Presented at 'Situationist Aesthetics: The SI, Now'
University of Sussex
Friday 8th June 2012
The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.
Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire
One of the slogans of May ’68 that has been rendered most ironic is: ‘Art is dead, don’t consume its corpse’; constantly reworked, the result is particularly ironic in regards to the ‘corpse’ of the Situationist International (SI). The desire to bury the corpse of the SI – ‘let the dead bury the dead’ – is accompanied by just as many resurrections or, for the more Hegelian amongst us, sublations. Here I want to engage in yet another act of ‘world-historical necromancy’ in relation to the SI. My aim is not to revive the corpse, or to pose the ‘poetry of the future’ that would arrive from some final ‘surpassing’. Rather I aim to consider the historicization and critique of the SI posed by one current of communisation – that of Roland Simon and the group Theorié Communiste (TC).
The reason for this, as we will see, is that it is art and aesthetics that is particularly at stake in this critique. Despite appearances I will not be taking sides for communization and against the Situationists, or vice versa. Instead, I regard the communizing interpretation of the fate of the SI as a means to reflect on the current situation of the reception and resurrection of the SI. To carry this task out I will attempt at least three impossible things after breakfast: first, to sketch the nature of the communization problematic, especially as it is articulated by Roland Simon and TC; second, to explore Simon’s reflections on the SI and how the aesthetic plays a crucial role; third, to consider how these reflections might problematize the dominant ‘aesthetic’ reception of the SI.
Communization, and Its Discontents with the Situationists
The theory of communization articulated by TC rests on what they regard as the crisis of the identity of the worker in contemporary capitalism. In particular, they argue that out of the capitalist crisis of the 1970s and the social struggles of workers in the same period the idea of affirming a proletarian identity against capitalism came to an end. This is what they call the end of ‘programmatism’. Emerging from the general ultra-left scepticism concerning the role of unions, parties, and other worker’s organizations in mediating capitalist social relations, TC take this further – they have little time for worker’s councils and other forms of ‘alternative’ worker’s organizations. Instead, they argue the restructuring of capital makes the identity of the proletariat a barrier or impossibility to be overcome. The penetration of capitalist real subsumption goes through the identity of the worker and the affirmation of work as the antagonistic pole of capitalism. The collapse of this possibility, as capitalism restructures and destroys these forms of mediation by the ‘worker’, and as workers’ themselves refuse them, means that the ‘proletariat’ can now only exist as the negation of work and worker’s identity. Therefore, communization refers to this process of self-abolishment and not to various forms of prefigurative or alternative identities or struggles. If we cease to affirm the proletariat, we cannot affirm some alternative ‘identity’.
The ‘place’ of the SI in this schema is one of being on the cusp of this change. On the one hand, the SI’s analysis of the dominance of the spectacle as form of abstraction and the bankruptcy of worker’s identity indicates the future lines of Communization theory. On the other hand, their faith in worker’s councils or alternative forms of ‘constructed situations’ mark them as remaining at the end of the period of programmatism. In Roland Simon’s formulation this contradiction meant that: ‘I think the SI led programmatism to its point of explosion.’ (2006) What Debord could not tie together, for Simon, was his theorization of the spectacle as reality – as real abstraction – and the possibility of revolution. His failure to grasp the proletariat as an internal negation results in the positing of an outside, or alternative, that escapes representation. This speaks to the ‘vitalism’ of the SI, more marked in Vangeim than Debord, but present nonetheless. ‘Life’ marks this ‘exterior’ – ‘beneath the cobblestones, the beach’ – in Tom Bunyard’s critical analysis: ‘The “real” thus becomes “life”, considered as an abstract and romantic potential, against which stands a “capital” that has become equivalent to all present social existence.’ (2011: 132, cf. 166) In contrast, Communization insists on the interiority of the proletariat to the formation of capitalism, as its antagonist and force of dissolution.
The Realization and Suppression of Art
This, in a nutshell, summarizes the argument of TC and their critique of the SI. This critique can also be put, as Simon (2009) does, in terms of art and aesthetics. The tension here lies in the SI’s claims to the realization and suppression of art. Again, in parallel with the position of the proletariat, we have the thesis of a ‘positive’ possibility of alternative formulations and art practices in tension, or contradiction (‘realization’), with the ‘negative’ possibility of the ‘abolition’ of art pending the revolutionary process that would sublate and rework this category (‘suppression’). In common with many standard histories of the SI this contradiction is given a periodizing position in Simon’s account. We have the ‘early’, ‘artistic’ SI (up to the split of 1962), and then the ‘political SI’ (1963 to the dissolution in 1972); so canonical is such a division it appropriately structures the wikipedia page for the SI.
