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(en) Ireland, WSM*, Red and Black Revolution No 10 - Situationism and Anarchism

Date Wed, 21 Dec 2005 08:26:34 +0200

The Situationists are mostly known to anarchists as a group that had
something to do with the May 1968 Paris Uprising. However, the
Situationists played a relatively peripheral role in the disturbances.
Although much of the graffiti that appeared around the city (some
famous ones included : "Never Work" and "All Power to the
Imagination") were taken from Situationist works, the group did not
play a major role in initiating the revolt themselves.
The Situationist International formed in 1957 from two avant-garde
groups, COBRA, (a group that sought to to renew art, architecture,
and the action of art of life), and the Lettrist International, a tiny,
postwar neo-dada anti-art movement. The Situationists were an
avant-garde group that took artistic and cultural revolution just as
seriously as political revolution. Although the Situationists could be
described as an "anti-art" movement, this needs qualifiers to
properly clarify their position. The Situationist family tree begins
with Dada, the anti-art movement formed in Zurich at the legendary
Cabaret Voltaire.

Dada as a movement was wholly negative, rejecting entirely all the
values of bourgeois society. Though Debord saw that it was
Dada’s wholly negative definition that precipitated its almost
immediate breakup, he did not seem to apply the lessons of
Dada’s decline to the case of the Situationist’s own decline.

Surrealism, the art-form which followed on from Dada, sought to
give expression to the unconscious, which, through techniques like
automatic writing, would give the artist access to a previously
untapped and what Andre Breton and fellow artists of the time
believed to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Unfortunately as Debord saw in his "Report on the Construction of
Situations"(1957), "The error that is at the root of surrealism is the
idea of the infinite wealth of the unconscious imagination". As
Debord and the Situationists saw it, surrealism's great failure was
that it "wanted to realise art without suppressing it" - thus surrealism
eventually became a gallery-bound art movement far removed from
its original ideal of transforming everyday life through art.
The Lettrist International

The Lettrist International, and later, the Situationists themselves,
wished to destroy Art as a separate, special activity but only so it
could be re-constituted as an integral, and indeed the driving force of
life itself.
Anarchism and the Situationists

One the major differences between Anarchism and the Situationist
project was the exclusiveness of the project itself. There were only
10 members at most at any time, and many were expelled by Debord
very quickly, over what seem to be the utmost trivialities. For
example, Constant, the utopian architect from Amsterdam, was
expelled because a guy who worked with him built a church, this
apparently was too disastrous an influence for him to continue to be
associated with the project!

The Situationists were a lot more concerned with developing a
strong theory and critique than building a network of people willing
to work with them. It was more important to Debord and those in his
close inner circle (Raoul Vanageim and Michele Bernstein) that they
possessed this unassailable unity of theory and action, than if they
were "corrupted" by members who did not fully understand the
nature of the project. It has to be said that this uncompromising
stance seemed often to amount to not a lot more than agreeing with
all of Debord's ideas. Practical, real-world actions were risky for SI
members since there seemed to be such a high likelihood they might
be seen as"reformist" or not revolutionary enough, which would
result in expulsion.

It is possible to view the Situationist project as one that attempted to
initiate a new revolutionary project which greatly emphasised the
importance of cultural revolution. In practice however, the
Situationists functioned mainly as a group that, although they
claimed to have moved beyond Dada's nihilism, engaged themselves
primarily in a total critique of existing society and culture.

The idea of "The Spectacle" is central to the Situationist critique i.e
- "All that was once lived directly has become mere representation".
In our 21st Century culture of Reality TV Shows, Soap Operas and
Concerts like "Live 8" watched simultaneously by billions
worldwide, it might well be argued that we have entered a new era of
the Spectacle, where its domination is more far-reaching and
omnipresent than ever before.

The Situationists believed that the primary effect (indeed, the goal)
of this "immense accumulation of spectacles" was to create the
maximum level of alienation in workers' everyday lives. The
Spectacle's overwhelming (indeed inescapable) predominance would
also require "the downgrading of being into having". To bring this
up-to-date one need take only a quick look at MTV programming -
"Cribs", "Pimp My Ride" or magazines like "Stuff".

The legacy of Situationism can also be seen in the "Culture Space
Jamming" movement, popularised by Adbusters, who have
unfortunately reformulated their approach and now seek to create a
new "grassroots capitalism" - seen most clearly in their production of
the "guaranteed produced by union-labor" "Black Spot" Sneaker.
The Situationist project remains of great relevance today to the
Anarchist movement, since they remind us that if we are to have a
political revolution, it should necessarily also be a cultural
revolution, in which we eliminate the division between
actor/musician and spectactor, to enable a wholly non-alienated
society to emerge.

by Cian Lynch
This article is from Red & Black Revolution
(no 10, Autumn 2005) http://struggle.ws/wsm/rbr/rbr10/index.html

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