Tag Archives: Guy Debord

Frederik Pohl’s mass consumer (1): The Midas Plague

fig. 1. Interior illustration for ‘The Midas Plague’ by Ed Emshwiller, Galaxy Magazine, April 1954.


There is something I find repellent about the idea of the book review. To my mind they rarely communicate more than the individual preference of the reviewer. Which is not to say that I believe we can find a single objective reading of any text, but rather that reviews—and here I am primarily thinking of reviews of fiction—rarely rise above the accident of opinion. If done well, the review can be a thing of beauty, a creative work in its own right. Even better, the critical review attempts to situate a text in the time and place of its composition and consumption, beyond the jaded whim of the reviewer. And perhaps best of all is the polemical review that treats the work at hand only as an opportunity to wade into the eddies of the historical present, with some combative advice on how best to remedy its dolorous state (preferably from an explicitly revolutionary perspective). Unfortunately, many reviews are rarely more than a hackneyed summary of the text with a vague judgment tacked on. But perhaps this is not the fault of any one reviewer but rather of the condition of reviews given the suffocating dominance of the mass market in book commodities. Today, the mundane truth of the review—whether hailing from blog or bespoke journal—is to be the handmaiden of the sales pitch, and little else.

Maybe this is why I feel less anxious and more relieved in reviewing old works—stories and novels past their publishing prime. Certainly, in the face of present turmoil I take comfort, after a fashion, in the relative stability of the recent past. ‘Stability’ here is strictly a temporal notion, in the sense that this time is over with, past, and complete (as it were), a relatively stable object of enquiry, even if this recent past was beset with its own instabilities and crises when possessed of the mantle of the historical present. Of course, in another sense the recent past is not done with to the extent that it remains with us: a constitutive element of the present insofar as it is an immediate condition of such. For example, the story I review below dealt with, in the 1950s, the then new reality of ‘mass consumption’ whose novelty has since metamorphosed into a mundane fact of the last half century of global capitalism. And perhaps here is where my review may play some critical or even polemical role: to defamiliarize ourselves from the suffocatingly commonplace by showing that what is apparently trivial or routine is anything but.


Some months back I outlined a research project of sorts, what I called the science fiction spectacle. There, I wanted to draw attention to one thing in particular: the appearance in works of science fiction in the 1950s and 60s of what Guy Debord called variously ‘the spectacle’ or ‘the commodity-spectacle’. For now, it is enough to say that by this Debord meant the materialisation of a world view based upon and manifesting the rise to dominance of commodity production and consumption, first in Europe and the US and then the rest of the world. Since outlining this project, I have also been ruminating upon a related notion of Debord’s: the decomposition of culture. In my reading of SF, particularly Anglo-American SF between 1940 and 1970, I have been struck by how it formally recapitulates the progression of the European literary avant-garde of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Namely, we witness in SF of this time and place, the emergence of a self-reflective and recursive decomposition of the artistic object. By “decomposition” I mean, primarily, the literary “experiments” in the form and content of the short story and the novel. This can be seen particularly in the rise of the so-called ‘new wave’ in science fiction in the 1960s.


So what has this got to do with Frederik Pohl?

“Finally, the review!”

Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954)

In the 1950s Pohl became known for stories that ruminated on the changing nature of contemporary society, particularly with regard to the transformations in the modes of production and consumption—what some called back then the emergence of a “consumer society”. His best known—and perhaps the classic iteration of 1950s SF satire—is the novel he wrote with C. M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953), aka Gravy Planet, in its original serial publication (Galaxy magazine, 1952). In the novel, Pohl and Kornbluth ably illustrate what Guy Debord would later describe as the “incessant fabrication of pseudo-needs”[1] consequent upon the rise to dominance of capitalist production:

He extended a pack of cigarettes. | They were Greentips. I said automatically: “No thanks. I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier.” And automatically I lit one, of course. I was becoming the kind of consumer we used to love. Think about smoking, think about Starrs, light a Starr. Light a Starr, think about Popsie, get a squirt. Get a squirt, think about Crunchies, buy a box. Buy a box, think about smoking, light a Starr. And at every step roll out the words of praise that had been dinned into you through your eyes, ears and pores. “I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier. I drink Popsie; it’s zippy. I eat Crunchies; they tang your tongue. I smoke—”[2]

Like The Space Merchants, I consider Pohl’s The Midas Plague as an instance of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ (briefly discussed in section {2} above). Unlike The Space Merchants, The Midas Plague is not a good story. Its central conceit, the inversion of the wealth of mass consumer society, such that a rich person consumes less than a poor one, is at first sight satirically sharp. The set-up, which presents what was once known as the working class utterly dominated by the necessity to consume the vast panoply of goods churned out of the automated factories of a future welfare state capitalism, is biting. Lamentably, the more Pohl works to make this conceit believable, the more it becomes tiresome. Nonetheless, judging from the number of times it has been reprinted and translated, The Midas Plague seems to be popular with someone.

The critic and author Barry N. Malzberg noted in an introduction to the work that,

The audacious and patchwork concept underlying this story […] was Horace Gold’s [editor of Galaxy] and according to Pohl he had offered it to almost all of his regular contributors, asking for a story centred on the idea. The idea lacks all credibility, everyone (including Pohl) told him, and everyone refused to write something so patently unbelievable until, according to Pohl, Horace browbeat him into an attempt and Pohl decided that it was less trouble to deliver something than continue to resist. To his utter shock, the story was received by Gold and his readership with great glee, was among the most popular GALAXY ever published (or Pohl) and one of the most anthologized. Whether this demonstrated the audacity and scope of Gold’s unreason or whether it confirmed Gold’s genius (or both) Pohl was utterly unable to decide.[3]

I can only sympathise with Pohl’s confusion here. Sure, it is ably written, but any claim this satire has to incisiveness or wit is lost in its overlong and ramshackle telling. Judging from Damon Knight’s near contemporaneous review, few people other than Horace Gold seemed to think much of it:

This [story] is good for one laugh, or possibly two, but there is some-thing gaggingly irrational after a while in the spectacle of Pohl’s hero choking down more food than he can eat. The question, “Why doesn’t he flush the stuff down the drain?” comes up several times during the story, but Pohl never answers it, he only makes vaguely relevant-sounding noises and changes the subject. The alternate solution, that of putting robots to work using up all the stuff the hero is supposed to consume, comes thirty pages too late in the story, but is hailed by everybody as a revolutionary idea.[4]

Unlike Knight I am less concerned with the failed “realism” of the story. That realism is at issue in fiction is patent—after all, such realism or “naturalism” is the very hallmark of the one-time avant-garde radicalism of bourgeois literature. However, it is here that science fiction helps reveal the chief impasse of such literature, perhaps even more than the modernist literature that set out to call into question nineteenth century realism. As the saying goes, the map is not the territory: more so when the territory in question either does not yet exist; or when it comes to pass, will most likely never exist in the way it was imagined. Of course, this is not a problem for those that conceive of science fiction as merely the fictionalised present. In either case, we are back at square one. Either the realism of a fictional future is inherently problematic (just because… the future…), or the realism of the novel itself is problematic simply because as a literary artefact it is necessarily more than simply the reflection of the true state of things.

The realism, or not, of The Midas Plague is at issue because Pohl attempts to fashion a coherent, realist picture of the future. And very quickly, as Knight points out, this sham coherence unravels. For Pohl’s future to “work”, one must accept that the vast majority of its denizens are idiots at best. Indeed, I suspect that this says more about Frederik Pohl the jaded ex-Young Communist League member, whose despair at the present state of capitalist society is underwritten by his loss of faith in the capacity of the masses to understand or even desire to change the nature of the present social arrangement.

What would have been more interesting by far would have been something akin to what Pohl and Kornbluth attempted with The Space Merchants: to whit, an extrapolation of current trends. But in The Midas Plague it is precisely the science fictional gloss that gets in the way of Pohl’s satirical intent. Still, buried in the ponderous extent of The Midas Plague lie elements of a genuinely radical critique of capitalism:

It wasn’t so hard to be a proper, industrious consumer if you worked at it, he reflected. It was only the malcontents, the ne’er-do-wells and the incompetents who simply could not adjust to the world around them.[5]

Unfortunately, the genuinely biting and occasionally funny satire quickly fades under the burden of the stupidities of plot and character. As Damon Knight remarked in his review,

The story proper is just as dull as it ought to be, but Pohl has embellished it with some additional scenes that are better than it deserves—fine, zany drunk episodes, involving a couple of very sharp minor characters and some highly agreeable mock poetry and politics.[6]

Fortunately for us, Pohl had another go at the fictional critique of present trends. A mere nine months after the publication of The Midas Plague he returned with The Tunnel Under the World, broadly similar in its interrogation of the new arrangements (particularly with an eye to what Debord called “pseudo-needs”). This time, however, he hit pay dirt. Tunnel… is a vastly superior work, whose fictional premise and execution lives up to its critical bite.

