The Situationist International
) was a small group of international political and artistic agitators
with roots in Marxism
and the early 20th century European artistic and political avant-gardes
. Formed in 1957, the SI was active in Europe through the 1960s and aspired to major social and political transformations. In the 1960s it split into a number of different groups, including the Situationist Bauhaus, the Antinational and the Second Situationist International
. The first SI disbanded in 1972.
Etymology and definitions
The first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste
defined situationist as: "having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. One who engages in the construction of situations. A member of the Situationist International". The same journal defined situationism
as "a meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists."
The SI was formed at a meeting in the Italian village of Cosio d'Arroscia
on 28 July 1957
with the fusion of several extremely small avant-garde
artistic tendencies: the Lettrist International
, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus
(an off-shoot of COBRA
), and the London Psychogeographical Association
. The groups came together intending to reawaken the radical political potential of surrealism
. The group also later drew ideas from the left communist group Socialisme ou Barbarie
Already in 1950, the Lettrist International was very active in perpetrating public outrages such as the Notre-Dame Affair. At the Easter mass at Notre Dame de Paris, they infiltrated Michel Mourre, who, dressed like a monk, "stood in front of the altar and read a pamphlet proclaiming that God was dead".
- See also Members of the Situationist International.
The most prominent French member of the group, Guy Debord
, has tended to polarise opinion. Other members included the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys
, the Italo-Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi
, the English artist Ralph Rumney
(sole member of the London Psychogeographical Association, Rumney suffered expulsion relatively soon after the formation of the Situationist International), the Scandinavian artist Asger Jorn
(who after parting with the SI also founded the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism
), the architect and veteran of the Hungarian Uprising Attila Kotanyi
, the French writer Michele Bernstein
, and Raoul Vaneigem
. Debord and Bernstein later married.
brothers Jørgen Nash
and Asger Jorn
formed the Situationist Bauhaus
in 1960, purchasing a farm in southern Sweden, where they continued with various artistic and political activities.
Second Situationist International
The SI experienced splits and expulsions from its beginning. The most prominent split in the group, in 1962, resulted in the Paris section retaining the name Situationist International while excluding the German section, who as Gruppe SPUR
had merged into the SI in 1959. The excluded group declared themselves The Second Situationist International
and based themselves at the Bauhaus in Sweden.
While the entire history of the Situationists was marked by their impetus to revolutionize life, the split was characterised by Vaneigem (of the French section), and by many subsequent critics, as marking a transition in the French group from the Situationist view of revolution possibly taking an "artistic" form to an involvement in "political" agitation. Asger Jorn continued to fund both groups with the proceeds of his works of art.
One way or another, the currents which the SI took as predecessors saw their purpose as involving a radical redefinition of the role of art in the twentieth century. The Situationists themselves took a dialectical viewpoint, seeing their task as superseding art, abolishing the notion of art as a separate, specialized activity and transforming it so it became part of the fabric of everyday life. From the Situationist's viewpoint, art is revolutionary or it is nothing. In this way, the Situationists saw their efforts as completing the work of both Dada and surrealism while abolishing both. Still, the Situationists answered the question "What is revolutionary?" differently at different times.
The Situationist Antinational was published in New York for a short while in the 1970s, after the dissolution of the SI in 1972. Those responsible were members of the American section of the SI, as well as members of the Situationist Bauhaus and the Second Situationist International.
The Situationists played a central theoretic role in the theory underlying the 1968 uprisings. They also made up the majority in the Sorbonne Occupation Committee.
An important event leading up to May 1968 was the scandal in Strasbourg in December 1966. The Union Nationale des Étudiants de France
declared itself in favor of the SI's theses, and managed to use public funds to publish Mustapha Khayati
's pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life
. Thousands of copies of the pamphlet were printed and circulated and helped to make the Situationists well known throughout the nonstalinist left.
Quotes from two key situationist books, Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Khayati's On the Poverty of Student Life (1966), were written on the walls of Paris and several provincial cities.
