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THE ASSAULT ON CULTURE CHAPTER 3 (pages 17-21)
THE LETTRISTE INTERNATIONAL (1952-57)
The Lettriste International (LI) was the first breakaway group from Isou's Lettriste Movement (LM). They would be followed in turn by the Ultra-Lettristes. The LI was formed after the 'left-wing' of the Lettriste Movement disrupted a Charlie Chaplin press conference for 'Limelight' at the Ritz Hotel, Paris, in October 1952. Isou immediately denounced those responsible to the press, criticising the leaflet they had distributed and claiming that Chaplin's creativity rendered him unassailable. The young Lettristes who had engineered the intervention immediately responded with an open letter published in the newspaper "Combat" (2/11/52):
"We believe that the most urgent exercise of freedom is the destruction of idols, especially when they present themselves in the name of freedom. The provocative tone of our leaflet was an attack against a unanimous, servile, enthusiasm. The disavowal by certain lettristes, including Isou himself, only reveals the constantly re-engendered incomprehension between extremists and those who are no longer so..."
This letter also announced the formation of the Lettriste International. The membership of this break-away group was extremely unstable - twelve members were excluded from it in the fIrst two years of its existence - but at its core were Michele Bernstein and her future husband Guy Debord, Gil J. Wolman, Mohamed Dahou, Andre-Frank Conord and Jacques FilIon.
Where the Lettriste Movement had created cultural works, the Lettriste International intended to 'live' the cultural revolution. The LI's activities were to be provisional, subject to 'experiment' and change. Thus while abandoning the literary endeavours of the LM, the LI proceeded to pursue certain architectural theories that had reached an embryonic formulation in the LM. By the time Isou came to write his "Manifeste pour Ie boulevessement de l'architecture" in 1966 (published 1968) there can be little doubt that he'd been influenced by the urban theory elaborated by the LI. In his manifesto Isou says that instead of building "palaces for kings, churches for gods, triumphal arches for heroes, we must build palaces to house vagabonds and prisoners serving life sentences, convert churches into lavatories, triumphal arches into bistros... we must build as if by chance, as we wish and with the materials we want"
The single most important piece of writing on architecture and urbanism for the LI was Ivan Chtcheglov's "Formula For A New City". Written in 1953, the essay remained unpublished until 1958, when it was featured in the first issue of "Internationale Situationiste". The nineteen-year old Chtcheglov, writing under the pseudonym Gilles Ivain, saw cities as the site of 'new visions of time and space'. The exact nature of these 'new visions' were to be established via experimentation with patterns of behaviour in urban environments. Architecture was to be a means of modifying life. Such modification was necessary because:
"A mental disease has swept the planet: banalisation. Everyone is hypnotized by production and conveniences - sewage system, elevator, bathroom, washing machine.
Once the 'hacienda', the new experimental city, had been built, everyone would live in their own 'cathedral'. There would be different districts in the city which would correspond to the 'diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life'. The principle activity of the inhabitants was to be 'continuous derive'. That is to say, drifting through an urban environment following the solicitations of the architecture and one's desires.(2)
During the period following the production of this text, relations between Chtcheglov and the LI were far from cordial. In the second issue of the LI's information bulletin "Potlatch" (29/6/54), Chtcheglov is described as one of the band of 'old soldiers' whose 'elimination' the Lettriste International had been 'pursuing' since November 1952. The rest of this band included Isou, Lemaitre, Pomerand, Berna and Brau. More specifically, Chtcheglov is described as a 'mythomaniac' whose crazed theorising lacks 'revolutionary consciousness'. Almost a decade later, and after Chtcheglov had spent five years in a lunatic asylum, relations between him, Bernstein, and Debord, were patched up. Extracts from the letters Chtcheglov sent to the couple were later published in "Internationale Situationiste" number 9.
Taking their cue from Chtcheglov and 'an illiterate Kabyle' who - in the summer of '53 - suggested 'psychogeography' as a general term for the phenomena being investigated with drifts, the LI developed its theory of 'unitary urbanism'. According to Debord's "Introduction To A Critique Of Urban Geography" (published in the Belgian surrealist journal "Les Levres Nues" number 6, September 1955):
"Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The adjective, psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery."
The LI's theories and results, including its much vaunted 'construction of situations', never advanced beyond the outline Chtcheglov elaborated in "Formula For A New City". In his "Introduction To A Critique Of Urban Geography" Debord writes of a friend who 'wandered through the Harz region of Germany while blindly following the directions of a map of London'. Similarly the various 'psychogeographical games' and 'exercises', although not lacking humour, did not produce the kind of data from which serious scientific research could progress - despite the hue and cry the LI raised over its 'experimental' results. These include the 'possible appointment'. Here, the subject is asked to find themselves alone, at a precise time, in a preordained place. No one is there to meet them. Other variations include arranging to meet an unknown person, which the LI claimed led to interesting interactions with strangers. Activities such as walking without rest or destination, hitch-hiking through Paris while public transport was on strike, and walking the catacombs while they were shut to the public, were also suggested. These highlight the LI's interest in games played on urban sites, and demonstrate the extent to which its concept of urbanism was as much psychological and physiological as geographical. However, the LI introduced no innovations into urbanism. The plan to use mobile and transformable structures had already been outlined by Chtcheglov: the idea of a nomadic existence is implicit in this.(3)
In its "Plan For Improving The Rationality Of The City Of Paris" (published in "Potlatch" 23, 13/10/55) the LI make, among others, the following suggestions: to open the metro at night, to open the roofs of Paris as pavements - escalators would give access to them; opening public gardens at night; placing switches on street lamps so that the public may decide the degree of lighting it desires at night; the transformation or demolition of churches - removing all trace of religion, the suppression of graveyards - with the total destruction of corpses; the abolition of museums - with art being placed in bars; liberal admission in prisons - with the possibility of tourist visits; and that streets should not be named after saints or famous persons. These, and the LI's other urbanistic formulas, had been common-place since the early days of futurism. However, the central place they occupied in the LI's programme was in itself a novelty.
