Against Situationism

A prefatory note: I blog sporadically; sometimes it’s a matter of how much free time I have, sometimes it’s a matter of how much I have to say in the format of the blog. What started as a Tumblr post turned into something bigger. In the end, I decided that I would use this post to revive the Netlab Dispatches. Here’s to more blogging, even if it is slow. Now, on to my missive for le quatorze juillet.   

I am alarmed by how Situationism is more popular than ever today, particularly with the Soft Urbanism/Urban Informatics/Emergent Urbanism crowd for whom it, together with Jane Jacobs, serves as the fundamental precedent. 

In Beyond Locative Media, I took pains to explain how locative media (soft urbanism/urban informatics/emergent urbanism’s predecessor) was influenced by Situationism. My goal was to expose the narrowness of the theoretical base in locative media, not to support that position. Little has changed in the years since. This is unfortunate. 

psychogeography today

Situationism’s fatal flaw is that although one of its sources is Leftist thought (admittedly, Communism was hard to avoid in postwar France), its goal was always to valorize individual experience over the collective. Situationism was not alone in this. Marrying the collective and the individual was the signal problem for the academic and counter-cultural Left throughout the latter half of the twentieth century (see one of the unsung classics of the last twenty years, Nietzche’s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy or the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life by Geoffrey Waite, a member of my Ph.D. committee, for more on the debilitating effects of this turn). Situationism was the worst exacerbation of this marriage of Nietzscheanism and Leftism, leaving no positive program for collectivity.

Situationism may have started out as an anti-bourgeois movement, but since it was fundamentally bourgeois in its advocacy of individual experience, when it was through with its critique all that was left was melancholy. Ultimately even the idea of the Situationist International was foreign to the ideology. Organization, even its own, was unacceptable. The end of Situationism says everything: a lonely alcoholic shot himself through the heart. Raoul Vaneigem once wrote "the glut of conveniences and elements of survival reduces life to a single choice: suicide or revolution." By the time the Situationist movement had played itself out, it was clear that revolution required too much effort.     

As Debord put a gun to his chest in the Upper Loire, the Situationist industry, led by Griel Marcus, was cranking up in high gear. As Steven Shaviro writes in his excellent commentary on Marcus’s misguided take on Michael Jackson:

‘Situationism itself — not in spite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.’

Deliberately obscure, Situationism was cool, and thus the perfect ideology for the knowledge-work generation. What could be better to provoke conversation at the local Starbucks or the company cantina, especially once Marcus’s, which traced a dubious red thread between Debord and Malcolm McLaren, hit the presses? Rock and roll plus neoliberal politics masquerading as leftism: a perfect mix. For the generation that came of age with Situationism-via-Marcus and the dot.com era, work at offices like Razorfish or Chiat/Day was the highest form of play. Enough pop-tarts for middle of the night charettes and a bit of colorful design ensured that work and life had finally merged in the dot.com workplace. Or so it was in theory. The reality was Office Space

Today, Situationism seems to be more popular than ever, serving as the latest justification for the neoliberal city. Instead of a broader idea of a collective, Situationism advocates for the right not to work (but just how will we survive? will amazon make free shipments after the revolution?).

Instead of tired calls for social justice, Situationism demands the right to drunken play, for the spilling of semen on the cobblestones. All this sounds less like Utopia and more like Amsterdam, Dublin, Prague, or any European city overrun by drunken American college students in the summer, taking in the urban fabric late at night with pub crawls.

If a drunken Debord might have approved, I’m afraid that this doesn’t seems like liberation to me, it seems like hell.     

Trajects pendant un an d'une jeune fille du XVIe arrondissement

In fairness to Situationism, remember that it was wrought in the depths of the Fordist cultural conformity of the 1950s. The above map by researchers working with Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe depicts the spatial meanderings of a young student vividly demonstrating how her experience of the city consisted of nothing more than regular trips to familiar destinations. 

