* *



During the academic year '57-8, Henri Lefebvre held a sociology course at Nanterre which attracted the attendance, amongst others, of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem (who would join the SI in '61). Debord and Lefebvre developed a friendship which the latter would later describe as 'a communion', but which soon ended in rupture with the SI claiming Lefebvre had stolen 'its' ideas. Lefebvre's theory of 'everyday life', which already held a certain sway within the SI via the influence and input of COBRA and the IMIB, was to have a profound influence on Debord's intellectual development. The theories of Jean Baudrillard, who participated in the presentation of the course, also appear to have made a certain impact on the SI's thinking.

The revision of marxian thought undertaken in France during the 1950's, in which Lefebvre played a leading role, created an 'intellectual' climate which was conducive to the development of the SI as a 'political', and not 'just' a 'cultural', organisation. The journal "Arguments", which is closely identified with revisionism, was founded just before the SI, at the beginning of 1957. In France, Marxist thought had been dominated by the Communist Party, and it was not until after the liberation that there was any attempt at philosophic revision. In many ways the debate was similar to that carried out in Germany during the twenties, although commentators (i.e. Richard Gombin) say French revisionism lacked the vigour found in the thought of Lukacs, Adorno &c. Although Lefebvre's theory of 'everyday life' was of central importance to the SI, it was the group Socialisme ou Barbarie (founded 1949) who would provide the political theory upon which Debord and Vaneigem's thought would draw most heavily. Indeed, Debord would join S ou B briefly in 1960. The SI adopted S ou B's ideas wholesale, from the analysis of the USSR as a bureaucratic capitalist state, to the advocacy of Workers' Councils as the means of communist organisation. Although the SI later 'broke off' fraternal relations with S ou B, it was never able to break with the political conceptions of the latter group.(1)

* * * * *

Walter Olmo, with the endorsement of Elena Verrone and her husband Piero Simondo, presented a text - "For A Concept Of Experimental Music" - to the SI at the end of September '57. In the essay, Olmo gave an account of his sound researches, and linked them to the construction of ambiance. Debord responded with a text issued on 15th October '57, in which he denounced Olmo, and his two supporters, for approaching the problem of experimentation from the 'idealist attitude' of 'right-wing thought'. Olmo, Verrone and Simondo, having refused to retract the text, were formally expelled from the SI at its second conference, held in Paris on 25/26 January '58. In March '58 Ralph Rumney, an English member of the Italian section, was expelled. According to Rumney,(2) the exclusion was the result of his failure to complete a psychogeographical report on time. Ironically, he a finished version of this photo-essay a day or two before he received a letter from Paris notifying him of his expulsion. His marital commitments, centred around the recent birth of a son, were not considered suitable reasons for the exclusion being rescinded. According to the SI the Venetian jungle had 'closed in on the young man' (IS 1, June '58).

The 1st January '58 saw the founding of the German 'section' of the SI, which consisted solely of Hans Platschek until his expulsion in February the following year. The 'section' was launched with the manifesto "Nervenruh! Keine Experimente!" signed by Platschek and Jorn.

In the early months of '58, the French section issued two tracts:"Nouveaux theatre d'operation dans Ie culture" and "Aux producteurs de l'art moderne". The former schematised the programme of the SI, while the latter invited artists, "tired of repeating outmoded ideas", to organise new modes for the transformation of the environment. As a first step towards this they were to contact the SI.

In April '58 the SI launched its action against the "International Assembly Of Art Critics" in Belgium. A tract was issued, denouncing art critics for defending the old world against the subversion of a new experimental movement. An account of how this message was broadcast is given in "Internationale Situationiste" 1 (June '58):

"Our Belgian section carried out the necessary direct attack. Beginning 13 April, on the eve of the opening of the proceedings, when the art critics from two hemispheres, led by the American Sweeney, were being welcomed to Brussels, the text of the situationist proclamation was brought to their attention in several ways. Copies were mailed to a large number of critics or given to them personally. Others were personally telephoned and read all or part of the text. A group forced its way into the Press Club where the critics were being received and threw leaflets among the audience. Others were tossed onto the pavements from upstairs windows or from a car."

Walter Korun, who was prosecuted for his leading role in this incident, was expelled from the 51 in October '58.

