In the first issue of Internationale situationniste, published in 1958, situationism was defined as "a meaningless term derived from situationist. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by anti-situationists" (Internationale situationniste, p. 13). This statement shows the uncompromising, oppositional quest for avant-garde purity that characterized this movement, founded in 1957 by seven intellectuals of various Western nationalities. The Situationist International placed itself within a subversive lineage that included surrealism and the lettrist movement of the Romanian poet and megalomaniac Isidore Isou, but its assault on culture, inextricably linked to political revolution, sought to overcome past "betrayals": the integration of surrealism into the art establishment and Isou's eschewal of communism.
The situationists waged war on what their dominant figure, Guy Debord (1931–1994), termed the "society of the spectacle," a society where individuals were passive consumers of art, leisure, education, and politics and were separated from the product of their labor. The spectacle was "diffuse" in the case of Western liberal democracy and "concentrated" in the authoritarian communism of the East. Debord and his comrades aimed to construct a "situation," defined as "a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambience and a game of events" (p. 13). The "situation" was a moment of intensity that broke with the drudgery and illusory pleasure of everyday life, a moment when the spectator became a subject of history and created what another situationist theorist, Raoul Vaneigem (b. 1934), called the "poetry of acts" rather than the "poetry of words."
Various techniques were used by the situationists: psychogeography, "the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals," and, linked to this, the dérive (drift) or "technique of transient passage through varied ambiances" (p. 13). The aim was to redraw the map of an urban environment in the grip of the spectacle, to imagine utopia and make it come into being. The situationists' attitude toward art was also aggressive, entailing the détournement (hijacking) of existing aesthetic elements: Asger Jorn (1914–1973) painted over kitsch pictures found in flea markets; Debord made films that provoked the viewer out of passivity, and, most important, situationists created iconoclastic cartoon strips and graffiti.
About three hundred people passed through the Situationist International during its brief history, including the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi (1925–1984), the Dutch architect Constant (1920–2005), and the French critic (and Debord's first wife) Michèle Bernstein. Almost all were expelled for deviating from the group's principles, mainly at the behest of Debord. In the International, artistic creation was eclipsed by the revolutionary project. The events of May 1968 seemed to be the "situation" par excellence: an insurrection that took the establishment, both Gaullist and Communist, by surprise, one that challenged everyday life and in which slogans and propaganda techniques pioneered by the situationists were much in view. Revolution in the developed and prosperous societies of the West seemed possible and imminent.
The revolutionary tide ebbed, however, and the sudden popularity of situationist ideas gave rise to the unwelcome figure of the pro-situ, a passive consumer of badly digested "situationism." In the face of this, in 1972 Guy Debord dissolved the organization: at the time, there were only two members pure enough to remain. Debord embarked on an obscure period of wanderings; then, around the time of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he returned to his theory of the spectacle. In his last writings, Debord noted the fusion of "diffuse" and "concentrated" spectacles into an "integrated" form: there was no longer any opposition to the dictatorship of a capitalist system now out of control; the much-vaunted "rights of man" meant those of "man as spectator." In November 1994 Debord, having been diagnosed with an incurable illness, shot himself through the heart: this suicide was interpreted by many as one last, desperate expression of revolt.
Apart from their seminal role in the intellectual climate of May 1968, situationist ideas have had a considerable cultural impact: on postmodernist philosophy, for example, notably that of Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929), and on British popular culture, embodied, notably, in the punk rock band the Sex Pistols. Since his death, Debord has become an icon, his image often stenciled on walls in bohemian areas of Paris. But this last detail may point to the limits of the situationist enterprise; Debord was a theorist of revolution who had an impact only in intellectual circles and not among the proletariat, which, in true Marxist fashion, he had theorized as revolutionary subject.
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Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. New York, 1990.
——. Society of the Spectacle. New York, 1994.
Vaneigem, Raoul. Revolution of Everyday Life. Translated by John Fullerton and Paul Sieveking. 2nd ed. London, 1979.
Home, Stewart. The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War. Translated by Malcolm Imrie. London, 1988.
Hussey, Andrew. The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord. New York, 2001.
Internationale situationniste. Paris, 1997.
Jappe, Anselm. Guy Debord. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Berkeley, Calif., 1999.
Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.