By Dominique Routhier

Verso. 258 pages. £17.99. ISBN 978-1-80439-355-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It intrigues me that, more than fifty years after they were active, the writings and theories of a small group of largely French intellectuals continue to attract attention. I’m impelled to add that, as far as I can tell, the interest in what they had to say mostly resides in the academic world. Beyond that I’d guess that the curiosity the Situationists arouse might have more to do with the personalities  involved than with their theories. Someone once remarked that people are more interesting than ideas. It’s possible to distinguish between theories and ideas, of course, but there might be something in the suggestion that, without discounting the value of current intellectual debate about the theories, it can often be of use to look at the people who came up with them and the milieu in which they operated.

Looking along my own bookshelves I can see a number of books that reflect how, in retrospect, the Situationist moment can appear enticing. Ed Van Der Elsken’s wonderful  photographs in his Love on the Left Bank evoke the Parisian bohemian scene of the early 1950s. Many of them also appeared in Jean-Michel Mension’s The Tribe, in which he reminisced about the Situationists and their predecessors, the Lettrists.  Giving names to miniscule avant-garde movements was a tradition going back to the early days of modernism. Ralph Rumney was the sole member of the London Psychogeographical Society, one of the founding organisations of the Situationist International.  Rumney’s The Consul  is a memoir of his involvement with the Situationists.  And Michele Bernstein’s novel, All  the King’s Horses, is a fictional account of Situationist circumstances. Bernstein was the  first wife of Guy Debord. His The Society of the Spectacle was the key philosophical document of the movement.  It might also be of interest to have a look at Patrick Modiano’s  In the Café  of Lost Youth, a novel inspired by Ed Van Der Elsken’s photographs.

I ought to point out that Dominique Routhier doesn’t mention  Elsken or Modiano. Nor does she have much to say about the other books I’ve referred to. I’ve included them because I’m aware that I’m  writing for an audience that, individuals apart, may not be too familiar with the Situationists. Routhier is concerned to  delve into their theories about society by tracing their origins and how they may have relevance now. She points out that they originated at a time, the 1950s, when French society was beginning to expand following the war years and the austerity of the post-war period. Consumer goods were starting to appear in the shops in greater quantities, car ownership was rising, and life generally was becoming a little easier for the majority of people. They could afford to buy more labour-saving devices. And why not? They didn’t automatically sell their souls to the devil  of consumerism when they purchased a washing machine.

For Debord this focus on commodities was a warning sign that there was a transformation from being into having. The capitalist system depended on people wanting more. If they didn’t the patterns of production would break down, and people might not be inclined to accept the status quo in terms of who  was in control.  It was essential to maintain “The autocratic reign of the market economy”. Routhier says that “the car and the refrigerator would,  by  virtue of both their omnipresence and their shiny surface appearances, come to embody post-war object fetishism in France”. “Object fetishism” is one of those phrases intellectuals like to use when they look at what other people spend their money on.   I can’t help thinking that my mother  would have loved to have had a refrigerator instead of having to wage a constant battle to keep food fresh in a house that lacked what are now basic amenities like a refrigerator and a washing machine. And we really can’t afford to think solely in terms of the West. There are millions of people in Africa, India, and elsewhere, for whom the possession of a refrigerator or a washing machine is never likely to be more than a dream. 

In order to stimulate consumption and the desire for more goods  to admire and acquire the whole of society becomes a “spectacle”.  After listing a number of items, including advertising, entertainments, political campaigns, sports events, art tours, foreign wars, and space launchings, Greil Marcus, discussing the Situationists in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century,  says that spectacles “made a modern world in which all communication flowed in one direction, from the powerful to the powerless......In the spectacle , passivity was simultaneously the means and the end of a great hidden project, a project of social control”. It’s possible to argue about whether or not this “control” has been achieved. The Internet may have reduced it somewhat, though the authorities  constantly attempt to control its use and effectiveness, ostensibly with good intentions though they may not be used that way by every agency of government.    

Routhier says that “the Situationists remained committed to a dissident Marxist idea of revolution and nurtured a politically radical conception of the avant-garde which they tried to re-enact in various ways.”  They often looked to the Dadaists and Surrealists for examples of how to challenge the status quo in politics, art and other matters. For the Situationists “work” was a dirty word, as it was for the Dadaists and Surrealists. For most people work is a necessity, but can also be a pleasure if you’re doing what you really want to do.  Going to work might be something else.  The Situationists probably also took lessons from their precursors in how to get themselves noticed. As an aside, once the Situationist International was formed in 1957 its leader, Debord, acted rather like the Surrealist André Breton in expelling anyone who didn’t agree with him from the group.  Debord had a penchant for abuse, too, as can be seen from a letter he wrote to Abraham Moles, “one of the leading French cyberneticians of the time”, when he tried to establish what seems to me an amiable dialogue with Debord.

The term “avant-garde” is used liberally throughout Routhier’s book, with an acknowledgement that some commentators and critics, perhaps even a majority of them, think that there is no longer an identifiable group, movement, or whatever, that fits the description. Like Bohemia it was essentially a term that came into use in the arts and politics in the nineteenth century, had some currency in the first half of the twentieth, but no longer has any substantial application.  Having said that, it could be that the avant-garde is now to be found in technology which has far outstripped anything an artistic avant-garde could come up with. Cybernetics is another term regularly employed by Routhier. I’ll  use a definition from the Internet (what would Debord and his associates think of that if they were here?) : “the science concerned with the storage of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control”. Those last few words are important – “so as to use it for control” – and they take us back to Debord and what he said about commodity culture and its use as a means of control.