I will return to discuss Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World in my next post.

fig. 2. Cover illustration for Galaxy, April 1954: ‘An Expedition to Eden’ by Ed Emshwiller.


[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 51

[2] Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, chapter 8.

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘eForward’ to ‘The Midas Plague’, The Galaxy Project, Rosetta Books, 2011. In his memoir, The Way The Future Was, Pohl noted that The Midas Plague was one of only “two stories in my whole catalog which were suggested by someone else,” concluding, perhaps over-generously, that “it is a source of some chagrin to me that I like them better than most”.

[4] Damon Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’, Infinity Science Fiction, October 1957, pp. 108-109

[5] Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954).

[6] Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’.

fig. 3. This has been a contribution to Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.

A tale of science fiction and decomposition

fig. 1. Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Powers?

Over at science fiction and other suspect ruminations, Joachim Boaz has written about the excellent Walter M. Miller Jr short story, Death of a Spaceman (1954, aka Momento Homo). James Harris has also been inspired to blog about the same story at Classics of Science Fiction.

Joachim plants his flag firmly in the camp of recursive sf:

‘I am far more interested in the way “Death of the Spaceman” interacts with pulp science fiction— i.e. “drivel written in the old days” about the “romance” of space (16). Donny negatively contrasts his own experience with the stories that are told about the stars and adventure.

‘Miller doesn’t set about smashing it all with a bludgeon  (like Malzberg would at the end of the next decade), but rather presents future experiences as prone to the same moments of painful self-reflection as life comes to its end. He charts the emotional roller coaster that waffles between moments of calm and the growing tension/anger/helplessness…. and after Donny tells all his “rotten messes” to the priest (20), he comes to the realization that we make who we are, sins and failure and sadness and all.’

This is the key to Anglo-American sf in the 1950s and 60s.

I like the idea that Malzberg’s bludgeon is seen as the continuation and maybe even culmination of Miller’s more self-consciously literary crafting of pulp SF themes. Guy Debord spoke about the decomposition of the arts as their trajectory under the solvent pressure of capitalism and commodity relations. “From Miller to Malzberg” could be the title of a book dealing with the high period of the decomposition of Anglo-American sf: 1950-1970. Surely a timing to generate scholarly disputes by…

I am intrigued by the idea that SF recapitulates a trajectory followed by European poetry, painting and literature in and around avant-garde circles through the 19th and early 20th centuries—and find it suitably weird too, as if I am reading a science fiction account of a future history. I often like to imagine alternative versions, science fictional anticipations of the decomposition of SF, a vision of a bizarre and cracked future 21st century written in the 1950s. One of my favourites is Walter Miller’s story of a robotic theatre in the early 21st century. The Darfsteller is a peek foreseen of the society of the spectacle in diesel punk attire. See some of my related comments on the science fiction spectacle here.

Incidentally, I continue get a kick out of the fact that in The Darfsteller, Miller even got the timing of the emergent collapse of the old Soviet Empire right: the late 1980s!

fig. 2. Death of a Spaceman–illustration accompanying Miller’s short story of the same name, Amazing Stories, March 1954.

SF as decomposition.

In the early 1960s the Situationist International hailed the arrival of self-conscious decomposition in modern cinema (for more on the situationist notion of decomposition, see here). In passing they noted that the so-called nouvelle vague, Truffaut, Godard, et al, were not the source of this. By the situationists lights this cinema ‘new wave’ was more of a marketing strategy of mutual aid rather than an avant-garde project unified around a program (like the surrealists and dadas). Unlike contemporaries such as Godard’s mannered and derivative À bout de souffle, and Truffaut’s riff on Zéro de conduite, the situationists saw in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras a film of real import. Here was ‘the appearance in “commercial” cinema of the self-destruction that dominates all modern art’.

The situationists continued:

‘The film’s admirers do their best to find admirable little details wherever they can. Everyone ends up going on about Faulkner and his sense of timing […]. In fact, the reason they insist on the fragmented rhythm of Resnais’ film is so that they don’t have to see any of its destructive aspects. In the same way, they talk of Faulkner as a specialist — an accidental specialist — of the dissipation of time, accidentally encountered by Resnais, so that they can forget the time that has already passed, and more generally the literary works of Proust and Joyce. The timing — the confusion — of Hiroshima is not the annexation of cinema by literature: it is the continuation in cinema of the movement of all writing, and first of all poetry, toward its own dissolution’. (Cinema after Alain Resnais, Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959)

I suspect that much of what passed for the ‘new wave’ in SF in the 1960s was akin to the corporate avant-garde of French cinema’s nouvelle vague. Like Godard and his band apart, the newness of the SF avant-garde was asserted more than signifying something truly new in the way dada and surrealism were new in 1916 and 1924. Nonetheless, one wonders what are the Hiroshima Mon Amour’s of SF, in which the ‘self-destruction that dominates all modern art’ appeared in ‘commercial’ form—but then, isn’t all pulp commercial? Here, ‘commercial’ is better translated as mainstream. I would argue that the Hiroshima’s of the sf new wave were books like Stand on Zanzibar (Zanzibar my love…), Dick’s Ubik or A Scanner Darkly, or Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (to name only a few of the better known and hopefully uncontroversial instances of what I term the decomposition of science fiction). Stories like Miller’s Death of a Spaceman, or Cyril Kornbluth’s Altar At Midnight can be re-conceived as akin to avant-garde steps in the emergence of more self-conscious expressions of decomposition and self-destruction in science fiction (albeit often more self-consciously literary, in the practice of particular authors who aspired to make of SF a realm of artistic dignity and renown, such as Kornbluth). Any number of Philip K. Dick short stories and novels in the 1950s and 60s can be conceived thus, or works of other, lesser known writers (Wyman Guin and Kris Neville come to mind).

Where does this get us? And what the hell am I talking about anyway!? Decomposition? Avant-gardes? Science fiction? Are you kidding me!?

Dystopia as consumer will and science fictional representation.

By comparing the progression of Anglo-American SF in the 1950s and 60s to that of the avant-garde arts of 19th and 20th century, I equally want to draw attention to the way Debord and others conceived of this progress as in fact a limit or impasse rather than merely the expression of an experimental flourishing—even if it is also the latter. Indeed, the experimental nature of the SF new wave has often been overstated—mostly by its hucksters—considering that their experiments were in truth the application of a preexisting (anti) tradition of formal experimentation already thoroughly practiced throughout the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Science fiction, born of capitalism and industrialism, is at best a herald of the coming future, no matter whether it is disaster or eutopia. Ultimately, SF has no place in the future it conjures. Like all literature and the arts, it shares in the estrangement and creation of the everyday. Unlike them, it foregrounds this estrangement, makes the true bizarrerie of the present explicit by drawing attention to its essential conditions and making them its materia prima: change and ephemerality.

To the extent that we still have SF—and it is an even larger part of contemporary culture than it was 60 years ago—is evidence not so much of the health of science fiction than it is an expression of our failure to build eutopia in the present. As I have argued elsewhere, SF invaded and submitted the utopian literature of the 19th century by building an empire on the wager that utopia will always be revealed as dystopia. SF’s triumph as a genre is intimately bound up with this wager, as much as its ability to best express the dystopian capitalist frenzy of accumulation and expansion which chases itself across the globe and on into the cosmos.

The doctor who is Shamass

fig1. Who is this Doctor?

Today is the 57th anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who in the UK. Hence it is known in some quarters of the universe as Doctor Who Day.

While celebrating this day in whatever way, as any fan should and must, I have a related anniversary to mark of my own—Doctor Shamass Day, if you will. “Doctor what?” you might well ask.

A bit over 23 years ago I published the first version of a zine called The Journal of Doctor Shamass. I wrote it around the middle of 1996 and self-published it the following year. For those many Shamassians out there, more info on the particulars of this writing and publishing can be found here.

Perhaps Shamass is everything I wished I was—at that time as now: an exotic loner adrift upon the capricious waves of time and space. Sound familiar? These dreams are, like most, brought on by the humdrum of existence. Though to be fair to existence, the present “humdrum” is without doubt overwhelmingly a product of the stupidity of organising everyday life around work, wage-labour and commodity production. Oh to find a different time and space—or better, to make one.