The first public exhibition of Gallizio's 'Industrial Painting' opened at the Notizie Gallery, Turin, on 30th May '58. Three rolls of canvas (70, 14 and 12 metres in length) were displayed. The painting was partially unrolled and pinned to the walls. Fashion models paraded up and down the gallery dressed in cuts of the canvas, which was being sold by the metre. A device emitted notes which varied in accordance with the movements of those present in the gallery. This 'musical' use of this 'tereminofono' had originally been developed by Walter Olmo and Cacito de Torino.

Gallizio's 'work' was created with simple tools. His production process required the pressing and painting of oil and resin onto canvas. This technique was very much in keeping with the traditional craft methods of fine art. The resulting rolls of canvas were described as 'industrial' because of the scale, rather than the process, of production. Gallizio had taken up painting in 1953, at first imitating the then current mode of abstract expressionism. The 'Industrial Painting' which he and Giors Melanotte (his son) created in the late fifties, was developed as much from this previous interest in action painting as from certain 'technical' innovations. The canvases were produced without design or formulation, and were 'the concrete expression of the painterly gesture'. The SI viewed such 'painting' as 'anti-painting' because, by producing such a volume of work, Gallizio intended to detourne the structure of the art market. According to the SI, Gallizio was not be looked upon as an 'isolated artist', but rather as the constructor of 'unitary ambiances' .

As a result of the publication in Paris of the first issue of "Internationale Situationiste" (June '58), Debord was subjected to a police interview. The French police, who were empowered to disband subversive and criminal associations, were informed by Debord that the SI was an artistic tendency which, since it had never been constituted, could not be disbanded. In a letter to Gallizio (dated 17th July '58), Debord complains that the police, having mistaken the SI for 'gangsters', were trying hard to intimidate them.

In a tract entitled "Defend Liberty Everywhere" (dated 4th July '58), Gallizio - in the name of the Italian section of the S1 - launched a campaign to have the Milanese painter Nunzio Van Guglielmi released from a lunatic asylum. Guglielmi had been interned after breaking a window of Raphael's "The Wedding Of The Virgin" and pasting up a tract praising the revolution against the clerical government. In Paris, on the 7th July '58, Jorn issued the tract "Au secours de van Guglielmi". In this he denounced the imprisonment of Guglielmi as 'an attack against the modem spirit', and praised the Milanese painter for assailing 'the false artistic ideals of the past'. The following year Guglielmi was declared sound of mind and released from the asylum.

During the summer of '58, the SI ordered Abdelhafid Khatib to make a psychogeographical report on the Les HaIles region of Paris. Among other things, this necessitated the exploration of the district at night. Such an undertaking was fraught with difficulties for Khatib who, as an Algerian resident in France at the height of the nationalist bomb scare, was subject to a police curfew which required all Algerians to remain indoors after 7.30pm. Having been arrested twice, Khatib decided enough was enough and submitted an incomplete report which the SI accepted.

On the 8th July '58, the second exhibition of Gallizio and Melanotte's Industrial Painting was opened at the Montenapoleone Gallery, Milan. In October '58, IP received its Parisian premier during a 'night exercise' by the SI; a long roll of canvas, following the lines of ambiance, was pinned up in a street. In the second issue of "Intemationale Situationiste" (Paris, December '58), the 'unexpected' commercial success of IP was explained as a defensive action on the part of the commercial art world, who were 'pretending' to accommodate IP into their scale of values by considering each role as one large picture. The situationists responded to this by increasing the price from L10,000 to L40,000 per metre, and through the production of longer rolls.

If 1958 had been an active year for the SI as an organisation, it had been particularly busy for Jorn as an individual. The SI had edited and published "Pour la forme - Ebauche d'une methodologie des Arts", a collection of Jorn's writings from the period '53 to '57. Jorn, along with Constant, Gallizio, Bernstein and her husband Debord, was one of the group of five who formed the theoretical and organisational core of the situationist movement. In April, while the SI was launching its attack against the art critics assembled in Belgium, Jorn's work was being shown at the Brussels 'Expo' as part of "50 dans d'art modeme'. Jorn's reputation as a major figure in European art dates from this exhibition. His increasing success as an artist was to have major repercussions for the SI. Until Jorn broke into the super-league of the art market, Gallizio - as the situationist with the largest private income - had provided most of the movement's funds. But from '58 onwards it was Jorn, with the fortune he made from the sale of his paintings, who would finance the SI. Some projects such as the German "Spur" magazine he financed directly, others he paid for indirectly. Whenever a situationist - or the movement in general - was short of money, Jorn would give them a painting, knowing full well it would be sold. It was with the money raised from the sale of Jorn's paintings, presented to Debord as presents, that the SI was able to finance its publications. Jorn continued to give his paintings to members - and former members - of the SI until his death, twelve years after he had officially resigned from the movement.(3)

