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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.

UPDATED 22 AUGUST 2020


FOOTNOTES

[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.