(Selected passages from Ken Knabb’s correspondence)
Myopia of engaged Buddhism
Recommended reading list
Reply to a would-be suicide
Anarchism and primitivism
Critique of Theft magazine
Critique of CrimethInc
Classical music recommendations
Reformism and electoral politics (I)
Reformism and electoral politics (II)
Reformism and electoral politics (III)
The Frankfurt School
Reply to a Midwestern liberal
Understanding Debord dialectically (I)
Understanding Debord dialectically (II)
The situationists on economic crises
Translating Debord (I)
Translating Debord (II)
Translating Debord (III)
More on translation
Pleasures and their limits under present conditions
Rejection of an academic invitation
Situationist Anthology bias?
Unavoidable hierarchies and specializations
Peak Oil? (I)
Peak Oil? (II)
Liberating technology and alienated labor
Is Rexroth a utopian?
International organization? (I)
International organization? (II)
Facebook and the Occupy movement
More on Facebook
Some common questions about the situationists
How do you run a book group?
More on book groups
Tactics for today?
A meaningful life?
Did the situationists hate psychology?
Myopia of engaged Buddhism
[Response to Santikaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk then living in Thailand and coeditor of “Entering the Realm of Reality”, a collection of articles on socially engaged Buddhism.]
I read Entering the Realm of Reality when it first came out, but was disappointed with it. In Dec. 97 I went to a small gathering re it at Berkeley Zen Center led by Alan Senauke and Jonathan Watts [the other two editors of the book]. Not wishing to interfere with an encounter that might be significant for some of the participants (their chance to talk with each other or with the book editors), I sat quietly through the readings from the book and the brief discussion. Then, upon hearing that the meeting would now wind to an end, I decided I really should say something. (Alan had invited me to come and stir up some discussion.) I attempted to condense the numerous critiques I had of the book, and of the various remarks that had been made, into five or ten minutes, and was met with shock and utter incomprehension. Actually not so surprising given the mixture of people and the brief time allotted.
I continue to be astonished at how myopic the entire engaged Buddhist scene is. The EBs made one good advance in the 1960s and 70s by recognizing and declaring that its necessary, or at least okay, for Buddhists to have some sort of social engagement. Twenty years later theyre still at the same square one, though some of them have the delusion that doing voluntary social service work while endlessly rehashing a few timid social-democratic platitudes puts them on the cutting edge of social change. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship founding statement had the merit of calling for a two-way exchange: bring Buddhist insights to social movements, but also bring social-radical insights to Buddhists. This latter aspect, however, has remained mostly lip service. Almost never does one hear, or read, any EB saying: We should investigate May 68, or the Spanish revolution, or the history of anarchism, or the radical aspects of Marxism, or the innovative tactics of the situationists, etc. Even though they may be mistaken in some regards, there are probably some things we can learn from them. If I remember rightly, you made some such remark in one of your articles; but it was only one sentence and was never followed up by you nor by anyone else I know of. The only social movements that the EBs actually study or refer to are utterly predictable things like Gandhiism that are guaranteed to reinforce their Buddhist prejudices. It seems to be assumed that if a theory or movement has anything violent or angry or divisive about it, its not worth looking into, period. In some ways the more seemingly sophisticated EBs may be more hopeless in this regard than the more naïve, because, having been in some militant group in the sixties or having read some trendy postmodernists, they think theyve already been there, done that, whereas such things actually have virtually nothing to do with what I’m talking about.
[A few months later I elaborated on these points in Evading the Transformation of Reality: Engaged Buddhism at an Impasse.]
[Response to a student who had just received a prestigious four-year research scholarship and was wondering what he might do to take radical advantage of his situation. “Presently, I feel very much like what I’d imagine the Student Unionists of the University of Strasbourg felt like when they were elected in 1966 — now that I’ve got a piece of power, I’m somewhat at a loss as to how to properly utilize it. . . . My question to you is: what should I do? Or, perhaps more properly, what would you do in my situation?”]
I dont think your situation is at all comparable to that of the Strasbourg scandalists. The latter found themselves in an official position as elected leaders of several thousand students. However ridiculous such a position might be in most regards, it gave them the legal power to draw on University (and/or Student Union) funds to pay for the “Student Poverty” pamphlet; to use school buildings for alternative purposes; to issue press releases on official stationery; to officially close the psychiatric bureaus, etc. You are in no such position of influence, much less of “power. The slight prestige one gets from receiving even the most exalted academic fellowship is trivial, and would turn into ridicule of your pretension the moment you tried to exploit it as if it were of any significance. Nobody is going to pay any more attention to what you say or do merely because you have such a fellowship. (In fact, many might pay less attention, assuming that such a fellowship merely indicates that youre a docile good student.)
On the other hand, the fellowship puts you in a relatively comfortable and flexible personal situation. If I were in your position, I would use the time to learn and explore and experiment. Learn at least French, and maybe one or two other languages if you find you have the knack and inclination. Read the situationists, of course, and their various forebears (Marx, the classic anarchists, utopians, etc.). But also the general classics (particularly those discussed in Rexroth’s two Classics Revisited volumes). And history, sciences, religions, philosophies — theres all sorts of interesting stuff out there, even though whats relevant has to be extricated from the bullshit. This will provide a good background for whatever you decide to do, and is likely to suggest personal tangents for further exploration and various experiments to try. To put all this knowledge in perspective, mix it up with camping out and traveling to other countries. And also internal trips via drugs (carefully) or preferably via some form of meditation...
Well, Im starting to feel like the proverbial Dutch uncle giving platitudinous advice. My point is simply: explore and experiment. By all means speak out, or write critical texts, or carry out individual or collective actions if you feel sincerely inspired to do so. But not just because you feel you should do something or imitate the situationists. Dont worry too much about the political relevance of all this, or get into a guilt trip about being part of academia. Just use the opportunity to have fun. Out of that will come plenty of ideas for things youd like to do (subversive or otherwise).
Recommended reading list
[Response to a young correspondent who asked for a “recommended reading list.”]
Its flattering to be asked. But also a bit difficult to give a general list thats very brief (especially not knowing you, what your interests are, what youve already read, etc.). But heres a few to start with: Rexroth: Autobiographical Novel; various poems and essays; Classics Revisited and More Classics Revisited.
The latter two volumes deal with many of the very best works. Virtually each of them offers some pretty vital, sometimes unique, slant on what it means to be human, what life is, has been, or could be, new conceptions of self and world, etc. And Rexroth gives a better hint, in fewer words, of what those key aspects are than any other writer I know of. You might keep his list in the back of your mind and check out one or another item from time to time. Just glancing through his tables of contents, here are a few of my favorites: Homer, Herodotus, the Kalevala, The Satyricon, The Golden Ass, The Tale of Genji, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Chaucer, Montaigne, Don Quixote, Casanovas memoirs, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Gibbon, The Red and the Black, Baudelaire, Whitman, Rimbaud, Huckleberry Finn, Tao Te Ching, Blake, Fords Parades End.
Some more modern works Ive liked:
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn
Breton, Nadja, Surrealist Manifestos, etc.
Mencken, The Vintage Mencken or other selections
Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Snyder, Earth House Hold
Buber, I and Thou
Alan Watts, Nature, Man and Woman
Reps and Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Knabb, SI Anthology
Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life
Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, film scripts, various other works
Marx, Communist Manifesto, etc.
Selections from utopians and anarchists such as Fourier, William Morris, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Murray Bookchin
Paul Goodman, Communitas, various other books or essays
Mumford, The City in History
If youre into radical theory and history you can find numerous other works mentioned in the SI Anthology or Public Secrets.
[Since that time I have put together a much larger list:
Gateway to the Vast Realms: Recommended Readings
from Literature to Revolution.]
Reply to a would-be suicide
[Response to a long and very moping letter from someone who said he was considering suicide.]
Im sorry if I seem unsympathetic, but I think its usually a waste of time to try to convince someone that life is worth living if they seem intent on believing that it isnt.
Personally, I might consider suicide if I was faced with torture or life imprisonment or a painful terminal illness. Otherwise I see life as continually interesting, though often difficult and upsetting. A thousand lives would not be enough to explore all the things Id like to.
Of course the present society is depressing, and threatens to get even worse if we dont manage to do something about it. So do something about it, instead of moaning about how your right to life (theres no such thing) is being taken from you and swallowing that Steiner-Gaia hogwash in an effort to find some meaning.
“The thing that endures, that gives value to life, is comradeship, loyalty, bravery, magnanimity, love, the relations of people in direct communication with each other. From this comes the beauty of life, its tragedy and its meaning, and from nowhere else (Rexroth).
“In a society that has abolished every adventure, the only adventure that remains is to abolish that society (May 1968 graffito). Thats a rhetorical oversimplification there are still quite a few other possible adventures within the interstices of the system but you get the idea.
Heres an excerpt from Rexroths autobiography, describing his experiences as a World War II conscientious objector working in a psychiatric ward:
The psychotic, to my mind, means business, while after youve done a certain amount of counseling with a neurotic, you feel like saying, “Oh, for Gods sake, go out and get a job. Have something happen in your life.” I once took out on my back porch a girl who was coming to me for counseling and said, “You see that woman next door? She is a scarcely literate Irish woman. Her husband is an alcoholic. One son is feeble-minded. Another son is a tail gunner flying out of North Africa. The other son is a rifleman with Patton, who believes in killing as many people as possible on both sides. Her mother is senile and incontinent. If all these things were happening to you, you wouldnt be here talking to me. You wouldnt have time to be neurotic. You need something to happen to you. You need to do something to act.” The girl, incidentally, did act and get “well” shortly.
I dont mean to equate you with that neurotic girl, but simply to stress that there are lots of possibilities. Its up to you to take some initiatives, instead of waiting for something good to happen. The fact that your mother did not improve like you had hoped does not mean that people cannot fundamentally change their lives. Many do, every day. I dont mean that all their problems are miraculously solved, but that they learn how to deal with what previously seemed like intolerable problems.
Im unimpressed and bored with people who are constantly indulging in extravagant, apocalyptic alternatives. The choice is not always between “climbing a mountain and doing nothing. A lot of possibilities are much simpler, but they get drowned out by the spiritual melodramas that people create for themselves.
Have you tried Zen practice, for example? I dont claim that its a cure-all, but its certainly more effective than reading a lot of books or speculating on the nature of man and the universe for getting down to basics. Who am I? What am I doing here? What are my real choices? What things are important, what not? Some problems (e.g. our present social conditions) remain and still need to be dealt with. But others, whether petty personal frustrations or dramatic “existential dilemmas, tend to fade away as you settle into paying attention to whats happening right now.
You speculate about the split in the western mind and hypothesize about using the human body as a means to a resolution. Well, start with your own. Instead of yacking about seeking a place to stand like Archimedes, try just sitting.
If you think thats too much of a challenge and prefer to kill yourself, bon voyage.
[He thanked me for the salutary “kick in the ass.”]
Anarchism and primitivism
[Response to an anarcho-syndicalist upset by the rabidly primitivist tendencies that were then flourishing within the anarchist scene tendencies which are still all too present, but which seem to have faded somewhat in recent years.]
I share your concern about this phenomenon. But Id like to make the following points:
1) Part of the problem, or the origin of the problem, lies in anarchism itself. The largely ideological character of anarchism (fixation on one-dimensional Manichean oppositions between absolutist concepts like Freedom vs. Authority, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Centralization vs. Decentralization, etc.) has meant that the anarchist movement has always been chock full of quackery and mysticism of every sort. I dont mean that those eccentricities have always been bad (they form part of the countercultural stew that in many cases has actually been much more significant and innovative than the orthodox anarchist movement); but that since being an anarchist has generally required nothing more than being in favor of total freedom and other such vaguenesses, virtually any crackpot who wants to has always been able to claim to be one. As long as the orthodox anarchists accept this ideological terrain (particularly if they fear to upset anarchist unity), it is difficult for them to contest the various extremisms that constantly crop up, because these latter can always seem to be simply more radical, more authentic forms of the essential principles of anarchism (e.g., if being anarchist means that youre opposed to the State above all else, what could be further away from the State than a hunter-gatherer society?). This is why Marx and the situationists, in their different ways, explicitly avoided identifying with any ideal to be realized, but stressed a continually self-superseding engagement with the real movement that is suppressing existing conditions.
2) To a great extent these delirious forms develop because they speak to issues or feelings that the radical movement has failed to confront. (I made a similar point apropos of what I saw as the situationists blindspot re religion.) A movement that can only endlessly rehash musty councilist or anarcho-syndicalist dogmas (however many kernels of truth the latter may contain) is not enough. People sense that there are other things to life, and they will seek spokespeople who address those concerns, be they issues of culture, everyday life, spiritual experiences, ecology, or nature.
3) I suspect that any sort of de facto united front against primitivism would not come to much. If for no other reason than the fact that any primarily defensive movement has already conceded the terrain and the initiative to the enemy and therefore generally loses the battle (like the people who focus obsessively on combatting neofascists, and end up accomplishing little more than giving the latter more of the publicity they thrive on). I think its appropriate to attack bullshit wherever and in whatever form it appears; but you have to be careful not to get too caught up in defining yourself as Anti-X, not to see any particular form as the Number-One Enemy that has to be opposed at all cost.
4) Im not interested in taking part in an ongoing discussion of this issue. Having made my original attack on technophobes in The Joy of Revolution and now the recent followup with Filiss [The Poverty of Primitivism], I intend to move on to other things. However I would be pleased to be informed of any new developments (copies of critiques you publish or of notable primitivist responses, etc.).
Critique of Theft magazine
[Upon receiving a copy of “Theft” magazine (Melbourne, Australia) with a request for comments.]
I dont have time to comment on Theft #2 in any detail. The most notable criticism I have is that the last chapter is sometimes rather simplistic. While I think its fine to recommend that people seek pursuits that are enjoyable and satisfying to them, it seems to me rather silly to declare that life should be perpetual ecstasy etc. This kind of should be amounts to little more than that you think it would be nice if things were that way. Its ultimately pretty meaningless, like saying that insects “should have the right to live freely without being eaten by birds. Its a false reasoning which you have probably picked up from Vaneigem. He rightly criticizes traditional leftisms overemphasis on sacrificing for the cause, but then flips into an equally unjustified opposite conclusion the pleasure is the supreme criterion for everything, and then to the even more absurd implication that a successful revolution will somehow magically produce endless unalloyed pleasure.
Again, I think its good that you encourage people to reexamine their lives, to reduce addictive consumership, and to make space for relaxation and reflection. But you have to be careful not to be too rigid in your recommendations. The more you consume, the less you live makes a good graffiti, it conveys a good general point. But it shouldnt be taken too literally, as if it were a precise scientific formula. In your SHIT [“Self Health Index Tester”] percentage test, for example, you more or less equate the more of yourself is actually yours (a rather vague notion in any case) with lower SHIT percentages. This amounts to an inverse economic fetishization, a sort of anti-economic puritanism, as if enjoyment was always inversely proportional to the degree of economic taint. Actually, of course, in many cases an activity that creates profit for someone may nevertheless be more enjoyable than another activity that puristically avoids the market. The best things in life are not always free, even if they should be. If you frequently present this kind of over-simplified formula, people with enough sense to know better will not take you seriously regarding the many other areas where you have valid points to make.