Jorn had met the members of Gruppe Spur in '58, during his first one man show in Munich. Spur (meaning trace or trail) had been founded the previous year by Lothar Fischer, Heimrad Prem, Josef Senft (pseudonym of J. K. S. Hohburg), Helmut Sturm and Hans-Peter Zimmer. By the time Spur joined the SI at the third situationist conference in Munich (17 - 20 April '59), Ervin Eisch, Heinz Hofl, and Gretel Stadler had become members of the group, while Josef Senft had left. During the period it constituted the German section of the SI, Dieter Kunzelmann, Renee Nele and Uwe Lausen, would join Spur's ranks.

Spur had much in common with both Jorn, who had 'discovered' them, and Constant. They had a shared belief in the collective, and non-competitive, production of art.(4) This was in stark contrast to the supersession of art proposed by Bernstein and Debord. Like Constant, Spur were developing concepts of play and of (wo)man as 'homo ludens', which had previously been outlined in a 1938 essay by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. These ideas were to become central to the SI's programme and were often utilised, if not developed, by Raoul Vaneigem.

An exhibition of Gallizio and Melanotte's Industrial Painting was held at the Van De Loo Gallery to coincide with the Munich conference of the SI. During the congress itself, there emerged ideological differences between the Dutch section and Debord. Debord envisaged a revolutionary creativity totally separated from existing culture; whereas the Dutch delegates insisted on the centrality of unitary urbanism as an alternative means of liberated creation and sustained cultural revolution. This difference was not resolved. The report Constant presented on the foundation of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism in Amsterdam underlined the extent to which the situationist movement was diverging from Bernstein and Debord's plans. Utilising a team of artists, architects and sociologists, the 'bureau' was dedicated to the construction of unitary ambiances. Debord chose to bide his time. It would be several years before he could assume leadership of the movement and enforce his own opinions on those who were left once he had purged all 'opportunist tendencies'. On the night the Munich conference closed, the SI fly posted the city with leaflets proclaiming "A Cultural Putsch While You Sleep!".

In May '59 members of the SI held exhibitions in three of Europe's most prestigious art galleries. Gallizio and Melanotte presented their "Anti-Material Cave" at the Rene Drouin Gallery, Paris. This was another unitary environment created from rolls of their industrial painting. Jorn showed his "Modified Pictures" at the Rive Gauche Gallery, Paris. These consisted of 20 'kitsch' paintings which Jorn had 'detourned' with stains of colour and alteration to figures. Constant exhibited spatial constructions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. These were models for the buildings of unitary urbanism, which were to be suspended from frames, making them more to flexible than traditional architecture. Research into unitary urbanism proved to be the central activity of the SI during the summer and autumn of '59; but while the Dutch and Italian sections carried on an animated debate over technical and social problems to be tackled, others withdrew to the sidelines:Jorn because he was suspicious of functional technology, Bernstein and Debord because they wished to pursue an essentially 'political' line. The third issue of "Internationale Situationiste" (Paris, December ' 59) features documents from the congress in Munich, articles on unitary urbanism, and an essay on Industrial Painting.

At the end of '59, the SI began negotiations with Wilhem Sandberg to hold an exhibition in and around the Stedelijk Museum the following May. The S1 planned to turn the exhibition rooms into a labyrinth, exhibit documents, have pre-recorded lectures playing continually, and organise a systematic derive conducted by three situationist groups. The exhibition was not held because, among other things, the SI refused to make modifications to the labyrinth so that it would meet security and safety requirements. After the museum was forced to cancel the project in March '60, due to the SI's intransigence, the space was offered to Gallizio - who accepted it.

In April ' 60, Armando, Alberts and Oudejans were expelled from the movement, the latter two for having accepted a contract to construct a church. In June, Gallizio and Melanotte exhibited Industrial Painting at both the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Notizie Gallery, Turin. Simultaneously, they were expelled from the SI for collaborating with 'ideologically unacceptable' forces. Glauco Wuerich, another member of the Italian section, was purged at the same time. In the same month Constant tired of being criticised for 'privileging' a technical architectural form, instead of 'seeking' a global culture - resigned.

