'Events Are Dust'

Frances Stracey, Constructed Situations: A New History of the Situationist International

Pluto Press, 200pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780745335261

reviewed by Julian Cosma

Winston Churchill’s approach to communism, especially in the interwar period, was distinctly, almost obsessively epidemiological. His speeches and essays were peppered with quotes such as ‘Bolshevism is not a policy, it is a disease’ or alternatively, a ‘pestilence’. Individual figures were not exempt from medical designation. Lenin was a German-bred bacillus sent to inflect Russia, and Trotsky was ‘like the cancer bacillus.’ This anti-bolshevism was buttressed by respect for Mussolini, Franco and, during the early 1930s, even Hitler himself. Trotsky, in his introduction to The Permanent Revolution (1931), decided to return fire by contrasting Lenin, ‘who thought in terms of Epochs and continents’ and Churchill ‘who thinks in terms of parliamentary fireworks and feuilletons.’ These were particularly harsh words, not least because of Trotsky’s own views on the importance of longevity in history.

One day, the ever fluctuating population that is inclined to read books about Marxism and more broadly, Marxists, may profit from a study of the concept of durations or time-frames in Marxist thought. (Maybe this has already been done; if so, mes excuses.) The French historian Ferdinand Braudel had an entire arsenal of epigrams, or rather epithets, with which to dismiss the history of events: most famously ‘events are dust’, or rather, ‘crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.’ While the distinctly un-Marxist Annales movement built its branch of historiography from looking at the longue durée, a similar point was made by Trotsky, who remarked that ‘twenty-five years in the scales of history, when it is a question of the profoundest changes in economic and cultural systems, weigh less than an hour in the life of man.’

The Situationists in general, and Guy Debord in particular, desired to break many of the bonds that attached the French left to their classically Marxist comrades, but the idea of a long wait was still of central importance. As Debord cautioned, ‘the fact is that a critique capable of surpassing the spectacle, must know how to bide its time.’ However, Debord’s theory of time itself was somewhat novel. He, according to the late Frances Stracey’s book Constructed Situations, thought of time itself being violently expropriated, in the form of surplus profits, by the classes that ‘rule and organize social labor.’ Constructed Situations is not a post-mortem of a movement, or a collective biography, but an attempt to do two other things: construct an intellectual genealogy of the Situationists’ central idea, that of the ‘constructed situation’; and try to determine how much of their critique is still relevant to today’s politics.

The ‘construction of situations’, as a phrase, is both perplexing and desiccated. Broadly, in was an intervention into the ‘spectacular’ life of daily capitalism. It was an attempt to ‘revolutionize the totality of life under the society of spectacle.’ These definitions don’t seem to help the reader all that much, so Stracey traces the development of the idea first found in Hurlment en Faveur de Sade, an early film of Debord’s which declaims that the art ‘of the future will be the overturning of situations or nothing’; a ‘situation’ for these purposes was defined, in the Situationist house journal Internationale Situationniste, as ‘the concrete construction of momentary ambiances and of life and their transformation into a superior passionate quality.’ The Situationists wished to open up a space, however transient, for the existence of non-spectacular life: unconscious leisure should be unconscious no more.

The spectacle, central to the entire enterprise, is another concept that takes some unpacking. Its significance is maybe best approached analogously, via Marx’s idea of the commodity. The theory of the commodity was, especially for its time, quite counterintuitive: during what may be called the high European Enlightenment, Marx invested the commodity with an almost numinous quality, something that, at its core, could not be understood by analytic reason alone. Ever since, the commodity has been an extremely important part of Marx’s intellectual legacy. Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness (1923), argued that understanding commodities was central to understanding capitalism itself, enabling us to comprehend both the subjective and objective structures of bourgeois society.

Lukács’ influence upon Debord is hard to overstate. For Debord, everyday life was being ever more fragmented by capitalism, and the spectacle’s function was to smooth over the division of this daily fragmentation. In the post-war era dominated by images, Debord argued that the spectacle was the canopy under which activity was to lay. The rise of mass, consumer culture increasingly, as Debord saw it, meant that people’s lives were evermore mediated by image-objects. These image-objects gave the veneer of rationality to the simultaneous rise of striving, aspirational notions of ‘lifestyle’ and the sector of the economy that would so lubriciously facilitate these ‘lifestyles’ - the service industry. The Situationist International (or SI, as Stracey calls it) believed that the way to break the deadlock of capitalism’s hegemony of images was to intervene. These interventions, presented as a series of case studies, make up the bulk of Stracey’s text. She attempts to re-construct the situations, for as she says; ‘if the constructed situations are a specific product of the SI, then the history of the SI should be a history of constructed situations.’

