Remarks on Contradiction and its failure

Contradiction cover

Ken Knabb's notes on the US pro-situ group Contradiction of which he was a member, its work, dissolution and 'failure'.

Submitted by wojtek on January 21, 2012

“Now... the story... does not disperse indefinitely like the banal actuality; rather it organizes itself. The principle of organization is the something that was secret in the actuality. Previously the actuality was indefinite and wandering because the organizing figure was unnoticed; now that it is allowed to claim attention, the rest falls into place... By telling the story, the author frees himself from a certain phase of his life... Obviously the malfunction of the flexible interplay of imagination and actuality has a general importance far beyond cases of a specific inhibition of writing.”

—Paul Goodman, “On a writer’s block”

“ ‘What are you working on?’ Herr Keuner was asked. ‘I’m having a lot trouble,’ he answered. ‘I’m preparing my next mistake.’ ”

—Bertolt Brecht, “Anecdotes of Herr Keuner”

In September 1972 the group “Contradiction,” of which I was a member, dissolved itself. Judged by the goals this group had set for itself, it had failed.

* * *

“The author is embarked on telling the actual story, when suddenly he says to himself, ‘Oh, but — I see, I remember — if I tell this and try to unify it dramatically, I shall have to mention — that. But I didn’t foresee that!’ ”

—Goodman, op. cit.

The history of Contradiction cannot be separated from the history of what it undertook to criticize: the “movement” and the “counterculture” in the United States. The ambiguities in those at once real and spectacular entities were reflected in the quandaries we found ourselves in in our year-long wrestling with this project. Our effective acceptance of these notions, even if to criticize them, measured our own incomprehension of modern society and of our own position in it.

We sometimes actually recuperated where we were aiming at exposing recuperation. For example, very diverse and often admirably spontaneous acts, such as small discussion groups or practical rejection of sexual roles, might, in our drafts, find themselves joined together with the most cynical Stalinist manipulations under the category “women’s liberation”; which category in turn was treated in the rather inappropriate context of the internal dynamic of the movement, as, e.g., a vaguely radical offshoot of or out of it. This, even if by inversion, was giving the little leftist organizations credit for an influence they only wish they had! The organization of our critique can be seen in retrospect as a continual attempt to unravel what we had raveled in the first place. In the process we got very entangled! Each problem that we ran up against (and we were at least lucid enough to recognize the multitude of them) found itself superficially solved by the rearrangement or expansion of the original project whose very form was in fact the major source of our difficulties. We became a victim of our own project, the conclusion of which, by indefinitely receding into the future, pushed aside our engagement with matters of far greater importance and interest to us. We came to fetishize the fetishes we had wanted to demystify. It was left for reality itself to finally force our supersession of the project: When this very “movement” itself knew that it was dead (see the glut of analyses of “what went wrong” and attempts at artificial respiration by its old partisans in the period 1971-72), all that remained was to make a more accurate autopsy. This was too much. We prepared a selection of the most substantial of our “political and cultural manuscripts of 1971” [Critique of the New Left Movement and On the Poverty of Hip Life] for distribution to close comrades, and abandoned the project (and our journal) early in 1972.

(A few copies of these drafts found their way into the hands of less discriminating readers, who distributed them and even went so far as to express an interest in reprinting them. No such publication of the articles in this unfinished form was ever intended by Contradiction.)

Our drafts were good at tracing the internal contradictions and development of Yippies, Weathermen, political collectives, at examining the specific forms of the poverty of hip life, etc. But our attempts to place these developments within the context of the society as a whole — that is, of the opposition to that society — were crude, artificial, unhistorical, or nonexistent. In fact, we did not fully comprehend the position of the hippie or the student leftist because we were too close to that position ourselves. We could analyze the absurdity of various ideas and manners, but we didn’t know why they appeared in the first place.

