Back when I first started my PhD, I taught a course on the Situationist International at Cornerhouse in Manchester. I haven’t done very much with the material that I wrote for this, so I’ve decided to post it here in the hope that someone finds it useful.
Who were the Situationists?
The Situationist International were a small collective of artists, writers and filmmakers active in France between 1957 and 1972 whose legacy, if one can call it that, is still with us today. They have been cited as influences by a host of cultural and political figures including Malcolm McLaren, Tony Wilson, Banksy, and the anti-globalisation movement. What I want to do in this course is to reconnect their ideas to their roots in the European post-war avant-garde, and to emphasise the resolutely political and anti-capitalist character of their art and philosophy. I also hope in the process to engage in the sort of critical practice that informed their thought. Although inevitably a large part of the course will be in lecture form, I’m hoping that the classes will become a sort workshop for the exploration of Situationist ideas and tactics, and we will be reading texts, watching films, and, if you have a look over your course outlines, getting out into the city and exploring it, to use one of their phrases, psychogeographically.
This first session, however, is necessarily an overview of who the Situationists were and a sketch of some of their most important ideas, which we will be exploring in more depth later in the course. To start, therefore, I want to give you a quick history of the events which were probably the most important in the SI’s short existence: the political struggles that came to a head in France in May of 1968.
In May 1968, France was brought to a standstill by a series of wildcat strikes and riots that lasted for almost two months, and the ruling party of President Charles de Gaulle was nearly brought down in the process. Although initially a movement calling for students’ rights, the protests grew to involve all sectors of French society, and, at its height more than 10 million workers downed tools. What is extraordinary is that the group who claimed that the events were a vindication of their philosophy, and, in some ways claimed responsibility for them were a collective of self-declared avant-garde artists, filmmakers and writers calling themselves the Situationist International.
Arguably the event that sparked the troubles was the publication of a document entitled ‘On the Poverty of Student Life: Considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy’ by members of Strasbourg University Students’ Union (AFGES) in 1966. Produced in an edition of 10,000 using university money, this essay, as suggested by the title, is a diatribe against the way in which students lived and worked at the time of its publication, and pulls no punches. I’d like to quote a short passage:
He [the student] thinks he is avant-garde if he has seen the latest happening. He discovers “modernity” as fast as the market can produce its ersatz version of long outmoded (though once important) ideas; for him, every rehash is a cultural revolution. His principal concern is status, and he eagerly snaps up all the paperback editions of important and “difficult” texts with which mass culture has filled the bookstores. (If he had an atom of self-respect or lucidity, he would knock them off. But no: conspicuous consumers always pay!). Unfortunately, he cannot read, so he devours them with his gaze, and enjoys them vicariously through the gaze of his friends.
The modern student, the text suggests, is in thrall to the machinations of capitalism, alienated from his own life and engages with it in only the most superficial fashion. The solution that the authors of the pamphlet suggest is a ‘total critique’ of the whole of everyday life. Throughout the text multiple references are made to something the authors term ‘the spectacle’, and an organisation called the Internationale Situationniste is mentioned more than once.
Following the distribution of the text, the students involved held a press conference to explain their actions, and to encourage further acts of disobedience on the part of their fellow students. Tensions increased between the university authorities and the student population increased until in December of the same year the AFGES was wound up by the courts. The judge’s summation is worth quoting in full:
The accused have never denied the charge of misusing the funds of the student union. Indeed, they openly admit to having made the union pay some F1500 for the printing and distribution of 10,000 pamphlets, not to mention the cost of other literature inspired by ‘Internationale Situationniste’. These publications express ideas and aspirations which, to put it mildly, have nothing to do with the aims of a student union. One has only to read what the accused have written, for it is obvious that these five students, scarcely more than adoloscents, lacking all experience of real life, their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories, and perplexed by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant, and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgments, sinking to outright abuse, on their fellow-students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, the governments and political systems of the whole world. Rejecting all morality and restraint, these cynics do not hesitate to commend theft, the destruction of scholarship, the abolition of work, total subversion, and a world-wide proletarian revolution with “unlicensed pleasure” as its only goal.
