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The Situationist International

Michèle Bernstein

The Times Literary Supplement (September 1964)

THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL was founded in 1957 at a conference held in Italy and attended by a number of artists from several European countries. Some of them came from those avant-garde movements that had emerged around 1950 but were still almost completely unknown at that time: Cobra in northern Europe and lettrism in Paris.

As a start they aimed to go beyond artistic specialization — art as a separate activity — and delve beneath that whole movement of the breaking-up of language and dissolution of forms that had constituted modern art at its most authentic. It was decided that the first field of their future creativeness would embrace experiments in behavior, the construction of complete settings, moments of life freely created.

As any definition of such researches is simply another way of criticizing not only the whole of our present social life but any hierarchical social pattern at all, the situationists at the same time were rejecting the ineffectiveness and mystification of political specialization as a means of transforming the world. They claim that the creative activities initiated by them over the whole range of everyday life are the one and only basis for a new definition of the revolutionary ideal in our time.

This operation to which the situationists had committed themselves was so large in scale that the movement initially concentrated mainly on the formation of a new coherent theory of the modern world, as originally worked out in the Situationist International's reviews Internationale Situationniste (nine issues to date. P.O. Box 75-06, Paris), Situationistisk Revolution and Der Deutsche Gedanke. This theory at once sets forth — and attacks — our culture's trend towards organization of passive "spectacles" and all other aspects of the life of consumer society, outlining new counter-forms, from distortion of our artistic language — "communication containing its own criticism" — to unitary town planning "which is not a doctrine of town planning but a criticism of town planning." Our International, the IS, coming after the development both of our philosophy and of our art, at once refuses to proclaim any sort of doctrine and rejects the term "situationism" as used only by enemies of the situationist program.

The working-out of this theory goes hand in hand with the practical organization of collective activity. The situationists refuse to accept disciples; insist on recruiting only geniuses for the avant-garde task they have set themselves; reject any compromise and even any contact with conformism or with the repetitious mock-modernism of the culture we now have.

The situationists immediately exclude those of their number who fail in practice to maintain any of the strict positions of the group; they have often been reproached for this as a sign that they take their own declarations too seriously. As a result the situationist label has sometimes been usurped by certain intellectuals who have been expelled from the IS or even never been members of it: e.g., the followers of Nash in Sweden, the Germans who published the magazine Spur, the Dutch Nashists grouped round the Situationist Times, or technocratic town planners in the style of the architect Constant. True situationists are much more strongly opposed to all the prevailing mechanisms of culture and information; and so far they have carried out the main part of their work underground.

Important undertakings by the Situationist International are at the moment in course of completion. There are three books on the point of publication: Raoul Vaneigem's Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations, Guy Debord's La Société du Spectacle, Rudi Renson's L'Architecture et le Détournement. There is also the reversal of "pop-art" practiced by the painter J.V. Martin in his series of nouvel irréalisme, and some experimental documentary films. At the same time, the situationists flatter themselves that they influence radical minorities in certain revolutionary waves observable in Spain, the Congo, Scandinavia and Japan.

In a short space it is obviously impossible to develop any argument about situationist principles, or even to explain them with the necessary precision. The need to show their mutual interdependence and its relation to the whole forbids any summary by means of a few isolated points. Among the first intellectual groups who have so far had a chance to get to know these theses, the usual reaction is to ask if the situationists are serious, or if they are utterly mistaken and destined for unparalleled depths of stupidity. The situationists can guarantee that none of these doubts about them will be tenable in a hundred years' time.