Paper given at The Hacienda must be built: the legacy of situationist revolt (two-day conference, the Haçienda, Manchester, 27th-28th January 1996)
Two months before his death in November 1936, the Spanish anarchist Durruti was interviewed by a Canadian journalist. Warned that the anarchists' intransigence could leave them "sitting on a pile of ruins," Durruti replied: "You must not forget, we can also build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that."
The use of architecture to figure for bourgeois society as a whole, the willingness to see it completely destroyed and the conviction that the same forces which destroyed it could create something better: in all these respects Durruti's words were close to the mood and concerns of the "Project for rational embellishments of the city of Paris" proposed by the Lettrist International (LI) in 1955. "G-E Debord declares himself for the total destruction of religious buildings of all denominations. (Not a trace should be left, and the space should be re-used)." Michèle Bernstein, then Debord's wife, went further, proposing that churches be "partially destroyed, in such a way that the ruins remaining would no longer evince their original purpose"; ideally this would be done by "rasing the church completely and rebuilding the ruins". With this bizarre image Bernstein outdid Durruti: even the relics of the old world were to be remade. Like Bernstein, Debord set his face against aesthetic arguments for conservation. "Beauty, when it is not a promise of happiness, must be destroyed."
These proposals contrast oddly with passages written by Debord in the 1980s. At one point, writing of the pollution and falsification of the world by modern industry, he exempts only "a legacy of old books and old buildings, still of some significance but destined to continual reduction". Elsewhere he refers to his travels during the 1970s and his eventual return "to the ruins that remained of Paris". Here the transformation (and ruination) of the built environment is the work of the forces which dominate society; the role of the radical can only be to resist and to testify to what had gone. These developments in Debord's thinking can best be understood by reference to the significance of architecture, considered as a means of intervention in social reality, in the situationist project as it developed from the early 1950s.
Psychogeography - the study of the emotional effects of particular locations - was a major concern of the Lettrist International (founded in 1952) and of the Situationist International in its early years. A key psychogeographical text, adopted by the LI as policy in 1953, was Ivan Chtcheglov's Formulary for a new urbanism. Chtcheglov evokes the mingled boredom and serendipity of a random exploration of Paris; he then contrasts this with the fabled ease of "the hacienda", an image of aristocratic leisure. "Now that's finished. You won't see the hacienda. It doesn't exist. The hacienda must be built."
Chtcheglov goes on to argue that urban architecture directly conditions social life, creating an environment determined by the city's own history ("all cities are geological"). Considering this as exemplifying the domination of the present by the past, Chtcheglov proposes to reverse the process: "the architecture of tomorrow ... will be a means of investigation and a means of action". A city could be reconstructed, or built from scratch, in ways determined by the states of mind which its various districts would induce: there would be a "Bizarre Quarter", a "Happy Quarter" and so forth. The affective qualities of this new architecture would extend to the level of individual dwellings: "in a sense everyone will live in their own personal 'cathedral'".
Two elements of Chtcheglov's psychogeographical vision are particularly striking. Firstly, Chtcheglov's faith in scientific progress is unbounded: "the latest stage of technology allows permanent contact between the individual and cosmic reality". Technology is envisaged as a politically neutral force waiting to be turned to radical purposes: there may be an element here of the classical Marxist analysis, according to which the domination of humanity over nature is advanced under the bourgeoisie, in a process of conjoined technical and social "progress". Secondly, the proposals are for a single city within an otherwise unchanged world: "this first experimental city would live largely on controlled and tolerated tourism ... in a few years it would become the intellectual capital of the world". Chtcheglov does not propose a transformation of everyday life, in other words, except for the inhabitants of the city in question - whose main activity would be the "CONTINUOUS DRIFT".
Psychogeography was a hypothesis and a dream; the question was how to put it into practice. The drift (dérive) was the Lettrist International's first attempt at making everyday life coincide with theory - although it might be more accurate to say that the same desires which found practical expression in the drift were articulated through psychogeography. Those undertaking a drift - it was an activity for two or more people - would abandon any routine, pre-arranged or even purposeful activities and simply let themselves wander. The aim was to experience the city in psychogeographical terms: to feel the currents and blockages which constituted the city's emotional layout.