The story attracted the attention of the national press, and the term ‘Situationist’ began to become shorthand for a whole number of extremist groups operating within Europe at the time.
Some months later in the newly built University of Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris, a similar ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances was developing. The students attending the university were housed in overcrowded dormitories and were prevented from associating with members of the opposite sex. The University was later described by one member of the Situationist International as ‘the urbanism of isolation [that] had grafted a university centre onto the high-rise flats and their complementary slums […] a microcosm of the general conditions of oppression, the spirit of a world without spirit.’ Over a period of some months, tensions had been growing between the student population and the university authorities. For example, a number of students crashed an opening ceremony of a new swimming pool on campus by the Minister of Youth and Sports. One of them, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, asked the minister ‘you’ve published a report on youth problems which is ridiculous. You don’t mention any of the real problems – for instance there’s not a single work on sexuality in it. What about that?’ The minister replied with ‘Young man, if you’ve got problems about that, may I suggest that you take a dip in the swimming pool.’ The audience were appalled by the minister’s response, and forced him to leave the ceremony.
Increasing tensions lead to the disruption of the day-to-day running of the University, starting first with strikes and the disruption of lectures and, by January 1968, full scale clashes with the police. Plain clothes police officers were continually on campus, and there was an increasing sense of repression and barely contained violence. On 22nd March the administration buildings were occupied by a number of left-wing groups. One group, calling themselves Les Enragés, ‘The Angry Ones’, after a radical cadre active during the 1789 Revolution, demanded that ‘Stalinist’ members of the occupying students be expelled. Their demands were not met, and they left the building, but not without daubing the walls with slogans that would have been familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Situationist literature: “‘Take your desires for reality’; ‘Boredom is counter-revolutionary’; ‘Trade unions are brothels’”. Again, the national press got wind of the Situationist involvement, and condemnation was swift from both left and right, with the French Communist Party describing them as a ‘handful of irresponsible elements’
The Enragés were threatened with expulsion from the University, and a tribunal was to be held on 6th May. On the 3rd, the Union Nationale des Étudiants Français called a meeting at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris to discuss how to halt the threatened expulsions. The students armed themselves with clubs made from broken furniture, and following the arrest of a number of students, violence began to spread throughout the Parisian Latin Quarter. The Sorbonne was closed, and in protest the lecturers and students unions called for an immediate strike. Arriving for their expulsion trial, the Enragés found the Sorbonne surrounded by riot police, extremists from both sides of the political spectrum and students. The demonstration progressed into a full-scale riot: cars were overturned and used as barricades, and the students were joined by workers and trade-union members, and defended themselves against the police with molotov cocktails and paving stones, as this particularly powerful poster from the time illustrates.
On 13th May a mass demonstration occurred in Paris, and a crowd of more that a million workers and students marched in solidarity with the arrested students. Some of the demonstrators, including the Enragés and members of the Situationist International, broke off from the main demonstration and occupied the Sorbonne. Situationist posters were hastily produced, and the groups met to discuss what their demands were. Calling themselves the Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International, they issued a communique demanding nothing less than ‘the abolition of class society, wage labour, the spectacle, and survival’, for university reform was no longer enough, and ‘exams had been cancelled at the barricades.’ A call was put out for the formation of revolutionary workers’ councils, and factories and workplaces were to be occupied. Extraordinarily, workers across France agreed that the time for revolution had come, and did exactly that.
Within days of the occupation of the Sorbonne, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant in Nantes downed tools and occupied the factory. These were quickly followed by more wildcat strikes and occupations at NMPP-Paris, Renault-Billancourt, and a host of other factories and academic institutions. The Occupation Committee continued to express support for the striking workers, and a series of Situationist-inspired tracts were disseminated, including instruction manuals such as ‘Minimum Definition of Revolutionary Organisations’ and ‘Slogans to be Spread by Every Means’, whose contents included such gems as ‘Humanity Won’t be happy ‘til the last bureaucrat in hung with the guts of the last capitalist’. These slogans appeared on walls throughout the duration of the strike, which at its height included over 10 million workers, two thirds of the total French workforce, and brought France to literal standstill for over a month. On 30 May, President De Gaulle made a television appearance which began to mark the end of the disturbances. Offering improved working conditions, a raise in the minimum wage, and a general election, the mood in the country began to change, and by 16 June the police had retaken the Sorbonne, and De Gaulle triumphed in a landslide election victory on the 23rd.