Many attitudes, illusions, and behavior which we analyzed as hippie in fact pertain to a wider and yet nonetheless delimited social stratum. So that where we sometimes accepted the spectacular notion of the hippies as a cultural vanguard (while drawing different conclusions as to the merit of their “innovations”) which was later followed and imitated in a diluted form by the society as a whole, it was more the case that a certain stratum produced certain ideas and manners, and that a part of that stratum — the hippie — merely expressed those ideas and manners of uncertainty in the most extreme and visible way. To “accept” oneself, to passively “dig reality,” to “flow with things” is nothing other than the consumer ideology of this stratum of society. So that if a minor functionary or mercenary of the spectacle takes up hippie manners and ideas, those manners and ideas are not being watered down; they are returning to their origin. This rather amorphous stratum includes notably the direct producers and agents of social falsification — ad designers, teachers, counselors, artists, psychologists — and so it is quite natural that it is so sensitive to the “failure of communication.” (Whereas, in contrast, the direct producer of commodities has to be forced into the encounter groups which quite unsuccessfully try to instill a “sense of community” into his less compromising labor. He prefers watching sports and adventures to humbly imbibing cultural rehashes. He takes his alienation straight.) It is this stratum that worries about consuming only “quality” products. In this sense the hippie is a vanguard scout in that he helps to discover and unearth the products that embody such quality, from organic foods to organic illusions. When he attempts himself to produce and market these commodities in a way which avoids the hassles of “straight” society, he only rediscovers the logic of the craft guild, with the difference that the superabundance of his variety of pseudocreativity rapidly forces its price to a pitiful level, leaving him more insecure than his medieval forbears. All that remains are the illusions, 700 years late. “Thus there is found with medieval craftsmen an interest in their special work and in proficiency in it, which was capable of rising to a narrow artistic sense. For this very reason, however, every medieval craftsman was completely absorbed in his work, to which he had a contented slavish relationship, and to which he was subjected to a far greater extent than the modern worker, whose work is a matter of indifference to him.” (The German Ideology.)

To return to our “stratum.” (I must note here the imprecision of my analysis, which is only partially attributable to the imprecise nature of this stratum. The sector or sectors of society to which I am referring are clearly neither of the classical proletariat nor of the ruling class — bourgeoisie, upper bureaucrats, technocrats, etc. But in between these two lie a number of strata which can be differentiated not only by their positions within the production system but also by their varying illusions and social aspirations. My “stratum” clearly does not embrace all of these.) The struggle against “dehumanization” or for “control over the decisions that affect one’s life” is the confused reaction of this same stratum, which feels its alienation and impotence intensely but which, because of its ambiguous position, is led to express itself in continually oscillating and self-contradictory ways. The student “radical,” who is generally destined for a place in this stratum but who can temporarily give vent to his self-indulgent confusions, simply expresses these longings in a more exaggerated, ideological form as, e.g., “community control” of some alienation or other, perhaps garnished with scraps of some long outmoded leftism. But this leftism is largely a reflex, an unimaginative response to contradictions that have become unavoidable. (Just as the hippie, in addition to embodying all the modern mystifications, digs up all the old ones — astrology, Buddhism, etc. — in his never-ending search for something that could really fulfill the promise that was disappointed in each “trip” before.)

The superficial nature of all these fantasies is revealed when one notes the ease with which the Weathermen become absorbed into the pastoral hippie idyll or the Yippies turn enthusiastic voters. What the “movement” thought it wanted was less important than who it was composed of. It didn’t collapse because the junior Guevarists found out about Kronstadt, any more than “hip culture” was ripped off. All these apocalyptic visions found their authentic realization in stores and religions — and often in a combination of the two! In places like the San Francisco Bay Area, where the more archaic pseudoconflicts have been superseded, one can see the coming together of what was never essentially separate: an ad designer grows long hair, joins an encounter group, and dreams about chucking it all and going to the country; while a jaded youth, wiped out from smashing his “bourgeois hangups” (i.e. his subjectivity) in a Maoist collective or from the poverty of a rural commune, returns to set up a serve-the-people store or go into dealing “awareness” of one or another reified banality by joining up with an “alternative” media or perhaps leading an encounter group. Neither the be-ins of passive masses nor all the “happenings,” neither the militants’ ritualized “trashing” for every cause but their own nor the spectacular sabotage of a few suicidal guerrillas were able to turn a city upside down like the workers of Pittsburgh did for a day in October 1971 out of mere joy in winning the World Series.

