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THE ASSAULT ON CULTURE CHAPTER 8 (pages 45-49)
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE SPECTO-SITUATIONIST CRITIQUE
During the early sixties both the specto-situationists and the 2nd Situationist International were largely unknown beyond fringe groups of artists, students and political activists. Both Internationals managed to spread their fame a little through the use of scandal. The specto-situationist Jeppesen Victor Martin was the most accomplished practitioner of this tactic. After several incidents which reached the press, he was prosecuted for producing a cartoon on the occasion of a Danish royal wedding which depicted Christine Keeler with a speech bubble stating that it was better to be a prostitute than marry a fascist.
When fans of the journal "Internationale Situationiste" gained control of the student union at Strasbourg University, the specto-situationists seized their chance for an intervention with maximum publicity. In its text "Our Goals And Methods In The Strasbourg Scandal" ("Internationale Situationiste 11", Paris, October '67), the specto-situationists claim they initially suggested that the students themselves write a critique of the university and society in general; and then publish it with student union funds. In the end, the text was written by a card carrying specto-situationist, Mustapha Khayati - with a few corrections made by the organisational hierarchy in Paris. Ten thousand copies of "On The Poverty Of Student Life: considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy" (AFGES, Strasbourg, 1966) were printed, and many were handed out at the official opening of the university's academic year in November '66. Soon afterwards, the student union was closed by court order and the specto-situationists received international publicity. In the court case that resulted from the text's publication, the summation of the judge is now better remembered and publicised than the text itself:
"The accused have never denied the charge of misusing the funds of the student union. Indeed, they openly admit to having made the union pay some $1500 for the printing and distribution of 10,000 pamphlets, not to mention the cost of other literature inspired by "Internationale Situationiste". These publications express ideas and aspirations which, to put it mildly, have nothing to do with the aims of a student union. One has only to read what the accused have written, for it is obvious that these five students, scarcely more than adolescents, lacking all experience of real life, their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories, and perplexed by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant, and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgements, sinking to outright abuse, on their fellow-students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, the governments and political systems of the whole world. Rejecting all morality and restraint, these cynics do not hesitate to commend theft, the destruction of scholarship, the abolition of work, total subversion, and a world-wide proletarian revolution with 'unlicensed pleasure' as its only aim.
The reaction of the judge delighted lumpen intellectuals across the world, and many of the subsequent reprints of the text have included this extract of the judge's summation. According to Ken Knabb ("Situationist Anthology", Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, 1981):
"On The Poverty of Student life is in fact the most widely circulated situationist text. It has been translated into Chinese, Danish, Dutch, English, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish, and its total printing so far is in the neighborhood of half a million."
The text itself begins with a critique of students, 'the most universally despised creature in France', and continues by declaring that there are only two possible futures for delinquents, 'the awakening of revolutionary consciousness or blind obedience in the factories'. This is followed by a critique of the Dutch Provos, in which Constant is personally insulted: the fact that he was once a member of the Situationist International is conveniently ignored. Khayati proclaims that to 'arrive at a revolutionary critique, the rebellious Provo base has to begin by revolting against its own leaders'
It is presumably idealist induction which enables Khayati to declare that by 'revolting against their studies, the American students have automatically called into question a society that needs such studies'. This revolt (at Berkeley and elsewhere) has 'from the start asserted itself as a revolt against the whole social system based on hierarchy and the dictatorship of the economy and the state'. This no doubt came as a sup rise to the majority of those who had participated in the disturbances, but since they presumably lacked the theoretical clarity of specto-situationist analysis, Khayati felt free to state it anyway.
Similarly the struggles in Eastern Europe (East Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956, &c.) are without illusion, and the protagonists - although they don't know it themselves - are in complete accord with the theoretical thesis of the specto-situationists. In England, the youth involved with the anti-bomb movement lack radical perspectives, but this can be remedied if they link up with the shop steward movement! According to Khayati, the fusion of student youth and radical workers that has already taken place shows how this is to be done. One wonders where the majority of youth, who in England at least lacked the 'benefits' of higher education, were meant to fit in. Khayati ignored such questions because his text - despite the abuse at the beginning - was intended to recruit students as cadre for the specto-situationist movement; and to have launched a genuine attack on student privileges would have doomed such a project to failure.(1) It is precisely because Khayati's stale ideology is aimed at students that he presents his ideas as a series of shop-worn paradoxes:
"...the first great 'defeat' of the proletarian power, the Paris Commune, is in reality its first great victory in that for the first time the early proletariat demonstrated its historical capacity to organize all aspects of social life freely. Whereas its first great 'victory', the Bolshevik revolution, ultimately turned out to be its most disastrous defeat.. The results of the Russian counterrevolution were, internally, the establishment and development of a new mode of exploitation, bureaucratic state-capitalism, and externally, the growth of a "Communist" International whose spreading branches served the sole purpose of defending and reproducing their Russian model... in spite of apparent variations and oppositions, a single social form dominates the world, and the principles of the old world continue to govern our modern world. The tradition of the dead generations still haunts the minds of the living... there can be no revolution outside the modem, nor any modem thought outside the reinvention of the revolutionary critique... As Lukas correctly showed, revolutionary organisation is this necessary mediation between theory and practice, between man and history, between the mass of workers and the proletariat constituted as a class... Everything ultimately depends on how the new revolutionary movement resolves the organisation question... the critique of ideology must in the final analysis be the central problem of revolutionary organisation."