The drift would enable the Lettrists to read the city, to map out its various emotional zones and currents; indeed, the practice of the drift altered during the life of the LI, with later drifts being undertaken in a fairly purposeful spirit of exploration. Moreover, the drift was a break with the social order in practical terms: the LI's experience of the city was an aimless and endless wandering rather than a tightly-focussed dash to and from work, for example. Thus the drift developed the perceptions of the LI as a group, setting them outside and against the dominant social organisation of time and space. Finally, the drift revealed points at which the domination of the reigning order was incomplete, points where an alteration in the urban - architectural - order could have disproportionately far-reaching effects. Chtcheglov's investigation of the "Contrescarpe Continent" can be put in this category; so, perhaps, can his thwarted attempt to blow up the Eiffel Tower.
When the drift was formulated the members of the LI were in their teens and early twenties; if the drift carried out by Debord and Chtcheglov at the end of 1953 was typical, a drift could include several hours spent drinking in bars. Yet, while the drift was a game and consciously undertaken as such, there was nothing illusory or make-believe about it. Against the everyday life of the city - paradigmatic of the negation of human life by commodification, authority and routine - the LI set the city itself, as an arena for the rediscovery of creativity and play. A much-quoted passage from Michèle Bernstein's 1960 novel All the king's horses sums up the significance of the drift. "What do you work on exactly?" a young girl asks a Debord figure. "Reification." "I see, it's serious work with thick books and a lot of papers on a big table." "No, I walk around. Mostly, I walk around".
The ultimate aim was to reverse the polarity of the city: to extend the scope of the game to include the ludic construction of the environment itself. The LI could then move on from disrupting everyday life to the free and collective construction of moments of life: people would construct their activities and their environment, considered as mutually influencing one another. This was the "construction of situations", advocated as a goal by the LI as early as 1954. This, however, was a large step beyond the drift.
The Situationist International (SI) was formed in 1957 out of the Lettrist International, Asger Jorn's International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus and Ralph Rumney's (notional) London Psychogeographical Committee. The Lettrists (Debord among them) considered the project of the SI in terms of introducing the radical artistic avant-garde of the IMIB to the perspectives of the LI: the "construction of situations" in practice would be the latest - and final - form of avant-garde art.
A key reference point in the early years of the SI was "unitary urbanism", a phrase coined by the Lettrist Gil Wolman in 1956. ("Urbanism" here corresponds to the French word "urbanisme" - more or less untranslatable except as "town planning", unfortunately). The adjective "unitary" referred initially to a practice capable of using the most modern developments in both technology and art (here again the positive capacities of technology are assumed). In later usage the stress was on the capacity of a new urbanism to encompass the playful design and construction of both environments and behaviours: a concept akin to that of the constructed situation and closely related to the concept, advanced earlier by Debord, of the "architectural complex"
The LI had been quite capable of playfully redesigning its own behaviour; its shortcomings were in the field of the constructed environment. Many of the artists - and architects - of the IMIB turned out to have precisely the opposite strengths and weaknesses. On paper potentially complementary, in practice the two wings of the SI were pitched almost immediately into a series of conflicts which were only resolved with the exclusion or resignation of all practising artists - a process which would only be completed in 1962.
While the SI retained its artistic contingent a number of attempts were made to define the architecture appropriate to unitary urbanism, primarily by the Dutch artist turned architect Constant. Constant's arguments for his architectural projects are as interesting as the detail of the proposals themselves. With the expansion of the cities, he argued, new building was urgently required. This need, together with the new building materials now available, created an opportunity for creative architects: architecture could be projected on the scale of the city rather than in discrete buildings, and no longer needed to be bound by the forms handed down from earlier stages of architecture (such as the rectangle). Moreover, Constant regarded traffic as a threat to urban environments on the human scale: the circulation of vehicles encroached on and eroded the social space of urban life. What was needed was an architectural solution which could separate people from traffic, without thereby separating people from one another - the failing of the "garden cities" in vogue in the early sixties. Finally - and here Constant rejoined the mainstream of situationist thought on architecture - the new architecture would not be bound by the traditional division between social and private space: all would be a single environment, which could be ordered and re-ordered according to the playful requirements of the moment.
