Whither Situationism? (Intellectual Gridlock and the Control Society)

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While detouring into the foray of art/anti-art/non-art as a mechanism for prompting social change or sustaining radical currents, I’ve been rereading a lot of material that emerged in the heyday of modernity, and I’ve been stuck with the sense of urgency described in those pages. Granted, much of it is from a distinctively Euro-centric viewpoint, but in my opinion the thoughts radiating from Europe throughout modernity provides excellent tools to sift through our perpetual catastrophism of transnational postmodernism, for it too was a time of constant and shifting crisis: World War I, World War II, the Reconstruction, colonial backlash, financial crisis… a consistent core has been the thoughts of the Situationists, that disparate and vehement opposition to just about everything that helped catapult us into postmodern through their role in the days of May ’68. Their collective work is a gift that keeps giving, a potlatch that repeatedly bestows us little nuggets of wisdom on the resistance to a spectacular society; this description may have been deployed against the disciplinary society, but it takes on even larger dimensions when situated in the context of our cybernetic control society. Sadie Plant’s The Most Radical Gesture illustrates how the more revolutionary-inclined manifestations of post-structuralist theory were heavily indebted to the Situationist’s renegade activism and post-academic speculative acceleration:

The interests of, vocabulary, and style of the situationist’s reappear in Lyotard’s railings against theory and Foucault’s maverick intellectualism, and the desiring philosophies invoked by Deleuze and Guattari continue to offer words on the “art of living.” The breadth of situationist theory and its magpie tactics of appropriation and detournement find their expression in the deconstructive eclecticism of poststructuralist writing, which similarly has no scrupples about taking ideas, examples, and forms of expression from anywhere. Many poststructuralist texts are mixtures of poetry and philosophy, fiction and journalism; distinction between disciplines, styles, and media are removed, and rigorous argument sits alongside unfounded speculation and unanswerable polemic. Like the Situationists, they observe that the world now seems to be a decentered and aimless collection of images and appearances, and constructed by the social relations in which it arises, and declare the apparent impossibility of future progress and historical foundation.1

But, as Plant points out, the similarities come quickly to an end when one reaches the conclusions drawn by much of poststructuralist theory. The Situationists maintained that the world of shattered images that they drifted through, psychogeographically analyzing with their scattershot poetry, was the byproduct of contemporary capitalist accumulation modes, and what was necessary for the system to continue its functioning. Like their fellow dialecticians in the Frankfurt School, they believed that there was, somewhere, a tumblr_lds16lj9qP1qbrntno1_400simultaneously primitive and future totality that had been broken part, and just like Marcuse and Adorno, they argued that the process that was to usher in the totality had become broken, made one dimensional, stuck in a self-replicating feedback loop – thesis and antithesis begets thesis and antithesis. In many ways, the Situationist theoretical approach is an inversion of Bataille, who had looked for some weapon to shatter the glass cage of the dialectical process, to break down this historical determinism into not a singular synthesis but into an array of lights, each shooting off into a different and undetermined direction. It is fitting then that Bataille would be a profound influence on many post-structuralist philosophers, namely, Barthes, Foucault and Baudrillard, though traces of his thought bubble up occasionally in Deleuze and Guattari.

These post-structuralists, Plant points out, had anointed themselves with the mission of toppling the capitalist system, yet “the trajectory of their search for its underlying mechanisms led them dangerously close to agreement with capitalism’s own self-image.”2 Plant would know this fact very well – soon after the publishing of The Most Radical Gesture, she would join forces with Nick Land in the creation of Warwick University’s Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit (CCRU), assembling the theory of accelerationism together from bits and pieces of mad Deleuzianism, Thatcher-esque abandon, cyberpunk sci-fi and dance music. But as Mark Fisher has effectively argued, the notion of accelerationism is not unique to the CCRU, with antecedents found even in Marx – let us not forget that he once declared that he would “always vote for free trade,” thanks the destructive capabilities that market capitalism brings along with it. Deleuze and Guattari’s own proto-accelerationism found in Anti-Oedipus is already well known and not worth reiterating at this point; what is worth pointing out, however, is that their notion of the nomad, that which travels along the flows that underlay that entirety of the mind and its extension, society, was already existent in the cultural foment that the Situationists emerged from. For example, in the writings of the Dadaist, the most critical of anti-art groups in the Situationist’s prehistory, we find the declaration that “One must be a nomad, pass through ideas as one passes through countries and cities.”3 Anti-Oedipus‘s complex argument that capitalism worked in tandem with the passage-networks of desire, forever deterritorializing previously coded flows, takes on larger dimensions when one considers how capitalism has now made us all nomads, be it the constant transportation to job sites on a variety of scales (just look at the BBC’s visualized data of global flight paths!), or the darker, forced migrations of populations from their previously held territories.