Those who followed the "artistic" view of the SI might view the evolution of the SI as producing a more boring or dogmatic organization. Those following the political view would see the May 1968 uprisings as a logical outcome of the SI's dialectical approach: while savaging present day society, they sought a revolutionary society which would embody the positive tendencies of capitalist development. The "realization and suppression of art" is simply the most developed of the many dialectical supersessions which the SI sought over the years. For the Situationist International of 1968, the world triumph of workers councils would bring about all these supersessions.
Though the SI were a very small group, they were expert self-propagandists, and their slogans appeared daubed on walls throughout Paris at the time of the revolt. SI member René Viénet's 1968 book Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement, France, May '68 gives an account of the involvement of the SI with the student group of Enragés and the occupation of the Sorbonne.
The occupations of 1968 started at the University of Nanterre and spread to the Sorbonne. The police tried to take back the Sorbonne and a riot ensued. Following this a general strike was declared with up to 10 million workers participating. The SI originally participated in the Sorbonne occupations and defended barricades in the riots. The SI distributed calls for the occupation of factories and the formation of workers’ councils, but, disillusioned with the students, left the university to set up The Council For The Maintenance Of The Occupations (CMDO) which distributed the SI’s demands on a much wider scale. After the end of the movement, the CMDO disbanded.
Key ideas in Situationist theory
Ideas central to Situationist theory include:
- Situgraphy and Situlogy: Drawing from the artistic Lettrist praxis of hypergraphy as well as older developments in mathematics and topology in Henri Poincare's Analysis Situs, the main theorist of the SI Asger Jorn formulated theories of plastic, anti-Euclidean geometry and topology which was at the heart of Situationist critiques of urbanism and other manifestations of contemporary capitalist culture and politics.
- The Situation: this concept, central to the SI, was defined in the first issue of their journal as "A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events." As the SI embraced dialectical Marxism, the situation came to refer less to a specific avant-garde practice than to the dialectical unification of art and life more generally. Beyond this theoretical definition, the situation as a practical manifestation thus slipped between a series of proposals. The SI thus were first led to distinguish the situation from the mere artistic practice of the beat happening, and later identified it in historical events such as the Paris Commune or the Watts riots, and eventually not with partial insurrections, but with total revolution itself.
- The Spectacle: Debord's 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle attempted to provide the SI with a Marxian critical theory. The concept of 'the spectacle' expanded to all society the Marxist concept of reification drawn from Marx's Das Kapital, entitled "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof" and developed by Georg Lukács. This was an analysis of the logic of commodities whereby they achieve an ideological autonomy from the process of their production, so that “social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.” (Marx, Capital) Developing this analysis of the logic of the commodity, The Society of the Spectacle generally understood society as divided between the passive subject who consumes the spectacle and the reified spectacle itself.
- Unitary urbanism: "Unitary urbanism is one of the central concerns of the SI" (Internationale Situationniste #3, December 1959). This was originally developed by the Lettrist International and the International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus, and then taken up by the SI. This development marked a move away from metagraphy and towards the use of Dérive and psychogeography and also situgraphy. Following expulsions and the move towards the theory of the spectacle, UU became a lesser concern for the SI in later years. See separate articles on Unitary urbanism, Dérive, and psychogeography.
- Recuperation: "To survive, the spectacle must have social control. It can recuperate a potentially threatening situation by shifting ground, creating dazzling alternatives- or by embracing the threat, making it safe and then selling it back to us" – Larry Law, from The Spectacle- The Skeleton Keys, a 'Spectacular Times pocket book.
- Detournement: "short for: detournement of pre-existing aesthetic elements. The integration of past or present artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no Situationist painting or music, but only a Situationist use of these means.", Internationale Situationiste Issue 1, June 1958.
- One could view detournement as forming the opposite side of the coin to 'recuperation' (where radical ideas and images become safe and commodified), in that images produced by the spectacle get altered and subverted so that rather than supporting the status quo, their meaning becomes changed in order to put across a more radical or oppositionist message.
