A Short Guide to the
Anglo-American Situationist Image


“I would furthermore ask you to study this theory from its original sources
and not at second hand; it is really much easier. The most amazing rubbish has
been produced in this quarter.”
  (Engels to J. Bloch, 21 September 1890)


Just as a new planet is discovered by observation of its gravitational effects on other, visible ones, so one could infer a great deal about the Situationist International merely by studying the reactions it has given rise to. In the poster The Blind Men and the Elephant (January 1975) I have gathered a number of such reactions, which in their juxtaposition are even more revealing and funny than they are individually. “Each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong.” Here, too, we will see the SI not as it is, but as it has been presented spectacularly in the United States and England. That is, we will see what the SI is not, in its Anglo-American version.

To understand those who don’t understand the SI, and who make sure that others don’t, one has to consider both the ways in which they misrepresent it and their motives for doing so.

Just as ad men will start out with little hints leading up to the subject of an ad campaign, the enemies of the situationists prepare the public inversely by previews that tone down the expectations, seeming to refute in advance the theses whose exposure they postpone as long as possible. First the silence and spiteful rumors, then the grudging, contemptuous footnotes, then the extended chapters, articles and books where, without batting an eye, the authors act as if this was all quite normal: it they hadn’t discussed the SI before it was just because it hadn’t come to their attention. “Many intellectuals hesitate to speak openly about the SI because to do so implies taking a minimum position: specifying what one refuses of it and what one accepts of it. Many of them believe, quite mistakenly, that to feign ignorance of it in the meantime will suffice to clear them of responsibility later” (Internationale Situationniste #9) [Questionnaire].

Until recently at least, the majority of English-language references to the SI have been apropos of its relation to the May 1968 movement in France. This was not only because the situationists participated directly in that movement but also because it was so explicitly situationist and its form and location made it so little susceptible to being subsumed under the then-current ideologies (it had nothing to do with racism, fascism, imperialism, etc.). The result of this appropriate linking was that the SI partook of the falsification of the May movement — so much so that one could say as a general rule that the falsification of the May movement in any given book or article is in direct proportion to its falsification of the SI. “One learns most precisely how the system operates by observing how it operates on its most precise enemies” (Double-Reflection).

A common tactic of falsification is to separate the SI from the insurgence of the masses. We learn that the situationists are “only” theorists as opposed to being active: they are “academics,” “Hegelians.” This tendency runs up against the problem that if these “utopian” thinkers are off in some ivory tower, how do they exert the influence that causes them to be discussed in the first place? Why is it that publications that formerly suppressed any mention of the SI now find themselves obliged to take up “situationist themes” if they want to maintain any pretense of being abreast of contemporary reality? Moreover, those who contemptuously ridicule the situationists — who systematically reject any militant base through which they could exert their influence bureaucratically — as being a miniscule minority forget that this simply implies all the more power to the theory itself.

Another image sees the SI as active, to be sure, but on a particular, limited terrain. In this category belongs the notion that the situationists are “a tendency in the student movement” or that they are a cultural avant-garde. Here the imagination runs wild: they are “weird sort of dadaists,” they do “street theater,” disrupt everything and in general act as sort of “nonsensical” court jesters. They are given credit for being part of the “radical movement,” as its ultra-radical, lunatic fringe: sort of Yippies in European terms, perhaps. But the clown role doesn’t really hold up either: who ever heard of clowns (much less Hegelian academics) being “universally despised by political organizations”? The “gadfly” image is often invoked. This gets closer to the truth of the SI — not, to be sure, its central truth, but its truth as seen through the narrow visors of the leftist groups: the SI represents the bad conscience of the left. It threatens the bureaucrats and ideologues with a loss of their constituency, the rank and file with a recognition of their self-demeaning militantism and obsolescence.

