Situationist Aesthetics: The SI Now
8 June 2012. University of Sussex.
I attended the Situationist Aesthetics conference as a speaker, and it must have been obvious to anyone who heard my presentation that it didn’t fit in with the consensus. I presented a paper (here) about the Situationist practice of the dérive with particular emphasis on the contribution of Ivan Chtcheglov, during the Lettrist International period. The majority of the other presentations focused on Situationist ‘pope’ Guy Debord.
I experienced this phenomenon a few years ago at ‘Deleuze Camp’, an extended (often tedious) conference focused on the work of Gilles Deleuze. I assume this is something that happens at any conference dedicated to a specific thinker, but find it curious the way a particular orthodox view begins to emerge from the conference. In the case of Deleuze Camp, it appeared that the speakers were attempting to position Deleuze to make him acceptable to analytic philosophy, removing any vitalism from his work. At Situationist Aesthetics, the move seemed to be to emphasise Debord as the big man of the Situationists (as he himself had, perhaps, intended), in much the same way as the Silverman Collection positions George Maciunas as personifying Fluxus by emphasising art objects and Maciunas’ design work over the group’s collective actions.
The general narrative arising from the conference was that Debord was a post-Hegelian philosopher with a Clauswitzian, strategic dimension to his work on the Spectacle, this despite Debord’s statement that he was not a philosopher, but a strategist; apparently he was just being deceptive or playful when he made that statement. I was particularly bothered by several claims that the dérive was a political and strategic tactic for disrupting the spectacle. The dérive is certainly a practice that can be used for political ends, but it is simply a tool and could equally be used to celebrate the spectacle.
Several speakers also celebrated the much vaunted ‘occupy’ movement, claiming that the left was seizing public space and that from this space political actors would emerge. This is despite the obvious implication of the dérive, that spaces are not fixed and that social spaces do not pre-exist, but are constructed through social interactions and atagonisms. These spaces can be produced anywhere, not just at sites of power, such as the stock exchange.
The stand out panel for me was the final (Post-Situationist) panel before McKenzie Wark’s keynote in which Seb Franklin discussed cybernetics and networked societies as fundamentally ‘unspectacular’ (Much of this way WAY over my head), Gavin Grindon discussed issues surrounding the exhibition Destruktion af RSG-6 and Benjamin Noys presented on the SI and ‘communisation’. It was such a relief at this point to hear presentations that were not centred on Debord that I forgot to take notes. While Wark’s keynote presentation suggested that he was writing other people back into situationist history, in this case through reference to film editor Martine Barraqué, it focused almost exclusively on Debord in relation to the film Society of the Spectacle.
One possible reading of Debord that did not emerge from the conference is that he was actually a collagist, both in his writing and in his film-making, meaning that much of his contribution to theory needs to be inferred; it is often hard to isolate his contribution from those he paraphrases. He described himself as a strategist (rather than a philosopher) and claimed his most important work was the Kriegspiel (Game of war) board game. Despite this, speakers at the conference repeatedly insisted on Debord’s status as a philosopher, missing the importance of what he was claiming.
Debord clearly felt that his most important work was as a strategist and in helping others develop as strategists. He clearly felt that the key to the struggle against the spectacle was the interference of and disruption of the enemy’s lines of communication, which is the main lesson taught by the kriegspiel. If there is any doubt about this, even after reading his texts and playing the kriegspiel, one need only turn to the practices of the dérive and détournement. The dérive interrupts communication from the spectacle, via the built environment, through disorientation and a ‘rapid flight’ through varied ambiences. Meanwhile, détournement disrupts the spectacle’s communication with us by problematising its own materials, blocking existing lines of communication and unconsciously linking mass media images with subversive situationist antagonisms.
While the speakers almost universally denied the conference’s central premise, that there might be a situationist aesthetics, it should be clear that, since aesthetics is a discursive practice concerning human creative output, a denial of situationist aesthetics is a nonsense. This denial only serves to shut down one of the very debates with which they concerned themselves, namely the dialectical tension between the autonomy and heteronomy of art practice. On the other hand, “Situationists” who détourn printed matter today may be wasting their efforts and could be seen as fetishising the aesthetics of the 1960s SI. Rather, if they are serious about the situationist project, they should look to the internet and mobile technologies to explore new tactics for blocking the spectacle’s lines of communication, which currently target people’s unconscious minds with impunity.