SITUATIONISM - A PRIMER

by GRIM

Worship Celebrities, Trust the Media, Consume Shit... IT IS YOUR DUTY!

Spectacular Party.

During the nineteenth century the traditional working class movements came into being (most of which were influenced by the works of Marx or Bakunin). Since then those movements have been defeated and appropriated; in the East by the Bolsheviks and then capital; and in the West by the bourgeoisie. Organisations that were supposed to support the workers (trade unions, political parties, etc), have sold out to capitalism and now act against the workers. More than this, capitalism has taken over the most radical ideas and returned them safely to the people in the form of harmless ideologies such as socialism or communism until the only choice we are presented with is either the spectacle of domination or the spectacle of opposition. Because of this advance in capitalism not only are the ideologies themselves redundant but also the theories and techniques of analysis from which they sprang.

Can any pleasure we are allowed to taste compare with the indescribable joy of casting aside every form of restraint and breaking every conceivable law?

To remedy this we must use new theories and technlques of analysis, because the old terminology of revolutionary ideology, defined when the technology of modern capitalism was beyond fantasy, is now sheer banality. It is no use trying to make the new conditions of life fit the old analysis, we need theories and techniques that are relevant to the modern world not the of the nineteenth century. It was in regard to this problem that Guy Debord developed the theory of the Spectacle in his book "Society of the Spectade".

Nowadays we live in a world where capitalism (through television, computers, architecture, transport, and other forms of advanced technology), controls the very conditions of existence. This is the Society of the Spectacle. The world we see is not the real world, it is the world we have been conditioned to see; a world constructed from the black and white of tabloids, a world framed by the mahogany veneer of the television set, a world of carefully constructed illusions - about ourselves, about each other, about power, authority, justice and daily life. A view of life from the perspective of power.

THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY ARE NUMBERED; its reasons and its merits have been weighed in the balance and found wanting (Guy Debord).

Life itself has become a show contemplated by an audience. That audience is the proletariat itself, and the proletariat consists of anyone who has no control over the conditions of their own existence. Reality is now merely something we look at and think about, not something we experience. In the real world, what is possible is determined by our resources and the limits of our imaginations, but upon this real world a totally fake world - the Spectacle - has been constructed. It is maintained on a microscopic level by our conversations and relationships; in our simplest everyday dealings we engage in the construction of social illusions. The Spectacle is a constructed reality. It does not satisfy, it cannot satisfy. It offers only the dream of satisfaction.

The basic characteristic of the spectade today is the way it calls attention to its own disintegration.

The effect of this is the substitution of images and commodities for "real" experience. People enter into relationships with spectacular production rather than each other. Isolated individuals, united only by a passive contemplation of the spectacle. A manufactured alienation (ie the image of original totality or perfection from which we fell but to which we can return is also just another spectacular commodity whether it takes the form of Christianity or marxism) for manufactured personalities that multiplies needs precisely because it can satisfy none of them. Industry creates new needs to stimulate consumption and productivity. All of which conspires to conceal the fact that the material conditions for liberation already exist. However the various methods used by the Spectacle (mass culture, commodities, consumer goods, etc), don't always work.

Power must be totally destroyed by means of fragmentary acts (Vaneigem).

For example - punk rock, the riots of '81, the L.A. riots or the early raves. This shows the vulnerability of the Spectacle. It can be defeated, but not without real difficulty because the Spectacle has another weapon - "RECUPERATION"

To survive, the Spectacle has to have social control. Recuperation is the way it achieves it. The Spectacle is able to recuperate a situation or resist any challenge to itself by shifting ground, by creating new roles and cultural forms. One way of doing this is by encouraging "participation". People are allowed a greater say in the construction of the world of their own alienation. Punk rock became packaged for consumption (designer bin bags, torn tee-shirts from Fiorucci, limited edition Sex Pistol singles, etc), free festivais were replaced by Glastonbury and Red Wedge, and rave became the darling of the music industry. Once again we have the Spectade of rebellion. The Spectacle embraced the threat made it safe and sold it back to us.

Everybody wants to breathe and nobody can breathe and a lot of people say "we'll be able to breathe later." And most people don't because they are already dead.

Another technique of recuperation is to inseminate a nostaigic yearning for the past, keeping people happy by reproducing the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, etc. The news and fashion of today becomes the plot and setting of the soap opera of tomorrow. Today becomes like yesterday, tomorrow like the day before. It is not enough that life be experienced, it must be seen to be experienced. The Spectade is not sustained by the images it produces but by our reproduction of these images in our daily life. An artificiai production of a present for infinite reproduction as long as the audience remains happy and passive. Participants become spectators and the whole thing just another commodity.

