mercredi 29 juin 2011

Contribution to a Critique of Situationism


"Nevertheless, the false despair of non-dialectical critique and the false optimism of the pure advertising for the system are identical as subjected thought." -- G. Debord, The Society of the Spectacle[1]
"To be a dialectician means having the wind of history in your sails. The sails are concepts. But it is not sufficient to have sails at one's disposal. What is decisive is the art of knowing how to set them." -- W. Benjamin, Paris, Capital of the 19th Century.[2]
There is something rotten in the kingdom of the negative. Everything that today presents itself as the radical critique of society haughtily sounds the refrain of the necessary critique of the ideological illusions secreted by this world; these critiques have simply forgotten to struggle against ideology in their own midsts, and the doctrine of the interpretation of existing facts that permits them to camouflage their own poverty is today called situationism.[3]
It is not uniquely a question of the ambient situationism that nourishes the epoch: from the mediatic[4] parlor-expositions [salonneries] of a [Philip] Sollers to the neo-Heideggerian elucidations of an Agamben,[5] passing through the vulgar diverse and varied recuperations that can be made of the work of [Guy] Debord. Here, the phenomenon is not new: "situationism" is only a "word deprived of meaning," conceived by flagrant "anti-situationists." One easily recognizes it in the will to recuperation -- for the maintenance of this society -- of several ideas discovered and developed in the framework of the Situationist International but which, separated from the revolutionary totality in which they were inscribed, lose their real significance so as to only serve to provide several colors to the superannuated decor of this world.
It seems to us that it is necessary to go beyond this. Indeed, it is not sufficient to denounce what appears in an obvious manner to the eyes of all, namely, the sterilization and utilization of situationist ideas by the dominant ideology, so as to certify "the bitter victory of situationism"[6]; it is necessary to show in broad daylight the current poverty of those who claim, explicitly or implicitly, to be faithful continuers. Among the latter, situationism is no longer a simple word or group of words that serve the spectacular parade, but a truly anchored ideology, resulting from the historical bankruptcy of the movement. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to recognize in it some kind of doxa established by the SI, but what is fixed and petrified beyond it, after its post-1968 failure. As the ideology of the new revolutionary radicality, situationism is the caricature of situationist theory, the loss of that which was sought in its framework and the camouflage of that loss. Situationism is one of the major illusions of current social critique in the sense that it believes it carries radical purity and the accomplishment of critical theoretical intelligence inside of itself. Thus, it seems to us that it is not a question of putting the SI or Debord on trial, of seeking the original error that perverted the entirety of the project ("You know that a creation is never pure," Debord wrote in 1957[7]), but of knowing who currently wants to continue that error.
In the first instance, today one can see all of the diffuse influence of situationism in a quite heterogenous ensemble of discourses that aspire to make unmerciful critiques of the modern world, but that still place themselves in a point that has strangely evacuated all revolutionary perspectives, substituting for them the perspective of the end of the world. They simply separate themselves based upon the modalities of this end of the world and upon the programs for survival, of which they believe one can find the accomplished model in some kind of mythical past. They then hurl themselves at the figure of the historical golden age of their choice by promoting (sometimes in its most repugnant aspects) the re-establishment of some kind of moral order. The primitivist adepts of the vulgar neo-Rousseauist [John] Zerzan growl with enthusiasm about paleolithic communities, free from all alienation and -- supreme virtue -- unencumbered of all language[8]; the adepts of [Michel] Bounan and his becoming-sick of the world, wonder if it would not be preferable to again find in the asceticism of medieval alchemy the benefits of a medication at one's fingertips[9]; from a solitary and despairing condemnation of the industrial world, [Theodore] Kacyzinski (now in prison) plunges back into the American myths of the "frontier," the solitary pioneer advancing in a "virgin" nature; and others, intoxicated by the idealist vapors of a confused thought, marry Jesuitism to Kabbalah so as to announce the coming of metaphysical communities. The Encyclopedia of Nuisances (the EdN),[10] of which we will speak at length, prefers to defend the freely accepted restoration of the pre-industrial era, taking the urban and rural models of Paris of revolutionary artisans and village-communities as the guarantee of an unsurpassable liberty.
