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From the commodity to the spectacle: Debord’s Marx (Russell, 2019)

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by Eric-John Russell, Capitalism: Concept, Idea, Image eds. Osborne, Alliez, Russel (2019)

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Published a century after Marx’s Capital, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was described upon its release as ‘the Capital of the new generation’ (Le Nouvel Observateur). However, the book’s content has almost never been seriously examined alongside the dialectical logic of the social forms of value systematically ordered within Marx’s Capital. Despite Debord’s description of the modern spectacle as a development of the commodity-capitalist economy, discussions on Debord’s debt to Marx customarily emphasize those early writings in which Marx enunciates the critique of alienation without having yet traversed the works of classical political economy. And for good reason, as his archival notes can verify. A preliminary glance at The Society of the Spectacle elicits the impression that the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ first enunciated by Marx in his early twenties continued to reverberate a century later. The book resounds with both implicit and explicit reference to the phenomenon of social alienation or estrangement described by Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts. READ PDF

Pandemic: the explosion point of the capitalist relation?

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by Antithesi (April 18, 2020)

The growth of production has been entirely verified until now as the realization of political economy: the growth of poverty, which has invaded and laid waste to the very fabric of life… In the society of the over-developed economy, everything has entered the sphere of economic goods, even spring water and the air of towns, that is to say, everything has become the economic ill, that “complete denial of man”…

Guy Debord, The sick planet

The outbreak of the pandemic and its spread all over the world is the most recent expression of what Debord has identified half a century ago as the “economic ill”. Capital is not only a class relation of exploitation and domination but also a relation of alienation of society from nature in which both the producers of social wealth and non-human nature as an autonomous productive force are transformed into objects that are dominated and plundered by it. The continuously expanding process of the subsumption of nature under capital is conflictual and contradictory. The consequences of this subsumption emerge as phenomena like global warming, the infestation of farmland with superweeds, the slowdown of agricultural productivity and, today, the coronavirus pandemic.

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A Sick Planet (Debord, 1971)

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Written by Guy Debord in 1971, this text was intended for publication in Internationale Situationniste 13, which never appeared. It was first published in the French edition of the present collection in 2004. It may also be found in Guy Debord, Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 2006, pp. 1063-9). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, published in English, 2008. PDF

‘POLLUTION’ IS IN FASHION TODAY, exactly in the same way as revolution: it dominates the whole life of society, and it is represented in illusory form in the spectacle. It is the subject of mind-numbing chatter in a plethora of erroneous and mystifying writing and speech, yet it really does have everyone by the throat. It is on display everywhere as ideology, yet it is continually gaining ground as a material development. Two antagonistic tendencies, progression towards the highest form of commodity production and the project of its total negation, equally rich in contradictions within themselves, grow ever stronger in parallel with one other. Here are the two sides whereby a sole historical moment, long awaited and often described in advance in partial and inadequate terms, is made manifest: the moment when it becomes impossible for capitalism to carry on working.

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Basic Banalities (Vaneigem, 1962)

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Basic Banalities

Raoul Vaneigem

Internationale Situationniste #7 (April 1962)

Translated by Ken Knabb

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BUREAUCRATIC CAPITALISM has found its legitimation in Marx. I am not referring here to orthodox Marxism’s dubious merit of having reinforced the neocapitalist structures whose present reorganization is an implicit homage to Soviet totalitarianism; I am stressing the extent to which crude versions of Marx’s most profound analyses of alienation have become generally recognized in the most commonplace realities — realities which, stripped of their magical veil and materialized in each gesture, have become the sole substance of the daily lives of an increasing number of people. In a word, bureaucratic capitalism contains the tangible reality of alienation; it has brought it home to everybody far more successfully than Marx could ever have hoped to do, it has banalized it as the reduction of material poverty has been accompanied by a spreading mediocrity of existence. As poverty has been reduced in terms of survival, it has become more profound in terms of our way of life — this is at least one widespread feeling that exonerates Marx from all the interpretations a degenerate Bolshevism has made of him. The “theory” of peaceful coexistence has accelerated this awareness and revealed, to those who were still confused, that exploiters can get along quite well with each other despite their spectacular divergences.