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It was Baudrillard who first took Deleuze and Guattari to task for being quasi-apologists for the capitalist system; his critique extended to their fellow post-structuralist theorists by a complex mapping of each theory together. For example, Foucault’s analysis of power painted a pessimistic and totalizing picture where any notion of lack, alienation, or dialectic – the cornerstones of anti-capitalist critique – is removed; that which constitutes the human itself as a subject is produced under the gaze of power itself, an aggregation rising from a network of information and signs that spiral together along the in the lines that power operates over the body. Beyond the human subject, power constructs the social body as well, down to the very resistance that attempts to overturn the system. Baudrillard grafts Foucault’s discourse on power onto Deleuze and Guattari’s politics of desire, which also rely on the absence of lack, alienation and dialectic; their picture is one of a body and social that is constructed under the endless movement and flux of desiring machines operating on micro levels. Thus, “desire” and “power” are not opposed terms – they are synonymous. Baudrillard continues:

This compulsion toward liquidity, flows, and an accelerated circulation of what is psychic, sexual, or pertaining to the body is the exact replica of the force which rules market value: capital must circulate; gravity and any fixed point must disappear; the chain of investments and reinvestment must never stop; value must radiate endlessly and in every direction. This is the form itself which the current realization of value takes. It is the form of capital and sexuality as a catchword and a model is the way it appears at the level of bodies.4

Baudrillard, like the Situationists (who he was most inspired by and whose theories he constantly updated throughout his entire career as a theorist), saw possibilities in the dialectical model (of course, this position would shift in his later writings as he abandoned all coordinates of humanism or historic progression); he thus made his argument the antithesis of the Foucault/Deleuze-Guattari/Lyotard thesis – a miniaturized scale of the conflict between power/capitalist and a forceful opposition. Yet this description still remains uneasy, for his own propositions emerged remarkably similar to that which he was opposing. For example, he declares capitalism a “pataphysical” construct, something beyond metaphysics, and argues that we must challenge it at its own game. Perhaps we can catch a glimmer of his tactic in his decision to play the game of the art galleries and the art market, after having already published attacks against this system. Furthermore, his own analysis would come to converge with that of Guattari when it came to the theories of semiocapitalism in the 1980s – they find themselves both in agreement, for example, that “power invades the sign-form in a number of ways,” by the control that the signifier has over the signified and by the utilization of semiotic limits.5 We can think instead of Baudrillard and that which he argued against as a living critique system, each attempting to stabilize and weight-out the imbalances of the other in search of a passageway to dissensus. Bifo illustrates this clearly: “If you only refer to Baudrillard’s vision, you miss the energy of subjectivation and the potency of autonomy. But if you read only Anti-Oedipus and forget about Symbolic Exchange and Death, you refuse to see the dark side of desire, and you risk becoming a fan of neoliberal deregulation and of the false ideology of boundless energy.”6

