Transforming Psychogeography: From Paris to London

This is the text of a paper I delivered at the Literary London Conference a few years ago, and which forms the basis of part of one of the chapters in my PhD thesis. The majority of it has been substantially reworked, but I still stand by the arguments, so I’m posting it here with the rest of my Situationist work.

The term psychogeography has achieved a level of ubiquity in the discussion of a number of contemporary London writers, most prominently Iain Sinclair, and indeed, Sinclair’s use of the word within his work at least in part explains its current popularity. The word has a certain anti-establishment cachet, having its origins within the slightly disreputable milieu of the Parisian post-war revolutionary avant-garde, where it was formulated by members of the Lettriste International, and was subsequently taken up by its better known (if not notorious) successor, the Situationist International. The concept is undeniably deeply resonant, suggestive at the very least of a pseudo-scientifc or poetic understanding of the relationship between geography and psychology and the imaginative possibilities to be found in the urban environment. In the following oft-quoted definition given by the leader of the Situationists, Guy Debord, psychogeography is ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’.[1] The principal method for the study of these phenomena was the dérive or drift in which ‘one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’[2] Contemporary London psychogeography has much in common with its Parisian forebear: the concepts that Debord outlines can, for example, be mapped comfortably onto Iain Sinclair’s programmatic methodological statement in his book Lights Out for the Territory, in which he states that

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself.[3]

The technique of drifting, navigating the city on foot, the reading of the city in terms of the psychological effect that it has upon the individual that are present in the Situationist definition of psychogeography are all present in Sinclair’s understanding of it. However, if one examines the development of the concept from its emergence in 1950s Paris to its contemporary London usage, whilst the methodological foundations of psychogeography remain more or less constant, its teleological assumptions have shifted radically.

Where in its original formulation, psychogeography was to be understood as a field of knowledge that would inform the creation of a post-revolutionary ‘Situationist city’, contemporary psychogeography as it is practised by Sinclair harbours no such world-transforming ambitions, and indeed could be read as being openly hostile to such projects. Instead, contemporary London psychogeography finds its expression as a literary mode, a position that would have appeared paradoxical to its original practitioners: Debord even goes so far as to assert that the dérive is inimical to such representation, claiming that ‘written descriptions can be no more than passwords to this great game’.[4] This opens the question as to how and why this shift in emphasis from revolutionary spatial practice to textual representation has occurred, and what implications there might be as a result. Moreover, whilst Sinclair is quite open about the fact that his usage of the term is different to that of the Situationists, it is telling that in an interview with Kevin Jackson he states that he ‘wanted it include everything’.[5] Arguably, there is a danger that if one approaches psychogeography uncritically and without an awareness of its development, the concept becomes abstract and the crucial differences of approach between its historical and contemporary usages are effaced.

The scope of this change and its significance can be dramatically illustrated through the comparison of two psychogeographic maps: Guy Debord’s 1957 work The Naked City, and Dave McKean’s map of London ‘The 8 Great Churches: The Lines of Influence the Invisible Rods of Force Active in this City’ found in the 1998 edition of Sinclair’s 1975 poem Lud Heat. These two works both offer interpretations of their respective cities that re-imagine their physical and imaginative spaces and in the process profoundly subvert conventional understandings of cartography, and in this they reveal the similarities that exist between the Parisian and London variants of psychogeography: both attempt to critique hegemonic representations, readings and reconfigurations of urban space. As Sinclair stated in the plenary address to this conference, ‘when the story is imposed, it all starts to fall apart.’ Psychogeography, in its historical and contemporary versions, attempts to find alternative narratives to the ‘official’ ones, to allow the city to speak in its own voice, and these two maps both illustrate potential alternative readings of city space. However, when one examines the ways in which each map presents its alternative narrative, the vastly differing scope of their ambitions is revealed.

Before I go on to examine the maps in detail, it is useful to give some context: for the Situationists, the city was the prime site of their activity, both as object of criticism and as inspiration. Debord stated that ‘from any standpoint other than that of police control, Haussmann’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’[6] He identifies in the rationality of its design a concern only for utility and the circulation of traffic, failings that were only increased in the technocratic visions of the high Modernism of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. Not only were these factors in the alienation and isolation of the city’s inhabitants, they were, most seriously, monotonous. For the Situationists, therefore, the modern city was a problem to which a solution must be found. In a text entitled ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ that was both lament and eulogy for the possibility that the city represented for the Situationists, Ivan Chtcheglov stated

We are bored in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun. Between the legs of the women walking by, the dadaists imagined an monkey wrench and the surrealists a crystal cup. That’s lost. We know how to read every promise in faces—the latest stage of morphology. The poetry of the billboards lasted twenty years. We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the sidewalk billboards, the latest state of humor [sic] and poetry.[7]

With his famous plea that ‘the hacienda must be built’,[8] he goes on to describe in rhapsodic terms a city that ‘could be envisaged in the form of an arbitrary assemblage of castles, grottoes [sic] , lakes, etc.’, the districts of which ‘could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life.’[9] In such a city, in Chtcheglov’s words, ‘everyone will live in their own personal “cathedral,” so to speak. There will be rooms more conducive to dreams than any drug, and houses where one cannot help but love.’[10] Psychogeography was envisioned as the means to rediscover the ‘mysteries on the sidewalk billboards’, to re-enchant the city in opposition to the schematic and sterile visions of the city planners.

As I have mentioned, the primary method by which the Situationists investigated psychogeographical phenomena was through the dérive, in which the participants would wander through the city on foot according to whim, and to a lesser degree, chance. In his essay ‘Theory of the dérive’, Guy Debord asserts that by engaging in such a practice, the dériver or more frequently, dériveurs, would be able to discern the ‘psychogeographical relief’ of the city, the ‘constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.’[11] Debord states that because of the ‘playful-constructive’ nature of the activity, the dérive is ‘completely distinguish[ed] … from the classical notions of the journey or the stroll.’[12] The British artist Ralph Rumney, a former member of the Situationist International, helpfully elucidates:

dérive – it’s a French word that’s become pretentious now, there’s been a sort of sacralisation of it – it basically means wandering, but as Debord defined dérive it was going from one bar to another, in a haphazard manner, because the essential thing was to set out with very little purpose and to see where your feet led you, or your inclinations … You go where whim leads you, and you discover parts of cities, or come to appreciate them, feel they’re better than others, whether it’s because you’re better received in the bar or because you just suddenly feel better.[13]

It was with ‘data’ gathered from practices such as these that Debord created The Naked City, which goes some way towards illustrating the Situationist understanding of psychogeography. The work consists of a map of Paris that has been cut up and reassembled, not in accordance with the representation of the physical terrain, but according to ‘unities of ambiance’.[14] Red arrows connect the different quartiers according to the feelings they inspire, the continuity of ‘sense of place’ between geographically separated areas, providing a representation of the ‘fixed points and vortexes’, the ebb and flow of the atmosphere of place that Debord evokes in ‘Theory of the dérive’. In so doing, The Naked City presents with us a radically subjective reading of the city, and in the process subverts the claims to objectivity made by conventional maps. The ‘gods-eye-view’ with which the ordinary map of Paris presents its user is an abstraction that excels at schematising geography, yet effaces the experience of the city as it is perceived at ground level. Or, to put it another way, it is very good at telling its users where they are going, but is near-useless at telling them what it will be like when they get there. Debord’s map inverts this hierarchy and reasserts the primacy of the city as it is experienced rather than as it is abstracted, its poetic possibility over its utility. The most nebulous and subjective quality of the environment, its atmosphere as Debord perceives it, is taken as subject for representation. The non-existent, and, indeed impossible viewpoint of the conventional map is therefore questioned and, as Tom McDonough contends, a map which operates ‘as narrative rather than as tool of “universal knowledge”’[15] is presented instead.

Guy Debord, 'The Naked City'

Guy Debord, 'The Naked City'

When one compares The Naked City to Dave McKean’s map in Lud Heat, a number of parallels can be drawn between this and Debord’s work. As with The Naked City, the map that accompanies Sinclair’s poem presents a vision of the city that it takes as subject that subverts conventional mappings of it. A subjective reading of the city is again asserted in contestation to the claims towards objectivity that more schematic renderings of London might make, asserting the truth of the city as it is subjectively experienced over its abstractions. When a conventional map attempts to represent the physical layout of the city in order to orient its users, not least of the features included are the city’s streets: in McKean’s map these have been replaced by a series of speculative alignments linking sites of ‘occult power’,[16] primarily the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor but also landmarks including the Greenwich Observatory and the British Museum, between which flows an undefined ‘force’. Indeed, all other features have been reduced to insignificance, and the whole concept of the map as an object to be utilised for navigation is subverted by a rendering which depicts London as a darkly gothic city haunted by a malignant past.

