Speak of Revolution: A Review of The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook

Alexander Billet

 

In 1978, commenting on the tenth anniversary of the événements of May 1968, French journalist and philosopher Regis Debray called the Situationists “the only true geniuses of May.” Coming from Debray, a lifelong Marxist, confidant of Che Guevara and adviser to Salvador Allende, this was high praise. The Situationists—Raoul Vaneigem and the late Guy Debord best-known among them—were by then infamous for their “revolutionize everything” approach. They aspired to leave not a single corner of the world, be it politics, economics, work, or daily life, untouched by the impulse of transformation. That they helped spur one of the most significant popular uprisings in modern history suggests that they must have been doing something right.

Debray’s words of praise also point to a stumbling block. Noted for his theories around “mediology,” or the study of how meaning is transmitted in society, Debray’s own work is (as he will freely admit) more often than not lumped into the vague and opaque field of “media studies,” under the watchful eye of academic gatekeepers. So it is with the Situationists as well, a strange gaggle of avant-garde misfits who have become the focus of steadily increasing scholarly interest, especially over the past decade. Anselm Jappe’s biography of Guy Debord—highly recommended and long out of print—was reissued in 2018. McKenzie Wark, Tom Bunyard, and others have not only revisited the theories of the Situationist International but also argued for their continued relevance. But approaching the Situationists as theorists and not as artists tends to reinforce a stubborn and devitalizing perception of the movement as chiefly concerned with media, advertising, and consumerism. You could be forgiven for thinking of them as slightly irregular sociologists rather than disciplined-yet-creative revolutionaries.

Consider “spectacle,” the movement’s most distinctive and influential term. It can be read in a narrow sense as a label for a kind of saturation of life by mass media. The idea was intended as a critique of post-war capitalism: “The Spectacle,” writes Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, “is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” In the era of YouTube and Instagram, it is not difficult to perceive the continuing utility of this formulation. The challenge now is to imagine what social relations not mediated by images would be like, or if that would even be possible. 

 

Situationist thought was—to paraphrase Debord, himself paraphrasing Marx—dedicated less to interpretation than to radical change. Hence the Situationists’ active participation in May ‘68. In “The Shadow Cast by the Situationist International on May ’68,” Anna Trespeuch-Berthelot begins by citing Debray’s praise for the SI from 1978 and moves quickly to emphasize that the group’s members had been involved in establishing revolutionary student councils and committees to support the workplace occupations that swept France.

The popularity of the Situationists’ ideas, the provocative nature of their slogans and détourne images, and the movement’s outright disdain for consumer society and its illusory pleasures all expressed a deeply rooted dissatisfaction, to which government, trade unions, and some on the “official” left remained oblivious. The social contract of the post-war years seemed to secure capitalism’s stability in exchange for creature comforts. But not everyone felt it was a good deal, and it wasn’t as if they’d been consulted in the first place. The barricades that went up on the streets of French cities indicated as much. 

Trespeuch-Berthelot writes:

“Situationist ideas and slogans shocked and fascinated… Evidence for the circulation of these ideas during May-June 1968 can be seen in the way in which formulations from these [Situationist] works populated the visual and auditory universe of protesters in the form of Situationist-inspired slogans and graffiti. The Palais Universitaire-Strasbourg, for example, was adorned with two citations, written in large letters, taken directly from [Vaneigem’s] The Revolution of Everyday Life: ‘We do not want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger is exchanged for the certainty of dying of boredom’ and ‘Those who speak of revolution without wanting to change everyday life have a corpse in their mouths.'”

Trespeuch-Berthelot’s essay is included in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, recently published by Pluto Press. The collection aims to provide an introductory overview of the SI, stressing its impulse toward active and radical change. Edited by Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, chapters include contributions from Bunyard and Jappe, as well as Michael Lowy, Bertrand Cochard, Ruth Baumeister, and other academics who have sought to break Situationist thought out of its arbitrarily imposed confines. The editors (and, presumably, the authors) are encouraged by more recent scholarship around the SI, but also write that it “remains diffuse and uncoordinated.” By recentering this scholarship on the SI’s preoccupation with revolutionary praxis, this “critical handbook” provides, if not the last word in Situationist scholarship, then at least the first word in a 21st-century reappraisal of Situationist thought.