The leftist ideologue responds by finding in the SI “interesting theory” but “no practice,” by which he expresses the fact that the SI came up with a lot of intriguing ideas but forgot to give him or the masses precise instructions as to what to do. And since he needs instructions he assumes that the masses do too. Rather than admit his confusion he transfers it to the masses: “Difficult theory? No, not at all — I’ve got it down pat. It’s just that these guys never developed an adequate practice; like — well, if I wasn’t so modest I could mention some people who have... But anyway, while we’re waiting for some Practice to show up, let me take you on a quick run-through of these situationist theories. They do, after all is said and done, retain a certain undeniable, well, shall we say — interest. (I still haven’t quite figured out how they do it.) And anyway, even if I can understand this stuff you probably can’t and by explaining it to you I can demonstrate how abreast of the latest things I am — even though I’d like to caution you again that it’s not really all that big a deal.”

The “difficulty” for which situationist theory is often reproached — if we leave aside that element of it that is simply due to the complexity of the tasks of the modern revolutionary movement — is the difficulty of the present society trying to comprehend its necessary negation. That the ideologues find it difficult to place in the separate categories of bourgeois thought is simply a reflection of its irreconcilability with bourgeois society. The situationists have been seen as anarchists because they criticize Marxists and vice-versa, as “right wing” because they criticize the left, or as primitivists “resisting progress” because they attack “modern society” and the technocrats. They are saddled with all sorts of one-sided ideological positions, then berated for inconsistency when they are found to contradict these fantasized dogmas. Similarly, they are credited — against the most explicit indications — with a “system” from which as a corollary various “omissions” are triumphantly noted: “feminist consciousness,” “understanding of capital,” “recognition” of the “positive aspects” of this or that, etc.

The types of falsification to which situationist theory has been subject naturally correspond to the diverse material and ideological positions of its enemies. An editor of New Left Review finds the notion of the spectacle “still in need of a scientific foundation” (Student Power, p. 9) because only such an “objective,” sociologically neutered concept could be handled by him and his neo-Stalinist colleagues without getting their hands burned. Or again, Vaneigem’s well-known phrase about “referring explicitly to everyday life” (se référer explicitement à la vie quotidienne) is revealingly mistranslated, and thus approved, by the psychologist David Cooper as “Those who talk of revolution . . . without making it real in their own lives . . . talk with a corpse in their mouths” (The Death of the Family, p. 97, ellipses his) — leaving out the part about class struggle and suggesting the “changing oneself” ideology. Or again, Bruce Brown, in Marx, Freud, and the Critique of Everyday Life (p. 32), cites the SI in such a way that the mutually explanatory “criticism in actions” and “theoretical critique” of modern society are represented respectively by “the struggles of the New Left” and “the critical intellectuals of the ‘Freudo-Marxist’ school,” among whom he presumably counts himself. Or again, the British ultraleftist journal World Revolution (April 1975), through the use of the amalgam technique and such gross falsifications as that the situationists hold that the working class has been integrated into capitalism, tries to slip the SI into a “modernism” lump where it can easily be dismissed. What annoys many of the ultraleftist currents about the situationists is that the situationists are precisely not modernist, that their analysis of the new developments of capitalism and of its critique at the same time joins up with the old truth of the previously vanquished proletarian revolution. This irritates them because they want to hold onto this old truth without any newness mixed in, either from the situationists or from contemporary social reality.

It is worth noting that the current “anarchist revival” (and similar remarks could he made about several other trends, such as the interest in Reich or surrealism) is not really a revival of the classical anarchist movement but a confused attempt to characterize the new proletarian movement, which visibly surpasses all the other classical political perspectives. Thus, the sociologist Richard Gombin’s often perceptive article in Anarchism Today, though nominally about anarchism in modern France, effectively demonstrates that what is determinative in this “anarchism” is the situationist critique.

