SINCE THE PUBLICATION of his first book Virtual Geography in 1994, the Australian-born theorist McKenzie Wark has been mapping the dispersive lines and vectors of a global media increasingly shaped by capitalism. Subsequent works, including A Hacker Manifesto (2004), Gamer Theory (2007), and Telesthesia: Communication, Culture, and Class (2012), have continued this project, launching further inquiries into the theoretical and practical ways in which such conditions might be resisted and re-routed.
It makes sense, then, that Wark would look back to the work of the Situationist International (SI): a collective of artists and activists that existed as a coherent movement only briefly, from 1957 to 1972, and included such figures as Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Asger Jorn, and Jacqueline de Jong. In The Beach Beneath the Streets: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (2011), Wark initiated a dérive through the SI’s history that avoids painting it as another Dadaist off-shoot, or simply a groupuscule under the sway of Debord, and takes full account of the many tributaries that led to its formation. His new book, The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages Out of the Twentieth Century, picks up the story in the decades after the failure of May 1968 and the SI’s subsequent auto-dissolution.
Leo Goldsmith: In The Beach Beneath the Streets, you confess that “[t]he world does not need another book about the SI.” But you’ve written three of them.
McKenzie Wark: Well, two and a half. The first one was really a lecture that was published in 2008 with color pictures. I called it 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International — which was, I guess, my way of trying to acknowledge a problem. (I gave a copy of my book to the artist Tino Sehgal, and his first response was, “May there be 50 years more!”) “Recuperation” is what the Situationists called the assimilation of the avant-garde into the academy and the market, and one of the things I wanted to do was to change the tone away from the bad faith about being a recuperator. It’s not a dishonorable job to fish this stuff out of the gutter, and to find a place for it in the archive, to find interpretive strategies for understanding it.
LG: But why now?
MW: I felt that a couple of things, at least from my point of view, had gone wrong with the reception of the SI. For one thing, it was being treated as if there was an artistic phase and a political phase, and I don’t think that’s true. There are pro-Debord versions and anti-Debord versions of that historical argument, and I'm sorry, but neither of them is sustainable. And I also wanted to put the women back in the story, and the provincials as well. I would’ve loved to get the North Africans back in the story, too, but I couldn't get access to the material. There's a project still to be done on that, I think. And, finally, it struck me that there were versions of the Situationist story that could speak to the present. So, The Beach Beneath the Street is not about an “artistic phase”; it's the whole of the '50s and '60s up to May 1968, and the most recent book, The Spectacle of Disintegration, is what happens after the revolution fails.
LG: Do you think that now — in the wake of the Occupy movement, and the so-called “Arab Spring” — is a particularly good moment to remind ourselves of that failure? That such a failure can be instructive, or that a revolution is perhaps less an event than something that's continually unfolding?
MW: Maybe the revolution was never going to happen in '68. There's a mythic dimension to the idea of “revolution.” But even if it was utterly impossible that some sort of vast social transformation would happen around '68, I nevertheless have this feeling that we, living here in what the Situationists call “the overdeveloped world,” overshot some point where a transformation could or should have happened. And I think this very disparate work, by people who had passed through the Situationists’ ranks in the bleak years of the '70s, really speaks now to our time. “The spectacle of disintegration”: that’s the historical era of the spectacle that we're now living through now. So the book uses these archival resources to address the current moment.
LG: How did you first come to the Situationists?
MW: It started with my involvement in some sort of avant-garde in the '90s around hacking and digital culture. We weren't techno-optimists about the internet, but we did see a space of affordance, where you could create these transnational networks that were somewhere between theory, politics, communication, and sometimes the art world (but in it, not of it). I wanted to write about that moment; and I still do actually. So, I thought, “What was one book everyone in this community, which was all so rhizomatic and diverse, read?” I came up with Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, so I thought I'd better go back and start by reading that. So I read it again and I thought, “This is a fucking amazing book!” I had forgotten how terrific it was, and it was actually quite different to how I remembered it.
I insist that the key chapter of The Society of the Spectacle is not the first one, on the spectacle itself, but the second to last — the chapter on détournement. To me, that concept is the great gift of the Situationists. They discovered that the whole of culture is a commons that belongs to everyone. That’s how it actually works in its normal state — there's no such thing as authorized statements. Everyone copies and corrects. But they also realized that one can exploit this critically — one can copy and correct in the direction of hope. Of course, this is straight out of Lautréamont: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.”
