories abandoned by their owners or of struggles abandoned by their leaders (particularly in the aftermath of wars). If sectors of the proletariat have begun to speak for themselves, they have yet to elaborate an openly internationalist revolutionary program and effectively express their goals and tendencies internationally. If they serve as examples for proletarians of other countries, it is still through the de facto mediation of radical groups and spectacular reportage.
The ideology of the first phase that stressed the concrete realization of radical change without grasping the negative or the totality has found its realization in the proliferation of so-called alternative institutions. The alternative institution differs from classic reformism in being chiefly an immediate, self-managed reformism, one that does not wait for the State. It recuperates the initiative and energy of the mildly dissatisfied and is a sensitive indicator of defects in the system and of their possible resolutions. Alternative production whose development on the margins of the economy recapitulates the historical development of commodity production functions as a free-enterprise corrective to the bureaucratized economy. But the democratization and autogestionization of social structures, though productive of illusions, is also a favorable factor for the development of the revolutionary critique. It leaves behind the superficial focuses of struggle while providing a safer and easier terrain from and on which to contest the essentials. The contradictions in participatory production and alternative distribution facilitate the détournement of their goods and facilities, going up to the point of quasi-legal Strasbourgs of the factories.
The hip notion trip expresses the fact that as commodities become more abundant, adaptable and disposable, the individual commodity is devalued in favor of the ensemble. The trip offers not a single commodity or idea but an organizing principle for selecting from among all commodities and ideas. In contrast with the block of time where everythings included, which is still sold as a distinct commodity, the commodity character of the indefinitely extended trip (art, craft, pursuit, fad, lifestyle, subcult, social project, religion) carrying with it a more flexible complex of commodities and stars is obscured behind the quasi-autonomous activity whereby the subject seems to dominate. The trip is the moment where the spectacle has become so overdeveloped that it becomes participatory. It recovers the subjective activity lacking in the spectacle, but runs into the limits of the world the spectacle has made limits absent in the spectacle precisely because it is separate from daily life.
The diminution of the exclusive sway of work and the fragmentation of the consequently expanded leisure give rise to the widespread dilettantism of modern society. The spectacle presents the super-agent who can tell to a degree the correct temperature at which saké should be served and initiates the masses into exotic techniques of living and to connoisseur enjoyments previously reserved for the upper classes. But the heralded new Renaissance Man is no closer to mastering his own life. When the spectacle becomes overdeveloped and wants to cast off the poverty and unilateralness at its origin, it reveals itself as simply a poor relative of the revolutionary project. It may multiply amusements and make them more participatory, but their commodity basis ineluctably forces them back into the matrix of consumption. Isolated individuals may, in a caricature of Fourier, come together around ever more precise nuances of common spectacular tastes, but these nexuses are all the more separated from each other and from the social totality and the sought-for passionate activity founders on its triviality. The new cosmopolitan remains historically provincial.
The spectacle responds to the increasing dissatisfaction with its tendency toward lowest-common-denominator uniformity by diversifying itself. Struggles are channeled into struggles over the spectacle, leading to the semi-autonomous development of separate spectacles tailor-made for specific social groupings. But the singular power of a spectacle comes from its having been placed for a moment at the center of social life. Thus the increase of spectacular choice at the same time reduces the spectacular power that depends on the very magnitude and undivided enthrallment of the pseudo-community the spectacle draws together. The spectacle must contradictorily be all things to all men individually while continually reasserting itself as their single, exclusive unifying principle.
The spectacle revives the dead, imports the foreign and reinterprets the existing. The time span required for things to acquire the proper quaint banality to become camp continually decreases; the original is marketed simultaneously with its spoof, from which it is often scarcely distinguishable; aesthetic discussions increasingly center around the simple question as to whether something is a parody or not. This expresses the increasing contempt felt for the cultural spectacle on the part of its producers and consumers. Society produces a more and more rapid turnover of styles and ideologies, going up to the point of a delirium that escapes no one. As all the permutations and combinations are run through, the individual poverties and contradictions make themselves known and the common form that lies behind the diverse contents begins to be discerned; to change illusions at an accelerating pace gradually dissolves the illusion of change. With the global unification exerted by the spectacle, it becomes increasingly difficult to idealize a system because it is in a different part of the world, and the global circulation of commodities and therefore of people brings ever closer the historic encounter of the Eastern and Western proletariats. The recycling of culture sucks dry and breaks up all the old traditions, leaving only the spectacular tradition of the new. But the new ceases to be novel and the impatience for novelty generated by the spectacle may transform itself into an impatience to realize and destroy the spectacle, the only idea that continually remains really new and different.