By no means do I wish to say that all of those struggles which found themselves included in “the movement” — or even all of those that thought they belonged under that spectacular label — were pure figments, purely passing fantasies. While most “opposition” to the Vietnam war, to take just one example, was simply a stale spectacle of humanist outrage and impotent “bearing witness,” or was in the interest of political recruitment, many individuals accomplished admirable concrete tasks, whether by publicizing suppressed information or ways to fuck up the draft, or by desertion, “fragging,” etc., within the army itself. And on the other hand, a few of the little leftist groups also had a small but nonetheless concrete effect on modern society; they were real “vanguards,” but in a different sense than they thought. They served as a feedback warning mechanism and as unwitting idea men for a bureaucratic capitalism not always capable of seeing the reforms necessary for its survival. Many of these reforms (minus the ideological exaggerations) are already firmly established (e.g. Black Studies programs); others are no doubt on the way to being so, once a few snags get worked out (e.g. “community control” of police). Some of the unconscious trouble-shooters received bullets for their services. Others found their natural level and went into business as brokers of “people’s survival.”

In the same way, not quite all “hip” phenomena are contemptible. That label, usually denoting a heavy illusion of community and a community of heavy illusions, takes under its wing a few real breaks with the dominant mode of “life” and a few real experiments in the direction of community without illusions. These latter individuals will stand out from the slough of hippiedom precisely by their ability to stand out of it, i.e. to openly junk the entire religio-ideological superstructure; and by the fact that the very authenticity of their experiences, in combination with the intelligence that is able to distinguish between what is living and what is dead in those experiences, pushes them ineluctably toward a more and more rigorous radicality.

* * *

“I have mentioned our prompt critique of the mistakes of the pro-situs, not in order to imply that it is not in itself justified, but in order to note that the pro-situs are not our principal reference point (any more than ICO or the leftist bureaucrats). Our principal reference point is ourselves, our own operation. The underdevelopment of internal criticism in the SI both reflects and contributes toward the underdevelopment of our (theoretico-practical) action.”

—Guy Debord, Remarks on the SI Today
(internal document of the SI, July 1970)

Contradiction’s inability to confront its own history was in part a carryover from its failure to coherently confront its own prehistory around the time of its formation. Most of the future members of Contradiction came together, in the fall of 1970, largely around a critical consensus on their respective past activities, principally within the recently disbanded quasi-“situationist” groups the Council for the Eruption of the Marvelous and “1044”. But the fact that we were able to express these critiques among ourselves and to individuals we happened to encounter is just as academic as the fact that some of the stronger members of Contradiction wrote pieces that were publishable but which, by being subsumed into the journal, got postponed beyond the point of timeliness or interest. We failed to make a collective and public accounting of ourselves, of our previous collective, public activity. (The one significant exception was our distribution of a barely adequate “Critique of ‘On Wielding the Subversive Scalpel’ by One of Its Authors” — with an appended “What Subversion Really Is” by one “Frederick Engels” of 1044 — to those who had read that CEM pamphlet.) And so we remained somewhat entangled in leftovers from our past by having to diffusedly correct, over and over, the assorted fantasies (irrationalist or confusionist conception of détournement, manichean split between “coherent” and “incoherent” organization and activity, fetishism of not working, fetishism of communalism, etc.) which we had so actively disseminated during the year 1970, and which remained understandably linked, in the minds of many people, with our more recent and intelligent positions and projects.

The CEM's edition of On the Poverty of Student Life contained extensive additions (which, moreover, ranged from the inadequate to the mystical) and omissions, without the presence of these alterations in the original Strasbourg pamphlet being mentioned. And 1044’s Riot and Representation: The Significance of the Chicano Riot (which, among other things, too facilely reproduced the SI’s observations on Watts: looting or antipolice violence did not have quite the same significance for the Chicanos, because they took place in the context of very thick spectacular ideologies of violence and Third-Worldism which had arisen in the intervening five years) was signed “by Herbert Marcuse.” If this perhaps enlarged — while reducing the quality of — its readership (e.g. it was reprinted in the San Diego Street Journal), it was at the expense of clarity: If Marcuse was forced to publicly deny the pamphlet (in the UC San Diego student newspaper), it was equally true that many people did not know this, and actually accepted it as being by him — which was giving this dialectically illiterate professor far too much undeserved credit.