 

The book is broadly divided into two parts. The first provides context for the rise and activity of the SI, from its precursors in previous avant-garde and left-wing milieux through its founding in 1957 and its dissolution in 1972. This means tracing the political, philosophical, and aesthetic influences that shaped Situationist thought. The second part examines key theoretical pillars of the SI, defining terms like spectacle, détournement, and unitary urbanism, as well as unpacking the Situationists’ particular understanding of concepts like alienation or internationalism. 

Essays discussing the influence of the surrealists on the SI and the group’s origins in a break with the short-lived Lettrist movement make clear that avant-garde concerns with aesthetics and cultural expression carried a social and political charge as well. This is particularly clear in the tradition of surrealism. Today one of the most recognizable movements in 20th century art, the surrealists considered themselves revolutionaries, allying themselves with dissident communist and anti-colonialist movements. Their aesthetic postures, their juxtaposition of seemingly nonsensical gestures and images, were intended to provoke a rupture in people’s sense of the possible, a psychological catalyst for revolutionary action. Like their own ancestors the Dadaists, surrealists believed that disrupting the false boundaries between art and life would make for a more liberated world. Despite the often petty sniping between the surrealists and the Lettrist/Situationist cohort, this common outlook also provided opportunity for collaboration.

According to Krysztof Fijalkowski’s chapter “The Unsurpassable: Dada, Surrealism and the Situationist International,” the SI could be viewed as surrealism’s bratty inheritors—as much allies in the fight for a liberated and revitalized life as they were intellectual rivals. Citing Debord, he sums up the SI’s dialectical outlook on what they had inherited: “Dadaism sought to abolish art without realising it; Surrealism sought to realise art without abolishing it. The critical position since elaborated by the Situationists has shown that the abolition and realisation of art are inseparable aspects of a single transcendence… of art.”

This abolition of the boundary between art and life hinged on a Marxist understanding of alienation: not just feelings of detachment, but the active deprivation of the fruits of life from those who create them. In this there is a proposition for a different conception of time and temporality. Building upon not just Marx but Hegel and György Lukács, the Situationists saw the logic of commodity and its production reaching into all aspects of life. Not only did this logic strip work of “its charm” (to quote Marx), it insinuated itself into the much-vaunted post-war proliferation of “leisure time.” Consumer products weren’t just soulless in their own right—they actively ingratiated an attachment to capital, making it seem eternal and natural. This conception drew from Lukács’s definition of reification. Likewise, commodity fetishism wasn’t merely a matter of our attitudes towards the commodity itself, but the reach of the logic of the commodity form into general ideology.

This emphasis didn’t exactly sit well with the “official” left in France, personified in the thoroughly Stalinist Communist Party of France (PCF) and its allied trade union, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). Both had, in the SI’s view, become complicit in bureaucratically maintaining the terms of exploitation rather than abolishing them, in essence turning their back on the idea of revolution. When the SI was founded in the 1950s, there were already well-established anti-Stalinist and left communist tendencies in France, Europe, and the United States. One of these—Socialisme ou Barbarie, led by the iconoclastic Cornelius Castoriadus—was already quite close with the SI at the time of the latter’s creation. 

The most salient characteristic of Socialisme ou Barbarie, as illustrated in Anthony Hayes’s chapter on the SI’s “Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement,” was its emphasis on autogestion: workers’ self-management and control over production. Where the SI diverged was in expanding the call for this self-management to be generalized well beyond the workplace (autogestion généralisée), and with it the very definition of that idealized category, “the proletariat.” This irreverent, even heretical break with official Marxism was evident in the SI’s writings and propaganda. It was also apparent in their declarations of solidarity, which called for the radical rearrangement of the avenues of everyday life. Two of the Critical Handbook’s most edifying chapters concern the SI’s relationship to gender and racial colonialism. 