This is emphasised further when one analyses Sinclair’s text. Hawksmoor’s churches have an ‘unacknowledged magnetism and control-power’, Sinclair speculates, that has led to a historic legacy of violence that has inscribed itself on the landscape of London and reaches into the present. He specifies:

the ritual slaying Marie Jeanette Kelly in the ground floor room of Miller’s court, Dorset Street, directly opposite Christ Church … the Ratcliffe Highway slaughter of 1811, with the supposed murderer, stake through heart, trampled into the pit where four roads cross to the north of St George-in-the-East … the battering to death of Mr Abraham Cohen, summer of 1974, on Cannon Street Road (one spoke of the quadrivium): £110,000 in old banknotes in the kiosk behind him, stuffed in cocoa tins and cigarette packets; three ritualistic coins laid at his feet, as the were in 1888 at the feet of Mary Ann Nicholls, the first Ripper victim.[17]

Each murder is ascribed its place on the territory, the landscape and its history become indivisible. Moreover, in connecting the older crimes with one contemporary with the poem’s composition, Sinclair emphasises the hold that the past has over the present, and it is precisely this claim that asserts itself in the map. It is the dark memories, the occult weight of history, that McKean’s rendering of the city depicts. The primacy of Hawksmoor’s Churches in McKean’s map is in itself an assertion of the past’s claim upon the present – with all other landmarks removed the perspective of an historic (and ‘subservient’) ‘grounded eye’,[18] is simulated, recreating a London whose horizons are ‘differently punctured’[19] by church spires. Much as with the Situationist critique of Paris, this vision is at odds with that of the processes of redevelopment that were beginning to operate at the time Lud Heat was being composed: Sinclair states of the period in which Lud Heat was written that ‘it was as if the landscape was breaking up like an ice floe, and there were voices still registering, there were manifestations that weren’t subsequently available … because it all too soon disappeared under serious development.’[20] McKean’s map suggests that these voices are not easily hushed, and that the ‘horribly unappeased’[21] crimes of the past will not be easily overwritten by contemporary re-developments.

Both maps, The Naked City and ‘The 8 Great Churches’, subvert conventional cartography and assert subjective readings over objective abstractions of city space. However, the composition of The Naked City reveals the essential difference between the psychogeography of the Situationists and Sinclair’s practice: where Parisian psychogeography orients its critique of the city around a utopian projection towards a newly revivified post-revolutionary city, London psychogeography finds the strength of its critique in the past. The Naked City is constructed from fragments of a conventional map, and it is this that reveals the scope of the Situationists’ ambitions: whilst the work undermines the rationalising, hegemonic viewpoint of the city planner, the fact that it shatters the existing fabric of Paris and remodels it according to subjectively perceived ‘unities of ambience’ demonstrates the Situationists’ desire to fundamentally transform the nature of the city. This is only enhanced when one compares this work to the drawings and models made for a Situationist city, New Babylon, by the Dutch architect and member of the Situationist International, Constant Nieuwenhuys. This is what Situationist psychogeography strives towards, and in this it remains fundamentally optimistic about both the form of knowledge produced by the dérive and the liberatory promise of technology, revolutionary politics, and the transformative power of art.

Debord stated that ‘psychogeography’s progress depends to a great extent on the statistical extension of its methods of observation’.[22] Until this has occurred ‘the objective truth of even the first psychogeographic data cannot be ensured. But even if these data should turn out to be false, they would certainly be false solutions to a genuine problem.’[23] Debord seems to be suggesting that with more psychogeographic maps, more dérives, it would be possible to aggregate an objective, or in Hegelian terms, concrete universal truth about the nature of the city as it is experienced, and from this knowledge a city such as New Babylon could have been constructed. Yet how could a map such as The Naked City be anything other than a representation of a purely subjective experience? Or, to put it another way, how could one express the nature of the experience of dérive in a way which was not merely self-expression, that is, art?

This faith in the potential for finding truth through the practise of dérive is precisely what marks the difference between Parisian and London psychoegeography. The Lud Heat map, in leaving the geography of London intact, offers us an alternative vision of the city, yet at no point does Sinclair suggest that this vision is in any way objectively true. Whilst he claims a certain authority from the voices that he unearths, stating in a never-broadcast radio documentary on Lud Heat that ‘[p]lace activates the poet; the poet is drawn to a specific location, to activate a monologue that is already available there’,[24] the presence of Sinclair’s house on the Lud Heat map as one of the sites of power in the constellation of influences that he suggests criss-cross the city suggests, at the very least, that his dark intimations are not necessarily to be taken at face value. What Sinclair’s text and the accompanying map offer us is an interpretation, not a plan for the future, and, as Henri Lefebvre reminds us in The Production of Space,

When codes worked up from literary texts are applied to spaces – to urban spaces, say – we remain, as may easily be shown, on the purely descriptive level. Any attempt to use such codes as a means of deciphering social space must surely reduce that space itself to the status of a message and the inhabiting of it to the status of a reading.[25]

Sinclair’s accounts of his dérives are exactly this: descriptions which reduce space to a (necessarily subjective) reading. This is precisely what is being hinted at in Lights Out for the Territory when he refers to the ‘underlying patterns’ that he discerns in the environment as ‘fiction’.[26] In acknowledging that such textual descriptions are themselves both partial and reductive, and thus concurring with Debord’s assertion that they can be no more than ‘passwords’,[27] Sinclair’s materials become, not, as the Situationists hoped could eventually be the case, the city itself, but instead the narratives and myths that come through time to be associated with it – in short art and history. In transforming the materials of psychogeography in such a fashion and abandoning any hope of going beyond a subjective reading of the city, Sinclair maintains its power as critique, yet rejects its claims to truth, and, moreover, divests it of the utopian tendencies that operate in its original, Situationist, formulation.

[1] Debord, Guy, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, in Knabb, Ken (ed.) Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1980), p. 5.
[2] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the dérive’, Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 50.
[3] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory, (London: Granta, 1997), p. 4.
[4] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the dérive’, in Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 53.
[5] Kevin Jackson and Iain Sinclair, The Verbals, p. 75.
[6] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, , retrieved July 2008.
[7] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 1. Although originally written in 1953, so before the establishment of the Situationist International in 1957, this article was reprinted in the Issue 1 of International Situationniste.
[8] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 1.
[9] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, pp. 3-4.
[10] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 3.
[11] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the dérive’, Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 50.
[12] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the dérive’, Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 50.
[13] Alan Ward, The Map Is Not The Territory, p. 169.
[14] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the dérive’, p. 53.
[15] Tom McDonough, ‘Situationist Space’, in Tom McDonough, Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, p. 243
[16] Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, (London: Granta, 1998), p. 15.
[17] Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, p. 21.
[18] Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, p. 13.
[19] Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, p. 13.
[20] Kevin Jackson, The Verbals: Kevin Jackson in Conversation with Iain Sinclair (Tonbridge: Worple Press, 2003), p. 74.
[21] Kevin Jackon, The Verbals, p. 116.
[22] Guy Debord, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency’, in McDonough, Tom (ed.), Guy Debord and the Situationist International (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004), p. 45.
[23] Guy Debord, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations’, p. 45.
[24] Peter Green, ‘The Lud Heat Documentary’, found at , August 2007.
[25] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), p. 7.
[26] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory, p. 4.
[27] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the dérive’, in Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 53.

Olympic Legacies

The following are some thoughts taken from the conclusion to my PhD thesis on the sort of challenge that the Olympics represent to Iain Sinclair, and indeed, to other artists and writers living in London. I’ve decided to put them up here for a couple of reasons: firstly, because I think the collection of Olympic facts I’ve managed to amass are pretty extraordinary, but also because it gives some of the background to the piece that my sister, Rowena Hay, and I wrote for the forthcoming collection The Art of Dissent: Adventures in London’s Olympic State, edited by Hilary Powell and Isaac Marrero-Guillamòn. On hearing about the collection, my initial thoughts were that if you were to draw a venn diagram of ‘People who hate the Olympics’ and ‘Artists who live in East London’, it would look something like this:

Olympics Venn Diagram

So we tried to write something a little bit against this grain. However, the more I found out about the Olympics and the more time I spent near the site, the less and less I liked them. It’s not hard to see that the games represent simultaneously both an extraordinary enclosure of public space and an iniquitous transferal of wealth from the public to the most venal of capitalist speculators; yet at once, there is a deeply Utopian aspect to the project also. Who wouldn’t assent to the Olympic Values of ‘Respect, Excellence, Friendship, Courage, Determination, Inspiration, Equality‘? How can we think about the Olympics in a way which doesn’t just wish them away or condemn them, but instead thinks them differently? Not, by the way, that I’m suggesting that I’ve managed to do this…

Thoughts on Iain Sinclair and the Olympics

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.[1]

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.[2]

Iain Sinclair’s most recent book, Ghost Milk, focuses, amongst other things, on the 2012 Olympic Games, whose principle site lies on the edge of Sinclair’s home borough of Hackney in East London. It is perhaps worth noting the extraordinary extent of this trespass into the author’s home turf. At a time during which all of the major UK political parties are united in their agreement on the need for financial austerity in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the scale an d associated costs of the Olympics are staggering: the Public Accounts Committee, the UK Parliamentary spending watchdog, has estimated that the final cost of the games to the taxpayer will reach as much as £11 billion, exceeding the current budget of £9.3 billion,[4] which is itself significantly larger than the initial forecast cost of £3.4 billion, on which basis in 2005 London won the bid to hold the games.[5]

