Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International
* Book: The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. McKenzie Wark. Verso, 2011.
"Over fifty years after the Situationist International appeared, they continue to influence activists, artists and theorists. From the Invisible Committee's bestselling The Coming Insurrection to Iain Sinclair's psychogeographic explorations, their work is still found to be rich with possibilities, yet its breadth and diversity is still unexplored. In the first account since Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces (1989), McKenzie Wark traces the Situationist International's beginnings in 1950s bohemian Paris up to the explosive days of May 1968. This account puts the legendary figure of Guy Debord back into the context of the other fascinating figures who made up the movement, including Constant, Asger Jorn, Michèle Bernstein and Jacqueline De Jong. It treats them as an international movement of conflicting passions rather than as a Paris coterie. Accessible to those who have only just discovered the Situationists and filled with new insights, Wark reconnects their work to new practices in communication, built form, and everyday life."
STIR: To those unfamiliar with the Situationists how would you introduce them, their contribution to the understanding of political events while they were writing, and their “contemporary resonance”?
McKenzie Wark: Only seventy-odd people were ever members of The Situationist International. It was an extremely marginal avant-garde movement that was formed in 1957 and then dissolved itself in 1972. Why the hell would anybody be interested in this tiny marginal activity? The footprint the Situationists left in political aesthetic culture is vastly greater than their actual numbers. As their leading light, Guy Debord, said ‘all you need is a few trustworthy comrades’.
So, why look at this stuff again? Well, if you are interested in how to think critically about everyday life, how to think and act outside of institutionalized forms of knowledge, in ways of inventing practices that are at least partially outside of the commodity system, then they are great precursors for dozens of things happening now such as Copy Left and Creative Commons on one side and forms of autonomous organisations in the media on the other.
There are also certain calcified stories about what was important about them, and it’s not as if those stories were wrong but sometimes it is worth going back to see what we have missed and what we have forgotten.
In The Beach Beneath the Street I wanted to tell the stories and extract the concepts of some of the figures who have not really been discussed. I have to say, though, now I am in the UK, that it is British comrades who have done a lot of work in saying that is not just about Debord—it’s also about Jacqueline De Jong, Alexander Trocchi, Asger Jorn.
Instead of looking at the one famous person, I look at it as a movement, a collective practice.
S: You start the book with an amusingly accurate critique of an unambitious academy that is unable to create “a critical thought that is indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or art world”. What is low theory and how is it part of the Situationist’s story?
MW: Well, I am obviously not concerned with being inconsistent because not only am I a tenured professor, I was also associate dean for two years, so I am about as institutional as you can get, even if at that strangely marginal place that is the New School for Social Research.
It is not there is anything necessarily wrong with what I call high theory, which is critical thought that is created within spaces such as the university. It is just that it is created within the space of a given game. There is a game—you write books that get noticed and then you get promoted and so on. This is completely independent of the politics and social concerns of the everyday.
I am interested in low theory, which comprise those somewhat rarer moments when, coming out of everyday life, you get a certain milieu that can think itself. It happens when there is a mixing of the classes (another thing higher education doesn’t do). It happens in certain spaces that we used to call bohemia. Low theory is the attempt to think everyday life within practices created in and of and for everyday life, using or misusing high theory to other ends. It happens in collaborative practices that invent their own economies of knowledge.
The Situationists are a really interesting example of that but they are not the last. It has been going on for years before them and years after them. So, I was trying to carefully pick through that bit of the story as a resource for people now who are trying to do the same thing. It was not an attempt to fetishise or be nostalgic about the past but show there are real lessons about what these guys did and failed to do if you are trying to be a critical autonomist in the twenty first century.
S: To extend the question about low theory, you speak of the Situationists “pushing philosophy out into the streets”. How do they do this?
MW: They always maintained that there was no such thing as Situationism—it was not a doctrine but more a group that experimented with creative practices. And it is not so much “out into the streets” as “from the street”. Debord is a provincial petit bourgeois alienated from his family who comes to Paris and goes to university really for the free food and stipend. Here, he is hanging out with delinquents and he starts the whole thing with an ethnography of delinquent life—as life outside of wage labour. His famous slogan of the 50s is “never work”, which is extremely hard to do and he is not consistent in not working. Even harder than “never work” is “make no art” and he definitely fails at this, as you can make art without even knowing it.
