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Priority Communication

Internationale Situationniste #7 (April 1962)

Translated by Reuben Keehan

THE QUESTION OF POWER is so well hidden in sociological and cultural theory that the experts can blacken thousands of pages on communication — or the means of mass communication in modern society — without ever mentioning that the communication of which they speak is unilateral, that the consumers of communication have no way of responding. Within this false communication, there is a rigorous division of labor that ends up confirming the more general division between organizers and consumers in the era of industrial culture (which integrates and formulates the unity of work and leisure). Those who are not disturbed by the tyranny exerted on life at this level have no understanding of contemporary society; and thus find themselves perfectly qualified to add their brushstrokes to the frescos of sociology. All those who display wonder or amazement at this mass culture, which cultivates the masses and at the same time "massifies high culture" through a globally unified mass media, forget that culture, even high culture, is now buried in museums; and that this includes manifestations of revolt and self-destruction. They also forget that the masses — of whom, in the final analysis, we are all a part — are excluded from life (from participation in life), excluded from liberated action: condemned to mere subsistence in spectacular style. The present law is that everyone has to consume the greatest possible quantity of nothingness, even the respectable nothingness of traditional culture, which has been perfectly severed from its original significance (progressive cretinism is always moved when it sees the theater of Racine on television, or Balzac being read in Yakut; to be sure, it envisaged no other human progress).

The revealing notion of the bombardment of information must be understood in its broadest sense. Today's population is permanently subjected to a bombardment of rubbish that is in no way dependent on the mass media. And above all, nothing could be more misguided, more typical of the antediluvian Left, than imagining that the mass media competes with other spheres of modern social life where people's real problems are seriously posed. The university, the church, and the conventions of traditional politics and architecture strongly express the morass of incoherent trivialities that tend, anarchically yet imperatively, to shape every attitude of daily life (how to dress, who to meet, how to be content). The foremost sociologists of "communication" inevitably contrast the satisfaction of the artist, identified in and justified by his work, to the alienation employed by the mass media, thus demonstrating little more than their euphoric incapacity to conceive of artistic alienation for what it really is.

Tanning lotion, a good book, my transistor, and... above all... I have absolutely nothing to do!

The theory of information immediately neglects the main power of language, which is its combativeness and supersession at a poetic level. A literature that touches the void, the perfect neutrality of form and content, can only be deployed as a function of a mathematical experiment (like the "potential literature" that is the final full stop on the long white page written by [Raymond] Queneau). In spite of the superb hypotheses of an "informational poetic" (Abraham Moles) — the moving assurance of their misinterpretation of Schwitters and Tzara — the technicians of language never understand the language of technology. They have no idea who judges all this.

Considered in all its richness — with regard to the entirety of human praxis and not to the use of punch cards to hasten the arrival of pay-cheques — communication can only exist in communal action. The most striking excesses of incomprehension are therefore linked to the excess of non-intervention. No example can be clearer than that of the long and pathetic history of the French Left in the face of the popular insurrection in Algeria. The death of traditional politics in France has been proven not only by the abstention of almost all of the workers, but further, without a doubt, by the political imbecility of the minority who resolved to act: thus the militant illusions of the extreme Left of the Popular Front can be described as second rate, initially because this formula is rigorously impractical in the current period, but also because since 1936, it has largely proven to be something of a counter-revolutionary army. While the mystifications of the old political organizations have now revealed their collapse, a new politics has failed to appear. Indeed, the Algerian problem appears as one of France's archaisms, to the extent that the principle tendency in France is to accede to modern capitalism as it stands. The still unofficial 'savage' phenomena of deception and refusal that accompany this development have nothing to do with the struggle of developing Algerians. For what is not distinguished is the future reality of a common radical contestation, a community of interests that today seem so different, a community no longer founded on the imperative of memories (of what could be — and, more often, of what could have been — in the old workers' movement's support for the exploited in the colonies). The only solidarity considered would consist of a few reflexes that are themselves becoming archaic, and therefore abstract: waiting for the mythic and eternal French Left of the PC [Communist Party], PSU [Unified Socialist Party] and SFIO [French Section of the Workers' International] to perform alongside the GPRA [Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic] as a section of the 3rd International (taking into account their various 'blunders' and 'betrayals'). Yet everything that has happened since 1920 demonstrates that a fundamental critique of these solutions is inevitable everywhere; and that it is posed powerfully and directly in the armed struggle of the Algerians. The only truly internationalist solidarity — as long as it is not degraded by Leftist Christian moralism — can be a solidarity between the revolutionaries of both countries; supposing, of course, that such revolutionaries can be found in France; and that the Algerians can sufficiently distinguish their interests when the current national front is faced with the choice on the nature of its power in the near future.

Those wishing to carry out avant-garde action in France in this period have been torn between, on the one hand, the fear of cutting themselves off completely from the old political communities (which are in a state of advanced glaciation), or in any case their language; and on the other, a certain contempt for the real fear in some sectors interested in the struggle against colonialist extremism — the students, for example — because of the complacency that they demonstrate toward an anthology of political archaisms (unity of inclusive action against fascism, etc.).