This economic cost is accompanied by spatial incursions on an unprecedented scale: in addition to the 500 acres of the Olympic park,[6] sections of the London road network have been set aside for Olympic use, with a fine being levied on unauthorised vehicles using designated ‘games lanes’ for the duration of the events.[7] Spectators arriving at the main Olympics site in Stratford by train or tube will enter via the new Westfield Stratford City shopping centre.[8] Accordingly, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) is extremely jealous of its intellectual property: ‘branded’ food and drink will only be available from McDonald’s, Coca Cola, and Cadbury,[9] not companies noted, one might add, for the healthiness of their products. Payments at Olympic venues will only be accepted in cash or by Visa, another official Olympic partner—no other credit or debit cards will be accepted.[10] Guidelines produced by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) indicate that use of the Olympic Symbol, the Olympic Motto (‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’), the words ‘Olympic(s)’, ‘Olympiad(s)’, ‘Olympian(s)’, or ‘anything similar to them, or translations’ in a commercial setting without permission could be considered copyright infringement.[11] In addition, use of one or more of the following—‘Games’, ‘Two Thousand and Twelve’, ‘2012’, ‘twenty twelve’—or two or more of ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, ‘Bronze’, ‘London’, ‘medals’, ‘sponsors’, ‘summer’, also represent potential infringements.[12] Restrictions on advertising and trading have been established around the Olympic venues,[13] and clothing bearing ‘political statements or overt commercial identification intended for “ambush marketing”’ will not be permitted within Olympic venues.[14]

These restrictions have had concrete, if farcical, outcomes: examples include a florist in Stoke which has been forced to remove their Olympics-themed window display under threat of legal action from Coca Cola,[15] as has a butcher in Weymouth, whose rings of sausages apparently attracted the ire of Olympics officials.[16] Political protest will not be permitted within or in the vicinity of the Olympics venues, and already there has been censorship of dissenting views, the social networking site Twitter having suspended the account of the protest group Space Hijackers on the request of LOCOG due to copyright issues.[17] Extraordinarily, in 2008 Hackney Council prevented Sinclair himself from launching his book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire at Stoke Newington Library on account of his critical stance towards the games.[18]

Whilst the Olympic and Paralympic games will themselves last only a matter of weeks, there has been much trumpeting of the legacy of the games. In addition to The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, ’up to’ 11,000 homes will be built on Olympics site in the twenty years following the Olympics.[19] Of the 3,000 that will be available from 2013, half of them will be ‘affordable’, though as Anna Minton points out, this in itself is a slippery term, and the current Conservative administration understands the word to mean anything up to 80% of market rates.[20] As a recent article in The Independent notes, this means a two bedroom property in the Olympic park would only be affordable to those with an income in excess of £30,000 per year:[21] figures produced by the Greater London Authority in 2010 put the equivalised median income for households in Newham (the borough in which Stratford is located) at £23,265 per year, whilst 26% of households in the borough earn less than £15,000 per year.[22]

It remains to be seen what the eventual legacy of the London Olympics will be in East London. However, previous games have left an ambiguous mark on their cities: the 1996 Atlanta games, for example, saw a net increase in the cities’ housing stock of around 4,000, but critics have noted that this urban renewal has tended to favour the rich at the expense of the largely poor residents of the neighbourhoods that were demolished to construct the Centennial Olympic Park.[23] Disregarding the politics of gentrification, neither is it clear as to whether the Olympics has a positive impact on the economies of host countries. The most extreme example of the sort of financial liability that can be incurred is that of the 1976 games held in Montreal, the $2.759 billion debt amassed only being paid off in 2006,[24] and, as Paul Kitchin notes, only Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996 have managed to balance direct costs with revenue.[25] The 2004 Athens games raised the Greek state budget deficit by 6.1% of GDP, which, as Roy Panagiotopoulou points out, is one of the main reasons why Greece was placed under EU monitoring in 2004.[26] Moreover, the debts incurred by the Olympic project are a contributing factor to that country’s current economic woes, and at the time of writing Greece is on the brink of exiting the Eurozone with potentially catastrophic consequences both for the Greek people and the world economy as a whole.[27]

I cite these statistics not because of their particular relevance to Ghost Milk—though I would argue that they form part of the context to which this book responds—but to note the challenge that the sheer scale of the Olympic developments represents to Sinclair’s writing. It is not an overstatement to describe the ambitions of the 2012 Olympics as totalitarian in scope: as the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) itself notes in its own literature, ‘Preparations are now underway for how London and the UK as a whole will look, feel and operate during the Games’.[28] Indeed, a large part of the increased spending on the Games comes in part on the basis of the scale of the security operation needed to police them: according to The Guardian, 13,500 troops will be deployed to guard the Olympic site, more than are in service in Afghanistan at the time of writing.[29] Missiles have been installed on sites around East London,[30] and the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean will be stationed in the Thames at Greenwich for the duration of the games to provide ‘airspace security’ and ‘logistics support’.[31] It almost goes without saying that this militarisation of urban space and the top-down model of political and economic intervention enacted by the Olympic project is deeply antipathetic to the sentiments of Sinclair’s work. Downriver, for example, can be read as a polemical (and at times hyperbolic) reaction to the redevelopment of the Docklands area of London in the 1980s; London Orbital’s stated purpose is to ‘circumnavigate the [Millennium] Dome […] at a safe distance’;[32] Lights Out for the Territory makes frequent and highly critical reference to the tightly-controlled and perpetually surveilled streets of the City of London.

Yet in the ways in which his works satirise the political conjunctions to which they are opposed, Sinclair’s writing tends often towards an apocalypticicsm that finds itself expressed, for example, in the suggestion of an arc of continuing violence inscribed in history in Lud Heat; the messianism that ‘Sinclair’ and Joblard detect in Whitechapel’s threatened backlots in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings; or in the transformation of Britain into a one-party state led by a demonically-possessed Thatcher in Downriver. How, then, to formulate a response to a gentrification project whose scale eclipses its predecessors by several orders of magnitude? On visiting the Athens stadium some years after the 2004 games in Ghost Milk, Sinclair describes a post-apocalyptic landscape:

A museum without walls on a bulldozed meadow of mud. An island, between motorway and railway, surrounded by glass boxes, failed corporate entities, unpopular estates, scrap-metal dumps, breakers’ yards, mosaic walls with laurel-wreath symbols. The death of the grand project is the history painting of our time: W. P. Frith’s Derby Day, without the people, the excursionsists, gypsies, toffs, gulled punters. All that human noise is missing, only the set itself is worthy of commemoration. Great fireworks, great razzmatazz. And then? Crippling debts. White-elephant stadiums that cost a fortune to keep empty. New roads choked with tractor protests. Airports closed. Angry, stone throwing mobs demonstrating the consequences of fiscal mismanagement, chicanery by international bankers, a culture of tax avoidance and brown bagism. National pride suborned by a word the Greeks patented: Hubris.[33]

The ‘Grand Project’ represents the suppression of ‘human noise’, yet it is the exclusion of the mob that will bring such hubristic endeavours to an end. Given the dire state of the Greek economy and the re-emergence of the far-right in response, Sinclair’s comments here are both prescient and apposite. Sinclair goes on to note that the Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico lived in Athens as a young man, arguing that he ‘understood all too well that great cities achieve their essence as ruins.’[34] However, if Benjamin’s Arcades Project can teach us anything, it is of the redemptive potential of such ruins, and of our moral responsibility to read in the fragment the whole of which it might once have been a part and of which it might one day still be. Sinclair’s writing, at its best, matches up to this injunction, yet the landscape depicted above seems little more than a waste land. Indeed, I would argue that much of the power of Sinclair’s work derives from the ways in which he sees in the shells of such grand projects not the signs of salvation, but of our extinction.

I would, however, like to draw attention instead to the above passage’s treatment of art. Whilst for Sinclair the rewriting of space enacted by such Olympian projects leads to disintegration and social collapse, his references to painting—Frith, de Chirico—suggest also a hope in the redemptive capacity of artistic works (in the broadest sense) to enable us to imagine how things might otherwise be. At one point in Valences of the Dialectic, Frederic Jameson makes an heroic effort to think the supermarket chain Wal-Mart dialectically: to see in it, for all its many and damning flaws, ‘the shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist, which we must seize as an opportunity to exercise the Utopian imagination more fully, rather than an occasion for moralizing judgments or regressive nostalgia.’[35] Much as Wal-Mart’s operations have, for Jameson, multiple deleterious effects, the Olympics are, from Sinclair’s perspective, inflicting great damage on London. The challenge that the Games represent to his writing, therefore, is whether the imaginative capacities of the alternative visions he champions are adequate to the task of redeeming the Olympic legacy, in whatever shape that it might take.

