Tag Archives: society of the spectacle

Once more on the Hamburg Theses

fig. 1. Hamburgum.

[You can read my translation of Debord’s The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 here]

The plans announced in my last post with an eye to the 60th anniversary of the first publication of Internationale Situationniste no. 7 have been held up a little. Most obviously and unfortunately by the fact that I contracted covid shortly after posting. More pertinently by what I would call a certain lack I identified in the project of publishing new translations of articles from Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS no. 7).

For instance, I was struck by the spectral presence of what is arguably the pivotal situationist ‘document’, one whose shadow is cast over the entirety of IS no. 7: namely, the mysterious Hamburg Theses.

Published in April 1962, IS no. 7 marked the definitive turn of the SI toward the task that would take it up to May 1968: the relaunch of a revolutionary movement. However, whereas the seventh issue cements this turn, the turn itself had been underway for a good two years. In part, this can be seen in the arguments that raged over the significance of art that reached a peak at the 5th Conference of the group in August 1961. In part, it emerged from Debord’s participation in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group over 1960 and 1961. The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 were a response to both aspects of the SI’s evolution.

In two of the three documents that I have translated from IS no. 7, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (The Role of the SI), and Attila Kotányi’s ‘L’Étage suivant’ (The Next Stage), the Hamburg Theses are explicitly cited, even though no clear details of their content are revealed. As was discovered by Thomas Y. Levin in 1989, the Hamburg Theses never existed as a finished document. To the end of better contextualising these documents, I’ve decided to post a new translation of Debord’s 1989 note on the Hamburg Theses.[1]

In early September 1961, as the story goes, Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem were on their return from the recently concluded 5th Conference of the Situationist International (SI). Having embarked, at the conferences end, on a drunken drift (dérive) across the Kattgatt sea from Göteborg to Frederikshavn, the three situationists, in the wake of the acrimonious discussions over what exactly constituted ‘anti-situationist’ activity (and why artistic activity under current circumstances constituted a subsection thereof), wended their way to Hamburg.[2] There, ‘in a series of randomly chosen bars in Hamburg over two or three days at the beginning of September 1961,’ Debord, Kotányi and Vaneigem composed the aptly named Hamburg Theses.[3]

The chief argumentative thrust of the Theses would find its way into other works by the situationists. Debord, in his 1989 note, handily summarised the non-existent ‘document’:

[T]he ‘Theses’ were conclusions, voluntarily kept secret, of a theoretical and strategic discussion that concerned the entirety of the conduct of the SI. […]

Deliberately, with the intention of leaving no trace that could be observed or analysed from outside the SI, nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down. It was then agreed that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: ‘Now, the SI must realise philosophy’. Even this phrase was not written down. Thus, the conclusions were so well hidden that they have remained secret up until the present. […]

The summarised conclusions evoked a celebrated formula of Marx from 1844 (in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel Philosophy of Right). It meant that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement destroyed in the first half of our century; and therefore, that it would be better to count on the SI alone to relaunch a time of contestation as soon as possible, by way of revitalising all the basic starting points that were established in the 1840s. Once established this position did not imply the coming rupture with the artistic ‘right’ of the SI (who feebly desired only to repeat or continue modern art) but rendered it extremely probable. We can thus recognise that the ‘Hamburg Theses’ marked the end of the first period of the SI—that is research into a truly new artistic terrain (1957-61)—as well as fixing the departure point for the operation that led to the movement of May 1968, and what followed.[4]

Two things need to be said in clarification of the foregoing.

First, the two extant English translations of Debord’s note on the Hamburg Theses contain mistranslations of a crucial phrase rendered in the last paragraph, above. In these earlier translations, ‘qu’il ne faudrait donc plus compter que sur la seule I.S.’, became, ‘that it was therefore no longer necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Reuben Keehan), and, ‘that it would no longer be necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Not Bored!). As I noted in my last post, Keehan and Not Bored’s translation have the unfortunate result of inverting the meaning of the phrase in question—arguably the pivotal phrase concerning the import of the Hamburg Theses for the future of the SI.

This mistake alone justifies a new English translation. Nonetheless, I feel that the confusion of these earlier translators was understandable. The phrase in question is a particularly convoluted one in the French.