By giving you this potted history of the events of May 68, I want to give you a sense of the sort of role that the Situationists had in the troubles, and to give you an idea of the scale of the impact that the group had on French society. Whist I think that it would be fair to say that the events were likely to have happened without their intervention as political tensions were high in France at that point, the Situationists nonetheless viewed the events as vindication of their analysis of capitalism and the predictions that they had been making of revolution. So far, however, I have not given you much indication of who the group actually were, what their ideas were and why they considered the events of 1968 a fulfilment of prophecies that they had been making. Also, until recently, much of what has been written about the Situationist International has focussed on their political theory, and I would even go so far as to say that Ken Knabb’s Situationist International Anthology, whilst an extremely useful and comprehensive book, somewhat obscures their origins as an artistic movement. What follows, therefore, is a history of the SI, whilst in the final part of this lecture, I want to illustrate some of their key ideas, namely their conception of Capitalism as a ‘vast accumulation of spectacles’
The post-war period was marked by the slow dissolution of the artistic movements that had dominated the European cultural scene up until that point: Surrealism was becoming increasingly bourgeois, and was seen by many to be selling out on its radical roots. Out of this milieu, a number of smaller groups formed including Isidore Isou’s Lettriste movement. Inspired by early Dada, the Letterists explored the visual nature of the written word in their work, and achieved some notoriety in 1950 when one of their members, Michel Mourre, infiltrated Easter Mass at Notre-Dame dressed as a Dominican friar, and delivered the following sermon:
Verily I say unto you: God is dead. We vomit the agonising stupidity of your prayers, for your prayers have been the greasy smoke over the battlefields of Europe … Today is Easter day of the Holy Year. Here under the emblem of Notre-Dame of France, we proclaim the death of the Christ-god, so that man may live at last.
The stunt nearly incited a riot, and left a particularly strong impression on a figure who was to become central in the formation of the Situationist International: Guy-Ernest Debord, then eighteen. Debord became friends with Isou, and in 1951 moved to Paris, enrolling as a law student at the Sorbonne. There, he became part of a group of like-minded individuals centred around the bars and cafés of the Boulevard Saint-Michel known as ‘the tribe’. Nihilistic in the extreme, they were united by their rejection of the society in which they found themselves, as indicated by the graffiti scrawled by Debord in 1953 on a wall on the rue de Seine:
The text reads ‘Never Work’. Debord was a somewhat colourful character even within this company, as illustrated by perhaps my favourite quote from his writing, in which he claims to ‘have written much less than most people who write; but [to] have drunk much more than most people who drink.’
Debord became rapidly disillusioned with the Letterists, and, in 1952 secretly formed the Letterist International tendency with a number of fellow-conspirators, and shortly afterwards showed his first film, Heurlements en faveur du de Sade, or, Howls in favour of de Sade. I’ll spare you this, because it consists of alternating black and white screens for just over an hour, with fragmented and mainly nonsensical dialogue over the top. As Simon Ford states in his book The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, the audience at the first showing was split equally ‘between those that walked out and those that threatened to attack Debord and his friends.’
The Letterist International finally split from the Letterists proper in December 1952, and published four issues of its newsletter, Interantional Letriste. This was replaced in 1954 by Potlatch: The Bulletin of Information of the French group of the Lettriste International. The name of the journal derives from a native American concept of ‘gift’. Ford describes it as ‘the enhancement of status through ceremonial gift-giving or festive destruction’. It was in the pages of this journal that many of the ideas associated with the Situationist International were developed, including the dérive, détournement and pyschogeography, ideas that we’ll investigate in more depth later in the course.