Contradiction might have resolved many of its difficulties more quickly and more clearly if its members had been more rigorous in their relations with each other, and first of all on the question of their being members of Contradiction in the first place. The movement/counterculture critique had the merit of beginning (around October 1970) as a frank testing of our mutual practical accord, over and beyond the consensus regarding mistakes in our pasts. But the formation of Contradiction in December 1970, while being a correct recognition of the manner in which a delimited project was being carried out, simultaneously bypassed the tentative, experimental nature of that project; as if we had already found a satisfactory “general equality of capacities” among ourselves. The adoption of a wider range of activities (publication of a journal, enlarging of the movement critique, etc.) in fact allowed for a pseudoresolution of the differences in participation, quantitative and qualitative, which had shown up in the earlier delimited project, and which would undoubtedly have shown up even more clearly had we continued to collaborate on this sound basis. The more grandiose the projects, the easier for someone to be “working on” one for months; the more projects, the easier for someone to hide behind a flurry of apparent activity. In this way the weaker members bypassed the necessary development of their own autonomous practice, while the stronger members got bogged down in making up for the weaker. The abstract desire to “cover” everything (arising out of our abstract aim of being a group “like the SI”) contributed to the abstract need of these stronger members to try to salvage poorly prepared drafts, instead of simply rejecting them and perhaps also their authors.

That Contradiction was not a true federation of autonomous individuals contributed towards its not being a truly autonomous federation. If we were mystified about ourselves we could hardly avoid being mystified about others. Our premature group formation and the insufficiently shared participation in common projects within the group found its external corollary in the incredible amount of time and energy we wasted — going up to the point of fantasizing imminent collaboration or “federation” — with individuals with whom we shared no common projects, but only common ideas, “perspectives,” or, in the final analysis, pretensions. (Sydney Lewis had participated in the beginnings of our movement critique, but had left town just before the formation of Contradiction. A series of progressively more confused letters, culminating in pathetic defenses of the most retarded leftist and hippie illusions, caused us to break with him in June 1971.) In particular, we too readily accepted membership or ex-membership in the Situationist International as implying a superior practical comprehension of matters on which we were unclear — an illusion that was reinforced when they perhaps proved to be right in other instances.

This was nowhere more strikingly revealed than in the history of our relations with Create Situations. We allowed their formulation of basically correct critiques of our lacks of organizational rigor and coherence to divert, obscure, or postpone for months our own demands and positions (most notably against their attempted “use” of the underground press by soliciting the publication there of their and our comics, their patronizing of “promising individuals” on their mailing list, and their otherwise sloppily and spectacularly “getting the critique around” so as to drum up, in short order, a “1000 situationists”). It was, in fact, precisely in our criticisms of them where this organizational incoherence was most evident. It sometimes happened that one or another of us would venture an opinion which was erroneously taken to express a group position; in other cases, such positions were, with insufficient reflection, accepted by the group, which then found itself obliged, perhaps the very next day, to retract what had shown itself as mistaken — and perhaps to do this with a similar lack of reflection; or finally, on those points where we did arrive at considered, collective positions, those positions were rendered meaningless by our failure to execute them, to pose them in practical terms (e.g. by simply refusing to have anything to do with them until they had definitively superseded the underground press strategy). We also “pragmatically” rushed into collaboration with them while important differences remained unresolved, as in my extensive correction of their translations of the SI pamphlets “Beginning of an Epoch” and “The Poor and the Super Poor.” (Unfortunately, their bungling in the final layout and printing managed to reintroduce numerous — though usually not fundamental — errors in most of the articles. These pamphlets are presumably still available from C.S., P.O. Box 491, Cooper Station, NYC 10003.) Other divergences included our confused temporizing over our relations with individuals whom they had broken with; which hesitation was reinforced by Tony Verlaan’s inability to adequately answer criticisms made of him in the Chasse-Elwell pamphlet “A Field Study.” As was too often the case in our relations with groups and individuals, we had to be knocked over the head before we could draw the most elementary practical conclusions. Even when the crucial nature of our divergences could no longer be ignored and our communication had effectively collapsed, it still took Create Situations’s manifestly intolerable proposal (to work with us as individuals while we remained members of a group under which “appearance” they would not deal with us) to finally force us to break with them, in July 1971. Truly, when they noted our failure “to recognize the moments that matter and what matters on a given moment” they were most correct precisely in regards to the long retardation of our relation with them.

Copies of correspondence and other documents relating to any of Contradiction’s breaks can be obtained from me by anyone who can explain what good use he has to make of them.