So, it is more that it came out of the streets, literally. Debord is not a delinquent, he is an alcoholic, but he is hanging out with delinquents, bohemians, and the dangerous classes. It’s all about the margins between these lives as much as the margin between these lives as a whole and straight life. This kind of bohemian world often produces things that are aesthetically interesting such as novels and art but it rarely produces theory. This is an interesting example where a group is able to consciously think while practicing outside the space of traditional thought." (http://www.thenewsignificance.com/2011/09/01/stir-interview-with-mckenzie-wark/)
Introduction: Leaving the 21st Century
(version without notes and references)
"We are bored with this planet. It has seen better centuries, and the promise of better times to come eludes us. The possibilities of this world, in these times, seem dismal and dull. All it offers at best is spectacles of disintegration. Capitalism or barbarism, those are the choices. This is an epoch governed by this blackmail: either more and more of the same, or the end times. Or so they say. We don’t buy it. Its time to start scheming on how to leave the twenty-first century. The pessimists are right. Things can’t go on as they are. The optimists are also right. Another world is possible. The means are at our disposal. Our species-being is as a builder of worlds.
Sometimes, to go forwards, one has to go back. Back to the scene of the crime. Back to the moment when the situation seemed open, before the gun went off, before the race of champions started. This is a story about a small band of artists and writers whose habits were bohemian at best, delinquent at worst, who set off with no formal training and equipped with little besides their wits, to change the world. As Guy Debord, not the least of their number, later wrote: “It is known that initially the Situationists wanted at the very least to build cities, the environment suitable to the unlimited deployment of new passions. But of course this was not easy and so we found ourselves forced to do much more.”
Where now does one find this kind of ambition? These days art is happy to settle for a little notoriety, a good dealer and a retrospective. It has renounced the desire to give form to the world. Having ceased to be modern, and finding it too passé to be postmodern, art is now merely contemporary, which seems to mean nothing more than yesterday’s art at today’s prices. If anything theory has turned out even worse. It found its utopia, and it is the academy. It is a colonnade adorned with the busts of famous fathers: Jacques Lacan the bourgeois-magus, Louis Althusser the throttler-of-concepts, Jacques Derrida the dandy-of-difference, Michel Foucault the one-eyed-powerhouse, Gilles Deleuze the taker-from-behind. Acolytes and epigones pace furiously up and down, prostrating themselves before one master – Ah! Betrayed! – and then another. The production of new dead masters to imitate can barely keep up with consumer demand, prompting some to chisel statues of new demigods while they still live: Alain Badiou the Maoist-of-the-matheme, Giorgio Agamben the pensive-pedant, Slavoj Zizek the neuro-Hegelian-joker.
In the United States the academy spread its investments, placing a few bets on women and people of color. The best of whom – Susan Buck-Morss, Judith Butler, Paul Gilroy, Donna Haraway,– at least appreciate the double bind of speaking for difference within the heart of the empire of indifference. At best theory, like art, turns in on itself, living on through commentary, investing in its own death on credit. At worse, it rattles the chains of old ghosts, as if a conference on ‘The idea of communism’ could still shock the bourgeois. As if there was still a bourgeois literate enough to shock. As if it was the idea that ever shocked them, so much as the practice.
Beneath the pavement, the beach. It’s a now well worn slogan from the May-June events in Paris, 1968. It’s the moment when two kinds of critique seemed to come together. One is communist, and demands equality. The other is bohemian, and demands difference. The former tends to get erased from historical memory. Its as if one of the world’s great general strikes never happened. The latter is rendered in a language that makes it seem benign, banal even. As if all that was demanded was customer service. Luc Boltanski: “Whole sections of the artistic critique of capitalism were integrated into management rhetoric.” What is lost is the combined power of a critique of both wage labor and of everyday life, expressed in acts. What has escaped the institutionalization of high theory is the possibility of low theory, of a critical though indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world. A low theory that dedicated to the practice that is critique and the critique that is practice.