So, it struck me that détournement became a social movement in all but name by the start of the 21st century. As the Situationist René Viénet said in 1967, “Our ideas are on everybody’s minds.” I wrote A Hacker Manifesto, which is about the becoming-common of cultural information, in 2000. In that book I'm really distilling my own ethnographic experience of these avant-gardes of the ‘90s. But in the background I knew I'd got this idea out of the SI, and that the SI could be a resource for other things as well. So I thought if I could just lay out all of the things that they were dabbling in and discovering through their concrete practice, that might move us forward now.
LG: It seems there's a tendency — probably because of their involvement in May '68 — to position the SI in a continuum of French Marxist thought of the time, alongside figures like Louis Althusser, even though the Situationists themselves seemed to do everything to distance themselves from their contemporaries.
MW: Well, they were consistently opposed to Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao — all of whom are fucking back in leftist circles, and I have no idea why. I’m old enough to remember all that stuff, and I’m sorry, but those are the names of disasters that we don't need to revisit. The SI was always outside of the orbit of that kind of communism, and of all the movements of that time they still seem to me the most contemporary of all in that they posed the question of what it means to create a group, what it means to organize in this era when the party form is dead.
Of course, famously, everyone got expelled from the organization. And in the first book I defend that, because it seems so unthinkable to people now. But, really, if you're a member of a group and you're not prepared to throw someone out of it, then what's your real commitment? We've become so enamored of some sort of bourgeois individualism that it’s now unthinkable that you would have a commitment to a collective that transcends interpersonal relationships. That struck me as worth defending.
LG: And yet your books also highlight the quite varied, even contradictory strains within the SI's practice.
MW: Yes, particularly The Spectacle of Disintegration, which is about what former Situationists get up to after the SI itself disintegrates in 1972. But because you're dealing with people who had all these extraordinary experiences, they're able to think the moment of the late history of the 20th century in all these interesting ways. And these ways don't necessarily fit together all that neatly.
So, I talk about the historian T.J. Clark — who was a member of the SI in 1966–67 — and his long view of the relation between aesthetics and revolution, going all the way back to 1789. And maybe he loses the plot of that trajectory himself at a certain point, but his early books, up to The Painting of Modern Life (1985), are really quite clear on what the traps are, and how revolutionary energy gets recuperated in representational forms in the service of the state. In Clark’s view there are a whole series of French revolutions, of which '68 is only one, all of which get recuperated in interesting ways.
This struck me as really quite different from what Raoul Vaneigem was doing, which was trying to trace a line, from Charles Fourier through Dada and the Surrealists, of a kind of counter-imagination by which one could no longer operate under the figure of sacrifice. This Christian idea that we always have to sacrifice something for the greater good is something that Vaneigem completely rejects — it's astonishing. His touchstone is Fourier, who in the early 19th century completely rethinks the mode of production as the alignment of the passions rather than as sacrificial labor. Vaneigem later writes a beautiful utopia, Voyage to Oarystis (2005), based on Fourier’s work.
So, even just those two figures, Vaneigem and Clark, are really quite different, but what they both do is dig back into the revolutionary past. It's very important that, whatever their differences, both of them, like Fourier before them, completely reject the Jacobin experience, which is today alive and well again in the thought of people like Žižek and Badiou. Fourier is someone who lived through the Jacobin period, and completely rejects it. That kind of revolution, Fourier thought, just makes possible the next phase of capitalism. Which in some ways is true, too, about 1968.
LG: The Situationists are also remembered for the films they produced, but even those are often mainly seen as a simple extension of Surrealism, especially the found-footage work.
MW: But within the cinematic repertoire of the Situationists, even that of Debord himself, there's several different versions of what “found footage” is. Most readings of the film version of The Society of the Spectacle are of the script, but I have a detailed chapter that tries to give equal weight to the footage. I think there are internal logics in the relations between images. How does the friction of putting things next to each other reveal through a kind of critical poesis, some dimension of spectacle that’s in the gaps in between them? This is quite an advance on Surrealist filmmaking practices, where montage is mostly in the service of producing a more romantic sensation of the “marvelous.”
