The Avant-garde of Presence
Internationale Situationniste #8 (January 1963)
Translated by John Shepley
IN MÉDIATIONS, no.4, Lucien Goldmann, recently turned critic specializing in the cultural avant-garde, speaks of an "avant-garde of absence," one that expresses in art and style a certain rejection of the reification of modern society, but which, in his opinion, expresses nothing else. He recognizes the negative role of avant-garde culture in our century about forty-five years after the event but, oddly enough, among his friends and contemporaries. Thus we find, disguised as resuscitated Dadaists, none other than Ionesco, Beckett, Sarraute, Adamov, and Duras, not to mention the Robbe-Grillet of Marienbad fame. This merry little crew, all present and accounted for, thereupon re-enacts as farce the tragedy of the murder of artistic forms. Sarraute! can you imagine? Adamov! who would have believed it? Goldmann, an attentive audience, comments solemnly on what he sees: "Most of the great avant-garde writers express above all, not actual or possible values, but their absence, the impossibility of formulating or perceiving acceptable values in whose name they might criticize society." Here is precisely what is false, as is immediately apparent when one abandons the actors of Goldmann's comic novel to examine the historical reality of German Dadaism, or of Surrealism between the two wars. Goldmann seems literally unaware of them which is curious: would he think that one is justified in rejecting the historical interpretation of his Dieu Caché, while hinting that one has never read Pascal or Racine since the seventeenth century is complex and it's all one can do to get through Cotin's complete works? It is hard to see how he could have even a cursory knowledge of the original, and still find such freshness in the copy. Even his vocabulary in unsuited to the subject. He talks about "great writers" of the avant-garde, a notion that the avant-garde has long since rightly cast into ridicule once and for all. Later, mentioning the tasteful diversions agreeably mounted by Planchon with the bits and pieces of a dying theatrical tradition, Goldmann, still sniffing some avant-gardism there, says that all the same he does not find in it "a literary creation of equal importance, centered on the presence of humanist values and historical development." The notable quantity of insignificance that indelibly marks Goldmann's avant-garde nevertheless makes Planchon look good. But lastly Goldmann talks about literary creation. Doesn't he know that the rejection of literature, the very destruction of style, has been the prime tendency of twenty or thirty years of avant-garde experiments in Europe, that his circus of clowns have looked only through the wrong end of the telescope, and cultivate with the parsimony of small stockholders? The avant-garde of the true self-destruction of art had expressed inseparably the absence and possible presence of quite another life. And does one have to plunge into the mystification of humanism so as not to follow Adamov into that absence that suits him so well that he stands a good chance of becoming its owner?
Let us be more serious than Goldmann. In the same article, he wonders whether there exist in present society, in this modern capitalism that is consolidating itself and developing in the regrettable ways we know, "social forces strong enough to overcome it or at least pointing in that direction." This is indeed a very important question. We will try to answer yes. A properly demystified study of real artistic or political avant-garde moments can in any case provide elements worth appreciating that are as rare in Ionesco's work as in Garaudy's. What is socially visible in the world of the theater is more remote than ever from social reality. Even its avant-garde art and its challenging thought are henceforth cosmetically disguised in the illumination of this visual element. Those who refrain from entering this Son et lumière of the present that so bedazzles Goldmann are precisely the ones, like the Situationists for the moment, who are in the avant-garde of presence. What Goldmann calls the avant-garde of absence is nothing more than the absence of an avant-garde. We are confident that nothing of all this pretence and agitation will remain in the history and real problematics of this period. On this point as on others, a hundred years will tell whether we were wrong.