The inspiration for my Doctor’s name was the Assyrian and Babylonian god Shamash, itself a later version of the Sumerian Utu. That winter in 1996 I had poured over The Epic of Gilgamesh, entranced by the story of the King of Uruk and his friend Enkidu. I imagine I was looking for the source of it all, or at least the source of literature and science fiction. In Gilgamesh I found a dual progenitor: of culture, and that literary form most redolent of our industrial, post-industrial world—sf.

I cannot clearly recall if I set out to consciously evoke Doctor Who in Shamass. A mysterious stranger who accumulates time, and apparently travels in it—what else could it be? At the time, though, my concern was more literary, and my references more arcane. I was a reader of Arthur Rimbaud, the Comte de Lautréamont, André Breton, René Daumal, Karl Marx, Guy Debord and J. G. Ballard. If it is true that I wanted to evoke a fictional character of which I was immoderately obsessed during a childhood spent in the 1970s and 1980s, now—in 1996—the passion had somewhat changed.[1]

By the time I published the second edition of The Journal of Doctor Shamass in November 2008 the relationship of Who and Shamass was now official. Appropriately, I put the Seal of Rassilon on the final page of the new edition.

fig. 2. The Seal of Rassilon.

A month later I printed my first Doctor Shamass Christmas card, a now venerable tradition I have continued to this day. Since then, amidst a stream of more cards, posters and postcards, I have even managed to shoot a video story of Shamass and his most faithful of companions, Verity Hawkins. Indeed, the video—launched just before Christmas 2019—is to date the most explicit of references to old skool Doctor Who. It’s all in the name: The Clockwork Masterplan.

fig. 3. The Clockwork Masterplan. The first foray of Doctor Shamass into the world of video.

What more have I to say about these two doctors? Picking through the detritus of one’s life it is by turns easy and difficult to sort out the peculiar stories of personality and habit (are these even different?). One is inevitably more intrigued, horrified and bored by one’s own story than any other. That Doctor Shamass contains more than just the Doctor—Doctor Who that is—is clear to me. What more there is, is by turns intriguing, horrifying and boring to all. Perhaps one day, when there are no more days, I can at last tell that story.


While wating for that day, stay tuned for more things Shamassian on this blog, an all-new Shamass zine, and—of course—the latest Christmas/New Years card. For the time being, many of the cards and posters are available in PDF format here. And remember, if not the strangest of Doctor Who fan fictions, Doctor Shamass is at least a contender for the most obscure.


[1] Perhaps I was inspired by the Doctor Who film in 1996 that promised the return of the TV series to our screens after so many years?—a promise that was rapidly dashed. I do, however, recall being mightily impressed by the reimagining of the TARDIS interior in the film—and little else! Also, the seventh Doctor’s perusal of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine in the opening sequence of the film. I am inordinately interested in Wells’ novel, which coincidentally makes an appearance in The Journal of Doctor Shamass.

What is the sinister science?

fig. 1. Who is the sinister scientist? Collage by antyphayes.


What is the sinister science? For a start, it’s this blog. But could it be something else?


I have another blog called Notes from the sinister quarter. Originally, I set it up to be the platform for my PhD research—primarily on aspects of the life of the Situationist International (1957-1972). I took its name from Ivan Chtcheglov’s proto-situationist text, Formulary for a New Urbanism (1953).

In his article, Chtcheglov envisaged a city given over to the playful desire for the total creation of life. The city was presented as a possible realisation of Guy Debord’s idea of the ‘constructed situation’. The emphasis was on play and the ‘total creation’ of life in opposition to the chaotic, exploitative, and oppressive reality of the capitalist city.[1]  

In clear opposition to the so-called functional capitalist city divided into commercial, residential, industrial and governmental districts, Chtcheglov proposed that his city of play and desire would ‘correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life.’ [2] Thus, he imagined various districts—quartiers in the French—whose names indicated something that transcended the merely descriptive or habitual. But of all his proposed quarters one in particular stood out. 

The Sinister Quarter […] would replace all the dumps, dives and other gateways to the underworld that many peoples once possessed in their capitals: they symbolized all the evil forces of life. The Sinister Quarter would have no need to harbor real dangers, such as traps, dungeons or mines. It would be difficult to get into, with a hideous decor (piercing whistles, alarm bells, sirens wailing intermittently, grotesque sculptures, power-driven mobiles, called Auto-Mobiles), and as poorly lit at night as it was blindingly lit during the day by the excessive use of reflective phenomena. At its centre, the “Square of the Appalling Mobile.” And just as the saturation of the market with a product causes the product’s market value to fall, children and adults alike would learn not to fear the anguishing occasions of life as they explored the Sinister Quarter, but rather be amused by them.[3]

Of course, Chtcheglov, Debord and other young ‘International Letterists’ imagined their city of creative desire amidst their play within and without the dumps and dives of Paris—a living sketch of the projected sinister quarter and situationist city. Indeed, Chtcheglov’s Formulary… would prove crucial to the early years of the Situationist International, particularly of what would become known as ‘unitary urbanism’. By proposing the use of literary and other artistic works as ‘blueprints’ liberated from the mausoleum of culture to aid in the construction of future situations, Chtcheglov anticipated the later theory of détournement. Against much of the contemporaneous Marxist and Anarchist orthodoxy, Guy Debord would later make explicit what was implied by Chtcheglov’s vision: in order to be practical, any methodological critique of capitalist urbanism must encompass an argument for what comes after. Or even more succinctly: the critical means must encompass the end aimed for:

[T]he practice of utopia only makes sense if it is closely linked to the practice of revolutionary struggle. The latter, in its turn, cannot do without such a utopia without being condemned to sterility.[4]


There is an article by André Breton that reminds me of Chtcheglov’s Formulary…—a precursor if you will. Breton’s article, translated as ‘Once Upon A Time’, was first published in the surrealist journal Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, no. 1 (1930). In the article, Breton imagined establishing a house and grounds on the outskirts of Paris dedicated to placing its temporary denizens into a ‘position which seems to be as poetically receptive as possible’.[5]

What Chtcheglov did for the imaginary city, Breton attempted on the scale of a single building and its immediate surrounds. In Breton’s case a certain sinister quality pervades the entirety of his project:

Nothing grand. Just around thirty rooms with, as far as possible, long corridors that would be very dark or that I would myself make dark. […]

For each bedroom, a large clock made of black glass will be set to chime especially well at midnight. […]

There will be hardly anything but small study lamps with green lampshades that will be dimmed very low. The blinds will remain lowered day and night.

Only the white-washed reception hall will be lit with an invisible ceiling light and it will contain no other furniture, besides two authentic Merovingian chairs, and a stool on which will sit the perfume bottle tied up with a pale ribbon, inside which a discoloured rose will be immersed with its stems and leaves equally lifeless […].[6]

The décor is distinctly—and inevitably—dream-like, pervaded with the spectral gloom one would expect of such nocturnal visions. Breton perversely equips his playground with a single law, redolent of his own grip upon the reigns of surrealist (anti) power: a firm injunction against sex, ‘strictly forbidden, under penalty of immediate and definitive expulsion’ from the building and its grounds.[7] One wonders how such a directive would have been enforced in a zone otherwise given over to chance and play.

There are other details—rooms almost impossible to gain entry to possibly the one most in keeping with Chtcheglov’s difficult to access quarter. What I find most fascinating, and commensurate with the Formulary…, is Breton’s idea of a distinctly anti-capitalist architecture as re-enchantment, as the recovery and practical elaboration of those fantastical stories we were told as children—stories whose main failing is precisely their role as forms of inoculation, subservient to the rapidly approaching adult world of wage labour and other alienations.

As Breton may have remarked, somewhere, anywhere: the sinister is what tends to become real.


So, having got this far you might be wondering: is there a sinister science?

Without doubt, the sinister science blog draws inspiration from Chtcheglov’s imaginary city and Breton’s dream house. To that extent, I am more than happy to declare the surrealist and situationist lineage of this project. However, “the sinister science” is, for me, no mere bon mot or frivolous affectation—even if it is also this. I also sincerely believe in a sinister science, one that bears comparison to a more general sense of science—what is called Wissenschaft in German—rather than modern restricted sense of what was once called the natural sciences.