That the LI had few, if any, original ideas is hardly surprising when one considers that, other than unitary urbanism, their chief interest was detournement. This consisted of plagiarising preexisting aesthetic elements and then integrating them into a superior construction. According to Debord and Wolman in "Methods Of Detournement" (published in "Les Levres Neus" number 8, May 1956):
"The literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes... In fact, it is necessary to finish with any notion of personal property in this area. The appearance of new necessities outmodes previous "inspired" works. They become obstacles, dangerous habits. The point is not whether we like them or not. We have to go beyond them.
What Debord and Wolman call 'detournement' is, on a grander scale, the system by which most human technology and thought develop - innovations are generally a synthesis of the already known and a very minor discovery. Giant leaps into the unknown seem to occur only by accident, and cannot be consciously worked at in the way that most human development occurs.
During its existence, the activities of the LI remained largely unknown. Despite the presence of a number of Algerians in its ranks (and after October 1955 the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi), the LI remained a largely Parisian phenomenon. Its bulletin "Potlatch" (the title refers to pre-commercial societies which operate on the principle of 'the gift' rather than economic exchange) was given away. The first edition, dated 22/6/54, was produced in an edition of 50. By the end of the first series (the final issue was put out by the Situationist International rather than the LI on 5/11/57) four or five hundred copies of each issue were produced. There was only ever one issue of the second series.
The LI amalgamated with the International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus on 28 July 1957, to form the Situationist International (SI). Although not initially visible, many of the faults of the LI would later resurface in this organisation - in particular its aristocratic attitude. The LI's theoretical writings are peppered with snobbery; for example in his "Critique Of Urban Geography", Debord describes tourism as "that popular drug as repugnant as sports or buying on credit". The LI often referred to its activities as 'pre-situationist', but the formation of the (specto) SI did not really mark any advance on lettrisme - in terms of theory, practice or organisation.
1. I use here, as in a number of other places, a translation from Ken Knabb's "Situationist International Anthology" (Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley 1981). Knabb's translations, in sharp contrast to his extremely partisan opinions about the LI and SI, are excellent. Note added 2006: actually Knabb's translations have degenerated with his more recent work in this field (such as his 'official' translations of Debord's film scripts) being shockingly poor.
2. Chtcheglov seems to be drawing on the legacy of the Romantics. Baudelaire immediately springs to mind as an example of a Romantic treatment of urbanism and the city which is conceptually close to Chtcheglov. A quotation from Walter Benjamin's "Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet In The Era Of High Capitalism" (NLB, London 1973) will illustrate this. The section begins with a citation from Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil":
"(Through the old suburb, where the persian blinds hang at the windows of tumbledown houses, hiding furtive pleasures; when the cruel sun strikes blow upon blow on the city and the cornfields, I go practicing my fantastic fencing all alone, scenting a chance rhyme in every corner, stumbling against words as against cobble stones, sometimes striking on verses I had long dreamt of.)
"To give these prosodic experiences their due in prose as well was one of the intentions which Baudelaire had pursued in the "Spleen de Paris", his poems in prose. In his dedication of this collection to Arsene Houssage, the editor-in-chief of "La Presse", Baudelaire exposes, in addition to this intention, what was really at the bottom of these experiences. 'Who amongst us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and the sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive ideal is above all a child of the experiences of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations. '(...)
"(...)The revealing presentations of the big city... are the work of those who have traversed the city absently, as it were, lost in thought or in worry. The image of fantasque escrine does justice to them; Baudelaire has in mind their condition which is anything but the condition of the observer. In his book on Dickens, Chesterton has masterfully captured the man who roams about the big city lost in thought. Charles Dickens's steady peregrinations had began in his childhood. 'Whenever he had done drudging, he had no other resource but drifting, and he drifted over half London. He was a dreamy child, thinking mostly of his dreary prospects... He walked in darkness under the lamps of Holborn and was crucified at Charing X... He did not go in for "observation", a priggish habit; he did not look at Charing X to improve his mind or count the lamp-posts in Holborn to practice his arithmetic... Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind; he stamped his mind on these places.' "
3. Although the LI, and later the situationists, planned a total transformation of the urban environment, they never advanced a workable plan of how to maintain a sense of human community during and after this transformation. Without such a plan the utopian dreams of the LI - had they been implemented - would have turned out to be as much of a nightmare as the New Towns that were being built at the time. Although both the LI and the Situationist International devoted much time to talking about community and communication, their sectarian inclinations demonstrate that they had no real understanding of such concepts.
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