Give McKenzie Wark credit. Getting in the ring with Guy Debord and his Situationist crew and making their quixotic vision of a world wholly unlike this one seem palatable and almost reasonable is an accomplishment. Global capitalism may be coughing blood, but it is nowhere near death, and fringe revolutionaries and their sympathizers find themselves terribly (or thankfully, depending on your perspective) marginalized. This latest version of a worldwide economic crisis has triggered serious upheavals in the East but few in post-industrial America, where economists and citizens yearn for a return to a healthier order of material consumption and production, and not an utopian alternative.
The Beach Beneath The Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International
It’s easy, especially for Americans, to forget who the Situationists were or to have never known about them in the first place. They won’t be showing up in any 11th grade world history lessons anytime soon. Summarizing their emergence, disintegration, and what they stood for can be as difficult as imagining Guy Debord spending a whole weekend sober (alcoholism would plague him throughout his life, eventually precipitating his suicide). They were a loose collective of European avant-garde intellectuals borne out of leftist, anarchist, and Marxist traditions that would come to reject the orthodoxy of the left and seek an escape from the highly-regimented industrial capitalist order. They believed capitalism, as well as communism, had warped time, creating distinctions between work and leisure that should never have existed. Through fields like architecture and art, they sought the construction of “situations” to maximize the physical and psychological joy of being alive. That’s a slapdash explanation that does little justice to their fascinating and at times impenetrable nuances.
The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International is Wark’s account of the group’s philosophical evolution from the postwar period to their eventual disbandment in 1972. Classified as a work of history and philosophy, The Beach Beneath the Street will divide its readers into two camps. Are you with team philosophy or team history? Team philosophy will find Wark has eloquently dissected all the particulars of the theoretical perspectives of the many Situationists that appeared before the temperamental Debord, the founder and de facto leader, booted them out of the group. Wark’s failure will not be viewed as a failure by some, only the result of the genre he waded into. A fair point, but Wark, the author of A Hacker Manifesto, has a duty to keep us caring about these strange folk, and he even more strangely fails to do this.
Consider their back stories: Debord had a biting intelligence, a propensity to drink and screw, and would end his life by shooting himself in the heart. He penned The Society of the Spectacle, a brilliant takedown of modern society and the media it engenders, a society that creates inauthentic living experiences and replaces relationships between people with relationships between commodities. When government, people in the media, and advertisers alike refer to American citizens as “consumers” and no one even blinks, you realize Debord is on to something. But Debord, like Asger Jorn, Henri Lefebvrè, Michele Bernstein, and other Situationists and their buddies are drowned in their own philosophy, or in this case, Wark’s interpretation. Wark is a fine writer, injecting sweeping rhetoric like, “We are bored with this planet. It has seen better centuries, and the promise of better times to come eludes us. The possibilities of this world, in these times, seem dismal and dull.” You nod your head slowly.
We do not dare to contemplate utopias, or even alternatives to our post-industrial combine, like anarchists and socialists once did. But the engaging Wark who surfaces at the bookends of The Beach Beneath the Street recedes behind a mountain of analysis that successfully decodes the minute differences between Asger Jorn’s conception of Marxism and Friedrich Engels’s original view, yet tells us little about what it might have been like to spend a day in Jorn’s company. This matters. Wark quotes the Danish painter, sculptor, and author extensively, telling us how Jorn was able to integrate aesthetic practice into an economic structure, something that Engels and Marx failed to do. After reading lengthy deconstructions of Jorn’s theory, I still could not tell you what kind of individual he really was, or why I should’ve been surprised or nonplussed that he left the Situationist International he helped build.
It’s not that Wark’s lack of a compelling narrative structure makes slogging through the book an occasionally arduous experience; writers like Virginia Woolf can dispense of narrative completely and still craft engrossing literature. Wark can never lift the Situationists he admires so much beyond the realm of theory. They never feel like actual people, and the trajectories of their lives are lost in their byzantine and occasionally self-righteous analysis of the worlds they inhabited. The Situationist International’s influence reached its zenith at an incredibly fascinating point in European history, the general strike in May 1968 in France. Spurred by the Situationists, student protestors, and overwhelming dissatisfaction with the government of Charles de Gaulle, the protestors were able to stage wildcat strikes, effectively shutting down the French economy for a moment. These events come at the end of The Beach Beneath the Street, reading like summary rather than dramatic culmination. The chaos, thrills, and disappointments of the events of May ’68 are ultimately done little justice, and the unprecedented turbulence that overtook the country is never adequately captured.
The Situationists, like any other rogue intellectual collectives, had a way with coining terms. Détournement and dérive, the double Ds, were central to understanding what they held dear and why they were both admired and vilified. The dérive is the belief that adventure lies within the fissures of cities, and is quite accessible. Its Latin root “derivare,” according to Wark, means to draw off a stream, or divert a flow. It’s an unplanned journey through an urban landscape directed subconsciously by the aesthetic contours of the environment. Not as unique as the Situationists might have thought, the concept is closely aligned with the flâneur tradition explored by the likes of Charles Baudelaire (and later adeptly fleshed-out, post-Debord, in the essays of Will Self), though Debord and his followers developed psychogeography, the study of how geographical elements affect the emotions and consciousness of the individual.
Détournement is a more difficult concept to pin down. As mentioned before, Situationists believed that capitalism created a kind of false reality fostered by mass media and rampant consumerism. By producing objects or art, they believed they would be complicit with what Debord dubbed the “spectacle” of capitalism; they wanted to prioritize nothing over experiences themselves. Détournement was the taking of a cultural object—a film, a book, a piece of art—and tweaking it slightly, thus subverting its original purpose. A picture from a newspaper may find itself with a new caption (maybe an anarchist quotation). Or a cartoon may have its dialogue boxes altered to tell an entirely new story.
And there were Situationists, like Constant Nieuwenhuys, who envisioned an entirely new urban design to supplant the old, a city called New Babylon that would place all automated factories beneath the ground, endless highways on the surface, and up above, a global network of superstructures joined without regard to borders or property. Labyrinthine and devoid of a center, the city would be a place for creativity and play. New Babylon, as you can probably tell, never got off the ground. Wark helps us believe we really did miss out on something.
If nothing else, Wark wants us to be more ambitious, “Our species-being is as builders of worlds. Should we consent to inhabit this given one as our resting place, we’re dead already.” Sure, the statement is awkwardly phrased, but the sentiment should be heeded. Our civilization needs a whole lot of work.