We not working for the spectacle of the end of the world, but for the end of the world of the spectacle.

And if this fails and anyone decides to reject the materialist values offered by recuperation, there is a way for coping with this too. People bored by the mere possession of things are encouraged to possess experiences. Experiences are marketed by carefully controlled leisure industries, package tours, and the burgeoning New (order?) Age industries. The Spectacle, of course, tries to provide all things for all people; for people who don't find this enough, the state's clandestine branch, the mafia, will peddle you dope, acid, smack, crack, E, etc but all at a price. And of course if that isn't enough you can always buy into a cop out "alternative" lifestyle.

Ideology is essentially a partial, technical rationality.

The Spectacle not only occupies people's time it occupies their environment as well, with "URBANISM". This came about when the recuperators realised people would no longer accept, and were beginrnng to resist the damage that the Spectacle industry was doing to their surroundings. Haphazard urban sprawl is replaced by more manageable structures (the new town [factory town], the supermarket, the shopping mall, the housing estate, the leisure centre, the grid road system, etc ). Huge new towns were developed solely for the purpose of work, profit and control, with no consideration of the needs of the real people who are forced to live there.

Urbanism maintains the class system, and class power, by deliberately keeping workers apart in little boxes, in isolation. The sub-division of space is merely the concrete manifestation of what has already happened to time. It controls the narrative structures of our lives both in time and in space; dividing it up into work time/work space, leisure time/leisure space, consumer time/consumer space, etc. Carefully controlled times, places, and activities, isolated and unconnected except by transport systems that become a kind of limbo space, a metaphoric mis en scene, and as the distance between places shrinks, the distance between individuals grows. The mass character of such a planned environment constructs within its glossy facade a formal misery.

The desire to play has returned to destroy the hierarchical society which banished it. (Vaneigem).

The answer to urbanism is simply the destruction of the entire territory and the reconstruction of a discourse between the needs of the people and the environment. Situationists are not interested in the improvement of society as it exists; resistance in terms of survival condemns us to the misery of working for oppression. Situationists are interested in putting something better in its place:

"To make the world a sensuous extension of man rather than have man remain an instrument of an alien world, is the goal of the Situationist revolution. For us the reconstruction of life and the rebuilding of the world are one and the same desire. To achieve this, tactics of subversion have to be extended to schools, factories, universities, to confront the Spectacle directly. Rapid transport systems, shopping centres, museums, as well as the new forms of culture and the media, must be considered as targets, areas for scandalous activity."

Governer Hughes said after his morning inspection tour (of the 1965 Watts LA riots) that he had found the "holiday atmosphere" among the looters most repelling.

While we may choose particular issues as a point at which to intervene and extend the struggle we must never lose sight of the "big picture". Fragmentary resistance may win us some improvement in our individual position but it hardly makes an impression on the totality of oppression. In fact, single issue campaigns legitimate the Spectacle by allowing it to publicly make concessions that are of little value and can be taken away again if necessary. This is why it is important to expand from particular situations to universal ones that can serve to involve more people, because at the end of the day single issue campaigns play into the hands of the specialists of the Spectacle who play one group off against another (Animal Rights verses Human Rights; Sexual Discrimination verses Racial Discrimination, etc.) and stage manage the whole procedure so that control is maintained. Single issue politics can contain radical potential, but should only be used as a "detonator", a point from which to expand from, to widen the total struggle, to send shock waves of resistance reverberating around society.

Never sacrifice a present good for a future good. Enjoy the moment; don't get into anything that doesn't satisfy your passions right away (Fourier).

We must intervene in radical situations to try to speed up the revolutionary process; to create situations that jolt people out of customary ways of thinking and behaving. To destroy the stage sets of spectacular illusion, to know and to show that there are other ways of doing things. To identify the real demand - the demand for real life, the one demand the spectacle cannot meet. It is not enough to analyse the misery of daily life and its causes, we must speak of our dreams and desires and provide examples of life as it could be. We must start to build the world we want now (in our relationships, our interactions and the way we conduct ourselves in our daily lives). The only way to develop a revolutionary theory is to put it into practice; revolutionary theory is developed on the basis of lived experience. A revolutionary movement based on revolutionary theory is participatory. Its goal is the destruction of the commodity Spectacle.

Each person is the offspring of their works, as passivity makes its bed, so shall it lie in it (Debord).