Nonetheless, the meaning of this phrase in relation to the entire sentence of which it is a part—its internal coherence if you will—should give one pause. For instance, the idea that one would no longer count on the SI alone (as Keehan and Not Bored rendered the phrase in question) does not clearly follow from the preceding clause to which it is the conclusion, i.e., ‘that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement’. Perhaps these translators believed that Debord was talking here of the revolutionary movement they proposed to relaunch as opposed to the relaunching itself? Certainly, the SI never suggested that they alone would constitute such a revolutionary movement. However, Debord was not claiming here that the SI would alone constitute such a movement. Rather, he was arguing that given the way that the artistic and political contemporaries of the situationists remained beholden to forms of artistic and political spectacle that were recuperated and ‘destroyed in the first half of our century’, these contemporaries were more likely not to be involved in the relaunch of such a movement. Thus, it would be better to count on the SI alone.

Further, in the seventh issue of Internationale Situationniste, the situationists made the case for actual existence of the forces which would make up such a revolutionary movement—passively, in terms of the sheer weight of the increasing proletarianization of the world, and actively in so far as elements of this proletariat were being driven to revolt, albeit sometimes in less than ‘orthodox’ fashion. Thus, the SI put much store in what was then, in the early 1960s, signs of a burgeoning youth rebellion across the advanced industrial world, as well as the increase in ‘wildcat’ strikes already extensively commented upon by comrades in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.[5]. The question then, from the situationist’s perspective, was one of ‘organis[ing] a coherent encounter between the elements of critique and negation (whether as acts or as ideas) that are now scattered around the world’.[6] However, such an organisation was, perforce, distinctly opposed to the various authoritarian and hierarchical conceptions of a political or artistic avant-garde beloved of much of the contemporaneous far-left, whether Marxist or anarchist. Underlining this anti-hierarchical sense, the situationists would later say of their role, ‘[w]e will only organize the detonation: the free explosion must escape us and any other control forever’.[7]

fig. 2. Detail of a map of Hamburg.

Secondly, critics have—perhaps justly—been confused when Debord in his 1989 note initially speaks of the Hamburg Thesis as being ‘the most mysterious of all the documents that emerged from the SI’ (my emphasis), only to later clarify that ‘nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down’.[8] Debord speaks of the Hamburg Theses as a ‘document’ in an ironic fashion, in order to underline not only its non-existence in written form, but more pointedly to draw attention to this non-existence as its most singular and enduring quality.

In the same note, Debord wrote that the Hamburg Theses ‘were a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, who hitherto had all given the impression of being eager to explain themselves’.[9] The question, however, was never one of refusing ‘to explain themselves’, as the ongoing publication of Internationale Situationniste testifies.[10] Debord would explain the avant-garde nature of the Theses by underlining the positive nature of the destructive truth of the Hamburg Theses in a letter to Vaneigem:

we agreed not to write the Hamburg Theses, thereby all the better to impose in the future their central significance to our project. Thus, the enemy will not be able to feign approval of them without great difficulty.[11].

Here, the Theses are spoken of as a trap to the unwary. There is no question that their conclusions became a part of the explicit weaponry of the SI, and yet it was forever put out of reach, an authority impossible to appeal to just as the SI worked hard to disabuse those who, perhaps inevitably, had begun to treat them as authorities. As the group would later write, in an article moreover that took its title from the Hamburg Theses:

It is quite natural that our enemies succeed in partially using us. We are neither going to leave the present field of culture to them nor mix with them. The armchair advisors who want to admire and understand us from a respectful distance readily recommend to us the purity of the first attitude while they themselves adopt the second one. We reject this suspect formalism: like the proletariat, we cannot claim to be unexploitable under the present conditions; the best we can do is to strive to make any such exploitation entail the greatest possible risk for the exploiters.[12]

By refusing to publish a document called the Hamburg Theses, and so being less that ‘eager to explain themselves,’ Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were gesturing at what was coming to be a central aspect of the situationist project as they understood it.[13] In IS no. 7, in the wake of the Hamburg Theses, they wagered that, ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[14] This sentence has proved puzzling for many readers, some of whom have read it ungenerously as yet more evidence of the SI’s megalomania. However, by 1961 the situationists around Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were beginning to conceive of the particularities of their project as a moment of a more general revolutionary contestation dispersed in time and space. Which is to say, as a moment of the forces of refusal and rebellion that were real products of the spread and development of capitalist alienation.

