Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Children of Time

"The Beach Beneath the Street – the Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International,” by McKenzie Wark, 2011

This is a curious bunch.  Leaving little trace, the Situationist ‘International’ (“SI”) was mostly based in Paris, with comrades in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy.  By no stretch was it actually an international, just a conceit of an international – a group that totaled 72 people all told, from beginning to end.  Like many other currents, it was made famous in the fires of the general strikes and street battles of May-June 1968 in France.  When that ‘situation’ ended, the SI disbanded in 1972.  Some architects and artists still take inspiration from it, even citing it as the source behind the temporary ‘Burning Man” art village in the Black Rock desert in Nevada.  Now Burning Man has been invaded by wealthy libertarian techies, so perhaps, like the hippies of Haight-Ashbury once did in 1967, a funeral can be held for Burning Man too.  Capital can co-opt most anything cultural, as Thomas Frank noted in the ‘Conquest of Cool.”  The SI would have no doubt agreed.

Parisian Children at the Barricades in 1945
This book is a small history of certain intellectual, political and artistic figures in Paris and Europe, as well as a group of intellectual movements that percolated there after World War II.  It covers almost every significant figure that was involved with ‘Situationism’ at any point. Wark is an erudite fan of the SI and in this book traces their history back to the “Letterist” International, which was based on the bohemian / existentialist atmosphere of several square blocks in the Saint-Germain, a quarter of Paris in the 1950s.   This is the book’s primary value - not as a work of complete philosophy or politics, but as a recreation of a fertile European artistic and intellectual sub-culture.  

In a sense the SI began as a lumpen art-life movement – drinking and dancing in bars to ‘avoid boredom.'  Or as one put it, “Cursing is the work of the drinking classes,” a play on a quote from Oscar Wilde used by Wark.  As Guy Debord, their most well-known proponent first said, the point of life was to ‘never work.’  Later Debord spent many hours editing the ‘Internationale Situationniste’, organizing the SI and writing several books.  As Debord later admitted, writing, painting and collectivity are work and necessary work at that.  The SI borrowed from romanticism, Dadism, anarchism, Marxism, the Beatniks and bohemia, drug and café culture - but now influenced by the enormous disaster of World War II.  They might be considered a forerunner of the ‘new urbanism,’ performance art, free software hacker culture, ideas of the ‘creative class’ and deconstructionism.  They attempted to forge a collective negation to the conventional middle-class and ruling class views of how to live life.    

Perhaps most interesting is their notion of ‘psycho-geography.’  This is the effect that architecture and city planning have on human and class life within the city. Different ‘cityscapes’ evoke different human interactions and feelings.  Cedar Riverside in Minneapolis, with its somewhat shabby human-scale buildings and loitering hipsters, old hippies and Somalis creates a different mood than the corporate glass skyscrapers of downtown and it’s hurrying white-collar workers, or the effect of a neglected suburban mini-mall fronted by an arid parking lot and empty stores.  The LI and SI were fervent opponents of the architectural ides of Le Corbusier – the geometric fashion of glass and steel buildings lining wide, straight streets that became the template for corporate building.  In a sense the ‘New Urbanism’ movement in the U.S. is attempting to take their views into account – yet ‘new urbanism’ is still controlled by capital - and the SI proclaimed itself communist.  The SI also proclaimed ‘literary communism’ and ‘architectural communism,’ based on a collective approach to these areas. 

And that is the problem here, as the SI were not Marxists, although they were anti-capitalist.  They sought to define themselves against the Communist Party orthodoxy which dominated French intellectual life at the time, due to the CPs role in the Resistance.  They also took on Surrealism, various leftist intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre and the Trotskyists, Maoists and Guevaraists who crowded Europe. Through it all, they did not succeed.  The reason is perhaps the disparate oddness of their ideas.  As Wark puts it, the SI collapsed ‘beneath the weight of its incoherence.” 

From what I can tell their philosophy was based on 6 primary notions:  1. To wander the city (the ‘dérive.’); 2. to borrow from prior writers, artists, thinkers and turn it into something new (in French, ‘détournment’); 3. to give gifts, which was their idea of funding the SI or each other; 4. Potlatch, an extension of the ‘gift’ which borrowed from the native American idea of free labor in trade, an act which enhances the reputation and repute of the giver; 5.‘unitary urbanism,' also referred to as psycho-geography; 6. and to create or find ‘situations’ – rare but memorable events like festivals, riots, occasions, real 'situations.'  The latter is what gave its name to the SI.  The SI took over the pulpit at Notre Dame, crashed bourgeois art shows in Venice & London and removed the head of the “Little Mermaid” in Copenhagen.  Later echoes of these actions are Jerry Rubin throwing money to the floor of the NYSE, Pussy Riot invading a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow or PETA throwing blood on rich people wearing furs. 

Debord, while being the ‘secretary’ of the SI, is not the focus of this book.  His policy of expelling people from the SI comes up regularly, at it created splits to the point where there was even a ‘2nd SI’ led by a young woman, Jacqueline De Jong which lasted from 1962 to 1967.  They opposed the ‘sectarianism’ of the original SI and did their own artistic praxis.  Debord would expel people without consulting anyone – usually because the people were not contributing anymore, but sometimes for their ideas.   Debord took more political and anti-art positions and kept the organization functioning due to that and Wark praises him for it.  Debord felt that without expulsions membership would mean nothing.

Of the sample of individuals discussed in the book two are of note:  Henri LeFebvre and Asgar Jorn.  Jorn, a painter, criticized Marx and created his own ‘theory of value’ which hypothesized that there were two creative classes, not one – the proletariat and a ‘creative class’ of artists and intellectuals.  Jorn maintained that an ‘aesthetic economy’ should replace the Marxist ‘political economy.’  This notion has reappeared in the U.S., as the development of capital in various cities attempts to attract the ‘creative class’ - which is really a strata of self-employed artisans. This group of people then stimulates real estate values in run-down or neglected areas, and also keeps corporate workers entertained.  Jorn wrote a psycho-geography of Paris and an enormous history of Scandinavian folk art and became a profitable painter.  LeFebvre fought in the Resistance, then left the CP and moved to the left. Lefebvre wrote the book, “The Critique of Everyday Life” focusing on politicizing the normal day, which capital has culturally colonized for its own purposes. He probed the issue of ‘time’ which has also been colonized by the time clock of wage slavery.  These are ideas Debord also held.  Both LeFebvre and Jorn were ultimately thrown out of the SI by Debord. 

The book ends by briefly covering the events of May-June 1968 in France, indicating that the SI was active in Paris, convening their own ‘general assembly' at the National Pedagogical Institute on the Rue d’Ulm.  The slogan, "the beach beneath the street" came from this period, created by a working-class member of the SI.

Wark is a fertile writer with many good quotes.  Here is one favorite: “If there is one purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them.”  Yet Wark throws so many ideas and people into the hopper in sequential sentences that the book itself seems contradictory, opaque or wandering at times.  But that is a reflection of Situationism itself. 

The Society of the Spectacle” by Guy DeBord, reviewed below.  Prior books on Paris and France reviewed below include “The Coming Insurrection” and “The Conspiracy.”  A film and a book about 1968 - “Something in the Air” and “The Merry Month of May” are also reviewed.  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
September 26, 2015

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