Without political parties, hierarchies of any sort, or the mere transfer of power from one ruling elite to another, the Situationist revolution holds out the prospect of the total transformation of the world. The answer to the "Society of the Spectacle" is "The Revolution of Everyday Life". Revolution is a process, a process that can be started now.

A brief introduction to my take on some of the ideas of Guy Debord.

First of all, Guy Debord -- who committed suicide in late 1994. He was a leading member of the Parisian based faction of the "Situationist International", -- which is either a compelling amalgam of anarchism and dada generated out of 1950s European youthful-but-genuine angst and hyperactive despair., or a patriarcho-revisionist cargo cult or maybe both. For the history and precursors and place of situationism see: Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus, and The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War by and Stewart Home, for starters. There's also The Situationist International anthology edited and translated by Kan Knabb. Situationism doesn't go away, it just re-surfaces in new contexts -- a bit like Lestat (or is it L'Etat, as in "c'est moi.")

To put this in historical perspective: The role of Citizen was born out of the secular-humanist concept of the Self or individual Subject; and this Self had been the replacement for the Soul of the dominant European ideology of the preceding centuries. It should be pretty obvious that, in the 20th century, the Consumer has replaced the Citizen as the basic social unit.

In his great work, first published in France in 1967, Debord observed that social space in western capitalist consumer society is dominated by commodities, layer upon layer, most frequently in the form of images. Hence the books' title: "Society of the Spectacle." [first published in English in 1970 by Black & Red in Detroit and since re-issued at least twice.]

Now this Spectacle isn't simply a collection of relatively harmless images; it has become, Debord argued, almost the only form of social relations among people. Spectacle has come to shape our institutions and our very identities. This process is driven by mass media and advertising. In a social environment saturated by manufactured images, basic human needs, drives and functions are commodified and managed through the manipulation of images; money dominates as the representation of general equivalence, the skeleton key of access to all Good Things, including "Life."

The amazing thing is how each decade his dystopic vision seems more and more accurate. The consumer is indeed largely a consumer of illusions. Political candidates are marketed like the products they are; the voters who "consume" them are concerned more with their "image" than any concrete beliefs, ideas, plans or actions. As global telecommunications proliferate (at a rate unimaginable in the 1960s), and capitalism penetrates with startling rapidity into previously inaccessible parts of the globe, there will soon be no place on earth that is not tied in to the fascination of the Spectacle.

In the face of this, I have come to believe that the role of cultural workers like myself -- in education, publishing, the arts, even entertainment -- is to generate and maintain an arena where alternative viewpoints may at least be articulated. Not in the name of some abstraction called Freedom, a word prostituted like so many others in the service of Power. Rather -- just as certain biologists argue for the maintenance of species diversity among plants in order to preseve them for potential use by future generations -- we should battle on the side of the obscure, the small, the powerless, the marginalized in order to maintain bio-diversity of memes, of ideas and aesthetic and imaginary realms.

"Against what is enormous and crushing shall be raised what is little and subtle, like the wren in the story who triumphs over the big animals with the help of a mosquito." [Adrienne Monnier]

[to add: the 2 quotations from Nicolson.Baker piece re library books .]

Here is a somewhat longer piece on Debord's ideas which I wrote for High Performance Magazine in 1988, as my personal commemoration of the 20th anniversary of "May 1968. "

I finally got around to buying my own copy of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle at St. Mark's Bookshop one night. It always seemed to me that this book ought to be acquired through means other than commodity consumption -- maybe by following Abbie Hoffman's injunction to "Steal This Book!" (also on the shelves here.) But there's fear of jail, and St Mark's is a cool place, and other bourgeois rationalizations... If that isn't enough irony for you (and can we Americans ever get enough irony?) I grabbed Spectacle to round out my purchase so that it met the credit card minimum and I could Charge These Books!

On the back of the title page is printed: "No copyright. No rights reserved." First published in French in Paris in 1967, Society of the Spectacle was first published in English in 1970 by Black & Red in Detroit. This is a 1983 reprint of the revised 1977 B. & R. edition. The book is divided into IX sections, with paragraphs throughout consecutively numbered from one to 221, presumably in a parody (?) of scientific publishing practice, or because they are so modular. No linear argument or hierarchical structure is being erected here.

The wrap-around cover illustration is a black and white photograph: a panorama of a 1950-ish movie audience all wearing identical 3-D glasses. This image, used on so many posters, magazine covers, etc. over the past decade or two, has become a sort of icon, comic or frightening, depending on your temperament. Much of its force has been squeezed out of it through this repetition. Once, it must have been worth milli-words as a contemporary embodiment of Plato's cave analogy -- all these fools, having of course PAID to get in, sit in a darkened space (while, presumably, Joe McCarthy holds his notorious hearings somewhere.) Obediently, they wear these atrocious eyepieces and stare at the play of light and dark, mere shadows projected from behind them. And of course the ever-present pun aspect: they wear "spectacles", these viewers who constitute a society of the spectacle. Long exposition of Walter Benjamin, John Berger et al's ideas about the image and mechanical reproduction will here be spared the beleagured columnist, editor and reader.