Contrary to Lenin and Trotsky, for example, and for that matter a fair amount of anarchist theory too, the SI did not see themselves as bringing a theory of revolution to the working classes. Rather, like Marx they held to the idea that such a theory and practice itself emerged from the experience of the alienated and conflictual nature of proletarian life. The young Marx had argued, in words echoed and approvingly used by the SI, that ‘[t]heory can be realised in a people only insofar as it is the realisation of the needs of that people’; thus, ‘[i]t is not enough for thought to strive for realisation, reality must itself strive towards thought’.[15] At best, the SI saw itself as a particularly coherent moment of the struggle for theory from below whose practical truth they found posed not only in their own faltering experiments in unitary urbanism and the constructed situation, but even more so in the wildcat strikes of workers as much as the then flourishing counter cultures of alienated working-class youth.

In opposition to many of their leftist and intellectual contemporaries, the situationists did not see that alienation was being ameliorated or revealed as an idealist delusion, but rather that it was ramified and multiplied with the intensification and extension of capitalist production and consumption across the globe. The question, then, was not one of educating the proletariat in the guise of the eternal sacrifice of the intellectual leader, but rather participating in the clarification and cohering of a fractured and dispersed contestation that was already underway.

And so, the peculiar and not so peculiar situationist sense of the ‘avant-garde’. In artistic, political and military terms, ‘avant-garde’ had come to designate those ‘in advance’ of the main body. In the Leninist and Stalinist vernaculars, it indicated the necessary gap between the merely social democratic consciousness of the worker and the avant-garde consciousness of the revolutionary who would lead the worker to the promised land. For the situationists, the notion of avant-garde, to the extent that it had come to merely justify an unchallenged hierarchy amenable to a capitalist division of labour, had ceased to be of any use. As Debord would put it some years later in The Society of the Spectacle,

Proletarian revolution depends entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as understanding of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses. It requires that workers become dialecticians and put their thought into practice.[16]

Which is not to say that the SI rejected its avant-garde role, but rather that it rejected the then dominant conceptions of what constituted a political or artistic avant-garde. Against both, Debord would pose that, ‘now, the first realisation of an avant-garde is the avant-garde itself’.[17] To have itself as its ‘realisation’, instead of the fetish of the art-object or theoretical manifesto, was simply to emphasis the true, ultimate object of the avant-garde. For the SI this was precisely the communist society it saw as the necessary condition for the realisation of the project first outlined in the hypothesis of the constructed situation back in 1957. The question, then, was one of realising the project of communism (or at least the situationist conception of such) and so abolishing the need for such an avant-garde like the SI—an abolition, moreover, that would be embodied in the realisation of a mass revolutionary movement. As they phrased it in IS no. 8, the situationist avant-garde would be ‘a party that supersedes itself, a party whose victory is at the same time its own disappearance’.[18]

The resonance with Marx’s notion of the realisation and abolition of philosophy is palpable—as Debord noted in his 1989 note on the Theses. Marx’s early conception of the intersection of a radical philosophical project and a proletariat struggling to overcome their respective alienations and separations amidst the commercial wastelands of a fledgling industrial capitalism would become a central point of refence for the situationists. Indeed, Debord considered that in Marx’s notion of the congruence of the self-abolition of philosophy and the proletariat could be found a process akin to the various artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries—all of whom appeared to move inexorably toward the progressive destruction of traditional aesthetic and artistic truth. It is here, in the artistic lineage of the SI that one can, perhaps, find the formal antecedents of the Hamburg Theses—the ‘height of avant-gardism’ as Debord called them.

Much as the Comte de Lautréamont and Stéphane Mallarmé had announced and celebrated the shipwreck of language and poetry in Les Chants de Maldoror and Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, as Kazimir Malevich had paused on the representational abyss of the destruction of the art-object in his painting White on White, and as André Breton caught sight of the marvellous amidst the drab of everyday art and alienation, so too Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Attila Kotányi and Alexander Trocchi pushed on to the limits of expression given the prison house of the commodity and its various alienations. To manifest the anti-manifesto, and to leave nothing to posterity but the fading and fallible memory of the passage of a few persons through a rather brief unity of time.