On the 20th July '60, the SI published Debord and Canjuers's "Preliminaries Toward Defining A Unitary Revolutionary Programme". Pierre Canjuers was a theoretician of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group. The text was described by the situationists as "a platform for discussion within the SI, and for its link-up with revolutionary militants of the workers movement" (IS 5, Paris December 1960). The SI was too sectarian for this to amount to much. For a time Debord held dual membership of the SI and S ou B, and was one of a team the latter group sent to Belgium during the General Strike of 1960. But Debord resigned from S ou B after only a few months of active membership. Contact between the SI and S ou B diminished, and ended with a final rupture in '66.

In August 1960, the first issue of the German "Spur" magazine was published in Munich. It highlighted the different ways in which various factions within the SI approached the 'social question'. The differences were underlined by the reprinting in the journal of the May 1960 manifesto of the SI, with the November '58 manifesto of SPUR. Unlike the faction centred around Bernstein and Debord in Paris, Spur had no interest in the 'realisation and suppression' of art. This is how the Germans stated their position in the year following the founding of their group:

"...We oppose the logical way of mind which has led to cultural devastation. The automatic, functional attitude has led to stubborn mindlessness, to academicism, to the atom bomb... In order to be created, culture must be destroyed. Such terms as culture, truth, eternity, do not interest us artists. We have to be able to survive. The material and spiritual position of art is so desperate that a painter should not be expected to be obliging when he paints. Let the established do the obligatory... Art is a resounding stroke of the gong, its lingering sound the raised voices of the imitators fading into thin air... Art has nothing to do with truth. Truth lies between entities. To want to be objective is one-sided. To be one-sided is pedantic and boring... WE DEMAND KITSCH, DIRT, PRIMEVAL SLIME, THE DESERT. Art is the dung-heap upon which kitsch grows... Instead of abstract idealism we call for honest nihilism. The greatest crimes of man are committed in the names of Truth, Honesty, Progress, for a better future. Abstract painting has become empty aestheticism, a playground for the lazy-minded who seek an easy pretext for the chewing-over once again of long outdated truths. Abstract painting is a HUNDREDFOLD MASTICATED PIECE OF CHEWING GUM stuck underneath the edge of the table. Today the Constructivists and the structuralist painters are trying to lick off this long-dried-up piece of chewing gum once again... WE SHALL SET AGAINST THIS OBJECTIVE NON-COMMITALISM A MILITANT DICTATORSHIP OF THE SPIRIT."

The "Spur" magazine, in contrast to "Internationale Situationiste", was largely graphic. Both visually and in terms of content, the two journals show the situationist movement as being ideologically divided at every level.

These differences were much in evidence at the Fourth Congress of the SI, held at a 'secret' location in East London, September 24-28th '60. Upon their arrival in the English capital, delegates were set the 'psychogeographical' task of locating the British Sailors Society, where the conference was to be held. On the 26th September, Heimrad Prem read a long declaration on behalf of the Spur group attacking the tendency amongst the French and Belgian delegates 'to count on the existence of a revolutionary proletariat'. Kotanyi replied to this by 'reminding' the Germans that in many 'advanced' capitalist countries wildcat strikes had 'multiplied'. This difference was not resolved, the Spur group simply agreed to retract its statement so as not 'to impede present situationist activity'

On the last day of the conference, the SI held a 'public' meeting at the Institute Of Contemporary Arts in London's West End. Guy Atkins includes the following eye-witness report of it in his book "Asger Jorn - The Crucial Years 1954-1964" (Lund Humphries, 1977):

