“”We don’t want a world where the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.
|—Graffiti from Paris 1968|
“”People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths.
|—Revolution of Everyday Life, ch 1, Raoul Vaneigem|
Situationism is a a far-left artistic and political movement primarily originating in France, spearheaded by the Situationist International which lasted from around 1957 to 1972. While active in the production of theory and journals, the International did not produce many important art works, despite the brief involvement of a few then-prominent European artists (principally Asger Jorn and Constant). It was involved in the protests in Paris in May 1968 (the extent of this involvement is debated), as well as a few memorable stunts such as briefly taking control of the University of Strasbourg's student union in 1966.
Its influence is far longer than its actions: the theory of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem informed French postmodernist theory, especially Jean Beaudrillard. Culturally, it provided ideas and raw material for many artistic and protest movements from punk (the Sex Pistols was largely an exercise in situationism) to Adbusters/Occupy to psychogeography.
Foundation and early years
Situationism grew out of a tradition of European, and especially Parisian, avant-garde artistic movements. Before World War II, Paris had been home to Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, with their interest in oppositional politics, manifesto-writing, new modes of perception, and transforming the relation between art, mass media, and life. After World War II, Paris was a bit quieter, though the Romanian-born writer Isidore Isou tried to fill the vacuum with a quixotic artistic movement called Lettrism, which focused on letter poetry (poetry which used strings of letters instead of words or sentences; there was a whole theory about the dissolution of language and meaning behind it). Leading Situationist theorist Guy Debord and artist Gil J Wolman were both members of Isou's Lettrism.
Debord and Wolman quickly broke from Isou to form their own avant-garde group, the Lettrist International. This merged with the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (an offshoot of European art movement CoBrA) and the London Psychogeographical Association to form the Situationist International (SI) in 1957, following the First World Congress Of Liberated Artists in 1956. Like earlier avant-garde movements (André Breton's Surrealism most prominently), Situationists had a mania for schisms and expulsions, so the membership of the movement was rapidly changing. But important figures included:
- Guy Debord: chief theorist and maker of impenetrable films.
- Michele Bernstein: writer and later Debord's wife.
- Gil J Wolman: early figure in Situationism, thrown out after an argument with Debord.
- Alexander Trocchi: the Scottish-Italian writer, known for his heroin abuse and works such as Cain's Book, was briefly involved.
- Asger Jorn: the Danish artist was a leading figure in CoBrA, a north European art movement which sought to return to a primitive childlike art in the wake of World War II. He was prominent in the early years of the SI, and continued to bankroll it by selling paintings long after he moved away ideologically from its members.
- Constant Nieuwenhuys (better known as Constant): important Dutch artist, previously active in CoBrA.
- Ralph Rumney: essentially the only member of the London Psychogeographical Association, he was one of those cult writer/artists/theorists/whatever who produced little actual work but joined a lot of things and was thrown out just as quickly.
The SI produced a range of journals and books. One of the most famous was Debord and Jorn's volume Mémoires, which was bound in sandpaper to mess up whatever books it was shelved next to. This idea was later copied by former Sex Pistol John Lydon for early versions of the Metal Box album by his band PiL.
A small group of Situationists at the University of Strasbourg took advantage of general apathy to seize control in student elections in 1966. They spent the student union's money on Situationist activities: establishing a fake group called The Society for the Rehabilitation for Karl Marx and Ravachol, and publishing André Bertrand's 4-page comic strip "Return of the Durruti Column" and a new Situationist text called On the Poverty of Student Life: A Consideration of Its Economic, Political, Sexual, Psychological and Notably Intellectual Aspects and of a Few Ways to Cure it (De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier).
The Situationists played a small role in the protests in Paris in May 1968, although this influence is often overstated by more dewy-eyed fans. Their chief influence was perhaps in the use of Situationist slogans by protesters, although their brand of anarcho-communism chimed with many of the other protestors.
After the failed uprising, the European left fell into despair and navel-gazing, and the SI was essentially reduced to Debord, who disbanded it in 1972. Debord continued to make films, including Society of the Spectacle (1973) and In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978). He drank himself to death, committing suicide in 1994. In something of a reversal, the French government purchased his personal papers for the nation in 2009.
The ideas of Situationism were largely influenced by the New Left of the 1950s and 1960s and expounded in works such as Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution in Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations; 1967). They opposed both western capitalism and the state communism of the Soviet Union. In contrast, they sought a more radical anarchism, which would arise out of spontaneous revolution, and supported direct democracy via workers' councils, an idea taken from anarcho-communist theory that proved to be influential on May 68. They fêted disaffected youth and juvenile delinquents as a source of revolutionary ideas, rather than focusing on the working class.