* * *

“There were also people who were already beginning to spread this doctrine in a popularized form... using all the arts of advertisement and intrigue... Nevertheless it was a year before I could make up my mind to neglect other work and get my teeth into this sour apple... Although this work cannot in any way aim at presenting another system as an alternative to Herr Dühring’s ‘system,’ it is to be hoped that the reader will not fail to observe the internal coherence underlying the views which I have advanced... This is an infantile disorder which marks the first phase of, and is inseparable from, the conversion of the German student to social-democracy, but which will rapidly be thrown off in view of the remarkably healthy instincts of our working class.”

—Engels, preface to Anti-Dühring

“When I hear the word ‘situationist’ I reach for my revolver.”

—old proletarian saying

We broke with Point-Blank in December 1971 over their defensiveness in response to criticism. Around the time when we were coming to recognize some degree of our failure and to act accordingly (by making original, consequential contributions to the new revolutionary movement or nothing), the members of Point-Blank had come to prefer the image of their success. These little militants have since more than confirmed the diagnoses we made of them at that time. Their principal activity over the last year — which has even assumed the proportions of an avowed strategy — has been to broadcast the spectacle of their coherent radicality. Their reinvention of the history of others reveals — in good old psychoanalytic fashion — their own failings and defenses. They are compelled to utterly redefine “pro-situ” (as referring only to those who are purely passive and admiring) so that it won’t include them. Again, they note approvingly that by 1966 “the SI’s theory had gone beyond the experimental stage” (Point-Blank! #1, p. 57, exclamation mark theirs). It is, of course, Point-Blank that has gone beyond the experimental stage. They go “beyond the SI” by “revising” away whatever they don’t comprehend there, that is to say, almost everything fundamental. They think they have discovered something when they find that Debord and Sanguinetti don’t salivate, as they do, to the stimulus of every “partial opposition” with illuminating declarations that they’re not “total.” The barrage of exposés and simplistic “analyses” they serve up to the masses only says (with a few exceptions) the same things over and over; but then their principal effort has long revolved around how to package their reified rehashes in different “scandalous” ways. It is with good reason that they court those who are used to “learning” by the repetition method (see, on p. 92, the laughable attempt of these poor students of student poverty to justify their inability to be anything other than subversive campus mascots). To return to their disguised self-revelations, we find that the “obstacles” confronting the SI (around May ’68 yet!) “centered around extending the radicalism of the SI beyond its immediate membership” (p. 60). It is in fact these little neo-Leninists who conceive of their task as “extending” the “radicalism” (i.e. the explicit situationism) of Point-Blank beyond its immediate membership. What “obstacles” they must run into!

It is one invariable sign of this sort of spectacular situationism that it scrupulously avoids making any practical decisions because it hopes that, in exchange, no one will make any practical decisions about it. It would like to present an image of an international community of situationists joined together around certain intriguing ideas — by the dissemination of which image and ideas any unimaginative impotence can hope to convince himself that he is alive. Thus, Point-Blank tells “who they are,” with that “rigor” for which they have tried to make themselves famous, by omitting any mention of the annoying fact that they collaborated closely with Contradiction for nearly a year, or that we broke with them, and why. Or one Paul Sieveking, founder-member of English pro-situ clearing house “B.M. Ducasse” (= “The Friends of Lautréamont”), will try to simultaneously and publicly keep up connections with Create Situations and us by “agreeing” with the positions of whomever he happens to be talking to at the moment (which sidestepping we put a stop to by breaking with him in December 1971). Or an underground paper trying to fill up the current ideological void will put out a special issue on situationism which simply lumps together everyone who is able to babble a few slogans about the spectacle, sacrifice, Leninism, etc., and publishes a “Dictionary of Situationese” for the edification of those who aren’t yet even capable of that.

The widespread and serious interest in situationist theories and methods in various sectors of society — even if through the absurd mediation of pro-situ propaganda — is one sign of the advance of modern prehistory and its critique. Of this advancing critique, however, the pro-situs themselves are only a confused and confusing rear-guard. That such backward infantile elements can capitalize on an apparent association with an apparently prestigious label in front of those who are often far more radical and original than them is an inevitably temporary phenomenon. The impotence of those who debate with voters, Jesus freaks, and a movement they admit is a dead horse, because anyone else would be more than a match for them; or of those who “publicize their existence” and are compelled to come back the next day to announce how scandalized everyone was, in case nobody noticed the first time around — this impotence is obvious to everybody but themselves, who are caught up in the brief exhilaration of that “certain notoriety” of theirs which they report with such poorly feigned indifference. It takes a pro-situ not to know one.