Moreover, Goldmann's avant-garde and its absenteeism are already behind the times (except for Robbe-Grillet, who bets on all the numbers in the roulette of avant-garde theater). The most recent tendency is to be integrated, to integrate several arts among themselves, and at all costs to integrate the spectator. First of all, ever since Marienbad, which for journalists is the obligatory reference point, there have been countless works that cannot exist without "the individual participation of the spectator, each of whom is destined to experience it differently" (Jacques Siclier in Le Monde, November 28, 1962, in connection with some televised ballet or other). Marc Saporta has just published a card-game novel; one is supposed to shuffle the cards before reading in order to participate. Next to be integrated: experimental music with ceramics, which the visitor will be able to listen to at the Starczewski exhibition in Paris. Music by Stockhausen, but whose score becomes "mobile" at the whim of the performer, with an abstract film by the German Kirchgässer (Institute of Contemporary Music in Darmstadt). Nicolas Schoeffer has been integrated with the house of Philips in an audiovisual climate (the "creation-wall"). Finally, countless integrations throughout Europe, which themselves get inter-integrated in biennales, which everywhere become Himalayas of integration. In the same journal, Médiations, one might point out the integration of a new profession: the criticism in "abstract" prose of the abstract work. It was common fifteen years ago in painting catalogues, where Michel Tapié performed wonders, and it makes its appearance in literature with Jean Ricardou, who simply transposes the sensible and childish forms of textual explication, but with the improvement that he paints black on black by commenting on the scarcely readable pages, deliberately poor in content, of the pure nouveau roman, in an abstract critical language worthy of its model for content and readability. You can also integrate whatever you like thirty teaspoons, a hundred thousand bottles, a million Swiss in "nouveau réalisme," such is its strength. The new figuration would like to integrate the past, present, and future of painting in anything that will pay off no-fault insurance for lovers of the abstract and lovers of the figurative as well.
Our culture being what it is, all that gets integrated are dissolutions of one with another. And no one cares to point out that these dissolutions are themselves almost always repetitions of something older (Saporta's card-game novel is an echo of Paul Nougé's card-game poem, Le jeu des mots et du hasard, dating back to before 1930 and reissued a few years ago. One could multiply such examples). As for the integration of the spectator into these wonderful things, it is a poor little image of his integration into the new cities, into the banks of television monitors in the office or factory where he works. It pursues the same plan, but with infinitely less force, and even infinitely fewer guinea pigs. The old forms of the art of neo-decadence are now, in themselves, far from the center of struggle for the control of modern culture. The change in the cultural terrain is not only the thesis of the revolutionary avant-garde in our culture, it is also unfortunately the opposite project, already widely achieved by the present rulers. One ought not, however, to overlook the specialists of the "kinetic" movement. All they want is to integrate time into art. They've had no luck, since the program of our period is rather to dissolve art in the experience of time.
Already some researchers, to ensure themselves a less crowded speciality, have at several points ventured beyond these hasty integrations and their flimsy justifications. Some technicians would like to reform the spectacle. Le Parc, in a tract published in September 1962 by the "Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel," thinks it possible for the passive spectator to evolve into a "stimulated spectator" or even an "interpreter-spectator," but still within the framework of specialized old-hat ideas that would provide "some kinds of sculptures to be grappled with, dances to be painted, swordplay paintings." At most, Le Parc reaches the point of using a few para-Situationist formulas: "In frankly admitting the reversal of the traditional situation of the passive spectator, one distorts the idea of the spectacle. . . ." This is an idea, however, that it is better not to distort, but properly to gauge its place in an society. The futility of Le Parc's hopes for his spectator who will gratify him by achieving "real participation (the manipulation of elements)" oh yes! and visual artists will certainly have their elements all ready take on more solidarity when, at the end of his text, he extends a hand toward "the notion of programming," i.e., to the cybernetics of power. There are those who go much further (cf. France-Observateur, December 27, 1962), like the "Service de la Recherche de la R.T.F.," which wanted nothing less than to "create a situation" last December 21 by organizing a conference at UNESCO, with the participation of the well-known extraterrestrials who edit the journal Planète.
The dialectic of history is such that the victory of the Situationist International in matters of theory already obliges its adversaries to disguise themselves as Situationists. From now on there are two tendencies in the approaching struggle against us: those who proclaim themselves Situationists without having any idea of what it's all about (the several varieties of Nashism), and those who, on the contrary, decide to adopt a few ideas without the Situationists, and without mentioning the S.I. The growing probability that some of the simplest and least recent of our theses will be confirmed leads a number of people to adopt portions of one or the other without saying so. This is certainly not a matter of acknowledging antecedents or personal merits, etc. If there is any reason to point out this tendency, it is to denounce it on a single crucial point: in doing so, these people can speak of a new problem, so as to popularize it themselves after having rejected it as long as they could, and now extirpating only its violence, its connection with general subversion, thereby watering it down to an academic statement, or worse. With such intentions, it is necessary to conceal the S.I.