In terms of the critical reading of the SI in regards to the communization thesis the ‘realization’ model implies the belief in prefigurative possibilities of artistic practice that can be realized within and against capitalism. The ‘constructed situations’ of the early SI presage revolution in the forms of enclaves or moments within the reign of the spectacle on this reading. For Simon, it is the penetration of real subsumption – the dominance of capitalism that reworks the production process to capitalist ends – that signals the end of this possibility, along with the end of an alternative ‘working class’ identity; any such ‘moments’ or artworks cannot be realized under the dominance of capital. In contrast, following through on the rigorous negativity of revolution, Simon argues that the suppression of art and the ‘politicization’ of the SI indicates a recognition that ‘art’ can only take place within the revolutionary process – within communization. Therefore, ‘constructed situations’ might better describe the process of revolution – qua Communization – than the pre-revolutionary and prefigurative process of ‘triggering’ revolution.
It is the difficulty that the SI finds in accepting this formulation that lies at the root, for Simon, of the necessity to surpass the SI. We might add that the so-called ‘pessimism’ of the later Debord is a sign of the difficulty of overcoming the desire for a ‘positive’ instantiation of artistic and revolutionary possibility. Also, the much-remarked nostalgia of the Debord and the SI could be indexed as one sign of the difficulty of giving-up on these hopes, or their displacement into the past. In this analysis the tracing of the dominance of capital displaces a sense of ‘internal’ opposition to an aestheticized outside (cf. Bunyard, 2011). The SI, in this argument, remains too attached to the aesthetic and hence can only offer an aesthetic image or representation of revolution. To move beyond this ‘world-historical necromancy’ and to find the ‘poetry of the future’ requires the abandonment of the aesthetic and the abandonment of ‘positive’ visions of revolution, such as the worker’s councils.
What interests me is that this periodization and analysis implies the overcoming of the SI, and the overcoming of the artistic and aesthetic as the ‘positive’ prefiguration of the SI’s vision of revolution. The irony is that the analysis of the SI has tended to take another direction, one that is far more in line with the supposedly ‘surpassed’ moment of realization. To use a phrase of Johanna Isaacson (2011), we might say that the legacy of the SI has been thought in terms of ‘lineages of expressive negation’.
An exhaustive account would be beyond the limits of my time and your patience. What I would suggest is that these ‘the lineages of expressive negation’ have dominated many of the receptions of the SI: from Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (1989), with its lineage of negation from the SI to punk, to McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street (2011), with its recovery of the ‘artistic SI’, the tendency has gone precisely in the other direction to that indicated by TC / Roland Simon.
I think, personally, this indexes a broader problem with the communization thesis, which claims justification in the historical actuality of the exhaustion of worker’s identity and the collapse of prefigurative radical politics, but then has to constantly account for why these ‘errors’ still occur. One absence, at least in the material I have read, is a convincing account for why these ‘errors’ should take place, unless it is regarded as unwarranted nostalgia or the lack of a ‘correct analysis’ of the present situation. This seems inadequate as an account of how these ‘errors’, if they are errors, are generated from social forms of struggle and forms of capitalist power.
In aesthetic terms, it indicates the persistent attraction of ‘expressive negation’ at a moment that is, to say the least, unconducive to such forms. The additional irony is that such ‘negations’ are often justified and retained precisely because of their positive forms. It is the fact that they seem existent possibilities, rather the austere path of the resolutely negative, that lends them a certain heft in the ‘weightless’ experience of capitalism. Without claiming to offer a full account, I would suggest that it is precisely the paradoxical ‘positivity’ of these ‘expressive negations’ that exerts attraction and fascination in the present moment. In this way, and here I have some sympathy with the communizing critique, the risk is of a consolatory function of the aesthetic.
In this sense it is precisely the radicalized negativity of the ‘expressive negations’ of the avant-garde that indicate a recognition of their own finitude. This effect of dissolution, captured in the thematic of fire doused in the waters of time, relies on a dialectic of transformation in which we ‘move onto a vaster terrain’. Of course, the difficulty is that this dialectic appears broken.
In that sense the Communization critique tries to re-establish this dialectic through the argument that the collapse of workers’ identity is not simply the sign of defeat but precisely the sign of transformation and movement onto this new terrain. The cultural and aesthetic negations of the avant-garde are couched by the SI as the prefigurative ‘charge’ that is expended into a new proletarian movement and, if we like, Communization shifts the form and the timescale. I’d suggest, however, that the lingering sense of nostalgia and pessimism in the later Debord (despite worthwhile attempts to re-read this moment in more strategic direction (Cf. Tom Bunyard, 2011)) indicate an impasse or impatience that this transformation has not been delivered.
Again, then, we could say that the aesthetic reading of the SI is not simply false but registers this uneasy position – one I would say that is as uneasy for communization as it is for the SI. What if we don’t move onto a ‘vaster terrain’ but a terrain that is constricted? Or, if we move onto a vaster terrain how is that to translate to the precise contestations required to rupture the real abstractions of capital? It is here, to adapt a phrase I’m fond of, we could speak of a ‘persistence of the aesthetic’. The turn to the aesthetic reading is not merely consolatory, although it can be that, but also a desire to provide some kind of more precise sense of negation in the present. Unsatisfactorily, I suppose, I can only sketch this as a problem. We live then in the moment of what Debord called a ‘splendid dispersal’.