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.