The Situationist International (SI) was founded in 1957 and disbanded in 1972 but its ideas sparkle with relevance and a new book from Pluto Press makes this abundantly clear.
The nine chapters of the book’s first part, Key Contexts, does what it says on the tin, looking at the movement’s genealogy and its influence on the Paris revolt in 1968.
The writer Guy Debord is central to SI’s intellectual weight while Dada and Surrealism were vital cultural antecedents.
A chapter by Tom Bunyard sets out the influence of Hegel and Marxism.
Hegel’s stress on the mobility of thought stands in opposition to static formations and fixed determinations of meaning.
This mobility translates into the self-constitutive activity that, in the arts as well as autonomous labour organizations, is the ability to transform reality.
Brief accounts of Hegel’s formidable thought have a habit of mystifying his metaphysics but Bunyard avoids this and provides instead, in about eight pages, what is probably the most lucid explanation of Hegel’s philosophy you’re going to find:
We human beings are part of the universe; we are also conscious of the universe. It seems possible to propose, therefore, that in some very minimal and restricted sense, the universe becomes conscious of itself through us; being becomes aware of itself through human beings.
Hegel’s thought, a hugely sophisticated version of this insight, presents reality as both subject and object at the same time.
This essential identity is the Hegelian ‘Absolute’: every positive arises through its negative distinction from what it is not and everything is in a process of flux that allows new formations to arise.
The dynamism of the Absolute, by giving agency to the subject, creates the freedom to act upon the world and change social reality.
This was the rationale of the Situationist International and it welcomed change through wildcat labour strikes as well as through new art forms.
As explained in the first chapter of the book’s second half, Key concepts, what Debord called the ‘Spectacle’ was not media hegemony but the rule of capital and commodity production that Marx wrote about.
The second chapter looks at the ‘situation’, a term that has a place in Debord’s thought well before the SI was founded, and its origin in Brecht’s assault on the classical idea of theatre as a spectacle inviting the audience to passively identify with characters on the stage.
Brecht sought to break this identification by inciting the spectator into activity and a constructed ‘situation’, for Debord, was similar.
Other chapters look at S.I.’s signature deployment of the use of détournement as ‘the reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble’, S.I.’s approach to subjectivity and much else besides.
Altogether, this is an invaluable book, each chapter is carefully referenced and opens pathways for further reading, as well as an accessible introduction to the Situationists and their contribution to a radical critique of the existing order and how it can be overturned.
“The Situationist International”, edited by Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, is published by Pluto Press.