JOHANNESBURG, 18-1-62: Minister for defense M. François Fouché announced last year that South Africa is going to intensify its arms manufacturing in order to become self-sufficient. (Reuters)

The failure of any group to take this opportunity to link, in an exemplary manner, the maximum program of potential revolt in capitalist society to the maximum program of the current revolt of the colonized, is naturally explained by the weakness of such groups; but this weakness itself must never be considered an excuse: on the contrary, it is the defeat of functioning and rigor. Even under the harshest repression, it is inconceivable for an organization that represents people's real contestation to remain weak.

The complete separation of the workers of France and Algeria — which should be understood as not principally spatial, but temporal — has led to this frenzy of information, even 'from the Left'; thus, the morning after killing of eight French protesters by the police on February 8th, to papers spoke of the bloodiest clash on record in Paris since 1934, without mentioning that less than four months previously, on October 18th, Algerian demonstrators had been massacred in their dozens. Or that the "Anti-Fascist Committee of Saint-Germain-des-Prés" were permitted to write on a poster in March: "The People of France and Algeria have imposed the negotiation. . . ." without being killed by the ridicule of the enumeration of these two forces, and in this order.

At a time when the reality of communication is so deeply rotten, it is not surprising that a mineralogical study of petrified communication is developing in sociology. Nor that in art, the neo-dadaist rogues are discovering the importance of the dada movement as a formal positivity to exploit yet again, after having already adopted what they could from so many other modernist currents since the twenties. They work hard to forget the authentic dadaism of Germany and its involvement in the rise of the German revolution after the armistice of 1918. For those who produce a new cultural position today, the necessity of such a liaison has by no means diminished. Put simply, the new must be discovered in the art and politics of its time.

The simple anti-communication currently borrowed from dadaism by the most reactionary defenders of the established lies has no value in an era where the most urgent thing is the creation, at the most basic and complex levels of practice, of a new communication. The worthiest continuation of dada, its legitimate successor, arose elsewhere, in the summer of 1960. The spontaneous revolt of a people took hold, more than anywhere else, in its children; at the very moment when rationality's exploitation faltered, this people knew immediately how to détourn the language of its masters as poetry, as mode of action. The Congolese expression of this period (cf. the role of the poet Lumumba) warrants further investigation, for the recognition of the greatness and effectiveness of the only communication possible, whose intervention in events nonetheless paves the way for the transformation of the world.

Although the public has been strongly led to believe the opposite — and not only by the mass media — the coherency of the Congolese action, as long as they do not abolish their avant-garde, and the excellent use they have made of the rare means at their disposal, is the exact opposite of the fundamental incoherence of the social organization of every developed country and its dangerous incapacity to find an acceptable use for its technological powers. Sartre, who is so representative of his misguided generation that he has succeeded in being duped by all the mystifications that his contemporaries merely choose between, decided recently, in a note in Médiations #2, that it is impossible speak of a disappearing artistic language that corresponds to a time of disappearance, as "this era constructs far more than it destroys." The scales may well appear to be tipped in favor of the former, but only when construction is confused with production. Sartre must notice that despite all the torpedoes, there are more boats on the sea today than there were before the war; and that in spite of all the fires and collisions there are still more and more buildings and cars. There are also more books, as Sartre should know only too well. And yet the reasons for living in a society are being destroyed. The variations that present a change of face only last as long as any other chief of police would, after which they rejoin the general disappearance of the old world. The only useful thing left to do is to reconstruct society and life on other foundations, foundations unknown to the various neo-philosophers who have ruled the desert of so-called modern and progressive thought for so long. These "great men" are not even fit for the museum, because theirs is a period that even museums would find too hollow. They are all the same — products of the immense defeat of the movement for human emancipation in the first third of the century. They accept this defeat; it defines them exhaustively. And these specialists of error defend their specialization to the last. But now that the climate is changing, these dinosaurs of pseudo-explanation no longer have anywhere left to graze. The sleep of dialectical reason has begotten monsters.

All unilateral ideas of communication are in fact ideas of unilateral communication. They correspond to the worldview and interests of sociology, traditional art and politics. This is what we will change. We are aware of "the incompatibility of our program, as expression, with the available means of expression and reception" (Kotányi [The Next Stage]). It is a question of simultaneously seeing what can be of use in communication and what can be of use to it. The existing forms of communication, and their present crisis, can be understood and justified only in the perspective of their supersession. One should not respect art or literature so much that one would want to surrender completely. And one should not have so much contempt for the history of art or modern philosophy that one would want to go on as if nothing has happened. Our judgment is has no illusions because it is historical. For us, any use of permitted modes of communication must therefore be the refusal of this communication and at the same time not: a communication containing its refusal; a refusal containing communication, that is to say the reversal of this refusal into a positive project. All this has to lead somewhere. Communication will now contain its own critique.