Be Reasonable- Demand the Impossible; The Methodology of Situationist Theory and Practice Today
Notes for a lecture given on 6.17.13 by the Author
Introduction: Histories of the Situationist International are now emerging everywhere, but histories are not enough. What we intend to provide is a critical history which demands the question, what is revolutionary praxis today and how can it be achieved? Rather than merely recounting facts, we will provide theories and activities of the SI in order to provide strategic knowledge for revolutionary action in our époque. The theories and practices devised by the SI were not designed for a final resting place in the field of historiography, no revolutionary theory is, thus, we will seek to liberate from these confines and return revolutionary theory to a spectrum separate from both formal history and ideology, we will bring to light what is known by all but said by few, our era demands nothing short of such efforts.
What is demanded of ones understanding of revolution today is, foremost, an acceptance that we know nothing of modern revolt. Guy Debord: “A revolutionary organization existing before the power of the [workers] Councils knows that it does not represent the working class. It must recognize itself as no more than a radical separation from the world of separation.” Knowledge of revolution will come only with the creation of revolution, this is to say, our intent in this field cannot hope to extend beyond this role of detonation. Any further efforts to perpetuate the ideology of a left purely limited to the political, and not the totality of the social, are inherently designed with the same alienated means of perpetuation known to any social entity know to the appearances of the spectacle today, and thus prone to all of the points of disparate separation upon which the power of capital now finds itself intrinsically rooted to. A detournement, or inversion, of all that is at once presented within the field of capital’s vision necessary must be predicated on the presence of some model of engagement, however, rarely are battles won through a procession of retreat maneuvers. This is a basic understanding maintained by most any revolutionist, the need for action, but the question underlying this question is not one related to the need for action, it is one related to its form. The methodology of the SI is not merely rooted in the Bakunist statement that enough theory has been produced for our needs, only action remains, nor is it rooted in an understanding of action to be brought to the blinded proletarian masses by the tightly knit vanguard organization, the sole keepers of a purely ideological class consciousness, it is one rooted in an analysis of revolution well beyond these well-intended, but still yet entirely incoherent formulations of praxis. In an époque such as ours, dominated by a totality of power long since departed from the purely political currents, questions of proletarian dictatorship as aligned against a purely ideological negation of the state have fallen out of the use they may have once maintained. As the SI once noted, we not only have to speak of the physical policemen of today in the act of revolution, but also, the police within our own heads, the fabricated wills and desires of the commodity which have penetrated all walks of live, those concerning revolution included. Revolutionary theory remains a sworn enemy of revolutionary ideology, as Debord notes; it now falls upon us to find the physical praxis of this notion. The act of making ideas dangerous once again is revolutionary, but for them to remain dangerous, they must find an application capable of preserving such qualities.
And now; the SI. The group was founded in 1957 by a selection of European avant-gardes descendent from the varied legacies of Dada and Surrealism. Its members maintained a critical revolutionary critique of capitalism, focused primarily thorough social and cultural critiques otherwise ignored by the official strands of Marxist ideology. Art, consumerism, urban planning, modernism, all were targets of the Situationists. In the early days of the SI, attacks on institutionalized art were prominent manifestations of this critique, with the group defending art which could be mass produced by the most basic processes (industrial painting), as well acts of destruction against various different pieces of museum art long since transferred into the thought of the commodity. In the field of urban planning, the theory of psychogeography was developed as a critique of the modern cityscape designed purely for the clean flow of the alienation to consumption, with critiques of this development being practiced through what was termed as the derive, or, a lengthy movement through the passages of a city guided by the intent of pursuing certain ambiances otherwise blotted out by the city. While these acts were by no significant measure displays of historical revolution, these activities still yet embodied brief, if fleeting, moments of subversion in the everyday life of the spectacle.
In this dialectical development from the activities of historical avant-gardes (petty scandals such as a disruption of Easter mass in Notre Dame with a proclamation that god is dead, the productions of entire films deprived of images, interventions in international art conferences with leaflets proclaiming the death of art, etc) to a negation of just said history, the SI would by the mid 60s adopt a stance of opposition to the avant garde, to all avant gardes of the past, so as to attain its ultimate historical realization. Just as Marx opposed utopia for its realization, so too would the Situationits come to oppose the avant garde. The SI would leave the 20th century behind, as it proclaimed, but not on the terms of the era. A project of utopian quality, which the SI was in many ways during its birth, (Chtcheglov, Formulary for a Unitary Urbanism- Constant, New Babylon, both were open to eventual integration with the spectacle) was recognized in the dialectical progression known to the histories of all avant gardes, a history now firmly of recuperation. Within any artistic or cultural group of this variety, there exist certain artistic productions which may be placed in museums and on art circuits, just as even the most advanced radical groupings of any moment in capitalist history have been prone to make ‘transitional’ demands later accepted within the discourse of capital. What the SI sought in its critique was a supersession of this fate, however, a realization of a revolutionary theory well beyond acceptance in any manner to all forms of class power.
