Constructed Situations: A New History of the Situationist International

Constructed Situations: A New History of the Situationist International

by Frances Stracey


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The Situationist International were a group of anti-authoritarian, highly cultured, revolutionary artists whose energy and enragement fundamentally shaped the revolutions of the late 1960's, most famously in Paris in May '68. They took on their shoulders the history of the workers' struggle, saw that it had been corrupted by authoritarianism and transformed it, with influences incorporating the avant-garde via Dada and Surrealism. They were not Marxologists, defenders of the faith. Marxism came back to life in their raging analyses, the use of the 'spectacle' and at the heart of the project was the idea of the constructed situation.

This book by Frances Stracey offers itself up as the 'first historiography of constructed situations'. Within it are new insights into the movement, and with them, a sense of relevance to political situations and practice today. As an archivist, Stracey uncovered new documents which, amongst other things, revealed how the SI related to representations of sexuality; and is able to discuss whether they could be considered as feminists or not. She also looked at their famous motto 'Never Work' and again shows how alienated labour is even more relevant to us today.

Constructed Situations is not a history of celebrated personalities, or cultural influences, or political circumstances. It is instead an open door to one of the most influential art movements in modern history, and an invitation for us to reclaim inspiration from this ubiquitous movement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745335261
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 10/23/2014
Series: Marxism and Culture
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Frances Stracey (1963-2009) is the author of Constructed Situations: A New History of the Situationist International (Pluto, 2014). She was Senior Lecturer in the History of Art Department, University College London.

Read an Excerpt


Surviving History

A Situationist Archive

The Situationists feared their history as if it were their death. They recognized that their historical survival risked contradicting their critique of late capitalism as a society of the spectacle, according to which social relations have become reduced to their abstract representation. Whereas Lukács had sought to generalize Marx's account of commodity fetishism as characteristic of the reification or petrification of all social relations under capitalism, the Situationists understood this reification to have taken on an imagistic form, in which real social relations are reduced to their image or spectacle. They were keenly aware that conventional forms of historical memorialization risked participating in the society of the spectacle's reification of everyday life, reducing historical social relations to their petrified image. Grand monumentalization, while offering the promise of assured historical survival, was, for the Situationists, an afterlife not worth living. Therefore, in order not to disappear completely from historical memory, they had to develop novel strategies of memorialization. At stake was a more liquid model of the archive, where those commemorated were not reduced to a dead correlate of the present, frozen in perpetuity, but salvaged in a more revitalized form, ideally as a constantly shifting, eruptive force in the present and for the future. Focusing on a particular Situationist book called Mémoires, this chapter will attempt to reconstruct the Situationists' strategies of self-archiving, which tried to counter a spectacular monumentalization of their own history. In the process I hope to elaborate the alternative model of an archive that is indicated in this book and the implications this has for writing the history of the Situationists.

Mémoires, as its title suggests, is a book of remembrance. As such it is not a record of how certain events actually happened, but of how they are recollected by its author or, rather, authors. Mémoires was, in fact, the result of the collaboration between Guy Debord and Asger Jorn. Although it was first assembled in 1957, during a visit by Debord to Jorn's homeland, Denmark, to celebrate the foundation of the Situationist International that same year, it only appeared in print in December 1958. The book is divided into three chronological sections: 'June 1952' 'December 1952' and 'September 1953'. The dates of these sections and the title Mémoires demonstrate that this was a recollection of key pre-Situationist moments, retrospectively understood as significant to the subsequent identity of the Situationist International (hereafter SI).

In the first section, among the events recorded for posterity is a cartoon-strip reference to Debord's first Lettrist film, called Hurlements en Faveur de Sade from 1952 (Figure 1.1). Part of the film's title appears in the top right-hand corner of the page. And in the bottom right-hand corner is a quotation from Debord concerning the concept of 'situation': 'the arts of the future will be the overturning of situations, or nothing'. This phrase appeared in the first issue of the Lettrist journal Ion (1952), on the occasion of the first publication of a transcript of Hurlements. The cartoon image, with a figure pointing to a blank screen, makes a captioned reference to the film as an example of the first failed or spoilt (raté) cinema. Hurlements was a film without pictures, consisting of a white screen accompanied by seemingly random dialogue, followed by silence and darkness for periods of up to 24 minutes, as the light projector was intermittently turned off. The second section of Mémoires, 'December 1952', records the formation of the Lettrist International and 'the Paris of the young men and girls who haunt the Left Bank' (Figure 1.2). The page is scattered with words speaking of dark passages, asphyxiation, night, no sunshine ('oh! jamais le soleil'), in stark contrast to the backlit burst of saturated orange which spreads out and surrounds the white avenues lined with snippets of ink-black text. The final section, 'September 1953', is filled with textual recollections of key Lettrist terms, such as 'dérive', meaning to drift, which remained important in the lexicon and practices of the SI. What interests me, however, is not just the objects, places and people recollected here, but the insistently fragmented layout of the book (Figure 1.3), in which the boundaries of the splashes of colour, images and texts deliberately collide and blur into each other. It is my contention that the dispersed structure of these morsels of memory serve to commemorate the past in a form that challenges conventional models of the memorial that entomb or freeze the past.

