By its longevity? By the degree to which it achieved its goals? Or by the persistence of its ideas? The Situationist International, the subject of a new book by McKenzie Wark, barely lasted a decade and a half as an organisation and never had more than 72 members during that period. Their objective was to unleash energies squashed by capitalism, which they hoped to overthrow. That moment remains pending, but their ideas still form an irresistible way of critiquing the everyday.
Formed in 1957 and based in Paris, the Situationists have a lingering reputation as pranksters thanks to stunts pulled by splinter groups, such as the kidnapping in 1964 of the head of Edvard Erikson’s Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. Guy Debord, the SI’s chief thinker, disapproved of such episodes. He wanted to dissolve the boundary between art and life, for people to invest the everyday with the same passion and creativity artists put into their work or children into their games.
The key was creating “situations” – joyful moments when participants become aware of, and so elude, the constructed nature of contemporary life. One method of creating a situation was “the drift” – long, apparently aimless urban walks that broke down the tendency in capitalist societies to separate one’s environment into areas of work and play. There were tools other than the drift to unsettle these distinctions: a riot, for example.
The Situationists’ moment came in 1968, when they played a role in the French student protests that nearly became a revolution. They penned the foiled revolt’s slogans, including the one that titles the book; cobblestones are laid on a layer of sand, the implication being you claw up the stones to throw. A riot, Debord would tell you, is an important way to disrupt the society of the spectacle.
Spectacles, in Situationist parlance, are events designed to fascinate and distract the populace. These media confections change nothing themselves, recent examples including reality TV, the death of Princess Diana, the Olympics, perhaps the last general election. Situationist analysis of the society of the spectacle predicts regular riots, with looting and arson “an expression of a frustrated will to power”. Wark describes the image of Prince Charles and his consort trapped in their limo by protesters earlier this year as “the moment of surprise, when power ceases its phantom existence for just a moment”.
Wark’s history is timely but too often clouded with the sort of academic language seemingly designed to repel those fresh to the subject. While the book reveals how prescient the SI’s ideas were, it also shows how some of its ideas haven’t quite turned out as revolutionary as first envisaged. Alexander Trocchi, the Scottish novelist and Situationist, appears to have anticipated blogging, an innovation somewhat less revolutionary than predicted.
Another Situationist fantasy was of rebuilding one part of a city in another, which, in a sense, globalisation has achieved, especially on the high street, as cities grow indistinguishable. Nevertheless, with the age of austerity promising more trouble, the Situationists, those alienated prophets of the media age, still tout the most adventurous analysis of 21st-century life – and what happens next.
The Beach Beneath The Street – The Everyday Life And Glorious Times Of The Situationist International
McKenzie Wark, Verso, £14.99