- The concept of detournement has had a popular influence amongst contemporary radicals, and the technique can be seen in action in the present day when looking at the work of Culture Jammers including the Cacophony Society, Billboard Liberation Front, and Adbusters, whose 'subvertisements' 'detourn' Nike adverts, for example. In this case the original advertisement's imagery is altered in order to draw attention to said company's policy of shifting their production base to cheap-labour third-world 'free trade zones'. However, the line between 'recuperation' and 'detournement' can become thin (or at least very fuzzy) at times, as Naomi Klein points out in her book No Logo. Here she details how corporations such as Nike, Pepsi or Diesel have approached Culture Jammers and Adbusters (sometimes successfully) and offered them lucrative contracts in return for partaking in 'ironic' promotional campaigns. She points out further irony by drawing attention to merchandising produced in order to promote Adbusters' Buy Nothing day, an example of the recuperation of detournement if ever there was one. Klein's arguments about irony reifying rather than breaking down power structures is echoed by Slavoj Zizek. Zizek argues that the kind of distance opened up by detournement is the condition of possibility for ideology to operate: by attacking and distancing oneself from the sign-systems of capital, the subject creates a fantasy of transgression that "covers up" his/her actual complicity with capitalism as an overarching system. In contrast, evoLhypergrapHyCx are very fond of pointing out the differences between hypergraphics, 'detournement', the postmodern idea of appropriation and the Neoist use of plagiarism as the use of different and similar techniques used for different and similar means, effects and causes.
- Another (possibly less contentious) extension of the concept of detournement lies within the technique of sampling in music production.
- "Live without dead time" - Vivez sans temps mort - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
- "I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires" - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
- "What beautiful and priceless potlatches the affluent society will see – whether it likes it or not! – when the exuberance of the younger generation discovers the pure gift; a growing passion for stealing books, clothes, food, weapons or jewelry simply for the pleasure of giving them away"- Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life
- "Be realistic - demand the impossible!" - Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible! - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
- "Beneath the paving stones - the beach!" - Sous les pavés, la plage! - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
- "Never work" - Ne travaillez jamais - Anonymous graffiti, rue de Seine Paris 1952
- "Down with a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation has been purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom." - Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life
- "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 a corpse in their mouth"- Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life
Critics of the Situationists frequently assert that their ideas are not in fact complex and difficult to understand, but are at best simple ideas expressed in deliberately difficult language, and at worst actually nonsensical. For example, anarchist Chaz Bufe
asserts that "obscure situationist jargon" is a major problem in the anarchist scene.
Influence and legacy
Situationist ideas have continued to echo profoundly through many aspects of culture and politics in Europe and the USA. Even in their own time, with limited translations of their dense theoretical texts, combined with their very successful self-mythologisation, the term 'situationist' was often used to refer to any rebel or outsider, rather than to a body of surrealist-inspired Marxist critical theory. As such, the term 'Situationist' and those of 'spectacle' and 'detournement' have often been decontextualised and recuperated.
In political terms, in the 1960s and 1970s elements of Situationist critique influenced anarchists, Communists and other leftists, with various emphases and interpretations which combine Situationist concepts more or less successfully with a variety of other perspectives. Examples of these groups include: in Amsterdam, the Provos; in the UK, King Mob, the producers of Heatwave magazine (who later briefly joined the SI), and the Angry Brigade. In the US, groups like Black Mask (later Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers), The Weathermen, and the Rebel Worker group also explicitly employed their ideas.
Starting in the 1970s, Situationist ideas were taken up by a number of anarchist theorists, such as Fredy Perlman, Bob Black, Hakim Bey, and John Zerzan, who developed the SI's ideas in various directions away from Marxism. These theorists were predominantly associated with the magazines Fifth Estate, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, and Green Anarchy. Later anarchist theorists such as the CrimethInc. collective also claim Situationist influence. During the early 1980s English anarchist Larry Law produced a series of 'pocket-books' under the name of Spectacular Times which aimed to make Situationist ideas more easily assimilated into the anarchist movement.
Situationist urban theory, defined initially by the members of the Lettrist International as 'Unitary Urbanism', was extensively developed through the behavioural and performance structures of The Workshop for Non-Linear Architecture during the 1990s. The re-emergence of the London Psychogeographical Association also inspired many new pscyhogeographical groups including Manchester Area Psychogeographic. The LPA and the Neoist Alliance along with the Luther Blissett Project came together to form a New Lettrist International with a specifically Communist perspective. Around this time, Unpopular Books and the LPA released some key texts including new translations of Asger Jorn's work.
