The Situationist International (SI) was formed in 1957 by a merger of Guy Debord’s Lettrist International and Asger Jorn’s International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (IMIB), two post-war continental art groups. The IMIB could claim descent from the COBRA art group. A third art group, the London Psychogeographical Society, was claimed to have joined at the time but was invented to add to the internationalist claims of the SI.
For the early part of its existence the SI continued with the artistic work of the Lettrist International, but moved to being a group of political theorists and agitators following a split in 1962. The SI form part of a utopian anti-art tradition that goes back to Futurism, Dada and Surrealism.
The group had approximately 70 members over the course of it’s history, but due to frequent expulsions the number of members at any one time was never more than about 10 to 20.
The SI has a reputation for scandal and subversion. Its political theories made popular by punk rock were a blend of Marxism and anarchism. In spite of this the SI condemned both communism and anarchism for their failings. They criticised modern consumer society for alienating people and turning their lives into meaningless pursuits of commodities.
The SI lasted until 1972 when it disbanded with only two members, and it published 12 issues of its Journal ‘Internationale Situationiste.’ Guy Debord was the only member to stay with the group throughout its existence.
The SI’s Artistic Phase
The first important action of the SI was its attack on the ‘International Assembly Of Art Critics’ in Belgium. This attack took the form of disrupting the press conference and handing out abusive flyers, a tactic that had served them well as the Lettrist International when they disrupted a Charlie Chaplin press conference and when one member, dressed as a priest, denounced God and the church from the pulpit of Notre Dame cathedral.
The first exhibition of the SI’s ‘Industrial Painting’ took place in Turin in May 1958. Developed by Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio and his son Giors Melanotte, Industrial Painting was painting in the style of abstract expressionism on giant rolls of canvas 70 to 90 feet long. The name was intended to highlight the scale of production of the paintings as opposed to their methods of production, which remained traditional. The rolls of canvas were sold by the yard and were meant to be sold to the public in retail shops. At the first exhibition of Industrial Painting models wore dresses made from the canvas.
The SI held three exhibitions in prestigious galleries 1959, one of Industrial Painting, one of Asger Jorn’s Detourned ‘Kitsch’ paintings and one of Constant’s architectural models. These made use of the SI’s theories of unitary urbanism and were models for buildings suspended from wires. Constant also made plans for a city made of a single labyrinthine building, a model for a gypsy encampment and for a concert hall for electronic music. Some of the SI’s artistic theories are discussed below.
Psychogeography, Unitary Urbanism And The Theory Of The Dérive
The SI’s theories of urbanism and architecture originate from an essay by the Lettrist Ivan Chtcheglov called ‘Formulary For A New Urbanism’ In it Chtcheglov envisions that a new form of urban life can be created, a new city built – ‘we are bored in the city, there is no longer any temple to the sun’ – ‘You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist. The hacienda must be built.’ In this new city ‘every man will live in his own cathedral’ and ‘the principle activity of the inhabitants will be the continuous dérive’ through zones designed to alter the inhabitants’ moods and perceptions.
The Situationists coined the phrase unitary urbanism to describe their experiments with creating a new city that would allow the inhabitants to play and realise their desires. Architecture, detourned collages of maps, art installations and the dérive were all used by the SI in these experiments. The dérive was an experimental practice of unitary urbanism and is translated as ‘drift’ in English. The practice is effectively to wander aimlessly and without destination through the city, soaking up its ambiences. Psychogeography was used to describe the study of the urban environment’s effects on the psyche. The SI produced psychogeographical reports based on the results of their dérives.
Methods of Detournement
Detournement is usually translated into English as ‘diversion’ and was the method of artistic creation used by the situationists. It was, in effect, plagiarism where both the source and the meaning of the original work was subverted to create a new work. In the SI’s own words ‘there is no Situationist art, only Situationist uses of art.’ Detournement is distinct from ‘theft’ plagiarism, which only subverts the source of the material and post-modern ‘ironic quotation’ plagiarism which only subverts the meaning of the material, the source becoming the meaning. The SI used detournement in films, art, graphics for their journal and in posters that detourned comics during the events of May ’68.
