The slogans scrawled across the walls of Paris in May 1968 suggest possibilities most of us have forgotten or that were long ago deemed preposterous. "Never work!" said one slogan. "The more you consume the less you live!" warned another. The words, restless and uncompromising, ask you to wake up, to change your life, to find a better way to live.
At its zenith in the late 1960s, the Situationist International could claim that "our ideas are in everyone's mind," even though the SI itself never had more than a few dozen members. When the whole world was exploding in 1968, the Situationist texts that had appeared throughout the decade read like road maps for revolution, full of slogans and tactics that youthful rebels picked up en route to wildly varying destinations.
Nearly forgotten after their dissolution in 1972, the Situationist legacy was recovered in 1989 with the publication of Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, which purported to trace the subterranean relationships between medieval heresy, nineteenth-century utopianism, Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, soul music and punk rock.
Today, Situationism exerts considerable--though often unacknowledged and depoliticized--influence over academic discourse and artistic practice in many media. It also plays a role in shaping the movement for global justice (or the "antiglobalization movement," as its critics like to call it), from Naomi Klein's book No Logo to the magazine Adbusters to the proliferating network of Independent Media Centers. Kept alive by a stream of reprints, anthologies and retrospectives from mostly anarchist presses, the Situationist critique continues to gain fresh adherents.
The most recent anthology, Beneath the Paving Stones: Situationists and the Beach, May 1968, includes three major Situationist pamphlets, along with eyewitness accounts, photographs, poster art, leaflets and other documents of France's almost-revolution. City Lights, meanwhile, has published what is the inaugural volume of its "Contributions to the History of the Situationist International and Its Time," a long conversation with Jean-Michel Mension called The Tribe.
Jean-Michel Mension was a petty criminal and teenage drunk who hung around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris from 1952 to 1954. There he met the Lettrists, a movement of poets and painters founded in the late 1940s by Isidore Isou in response to the growing impotence of Surrealism, and taught them to smoke hash, snort ether and consume heroic amounts of alcohol. It was in this capacity that Mension met Guy Debord, the bookish filmmaker who would later become the chief theorist of the SI.
In the photos throughout The Tribe, Debord is bespectacled and a bit short, resembling a young Woody Allen. Yet his slight physical stature belied a ferocious intellect and messianic personality, one that Marcus in Lipstick Traces identifies in young rebels from eighteenth-century blasphemer Saint-Just to punk rocker Johnny Rotten. "His instincts," says Marcus, "are basically cruel; his manner is intransigent.... He is beyond temptation, because despite his utopian rhetoric satisfaction is the last thing on his mind.... He trails bitter comrades behind him like Hansel his breadcrumbs."
Debord, says Mension, was fascinated by outlaws and by the prisons and reformatories where they could be found. Not that Debord was destined for prison--Mension notes that he lived a "very bourgeois" lifestyle, once finding his friend at home in Rue Racine "in the role of a gent in a dressing gown." Like the Beats in America (correctly characterized by the SI as "that right wing of the youth revolt"), the Lettrists saw in antisocial behavior the revolt they longed for. The young, said Isou in 1953, were "slaves, tools...the property of others, regardless of class, because they have no real freedom of choice...to win real independence they must revolt against their very nonexistence." Mension was a model for the Lettrists in that he refused to be a slave or a tool, was "always on the margins," always drunk.
"Guy taught me stuff about thinkers," says Mension, "and I taught him stuff about practice, action." Young men like Isou and Debord needed delinquents like Mension, whom they later expelled from the Lettrists for being "merely decorative." Mension was not an intellectual and did not pretend to be. "I was a youngster," says Mension, "who had done things that [Debord] was incapable of doing.... I was the existential principle and he was the theoretician."
Even in his own memoir, Mension comes off as the object of others' interpretations rather than as an active subject. The most engaging parts of The Tribe are not the conversations with Mension, who is vague and noncommittal about the great ideas of his day, but the photographs and excerpts of Lettrist writing that appear in the margins of the book. For example: "We are young and good-looking," says their leaflet against Charlie Chaplin, whom they deemed an artistic and political sellout, "and when we hear suffering we reply Revolution." Combining ironic arrogance with self-righteous anger, their words will be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with the rhetoric of youth revolt. The Tribe is not the place to go if you are trying to understand Lettrism and its influence on other movements, but it is a charming sketch of a time and place where characters like Mension and Debord collided to create new ways of living and thinking.
In 1957 Guy Debord met with avant-garde artists and theorists from around Europe to found a new group, which would be devoted to creating situations: "moment[s] of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events." The Situationists were leftists in the tradition of Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, but like the Lettrists they embraced youth as agents of revolutionary change--a mad and astonishingly prescient challenge to the sociological orthodoxy of their time. They also developed a radical new vision of how capital shapes culture and society.