"The meeting, from beginning to end, was a parody of a normal ICA evening. Toni del Renzio was the ICA's chairman that night. He opened the meeting by giving some of the historical background of the Situationist movement. When he mentioned the conference in Alba there was loud applause from the Situationists. At the mention of the 'unification conference' at Cosio d' Arroscia the clapping was terrific, accompanied by loud foot stamping. The ICA audience was clearly baffled by this senseless display of euphoria. Del Renzio then introduced the S.I. spokesman Maurice Wyckaert.
"Instead of beginning with the usual compliments, Wyckaert scolded the ICA for using the word 'Situationism' in its Bulletin. 'Situationism', Wyckaert explained, 'doesn't exist. There is no doctrine of this name.' He went on to tell the audience, 'If you've now understood that there is no such thing as 'Situationism' you've not wasted your evening.'
"After a tribute to Alexander Trocchi, who had recently been arrested for drug trafficking in the United States, Wyckaert launched into a criticism of UNESCO. We were told that UNESCO had failed in its cultural mission. Therefore the Situationist International would seize the UNESCO building by 'the hammer blow of a putsch'. This remark was greeted with a few polite murmurs of approval.
"Wyckaert ended as he had begun, with a gibe at the ICA. 'The Situationists, whose judges you perhaps imagine yourselves to be, will one day judge you. We are waiting for you at the turning.' There was a moment's silence before people realized that the speaker had finished. The first and only question came from a man who asked 'Can you explain what exactly Situationism is all about?' Wyckaert gave the questioner a severe look. Guy Debord stood up and said in French 'We're not here to answer cuntish questions'. At this he and the other Situationists walked out."

At this time Spur were the most active section of the SI: between August '60 and January '61 they published seven issues of their journal, the fifth (June '61) of which was an all text issue on unitary urbanism, featuring reprints of old Lettriste Internationale writings on this subject.

The split between the 'cultural' and 'political' factions within the 51 widened with the resignation of Jorn in April 1961. This was compounded by Raoul Vaneigem (born Lessines in the Hainaut, 1934) assuming membership the same year. The division of opinion reached explosive proportions at the Fifth Conference of the SI in Goteborg, Sweden, 28-30th August '61. Vaneigem's report demonstrated the intransigence of the 'political' faction:

"...It is a question not of elaborating the spectacle of refusal, but rather of refusing the spectacle. In order for their elaboration to be artistic in the new and authentic sense defined by the SI, the elements of the destruction of the spectacle must precisely cease to be works of art. There is no such thing as situationism or a situationist work of art or a spectacular situationist... Our position is that of combatants between two worlds - one that we don't acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist."

Kunzelmann immediately expressed 'a strong scepticism' as to the powers the SI could 'bring together in order to act on the level envisaged by Vaneigem' (IS 7, Paris '62). Prem reiterated the position of the Spur group on revolutionary tactics - more or less repeating what the Germans had said at s the 4th Congress of the SI. Although there was much talk of dissatisfaction and revolt, Spur noted that: 'Most people are still primarily concerned with comfort and conveniences'. Thus the third session of the Fifth Congress ended in 'uproar', with shouts of 'Your theory is going to fly right back in your faces!' from one faction and 'Cultural pimps!' from the other.

The conference decided to add Kotanyi and de Jong to the editorial board of the 'Spur' journal; and with the consultation of these two extra editors, the .sixth issue was published in November '61. However, in January '62 Kunzelmann, Prem, Sturm, Zimmer, Eisch, Nele, Fischer and Stadler published issue 7 of the magazine without informing Kotanyi or de Jong. As a result they were expelled from the SI the following month. Simultaneously the Spur group was subjected to a series of police harassments and prosecutions for immorality, pornography, blasphemy and incitement to riot. These eventually resulted in Uwe Lausen serving a three week jail sentence, while other members of the Spur group were fined and given suspended sentences.

After their exclusion, Spur continued to exist as a group, and were later involved with the 2nd Situationist International. This new grouping arose in March '62 when Nash, Elde, de Jong, Lindell, Larsson and Strid broke with the faction centred around Bernstein, Debord and Vaneigem. They immediately announced the formation of the 2nd Situationist International, centred on Drakabygget (the Situationist Bauhaus), a farmhouse in Southern Sweden. Those they broke with responded by 'excluding' the 'Nashists', a term adopted at the Sixth Congress of the 'SI' at Antwerp (12-16th November '62).

Nash outlined the theories of the 2nd International in "Who Are The Situationists?" (Times Literary Supplement, London, 14/9/64):

".....The point of departure is the dechristianisation of Kierkegaard's philosophy of situations. This must be combined with British economic doctrines, German dialectic and French social action programmes. It involves a profound revision of Marx's doctrine and a complete revolution whose growth is rooted in the Scandinavian concept of culture. This new ideology and philosophical theory we have called situology. It is based on the principles of social democracy in as much as it excludes all forms of artificial privilege."