Its also important to resist the temptation to be too specific. Its good to give a few examples to give people a clearer idea of what youre talking about. But if you fall into the positivist trap you end up trivializing your points. Many of our problems do not have easy solutions. One person in one situation may be better off to quit his job and try to get by in a different way. Another person in another situation might be better off to get a job rather than spending his life half starved scrounging in garbage cans and living in the streets. The choice involves a lot of factors (does he have a family? what kind of jobs are available? what sort of social welfare is available if he doesnt work? how risky are the alternative illegal expedients he might use? etc.) that are more complex than simply declaring that work time is bad and free time is good. Part of being genuinely antiauthoritarian involves recognizing that the ultimate solution to the social question involves leaving people to figure out their own solutions to many of their problems.
In this context, I would say that although your pamphlet contains many valid points, the general format strikes me as somewhat too similar to ordinary publicity collages of slogans and ads that add up to an overwhelming barrage of frantic bits of advice: DO THIS AND YOULL FEEL GREAT! AVOID DOING THAT, ITS ALIENATING! . . . To take just one example, you say Day dreaming subverts the world! But you could just as justifiably have said “Day dreaming helps preserve alienated society (by providing a psychological safety valve). Try to resist the temptation to rigidly separate things into Good and Bad. Most things are much more subtle and complex, they contain different aspects, they may even become transformed into their opposites. Its usually better to examine things as calmly as possible, so as to foster peoples own reflective thinking. Have the faith that if you have really said something relevant to their lives, they themselves will figure out some appropriate conclusion without having simplistic formulas shouted at them.
I realize that in other parts of your pamphlet you do go into many of these issues in somewhat more nuanced detail. But I think you will see what I mean about these general tendencies.
Critique of CrimethInc
[Upon receiving a copy of the CrimethInc book “Days of War, Nights of Love” with a request for comments. When I replied, I was under the erroneous impression that the guy who sent it to me was one of the authors.]
Thanks also for the CrimethInc book. In answer to your request for comments, I dont have time to go into any great detail, but here are some brief impressions:
On the positive side, the book is well written and communicates a number of good points. In this regard its more interesting than most anarchist writings, which usually just repeat the same few basic ideas for the thousandth time. And it is evident that your ideas are closely linked to actual experiences when you talk about the feel of freedom, the reader senses that you know what youre talking about based on your own experiments and adventures.
It seems to me, however, that there are also some criticizable aspects.
Despite your cautions against ideology, your book is riddled with simplistic, unqualified declarations. In some places you are admirably open and modest, but in others you come on like you have definitive answers to practically everything from the meaning of life to whether people should wear deodorant or not.
Many of your descriptions of radical struggles are rather simplistic. One minor example out of many: To describe the Paris Commune as a sort of continuous anarchist festival for a few months, before the usual spoilsports regained control and slaughtered everybody (p. 83) is a really gross falsification of reality. Even if there was a festive aspect that it is important to acknowledge, the Commune was also filled with suffering, self-sacrifice, patriotism, compromises, confusions, betrayals, sordid political intrigues, conflicting ideologies. And part of the interest and importance of the Commune is precisely that its repressors were not the usual spoilsports i.e. the relation of forces and classes was complicated and in some ways unprecedented, the people involved were not totally clear about who were friends and who were enemies. Readers who know nothing about the Commune will get an erroneous and trivialized impression of what went on, while those who actually know something about it may conclude that your social analyses are not to be trusted that youre presenting things very selectively in order to reinforce your ideology.
Just as you present rebellious actions as almost purely GOOD, you tend to present the system as almost purely BAD. In reality, just as most revolts and radical movements have been full of mistakes and limitations, many aspects of the present society are positive, or at least potentially so. The very fact that humanity has survived to this point demonstrates this. We all have a natural tendency to define our perspectives in these good vs. bad terms it makes it easier to drum up enthusiasm for struggle but when it gets too simplistic it falsifies reality and thus actually hinders any serious struggle.
There is also a recurring moralizing simplisticness. It is good that you recognize the element of necessary hypocrisy and compromise in our lives. But a lot of your agonizing over whether this or that practice is hypocritical is, to me, a phony, nonexistent issue. I do not view my options primarily in terms of whether I am implicated in capitalism, as if that were some sort of sin to be avoided at all cost. Nor, conversely, do I consider that I am accomplishing anything very notable if I avoid some such compromise, as if radical struggle were a matter of more and more people gradually becoming less and less implicated in the prevailing system. That perspective is just as simplistic as pacifists feeling that we will arrive at peace by more and more people becoming pacifists (while failing to confront economic and other factors that engender wars despite most peoples preference for peace). While I salute the sense of experimentation of your friend who tried to live off garbage pickings instead of buying food, it does not seem to me that such choices have much to do with radical strategy. If you take May 68, for example, the outcome hinged almost entirely on whether or not the workers occupying their factories would take that one additional step of restarting up necessary production and distribution under their own control. In such a context, whether this or that worker had previously been implicated in the system can be seen as largely irrelevant. (It is true, of course, that the workers previous habits of working, consuming, TV watching, etc., undoubtedly contributed to their hesitancy to take that final step. But thats not at all the same thing as saying that the way to overcome capitalism is for people to withdraw from it as much as possible.)
I think that you could have made most of your points in far less space (a pamphlet rather than a book).
There is also an impression of excessive self-importance. I realize that your opening bit about the spectre of CrimethInc is at least partially ironic, but there still is a sense that you CrimethInc agents believe you are really hot stuff, a pole of international subversion, and that you are trying to mythologize yourselves (so people will have an image of cool CrimethInc underground adventurers like they used to about Che Guevara or the Weathermen, etc.). Without judging whether your present or potential importance justifies such posing, I think its usually more important to go in the other direction, to demystify yourselves and the intimidating images people have of radical underground heavies, rather than building them up.
I apologize for not giving more detailed examples of what I mean. But I think that this should suffice to give you a general idea.
As it happens, a group in Australia recently sent me an issue of their Theft magazine (its also online at www.theftmag.com) and asked me for comments. Although you will no doubt find some differences between yourselves and them, I think there are also a number of commonalities. In any case, I am appending my remarks to them because I think that some of the more general points also apply to your book.
[Here followed a copy of the above critique of “Theft” magazine. The “theftmag” link no longer works.]
[The correspondent and other contacts subsequently posted this response on various online forums. It has also been reproduced at the libcom website.]
Classical music recommendations
[Response to a correspondent interested in learning about classical music, who asked if I had any recommendations to get him started.]
Here are some of my favorites:
MEDIEVAL & RENAISSANCE MUSIC (various collections)
SCARLATTI, Harpsichord Pieces
J.S. BACH, Solo Cello Suites, Harpsichord Partitas, Brandenburg Concertos, Concerto for Two Violins
MOZART, Haffner Symphony, Jupiter Symphony, The Marriage of Figaro (my favorite opera)
BEETHOVEN, Piano Sonatas, Kreutzer Sonata (violin-piano), Archduke Trio, Symphonies (Eroica, Fifth, Ninth)
BERLIOZ, Harold in Italy
DEBUSSY, Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer, Piano Pieces
SATIE, Piano Pieces
STRAVINSKY, The Rite of Spring
PROKOFIEV, Piano Concertos 1, 2 & 3
ORFF, Carmina Burana
BRECHT-WEILL, Threepenny Opera (original German version)
It does make some difference which performers. But most of the ones you will come across should be pretty good. The best way to start, since there’s so much and you won’t know till you begin to get into it what sort of things you may like, is to check out recordings from the library. Besides the above, try various general selections that are, or purport to be, among the best (“Great Recordings of the Century” etc.). If you find you don’t care for one composer, don’t worry about it, try another. Eventually some of it may grow on you as you get more familiar with it. Bon appetit!
Reformism and electoral politics (I)
[“So are you arguing for a revolutionary day when we abolish political representation and private property, and that it is futile to push for an authentic ballot initiative system within the current context?”]
I am not saying that such efforts are not worth engaging in. I am simply pointing out that by themselves such changes will not suffice. In Chapter 2 of The Joy of Revolution I tried to examine the pros and cons of various types of reformist projects. At the risk of oversimplifying, I can sum it up by saying that (1) it is necessary to work for reforms (or improvements), and (2) reforms are not enough. Some reforms are relatively clear, others are more dubious because they imply involving oneself in so many compromises, most are a complex mixture. You have to decide where to put your energy, considering both your own passions and your own judgment of how some particular issue relates to the society and social struggles as a whole.
I will soon be sending out some excerpts from that chapter relating to electoral politics. You will note that although my general drift is rather anti-electoral, it is not rigidly or absolutely so (as is the usual anarchist line). I am not saying Dont vote, or Dont campaign for “progressive issues or politicians. I am simply saying: Know what you are doing, be aware of the drawbacks as well as the advantages of whatever actions you take; and of the fact that there are many other tactics, some of which may be more effective and more healthy (because they are more direct and less encumbered with hypocrisy etc.). . . . As long as enormous economic differences continue to exist in the society as a whole (so that millionaires can manipulate the publics views through advertising, or influence elected officials so as to prevent a given measure from being enforced even if it is passed, etc.), it usually will not make much difference if people are provided a token opportunity to vote on a few more issues.
Reformism and electoral politics (II)
[Response to a correspondent upset about my pre-election message about the limits of electoral politics: “I understand the limits of the electoral process, but leaning so far left as to be left out is not an option. The rich are using the electoral process to run over us again and again: in San Francisco we have props R and N and A, and we MUST get out and vote against them or there will be hell to pay the day after. So sending an e-mail that gives us 5 good reasons to stay home and throw our votes away is a rather reckless stance to take, no matter how hip it may feel. Save it for after weve all gotten out and voted to save our sorry skins one more time.”]
I dont believe there was anything in my statement that said Dont vote. On the contrary, I explicitly (though briefly) dissociated myself from the typical anarchist position (which is indeed to urge people not to vote). I simply pointed out the limits of putting all your eggs in this one extremely rigged basket, which is one of the main ways that peoples attention is diverted from other tactics and other possibilities.
Please note also that the message I mailed out was only a few excerpts from a much longer text, The Joy of Revolution. Heres another passage from Chapter 2 of that text:
In the name of realism, reformists limit themselves to pursuing “winnable” objectives, yet even when they win some little adjustment in the system it is usually offset by some other development at another level. This doesnt mean that reforms are irrelevant, merely that they are insufficient. We have to keep resisting particular evils, but we also have to recognize that the system will keep generating new ones until we put an end to it. To suppose that a series of reforms will eventually add up to a qualitative change is like thinking we can get across a ten-foot chasm by a series of one-foot hops.
Social issues are complexly interrelated. People must be encouraged to carefully examine these interrelations, and to think and act for themselves instead of merely reacting to an unending succession of urgent issues the spectacle presents to them, or the system will never be changed.
Reformism and electoral politics (III)
[I am struggling to find anything out there that explicitly links social work and the SI and wondered if you might be able to please point me in any directions?]
I dont think I can be of much help to you. The SI, and most other situationist-influenced people, did not say much about social work as such. I think you could roughly sum up their view as being that it might be better than nothing, but that it probably had little to do with revolutionary social change. There is a similar ambiguity regarding labor unions or electoral politics or reformism in general. My own view is that such things may serve some positive purposes, but that it is important to recognize their limitations. See, for example, my various remarks on electoral politics and on the Trump election; and on various types of reformist activities. But note that those are my own views other situs have expressed different views on these issues. There are no easy answers here you just have to figure out what types of social engagement you feel are meaningful while bearing in mind their limitations. . . . But I suggest that you not worry too much about being recuperated. Just be aware that under most circumstances (except during very rare radical situations like May 68) it is not possible to do many activities that would be purely revolutionary, that would not involve compromises with the existing system. Dont treat these questions in some rigid ideological way, as if the point was to avoid any contamination with anything that isnt pure in this sense. Just look around and use a little common sense to figure out what seems best to do in whatever situation you happen to find yourself, while remaining aware of the various possible downsides.
The Frankfurt School
[Response to a query about what the situationists thought of the “Frankfurt School” (Adorno, Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, etc.), and what I think of them. I expressed only my own view, but my impression is that the situationists felt much the same way.]
Very briefly (we can talk at more length if you’re in Berkeley sometime), I don’t think the Frankfort School is essential reading. There’s no doubt a lot of meaty stuff there, but it’s significantly diluted by its academic orientation, which tends to reinforce/encourage studying these things for their own sake, as an academic game. Which is why the FS is so popular among academics and others who want to avoid practical decisions and commitment. This is verified by the fact that the FS people themselves had relatively little engagement, even if their rhetoric sometimes verged on it. When something like May 68 came along, I don’t think any of them had much idea of what it might imply, even if some of the participants thought they were fulfilling the FS insights.
I’ve seen a lot of people get lost in such swamps, concluding that it is necessary to seriously study them (or Marx, for that matter), and never coming up with any significant fruit. You have to weigh the pluses and minuses. There are things you could learn from the FS, but there are also things you can learn from Gary Snyder or Paul Goodman or Rexroth or Mumford . . . or Homer or Herodotus or Gibbon or Montaigne or Lao Tzu . . . . Part of it depends on your own tastes what draws you, how do you feel after reading a particular author. After I read Debord, I’m charged up, full of ideas, having learned lots of good implicit lessons (noting how he addressed some issue, what he left out . . .). After I read Adorno, I’m mostly just bored and depressed. For you it may be different.
Reply to a Midwestern liberal
[Reply to an old friend of my family who lives in a rather conservative region of the country. “I have read with great interest your autobiography. . . . We had not anticipated that anarchy is where you are at.’ Well have to give some thought to that belief, since we just dont know much about it. We consider ourselves pretty much garden-variety liberals who still espouse political democracy. One obvious problem is that the U.S. can no longer fall into that category and has become sort of a corporate oligarchy. I do feel that capitalism is a failed system and needs to be replaced with a more just process which doesnt reward the rich and penalize the poor. However, I guess that I have looked at the human race (6-plus billion of us now) and thought that some sort of governmental structure would be necessary to at least maintain some semblance of order — preferably a world government with total abolition of nation states. Therefore, I need to know a lot more about anarchy — perhaps you can supply some especially good reading references.”]
“Anarchism” is not exactly where Ive been at since 1970, when I discovered the situationists (who, among other things, criticized anarchists for tending to be too rigidly and dogmatically attached to the ideals of that particular ideology). But its close enough for preliminary purposes.
As for how “practical” an anarchist (or situationist, or libertarian socialist, or whatever it might called) society might be, it should be understood that it would not, as popularly believed, be “anything goes” or “against all organization,” but merely against hierarchical organization. It could be seen as simply the fullest, most authentic form of democracy, democracy extended to the maximum in all areas of life.
But such an extension would ultimately require also going beyond capitalism, inasmuch as one persons or groups “ownership” of basic needs of life is obviously very undemocratic. As long as such an economic system is allowed to continue, it naturally tends to maintain its unequal power and to undermine any real democracy due to the disproportionate influence that money wields (e.g. by manipulating news through ownership of media, by controlling political candidates through bribes or “contributions,” and by countless other forms of pressure and grossly unequal “competition”).
Furthermore, capitalism cannot be overcome merely by “nationalizing” wealth, because this merely tends to replace individual capitalist companies by one big capitalist company: the State, which generates its own new types of ruling classes: bureaucracies, with their own vested interests.