Thus the journal Architecture d'aujourd'hui (no. 102, June-July 1962) has finally got around to an account of "fantastic architecture," including certain former and present attempts that could be very interesting. But it so happens that only the S.I. holds the key to their interesting application. For the scribblers of Architecture d'aujourd'hui, they only serve to decorate the walls of passivity. The editor of this journal, for example, in his personal activity as an artist, if one may say so, has tried almost all the styles of fashionable sculptors, imitating them to the letter, which seems to have made him an expert on the subject of artistic conditioning. When such people take it into their heads that the surroundings ought to be improved, they act like reformers, countering a stronger pressure by slowing it down. These authorities of today are quite prepared to reform the environment, but without touching the life that goes on within it. And they coolly give the name of "system" to investigations in these matters, so as to be shielded from any conclusions. It is not for nothing that in this issue they criticize the underdeveloped "techinician" of unitary urbanism who had to leave the S.I. in 1960. Even this meager subtheory is too troubling for the eclecticism of converts from the old functionalism. We, however, rightly defend no system, and we see better than anyone, at all levels, the system that they themselves defend, and which defends them while maiming them so much. We want to destroy such a system.
We must make the same objection to those people who for six or ten months in some journals have been starting to rethink the problem of leisure time, or that of the new human relationships that will be necessary within the future revolutionary organization. What is missing here? Actual experience, the oxygen of ruthless criticism of what exists, the total picture. The Situationist point of view now seems as indispensable as yeast, without which the dough of the best themes raised by the S.I. falls again in a few years. Those who are entirely shaped by the boredom of current life and thought can only rejoice in the leisure of boredom. Those who have never accurately perceived either the present or the potential of the revolutionary movement can only search for a psychotechnical philosophers' stone. One that would transmute modern depoliticized workers into devoted militants of leftist organizations, reproducing so well the model of established society that, like a factory, they could hire a few psychosociologists to apply a little oil to their microgroups. The method of sociometry and psychodrama will not lead anyone very far ahead in the construction of situations.
To the degree that participation becomes more impossible, the second-class engineers of modernist art demand everyone's participation as their due. They distribute this invoice with the instruction booklet as the now explicit rule of the game, as if this participation had not always been the implicit rule of an art where it actually existed (within the limits of class and depth which have framed all art). They urge us insolently to "take part" in the spectacle, in an art that so little concerns us. Behind the comic aspect of this glorious beggary, one comes upon the sinister spheres of the cultural gendarmes who organize "participation in things where is it impossible to participate" work or the leisure of private life (cf. Internationale Situationniste 6, page 16 [Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism]). In this light, one ought probably to take another look at the seeming naïveté of Le Parc's text, its peculiar unreality in the relation to the public he would like to "stimulate." "In this concern for the spectators' violent participation," he writes, "one could even arrive at non-realization, non-contemplation, non-action. One might then be able to imagine, for example, a dozen non-action spectators sitting motionless in the most complete darkness and saying nothing." It so happens that when people are placed in such a situation, they cry out, as all those who participated in the real action of the negative avant-garde have fortunately been able to notice. Nowhere has there been, as Goldmann believes, an avant-garde of pure absence, but only the staging of the scandal of absence to appeal to a desired presence, "provocation to that game that is the human presence" (Manifesto in Internationale situationniste 4). The pupils of the "Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel" have such a metaphysical idea of an abstract public that they certainly won't find it on the terrain of art all these tendencies postulate with incredible impudence a totally besotted public, capable of the same weighty seriousness as these specialists for their little contrivances. But on the other hand, such a public shows signs of being created at the level of global society. It is the "lonely crowd" of the world of theater, and here Le Parc is no longer so far ahead of reality as he thinks; in the organization of this alienation, there surely is no spectator free to remain purely passive. Even their passivity is organized, and Le Parc's "stimulated spectators" are already everywhere.
