The Situationist International: Art & Radical Politics

Mary Joyce talks about the cross-section of radical art, politics, and disruption.

During a fertile time for social change, the Situationist International aimed to bridge the gap between art and radical politics. As a group of artists and writers in 1960s Europe, the Situationists (or SI) achieved prominence during the French student protests through their writings and their penchant for public stunts. While the group never overcame the contradictions between the disparate natures of the artistic and the political, they combined satire, scandal, and performance to critique consumer society and the routine nature of everyday modern life — at a time when this approach was unusual and profoundly disruptive.

The founder and ringleader of the SI was the enigmatic and problematic Guy Debord, a philosopher and filmmaker. Debord found influence in classical intellectual figures such as Thucydides, general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, and 17th-century Jesuit writer Baltasar Gracián. However, he also identified with artists on the margins, such as proto-surrealist Lautréamont, and Pierre-François Lacenaire, a 19th-century murderer and unpublished poet. Additionally, Debord sought to bring the relevance of Marxist theory into the latter 20th century, when advanced industrialization had seemingly produced the possibility of prosperity for all.

In the 1950s, Debord and other Situationists had been active in a movement known as Lettrism, which called up the irreverent whimsy of Surrealism and Dada — just as France aspired to a bourgeois Catholic normalcy after the upheaval of World War II. The Lettrists were best known for a stunt that took place on Easter Sunday mass in 1950, at Paris’ Notre Dame. Lettrist Michel Mourre, disguised as a monk, accessed the pulpit during a pause in the mass; he then recited a discourse on the death of God and the hypocrisy of the church. He was attacked by the Swiss Guard on hand to manage the congregation, then arrested. The Lettrists subsequently became an object of national controversy, in which surrealist André Breton defended Mourre’s actions.

For all of their dynamism, neither the Lettrists nor the Situationists could be understood as a mass movement. Of the two groups, the SI achieved the larger membership — and its total number over 15 years was 72. While the 1960s brought a stream of social and political imperatives to France in particular, the SI operated in a removed manner that has been criticized as elitist. The Situationist position was that they could not be a mass organization — They viewed themselves as an advance guard for broader radicalism.

At any rate, the SI aimed to be “international,” consistent with the socialist movements of the late 19th century. While the membership missed all of Asia, and most of Africa and South America, it was multinational. Members hailed from all over Western Europe, Algeria, and the U.S.

The Situationists’ founding in 1957 bears a mythic quality, as it bore the promise of accord between the artistic and the theoretical. Key to the union was a concept deemed “psychogeography,” which disrupted routines and dissolved barriers between art and life; this was directly informed by the work of cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, who originated the notion of “homo ludens” — or the human need for play. The practice of the “dérive,” best understood as playful urban wandering, became a key aspect of psychogeography.

Situationist journal content at this time was playful, as well. An especially notorious commentary appeared in 1964, featuring a nude image of showgirl Christine Keeler. While the mistress of Britain’s war secretary John Profumo, she had an affair with Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov. These revelations threatened to topple the government. The SI used the incident to criticize the marriage of Denmark’s Princess Anne-Marie to the ruler of Greece, Constantine II. Keeler’s figure appears with the caption, “As the Situationists say, it is far better to be a prostitute like me than the wife of a fascist like Constantine.”

Ultimately, however, uniting art and theory remained elusive. Debord ejected much of the artistic wing in 1962. With some exceptions, the focus of the remaining group became increasingly theoretical. The most notable intervention transpired in fall 1966, at the University of Strasbourg — which still operated, like other French academic institutions, under repressive levels of censorship. Fellow-travelers of the SI were elected to the student union there, and engaged a member to write a pamphlet entitled, “On the Poverty of Student Life.” This indicted the bourgeois terms of the university experience and called for revolt. The students used organization funds to produce 10,000 copies that were distributed at the start of the academic year.

Throughout the 1960s, French society experienced increasingly intense conflicts about ever more dominant consumer culture — a longstanding concern for the SI. In particular, the American influence on global consumerism became an object of concern to the French. It was also clear that the conservative values of traditional France no longer held the same type of currency.

Like many other societies in 1968, France saw massive, disruptive student protests. Students wanted changes to a culture they saw as hierarchical and stultifying. But uniquely, French student revolts sparked widespread workers’ strikes, factory occupations, and civil unrest. This dissidence escalated all through May and halted the French economy.

While the Situationist organization did not swell to mass levels as part of the May 1968 protests, their texts and slogans became widespread during that time. In particular, the 31-day occupation of the Sorbonne is linked to the spirit of the SI. The group envisioned a longer-term social disruption, and sought an alliance between factory workers and the students. This was not achieved, but articles, in an issue of the SI journal published in September 1969, declared victory.

The return to normalcy after the extraordinary events of May also led to the end of the Situationists. By its end in 1972, membership had shrunk to two — Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti, who later was associated with various Italian terrorist groups. The half-life of the group, however, has been considerable. Situationist philosophy influenced punk rock and the Sex Pistols, via their promoter Malcolm McLaren. Just as significantly, SI texts on the city have become a common feature in architecture programs. And more recently, the work of graffiti artist Banksy shows the imprint of the group that fought commodification — and saw the ongoing need for overturning business as usual.

MARY P. JOYCE, PhD, is a cultural historian and observer. Her native city of San Francisco still provides her with moments of irreverence and surprise worthy of the Situationists.

Originally published on 5/28/16.

The Situationist International: Art & Radical Politics was originally published in The Coil on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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