If there is a single principle of the sinister science, it is error. The anti-royal road to truth is littered with our blunders and mistakes. In part, this is Hegel’s argument: the false is a moment of the true. But he continues: no longer as the false.[8] Hegel’s truth is not founded upon the principle of bivalence and “falsifiability”. Rather, error is resolved as a moment of the process of truth (and so, per the comments above, not false at all). Without digressing into an examination of Hegel’s truth versus conceptions of the truth value of propositions, for now it is enough to hold onto the following: Hegel is more concerned with truth as a process and the role of error in this process. Error, in Hegel’s sense, is only false to the extent that it is considered in abstraction from such sensuous processes, and so posed in a less than splendid isolation from the entire truth of the matter. Indeed, in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel draws attention to the crucial role that error has in the movement of truth, insofar as error and contradiction are generative of the processes which resolves them. Unlike the analytic sense of truth, Hegel’s truth is not a question of the truth value of a particular proposition considered in isolation. Truth, by his reckoning, is this not so much arrived at as it is the form and content of the entire process.

However, Hegel’s conception of error and truth should not be confused with more recent conceptions of the relativism of truth derived from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche infamously argued that truth is merely the history of an error.[9] In contrast to Hegel, Nietzsche was not interested in the relationship between truth and error, but rather keen to demonstrate that all purported truths are merely so many fictions. All that make them true, by his reckoning, is the extent to which they embody a will to power that triumphs in the face of other, competing ‘truths’. More recently this has been recast by Michel Foucault as the theory of discursive power. As has been often pointed out the chief problem with such claims is that they tend to be self-undermining. By presenting truth as the function of a successful will to power, such theories undermine their own implicit claim to being true.

Crucial to Nietzsche’s conception of the necessarily fictitious nature of ideas about reality is the belief in the utter irreconcilable difference of thought and being. In his reckoning, it is this difference that is at the root of the fictitious claims about being fashioned by humans. However, in making this claim Nietzsche follows his master, Schopenhauer, albeit with the more transcendental aspects of the latter’s Kantian philosophy hacked off. Nonetheless, and despite his apparent loathing of the thinker of Königsberg, Nietzsche maintains the unfortunate dualism of Kant’s schema, insofar as thought and thinking are cast as irreducibly other to what is not thought. Thereby, even though Nietzsche and his followers claim the mantle of radical materialists, they in effect maintain precisely the spectral Platonism that they so loudly protest. Except, in their case, the dualism they eschew is hidden behind the assertion of a flat ontology of immanence.

fig. 2. “We know only a single science, the sinister science.” Still from the film Them! (1954).

To be absolutely clear, the sinister science is incompatible with Foucauldian and Nietzschean notions of error. As I hope I have made clear, the sinister science is closer to Hegel’s negative dialectic and Marx’s redeployment of this under the aegis of his ‘materialist conception of history’. Indeed, that this science is implicated in not only the criticism of all that is, but equally its transformation, is precisely what makes it sinister. And with due alternation, I can induce Hegel to remark that history is the sinister bench upon which the cosmos itself will be dissected and rearranged. Or, as Marx and Engels purportedly wrote, shortly before crossing out their fruitful error:

We know only a single science, the sinister science.


[1] Ivan Chtcheglov, Formulary for a New Urbanism, 1953.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Translation modified.

[4] Daniel Blanchard & Guy Debord. Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program, 1960. Translation modified.

[5] André Breton, ‘Once Upon A Time’, from The Dedalus Book of Surrealism 2, translated by Michael Richardson, Langford Lodge: 1994, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., pp. 2, 3-4.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

[8] See, Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Preface, thesis 39 (T. Pinkard translation).

[9] See, Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation

fig. 1. “Apart from us, have any piloted ships come here?” “No one has ever come. We are extremely far from other routes. That’s why I want to keep it secret. Even my men are ignorant of the coordinates of our position.” Comic détournement in Internationale situationniste, no. 7, p. 46. Source: not known.

SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation

About 3,500 words

1. Introduction

It is almost impossible to speak of ‘science fiction’ in relationship to the Situationist International without also speaking of what they meant by ‘utopia’. However, I plan on doing just this—at least to begin with. In this post I will briefly look at the role of science fiction (SF) in the Situationist International (SI). In a future post I will expand on this by looking at the role the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘utopian’ played in the SI (though I will touch on the question of utopia, below).

2. Science fiction as ideology

Science fiction motifs appeared in the publications of the Situationist International (SI) from the outset. Most obviously it can be found in the images that surfaced in the many and varied détournements of science fiction comics in their journal. Perhaps not so obvious are the science fictional qualities of central concepts and practices, such as ‘psychogeography’, the ‘hypothesis of the constructed situation’ and ‘unitary urbanism’.

In the early days, situationists were not completely averse to describing aspects of their critique and program as science fiction. Later, in 1961, the year that the pivot away from the more artistic phase of the early SI began, the editors of Internationale Situationniste spoke of ‘a hostility to all religions, even science fiction’.[1] The implication being, not just that science fiction constituted a religion, but perhaps even worse: that such a religion could only play an ideological role in contemporary capitalism.

By 1961, the circle around the situationists Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem began to understand ideology in a similar sense to that outlined by Marx in The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach (in the latter work, the critique of ideology, though implicit, is never called such). This was in stark contrast to then present-day Marxist orthodoxy, who largely followed Lenin’s conception of ideology rather than Marx’s. Indeed, Lenin’s conception bore more of a likeness to that of the originator of the term, Antoine Destutt de Tracy, than Marx’s critical appropriation of it. Against this vulgar sense, Marx drew upon Ludwig Feuerbach’s criticism of religion, and Max Stirner’s criticism of Feuerbach, in formulating his critical concept of ideology. For Marx, religions—at least Judeo-Christian religions—were ideological to the extent that they posed their ruling ideas separate from, or even opposed to the social and material practices in which they were embedded. The classic example is the divine ‘holy family’, which is in effect a projection of the earthly family into an otherworldly beyond. The key here is the idea of separating and opposing ideas to material reality—as if such ‘ideas’ constitute a realm or substance apart from material reality. Certainly, such substance dualism (of ideas & matter) is central to most religious thought. However, such an inverted conception is more subtle in ideology less obviously religious. If we take the example of science fiction, we can see a similar inversion when authors unquestioningly pose present-day bourgeois society as a timeless model of human mores and practice. Indeed, as Marx pointed out in Capital and elsewhere, a similar projection—albeit backwards in time—was made by classical political economists like Adam Smith, when they assumed that human nature from time immemorial was in essence bourgeois.

Science fiction is ideology, then, to the extent that it transforms the capitalist present into a timeless form of human social organisation by way of projecting such a present either deliberately or unwittingly into an imagined future. In doing so, such SF neither questions the necessity of the present, nor suggests that tomorrow could be different—or even better—than today.

3. Science fiction in the situationist international

In the second issue of their journal, Internationale Situationniste, December 1958, Abdelhafid Khatib noted that his fellow situationist Asger Jorn defined ‘psychogeography […] as the science fiction of urbanism’.[2] By saying so, Jorn—by way of Khatib—was drawing attention to the transformative and future oriented aspects of ‘psychogeography’, insofar as the situationist proposed the radical transformation of not just the technologies of the city, but even more so the behaviour and morality of its denizens.

In the first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste, psychogeography was defined as ‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’.[3] The situationists had inherited the psychogeographical project from the Letterist International (LI), of which some founding situationists had been members of—notably Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein.[4] Psychogeographical study had arisen directly as a result of the urban drifts (fr: dérives) that the International Letterists had begun to carry out around the year 1953.

By the time of the founding of the SI in 1957, psychogeographical research had come to be seen as the general rubric under which a distinctly situationist project was to be conducted. What is key to recall at this point is that both psychogeographical research, and the urban drifts from which such a study was derived, proposed to chart new behaviours and emotions in opposition to those that were permitted, and, indeed, constructed by the bourgeois city.[5] That the projected results of psychogeographical research was the complete transformation of the urban environment, as well as human behaviour, was made more clear in Guy Debord’s Report on the Construction of Situations presented at the founding conference of the SI in July 1957.[6] Jorn’s claim that psychogeography should be conceived as the science fiction of urbanism can thereby be read as a positive statement about the future of the city under the guise of a situationist transformation.

Unfortunately, this is the only citation in a situationist publication of Jorn speaking positively about science fiction, and I have been unable to find the source of Khatib’s quote. Nonetheless, it seems that Jorn was perhaps the most favourably disposed of the situationists toward science fiction. Among his œuvre are several science fiction themed paintings. I will return to the question of Jorn and science fiction in a later post.

fig. 2. Asger Jorn, Femelle interplanétaire (Interplanetary female), 1953.