As a young Letterist, Debord had set his sights on destroying the cinema, making a film in which the Letterist effacement of the cinematic image was taken to its extreme. In his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade(1952), all the images were eliminated to leave a blank screen during its projection, variously white or black depending on the dialogue that was left to occasionally mark the film’s 80-minute run. A few years later, reacting against the nihilist tendencies of his Letterist and International Letterist days, Debord argued that the coming Situationist international must constitute ‘one step back’ from such an ‘external opposition’ to art.[19] The point, for Debord, was never one of re-entering the artistic domain under the banner of the SI but rather investigating the possible uses to which artistic practices could be deployed in developing the situationist hypothesis of the constructed situation. Having increasingly encountered the limits of such experimental use between 1957 and 1961, Debord and his circle forced the issue, breaking the SI away from the artistic morass it had fallen into in order to better chart the new waters of an avant-garde practice at once political and artistic—as much as it proposed, simultaneously, to supersede both. However, this was not a return to the heady days of Letterist nihilism. And the Hamburg Theses is perhaps the most singular proof of this. When Debord spoke of it as ‘the most mysterious, and also the most formally experimental [text] in the history of the SI’,[20] his reference was no longer the impasse of formal destruction that he had faced in his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Rather, the Hamburg Theses, even as it embodied the destruction of form, posed the positivity at the heart of the situationist project: namely, that most pressing question of how best to bring about a social order conducive to the free play and construction of situations as outlined at the founding of the SI.

Anthony Hayes
May, 2022

This post also appears here.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Two slightly different versions of Debord’s 1989 note exist. The first, published in 1997, excised the name of the original addressee, Thomas Y. Levin, from the text of the note. The second, published in 2008, reinstated the full text of the note as it was originally conceived: as a letter addressed to Thomas Y. Levin in November 1989. See, respectively, Guy Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989],’ in Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997; Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, Novembre 1989—Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste),’ in Correspondance, volume 7, janvier 1988 – novembre 1994, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2008.

[2] Internationale Situationniste, ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg,’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962).

[3] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[4] This is an excerpt from my new translation of Debord’s 1989 note/letter on the Hamburg Theses. For details of the original French version, see footnote 1, above.

[5] See, respectively, ‘Unconditional Defence’ and ‘Instructions for an Insurrection’, both from IS no. 6 (August 1961). For more on the brief relationship between the SI and Socialisme ou Barbarie, see Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement,’ in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, ed. Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, London: Pluto Press, 2020.

[6] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’, IS no. 9, August 1964.

[7] Situationist International, ‘The Counter-Situationist Campaign in Various Countries (excerpts)’, IS no. 8 (January 1963).

[8] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[9] Ibid.

[10] As Debord noted in a letter to his old Letterist comrade, Ivan Chtcheglov, even though publishing the journal could be ‘tiresome’ and prone to ‘inevitable defects’, it remained ‘one of our only weapons’, ‘a living voice […] to envision supersessions more precisely’. Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Ivan Chtcheglov, 30 avril 1963,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001.

[11] Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Raoul Vaneigem, 15 février, 1962,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001, p. 127. Italics in the original.

[12] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’, IS no. 9 (August 1964).

[13] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[14] Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962).

[15] Karl Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction [1844],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works Vol. 3, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 183.

[16] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 4, thesis 123.

[17] G.-E. Debord, ‘L’avant-garde en 1963 et après,’ in Guy Debord Œuvres, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[18] Situationist International, ‘Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature’, IS no. 8 (January 1963).

[19] Guy Debord, ‘One Step Back [1957],’ in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2004.

[20] Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, 1 septembre 1989.’

Internationale Situationniste number 7, April 1962

fig. 1. Advances in alienation. The first color photograph of the whole Earth (western Hemisphere), shot from the ATS-3 satellite on 10 November 1967.

It is sixty years since Internationale Situationniste number 7 was published, dated April 1962. Partly in commemoration I plan on posting new translations of several articles from the seventh issue over the next month.

Our world is arguably less distant from the situationists, sixty years past, then theirs was from 1902. Certainly not in terms of clock time, but rather in lived time. No equal of the revolutionary insurgency and capitalist disasters of 1914 to 1945 have marked the decades since 1962. But more pointedly, the fitfully globalising capitalism of 1962 has come to fruition in the sixty years since. The commodity-spectacle has not only triumphed across the planet—remarkably expressed in the first colour photograph of the world-globe from space, taken the same year Debord published The Society of the Spectacle—it has ramified down the years, taken on new, more intensively reified forms as it has extended its reach throughout the social-natural metabolism.

