Situation Critical


The Situationist International wanted it all: “as an artistic avant-garde, as an experimental investigation of the free construction of daily life, and finally as a contribution to the theoretical and practical articulation of a new revolutionary contestation.” Refusing the economy of appearances permeating existence, it embraced a total, unalienated life—living over survival, invention over role, desire over domination.

This is a matter of some agreement, albeit with shifting terms. Certainly this dream mixed art and the revolution of everyday life; in the formula of imperious founder Guy Debord, “The art of the future will be the overturning of situations or nothing.” But Debord’s demands were unceasing: “Let us say that we have to multiply poetic objects and subjects,” goes another pass, “and that we have to organize games of these poetic subjects among these poetic objects. There is our entire program, which is essentially ephemeral.” Such fluidity with such total stakes marks what is, per decisive art historian T.J. Clark, “the only political writing of our time.” He clarifies: “The writing that will be seen by future ages to have kept the possibility of politics alive.”

Here we are now: more distant from May 1968 than it was from the bombing of Guernica. Ephemerality proved hard to come by, possibly because they keep printing these damn books, books that don’t necessarily clarify the SI’s radical demands. This latest Situationist compendium, aloft with some of the most go-for-broke political thinking on offer, has fallen afoul of its own fractious history.

In 1997, the influential journal October dedicated a special number to Debord and the SI, featuring primary texts and critical essays. Focusing on the group as political actors, rather than makers of frozen things, the volume looked sternly back at a 1989 museum exhibit catalog, On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time. The catalog itself affirmed the SI as an artistic vanguard, and was a corrective to the landmark Situationist International Anthology, which translated many SI texts but, through selection and excerption, foregrounded dry anarchist tendencies. Each publication makes a claim on what the Situationists mean; each offers only partial meaning.

Guy Debord and the Situationist International is October writ large—literally. Returning editor Tom McDonough mantles the original journal with new essays both from and about the SI. Here’s where things get odd. Among the several “new” critical essays are two taken from Passage, the very exhibit catalog that McDonough’s collection once seemed poised against. These inclusions are, perhaps, inescapable: Greil Marcus, a crucially synthetic thinker about the SI; and Thomas Levin, translator of several SI pieces herein. But it’s surprising to see October work and museum text colluding.

Sort of. Despite their opposition, Passage and October are both publications of MIT Press, making conjunction easy labor if reminding us that, for a business, political contestation is less important than a new, $45 anthology. This is as good a place as any to mourn that old lo-fi edition of The Society of the Spectacle published uncopyrighted by the anarchist collective Black and Red, and of late displaced by a prettier, pricier version from, yep, MIT. Why, it’s as if the Press would like to be Situationists, or at least be their sole arbiters.

The greatest praise for SI writing is that it continues to resist such unifying labors. Many of the documents here, forced to fight both their times and their own publication history, remain fearless in reach, unrelenting in political ferocity, poetic in conception. Not all are Debordiana, but Debord’s writing sets the measure, including three rare early notes: “The Great Sleep and Its Clients,” “One Step Back,” and “One More Try If You Want to Be Situationists.” He ends the last with an ironical, but not insincere, gesture: “We wish to transform these times (to which everything we love, beginning with our experimental attitude, also belongs), and not to ‘write for it’ . . . I believe all my friends would be content to work anonymously at the Ministry of Leisure in a government that would finally undertake to change life, along with the salaries of qualified workers.”

How ardently these essays navigate the rocks on which much theoretical writing wrecks! They play without fetishizing fun, work without taking care of business. Their demands and artistic inventions articulate a complex but insistently immediate politics. “The problem of language,” reminds Raoul Vaneigem in razor-sharp reverie, “is at the center of every struggle for the abolition or preservation of today’s alienation; it is inseparable from the whole field of these struggles.”

Several critical essays included are insightful also. Closest to the passion of SI texts is “Why Art Can’t Kill the Situationist International.” No wonder: Co-authors Donald Nicholson-Smith and the aforementioned T.J. Clark were themselves briefly Situationists. Their essay’s account of attempts to pacify, depoliticize, and recuperate Situationist struggles is stark, seductive, and uncompromising. When critic Peter Wollen responds to the duo’s personal vitriol, they fire back: “That is because it is people who misrepresent and keep silent—not just ‘signs and meanings.’ ”

It is signs and meanings we’re left with now. If the entire history is to represent itself, no more partial publications! Time to translate the full run of Internationale Situationniste, in a plain cheap volume, and let readers make of it their own desires. One more try if you want to be Situationists.