From Sweden, Nash published booklets, issued the magazine "Drakabygget" (named after his farmhouse) and organised other propaganda including exhibitions and demonstrations. Among the publicity stunts orchestrated by the Situationist Bauhaus were the painting of 'Co-ritus' slogans all over Copenhagen and the decapitation of a statue in Copenhagen harbour.

Jorn, although he denounced the graffiti actions to the press, remained on friendly terms with members of the two rival 'internationals'. Both groups were financially dependent on him and thus his collusion with what each side perceived as the 'enemy' was, if not accepted, ignored. There was certainly no question of Bernstein and Debord sticking to their usually rigorous criteria for splits and breaks. Without Jorn's support, of both money and gifts, neither de Jong's "Situationist Times", nor its rival "Internationale Situationiste", could have been published. After Jorn's death from cancer in 1973, Debord described him as 'the permanent heretic of a movement which cannot admit orthodoxy' (cited in "COBRA" by Jean-Clarence Lambert {Sotherby Publications, 1983} as a quotation from "Le Jardin de Abisola" {Turin 1974}).


1. In his translator's introduction to Jean Barrot's "Critique Of The Situationist International" (Red Eye 1, Berkeley 1979 - reprinted as "What Is Situationism?", Unpopular Books, London 1987) L.M. gives the following - extremely lucid description of Socialisme ou Barbarie:

"Socialisme ou Barbarie was a journal started by a small group of militants who broke with mainstream Trotskyism shortly after World War II. The grounds for this break were several. Firstly, there was the fact that the post-war economic crisis, and the war itself, had failed to provoke the revolutionary upheaval predicted by Trotsky. Secondly, there was the situation of the Soviet Union, where the bureaucracy had survived and had consolidated itself without the country having reverted to private capitalism. This also ran counter to Trotsky's predictions - as did the extension of Soviet-style bureaucratic rule to the rest of Eastern Europe. Thirdly, there was the miserable internal life of the so-called "Fourth International" which by now constituted a mini-bureaucracy of its own, torn by sectarian rivalry and also thoroughly repressive.

"From this practical and historical experience, S ou B commenced a profound questioning of "marxism" - that is, of the ideology which runs through the works of Kautsky, Lenin and Trotsky, appears as a caricature in the writings of Stalin and his hacks, and has part of its origin in the late work of Engels. Out of this questioning, S ou B's leading theoretician, Cornelius Castoriadis, writing under the pseudonyms first of Pierre Chaulieu and later of Paul Cardan, derived the following general conclusions:

"(i) that the Soviet Union must now be regarded as a form of exploitative society called state - or bureaucratic - capitalist;

"(ii) that in this the Soviet Union was only a more complete variant of a process that was common to the whole of capitalism, that of bureaucratization;

"(iii) that because of this the contradiction between propertyless and property-owners was being replaced by the contradiction between "order-givers and order-takers" and that the private bourgeoisie was itself evolving via concentration and centralization of capital into a bureaucratic class;

"(iv) that the advanced stage this process had reached in the Soviet Union was largely the result of the Leninist-Bolshevik conception of the Party, which seizes State power from the bourgeoisie on behalf of the workers and thence necessarily evolves into a new ruling class;

"(v) that capitalism as a whole had overcome its economic contradictions based on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and that therefore the contradictions between order-givers and order-takers had become the sole mainspring of revolution, whereby the workers would be driven to revolt and achieve self-management only by the intolerable boredom and powerlessness of their lives, and not by material deprivation."

2. The author interviewed Rumney at his home in Putney (South West London) in Autumn '87.

3. See the section on the SI in "Asger Jorn - The Crucial Years 1954-64" by Guy Atkins (Lund Humpheries 1977). Atkins elaborated on the funding of the SI in a 1987 letter to the author. Rumney also proffered further information on this point.

4. Although, as we will see later, there is a real difference of opinion here over the status of culture, there is also a problem over the use of the term 'art'. Overt and conscious use of collective practices to make 'cultural artifacts' (for want of a better term) do not really fit the description 'art' - at least if one is using the term to describe the high culture of the ruling class in capitalist societies.

Previous: From The 1st World Congress of Liberated Artists to The SI

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Assault On Culture contents page

Assault cover second
UK 2nd edition

Assault cover first
UK 1st edition

Andrew Hussey, The Game Of War: The Life & Death Of Guy Debord, Jonathan Cape, London 2001, 416 pp, £18.99 0-224-43489-X.
Beneath The Paving Stones: Situationists & The Beach, May 1968, AK Press, Edinburgh & San Francisco 2001, 120 pp, £9, 1-90259338-3.