An anarchist, or genuinely socialist or communist, society (as opposed to the existing societies that have very falsely appropriated the latter terms) would thus not only be noncapitalist, but also nonstatist. The State would be replaced by various types and levels of grassroots, “bottom-up” democratic organization, with the larger-scale or “upper” levels being carefully limited and controlled by the “lower” levels (e.g. via delegates with very limited power, carefully mandated to deal with specific issues in specific ways, as opposed to “representatives” who have the power to pass hundreds of laws on any and ever topic and stay in power for years before they can be replaced).
This is indeed a big and very complex project, and one that may never happen. But in my view its the only one that actually has a chance to work in the long run. Which is not to say that other, more modest “reformist” projects are not also important. But I think that the latter can most accurately be seen as merely defensive holding actions. To once and for all get beyond the system that keeps generating all these “abuses,” I think that a more fundamental change is necessary.
As for “good reading references,” if I may be so immodest, I think one of the best is my own magnum opus, The Joy of Revolution. It covers all sorts of areas, the pros and cons of all sorts of different political tactics and strategies, with some speculations about how a liberated society might function.
Understanding Debord dialectically (I)
[Response to a lengthy series of questions about Debord and the situationists.]
Your questions are rather long and involved. I hope you will excuse me for not trying to answer them all in detail, which would be rather time-consuming. Instead, I am going to take a little different angle and just try to make one very general point on your whole orientation.
It seems to me that your questions reflect what I consider to be a basic (and very common) misconception: namely, taking the spectacle (and various other concepts e.g. the subject, the commodity, capital) as rigidly fixed logical categories. If you do this, you automatically run into all sorts of apparent dilemmas, or even paradoxes Does Debord believe the spectator is totally dominated by the spectacle, or only partially? If totally, how can revolt ever happen? If only partially, how come he is always phrasing matters in such seemingly totalistic ways?
I believe that such problems lie in the way you are relating to the book. (For simplicitys sake Ill refer to you, but please dont take it personally. Your questions and concerns are quite reasonable, and certainly more serious than most peoples half-baked reactions to situationist theory. The same criticisms would apply to virtually everyone who discusses Debord.)
In my opinion, Debords book like Marxs writings, and dialectical theory in general is generally misunderstood when it is viewed objectively, as if it were an ordinary description of reality, using the ordinary categories of thought. Instead, I believe that it can be rightly understood only by being used. Not used in an imitative, rote way like a cookbook or a car repair manual, but used nonetheless in a practical way.
Consider the famous May 68 graffiti, Be realistic, demand the impossible.
If you look at that phrase from an ordinary logical commonsense point of view, it seems like nonsense. By definition, the impossible can never happen, so how can it be realistic to demand it? Probably that was indeed how it seemed to many people who first saw it on a wall back in 1968. But many other people did understand it because they were then involved in practical-critical actions. Because of that involvement, they could then see that the usual, seemingly practical notion that one should limit oneself to striving for what is “realistically possible” was actually part of the problem, in that it presumed the existence of the system that actually needed to be fundamentally transformed. The things desired by the rebels were indeed impossible in the context of the present system, but they might become possible if one were to get beyond that system. And to a certain extent, even while the system persisted, the mere action of opposing the system already created a new mental space, liberating people’s imaginations so that they could envision things that would previously have seemed impossible. (The same point, with the same ironic playing with the apparent paradox, is made by Oscar Wilde in the epigram to Chapter 4 of The Joy of Revolution.)
Another similar graffiti from the same time: In a society that has destroyed all adventure, the only possible adventure lies in the destruction of the society.
Here again, if you take this too woodenly literally it seems like a self-contradiction (one adventure remains possible, so clearly all adventure has not been rendered impossible). But if you lighten up and take the slogan just a little more loosely, theres no problem understanding what is being said.
These examples may be a bit simplistic, but I think that much the same applies to many misconceptions of the theses in Debords book, even if his points are usually more complex and subtle.
At one point you say: It seems to me that the very nature of Debords descriptions of spectacle, subject and situation effectively rule out any kind of interaction between these two figures (spectacle and its opposition) that might allow the generation of something new.
If that were really the case, Debords theory would be stupid and absurd and very few people would have paid any attention to it. In reality, Debords descriptions deal with scarcely anything but such interactions. They are precisely what is being examined and analyzed in so many different ways in all his works.
Again, you say: If something is held up by the spectacle, is it not spectacle itself?
The answer is that, looked at from one angle, it may be, but from another it may not be.
And again: the spectacle and the subjects within it are effectively locked into a vicious circle.
That may be so if you look at them purely schematically, as if it were a mathematical formula that said A causes B, and B causes A. But you must keep in mind that both the spectacle and the various subjects are fuzzier than that, more complicated, more variable and changeable and multidimensional. Thesis #3, for example, says that the spectacle presents itself both as the society itself and as a part of that society. Many other theses look at it from many other seemingly mutually contradictory angles. There is enough continuity that it makes sense to refer to the spectacle (so that instead of a chaotic collection of disparate phenomena its more a matter of analyzing various developments and mutations of a single, more or less coherent underlying social tendency), yet enough variables that you need to be aware that the spectacle is not one distinct, eternal thing.”
Again, you say: I think that the theses like this one, which crop up throughout the book, show that the spectacle must penetrate the spectator. By penetrate I mean to suggest something other than a totally resistant subject — a subject that is not invulnerable to the effect of the environment. The basis of a Situationist refusal of spectacle is the primacy of a subject that is in its essence absolutely distinct from the structure that constrains its possibilities.
Why absolutely distinct? (Couldnt it just be partially different?) Why does a subject have to be totally resistant? (Couldnt it just be somewhat rebellious in certain circumstances and relatively subservient in others?) Dont you see that youre just painting yourself in a corner with these extreme statements about fantasized pure entities? Water can flood a “whole country without necessarily turning that country into 100% water. People can resist the flooding, or try to stay above the water by swimming or getting in a boat, without necessarily being totally resistant to water. As a matter of fact, far from being absolutely distinct from water, peoples bodies are composed largely of water, and they would soon die if they were deprived of it. This may seem like a silly example I dont claim that the analogy is exact but Im trying to make you see that the problem lies largely in the way youre posing it this fantasy of pure, absolutely antagonistic entities.
That sort of manicheanism is inherited from religion and from political ideologies such as anarchism that unconsciously carry on the same rigid dualistic point of view. The idea, for example, that humanity is inherently good while something else (the devil, capitalism, the state, the spectacle) is totally evil. In reality things are usually much more blurry. The spectacle is not some totally evil entity, it is simply a social-historical process that happens to have gotten out of hand in recent centuries (or more precisely, it is a symptom of the extreme development of another such process: capitalism). Theres nothing inherently wrong with people passively looking at things (as if active was always good, and looking and passive were always bad). Debord like Hegel and Marx before him is simply using very trenchant terms/concepts to make clear, incisive points. He is not trying to construct a philosophy or to provide a “scientific description of reality.
These remarks dont answer your questions, they merely amount to saying that things are more complex than they may seem if you stick too rigidly to Debords words (treating them as a spectacle, in fact). But I hope they may help you to step back (and/or move forward) and get a little different perspective as you try to deal with those questions.
For example, its true that Debord in SOS [The Society of the Spectacle] is a bit more “optimistic” re the possibilities of revolution, and more pessimistic in his later Comments [Comments on the Society of the Spectacle]. But even in the latter book, if you read carefully you will see that he doesn’t see things quite so totalistically as it may appear at first sight. I think the passages you refer to that seem to indicate a “total” defeat are more a manner of speaking. In the broad context, there has indeed been a major defeat in that many possibilities open a few decades ago are now (more or less) closed (for the moment). But here and there in Comments there are hints that this defeat may not be definitive, that the system also still has its own serious contradictions. Even if the integrated spectacle “permeates all reality that doesnt mean it totally and permanently dominates everything or everyone.
The point, I think, is that this issue can best be debated in a looser, more open manner, bringing into consideration all sorts of data and experiences, rather than getting caught up in tedious academic-ideological debates over such vaguenesses as the nature of the subject or how Debords position on the subject as a generative process differs from Althussers, etc.
The same thing could be said about the “psychological” issues you mention. They are real issues, and you can find lots of fruitful insights in Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life and in Reichs early works. Voyers brief text on Reich is interesting (though I dont think much of Voyers other writings), and I discuss some related issues in Double-Reflection and the Case Study and in parts of The Joy of Revolution. But I suggest that you not take seemingly opposed viewpoints too seriously e.g. fantasizing a split between the supposedly more Reichian-Vaneigemist King Mobbers and the supposedly more rigid or dogmatic Debordists. (As is often the case in such splits, the real issues were to a great extent more banal see the SIs account in I.S. #12: The Latest Exclusions.)
By all means, in this examination do include close study of Debords writings. But I suggest that you take them just a bit more lightly than you seem to have been doing, bearing in mind that they were written by a real and very lively human being who assumed readers who were also lively, experiencing beings, and who therefore (even if he doesnt always say so as explicitly as does Vaneigem) always assumes that life, revolt, etc. are always in play, despite surface appearances. His seemingly pessimistic statements are to some extent just jabs to arouse people about some issue or other. Wake up! Get real! We lost in that battle over there, stop pretending we didnt! Pull yourself together and lets figure out where we go from here (taking into account the following factors . . .)! Thats really what Debords writings are always doing, no matter how abstruse and complex they may seem to be.
Understanding Debord dialectically (II)
[Response to a query about Debord and the situationists by an admirer of academic thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-Luc Nancy.]
I appreciate your apparently serious engagement with these questions, so although I dont have time to answer you in detail, I am going to try to respond to a few of your points.
Maybe its just me, but there seems to be a very absolutist tendency in these [situationist] perspectives, insofar as any spectacle is bad no matter what. Every spectacle is to be abandoned. This, precisely, is what Nancy points out is impossible (this is how he questions the Situationists adherence to a metaphysics of deeper truths and unveiling authenticity, at the expense of thinking through appearances as such).
The situationists do not have the absolutist perspective you are attributing to them. They do not think that every spectacle is bad or to be abandoned. The fact that Nancy thinks they do only indicates his ignorance about them. Quoting out of context a few lyrical phrases from situationist works does not demonstrate anything about their fantasized metaphysics. You have to look at such phrases in their context, which in most cases is quite concrete.
Its a question of really understanding what practical revolutionary action means when every attempt is reduced to spectacles (I think this is what Debord is intuiting when he writes of the constantly recurring possibilities of alienation arising within the very struggle against alienation and thus the need to tackle this dialectically).
Debord does not say that every attempt is reduced to spectacles but that the system tends to do this. This does not mean that all such attempts are doomed to defeat, but rather that we need to examine the numerous ways in which the system has defeated or perverted such attempts, so as to discover methods that will be more effective. I.e., as you say, we need to tackle these questions dialectically. The Society of the Spectacle is concerned with nothing other than doing this.
Again, isnt the most efficient situation that Debord constructed the ones in the form of his written work and the archive of movie footage and scripts and the philosophical roots that underlie them?
No. The most significant situation that Debord constructed (in collaboration, of course, with countless other people in various ways and to various degrees) was the May 1968 revolt. Incidentally, during that same period, Baudrillard, far from having any idea of what was going on, was a Maoist (i.e. a Stalinist), and Adorno proved totally clueless (shocked and upset at that notion that people might actually attempt to put into practice all those insightful ideas of his, he called the police).
My biggest question is where you might point me specifically as to the strategies that would be contrasted to philosophies so far all I see is a severe chastising of the society, an attempt to prove that commuting time, popular movies, etc. are all evil.
The articles in the SI Anthology are filled with concrete examples. To take just one, look at Our Goals and Methods in the Strasbourg Scandal. Where is the philosophy in that article? It is a concrete examination of a very concrete and very successful attempt to undermine the institution in which people like Adorno, Baudrillard and Nancy are so comfortably ensconced. We want ideas to become dangerous again. We cannot be accepted with the spinelessness of a false eclectic interest, as if we were Sartres, Althussers, Aragons or Godards.
Im asking myself what real intervention would be because I agree that there are modes of inauthenticity that can be changed, modes of consumption/leisure that can be liberated into more creative/transformative spheres.
It is good that you are asking this question. But to find the answer, youre going to have to go further and start experimenting with such interventions. To do so, you will have to step outside your usual notions and usual habits. And you will have to have the courage to risk making a fool of yourself. Its the only way you will really learn what all this stuff means.
That, at any rate, has been my experience. (See How I Became a Situationist.)
The situationists on economic crises
[Response to a query about the extent to which Debord subscribed to the notion that capitalism had solved its objective, or economic contradictions.]
Debord (and the situs in general) did not believe that capitalism had definitively resolved all of its contradictions. They pointed out that it had partially or temporarily resolved some of them e.g., objectively through New Deal-type state intervention that served as a corrective to the previously unregulated economic anarchy, and subjectively through the development of the spectacle and the general reorientation toward consumer concerns (see SOS #43).
Contrary to the ignorant and mendacious pseudocritiques by Dauvé [Gilles Dauvé, a.k.a. Jean Barrot] and others, it is clear that Debord was quite knowledgeable about Marxian economic theory, even if he didnt yap about it all the time or clutter up his writings with lengthy undigested excerpts from Capital.
In SOS #82 he ridicules the notion that economic crises are scientifically predictable, and in SOS #88 he notes that, predictable or not, such crises alone will not suffice to bring about a revolution. In SIA p. 228 [Situationist International Anthology, new edition pp. 291-292] he ridicules the ultraleftists who are locked into this fetish (he is talking about peoples retrospective debate on what caused May 68):
Overcome by their shock in May, all the researchers of historical nothingness have admitted that no one had in any way foreseen what occurred. We must acknowledge a sort of exception to this in the case of all the sects of resurrected Bolsheviks, of whom it is fair to say that for the last thirty years they have not for one instant ceased heralding the imminence of the revolution of 1917. But they too were badly mistaken: this was not at all 1917 and in any case they were hardly equal to Lenin. As for the remains of the old non-Trotskyist ultraleft, they still needed at least a major economic crisis. They made any revolutionary moment contingent on its return, and saw nothing coming. Now that they have admitted that there was a revolutionary crisis in May they have to prove that some sort of invisible economic crisis was taking place in early 1968. As clueless and complacent as always, they are earnestly working on this problem, producing diagrams of increases in prices and unemployment. For them an economic crisis is no longer that terribly conspicuous objective reality that was so extensively experienced and described up through 1929, but rather a sort of eucharistic presence that is one of the foundations of their religion.
See also SIA 269-270 [new ed. 346-347].