Apart from Jorn’s positive disposition to SF, and the many and varied uses of détourned[7] SF comics in the situationist journal, the term ‘science fiction’ was used more often than not in a pejorative sense. Two instance that come to mind: when the SI dismissively referred to ‘the science fiction of revolutionary thought that is preached in [the journal] Arguments’;[8] and their updating of Rosa Luxembourg’s pithy maxim ‘socialism or barbarism’ as ‘the urgent alternative: revolutionary solution or science-fiction barbarism’.[9] In the former case, SF is used in a manner akin to orthodox Marxists deriding the ‘utopian’ nature of their opponents on the left (more on this below, and in a future post). In the latter case, Debord and his co-author were gesturing at the lived reality of contemporary global society in the sense that the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic ‘science fiction barbarism’ beloved of the pulps had become the grim reality of a world on the brink of nuclear destruction.

Perhaps the clearest attack on science fiction itself—considered as a cultural genre—was made by Guy Debord in 1961. In an address delivered to Henri Lefebvre’s Research Group on Everyday Life, Debord contrasted the situationist conception of the transformation of everyday life with that ‘presented in science fiction, in which interstellar adventures coexist with a terrestrial everyday life kept in the same old material poverty and archaic morality’.[10] A similar argument was made by Debord’s comrade Raoul Vaneigem almost two years later, this time aimed at Planète magazine, one of the chief platforms for a self-consciously futurist if nebulous science ‘fact’ and fiction in the France of the 1960s:

Playing on the truism that science and technology are advancing faster and faster without anyone knowing where they are going, [the editors of the journal] Planète harangue ordinary people with the message that henceforth everything must be changed—while at the same time taking for granted 99% of the life really lived in our era.[11]

Debord’s and Vaneigem’s target was not so much science fiction tout court as it was that dominant tendency which conceived of future changes and transformations primarily in technological terms. According to the SI, and despite Planète magazine’s self-consciously ‘modernist’ and radical self-presentation, its conceptualisation of the future was as religious as the capitalist ideology it unthinkingly projected into an imagined future.

The SI’s criticism of SF that projected the present into the future was hardly new. Indeed, it was almost identical to a similar charge made by the French author Michel Butor in 1953.[12] What was new was the SI’s attempt to understand this through the optic of Marx’s concept of ideology, as well as the SI’s own conception of recuperation—which drew upon Marx’s critique. I will return to the question of the situationist conception of ‘recuperation’, below.

I have spoken elsewhere about the problem of science fiction simply translating the capitalist present into a far future setting—consider parts of my discussion of the Soviet era science fiction novel Andromeda Nebula by Ivan Yefremov. Additionally, in my last blog post I touched on the idea that H. G. Wells was both pioneer and exemplar of the modern science fiction author as purveyor of dystopia.  This later question, of dystopia as reaction to the often naive, invariably socialist utopias of the nineteenth century, is perhaps as old as Dostoyevsky’s contempt for one of Vladimir Lenin’s favourite authors: Nikolai Chernyshevsky. To my mind, science fiction—and speculative fiction more generally—is overburdened by its creation amidst Wells’ social Darwinian reaction and ‘improvement’ upon the nineteenth century utopia. The ascendency of this science fiction was coincident with and provided cover for the real ‘utopian’ victory: that of capitalism in the post-war 1950s and 60s. Worse, the non-places of capitalism exploded after the 1960s: so many genres and subcultures spun from the counter-cultures of the 1960s and 70s. Science fiction, that genre with a history of about a century, one of many present-day utopias that can be any place thanks to the commodity-spectacle, is a place of struggle nonetheless, simply because it is one of the many phenomena of the social antagonism inherent in capitalism. Thus, as the situationists almost put it, we still have a single choice: science fiction socialism or barbarism.

I will now turn to an examination of this tendency by way of a brief examination of the concept and practice of ‘unitary urbanism’ in the SI

4. The science fiction of unitary urbanism

In the first three years of the SI’s existence—1957-1960—‘unitary urbanism’ developed into one of the chief practices of the group under the general project of psychogeographical research. As a result of the urban drifts (dérives) and psychogeographical study pioneered by the Letterist International, Debord came to pose the possibility of ‘the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality’.[13] He called this the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’, in which the ephemeral, ‘momentary’ situations of life—in contrast to the chaotic and hierarchically planned boredom of alienated life—would be consciously constructed by situationists.[14] Indeed, Debord posed this hypothesis as the ‘central idea’ of the SI, and the most obvious general result of previous psychogeographical research. Further, insofar as the constructed situation implied a critique of the boredom and alienation of the capitalist life, whether as work or commodified leisure, the realisation of the hypothesis was envisaged as contingent upon the overthrow of the capitalist as much as the ‘really existing socialist’ societies of 1957. Nonetheless, and despite locating the ultimate success of this hypothesis in a post-capitalist future, Debord also proposed a theory of ‘unitary urbanism’ in order to experiment with the possibilities for constructing situations in the urban present. To an extent, the urban drifts (dérives) of the former Letterist International were reconceived as an element of unitary urbanism.  Additionally, the theory itself was developed in the pages of the journal Internationale Situationniste. And perhaps the most interesting, definitely the most iconic expression of this development was that of the ‘New Babylon’ models, plans and descriptions organised and executed by the Dutch situationist, Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka ‘Constant’).

fig. 3. The situationist pentagon. Detail from situationist poster, ‘Nouveau théatre d’opérations dans la culture’ (1958). From top to bottom, left to right: construction of situations; unitary urbanism; experimental behaviour; urban drift; psychogeography; situationist architecture; permanent play; détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements.

It is easy to mount a case for the science fictional qualities of Constant’s ‘New Babylon’.[15] Constant imagined a future city suspended over the present in a dream-like scaffold of levels and labyrinths that was dedicated entirely to the Situationist conception of play:

We demand adventure. Not finding it on earth, some want to seek it on the moon. We, however, are committed to changing life here on earth. We intend to create situations, new situations, breaking the laws that prevent the development of meaningful ventures in life and culture. We are at the dawn of a new era, and we are already attempting to sketch out the image of a happier life, of a unitary urbanism—an urbanism designed for pleasure.

[…] The future cities we envisage will offer a wholly new variability of sensations in this realm, and unforeseen games will become possible through the inventive use of material conditions, such as modifications of air, sound and light. City planners are already studying the possibility of harmonizing the cacophony that reigns in present-day cities. This problem will soon give rise to a new field of creation, as will many other such problems that will present themselves. Space travel, which seems likely in the near future, might also influence this development, since establishing bases on other planets will immediately raise the problem of sheltered cities, which may provide models for our study of future urbanism.

[…] The city of the future must be conceived as a continuous construction on pillars, or as an extended system of different structures from which are suspended premises for housing, recreation, production, distribution, etc., leaving the ground level free for traffic circulation and public meetings. The use of ultralightweight and insulating materials that are currently being tested will permit light construction with supports spaced well apart. In this way it will be possible to create a multilayered city: underground, ground level, upper stories and terraces, with areas ranging from that of a present-day neighbourhood to that of a metropolis. It should be noted that in such a city the built-up surface will be 100% and the free surface 200% (ground level plus terraces), whereas in traditional cities the figures are approximately 80% and 20%, and even a garden city can at most reverse this latter proportion. The terraces, forming an outdoor terrain that extends over the whole surface of the city, can be used as sports fields, as landing pads for airplanes and helicopters, and for vegetation. They will be accessible everywhere by stairways and elevators. The different floors will be divided into adjoining, communicating and climate-controlled spaces, making it possible to create an infinite variety of ambiences and facilitating the wanderings of the inhabitants and their frequent chance encounters. The ambiences will be regularly and consciously changed, using all technical means, by teams of specialized creators, who will thus be professional situationists.[16]

fig. 4. Technical services and airport. Photo partially reproduced in Internationale situationniste, no. 4, p. 24, under that title. Detail of the Yellow Sector [La zone jaune], from Constant’s New Babylon model.