The Situationist micro-industry leaves the twentieth-century with two new offerings, a repackaging with pictures of “classic” translations from French and the third biography of Debord to appear in English since his suicide in 1994. Biography is not a genre well suited to the collective practice and left-communist politics of the Situationist International and, while Hussey has done extensive research and produced a perfectly adequate journalistic account of Debord’s life, the book is still far from satisfactory. There are plenty of biographical details that will be new to English language readers, most obviously about Debord’s childhood and family background, but these do little to enrich our understanding of the Situationist project. Hussey writes that: “The appeal of ‘Situationism’ in the early 1990s, was for me more political than cultural: more precisely, this was not nineteenth-century Marxism, which argued revolution in the name of classes which obviously no longer existed, but a harder, more vicious and more aristocratic way of challenging the organisation of the world.” (page 5)

While Hussey is correct when he says that the Situationists were not nineteenth-century Marxists, he somehow manages to overlook the fact that proletarian revolution (with unlicensed pleasure as its only aim) was Debord’s programme even before he’d broken with the avant-garde, and denounced art as anti-Situationist. Len Bracken in his Guy Debord - Revolutionary (Feral House, Portland 1997) is politically closer to Situationist positions, but Hussey handles his historical sources with greater dexterity. Anselm Jappe in Guy Debord (University Of California Press, 1999) demonstrates neither Hussey’s journalistic skills nor Bracken’s political sympathy. As Debord biographies go, Hussey is as good as they get. His strength is his general knowledge of French culture. He provides thumb-nail sketches outlining the intellectual relationship between Debord and everyone from Georges Bataille to Jean Hyppolite, and these will be of service to those who are new to this material.

However, Hussey is weak on the ultra-left political milieu in which the Situationists operated. He describes the Situationist International’s encounter with the Socialism Or Barbarism group in the early sixties, and makes far too much of Debord’s personal relations with then teenage member Pierre Guillaume: “ was not until Debord was nearing the end of his life that the full extent of Guillaume’s duplicity became known. Guillaume is... now notorious as the owner of La Vieille Taupe bookshop... and publishing house which specialised in ‘revisionist’ or ‘negationist’ works of history, that is to say works which, in the name of the anarchist Left or neo-Nazi Right, deny or denounce the death camps as Jewish propaganda” (page 164) To properly understand these issues, it is necessary to examine how a fraction of the French ultra-left - including not just Guillaume, but also the group La Guerre Sociale - got caught up (alongside liberals like Noam Chomsky) in defending negationism on a freedom of speech platform. Hussey’s use of the term “duplicity” is misleading. The matter was more complex and drawn out, and many of those implicated in this idiotic political blunder never became paid up members of the fascist camp. It should be stressed that Debord broke with Guillaume years before the latter publicly embraced holocaust denial.

Despite being sold as a sixties hits collection, Beneath The Paving Stones is actually a better introduction to Situationist theory than Hussey’s book. This offering works as an effective primer because it randomly gathers four relatively lengthy Situationist texts (none of which are directly concerned with May 68), alongside an eyewitness account of the occupations movement by a member of the British Solidarity group. While reading these documents may shock those who mistakenly believe the Situationists were souped-up anarchists, to anyone familiar with the ongoing fusions between certain strands of the avant-garde and left-communism (which began with Berlin Dada), there will be delights but few surprises. At their best what the Situationists did was reformulate classical left-communist positions as poetry. For example, from On The Poverty Of Student Life: “As for the various anarchist groups, they possess nothing beyond a pathetic and ideological faith in this label. They justify every kind of self-contradiction in liberal terms: freedom of speech, of opinion, and other such bric-a-brac. Since they tolerate each other, they would tolerate anything.” (page 20)

Due to its vituperation-on-speed qualities, the invective in Beneath The Cobble Stones is at points hackneyed. For instance, Raoul Vaneigem is very heavily dependent on Alexandre Kojève's reading of Hegel, and his reuse of the master/slave dialectic in Totality For Kids is mechanical and boring. However, even a plodder like Vaneigem has his mordant spasms: “Being aware of the crises of both mass parties and ‘elites’, the SI must embody the supersession of both the Bolshevik Central Committee (supersession of the mass party) and of the Neitzschean project (supersession of the intelligentsia).” (Page 60). Here, the anti-vanguardism of the communist-left is deployed to good effect, as it would be again by the Situationists in their critiques of terrorism.

