les presses du réel

Mobile Album International #01 – In between

Anselm Jappe – Situationists and separations
(p. 110-114)
© the author, Mobile Album

Forty years ago, when Guy Debord published Society of Spectacle, he also aimed to sum up situationist theory. The first chapter is named The culmination of Separation, and all along the book the concept of separation constantly comes back, along with those that relate to it : scission, specialization, isolation, or, on the contrary, unification. The controversial concept of spectacle is in itself a variant of the concept of separation : it highlights the separation between actors and spectators — and hence between managers and underlings in general — and the socially organized passivity that follows from it. Giving such centrality to the Critique of Separation (title of a 1961 film by Debord) was absolutely coherent for Debord. From the beginning the central claim of the young lettrists, and then the situationists (groups that were leaded by Debord) was to bound life to art. This did not mean giving a greater place to art in life, but searching to go beyond the separations between, on one side everyday life, economics and utility, and on the other art as the expression of a possible human fullness. Art had to be « realized », and to make that possible it was first necessary to go out of the art world, and change the whole society. It is because of this project, defended for over fifteen years (1957-1972), that the situationists have often been qualified as the last avant-garde. And yes, they did radically take up what used to be the deep tendency of the historical avant-garde : moving beyond art as a separate field. First, the modern artists wanted to override the barriers between the different art practices (painting, literature, music...) ; then they claimed not to be (solely) artists, refusing the confinement of art.

But a much more radical attempt was to « change life » so that the whole life would be up to art and all its promises. The situationists wanted to apply this in real life, raising back the banner of the Dadaists and surrealists. The everyday was to be the unitarian place for life, and its revolution the backbone of anything that pretended to go towards a non-alienated society. Art only had to melt into everyday life. It must be said that the situationists were not the only ones facing this idea. At the time when Debord was writing : “In a society without classes, could it be said, there will be no more painters, but situationists who would, among other things, be painting” (Report on the Construction of Situations, 1957), one of the members of Fluxus, Allan Kaprow, was saying : “Today's young artists do not need anymore to say :“I am a painter, or a poet, or a dancer”. They are just artists”. Situationists as well as Fluxus intended to use the legacy of art for the creation of an exciting everyday life, starting within experimental groups.

But appearances are deceptive. The situationists and Fluxus set similar issues, but their projects were not close — and not just because of some “missed meeting”. For a better understanding of this, the habit of locking the situationists in one of art history's drawers labeled “anti-art” should be given-up. The adventure of the situationists was not only driven by the legacy of avantgarde art, but also just as much by the thought of a possible revival of a revolutionary working-class movement, and of Marxist theory. Their aim was to achieve a “radical separation from the world of separation” (Society of Spectacle, § 119). The situationists — and that was one of their strong points — read again the revolutionary project through modern art, and viceversa. Given the fact that this aspect of situationist activity is now likely to become less known, it might be worth taking a glance backwards to understand the controversial relationship between a certain minority Marxist tradition and modern science's tendency to always establish even more separations.

It is in the eighteenth century that “humanities” begun their process of differentiation and specialization, that went on uninterrupted until today. The proliferation of disciplines, fields, and objects of study left in charge of ever more specialized “experts”, is today considered by bourgeois science as the basic guarantee of scientism for studies on mankind, finally stripped off of unverifiable philosophic speculation. The pilling-up of knowledge was the official pretext for the setting-up of disciplinary boundaries, as the central element of all positivist programs which have followed for nearly two centuries. The real reason of this determination is rather to be sought for in the desire to bring the study of mankind to “operationality” and “ usefulness”, so that it may be put to work for the new society based on labor : the goal was not so much to understand what mankind is — as it used to be in the tradition of philosophy — but to enhance the use of mankind. So as to have machine-man work at best, it is suitable for every engineer to take care of a single wheel — the same applies to medical science. This fundamental purpose of humanities always ends up covering up any other tendency that may rise within them, because it fits the social role they were designed for. Meanwhile, it reenacts the crumbling of modern life into separate fields (work / leisure ; private/public ; economics / politics ; art / seriousness ; and so on), unknown in previous times.

