Overview

Situationism


Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

A small, influential and highly politicized artistic movement founded in 1957, from the remnants of two previous Avant-garde groups, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (led by Asger Jorn, who had also been involved in COBRA) and the Lettrist International (founded in 1946 by Isidore Isou, an early influence on Guy Debord). After an illustrious but tumultuous decade and a half it dissolved in 1972. Internationale Situationniste, the group's journal and principal means of disseminating its ideas, published the first of its twelve issues in 1958 and its last in 1969. Long out of print, the full run is now available in English translation on the Internet.

The name of the group as well as the philosophy underpinning it derives from Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of the situation read as an answer to Henri Lefebvre's injunction in his critiques of everyday life that change can only be radical if it is engineered at a grassroots level. Creating new and surprising situations through art was its means of challenging the orthodoxy of everyday life and countering its alienations (in Marx's sense of the word). The principal thesis of Situationism was that art prefigures or anticipates what is possible in the social. This idea, which owes an obvious debt to Surrealism, appealed to a wide range of activist groups throughout the 1960s, especially the so-called ‘soixante-huitards’ who participated in the events of May '68, and still today influence protest movements of all types, but especially adbusters and culturejammers.

Although they were orthodox Marxists, the Situationists did not favour state-led communism or Stalinism (to give it its other name), and therefore their relations with the Left were always quite fraught, which was one of the main reasons why the group was so fractious and expulsions so frequent. Their critique of everyday life hinged on the concept of spectacle developed by Debord in La Société du spectacle (1967), translated as Society of the Spectacle (1970). Debord's thesis is that capitalist society compensates for the fragmentation of daily life with a numbing image of false unity he calls the spectacle, which alienated workers of all types unknowingly consume and accept as real life. Breaking people out of this ideological slumber and enabling them to access authentic life is the chief purpose behind Situationism's three key practices or methods: dérive, détournement, and psychogeography.

The other major theorist associated with Situationism was Belgian scholar Raoul Vaneigem, author of Traité de savoir-vivre á l'usage des jeunes générations (1967), translated as The Revolution of Everyday Life (1983), a kind of user's guide to the late 20th century for the younger generation (which is what the French title might be if it were more literally rendered). Vaneigem's thesis, inspired by Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, is that capitalism immiserates not by depriving people of their desires, but fulfilling them, or at least appearing to. Thus abundance is the most politically disabling state of all. The problem for Vaneigem is that this type of society relies on passivity and ressentiment or what Peter Sloterdijk calls cynical reason rather than conscious affirmation.

[...]

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.