In 1956 a Danish artist named Asger Jorn received a copy of Potlatch. Jorn was a member of a broadly Marxist collective called the International Movement for an Imagist Bauhaus. Recognising a similarity of intent in their work, Jorn got in contact with Debord and was soon in regular correspondence. One of the outcomes from this was the ‘First World Congress of Free Artists’, held in Alba, Italy, in which a number of artists, including members of the Lettriste International came to discuss the future of the avant-garde. Not least of the results of this conference was Jorn joining the board of the LI. The seeds for the development of the Situationist International were now sown.
The Situationist International
The Situationist International was formed in 1957 from members of the Letterist International, the International Movement for an Imagist Bauhaus, and The London Psychogeographical Committee (who at the time had only one member). At the time of founding, the members were: Michèle Bernstein, Guy-Ernest Debord, Giuseppe Pinot Gallizio, Asger Jorn, Walter Olmo, Ralph Rumney, Piero Simondo and Elena Verrone. The document that defined the group was the ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization of the International Situationist Tendency’, written by Debord. The aims of the organisation were as follows:
First, we believe that the world must be changed. We desire the most liberatory possible change of the society and the life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that such a change is possible by means of pertinent actions.
Our concern is precisely in the use of certain means of action, along with the discovery of new ones that may more easily be recognized in the sphere of culture and manners but will be implemented with a view to interaction with global revolutionary change.
The method for effecting this change would be the construction of ‘situations’, moments of life in which one becomes self-aware of ones existence in a particular time and place, to revolutionary effect. Debord describes these as follows:
Our central purpose is the construction of situations, that is, the concrete construction of temporary settings of life and their transformation into a higher, passionate nature.
These are contrasted to the normal state of affairs under capitalism, whose general principal, in this document is identified as theatre. Debord continues:
The construction of situations begins on the other side of the modern collapse of the idea of the theater. It is easy to see to what extent the very principal of the theater – nonintervention – is attached to the alienation of the old world [that is, the capitalist system]. Inversely, we see how the most valid of revolutionary cultural explorations have sought to break the spectator’s psychological identification with the hero, so as to incite this spectator into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life. The situation is thus made lived by its constructors. The role of the ‘public,’ if not passive at least a walk-on, must ever diminish, while the share of those who cannot be called actors but, in a new meaning of the term, ‘livers,’ will increase.
In short, the Situationists set out to change what they saw as the alienating effects of capitalism, that is, the estrangement of the individual from their own life through the theatre of adverts, meaningless and useless commodities, by the construction of situations in which the individual was able to see through that theatre, and begin to participate in their own lives in a more meaningful way.
The first issue of the journal of the organisation, International Situationniste, was published in June 1958. It was bound in metallic gold foil, and was produced in a run of only 200 copies. In all, 12 issues of the journal were produced, with the last being issued in September 1969. In the first, an article, helpfully entitled ‘Definitions’, set out some of the Situationist terms. Here are a selection:
Constructed situation: A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events.
Situationist: Having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. One who engages in the construction of situations. A member of the Situationist International.
Situationism: A meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists.
The journal existed as the mouthpiece for the organisation, and throughout its years of publication contained a mixture of critical articles and philosophy.
Throughout the existence of the organisation, the members continued to produce work in a variety of media. Although we will look at some of these works in more detail later in the course, I want to give you an idea of the sort of work that they made. The following are examples of Asger Jorn’s détourned paintings. These are cheap, bad paintings that Jorn bought, and then customised, changing their original intent and meaning into something else, or revealing what he viewed as their latent content.
The Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys produced a series of works imagining the possibilities of post-revolutionary architecture entitled New Babylon. His drawings and models are extraordinary:
Guy Debord continued to produce films, Critique of Separation, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, and created a series of ‘psychogeographic’ maps of Paris – a topic to which we will return in session five.
