The Formula for Overthrowing the World


“The Hacienda must be built” – Ivan Chtcheglov, Formularly for a New Urbanism 

From Ivan Chtcheglov’s 1953 essay “Formulary for a New Urbanism” with it’s references to Campanella (“there is no longer any Temple of the Sun”) through to Debord’s recent writing, the Situationist circle has been obsessed with the occult, mysticism and secret societies… The “Here and Now” [Post-Situationist journal] editorial board appear to be suggesting that the SI emerge from three different traditions: one artistic, one political and a third which is largely ignored – that of the occult and secret societies.” – Stewart Home, “Introduction to the Polish Edition of The Assault on Culture

I was always interested in ancient cultures, the Egyptian, the Sumerian, the Central American and Jewish cultures… cultures that have left traces in our memories, from magic to religion to fanaticism,” said Ettore Sottsass, an Italian architect, designer, and member of the notable postmodern Memphis Group in the early 1980s. “Technologies of life which are not always rational, like those of the East, which progress by constant training of the body and mind.” Sottsass had also been associated with the Archizoom collective, a coterie of artists and architects dedicated to crafting the superarchiterrura – an “architecture of superproduction, superconsumption, superinduction to consume, the supermarket, the superman, super gas” achieved through the combination of mass production techniques with Pop Art. Over a decade earlier, however, Sottsass was a member of a tight-knit avant-garde group called the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, formed by Asger Jorn as a counterbalance to the art’s ideology equating beauty with functionality. In 1957 Imaginist Bauhaus merged with the Letterist International, led by Guy Debord, and the London Psychogeographic Association to create the Situationist International. Sottsass would exit the organization at this point, but, Stewart Home insists, “his attitudes are typical of those who belonged to the SI, even after the movement split into rival ‘cultural’ and ‘political’ factions.”

The disparate thread running from the Imaginist Bauhaus to the early days of the Situationist International and through Archizoom and superarchiterrura is a profound reinventation of society, on one hand through liberation of the modes of production in the Marxist sense, and integration of urban spaces with the techniques and imaginative sprawl of the modernist avant-garde. From Constant Nieuwhenhuy’s cybernetic New Babylon to Chtcheglov’s schizophrenic new urbanism, from Debord’s psychogeographical derives to the concept of the Situation itself, the central ambition of this revolutionary program is the building of a new societal environment oriented not towards labor, consumption, being, and wok, but the ludic – spontaneity, playfulness, imagination, and experimentation. It is nothing less than the Great Work, the succession formula used to “alter the face of the world.”

This description comes not from the Situationist’s journals, manifestos, and tomes, but from Eliphas Levi, the famous French occultist.

To what extent did the world of hermeticism play a role in shaping the Situationist approach, as Stewart Home insists, and importantly, does this matter? Given the impact of both this group on the networks of radical (post)political movements and organizations, be it May ’68, the Dutch Provos, the German Kommune 1, the Italian Autonomia, various insurrectionary anarchist groups and theorists, and the alter-globalization’s frequent usage of carnivalesque tactical frivolity, it seems to me to be a history worth considering, but one difficult to trace, pin down. Jean-Marc Mandosio’s work In the Cauldron of the Negative does just this, looking at the tension between Debord and Raoul Vaneigem’s approaches to revolutionary theory as well as the latter’s interest in alchemical symbolism and allusions.

In Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, the ludic takes the form of poetry, but this poetry is not to be confused with poetry as we commonly think of it is. Instead of words, this poetry is an active force capable of generating transformative energies; looking at Vaneigem’s earlier writings, Mandosio traces this viewpoint to the Surrealist’s utilization of poetry as expounded upon by Andre Breton. “The alchemy of the word” is a phrase that deeply interested Breton, commonly attributed to Arthur Rimbaud but found in the writings of alchemists from the Middle Ages. Breton surely sensed this, being steeped in the writings of Nicholas Flamel and Eliphas Levi. “The alchemy of the word,” for these pre-scientific tinkerers, was a reference to the “balance of letters” – “a theory of universal measure, which seeks to make all the data of human knowledge the object of an exact science” through which one takes an active part of creation. Vaneigem’s focus on poetry, Mandosio argues, elevates the process of making revolution to alchemical transmutation. Just as the hope was to transform base metals into gold, revolution is a creative act that will be the vulgar material of contemporary everyday life in the ludic utopia. There is no conjecture in seeing this trajectory, as Mandosio points out. Vaneigem himself wrote that “the laboratory of individual creativity transmutes the basest metals of daily life into gold through revolutionary alchemy.” This is further connected to the economic analyses done by Marx: here, revolutionary action is the modification to the modes of production and economic distribution through the combined will of the proletariat as a historical driver. But for the Vaneigem – and the Situationists as a whole – this is simply a shifting of banalities that leads to bureaucratic collectivism and deginerated worker’s states such as the Soviet Union and China; these entities, both Debord and Vaneigem argued, are merely perfected forms of the capitalist modes of production. Instead, the essence of revolution is nothing less than the wholesale transmutation of reality itself. In this quest, Debord wrote, the Situationists were like knights in search of an “evil Grail,” found only by those who dare wander, drift, derive in the wasteland.