I express the same point in Joy of Revolution (Public Secrets, pp. 11-12):
If history followed the complacent opinions of official commentators, there would never have been any revolutions. In any given situation there are always plenty of ideologists ready to declare that no radical change is possible. If the economy is functioning well, they will claim that revolution depends on economic crises; if there is an economic crisis, others will just as confidently declare that revolution is impossible because people are too busy worrying about making ends meet. The former types, surprised by the May 1968 revolt, tried to retrospectively uncover the invisible crisis that their ideology insists must have been there. The latter contend that the situationist perspective has been refuted by the worsened economic conditions since that time. Actually, the situationists simply noted that the widespread achievement of capitalist abundance had demonstrated that guaranteed survival was no substitute for real life. The periodic ups and downs of the economy have no bearing on that conclusion. The fact that a few people at the top have recently managed to siphon off a yet larger portion of the social wealth, driving increasing numbers of people into the streets and terrorizing the rest of the population lest they succumb to the same fate, makes the feasibility of a postscarcity society less evident; but the material prerequisites are still present. The economic crises held up as evidence that we need to lower our expectations are actually caused by over-production and lack of work. The ultimate absurdity of the present system is that unemployment is seen as a problem, with potentially labor-saving technologies being directed toward creating new jobs to replace the old ones they render unnecessary. The problem is not that so many people dont have jobs, but that so many people still do. We need to raise our expectations, not lower them.
See also SIA 332 [new ed. 423]:
While the Stalinist monster haunted working-class consciousness, capitalism was becoming bureaucratized and overdeveloped, resolving its internal crises and proudly proclaiming this new victory to be permanent. [i.e. the implication is that this resolution/victory is not permanent]
And SIA 337-338 [new ed. 430-431]:
The developing concentration of capitalism and the diversification of its global operation have given rise, on one hand, to the forced consumption of commodities produced in abundance, and on the other, to the control of the economy (and all of life) by bureaucrats who own the state; as well as to direct and indirect colonialism. But this system is far from having found a permanent solution to the incessant revolutionary crises of the historical epoch that began two centuries ago, for a new critical phase has opened: from Berkeley to Warsaw, from the Asturias to the Kivu, the system is being refuted and combated. . . . The factors involved in this historical problem are the rapid extension and modernization of the fundamental contradictions within the present system and between that system and human desires. The social force that has an interest in resolving these contradictions — and the only force that is capable of resolving them — is the mass of workers who are powerless over the use of their own lives, deprived of any control over the fantastic accumulation of material possibilities that they produce. Such a resolution has already been prefigured in the emergence of democratic workers councils that make all decisions for themselves. The only intelligent venture within the present imbecilized world is for this new proletariat to carry out this project by forming itself into a class unmediated by any leadership.
Here and there there are other similar statements to the effect that there are still contradictions of various sorts (not just economic) and that they will not be definitively resolved short of a revolution.
Translating Debord (I)
[Response to a reviewer of my translation of “The Society of the Spectacle” (“Anarchy” #61). I do not usually reply to reviews, but in this case the reviewer specifically asked me if I had any comments about his review, which I have reproduced here.]
Well, I think it’s misleading to contrast my translation with Nicholson-Smith’s as being a matter of “obscurity” versus “approachability.” As if the issue was purely one of understandability, and my version was an attempt to make the book easier to understand at any cost (“often making choices that are stripped of a subtlety that would evade and frustrate a first-time reader,” which makes it sound as if I were composing a Debord for Beginners à la Larry Law). Although I will admit that there are places where one can disagree with my particular rendering, my aim was to say exactly what Debord said, the way a literate English speaker would say it.
For a simple example, take the first sentence of the #5 that you quoted. The French reads:
Le spectacle ne peut être compris comme l’abus d’un monde de la vision, le produit des techniques de diffusion massive des images.
The B&R version is:
The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images.
Pretty literal but not necessarily accurate. N-S’s clarifies it somewhat:
The spectacle cannot be understood either as a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as a product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images.
His “deliberate distortion” is better than “abuse” (abus does not mean “abuse,” but something more like deception), but it’s still not totally accurate, as there is nothing about “deliberate” in the original (the latter gratuitous addition makes it seem more conspiratorial, whereas most of the spectacle’s working is blind, automatic functioning, not sinister plots). And N-S creates a false dichotomy (“either as a deliberate . . . or as a product . . .,” whereas the original clearly indicates that the second phrase is simply a restatement of the first (“comme l’abus d’un monde de la vision, le produit des techniques de diffusion massive des images” — Debord does not say “vision, ou comme le produit . . .”).
Here is my version:
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies.*
Rather “free,” I will admit. But I daresay it is a more accurate expression of what Debord actually says and means (as well as being more “readable” and more “accessible”). “Mere” is not in the original, but is added because that’s how we would say it in English (setting up the contrast with the second sentence — “it is not merely A, but something more profound: B”).
For another more detailed example, see the bottom of www.bopsecrets.org/recent/reviews.htm.
Incidentally, there is nothing “unusual” about my translating Weltanschauung as “worldview.” That’s the exact meaning. The reason Debord doesn’t do the same is that there is no French equivalent for the German term, as there is in English (French having trouble making such condensed nouns — it would have to say something like “view of the world,” which doesn’t have the same punch).
It is difficult to defend one’s own translation without seeming like a pretentious pedant, but I think that on the whole my translation is distinctly more accurate, as well as more clear and idiomatic, than the previous ones. If I hadn’t thought I could make significant improvements, I wouldn’t have bothered to do it.
[*A French friend subsequently called my attention to the fact that, while abuser does indeed mean “to deceive”, abus in this context means “excess” (in the sense of misusing or overdoing something). I have thus changed my translation to: “The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies.”]
Translating Debord (II)
[Response to a Hong Kong correspondent who is translating “The Society of the Spectacle” into Chinese, and who asked for any general pointers I might have.]
As for general pointers, you should check How Not To Translate Situationist Texts for a few examples of how I translate (as well as examples of what to avoid). In general, I suggest starting with a rather literal translation (just to make sure that each word or phrase is included and understood). Then carefully consider/investigate what the sentence means. Then step back and try to imagine how a literate Chinese person would express that meaning. When you have done that, then go back over the literal version to see if anything has been lost. If it has, you may need to rewrite your translation to incorporate that aspect, which may mean that it will sound a bit strange in Chinese. In some cases the best you can do is a somewhat awkward compromise. You must above all convey the meaning; but that meaning must be conveyed as far as possible in a reasonably fluent Chinese style. In most cases this will be possible, but it will require you to spend much more time and thought and experimentation. In some cases I spent several hours trying to figure out the best way to express some difficult sentence. Sometimes the best I could do was still not completely satisfactory. In other cases I finally arrived at what I consider to be a rather good rendering, as in the following sentence from thesis 178:
Dans cet espace mouvant du jeu, et des variations librement choisies des règles du jeu, l’autonomie du lieu peut se retrouver, sans réintroduire un attachement exclusif au sol, et par là ramener la réalité du voyage, et de la vie comprise comme un voyage ayant en lui-même tout son sens.
In this game’s space, and in the freely chosen variations of the game’s rules, the autonomy of place can be rediscovered without the reintroduction of an exclusive attachment to the land, thus bringing back the reality of the voyage and of life understood as a voyage which contains its entire meaning within itself. [Black & Red]
By virtue of the resulting mobile space of play, and by virtue of freely chosen variations in the rules of the game, the independence of places will be rediscovered without any new exclusive tie to the soil, and thus too the authentic journey will be restored to us, along with authentic life understood as a journey containing its whole meaning within itself. [Nicholson-Smith]
The ever-changing playing field of this new world and the freely chosen variations in the rules of the game will regenerate a diversity of local scenes that are independent without being insular. And this diversity will revive the possibility of authentic journeys journeys within an authentic life that is itself understood as a journey containing its whole meaning within itself. [Knabb]
If you know English well enough, I think you will see how my version avoids several awkwardnesses and unclarities of the previous versions. The middle portion (will regenerate a diversity of local scenes that are independent without being insular”) is not very literal, but I think that if you examine the original carefully, you will agree that it conveys Debord’s actual meaning both precisely and concisely.
In the great majority of cases you should stick closely to the literal sense. I give this example of an extreme case of not necessarily sticking to a literal version in order to remind you that what is ultimately important is to convey the meaning. Needless to say, I do not mean to alter or simplify the meaning in order to make it easier to understand.” I mean to find out for yourself what Debord means and to express that meaning in literate Chinese.
If you find some problematic passage, feel free to mention it to me, and I will try to specify the meaning or to explain why I chose to translate it as I did.
Translating Debord (III)
[Response to a message by John McHale suggesting a number of possible revisions of my translation of Debords Complete Cinematic Works.]
Thanks very much for your critiques and suggestions re CCW. It is always gratifying to find people reading one’s work so closely and carefully!
This said, only four of them convinced me to modify my version. I corrected two typos that you pointed out (pp. 5 and 149) and added two new notes (re Swift and Wordsworth). I already knew about the Wordsworth but had not thought to mention it. I had searched in vain for the Swift quote, misled by Debord’s erroneous reference to an essay rather than to Gulliver’s Travels. A couple of your other points had already been noted in my online Errata and corrected in the online versions of the texts.
Of your many other remarks, some call for no response, e.g. when you cite a published translation of a quote but I have used another or composed an alternative version that I find preferable. In one or two cases, you are mistaken. E.g. cynisme (p. 134) in French has a slightly broader connotation than in English — it can (and in this context obviously does) mean “impudence” instead of or in addition to “cynicism.” Many of your other remarks present valid points, but do not convince me. I was aware of virtually all the nuances you point out, but as you know, you sometimes have to choose the least bad rendering since none will completely reproduce all the original connotations. In some cases, it’s a tossup: If I were starting afresh, I might go along with your suggestion, but could just as readily stick with what is there now. In others, I think that your suggestion would actually make things worse — either because it would blur or cancel out some other important nuance or because it simply does not read smoothly and lucidly. In a few cases, such as the sentence on p. 126, any choice is probably doomed to be both clumsy and unclear (as is the original French).
A general note: One of the key points about détournements is that they are supposed to be irreverently practical. Just as the main idea is to seize something and turn it to one’s own use, regardless of the original context, so, if the original (because of different eras or languages) is inadequate in some way, it makes no sense to preserve it rigidly word for word on the grounds that “it was detourned from Shakespeare” or whomever. In some cases, this can lead to the opposite of what is intended. For example, the actual Swift quote is downright misleading (“can possibly meet with no censurers” in modern English implies that it also could possibly meet with censurers; to say nothing of the fact that “censurers” now evokes the notion of censorship, which is a quite different matter), whereas the sense of the French translation cited by Debord is quite clear. Again, the French version of the Shakespeare passage on p. 75 is actually “better” than the original, in the sense that it conveys more clearly what Debord means (i.e. he is not determined to “hate” the idle pleasures, but to disrupt or spoil them). I cite these two examples as extreme cases. Normally, of course, I seek the exact quotation. But I would feel disloyal to Debord and to his viewers if I were to mechanically stick to the original quote at the cost of falsifying Debord’s actual meaning. The purpose of détournement is precisely to find the best expression, even if it is necessary to steal it from someone else; it is not to pedantically showcase the stolen original at the cost of the clarity and cogency (and poetry) of the current work, which would be a perfect example of the dead dominating the living.
(To use an example from my own writing, a sentence of The Joy of Revolution was originally taken verbatim from an English translation of Descartes, but when we translated my text into French I did not insist on reproducing the original Descartes sentence, because my co-translator said that a somewhat different sentence presented the same idea more clearly.)
Again, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate being forced to reexamine all the nuances and possibilities, even if I ultimately decided to stick with most of my original choices. Please feel free to direct the same careful attention to any of my other writings or translations!
I was also happy to hear that you had contributed numerous corrections to the forthcoming translation of a volume of Debord’s Correspondence. Although I have criticized some of the style of your own translations, I recognize that you are devoted to the most rigorous accuracy in these matters, so I expect that your contributions will make that volume much less inaccurate that it would otherwise have been.
More on translation
[Response to a correspondent who sent me his translation of a short text by Vaneigem, asking for my comments and criticisms.]
Thanks for your message. I dont have the time or interest to go over your translation in detail. For one thing, as you noted, the text itself says nothing new but just repeats the same type of verbiage to be found in most of Vaneigems post-SI writings. Regarding your translation, I would just say that the main faults result from not looking carefully enough at what is being said. For example, anesthetic masses is absurd. The actual meaning is of course anesthetized masses. Or this sentence, “The agrarian economy of the Ancien Régime was a fossilized relic that was destroyed by the French Revolution of 1789, replacing it with a free trade economy,” is jumbled and ungrammatical. “What is free is the absolute weapon against the commodity system” would imply that if I give you an apple, that apple is the absolute weapon. La gratuité means freeness, or in this context the practice of giving things away or making sure that things are available for free; it does not mean that which is free. Since freeness is rather vague and ambiguous, it might be rephrased to something like Giving things away/Making things free is our absolute weapon . . . All three of these errors stem from not paying close attention to the French original. But all of them, and many others, could also have been corrected if you had simply paid attention to how they sounded in English. If it sounds funny in English, its probably because youre not paying sufficient attention to the sense.
At the risk of appearing immodest, I suggest that you try the following experiment: Pick a short French text, such as a paragraph or two from some SI article or a longish thesis from The Society of the Spectacle, preferably something that youre not already very familiar with. Translate it with your friend the same way you did with this Vaneigem text. When youre done, compare your translation with mine. That may give you a better idea of what Im trying to convey here. A literal word-for-word version may be a good first step, to make sure that youve noted every word of the original; but you then have to go further, making sure that you understand the actual meaning and then trying to express that meaning as accurately as possible in fluent English.
Pleasures and their limits under present conditions
[Response to a correspondent who felt that my enthusiasm for various personal activities (Zen practice, folk music, rock climbing, etc.) was insufficiently critical because such activities serve to reinforce peoples acceptance of the dominant system. I not wish to deny that there are pleasures and benefits to be found in meditation and the other activities you mentioned. However, I think we must be keenly aware that contemporary spectacular society increasingly secures the acquiescence of ordinary people (including, of course, ourselves) less through crude repressions than by means of the pleasures it fosters and delivers. If we are not to enter the spectacle of decomposition as one more voice condemning the dominant society in abstraction while at the same time extolling one or another consumable niche, we surely must be critical of our own pleasures and the pleasures of others. We should acknowledge that any pleasure that is consistent with the persistence of spectacular society is in all probability at least partly spectacular in nature; and, in that spirit, we should seek out and expose the alienated origins (or distortions) of the tastes we pleasurably indulge. Equally, we should not deny or conceal the awareness that such pleasures are inadequate, that the multiple confinements to which our pleasures are inevitably subject within a society of separation render them more or less paltry, especially when the possibilities of the epoch are considered. What I have in mind is thus a balance between taking such pleasure as we can, if only to keep ourselves from depression, isolation and madness, and feeling and manifesting contempt and dissatisfaction toward those same pleasures.” He went on to stress the importance of “clear and public statements” to cut through people’s illusions and mentioned that in a forthcoming text on Berlin he intended “to attack the pleasures I take during my visits to the city.”]
I understand the points you are making and agree with them to a certain extent. But I believe that if you stick too narrowly to these notions you will arrive at nothing but a very silly and pointless souring of everything you do. Strictly speaking, your points could apply to virtually anything enjoying food and drink, making love, taking a walk in the woods, relaxing, dancing, humming a tune, playing a game, etc., etc. All of these things are indeed allowed by the current social system and could be said to support or reinforce it insofar as they help keep people physically and mentally functional, help prevent them from going insane or committing suicide, make the society seem somewhat more tolerable, take up time that might otherwise be devoted to radical activity, etc. Does that mean that each time you sit down to a meal with some friends you should remind them that what they are about to do is not revolutionary, and urge them to guard against the possibility that the pleasure of the food and socializing may tend to make them feel a little less angry and alienated? When I sing folk songs with some friends, would you suggest that I preface each song with a grim acknowledgment that singing it is consistent with the persistence of spectacular society and at least partly spectacular in nature?