While the PCF waffled on French occupation of Algeria and whether to support the anti-colonial resistance, the SI were steadfast. Sophie Dolto and Nedjib Sidi Moussa’s chapter chronicles not just the SI’s statements in support of the Algerian insurgency but its criticisms of the bureaucratic, quasi-Stalinist government that came to power after the withdrawal of France. “As the case of Algeria suggests,” the authors write, “the question that lies at the heart of the SI’s work on anti-colonisation is whether the emancipation of these countries could trigger, or at least coincide with, an internationalist revolution. Uncompromisingly critical of any attempt by underdeveloped countries to join the ‘race to catch up with capitalist reification,’ the Situationists also denounced the passivity of the West regarding its own revolution.” 

In other words, autogestion généralisée was impossible without decolonization, and vice versa. To that end, as Dolto and Sidi Moussa’s chapter also relates, the SI denounced the war in Vietnam, sought to forge links with avant-garde revolutionaries in the Congo, and celebrated the 1965 Watts uprising.

Ruth Baumeister’s chapter on gender and sexuality in the SI is equally compelling. Though, she points out, the SI only ever had a handful of women members, their influence was often outsized in the group, particularly in the case of writers and artists like Michèle Bernstein and Jacqueline de Jong. Both had notable careers well after the dissolution of the SI. 

What’s more, as Baumeister illustrates, the Situationists saw the predominance of the commodity form as implicated in the subjugation of women. Films, articles, and collages created by the SI lampooned the commodification of sexuality and sought to subvert the shiny-happy worlds of domestic products that were primarily marketed to women. Baumeister also recounts the life of SI member Peter Alfred Lindell. Born in Denmark, Lindell was a little-known but well-respected editor and typographer who was bisexual and transgender, transitioning after the group’s dissolution. The SI evinced critical interest in both the repressiveness of gender roles and the possibility that they might be smashed.

 

Any discussion of the Situationists must return to the notion of the spectacle. The SI insisted that, despite appearances, life under post-war capitalism was profoundly unfree. Humanity’s needs, wants, and potentials had been enclosed in virtually every way. In this respect, the spectacle was not just about images that distract from or paper over the reality of life. It was representative of an all-encompassing system in which all of society had become a simulacrum. The insinuation of commodity fetishism into life beyond the workplace and the shop meant that representations of life had become “more real” than life itself. 

Debord’s own views on the nature of the spectacle would change over time, as Zacarias and Hemmens explain in their chapter on the concept. During the 1960s, while he was writing The Society of the Spectacle, Debord differentiated between the types of spectacle that dominated on either side of the Iron Curtain. In the west was the “diffuse spectacle,” the reign of profit and commodity that was masked by the trappings of parliamentary democracy and endless consumer choice. In the east, the spectacle was “concentrated” in identification with a single leader through cults of personality, mediated by state bureaucrats and, if need be, direct repression. (It is important to stress here that Debord and the SI, as with most left communists, viewed the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc generally as a form of bureaucratic state capitalism rather than any kind of postcapitalist society.)

By 1988, however, Debord’s understanding of the spectacle had changed. With the fall of the Berlin Wall just around the corner, he wrote in Commentaries On the Society of the Spectacle that the two types had merged. The resulting “integrated” spectacle was not just an aestheticization of the capitalist economy but of violence itself, especially state violence. In all cases, as several contributors to the Critical Handbook argue, the spectacle facilitates the fundamental separation of the masses from participation in history. 

Throughout all of his work, Debord insisted that full class consciousness and radical subjectivity required a process of “dis-alienation,” an awareness of how one was subjugated not just at work but throughout their entire lives. Détournement, the reappropriation and undermining of advertising and marketing copy, wasn’t merely a bit of shocking rhetorical fun, but a way of departing from the metabolism of commodified life and toward a liberated time, not unlike surrealist juxtaposition.

The Situationists weren’t the only ones exploring such ideas with gusto during their heyday. The spirit of “never work,” that infamous graffito credited to Debord and scrawled across countless Parisian walls, found its echo in the Italian autonomist movement. Similar assertions of worker independence could also be seen among auto workers in Detroit and Lordstown, Ohio. In all cases, workers gave voice to a desire for full control of production, often with an eye toward its automation and elimination.