"In the primitive phase of capitalist accumulation," writes Debord in his 1967 treatise The Society of the Spectacle, "political economy sees the proletarian only as the worker," who receives only enough compensation to survive. When the surplus of commodities reaches a certain level, however, it becomes necessary for capitalism to extract "a surplus of collaboration from the worker." As Henry Ford famously remarked, he had to pay his assembly-line workers enough so that they could afford to buy his cars. Thus was born the culture of consumption--and the society of the spectacle.
"The spectacle," says Debord, is "capital accumulated until it becomes an image" that mediates social relations among people, serving the needs and obscuring the power of capital. In the spectacular economy, all daily life and everything related to thought--sports, advertising, news, school, etc.--is mobilized on behalf of commodities, preaching work and consumption to the powerless so that the owners may prosper and live more fully. Unlike the rest of the Marxist left, the Situationists did not target scarcity, but instead abundance and the contradictions it entailed--especially boredom, which they saw as an ultramodern, artificially created method of social control.
According to Situationism, revolution in the spectacular economy cannot be waged only at the point of industrial production, as Marxists thought, but also at points of consumption and in the realm of image. It was at these points that alienation was deepest, the contradictions sharpest. By destroying the symbols that stand between the owners and nonowners, the underlying machinations of capital might be revealed. The proletariat was still a revolutionary class, but one joined by students, alienated youth and media workers. In 1966, a group of students used their posts in the student government at the University of Strasbourg to publish a stick of dynamite called "On the Poverty of Student Life," by SI member Mustapha Khayati. Thousands of copies were distributed to students at Strasbourg and throughout France, lighting a fuse that eventually ignited a general strike of students and workers in 1968. This is where Beneath the Paving Stones begins, with the moment in which Situationism broke through to its contemporaries.
Snotty and provocative, "On the Poverty of Student Life" asks students "to live instead of devising a lingering death, and to indulge untrammeled desire." By doing so, the erstwhile students would create a situation that goes beyond the point of no return. The spectacle and the mode of hierarchical, exploitative production it represents would be destroyed, replaced (rather magically, it must be said) by workers' councils practicing direct democracy and free individuals living without false desires. Voilà! Utopia!
"On the Poverty of Student Life" popularized ("diffused") the Situationist critique, but the centerpiece of Beneath the Paving Stones is "The Totality for Kids," by Raoul Vaneigem. In thirty elliptical sections, Vaneigem takes the reader from the "prehistoric food-gathering age" to the spectacular information economy and then to the point of revolution. There, says Vaneigem, the dispossessed must each seize their own lives, deliberately constructing each moment in a generalized conflict that stretches from domestic squabbles to classrooms to shop-floor struggles. It's a conception of revolution that encompasses feminism, black power, student power, anticolonial revolt, workers' control and even avant-garde artistic movements.
While Situationist writings, powerful and still relevant, deserve their perennial revival, Beneath the Paving Stones falters by not criticizing and updating Situationist theory and practice. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is simply not possible to present the events of 1968 without indulging in a certain radical nostalgia. Not only has postmodernism depoliticized or challenged many Situationist ideas (particularly reader-response theories arguing that nonowners actively participate in shaping the spectacle) but the Situationist legacy is often embraced by radical movements that forget to ask what happened after 1968. They certainly knew how to throw a great party, but they were not particularly interested in the details. The Situationist International ended its life fragmented, isolated, defeated. No other movement or organization was ever pure enough for them, and as personality conflicts and expulsions diminished their ranks, self-indulgent tactics limited their influence.
One can see this self-destructive tendency emerging early on, in the works and lives of those proto-punks, the Lettrists. By seeking to live without contradictions, on the margins where they had the freedom to construct their own daily lives--"we must survive," says Vaneigem, "as antisurvivors"--the Lettrists sacrificed their ability to attack those contradictions. The empty space in Situationist theory, as in many others, lies between constructing individual moments and changing the world. The Surrealists once sought to fill that space with official Communism, but were ultimately forced by Stalinism to sacrifice the subconscious for Socialist Realism. The Situationists learned from their sad example, taking a path that has left their ideas intact but confined to the realm of anthologies and retrospectives. Romanticizing their integrity might be useful, but fetishizing their failure is not. Situationism must be surpassed if it is ever to make a difference.
Recalling what took place before,
We must implore Al Gore: No more.
