An End in Themselves

McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International

Verso, 208pp, £14.99, ISBN 978184467720

reviewed by Ian Birchall

Few left currents have been as adept at using capitalist marketing techniques as the Situationists, with their relentless self-promotion. They have succeeded in fooling a younger generation by retrospectively inserting themselves into a history to which they were at best marginal. Thus Jonathan Derbyshire (Guardian, 20 August) assures us that they exerted ‘the most profound influence on the French student movement in May 1968’. I was in Paris in the aftermath of the general strike, meeting and interviewing activists; nobody, absolutely nobody, mentioned the Situationists.

So McKenzie Wark’s new book makes an interesting if contradictory contribution. Though highly favourable to the Situationists (so-called because they sought ‘the production of new situations as an end in themselves‘), he actually provides an honest account which helps to cut them down to size. He traces their intellectual trajectory from their origins in the Letterist International, and rather than focussing exclusively on the group’s principal theorist, Guy Debord, he draws out the important contributions of artist Asger Jorn and novelist Alexander Trocchi, as well as more (relatively) obscure figures such as writer Isidore Isou and urbanist Constant Nieuwenhuys.

Wark locates Situationism within the intellectual context of its time, drawing interesting parallels with the thought of Henri Lefebvre and Derrida, and even Sartre and Raymond Williams. We learn of the Situationists’ acute humour – such as the slogan for dormitory suburbs around factories: ‘Remember, you are sleeping for the boss’, or Jorn’s spoof kinship diagrams for imaginary tribes, which ‘seem baffling at first, until the reader decodes the forest of symbols and realizes that anyone can fuck anyone’. But Wark also shows some of the low points, with Jorn’s confused misunderstanding of Marx’s value theory and a long summary of Michèle Bernstein’s romantic novels, which I shall strenuously avoid reading.

He gives brief but often illuminating explanations of some of the key Situationist concepts: dérive (drifting, turbulent liquid movement), détournement (quoting in order to change and appropriate for different purposes) and potlatch (gift without expectation of reciprocation. Wark’s highly laudable aim is not to give a purely historical account (though his book is carefully documented) but to seek in Situationism resources for rebels of the future, those seeking to ‘leave the twenty-first century’. Unfortunately those resources are rather slender. Situationism was essentially an aesthetic movement. It came up against the discovery that in modern capitalism aesthetics and politics are inextricably linked; but the attempt to move into politics was derisory, and if it had been less irrelevant would have been catastrophic.

Take Debord’s slogan ‘Never work’, which so appeals to Wark. It is a refreshing response to the tedious diatribes about ‘hard-working families’ with which the CameronMiliband duo belabour us. It may be a legitimate personal motto for an artist or a professional revolutionary. But for the rest of us it is a nonsense. No human society can exist without labour, and presumably Debord was quite happy that someone else’s labour should produce his food and clothing. As for the Situationist hope that work was disappearing, it was based on a complete misreading. Anyone in work today can tell you that their job is harder and more time-consuming than it was thirty years ago.

Wark deals lightly with the Situationists’ history of splits and expulsions, which reads like a parody of the worst manifestations of the far left. But as Wark acutely notes, the big difference was that, while the Situationists were very hot on expulsions, they made little effort to recruit. Since they started with nine members, the results were foreseeable.

May 1968, the biggest general strike in human history, put would-be revolutionaries to the test. The Situationists failed miserably. They noted quite correctly that the working class was isolated in face of the state and the trade unions. But there is no evidence that they joined other revolutionaries at the factory gates, trying, despite their small numbers, to by-pass the conservative influence of the French Communist Party. Then, when the movement began to go down, the state banned a number of revolutionary organisations. The serious revolutionaries in France recognised that this was a gesture to the regime’s conservative middle-class supporters; it meant a bit of harassment but was certainly not something on the scale of Chile 1973; they changed their names and reorganised themselves within a matter of days. The Situationists were not banned (doubtless nobody in the state security apparatus had even heard of them), but they fled to Brussels in any event.

Essentially the Situationists were comedians. Comedians have a valuable role to play, not only in amusing us, but in undermining some of the myths that bolster up the status quo. But to expect political guidance from them is like imagining Ernie Wise leading the October Revolution.
Ian Birchall is a historian and translator. His most recent book is Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time.