* * *

“However, that neither the World nor our selves may any longer suffer by such misunderstandings, I have been prevailed on, after much importunity from my Friends, to travel in a compleat and laborious Dissertation upon the prime Productions of our Society; which, besides their beautiful Externals for the Gratification of superficial Readers, have darkly and deeply couched under them the most finished and refined Systems of all Sciences and Arts.”

—Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub

In January 1971 Contradiction published the wall poster Bureaucratic Comix, which noted the role of the various movement heroes, local and imported, vis-à-vis the recent workers’ uprising in Poland. Our poster was reprinted in April by Create Situations; whose distribution of which, however, left something to be desired in the way of rigor, as noted above.

In April we distributed an Open Letter to John Zerzan, Anti-Bureaucrat of the S.F. Social Service Employees’ Union at a meeting of that vaguely “participatory” but tame organization.

In June we published Wildcat Comics, which was distributed principally to the San Francisco cable-car drivers whose wildcat strike some months earlier was discussed therein.

In July we published — in collaboration with Point-Blank — the comic-leaflet Still Out of Order, which was distributed to telephone workers during their brief national wildcat.

In August we published a critique of the Anti-Mass pamphlet “Methods of Organization for Collectives,” that attempt to revive the movement by incorporating into it, among other things, fragments of ill-digested situationism.

I consider that “Anti-Anti-Mass” was a decent if somewhat stodgy analysis; that in its time and place “Bureaucratic Comix” was an appropriate agitation, as evidenced, for example, by the speed and vehemence with which local militants ripped the poster from the walls of Berkeley, ordinarily noted for the peaceful coexistence of all cultural and political fragments (“It is good to be attacked; it proves that you have drawn a clear line between yourselves and the enemy,” as one of their stars has said); and that, slightly excepting “Wildcat Comics,” the worker agitations were pitiful, the product of an abstract desire to say something to workers when in fact we had hardly anything to say to them but abstractions.

Contradiction, which from its inception had declared its accord with the principal theses of the Situationist International, issued in May 1971 a statement which sketched some of those theses, along with the SI’s “Minimum Definition of Revolutionary Organizations.”

Contradiction reprinted English translations from the following SI texts: the first six chapters of Raoul Vaneigem’s Treatise on Living for the Use of the Young Generation (January 1971, 2500 copies); On the Poverty of Student Life (May 1972, 2000 copies); and continued the distribution of 1044’s editions of The Decline and Fall of the ‘Spectacular’ Commodity Economy, Vaneigem’s The Totality for Kids, and “Desolation Row” (chapter on nihilism from the Treatise).

In our editions of the Treatise and Decline and Fall we made the mistake of leaving out our address, giving the impression that they had been published by the American section of the SI (which no longer exists).

Copies of “Territorial Management” (chapter from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle), along with a Contradiction comic, were handed out at the appearance in Berkeley of urbanist numbhead Palo Soleri in March 1971. That same month we also distributed copies of the SI’s “Theses on the Commune,” published as a wall poster by Create Situations.

I have published 750 copies of these “Remarks on Contradiction and Its Failure.”

* * *

“My chief objection was not the vanity there is in writing one’s life... I was afraid of deflowering the happy moments I have known by describing and dissecting them. Well, that I refuse to do; I shall skip the happiness.... Shall I have the courage to relate humiliating events without saving them with endless prefaces? I hope so... But I must begin with so sad and difficult a subject that laziness overtakes me already; I am almost inclined to throw down my pen. But at the first moment of loneliness I would regret it.”