The architectural solution corresponding to this specification of requirements was Constant's "New Babylon": a covered city, composed of an extended series of structures built on pillars and suspended from aerial cables. The problem of traffic would be solved, in essence, by abandoning ground level: the surface of the earth would be freely available to cars, while the area of the suspended city was reserved for pedestrian drifting. The need to avoid a division between public and private space would be resolved by having the city as a whole sheltered from the elements and artificially conditioned; extensive use would be made of artificial lighting, sounds and smells, chosen for their affective or disorientating effect, as well as of ludic forms of architecture such as the maze. The whole would be modifiable by its inhabitants; given the technical complications involved, however, Constant referred to these modifications being carried out by "teams of situationists".
New Babylon would clearly have been a bizarre and slightly nightmarish environment: artificially conditioned throughout, modifiable only by its roving situationist caretakers. The question of whether the flaws of the project reflected back on the situationist project as a whole - for example, its unproblematic approval of the technological domination of the natural world - was not addressed, however. Constant was censured for giving insufficient attention to the "behavioral" element of the construction of situations; the Office for Unitary Urbanism which he had founded passed into the hands of new recruits Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem. Kotanyi spoke impressively of building "in the law" rather than on the ground, and vaguely of developing "situationist castles"; a few years later he was excluded on the grounds of mystical tendencies. Vaneigem for his part poured scorn on the very idea of undertaking to build here and now. "We must build quickly, there are so many to house, say the humanists of reinforced concrete. We must dig trenches without delay, say the generals, there is the whole fatherland to save. Isn't there some injustice in praising the first group and mocking the second?" Vaneigem may not have known that the first argument had been Constant's, but the parallel will not have escaped Debord.
By mid-1962 the SI had abandoned any aspiration to work in the arts, architecture included; indeed, a ruling that art works produced by situationists should be described as "anti-situationist" had been proposed (by Kotanyi) and carried. The movement away from artistic and architectural practice can be justified in its own terms: the situationist project could not risk being recuperated as a technical specialism or a form of artistic merchandise. Nevertheless, the question remains how this affected the SI's capacity to engage in constructing situations, rather than simply announcing to the world - in the style of the political ideologues the SI denounced - that situations should, where possible, be constructed.
The SI's definition of a "constructed situation", printed in the first issue of its journal, runs: "Moment of life, concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organisation of a unitary environment and a game of events". Elsewhere Debord wrote that "our situations will be transitory, without future: passageways" and referred to "betting on the passage of time": the goal was to pass from one constructed situation to the next, devotion to the game overcoming the risk of relapsing into the conventional organisation of everyday life. Clearly, art and architecture could only provide the setting for a constructed situation: in this spirit Debord characterised an exhibition of "industrial painting" by the Italian situationist Pinot Gallizio as "an environment and not yet a situation".
By forswearing the construction of even the environment of a situation, however, the situationists had effectively redefined their own practical activity - and, by implication, their theory. Some indication of the pressures this approach put on the SI is given by the organisation's reaction to the Strasbourg scandal. In late 1966 a group of situationist sympathisers had been elected to the University of Strasbourg students' union; their arrival was announced by André Bertrand's poster comic The return of the Durutti Column. (The misspelling is Bertrand's - although it may be significant that the same spelling appears in a piece by Vaneigem which appeared in 1963. The comic, incidentally, included the lines from Bernstein's novel quoted above). The group used student union funds to put out a pamphlet, On the poverty of student life, written primarily by the situationist Mustapha Khayati. The union body was promptly dissolved and individual students suspended. In October 1967 the SI commented unfavourably on the delusions of radicalism which some of those involved now entertained: their activity had amounted to "at the very most, publishing a text".
The SI's own concentration on publishing texts led to a progressively greater emphasis on the organisation's theoretical common ground with earlier radical - non-Leninist - Marxist movements and writers. In particular, the SI laid a heavy emphasis on the workers' council, which - following Lukacs - they saw not only as a superior form of social organisation but as a practical end to alienation: "In the power of the Councils ... the proletarian movement is its own product, and this product is the producer himself," Debord wrote. Confronted, as they were in May 1968, with a conjuncture in which the power of the workers' councils seemed in the process of formation, the situationists did not call for the immediate transformation of streets into playgrounds or the pursuit of ludically organised moments of life. Rather, statements made by situationists during and after the events stress the consolidation of the power of workers' councils and the maintenance of factory occupations. Somewhat surprisingly, the SI analysed the events of May as the victory of a social force which could be, unproblematically, supported as it perpetuated itself and consolidated its gains. This analysis could not easily be reconciled with the situationist tenet that the reigning order was secured by habit, routine and the everyday organisation of social space, as well as by the police and the unions.