In Cosio d’Aroscia, an alpine commune in the Ligurian Alps, about 100 kilometres from Genoa, three obscure and rarefied factions of the avant-garde left merged. The Letterist International (LI) was Debord’s first group. Self-consciously cosmopolitan, it was definitively against work and handed out their journal, Potlach, for free. The International Movement for Imaginist Bauhaus (MIBI), mined and consolidated what was still fecund in the various European avant-garde movements, maintaining a particular interest in Surrealism. Importantly, this section of the movement, once integrated into the SI, was principally run by artists who moonlighted as theorists. The MIBI was led by Asger Jorn and Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, whose artistic practice – creating canvasses that spanned over 100 meters – presaged and complemented Debord’s and the Letterists' ideas of ‘unitary urbanism’, conceiving of the urban environment as a single, contiguous entity. The last component was the English artist Ralph Rumney, a friend of Debord, and Debord’s wife Michèle Bernstein; Rumney created and headed up the London Psychogeographical Committee. (Psychogeography, with the writings of Iain Sinclair and Will Self, especially in London, has gone through something of a renaissance.)
The received idea is that the SI was an organisation that was able, for a brief though fertile period of time, to bridge the twin peaks of radical theoretical critique and radical artistic practice. This book is not the first to point out that this is mostly an imagined history; one only has to look at the voluminous correspondence to see the SI in all their bifurcation and splintering. The first split occurred right during the meeting in Cosio d’Aroscia, five voted in favour of starting the SI on the proposed terms of the meeting, and two voted against. Nonetheless, Debord made an explicit and astute decision to claim, this near 70% majority as a founding moment, or rather a ‘conference’. Mythopoeia was at the inscribed in the heart. Nor would this be the last schismatic moment. As Peter Wollen points out in his excellent analysis of the movement, Bitter Victory: The Art and Politics of the Situationist International (2001), there was another, more open factional battle in 1962. The artistic wing, led by Jorn’s younger brother, broke away, citing their irritation that art and aesthetics had to be subsumed and ultimately superseded by ‘unitary revolutionary praxis’. The new SI, helmed by Debord, took light from the philosopher Henri Lefebvre and the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie.

It was this period, from 1962 to 1969, that produced the most easily recognised Situationist work, its most visible legacy found in the lapidary pages of Debord’s book Society of Spectacle (1967). (As Stracey kindly points out, the most widely known line of the entire Situationist movement ‘all that was directly lived had become mere representation’ is actually a grave and deadening mistranslation; the French – ‘Tout ce qui était directement vécu s'est éloigné dans une representation’ – éloigné should really be something closer ‘to move away from’ or ‘to digress’, or ‘to be alienated/estranged from’.) The high point of influence was the various riots and demonstrations of ’68. The student groups, the initial demonstrators, were not only theoretically interested in the SI; in Nanterre, the SI was highly involved in the demonstrations themselves. However, it was their artistic legacy that survived, most robustly, after the ’68 demonstrators failed to topple De Gaulle. The politically charged graffiti – on which Stracey has an enlightening chapter – lived on, but self-organising worker councils, as Wollen ruefully notes, were ‘quickly forgotten’. After this, a dégringolade, a not altogether uncommon trajectory among various groups the post-war left. The last conference was held in Venice in 1969; by 1972 the movement had all but completely dissipated.

Stracey, as mentioned earlier did not set out to compose a history of the SI, at least not directly. Her method, though for the most part solidly theoretical, does come off as slightly potted, if only because she focuses on the various, sometimes-disconnected constructed situations. It also must be said, Stracey writing is sometimes cartoonish in its lack of style. How much of this is to do with the posthumous editing process is hard to tell. Nonetheless, the driving force behind the book is enlivening – a high synthesis of research and interpretation. The creation of the SI archive, which was assiduously cultivated and maintained, was not meant, like most archives, to be a final resting place, in which art historians, critical theorists, and the rest could reflectively (and delicately) leaf pages. Instead, it was supposed to be something with dynamic political life, with content stolen from other media, an assemblage of discursive and non-linear anti-narratives. Stracey’s method is not one that can move easily beyond its subject’s method. But why should it have to?
Julian Cosma is a freelance writer living in New York City. He can be contacted at jcosma123@gmail.com.