And so: two steps back, that they might make possible three steps forward. Back to the 50s and 60s, when another twenty-first century seemed possible. Back to the few, the happy few, who thought they had discovered how to leave the twentieth century for sunnier climes, though not quite as warming as ours. Its not as if there are not already accounts of the Letterist International (1952-1957) and the Situationist International (1957-1972) that succeeded it. The Beach Beneath the Street claims no originality whatsoever. Rather, it’s a question of creating a past specific to the demands of this present. An account which resists the sorting and selecting which parcels out a movement into bite size morsels, each to be swallowed by a specific discipline: art history, media studies, architecture, philosophy or literature. The Situationist project implied the overcoming of separate and specialized knowledge, and has to be recalled in that spirit.
It is also easy prey for biographers, who excise this or that figure, creating little subjective narratives, like the plot of a novel or (dare we hope to sell the rights) a movie. The Letterist International and the Situationist International were collective and collaborative projects. Sure, some figures stand out (first among equals Guy Debord), but to reduce a movement to a biography or two is to cut a piece free from what made it of interest in the first place: the game of tactics and ruses, moves and cheats, by which each played with and against the other.
Even when the Situationists are treated as a movement, it is the supposedly minor figures who drop out of the story, or become mere props to the great men among them. Or, in order to make some coherent narrative out of it, to write a biography of a movement as if it were a subject, the differences among its members are either suppressed or turned into the stakes of a mere drama of personalities.ix Here instead is a large cast of disparate characters, some well known, some not, where Guy Debord and Asger Jorn rub shoulders with Patrick Straram, Michele Bernstein, Ralph Rumney, Pinot Gallizio, Jacqueline De Jong, Abdelhafid Khatib, Alexander Trocchi, or René Viénet. Where they come together, where they create something, is a situation. But situations are temporary moments, singular unities of space and time. They call for a different kind of remembering.
Some artifacts produced by the Situationist International are perhaps too well remembered. Do we really need another commentary on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle? Is not the one he wrote himself enough? Perhaps today one could only do it justice by refusing to paraphrase it. The Beach Beneath the Street will bypass more than one of the well known landmarks on its route through the Situationist International, but it will also draw attention to some less well known moments. The criteria for inclusion is not historical importance but contemporary resonance. Mention will also be made in passing to prominent landmarks of high theory: Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and so forth. But only in passing. The Beach Beneath the Street will not engage them on their own terrain. Rather, it opens toward another terrain.
In this version of the glorious times and notorious lives of the Situationist International, it emerges out of the practice of everyday life, and the attempt to think it begun in Paris in the 50s by the Letterist International. It creates a space for itself by taking its distance from certain precursors. Some are well know: Jean-Paul Sartre, George Bataille, Henri Lebefvre, Le Corbusier. Some less so: Paul Nougé, Maurice Saillet. They find common cause with Asger Jorn, who developed his own distinctive practice and a distinctive set of theories. Jorn brings into the picture Constant Nieuwenhuys and Pinot Gallizio. Our attention then turns to the collective existence of the Situationist International, which unites the Letterists and with Jorn’s associates in 1957.
Along the way we shall look at a number of artists, writers, activists who entered the orbit of the Situationist International but drifted off to create their own distinctive works, each of which develops some aspect of the shared project, if often in contradictory directions. This includes Michele Bernstein’s writings on love and play, Jacqueline De Jong’s journal The Situationist Times, Alexander Trocchi’s Project Sigma and Constant’s New Babylon. It is not as if these were fragments awaiting some sort of synthesis, however. Rather, each appropriates some elements from the Situationists as common property and adds to it in their own way. This account of the post-Situationist legacy of borrowing and correcting is meant rather to encourage further such takings and leave takings. The well has not yet run dry. A chapter on Henri Lefebvre shows what the Situationists took from him as well as what he took from them. The Beach Beneath the Street concludes with the Situationists’ own account of the revolutions of late sixties – both in Paris and also the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles. In contrast to those groups which made a profession of turning failed revolutions into literary or philosophical success, the Situationists chose with the ebb tide of the early seventies to disband.
Guy Debord spent a lot of time working on how to remember situations, how to document them and keep them in a way that could ignite future possibilities. For the most part, he created legends. “When legend becomes fact, print the legend,” as the newspaperman says at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). Much of the literature on the Situationists seems designed to be disabling, to prevent any real creative use of this body of work for critical practices in the twenty-first century. The authorities on this period delight in drawing attention to the follies then committed, as if their own complacency of thought was in some sense a higher achievement. Or it is all safely consigned to the archive, a time one can visit like a tourist before returning back home to the workaday world. The Beach Beneath the Street makes more than occasional reference to events of a more recent past, in which the cogency of Situationist thought and action still registers. Leaving the twentieth century was the aim the Situationist International once ascribed to itself. Leaving the twenty-first century might not be a bad ambition. On paper at least, we have longer to achieve it."
