The Unreturnable Situationist International: Berfrois Interviews McKenzie Wark
by Sam Cooper
McKenzie Wark is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at The New School. His most recent book, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International , offers a reconsideration of the movement in terms of its lesser-known participants, its fringe activities, and its relevance for today. He is also the author of A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and Gamer Theory (2007).
Sam Cooper is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sussex. His thesis is titled ‘A Lot to Answer For': The British Legacy of the Situationist International.
There are now a lot of books about the Situationist International, which suggests that there are a lot of different ways to approach the group. How would you characterise your approach?
The Situationist International is the gift that keeps on giving, in the ambiguous sense that gifts are a good thing but also a problem: We don’t always know how to make them go away. Part of it is that culture works that way. Sometimes things disappear after fifteen minutes, sometimes they disappear after a hundred years. Part of it is that the Situationist International is rich enough for its story to be retold all over again in order to extract a somewhat different array of concepts that speak to our present. I wanted to find the version that would speak to the early twenty-first century. Part of it involved decentering the story. It struck me as unusual that no-one had done this already: No-one had said, “let’s decenter this story away from Paris, let’s write women back into this story, let’s acknowledge the North African presence in the Situationist International”. I didn’t get as far there as I would’ve liked, because the less central figures tend to be less well documented, but let’s acknowledge that this was a transnational network of men and women, speaking several languages, and tell that story instead.
You just mentioned what you also state in the first chapter, that you’re attempting to retrieve ‘a past specific to the demands of the present’. In what ways does the version of the Situationist International that you retrieve speak to the present?
One received version of the story is that the Situationist International is the group that most clearly anticipates May 1968. I think that version is still substantially true, but I also think that May ’68—one of the greatest general strikes in history—isn’t such a great guide to what cultural and political life in the twenty-first century is really like. So what else were the Situationists about? It strikes me that there are several important keys in their body of work. One is the transnational network. How do you create networks across languages, across cultures? I’ve tried to do that myself, so I was interested in their attempts, and where those attempts fell apart.
Another key is that while there is a certain effectiveness in the taking-to-the-streets model of action, it also has severe limits. I found someone like Constant really interesting because he wanted to address a much bigger scale—questions of design at the level of infrastructure—and those things can get left out. At the moment, there is a real fetishising of ‘the Political’, and I think that in an era when politics is so miserably failing, why are our philosophers fetishising ‘the Political’? Isn’t that the last place you’d want to go? So Constant asks, why don’t we think of the infrastructural organisation of life, and how that could be done differently?
New Babylon, Constant, 1959-74
The category of everyday life is now an established one, discussed as an object of study, but how is it to be practiced? What are practices of everyday life? The best known story to come out of the Situationist International about that is the dérive, which involves wandering the streets, discovering new ambiances, constructing new psychogeographies that could contain intimations of what future landscapes would look like if we were free from private property and wage-labour, and so on. That’s great, but it’s a bit of a young man’s game—to roam the streets in a pack, after a few drinks—not everyone can do that, or at least it’s not advisable in an age when there’s a CCTV camera on every street corner. Michèle Bernstein, whom I write about, has a really fabulous and less masculinist version of what the experience of the everyday could be like. She’s also interested in love, sex and romance, as games played out in the space of the city, in ways that aren’t about treating other people as your property. I don’t know if it’s also called ‘hook-up culture’ in the UK, but in the US there’s been a transformation in how young people think about love and sex and everyday life, and Bernstein’s two novels anticipate that in really interesting ways.
You mention in the book that you want to defend ‘low theory’, which is a concept that seems to relate to these practices of everyday life. What do you mean by ‘low theory’, and how is it connected to the Situationist International?
Well, the American university is where so-called ‘French theory’ was actually invented, and not in philosophy departments but via comparative literature, other literature departments, sometimes media studies, and various other places. So you couldn’t quite call it philosophy—it got called ‘theory’ and sometimes ‘high theory’. You end up with this construct, based essentially around the reception of Derrida into the Anglophone world through these centres of intellectual power in the US. And this is interesting, but it occupies a certain kind of terrain, a certain space. It requires a certain training.
I’ve always been much more interested in something else: The self-conscious attempt to construct conceptual practices outside of formal settings. That is what Marx did, it’s what Freud did, it’s what Benjamin did; I’d even say it’s what Nietzsche did, because of course he’s on ‘permanent leave’ when he’s writing all these amazing books, when he’s already losing it. Somehow, these guys are all now ‘high theory’, but that’s not where they came from whatsoever. Marx is not a philosopher, Freud is not a philosopher, Benjamin is not a philosopher; I’d even say Nietzsche is not a philosopher. They’re all doing ‘low theory’, and I’m trying to tell stories that fit into that tradition, maybe not at that level, but as a whole other way of thinking about the practice of knowledge in everyday life. This puts on the table the question of the politics of knowledge in a way that can’t be directly asked, or answered, in the space of the university.