—Stendhal, Memoirs of an Egotist

That six months elapsed since the dissolution of Contradiction before any of its ex-members were capable of so much as a simple public statement of that dissolution shows that one does not embark on such enterprises with impunity. The incompleted, the unclarified, the unresolved, the falsified accumulate with painful results. The repressed returns. That long collective coitus interruptus that was the history of Contradiction, or rather of the radical projects initiated there and so little fulfilled, left us not only frustrated but chronically blocked. We are not the first nor will we be the last revolutionaries to mysteriously lapse into more or less cynical dabblings with culture, preoccupation with schemes for survival, or the most trivialized or false personal relations: you have to keep running to keep ahead of the clutches of the old world. Our inability to publicly resolve the collective stasis of our public practice was not unrelated to our failure to adequately pose the questions of the specific impoverishments of our individual lives. While rejecting the stupidities and illusions of our daily-lifist prehistory, we also, to a large extent, lost the playfulness and outrageousness of those beautiful days. If we forgot the most elementary lessons it was because we had ceased to live them; our theories had ceased to be the theories of our real lives. All that was left was, on the one hand, an articulate ideology of passion and pleasure which mediated our personal relations within and outside the group; and on the other, a tendency which reacted to the laughable results of that ideology by simply writing off our “personal” lives as a matter of coherent, collective concern.

No one was more a victim of all the contradictions of Contradiction than I. It was I who most pushed forward the premature extension of our activity to becoming a group “like the SI.” I more than anyone identified with Contradiction as spectacular family. As one old comrade put it, “Knabb realized himself in situationist politics,” which, if it expresses that the group was less alien to me than to the others — that I expressed myself most fully within it — also measures the degree of my more fundamental alienation. If I initiated and participated consequentially in more projects, I was often less radical in recognizing their failures and drawing appropriate conclusions. It was I who more than any of the others clung to illusions about possibilities for Contradiction months after that form had become obviously obsolete and oppressive. In the interest of brevity I can say that if I could write a veritable Anti-Dühring about Point-Blank (a doleful undertaking to even imagine!) it is because I know whereof I speak; I have myself passed through the outskirts of that bizarre little ideological sub-world. There is hardly a thesis in the Debord-Sanguinetti portrait of the pro-situ (in Theses on the SI and Its Time) where I do not recognize myself — in the past and far too much right now!

As for the other members. They have all been content to passively recognize the errors of their past. And some of them seem to have included living with passion, rigor, and originality among those errors. So much have they “matured.” They have risen as one in incomprehension and hurt defensiveness against the most elementary public criticisms of the fakery of one or another of their associates. Have they forgotten everything? Then they themselves will have to suffer that same criticism become even more public! Most of them have yet to really speak for themselves. And the ones who were best able to are now no longer able to at all. They are behind the times. And these times will leave them even further behind if they don’t do something desperate.

* * *

“The time for writing is ripe, for I must spare nothing of what I have spoiled. The field has not yet been plowed. . . . The time of artistry is ended, the time of philosophy is ended, the snow of my misery is gone. . . . The time of summer is here; whence it comes I know not, whither it goes I know not: it is here!”


The members of Contradiction might well have confronted their dilemma by enlisting that fundamental tactic of breaking the impasse by concentrating precisely on the resistance to the analysis. This would have pointed not only to the basic collective organizational errors I have outlined in these “Remarks,” but also to our individual resistances, that is to say, to our characters. These resistances were strikingly evident, around the final collapse of the group, in our sudden pathological indifference to our often very exciting past activity; to the reasons for that activity’s devolution into boring routine; to the practical possibilities for superseding this state of affairs; and to each other. This phenomenon raises questions (sketched out in Jean-Pierre Voyer’s beautiful Reich: How To Use) which are obviously of crucial importance and which I have hardly dealt with here at all. Suffice it to say, for now, that if it is indisputable that the practice of theory is individually therapeutic, it seems to me equally true that an assault on one’s own character is socially strategic, a practical contribution to the international revolutionary movement. The character of the pro-situ is objectively reinforced by the spectacle of his opposition to the spectacle (which character, of course, is most evidenced by his inability to recognize its existence, other than as a “banality,” until excessive symptoms, perhaps visibly inhibiting his social practice, force his attention there). At the opposite pole, all the lucidity of an Artaud, who attacks his character in isolation, does not prevent the “external” commodity-spectacle he disdainfully brushes aside from reappearing in his internal world as the fantasy of being possessed by alien, malignant beings. Like a revolution in a small country, the person who breaks a block, a routine, or a fetish must advance aggressively to discover or incite radical allies outside, or lose what he has gained and fall victim to his own internal Thermidor. The dissolution of character and the dissolution of the spectacle are two movements that imply and require each other.

These formulations will have to be made more precise.

Written in March 1973. Reprinted from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.