From scrapbook diary to ragged memorial

In its general appearance Mémoires resembles a scrapbook diary, in which references to pre-Situationist moments are intertwined with the material leftovers or symbolic debris of everyday life. Yet, the original sources of its material content seem secondary to their new context. The investment seems to be in the then 'present' moment of this collaged recollection and the effects of the jarring juxtapositions of the imported elements. The title page of Mémoires acknowledged its ready-made facture as 'composed entirely of prefabricated elements', indicating that the form and function of memory is as much about fabrication and fantasy as it is about capturing the past as it actually was. The pages of Mémoires are a composite of contemporary fragments détourned from a variety of high and low cultural sources, such as newspapers, travel literature, building plans, cartoons, adverts (Figure 1.4), old etchings, novels and maps, including a cut-up 'Plan de Paris' (Figure 1.5). Across its pages these discarded and kitsch residues intermingle with the more personally invested photos of friends and allies, some of whom would become members of the SI. The reader is presented with a montage of ideal or romanticized identities: barflies and misfits, snapped drinking and playing in their favourite bars and haunts (Figure 1.6). For example, at the top of the page is a small picture of Debord, and below, to the left and right, are pictures of other drunken regulars who frequented the café Chez Moineau. Yet, true to the Situationists' strategy of calculated plagiarism, even these personal mementos were ready-made, second-hand images appropriated by Debord from the Dutch photographer Ed Van der Elsken's photo-novel Love on the Left Bank published in 1956. Seemingly haphazardly stuck to the pages, all these remnants appear to drift aimlessly amid the jagged phrases and splattered drips of printed colour. As printed, splashes too become second-hand. The pure or authentic gesture of abstract expression is both mimicked and put into question by the book's use of a reprographic mode of dripped production. Under such conditions of technical reproducibility, even the accidental or most spontaneous mark can be endlessly replicated.

The pools, drips and splotches of coloured ink that appear throughout Mémoires' pages were Asger Jorn's contribution to this collaborative book project. On the title page, Jorn's colour additions were described as supporting structures (structures portantes), suggesting that they were considered as more than arbitrary additions, but rather as pivotal props for this peculiarly errant form of storytelling. Indeed, on encountering the labyrinthine structure of Memoirés for the first time, it is clear that this is no conventional historical narrative. Within each of its demarcated intervals of time, the story presented is disorienting. The boundaries of the babble of words and images prove insecure against the seepage of stains of colour: at times opaque and blanking, at others seductively revealing in their translucency. In this aleatory web of collaged mementos the reader is intended to stray, to dérive, even to get lost; in the end, the assurance of narrative closure is denied. Getting lost and collapsing boundaries seem to be the structuring principles of Mémoires, principles that in turn reveal the Situationists' alternative model of history and its counter-forms of memorialization. Extrapolating from its aleatoric construction, I suggest that more than personal souvenirs are at stake. Even though this book was originally produced for friends and freely given away, as a potlatch, its ragged construction can be read as an attempt to fabricate a memorial for those conventionally uncommemorated dregs and outlaws of society.

The producers of this book-memorial appear in the guise of rag-pickers, sifting through the society of the spectacle's layers of discarded residues, looking for reusable trash. In the guise of a scrap collector, I think a Situationist archivist can be discerned here. This persona may be understood as an updated version of the Surrealist 'rag-picker-of-the-outmoded', that avant-garde figure whom Walter Benjamin singled out as able to perceive how 'destitution ... can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism'. Whereas Surrealists such as Louis Aragon interpreted the revolutionary potential of the cut-up and scattered detritus as connected to its mere brute materiality, for the Situationist rag-picker or archivist, as for Benjamin, the revolutionary potential of the cut-up detritus in Mémoires is of a more temporal order, in the form of a salvaging of discarded time. The low and throwaway form of Mémoires can be considered as opening out onto the repressed and discarded aspects of a past history, namely, the histories of those outlaws and lowlifes excluded by dominant or official narratives. According to Debord's interpretation, conventional historical narratives were the prerogative of the ruling classes, the means by which they shored up and secured the historical legacy of the privileged. Therefore, to reflect upon conventional chronicles, archives and monuments was to reflect upon the ruling power. Détourning Novalis, Debord asserts: 'writings are the thoughts of the state ... and archives are its memory'.