As for “clear and public statements, I have made a number of relatively sharp critiques of the limitations of Buddhist ideas and practices (notably my two leaflets re engaged Buddhism, but also scattered remarks in The Joy of Revolution, The Realization and Suppression of Religion, my autobiography and elsewhere re the downsides of religion, the limits of nonviolence, etc.). Many of the people I have practiced Zen with over the years are well aware of my views, and some of them share them to some extent even if they do not fully grasp the whole situationist perspective. In any case, I dont go there to discuss politics but to take part in the practice, which involves paying wholehearted attention to whatever it is were doing at the moment, however seemingly paltry and insignificant. Our present-day lives obviously fall far short of what they could be in a more sanely organized society, but I think it is missing the point to conclude that we should constantly manifest contempt and dissatisfaction toward the pleasures available to us now. A postrevolutionary society, if we are ever lucky enough arrive at one, will not be some nonstop orgasm. Its pleasures will still consist largely of simple little things like a kiss, a smile, a song, a cup of tea, a breath of fresh air, though such things will be multiplied and enrichened by the radically different social context in which they occur.
Just as I have no significant problem with many of these limited activities, I also have no problem if someone makes a more aggressive and explicit critique of them. I think thats fine, Im all for it if you happen to be particularly moved to do so. But you have to bear in mind that this sort of thing gets awfully old awfully fast. I disrupted a couple of poetry readings back in 1970 (the Gary Snyder reading and also the Ode on the Absence of Real Poetry Here This Afternoon that I read at an open reading), but I have not done so since then. If the issue comes up, I may tell someone that I like this or that poem but that on the whole I see certain limitations in poetry, and perhaps mention my Snyder disruption or the situationist ideas about the realization and suppression of art. I still feel very good about having done that Snyder disruption because it represented a personal turning point for me as well as a challenge for others as I said in the autobiography, I believe that at that moment I was in a sense being more truly creative and poetic than Snyder was. But if I had continued to show up at every local poetry reading with substantially the same critique it would soon have become completely boring for me as well as for everyone else, and would have been unlikely to inspire any interest at all. You have to keep moving.
In this regard, I encourage you to approach Berlin with an open mind ready indeed to call attention to its problems, but also ready to appreciate whatever you may discover that is new and unexpected. I will have no interest in reading a thousandth version of how alienated modern cities are, but I will read with interest a candid account of your experiences and experiments there, which will naturally include, but hopefully not be dominated by, your awareness of the citys problematic aspects.
To sum up, if you feel deeply moved to express critiques of the illusions or limitations involved in this or that activity, by all means do so. But I think that people who dwell on such things rarely accomplish anything but souring their own lives and boring everyone else.
[This correspondent, Wayne Spencer, has posted our complete exchange on this topic at his blog under the title A Discussion with Ken Knabb.]
Rejection of an academic invitation
[Response to a college teacher who wished to introduce her students to the situationists, in particular to their psychogeographical explorations, and who asked if I would be interested in speaking to her class.]
Thanks for your offer, but I will respectfully decline. For the most part, I (like the original situationists themselves) have maintained a pretty low profile and have declined invitations to give talks, interviews, etc. (see Public Secrets p. 140).* I dont have a hard line on this those local film appearances you mention represent a recent experiment on my part to see how such appearances might work out in that particular context but on the whole I remain convinced that the things I have written or translated speak quite well for themselves without requiring any in-person presence. There is a rich mass of informative and suggestive material in those publications, including lots of articles on dérives, psychogeography, urbanism, etc. more than enough to help any person with initiative to get started in their own experiments. If they dont have such initiative but are merely trying to get through some class, I have no particular interest in feeding their passive curiosity.
I do not mean to seem dismissive of your efforts. If I was a teacher Id probably try doing some of the things you are. In a separate message I will send you links to some of the psychogeography-related texts at my website to which you may want to direct your students. But I suggest that at the same time you ask them to read On the Poverty of Student Life so that you and they can also look closer to home, considering and discussing the more banal and less exotic social geography of the academia in which you find yourselves.
[*The passage referred to, which can be found online here, reads in part as follows:
Since the original SI members have generally remained unavailable, I have sometimes been considered the next best thing, and have been asked to do booksignings, to grant interviews, to give talks, to be videotaped, to contribute to various publications, to provide information for graduate theses, to take part in radical conferences and academic symposiums, to be a visiting artist at an art institute, and even to furnish background material for a television program. I have refused all these requests. . . . Although Im somewhat less rigorous in these matters than was the SI, when I am asked to present or represent the situationist perspective I feel I convey that perspective most incisively by refusing the kinds of things the situationists themselves consistently refused. Anyone is free to reprint, adapt or comment on the SI Anthology or any of my other publications. I can’t take seriously those who never do so while seeking some personal encounter or scoop designed to give spectators the impression they have gotten some inside dope about texts they often haven’t even bothered to read, much less put into practice. It seems to me that maintaining this distance puts things on the clearest basis.]
[As I said, I don’t have a hard line about these matters. I am usually happy to provide information or to answer reasonably pertinent and specific questions (as opposed to vague generalities like “Could you explain what situationism is?” or “In your opinion what influence have the situationists had on the world?”) and on occasion I have taken part in certain public events. During the last few years, for example, I have been providing introductory remarks and answering questions at several Bay Area showings of Debord’s films, as well as appearing at bookstores and other venues to discuss one or another of my books. It may be that as time goes on I will do more of these sorts of thing if they seem like they might be useful and interesting. But my main point still holds: I am interested in contributing to inventive radical experiments carried out by autonomous participants, not in providing idle entertainment to feed people’s passive curiosity.]
Situationist Anthology bias?
[“Your selection of certain authors and removal of others in your anthology of the SI has been criticized. Do you have any comment? You are also described as having chosen the political side of situationism and left aside the artistic movement. Is that correct?”]
I believe that my anthology is generally very balanced and comprehensive. The
academics and cultural avant-gardists who have a horror of social revolution, or
who are cluelessly oblivious to it, naturally prefer the earlier, more
“artistic” aspects of the SI (and even more, of the pre-SI period), which offer
exotic intrigue for fascinated spectators without presenting any real challenge
to their own lives. That early period is indeed very interesting, and it was
that point of departure that gave the situationists a more profound experiential
grounding in culture and everyday life than other radical groups. But
conversely, those early adventures derive much of their interest from their
connection with the later political adventures. Without those later adventures
(Strasbourg, May 68, etc.), virtually no one would ever have heard of the
obscure early adventures back in the 1950s. In any case, my “bias” in this
regard is greatly exaggerated. One critic claimed that my SI Anthology
includes “virtually nothing from the first third of the group’s existence.”
Actually the SIA includes 7 articles (43 pages) of pre-SI texts and 22
articles (85 pages) from the first third of the SI’s existence
(1957-1962) a rather substantial amount of material, although I do indeed
present even more material from the last two-thirds of the group’s existence.
Incidentally, these critics do not seem to have noticed that one of the reasons
for this imbalance is that the later period had a lot more substantial material
to draw from. Issues 10-12 of Internationale Situationniste contain almost as
many pages as the first nine issues put together, and in general the quality
gets better as they go along. Does anyone really think I should have left out
some of those superlative analyses of May 68, China, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam,
Algeria, Watts, etc., so that I could include a few more early SI texts, or even
some of the pompous twaddle by the excluded Nashists and other neo-artists who
were only briefly in the SI and who never seem to have really grasped what it
was all about? It was not I, but the SI that “left aside the artistic movement”
in order to move on to a broader terrain of activity.
As I noted in my autobiography :
A few other critics claimed that I “concealed” the earlier, more cultural phase of the SI. The Anthology is admittedly weighted somewhat toward the situationists’ later, more “political” period (without which no one but a few specialists in obscure avant-garde movements would have ever heard of them), but the main features of the earlier phase could hardly escape anyone who reads the first dozen articles of the book. I probably would have included more selections from Potlatch and other pre-SI material if it had been available at the time [i.e. 1981, when Potlatch and much of the other pre-SI material was not accessible anywhere]; but if I didn’t go into the subsequent history of the “Nashists” and other artistic tendencies this is because I think they are of little interest and have little to do with the situationists’ most original and vital contributions. Since the book’s appearance these critics have had fifteen years to publish the vital texts I supposedly concealed; so far what they have come up with has not been overwhelming.
Unavoidable hierarchies and specializations
[Response to a question about “the situationists’ and your position on specialization. To my understanding they/you are against it, and support eliminating jobs and rotating the remaining necessary tasks. How does this economy provide medical doctors, engineers, and other specialized positions that would still exist without the spectacle?”]
I touch on this issue in a few places in the last chapter of The Joy of Revolution. In the section “Consensus, Majority Rule and Unavoidable Hierarchies” I quote the situationists’ call for “abolition of hierarchy and independent specializations.” The key word here is independent, which in this context means a separate professional clique that is independent from popular control, capable of holding the rest of society hostage because they hold a monopoly on some type of technical expertise or “trade secrets.” A few paragraphs later I say:
A nonhierarchical society does not mean that everyone magically becomes equally talented or must participate equally in everything; it simply means that materially based and reinforced hierarchies have been eliminated. Although differences of abilities will undoubtedly diminish when everyone is encouraged to develop their fullest potentials, the point is that whatever differences remain will no longer be transformed into differences of wealth or power. People will be able to take part in a far wider range of activities than they do now, but they won’t have to rotate all positions all the time if they don’t feel like it. If someone has a special taste and knack for a certain task, others will probably be happy to let her do it as much as she wants at least until someone else wants a shot at it. “Independent specializations” (monopolistic control over socially vital information or technologies) will be abolished; open, nondominating specializations will flourish. People will still ask more knowledgeable persons for advice when they feel the need for it (though if they are curious or suspicious they will always be encouraged to investigate for themselves). They will still be free to voluntarily submit themselves as students to a teacher, apprentices to a master, players to a coach or performers to a director remaining equally free to discontinue the relation at any time. In some activities, such as group folksinging, anyone can join right in; others, such as performing a classical concerto, may require rigorous training and coherent direction, with some people taking leading roles, others following, and others being happy just to listen. There should be plenty of opportunity for both types. The situationist critique of the spectacle is a critique of an excessive tendency in present society; it does not imply that everyone must be an “active participant” twenty-four hours a day.
Later, in the “Blossoming of Free Communities” section, I say:
More than enough people will gravitate to socially necessary projects, in agronomy, medicine, engineering, educational innovation, environmental restoration and so on, for no other reason than that they find them interesting and satisfying. Others may prefer less utilitarian pursuits. . . .
The idea is that we need to abolish the sorts of specializations that entail a small group’s monopolistic control over some field, not specialization as such. Medical care is an obvious example of an area where we will continue to need some degree of specialization (though there will no doubt be some simplification as the emphasis shifts to widespread awareness of preventive medicine and healthier lifestyles, rather than supercomplicated surgical fixes). The point is that certain people will study and develop their skills in this type of specialization because they like it, sense that they are good at it, and find it satisfying to help people, not because they can make big bucks and block others from figuring out cheaper and more effective ways to accomplish the same goals. Once people have seen through, and gone beyond, the mass of artificially maintained pseudoneeds, they will soon enough figure out which specialized skills really are still needed, and they will then see to it that appropriate schools, hospitals, research facilities, etc., are made available to produce or implement such specializations.
[“Assuming that you are still interested in Reich, are there any book recommendations you can make on practical applications of Reichian techniques? The material in your book [“Public Secrets”] gives the only hints I have come across so far. I have read a number of works by and about Reich, some of which are quite bizarre, particularly those that deal with his later theories.”]
I have never delved very much into “practical applications” of Reich beyond a few exercises gleaned from books by the neo-Reichian Alexander Lowen and a few loose, improvised experiments described or hinted at in my Case Study, where I played around with different combinations of free association, dérives, dream analyses, encounters, etc. In any case, I am very dubious about Reich’s later “orgone” theories, as well as about the post-Reichian trips like those you mention that depoliticize his works and concentrate exclusively on some sort of self-centered self-therapy. Some of Reich’s methods may produce significant personal results, but I’m not sure that they amount to anything very different from what can be obtained through many other types of physical and/or spiritual disciplines (yoga, tai chi, chigong, zazen, sufi dancing, etc., etc.). I think it is ultimately more important to navigate your way through life in a more open-ended manner, to continually experiment with sequences or combinations of activities that juxtapose different aspects of life, rather than fixating too narrowly on any one particular trip. I am not impressed by people who have achieved a certain psychological or sexual liberation if they remain politically clueless, just as I note that people who have some political awareness are often incapable of using that awareness in any practical way, in part due to their personal repressions.
The Irrational in Politics (by Maurice Brinton) is online at http://libcom.org/library/Irrational-in-politics-Maurice-Brinton. It’s also included in the recent collection of Brinton’s work, For Workers’ Power. I haven’t reread it in a long time, but I remember it as providing a pretty good summary of Reich’s most valid aspects.
Peak Oil? (I)
[Reply to a Spanish contact (I have slightly corrected his English style): I write to ask you what you think about peak oil.’ I guess you know what I’m talking about: the end of cheap oil and the collapse of global capitalism. . . . I think we cannot ignore the facts: the market economy is going to collapse in a few years. It seems that history is finally proving right all the people who tried to radically change the roots of society. But as we know, we have not succeeded. Market economy rules the world, and everyone is addicted to its paradigms. But now it will be every year more clear that this system is built on a big lie which cannot be believed anymore. It seems strange to me that people like you and me, who call themselves revolutionary,’ don’t see the completely new situation we are in. Today more than ever there is the need to go out of the market economy and create and organize new ways of living, without any dependancy on the system. It’s futile to try to reform or subvert capitalist society today: this society is going to collapse in a few years. We have to spread the reasons why it is going to collapse (the irrationality of capitalism and the market economy) and quickly organize the alternatives, but now it’s not a matter of our desires’ as it was for the situationists, its not only the mediocrity of modern society, now its almost a matter of survival! Councilist organization, self-management practice, and autonomous values are today a matter of survival for the whole society! . . . Dont you think that revolutionary theory has to meet with these facts? I do think we have to check and reform our theories due to this completely new situation we are entering: the global decline of capitalism.”]
I am aware of the peak oil theory, and also of some other views that question that theory. In either case, I question whether our situation is completely new. It has been evident for at least the last 50 years that humanity is facing a series of crises of various overlapping kinds (ecological, economic, socio-political, psycho-spiritual) that will lead to global ecological disaster if we do not succeed in radically transforming the present social system. The situationists and others referred to this unavoidable choice (see, for example, The Real Split in the International ##15-18, 1972) and Rexroth evoked it even earlier and more often (see, for example, the two articles on ecology at www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/sf/1968-69.htm). There were differences of prognosis, some thinking that nuclear war would destroy the world within a decade or two, others that overpopulation would do so within the next half-century, others that the ecological point of no return had already been passed, though its ultimate effects would not be evident till some time later (Rexroth tended toward this latter view).