Similarly haunted by thoughts of death, all present themselves as inheritors of the Situationist International; without explicitly avowing it, all believe themselves to be the avant-garde of social critique, when they are only its decomposed product. Their confused mixes of critical remarks on modern life and their strictly literary ambitions thus nourish a rhetoric principally destined to edify a public acquired in advance. This rhetoric falls under the heading of a new esotericism; in any case, it is accessible with difficultly by the "non-initiated." We do not even speak of the flagrant contradictions that can appear from one phrase to another, and that makes for disconcerting reading. It is necessary to believe that there are virtues therein that remind us of other opiates. Nevertheless, we prefer other forms of intoxication. It doesn't remain any less the case that this confusion of genres, which demands the subordination of revolutionary social critique to poor aesthetic pretensions, [11] quite clearly shows that it is not a question of putting poetry into the service of the revolution but putting the revolution into the service of poetry. Because today it is the service of editorial interests that both have finally subjected themselves.
It is certainly quite necessary to place this historical result of the situationist movement into relation with the unfolding of the epoch that followed the defeat of the revolution of 1968. It was an epoch of total reaction that was instaurated, and we know that quite often, where reaction triumphs, it does so -- among other means -- through the diversion or parody of a revolutionqry ideology. From whence comes the reigning confusion between what was wanted, desired and sought in a movement like that of May '68, and what was realized in its aftermath; a confusion between the revolutionary idea and the bureaucratic idea of change in the social order of capitalism. It is nevertheless necessary to recognize that, before this epoch, the situationist project had truly contributed to the opening of a new revolutionary breach by starting a radical critique of everyday life and through the central idea o the construction of situations, propitious to the radical reinvention of life. Nevertheless, it is necessary to admit that this idea, which contributed to the destruction of the classical bourgeois conceptions of life and morals has, today, lost its subversive charge. The diverse followers of situationism have concluded a defensive retreat to the very doctrinal positions, the insufficiency of which has been revealed: they simply extoll the small construction of personal situations. The project issued from modern artistic revolt ("to change life") was progressively whittled down among those -- always more threatened by the flow of time -- to a frightened desire [12]to survive. For our part, we think that the original project of the SI wasn't so bad, that it was not for all that the perfect revolutionary theory (finally found), nor that it could constitute the only historical heritage for the possible reinvention of the revolutionary project. Thus, the epoch does not lead us to abandon it, nor to conserve it, but simply to deepen it, with the central idea remaining the same: a will to universal change and the unfailing search for the possibilities of that change.
If we have chosen to concentrate our critique on the particular influential group such as the EdN, this isn't because it is, properly speaking, the most misleading or the most deranged. It is quite plain that, in its moderation, the EdN represents the exact milieu of contemporary situationism in our sense of the word. The EdN thus produces the discourse that is the most likely to attract the lost elements of "radical contestation" that suffers from no longer finding any master thinkers. The EdN is not the detestable side of modern society, but the perfectly respectable complement of its negation: it will deny precisely what one tells it to deny. And in this role it differentiates itself from the "good conscience of the Left," not by a style of negation, but by a "radical" pose that the spectacle wants to concede to it. It thus diverts the stray impulses of revolt towards the impasses set up by the dominant social order better than someone like [Philip] Sollers. Thus, it is necessary that the real situation of the EdN in its time is defined.
Finally, as we often hear from its detractors,[13] that it is only the [absence of the] taste for practice that has made the EdN fail, we would like to correct this remark by recalling that the EdN would have been nothing even if it had the taste for theory. For us, it is a question of the central deficiency that determines all of the others. When one abandons the rigor of thinking and comprehending the world in a critical manner, why would there remain a practical will to overthrow it? The one doesn't go without the other. On the other hand, there are several purely rhetorical "tricks" that can make use of theoretical concepts. The EdN imagines itself poised upon one doesn't know what summit of critical thought, cheerfully balancing the best of the revolutionary theory of the last two centuries and ending up preferring anti-progressive and anti-technological reflections, the theoretical foundations of which have more affinity with reactionary thought. Nevertheless, there is no critical theory beyond revolutionary theory and there is no revolutionary theory provided in advance for all time. There is a theoretico-practical movement that is linked to history and that only recognizes truth in this very movement. If we discourse at great length about this French ideology[14] that constitutes the EdN, this is not to offer some theoretical recipe, keys in hand, which would be preferable to it, but to recall that the first task of any consequential theoretical effort is to denounce, in the first instance, the ideological swindles that would want to reduce theory to a simple consumption of ideas. We especially believe that useless lessons can be drawn from this critique. We leave free to each person the usage that will not fail to be discovered through such reflection.