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How the Situationist International became what it was

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by Anthony Hayes

The Situationist International (1957-1972) was a small group of communist revolutionaries, originally organised out of the West European artistic avant-garde of the 1950s. The focus of my thesis is to explain how the Situationist International (SI) became a group able to exert a considerable influence on the ultra-left criticism that emerged during and in the wake of the May movement in France in 1968. My wager is that the pivotal period of the group is to be found between 1960 and 1963, a period marked by the split of 1962. Often this is described as the transition of the group from being more concerned with art to being more concerned with politics, but as I will argue this definitional shorthand elides the significance of the Situationist critique of art, philosophy and politics. The two axes of my thesis are as follows. First, that the significant minority in the group which carried out the break of 1962, identified a homology between the earlier Situationist critique of art — embodied in the Situationist ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’ — and Marx’s critique and supersession of the radical milieu of philosophy from which he emerged in the mid- 1840s. This homology was summarised in the expression of the Situationist project as the ‘supersession of art’ (dépassement de l’art). Secondly, this homology was practically embodied in the resolution of the debates over the role of art in the elaboration of the Situationist hypothesis, which had been ongoing since 1957. However, it was the SI’s encounter with the ultra-left group Socialisme ou Barbarie that would prove decisive. Via Guy Debord’s membership, the group was exposed to both the idea of a more general revolutionary criticism, but also ultimately what was identified as the insufficiently criticised ‘political militancy’ of this group. Indeed, in the ‘political alienation’ found in Socialisme ou Barbarie, a further homology was established between the alienation of the political and artistic avant-gardes. This identity would prove crucial to the further elaboration of the concept of ‘spectacle’. By way of an examination of the peculiar and enigmatic ‘Hamburg Theses’ of 1961, and the relationship between these ‘Theses’ and the Situationist criticism of art and politics worked out over the first five years of the group, I will argue that the break in 1962 should be conceived as one against politics as much as art (rather than just the latter, as it is more often represented). Additionally, I will outline how the SI, through the paradoxical reassertion of their artistic origins, attempted to synthesise their criticism of art with the recovery of the work of Marx beyond its mutilation as Marxism. Indeed, it was the synthesis of these critiques that enabled the considerable development of the concept of ‘spectacle’, opening the way to the unique influence the SI exerted in the re-emergence of a revolutionary movement at the end of the 1960s.

Thesis available here

We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Anselm Jappe

Anselm Jappe was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1962. Now based in France, he is the author of several major works of critical theory and analysis in German, French, and Italian, with many translations of his works appearing in other languages, including English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He currently lectures at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Sassari in Sardinia. Alastair Hemmens interviewed him for Field Notes in August.

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Rail (Alastair Hemmens): Let’s start by talking a bit about your intellectual development as a critical theorist. Could you say something about the historical and intellectual context in which your approach to critical theory first developed? Can you pinpoint any particular personal experiences that originally drove you towards the radical critique of capitalism?

Jappe: One of the strongest expressions of the vision of the world shared by many young people in the Seventies is Patti Smith singing “Outside of Society / That’s where I wanna be” (“Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger,” 1978). It is also one of the best summaries of the change that has occurred since then. Today, there’s lots of talk about “exclusion” from society, about “marginalization,” about the necessity of “including” all kinds of people in society. To be “outside of society” is now thought of as the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. This is not surprising, given that today the greatest threat that capitalist society poses to every one of us is that we are virtually superfluous and might easily become factually so. But in my adolescence, which took place in the latter half of the 1970s in the German city of Cologne, the echoes of the ’68 rebellion were still quite strong, even among very young people. And the very last thing that I and other unruly young people like myself wanted was to “integrate” ourselves into a society which seemed contemptible to us.

School and family, work and the state, bourgeois culture and traditional morality, everything seemed to want to “get us” and force us to “adapt.” For me, as for some others, it became the challenge of our lives to refuse to “adapt.” Naturally, that turned out to be much more difficult than we believed; but I dare say that I have tried at least to stay faithful to the spirit of my early youth, in two senses: First, in the attempt to understand and criticize capitalist society essentially through reading and discussion—let’s call it the political side of rebellion, which comes from the “head.” Secondly, in the refusal of the forms of life that the authorities imposed on us—that was the “existential” side of the rebellion, which comes from the “gut.” To me, it was a clear choice: neither sacrificial militancy, nor “love, peace and happiness” (nor “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll”, which is another version). Rather, to quote another song: “We gotta get out of this place” (Eric Burdon, 1965). So I chose Saint-Just and Bakunin for models. A little later on I started to read Marx, Marcuse, and Adorno, but I was also attracted to what was then called the “counterculture,” especially in its hippie form. I took part in a number of “collectives,” as they were called then, from opposition to authoritarian school measures to the anti-nuclear movement. When I was fifteen, a special teachers’ meeting was held to discuss whether I should be expelled from high school as punishment for my articles in the student newspaper. I wasn’t expelled, but it was a very close call.

My intellectual choices essentially served to deepen my rebellious spirit. I get the impression that this is much less common these days. Today, for certain people, a critical understanding of capitalist society goes hand in hand with a quiet university career (or the attempt at one) and does not appear to entail a rejection of bourgeois life and integration into society. On the other hand, “existential” refusal of bourgeois life today is often inarticulate and easily becomes a sort of alternative lifestyle choice, which can be recuperated into the logic of the commodity; the other possibility is that it leads to total self-ghettoization. There is a lot of discontent today but it is nearly always directed at some specific issue, from ecological disaster to racism, and very rarely at the totality of capitalist society. Postmodernism has profoundly reshaped even the antagonistic spirit.