My point here is not that these earlier prognoses were wrong. (They were mostly on the right track, but other factors entered in to postpone the disasters for a few more decades.) It is to point out that people have a tendency to focus on some particular crisis and to panic Alas! This is the ultimate threat, and its coming right away! We must immediately drop everything else to avert it! Were fighting for our very survival, hence we dont have time to fight for the quality of our lives! But as the situationists pointed out, if we merely fight for survival, we remain on the defensive, stuck on the terrain of the system, and thus we will inevitably fail. It is only by fighting for real life for a truly satisfying, qualitatively different mode of life and society that we can really challenge the mindlessly destructive forces and tendencies that are leading toward global disaster. As Vaneigem put it, We can survive only as antisurvivors. [www.bopsecrets.org/SI/8.basic2.htm #16] I expanded on that point in one of my leaflets 15 years ago:
One of the May 1968 graffiti was: Be realistic, demand the impossible. “Constructive alternatives” within the context of the present social order are at best limited, temporary, ambiguous; they tend to be coopted and become part of the problem. We may be forced to deal with certain urgent issues such as war or environmental threats, but if we accept the system’s own terms and confine ourselves to merely reacting to each new mess produced by it, we will never overcome it. Ultimately we can solve survival issues only by refusing to be blackmailed by them, by aggressively going beyond them to challenge the whole anachronistic social organization of life. Movements that limit themselves to cringing defensive protests will not even achieve the pitiful survival goals they set for themselves. [www.bopsecrets.org/PS/buddhists.htm]
It may be that the peak oil theory is right and we will experience some severe social collapse in the near future. Or it may be that its critics are right and that other factors will mitigate or postpone that collapse for some time (so that it is, say, 30 years away instead of 10). In that case, some other disaster may come first (global warming, the destruction of the oceans, some combination of increased environmental poisoning and/or famines and/or diseases, a chain reaction of wars or of insane fascistic or fundamentalist mass movements, etc.). These and many other crises and potential disasters have been around for many decades. They are indeed serious. We have to address them. But we have to address them all at once, as part of a comprehensive, holistic perspective. This is why I am leery of any tendency to make a fetish out of any one particular crisis. Such notions tend to make people panic and thus ignore other equally important factors. A crude example: if people see peak oil as the problem, they will tend to support some politician who promises to deal with it better than other politicians, even though all these politicians help maintain many other aspects of the system that is ultimately responsible for these crises.
I agree with you that it is important to call attention to these impending crises, but I think that (1) we should not be stuck too exclusively in one prognosis (The system will collapse in the following way, within the following time frame, due to peak oil) and (2) we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of our desperation giving rise to simplistic alternatives. When you say: Today more than ever there is the need to go out of the market economy and create and organize new ways of living, without any dependancy on the system, it sounds like youre suggesting notions such as going off to create a country commune that raises its own food, etc. I dont think theres anything wrong with trying to do that if such projects appeal to you, but I dont think that such things represent a genuine escape from the system. The system itself, with all its cities and factories etc., must ultimately be dealt with. It will not just neatly collapse, leaving people free to set up nice alternative ecological lifestyles outside of it. You are right that it is not enough to just reform it. It must be actively and creatively transformed from top to bottom. This is a very complex project, and we may not succeed. But I dont think that anything less will work. When people fetishize some bad thing (This is the crucial problem, so urgent that everything else pales by comparison!) then they tend to rally to some alternative, equally simplistic fetish (We must all immediately stop driving, raise our own food, form country communes, become vegan . . .) which tends to produce a narrow, sectarian, survivalist mentality among a supposedly enlightened minority (We are doing our part, but all those other clueless people are still living within the system) while leaving the system free to grind on in its destructive way.
To sum up: I agree that our theories must address these kinds of crises. But I do not agree that these crises are completely new. They have been around for some time now, and certain theories, including (in rather different ways) that of the situationists and that of Rexroth, have already addressed them pretty profoundly and explicitly.
[A correspondent asked to interview me on the ecological crisis. In addition to stating my general disinclination to be interviewed, I replied that, in any case, on that particular topic I have nothing particular to say that multitudes of others havent already said. He then wrote: While you may know of a multitudes of others who understand and continually make the points you raised in your letter to a Spanish writer on the subject of Peak Oil, I do not. Specifically I do not know of anyone alive today who can articulate a vision of how to tackle all of the crises at once and why that is necessary. If you can recommend someone who is speaking about the ecological crisis and the need to move beyond survivalism, the need to avoid making a fetish of any particular crisis, I would appreciate it. My reply is below.]
I think you exaggerate the difficulty of finding people who are aware that
there are lots of different crises and that most of these crises are systemic
i.e. are ultimately caused by the social system. Thats almost the standard
platitude among most people I know (even if many of them are not entirely clear
about the fundamental nature of the system).
As for what they think they can or should do about it, most people naturally concentrate on some particular issue that particularly moves them or that hits them personally in some way. Most of them do not presume that their issue is the only one, or even the most important one; its simply something that they are dealing with because they dont feel they can deal with everything at once.
In this regard, Peak Oil is perhaps somewhat of an exception, in that its proponents often do argue that it is the absolutely crucial issue that must be dealt with in priority over everything else (like people used to feel about nuclear warfare). But as I said, most people do not have that feeling about their particular issues. They know that saving the whales will not save the planet, but theyd still like to save the whales. In addition, they have a vague hope that the process of saving the whales will in some way or another contribute to saving the planet.
Which may be the case. On the other hand, sooner or later the system itself must be addressed it wont go away just because people make lots of little adjustments in it.
But it also wont go away if people abstractly call on everyone to challenge it as a whole. Everyone consists of millions of particular individuals with particular traits and situations and limitations. They will be able to attack the system as a whole only through a dialectical process involving a myriad of particular issues, projects, tactics, experiments, along with a developing theoretical understanding of all those things. (Which tactics have worked and which havent? How does my project relate with what others have been doing?) Only this will bring them to the point where they can act in concert on a large scale while remaining real, autonomous persons.
This process of collective and creative self-organization is really what is being talked about by Marx and the situationists, despite their somewhat abstract-sounding terminology the process of the proletariat becoming conscious of itself, the process where active direct communication is realized, marking the end of specialization, hierarchy and separation, and the transformation of existing conditions into conditions of unity. Its much more complex than simplistically debating reformism versus revolution, or “particular issues versus the totality.”
I too know of nobody alive who can articulate a vision of how to tackle all of the crises at once. Certainly not me. I have no particular expertise about most of these issues, and no neat general solution. I simply try to point out the limits of various tactics and the eventual need for a comprehensive solution that can only arise out of the process of conscious struggles and struggles for consciousness.
You can do that yourself. And in fact thats what I suggest that you do. You already have a certain awareness of this issue, enough awareness to be dissatisfied with many other current views on the same topic. Theres your starting point plunge in! State your position: why you believe that so-and-sos position is inadequate and how you think differently.
In this process you are of course welcome to say that you think that something I said is pertinent. In that way, you will be forced to determine just which words of mine really are pertinent, and which arent (instead of presenting me as one big package deal). You will be taking up (some of) my words and making them your own, rather than asking me to speak for you.
As to where, how and to whom to state all this: You already have a blog, so that would be your natural starting place to post. But you could also experiment with printing things out as leaflets or posters; or speaking to particular milieus, online or off, via emails, listserve posts, conversations, disruptions, etc., in order to address issues relevant to those milieus the kinds of things I talk about in chapter 2 of The Joy of Revolution.
I think you will have much more fun doing this, and will stir up much more contagious interest, than if you had merely interviewed me or anyone else.
[Reply to a photographer living in the Netherlands who wondered if his photographs of short playful acts in different random city locations might be considered situationist photography.]
I would say that its fine to do the kinds of photographs youre doing, but they do not have much to do with what the situationists were trying to do, they are simply more or less interesting or charming photographs. To paraphrase what the situationists said about art, there is no situationist photography but only a potentially situationist use of photography. A situationist use in this sense means something that inspires people to think and act for themselves, that fosters personal reexamination, radical experimentation, social coordination, theoretical clarification. Some photographs, some films, some paintings, some songs, some poems, etc. may have some slight effect in this direction, but that tendency is usually offset by their spectacle nature, by the fact that they appear as simply one more spectacle to be passively consumed. You have to ask yourself: What effect are my photographs really having? If you exhibit them or publish them on the Web, what effects are they actually having on people? If someone tells you, That photograph is very interesting! that probably doesnt mean much. If they tell you, Your photograph struck me so powerfully that it inspired me to go out and do something different, that sounds more interesting. But even then, you will have to consider what your photograph inspired them to do before concluding that you are making a truly situationist use of the medium.
[He then asked: “If I had an exposition and I opened it for the public
and I would publicly destroy all my photos in front of the public as an opening
act, would that be the situationist use of my photography?”]
Not necessarily. It would probably just have the effect of being a different, more sensational or controversial or attention-grabbing spectacle. Presenting photographs and then destroying them may disrupt the spectators usual expectations, but so what? Wheres the substance? You could also disrupt someones usual expectations by going up to them and hitting them in the face, but that doesnt mean that you would be accomplishing anything radical. Part of your problem is that youre trying to figure out what the situationist use of photography might be, as if there were some particular technical gimmick that would guarantee that result, instead of simply asking yourself, What radicalizing effect would this have? The point is how your product (whether a photograph or a leaflet or an action) causes or encourages others to think and act.
[Reply to a British correspondent: “I hope you dont mind taking a small amount of time out to answer a question I have about your description of post-revolutionary society. Speaking roughly, you (and the situationists in general) talk about the possibility of producing goods voluntarily, without the need for mediation through money or forced labour through the state. I accept this as a persuasive idea, with one difficulty. The technologies that capitalism has developed, which do appear to have a liberatory and time-saving potential, such as computers, the internet, cars, vacuum cleaners, and medical technology of all kinds, rely on alienated labour to the extent that they are specifically tailored to the current mode of production. The production of each relies on each effectively being constructed by the alienated labour of millions of individuals across the globe. This is a situation which can sustain itself via the commodity form, or through some other kind of alienated labour, but co-ordination at this level clearly presents a problem for a voluntary labour situation, both because of the sheer improbability of such an extended (in terms of persons, and in terms of geography), elaborate and fragile method of co-ordination, and because a good deal of the labour required to make any one product will be mind-numbing and apparently meaningless (making a minor computer part does not sound particularly rewarding to me), and obviously some of the labour will be dangerous. We currently require financial desperation and the spectacle to get people to do this kind of labour, and the commodity-form to co-ordinate it.
“I make this suggestion grudgingly. I am not anticiv. Perhaps the point is that people who want technology and non-alienated life need to develop a whole new basis for the existence of technology, a whole new form of technology, i.e. technology which can be indefinitely sustained, repaired and renewed by co-operative action amongst, say, a few hundred people, rather than the capitalist mode of production as a whole. I hope you have a simpler answer than this.”]
Thanks for your thoughtful question. Although the issue you mention is not without its difficulties and complexities, I think youre overlooking some factors that would simplify things. The weak point of your argument is this sentence: The production of each relies on each effectively being constructed by the alienated labour of millions of individuals across the globe. But as you note in the preceding sentence, current technologies rely on alienated labour to the extent that they are specifically tailored to the current mode of production. Although computers etc. are currently produced by a lot of mind-numbing labor because they are currently tailored to the capitalist mode of production, they do not need to retain that orientation. Bear in mind that:
1) Much of that labor could be reorganized (and in many cases automated).
2) Even the labor that remained much the same need not remain alienated. There is a vast difference between doing something while knowing that youre being exploited and that youre producing crappy products (except for a few high-quality luxury products that few can afford) and doing the same thing while knowing that youre engaged in a cooperative venture with your fellow humans and taking pride in producing useful products for everyone in the most pleasant and effective ways.
3) The total socially necessary labor would be vastly reduced when people abandoned all the stupid and pointless jobs most of them are currently doing. With the abolition of the commodity system, hundreds of millions of people now occupied with producing superfluous commodities, or with advertising them, packaging them, transporting them, selling them, protecting them or profiting from them (salespersons, clerks, foremen, managers, bankers, stockbrokers, landlords, labor leaders, politicians, police, lawyers, judges, jailers, guards, soldiers, economists, ad designers, arms manufacturers, customs inspectors, tax collectors, insurance agents, investment advisers, along with their numerous underlings) will all be freed up to share the relatively few actually necessary tasks (The Joy of Revolution, chapter 4, Absurdity of Most Present-Day Labor). To put it crudely just to make the point: If 90% of current labor is pointless or worse (a conservative estimate), the shifting of the people doing such labor to the much smaller sector of useful and necessary tasks would mean that people could work 5-hour weeks instead of 50-hour weeks.
4) But such a drastic quantitative reduction will produce a qualitative change. . . . It would be unrealistic to expect people to work full time at unpleasant and largely meaningless jobs without surveillance and economic incentives; but the situation becomes completely different if its a matter of putting in ten or fifteen hours a week on worthwhile, varied, self-organized tasks of ones choice (same chapter, Transforming Work into Play).
Actually, you largely answer your own question in your last paragraph. Im not claiming that the solutions would be simple; but I think that when people confront such issues, they will be quite capable of figuring out practical and relatively pleasant ways of dealing with them.
Is Rexroth a utopian?
[Reply to a correspondent who requested comments on his draft article examining the utopian and “dystopian” aspects of Kenneth Rexroths work.]
I quickly perused your article draft and think its generally quite good, if
one accepts the jargon (utopian, dystopian, etc.).
I personally am very dubious about that jargon. I think that Rexroths writings simply feature some radical insights about how things are and (more rarely) how they might be, whereas utopian and dystopian normally connote an imaginative fictional leap into an invented and exaggerated world. Apart from slight rhetorical exaggeration, theres nothing particularly exaggerated or inventive about Rexroths remarks denouncing various aspects of the existing society or mentioning various possible radical alternatives. He is not fantasizing, hes talking quite straightforwardly about quite practical realities and possibilities. Which is not to say that such fantasizing (as in actual utopian or dystopian works like Le Guins or Orwells) cannot also play some positive role. But thats not what Rexroth is doing. In all of his writings I dont recall a single place where hes making things up in that way in order to make a point. He is simply describing what exists and contrasting it with what might exist. That has nothing to do with utopianism except in the meaninglessly vague sense that you might call any notion of a better society utopian. The more accurate (and more banal) term is radical radical criticism of the existing society, which simultaneously implies conceiving of a radically different form of society.
(The fact that utopian and dystopian are sometimes informally used as
adjectives merely meaning heavenly or horrible is another matter. That
does not justify using them in that way and then shifting back to the more
rigorous meaning in order to pretend that Rexroth is composing works similar
to Le Guins or Orwells.)
For this reason, I think that its misleading to read his Communalism book as historical utopian nonfiction, whatever that bizarre oxymoron may mean. Its actually an attempt at a rigorous historical analysis, and Im criticizing it as such. I dont see what value there is in pretending that its some other genre in which its factual or analytical errors dont matter because its arousing the reader with an inspiring vision. (That is similar to the lame defense some have made to my criticisms of CrimethInc. When I point out that CT is just making things up about the history of the Paris Commune etc., CTs defenders often reply that that doesnt matter because CT is not pretending to be historically accurate but is concerned with inspiring its readers with cool feel-good stories. Those CT readers, however, are never told this and it is safe to say that most of them naïvely assume that they are reading accurate accounts of what happened. If they base their own activities on these fantasies, they may be in for some rude awakenings . . .)