A Provisional Micro-Society
"The Situationist International was founded at a meeting of three women and six men in July 1957. All that remains of this fabled event are a series of stirring documents and some photographs, casual but made with an artist’s eye, by founding member Ralph Rumney.i The Situationist International dissolved itself in 1972. In its fifteen years of existence, only 72 people were ever members. It was born out of the fusion of two and a half existing groups, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, the Letterist International and the London Psychogeographical Society, (the last was represented by its only member, Rumney). Its founding conference took place in Cosio d’Arosca, a little Ligurian town where founding member Piero Simondo’s family had a small hotel. Or at least that is the official story. Debord writes in a letter to Jorn: “I think it is necessary for us to present the ‘Conference at Cosio’ as a point of departure for our distinct organized activity.”ii From the beginning, Debord has a fine hand for the tactics of appearances.
Debord skillfully positioned himself as the secretary for a new movement, the Situationist International. Of all the roles Debord chose for himself, not to mention those assigned to him by posterity, the one that receives the least attention is that of secretary. Late in life he was to say: “I have been a good professional – but of what?” While the question was meant to be rhetorical, one not entirely implausible answer would be – secretary.
The secretary’s task, as Debord conceived it, involves the organizing of exhibitions, provocations, occasional publications, and above all the journal, Internationale Situationniste. It is, Debord writes, “our ‘official organ’, the ideological coherence of which was made my responsibility.” Debord will act as its secretary with remarkable tenacity and industry. Internationale Situationniste would not be a duplicated flyer like the Letterist International’s Potlatch, but a beautifully edited, illustrated, designed and bound affair. By 1960 the author of “Never work!” would be complaining: “I am overwhelmed with work.”
Debord labored in the service of producing Internationale Situationniste as a collective expression, a document of a provisional micro-society whose practice is to treat all of culture as collective property. “Our editorial committee has a heavy hand (and, as you imagine, no respect for literary propriety.” Détournement was both a signature Situationist practice and a theory of how culture as a totality works. Debord writes to Straram in Canada: “All the material published by the Situationist International is, in principle, usable by everyone, even without acknowledgement, without the preoccupations of literary property. You can make all the détournements that appear useful to you.”
One makes a movement with what one has. The practice of the exclusion of members from the Situationist International began very soon after its founding. As a good secretary, Debord has little tolerance for opportunism or ineptitude. As Debord wrote to Walter Olmo, a founding member: “I reproach you for having accepted, in particular circumstances, several ideas that are stupid.” Olmo would not last long. Ralph Rumney lasted almost a year. Debord writes to him in March 1958: “you still haven’t done any real work with us.” To compound Debord’s annoyance, Rumney boasted of his Situationist connections to art world acquaintances.
Becoming a Situationist required a certain rigor. Debord: “I am still with the Situationist International and, as long as I am in it, I will keep a minimum of discipline that excludes all collaboration with uncontrollable elements…” To today’s middle class sensibility, submission to a discipline for reasons other than getting paid seems like some kind of perversion, and for that reason membership in the Situationist International seems as unintelligible a sacrifice as the mysteries of religion.
A more common model for what remains of the artist in today’s disintegrating spectacle is that of the small business proprietor. Take as an example Jeff Koons (b. 1955), who “staked his budding penchant for expensively fabricated art by working as a commodities broker on Wall Street for six years…. Today he has a factory in Chelsea with ninety regular assistants….” To be an artist, it seems, has become just another kind of middle class ambition, the dream of a franchise with your name on it.
The exclusion of members is sometimes taken to reveal some sinister side to Debord’s character, so it is interesting to read in the Correspondence that “Jorn was the first partisan of the measure of exclusion.” Jorn was one of the few Situationists who had ever been a member of an orthodox Communist party. But while the Situationist International is often compared to such a party, this parallel is usually made by people who were never members of one.