Inasmuch as situationist theory is a critique of all aspects of alienated life, the diverse nuances of situationism reflect in concentrated form the general illusions of the society, and the ideological defenses generated by the situationists prefigure the ideological defenses of the system.
Situationist theory has come full circle when its critique of daily life is drawn on to provide the sophisticated vocabulary of a justification of the status quo. Individuals expressing dissatisfaction with self-satisfied pseudo-enjoyments in the situationist milieu, for example, have been characterized as lacking a capacity for enjoyment, a sense of play or even radical subjectivity, and accused of voluntarism or militantism for having concretely proposed radical projects or more experimental activities.
Vaneigemism is an extreme form of the modern anti-puritanism that has to pretend to enjoy what is supposed to be enjoyable. Like the city dweller who affirms his preference for living in the country although for some reason he never goes there or if he does soon gets bored and returns to the city, the Vaneigemist has to feign pleasure because his activity is by definition passionate, even when that activity is in fact tedious or nonexistent. In letting everyone know that he refuses sacrifice and demands everything, he differs from the man in the ads who insists on the best only in the degree of his pretension and in the often scarcely more than token ideological avowal of the obstacles that remain in the way of his total realization. Dissatisfaction and boredom are forgotten in their boring, ritual denunciation, and at a time when even the most retrograde ideologies are becoming frankly pessimistic and self-critical in their decomposition, the Vaneigemist presents an effective image of present satisfaction.
Vaneigemist ideological egoism holds up as the radical essence of humanity that most alienated condition of humanity for which the bourgeoisie was reproached, which left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest; differing only accidentally from the bourgeois version in envisaging a different means of realization for this collection of isolated egos. This position is contradicted by the actual historical experience of revolutions and often even by the very actions of those who invoke it.
The situationists criticality and often appropriate calculated arrogance and use of insults once taken out of the context of active struggle to change things find a natural place in a world where everyone is presented with a spectacle of inferiority and encouraged to think that he is different; where every tourist seeks to avoid the tourists and every consumer prides himself on not believing the ads (an illusion of superiority that is often intentionally programmed into ads in order to facilitate the simultaneous penetration of the essential subliminal message). The pseudo-critical individual affirms his static superiority through his contemptuous and consequenceless critiques of others who have cruder or at least different illusions. Situationist humor product of the contradictions between the latent possibilities of the epoch and its absurd reality once it ceases to be practical, approaches simply the median popular humor of a society where the good spectator has been largely supplanted by the cynical spectator.
As reinvestors of the cultural riches of the past, the situationists, once the use of those riches is lost, rejoin spectacular society as simple promoters of culture. The process of the modern revolution communication containing its own critique, continuous domination of the present over the past meshes with that of a society depending on the continuous turnover of commodities, where each new lie criticizes the previous ones. That a work has something to do with the critique of the spectacle in manifesting an element of authentic radicality or in representing some theoretically articulated moment of the decomposition of the spectacle is hardly disadvantageous for it from the standpoint of the spectacle. While the situationists are right in pointing out the detournable elements in their forebears, in so doing they simultaneously win for those forebears a place in the spectacle, which, because it is so sorely lacking in the qualitative, welcomes the affirmation that there is some to be found among the cultural goods it markets. The detourned fragment is rediscovered as a fragment; when the use goes, the consumption remains; the detourners are detourned.
Such a vital concept as situationist necessarily knows simultaneously the truest and the most false uses, with a multitude of intermediate confusions.
As with other pivotal theoretical concepts, one cannot suppress the interested confusionism engendered by the concept situationist by suppressing its label. The ambiguities of the term situationist reflect the ambiguities of the situationist critique itself, at once separate from and part of the society it combats, at once separate party and its negation. The existence of a distinct situationist milieu at once social concentration of advanced revolutionary consciousness and social embodiment of concentrated situationism expresses the contradictions of the uneven development of conscious struggle in this period; since while to be explicitly situationist is hardly a guarantee of intelligent practice, not to be so is virtually a guarantee of aims of falsification or of an ignorance increasingly difficult to maintain involuntarily. The spectacle will be considered as a specifically situationist concept as long as it is considered as merely one more peripheral element of the society. But in simultaneously repressing its central aspects and the theory that has most radically articulated them and then thinking to kill two birds with one stone by lumping these uncategorizable entities together, the society confirms their real unity; as when for example a bibliography contains a section: Daily Life, Consumer Society, and Situationist Themes.