Around this time also, groups such as Reclaim the Streets and Adbusters have, respectively, seen themselves as 'creating situations' or practicing detournement on advertisements.
In cultural terms, the SI's influence has been even greater, if more diffuse. The list of cultural practices which claim a debt to the SI is almost limitless, but there are some prominent examples:
- Situationist ideas exerted a strong influence on the design language of the punk rock phenomenon of the 1970s. To a significant extent this came about due to the adoption of the style and aesthetics and sometimes slogans employed by the Situationists (though these latter were often second hand, via English pro-Situs such as King Mob and Jamie Reid). In the late 1970s, Factory Records owner Tony Wilson was known to have been influenced by these ideas. One Factory Records band influenced by the SI was The Durutti Column, which took its name from Andre Bertrand's collage Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti. Bertrand, in turn, took his title from the anarchist group of the same name of the Spanish Civil War. In 1978, the U.S. group the Feederz was formed and exhibited a more direct and conscious influence. They became known for their extensive use of the Situationist tactic of 'detournement' and for their lack of hesitation to provoke their audience in expounding Situationist themes. Other musical artists have included buzzwords from the SI's critical theory in their lyrics, such as the Manic Street Preachers, the Nation of Ulysses, and Joan of Arc. Situationist theory experienced a vogue in the late '90s hardcore punk scene, being referenced by Orchid, His Hero Is Gone, and CrimethInc..
- Situationist practices allegedly continue to influence underground street artists such as Banksy, gHOSTbOY, Borf, NeverWork, and Mudwig, whose artistic interventions and subversive practice can be seen on advertising hoardings, street signs, and walls throughout Europe and the United States.
- One can also trace situationist ideas within the development of other avant-garde threads such as Neoism, Seahorse Liberation Army, Nation of Ulysses, Libre Society, and Mark Divo.
- Some hacker related e-zines, which like samizdat were distributed via email and FTP over early internet links and BBS quoted and developed ideas coming from SI. A few of them were N0 Way, N0 Route, UHF, in France; and early Phrack, CDC in the US. More recently, writers such as Thomas de Zengotita in "Mediated" wrote something which holds the spirit of the Situationists, describing the society of the "roaring zeroes" (i.e. 2000-).
Twelve issues of the journal Internationale Situationniste
were published, each issue edited by a different individual or group, including: Guy Debord
, Mohamed Dahoiu
, Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio
, Maurice Wyckaert
, Constant Nieuwenhuys
, Asger Jorn
, Hlemout Sturm
, Attila Kotanyi
, Jørgen Nash
, Uwe Lausen
, Raoul Vaneigem
, Michèle Bernstein
, Jeppesen Victor Martin
, Jan Stijbosch
, Alexander Trocchi
, Théo Frey
, Mustapha Khayati
, Donald Nicholson-Smith
, René Riesel
, and René Viénet
Classic Situationist texts include: On the Poverty of Student Life, Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, and The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem.
The first English-language collection of SI writings, although poorly and freely translated, was Leaving The 20th Century edited by Christopher Gray. The Situationist International Anthology edited and translated by Ken Knabb, collected numerous SI documents which had previously never been seen in English.
Writings on the SI
- Black, Bob The Realization and Suppression of Situationism
- Ford, Simon The Situationist International: A User's Guide (Black Dog, London, 2004) ISBN 1-904772-05-6
- Home, Stewart The Assault on Culture: Utopian currents from Lettrisme to Class War (Aporia Press and Unpopular Books, London, 1988) ISBN 0-948518-88-X
- Marcus, Greil Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 1990) ISBN 0-674-53581-2
- Plant, Sadie The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age (Routledge, 1992) ISBN 0-415-06222-5
- Sadler, Simon The Situationist City (MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1998) ISBN 0-262-69225-2
- Slater, Howard "Divided We Stand: An Outline of Scandinavian Situationism"
- Vachon, Marc L’arpenteur de la ville: L’utopie situationniste et Patrick Straram (Les Éditions Triptyque, Montreal, 2003) ISBN 2-89031-476-6
- Wark, McKenzie 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2008) ISBN 1568987897
- "The Situationist international (1957-1972) In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni" (JRP Ringier, Zurich, 2007) ISBN 3905770148