Situationists were expected to know what was expected of them and without being told. Debord’s policy as secretary was “to place a priori confidence, in all cases, and only until the first proof to the contrary, in a certain number of recognized comrades, based upon objective criteria.” The reason for most exclusions is not mysterious. It was a failure to live up to expectations. Members are what they do: “No problem in our collective action can be resolved by good will.” A certain unsentimental understanding of how friendships form and dissolve, of how character becomes different to itself as it struggles in and against time underlie the distinctive quality of Situationist subjectivity, where “neither freedom nor intelligence are given once and for all.”viii
Bataille had thought that what binds community together is the experience of death.ix Under the guidance of the Surrealist turned Stalinist Louis Aragon (1897-1982), postwar Communist culture created a real cult out of its dead Resistance fighters. The red flag shrouds its martyred dead, whose blood dyes its every fold. The Situationists borrowed at least this much from the Communists – that the exclusion of living members meant social death. Given that Communist culture really did comprise an entire social world, to be excluded from the party really did mean excommunication. The Situationists had no such power. But they wrestled with the problem of how to make collective belonging meaningful, as something requiring some sacrifice. The possibility of exclusion made participation in the Situationist game meaningful.
As secretary, Debord tacks this way and that, trying to keep the International together. Debord’s problems are compounded by the presence of several powerful personalities, all of them his senior. Around the time the Situationist International was founded, Guy Debord was 25, Constant Nieuwenhuys was 37, Asger Jorn was 43, Pinot Gallizio was 55. Debord looks to Constant as a tactical ally, but tries strenuously to keep him from pushing the organization too far too fast. He wants Constant to work on the editorial line for the journal with this in mind: “This will certainly help the really experimental faction in the Situationist International.” But Debord is initially not ready to break with Gallizio or Jorn, both of whom are earning Constant’s stern disapproval as artists. “I don’t have the right – and I do not have the least desire – to try to impose directives on the painters (for instance) in the name of a real movement that is no more advanced than their work.” A shrewd move, since for Debord to attempt to direct the painters would only draw him – and the Situationists – deeper into the obsessions of the art world.
The unraveling of Debord’s relationship with Constant is the great moment in the early life of the Situationist International, and it shapes the whole space of what will be possible for it. Debord is caught between the left and right wings of the movement. And while the artists are, one by one, excluded, Constant is hardly appeased and resigns anyway, and the movement, so to speak, moves on. But this is the moment, like the opening scene in a novel or film, where circumstances are fluid, where many things are possible. One discovers, in the first three years of the Situationist International many possible versions of it, besides the ones of legend or even historical record. This is perhaps why so many keep returning to them, and to these early years in particular, as the scene of a moment in still-living movement, or in other words, a situation.
“Staying friends with Constant was quite difficult. He liked to fight,” says Jacqueline De Jong. At stake are 200 copies of Constant’s book which Debord feels are owed to him. It may sound like just a pretext, but one of the essential components of the existence of the Situationist International was the internal exchange of documents and their donation to external parties. As this incident highlights, it was held together by the gift.
The gift enters Situationist via the writings of the socialist anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), which were taken up and expanded into a theory of the general economy by Georges Bataille. Both drew on anthropological work by Franz Boas (1858-1942) and others among Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, and their concept of potlatch. This version of the gift linked it closely to reputation. The gift is not selfless charity, nor is it a Christmas present.xi Rather, it is a very special kind of donation, in which the donor gives away time, matter or energy in order to acquire reputation. The journal of the Letterist International was called Potlatch, and despite the meager resources of the group it was given away for free.
The Situationists sold their journal in bookshops, but many were given away and for the same reasons: to exchange their time, energy and materials for reputation. The Situationist International was a provisional micro-society founded on its own quite particular economy of donation and reputation. While various of its activities might be supported by selling art to collectors or other banal forms of compensated labor, there is a sense in which the Situationist International was a grand potlatch, putting to the fire the thought and work of a whole little community, daring the world to match its extravagant consumption of its own time.
Hence the donation of copies was no mere pretext in Debord’s falling out with Constant, for if Constant refused to donate them it would constitute a real break in the economy – if that is what it is – of this micro society. It is a quite paradoxical economy. The philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was Debord’s contemporary, although beyond that they had little in common, except perhaps rather nuanced notions of the gift. Jacques Derrida: “The gift is the gift of giving itself and nothing else.”
Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) had thought of a gift economy as driven by an underlying generosity, the very mana of socialism. Debord and in particular Jorn practiced it in much the same spirit, even saw it as the basis for a break beyond socialist thought and action. But Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) took thinking about the gift away from the “shop girl’s philosophy” of everyday life, and in the direction instead of a structural logic of exchange.xiii This line of thought would flourish in the hands of Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Louis Althusser (1918-1990), where gift exchange reappears as the structural logic of symbolic exchange, and becomes the technique by which the superstructures of capitalist society can be decoded. They wanted a parallel competence to the marxisant political economy still thought to explain the workings of the base.
Derrida proposes instead that the gift must interrupt the economy. The gift is not supposed to be returned. It is outside circulation and circular time. Giving suspends all calculation. The gift is canceled by any reciprocation, return, debt, countergift or exchange. Derrida departs from anthropological thinking by thinking the gift in its singluarity, outside of exchange, to reveal just how troubling it is to any such structural logic.
If the recipient of a gift recognizes it as a gift, then it ceases to be one. “If it presents itself then it no longer presents itself.” For Derrida this opens up an intriquing realm of paradox and a way to get pay back on his structuralist precursors. For the Situationsts, the very impossibility of the pure gift calls into being a whole terrain of possibility for an art and politics of the impurity of the gift. Every impure gift forces both the giver and receiver into the invention of an attitude to life that can accept the gift but not exchange it. The invention of everyday life could be nothing but the inventive accommodation to gifts, to the subtle art of not returning the gift, of giving again in a way that is not circular, that does not simply pass on the debt.
Exchange affirms the identities of givers and receivers, and the value of the thing exchange. Exchange arises as a way to contain the troubling capacities of the gift. “The subject and the object are arrested effects of the gift.” This might be the last nobility left to life: to give and not receive, receive and not gift, to invent unreturnable acts (another name for which might be situations). Derrida constructs not only a theory of the gift, his writing inserts itself into just such an unreturnable practice, or tries to. The Situationist International composed a whole microsociety on the premise of the art and politics of the gift, or what might more properly be called potlatch.
Potlatch is not really sustainable. It’s a game, a challenge. It isn’t a circular exchange. The early years of the Situationist International are a game of potlatch, of the gift of time, in which the players, in the end, run out of moves. For Debord, in particular, the challenge of the gift of time went, in his terms, unmet. It was time to forget and move on.
The Situationist International exercises a continued fascination because its members made a gift of their time that was not returned in their own time. They did not really take their place in the exchanges of views between the journals and groups of their time. Their beautiful, expensive journal did not so much circulate as spiral off into the void. Until May 68 appeared, and appeared to many to return the gift in spades. But still, something remains of an uncanceled gift."
"For past works to become resources for the present requires their use in the present in a quite particular way. It requires their appropriation as a collective inheritance, not as private property. All culture is derivative.
Rather than chiseling language down to its bare elements, Debord and Wolman propose something else. Not the destruction of the sign, but rather destruction of the ownership of the sign. “It is necessary to eliminate all remnants of the notion of personal property in this area.” Detournément offers “an ease of production far surpassing in quantity, variety and quality the automatic writing that has bored us for so long.”
A crucial détournement is from Marx and Engels’ famous ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ (1848): “The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.” The inflation introduced by detournément, even more than that of Letterism, is the development that undermines bourgeois culture in turn.
Capital produces a culture in its own image, a culture of the work as private property, the author as proprietor of one’s own soul. Detournément sifts through the material remnants of past and present culture for materials whose untimeliness can be utilized against bourgeois culture. But rather than further elaborate modern poetics, detournément exploits it. The aim is the destruction of all forms of middle class cultural shop-keeping. As capital spreads outwards, making the world over in its image, at home it finds its own image turns against it.
It’s easy to miss the significance of this claim, buried as it is in a text that spends quite a bit of time on the poetics of detournément. Debord and Wolman discuss a metagraphic composition by Debord, a memorial for Kaki, and talk about the way classified ads about bars for sale contribute to the affect of a remembrance for a suicide. ‘Détournement: A User’s Guide’ could be reduced, in other words, to a somewhat limited and clinical statement about intertextuality. Tom McDonough: “To carry class conflict into the realm of language, to insist upon the central place that realm occupied in the collective construction of the world to be made, to announce the arrival of a ‘literary’ communism’ – these were the inseparable aims of Situationist detournément.”ii Quite, but it is all too easy to elide the significance of literary communism, which is not merely something added to modernist poetics. It is its undoing. It brings class struggle both in to and out of language.