We have reached the point that the idea of liberty, an idea relatively recent and new, is already in the process of fading from our consciences and our standards of morality, the point that neoliberal globalization is in the process of assuming its opposite: that of a global police state, of a terror of security. Deregulation has ended in maximum security, in a level of restriction and constraint equivalent to that found in fundamentalist societies.--Jean Baudrillard, "L'Esprit du Terrorisme,"
reprinted in Harper's Magazine, February 2002
Sorry to have missed my column deadline. I got delayed at the airport. I was intending to write about the progress of the war on war. I wanted to write about how similar are the wars of words being used in the war on terrorism, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy and the war on hunger. I had intended to explore the ramifications of terms like "axis of evil," "triumvirate of terror," "parasites" and the concept of "taking no prisoners" (just detainees).
If I hadn't been delayed, I meant to talk about the war stories we're telling ourselves. That the Geneva Conventions aren't such a big thing. There's just no time for Miranda rights. Civil rights are just not needed. Got to break a few rules to enforce the law.
I was thinking that maybe I am just behind the times. While I wasn't looking, we moved on to less law, more New World Order. It's sort of a military order, as it turns out. It's a religious order too, what with our taxes becoming tithes for Faith Based Initiatives, Soldiers of Fortune and born-again Armies of Compassion.
But order it is, and you've got to admit, an ordered society is a nice and tidy one. Enemies are secretly and sanitarily disposed of. The media are controlled to provide only uplifting images of clean conquest and happy, grateful multitudes. Noisy protesters are swept into neat piles, like leaves. The government encourages village snoops and urban gossips to volunteer their infinite time and darkest thoughts as a way of keeping the rest of us in line. And I don't know much about Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, but you've got to say this for him: that bias-cut green silk tunic worn over relaxed-fit, wool/linen blend trousers has become "le must" of the fashion world. No wonder Bush is up for that Nobel Peace Prize.
Anyway, that's what I was going to write about, but I didn't have time because I had to take a flight to Philadelphia and I was late because the old man who lives on the next block put his head in my car window as I was about to drive off and he wouldn't remove it while he told me all about how he's our new neighborhood volunteer-for-victory monitor or some such, and he wanted to take an inventory right there and then of any supplies I might have in my house that would be useful in case of national emergency. Any gas masks? Generators? Cell phones? Cudgels? Axes? Prescription drugs?
"Band-Aids," I offered politely. "And could we possibly do this another time?"
"How many people live in your house?" he persisted. "And didn't I see you pushing a baby carriage the other day?"
"Not in many years," I say.
"But I'm sure it was you," he pressed. At that instant I was visited by a very clear image of him on the witness stand. He is white-haired and gentle-eyed, firm-voiced and credible. Even I wanted to believe him so much that I forgot that I had not yet been charged with anything.
When I finally got to the airport I went through the abasements of security, a ritual cleansing of the sort practiced at maximum security prisons: I removed my shoes. I took off my coat. I held out my arms. A guard in a rakish blue beret bestowed apologies like a rain of blessings as she wanded my armpits. "You have an underwire in your bra?" she asked. "You mind if I feel?"
It is hard to be responsive to such a prayer with any degree of grace. It is ceremonial, I know, a warding off of strip-search hell. "Not at all," I intoned, as though singing in Latin.
Another agent was going through my bags. He removed my nail clippers from the intimacy of my makeup pouch and discarded them in a large vat filled with hundreds of nail clippers. A proper sacrifice, I think. I imagine they will distribute them to the poor.
The agent put on rubber gloves and opened my thermos and swirled the coffee around. He removed the contents of my purse and spread it out. When he picked up my leatherbound diary and flipped slowly through the pages, a balloon of irreligiosity exploded at the back of my head, and I could feel the hair rise up, as it does sometimes, getting all militant despite my best prostrations of mousse.
"My diary?" I said as evenly as I could. "This is getting like the old Soviet Union."
"So, you visited the Soviet Union...?" he asked, a glinty new interest hardening what had been his prior languor.
Anyway, I finally got to where I was going. And on my way back from Philadelphia, I wasn't searched at all. They stopped the woman just in front of me, though, and there she stood, shoeless and coatless, with the tampons from her purse emptied upon the altar of a plastic tray. Once on the plane, she and I commiserated, and then the oddest thing happened. Others around us joined in about how invaded and humiliated they felt when searched. The conversation spread across the aisle, then to the seat in front, the row in back. It grew to about five rows of people, all angry at the overseers, all suspicious, all disgruntled and afraid. I was, I admit, strangely relieved to see that we were not only black or brown; we were men and women, white and Asian, young kids, old designer suits. There was a weird, sad kind of unity in our vulnerability, this helplessness of ours. But there was a scary emotional edge to the complaining, a kind of heresy that flickered through it too. What a baffled little coterie we were. Equal opportunity at last.
Anyway, dear editor, that, in short, is why this is not a column. I was having a really bad hair day.
From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. In 1965, he wrote about the power of demonstrations and "legislation written in the streets."
Two months ago, I wrote a piece for the "The Los Angeles Times" proposing that Afghan civilians who had lost relatives, limbs, homes and businesses due to e...