It can be asked what influence Situationism had beyond Parisian intellectual circles, and Routhier inevitably points to the events of May 1968 which, she suggests, rocked the French state and almost brought down the government. I’m never sure about  such claims, and suspect that a degree of romanticism creeps in when academics, sitting at their desks, look back to a time when the action was in the streets and intellectuals were even being taken seriously.  For what it’s worth, and I was admittedly observing events from a distance, it never struck me that what happened in Paris had any long-term significance. What happened in Prague in 1968 seemed much more important in that it  pointed  towards the eventual crumbling and collapse of communism, though I may not have realised it at the time. In 1968, I was an ex-soldier, married with a young family, working for an oil company,  writing regular reviews for the left-wing weekly Tribune and the literary quarterly  Ambit, contributing articles to various jazz publications,  trying to keep alive a little poetry magazine I edited,  and taking an interest in union affairs. I read  an English translation of On the Poverty of Student Life and wondered what all  the fuss was about. I could understand that it dealt with far more than mere everyday materialist  problems of getting by, but students seemed to me to be privileged in having the time to think about such matters.

I’m not being dismissive when I state the above, and I value much of what is in Routhier’s book. Her narrative of where  the Situationists came from, the social and political background to their ideas, and how they developed them,  has much to offer. She has performed a worthwhile service by digging out examples of  leaflets, pamphlets and other ephemera that readers like myself would find it almost impossible to access. The stories of many artistic and political movements can often be told through ephemera. I recall a large Surrealist exhibition in Paris many years ago in which, as well as well-known paintings and books, there were displays of postcards and obscure leaflets and pamphlets.  It wasn’t possible to touch them, but just having them there seemed to better  establish the mood of the period. You could sense the feeling of innovation and excitement those ageing documents represented. 

The sub-title of With and Against refers to The Situationist International in the Age of Automation, and perhaps the latter term has now been replaced in everyday parlance by “Artificial Intelligence” (AI). It quickly arouses similar concerns in the sense of what happens to the mass of people if machines of one kind or another take over the means of production? Automation may have seemed to have largely affected manual workers but AI spreads its net much wider. There is also the basic question of how the capitalist system can keep producing goods if fewer people can afford to buy them?  There are markets outside the West, but other countries can now manufacture their own cars, refrigerators, washing machines, and at cheaper rates. And what do people  here do when they no longer have to go to work?

I have the example of my father, a one-time sailor, steeplejack, docker and labourer who, once he retired, did not know what to do with himself. He didn’t read anything other than a daily paper, and needed to be doing something.  I’m not sure that Situationist theories would have been likely to have solved his problem. Work, of one kind or another, largely gave meaning to his life.  I recently came across another version of the anti-work theory in Nick Totton’s Sailing to Bohemia : The Vision of Freedom from Work-Discipline.  I’ve always felt sympathetic  towards bohemianism as a “state of mind”, and fascinated by its history in relation to the arts,  but have never seen it as being of appeal to more than a minority of people. Someone has to staff the hospitals and keep the streets clean. As a counter-balance to the experiences of my father, who I admired in many ways because of the range of his experiences, I think I ought to add that in my working life I came across lots of people who had plenty of outside interests and used their leisure time and their retirement years to good advantage.

It does occur to me that organisations like the Situationist International  are often made up of individuals who have been disappointed because the “workers” did not fulfil their “historic mission” of overthrowing capitalism. So they search for other groups on which they can project their fantasies. Students, people throwing off the yoke of colonialism. What next?  All those who fall victim to the ravages of AI, assuming it comes to that? I don’t wish to appear flippant and would like to hear some ideas, not theories, about how to deal with the looming crisis, if there is one. 

I hope it will be clear that Dominique Routhier’s book, as well as providing a useful survey of the history of the Situationist International, raises a lot of interesting questions which reach far beyond the boundaries of the 1950s and 1960s. The situation now is worse in many ways than it was. International capitalism dominates to a far greater degree and some would say that national governments are effectively at the beck and call of banks and big business more than they ever were. Technology, in the shape of the Internet and associated systems, while having its benefits, can increasingly be seen as a force for repression and people persuaded that restrictions are necessary and for their own good. Big Brother is benign, or so we are told.

Despite my doubts and disagreements relating to what the Situationist International stood for and still does, I would suggest that With and Against is well worth reading. It can easily be tied in with the books I mentioned earlier which help to throw light on the personalities involved. And should anyone want to know more about them I’d recommend McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International,  and Andrew Hussey’s The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord.

Wark can be particularly provocative:  “These days artists are happy to settle for a little notoriety, a good dealer, and a retrospective. Art has renounced the desire to give form to the world. Having ceased to be modern, and finding it too passé to be post-modern, art is now merely contemporary, which seems to mean nothing more than yesterday’s art at today’s prices. If anything, theory has turned out even worse. It found its utopia, and it is the academy”.   I’m tempted to add that it sometimes seems to me that academic philosophers imagine themselves as some sort of avant-garde. They can theorise  about  art and society without having to actually do anything. Conceptual art gives the illusion of creativity without its realisation. Utopian theories have little relevance to the real world around us. Personally, I don’t trust utopias. Reading histories of them, large and small, they too often seem to turn into a tyranny with a dominant individual coming to the fore. 

A final thought. On the day I finished this review I chanced to hear a radio programme about experimental music (John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, etc.) in which ”avant-garde”  inevitably cropped up, along with a couple of phrases that put me in mind of the Situationists. Dominique Routhier discusses how manifestos have been a significant part of avant-garde activity, and someone on the programme remarked that “A manifesto is about action  and can itself be the action”. And at the end of the broadcast:  “We need a manifesto to get us out of the rut of consumerism”. Guy Debord would have been delighted to hear that.