The absence of revolutionary contestation in the 60 years since 1962, at a level equal to that of Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918-19, China in 1926 and Spain in 1936-37, can be attributed solely to the success of the global commodity-spectacle. The unification of the capitalist world over the past six decades has been singularly aimed at preventing a repeat of the revolutionary insurrections capitalism faced between 1914 and 1945. A more thoroughly integrated, quiescent proletariat has been perhaps the single greatest project of capital—a project, moreover, that has been achieved without the dangers of the old social-democratic politics that offered a working-class community of sorts in which the dream of a post-capitalist world was kept alive, albeit in a largely religious, and so ineffectual form. The contemporary spectacle, in which the communal moment of the old social-democratic politics has been thoroughly replaced by the fractured and atomizing pseudo-communities of mass consumer culture, is by far more successful at integrating and undermining any pesky proletarian aspirations for a world beyond capitalism. Alongside the full spectrum dominance of commodified dreams, whether of the cinematic, televisual, or computerised variety, even so-called radical theory and politics is churned out to the hum of machines and mass produced profit. Unsurprisingly much of it reiterates the impossibility of a revolutionary project.

The situationist project, 1957-1972, was an attempt to make sense of the legacy of the first half of the twentieth century, in both artistic and political terms, to the end of the immediate revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. On the basis of a thoroughgoing critique of the nostalgia that dominated the far-left and artistic avant-gardes of the 1950s and 60s, the situationists outlined a revolutionary project that targeted the weakness of not only their artistic and political contemporaries, but more pointedly the nature of the vast commodity-spectacle that had come into being in the wake of the Second World War. Unlike many of their erstwhile disciples and followers today, the situationists did not simply propose a theory of the present; even more they argued that the desire for a different future was already present amidst the misery of capitalist alienation, albeit in an often disguised, marginalised or unconscious fashion. Thus, their belief in no compromise with the forces of spectacular integration. One can only throw off the domination of the past if one’s eyes remain firmly fixed upon the future, and so necessarily against all the alienations of the present.

fig. 2. Illustration from Internationale Situationniste no. 7. The image is taken from a contemporary US ad for family-sized nuclear shelters. It is a deeply ideological rendering of a mid-20th century US family. No doubt if such a campaign was launched today, canny capitalists would be more attuned to using a “diverse” array of models to flog their grim wares.The aim would nonetheless remain the same. As the situationists mordantly noted at the time, “If this system were to go to the point of bluntly proclaiming that it imposes such an empty and hopeless existence that the best solution for everyone would be to go hang themselves, it would still succeed in managing a healthy and profitable business by producing standardized ropes”.

*

The seventh issue of International Situationniste was a pivotal one in the life of the situationist group. It was the first issue to be published after the so-called ‘break with the artists’ in the first quarter of 1962, and the first issue to take up the project outlined by Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Attila Kotányi, and Alexander Trocchi in the enigmatic Hamburg Theses of September 1961.

In the articles of Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS no. 7), the group was chiefly concerned with outlining a distinctly situationist revolutionary project. Following on from their turn to critically appropriating the council communist perspective Debord found amongst comrades in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, and announced in IS no. 6 (August 1961), issue seven finds the group more forcefully transforming itself from a group on the margins of artistic experimentation to one in which a ‘new type’ of revolutionary practice is being proposed. For instance, here we find not only the concept of ‘survival’ through which the SI would criticise the cult of work that then dominated what passed for a revolutionary left, but also the distinctly situationist notion that revolutionaries have more to learn from the glorious failures of the past, like the Paris Commune of 1871 and the German Revolution of 1918-19, than erstwhile “successes” like the so-called ‘really existing socialism’ of the then contemporaneous Soviet Union.

Today, IS no. 7 is perhaps best remembered for four articles: the first part of Raoul Vaneigem’s ‘Banalités de base’ (Basic Banalities, part 1), the lead articles, ‘Géopolitique de l’hibernation’ (Geopolitics of Hibernation), and ‘Les mauvais jours finiront’ (The Bad Days Will End), as well as ‘La cinquième conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg’ (The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg [excerpts]) in which details of the arguments that laid the groundwork for 1962 split were finally revealed. As linked, all of these articles exist in good English translations made by Ken Knabb. However, this selection, arguably the most important of the articles in IS no. 7, constitutes only about half of the written content of the number.