Such a map would be vastly different today. According to Dopplr, one student I know has already logged over 200,000km in the past year, visiting three continents. But even at home, our own experience of the city is motivated by a fascination with dislocation that didn’t exist for Debord. Imagine him sitting down to a plate of Thai food (is this exotic to anyone anymore?), let alone an ice cream and insect concoction in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

Our challenges are different. The conformity of the spectacle is gone. If we still seek liberation in consumption, today we chase our phantom individuality down the long tail. If this can be more fun than Fordism, it also deludes us if we think it is enough for self-realization or that such behavior is open the majority of the world’s population. Situationism encourages this aestheticized consumption of the city, only it does so in the guise of political progress.

It disturbs me, then, to hear a largely unmediated version of Situationism touted today as the basis for new urban interventions, particularly the kind that propose augmenting the city. This is a dangerous misstep. 

Alas, thus far I’m more Adorno than Brecht or Benjamin in all this. The problems here are huge and I’m only beginning to chip away at them. That said, I simply can’t offer a pro-active alternative yet. Not everything can be found so easily in an old French revolutionary tract. But Situationism is thinking mythically and instead of thinking mythically, we need to learn to think critically again.

The days of hip stupidity (e.g. post-criticism) are long gone now, distant memories of the real estate boom. With le quatorze juillet upon us, the call to arms now is to forge new conceptual tools appropriate to our condition. We need to think again, to forge new critiques, new plans, even new revolutions. 

 

A prefatory note: I blog sporadically; sometimes it’s a matter of how much free time I have, sometimes it’s a matter of how much I have to say in the format of the blog. What started as a Tumblr post turned into something bigger. In the end, I decided that I would use this post to revive the Netlab Dispatches. Here’s to more blogging, even if it is slow. Now, on to my missive for le quatorze juillet.   

I am alarmed by how Situationism is more popular than ever today, particularly with the Soft Urbanism/Urban Informatics/Emergent Urbanism crowd for whom it, together with Jane Jacobs, serves as the fundamental precedent. 

In Beyond Locative Media, I took pains to explain how locative media (soft urbanism/urban informatics/emergent urbanism’s predecessor) was influenced by Situationism. My goal was to expose the narrowness of the theoretical base in locative media, not to support that position. Little has changed in the years since. This is unfortunate. 

psychogeography today

Situationism’s fatal flaw is that although one of its sources is Leftist thought (admittedly, Communism was hard to avoid in postwar France), its goal was always to valorize individual experience over the collective. Situationism was not alone in this. Marrying the collective and the individual was the signal problem for the academic and counter-cultural Left throughout the latter half of the twentieth century (see one of the unsung classics of the last twenty years, Nietzche’s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy or the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life by Geoffrey Waite, a member of my Ph.D. committee, for more on the debilitating effects of this turn). Situationism was the worst exacerbation of this marriage of Nietzscheanism and Leftism, leaving no positive program for collectivity.

Situationism may have started out as an anti-bourgeois movement, but since it was fundamentally bourgeois in its advocacy of individual experience, when it was through with its critique all that was left was melancholy. Ultimately even the idea of the Situationist International was foreign to the ideology. Organization, even its own, was unacceptable. The end of Situationism says everything: a lonely alcoholic shot himself through the heart. Raoul Vaneigem once wrote "the glut of conveniences and elements of survival reduces life to a single choice: suicide or revolution." By the time the Situationist movement had played itself out, it was clear that revolution required too much effort.     

As Debord put a gun to his chest in the Upper Loire, the Situationist industry, led by Griel Marcus, was cranking up in high gear. As Steven Shaviro writes in his excellent commentary on Marcus’s misguided take on Michael Jackson:

‘Situationism itself — not in spite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.’

Deliberately obscure, Situationism was cool, and thus the perfect ideology for the knowledge-work generation. What could be better to provoke conversation at the local Starbucks or the company cantina, especially once Marcus’s, which traced a dubious red thread between Debord and Malcolm McLaren, hit the presses? Rock and roll plus neoliberal politics masquerading as leftism: a perfect mix. For the generation that came of age with Situationism-via-Marcus and the dot.com era, work at offices like Razorfish or Chiat/Day was the highest form of play. Enough pop-tarts for middle of the night charettes and a bit of colorful design ensured that work and life had finally merged in the dot.com workplace. Or so it was in theory. The reality was Office Space

Today, Situationism seems to be more popular than ever, serving as the latest justification for the neoliberal city. Instead of a broader idea of a collective, Situationism advocates for the right not to work (but just how will we survive? will amazon make free shipments after the revolution?).