The Spectacle and its alternatives
I will return to the history of the group and some of their ideas in greater depth later on in the course. What I want to emphasise now, however, is what I think is arguably the central point in their philosophy, and the reason why they are considered so important in the events of 1968. In 1967, in a volume entitled The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord published his most coherent account of his critique of capitalism. The seeds of his full philosophy can be seen in the ‘Report on the Construction of Situations’ from 1957, in which Debord identifies modern capitalism as having the character of Theatre. The Society of the Spectacle expands on this dramatically, and is infamous for its is dense, wide-ranging and somewhat aphoristic character. The book draws on a long tradition of European philosophy, including Marx, Hegel and the Marxist literary critic Georg Lucácks. Debord steals from many places, and in the process of reading the book the reader is likely to come across fragments that are strangely familiar, for example, the commodity form being described as ‘at first sight a very trivial thing, and easily understood, yet which is in reality a very queer thing, abounding with metaphysical subtleties’: a direct lift from Marx.
The essential core of his analysis is the identification of Capitalism as a force that detaches the individual from his own life. Everything that exists in a person’s life is sold back to him or her in the form of commodities, and in so doing, reduces that person to a spectator as opposed to a participant in his or her life. Modern Capitalism becomes the Spectacle. In the first pages of the book, Debord defines what he means by this:
1.The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
4.The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.
5.The spectacle cannot be understood as either a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as a product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images. It is far better viewed as a […] world view transformed into an objective force.
34.The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.
In Debord’s analysis, Capitalism is not bad simply because of the social inequalities that it creates and the injustices that it perpetrates upon the working class, it is bad because it is boring. Modern Capitalism presents the individual with a succession of needs and desires, but they are desires that are always created by the market. In order to illustrate this, slightly anachronistically, I think this image from John Carpenter’s 1988 sledgehammer-subtle anti-consumerist alien-invasion film They Live sums up Debord’s understanding of capitalism pretty well:
In the film, the central protagonist discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveals to him that the earth has been invaded by horrific aliens: they control the mass media, advertising, the police, all of the ruling class. They pacify the population through consumerism and subliminal messages in advertising. What has just happened in this frame is the main character has donned his sunglasses for the first time, allowing him to see the real messages that are on the billboards. If the Spectacle (no pun intended) is the messages on the advertising hoardings, the Situations that that Debord wanted to create are the sunglasses that will allow the individual to see through them.
You would be forgiven for wondering what all this has got to do with May 1968. To put it bluntly, the Situationists interpreted those events as the moment at which France as a nation put on its alien-detecting sunglasses. In an essay entitled ‘The Beginning of an Era’ in the final issue of International Situationniste, issued more than year after the end of the events of that turbulent month, the group made the following claims:
The largest general strike that ever stopped the economy of an advanced industrial country, and the first wildcat general strike in history; revolutionary occupations and first steps toward direct democracy; the increasingly complete withering of state power for nearly two weeks; the complete verification of the revolutionary theory of our time and even here and there the beginning of its partial realization; the most important experience of the modern proletarian movement that is in the process of constituting itself in its fully developed form in all countries, and the model it must now go beyond – this is what the French May 1968 movement was essentially, and this in itself is already its essential victory.
The Situationists had always asserted that they were only saying what everyone was thinking already. May 1968 was therefore the point at which everybody acted on those thoughts.
 Mustapha Khayati, On The Poverty of Student Life, <http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/4>, 2007.
 Mustapha Khayati, On The Poverty of Student Life, <Situationists.http://library.nothingness.org/notes.php3?objectid=4&footnum=foot1#foot1> n.
 Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), pp. 116 – 117.
 René Viénet, Enragés and situationists in the occupation movement, France May ’68, (New York: Autonomedia, 1992), p. 21, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 117.
 E. Williams, Historical Rhythms and Existential Blues, <http://leninistmontages.blogspot.com/2006/08/anatomy-of-change-may-1968.html>, 2007.
 Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), p. 118.
 Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), p. 119.
 Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 120.
 Viénet, Enragés and Situationists, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 122.
 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994), p. 12.
 Quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 21.
 Quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 27.
 Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 25.
 Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 33.
 Situationist International Online, <www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/chronology/1957.html>, 2007.
 Guy Debord, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency’, in Tom McDonough (ed.), Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p. 29.
 Guy Debord, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency’, in Tom McDonough (ed.), Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, p. 44.
 Anon., ‘Definitions’, in Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 45.
 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1995), p. 26.
 Anon., ‘The Beginning of an Era’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, p. 225.