[1] Richard Jefferies, After London: Or, Wild England, p. 1.
[2] Frederic Jameson, ‘Future City’, New Left Review 21, May-June 2003, accessed March 2012.
[3] Frederic Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2009), p. 421.
[4] Public Accounts Committee, ‘Preparations for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games: Progress Report December 2011’, accessed June 2012. At the time of writing most of the information related to the London 2012 Olympics is available only online or from journalistic sources.
[5] National Audit Office, ‘The budget for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games’, 20 July 2007, p. 6. accessed 2012.
[6] London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, ‘The Olympic Park’, accessed June 2012.
[7] Transport For London, ‘Avoiding Fines’.
[8] Esther Addley, ‘Welcome to London 2012. But first take a walk through the shopping centre’, The Guardian, Friday 19th August 2011.
[9] The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), ‘Food vision for the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games’, December 2009, p. 25, accessed June 2012.
[10] London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, ‘Payment’, accessed July 2012.
[11] The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, ‘London 2012’s UK Statutory Marketing Rights’, (April 2010), p. 12., accessed June 2012.
[12] LOCOG, ‘London 2012’s UK Statutory Marketing Rights’, p. 24.
[13] London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, ‘Advertising and trading regulations’, accessed June 2012.
[14] London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, ‘Prohibited Items’, p. 2., accessed June 2012.
[15] Anon., ‘Take down those rings! Florist falls foul of ban on Games logo’, The Daily Mail, 29th May 2012., accessed June 2012.
[16] Anon., ‘Sausages “exploit” Olympic logo’, BBC News, 31st August 2007., accessed June 2012.
[17] Shiv Malik, ‘Twitter suspends account for using London 2012 Olympics logo’, The Guardian, 23rd May 2012.
[18] Iain Sinclair, ‘Banned in Hackney – for going off-message about the Olympics’, The Guardian, 22nd September 2008.
[19] Olympic Park Legacy Company, ‘Future of the Park Launch Brochure’, p. 3., accessed July 2012.
[20] Anna Minton, ‘The London Olympics: A Festival of Private Britain’, The Guardian, 24th January 2012.
[21] Charlie Cooper, ‘Price rise for “affordable” housing puts Olympic legacy under threat’, The Independent, Monday 2nd July 2012.
[22] Richard Walker, ‘Focus London 2010: Income and Spending at Home’, (London: GLA Intelligence Unit, 2010), p. 6.
[23] Gavin Poynter and Emma Roberts, ‘Atlanta (1996): The Centennial Games’, in Olympic Cities: 2012 and the Remaking of London ed. by Gavin Poynter and Iain Macrury (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 121-131 (127).
[24] Holger Preuss, ‘The Olympics’ in Handbook on the Economics of Sport ed. by Wladimir Andreff and Stefan Szymanski (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2006), pp. 183-196 (184).
[25] Paul Kitchin, ‘Financing the Games’ in Olympic Cities: City Agendas, Planning and the World’s Games, 1896-2016 ed. by John R. Gold and Margaret M. Gold (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 131-147 (147).
[26] Roy Panagiotopoulou, ‘The 28th Olympic Games in Athens 2004’, in Olympic Cities pp. 145-162 (153).
[27] Martin Wolf, ‘A permanent precedent: An exit is likely to shatter faith in the eurozone’s integrity forever’, Financial Times, 17th May 2012.
[28] Olympic Delivery Authority, ‘London 2012 Advertising and street trading regulations Further details, June 2009’, p. 1., accessed June 2012.
[29] Stephen Graham, ‘Olympics 2012 Security: Welcome to Lockdown London’, The Guardian, 12th March 2012.
[30] Jerome Taylor, ‘Londoner’s fury at MOD plans to put Olympic missiles on roofs’, The Independent, 30th April 2012.
[31] Duncan Gardham, ‘Military to help out with Olympic 2012 security’, The Telegraph, 15th December 2011.
[32] Iain Sinclair, London Orbital, p. 457.
[33] Iain Sinclair, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), p. 384.
[34] Iain Sinclair, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), p. 385.
[35] Frederic Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p. 423.

Cultural Influence of the SI

Continuing the series of old Situationist stuff, here’s a shortish essay about their cultural legacy in pop music. This was originally delivered as a lecture, hence the slightly odd phrasing here and there. I don’t know how much I stand by this stuff now, but hopefully it’ll be use to someone…


Last week I spoke about what can be seen as the philosophical impact of Situationist thought and the way in which the events of May 1968 and their aftermath affected the shape of French post-modernist thought. What I would like to do this week is to examine what can crudely be thought of as the ‘other side’ of this: the legacy that the Situationist International has had in the sphere of popular culture. The arresting imagery and anti-establishment insouciance of the movement has proved a fertile mine of inspiration for a number of political and cultural movements since the SI was dissolved: in the following, I shall look at some of the ways in which this inspiration has manifested itself, and to examine what else, if anything, has been carried over by these movements from the original Situationist concepts.

I don’t think that it is overstating the case in saying that the primary area for the popularisation, re-appropriation and re-use of the situationist’s ideas and tactics has been popular music. The Sex Pistols’ merchandise was emblazoned with graffiti slogans from May ’68; Tony Wilson referenced Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ with the creation of The Haçienda night club; the lemon slices on the Stone Roses’ eponymous first album are a reference to the events of ’68, the students having used lemon juice to alleviate the effects of the tear gas used by the police during the riots. However, popular music is the arena that is also the most problematic in terms of its relation to the anti-capitalist core of the Situationist philosophy: it is all to easy to reduce the SI’s intentions and stance to youthful rebellion, and this is a commodity that is always in high demand. Popular music, in the forms that we find it today, is show business, and for the record companies, it always comes down to the money. The following quote from Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s extraordinary book The Manual: How to get a Number One the Easy Way illustrates this quite nicely:

If the rise of the UK indie label can be seen as a positive offspring of punk sensibilities, a very negative one was the cult of the very big advance. This can be traced back to the supposed situationist shenanigans of Malcolm McClaren. The idea that the major record companies were some how being ripped off and some clever scam was being pulled was totally false. There was no Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. The four living ex-members of the band have nothing left except fading memories of their glory days, like fuddled old soldiers; a front man trapped by his own cynicism and a corpse forever young. While the record companies and publishers involved are still getting bigger and stronger and the employees are busy negotiating their next rise over the expense account lunch. It’s as if Malcolm never understood Faust.[1]

Within pop culture, if not all cultural production, art that criticises the society within which it is produced must always grapple with its own recuperation, its own status as commodity, and it is within pop cultural movements such as punk rock that this uneasy relationship is most sharply drawn.

Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols

The self-styled ‘impresario’ of Punk, Malcolm McLaren, has loudly proclaimed the influence of the Situationists on the movement that he claims to have started. To examine the veracity of this, we need to go back to 1967 when Christopher Grey and Charles Radcliffe, two members of the British section of the Situationist International, were excluded from the group as result of their involvement with the New York group Black Mask. Black Mask, also known as Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, or Black Mask and the Motherfuckers, described themselves as a ‘street gang with analysis’. After their expulsion from the SI, the two former members joined forces with some of Black Mask to form a group known as King Mob, a name adopted from graffiti painted on the walls of Newgate Prison during the Gordon riots of 1780. King Mob adapted many of the techniques associated with the Situationists to promote their anti-capitalist and anarchist political stance. For example, graffiti on the London Underground ascribed to the group read ‘Same thing day after day – tube – work – dinner – work – tube – armchair – TV – sleep – tube – work – how much more can you take? – one in ten go mad – one in five cracks up’. They also produced a flyer celebrating the assassination of Andy Warhol, and drew up a hit list of other artists including Yoko Ono and David Hockney. However, their best known intervention was an occasion when members to dressed up as Father Christmas and started distributing toys from the shelves to children in Selfridges’ toy department. The children then learned a valuable lesson about authority when the police were called and confiscated all of the distributed toys. Malcolm McLaren, at the time an student at Croydon Art College, claims to have participated in this event.

Jamie Reid, a friend and fellow student who shared McLaren’s interest in counter-culture radicalism was also a participator in King Mob’s demonstrations. Later, McClaren and Reid, together with some other students set up the magazine and print workshop Suburban Press. The magazine often featured sections of Situationist texts alongside Reid’s graphic designs. He described his role in the development of his unique style as follows:

My job, graphically, was to simplify a lot of the political jargon, particularly that used by the Situationists. Far from being an obscure group in the mid 1960s, by the time of the Paris riots in 1968 they had captured headlines around the world and the imagination of a generation.[2]

When McLaren went on to manage the Sex Pistols, Reid became responsible for the band’s iconic graphics which included cut-up newspapers, adapted comics and brochures and parodies of official notices. For example, most famously, a Belgian holiday brochure was appropriated for the cover of the Sex Pistols’ album Holidays in the Sun in which the text was changed from ‘It’s just a short excursion to see wonderful historic cities’ to ‘a cheap holiday in other peoples’ misery’. Reid’s graphics also included some of the now famous images that we automatically associate with the punk movement, frequently employing techniques such as détournement. The following are all examples.

Alongside the artwork Reid designed for album covers and promotional materials, stickers with text such as ‘buy now while stocks lasts’, ‘this store will soon be closing owing to the pending collapse of monopoly capitalism and the worldwide exhaustion of raw materials’, ‘this store welcomes shoplifters’ were produced for people to use as they saw fit. Apparently official publicity material for a new town declared ‘A New Town like the Old Town, but NEW!’. The brochure continued

New Towns are being built in the middle of the countryside, away from strikes, tenant’s committees, claimants’ unions, occupations, shoplifters, vandals, smog, dirt and noise. Away from all distractions so you can get on with the job.[3]

One might gather from this that Reid and McLaren were committed activists. However, as Stewart Home insightfully puts it, it is far more likely that McLaren, ever the self-publicist, merely wanted a good marketing tool for his shop, and the Sex Pistols were this to become this. A pamphlet circulated in 1978 entitled The End of Music articulated this sentiment quite succinctly, arguing that McLaren’s take on the Situationists was to remove the dangerous political message at the heart of their philosophy and then sell a ‘suitably doctored’ version of it, the trappings of rebellion. Situationist slogans such as ‘Be reasonable, demand the impossible’ became equivalent to ‘buy some of my kinky gear … and help make me a rich man.’[4]

Moreover, if one listens to the biggest hits of the Sex Pistol’s career, it is striking how unchallenging they sound now. Yes, there is an unmistakable snarl and anger to their music, but the structure and melody are pure pop. (play track). As Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty put it in The Manual

The Pistols might have been swearing on T.V. inciting a generation of kids to “Get pissed! Destroy!” but if “God Save The Queen” had not stuck rigidly to The Golden Rules* (*THESE WILL BE EXPLAINED LATER), The Pistols would never have seen the inside of the Top Ten.[5]

Drummond and Cauty define these rules as follows:

Firstly, it has to have a dance groove that will run all the way through the record and that the current 7″ buying generation will find irresistible. Secondly, it must be no longer than three minutes and thirty seconds (just under 3’20 is preferable). If they are any longer Radio One daytime DJs will start fading early or talking over the end, when the chorus is finally being hammered home – the most important part of any record. Thirdly, it must consist of an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro. Fourthly, lyrics. You will need some, but not many.