In short, the SI's allegiance to the working class as social subject had overridden its belief in the construction of situations as social practice. As a result it had no way of dealing with the end (or failure, or defeat) of the strike wave. After two years of relative passivity the SI was purged by a group including Debord, which excluded any member who could not produce evidence of recent activity. In the SI's funeral oration, The veritable split in the International, Debord and the Italian situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti claim that the SI was no longer needed: "The new epoch is profoundly revolutionary, and it knows it is". However, the relative success of situationist ideas - in terms of publicity - had necessarily disqualified the SI from engaging with this revolutionary reality under that label.
In fact, Debord had more problems with the situationist heritage than its name, as his subsequent, bleak, re-evaluation of contemporary conditions indicates. Debord's theoretical writing from the 1970s and 1980s shows three main changes from his earlier work. Firstly, capitalism's capacity for - perhaps irreversible - destruction is emphasised: the question of pollution is addressed in The Veritable Split, although in the context of that work's millennial rhetoric it is taken as evidence that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism could not be much longer in coming.
Debord's analysis of the spectacle - a term signifying a social and affective structure based on passive allegiance and spectatorship, considered as the basis of all contemporary societies - is radically modified. As Debord wrote in 1979: "It no longer says, 'What appears is good, what is good appears'. It says merely, 'It is so'". After the crisis of 1968, the spectacle was thought to have undergone a qualitative change. The spectacle's dominance was no longer based on the freely-given allegiance of individuals who might have known an alternative to the spectacle, but on indifference cemented by the brute force of ubiquity: "the spectacle has never before put its mark to such a degree on almost the full range of socially produced behaviour and objects". This position, shoring up the spectacle's vulnerability by the blanket exclusion of alternatives, was summed up as a state of "fragile perfection".
Lastly, Debord's later writings show little sign of recognising any group in society as a potential source of revolutionary change. In 1985, indeed, he remarked that "the reigning imposture will have been able to have the approval of each and every one; it will have had to do without mine". In his autobiographical work Panegyric his life is presented as a kind of melancholy exemplar of a revolutionary style of living - a style which all too few have emulated, and which may no longer be possible. "I wonder if even one other person has dared to behave like me, in this era".
Debord had argued that the spectacle was sustained by a counter-revolutionary use of the same techniques which the situationists could turn to their purposes; now, following the SI's abandonment of artistic work, he saw a spectacle which made no positive claims and left no gaps in which its enemies could operate. He had endorsed advances in technology as progressive; now, following the failure of the councillist revolution to materialise in 1968, he argued that technical progress only imperilled nature and society. Finally, he had referred to the proletariat as the motive force of the revolution to come; now, following the dissolution of the situationist vanguard amid accusations of personal inadequacy, he appeared to reserve the role of revolutionary to himself. His enemies, not his allies, had taken the role of destroyer; destruction had encompassed resources which he had counted on; and there was no one left to rebuild. For a range of reasons - Debord's personal experiences; the choices which he and his allies had made within the LI and SI; an understandable disillusionment with the idea of conjoined technological and social progress; the actual historical situation - Debord viewed "the ruins that remained of Paris" in a spirit very different from Durruti's.
The final irony, to a British eye, is that it was at the end of the 1970s that situationist texts and themes first received widespread publicity in Britain, courtesy of punk and subsequent developments - notably the references dropped by the avowed "fan" Tony Wilson, boss of Factory Records. For myself I first saw the phrase "The return of the Durutti Column" (misspelling retained) as the title of an LP on Factory; a couple of years later I was able to identify the source of the phrase "The Haçienda must be built" (cedilla added), with which Wilson announced the opening of the nightclub in which we are meeting today. As the most challenging, innovative and optimistic of the situationists' writings gained an audience in Britain, Debord himself was wedded to a kind of epicurean pessimism: a disjuncture which did much to impede the practical reception of situationist ideas in Britain, and contributed to the mood of mingled enthusiasm, protective connoisseurship and jaded disdain in which we now contemplate the possibilities left open for us by the legacy of the SI.