Jun 21, 2010


A brief introduction to the Situationists

The situationists are an artistic and philosophical movement of new avant-garde created in the Fifties of the XX century. Founder of the movement was Guy Debord, best known as the author of "Society of the Spectacle" (1967), a book in which the philosophical essence of Marx's work is applied to modern societies, along with the method known as "historical materialism". The situationists' thesis is that our society is ruled by that powerful organism of autoritarian domination over the masses which is the "Spectacle". The Spectacle defies any traditional definition of autoritarian power, in that it is also a living substance that permeates every aspect of life, becoming one and the same with the society it captures, hence the definition "Society of the Spectacle". The powerful pervasiveness of the Spectacle doesn't spare politics (where its most ancient configuration was probably born), medicine, science, justice etc. The spectacle perverts any real personal and social experience and transforms it into something that is only the shell of what it used to be. By turning anything into images to be consumed in a state of structural distraction, the Spectacle ultimately destroys the experience as a whole. The Spectacle is something man has always be acquainted with, because it used to be a strategy of mass-domination in the ancient as well as in the most recent autoritarian regimes of man's History. But only with capitalism can the spectacle eliminate any form of conscious opposition. While avoiding the habitual recourse to physical violence as a means of maintaining power, the Spectacle infiltrates in everyday life, and its domination firmly develops into social habit, with the evocative power of the Spectacle's imaginary replacing the most basic human needs. To fight the brand new evolution of the Spectacle, which in the XX century has reached its final evolutionary stage and is now the "Integrated Spectacle", the situationists propose an intransigent committment to the creation, through art, of new situations in everyday life, as reaction to the corruption of everyday life carried out by the Spectacle: "Everyday life is the measure of everything" ("Perspectives of conscious modifications in everyday life", in 'International Situationist', Paris, august 1961).

The situationist theory originate from the theory of art and apply to it in the first instance, but since the leading idea is that of totality, art is not thought to be a separate domain from any other, and the theory is naturally intended for society viewed as a whole. Many of the topics of the reform of art planned by the Situationists can be found in the 1960 "Manifesto", where the term "Spectacle" appears for the first time ("Manifesto", in 'Situationist International' n. 4, Paris, June 1960):
1) UNITY OF ART. Art ought not to be divided into producers and consumers, because the consumption of products engenders alienation through the contemplation of the art object. Passive contemplation is precisely what the Spectacle wants to achieve. As a consequence of this claim, the importance of amateurism is highlighted (member of the S.I. was the italian amateur industrial designer Galizio). An evolution from the "conservation" of art (in museums, as the places where art is preserved and contemplated) to its playing a crucial role in actively creating situations, must take place. 
2) TOTALITY. As opposed to the Spectacle's, the situationist culture proposes social participation.A form of art based on the concept of "totality" replaces the notion of art the Spectacle introduced. Art ought no longer to be divided into sectors, this way resembling the productive organization of society and science, and its unity with life ought not to be in the form of alienation from life, where the reality becomes one and the same with its ridiculizing image. Art ought not to have internal compartments and should be extended to all aspect of life as a force of liberation from the laws of the Spectacle.
3) UNITARIAN URBANISM. If we look at its etymology, the word "situation" (from L.L. situatus, pp. of situare. See situate) refers to place and not to time. "Unitarian Urbanismo", although not an original situationist concept, plays an important role at the beginning of the situationist movement. Habitats are built and organized to be functional to industrial productivity. They resemble concrete prisons that are both ugly and depressing. In accordance with "Unitarian Urbanism", industrial functionality ought not to be the criterion for building towns. Cities and towns should be built and architecturally organized having human beings and their REAL needs in mind. In architecture, the barrier between functionality and expressivity must be demolished.
4) PRAXIS. Art ought no longer to be a means of alienation. Art should be one and the same with life, but not in the way the Spectacle understands it. Life should participate in art consciously, without using it to reproduce its own alienation. The unity of life with art proclaimed by the situationists refers to its utilization for the purposes of the battle against the Spectacle, in that the best way to fight the Spectacle is the recovery of life from the annihilation brought about by decades of spectacular domination. The creation of situations IS this participation.
Here are some practices introduced by the Situationists:
a) Détournement.
It is the "inversion of the genitive", of course not limited to the languistic domain but extended to art and life. For instance, when we say "the language of power", we hint at the language being a domination tool in the hands of the Spectacle; when we say "the power of language", we hint at the language actually being a tool for the criticism of the Spectacle.
b) Drifting.
Contextual to the principle of "unitarian ubanism", there is the "drifting", the practice of walking around modern towns, aimed at "[...] establishing new environments, whose essential aspects are their brief duration and the permanent change." (I.S., "Example of a psychogeographic description of the Halles", S.I. n. 2, Paris, Dec. 1958).
c) Playing.
Playing, intended as the process of creating situations, whereas the Spectacle imposes situations as part of a "game" whose rules are decided right from the beginning, and are the rules of its domination over everyday life. Following the rules of the Spectacle, performers and spectators are today separated. This separation allows for the spectator to identify with the played character, which is a form of alienation and a trait of the Spectacle that has obviously always been belonged to art since its beginning.
An interesting trait of the Situationists is what possibly makes them in one aspect the forerunners of what we call today Internet 2.0, in that one of their main concerns was the democratic sharing of their works. The Situationists firmly refused to apply copyright to their productions, and anything could be copied and quoted without authorization or limitations. Copyright became, so to speak, "right to copy".