Listening to the Sex Pistols’ output confirms that they were in many respects the packaging and commodification of rebellion – something that pop music has always been expert at. However, good songs nonetheless…

Furthermore, both Reid and McLaren are on the record admitting the paucity of their understanding of the political intentions of the SI. Jamie Reid stated that:

I was never involved with the Situationists to the fullest extent because I couldn’t understand half of what they had written. I found Situationist texts to be full of jargon – almost victims of what they were trying to attack – and you had to be really well educated to be able to understand them. I was trying to put over the waffle in a visual form: trying, say, to summarise a whole chapter of a book in one image. There was a way in. I wasn’t so much attracted to the Situationist theory as to how they approached media and politics. The slogans, for instance, were so much better than the texts.[6]

To be fair to Jamie Reid, the texts, as we have seen, are not without their challenges, and it’s quite possible that he was having to read them in the original French. However, I feel that nonetheless the quote is somewhat telling. Malcolm McLaren is similarly disengaged from the intellectual content of the SI publications:

I’d heard about the Situationists from the radical milieu of the time. You had to go up to Compendium Books. When you asked for the literature you had to pass an eyeball test. Then you got these beautiful magazines with reflecting covers in various colours, gold, green, mauve. The text was in French: you tried to read it, but it was so difficult. Just when you were getting bored, there were all these wonderful pictures, and they broke the whole thing up. They were what I bought them for, not the theory.[7]

This sums it up pretty well, but the following short clip from On The Passage of a Few Persons Through a Short Period of Time, a film made for the retrospective exhibition that showed at the ICA in 1988, is even more damning.

As far as the Sex Pistols themselves were concerned, John Lydon stated in his autobiography that

All that talk about the French Situationists being associated with punk is bollocks. It’s nonsense! Now that really is coffee-table book stuff. The Paris riots and the Situationist movement of the 1960s – it was all nonsense for arty French students.[8]

Moreover, Lydon’s recent cultural contributions such as his involvement with such TV gems as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here perhaps prove the point better than words ever could.

Second-wave punk

However, despite the lack of serious engagement with the ideas of the SI from the band that have become almost synonymous with the movement as a whole, this is not write off all of the attempts to wed the punk spirit to serious political ends. Moreover, I do not think that punk would have had such an immense impact on the British cultural landscape had it not been providing a means of expressing a genuine antipathy towards society. In addition, the engagement that the Sex Pistols, or more accurately, Malcolm McLaren had with Situationist ideas, however shallow, undoubtedly brought these concepts to a wider audience than would otherwise have encountered them. Sadie Plant argues that

Punk’s do-it-yourself ethic also produced a host of self-published fanzines and autonomous organisations, and the observation that fortunes were so easily made cannot belittle the sincerity, anger, and achievements of those involved in punk and its later manifestations. Punk provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the anarchist movement, with Class War’s ‘Stop the City’ and ‘Bash the Rich’ campaigns providing some light entertainment and heavy policing during the 1980s.[9]

Stewart Home has argued that the DIY spirit of the second-wave of punk bands ticks all the boxes for the avant-gardiste movement: the dissolution of the boundaries between the audience and producer, the assault on prevailing aesthetic standards, the questioning of the status of the art work. Bands such as Crass wedded the punk aesthetic to a political stance more considered and in many ways more provocative than the first wave of punk’s nihilistic swagger. Their philosophy espoused a more coherent and historically grounded understanding of the term ‘anarchism’, suggesting not merely chaos, as the Sex Pistols often seem to be advocating, but a society without leaders or hierarchies – a stance that is at once much less nihilistic than that of the early punk movement, but also one much closer to that of the SI. In the politically volatile atmosphere of early 80s Britain, Crass set about creating a viable political alternative to the very real threat of extreme right-wing groups such as the National Front. They also employed Situationist-derived tactics to spread their political message, managing to have one of the tracks from their third album Penis Envy, a parody of a love ballad entitled Our Wedding’, distributed with the teenage magazine Loving. This caused predictable outrage within the tabloid press. Similar stunts included creating a tape from cut-up recordings of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that seemed to suggest that Europe would become the target of medium-range nuclear weapons in a face off between the United States and the Soviet Union. At one point their subversive activities and vehement opposition to the Falklands War led to questions in Parliament. The following image from their album Yes Sir I Will is perhaps indicative of why, and seems to sum up the state of the class relations that still shape Britain today.

Yes Sir, I Will

Similarly, in the States early eighties punk bands such as Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys grafted the early punk ethos to a more coherently formed political agenda, grappling with the inherent contradictions of popular culture to produce work that cannot be reduced merely to iconoclastic rebel swagger. For example, this track, ‘Pull My Strings’, written for the Bay Area Music Awards, satirises, with sledge-hammer subtlety, the contradictions facing the band as both critics of the society within which they found themselves and producers of musical products for general consumption, at once exploiting and deconstructing the pop form.

Needless to say, they weren’t invited back.


Although punk is the movement that is most strongly associated with the SI, there have been several other re-appropriations of their techniques. These tend to have side-stepped the issues of recuperation that plagued punk, and instead used the commodity form of popular music as a weapon against itself. In a way, they get their recuperation in first before capitalism is able to the job for them. In 1987, Bill Drummond, the former manager of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, and the musician Jimmy Cauty formed a duo known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. The following year they adopted the pseudonyms King Boy D and Rockman Rock and released, as the Time Lords, a record entitled ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’. Their sole intention was to produce a record that would get to number one in the UK singles chart. They succeeded, and this was their performance on Top of the Pops, which at that point was a major weekly cultural event:

As can be seen, the track was a completely shameless amalgamation of a number of previous pop hits – Garry Glitter’s ‘Rock and Roll (Part 2)’, The Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’ and, of course, the Doctor Who theme tune. Drummond later was proud to boast that he and Cauty ‘didn’t play a note’ on the record. Following their success, they then produced the book that I quoted from earlier – The Manual: How to get a Number One the Easy Way. This book does exactly as the tile says: it gives you a step-by-step guide to achieving exactly what the authors did with their previous number-one single:

Firstly, you must be skint and on the dole. Anybody with a proper job or tied up with full time education will not have the time to devote to see it through. Also, being on the dole gives you a clearer perspective on how much of society is run. If you are already a musician stop playing your instrument. Even better, sell the junk. It will become clearer later on but just take our word for it for the time being. Sitting around tinkering with the Portastudio or musical gear (either ancient or modern) just complicates and distracts you from the main objective. Even worse than being a musician is being a musician in a band. Real bands never get to Number One – unless they are puppets.

If you are in a band you will undoubtedly be aware of the petty squabbles and bitching that develops within them. This only festers and grows proportionately as the band gets bigger and no band ever grows out of it. All bands end in tantrums, tears and bitter acrimony. The myth of a band being gang of lads out “against” the world (read as “to change”, “to shag” or “to save the world”) is pure wishful thinking to keep us all buying the records and reading the journals. Mind you, it’s a myth that many band members want to believe themselves.

So if in a band, quit. Get out. Now.[10]

The two events, the single and the subsequent book, act as a both a critique and celebration of the cynicism of the music industry, and bring into sharp relief the commercial imperatives that are at the heart of pop music. The stunt is two-faced: it at once loudly trumpets the ephemeral nature of pop, its vacuity, its political impotence even when it is most politically engaged, while at the same time, refutes this in exposing this very quality.

The KLF continued using such situationist-inspired subversions until their dissolution in 1992, which they announced in a performance at the Brit Awards. They did this by appearing on stage and firing machine-gun blanks into the audience. They then dumped a dead sheep at the after show party. In the following months, they deleted the entire KLF back catalogue, and, in a now infamous gesture, burnt all of the money they made in their pop career.

Laibach and NSK

Another, less well known re-use of Situationist ideas in popular music occurred during the break up of the former Yugoslavia. As part of what has been termed Europe’s last true avant-garde, NSK or Neue Slowenische Kunst, the Slovenian band Laibach attempt a similar implosion of pop through exaggerating its own tendencies to ludicrous heights. The pomp and spectacle of popular music as a form of mass entertainment form has disturbing connotations for Laibach, echoing such events as the Nuremberg rallies. Laibach attempted to counter these tendencies by making them explicit: dressing up as Nazis and covering well know pop songs such as the Rolling Stone’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, Europe’s ‘The Final Count Down’, and Status Quo’s ‘Your in the Army Now’ in a ridiculously overblown and bombastic style.

Whilst these songs are intended to be funny, it is crucial to bear in mind the times in which Laibach were producing their music: Yugoslavia was in the process of disintegrating in an ethnic conflict and was witnessing the resurgence of dangerous far-right extremism. Laibach, whose name is derived from the name that the Nazis gave to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana whilst they occupied it during the Second World War, were playing a dangerous game in adopting the imagery that they did. There was a very real danger that people would think that just because they dressed like Nazis they might actually be Nazis. However, this amplification of currents that they see inherent to pop music, as with the KLF, acts as a critique of the pop music form itself – something that goes way beyond the simple contrariness of bands such as the Sex Pistols and creates something which is far less easily digestible than pre-packaged rebellion for disenfranchised teenagers.