Among the more delirious reactions to the situationists is that of the “National Caucus of Labor Committees,” according to whose paper New Solidarity (August 28 and September 6, 1974) the SI was “created by the C.I.A. from scratch in 1957.” We won’t give the big lie the benefit of a dignified refutation, and will pass by the various nefarious deeds the SI is credited with, from the sabotaging of the mini-bureaucrats in May 68 to the “detonation of riots” and of the Lip strike, in order to come a little closer to home. “In the U.S. Goldner and his Situationist International offshoot group Contradiction have been assigned the same kind of role: namely, to stop the Labor Committees from developing into a mass-based working-class party.” Now, during the span of Contradiction (1970-72) none of us had ever so much as heard of these “Labor Committees” which we had been “assigned” to “stop.” As for Goldner, “his” group met him by chance around a year after its formation. One or two meetings sufficed to demonstrate the more or less academic nature of his accord with the situationist theses, although we saw him occasionally over the next year in order to exchange some texts (he had translated sections of some of the SI books). Some time after the dissolution of Contradiction he informed me that he had joined the NCLC, whereupon I naturally told him that that was the end of my relation with him. One can guess that Goldner, with the same naïveté that could see in the NCLC a “Luxemburgist organization” (it actually plays a similar spectacular role within the decomposed American left that PL did a few years before in the decomposing left — as the pure, uncompromising outcast group, promoting an image of violent militancy and of a worker base calculated to intrigue and arouse the guilt of the rest of the predominantly student left; it is characteristic of the advance of the times that the newer group to fill this role must present a more sophisticated theoretical appearance and be from the start explicitly “anti-Stalinist”), talked up the situationists within the group, perhaps with a view to the appearance of his translations in the NCLC publications. Sooner or later he must have run up against the contradictions between the group’s radical bravado and its effectively Stalinist practice and organization (all the methods without the means) and resigned, thus marking himself as a “CIA agent.” (This same paranoid consciousness saw in The Blind Men and the Elephant the work of — the KGB!)

Certainly it is not through the “infiltration, penetration and dissolution of socialist and other workers’ organizations” that the SI has influenced the workers of Lip or that Contradiction has dissuaded those of the US from the outstretched arms of the NCLC. “It is in an entirely different manner that the SI and the era pursue their dissolving action; but it will easily be understood that the leftists are most infuriated by the matter: it is precisely in ‘their public,’ among the best individuals and groups that they would like to capture, that they meet again their old enemy, proletarian autonomy, at its first stage of affirmation. And they involuntarily render us a tribute by denouncing it as being under our influence.” (The Real Split in the International.) The young Bakunin, a republican liberal, on being accused by his superiors of being “socialist,” wrote for the first time to a socialist group requesting information on what that frightful doctrine might be. In the same way many of the more honest rank-and-file radicals are finding to their surprise that they are “situationist-inspired” or that “situationist tendencies” have somehow infiltrated their ranks, their practice and their attempts to understand and improve it. Precisely as they begin to escape the petrification of one or another old leftist dogma with a purely student base, they will find that they are “petit-bourgeois intellectuals”; precisely as they begin to confront the real proletarianized world, the new tasks in all their concreteness and complexity, they will be called “utopians,” “dreamers” who aren’t dealing with the “needs of the people”; precisely as they begin to speak the truth, they will be accused of adopting “disruptive” or “situationist tactics.” “Our enemies . . . do not even manage to understand that it is more often than not by their blundering mediation that these revolutionary elements whom they denounce and hunt down have themselves been able to learn that they were ‘situationists’; and that in short this is how the epoch names what they are” (Ibid.).

But the falsifications of the avowed enemies of the SI are seen through more easily than the confusions disseminated by its self-proclaimed partisans. Many people’s first exposure to explicitly “situationist ideas” comes by way of some pitiful excuse for a “scandal” produced by impatient pro-situationists who hardly have the vaguest idea of what they’re doing. They take up and fetishize a formal element of situationist activity (détournement, “arrogance”) without any content, or sloppily grab the first opportunity to propagate its fantasized content in exchange for abandoning its rigor and clarity. These excited appreciators of the SI — such as those who put out the Bay Area “End of Prehistory” radio programs August 1975, advertising themselves as “those who give free play to their most delirious fantasies” — never see the critical, experimental method of the SI but only certain half-baked programatic utopian conclusions. They hold their much flaunted anti-morality up against the most retrograde straw dogs (Christianity, militantism, etc.), without which contrast they would be nothing. They are only battening off a temporary monopoly of a few ill-digested notions from the SI. The truth and coherence of situationist theory is such that even in distorted form it can arouse a certain interest. It is thus that the pro-situs can jump in to fill the void, to temporarily be the big fish in the small theoretical pond.