The complications that arise from all of these intermingling counter-courses is indicative of capitalism’s ability to recuperate things, to pick up on those deterritorializing flows that it is generating through its destructive, thanotropic entropy. The Situationists themselves were wary that they too could be bound up in the system: “Without a doubt, the critical concept of the spectacle is susceptible of being turned into just another empty formula of sociologico-political rhetoric designed to explain and denounce anything in the abstract – so serving to buttress the spectacular system itself.”7 Plant argues that just this thing has happened, that the proto-punk provocateurs have become the pop-prophets – radical chic, if you will. Drawing on Debord’s later writings such as Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, it appears that the “Spectacle” is no longer that which is hidden in capitalism, the unseen deep structure, but the postmodern face of the system. The former unity, promised by both the capitalists and the dialecticians, no longer passes as the illusion of choice – the world now acknowledges (gleefully, at times) its fragmentation, its own hall of mirrors that reflect nothing but itself. This emergence neuters the Situationist critique; it acknowledges it and scoffs. So what? is the question it begs, and with that the wind falls, the sails droop. The boat stalls in the water and begins to rotate in a circular current. No, not even a whirlpool, for that would provide too much momentum. The speed of acceleration has, to Debord, brought us to a point where speed is indescribable, where it appears we might not even be moving at all. Plant offers up a horrifying image, where everything that the Situationists held up as something revolutionary is recycled as commodity, the boat now as detritus washed ashore on the “terminal beaches of PoMo”:8

Dada’s cut-ups reappear in the fragmented texts of postmodern discourse, and surrealism’s collages resurface on advertisement hoardings. Works of art more real than reality itself practice a struggle for hyperreality of the over-commodified object and the disappearance of all aesthetic meaning, and many of those art forms characterized as postmodern appear as vacuous realizations of the situationist project. Boundaries between art and everyday life are eradicated, and distinctions between disciplines and styles are challenged with a new blossoming of discursive forms. Cultural references are glued, sometimes literally, onto the facades of factories and offices redundant even before their completion, and a curiously glamorous, classical, and superficial aesthetic, which is precisely that of the commodity, is painted over every remnant of the modern world. In gallery, street, and shop, the integrated environment has come into its own, and new technological developments continue to clear the way for holograms, laser lighting, and virtual reality to produce ever-more ecstatic forms of communication.9

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Such is the new way, the fulfillment of every revolution. But let us remind ourselves that these fulfillment are superficial, that they are a glossy veneer, a hollow guarantee, of the world that we really desire. We persist in the long trudge of life through a world modeled for us, where our mutable and shifting personas are tapped into by control’s surveillance apparatuses in order to better meet the so-called needs that are crafted for us by professional and industrial psychologists. The question is how to turn this trudge through life into a dance of life. We must accelerate the things that we see fit, further disrupt the boundary between life and art, between each discipline and the sphere of the “other,” non-discipline, liberatory potentials to be found through tactical use of information technologies; we must also find methods to slow down the saturation of our brains, the runaway capitalism that is plummeting us into dark futures. And perhaps most importantly, we must find adequate mechanisms for meta-modelizations, passages of being and becoming that escape the eye of the control society, meta-modelizations that allow us to rebuild our non-dialectical and undetermined future. It is time, now more than ever, that we all must get to work.

1Sadie Plant The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in the Postmodern Age Routledge, 2002, pg. 112

2Ibid, pgs. 112-113

3Ibid, pg. 125

4Jean Baudrillard Forget Foucault Semiotext(e), 2007, pgs. 39-40

5Gary Genosko “Guattari’s Contributions to the Theory of Semiocapitalism” The Guattari Effect, ed. Eric Alliez and Andrew Goffey, Continuum, 2011, pg. 120

6Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn “Interview with Franco Berardi”

7Quoted in Plant The Most Radical Gesture, pg. 150

8Mark Fisher and Robin MacKay “Pomophobia” Abstract Culture, Swarm 1, http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_pomo.htm

9Plant The Most Radical Gesture pg. 167

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4 Responses to Whither Situationism? (Intellectual Gridlock and the Control Society)

    • edmundberger says:

      Dmf, thanks for this! I’ve been pretty busy over the past couple of days so I haven’t really got a chance to dip into this until now, but from what I’ve listened to so far, this is a nice little treasure trove! Looking forward to exploring it further…

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