Notes for Discussion - Situationists

Self-proclaimed leader of the Situationist International, Guy Debord was responsible for the longevity and high profile of Situationist ideas, although the equation of the SI with Guy Debord would be misleading. Brilliant but autocratic, Debord helped both unify situationist praxis and destroy its expansion into areas not explicitly in line with his own ideas.

Potlatch, the "information bulletin of the French Section of the Lettrist International" (created 27 issues, from 22 June 1954 to 5 November 1957), was published by Debord and associates prior to the founding of the Situationist International.

His text The Society of the Spectacle remains today one of the great theoretical works on modern-day capital, cultural imperialism, and the role of mediation in social relationships.

After the dissolution of the Situationist International, Debord was tangentially implicated in the assassination of his friend and publisher Gérard Lebovici. The accusations infuriated Debord, and he consequently prohibited the showing of his films in France during his lifetime. Debord continued writing, and in 1989 he published his Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, arguing that everything he wrote in 1967 was still true, with one major exception: the society of the spectacle had reached a new form, that of the integrated spectacle. Debord and the Situationists were actively involved in the planning and execution of the May 1968 uprising in Paris.

The prospect of overturning the society of the spectacle seemed more unlikely than ever. In December of 1994, at the age of 62, Debord killed himself. The French press, who had always repudiated the significance of the Situationist International, suddenly made him a celebrity.

"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." – Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

Written in 1967, "Society of the Spectacle" is Debord's most significant documentation of Situationist theory. The book is an account of the permeation of the image as a mediation between experience and the society at large, "Society of the Spectacle" is a manifesto-like testament to a commodified society that employs television, advertising, radio, and other forms of "the spectacle" to seduce the masses to submit to the authority of the "ruling class."

Debord would use the cinema and other media forms to develop strategies to subvert the spectacle, undermine its effects, explode its control, through detournement (divert, foreshadowing the remix), montage, cut-ups, etc. He also considered the urban landscape as a canvas for social transformation, diving the city into imaginary "districts" that would superimpose a new reality over the existing spectacle.

Reading: Guy Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency (1957),” Guy Debord and the Situationist International

Questions on the role of art in society:

The work of the artist is inexorably linked to social change and political action, anything less is intolerable. "The collective avant-garde will no longer be able to be conceived without a link to political critique."

"In a given society, what is termed culture is the reflection, but also the foreshadowing of possibilities for life's planning." Culture is more than documentation, it is a set of instructions for social planning.

"The main goal of the ideology of the ruling class is thus to sow confusion." Through the narcosis of the spectacle, the ruling class lulls the masses into submission. It is the role of the artist to divert the spectacle towards the empowerment of the individual.

"Culture for us refers rather to a compound of aesthetics, feelings, and manners, that is, to a period's reaction to everyday life." Culture needs to reflect everyday life and break through the illusion established by the spectacle.

Situationism transcends the historical avant-garde in the way that it puts into action its theories and its relation to the cultural life. It does not submit to the production of objects that are merely embraced and owned by the ruling class. Surrealism "failed" because it relied solely the unconscious mind rather than activating the possibilities of "real action" that takes place in the real world of the everyday. "It is necessary to go further and rationalize the world more, the first condition for making it exciting." It ultimately fell into the trap of mysticism and cultism.

"We must undertake an organized collective labor that will strive for a common usage of all the means of transforming everyday life." Art must be active within the culture, not owned by it. It must reconstruct the environment, bring about new and behaviors, through experimentation and propaganda.

"We must not reject modern culture, but seize it in order to repudiate it." The artist must not hide from the spectacle, but rather must actively work for change. "The only valid experimental approach is one based on the uncompromising critique of existing conditions and their conscious suppersession." The critique must not be benign, it must advance change, it must embrace transformation.

Were they artists or politicians? "We must collectively define our program and carry it out in a disciplined manner, though all means, even artistic ones."

Situationism: "Our central purpose is the construction of situations, that is, the concrete construction of temporary settings of life and their transformation into a higher passionate nature." They were intent on activating new behaviors, they lived art, they lived revolution, they redefined the map of the city. The constructed psycho-geographies, the reorganization of urban life based on the transformation of psychological conditions.

They called this redistricting "Unitary urbanism," which "must control, for example, the acoustic environment as well as the distribution of different varieties of drink or food. It must take up the creation of new forms and the détournement (turn away) of known forms of architecture and urbanism – as well as the détournement of the old poetry and cinema.

