One More Try if you Want to be Situationists (the SI In and Against Decomposition
Potlatch #29 (5 November 1957)
Translated by John Shepley
To Mohamed Dahou
THE COLLECTIVE TASK we have set ourselves is the creation of a new cultural theater of operations, placed hypothetically at the level of an eventual general construction of its surroundings through the preparation, depending on circumstances, of the terms of the environment/behavior dialectic. The depletion of modern forms of art and style is all too obvious; and the analysis of this steady trend leads us to the conclusion that in order to overcome the general cultural picture, wherein we see a state of decomposition that has arrived at its final historical stage (for the definition of this term, cf. "Rapport sur la construction des situations"), one must seek a higher organization of the means of action in this period of our culture. That is, we must foresee and experiment with what lies beyond the present atomization of wornout traditional arts, with a new state of the world whose most consistent premise will be that urbanism and the daily life of an emerging society and not go back to some coherent unity or other. We can clearly see that the development of this task presupposes a revolution that has yet to take place, and that any research is restricted by the contradictions of the present. The Situationist International exists in name, but that means nothing but the beginning of an attempt to build beyond the decomposition in which we, like everyone else, are completely involved. Becoming aware of our real possibilities requires both the recognition of the pre-Situationist in the strict sense of the word nature of whatever we can attempt, and the rupture, without looking back, with the division of labor in the arts. The main danger lies in these two errors: the pursuit of fragmentary works combined with simple-minded proclamations of an alleged new stage.
At this moment the decomposition shows nothing more than a slow radicalization of moderate innovators toward positions where outcast extremists had already found themselves eight or ten years ago. But far from drawing a lesson from those fruitless experiments, the "respectable" innovators further dilute their importance. I will take examples from France, which surely is undergoing the most advanced phenomena of the general cultural decomposition that, for various reasons, is being manifested in its purest state in Western Europe.
Reading Alain Robbe-Grillet's first two columns in France-Observateur (October 10 and 17), one is struck by the fact that he is a timid Isou (in his arguments, as in the "daring" spirit of his novels), as when he claims to belong to the History of forms, which in the final analysis is the best (and perhaps only) criterion for recognizing a work of art." With the banality of thought and expression that ends up being quite personal ("let me repeat, it is better to take risks than to settle for a sure error"), and much less invention and audacity, he hearkens back to the same linear perception of the artistic movement, a mechanistic idea whose function is to reassure: "Art goes on, or else it dies. We are among those who have chosen to go on." To go straight on. Who, in 1957, reminds him by direct analogy of Baudelaire? Claude Simon "all the values of the past . . . would seem in any case to prove it." (This appearance of proof in claims for a direct lineage is due precisely to the denial of all dialectics, of any real change.) Indeed, everything that has been put forward, of any interest at all, since the last war naturally takes its place in the extreme decomposition, but with more or less of a desire to look beyond. This desire gets smothered by the economic and cultural ostracism and also by the lack of ideas and proposals these two aspects being interdependent. The best-known art appearing in our time is controlled by those who know "how far to go too far." (See the endless and profitable death throes of post-Dadaist painting, which is usually presented as a Dadaism in reverse, and whereby they mutually congratulate each other. Their aspirations and their enemies are cut to size.) Robbe-Grillet modestly renounces the title of avant-gardist (when one does not even have an authentic "avant-garde" view of the decomposition phase, one might as well reject its inconveniences especially the noncommercial aspect). He will be content to be a "novelist of today," but, outside the little cohort of his fellows, it must be admitted that the others are quite simply "rearguard." And he courageously takes issue with Michel de Saint-Pierre, which suggests that by talking about cinema he would bestow on himself the glory of insulting Gouguet, while hailing the present-day cinema of an Astruc. Actually, Robbe-Grillet is up to date for a certain social group, just as Michel de Saint-Pierre is up to date for a public made up of another class. Both are very much "of today" in relation to their audiences, and nothing more, to degrees of a traditional mode of cultural action. It is no big deal to be up to date: one is only more or less part of the decomposition. Originally now wholly depends on a leap to a higher level.
