Partners in Crime? Guy Debord, Malcolm McLaren, Charles Dickens
London, June 2000- the electronic pulsebeats of Labradford are broken up by a recorded voice from the backstage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The voice belongs to Iain Sinclair, London writer and pyschogeographer busy mapping out the city’s overlapping histories, unearthing hidden narratives and the voices submerged within. The event is billed as The Festival of Drifting, its third annual installment, staged on the south bank of the Thames.
Situationism and Rock
by Paul Fitzpatrick (October 2000)
Wind the clock back to September 1957 and the birth of the Situationist International. A libertarian group of artists and chancers, owing its conception to the combining of the two movements, Lettrist International and the International Movement for an Imaganist Bauhaus. A third party, the London Psychogeographical Association, was represented by its only member, Ralph Rumney.
First organized in 1952, the Lettrist International was made up of small groups of Paris based intellectuals who took their lead from the Dadaists of the 1920's. In this avant-garde tradition, the Situationists focused on the "suppression of art," that is they wanted to go beyond the categorization of art and culture as separate activities and to transform them into part of everyday life.
While the Lettrists inclined towards minimal and conceptual ideas of art, the Imaginist Bauhaus(1954-1957), led by painter Asger Jorn, turned towards a more hands-on visual approach.
Audience member: ‘Can you explain what situationism is all about?’
Guy Debord: ‘We’re not here to answer cuntish questions’Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1961
In answering this cuntish question, some unraveling needs to be done. The situationists were anti-capitalist: they were against work and looked to play and spontaneity as the cornerstones necessary to modern life. As they saw it, modernity, limited work and relative abundance, city planning and the welfare state produced not happiness, but depression and boredom. Boredom to the situationists was a modern phenomenon, a modern form of control. With God missing (presumed dead), people felt their condition not exactly as a fact but simply as a fatalism, devoid of meaning, which separated every man and woman from each other
They sought to understand that moment when people gain insight into the alienated patterns of their everyday lives, prompting the question: ‘I’m not happy- what’s wrong with me?’
In a new world of unlimited leisure each individual might construct a new life just as in the old world a few privileged artists had constructed their representations of what life could be.
It was this desire that drove 25 year old Guy Debord to gather artists and writers avant-garde into the Situationist International. Amongst the revolutionary devices prescribed by the situationists were psychogeography, drift, detournement and situations.
‘The art of the future will be the overthrow of situations or nothing’
Guy Debord, 1952
The situationists almost certainly took their lead for creating, as well as simply experiencing, "situation" from the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. The very word situation derives from Sartre’s philosophy that life is a series of given situations which affect the individual’s consciousness and will, and which in turn must be negotiated by that individual. From this, Debord declared : ‘We must try to construct situations... collective ambiances, ensembles of impressions determining the quality of a moment.’
Everyday reality was seen as being made up of moments: of love, hate, poetry, frustration, action, surrender, delight, humiliation, justice, etc. In order to change the world one had to think about changing life.
A strange bond exists among anti-social types in their power to see environments as they really are. Marshall McLuhan commented that the poet, the artist, the sleuth- whoever sharpens our perception, tends to be antisocial; rarely well adjusted, he cannot go along with currents and trends.
Detournement translates roughly as diversion: turning the sytsem’s images against it was to detourn or divert them.
Psychogeography def.‘ the study of the precise effects of geographical setting on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’
Psychogeography sees buildings in terms of their use, their history and their collective and associative generation of meaning and mood, like words in poetry. It follows in the footsteps of the urban wanderings and contemplations found in the writings of Thomas De Quincy, Baudelaire and Dickens.
The idea of ‘drifting’ has its roots in the tradition of the ‘flaneur’ A stroller or dandy spectator of the Parisian scene who had emerged in the early nineteenth century and later celebrated by the likes of Charles Baudelaire. Like the flaneur, the drifter skirts the old quarters of the city in order to experience the flip side of modern urban life. In a prescient passage describing Dickens’ ‘nightwalks,’ Walter Benjamin wrote:‘Whenever he had done drudging he had no other resource but drifting and he drifted over half London... he did not go in for "observation", a priggish habit. He did not look at Charing Cross to improve his mind or count the lamp-posts in Holborn to practice his arithmetic...Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind: HE STAMPED HIS MIND ON THESE PLACES’Wandering around the city, drifting without destination, neither going to work nor properly consuming was a waste of time in the temporal economy, in a society where "time is money." In response, the situationists denounced alienation and extolled revolution, promoting their motto Ne travzaillez jamais (Never work).
Whether discovered in the city or the mind, for the situationists, psychogeography and drifting mapped out revolutionary desire.