Constant’s New Babylon is rich in suggestion. Its strikingly futuristic structures were posed as practical solutions, based on current architectural and technical practices, to the chaotic and confused urban expansion and development of the industrial and industrialising world of the 1950s and 60s. However, less emphasised here in Constant’s account was what he called the ‘psychological influence’ of ‘creating ambiances’, i.e. in the experimental elaboration of unitary urbanism. Indeed, Constant’s New Babylon tended to primarily accentuate the technical side at the expense of the behavioural side—of which an intimate interrelation had figured prominently in the elaboration of psychogeographical research from the earliest days of the urban drifts (dérives). As would be later said of him by the SI, after Constant had resigned from the group in June 1960, ‘other situationists had to remind him that at the present stage of the project it was necessary to put the accent on its content (play, free creation of everyday life)’.[17] Such a conclusion, however, was the result of a longer argument between, primarily, Constant, on the one hand, and Debord and Asger Jorn, on the other.

The argument between Debord, Jorn and Constant remained live during the life of the SI in the sense that its conclusions contra Constant’s conception of unitary urbanism became situationist doxa. Unitary urbanism was a theory governing the experimental practice and attempts at verification of the situationist hypothesis of the constructed situation. To reduce it merely to a design problem was to misunderstand both its theoretical nature and its existence as the practical expression of psychogeographical research in the broad sense of the latter—i.e. as a question of the transformation of human nature and society as much the technologies of these transformations. Some years after Constant’s resignation—and more hostilely—the SI would write:

There is, however, a diversion that has threatened us more gravely than all the others: the risk of not differentiating ourselves clearly enough from some modern tendencies, and their explanations and proposals regarding the new society to which capitalism has brought us — tendencies which, behind different masks, all lead to integration into this society. Since Constant’s interpretation of unitary urbanism this tendency has been expressed within the SI, and it is incomparably more dangerous than the old artistic conception we have fought so much. It is more modern and thus less obvious—and certainly with a more promising future.[18]

Here, the Situationists were gesturing at their concept of ‘recuperation’. By their reckoning, Constant, having left the SI, had become one of the chief exponents of just such a recuperation, insofar as his reductive elaboration of New Babylon as a design problem was compatible with both the artistic and architectural mainstream of capitalist society—of design journals and art exhibitions, for example. Indeed, as the SI witheringly pointed out a year after he resigned, Constant,

now presents models of factories in his catalogue published in March [1961] by the Municipal Museum of Bochum. Apart from plagiarizing two or three poorly understood fragments of situationist ideas, this wily character has nothing better to propose than to act as a public-relations man in integrating the masses into capitalist technological civilization.[19]

5. What is recuperation?

fig. 5. “What is it? [But] we considered every obstacle! Could this be an unknown one?” Comic détournement in Internationale situationniste, no. 6, p. 4. Source: not known.

That revolutionary critique could be recuperated by the capitalist market was not a new phenomenon in 1961—but it was not that old either. As Debord argued in The Society of the Spectacle, it was old as least the German Revolution of 1918.[20] What was new, however, was the situationist theory of recuperation. As Debord so pithily put it in 1963, when speaking on the problem of capitalist power and its language: ‘power lives off stolen goods. It creates nothing; it recuperates’. Mustapha Khayati continued in 1966:

Words forged by revolutionary criticism are like partisans’ weapons: abandoned on the battlefield, they fall into the hands of the counterrevolution. And like prisoners of war, they are subjected to forced labour. […] Ideologues of every variety, the watchdogs of the reigning spectacle, carry out this task, emptying the content from most corrosive concepts and putting them back into circulation in the service of maintaining alienation: dadaism in reverse. They become advertising slogans (see the recent Club Med prospectus[21]). Concepts of radical critique suffer the same fate as the proletariat: they are deprived of their history, cut off from their roots. They become grist for power’s thinking machines.[22]

Culture is never simply a production problem; it is a declaration of intent to the reigning powers and all who labour for them. The SI’s wager was that Constant, first cut-off from a broader conception of unitary urbanism, and then cut off from the self-consciously revolutionary project of the SI, tended to aid in the recuperation of situationist practice.

6. Concluding remarks

The question of the SI’s dispute with Constant is an interesting one, but I fear that the intent of this expanding post is getting lost in the maze of his story. For more detail check out my PhD thesis, here.[23] What I am trying to get at, convoluting though the telling may be, is that those situationists who opposed Constant’s reductive understanding of unitary urbanism and psychogeographical research, even if intrigued and engaged by unitary urbanism as a technological problem, were more concerned with the broader, revolutionary implications of ‘its content (play, [and the] free creation of everyday life)’. In this sense, Constant’s project is, indeed, closer to contemporaneous conceptions of science fiction, and the predominance there of presenting the future in terms of technological change as opposed to social and natural species transformations. What the SI came to call ideology.

To the extent that Constant reduced the elaboration of unitary urbanism to primarily a technical problem, we can consider him a purveyor of science fiction in the sense that Debord and Vaneigem criticised. From around 1961, the SI tended to see such science fictional elaborations of unitary urbanism as a form of activity that tended to be integrated with contemporary capitalist alienation insofar as they were practical separated, or presented in isolation from an explicitly anti-capitalist revolutionary project.  By this reckoning, the post-SI Constant became an exemplar of the ideology of science fiction—ideology here used in Marx’s pejorative sense.

In future posts I want to investigate the ‘practice of utopia’ that the SI opposed to Constant’s and others’ mere science fiction. By invoking ‘utopia’ in a positive way, and associating it with the end to which present revolutionary means should be aimed, the SI attempted to rescue the idea of utopia for a revolutionary imagination overwhelmed by the cult of work, the false pragmatism of political realism, and the totalitarian reality of dystopian, Russian-style ‘communism’. In effect they proposed the détournement of utopian socialism in the interests of present-fay revolutionary practice. And within such a détournement, pulp science fiction had its role to play.



[1] Situationist International. ‘Editorial note’ at the end of Asger Jorn’s article, ‘Pataphysics: A religion in formation’. Translation modified. Original: ‘La pataphysique,  une religion en formation’, Internationale Situationniste, no. 6, Aout 1961, p. 32.

[2] Abdelhafid Khatib, ‘Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles’. Original : ‘Essai de description psychogéographique des Halles’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 2, décembre 1958, p. 13.

[3] Situationist International, ‘Definitions’. Original: ‘Définitions’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 1, Juin 1958, p. 13.

[4] See, in particular, Debord’s ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ (1955).

[5] For more on psychogeography and drifts, see Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography (1955) and Theory of the Derive (1956).

[6] See, Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957).

[7] ‘détournement: Short for ‘détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements.’ The integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.’ (Internationale Situationniste, no 1, June 1958).

[8] Situationist International, ‘The Meaning of Decay in Art’. Original: ‘Le sens du dépérissement de l’art’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 3, Decembre 1959, p. 5.

[9] Debord & Pierre Canjuers (aka Daniel Blanchard), Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program (1960).

[10] Guy Debord, ‘Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life’. Original: ‘Perspectives de modifications conscientes dans la vie quotidienne’, in Internationale situationniste, no. 6, aout 1961, p. 24.

[11] Internationale Situationniste [Raoul Vaneigem], ‘Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature’. Original : ‘Domination de la nature, idéologies et classes’, Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), p. 7.

[12] Michel Butor, ‘The Crisis in the Growth of Science Fiction’, in Inventory: Essays, ed. Richard Howard, London: Jonathon Cape, 1970. Which is not to say that such critical speculations were absent in the field of science fiction or came from without. Indeed, such speculation was a hot topic among leading examples of contemporaneous Anglo-American SF like Galaxy magazine and even Astounding—though in a more confused and at times reactionary fashion in the latter.

[13] See, Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957).

[14] Or at least their initial conditions of such constructed situations. Don’t forget that Debord’s constructed situation is a critique and inversion, or sorts, of Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of ‘situation’.

[15] Constant’s project was named by Debord. The film ‘The New Babylon’ (Новый Вавилон) was a 1929 silent film written and directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg in the USSR. The film deals with the 1871 Paris Commune and the events leading to it and follows the encounter and tragic fate of two lovers separated by the barricades of the Paris Commune. In the film, a vision of commodity consumption is envisaged at the store La nouvelle babylone. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his first film score for this movie. Footage from the film was later included in Guy Debord’s film version of his book The Society of the Spectacle (book: 1967; film: 1973).

[16] Constant, ‘Another City for Another Life’, translated by Ken Knabb. Original : ‘Une autre ville pour une autre vie’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 3, Décembre 1959, p. 37.

[17] See, ‘Situationist News’ (December 1960). Translation modified. Original: ‘Renseignements situationnistes’, in International Situationniste, no. 5, Decembre 1960, p. 10.

