Panacea or Placebo.
The Incantation of situationism is increasingly invoked. In the catalogue for The Minneapolis blockbuster Brilliant ! Neville Wakefield tacks the New British Art onto their caravan, and any number of curators who make art and artists who curate are siting the Situationist International as a starting point. Here Marcus Risdall reexamines their legacy and the expunged history of the Second Situationalist International.
(This text was first published in everything issue 21)
"Debord is a great revolutionary poet. If he is the son of anyone, it is of Rimbaud, Lautrˇamont and Artaud; all the 'suicides of society'. The youth of today seize hold of him better than his contemporaries. They must hear his gunshot, and understand why."
Philippe Sollers. Quoted in Liberation 6th Dec 1994
"Debord's 'movement' was a spectacle to glorify himslef and suck out as much creativity and intelligence as possible. After 1962 deprived him of nearly all the really creative members, the first Internationale Situationniste developed into a spectacle ... The 'exclusions' were a spectacle . Quel Debord. What a Debore."
In her preface to The Most Radical Gesture Sadie Plant writes that the Situationist International has been "protected by those attracted to it for too long" 1. For many people situationist theory has become incredibly sexy; in part due to its own internal emphasis on the revolution of everyday life, situationist theory has come to represent a position of rebelliousness in life-style. Just as the CND and anarchist symbols have been reduced to mere badges of fashion, situationist texts have been translated (often poorly and always selectively) and then marketed by the so called "underground" presses, only to be re-hashed and regurgitated ad infinitum as the alternative consumer snaps them up. This has led to a saturation of uncritical publications. For the Situationists revolution was seen as a panacea could cure all the ills of the world. For those who follow the romantic school of situationism, the texts themselves take on all their hopes, and the panacea has been reduced to a placebo. Intrinsically harmless and benign, but just what the doctor ordered for these alienated and frustrated individuals.
That such a situation has come about is not surprising when one examines those texts which are available in English. For example the most easily available is the Bureau of Public Secrets Anthology 2. A cursory glance over the the contents pages reveals that over 75% of the presented texts date from 1962 onwards. Although there isn't space here to go into detail of the history of the situationists, this date is significant in any consideration of the historification of the group. It marks the year of a schism within the group and the foundation of a second Situationist International, allowing Guy Debord to secure his position as head of an almost military junta, dictating a purified form of politicised situationist theory to the remains of the original International 3. It is the Debordian faction which has become dominant in discussions of the situationist, up to the point of them becoming almost exclusively associated with the situationist label. Contrasting with this is the way in which the second International, based around the Movement for a Scandinavian Bauhaus, has become dropped from the history of the movement through a refusal of its legitimacy as a situationist group.4
First and foremost this has resulted from the reluctance of writers to engage critically with the self-written history of the movement in its own journal Internationale Situationiste.5 The writings of Debord and co. have taken on an almost religious significance for the situationist groupies, with Debord's Society of the Spectacle becoming the situationist bible 6. To critically examine the texts, whether they referred to events or theory, became tantamount to blasphemy. To challenge the Debordian faction's account of the 1962 split was considered reactionary and hence a veil of silence has descended around the Second Situationist International. The accepted stance concerning the breakaway group was that of counter-situationists who show "bad faith and complete indifference to any theory and even to conventional artistic activity, preferring the grossest commercial publicity." 7 The members of the Second International were labelled Nashists after one of its founders, Jorgen Nash.8 The term Nashism was used derogatrilly to describe those who were considered to be betraying the revolutionary movement and theory. This is a term that was then carried over into accounts of situationist history in such a way that it still carries its original connotations and does not allow for any defence of the Second International. For example Bob Black writes that "in 1962, with the ejection of the Germans and the 'Nashists' the situationists assumed the political posture they would maintain for their final decade."9 This creates the impression that those who went on to form the Second International were like a boil which had to be lanced from the situationist body to make it pure once again. Bob Black is simply perpetuating the situationist line; it is propaganda for the uncritical, romantic situationism.
On an examination of the Second International a surprising continuity with the activity of the first in the five years up to 1962 becomes apparent. This should hardly be surprising as the main protagonists were almost all involved with the earlier group. The concept of unitary urbanism, a collective and non-specialised fusion of all art, architecture and urban planning in tune with the psychological behaviour of the occupants, which became the pivot of situationist theory on the years 1957-1962 10, was developed further after 1962 by the Bauhaus Situationist concept of CO-RITUS. Whereas unitary urbanism was never taken beyond the theoretical stage, the CO-RITUS exhibitions, concerts and street demonstrations launched situationist ideas directly into the everyday life of urban living. In an orgy of collective painting, street graffiti, music making and dancing which directly involved the audience through their own participation, the Second Situationist International saw itself as directly intervening in the spaces of everyday life, in order to change it forever. "... tradition says that things are happening in either the artist or in the spectator .. WE SAY: in our world things go on in the space between them, in the intermediate, in the space between human beings, in the intermediate between between the utopia and the banality ... For the first we invite the audience saying: Come on ... Join us ... Participate ... Everybody has the right to do it." 11
An emphasis being placed on action rather than theory, the Second International, through its inherent dynamism, is antithetical to the first. Not only can their ideas be seen as a continuation of those of the early First International in what was its most overtly creative phase, but by introducing the concept of the intermediate, the space between things, as being the source of meaning, they are leading towards the open and dynamic knowledge of the world we inhabit today. 12 By 1968 together with other sympathetic groups, they invaded the Swedish pavilion and set up their own exhibition in protest against the "commercialisation of the arts" and the "manipulation and monopolisation within cultural life". 13 Little needs to be said about how ideas such as these became dominant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Young people around the world rose up; the situationists of the First International became involved in the events surrounding May 1968 in Paris. However I would like to suggest one more blasphemy. The history of situationist activity in May '68 was written by Rene Vienet, a member of Internationale Situationniste ! 14 On the other hand Christiania, the autonomous commune in Copenhagen was founded in 1971, by amongst others, participants with the Second International. Is one history more legitimate than the other?
I have only been able to give a hint here of the many and varied activities of the second international. 15 I believe that a re-evaluation of the whole situationist movement is long over-due. It has often been said that those who write about the situationists have their own axe to grind.16 The neglect of the Second Situationist International is my blunt axe. But to return to the quotations I opened with. Should Debord become some sort of hero for the end of the millennium, or should we let the full story be told first? The incomplete history of the situationists needs to be resolved before we make it our medicine.
1. Sadie Plant. The Most Radical Gesture. The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, Routledge. London and New York 1992