The Split And The Second SI
The roots of the split in the SI date from the fourth conference in London when the German section, Gruppe Spur attacked the French and Belgian sections over their political beliefs. Gruppe Spur had joined the SI at the third conference in Munich in ’59, having been discovered by Asger Jorn in 1958. Asger Jorn resigned in 1961, which left control of the SI solely in the hands of Debord. Also Raoul Vaneigem joined in ’61 which increased the French section’s radical atmosphere. The issue of the political leanings of the SI rose again at the fifth conference in Göteborg, Sweden in 1961 when debates at the conference degenerated into personal insults. As a result of this the French section tried to impose it’s own editors onto Gruppe Spur’s Journal, and when Gruppe Spur put out an issue without the editors’ consent, they were excluded. The split in the SI came about in March 1962 when the six members of the artistic faction broke away from the politically minded faction of Debord, Vaneigem and Michele Bernstein (Debord’s Wife). The artistic faction were excluded in turn and formed the second SI, working with the now independent Gruppe Spur. The second SI continued the artistic work of the SI and is known for putting up graffiti in Copenhagen and decapitating the statue of the little mermaid in Copenhagen harbour.
The Society Of The Spectacle
With the help of Vaneigem, Debord began to turn the SI into a political organisation. In constructing his political theories Debord built on the work of the Socialisme Ou Barbarie group, Marx, Hegel, Lefebvre, Baudrillard, Lukacs and Korsch. The SI was also influenced by anarchism which it regarded as the ‘most advanced form of proletarian revolution’ in the form of the anarchists of the Spanish civil war.
Guy Debord had briefly been a member of the Socialisme Ou Barbarie group in 1960. The group broke away from the Trotskyist Fourth International after becoming disillusioned with the USSR’s Bureaucracy and the lack of any revolution after World War II as Trotsky had predicted. Marx had predicted that the communist state bureaucracy would dissolve into a utopian society, but that hadn’t happened either, which lead Socialisme Ou Barbarie to question orthodox Marxist thought. The group advocated a system of workers councils instead of a state bureaucracy (where the bourgeoisie had been replaced by a new class of ‘masters,’ the bureaucrats.) Karl Korsch was also an advocate of workers’ councils along with Rosa Luxemburg.
Debord and Vaneigem had attended a course of lectures in 1957-58 given by Henri Lefebvre, who was aided in giving this course by Jean Baudrillard. Lefebvre was the author of ‘The Critique Of Everyday Life’ in which he argued that people’s everyday life (i.e. what was left after work) was taken up by meaningless and trivial wastes of time such as commuting and the consumption of commodities. He was interested in how to free people from the alienation of work, commodity fetishism and money and let them experience everyday life without alienation – ‘man must be everyday, or he will not be at all.’
Georg Lukacs gave the SI the idea of reification which he meant to mean a form of objectification where the relationships between things replaces the relationships between people. Commodities take on a mind of their own, turning humans into robots mechanically worshipping them.
Guy Debord took all this to write ‘The Society Of The Spectacle’ which was published in 1967, the same year as Raoul Vaneigem’s ‘The Revolution Of Everyday Life’ which was written, unlike ‘The Society Of The Spectacle’ to present the SI’s theories to a mass audience.
The spectacle is an extension of the idea of reification where what ‘was directly lived has moved away into a representation,’ all real relationships having been replaced by that of relationships with commodities, and where commodities have a life of their own – ‘the autonomous movement of the non-living.’ The spectacle exists where there are ‘modern conditions of production’ and has only existed since around the 1920s when commodities became abundant.
The spectacle is not the domination of the world by images or any other form of mind-control but the domination of a social interaction mediated by images. Reification separates people from one-another but the spectacle is a unifying principle of society where it ‘reunites the separate, but reunites them as separate’.
As people consume the commodities or image-objects of the spectacle they become part of the spectacle, making rebellion against it hard. ‘Even the most radical gesture’ gets recuperated into the spectacle and turned into a commodity, negating its subversive meaning – ‘It is a question not of elaborating the spectacle of refusal, but rather of refusing the spectacle’ Everything becomes a commodity in the spectacle, even TV, radio, the internet, books, ideas, thoughts and desires. Rebellion is sold back to us as an image that pacifies us.
The Spectacle generates passivity in its spectators, highlighted by the SI’s essay ‘The Spectators Of Suicide’ in which the SI report that members of the public yelled to a suicidal man to jump for their entertainment instead of trying to coax him down. The spectacle forces people into stereotypes and roles especially through the specialisation of labour (you are your job and the things you consume) The spectacle presents a false view of the world where ‘the liar has lied to himself.’
