The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art
Guy Debord (1963)
Thesituationist movement can be seen as an artistic avant-garde, as an experimental investigation of possible ways for freely constructing everyday life, and as a contribution to the theoretical and practical development of a new revolutionary contestation. From now on, any fundamental cultural creation, as well as any qualitative transformation of society, is contingent on the continued development of this sort of interrelated approach.
The same society of alienation, totalitarian control and passive spectacular consumption reigns everywhere, despite the diversity of its ideological and juridical disguises. The coherence of this society cannot be understood without an all-encompassing critique, illuminated by the inverse project of a liberated creativity, the project of everyone's control of all levels of their own history.
To revive and bring into the present this inseparable, mutually illuminating project and critique entails appropriating all the radicalism borne by the workers movement, by modern poetry and art, and by the thought of the period of the supersession of philosophy, from Hegel to Nietzsche. To do this, it is first of all necessary to recognize, without holding on to any consoling illusions, the full extent of the defeat of the entire revolutionary project in the first third of this century and its official replacement, in every region of the world and in every domain of life, by delusive shams and petty reforms that camouflage and preserve the old order.
Such a resumption of radicality naturally also requires a considerable deepening of all the old attempts at liberation. Seeing how those attempts failed due to isolation, or were converted into total frauds, enables one to get a better grasp of the coherence of the world that needs to be changed. In the light of this rediscovered coherence, many of the partial explorations of the recent past can be salvaged and brought to their true fulfillment. Insight into this reversible coherence of the world — its present reality in relation to its potential reality — enables one to see the fallaciousness of half-measures and to recognize the presence of such half-measures each time the operating pattern of the dominant society — with its categories of hierarchization and specialization and its corresponding habits and tastes — reconstitutes itself within the forces of negation.
Moreover, the material development of the world has accelerated. It constantly accumulates more potential powers; but the specialists of the management of society, because of their role as guardians of passivity, are forced to ignore the potential use of those powers. This same development produces widespread dissatisfaction and objective mortal dangers which these specialized rulers are incapable of permanently controlling.
Once it is understood that this is the perspective within which the situationists call for the supersession of art, it should be clear that when we speak of a unified vision of art and politics, this absolutely does not mean that we are recommending any sort of subordination of art to politics. For us, and for anyone who has begun to see this era in a disabused manner, there is no longer any modern art, just as there has been no constituted revolutionary politics anywhere in the world since the end of the 1930s. They can now be revived only by being superseded, that is to say, through the fulfillment of their most profound objectives.
The new contestation the situationists have been talking about is already emerging everywhere. Across the vast spaces of isolation and noncommunication organized by the present social order new types of scandals are spreading from one country to another, from one continent to another; and they are already beginning to communicate with each other.
The role of avant-garde currents, wherever they may appear, is to link these people and these experiences together; to help unify such groups and the coherent basis of their project. We have to publicize, elucidate and develop these initial gestures of the next revolutionary era. They can be recognized by the fact that they concentrate in themselves new forms of struggle and a new content (whether latent or explicit): the critique of the existing world. Thus the dominant society, which prides itself so much on its constant modernization, is now going to meet its match, for it has finally produced a modernized negation.
Just as, on the one hand, we have been severe in preventing ambitious intellectuals or artists incapable of really understanding us from associating with the situationist movement, and in rejecting and denouncing various falsifications (of which Nashist "situationism" is the most recent example), so, on the other hand, we acknowledge the perpetrators of these new radical gestures as being situationist, and are determined to support them and never disavow them, even if many among them are not yet fully aware of the coherence of today's revolutionary program, but are only moving in that general direction.