Nonetheless, the other articles from IS no. 7 exist in English translation, available here (The Role of the SI, Priority Communication, Situationist News, and the complete The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg) and here (Sunset Boulevard). Links to all of the available translations of IS no. 7 are usefully available in one place, here. Unfortunately, these other translations, made by Reuben Keehan and Not Bored, are not always of the same high quality as Knabb’s. Indeed, many are desperately in need of an overhaul. At best, Keehan and Not Bored have made available many situationist articles that had previously only been available in the original French. At worst, they are traps to the unwary reader who either cannot or will not compare them to the original French.[1]

However, I cannot spare myself from all the critical barbs I’ve aimed at others. Over the last decade I have published the occasional translation of situationist and para-situationist texts on this blog, and elsewhere. Whereas I stand by my more recent efforts—for instance, my translations of Guy Debord’s Surrealism (2021) and Mustapha Khayati’s Marxisms(2016)—I cannot recommend the more distant ones—for instance, from my very first published translation of a situationist text, On the Exclusion of Attila Kotányi (2012), up to and including the equally awkward and flawed Socialism or Planète (2013). As such I feel that I bear some responsibility for any confusion or misinterpretation that has flowed from my less than adequate translations, alongside those of Keehan’s and Not Bored’s. To that end, and in the hope that I can continue to aid in the communication of situationist ideas, I offer more recent efforts in an attempt at exculpation. Indeed, one may say, like Hegel and Marx, that error is the surest road to the truth. Accordingly, none of my translations should be considered done with or finished, but rather works in progress—as, indeed, are all things,including the original situationist texts.

Over the coming weeks I will offer my translations of the following articles from IS no.7: ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (The role of the SI), ‘Communication prioritaire’ (Priority Communication) and Attila Kotanyi’s ‘L’Étage suivant’ (The Next Stage). Though perhaps not as important as some of the other articles in the issue, all three of these are important for understanding the turn carried out by the Situationist International over 1961 and 1962, and further, shed light upon the influence that the mysterious Hamburg Theses exerted on the group. To that end I will also offer up my translation of Guy Debord’s 1989 text on the latter, ‘Les theses de Hambourg en septembre 1961’ (The Hamburg Theses of September 1961). Indeed, the two extent translations of this text of Debord’s (available here and here) both share an identical flaw—a mistranslation of a central phrase that inverts the phrase’s meaning. That these continue to be the only widely available translations of this important text is testament to the perilous state of much of what passes for scholarship, exegesis, and translation of the works of the Situationist International.

What we really need is not only well-made translations of all the article in IS no. 7, but also of the entire run of the Internationale Situationniste journal. Considering that Knabb’s large selection, collected in his Situationist International Anthology, is now more than 40 years old (originally published 1981, and substantially revised 2006), it is way past time that a complete collection was published in English. If anyone reading this is interested in such a project do not hesitate to contact me: antyphayes [at] gmail [dot] com

fig. 3. The metallicized cover of Internationale Situationniste no. 7.

Anthony Hayes
April, 2022


FOOTNOTES

[1] An example of the latter can be found in James Trier’s recent book, Guy Debord, the Situationist International, and the Revolutionary Spirit (2019). However, Trier’s errors cannot be solely put down to the inadequate translations that he relied upon. To present just one example: on the third page of the introductory chapter he attributes an article by Guy Debord, All the King’s Men (title originally in English), to Michèle Bernstein—a mistake that he compounds by continuing to refer to her as the author throughout his book. Perhaps being distracted by Humpty Dumpty’s great fall, Trier has confused, or inadvertently associated Debord’s article with Bernstein’s similarly titled novel, Tous les chevaux du roi (All the King’s Horses). But such a mistake does not bode well for an author who claims to offer new information on the situationist group. At best, Trier’s work is a relatively straightforward and unimaginative description of the works of the situationists. However, the authors efforts are hamstrung by his inability to engage with their works in the original French, and so judge the worth or usefulness of the extant translations.


This post also appears here: https://thesinisterquarter.wordpress.com/2022/04/08/internationale-situationniste-number-7-april-1962/

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’.

1.

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.

2.

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.


FOOTNOTES

[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:

WELCOME
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.

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

—John Jakes, June 1963[9]

UPDATED 22 AUGUST 2020


Footnotes

[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.