CLUB MED: A CHEAP HOLIDAY IN OTHER PEOPLES MISERY Graffiti in Paris, May 1968
The situationists achieved their greatest notoriety in May 1968 when students provoked a revolt in the streets of Paris against the Gaullist regime. At the end of 1967, a radical manifesto surfaced written by Guy Debord, which proved to have a major influence on events in France. ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ claimed that cinema, TV, papers and advertising were all part of a worldwide hegemony of power in which powerful vested interests had learned to rule with minimum force turning everything into a media event. The staged conventions of the political parties to anoint politicians, the replacement of old neighborhoods with shopping malls and fast food franchises was part of the ‘society of the spectacle’ precisely because they helped to destroy the general community. ‘There is no place left where people can discuss the realities that concern them because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay it.’
At this time graffiti started appearing on the walls of Paris:
I TAKE MY DESIRES FOR REALITY BECAUSE I BELIEVE IN THE REALITY OF MY DESIRES
BOREDOM IS ALWAYS COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY
‘Your God has gone away’
"No Feelings," Sex Pistols
When he sang "Pretty Vacant," Johnny Rotten claimed the right not to work, and the right to deny all the values that went with it - perseverance, ambition, piety, frugality, honesty and hope. The past that God had invented work to pay for, the future that work was meant to build- there was none.
These were echoes of another recurrent situationist theme: the idea of the "vacation" as a sort of loop of alienation and domination, a symbol of the false promises of modern life, a notion that, as CLUB MED-A CHEAP HOLIDAY IN OTHER PEOPLE’S MISERY, would become grafitti in Paris in May 1968 and then turned up in the Pistols’ fourth single, "Holidays in the Sun," released in 1978.
The situationists were notorious for falling out with each other and many members were excluded over the years, including Ralph Rumney, an early casualty, writer Alexander Trocchi and, in 1967, the entire English Section.
The English formed King Mob, while in America, Situationists in New York banded together as the Motherfuckers. Within the ranks of King Mob were two art students: Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid.
During the May 1968 revolt in France, future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had been involved in setting up solidarity demonstrations in London while the early '70's saw McLaren on the Kings Rd flogging t- shirts decorated with the recycled slogans of May '68.
In 1974, McLaren and Reid helped to publish ex-situationist Chistopher Gray’s Leaving the 20th century, the first English language anthology of situationist writings. It included Jamie Reid’s cartoons and graphics to give the situationist message some more aesthetic appeal. He would later use this collage style to startling, iconic effect in the graphics for the Sex Pistols’ record covers.
A poster by the May '68 art student collective Atelier populaire showing a young woman covered in surgical gauze and a safety pin jamming her lips closed was appropriated for the cover of God Save the Queen: HRH with a safety pin through her lips.
By 1975, McLaren was with the defunct Situationiste Internationalle looking to create his own situation, then along came a boy called Johnny...
The hacienda must be built
Ivan Chtcheglov, 1963
Manchester, 1976. The Sex Pistols play the Lesser Free Trade Hall. In the audience stand Ian Curtis, Bernard Albrecht, and Peter Hook. Inspired by the Pistols’ performance they went on to form their own group, Warsaw, later changing their name to Joy Division.
Fast Forward to 1981. Ian Curtis is dead. Joy Division have become New Order and they and their record label, Factory, are on the cusp of opening a new club in the city, The Hacienda. Tony Wilson, Factory Records MD, was well known to be conversant with situationist theory and had followed McLarens’ career with great interest. So it was only fitting that the Hacienda would serve as the incubator for the next major youth phenomenon-Acid House. The emergent dance culture was in itself another DiY culture advocating freedom through transcendence (dance/ecstasy) of ordinary life.
Yesterday and Today
In 1996 the Hacienda played host to a conference ‘On the Legacy of the Situationist Revolt.’
It could be said their most lasting legacy was their advocacy of freedom: the chance to discover what it is you truly want to do. Their revolution was rooted in the desire to create ones own life. Its voice can be heard in the best punk records and its stance in the DiY style and content of punk, the thousands of fanzines that came about (and e-zines more recently) and on into the activities of the anti-corporate movement today.
‘Psychogeographers pass each other like ships in the night, show up late or not at all’
Stewart Home, Mind Invaders
Theirs is still an air of mystique that hovers around situationism. Even in its day there was a surreally comic denial of its very existence. The first edition of Internationale Situationniste declared that ‘the notion of situationism is obviously devised by anti-situationists.’
Iain Sinclair’s remapping of London is helping to re-imagine hidden pasts and re-align future lives while drawing into collaboration the likes of Bill Drummond, Jah Wobble and Wire’s Bruce Gilbert. Fellow psychogeographer/pulp novelist Stewart Home meanwhile continues his broadside assaults on modern culture.
Just in case you feel moved to conduct a psychogeographical investigation into the quiet corners of your home city or town I’ll leave the final words with the Situationists:
‘We are waiting for you at the turning.’
Highly Recommended :
- Iain Sinclair Lights Out for the Territory (Granta)Downriver (Vintage) - spoken word version of latter available (King Mob)
- Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces (Picador)
- Christopher Gray ed. Leaving the 20th Century (Rebel Press)
- Stewart Home ed. Mind Invaders (Serpent’s Tail)
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|