We will limit ourselves to mentioning a few examples of acts that have our total approval. On January 16 of this year some revolutionary students in Caracas made an armed attack on an exhibition of French art and carried off five paintings, which they then offered to return in exchange for the release of political prisoners. The forces of order recaptured the paintings after a gun battle with Winston Bermudes, Luis Monselve and Gladys Troconis. A few days later some other comrades threw two bombs at the police van that was transporting the recovered paintings, which unfortunately did not succeed in destroying it. This is clearly an exemplary way to treat the art of the past, to bring it back into play in life and to reestablish priorities. Since the death of Gauguin ("I have tried to establish the right to dare everything") and of Van Gogh, their work, coopted by their enemies, has probably never received from the cultural world an homage so true to their spirit as the act of these Venezuelans. During the Dresden insurrection of 1849 Bakunin proposed, unsuccessfully, that the insurgents take the paintings out of the museums and put them on a barricade at the entrance to the city, to see if this might inhibit the attacking troops from continuing their fire. We can thus see how this skirmish in Caracas links up with one of the highest moments of the revolutionary upsurge of the last century, and even goes further.
No less justified, in our opinion, are the actions of those Danish comrades who over the last few weeks have resorted to incendiary bombs against the travel agencies that organize tours to Spain, or who have carried out pirate radio broadcasts warning of the dangers of nuclear arms. In the context of the comfortable and boring "socialized" capitalism of the Scandinavian countries, it is most encouraging to see the emergence of people whose violence exposes some aspects of the other violence that lies at the foundation of this "humanized" social order — its monopoly of information, for example, or the organized alienation of its tourism and other leisure activities — along with the horrible flip side that is implicitly accepted whenever one accepts this comfortable boredom: Not only is this peace not life, it is a peace built on the threat of atomic death; not only is organized tourism a miserable spectacle that conceals the real countries through which one travels, but the reality of the country thus transformed into a neutral spectacle is Franco's police.
Finally, the action of the English comrades [the "Spies for Peace"] who last April divulged the location and plans of the "Regional Seat of Government #6" bomb shelter has the immense merit of revealing the degree already attained by state power in its organization of the terrain and establishment of a totalitarian functioning of authority. This totalitarian organization is not designed simply to prepare for a possible war. It is, rather, the universally maintained threat of a nuclear war which now, in both the East and the West, serves to keep the masses submissive, to organize shelters for state power, and to reinforce the psychological and material defenses of the ruling class's power. The modern urbanism on the surface serves the same function. In April 1962 (in the French-language journal Internationale Situationniste #7) we made the following comments regarding the massive construction of individual shelters in the United States during the previous year:
Here, as in every racket, "protection" is only a pretext. The real purpose of the shelters is to test — and thereby reinforce — people's submissiveness, and to manipulate this submissiveness to the advantage of the ruling society. The shelters, as a creation of a new consumable commodity in the society of abundance, prove more than any previous commodity that people can be made to work to satisfy highly artificial needs, needs that most certainly remain needs without ever having been desires. The new habitat that is now taking shape with the large housing developments is not really distinct from the architecture of the shelters; it merely represents a less advanced level of that architecture. The concentration-camp organization of the surface of the earth is the normal state of the present society in formation; its condensed subterranean version merely represents that society's pathological excess. This subterranean sickness reveals the real nature of the "health" at the surface.(1)
The English comrades have just made a decisive contribution to the study of this sickness, and thus also to the study of “normal” society. This study is itself inseparable from a struggle that has not been not afraid to defy the old national taboos of “treason” by breaking the secrecy that is vital in so many regards for the smooth functioning of power in modern society, behind the thick screen of its glut of “information.” The sabotage in England was later extended, despite the efforts of the police and numerous arrests: secret military headquarters in the country were invaded by surprise (some officials present being photographed against their will) and forty telephone lines of British security centers were systematically blocked by the continuous dialing of ultrasecret numbers that had been publicized.
In order to salute and extend this first attack against the ruling organization of social space, we have organized this "Destruction of RSG-6" demonstration in Denmark.(2) In so doing, we are striving not only for an internationalist extension of this struggle, but also for its extension on the “artistic” front of this same general struggle.
The cultural creation that could be referred to as situationist begins with the projects of unitary urbanism or of the construction of situations in life, and the fulfillment of those projects is inseparable from the history of the movement striving to fulfill all the revolutionary possibilities contained in the present society. In the short term, however, a critical art can be carried out within the existing means of cultural expression, from cinema to painting — even though we ultimately wish to destroy this entire artistic framework. This critical art is what the situationists have summed up in their theory of détournement. Such an art must not only be critical in its content, it must also be self-critical in its form. It is a communication which, recognizing the limitations of the specialized sphere of established communication, "is now going to contain its own critique."