That said, Debord had weaknesses too, and these became increasingly evident in later years when what he wrote no longer emerged from the collective practice and group discussions of the Situationist International. Hussey is attracted to these flaws at the expense of what is still useful in Debord. The Game Of War will leave many casual readers with the impression that Debord is the perfect hero for counter-culture enthusiasts who view William Burroughs as not quite incoherent enough for their anarchic tastes. Detached from the left-communist politics which provide a context in which it is possible to make sense of his films, detourned art books, interventions and pronouncements, Debord can be anything anybody wants him to be - except himself. Such is the fate of celebrities, and Debord has been a celebrity of sorts since 1984, when sections of the French press falsely accused him of murdering his patron Gerald Lebovici.
First published in Art Monthly #250 October 2001.

The role of the artist has changed considerably over the past century, due both to shifts from a modernist to a post-modernist paradigm, and because of what might be described as the effervescence of technology. While it would not be untrue to state that the twentieth-century can be characterised as having witnessed the introduction of new communication technologies, we should not forget that the same might be said of the nineteenth-century - which acted as midwife to the railway and the telex. Recently there has been much wild talk about “expanding globally dominant cultural industries”, and I would emphasise that this phenomenon can only be understood as a part of global capitalism. I’d also like to suggest that Stalinism and Maoism imposed capitalism on what had been peasant societies, and so one of the chief characteristics of the twentieth-century was a shift from the formal to the real domination of capital on a global scale. As a result, industrial production was shifted around the planet, and some of the most advanced industry is now found in what were once considered “backward” countries, just as regions that were previously heavily industrialised - such as the American Mid-West and British Midlands - have become rust belts. All of which has had an immense impact on the production of art.

Some of the declining industrial nations have transformed cultural production and real estate into key generators of wealth. As well as being global, the culture industry is also highly localised - being both centralised and localised in places such as Los Angeles, New York and London. Furthermore, cultural production is closely tied in with the gentrification of what were traditionally working class areas in these cities, and the meteoric rise of property prices has destroyed much of what gave these places their character, and thus what initially made them attractive to the artistic vanguard among the gentrifiers. Having established a material basis for my critique, I would like to move on to a very one-sided suggestion that I've encountered numerous times in recent years, viz, that the practice of the early twentieth-century avant-garde has been normalised within contemporary art. This is true, but only to a very limited extent, for while the technique of bricolage, and the treatment of the entire history of art as source material for the production of new work has become normalised, the critique of the institution of art that accompanied it has been jettisoned. Here I should reference the work of Hegel and Peter Bürger, as well as the involvement of the Berlin Dadaists and the Situationist International with the communist left. The avant-garde wished to integrate art and life, and this project failed precisely because neither the dadaists nor the surrealists (not to mention the Frankfurt School) properly understood that art gains its appearance of ideological autonomy from its commodification.

To greatly condense my analysis, if capitalism provides the material conditions for art, then German idealism supplies it with its ideological legitimation. Drawing on the same philosophical sources, Marx concluded that human activity constitutes reality through its praxis; truth is process, the process of self-development; or, as Marx more famously put it, the rounded individual of mature communism is a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night - without being hunter, fisherman or critic. Since it is shackled by commodification, artistic practice is a deformation of the sensuous unfolding of the self that will be possible once we've achieved real human community. The goal of communism is to overcome the reification of human activity into separate realms such as work and play, the aesthetic and the political. Communism will rescue the aesthetic from the ghetto of art and place it at the centre of life. Where, then, does this leave the role of the artist? Since under capitalism everyone reproduces the conditions of their own alienation, while art as we know it continues to exist, it would be ridiculous to expect those who seek its abolition as a separate sphere of activity not to engage in and with it. However, progressive artists must always keep in sight the fact that their role as specialist non-specialists must be negated. Art cannot be reformed, it can only be abolished. Therefore, our cultural strategy in this transitional period must be to autonomise the negative within artistic practice. We must live out the death of the avant-garde not just in theory, but also in practice. We learn nothing from the dead art of living men. We learn everything from the living art of dead men. LONG LIVE THE DEAD!
Contribution to the ongoing The Anthology Of Art web project, eventually to be published in book form.