Détournement is the opposite of quotation. Like détournement, quotation brings the past into the present, but it does so entirely within a regime of the proper use of proper names. The key to détournement is its challenge to private property. Détournement attacks a kind of fetishism, where the products of collective human labor in the cultural realm can become a mere individual’s property. But what is distinctive about this fetishism is that it does not rest directly on the status of the thing as a commodity. It is, rather, a fetishism of memory. It is not so much commodity fetishism as co-memory fetishism. In place of collective remembrance is the fetish of the proper name. Détournement restores to the fragment the status of being a recognizable part of the process of the collective production of meaning in the present, through its combination into a new meaningful ensemble.
Key to any practice of détournement is identifying the fragments upon which it might work. There is no necessary size or shape to an element to be détourned. It could be a single image, a film sequence of any length, a word, a phrase, a whole paragraph. What matters is the identification of the superior fidelity of the element to the ensemble within which it finds itself. Détournement is in all cases a reciprocal devaluing and revaluing of the element within the development of a unifying meaning. Détournement is the fluid language of anti-ideology, but ideology has absolutely nothing to do with any particular arrangement of signs or images. It has to do with ownership.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) undermines the romantic theory of authorship by speaking of discourse as a distribution of author functions.iii For Foucault, a statement is authorized by a particular form of discourse, a regime of truth, a procedure for assigning truth-value to statements. Its not hard to see why this captivated the minds of academics. It made the procedures in which academics are obsessively drilled the very form of power itself. It is as if that by which academics are made, the shaping of their bodies to desks and texts, that about which they know the most, even more than they know their allotted fields, was the very index of power.
Reading Foucault is like coaching in a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance, to something or other. Détournement, on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game.
The device of détournement restores all the subversive qualities to past critical judgments that have congealed into respectable truths. Détournement makes for a type of communication aware of its inability to enshrine any inherent and definitive certainty. This language is inaccessible in the highest degree to confirmation by any earlier or supra-critical reference point. On the contrary, its internal coherence and its adequacy in respect of the practically possible are what validate the symbolic remnants that it restores. Détournement founds its cause on nothing but its own practice as critique at work in the present. Détournement creates anti-statements. For the Situationists, the very act of unauthorised appropriation is the truth content of détournement.
It goes without saying that the best lines in this chapter are plagiarized. Or rather, they are detourned. (It hardly counts as plagiarism if this text itself gives notice of its own offense – does it?) Moreover many of these detourned phrases have been corrected, as Lautréamont would say. Plagiarism upholds private property in thought by trying to hide its thefts. Détournement treats all of culture as common property to begin with, and openly declares its rights. Moreover, it treats it not as a creative commons, not as the wealth of networks, not as free culture or remix culture; but as an active place of challenge, agency, strategy and conflict. Détournement dissolves the rituals of knowledge in an active remembering that calls collective being into existence. If all property is theft, then all intellectual property is détournement.
Not surprisingly, official discourse has a hard time with it. The decline of critical theory in the post-war years is directly correlated to the refusal to confront détournement as the most consistent approach to a knowledge made by all. The meandering stream that runs from the Letterist International to the Situationist International and beyond is the course not taken, and remain a troubling memory for critical thought. The path not taken poses the difficult question: what if one challenged the organization of knowledge itself? What if, rather than knowledge as a representation of another life, it was that other life?
Meanwhile, détournement has become a social movement, outside of official discourse, in all but name. Here the Situationists stand as a prophetic pointing of the way towards a struggle for the collective re-appropriation and modification of cultural material. One that need only become conscious of itself to re-imagine the space of knowledge outside of private property. Every kid with a bitorrent client is a peer-to-peer Situationist in the making. What remains is the task of closing the gap between a critical theory gone astray, still caught up in the model of knowledge as property, and a popular movement that cannot quite develop its own consciousness of its own power. There might be a link between so-called plagiarism and progress after all."