Furthermore, we note that the idea of constructing situations is a central one of our time. Its mirror image, its slavish symmetry, appears in all conditioning. The first psychosociologists Max Pagès claims that only about fifty of them have emerged in the last twenty years are about to multiply quickly; they are learning how to manipulate quickly; they are learning how to manipulate given but still crude situations, which would include the permanent collective situation that has been devised for the inhabitants of Sarcelles. The artists who align themselves in this camp to rescue a speciality of scene painters from cybernetic machination do not hide the fact that they've made their debut in the manipulation of integration. But with respect to the artistic negation that rebels against this integration, it appears that no one, unless he sticks to a position, can approach this minefield of situations without bumping into another dispute, coherent on all levels. And first of all the political level, where no future revolutionary organization can seriously be conceived any longer without several "Situationist" qualities.
We speak of recovering free play, when it is isolated on the sole terrain of familiar artistic dissolution. In the spring of 1962, the press began to take note of the practice of the happening among the artistic avant-garde of New York. This is a kind of spectacle dissolved to the extreme, an improvisation of gestures, of a Dadaist bent, by people thrown together in an enclosed space. Drugs, alcohol, and sex all play a role. The gestures of the "actors" attempt a mixture of poetry, painting, dance and jazz. One can regard this form of social encounter as a borderline case of the old artistic spectacle whose remnants get thrown into a common grave, or as an attempt at renewal in that case, too overloaded with aesthetics of an ordinary surprise party or classical orgy. One might even think that, by its naive wish for "something to happen," the absence of outside spectators, and the wish to make some small innovations on the meager scale of human relations, the happening is an isolated attempt to construct a situation on the basis of poverty (material poverty, poverty of human contact, poverty inherited from the artistic spectacle, poverty of the specific philosophy driven to "ideologize" the reality of these moments). The situations that the S.I. has defined, on the other hand, can only be constructed on the basis of material and spiritual richness. Which is another way of saying that an outline for the construction of situations must be the game, the serious game, of the revolutionary avant-garde, and cannot exist for those who resign themselves on certain points to political passivity, metaphysical despair, or even the pure and experienced absence of artistic creativity. The construction of situations is the supreme goal and first model of a society where free and experimental modes of conduct prevail. But the happening did not have to wait long to be imported to Europe (December at the Galerie Raymond Cordier in Paris) and turned completely upside-down by its French imitators. The result was a mob of spectators frozen in the atmosphere of an Ecole des Beaux-Arts ball, as pure and simple publicity for an opening of little Surrealist-type things.
Whatever is constructed on the basis of poverty will always be reclaimed by the surrounding poverty, and will serve its perpetuators. Early in 1960 (cf. "Die Welt als labyrinth," in Internationale situationniste 4), the S.I. avoided the trap that the Stedelijk Museum's proposal had become, a proposal that called for the construction of a setting that would serve as a pretext for a series of urban dérives in Amsterdam and thus for some unitary urbanist projects. It turned out that the plan for a labyrinth submitted by the S.I. would be subjected to thirty-six kinds of restrictions and controls, thereby reducing it to something scarcely different from a product of traditional avant-garde art. We accordingly broke the agreement. This avant-garde museum seems to have remained inconsolable for quite a while, since only in 1962 did it finally come forth with "its" labyrinth, more simply entrusted to the "nouveau réalisme" gang, which assembled something very photogenic with "dada in its heart," as Tzara used to say in the good old days.
We see that when we comply with the requests of those who urge us to exhibit usable and convincing detailed plans why should we have to convince them? they either turn them against us at once as proof of our utopianism, or else favor a watered-down version for the moment. The truth is that you ask for detailed plans from almost all the others you're the one who decides what number might be satisfactory but certainly not from us; it is our thesis that there can be no fundamental cultural renewal in details, but only in toto. We are obviously well situated to discover, some years before others, all the possible tricks of the extreme cultural decay of our time. Since they can only be used in the spectacle of our enemies, we keep some notes about them in a drawer. After a while, someone really rediscovers a lot of them spontaneously and broadcasts them with great fanfare. Most of the ones we possess, however, have not yet been "overtaken by history." Several may never be. It is not even a game; it is one more experimental confirmation.