For the SI, the situationist label served to draw a line between the prevalent incoherence and a new exigency. The importance of the term withers away to the extent that the new exigences are widely known and practiced, to the extent that the proletarian movement becomes itself situationist. Such a label also facilitates a spectacular categorization of what it represents. But this very categorization at the same time exposes the society to the very coherence of the diverse situationist positions that makes possible a single label, the power of this exposure depending on the net total of significances carried by the term at a given moment. It is the trenchancy of the term which is at issue in the diverse struggles over whether someone or something is situationist, and it is a notable measure of this trenchancy that the term pro-situationist has been rendered universally recognized as pejorative. Although association with the label serves as no defense for acts, the actions of situationists do in a sense defend the word, in contributing toward rendering it as concentrated and dangerous a bomb as possible for the society to play with. The society that with little difficulty presents sectors of itself as communist, Marxist or libertarian finds it as yet impossible or inadvisable to present any aspect of itself as situationist, although it certainly would have done so by now if for example a Nashist (opportunistic neo-artistic) sense of the term had prevailed.
At its beginnings, as long as no one else is very close, the situationist critique seems so intrinsically anti-ideological that its proponents can scarcely imagine any situationism other than as a mere gross lie or misunderstanding. There is no such thing as situationism, such a term is meaningless, declares Internationale Situationniste #1 [Definitions]. A simple differentiation suffices to defend the term from misuse: the 5th Conference of the SI decides that all artistic works produced by its members must be explicitly labeled antisituationist. But the critique that opposes itself by definition to its ideologization cannot definitively or absolutely separate itself from it. The SI discovers a tendency far more dangerous than the old artistic conception we have fought so much. It is more modern and therefore less apparent. . . . Our project has taken shape at the same time as the modern tendencies toward integration. There is thus not only a direct opposition but also an air of resemblance since the two sides are really contemporaneous. . . . We are necessarily on the same path as our enemies more often preceding them (Internationale Situationniste #9) [Now, the SI].
It is notorious that the modern intelligentsia has often utilized elements of situationist theory, formerly without acknowledgment, more recently when such a plagiarization has become more difficult and when at the same time spectacular association with the situationists adds more to ones prestige than knowledge of dependence on them detracts from it more often with acknowledgment. But even more significant are the numerous theoretical and ideological manifestations that, in spite of no direct influence or even knowledge of the situationists, are ineluctably drawn to the same issues and the same formulations because these are nothing other than the intrinsic pivotal points of modern society and its contradictions.
To the extent that the situationist critique extends and deepens itself, modern society merely to minimally understand its own functioning and opposition, or to present the spectacle reflecting what is most generally desired must recuperate more and more elements of that critique, or in repressing it become the victim of its own correspondingly increasing blind spots.
Everything the SI has said about art, the proletariat, urbanism, the spectacle, is broadcast everywhere minus the essential. While in the anarchy of the ideological market individual ideologies incorporate elements of situationist theory separated from their concrete totality, as an ensemble they effectively reunite the fragments as an abstract totality. All of modernist ideology taken as a block is situationism.
Situationism is the stealing of the initiative from the revolutionary movement, the critique of daily life undertaken by power itself. The spectacle presents itself as the originator or at least the necessary forum of discussion of the ideas of its destruction. Revolutionary theses dont appear as the ideas of revolutionaries, that is as linked to a precise experience and project, but rather as an unexpected outburst of lucidity on the part of the rulers, stars and vendors of illusions. Revolution becomes a moment of situationism.
The society of situationism does not know that it is; that would be giving it too much credit. Only the proletariat can grasp its totality in the process of destroying it. It is principally the revolutionary camp that generates the diverse illusions and ideological nuances that can shore up the system and justify a restored status quo. The very successes of revolts having arrived at an ambiguous point of equilibrium with the system serve in part to advertise the greatness of a system that could generate and accommodate such radical successes.
By its very nature situationism cannot be immediately or fully realized. It is not supposed to be taken literally, but followed at just a few steps distance; if it were not for this albeit tiny distance, the mystification would become apparent.
In producing its situationism, the society shatters the cohesion of other ideologies, sweeps aside the archaic and accidental falsifications and draws the fragments capable of reinvestment to itself. But in thus concentrating the social false consciousness, the society prepares the way for the expropriation of this expropriated consciousness. The sophistication of recuperation forcibly disabuses revolutionaries, its unity pushes the conflict to a higher level, and elements of situationism diffused globally provoke their own supersession in regions where they had not yet developed from an indigenous theoretical base.
The SI was exemplary not only for what it said, but above all for all that it did not say. Diffuseness dilutes critical power. Discussion of things that dont make any difference obscures the things that do. Entering onto the platform of ruling pseudo-dialogue turns truth into a moment of the lie. Revolutionaries must know how to be silent.
From the journal Bureau of Public Secrets #1 (January 1976). Reproduced in Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.