So, I grew up with the myth of the French Revolution, and in 1974 – 75 (when I was only twelve years old) I thought that the Portuguese revolution was repeating it. You might laugh at my naïveté, but I prefer it to the attitude of those who, already in their teens, were preparing to “lose their life by earning it,” as we say in French. I was always somewhere between anarchism and heterodox Marxism, and never had any sympathy for Stalinist, Maoist, Leninist ,or any other authoritarian conception of revolution. Very early, I also became aware of the dark side of technological progress—a new theme back then—and I read authors like Ivan Illich and Régine Pernoud. But I had no ideological blinkers: I also read Nietzsche with great emotion.

Rail: In the English-speaking world, you are still best known for your work on Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI). I would even say that your Guy Debord (1993) is still, more than twenty years on, considered to be the work on the subject. How did you first discover Debord? What effect, if any, has he had on your critical thinking? And why do you think your approach to his work still resonates so strongly?

Jappe: I got to know the Situationists in the context I’ve just described. A friend of mine, who was some years older and a kind of mentor to me, was one of the very few people at that time in Germany who knew about the Situationists. But I not only found their ideas quite hard to understand, they also really shocked me: they were directed against all of the radical left militantism that I was so close to (even though I was suspicious of it, but it seemed impossible to have any other kind of collective action). On the one hand, I felt that they struck at some of my innermost convictions; on the other, I was also fascinated by something much more profound, radical and, at the same time, poetical than the leaflets that the political groups around me distributed, which normally adopted a very moralizing tone. I was also very much seduced by the call for a revolution of everyday life. But it was only some years later that I read the work of Debord and the other Situationists systematically. Because I chose the Situationists as the subject of my Master’s degree, I was able to dedicate a lot of time to reading them. By that time I had moved to Italy and I studied philosophy in Rome. I did a Master’s degree under Mario Perniola, a professor of aesthetics who had known Debord and the Situationists personally and had been close to them around 1968. Officially, however, the SI did not exist in the academic world, or in the media. (It’s not right to complain about this: their strategy of resisting institutional and spectacular recuperation had worked quite well up until that point.) When Perniola suggested that I publish a part of my doctoral dissertation as a monograph about Debord, it turned out to be the first one dedicated to him.

If this book has been translated into five or six languages, and if it is still read today, even after the “discovery” of Debord, after his death in 1994, by a broad public and the consequential stream of publications about him, this might be due to the fact that I tried to stress his importance as a radical critic of capitalist society, both in theory and in praxis, as well as somebody who had succeeded in living as he wanted to live: outside of the spectacle. Most of the publications that came afterwards have emphasized—too much, I think—the aesthetic side of his activity, or his biography, or reduced his social critique to just a form of media theory. As such, they contribute, willingly or otherwise, to the incorporation of Debord into the postmodern culture industry.

But I did not want to foster the creation of a legend, nor did I want to become a “specialist.” Indeed, I continue to refer very much to his ideas, but I am also searching for the possibility of further developing a critique of the totality of the capitalist system. So, I cannot sympathize with those who develop “psychogeographical” mobile phone apps or other things like that! Nor with academics who praise Debord as a “prophet of the media age,” which ignores the fact that he articulated a merciless critique of all “permitted” forms of life, including nearly all forms of contestation—especially art! This “bitter victory of Situationism” was probably inevitable. It is all the more remarkable that the core of Debord’s analysis of the spectacle still stands as a landmark of critical social thought and that it can still be an important source of inspiration. Equally, his life and attitude can still be inspiring—and there are not very many figures of the 20th century about whom this might be said!

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Separation

dolphins class struggle

In the cauldron of the negative – Jean-Marc Mandosio 

The fear of seeing the situationist theses degraded into an ideology (as had taken place with Marxism, for example, or with surrealism) is the origin of this mistrust towards the very idea that there could be a situationist “doctrine”. However, to the extent that the situationists attempted to formulate a coherent and “unitary” critique of society, it is not illegitimate to try to isolate this coherence and this unity. Moreover, everyone knows that even a hallucination has a logical structure; so there might not be a “situationism” but there is of course a situationist system of thought, which was enriched and became more precise with the passage of time. In order to demonstrate the coherence (or the incoherence) of a system of thought, the best and indeed the only way to do so is to address it more geometrico, according to the “method of geometry”, as exemplified by Euclid, Descartes or Spinoza. . . This treatment will be applied here to a particular question, but one that bears a decisive importance according to the situationists themselves: the theory of revolution. Such an examination might seem “anti-situationist”, insofar as it reveals what we could call a logic of the impossible. 

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