Asger Jorn, photograph by Børge Venge
The jury will be out for a hundred years as to whether anything by the Situationist International is of the same quality [as Marx, Freud, Benjamin, etc.], but one makes the case. In the work of Asger Jorn there is some astonishing stuff. He was trying to ask, what is the practice of the class to which an artist belongs? This is a pretty astonishing question to be asking in the Fifties, when artists either imagined themselves to be petit-bourgeois peddlars of their own souls, or they tried to align themselves with the working class through being communists, as even Picasso tried to do. Jorn asks, is there another way to think about creative practice?
The language and the style of your book seem to conjure something of the Situationist project, which seems to have been a tactical decision on your part, consistent with this idea of ‘low theory’. How does the book’s style relate to its content?
I am, first and last, a writer. Like any writer, I’m interested in good examples of the craft. The danger is that you read really good stuff and you end up imitating it. I’ve certainly done that. I have whole notebooks of stuff that reads like Debord in translation. He’s an astonishingly interesting writer in French, and a lot of it survives in English translation. I didn’t want to write a book that imitated him, but I did want a certain prickliness in some of the prose, a certain spiky quality. So it was an exercise in style, in finding a style appropriate but not imitative.
This book came after two books that are straight-up détournements of Situationist texts: A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory were rewritings of the two canonical Situationist texts, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Raoul Vaneigem’s book, known in English as The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967). So it’s taken me three books so far, and I haven’t even arrived at Debord’s late prose which I think is particularly valuable. While I’ve tried to decenter the story away from Debord, he is still the Situationist International’s best writer. I love Jorn, but his writing is really torturous: He’s a good bad writer!
The Situationist International maintained that it never offered itself up to academic study, or to translation into other types of discourse. They were very wary of being appropriated for ends other than their own. How have you dealt with that dilemma?
I don’t think this is so unique to Situationist texts. Any work worth paying attention to usually tries to armour itself against certain kinds of appropriation, which itself reveals a nervousness, a sense of inevitability, about appropriation. I’m sure the Situationists felt this way. After all, they came up with the theory of détournement—that the whole of culture works by plagiarising itself because none of it is private property and all of it belongs to everybody. The Situationists even say that the best example of détournement is advertising, which plagiarises anything of any interest and attaches commodity desire to it. So, if that was your theory, you would get incredibly nervous about the fact that it’s inevitable that you’re going to be appropriated!
I did a little book, as a trial for this one, called 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. I showed this to an artist friend, and he had a fantastic response, “50 years of recuperation of the Situationist International? May there be 50 more!” And I thought, thank you! That is exactly right! The work that is valuable in culture in the long term is the unreturnable gift, the thing we just don’t know how to get rid of. I’m sorry to say, love her or not, Amy Winehouse: There’s an art that, in a couple of years, we could be done with. It’s a gift we can return, it’s probably not up there (though I could be proven wrong). We can repay that one and it’ll go away. But this one, the Situationist International, it just won’t go away.
Situationist leaflet, Denmark. Photograph of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley, 1963
Were there aspects of the Situationist project that you found, now, to be redundant or to have been outflanked by politics or by history?
I’m reluctant to trade in that wisdom of hindsight, but in this sense of the unreturnable gift, all of the Situationists’ work is simultaneously redundant and not. As I was saying, the dérive is now hard to do: in the age of the CCTV camera, there is no available invisibility in that sense. The concept of spectacle has certainly evolved way past what Debord described—it didn’t get any better, it got worse.
But then Constant’s utopian schemes, for example, are to me very poignant. He imagines the ability to change global climates: he didn’t realise that actually we’ve already done that, inadvertently. There is a pathos there that is both dated and not. So, my answer is that these stories about the Situationist International are rooted in very particular histories. The historical nature of conceptual thought is something worth stressing at the moment: there is no eternal, Platonist, political universe that you can extract, as is now common to think. The moment that a good concept speaks to is, at one and the same time, the day on which it was published and the century in which it happens.
How did you, personally, come to the Situationist International? How have your own activities informed your understanding of the Situationists?
Having been a militant in my youth, and then living through a peripheral but nonetheless interesting bohemia, I was interested in those two spaces. Eventually I became an academic, but I’m still more interested in those other spaces; they are where I get ideas from. In the Eighties and Nineties I was involved in avant-garde movements of probably no great historical significance, but we gave it a shot. We were interested in media, the internet. We weren’t techno-utopians, we were quite tactical. I wanted to write about that, and failed, but I asked myself, what was the book most of us read? It was Society of the Spectacle. So I re-read that, which lead to Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory. The Beach Beneath the Street is, in a sense, a prequel to those two. It excavates a bit more thoroughly what I thought I was doing in those texts.
Situationists coming out from the British Sailors Society during the 4th Conference of the Situationist International. From L to R: Attila Kotányi, H.P. Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Asger Jorn (covered), Jørgen Nash (front), Maurice Wyckaert, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm, Jacqueline de Jong, with Katja Lindell missing.