But, in time, the results obtained in this crumbling race turned out to be quite unsatisfactory, including from the point of view of a science only willing to present useful conclusions to its employers. So it steadily generates contradictory reactions. The machinery of science itself indulges into “interdisciplinarity”. But, as the word suggests, this is all about fitting together pieces that have previously been carefully broken, and to have specialists talk together about the ways of linking after the fact scientific results that are useless because of their unidimensionality. So other attempts rise outside the walls of the university, reacting to a scientific spirit that has lost track not only of the forest, but also of the trees, and then the branches. Holistic thought, periodically reborn, sometimes manages to pin down efficiently the limits of official science. But its own search for “wholeness” always tends to suppose more or less religious “essences” that, as they cannot be proven, remain a question of faith. “Qualitative” thought goes by official science, just as modern irrationality follows modern rationalism like its shadow, without ever being able to go past it, and thus staying there as its distorting mirror.

The other attempt to oppose the shrinking of the study of mankind to the making of a toolbox goes back to the times when this shrinking began. It can be found in Hegel's first formulation of modern dialectical thought. Here, all the figures of knowledge are always transmuting one into an other, because they only are temporary forms of a continuously developing mind. With Marx, this way of describing reality looses its privileged reference to the world of representations. But it would be a deep mistake to consider the work of Marx as a work of “economics”, or even to talk of a passage from philosophy to economics in the development of his work. The “critique of political economy” (the subtitle of Capital) is a large critique of life and production in capitalist society, building on its basic patterns (commodity, labor, value, money, capital). As opposed to a widespread idea, Marx does not analyze an economical “base” over which would rise “superstructures”, such as religion, culture or family, for which other disciplines would be needed.

But that is what his followers did. Official Marxism rapidly gave up the dialectic reflection of totality that was at the core of the method of Marx. Using bourgeois science as a model, Marxism developed “Marxist economics”, “Marxist history”, “Marxist philosophy”, and so on. The first to oppose this trivialization of the theory of Marx was Georg Lukàcs in 1923 in his book History and Class-consciousness. He reminded that Marx's theory is an analysis of modern society as a whole comprised by commodity-form, that tends to weigh on every manifestation of human life. This interpretation has been taken up by various forms of “heretical” Marxism, including the Frankfurt School and the situationists, and contemporary “critique of value”. The Society of Spectacle is strongly influenced by Lukács. The category of totality implies that a social phenomenon is but a stage of a dynamic process. But for official Marxism, as for bourgeois science, facts have to be studied on their own first, in their independence, and only then comment on their “reciprocal effects”. As opposed to dialectical theory, bourgeois science and Marxism shaped on the same model do not consider politics and economics, state and market, individuals and society, capital and labor existing only as opposed factors, as opposed ends of a relationship that contains them (in modern society, it is commodity as a “crystallization” of labor) and will just as well melt them. If dominant thought rejects the concept of totality as “non-scientific” (or even bound to “totalitarianism”) and makes fun of it as a “vague supposition that everything is likely to have some kind of relationship with everything” (Adorno), other reasons may be suspected. Indeed, in this way it avoids having to state a global judgment, and for instance to conclude that western democracies, fascism, Stalinism, and nationalist third-world regimes are in the end just different shapes or different stages of the global development of commodity.

It is against this default of totality that the situationists stood up. For them, “workers” should “refuse the totality of their misery, or else nothing” (Society of Spectacle, § 122). Recomposing the totality that crumbled under the effect of commodification and spectacle, first in thought, then in practice, was the challenge of the situationists. But, according to them, it will not be possible to rebuild the social totality, and to go past the separations that make modern alienation, without having art come back into life from which it was separated at the beginning of modern times. It was nostalgia for the lost unity of art and life, and the practical will to reenact it that allowed situationists to be more than an artistic avant-garde. If historical circumstances have not made possible the accomplishment of their program, at least they had the merit of having formulated it, and tried to put it into practice.

Translation Hervé Roelants

 top of page