The Avant-Garde of Presence(1)



[...] The dialectic of history is such that the Situationist International’s theoretical victory is already forcing its adversaries to disguise themselves as situationists. Two main tendencies can now be distinguished in the impending struggle against us: those who proclaim themselves situationists without having any idea what they’re talking about (the varieties of Nashism) and those who, conversely, decide to adopt a few situationist ideas minus the situationists and without mentioning the SI. The increasing likelihood of the confirmation of some of the simplest and least recent of our theses leads many people to appropriate aspects of one or another of them without acknowledgment. We are not, of course, concerned here with obtaining recognition and personal credit for priority. The only interest in pointing out this tendency is in order to denounce one crucial aspect of it: When these people draw on our theses in order to finally talk about some new problem (after having suppressed it as long as they could), they inevitably banalize it, eradicating its violence and its connection with the general subversion, defusing it and subjecting it to academic dissection or worse. This is the reason they have to suppress any mention of the SI. [...]

Free play confined within the terrain of artistic dissolution is only the cooption of free play. In spring 1962 the press began reporting on the “happenings” produced by the some of the avant-garde artists of New York. The happening is a sort of spectacle pushed to the extreme state of dissolution, a vaguely dadaist-style improvisation of gestures performed by a gathering of people within a confined space. Drugs, alcohol and eroticism are often involved. The gestures of the “actors” strive toward a melange of poetry, painting, dance and jazz. This form of social encounter can be considered as an instance of the old artistic spectacle pushed to the extreme, a hash produced by throwing together all the old artistic leftovers; or as a too aesthetically encumbered attempt to renovate the ordinary surprise party or the classic orgy. In its naïve striving to “make something happen,” its absence of separate spectators and its desire to liven up (however feebly) the impoverished range of present human relations, the happening can even be considered as an attempt to construct a situation in isolation, on a foundation of poverty (material poverty, the poverty of encounters, the poverty inherited from the artistic spectacle, and the poverty of the “philosophy” that has to considerably “ideologize” the reality of these events). In contrast, the situations defined by the SI can be constructed only on a foundation of material and spiritual richness. This amounts to saying that the first ventures in constructing situations must be the work/play of the revolutionary avant-garde; people who are resigned in one way or another to political passivity, to metaphysical despair, or even to being subjected to an art of total noncreativity, are incapable of participating in them. [...]

People urge us to present trivial projects that would be useful and convincing. But why should we be interested in convincing them? In any case, if we were to oblige them, they would immediately turn these projects against us, either by holding them up as proofs of our utopianism or by rushing to disseminate watered-down versions of them. In fact, those who are interested in and satisfied by such partial projects can solicit them from almost anyone else, but not from us. We contend that a fundamental cultural renewal will not be brought about by an accumulation of changes of details, but only as a whole. We are obviously in a good position to discover, a few years ahead of other people, all the potential gimmicks of the present extreme cultural decomposition. Since they are useful only in our enemies’ spectacle, we merely make a few notes on them and file them away. Many of them are eventually discovered independently by someone or other and ostentatiously launched on the market. History has not yet “caught up” with the majority of them, however. Perhaps it never will with some of them. This is not simply a game, it is one more experimental verification of our perspectives.

We believe that modern art, wherever it was truly critical and innovative in the very conditions of its appearance, has fulfilled its role, a role of great importance; and that, despite the speculation on its products, it is still detested by the enemies of freedom. It suffices to note the fear it  inspires even now among the cautiously de-Stalinizing rulers, how they panic at the slightest sign of its reappearance in their dominion after years of total repression. They denounce it as a leak in their ideology, because their power depends on that ideology’s monopoly of information at every level. But the people in the West who profit from respectful prolongations and artificial revivals of the cultural ventures that were blocked long ago are the real enemies of modern art. We are its sole heirs.

We are against the conventional forms of culture, even in its most modern state; but not, obviously, in preferring ignorance, neoprimitivism or petty-bourgeois common sense. There is an anticultural attitude that favors an impossible return to the old myths. Against such a current we are of course for culture. We take our stand on the other side of culture. Not before it, but after it. We contend that it is necessary to realize culture by superseding it as a separate sphere; not only as a domain reserved for specialists, but above all as a domain of a specialized production that does not directly affect the construction of life — not even the life of its own specialists.

We are not completely lacking in humor; but our humor is of a rather new kind. If someone wants to know how to approach our theses, without going into the fine points and subtleties, the simplest and most appropriate attitude is to take us completely seriously and literally.

How are we going to bankrupt the dominant culture? Two ways. Gradually at first, and then suddenly.(2) [...]




1. The Avant-Garde of Presence: The article opens with a response to the critic Lucien Goldmann, who had referred to various more or less nihilistic artists (Beckett, Ionesco, etc.) as an “avant-garde of absence.”

2. This line is adapted from a passage in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (Chapter 13).

“L’avant-garde de la présence” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #8 (Paris, January 1963). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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