The Spectacle as a force of alienation, separation and social disintegration

"The Spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains, and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The Spectacle is the guardian of that sleep." 
("Society of the Spectacle", Paris 1969, § 21).

The theory of the Spectacle formulated by Guy Debord is the final stage of a marxist approach to the criticism of society that began with Marx's theory of alienation and was continued by The Frankfurt School in their studies on the culture industry. Contextually, the Spectacle is in itself the final realization of that same alienation that Marx observed at the very beginning of capitalism. In the final stage of capitalism, alienation regards not only the phase of the production of commodities (in which workers are reduced to animals, performing the same operations over and over again), but invades the field of the consumption of commodities (the "leisure time", where people are subject to alienation through the contemplation of the spectacle).

1) The Spectacle as "money"

The Spectacle as we know it today has its origin in the power of money to abstract from reality. There used to be a time when commodities were exchanged according to the natural needs of the two contractors in the exchange (barter). With the introduction of money, anything (food, vegetables, staples, technology, weapons, human organs) could be exchanged by simply using a symbol retaining a socially acknowledgeable value. Money was that symbol, and as such it could abstract from reality, soon inheriting the features of an entity acting autonomously and bound to control the world within a global economic system that soon would be able to follow its own rules indipendently from man, who yet had created it. The victory of this new Prometeus was total. The Spectacle represents the final stage of this process. The Spectacle is precisely that same power of money that has got hold of our society and of the ways everything is produced, consumed, thought, told and lived. The Spectacle is the final realization of the abstractive power of money, and it is the image of things made the only aknowledged reality of things. Two examples can be given to illustrate this fundamental trait of money become Spectacle:
a) the fact that the choice of commodities is only apparently driven by their utility; more essentially, it is their capacity to offer us a social status, a superficial yet recognizable social identity, what drives our purchases.
b) the recent financial crisis, whose culprit was the creation and spread of financial tools which weren't based on valuable underlying assets. They were just empty shells of financial engeneering and had no real intrinsic value, just like money, and testify the essence of money like anything else before, and the global scale of its power.
Abstraction from reality; social irresponsability; tendency to qualitative and quantitative globalization; these are all primary characterizations of the Spectacle.