These new districts, like hypermediated environments that could collapse time and space, established (1) new harmonies, in terms of the interrelationships of neighborhoods; (2) they were dynamic, "in close touch with styles of behavior," "states-of-mind district," based on imaginary reconstructions of emotions, etc. Their psycho-geographical research was a "study of the exact laws and precise effects of the geographical environments, consciously organized or not, acting directly on the affective deportment of individuals."

This transformation of the city into the Situationist City would be designated as dérive (drift), "the practice of a passionate uprooting through the hurried change of environments, as well as a means of studying pscyhogeography and situationist psychology. "We must try to construct situations, i.e., collective environments, ensembles of impressions determining the quality of a moment." The life of the city was their canvas, they were the players, the everyday life was their script, the disruption of the hierarchy was the outcome.

The situationist construction of new environments is a collapse of the 4th wall, the theater no longer even exists, the city was their theater "to break the spectator's psychological identification with the hero, so as to incite the spectator into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life. The situation is thus made to be lived by its constructors. The role of the "public," if not passive at least a walk-on, must ever diminish, while the share of those who cannot be called actors but in a new meaning of the term, "livers," will increase." The viewer becomes indistinguishable from the artist, a participant in the creation of the "work." The musical score is the blueprint for the new urban environment.

Cinema must be revolutionized and release from the ruling class as a vehicle for the spectacle. "cinematic "news"-reels might finally deserve their name if we establish a new documentary school dedicated to fixing the most meaningful moments of a situation for our archives, before the development of these elements has led to a different situation. The systematic construction of situations having to generate previously nonexistent feelings, the cinema will discover its greatest pedagogical role in the diffusion of these new passions." Cinema will be the means of distributing composed situations.

Ultimately, Situationist theory, cinema, realignment of the life of the city "must advance the keywords of unitary urbanism, of experimental behavior, of hyperpolitical propaganda, and of the construction of environments." The effect must be to "introduce everywhere a revolutionary alternative to the ruling culture, coordinate all the enquiries that are happening at this moment without a general perspective, orchestrate, through criticism and propaganda, the most progressive artists and intellectuals of all countries to make contact with us with a view to a joint action.

Situationist Cinema - Debord directed six films between 1952 and 1978: Howls for Sade (1952); On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time (1959); Critique of Separation (1961); The Society of the Spectacle (1973); Refutation of All the Judgments, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered: on the Film The Society of the Spectacle (1975); In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978).

The French word détournement means deflection, diversion, rerouting, distortion, misuse, misappropriation, hijacking, or otherwise turning aside from the normal course or purpose. It has sometimes been translated as “diversion,” but this word is confusing because of its more common meaning of idle entertainment.

Many of the techniques of avant-garde cinema grew out of situationist cinema. It is possible to trace Goddard and Truffaut and their interest in cinema verité back to Debord. The techniques of rapid cuts, détournement (divert away, such as in the remix), etc, film as a medium for rewriting history, staging political action, subverting the ruling class.. "Let the heroes be some more or less historical people who are close to us, connect the events of the inept scenario to the real reasons which we understand one behind the actions, and connect them also to the events of the current week. Here you have an acceptable collective distraction." – Dismantling the Spectacle: The Cinema of Guy Debord, Thomas Levin

The future of the cinema lies in the chewing up, digesting, and regurgitation of the masterpiece of the past. In formal terms, this imperative – which could be seen as a call for cinematic détournement – manifests itself in the practices that have become the hallmark of lettrist cinema, the radical suspension of sound-image coordination and the international mutilation of the image:

"The rupture between words and the photograph will constitute what call the DISCREPANT CINEMA. I proclaim the manifesto of discrepant cinema [Discordant; at variance; disagreeing; contrary; different.]! I call for filmstrips that have been lacerated or willfully worked over by the filmmaker, chiseled filmstrips.

Artists such as Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) have embraced the situationist techniques of détournement to construct (deconstruct) experimental environment that restate history, that redefine history. Miller remixed D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation."

"Griffith was known as “the Man Who Invented Hollywood,” and the words he used to describe his style of composition -“intra-frame narrative” or the “cut-in” the “cross-cut” – staked out a space in America’s linguistic terrain that hasn't’t really been explored too much. Griffith’s films were mainly used as propaganda – “Birth of a Nation” was used as a recruitment film for the Ku Klux Klan at least up until the mid 1960’s, and other films like “Intolerance” were commercial failures, and the paradox of his cultural stance versus the technical expertise that he brought to film, is still mirrored in Hollywood to this day. – Paul Miller