We think that modern art, wherever it has really found innovators and critics through the very conditions of its appearance, has well performed its role, which was a great one; and that it remains, despite speculation on its products, hated by the enemies of freedom. One needs only to look at the fear inspired at this moment in the leaders of the homeopathic de-Stalinization by the slightest sign of its return to their homeland, where it had been caused to be forgotten. They denounce it as a leak in their ideology and confess it is vital to their power to hold a monopoly in manipulating this ideology at every level. All the same, those who now make money in the West on the respectful extensions and artificial revivals of the stymied old cultural game are in reality the enemies of modern art. As for ourselves, we are its residuary legatees.
We are against the conventional form of culture, even in its most modern state, while obviously not preferring ignorance, the petit-bourgeois common sense of the local butcher, or neo-primitivism. There is an anticultural attitude that flows toward an impossible return to the old myths. We place ourselves on the other side of culture. Not before it, but after. We say that one must attain it, while going beyond it as a separate sphere, not only as a domain reserved for specialists, but above all as the domain of a specialized production that does not directly affect the construction of life including the very lives of its own specialists.
We are not wholly lacking in a sense of humor; but this very humor is of a somewhat different kind. If it is a matter of choosing quickly what attitude to adopt toward our ideas, without getting into the fine points or some more subtle understanding of nuances, the simplest and most correct one is to take us literally and with utter seriousness.
How are we going to bankrupt the prevailing culture? In two ways, at first gradually and then abruptly. We propose to use some concepts artistic in origin in a nonartistic way. We have begun with an artistic exigency, which did not resemble any former aestheticism since it was indeed the exigency of revolutionary modern art at its highest moments. We have thus brought this exigency into life, toward revolutionary politics, meaning its absence and the search for explanations of its absence. The total revolutionary politics that flows from it, and that is confirmed by the highest moments of the true revolutionary struggle of the last hundred years, then comes back to the beginning of this project (a wish for direct life), but now without there being any art or politics as independent forms, nor the recognition of any other separate domain. The objection to the world, and its reconstruction, live only in the undivided nature of such a project, in which the cultural struggle, in the conventional sense, is merely the pretext and cover for a deeper task.
It is easy to draw up an endless list of problems and difficulties in order of priority, as well as some short-term impossibilities that are saddening. It is probable that the excitement, for example, aroused among Situationists by the project of massive demonstration at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO testifies first of all to the taste, latent in the S.I., to find a concrete field of intervention, where Situationist activity would appear openly and positively as such, a kind of construction of the event here combined with the taking of a resounding position against the world center of bureaucratized culture. Complementary to this aspect of things, the views upheld by Alexander Trocchi, previously and at this moment, on the clandestine nature of a portion of Situationist actions may lead us to augment our freedom of intervention. To the degree to which, as Vaneigem writes, "we cannot avoid making ourselves known up to a certain point in a spectacular way," [Basic Banalities, part 2] these new forms of clandestinity would doubtless be useful in combating our own spectacular image, which our enemies and disgraced followers are already forging. Like every source of attraction that can be constituted in this world (and though our "attraction" is really quite particular), we have not begun to unleash the adverse forces of submission to ourselves. If we are not to yield to these forces, we will have to invent for ourselves adequate defences, which in the past have been very little studied. Another worrisome subject for the Situationists is surely the kind of specialization requires, in a society of highly specialized thought and practice, by the task of holding the fort of nonspecialization, besieged and breached on all sides, while raising the flag of totality. Still another is the obligation to judge people in terms of our actions and theirs, and to break off relations with several whom it would be pleasant to know in private life an unacceptable frame of reference. Nevertheless, the quarrel with what exists, it is also involves daily life, is naturally translated into struggles within daily life. The list of these difficulties, we say, is a long one, but the arguments that flow from it are still extremely weak, since we are perfectly well aware of the alternative way of thinking at this crossroads of our time: namely, unconditional surrender on all points. We have founded our cause on almost nothing: irreducible dissatisfaction and desire with regard to life.
The S.I. is still far from having created situations, but it has already created Situationists, and that is something. This power of liberated dispute, in addition to its first direct applications, shows that such liberation is not impossible. This is how from now on, in different areas, the task will be glimpsed.