A more specific point: When you reply to my critique of the Communalism book, you assume that I am rejecting utopian communes, countercultures, etc. I am doing no such thing. Im simply noting their limits and self-contradictions. So I too would say two cheers for them and various other tactics. But Im trying to be a little more specific than merely saying that all tactics are equally good . . .
Anyway, as I said, once one grants your framework and jargon re utopias etc., your article is quite good. Youve sorted out and accurately described the different facets of Rexroths vision, including some of the subtler points that pass by many readers (e.g. in your remarks on the Venice poem). I think the article would be almost unexceptionable if it was rephrased more straightforwardly in terms of his radical critiques and his radical vision, without the irrelevant and misleading jargon about utopias and dystopias.
International Organization? (I)
[Reply to Wayne Spencer (see the first January 2008 entry above) regarding his text Towards a New Situationist International.]
Leaving aside many good points made in your draft (and also other points that I disagree with), I dont believe the notion of creating a new SI is either desirable or practical. It is true that for a revolutionary movement to get beyond a certain level, at some point people will have to create some sorts of modes of international coordination. But this has nothing to do with what the SI was doing, which was to create an extremely tiny network of people working on a much more specific project: namely to articulate a few crucial general points/perspectives at a particular time when those perspectives were almost totally unknown. At the present, there is hardly any lack of people with awareness of those basic perspectives, even if that awareness doesnt have much followup in what they do. It would be analogous to the perennial attempts to create an Anarchist International. Even if some such group is created, so what? Its just a collection of people who largely dont know what to do individually but who hope that gathering into a bigger group will help them do something effective.
On a different but related note, namely how practical this would be even supposing that it were desirable: I think it would be laughably impractical. Periodically I see little groups of situ or ultraleft people (mostly online these days) solemnly conclude that they should form such a group (or rather, something much less, because even they do not imagine theyre forming a new International, but simply that theyre forming an international group). They debate who gets to be in it (e.g. no one who supports unions, or elections, or this or that other shibboleth). They argue about that for a while (e.g. does the IWW count as a union, or is it actually sort of different despite the union label?). Meanwhile, this or that person comes up with a proposed preliminary text some manifesto as to where they stand. It always turns out to be a laughably banal lowest-common-denominator list of requirements (opposition to the State, capitalism, hierarchy . . .) that would interest no one. Or, supposing that it might interest someone who was new to such things, this proposed text could just as well have been written and distributed by a single person without waiting for all this debate about the parameters of the group. But meanwhile, they never even get as far as putting out this banal text because theyve gotten into further arguments over whether this or that person, or this or that phrase in the text, or this or that mode of operation is the appropriate one . . . And the whole thing comes to nothing after months of supposedly serious international debates and correspondence among a few dozen people. None of this ever gets beyond such a point, and even if it did it would not have the slightest significance a single halfway competent individual could have done far more in the same time.
It is not enough to respond that thats not what you had in mind, that you mean a group with truly autonomous members etc. How are you going to arrive at such a group, when people have enough trouble putting together a coherent group at a small local level? Who is going to determine who gets in? What are you going to do when one of the members does something stupid? Etc., etc.
In fact, what is valuable in your draft is simply the fairly obvious point that certain circumstances exist and that people need to be aware of them in order to consider what they might want to or be able to do about them. That can all be done by particular individuals, such as yourself, communicating what you have to say. The coordination is simply that if what you say resonates with people, they will adopt or adapt it and pass it on.
International organization? (II)
[Response to a South African correspondent who asked my opinion on the network around Michael Albert (ZNet/Parecon/Project for a Participatory Society) and on the British Libcom.org group. In particular, he wished to know if I felt that such groups might serve as bases for some sort of international organization. Id hazard a guess that if such a network [an international anarchist movement] was functional 1968 might have proven a turning point in the international struggle for liberty. In any case, with the systems of power coordinating across nation-states, the opportunity, as well as necessity for a united, global organization is as real as its ever been. It could be that the axis Im talking about is not the ideal vehicle for this, but do you then know of a more viable one? Do you think that focusing on such a broad, international movement is an undue distraction from our local struggles?]
Thanks for your message. I am somewhat familiar with the two groups you mention (Parecon/ZNet and Libcom.org), having read some of their texts and checking out their websites from time to time. I think that both are generally worthwhile networks of discussion. I could make critiques of a few aspects of each of them (or of their spokespersons statements in the discussion you attached), but I dont have the time or interest in doing so at the moment.
One thing that I do feel like saying is that I disagree with the notion you seem to have about the urgent necessity for some sort of international organization. Ultimately, of course, there does need to be international coordination of radical struggles. But to try to set up such an organization in the abstract rarely accomplishes anything. More often than not, it just wastes lots of peoples time in lengthy discussions aimed at formulating some general statement or manifesto or program that everyone can agree on. My experience is that such organizations usually accomplish little that cannot be done as well or better by a few individuals or small groups. In fact, radical situations have often been triggered by very small groups, whereas the larger groups are often bogged down and incapable of reacting rapidly. Once a radical situation has been triggered, larger groups will develop rapidly and naturally in response to the new requirements of the situation.
There already were various international anarchist and ultraleftist groups in 1968, and for the most part they had no impact on the events of that year. Some individual French anarchists along with thousands of other people who had never taken part in any radical activity proved capable of beautifully creative and innovative actions during the May 1968 revolt, but to my knowledge the nationwide Fédération Anarchiste did nothing of any significance.
I think that its fine to cultivate various networks in various contexts. Such networks already exist in countless forms and variants. For example, the millions of people who read or post on various Web forums; or the memberships of thousands of groups of all types; or countless informal personal networks where important news can be spread all over the world within a few hours, and thence to thousands of other overlapping networks. If I think something is important, I can instantly inform the 3000+ people and groups on my email list, and each of them can pass it on to their lists assuming that they, too, feel it is important. (If they dont, maybe I was deluding myself!)
True, these networks are extremely varied. They are not all equally radical, and they are not one big unified group that all will receive the same message at the same time, or who would all agree on exactly the same conclusions to draw from a particular situation. But thats normal under ordinary conditions. It is only when something extraordinary like May 68 happens that suddenly the conditions and urgencies become much more clear. During such exceptional situations it makes sense to send out brief messages that should be immediately forwarded to millions of people the sorts of messages that the SI sent out (via leaflets, posters and graffiti in that pre-Internet era) during May 68, when suddenly it had become a practical matter to call for immediate occupation of the factories, etc. Under ordinary conditions, it would be idiotic to do so. Looking toward the possible future, small numbers of interested people can discuss the nuances of factory occupations and workers councils, and what their first, most urgent tasks might be, but its meaningless to abstractly call for immediate occupation of the factories under ordinary circumstances, because there is not the slightest chance that it will happen. On the contrary, such obviously delirious rhetoric just contributes to people thinking that those sorts of radical notions are delusions. Whereas when some momentum has built up, or there has been some breakthrough, as when some people already have occupied some buildings, then it may make sense to urge other people to do likewise, or at least to support the ones who have already done so.
In The Joy of Revolution I have tried to clarify these distinctions. There is a big distinction between the possibilities examined in Chapter 2 (things one can appropriately do under ordinary circumstances) and Chapter 3 (things one might do during exceptional radical situations). And both of these are in turn very different from the things that one might do after the revolution (discussed in Chapter 4).
Incidentally, I briefly mention one of Michael Alberts books in Footnote 4 of the latter chapter.
[I was wondering if the Situationists anywhere discuss music specifically? I cant remember reading anything by them on this (except of course where they talk about art or culture in general); I googled situationist music and didnt find anything.]
The SI members scarcely wrote anything about music. They may
have felt that it was a more neutral art, more a natural part of life rather
than a construct that needed to be detourned etc., and thus that it called for
less examination. Or perhaps they simply were not so into it and it was a blind
spot for them. One of the founding SI members, Walter Olmo, was a composer, but
he was among the first to be excluded. Later situ-influenced people did write
about music. Francis Pagnons book En évoquant
Wagner: La musique comme mensonge et comme vérité
was published by Champ Libre (1981). David and Stuart Wises pamphlet The End
of Music (1978) was reprinted by AK Press and also included in Stewart
Homes mostly silly anthology What Is Situationism? But these works, to
say nothing of the many later writings linking the situs with Punk, would in
most cases not have been approved by the SI. The pro-Punk writings usually
imagine that certain kinds of music (e.g. Punk) are radical and other kinds
(e.g. classical) are reactionary a very crude and ignorant notion that would
have been dismissed with contempt by Debord, who when he does use music in his
films, chooses Handel and other Baroque composers, a jazz passage by Art Blakey,
and a Lino Leonardi accordion piece originally written for one of François
For what its worth (matters of personal taste, not of theoretical judgment), the pre-SI lettrists were reputedly very fond of Germaine Montero, who is also one of my favorite singers. And I, like practically all my situ-influenced French friends, love Georges Brassens. (See my piece at www.bopsecrets.org/recent/brassens.htm, though that is, of course, my own take and has no necessary connection with what the situs would have thought about all these singers and songwriters.)
I forgot to mention Pour en finir avec le travail: Chansons du prolétariat révolutionnaire, a 1974 LP, reissued as a CD in 1998, then again in 2008 under the title Les Chansons radicales de Mai 68. It includes one traditional radical song, but mostly new songs to traditional tunes, with lyrics by Debord, Vaneigem, Alice Becker-Ho, and the recently deceased Jacques Le Glou, who also produced the record.
Facebook and the Occupy movement
[I originally contacted you on facebook. Do you not consider facebook to be a tool of the spectacle contributing to alienation and superficiality? It seems to me to be the spectacles ultimate achievement in some respects, reducing real people to mere image and representation. . . . How do you reconcile your revolutionary perspective with your direct involvement with that particular multi-billion dollar corporation?]
In case youre not aware of it, at this very moment hundreds of thousands of people are using Facebook (among many other means) to learn about and participate in the most significant radical movement in America in your lifetime. Get out of your silly, idle rhetoric and pay attention!
[“What radical movement is that? The marches on wall street and protests against social stratification, etc.? You feel that this movement is in line with situationist ideals?”]
The Occupy movement has no need to be in line with situationist ideals. For one thing, there is no such thing as situationist ideals. The situationists, like Marx, were in practical solidarity with any genuinely popular movement tending in a radical direction:
The situationists declare that they have no interest outside the whole of this movement. They lay down no particular principles on which to base a movement which is real, a movement which is being born before our very eyes. Faced with the struggles that are beginning in various countries over various issues, the situationists see their task as putting forward the whole of the problem, elucidating its coherence, its theoretical and therefore practical unity. In short, within the various phases of the overall struggle they constantly represent the interest of the whole movement. [In Short]
Putting forward the whole of the problem etc. does not mean contemptuously staying on the sidelines until some fantasized perfect movement magically appears, nor merely preaching various ideals or correct lines. It means seizing the rare opportunities when they happen and engaging in them critically and creatively.
More on Facebook
[When a local folk-music friend told me she was moving out of town, I encouraged her to keep in touch, including via Facebook. She replied: Thanks Ken. Im not looking at Facebook much anymore. After watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix, Im convinced that Facebook is at the root of a lot of our problems in the U.S.]
I will check out The Social Dilemma, but I can say in
advance that Facebook is the main way I routinely communicate with thousands of
people all over the world (though of course I also communicate via email or
phone with a much smaller number of specific people about more personal or
private matters). Considering that there is no alternative network that is even
remotely comparable, I wouldnt dream of abandoning it.
There is indeed a lot of bullshit on Facebook, but you dont stop going to the library just because a lot of the books there are bullshit, and you dont stop voting just because the political system is rigged and most politicians are crooks (though hopefully you also engage in other more radical actions). Facebook does contribute to some problems, but without it and other social media there would never have been an Arab Spring or an Occupy movement or a Black Lives Matter movement, because if people had depended on scattered individual word-of-mouth a lot of the vital information about events and activities going on in other places would not have circulated widely enough and fast enough to generate a critical mass response. (I dont mean that those movements wouldnt have happened, but that without social media they would not have snowballed to nearly the extent that they did.)
Even simply among our mutual folk music friends, Im much more in touch with those who use FB to link to favorite songs or to let me know about some concert theyre going to, or about other things that are going on in their lives, compared with those who arent there. Especially now, when were not regularly meeting at music events etc. where we used to share such things in person.
Just my two cents worth. Best wishes with the move! Send me some photos of your new home when you have time. Better yet, post them on Facebook so all your friends there can see it!
Some common questions about the situationists
[A contact from Berlin asked me some questions that are similar to many others I have received over the years.]
1. Are there groups/magazines (except for yourself and your friends of the Bureau) in the U.S. which are familiar with the theory of the S.I. and which try to apply/enrich it?
There are thousands of people in the US (and elsewhere in the world) who are familiar with the SI, but not very many who specifically “identify” with it (i.e. call themselves situationists). This is a healthy result of Debords harsh rejection of “pro-situs” back in 1972. That rejection made people very hesitant to claim that they were “situationists,” because then other people might say, “Oh, are you one of those pro-situs that Debord says are really stupid and pretentious?” People who felt that they understood and approved the situationists were thus thrown back on their own, forced to carry out their own activities on their own responsibility, instead of having the comfort of simply “applying” some approved theory and boasting about how “we situationists believe such-and-such.”
2. Do you perceive evidence of a renaissance of a reception of the situationist theory?
It would be misleading to speak of a “renaissance” of such “reception” since it has never really stopped. For decades I have been receiving enthusiastic appreciations of the situationists from people all over the world. But amusingly enough, many of those people seem to think that they are the only people in the world who are familiar with the situs, and they often ask me the same question: “I feel like Im the only one who understands and appreciates the situs. Are there others out there?” There are in fact many thousands of people out there who have a pretty good explicit understanding of the situs, and far more, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions, who have felt some indirect situ influence. This more diffuse influence occasionally comes to the surface, as in the Occupy movement, for example, where people were spontaneously practicing many of the methods advocated by the situs back in the 1960s, even though most of them had never heard the word “situationist.”
3. Do you know a convincing critique of the S.I.?
I have never seen a good critique of the SI. I have read dozens of them, and they invariably are based on ignorance and misunderstanding. (A few people, including myself, have made pertinent critiques of a few aspects of the situs, but these are rather minor critiques, merely of nuances, such as the remarks I made about the situationists blind spots regarding religion back in 1977 — www.bopsecrets.org/PS/religion.htm — and in most cases such critiques applied more to the “situ milieu” than to the original SI.)
4. How can we poke the desire of the new/vita nova? I mean I cant just repeat devices of the past. Is there a new Northwest Passage to social revolution (I am not searching for authority that tells me what to do, its about dialogue)? What do you think?
Sorry, I dont know of any magic gimmicks.
5. Do you have contact to groups/individuals in Germany? Any references? I am kind of isolated here in Berlin and that is damn boring.
I have few contacts in Germany. The best way to break out of your isolation is to try some critical or agitational experiments in your area. If they are any good, such experiments will attract the attention of other people, some of whom will want to meet you, collaborate with you, etc.
How do you run a book group?