With some help from my research assistant Julio Carillo I interviewed Debord’s film editor Martine Barraqué, and she described how she and Debord had to create a whole practice from scratch. Now, it's just so easy to use found footage — you just steal a bunch of stuff and edit it together on your laptop — but this was the ‘70s. Debord and Barraqué could buy stock footage and newsreels, but they had to lie their heads off to get access to feature film footage! They would concoct these stories to get their hands on it for three days, which was long enough to get a lab to copy it, test that, and then send it back.
To take one example, the specific role that the scenes from Johnny Guitar play is different to the role that the newsreel footage plays. These are moments of pure subjective affect — they're “blocs” of affect, in the Deleuzian sense — but severed from the narrative context. So it's a little bit like what Eisenstein called an “attraction,” but it's very specific to Debord's own memory. And then he'll cut between the casino scene in Johnny Guitar to the casino scene in Shanghai Gesture as if they were happening in the same space. It’s a beautiful cut.
Of course, Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978) has a very different editing style. I think In girum is one of the great prose poems of the 20th century — it's a literary masterpiece, as well as a cinematic one. That's the thing about Debord: he was a master of French prose, and more. Of course, he was probably not a terribly pleasant character in some respects, but then interesting people rarely are. We're attracted to these figures precisely because they lived life on their own terms.
LG: How would you compare Debord’s strategies to those of the other major Situationist filmmaker, René Viénet?
MW: Viénet's films are really underrated — there are all these different approaches he's got. Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973), for instance, is based on a Hong Kong martial arts film by Tu Guangqi, usually known in English as The Crush. It's often assumed that Viénet just changed the voiceover, but he actually reedits the film and moves some scenes around. But it’s this minor détournement, this tiny intervention in the narrative, that really changes the whole structure of it. So, it's this really quite different treatment of the material. In general with Viénet there's a more Fourier-esque sense of the affective quality of the everyday in Viénet that Debord doesn't quite touch.
So there’s at least two practices of cinematic détournement — Debord’s and Viénet’s — before we even get to Debord’s last work, Guy Debord, son art et son temps (1995), which is a television show, for crying out loud! Debord moves on from cinema to television, and uses that medium to really expose the sordidness of late 20th century France. To Debord, this is the integrated spectacle, in which the ruling class and the state completely lose this ability to know what they are doing — they lose their historical mission. And, to me, this is really quite a profound insight. That’s why my book is called The Spectacle of Disintegration: because we are now watching these states that lost their historical mission 20 years ago corrode from the inside out.
LG: You mentioned that one of your aims was to put the female members of the SI back into the story, and I especially like the way in which you've shed more light on the crucial involvement of Michèle Bernstein.
MW: Bernstein’s second novel The Night (1961) is great — it's actually the best account of a Situationist dérive that I know of. But she’s often just treated as Debord's wife, and the novel simply as evidence of what their relationship was like. There are exceptions: Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces, did a really good job of tracking her down and telling her story. And the French critic Jean-Marie Apostolidès writes about her and actually does the novels justice. So, all that was left for me to do was to put the two together, along with a little original research of my own, to put her back as a central figure in this moment.
Bernstein, I think, has a really unique view of what it might mean to “play” at love. It’s not a cynical view at all. Her characters are not callous “players” like in Dangerous Liasons: rather, they understand love as a dimension of the everyday that is open to play. This is a kind of play that crosses the gendered divide between interiors and exteriors. In some respects the Situationist dérive — the wandering of the city to find its special ambiences, outside of the division between work and leisure — has something of the quality of a boy’s night out. Bernstein imagines play in the space of the city in a way that is more inclusive of women’s perspective.
She also sees the whole space of affect, of relationships, of love and sex, outside the constraints of property. Her first novel, All The King’s Horses (1960), is a détournement of the “chick lit” of the time, and has all the trappings of conventional women’s fiction — holidays at the coast and all that — but it’s peopled by very Situationist-style characters, who are playing at love without possession. She might have written it to make a quick buck, as she claims today, but it is still a beautiful work, and very contemporary. (Both novels are now available in English translation, All the King’s Horses from Semiotext(e), and The Night from Book Works.) There’s a terrific TV interview she did in 1961 where she plays with the form of the interview, and the interviewee persona, just as Warhol or Dylan were doing at the time. Only better, frankly; she’s more winningly allusive.