[18] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’. Translation modified. Original: ‘‘Maintenant, l’I.S.’ in Internationale Situationniste, no. 9, Aout 1964.

[19] Situationist International, ‘Critique of Urbanism’. Translation modified. Original: ‘Critique de l’urbanisme’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 6, Aout 1961, p. 6.

[20] Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 101.

[21] See, ‘The packaging of ‘free-time’’, from Internationale Situationniste, no. 10,  March 1966.

[22] Mustapha Khayati, ‘Captive Words : Preface to a situationist dictionary’. Original: ‘Les mots captifs, préface à un dictionnaire situationniste’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 10, Mars 1966, p. 54.

[23] Anthony Hayes, How the Situationist International became what it was, Canberra: Australian National University, 2017.

The science fiction spectacle (2)

fig. 1. “What isn’t surpassed rots, what rots incites supersession.” From a situationist ad for Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (1967).

When I first set out to write this blog post I intended to show off some of the science fictional motifs that appeared in the activity of the Situationist International (SI). For instance, the many détournements of science fiction comics that appear over several issues of their journal; and the science fictional qualities of some of their ideas and theories—most obviously ‘psychogeography’ and ‘unitary urbanism’. Broadly, the point was, and is, to demarcate the science fiction of the SI—the science fiction (SF) that appears in their work—from another related project I am also trying to chart: the ‘science fiction spectacle’. However, I am going to set aside looking at the SF of the SI for the time being to briefly return to the question of what exactly is the ‘science fiction spectacle’.


In a previous post, when speaking of the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I was perhaps not as clear as some would have liked (including myself). There, I noted that the SI infamously claimed that their ‘theory is in people like fish are in water’.[1] Rather than being the megalomaniac claim some have accused them of (though the Situationists were not averse to megalomania), the point they were driving at was a simple one. In contrast to the pro-capitalist idea that revolutionary critique and contestation comes from without capitalism (where exactly… Mars…?), the situationists argued that their critique of ‘the society of the spectacle’ was merely one iteration—albeit a particularly coherent one—of a broader critique being generated within the then present capitalist society.

To be sure, the situationists were not simply arguing for the equivalence of these criticisms. Indeed, they were clear: their concept of ‘spectacle’ was presented in order to ‘unify and explain’ the apparent diversity of seeming unconnected phenomena—for instance, the various industrially produced news, propaganda, advertising, mass entertainments and commodities that were increasingly marking the ‘modern’ world of the 1950s and 60s (what some have called the ‘media landscape’ or ‘admass’).[2]

What is the ‘spectacle’? For now, I will note that Debord’s concept of spectacle is an amplification and development of Marx’s concepts of alienation, ideology and the commodity-fetish. What links these latter with the concept of spectacle is that they all pose that aspects of human practice have become objectified or externalised in such a way that they appear to be ‘autonomous’ of these practices. For Marx, the ‘fetishism of commodities’ was an attempt to describe this autonomy, in which the commodities produced by humans appeared to ‘live’ their ‘real’ life as repositories of ‘value’ amidst their circulation, marketing and sale, independent of their conditions of production:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. […] [T]he commodity-form […] [has] absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

For Debord,

The fetishism of the commodity—the domination of society by “sensuous things which are at the same time supersensible”—attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the perceptible world is replaced by a selection of images which exists projected above it, yet which at the same time succeeds in making itself regarded as the perceptible par excellence.

I will return to the question of what exactly is the ‘spectacle’ in more detail in a future post.


By way of what I call the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I propose to illustrate the situationist critique of the ‘spectacle’ with reference to various examples of science fiction that dealt with the same object of criticism (the commodity-spectacle), and at the same time (the 1950s and 60s). I am not arguing that such science fictional ‘criticism’ proposed a theoretical critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ in the same fashion as the SI, but rather that the criticisms that do appear in the SF of this era can reasonably be used to illustrate and even justify situationist claims.

Apart from a passing familiarity with the situationists, I have a longer interest in science fiction that stretches back through my childhood. More recently I have become fixated on Anglo-American science fiction from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In particular, it is short SF from this period I am most fascinated with—short stories, novelettes and novellas. In a brutally pragmatic fashion, it is easier to plough through a few hundred short stories than novels. However, there is more to my interest than this. Not unlike Orson Welles, I feel that short form SF is ‘better than the long ones’—and for similar reasons.[5]  The short form is perfect as modern fable, or rather an anti-fable in which contemporary morality is not so much the lesson as the object of criticism.

Elements of what the situationist proposed to cohere under the concept of ‘spectacle’ can be found in Anglo-American science fiction of the post-war period: specifically, between 1945 and 1970. Exemplars of such science fictional criticism can be found in the work of Frederick Pohl (e.g. The Midas Plague, 1954, and The Tunnel Under the World, 1955), and Philip K Dick’s (e.g. The Defenders, 1953, and The Mold of Yancy, 1954). However, the emergence of such ‘sociological science fiction’ was broader than these two better known authors. [6]

The years I propose—1945 to 1970—are not merely accidental. Even though the situationist development of the concept of ‘spectacle’ lay between 1957 and 1967, with the highpoint of its development between 1962 and 1967, Debord and others had been developing their critical practice from at least 1951. That there was ‘something in the air’ between 1945 and 1970 akin to the full-blown situationist critique of the 1960s is something I would like to explore. Additionally, the endpoint of 1970 is similarly non-accidental. The world changed after 1968–at the very least, became more cynical about the dominance of the ‘spectacle’. Debord would note, shortly after 1968, how the ‘negativity’ of the rebellions was already ‘invading’ the commodity-spectacle. As David Pringle and Peter Nicholls have noted, ‘[a]bout the end of the 1970s traditional sf about the media seemed to wither away almost overnight: during the 1980s harsh satires about the world of admen, once almost commonplace, became scarce’. I would hazard to argue that this was a result, a least in part, of two processes: on the one hand, the more general calling into question of what the situationists called the commodity-spectacle in the wake of 1968; and on the other hand, the utter triumph of the self-same commodity-spectacle through the ultimate defeat of the movement of 1968—not to mention the sheer brutal omnipresence of the once ‘new’ world of mass communications by the 1980s.

To be clear, I am not proposing that I am the first to note the critical content of science fiction from this period. Indeed, the literature on the critique of the ‘media landscape’ in science fiction—to name just one of the elements—is well advanced. Rather, I want to examine these stories not only as responses to the developments in capitalist society in the immediate post-war period, but further propose that we can draw upon these stories in the situationist style: détourn them for critical purposes.

Among other things, I will return to the idea of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ in upcoming posts.


[1] Situationist International, ‘The role of the S.I. [1962]‘, trans. by Reuben Keehan. Translation modified.

[2] See, in particular, thesis 6 and 10 of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

[3] Marx, Capital, volume 1, chapter 1, ‘The fetishism of the commodity and its secret’.

[4] The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 36, translation modified.

[5] Orson Welles, ‘Introduction’, in S.F: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merril, Dell Publishing: 1956, p. 8.

[6] Elsewhere I have begun to examine Russian science fiction from the same time. And I would hope that this project will lead to an examination of other iterations of SF around the globe of the mid-twentieth century.

The science fiction spectacle

fig. 1. ‘The Programmed People’, Ed Emshwiller, Amazing Stories cover, June 1963

It turns out that behind the so-called screen which is supposed to conceal the interior, there is nothing to be seen unless we go behind it ourselves, not only in order that we may see, but also that there may be something behind there that can be seen.”—Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807[1]

The Situationist International (SI) infamously claimed that ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[2] In making what some have considered an outrageously egomaniacal claim, the situationists were simply restating an argument that had been around since at least Marx. Considering that the task of proletarian self-emancipation is the project of the proletariat themselves, the understanding of such a modern condition—“proletarian”—is likewise the project of the proletariat themselves and not merely that of intellectual specialists, whether proletarian or bourgeois, revolutionary or academic.[3] As Marx put it some five years before the foundation of the First International, people become conscious of the contradictions of the social production of their existence by way of ‘the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms’. Consequently, in any struggle to overcome such contradictions one must ‘fight it out’ amidst such forms.[4] There is a relationship of entailment—an identity in the Hegelian sense—between these ‘forms’ of consciousness and the ‘material’ conditions of capitalist life. Indeed, the ideological forms are so much material of the social relation, whether more or less materialized; more or less ineffable: the dreams and conversations of an epoch.