Stewart Home’s Cranked Up Really High: Genre Theory and Punk Rock provides an eloquent summation of the politics of punk:

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to suggest that PUNK had a political programme, or even a ‘profound’ social analysis, it didn’t. What PUNK did do was tap into a reservoir of social discontent and create an explosion of anger and energy. PUNK wasn’t offering a solution, it was simply a genre of novelty music being hyped on the back of the manic and frequently pointless exploitation of social tensions. PUNK was pure sensation, it had nothing to offer beyond a sense of escape from the taboo of speaking about the slimy reality of life as the social fabric came apart. After all, if Punk Rockers had preferred ‘analysis’ to ‘rhetoric’, they’d have been attempting to organise a revolution instead of pogoing to three minute pop songs.[11]

Stewart Home’s conclusions about Punk rock are resoundingly negative, and to my ears ring disappointingly true: it is all too easy to package and sell rebellion to disaffected youth. However, as I hope I have shown you tonight, those working within such commercial structures who have more coherently formulated political goals can to some extent avoid their own recuperation by getting it in first – using the nature of the pop form as a method to deconstruct it. It is these practitioners who, despite the extravagant claims of Malcolm McLaren, are closer to the Situationist intent than the Sex Pistols ever could be. However, all of these musicians, from Crass, the Dead Kennedys through to more recent bands, are dealing with something that the all of the avant-gardes of the past century have been grappling with, that which Walter Benjamin described as the threat of ‘becoming a tool of the ruling classes.’ What I believe the Situationists were doing, what some of the bands I have spoken about this evening, and what we must do if we want to effect change in our own times, is to grapple with Benjamin’s assertion that ‘In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.[12] The Situationists developed tools for doing exactly this, and I would argue that they are still available to us if we wish to take them up.

[1] Bill Drumond and Jimmy Kauty, The Manual: How to have a Number One the Easy Way (London: Ellipsis, 1999).

[2] Jamie Reid, Up They Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid, quoted in Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 144.

[3] Jamie Reid, Up They Rise, quoted in Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, p. 145.

[4] The End of Music, quoted in Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, p. 146.

[5] Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, The Manual, p. 8.

[6] Jamie Reid, Up They Rise, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 149.

[7] Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 150.

[8] Lydon, John, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs: The Authorised Autobiography, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), p. 152.

[9] Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, p. 146.

[10] Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, The Manual, p. 5.

[11] Stewart Home, Cranked Up Really High: Genre Theory and Punk Rock, <>, 2007.

[12] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History>, 2007.

Theoretical legacies of the SI

Another burst of SI musings below.

What I want to do in the final two sessions of this course is to explore the question that effectively lies behind the whole endeavour: not just who were the Situationists, but crucially, why should we be interested in their ideas today.

The failure of May 1968

The culmination of the Situationist project was undeniably the civil unrest that paralysed France in May 1968.In a 1969 article somewhat optimistically entitled ‘The Beginning of an Era’ they stated that

In March 1966, in International Situationniste #10 (p. 77), we wrote, “What might appear to be audacious speculation in several of our assertions, we advance with the assurance that the future will bring their overwhelming and undeniable historical confirmation.” It couldn’t have been said better.

If many people did what we wrote, it was because we essentially wrote the negative that had been lived by us and by so many others before us.[1]

With typical modesty they here claim that they had always been stating the obvious, were perceptive enough to read the signs on the street.Meanwhile, the Situationists, after a brief period in hiding, left Paris for Brussels where they set about a process of chronicling and, perhaps unsurprisingly, apportioning blame.

The Situationists summarised the various failings in the same article:

Further on we will go into the movement’s weaknesses and deficiencies, which were the natural consequences of ignorance, improvisation and the dead weight of the past exerting themselves precisely where this movement best asserted itself; the consequences, above all, of the separations that all the joint forces for the preservation of the capitalist order narrowly succeeded in defending, with the politco-union bureaucratic machines exerting themselves to this end more intensely and effectively than the police at this moment of life or death for the system.[2]

The unions had been consistently against the strikes, viewing them both as juvenile and non-productive:

Those who turned down the ridiculous contract agreements offered to them (agreements that overjoyed the trade union leaders) have still to discover that while they cannot ‘receive’ much more within the framework of the existing economy, they can take everything if they transform the very bases of the economy on their own behalf.Their bosses can hardly pay more – but they could disappear.[3]

Whilst it is clear that the Situationists laid the blame for the failure of May ’68 firmly at the doors of other people, they were not short to attribute its successes to themselves:

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 the 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 [sic]; 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.[4]

These proclamations of triumph were somewhat premature, this being published in what was, unbeknown to the group, the last issue of International Situationniste.In spite of their attempts to emphasise the successes of the events, the aftermath and the reassertion of the banality of everyday capitalism must in fact have been characterised by a sense of crushing anti-climax, and left a bitterness in the air that the group was unable to recover from.

The dissolution of the SI

Following May ’68, the Situationists retreated for a period of intense reassessment. Debord was later to claim that after more than a year they had failed to write even 15 lines of usable text.[5] However, the main topic of discussion was, typically, discipline, or rather, the lack of it, and a number of members handed in their resignations. Debord published a declaration in 1970 acknowledging the problems that faced the SI:

The crisis that has continually deepened in the SI in the course of the last year, and whose roots go much further back, has ended up revealing all its aspects; and has led to a moreAnd that is precisely the heart of the problem, for what we have really been experiencing, behind an abstract proclamation of the contrary, is this refusal to take any responsibility whatsoever in participating in either the decisions or the implementation of our real activity, even at a time when it has been so indisputably threatened.[9]

The tone of this quote conveys the sense of crisis that gripped the group at this time, and the corollary paranoia that accompanied it.


It was probably inevitable that the SI should dissolve following May ’68. Whilst their identification of the trade unions as the main culprits in the collapse of the revolutionary impetus is probably largely correct, there remained also the possibility that the Situationists analysis of the culture they were intent on destroying was just plain wrong. In what follows, I look briefly at two theorists who had some contact with the Situationists and involvement with the events of May ’68, and whose thought bears some debt to them, yet who came to occupy positions quite radically opposed to the Situationists: the ‘post-modern’ philosophers Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard.

Baudrillard and ‘hyperreality’

Many of you are probably more familiar with Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation than you think, playing, as it did a cameo role in the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix, and allegedly providing some of the inspiration for the film.This is quite appropriate, as in many respects it reads like bad science fiction. At the beginning of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord states that

The whole of 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.[10]

In order to sustain itself, Capitalism has expanded to such an extent that our real desires are sold back to us in commodity form.For the Situationists, this is exactly what happened in the early moments of the May ’68 revolution:

The movement was a rediscovery of collective and individual history, an awareness of the possibility of intervening in history, an awareness of participating in an irreversible event (‘Nothing will ever be the same again’); people looked back in amusement at the strange existence they had led a week before, at their outlived survival.[11]

The irruption of desires, new forms of social organisation, new forms of politics were created in these brief moments, an irruption of the real into the unreality of the Spectacle. The story, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, is only one paragraph in length, goes as follows:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.[12]

Here we have the image of a representation or abstraction which is no longer abstract, and consequently is useless. However, where in Borges fable it is the map that rots over the territory, in Baudrillard’s hyperreality, the map remains as the terrain itself disappears:

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept.The desert of the real itself.[13]

‘Real’ life and its representations in the Spectacle, in Baudrillard’s system, have become indistinguishable from one another and therefore to attempt to find ‘real’ desires beneath the Spectacle’s distortions is illusory.Or, to use another cinematic metaphor, imagine (again) the moment in John Carpenter’s They Live where the hero puts on his special ideology-penetrating sunglasses, and, instead of revealing the true messages behind the billboards, the billboards remain the same.

Lyotard’s ‘scepticism towards grand narratives’

Jean-François Lyotard, as a member of the student mouvement du 22 mars, was an active participant in the events of May ’68.The act of criticism is deeply hierarchical: ‘where does his [the critic’s] power over the criticised come from? he knows better? he is the teacher, the educator? he is therefore universality, the University, the State, the City, bending over childhood, nature, singularity, shadiness, to reclaim them?The confessor and the God helping the sinner save his soul?'[14]

Some of this critique is borne out by what is known of the organisational structure of the Situationist International: although they described themselves as a ‘conspiracy of equals’, it is well known that it was a dictatorship, and that the dictator was Guy Debord himself.The revolving-door cycle of expulsions and arguments that is documented in the history of the movement is testament to this. He describes this as follows:

Science has always been in conflict with narratives.I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.[17]

Science, by which he means any discipline that involves the search for truth, be that empiricist science, Marxism or capitalist Economics, makes claims to represent reality. This means that the whole concept of universal truth disappears under Lyotard’s analysis.

This state of scepticism towards all claims of truth, salvation, and universality is what Lyotard defines as the postmodern condition, and within this framework it is arguable that Debord and the Situationist International stand as the last, great Modernists.