There's also Jacqueline de Jong, who was the first living witness that I got to speak to. I met her at a dinner up near Yale with Alice Becker-Ho and two rare French book dealers, when Yale was trying to buy what was left of the Debord archive. De Jong edited and published The Situationist Times, which lasted for six issues. It’s a treasure-trove of visual motifs through which we might understand how to figure a situation. Maybe some traditional, pre-Renaissance visual traditions can come to our aid in thinking complex situations, through figures like the labyrinth, the ring, the spiral, and so forth. The Situationist Times, among other things, anticipates a whole series of problems of the visualization of situations, events, and “big data” that are very much on the agenda today.
LG: People tend to be quite protective of the work of the SI, and that of Debord in particular. There’s even quite a bit of suspicion about the work of institutions, especially academic ones, to appraise and recuperate the Situationists’ practice.
MW: One has to acknowledge the really significant role that's been played by para-academic scholarship in keeping this stuff alive through decades of oblivion. There are three translations in English of The Society of the Spectacle — two of them undertaken and published outside of academia completely — and they all have their merits. Then there's a small army of people who kept Situationist work alive on the internet, and this is very important: that it has a kind of popular culture life, which is an indication that this stuff matters. These days, if your book is not circulating as a pirated PDF, it's failed. And the SI is a precursor to all of these contemporary gift economies.
So there’s certainly an independent community of SI scholars, but I think that culture is paradoxically strengthened by a certain kind of formal academic reception as well. The university is still one of the strongest supports for maintaining something in historical awareness. The Situationists themselves were pretty tactical about institutional bases. It's like they undertook a series of exploits, using the art world, patronage, even academia in a selective way. There’s a lot to learn from that. But the pure “beautiful soul” version, of refusing all recuperation, is neither historically true about the SI, nor all that useful in general. Debord had patrons, for Christ’s sakes.
Now that academia is no fun any more, maybe one thing we could learn from the SI is how to have patrons, or how to hold down a day job while writing radical criticism or making subversive art, which is pretty much what Bernstein did in the early ‘60s. She described her position in the early ‘60s to me once as belonging to the “lumpen secretariat.” But she went from a publisher’s secretary to an advertising copywriter. I think of her as a French Peggy Olson from Mad Men, crossed with Ken Cosgrove. Like Olson, she was a woman in a man’s world, and, like Cosgrove, she had other interests. Except where he writes science fiction, she was interested in the revolutionary avant-garde.
There was a sort of tactics of avoiding being subsumed in any particular institution.
These are the currents of what I call “low theory.” Even if you want to recuperate them into academia, there's a certain way to do it that keeps intact their relation to non-academic, non-intellectual contexts, rather than treating Debord as yet another French philosopher-king, for example. So recuperate, I say — but tactically, tactfully.
LG: It seems like you’ve deliberately positioned your book between these ranks: it’s a thoroughly researched academic work, but it's nonetheless accessible in style, generating new historical narratives without getting bogged down in methodological apologies.
MW: Well, what is a book for? What are the politics of trying to write it and circulate it at all?
The classic works of the SI provide strategies for living your life. I mean, they're not there to be imitated — it would be kind of ridiculous to try to imitate what they did in the 21st century. But even in the example of how singular this was in relation to its time, it opens a whole space of possibilities for how you negotiate some autonomy in everyday life; here are some examples of it being done.
But I also wanted to write in a way that was faithful to, or in solidarity with, those milieux that one used to call “bohemia”: outside academia, outside the art world, outside bourgeois propriety, outside traditional norms of gender and sexual relation, places that were inter-class, intergenerational — where differences met. I wrote these books for “my people,” in other words. Some people succeed through those bohemias, and some don't, but every major city has them. Bohemias rise and fall, move from here to there, but there’s always some people somewhere trying to make for themselves another city, for another life.
Leo Goldsmith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. With Rachael Rakes, he edits the film section of the Brooklyn Rail and curates film and video at Heliopolis in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.