To the end of illustrating the science fiction spectacle—a subgenre of capitalist ideology and its immanent contradictions—I am going to compare and contrast a text by the Situationist International and an excerpt from a science fiction story by John Jakes. The Ed Emshwiller cover illustration (above), provides a suitable visualisation of the coming ‘programmed people’ become literal punch cards of the computerized masters. Note that all of these pieces were published in 1963.

The SI text muses on the police like nature of academic sociology, and its relationship to the coming science fiction dystopia of computerized ‘modern information technologies’. John Jakes imagines a near future—early 21st century—in which the imperatives of the fashion industry of the early 1960s and the principles of planned obsolescence have been extended to the human personality.[5] Both texts expound, in their own way, upon what the SI derisively calls ‘sociological beauty’: the ‘mystified and mystifying elevation of the partial that hides totalities and their movement’.[6] Missing from both, tellingly given the year of composition, is a critical feminist perspective. Beauty simply is associated with a sort of implicitly timeless “femininity”, which remained, regrettably, unquestioned.

1963 is fairly late in the development of the science fiction spectacle. For instance, other authors were in advance of John Jakes speculations. Just as the Situationists noted that they did not invent the critique of this new commodified society, merely pointed out certain explosive consequences of such criticisms, so too Jakes was already working an exploited seam, a “new” fictional tradition extending back as far as Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s Gravy Planet/The Space Merchants (1952/53) and further. Indeed, so-called ‘sociological science fiction’ can be seen, in part, to be coterminous with the science fiction spectacle.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will offer more thoughts on the science fiction spectacle.

Note that my method of inquiry and criticism is informed by the situationist practice of détournement, as opposed to the more conventional semiotic analysis that dominates much cultural criticism. In this way I am more interested in exploiting the critical insights that often sit uncomfortably alongside confused and bigoted themes in pop culture (for instance, in the story The Sellers of Dreams, which I use, below).

Check out this post of mine for more details.

fig. 2. ‘Sociological beauty’, internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963

Sociological beauty

This is an identikit drawing [Fr: portraitrobot] of the “ideal woman”, published in France-soir on 31 August 1962, and based on ten details taken from ten female celebrities considered the most beautiful in the world. This synthetic star furnishes an eloquent example of what can lead to the totalitarian dictatorship of the fragment, opposed here to the dialectical play of the face. This dream face of cybernetics is modeled on modern information technologies, which are truly effective as repression, control, classification and the maintenance of order—for instance, the identikit portrait has proved itself in police research. Obviously, the aims and methods of this information technology are opposed to the existence of knowledge, poetry and our possible appropriation of the world. Sociological beauty is the equivalent of industrial sociology or the sociology of urban life—and for the same reasons: it is a mystified and mystifying elevation of the partial that hides totalities and their movement. Inserted into the society of the spectacle without even wanting to think about it, the precise scientific moralism of sociology also indicates, along with beauty, its use: This new translation of Hic Rhodus hic salta can be read: “Here is beauty, here you consume!”[7]

—Situationist International, January 1963 [8]

The Sellers of Dreams

[pdf of the story in its original published format available here]

[A] crowd of distributors hurrying into the auditorium beneath a banner reading:

Things To Come Incorporated
World Distributors
“Last Year’s Woman Is
This Year’s Consumer”


“Gentlemen,” Krumm said, “first the bad news.”

At the unhappy grumble he held up his hand. “Next year—I promise!—TTIC will absolutely and without qualification be ready to introduce the concept of the obsolescent male personality, exactly as we did in the female market ten years ago. I can only emphasis again the tremendous physical problems confronting us, and point to the lag in male fashion obsolescence that was not finally overcome until the late twentieth century, by the sheer weight of promotion. Men, unlike women, accept new decorative concepts slowly. TTIC has a lucrative share of the semiannual male changeover, but we are years behind the female personality market. Next year we catch up.”

“May we see what you have for the girls, old chap?” someone asked. “Then we’ll decide whether we’re happy.”

“Very well.” Krumm began to read from a promotion script: “This year we steal a leaf from yesterday’s—uh—scented album.” The lights dimmed artfully. Perfume sprayed the chamber from hidden ducts. A stereo orchestra swelled. The curtains parted. […]

A nostalgic solido view of New York when it was once populated by people flashed on the screen. Violins throbbed thrillingly.

“Remember the sweet, charming girl of yesteryear? We capture her for you—warm, uncomplicated, reveling in—uh, let’s see—sunlight and outdoor sports.”

A series of solido slides, illustrating Krumm’s points with shots of nuclear ski lifts or the Seine, merged one into another.

“Gone is the exaggerated IQ of this year, gone the modish clothing. A return to softness. A simple mind, clinging, sweet. The stuff of everyman’s dream. Gentleman, I give you—”

Hidden kettledrums swelled. The name flashed on the screen:


“Dream Desire! New Woman of the 2007-08 market year!”

—John Jakes, June 1963[9]



[1] Thesis 165, Inwood translation (2018).

[2] Internationale situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’, internationale situationniste, no. 7, April 1962.

[3] See, founding document of the International Workingmen’s Association of 1864.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘Preface’, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.

[5] Much as the fashion industry of the US and other Western nations at that time dreamed of a ‘peacock revolution’ for the male industry, Jakes imagines the world on the verge of another one, though this time in terms of the entire personality as commodity.

[6] Internationale situationniste, ‘Beauté de la sociologie’, internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963. Note that an earlier version of this translation is available here.

[7] “Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” is Marx’s détournement—i.e., plagiarism and correction—of Hegel’s “Hic Rhodus, hic saltus”. For “jump” (saltus) Marx substitutes “dance” (salta). See this.

[8] From internationale situationniste no. 8, January 1963, p. 33.

[9] From ‘The Sellers of the Dream’, Galaxy Magazine, June 1963, pp. 161, 162-63.

Subtle compensations

“subtle compensations…”

Spectacles compensate for the participation that is no longer possible.

–Attila Kotányi & Raoul Vaneigem, 1961

From the workshop to the laboratory capitalism has emptied productive activity of all meaning, endeavoring to locate the meaning of life in leisure, and—on this basis—redirect all productive activity. For the prevailing morality production is hell. And so, real life will be found in consumption—in the use of goods.

But for the most part, these goods have no other use than the satisfaction of a few private needs—needs that have been developed excessively to meet the demands of the market. Capitalist consumption imposes a reductive movement to desires, by way of the regular satisfaction of artificial needs—which remain needs without ever having been desires. Authentic desires remain constrained at the stage of their non-fulfillment (or compensated for in the form of spectacles). In reality, the consumer is morally and psychologically consumed by the market. Consequently, these goods have no social use, above all because the social horizon is entirely blocked by the factory.[1] Outside of the factory everything is converted into a desert (dormitory towns, freeways, parking lots…). The place of consumption is a desert.

Nonetheless, the society constituted in the factory unequivocally dominates this desert. The real use of goods is simply for the purposes of social ornamentation. Indeed, the fatal trend of the industrial commodity is that all the signs of purchased prestige and differentiation become compulsory for everyone. The factory is symbolically reproduced in leisure, even if there is a margin of possibility in the transposition sufficient to compensate some frustrations. In reality, the world of consumption is that of the spectacle of everyone for everyone—which is to say the division, estrangement and non-participation that exists among all. The managerial sphere is the severe director of this spectacle, automatically and poorly composed according to imperatives that are external to society, and that are signified in absurd values. Indeed, the directors themselves, insofar as they are alive, can be considered as victims of this robotic direction.

–Pierre Canjures [2] & Guy Debord, 1960

[1] “l’usine“=the factory. In 1960, widespread factory production of goods was apparent in countries like France, as well as other “advanced” industrial capitalist nations. Since the 1970s, de-industrialization of such countries has accelerated, alongside of a concomitant and expanding industrialization of other countries–for instance, China, India and Brazil (to name three prominent contemporary examples). In part, the de-industrialization of the West was a result of the rebellion of factory workers, students and others between 1968 and the late 1970s.

[2] aka Daniel Blanchard, member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

The first quote above is from Ken Knabb‘s translation, available here. The translation of the second quote, taken from part I, section 6, of Préliminaires pour une définition de l’unité du programme révolutionnaire, is by the sinister scientist. Ken Knabb’s translation of this article is available here.

The image used in the collage-détournement “subtle compensations” is by Frank Bellamy. The text is taken from Julio Cortázar‘s Hopscotch, originally Rayuela (1963), English translation by Gregory Rabassa (1966). The collage-détournement was made by the sinister scientist. More on what exactly is a “collage-détournement” and “spectacle” soon.