In contrast, the Situationists' decidedly anti-hierarchical archive of memories recorded the lived experiences of those people forgotten by the society of the spectacle's official version of history, in which 'the ruling order discourses on itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise'. For Debord, it was precisely all those people skirting the margins of history whose stories and experiences had become bereft of language or concepts. Cut off from official history, these excluded figures also lacked any critical access to their own historical antecedents, which are nowhere recorded or communicated and therefore become 'misunderstood and forgotten to the benefit of the spectacle's false memory of the unmemorable'. The true memory would therefore seem to consist in tracing a path back to those marginalized histories, in order to salvage them from oblivion, in the form of a testament that communicates with a future audience. Debord, détourning the opening lines of Marx's Communist Manifesto (1848), suggested that 'history itself is the spectre haunting modern society'. It could be argued that Mémoires was an attempt to make visible a spectre or apparition of a particular history, by giving it some tangible substance. For example, the low quality of the pillaged mnemonic traces can be read as mirroring the low value attributed to these excluded narratives belonging to 'the young hoodlum girls' and 'the many rebels destined for bad ends', who Debord described subsequently as characteristic of the pre-Situationist social milieu in his autobiography, Panegyric, published in 1989 — 97. The violence of the excision of these voices from the hegemonic version of history is captured in the damaged and sadistic form of the cut-up images and texts (Figure 1.7). The violence of the cut is not against the material. It is not a violation of the images at stake here, but rather the gesture of the cut itself that I interpret as a marker of the violence done to the repressed. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, what has been repressed cannot return or be desublimated in a benign manner, precisely because it has been damaged by repression. The repressed element, therefore, once it returns or is recollected, bears the scars of the violence of its moment of prohibition. In this sense, the damaged form of Mémoires is a metaphor for the histories damaged by the censorship of the spectacle. These destructive gestures are also perversely constructive, however, because they are not merely symptomatic, but diagnostic. That is to say, this story has been consciously and deliberately fragmented in order to draw attention to the violating and sadistic character of the society of the spectacle's process of historical amnesia.

An involuntary archive

The damaged and potentially destructive aspect of this retrospective pre-Situationist history is literally embodied by the abrasive sandpaper covers of the first edition of Mémoires (Figure 1.9). Although these rough bindings protected the inner material, they injured its external book-neighbours. Any material stored next to it would inevitably be abraded. This literal irritation to other documents is symbolic of the Situationists' desire to cause trouble in the archives; to disrupt conventional forms of storage by refusing to be a passive object of contemplation and to become instead an object that grates those trying to handle it. In turn, its own contingency and wearing away would be registered by its rough surfaces being smoothed down over time. Mémoires strategically presents the reader with a somewhat ambiguous archive. On the one hand, it serves to salvage and conserve the pre-history of the Situationists and, on the other, it seeks to function as a destructive memory, internally cut up and externally abrasive, within the dominant model of a hierarchical history that the Situationists were contesting.

The desire and function of a model of memory that preserves the past is perhaps relatively unproblematic. But what function does a destructive model of memory serve? Walter Benjamin indicates a possible answer in his analysis of an analogous model of eruptive memory, or what he calls an 'involuntary memory' (mémoire involuntaire), borrowing the term from Marcel Proust. For Benjamin, Proust's eight-volume work, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, was an attempt to produce experience synthetically, at a time when the natural ability to assimilate the data of the surrounding world by way of experience was fast disappearing. As proof of this experiential failure, Benjamin turned to the example of the newspaper because, as the deliverer of information, its task was 'to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader, and worse still, 'the linguistic usage of newspapers paralyzed the imagination of the readers'. For the Situationists, the society of the spectacle and what they termed its 'informationist' language regime, appeared as an updated form of such a paralysis of the imagination. In the media of the emerging information age, the speed of the image and the accelerated turnover of events on the pages of daily newspapers, on the television screen and elsewhere, prevented the modern subject from assimilating the received data by way of lived (vécu) experience. The society of the spectacle isolates what happens from the realm of affective experience, as Debord illustrated: 'the pseudo-events that vie for attention in the spectacle's dramatizations have not been lived [vécus] by those who are thus informed about them ... thanks to the precipitation with which the spectacle's pulsing machinery replaces one by the next'. The problem for the Situationists was how to slow down the spectacle's precipitate machinery in order to allow the transience of events to be returned to the realm of affective experience.

The involuntary aspect of the memories recalled in Mémoires lies in its attempt to trigger the experience of the past through the affective aspect of its fragmented layout. As revealed by Proust, when the past is revived involuntarily, through a moment of inattention and distraction, it is registered in the form of an eruptive image. This is a clue that the vital aspect of the past is located 'somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in the material object (or in the sensation which such an object arouses in us), though we have no idea which one it is'. Access to the past, triggered by an involuntary memory, itself connected to a tangible object, is more vital because it bears the indexical mark, as trace or imprint, of the situation or object that gave rise to it.


Excerpted from "Constructed Situations"
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Copyright © 2014 the Estate of Frances Stracey.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures Series Preface Preface Acknowledgements Introduction: Lessons in Failure Excursus I: The Society of the Spectacle Excursus II: The Constructed Situation Reconstructing Situations 1. Surviving History: A Situationist Archive 2. Industrial Painting: Towards a Surplus of Life 3. Destruktion af RSG-6: The Latest Avant-Garde 4. Consuming the Spectacle: The Watts Riot and a New Proletariat 5. Situationist Radical Subjectivity and Photo-Graffiti 6. The Situation of Women Coda: Learning from the SI Notes Index

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