Instead of tired calls for social justice, Situationism demands the right to drunken play, for the spilling of semen on the cobblestones. All this sounds less like Utopia and more like Amsterdam, Dublin, Prague, or any European city overrun by drunken American college students in the summer, taking in the urban fabric late at night with pub crawls.

If a drunken Debord might have approved, I’m afraid that this doesn’t seems like liberation to me, it seems like hell.     

Trajects pendant un an d'une jeune fille du XVIe arrondissement

In fairness to Situationism, remember that it was wrought in the depths of the Fordist cultural conformity of the 1950s. The above map by researchers working with Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe depicts the spatial meanderings of a young student vividly demonstrating how her experience of the city consisted of nothing more than regular trips to familiar destinations. 

Such a map would be vastly different today. According to Dopplr, one student I know has already logged over 200,000km in the past year, visiting three continents. But even at home, our own experience of the city is motivated by a fascination with dislocation that didn’t exist for Debord. Imagine him sitting down to a plate of Thai food (is this exotic to anyone anymore?), let alone an ice cream and insect concoction in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

Our challenges are different. The conformity of the spectacle is gone. If we still seek liberation in consumption, today we chase our phantom individuality down the long tail. If this can be more fun than Fordism, it also deludes us if we think it is enough for self-realization or that such behavior is open the majority of the world’s population. Situationism encourages this aestheticized consumption of the city, only it does so in the guise of political progress.

It disturbs me, then, to hear a largely unmediated version of Situationism touted today as the basis for new urban interventions, particularly the kind that propose augmenting the city. This is a dangerous misstep. 

Alas, thus far I’m more Adorno than Brecht or Benjamin in all this. The problems here are huge and I’m only beginning to chip away at them. That said, I simply can’t offer a pro-active alternative yet. Not everything can be found so easily in an old French revolutionary tract. But Situationism is thinking mythically and instead of thinking mythically, we need to learn to think critically again.

The days of hip stupidity (e.g. post-criticism) are long gone now, distant memories of the real estate boom. With le quatorze juillet upon us, the call to arms now is to forge new conceptual tools appropriate to our condition. We need to think again, to forge new critiques, new plans, even new revolutions. 

 

8 thoughts on “Against Situationism

  1. interesting point!
    I’m also bothered by the culling and recycling of 60s-era utopianisms, especially by some pretty outspoken bloggers/critics/pundits on the subject of technology and urbanism. I remember several years ago how I raised a similar concern as yours on Archinect, quoting from RETORT’s (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts) Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Verso 2005):

    We take it we are not alone in shuddering at the way “spectacle” has taken its place in approved postmodern discourse over the past fifteen years — as a vaguely millenarian accompaniment to “new media studies” or to wishful thinking about freedom in cyberspace, with never a whisper that its orignial objects were the Watts Riots and the Proletarian Cultural Revolution (17)

    I think this quote also speaks to your cautions against Situationism. Now, I’m not one to subscribe to Marxism as a singular or default critical mode (and this has to do more with my admitted weaknesses in applying Adorno/Geuss modes of immanent and transcendental critique … Marx is not my strong suit), but I am kinda befuddled by how Situationism is evoked with nary a mention of its various marxisms.

    1. Exactly.
      TJ Clark: modernism

      Exactly.

      TJ Clark: modernism is our antiquity.

      To which I would add: and Situationism is a cult at the fall of the Roman Empire. It had its points then, not now. 

  2. One more try, comrades …
    This blog entry is all too typical in numerous respects. It reminds me of just how delimited architects’ interest in/knowledge of the SI really is. So Mr. Varnelis is certainly not wrong in assessing the monadism (rather than nomadism) of much architecture-school interest in the group, but then mistakes this for the historical truth of the SI. Even a cursory reading of the journal would reveal how utterly significant collectivity was — and any basic knowledge of the disasters of 20th-century communism would reveal how fundamental a reinvention of the relation of the individual to the collective was for radical politics. Hence the SI’s return to a buried history of revolutionary politics, rediscovering Bakunin’s position within the First International, analyzing the Paris Commune, thinking through the implications of worker’s councils … and so on.