As yet, no publisher has taken up my proposal to translate the situationist books (which was mailed to some twenty publishing houses). Some more SI texts have since appeared in English, however. A pirate edition of the complete Treatise, under the title The Revolution of Everyday Life, is available from Paul Sieveking (c/o Box LBD, 197 Kings Cross Road, London W.C.1) or through Isaac Cronin or Chris Shutes (price: $5), and an authorized version of Vaneigem’s book, published by Free Life Editions (41 Union Square West, NYC 10003), is due out sometime this year.

An anthology of SI texts, Leaving the 20th Century, appeared early in 1975, edited by Christopher Gray (Free Fall Publications, Box 13, 197 Kings Cross Road, London W.C.1 — price: $3). The edition is sometimes sloppy (paragraphs are missing, articles are wrongly attributed, etc.), the selection is unrepresentative (not a single piece from the many where the SI explains its concrete activities, clarifies misunderstandings, etc.) and Gray’s lengthy commentaries are not too different from what one might expect to find in, say, Ramparts or Rolling Stone. That Gray was once briefly and for not much reason a member of the SI changes nothing: scarcely a single ex-member of the SI has shown himself capable of genuinely continuing the situationist project. If a few of them were once able to make some contributions, they have for the most part fallen back into nullity or, as in the case of Gray, worse.

Gray sees the SI in purely spectacular terms. He can’t stop mentioning the journal’s shiny metallic covers and exciting illustrations; an early SI article “seems one of the most brilliant single pieces of writing produced since the heyday of modern art”; the actual activities of the SI — even at its earliest period always characterized by their calculatedness — are ignored by him in favor of miscellaneous scandal-magazine type anecdotes, or treated as “stunts” pulled off by drunken fraternity boys. He never sees in the SI a serious theoretical effort, but only what he himself is capable of: a crude, impulsive tantrum against the society. Seeing the SI as a “lunatic fringe group,” he can thus see the Motherfuckers as going it one better on such a terrain, or in the terrorist Angry Brigade, “destroying themselves at the same time as they took the critique of the spectacle to its most blood-curdling spectacular extreme,” something resembling the Enragés.

The student insurgence of the sixties, precisely because it came from a sector enjoying certain margins of freedom not to be found in the factories, was able to carry certain enthusiasms and fantasies of easy “total revolution” more difficult to maintain among the workers, whose different types of struggles have for several years overshadowed their student harbingers. Gray is among those who identified with the superficial aspects of the earlier phase and who, now that these earlier aspects have been discredited and superseded or are simply no longer reported in the mass media because they’re now so commonplace, bewail the absence of what once was and transfer their own impotence onto the movement they don’t understand: “German and English universities occupied . . . Hippie ghettoes directly clashing with the police state . . . the sudden exhilarating sense of how many people felt the same way . . . the new world coming into focus. . . . Today — nothing. The Utopian image has faded from the streets. . . . Yet there were thousands and thousands of people there. What has happened to us all?” If we except the single culminating year 1968, there are in fact more, and more profound, revolts today than in the sixties; it is just that they are not the kind that welcome self-indulgent intellectual speculators like Gray — not even those who try to make up for it by catering to the masses or by giving a preeminence to “the emotions and the body.”

To be sure, the end of the sixties also marks the recuperation of a certain number of the earlier tentatives; but the point is then to specify in what ways this recuperation has taken place, due to what mistakes in the revolutionary movement. Gray, for his part, in a space that would almost suffice to reprint “Theses on the SI and Its Time,” does not come up with a single useful observation on those “vital issues of organization and activity” regarding which he berates Debord and Sanguinetti for their silence. Like so many other pro-situs, Gray wanted the SI to be God and ends up whining because it didn’t hand him revolution on a silver platter, complete with immediate individual therapy. “After so many, many pages, let’s try and be honest, just for a moment. . . . Everyone’s life is a switch between changing oneself and changing the world. Surely they must somehow be the same thing and a dynamic balance is possible. I think the S.I. had this for a while, and later they lost it. I want to find it again. . . . It could connect, could come together.” Almost sounds like a James Taylor record.

But the epoch is also producing those who will understand and supersede the SI. And when the intrinsic conditions are fulfilled, the English-speaking proletariat will not miss its rendezvous with this “Gallic cock.”


From the journal Bureau of Public Secrets #1 (January 1976). Reprinted in Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.

No copyright.

[French translation of this text]