It is their timidity that keeps people from looking beyond the decomposition. Unable to see anything after the present structures, and knowing them well enough to sense that they are doomed, they would like to destroy them piecemeal, while leaving something for the next generation. They are comparable to political reformers, impotent but just as harmful: living on the sale of false remedies. Anyone who cannot conceive a radical transformation is propping up the arrangements of the status quo practised with elegance and is separated only by a few chronological preferences from those consistent reactionaries who (whether politically of the right or the left) would like to see a return to earlier (more solid) stages of the culture that is breaking down. Françoise Choay's naive art criticism is quite representative of the "free intellectuals of the left" who constitute the chief social base of this timid cultural deposition, and when she writes (France-Observatuer, October 17) "The path taken by Francken . . . is presently one of painting's chances for survival," she betrays concerns fundamentally akin to those of Zhdanov ("Did we do the right thing . . . in putting to rout the liquidators of painting?").
We are locked into relations of production that contradict the necessary development of productive forces, in the sphere of culture as well. We must breach these traditional relations, the arguments and fashions they support. We must direct ourselves beyond present-day culture, by a clear-eyed critique of existing spheres and their integration into a single space-time construction (the situation: a dynamic system in an environment and playful behavior) that will bring about a higher harmony of form and content.
But these prospects, in themselves, cannot in any way validate current productions that naturally take on meaning in relation to the prevailing confusion, and that includes in our own minds as well. Among us, useful theoretical propositions may be contradicted by actual works limited to old sectors (on which it is necessary to act first, since for the moment they are alone in possessing a common reality). Or often other comrades, who have made interesting experiments on particular points, get sidetracked in outdated theories: thus W. Olmo, who is not lacking in good will, in order to connect his experiments in sound with the construction of environments, employs such defective formulations in a recent text submitted to the Situationist International ("For a Concept of Musical Experimentation") that the whole thing had to be refocused ("Remarks on the Concept of Experimental Art"), a discussion that, in my opinion, no longer offers even the memory of a reality.
Just as there is no "Situationism" as doctrine, one must not let certain former experiments be called Situationist achievements or everything to which our ideological and practical weakness now limits us. But, on the other hand, we cannot concede even a temporary value to mystification. The abstract empirical fact that constitutes this or that manifestation of today's decayed culture only takes on concrete meaning by its connection with the overall vision of an end or a beginning of civilization. Which is to say that in the long run our seriousness can integrate and surpass mystification, as well as whatever promotes it as evidence of an actual historical state of decayed thought. Last June witnessed a scandal when a film I had made in 1952 [Hurlements en faveur de Sade] was screened in London. It was not a hoax and still less a Situationist achievement, but one that depended on complex literary motivations of that time (works on the cinema of Isou, Marco, Wolman), and thus fully participated in the phase of decay, precisely in its most extreme form, without even having except for a few programmatic allusions the wish for positive developments that characterized the works to which I have alluded. Afterward, the same London audience (Institute of Contemporary Arts) was treated to some paintings executed by chimpanzees, which bear comparison with respectable action painting. This proximity seems to me instructive. Passive consumers of culture (one can well understand why we count on the possibility of active participation in a world in which "aesthetes" will be forgotten) can love any manifestation of decomposition (they would be right in the sense that these manifestations are precisely those that best express their period of crisis and decline, but one can see that they prefer those that slightly disguise this state). I believe that in another five or six years they will come to love my film and the paintings of apes, just as they already love Robbe-Grillet. The only real difference between the paintings of apes and my complete cinematographic work to date is its possible threatening meaning for the culture around us, namely, a wager on certain formations of the future. And I wouldn't know on which side to put Robbe-Grillet, when you stop to think that at certain moments of rupture one is either aware or not of a qualitative turning point; and if not, the nuances don't matter.
But our wager always has to be renewed, and it is we ourselves who produce the various chances to respond. We wish to transform these times (to which everything we love, beginning with our experimental attitude, also belongs) and not to "write for it," as self-satisfied vulgarity intends: Robbe-Grillet and his times are made for each other. On the contrary, our ambitions are clearly megalomaniac, but perhaps not measurable by the prevailing criteria of success. I believe all my friends would be content to work anonymously at the Ministry of Leisure in a government that would finally undertake to change life, commensurate with the salaries of qualified workers.