Abolish everything!
A correspondence

In 1999 the London Review of Books published a review by Andrew Hussey of Simon Sadler's book The Situationist City. The following brief correspondence ensued. Several passages in the first letter were edited out, in most cases greatly improving it; I've restored one excision, which appears below in bold.

Letter from Phil Edwards (written 26/8/1999, printed 28/11/1999)

Published version at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n21/lett2121.htm.

Andrew Hussey's notes on the Situationists and Guy Debord (LRB, 2nd September) were marred by some curious errors. Debord defined the potlatch as a "sumptuary gift" (cadeau somptuaire) - not a "sumptuous gift". It's also difficult to see why Hussey turns Debord's "...entraîne un repli défensif" into "...seems to lead to a defensive withdrawal".

Hussey's history also seems shaky. I believe the word 'situationist' was coined by Debord, not Constant Nieuwenhuis; Debord first used it in January 1956. It was not Debord who showed the journal 'Potlatch' to Asger Jorn, but Enrico Baj; Jorn sought Debord out on the strength of it ("voila justement le programme litteraire qui correspond exactement a notre programme picturale", he wrote to Baj). The 'English section' of the Situationist International to which Hussey refers is a myth, or so I've been told by one of its supposed members.

Lastly, Hussey relates the Situationists' 'psychogeographic' wanderings to their critique of the 'spectacle': "Paris without spectacle". In fact, the generalisation of the concept of the spectacle, for which Debord and the Situationists are now best known, dates from Debord's encounter with the group Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1960; this was also the last year in which the theory of psychogeography or the practice of 'drifting' played any significant part in the Situationists' work. In effect the spectacle displaced the drift.

Letter from Andrew Hussey (printed 25/11/1999)

Published version at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n23/lett2123.htm.

Phil Edwards criticises me for relating the Situationists' psychogeographic wanderings to their critique of the spectacle (Letters, 28 October). However, the whole point of Simon Sadler's first-rate book is to show how psychogeography and Debord's notion of 'unitary urbanism' were an integral part of what would become the concept of the spectacle. It was therefore of signal importance for Debord, as Henri Lefebvre himself points out, that Constant Nieuwenhuis first used the term 'situation' in the Situationist sense in his 1953 work Pour une architecture de situation. As Lefebvre put it, it is impossible to believe that Guy Debord, irrepressible intellectual magpie, had not read this book before January 1956. One of the problems of writing Situationist history is that the current generation of Debord's admirers take his version of events at face value. As he himself said, 'le jeu est sérieux, funeste, parfois sanglant, sacré, mais il n'en est pas moins un jeu.'

Letter from Phil Edwards (written 30/11/1999, not printed)

I agree entirely with Andrew Hussey's argument that "psychogeography and Debord's notion of 'unitary urbanism' were an integral part of what would become the concept of the spectacle" (Letters, 25th November). Tracing the development of the concept of spectacle is one thing, reading it back into activities which predated its development is quite another; this latter approach flaws both Hussey's review and its subject, Simon Sadler's The Situationist City (a useful and attractive work, marred by repeated over-simplification).

In support of his assertion that the Dutch artist Constant coined the word 'situationist', Hussey cites a claim by Henri Lefebvre that Constant "first used the term 'situation' in the Situationist sense in his 1953 work Pour une architecture de situation". However, even the specialised use of the word 'situation' cannot be laid at Constant's door on this basis; in April 1952 a 20-year-old Debord had already advocated the "conscious creation of situations".

A rather more interesting question is the status of this '1953 work'. This reference appears to derive from a 1983 interview in which Lefebvre recalled: "in 1953 Constant published a text called 'For an Architecture of Situation'. This was a fundamental text based on the idea that architecture would allow a transformation of daily reality." I have been unable to find independent references to this text. It was in 1953 that Constant made his decisive move into architecture; that year he and Aldo van Eyck co-wrote a text entitled 'For a spatial colorism', advocating a new practice uniting the visual arts and architecture. This is some way from 'an architecture of situation'. Constant's text "Une autre ville pour une autre vie" answers well to Lefebvre's description; however, this dates from 1959, two years after Constant joined the Situationist International.

My suspicion - and at this stage it's no more than that - is that the octogenarian Lefebvre may have conflated these two texts and perhaps a third, Ivan Chtcheglov's 1953 "Formulary for a new urbanism" ("L'architecture est le plus simple moyen d'articuler le temps et l'espace, de moduler la réalité, de faire rêver.") If Hussey - or anyone else - has further and better particulars regarding this curious allusion I'd be glad to hear them.

Postscript, 2001

Two years on, I remain unaware of any text by Constant with the title and description cited by Lefebvre, and would be surprised to learn that Constant had written anything like it as early as 1953. For what it's worth, in the interview cited (conducted by Kristin Ross and published in October in 1997), Lefebvre does not attribute the first use of the term 'situation' "in the Situationist sense" to Constant; nor does he express any opinion on whether Debord had read the text in question (assuming it exists) prior to 1956. Hussey's source for these assertions, as for his original assertion that Constant had coined the term 'situationist', remains a mystery.

The Game of War, Andrew Hussey's biography of Guy Debord, is out now.