[In recent years I have led or taken part in many book discussion groups, both radical and literary. A friend who lives too far away from Berkeley to participate asked me, How do you run a book club? I have never been part of one much less run one before, and we are about to start a book club here. Any thoughts or suggestions you may have would be greatly appreciated we start soon!]
There are many different ways. Depends on where and how often youre meeting, how many people are in it, what topics or genres are being read, what diverse interests or expertises the participants have, how you determine which books will be read, who facilitates and how, etc. Theres an interesting book called Salons: The Joy of Conversation by Jaida Sandra & Jon Spayde that goes into all sorts of group types and group dynamics (book groups being simply one type of salon among many others).
One common problem in book groups is that people often disagree about which books to read. One solution (if youre envisaging longer works) is to vote and go with the majority. Another is to do short works and rotate the choice from person to person. This latter method may provide some balance and variety, but it also risks leading to a lot of so-so works chosen simply because they just came out and have been favorably reviewed somewhere. Another alternative is for one person who is reasonably qualified to take the initiative and see who coalesces around him or her. This is how my classics group* works. I choose the books and I lead the discussions. Those who are interested in the particular books Ive chosen (or who trust my judgment and are happy to go with whatever I choose) join the group. Others are of course free to join other groups or to form their own groups with different texts and processes. I also take part in two other groups where someone else is in charge in a similar way. One is a Greek classics group led by two classical scholars (were currently reading The Iliad); the other group spent four years going through Prousts Remembrance of Things Past and has since segued to Joyces Ulysses. In both cases I like the works enough to devote a lot of time to reading them; but perhaps even more important, I like the interaction among the people in the groups. Many were already friends of mine; many others have become good friends through our collective literary explorations.
Many book groups switch among the homes of their members (perhaps combined with potluck dinners) a salon of mostly Berkeley Zen Center people did this happily for many years before we finally discontinued. My current classics group meets at a nice bookstore which provides wine and snacks. Donations are solicited to help keep the store afloat, but no one is turned away for lack of funds. Im doing it purely for fun and take no money. Its a labor of love for me to reread these wonderful books and to do advance reading of author biographies and critical studies. In so doing, I become a relatively reliable source of information for the group; but many other participants are also widely read and will sometimes disagree with my opinions. Thats totally fine. I dont really have any agenda beyond a belief that exploring these works is both fun and potentially illuminating.
Ive also led groups where I do have a more specific agenda studying radical texts such as the Situationist International Anthology or Debords The Society of the Spectacle. Such groups naturally have somewhat different aims and dynamics.
It remains to be seen how your group will fit in with all these possibilities. Youll have to work out things like what to read and who facilitates and how they do it. The important thing is to encourage active participation by everyone in the discussion thats where you really learn things and develop your critical skills, instead of just absorbing information or approved viewpoints. The facilitator can try calling on people who havent spoken much, or you can go around the circle with each person saying something, etc. You get better at it the more you do it, but ultimately its up to the individuals whether they engage or not.
However it works out, the process is usually interesting and fun! Let me know how it goes.
*An ongoing group that has been exploring Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Montaigne’s Essays, Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Madame de Lafayettes The Princesse de Clèves, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Fielding’s Tom Jones, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, and Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. Since the pandemic the meetings have shifted to Zoom. In September 2023 I also started another Zoom group focused on situationist texts. For more information on these two groups, see Book Discussion Groups.
More on book groups
[A participant in the above-mentioned classics discussion group sent me the following suggestion: I had the thought that the bookstore could record these meetings, especially your intro talks, and put them online. It wouldn’t be too hard, I think, and great publicity for the store.]
The idea of recording the UPB [University Press Bookstore] meetings has occasionally been suggested, but it has never been followed up. The main problem is that it would probably negatively impact the relaxedness and spontaneity of the discussions. Its a rather different situation when the focus is on just one person (such as that City Lights event of mine that you attended a couple years ago [where I discussed the Situationist Internationals connection with the May 1968 revolt in France]). But my intro talks in the UPB group are not really that sort of thing. They are part of a discussion and thus a lot more informal than if I was giving a lecture at a podium.
So, short response: I doubt if it will happen, even if in retrospect you might think: I wish I had that on video so I could show it to my friends or so it could generate some publicity for the bookstore. Lots of things in our lives are like that and we just have to resign ourselves to the fact that most of them cant be saved for posterity.
Also: For me the whole point of these gatherings and explorations is to spread these ideas and experiences around personally, from person to person. Ideally, the experience of being in the UPB group would inspire people to initiate their own similar groups or to do their own related explorations (literary or otherwise), which might then spread all over the place by chain reaction, making it much less crucial to preserve some particular talk or discussion. This is a more lowkey example of the basic situationist notion that a radical text or action should aim at inpiring/inciting other similar actions (or, preferably, better actions! actions that surpass and supersede the original action), rather than being treated as a supposedly special fetishized thing that people passively consume because they havent learned how to think and act for themselves.
[An ex-Marxist-Leninist young woman in the rural South wrote saying that she had been greatly influenced by my translations and writings (especially The Joy of Revolution). She then asked me these three questions:
1. What do you think the future of organization is? The university is no longer the hotbed of leftism. U.S. Academia is dominated by liberals who care more about policing language than any radical change, let alone actual socialism. At most, they are social democrats who want free healthcare under capitalism and call that socialism. The Internet has been great for spreading socialism, but this remains mostly online. What do you think is the best way to actually *do something* in the 2020s? To spread ideas, to reach the masses, to change things. With woke corporations posturing and desperate to appeal to social justice, is direct action that politicians and companies cant defend the only option left? . . .
2. What do you think of collectives like Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, Endnotes, Chuang, etc.? Positive, negative, mixed feelings? Tiqquns Preliminary Materials for a Theory of The Young-Girl has a very heavy Situationist influence, and its what made me want to revisit Debord. Reading it was as invigorating and shocking as my first acid trip, no kidding.
3. What do you think of psychiatry, or rather, more specifically, critical psychiatry/anti-psychiatry? Im very fond of Mark Fishers criticisms of psychiatry and the mass prescriptions of psychiatric medications, and I grew up being forced on all kinds of medications due to being unhappy with my environment. I feel like psychiatry isnt discussed enough on the left, through a lens of anti-capitalism. Psychiatry risks being used as a tool of social control, making people into better workers instead of analyzing why theyre miserable in the first place (in the most common cases it can be traced back to capitalism). R.D. Laing and Franco Basaglia arent perfect but Ive quite enjoyed their writings.]
Thanks for your message. Glad that my writings and translations have been provocative and (hopefully) illuminating.
As for your questions, Im afraid I cant give you any very helpful answers.
1. The future of organization is vague, but you seem to mean What things might people do in an organized, effective way? Your remarks about the limits of academia, social democrats, the Internet, etc., may be more or less true, but I think that way of looking at things is itself limited. Revolts dont happen because millions of people believe in explicitly revolutionary ideas. Emotions and notions percolate under the radar and then some incident happens and things suddenly explode, often to the surprise of the participants themselves. As I noted about the Occupy movement:
During the first few days, many anarchists and other leftists contemptuously dismissed the Occupy movement as mere liberal reformism . . . as if the most important thing was how many people they could win over to an explicitly anticapitalist or antistate perspective. . . . I think the dynamic of a popular movement is far more important than its ostensible ideological positions. It is quite natural that people react against particular grievances without waiting until it becomes feasible to envision more fundamental social changes. Moreover, they are unlikely to ever arrive at the latter stage if they have never tested their strength or developed their critical capacities in more immediate struggles. Once they are engaged in this process they will soon enough figure out for themselves if they need to go further. Virtually every revolution in history has passed through such phases. To take just one striking example, in early 1789 the French people were asked to submit complaints or demands that their representatives could bring to a national meeting of the Estates. These Cahiers de Doléances (Registries of Grievances) raised hundreds of different issues, but they were virtually all in the form, The King should change this or that law . . . The King should abolish this or that tax . . . The King should order the nobles to stop doing this or that . . . A superficial observer might have concluded that the movement was not only totally reformist, but totally monarchist! Yet a few months later the Bastille had fallen and three years later the King had been beheaded. [Looking Back on Occupy]
The limits and problems you note are real and important, but I personally dont worry that much about being coopted, as if we needed to maintain our radical purity and to avoid getting contaminated with any compromise. If woke corporations and slick politicians are now pretending to support various radical causes, that represents a victory for us, not a defeat. Popular forces have put them on the defensive and they are desperately trying to rein in those forces, which are threatening to get beyond their control. If those popular forces end up forcing the system to come up with significant New Deal-type reforms, so much the better — that will temporarily ease conditions so we can more easily push further. If the system proves incapable of implementing significant reforms, that will force people to look into more radical alternatives. Meanwhile, as you noted, direct action is indeed often the most effective tactic (though not necessarily the only one). Which does not mean engaging in mindless pretend-battles on the enemys terrain. As Debord said, Even in a street fight you still have to think!
2. I have only occasionally dipped into the publications you mention. For the most part I have not found them very interesting.
3. Except for Wilhelm Reich, I havent explored critical/anti-psychiatry very much, but I agree with the points you made about it.
A meaningful life?
[A young correspondent asked me: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for younger generations nowadays on how to live a non-spectacular, meaningful life?]
Thats a pretty big question!
First of all, I would caution against the notion of trying to live a non-spectacular life. Often when people evoke such a term, they are imagining that the spectacle is some distinct bad thing that they should avoid on principle, and they imagine that to do this they should avoid, say, watching television or seeing movies. While those media may indeed be mostly idiotic and commercially manipulative, the point is not that there is something intrinsically bad about viewing images. The spectacle as Debord talks about it is simply a way of analyzing various aspects of a type of social relationship that has gotten out of hand due to various historical reasons. In reality, a lot of the most interesting and fulfilling things in life involve viewing things (or hearing things, or feeling things, etc.). The point is to look at the overall context: Does this or that spectacle (book, film, song, celebrity, religion, political ideology, etc.) reinforce psychological dependence or socially hierarchical relations? Or does it foster a healthy independence? Often, of course, it may do both things at once. This kind of ambiguity is characteristic of the Internet as a whole, which tends to condition people in various unhealthy ways, but also enables them to communicate and collaborate in many positive ways.
As for living a meaningful life: All I can say is that in some of my writings I have described a few of the things that I have tried to do to keep myself in good spirits and hopefully to help others to do the same. Among other things, Ive carried on a regular practice at a local Zen center for the last 35 years (brief daily zazen at home + gatherings at the center for talks, retreats, etc.). This practice is briefly described in my autobiography, and it has nothing to do with any supernatural beliefs. Ive also engaged in various pursuits that I enjoy, such as playing various physical and mental games (notably tennis and Scrabble); playing folk music with friends as well as passively listening to all kinds of other music; publicizing things that I like via my website (notably Rexroth and the situationists); reading all sorts of things, especially classic literature the sorts of works recommended by Rexroth (see the selections from his Classics Revisited on my website).
On the latter note, for the last five years Ive led a book group here in Berkeley where weve been reading and discussing precisely those kinds of works Cervantes, Montaigne, Swift, Defoe, Diderot, Stendhal, Balzac, Blake, Whitman, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, etc. Weve shifted to Zoom since the pandemic, which is not quite as much fun as meeting in person, but it has the advantage of enabling people from other areas to take part. Most recently the book group is in the middle of a four-month musical interlude in which I am presenting my favorites from The Secret World of French Songs. Ive been having a great time going through my old favorites and discovering new ones via YouTube (which I then link to and play for the group), and the response from the group (most of whom had never heard of most of the singers Im turning them on to) has been almost ecstatically enthusiastic. Im doing this purely as a labor of love, spending dozens of hours preparing for each meeting, and for the last several weeks Ive become utterly wrapped up in the process, with so many beautiful and/or catchy tunes running through my head! A few of these songs have radical implications, but thats just incidental Im doing this for fun.
In separate emails Ill send you some info about the group, in case youd like to join us.
This doesnt mean that I dont remain aware of whats going on socially and politically. Its just that I dont pay very much attention to that except to the extent that Im going to do something about it. When the Occupy movement emerged a decade ago, I dropped everything and wholeheartedly took part in it (see the various articles I circulated at the time). When it subsided, I went back to my other pursuits. When the covid pandemic emerged a year ago, I focused fully on that for two or three months as I was writing my piece on it, including reading hundreds of articles from which I gleaned a small number of key insights and selected the recommended links that I wanted others to know about. But once I got my article out, I started paying less attention, though I of course continued to keep an eye out for other promising developments.
So, like most people, I mostly focus on my friends and immediate surroundings, where I can have some more or less direct impact on what goes on; while engaging in occasional political or social projects that particularly appeal to me. I dont think you will go far wrong by doing the same, though the particular ways that you draw the lines will of course vary according to your different tastes.
[He replied in part as follows: First of all, thanks so much for your quick (and extensive!) response. . . . As for the non-spectacular life, thanks a lot for your cautionary advice. I am aware of the idiocy of being against all the spectacle per se and it is reassuring to read your thoughts on the matter. . . . Ive read your Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State a couple of times by now and it is really interesting to see how the small pleasures of life (meditation, listening to or playing music, reading, having conversations with friends…) tend to be the most important and fulfilling after all. In fact, it was thanks to Confessions… and the BoPS website (especially the splendid ‘Gateway to the Vast Realms’ section) that you opened me the door to the works of Rexroth and so many wonderful writers (Mencken, Du Fu, Casanova, Gibbon . . . the list is endless!). So yes, it would be a pleasure to join the group you mention.]
Did the situationists hate psychology?
[A correspondent wrote: I was reading On the Poverty of Student Life. So far I really like it and think it raises a lot of good points. Until I read the sentence about psychologists. It has a footnote, although that doesnt make the point any clearer. It seems unnecessarily vile and attacking towards psychology but especially the student who goes to one. I can sort of understand that school-psychologists are mostly terrible as a concept, but I wouldnt blame an individual for trying to get better, possibly not knowing the actual cause of their problems. I was wondering if maybe you knew anything more about the situationists hate towards psychology?]
I wouldnt take this issue too seriously. In certain contexts, such as in the Student Poverty pamphlet, the situationists were intentionally provocative. In the same pamphlet, for example, they refer to the assembly-line production of professors, all of whom are cretins and most of whom would be jeered by any audience of highschoolers. There are obviously at least a few exceptional professors who arent cretins, but by making the point in this hyperbolic way the situationists are challenging students, professors, and other readers to say which professors might be an exception, and why.
In the same way, the pamphlet authors are not saying that students dont have some real problems, but that in general they react to those problems with a ridiculous mixture of ludicrous pretensions (about how brilliant and radical and unconventional they are) and pathetic subservience (e.g. to professional psychologists and psychiatrists who to a great extent serve as modern equivalents to priests hearing confession). Each student is in this way challenged to consider: Am I really so exceptional? Or am I one of those pathetic people being criticized here?
Obviously the situationists didnt hate psychology as such, because they make a special point of referring to Wilhelm Reich as that excellent educator of youth. For more on that topic, see Jean-Pierre Voyers short article Reich: How to Use.
Most of my correspondence involves personal matters or translation projects or more or less routine exchanges of information that would be of little interest to anyone else. In other cases, discussions that were once topical are now rather dated, or the most pertinent points have been incorporated into my published writings. But occasionally some query incites me to go into issues that may interest other readers. I started this webpage in 2007.