George W. Bush wants to drain the Social Security trust fund, with a proposal to divert more than $2 trillion in Social Security and Medicaresurpluses over the next ten years.
George W. Bush wants to cut 30 percent of the funding from the federal program that trains doctors at children's hospitals.
George W. Bush wants to cut Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs that help Americans heat their homes in winter by 15 percent.
Rare is the evening when we would suggest that turning on the television set could represent the best way to study up on a vital issue -- especially so complex an issue as the damage done to workers, the environment and democracy by the North American Free Trade Agreement. For the most part, we would argue that reading a newspaper or magazine would be the better route to knowledge.
Â Â Â Â Â Â But Tuesday, February 5, is different. Â Â Â Â Â Â Author and commentator Bill Moyers, whose rare, documentary-style reports are the closest thing to serious investigative reporting on broadcast television these days, will focus his attention on one of the least-examined stories in America today. "Bill Moyers Reports: Trading Democracy" (PBS stations on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 10 p.m. EST, check local listings) examines the way in which NAFTA restrictions on barriers to trade are being used by multinational corporations to overturn environmental protections enacted by governments in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Â Â Â Â Â Â "When the North American Free Trade Agreement became the law of the land almost a decade ago, the debate we heard was about jobs," explains Moyers, in a discussion of the program. "One provision was too obscure to stir up controversy. It was called Chapter Eleven, and it was supposedly written to protect investors from having their property seized by foreign governments. But since NAFTA was ratified, corporations have used Chapter Eleven to challenge the powers of government to protect its citizens, to undermine environmental and health laws, even to attack our system of justice."
Few presidents in the history of the United States have been given the opportunity handed George W. Bush to lead the nation to higher ground.
No president, with the possible exception of the current chief executive's father, has ever blown so great an opportunity so completely.
Maintaining an approval rating that "popular" presidents such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton would have gladly traded a vice president to register, Bush could have used last week's State of the Union address to turn a moment of rare national unity and resolve into the stuff of greatness.
The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline--an unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this farcical project, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1), Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because they are leading the life of the mind--why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu's gloomy predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward journalism and entertainment.
Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and political issues, something he suspected couldn't be done on a talk show. His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in everything from amateur photography to posture. It's hard to think of a comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky's academic work has no connection with his political activities, and it's been decades since his byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.
Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself "to the left of the left"--that is, to the left of the ossified French left-wing parties and also to the left of the academic postmodernists aka antifoundationalists, about whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of habitus--the formation and expression of self around an internalized and usually accurate sense of social destiny--tends to make ameliorative projects seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, "discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such despair." Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high culture readily available--in free museums and local performances--is all that is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today's America, this fond hope marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of de Gaulle's minister of culture, André Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way class shapes cultural preferences or "taste," there is nothing automatic or natural about the ability to "appreciate"--curious word--a Rothko or even a Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. Typically, though, Bourdieu used this discouraging insight to call for more, not less, effort to make culture genuinely accessible to all: Schools could help give working-class kids the cultural capital--another key Bourdieusian concept--that middle-class kids get from their families. One could extend that insight to the American context and argue that depriving working-class kids of the "frills"--art, music, trips--in the name of "the basics" is not just stingy or philistine, it's a way of maintaining class privilege.
Although Bourdieu has been criticized as too deterministic--a few years ago The New Yorker characterized his views, absurdly, as leading "inexorably to Leninism"--he retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, including much gathered by himself, a faith in people's capacities for transformation. He spent much of his life studying the part played by the French education system in reifying class and gender divisions and in selecting and shaping the academic, technocratic and political elite--the "state nobility"--that runs France, but he believed in education; he railed against the popularization and vulgarization of difficult ideas, but he believed in popular movements and took part in several. In one of his last books, Masculine Domination, he comes close to arguing that male chauvinism is a cultural universal that structures all society and all thought; he is that rare man who chastises feminists for not going far enough--but the book closes with a paean to love.
Bourdieu's twenty-five books and countless articles represent probably the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era. Nonetheless, he is less influential on the American academic left than the (to my mind, not to mention his!) obscurantist and, at bottom, conservative French deconstructionists and antifoundationalists. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that Bourdieu made academia and intellectuals a major subject of withering critique: You can't read him and believe, for example, that professors (or "public intellectuals," or writers, or artists) stand outside the class system in some sort of unmediated relation to society and truth. The ground most difficult to see is always the patch one is standing on, and the position of the intellectuals, the class that thinks it is free-floating, is the most mystified of all. It was not the least of Bourdieu's achievements that he offered his colleagues the means of self-awareness, and it's not surprising either that many decline the offer. His odd and original metaphor of the task of sociology holds both a message and a warning: "Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their spotlight on our blinkers."