Khayati's style is that of a pompous academic. It makes one think of those imbecilic professors of philosophy who welcome new students with the hope that at the end of their course these acolytes will emerge knowing less than when they began. No doubt Khayati's paradoxes were familiar and reassuring to his student readers.
Like all specto-situationist texts, when the concepts contained in "On The Poverty Of Student Life" are analysed they are soon seen to be incoherent. Khayati, in concluding, talks about 'the actual realisation of real desires'. The critical reader does not infer from this an intended distinction from the 'non-realisation of false desires'.(2) Only the semi-literate would mock the hapless theorist; Khayati's references to the concrete serve a real function - with them he hopes to mask the fact that his theory is no more than an abstraction.
The scandal surrounding "On The Poverty Of Student Life" marked a high point of publicity for the specto-SI. A year and a half later, during the occupations movement of May '68, the specto-situationists believed they were seeing the revolution they'd predicted. Unfortunately this was not the case, and the rapid decomposition of the group, started by the resignation of Michele Bernstein in December 1967, accelerated. The specto-situationists claimed they played a major role in the May events, a view not shared by disinterested observers.(3) During May, the specto-SI, and its supporters, formed themselves into the Committee For The Maintenance Of The Occupations - a group numbering approximately 40 persons.(4) When it's considered that millions of workers and students participated in the May events, such a miniscule grouping cannot be deemed of much significance. With reality having failed to live up to the specto-situationists' expectations, many of the movement's 18 members proceeded to resign from the International. The majority of those that didn't were excluded. Finally, when there were just three members left, Debord and Sanguinetti announced their victory over history in "La Veritable Scission dans L'Internationale" (Champ Libre, Paris, 1972). In this they claimed that the specto-SI was about to be reborn everywhere. Nothing of the kind occurred. However, the recessions of the seventies did demonstrate that specto-situationist 'analysis' - based as it was on the belief that capitalism had overcome its economic contradictions was incorrect.
1. It was left to proletarians to make a genuine critique of the student movement. For example, during the 1968 Vietnam Solidarity demonstration in London's Grosvenor Square, a phalanx of 200 fanatical Millwall Football Club supporting 'skins' chanted "Students, Students, Ha Ha Ha", in reply to the shouts of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" being made from the disorganised ranks of the New Left radicals.
2. I have not been able to locate a French edition of "On The Poverty Of Student Life" and so I use here Ken Knabb's translation from his "Situationist International Anthology". If Knabb's translation is faulty, the point still holds: - the (specto) SI continually refer to the concrete and the total in their texts, in a vain attempt to mask the essential vapidity of their theorising.
3. It was in the interests of the right vastly to over-emphasise the role of the SI in the Occupations Movement. It suited conservative politicians to place the blame for the May events on a small group of 'fanatics' who led the majority of the population astray. Such distorted interpretations of the May movement were made from de Gaulle downwards.
4. Steef Davidson in "The Penguin Book of Political Comics" (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1982) describes the Council For The Maintenance Of The Occupations as "a group of forty to fifty Situationists and 'enrages' who had broken away from the M22M (March 22nd Movement)". Rene Vienet in his book "The Enrages and the Situationists in the Occupation Movement France, May-June" (Tiger Papers, Heslington, York, undated) says: "About 40 people made up the permanent base of the CMDO and they were joined for a while by other revolutionaries and strikers from various industries, from the provinces or from abroad and returning there. The CMDO was more or less constantly made up of about ten situationists and Enrages (among them Debord, Khayati, Riesel and Vaneigem) and as many from the workers, the high school students or 'students', and other councillists without specific functions."
HAVING A RIOT IN COPENHAGEN
I didn't see any rioting, although there were burn marks still visible on the streets where there had been trouble. Dozens of cops in riot vans were parked up outside the conference I was participating in on the Scandinavian Situationists. I took part in a street party one night, a failed attempt at diverting the cops while other activists attempted to squat a new property to replace the social centre that had been demolished. On Saturday I turned up at the site of the destroyed Old House social centre, now just a piece of waste ground, where it had been planned we should construct a "People's Park". There were around 25 activists present when a couple of vans carrying soil, trees and other materials pulled up. As we attempted to unload the cargo, cops from a riot van came and stood in the way. At this point the pigs were slightly outnumbered, and they didn't attempt to clear us off the site until several van loads of reinforcements arrived and there were more of them than us. So crazy times in Copenhagen, and the repression there continues....
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