In 1967, Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem published The Society of the Spectacle and The Revolution of Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations), two pieces which respectively critique the spectacle, and, in contrast, what the SI termed as the spectacle’s colonization of the everyday. The spectacle, a term used to describe the modes of capitalist power dominant in the period following WWI, is laid out in two fields, one diffuse and one concentrated. In the western first world, the diffuse is dominant, established as bourgeois rule not primarily by state power, but rather by the immense positivity which the modern commodity has been imbued with in all manners of appearance, the metaphysical subtleties of Marx’s commodity multiplied to a point wherein said commodity is capable of realizing itself as not as a mere facet of bourgeois production, but the occult center of its continued perpetuation. The concentrated spectacle is identified as the inverse of the diffuse, identified in the state ‘socialism’ of the Soviet Union, and later in the various forms of fascist rule, wherein the ruling class, bourgeois or bureaucratic, retains its rule not by the ever invasive gaze of the commodity, but rather by the ever invasive gaze of the state itself. Vaneigem: ‘In the Soviet Union, the worker bought ideology and was given a free bottle of vodka. In the United States, he bought a bottle of whiskey and received ideology as a bonus”. From this critique of the dueling powers of capitalist rule came the Situationist formulation of their critique of everyday life, wherein they extend their critique of commodity ideology to the ‘normalized’ processes of thought which guide the average spectators life within the field of the spectacular, identifying the mass internalization of consumer mentality in the proletarian-consumer as the core foundation of false consciousness in the age of the spectacle, and age wherein all expressions and desires have been reduced to a selection of endlessly circulating images of all that the spectacle would prefer appear. Consciousness sees itself transformed not into false expressions in the political, expressions apart from correct ‘proletarian’ political expressions, but rather into a uniform adherence to the implicit understanding that Debord: all that which appears in the spectacle is good.
In this totality, no room is longer left for revolt- only the recuperated, commodified, and now servile representation remains for the spectator of life today. The only revolt is in the complete contestation of the totality, or, in moments lived with the uncompromising subversion necessary to such history. Saint-Just: “Those who make revolutions half-way dig their own graves”. While the revolutionary project we face today bears certain complexities unimaginable to the Jacobin terror, the willingness towards maneuver is not one lost to the historical consistency of insurrection.
Debord: “There is revolt in imagining one may revolt” The modern function of consciousness in the diffuse, and even concentrated spectacle, can thus be viewed the fulcrum upon which the continued enslavement of the proletariat is continued. In this field of consciousness, information, all designed simply with the sole goal of its appearance, and disappearance, reigns supreme; the mind of the modern worker is ridden inescapably with credit bills, shopping demands, television shows, movie releases, constantly evolving but significant technological developments, all of which are prepared simultaneously in their presentation as the end of history, as the ultimate realization of a life which is consciously recognized by all to be entirely hollow. But the field of expression for this thought it nonexistent, one would be mad to burn a car outside of the context of a riot, one would be mad to build a barricade in times square without the presence of workers councils to man such fortifications. These ideas are in everyone’s heads, but their manifestation is problematic without the history to provide for their display. It has already been shown by just such moments that the standard proletarian can make for a fine dialectician, that the transition from dead labor to lived time comes naturally to most alienated subjected of the spectacle when given a look at liberated experience, the matter of revolution is simply one of aligning these regiments for just such offensive procedures again. 1917, 1934, 1968, all of these revolutions resulted in spite of parties, bureaucracies, and the ideologies of the day.
So what of revolt today? The inclinations towards organization, activism, party membership are all popular within the standard leftist today, out of an impulse that they must do something, that they are valued in what passes as revolution. The vanguardist remains of Leninism and its various deviations, the historical flair of struggles past posing as modern parties, all exist in a state reduced to imagery alone, all recall the markedly anti-revolutionary notion that revolution is merely, Cronin: a spectacle to be made by only a few. Proletarians need to have organizations built and led by men of greater consciousnesses, papers need to be written, flyers must be distributed, chants are yelled out of desperate necessity, all so the worker may be given a taste of revolution without leaving our age behind. Just as all that was once lived has moved into the retail department, so to has revolution; the modern leftist party has become to subversion as the big mac is to happiness. Revolution by image alone is the revolution spoken of today by so many who have made careers in the ever-expanding field of leftist PR, racking in respectable fees and lives defending the perpetual racket of saving the working class from capitalism with yet more capitalism.
But the question remains, however, what of revolution today? The first movements in answering this question will necessarily be lackluster, but we cannot issue promises and solutions based upon ideology, such an error would be an indulgence to the spectacular which we can no longer afford en masse. As has always been the standard of the method of revolt, the comments demanded of the criteria will never be popular or widely accepted, for they will necessarily be without comprehension given the constraints of our times. Marx: Just as it is foolish to judge a man by what he has to say about himself, so too is it foolish to judge an époque by what it has to offer of itself. The same logic applies to the activities and insinuations of revolutionists today; if we comment in a popular vein while the norms of capital persist, our comments can hardly be said to manage any discrepant quality. We are left with a task that demands a critique of the totality of capital, all that appears, every false escapist route beyond capitalism, every utopian solution, every reformist restructuring of bourgeois power, every safer commodity, all must be scrapped, for all fail at the task of critiquing all that appears. We are thus left with the task of forgetting the formal histories of the past, the formal understandings of revolution presented to us in poorly understood parables, and approaching the question of revolution with an understanding of dialectical fluidity. Today, all that appears to the task of the sincere revolutionist is a rejection of all that appears, a separation from the world of separation. It is not glamorous, it is not appealing, it is not widely acclaimed, but such hatreds only augment an alignment which will soon enough be augmented by the new thought of a new époque. Revolutionary praxis today can amount to the production of a rejection of the spectacle in all its innumerable manifestations; it can amount only to a rejection of capitalism not as it appears in image, but as it exists in social relation. The SI is unmistakably imbued with a wide multitude of legacies, but these would be best forgotten if they are hoped to be recalled once again.