    It’s one thing to criticize how the SI has been made operational in architectural curricula, reduced to a few iconic graphic images (those wonderful maps …), but it’s another thing to naively believe that this really represents the group. And the utter wimpy-ness of the end of the blog, where he doesn’t even have the courage of his Leninist convictions, shows the author to be a typical product of the “bourgeois” intelligentsia he so ostentatiously refutes in his opening paragraphs. I mean, at least Aldo Rossi followed his beliefs to a logical conclusion in mass housing like Gallaratese: capitalism has produced a mass subject in the proletariat, and it can be housed in a serial form that echoes the hollowing-out of the individual subject. To the back of the classroom, Mr. Varnelis! One more try if you want to be a revolutionary!

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      A reinvention

      Dear Anonymous,

      A reinvention of the individual with regard to the collective was crucial, but it was done in precisely the wrong way, by swallowing the belief in the creativity of the subject as a redemptive force.

      It’s nice to ascribe good intentions to the Situationists and lord knows, in my 20s, I certainly did. But we have to face facts. The movement was a poison to the Left. Now, would Communism have collapsed on its own? Doubtless. The impact of Situationism has been blown vastly out of proportion since the 1980s. 

      But it certainly did nothing to advance Leftism and it did all too much to mystify the operations of capital. Really, did the society of the spectacle say anything that Adorno didn’t? I don’t think so. Meanwhile, all that energy missed the point completely: things were changing greatly. Mass media has splintered and the bourgeois subject has been dispersed. The outdated theory of the Sits has nothing to offer us in that regard. You’ve missed my point in that regard entirely, and if thats my fault as a teacher, you’ll still have to sit for the exam again.

       

  3. A perfectly absurd essay. The
    A perfectly absurd essay. The Situationist International was an organization and thus, in some sense, a collectivity. The SI’s view of itself is neatly summarised in thesis 118 of Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’:

    “A revolutionary organization must constitute an integral critique of society, that is, it must make a comprehensive critique of all aspects of alienated social life while refusing to compromise with any form of separate power anywhere in the world. In the organization’s struggle with class society, the combattants themselves are the fundamental weapons: a revolutionary organization must thus see to it that the dominant society’s conditions of separation and hierarchy are not reproduced within itself. It must constantly struggle against its deformation by the ruling spectacle. The only limit to participation in its total democracy is that each of its members must have recognized and appropriated the coherence of the organization’s critique — a coherence that must be demonstrated both in the critical theory as such and in the relation between that theory and practical activity.”

    As for the transformation of society, the final thesis of the book speaks volumes:

    “The self-emancipation of our time is an emancipation from the material bases of inverted truth. This ‘historic mission of establishing truth in the world’ can be carried out neither by the isolated individual nor by atomized and manipulated masses, but only and always by the class that is able to dissolve all classes by reducing all power to the de-alienating form of realized democracy — to [workers’] councils in which practical theory verifies itself and surveys its own actions. This is possible only when individuals are ‘directly linked to universal history’ and dialogue arms itself to impose its own conditions.

    Also eloquent, this time in rebutal of the ridiculous claim that “situationism demands the right to drunken play, for the spilling of semen on the cobblestones”. In point of fact the situationists’ views on what is expected of revolutionaries is far more severe (as indeed the first Debord thesis quoted above also shows):

    “Proletarian revolution depends entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as understanding of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses. It requires that workers become dialecticians and put their thought into practice. It thus demands of its ‘people without qualities’ more than the bourgeois revolution demanded of the qualified individuals it delegated to carry out its tasks […]” (thesis 123)

    1. And your point is?  Let me

      And your point is? 

      Let me try: being drunk most of the time and more concerned with developing a cult of personality, Debord was unable to practice self-criticism. Thus Situationism was a footnote to the history of Leftist thought that did more to obfuscate matters than anything else. 

    1. Exactly my point. There used

      Exactly my point. There used to be a day for Situationism, but now there’s no point arguing with its defenders since it’s so outdated. Still, I can’t help being bugged that its become the newest ideology for ubicomp.

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