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THE ASSAULT ON CULTURE CHAPTER 7 (pages 41-44)
ON THE THEORETICAL POVERTY OF THE SPECTO-SITUATIONISTS AND THE LEGITIMATE STATUS OF THE SECOND INTERNATIONAL
The idea of Eurocentrism needs a further refinement if we are to understand why the Specto-Situationist International,(1) led by Bernstein, Debord and Vaneigem, is far better known in Britain, France and North America than the 2nd Situationist International of de long and Nash. Not only has Europe traditionally seen itself as the centre of the world, but Britain, France and Germany, tend to view themselves as the hub of this centre. Thus, when the SI split in two, from a French or Anglo-American perspective, the specto-situationists based in Paris were seen as the real SI, while the 2nd International centred on Scandinavia could be dismissed as 'foreign to the SI; much more sociable, certainly, but much less intelligent' (IS 8, Paris 1963).The specto-situationists claimed in "Internationale Situationiste 8" that Nash's new Swedish "Bauhaus" had assembled 'two or three former Scandinavian situationists plus a mass of unknowns'. The inference is clear, these people are former situationists, and the specto-situationists are sole holders of the SI title. This is typical of the dishonesty the specto-situationists had inherited from the Lettriste International. Apart from deliberate misrepresentation, the only other explanation for such a claim is innumeracy or a complete failure of memory - both of which seem highly unlikely. The list of former comrades of Bernstein and Debord who participated in activities at the Situationist Bauhaus, or had material published in the 2nd International's "Situationist Times", includes Nash, Elde, de Jong, Lindell, Larsson, Strid, Kunzelmann, Prem, Sturm, Zimmer, Eisch, Nele, Fisher, Stadler, Jorn and Simondo. Since the average membership of the SI at any time before the schism had been between 10 and 15 persons, the claims of the 2nd International to the SI's title carry as much weight as those of the specto-situationists.
The most fundamental difference between the specto-situationists and the 2nd International was on the question of art. The specto-situationists wanted to 'realise and suppress' art - this desire is repeated throughout their literature. The following is an example authored by Martin, Strijbosch, Vaneigem and Vienet included in "Internationale Situationiste 9" (Paris 1964):
"It is now a matter of realising art, of really building on every level of life everything that hitherto could only be an artistic memory or an illusion, dreamed and preserved unilaterally. Art can be realized only by being suppressed. However, as opposed to the present society, which suppresses it by replacing it with the automatism of an even more passive and hierarchical spectacle, we maintain that art can really be suppressed only by being realized."
The 2nd International, like the specto-situationists, failed to make a proper distinction between the concepts of art and culture (i.e. Jorn's "Mind and Sense" in "Situationist Times 5" Paris 1964). But from an identical error the two Internationals reached very different conclusions about 'what was to be done'.
Roger L. Taylor in his book "Art, An Enemy Of The People" (Harvester Press, Sussex, 1978) demonstrates that there have been very few genuinely materialist treatments of art. He does this by examining art as a social practice and then comparing the resulting materialist description to Marxist treatments of the subject. He begins by showing that art, as a category, must be distinguished from music, painting, writing &c. Current usage of the term art treats it as a sub-category of these disciplines; one which differentiates between parts of them on the basis of perceived values. Thus, the music of Mozart is considered art, while that of Slaughter and the Dogs is not. This use of the term art, which distinguishes between different musics, literatures, &c, emerged in the seventeenth-century at the same time as the concept of science. Before this, the term artist was used to describe cooks, shoe-makers, students of the liberal arts &c.
When the term art emerged with its modem usage, it was an attempt on the part of the aristocracy to hold up the values of their class as objects of 'irrational reverence'. Thus art was equated with truth, and this truth was the world view of the aristocracy, a world view which would shortly be overthrown by the rising bourgeois class. As a revolutionary class, the bourgeoisie wished to assimilate the 'life' of the declining aristocracy. However, since the activities of the bourgeoisie served largely to abolish the previous modes of life, when it appropriated the concept of art it simultaneously transformed it. Thus beauty more or less ceased to be equated with truth, and became associated with individual taste. As art developed, 'the insistence on form and knowledge of form' and 'individualism' (basically romanticism) were added to lend 'authority' to the concept as a 'particular, evolving, mental set of the new ruling class' .
