RECOMMENDED FOR READING
| The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age -- Book by Sadie Plant; Routledge, 1992
The situationist analysis of contemporary capitalist society was simple and effective. Its express purpose was to transform this society, and it remains invaluable to those who share its revolutionary aims. Removed from this context, it can be like a series of instructions about swimming: interesting to the non-swimmer, but unable to express the wetness of water. Much of its meaning is therefore lost in the course of this discussion, which does not use the situationist thesis, but describes it in comparison to other analyses. Situationist theory can be made to perform in the big top of critical theory to great effect: it can expose the complacency and superficiality of much contemporary thought, jump through the same intellectual hoops and stand up to academic scrutiny. But unlike those theories to which it can be compared, it is merely playing in this role. It demands practical realisation, and is a theory which was only made possible by the acts of rebellion, subversion, and negation which foreshadowed it and continue to assert the discontent and disrespect inspired by the economic, social, and discursive relations which define contemporary capitalism. Nevertheless, the Situationist International has been ignored by its detractors and protected by those attracted to it for too long. There is no longer any damage to be done to its ideas by introducing them into the profoundly non-revolutionary milieu of contemporary intellectual debate. And its practices, which never, of course, belonged to it at all, are quite safe in the hands of those whose need them.
The Situationist International was established in 1957 and published twelve issues of a journal, Internationale Situationniste, until 1969. Many aspects of its theory can be found in Marxist thought and the tradition of avant-garde artistic agitation which includes movements like Dada and surrealism. But the movement also stands in a less distinct line of pleasure-seeking libertarian ism, popular resistance, and autonomous struggle, and its revolutionary stance owes a great deal to this diffuse tradition of unorthodox rebellion. With its beginnings in an artistic milieu, the SI finally developed a more overtly political position from which its members gave full expression to their hostility to every aspect of existing society.
The situationists characterised modern capitalist society as an organisation of spectacles: a frozen moment of history in which it is impossible to experience real life or actively participate in the construction of the lived world. They argued that the alienation fundamental to class society and capitalist production has permeated all areas of social life, knowledge, and culture, with the consequence that people are removed and alienated not only from the goods they produce and consume, but also from their own experiences, emotions, creativity, and desires. People are spectators of their own lives, and even the most personal gestures are experienced at one remove.
The situationist project was not, however, ridden with pessimism, and while the first chapter of this book dwells on the darker implications of defining modern society as a spectacle, reams of situationist exuberance and delight come quickly on its tail. For although the situationists suggested that the whole of life as it is experienced under capitalism is in some sense alienated from itself, they postulated neither the inevitability of this alienation nor the impossibility of its critique. Even though the ability to control one's own life is lost in the midst of all-pervasive capitalist relations, the demand to do so continues to assert itself, and the situationists were convinced that this demand is encouraged by the increasingly obvious discrepancy between the possibilities awoken by capitalist development and the poverty of their actual use. The ethos of need, labour, and sacrifice is unnecessarily perpetuated, serving only to maintain the capitalist system; the idea that we must continue to struggle to survive hinders human development and precludes the possibility of a life of playful opportunity in which the satisfaction of desires, the realisation of pleasures, and the creation of chosen situations would be the principal activities. Long a utopian dream realisable only on canvas or in poetry, capitalist development has brought us to the point at which the end of alienated experience is a real possibility. The situationists saw the dissemination of propaganda to this effect as the central task of a revolutionary organisation.
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| The situationists were, of course, writing at a time of great affluence and technological achievement. At its peak, the capitalism of the 1950s and 1960s could promise and deliver more than ever before. A buoyant economy offered unprecedented levels of income, social security, education, and technological development. Political, sexual, and artistic freedoms were encouraged, blatant inequalities were reduced, anything could be bought and more people had the money to buy. Leisure, tourism, and consumer choice extended the variety, opportunity, and comfort afforded by capitalist society, and the possibility of economic crisis, still less social revolution, seemed remote. Some theorists proclaimed the disappearance of the working class, and many even declared capitalism to have been transformed by its own success into the progressive society free from class and ideological conflict it had always claimed to be. Others, however, including the situationists, considered such complacency superficial and premature. Recognising that capitalist society had indeed changed since Marx's mid-nineteenth-century critique, they claimed that its economic structure remained fundamentally the same. The misery of material poverty may have diminished, but life in capitalist society was still made miserable by the extension of alienated social relations from the workplace to every area of lived experience. The leisures and luxuries gained from capitalism can only be consumed: there is more free time, choice, and opportunity, but the commodity form in which everything appears serves only to reproduce the alienated relations of capitalist production.
The introduction of the radical demands of the imagination, creativity, desire, and pleasure to their revolutionary project is indicative of the situationists' distance from orthodox Marxism. It also reflects the influence of Dada and surrealism, whose provocative style, demands for immediacy, and cravings for autonomy were carried into the situationist project. These movements extended their initial artistic concerns to attacks on the whole gamut of cultural and social relations, arguing that capitalism circumscribes even the possibilities of expressing subjective experience. While Dada railed against every constraint, the surrealists developed a more coherent and dialectical critique of existing society which demanded the complete reconciliation of subject and object, the individual and the world, reason and the imagination. Drawing on what they considered to be the most useful aspects of these movements, the situationists developed their recognition that language and artistic expression were implicated with all other social relations, their hostility to the separation of art and poetry from everyday life, and their demands for experiences disallowed by existing society.
Dada and surrealism had interrupted and subverted the language and images with which they worked, invoking a wider world of meanings which challenged conventional arrangements of reality. And in their challenges to the inevitability and immutability of the spectacle, the situationists pursued this same attempt to conjure a totality of possible social relations which exceeds and opposes the totality of spectacular relations. They took the words, meanings, theories, and experiences of the spectacle, and placed them in an opposing context; a perspective from which the world was given a fluidity and motion with which the static mediocrity of the spectacle could be negated. Introducing a sense of historical continuity by showing that the spectacle, in spite of its seamless appearance, carries the seeds of an emancipated and pleasure-filled world, the situationists showed that what could become real is more meaningful and desirable than that which is in being. The spectacle circumscribes the reality it presents, but it does not preclude the possibility of identifying a bigger and better world of chosen relations and experiences beyond its constraints...