Mandosio’s entire work is certainly worth reading in full, if for anything else a much different portrait of the Situationist International than is commonly presented. Also of interest in Benjamin Noy’s comments on the book, which looks in particular at the elements of prometheanism present in the Situationist tendency.

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7 Responses to The Formula for Overthrowing the World

  1. noir-realism says:

    Interesting stuff! Yea, the whole underbelly of this world, just like the modernists that came before it (i.e., Yeats, Eliot, Pound Golden Dawn, Crowley, Scientology, etc.) has always seem to be this hidden or occult thread of hermeticism that will not go away. One traces it throughout the history of the sciences, with even the greatest philosophers of the period of rationalism and empiricism holding onto heremetic thought. Strange how both have always fed on each other. Even that recent work by Ramey on Deleuze:

    One wonders what the fascination is for this hidden stream of thought truly is. Definitely needs a hearing in ongoing projects.

    • edmundberger says:

      Yeah, I’ve read Ramey’s book… I found it super interesting, and with the wealth of connections he draws in, it seems like it is something that should be kept in mind when discussing Deleuze’s philosophy. At the same time, I’m a little unconvinced but the final picture he draws of Deleuze, where the esoteric takes a precedent in his philosophy. What do you think?

      Aside from the Situationists and Deleuze, I’m also reminded of Bataille’s materialistic atheism (with his work on the sacred, I’ve always wondered to what degree the Situationist’s paid attention to his work. After all, the Letterist International was called “Potlatch”…), as well as the schizophrenia-as-shamanic-experience elaborated upon by Gregory Bateson and R.D. Laing – after all, their works are sort of a precursor to schizoanalysis, both being name-dropped numerous times by Deleuze and Guattari.

      But what is the fascination with occult all about in revolutionary theory? One possible explanation is that the mystical is a perfect way to innovate senses of otherness – the time of the Situationists, for example, is really at the peak of industrial capitalism, with all of its rationalizations, homogenizations, and the enfolding of social relations into the machinery of production. The combination of the political, the ludic, and the mystical are really embedded in the aura of that time. Stewart Home once castigated the Situationist theory as the ‘Frankfurt School dressed up in surrealist cliches’… I don’t know if the Situationists were really reading Marcuse, etc, but I would imagine the commonalities in their theories emerges from observations of their common targets of attack. Marcuse himself put such a priority on the ludic – “Eros and Civilization” is full of language describing borderline metaphysical properties of sexuality, asking what the body can do when removed from labor. And did he not call for “outbreaks of mass surrealism” alongside hard, analytically-backed political struggles?

      On another level, I could see how both the occult and critical theories share similar properties. Each looks at reality as an image obscuring the actions underneath, and call on that curtain to be pulled back. Both seem to rely on pulling disparate out and blending them, carefully measuring their properties, hoping to find that perfect combination of elements that will usher in the new.

      • noir-realism says:

        Yea, Ramey centering on that early essay by Deleuze, and Deleuze himself in The Fold incorporating a great deal of Leibniz’s monadic and esoteric thinking either consciously (which I suspect) or unconsciously. Deleuze read almost everything but left out much of his reading in his writing.

        Bataille once you’ve read The Absence of Myth his writings on Surrealism was very much a reader of the hidden traditions in one form or another, and Nick Land, his disciple incorporates a lot of the Bataillean cosmos without every detailing it out in any literal reading of Bataille himself. I mean A Thirst for Annihilation and subsequent writings are all based on his antagonism with Kant throughout its modernist inheritance.

        One can read certain histories of the Golden Dawn, works about Aleister Crowley, Scientology, the modern Occult movements, etc. and realize that many of their ideas and notions influenced both art and theatre etc. as well as many performative artists and groups like the Situationists.

        All of it comes to a questioning of the Enlightenment Project of Reason. Its this critique of Reason by other methods… Stephen Flowers in his history of The Left-Hand Path clarifies much of this, and other more European scholars such as Wouter J. Hanegraaff, in Esotericism and the Academy document it in an academic fashion. As well as Antoine
        Faivre and other scholars.

        From Shamanism to Voodooism, between flights of transcension on world trees, to the incarnation of the horse and rider in voodoo of immanent powers in dance and song, etc. one discovers this need to escape the Prison of Instrumental Reason. Even the revival in our time of gnosis, and Gnostic thought from the Dead Sea Scrolls is a part of this need to escape the Enlightenment Project.

        A lot of it moves from the religious and back into politics with the utopian strains of capitalism and Marxism from Ernst Bloch to Transhumanism in the strange sciences of NBIC, etc. As well as the violent strains…. or more dystopic pessimism.

        All needs to be brought in… Just started reading Grail Marcus’s Lipstick Traces again about the pre and later Punk Rock years and the undercurrents that fed into that world of violence and music.

  2. dmf says:

    I’m sure this (like most things) falls into something roughly like personality-types/tastes/styles but I’m with Will Self and co. who are inspired by and take part in efforts to wander in the ruins and take quixotean stands against the attempts to homogenize for profit&power but remain on the terra-firma of depressive realism.
    The far better book on Deleuze’s esoterica to my mind is Kerslake’s, he dropped in over @ larval-levi’s a while back:

  3. dmf says:

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