Thus, rather than having universal validity, art is a process that occurs within bourgeois society, one which leads to an 'irrational reverence for activities which suit bourgeois needs'. This process posits 'the objective superiority of those things singled out as art, and, thereby, the superiority of the form of life which celebrates them, and the social group which is implicated'. This boils down to an assertion that bourgeois society, and the ruling class within it, is 'somehow committed to a superior form of knowledge' . From this we can deduce that art will continue to exist as a specialised category until capitalism itself has been abolished. This is a conclusion very different to that reached by the specto-situationists. In "Internationale Situationiste 10", Khayati asserts:
"...Dada realized all the possibilities of language and forever closed the door on art as a speciality... The realization of art - poetry in the situationist sense means that one cannot realize oneself in a "work", but rather realizes oneself period."
If art, from a materialist perspective, is a process which occurs in bourgeois society, there can be no question of its realisation. Such an idea is mystical since it implies not only that art has an essence, but that as a category it is autonomous of social structures. To undertake its realisation and suppression is an attempt to save this mental set at the very moment the category is abolished. Art disappears from the museums only to reappear everywhere! So much for the autonomous practice of the proletariat, this is actually the old bourgeois dream of a universal category which will propagandise for social cohesion.
Apart from its treatment of art, the other theoretical device which distinguishes the specto-situationists from the 2nd International is the concept of the spectacle. This gains its most elaborated theorisation in Guy Debord's "La societe du spectacle" (Buchet-Chastel, Paris, 1967 - English translation Black & Red, Detroit, 1970). In this, paraphrasing Marx, Debord announces:
"The entire life of societies in which modem conditions of production reign announces itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."
From this point on, Debord proceeds to treat the spectacle as a generalised, and simultaneously a localised, phenomenon. And by treating it in this way - offering a series of overlapping but hardly regimented descriptions - he is unable to arrive at a uniform notion of the concept. Debord only appraises its various movements without demonstrating any real relation between them.(2) The specto-situationist conception of both capitalist and communist society is as mystical as its conception of art. Debord announces that the "spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images", as though human relations hadn't always been conducted via sense impressions (which in terms of sight have always been images). Vaneigem in his "Traite de sawoir-vivre a l'usage des jeunes generations" (Gallimard, Paris, 1967) talks of communist society as being a world of 'masters without slaves'; when it is actually a society in which metaphors of class domination will be rendered meaningless.
Rather than attempting to develop rigorous theories, and failing miserably, the 2nd Situationist International pursued a more open policy. In the "Situationist Times" de Jong would draw together photographs, diagrams and odd pieces of writing on a specific theme (for example labyrinths in issue 4, Paris 1963) and leave her readers to draw their own conclusions. In many ways issues of the "Situationist Times" resemble contemporary printed editions by Fluxus. Both represent a non-art approach to what can only very loosely be termed artistic activity.
Thus while the specto-situationists were doubly ideological in their dogmatic assertion of the theoretical nature of their speculations, the 2nd Situationist International - which was happy to have its thought described as an ideology - proved more open minded in its approach to philosophical enquiry.
1. The faction I describe as the 'specto-Situationist International', always referred to itself simply as the 'Situationist International'. However, since two factions existed, both claiming the title Situationist International - the Nashist group at least had the decency to place the word 'Second' in front of the name - I used the term 'specto' to differentiate the Debordist faction from the original SI, which existed before the split of '62. The term 'specto' refers to the theory of the 'spectacle', to which the Debordist faction clung in the way a Jesuit clings to the idea of 'God'.
2. For an earlier and more elaborate version of this argument see David Jacobs & Christopher Winks "AT DUSK - The Situationist Movement In Historical Perspective" (Perspectives, Berkeley 1975). See also Mark Shipway's essay "Situationism" in Rubel & Crump (eds) "Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (MacMillan, Basingstoke & London 1987) for a less 'theoretical' explanation of how the specto-SI projected trends occurring within a specific stratum of French society across class and national boundaries and into a universal 'theory'.
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