2) The Spectacle as agent of social disintegration

A) Science is separated in specialized compartments, with no communication between one another. The Spectacle is therefore the kingdom of ignorance, where everything is known on a "need-to-know basis" and nothing is really known except for what needs to be known so as to contribute to the survival of the Spectacle. The foundations of the Spectacle, which can only be grasped by observing it as a pervasive and integrated entity that is more than the simple sum of its parts, can therefore remain intact. The Spectacle separates knowledge into different specialized domains and people from one another and from knowledge. As long as the people are confined to the structural ignorance brought about by the process of specialization of knowledge, the Spectacle can administer the counterfeited images of their own world turned into Spectacle.
2) Society is fragmented into isolated producers and consumers, and citizens are thus transformed into private entities, with no genuine and real communication and relations and with no real social life. In a system where the laws of profit are the only that count, "society" is only a name that contains nothing other that the image of what it was meant to be. Ever since the ultimative shift to its capitalistic organization, society has become an aggregation of private actors, each pursuing their own private interests.
Whereas the concept of "private" defines this economic development, the concept of "privation" has come to define a state of radical alienation where the nothingness that life has become is concealed underneath the reassuring cloak of the false abundance offered by Spectacle. Last but not least, the concept of "privacy" can be brought up to define the stigma of a society whose members have, structurally, something to hide.

The criticism of the Spectacle and sociology

Since the Spectacle is a systemic force that extends its overwhelming power to all aspects of life, any partial criticism of it is misleading and strengthen and confirms the Spectacle itself, because it does not touch the real deepnesses of its influence. This is precisely the mistake any purely sociological approach to the criticism of the spectacle make. Sociology cannot help limiting itself to criticising only the most exterior aspects of the Spectacle, which are the most apparent but not necessarily the most relevant. The clearest example is the criticism of the media (Mcluhan, Morin), which happen to be only a manifestation of the spectacle, and do not represent its core. A more pregnant criticism would be the one addressing the prevasiveness of the Spectacle, not only concerning the domains it already controls (mass media and mass communication, all levels of industrial production and consumption), but also the domains that originate outside the Spectacle and that the Spectacle is trying to subdue and enslave, including the linguistic tools of the same criticism of the Spectacle: "The term 'revolutionary' was defused until becoming, as advertising, designation of any minimal change in the details of the production of commodities" ("Instructions for an armed uprising", I.S., Paris, august 1961). Limiting the analysis to whatever single aspect of the spectacle means assisting the Spectacle in its effort to survive and expand.

The bottom line: genuinity and actuality of the Situationists' criticism of the Spectacle

The concept of "Spectacle" - which we "breathe" in our life today more than ever before - is in itself enough to prove the astonishing actuality of Debord and the Situationists' theory of modern society. But the final proof of the deepness and consistency of this theory is in the possibility to apply it to any new phenomenon that grabs our attention. The Spectacle is an organism that, in expanding its action, mutates into always different forms, although maintaining its essential and most recognizable features. In a society where irresponsible and reckless behaviours are not only tolerated but admired in movies, cartoons, magazines, comics and ultimately in real life, we have to expect the established pillars of our democracies to follow suit, because if man cannot withstand the power of the Spectacle, we cannot expect the most praiseworthy achievements of the democratic past of humanity to do the work that man should do. It will be only a matter of time before parts of our constitutions are changed to seal the complete victory of the Spectacle. This is already being tried in Italy as I write. 
But there is also a positive flip side to the aspect I have just pointed out: the genuine criticism of the society of the Spectacle as well can - and must - evolute and update its approach and instruments. One of this instruments is certainly represented by the Internet. Just for the way it is structured, the Intenet contains powerful potentialities for a destructive criticism of the Society of the Spectacle, the first and most important being its popularization and inherent structural democratic organization. Of course, counterattacks and more sophisticated strategies of control of the opposing forces have to be taken into account, considering the Spectacle's natural tendency to self-preservation. The main treath would be repesented by the attempts carried out by the Spectacle to deprave the Internet by injecting its genetic code in it (the exclusive influence of images for the purpose of passive contemplation, in place of reasoning aimed at achieving self-determination and freedom from the power of the Spectacle). That has already been discussed in my last post, where I wrote about the Old Economy trying to control and tame the Internet and the New Economy.

"The word of our time is: SITUATION!"

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