One marvels once again (at least I do) that 1967 was over twenty years ago. The ideas and even form of this work are, however, supremely timely. In fact they sound prophetic and prescient rather than dated in any sense. It is absurd to paraphrase Debord's aphoristic style. What I will do is weave his actual phrases with some stitching commentary of my own, in square brackets where it seems necessary specifically to indicate it is not Debord's. This will allow some measure of greater freedom, it is to be hoped. Italics or words in quotation marks are reproduced as Debord uses them.

The concept of "spectacle," according to Debord, unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people, mediated by images. The spectacle is, in fact, the main production of present-day society. He talks about the obvious degradation of being into having and, further, a generalized sliding of having into appearing. [Five minutes of directed viewing of most rock videos, any tv ad or even major portions of shows such as Miami Vice should confirm the above if it needs confirming for any Rip Van Winkle types.]

The economic system founded on isolation is a circular production of isolation. From the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the condition of isolation, of "lonely crowds".

Money dominates society as the representation of general equivalence. The spectacle is the other side of money, the general abstract equivalent of all commodities. The real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions [game shows, celebrities, news, packaging, ads, political rhetoric] This is the principle of consumer fetishism, the domination of society by "intangible as well as tangible things".

This is the total occupation of social life. The social space is invaded by a superimposition of geological layers of commodities [You check the ad in the paper for a movie, and go see it; at the theatre before the feature is an ad for a newspaper that contains coupons for goods to be purchased at supermarkets for products in boxes which will have other coupons and ads printed upon them, put into bags imprinted likewise with messages ...]

[Thus,] the adult, master of his life, does not exist. Youth, the transformation of what exists, is in no way the property of those who are now young ... Things rule and are young. Things confront and replace one another.

In Section VIII, Negation and Consumption within Culture, Debord asserts that art is about change and is at the same time the pure expression of impossible change. Dadaism and surrealism are the two currents which mark the end of modern art. Contemporaries of the last great assault of the revolutionary proletarian movement, their defeat left them imprisoned in the same field whose decrepitude they had announced. This is the reason for their immobilization. Dadaism wanted to suppress art without realizing it; surrealism to realize art without suppressing it [these "inversions of the genetive", (?) as Debord calls them, are frequent in his writing; he considers them an important aspect of his dialectical thought, alluding to] Hegel's epigrammatic style and a language of contradiction which must be dialectical in its form as well as content.

When culture becomes nothing more than a commodity, it must also become the star commodity of the spectacular society. [For the most part, Debord uses the word culture in a broad sense, as the spectrum of human social interactivity and its traces: our kitchens and our well-wrought urns; the "yo" of a whizzing bicycle messenger equally with Les Miserables or The Last Emperor.]

[It has been] calculated that the complex process of production, distribution and consumption of knowledge already gets 29% of the yearly national product in the United States; [presumably as of 1977, latest revision of book] and predicted that in the second half of this century culture will be the driving force in the development of the economy, a role played by the automobile in the first half of this century and by railroads in the second half of the previous one. [Substitute "information" (or even "signal", in an electronic sense) for "culture" here and you see how Debord is right on the mark. The so-called "information society". Useful in this context is American sociologist Herb Schiller's analysis and exposition of how information is in no sense FREE in this society, despite its mercurial nature and tendency to be as yet difficult to control as a commodity within the existing market system. Kind of a filly that hasn't been "broken" yet.]

Much recent discussion has circled around the question of relations between critical theory and artistic practice(s). Attitudes range from the claim for equal status for critical/theoretical practice, to a sort of fear and loathing on the part of positivist American artists. Basically I feel that, while critics can sometimes make a movement (helping individual practitioners realize their affinities, articulating coherences and lines of enquiry), they cannot break one; nor for that matter can a critic even really "break" an individual artist. What can break an artist is the climate of commercialism in which you must choose between being true to your artistic vision or going for the money/recognition and all that jazz.

Let us hope Debord is right when he says that ideas improve. Obviously, I agree with him that plagiarism is necessary. What this does, in my opinion, is to extend the problematization of property relations into the sphere of "thought".

Marina LaPalma, High Performance, May 1988