The Situationist International
A Case of Spectacular Neglect
The recent exhibitions of Situationist art and paraphernalia in London, Paris, and Boston, have given the Situationist International (SI) an unprecedented academic and cultural profile. Even during the movement’s most active period, when many of its ideas and practices were realised in the events in France 1968, it received little serious appraisal; to some extent this was because of its insistence that it should be incapable of definition in terms other than its own, but it was also due to the unique quality and nature of its research and the uncomfortable implications of its theses for the cultural and academic establishment. The Situationist International was established in 1957 and published twelve issues of a journal, Internationale Situationniste, until 1969.1 Bringing together the Marxist and avant-garde traditions in a critique of the totality of everyday life, the movement developed a project of extraordinary scope and ambition which transcended traditional demarcations between disciplines and at the same time developed an overt commitment to social revolution.
There remains a reluctance to consider the full spectrum of Situationist ideas today. The movement is still presented as an artistic or cultural school akin to Surrealism, and the philosophical and political problems with which it engaged are largely ignored. The following discussion goes some way towards correcting this neglect with an indication of the relevance of Situationist ideas to contemporary political and philosophical debate and a consideration of the historical and intellectual contexts in which the Situationists worked.
The Society of the Spectacle
Many political theorists of the postwar period produced critiques of the ‘consumer society’ in their efforts to adapt or supersede the Marxist analysis of capitalism. Marcuse, Cardon, and Lefebvre were amongst those who considered the buoyancy of the economy and the apparent changes in class and political structure to be the real and enduring features of capitalist society; for some, such as Marcuse, this involved the postulation of the end or transformation of the working class and necessitated a radical revision of ideas about social revolution. The Situationists agreed that consumption was assuming an unprecedented significance in the postwar period, but they used this position to argue for an extension of the notion of the proletariat to include all those who experienced a loss of control over their lives, whether as consumers or producers of commodities. They applied the Marxist conception of alienation to every area of everyday life and argued that the development of capitalism entailed the extension of the means, the objects, and intensity of alienated experience. For the Situationists, no area of experience is free from the permeation of capitalist relations of production and consumption; the members of capitalist societies are reduced to the level of spectators of a world which precludes their participation.
The SI argued that every experience of absence and alienation is produced by the capitalist system of relations, so that, although specific to class society, alienation appears to bear all the attributes of an inevitable and all-pervasive human condition. They characterised capitalism as the society of the spectacle: a realm in which everything is removed from real experience and becomes an inverted representation of itself. The spectacle circumscribes reality and any experience or discourse which arises within it becomes spectacularised. Ordinary gestures and the activities of daily life are packaged as glamorous and seductive; commodities come complete with preordained roles and lifestyles; and even dissent and critique are commodified and sold to those who experience and produce them. The conformist, the nihilist and the revolutionary are amongst the roles which can be chosen within the spectacle; commodified and alienated, they have an equivalence which denies their intrinsic significance. The most banal of gestures is glamorised and imposed: washing powders, confectionery, drinks and household appliances are advertised along with idealised images of those who use them and the homes, relationships, and patterns of behaviour in which they do so.
This makes it increasingly difficult to use an advertised commodity without assuming or rejecting the projected image; either way, one acts with reference to it. ‘The mechanism of the spectacle wields such force that private life reaches the point of being defined as that which is deprived of spectacle; the fact that one escapes roles and categories is experienced as an additional privation. ‘2 Similarly, just as new students acquire superfluous collections of paper, pens, books which will never be read, filofaxes, suitable wardrobes and record collections, any role is accompanied by a host of often unwanted commodities, attitudes and gestures which constitute the badge of participation and promise some reality to one’s life.
1. The twelve issues of the journal are collected in Internationale Situationniste 1958-1969 (Champ Libre, Paris, 1975), and substantial excerpts are collected in the Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, 1981). The edition which preceded Ken Knabb’s anthology was Leaving the Twentieth Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International edited by Christopher Gray and published in London by Free Fall Press, 1974. A full index, bibliography, list of members, and chronology of the movement is published by Jean-Jacques Raspaud and Jean-Pierre Voyer, L’Internationale Situationniste: protagonistes, chronologies, bibliographie (avec un index des noms insultes) (Champ Libre, Paris, 1971), and a thorough history of the movement from 1952 to 1972 is presented in Jean-Francois Martos, Histoire de L’ Internationale Situationniste, Editions Gerard Lebovici, Paris, 1989). The major texts published by the movement are Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Black and Red, Detroit, no date), and Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, no place, 1983).
2. Raoul Vaneigem, ‘Banalites de Base’, Internationale Situationniste No. 8, 1963, translated as ‘Basic Banalities’ in Situationist International Anthology, op. cit., p. 129.