As well as defining the concept of the spectacle Debord investigates commodity fetishism more closely, looks at the spectacle’s manufacture of dissatisfaction which then also becomes a commodity. He also looks at the history of the workers’ movement and world history in general, the commodification of time and he returns to the concepts of unitary urbanism and detournement.
Throughout the book Debord places workers’ councils at the heart of revolutionary practice, something he would try to put into effect during the events of May 1968.
The British Section And King Mob
The British section of the SI were excluded in 1967 after refusing to break off contact with the New York based ‘Black Mask/Up Against The Wall, Motherfuckers!’ group, a ‘street gang with an analysis.’ The British section consisted of Tim Clark, Chris Gray, Donald Nicholson-Smith and Charlie Radcliffe and they went on to form the King Mob group. The name came from the Gordon gin (sic) rioters, who daubed ‘His Majesty King Mob’ on the walls of Newgate prison in London in the 18th century. The plans of King Mob included blowing up a waterfall in England’s Lake District, blowing up the poet Wordsworth’s house with ‘Coleridge Lives’ graffiti and hanging peacocks in London’s Holland Park, though they were never carried out. The plan that did get put into action was based on Black Mask’s ‘mill-in at Macy’s.’ King Mob turned up at the Selfrige’s store in London with one of them dressed as Santa Claus and proceeded to give away all the store’s toys to children. The police were called and the children made to give the toys back. King Mob also produced the ‘King Mob Echo’ which celebrated killers like Jack The Ripper, Mary Bell and John Christie. Their graffiti got everywhere, including the memorable ‘Same thing day after day – tube – work – diner – work – tube – armchair – TV – sleep – tube – work – how much more can you take? – One in ten go mad – one in five cracks up’ and ‘I don’t believe in nothing – I feel like they ought to burn down the world – just let it burn down baby’.
The events of May 1968 for the SI started at Strasbourg university in 1966 when the student union approached the SI to write a critique of student life, which was published using the union’s funds and was even given away at the university’s official opening at the beginning of the academic year. The student union was closed down by court order and a court case ensued giving international publicity to the SI. The pamphlet, called ‘On The Poverty Of Student Life’ called for a revolt by students similar to the actions at Berkeley and elsewhere. ‘On The Poverty Of Student Life’ influenced student leaders such as Danny Cohn-Bendit and Jean-Pierre Duteuil who helped to circulate it. 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 C.M.D.O., The Council For The Maintenance Of The Occupations which distributed the SI’s demands on a much wider scale. The government and the unions agreed a deal but no-one went back to work. It was only after President de Gaulle had threatened to start a civil war and the army was deployed on the streets of Paris did the general strike fizzle out. The police retook the Sorbonne and the C.M.D.O. disbanded.
The End Of The SI And After
After the events of May ’68 the SI went into decline. They seemed to be unable to deal with the infamy that their activities had brought them, unable to come up with a coherent strategy once the failure of the ’68 rebellion had become apparent. The beginning of the end came with the resignation of Michele Bernstein in December 1967. After May ’68 the French section of the SI expanded with ‘pro-situs,’ fans of the SI who appeared to take no part in its activities. The core supporters of Debord – Vaneigem, Mustapha Khayati and René Viénet resigned, those who did not were excluded until only Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti could be said to be active members. Their last act as the SI was to produce the book ‘The Veritable Split In The International,’ a history of the SI and a critique of it’s failings and successes.
The SI are known to most people through their supposed links to punk rock. However these links are at best tenuous and at worst spurious. These links have come about through Malcolm Maclaren and Jamie Reid being members of King Mob, which they weren’t (though Reid provided graphics for ‘Heatwave’ the journal of the SI’s British section) and the plan formulated by Chris Gray for a totally unpleasant rock band, which some try to pretend is the blueprint for the Sex Pistols.
What the punk rock connection actually represents is the recuperation of Situationist theory, using it to sell bondage trousers, seven inch singles and tiresome pseudo-academic theories like those of Greil Marcus.
Surprisingly, given Debord’s scorn for anarchists, they have been the people who have taken most to the SI’s political theories, including the ‘terrorist’ group The Angry Brigade (they weren’t strictly terrorists as they never killed anyone) and many of the SI’s books have been published by anarchist publishing groups.
Karen Elliot, Oct 1999. No copyright. No rights reserved.
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