[1] Last sentence of thesis 196.
[2] This passage also appears in The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999): "What makes for the dialectician is to have the wind of world history in his sails. Thinking means for him: setting the sails. What is important is how they are set. Words are his sails. They way they are set makes them into concepts" (p. 473).
[3] In the first issue of Internationale Situationniste (June 1958), "situationism" was defined as follows: "A word deprived of meaning, abusively forged by derivation from the preceding term [situationist]. There is no situationism, which would signify a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously conceived by anti-situationists."
[4] The French word used here, mediatique, has no equivalent in English. It means more than simply "mediated" or "mediatized," and suggests the spectacular.
[5] Authors' note: This designation remains limited. The Heideggerian bonanza is no longer sufficient for Parisian fashions; the "future philosophy" has successively been sought the drawers of Benjamin, Foucault, Arendt and Deleuze.
[6] L'Amara vittoria del situazionismo: Per una storia critica dell'Internationale situationniste, 1957-1972 ("The Bitter Victory of Situationism: For a Critical History of the Situationist International, 1957-1972") is the title of a work by Gianfranco Marelli (Pisa: Casalini Libri, 1996), which translated into French in 1998. The reference is to Amere victoire du surrealisme ("The Bitter Victory of Surrealism"), which was published in Internationale Situationniste #1, June 1958.
[7] Authors' note: Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations and the International Situationist Tendency's Conditions for Organization and Action (1957).
[8] Authors' note: In this context, read Alain Condrieux's John Zerzan and the Primitive Confusion.
[9] Authors' note: In a recent text, Without Market Value, followed by Remarks on Market Ecology (Allia, 2001), M. Bounan launches his own critique of the Encyclopedia of Nuisances, and shows -- with several occasionally judicious arguments -- "the complicity of this so-called contestation of nuisances with the social organization that provokes them," but further on evokes his own profound community of spirit with these pseudo-contesters when it is a question of diagnosing the unavoidable collapse of the current world and the no less unavoidable appearance of a "new mode of consciousness and social conduct born from the disaster itself." If, taking exception to the historical model of the EdN, he can affirm that "social life will have a very different aspect from that of the 18th century," this is nevertheless to persuade himself that it would instead have the aspects of the social life of the Middle Ages that he presents to us under an idyllic light. Bounan, who boasts that he has read Debord, nevertheless finds "doubtful" the idea that one day one will see re-emerge an Athens or a Florence and prefers to recall -- like a good priest -- that "the Christian tradition, for example, makes man a 'brother' and a 'member' of the 'son of man.'" Of which sermon does he want to convince us? This is also the question. [Translator's note: for more on Bounan, see footnote added by Jean-Francois Martos to the letter addressed to him on 24 February 1990 by Guy Debord.]
[10] Founded in 1984 by Jaime Semprun and the ex-situationist Christian Sebastiani, the Encyclopedia of Nuisances is a group, a journal and a publishing house.
[11] Authors' note: Bloom's Theory by Tiqqun, the affectations of someone like Belasch Kacem and those of the insipid Beidbegger concentrate in bulk form the overwhelming fuckery of the belletrist who has nothing to say in his [own] domain, still believing that political and philosophical matters will advantageously fill up the nothingness of his production.
[12] At least in France. The 1970s was a revolutionary era in places such as Italy, Portugal and Poland.
[13] The first critique of the EdN, The Encyclopedia of Powers, was written in 1987 by Jean-Francois Martos and Jean-Pierre Baudet, with some help from Guy Debord.
[14] This is oblique reference to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' book, The German Ideology (1845).

Written by D. Caboret, P. Dumontier, P. Garrone and R. Labarriere. Published in Paris, 2001. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! 25 September 2007. All footnotes by the translator, except where noted.

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