It is not difficult to characterise the philosophies of Baudrillard and Lyotard as philosophies of despair.To end, I would like to consider whether it might not be helpful to rethink Baudrillard and Lyotard’s position on capitalism – that it has ‘always already’ recuperated its own resistance, that our desires are inherently alienated – and consider a model whereby capitalism is instead always trying to catch up with those desires.

[1] Anon., ‘The Beginning of an Era’, in Ken Knabb (trans.), The Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley, CA: The Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), p. 227.

[2] Anon., ‘The Beginning of an Era’, in Ken Knabb (trans.), The Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley, CA: The Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), p. 225.

[3] Viennet, Enrages and Situationists, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), p. 127.

[4] Anon., ‘The Beginning of an Era’, in Ken Knabb (trans.), The Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley, CA: The Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), p. 225.

[5] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 135.

[6] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 136.

[7] Debord and Sanguinetti, The Veritable Split, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 136.

[8] Debord and Sanguinetti, The Veritable Split, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 137.

[9] Debord, Riesel and Viénet, ‘Declaration’, in Ken Knabb, The Situationist International Anthology, p. 366.

[10] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1995), p. 12.

[11] Anon., ‘The Beginning of an Era’, in Ken Knabb (trans.), The Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley, CA: The Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), pp. 225 – 226.

[13] Jean Bauldrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 1.

[14] Jean François Lyotard, ‘Adrift’, quoted in Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 115.

[15] Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 114.

[16] Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 114.

[17] Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1999), p. xxiii.

[18] Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1999), p. xxiv.

[19] Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, quoted in Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, pp. 165 – 166.

The SI and the City

This course is entitled ‘Situationists and the City’, and not without reason. The urban environment is the primary location from which the Situationists launched their critique of capitalism. Bearing in mind the Marxist position of ‘the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature’, Debord writes in ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ that ‘It has long been said that the desert is monotheistic. Is it it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalète conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?’[1]

Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, written in 1953 but not published until 1958 in issue 1 of International Situationniste, declares that

A mental disease has swept over the planet: banalization. Everyone is hypnotized by production and conveniences – sewage system, elevator, bathroom, washing machine.

This state of affairs, arising out of the struggle against poverty, has overshot its ultimate goal – the liberation of man from material care – and become an obsessive image hanging over the present. Presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.[2]

The result of this, in addition to the alienation of labour and desire, is a stultifying and omnipresent boredom. The site in which the Situationists located this boredom and its potential remedy was the city itself. As the arena in which the operations of power are inscribed in stone and steel, and it was logical, therefore, for the Situationists to study it. This was to two ends: firstly, to understand how geography and architecture affects the individual, and secondly, to discover ways of critiquing this urban environment with the aim of producing new urban geographies more conducive to the free play of desires in the society that was to follow this one. To this purpose, the Situationists developed two tools: ‘psychogeography’ and the dérive, both of which I will look at in greater depth later in this lecture.

However, it is perhaps not inaccurate to think of what the Situationists were doing in terms of maps: for example, if one looks at the differing world views exemplified the following. Each of these is a different way of envisaging space, of representing one’s environment in abstract form. The final goes beyond this, and poses the question of what the city could be like? What are its possibilities? These were questions that the Situationists repeatedly raised in their study of the city, and it was through the techniques that I have just mentioned that they attempted to answer them.

Carte de Tendre Map of Paris Guy Debord, The Naked City

Although it is somewhat of an anachronism to use the following quote, written as it was by Iain Sinclair in 1997, it is still useful in shedding light on the essential core of the way in which the Situationists might have wanted to interpret the city:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything. Alignments of telephone kiosks, maps made from moss on the slopes of Victorian sepulchres, collections of prostitutes’ cards, torn and defaced promotional bills for cancelled events at York Hall, visits from the homes of dead writers, bronze casts on war memorials, plaster dogs, beer mats, concentrations of used condoms, the crystalline patterns of glass shards surrounding an imploded BMW quarter-light window, meditations on the relationship between the brain damage suffered by the super-middleweight boxer Gerald McClellan (lights out in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel) and the simultaneous collapse of Barings, bankers to the Queen. Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.[3]

The Situationists practised exactly this sort of engagement with Paris, and what I want to do in this week’s session is to explore the conclusions about the city that they drew as a result, the future they saw for it, and the traditions that they were (knowingly and unknowingly) building upon.


Although they often denied it, the Situationists were by no means the first to identify the city as the prime site for the analysis of the conflicting energies of capitalism, nor were they the first to explore the city through techniques such as the dérive. There is a long history of writers and artists using their explorations of the urban environment as the basis for a critique of the society in which they live that stretches back from the Situationists through to their Surrealist and Dadaist precursors, the German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin, the Parisian poet Baudelaire, through to British writers such as William Blake, Thomas De Quincey and Daniel Defoe.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, depicting London during the year 1665 when the city was torn apart by the horrors of the bubonic plague, is perhaps the first prototype of such an understanding of the city. At that time the ordinary citizen would have had no access to a map, so to successfully navigate the city it was necessary to build an accurate mental picture of its topography. What Defoe manages to capture so successfully in this work is the way in which the course of the plague alters the landscape and atmosphere of the city itself: as the narrator wanders London’s streets he observes as areas become centres of outbreaks, and previously safe environments become threatening and strange. Similarly, Blake’s ‘London’ depicts a comparable reading of the urban landscape:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.[4]

We have in this poem the image of the wanderer, getting lost in the London streets and reading the signs therein. However, the true spiritual predecessor to the Situationists urban explorations was probably a figure from 19th Century Paris whose archetype was the poet Baudelaire: the flâneur.

In the mid-nineteenth century, it was the height of fashion for the gentleman of leisure to engage in the practice of flânerie, that is to go strolling in the shopping arcades and to observe the fashions, the alternating pace of life, the ‘types’ of people who were to be seen in the city. To give you an indication of the pace at which he would stroll through the covered streets, at one point it was considered elegant to take a tortoise for a walk on a leash. The flâneur is at once attracted to and repulsed by the crowd, and it becomes his object of study. Where the pedestrian becomes submerged within the mass, the flâneur refuses to submit to its jolts and agitations. He maintains his leisurely pace and is consequently unable to fully lose himself within the ebb and flow of people, and he is therefore able to divine an aspect of its true nature. Baudelaire, in describing the work of the painter Constantin Guys, delineates the archetypical urban experience of the flâneur – that of a ‘kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’:[5]

And so, walking or quickening his pace, he goes his way, for ever in search. In search of what? We may rest assured that this man, such as I have described him, this solitary mortal endowed with an active imagination, always roaming the great desert of men, has a nobler aim than that of the pure idler, a more general aim, other than the fleeting pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’, for want of a better term to express the idea in question. … Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and immutable.[6]

One of the most extraordinary things about the flâneur is that he could only exist in the time and place that he did: the shopping arcades, the height of fashion in the early to mid 1800s, were rendered obsolete by Baron Haussmann’s remodelling of the streets of Paris between 1850 and 1870. Where before the city was a labyrinth of densely interlocking neighbourhoods, a warren of alleyways and lanes, the boulevards for which Paris is now famous, literally destroyed the fabric of the old city. It is this quality of passing insight that the Surrealists, heeding Hegel’s maxim that ‘the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk’, seized upon. Louis Aragon described the arcades that were the flâneur’s favourite haunt in his novel Paris Peasant:

How oddly this light suffuses the covered arcades which abound in Paris in the vicinity of the main boulevards and which are rather disturbingly named passages, as though no one had the right to linger for more than an instant in those sunless corridors. A glaucous gleam, seemingly filtered through deep water, with the special quality of pale brilliance of a leg suddenly revealed under a lifted skirt. The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police [Haussmann] during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Places that yesterday were incomprehensible, and that tomorrow will never know.[7]

As with Defoe’s plague journals, as the physical fabric of the city changes, the previously submerged currents that were always present in the fabric of the city become released, suddenly apparent. The flâneur, this time embodied by Aragon himself, through virtue of his distance from the crowd, his unique position as neither wholehearted participant nor completely disinterested observer, allows him privileged insight into these changes.

Walter Benjamin, in his unfinished study of nineteenth century Paris, The Arcades Project, provides the eulogy for the flâneur’s passing with the decay of the arcades themselves. Strongly associated with the Surrealists, Benjamin was greatly influenced by Baudelaire’s writings, and identified in the figure of the flâneur the possibility of a critical understanding of the city, a way for understanding it so as to release its revolutionary potential. No stranger to the streets of Paris himself, he saw in the conflicted and contradictory position of the flâneur a certain kinship with the position that the modern intellectual found himself in: ‘at once socially rebellious bohemian and producer of commodities for the literary market’.[8] He describes the experience of the city unique to the flâneur as follows:

But the great reminiscences, the historical shudder – these are the trumpery which he (the flâneur) leaves to tourists, who think thereby to gain access to the genius loci with a military password. Our friend may well keep silent. At the approach of his footsteps, the place has roused; speechlessly, mindlessly, its mere intimate nearness gives him hints and instructions. He stands before Notre Dame de Lorette, and his soles remember: here is the spot where in former times the cheval de renfort – the spare horse – was harnessed to the omnibus that climbed the Rue des Martyrs toward Montmartre. Often, he would have given all he knows about the domicile of Balzac or of Gavarni, about the site of a surprise attack or even of a barricade, to be able to catch the scent of a threshold or to recognize a paving stone by touch, like any watchdog.[9]

If one compares the above to the quotation from Iain Sinclair that I read earlier, one can see at once a similar concern. Although Sinclair decries certain aspects of the flâneur’s experience as ‘fin-de-sciècle decadence’, the same attention to detail, the observation of hidden and repressed patterns and histories, the sense of an almost mystical communion with the very stones of the city is strikingly apparent.