For this "RSG-6" event we have recreated the atmosphere of an atomic fallout shelter. After passing through this thought-provoking ambiance, the visitor enters a zone evoking the direct negation of this type of necessity. The medium here used in a critical fashion is painting.
The revolutionary role of modern art, which culminated with dadaism, has been to destroy all the conventions of art, language and behavior. Since what is destroyed in art and philosophy is nevertheless obviously not yet concretely eliminated from the newspapers and the churches, and since the advances in the arm of critique have not yet been followed by an armed critique, dadaism itself has become a recognized school of art and its forms have recently been turned into a reactionary diversion by neodadaists who make careers out of repeating the style invented before 1920, exploiting each pumped-up detail and using it to develop an acceptable “style” for decorating the present world.
However, the negative truth that modern art has contained has always been a justified negation of the society in which it found itself. In Paris in 1937 the Nazi ambassador Otto Abetz pointed to the painting Guernica and asked Picasso, “Did you do that?” Picasso very appropriately responded: “No. You did.”
The negation and the black humor that were so prevalent in modern art and poetry in the aftermath of World War I surely merit being revived in the context of the spectacle of World War III within which we are now living. Whereas the neodadaists speak of charging with (aesthetic) positivity the plastic refusal previously expressed by Marcel Duchamp, we are sure that everything the world now offers us as positive can only serve to endlessly recharge the negativity of the currently permitted forms of expression, and in this roundabout way produce the sole representative art of these times. The situationists know that real positivity will come from elsewhere, and that from now on this negativity will collaborate with it.
Without having any pictorial preoccupations, and even, we hope, without giving the impression of any respect toward a now long outmoded form of plastic beauty, we have presented here a few perfectly clear signs.
The "Directives" exhibited on empty canvases or on detourned abstract paintings should be considered as slogans that one might see written on walls. The political proclamations that form the titles of some of the paintings are intended, of course, as a simultaneous ridicule and reversal of that pompous academicism currently in fashion which is trying to base itself on the painting of incommunicable “pure signs.”
The "Thermonuclear Maps" immediately go beyond all the laborious strivings for a “new representationalism” in painting, because they unite the most freeform procedures of action-painting with representations that can claim to be totally realistic images of various regions of the world in the first hours of the next world war.
The series of "Victories" — similarly combining the most extreme ultramodern offhandedness with a minute realism à la Horace Vernet — revives the tradition of battle paintings. But in contradistinction to the reactionary ideological regression on which Georges Mathieu has based his paltry publicity scandals, the reversal here rectifies past history, changes it for the better, makes it more revolutionary and more successful than it actually was. These “Victories” carry on the total-optimistic détournement through which Lautréamont, quite audaciously, already disputed the validity of all the manifestations of misfortune and its logic: "I do not accept evil. Man is perfect. The soul does not fall. Progress exists. . . . Up till now, misfortune has been described in order to inspire terror and pity. I will describe happiness in order to inspire their contraries. . . . As long as my friends do not die, I will not speak of death."
1. The quotation combines three separate passages in Geopolitics of Hibernation. (Debord does not indicate the ellipses.)
2. "In June 1963 the SI organized a ‘Destruction of RSG-6' demonstration in Denmark, under the direction of J.V. Martin. On this occasion the situationists distributed a clandestine reissue of the English tract Danger: Official Secret—RSG 6, signed ‘Spies for Peace,' which revealed the plan and function of ‘Regional Seat of Government #6.' A theoretical text, The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art, was also issued in Danish, English and French. In one area an ugly reconstruction of a bomb shelter was set up; in another were exhibited Martin's ‘Thermonuclear Maps' (détournements of Pop Art representing various regions of the globe during World War III)." (Internationale Situationniste #9, pp. 31-32.) The exhibition also included some “Directives” by Debord and some “Victories” by Michèle Bernstein. The latter are also discussed at the end of Response to a Questionnaire.
New translation by Ken Knabb of the complete text. (The Situationist International Anthology includes only a few excerpts from this article.)