One particular influence was the concept of "everyday life" taken from French sociologist Henri Lefebvre. Rather than focusing on abstract ideas, the Situationists worried about the constant micro-pressures of capitalist society, opposing the Leninist idea of present suffering for future socialism. They particularly focused on boredom as an inevitable consequence of capitalism and communism which would have to be defeated to achieve a revolutionary utopia. Their work sometimes feels like the whining of adolescents with nothing to do.
Artistically, their work was connected with the principle of unifying life and art, rather than creating conventional artworks in a modernist idiom. As with Surrealists such as André Breton, they sought new ways of experiencing modern life and the modern city. Key to this was the concept of dérive, based on Baudelaire's flaneur, an individual who would wander the city free from the rules of capitalism and read it in strange new ways. They also sought to turn the materials of capitalism against itself through the practice of détournement which involved changing text and otherwise defacing comic strips, advertising, and other popular and commercial art.
Perhaps the most important new theoretical concept they introduced was that of Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967). This emphasised how mass media and modern capitalism work to create an all-encompassing environment, controlling our actions, stopping us from perceiving anything beyond its creations and thereby imaging any possibility of escape. While this drew on work on the mass media by the Frankfurt School, the concept of "the spectacle" provided a model for the likes of Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson to theorise so-called late capitalism.
The Situationist International appeared to end up an ignominious failure, but its afterlife has been far more productive than its earthly existence.
New Swiss Cinema
One of the first appearances of Situationist ideas outside of the SI itself was in the films that Swiss director Alain Tanner made with British Marxist John Berger in the 1970s, such as Charles, Dead or Alive (about a wealthy capitalist whose daughter is involved in student protests, the film featuring both Situationist slogans and readings from Lefebvre), and Jonah Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000 (about veterans of the 1968 protests reflecting on their despair and broken dreams).
The influence of Situationism on punk is contested. Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, was certainly interested, and incorporated ideas about Situationist pranks into the promotion of his bands, and into the clothes which he and his wife Vivienne Westwood sold. English anarchist group King Mob are the missing link in this theory, flyposting London in praise of Valerie Solanas and planning terrorist attacks in England's Lake District. Record executive and television presenter Tony Wilson and many of the artists signed to his label Factory Records were also influenced by Situationism.
The wider influence of Situationism on punk is debated. American rock journalist Greil Marcus in his influential book Lipstick Traces traced a line from Dadaism, Lettrism, and Situationism to punk. In contrast, British theorist and art provocateur Stewart Home has denied there was any connection between Situationism and punk, claiming punk's roots lay in movements such as the British underground scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Situationist détournement was an influence on groups such as Adbusters and Negativland, who sought to deface or rearrange mass communication to turn its message against itself from one of conformity into one of protest.
The term psychogeography dated back at least to Ralph Rumney in the 1950s. But in the 1990s there began a more coherent artistic movement based on ideas about exploring space, investigating its secret history in terms of revolutionary activity, mental illness, and crime, and transforming how we view the modern city, space, and society. This includes writers WG Sebald, Ian Sinclair, and Will Self; filmmakers Patrick Keiller and Andrew Kötting; and comic book writer Alan Moore. This was influenced by the ideas of the Situationist International about exploring and imaginatively transforming space, as well as drawing on the same Surrealist influences as the SI.
Texts and historiography
The Society of the Spectacle and Revolution of Everyday Life have long been distributed both in the original French and in translation on a copyleft basis, free for non-commercial purposes. Many other Situationist texts have been republished in book form, particularly in French but sometimes in translation.
The most well-known third-party book in English is still Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989). Although this includes some wacky ideas about secret currents underlying European history, it demonstrates considerable research, has cool pictures, and is at least an entertaining read. Stewart Home's The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrism to Class War (2nd ed, AK Press 1991) devotes a few chapters to the movement.
- May 1968 graffiti, Bureau of Public Secrets
- Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem, nothingness.org
- The Assault on Culture, Stewart Home, 1991, ch 5
- The Assault on Culture, Stewart Home, 1991, ch 6
- The resurrection of Guy Debord, Andrew Gallix, The Guardian, 18 Mar 2009
- See the Wikipedia article on Guy Debord.
- Demanding the Impossible, Peter Marshall, 1992, pp. 551-553
- Jean Baudrillard, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Douglas Kellner, 2007
- Cranked up Really High: Genre Theory and Punk Rock, Stewart Home, Ch II
- See the Wikipedia article on culture jamming.
- Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility, Claire Tancons, E-Flux, Dec 2011
- The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011), Counterpunch, 8 Nov 2011
- The Assault on Culture, Stewart Home, 1991