Thursday, December 8, 2011

On the beach (beneath the street)

The Situationists were formed over half a century ago - in 1957 - and after fifteen years of acting as provocateurs, disbanded in 1972; the Situationist International, we learn from McKenzie Wark's new book, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, had a total of seventy-two members.

They spoke, as Alex Danchev puts it in a recent TLS review (November 18, 2011), in tongues; he calls their Paris '68 slogans "a crash course in Situationist rhetoric."  Viz -

REVOLUTION CEASES TO BE THE MOMENT IT BECOMES NECESSARY TO BE SACRIFICED FOR IT---- IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID ---- NEITHER GODS NOR MASTERS ---- DOWN WITH THE ABSTRACT, LONG LIVE THE EPHEMERAL ---- AFTER ART, GOD IS DEAD ---- DOWN WITH A WORLD WHERE THE GUARANTEE THAT WE WON'T DIE OF STARVATION HAS PURCHASED WITH THE GUARANTEE THAT WE WILL DIE OF BOREDOM ---- CLUB MED, A CHEAP HOLIDAY IN OTHER PEOPLE'S MISERY ---- DON'T CHANGE EMPLOYERS, CHANGE THE EMPLOYMENT OF LIFE ---- NEVER WORK ---- CHANCE MUST BE SYSTEMATICALLY EXPLORED ---- RUN, COMRADE, THE OLD WORLD IS BEHIND YOU! ---- BE CRUEL ---- THE MORE YOU CONSUME THE LESS YOU LIVE ---- LIVE WITHOUT DEAD TIME ---- INDULGE UNTRAMMELED DESIRE ---- PEOPLE WHO TALK ABOUT REVOLUTION AND CLASS STRUGGLE WITHOUT REFERRING EXPLICITLY TO EVERYDAY LIFE, WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING WHAT IS SUBVERSIVE ABOUT LOVE AND POSITIVE ABOUT THE REFUSAL OF CONSTRAINTS, HAVE CORPSES IN THEIR MOUTH ---- UNDER THE PAVING STONES, THE BEACH!
That last slogan reads, in French: Sous les pavés, la plage!  Danchev drily remarks: "Allowing for the fact that the beach has since materialized on the banks of the Seine, without so much as a crack in the social order, that slogan is wonderfully apt to the purpose."

The SI's position, as Raoul Vaneigem put it at one of their conferences in 1961, was "that of warriors between two worlds, one which we do not recognize, another which does not yet exist. We must precipitate the crash; hasten the end of the world, the disaster in which the Situationists will recognize their own."  Their "secretary and strategist, their philosopher and disciplinarian, their Lenin with a grin, or at least of sense of humor, as Danchev describes him, was Guy Debord, who in 1958 wrote that they would have "neither Paradise nor the end of history..."  Debord's first wife (and a founder of SI) Michèle Bernstein wrote a novel which, Danchev says, "catches straight-faced the atmosphere at Situ HQ," e.g.


"What are you working on, exactly? I have no idea."

"Reification," he answered.

"It's an important job," I added.

"Yes, it is," he said.

"I see," Carole observed with admiration. "Serious work, at a huge desk cluttered with thick books and papers."

"No," said Gilles. "I walk. Mainly I walk."


Americans are big walkers in their cities, but the French (among others) seem always to have been better at drifting, in the sense of the dérive, than we.  I wonder why.  But maybe that's changing, with the occupy movements.  Wark himself recently appeared at the Occupy Washington Square Park Teach In, where he said:

Those who talk about the 99% without talking about what they really love, what they really desire, what everyday life is a struggle about—they are speaking with a corpse in their mouth. The struggle to live unites us all—in all our differences.

Our ideas are on everybody's minds. Be impossible, demand the realistic. There is tenderness only in the crudest demands. Nobody should go hungry. Nobody should go homeless. Or be crushed by debt.

Both his book and Danchev's review are very much worth reading; the book, by the way, includes a "graphic essay" about the SI which tries to "détourn" Situationist thinking itself by using comics; you can read about that here.  And archaeologists of literary culture can delve into the SI archives at SI online.

(One of my own fave Situationists is Alexander Trocchi, about whom I blogged here.)

Uniting us all in our differences; as Empson said, "The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own."  There's a sorely-needed justice in that realization that's well worth struggling for.

Further info, including an interview with Wark at Berfrois.

Pictured: Self-explanatory object, available from Crazydog T-shirts