Psychogeography and the dérive

In many respects psychogeography and dérive were actually an evolution and repurposing of ideas that already were common currency within the European avant-gardiste tradition. The terms, although primarily associated with the Situationists if fact have their origin within the pre-Situationist Letterist movement. It was in their journal Potlatch, or, to give it its full title The Bulletin of Information of the French Group of the Letterist International, that the term psychogeography first appears. Here, concepts that were to be later given conrete definition were sketched by Debord and others. For example, in ‘Psychogeographical Game of the Week’ in Potlatch #1:

Depending on what you are after, choose an area, a more or less populous city, a more or less lively street. Build a house. Furnish it. Make the most of its decoration and surroundings. Choose the season and the time. Gather together the right people, the best records, and drinks. Lighting and conversation must, of course, be appropriate, along with the weather and your memories. If your calculations are correct you should find the outcome satisfying. (Please inform the editors of the results).[10]

Although this isn’t really that useful in providing a definition of psychogeography, we can already see the sense of subversion, and, indeed, playfulness that would characterise the later, mature, formulation. Debord’s ‘Exercise in Psychogeography’ followed in Potlatch #2:

Piranesi is psycho-geographical in the stairway.
Claude Lorrain is psycho-geographical in the juxtaposition of a palace neighborhood and the sea.
The postman Cheval is psycho-geographical in architecture.
Arthur Cravan is psycho-geographical in hurried drifting.
Jacques Vache is psycho-geographical in dress.
Louis II of Bavaria is psycho-geographical in royalty.
Jack the Ripper is probably psycho-geographical in love.
Saint-Just is a bit psycho-geographical in politics. (Terror is disorienting.)
Andre Breton is naively psycho-geographical in encounters.
Madeleine Reineri is psycho-geographical in suicide. (See Howls in Favor of de Sade.)
Along with Pierre Mabille in gathering together marvels, Evariste Gaullois in mathematics, Edgar Allan Poe in landscape, and Villiers de l’Isle Adam in agony.[11]

However, with the emergence of the Situationist International from the dissolved Letterists, those involved soon moved away from these early and not entirely helpful explorations of the concept towards a more rigourous approach. In his ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ written in 1955, Debord makes an attempt to provide us with a concrete definition of psychogeography.

Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world. Psychogeography could set for itself the study of precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.[12]

He continues:

People are quite aware that some neighbourhoods are sad and others pleasant. But the generally simply assume that elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing, and let it go at that. In fact, the variety of possible combinations of ambiences analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke.[13]

Although this seems to be sketching a quite scientific approach, suggesting, as it does to Merlin Coverley, that the psychogeographer is ‘like the skilled chemist … able both to identify and to distil the varied ambiences of the urban environment’,[14] there always remains a distinct lyricism to the Situationists’ approach. The following images are all referenced in various Situationist texts on the city. Most strikingly, Debord describes Giorgio de Chrirco’s paintings as ‘blueprints or models’. Similarly, the paintings by Claude Lorrain were compared to the Paris Metro Map, not in terms of their visual appearance, but the sense of adventure and possibility contained within each.

As with the flâneur of the nineteenth-century, the way that they wanted to access the truths of the city was through walking. The dérive, or drift, was the primary method for the study of psychogeographical effects. Debord considered this technique critical that he wrote a separate article, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, which defines the methodology as follows:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters that they find there.[15]

The main purpose of the technique was to see the city with fresh eyes, and the Situationists would employ various techniques to do this. They would attempt to deliberately become lost, using the map of one city to navigate another, for example. There are somewhat mythical stories of epic dérives lasting several months, but, as Merlin Coverley notes, it is not unlikely that this is part of the whole self-propagandising nature of the group. It is far more likely that they were in a bar somewhere, having an argument.[16] However, the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi said of Debord:

I remember long, wonderful psychogeographical walks in London with Guy … He took me to places in London that I didn’t know, that he didn’t know, that he sensed I’d never have been to if it hadn’t been with him. He was a man who could discover a city.[17]

In walks such as these, the Situationists would abandon themselves to the cities topography, explore its effects, its attractions and repulsions, walk its contours. In walking the city, its character would emerge, become clear to the wanderer. The purpose of the dérive was to disrupt the normal ebb and flow of the crowd, to deliberately dislocate oneself from one’s usual rhythms and thus make these currents more apparent.

However, where the flâneur of the nineteenth century, or the Surrealists in the preceding decades wanted only to write about or create art inspired by the urban environment, the Situationists viewed psychogeography and dérive as providing the raw materials for the creation of a new city. As Ivan Chtcheglov famously stated, ‘we are bored in the city’.[18] It wasn’t simply that the Situationists wished to disorientate themselves for the sake of it, for artistic inspiration, but because they believed that through this kind of experimentation they would bring about a kind of chaos which could expose the truth of the society of capitalist production and suggest possible ways that society could be reshaped. In particular, they were interested in harnessing the power of capitalism’s technical and industrial achievements for the creation of new situations, a city conducive to ‘endless dérive’. When they write that they are interested in atmospheres and ambiences, it is precisely because they themselves wanted to use these experiences for the construction and replication of new ones. It is this understanding of the city that led the Situationists to some of their most visionary projects: unitary urbanism and Constant’s extraordinary ‘New Babylon’.

Unitary urbanism

Unitary urbanism was the name that the Situationists gave to the philosophy by which the post-revolutionary city might be designed and built. As such, it was both the result and projected aim of the psychogeographical study of the city. Following the revolution of everyday life that was the eventual goal of the Situationist project, the urban environment would no longer have to conform to the laws of competition and the circulation of commodities that shape it under capitalism, but instead could be created in accordance with the desire and play. Unitary urbanism was intended to bring together both artistic, technological and scientific means for the creation of a new kind of urban environment. However, this was to go far beyond mere city planning, and instead the project was intended to broaden and fundamentally alter our understanding of architecture and space to address the practical ways people lived and interacted with places. When Chtcheglov stated that ‘the hacienda must be built’,[19] it was to be built in line with the principals of unitary urbanism.

Having gone into the city and explored it through the dérive, discovered that certain places are conducive to certain mental states, the Situationists became aware that emotions and experiences could differ according to

the architecture of a space, the arrangements of colours, sounds, textures and lighting with which it is created. The Situationists pointed to the forms of conditioning imposed by shopping malls, nightclubs, adverts, and even police methods of interrogation as evidence of the existence of a plethora of techniques by which experiences, desires, attitudes and behaviour are presently manipulated. The width of streets, the heights of buildings, the presence of trees, advertisements and lights, the circulation of traffic, the colours of front doors and the shapes of windows: urban lives are shaped in the most subtle and neglected ways by these arrangements of space.[20]

By drifting through the city, hints and instructions of a future, post-revolutionary city that would facilitate the creation of situations, the realisation of desire, could be glimpsed. As Chtcheglov notes:

All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caverns, casino mirrors.[21]

It is this sense of the possibility of the city that is part of what Debord sees in de Chirico’s paintings: these illustrate emotions and states of mind that can be experienced fleetingly in the city as it exists now. In the truly Situationist city, these sensations and any number of others would be created consciously, available in the everyday experience of the city. As he says, ‘Disquieting neighbourhoods of arcades could one day carry on and fulfil the allure of these works.’[22]

Despite his subsequent split with the Situationist International, the most vivid examples of what unitary urbanism might entail come from the Dutch artist and architect Constant Nieuwenhuys. The enormous quantity of designs and models that he created for his utopian city of the future, New Babylon, are truly extraordinary both in their scope and, arguably, craziness. New Babylon was to be a truly plastic and evolving creation controlled and created by its inhabitants, a sum total of their desires. The accompanying images are some of his proposed maps, designs and models for this city. Whilst these designs and were not necessarily meant to be taken at face value, but rather as rhetorical statements of possibility, they serve as a vivid reminder of the scope of the Situationist vision and the possibilities that they saw in a post-revolutionary, post-scarcity world. It is also part of what places the Situationists, amongst other things, as part of a long tradition of utopian socialist philosophers and visionaries, from More, Saint-Simon, through to Fourier. They also illustrate how far the mind can wander when one explores the city and engages in Situationist techniques such as the dérive.

[1] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 5.

[2] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology, pp. 2-3.

[3] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory, (London: Granta, 1997), p. 4.

[4] William Blake, ‘London’, <>, 2007.

[5] Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, <>, 2007, translation modified.

[6] Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, <>, 2007, translation modified.

[7] Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971), p. 25.

[8] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (London: The MIT Press, 1991), p. 304.

[9] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (London: Harvard, 1999), p. 416.

[10] Anon., ‘Psychogeographical Game of the Week’, Potlatch #1, <>, 2007.

[11] Guy Debord, ‘Exercise in Psychogeography’, Potlatch #2, <>, 2007.

[12] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, p. 5.

[13] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, pp. 6-7.

[14] Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography, (Hertfordshire: Pocket Essentials, 2006), p. 90.

[15] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, p. 50.

[16] Merlin Coverley, Pyschogeography, p. 99.

[17] Alexander Trocchi, quoted in Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography, p. 101.

[18] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 1.

[19] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 1.

[20] Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 57.

[21] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology, pp. 1-2.

[22] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, p. 7.