Situationist thought also sheds light on the significance of May ’68 and other rebellions, and the way that they transcended the workplace. It’s here that the Situationists’ rather underdeveloped ideas around urbanism come into play. As is well-known by now, May ’68 was not simply an uprising of the workplace, but of the urban landscape. It was not just factories that were occupied, but every school and street, every theater and apartment complex. Every corner of the city was actively reimagined. 

Well before the cobblestones were pulled up, however, the Situationists were writing about ways that this imagination might find its expression. The 1950s and 60s saw wide-reaching redesigns of urban space in Europe and the Americas, intended to better accommodate the needs of mid-century capital and make for a pliable labor force. The SI’s “unitary urbanism,” as Craig Buckley writes in his chapter, was intended to push back against these pressures, to wrench the buildings and streets away from the flows of capital and reconfigure them into a shape that met people’s physical, emotional, and psychological needs. If work was to be abolished, replaced with play and creativity, then the cities would evolve to fit this new shape of life. 

How exactly this was to be accomplished was unclear. Buckley mentions several approaches to the question of unitary urbanism within the SI, including game- or theater-like “situations,” proposals for new architectural projects, or simply an understanding of the different ambiances created by various urban spaces. And then there was the dérive, the practice of aimless wandering through city streets with their reimagination in mind, also highly redolent of romanticism and surrealism. In any event, it would appear that the mass reimagining brought on by the événements superseded all of these, albeit impermanently. 

The SI’s approach to the city is, in the words of Thomas Levin, “the best prism through which to refract the group’s double-identity as an avant-garde movement and as a political formation.” Political liberation and collective creativity become one and the same in these theories, and it is no coincidence that mass uprisings so often appear and are experienced as ludic outpourings. This, at its heart, is the virtue of Situationist theory: its demand that everyday life should be the realization of art, of philosophy, of general human potential.

 

Reading all of this, it is difficult to deny that the spectacle is more ubiquitous than ever. The Critical Handbook’s editors agree. “[A]lthough much has changed since 1967, and since 1988,” they write, “we still very much live within the society of the spectacle.” This isn’t merely due to the omnipresence of the Internet and social media, but to the way in which the logics of commodity and atomization have suffused our private and interpersonal experiences, becoming unavoidable and seemingly eternal. 

Today’s cities teem with casualized and underpaid gig workers: rideshare or delivery drivers deprived of benefits and protections, putting wear on their own vehicles for a pittance. Their “personal space” is increasingly colonized by work, and their only interactions with management are via an app interface. The same kinds of algorithmically determined patterns surveil and punish warehouse workers for too many bathroom breaks. Or anticipate our streaming and buying choices at home, providing just enough consumptive pleasure to make life slightly beyond unbearable, so that we can get up the next day and suffer through it all again. Both a tyranny of technology and a tyranny of alienation via convenience. Meanwhile, videos of hyper-militarized police storming through protests with impunity, of violence visited upon populations abroad, of detention camps on the border, remind us that, if we reject passivity, direct repression is always an option. To many, it is something worth celebrating.

The crashes of 2008 and today have short-circuited the dialectic of consumer capitalism. Despite a glut of algorithmic content and the superabundance of celebrity, there is a distinct and growing feeling that our needs aren’t being met. Not only are the burdens of paying rent and putting food on the table increasingly overwhelming, but deprivation also denies us opportunities for creative and ontological fulfillment. Material poverty and spiritual poverty are two sides of the same coin, and it is perfectly possible to be bored out of our skulls while working ourselves to death. 

How we might discover or create an authentic existence in the face of all this—how we might build lives of genuine solidarity—is difficult to say. The Critical Handbook reminds us that these questions have been asked before, even if they haven’t yet been successfully answered. Whether we recognize it or not, we have a rich lineage of creative refusal and utopian visions to draw from. We are also, in some ways, starting entirely from scratch. If the best that can be said for this Critical Handbook is that it is only a guide—a starting point rather than a roadmap—then, for now, that will have to do. ♦


 


Special thanks to Scott McLemee for his assistance with this article.

Alexander Billet is a writer of prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction living in Los Angeles. A member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective, he helps edit its publications Locust Review and Imago, and is co-host of its podcast Locust Radio. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salvage, Jacobin, In These Times, Against the Current, and other publications. He blogs at alexanderbillet.com and can be reached through Twitter.