The Situationists and automation

Asger Jorn on automation in modern society.

Submitted by libcom on September 8, 2005

It's rather astonishing that practically no one, until now, dared pursue the logic of automation to its ultimate implications. As a result, we have no real perspectives on it. It seems more like the engineers, scientists, and sociologists are trying to fraudulently sneak automation into society.

Automation, however, is now at the center of the problem of socialist control of production and of the preeminence of leisure over work time. The question of automation is the most heavily charged with positive and negative possibilities.

The goal of socialism is abundance -- the greatest amount of goods to the greatest number of people, which, statistically, implies the reduction of unforseen events to the level of improbable. An increase in the number of goods reduces the value of each. This devalorisation of all human goods to the level of "perfect neutrality," so to speak, will be the unavoidable consequence of a purely scientific socialist development. It is unfortunate that most intellectuals never get past this idea of mechanical reproduction, and are preparing man for this bleak, symmetric future. Likewise artists, specialized in the study of the unique, are turning in greater numbers, with hostility, against socialism. On the flip side, the socialist politicians are suspicious of any manifestation of artistic power or originality.

Attached to their conformist positions, one after another displays a certain bead mood with regard to automation, which risks jeopardizing their cultural and economic conceptions. There is, in every "avant-garde" tendency, a self-defeating attitude towards automation or, at best, an under-estimation of the positive aspects of the future, the proximity of which is revealed by the early stages of automation. At the same time, the reactionary forces flaunt an idiotic optimism.

An anecdote is pertinent here. Last year, in the journal Quatrième Internationale, the militant marxist Livio Maitan reported that an Italian priest had already proposed the idea of a second weekly Mass, necessitated by the increase in free time. Maitan responded: "The error consists in believing that man in the new society will be the same as in the present society, though in reality he will have needs so different from ours that it's almost too difficult to imagine." But Maitan's error is to leave to a vague future the new needs which are "almost too difficult to imagine." The dialectical role of the spirit is to incline the possible towards desirable forms. Maitan forgets that "the elements of a new society are formed within the old society," always, as the Communist Manifesto states. The elements of a new life should already be in formation among us -- in the realm of culture --, and it's up to us to help ourselves in order to raise the level of the debate.

Socialism, which tends towards the most complete liberation of the energies and potential in each individual, will be obligated to see in automation an anti-progressive tendency, rendered progressive only by its relation to new provocations capable of exteriorizing the latent energies of man. If, as the scientists and technicians claim, automation is a new means of liberating man, it ought to imply the transcendence of precedent human activity. This requires man's active imagination to transcend the very realization of automation. Where can we find such perspectives, which render man master and not slave of automation?

Louis Salleron explains in his study on "Automation" that it, "as nearly always happens with matters of progress, adds more than it replaces or suppresses." What does automation, in itself, add to the possibility of action? We have learned that it completely suppresses it within its domain.

The crisis of industrialization is a crisis of consumption and production. The crisis of production is more important than the crisis of consumption, the latter being conditioned by the former. Transposed on the individual level, this is equivalent to the thesis that it is better to give than to receive, to be capable of adding rather than suppressing. Automation is thus possessed of two opposing perspectives: it deprives the individual of any possibility of adding something personal to automated production, which is a fixation of progress, while at the same time sparing human energies now massively liberated from reproductive and uncreative activities. The value of automation thus depends on projects which transcend it, and which release new human energies at a superior level.

Experimental activity in culture [is] today in this incomparable field. And the self-defeating attitude here, the resignation before the possibilities of the epoch, is symptomatic of the old avant-garde who remain content, as Edgar Morin wrote, "to chew on the bones of the past." A surrealist named Benayoun says in No. 2 of Surréalisme Même, the latest expression of the movement: "The problem of leisure is already tormenting sociologists... We no longer put faith in scientists, but in clowns, lounge singers, ballerinas, plastic people. One day of work for six of rest: the balance between the serious and the frivolous, between slacking and laboring, is at great risk of being upset. The 'worker,' in his unemployment, will be lobotomized by a convulsive, invasive television short on ideas and scarce on talent." This surrealist doesn't see that a week of six days of rest will not lead to an "upset of the balance" between the frivolous and the serious, but a change in nature of the serious as well as of the frivolous. He hopes only for mistaken identities, a ridiculous return to the given world, which he perceives, like an aging surrealist, as a sort of intangible vaudeville. Why will this future be the solidification of present-day vulgarities? And why will it be "short on ideas?" Does this mean it will be short on 1924 surrealist ideas updated for 1936? Probably. On does it mean that imitation surrealists are short on ideas? We know it well.

New leisures seem like a chasm that current society knows no better way to bridge than to proliferate jury-rigged pseudogames. But they are, at the same time, the base on which the greatest cultural construction ever imagined could be erected. This goal is obviously outside the circle of interest of the partisans of automation. If we want to have a discussion with engineers, we must enter their field of interest. Maldonado, who currently directs the Hochschule f?r Gestaltung at Ulm, explains that the development of automation has been compromised because there is little enthusiasm amongst the youth to follow the polytechnic path, except for specialists in automation itself, gutted of a general cultural perspective. But Maldonado, who, of all people, should display such a general perspective, is completely unaware of it: "automation will only be able to develop rapidly once it establishes as its goal a perspective contrary to its own establishment, and once we can realize such a perspective in the course of its development."

Maldonado proposes the opposite: first establish automation, then its uses. We could argue with this method if the goal were not precisely automation, because automation is not an action in a domain, which would provoke an anti-action. It is the neutralization of a domain, which would come to neutralize the outside as well if the opposing actions were not undertaken at the same time.

Pierre Drouin, speaking in the January 5, 1957 Le Monde on the growth of hobbies as the realization of virtualities which workers can no longer find use for in their professional activity, concludes that in every man "there is a creator sleeping." This old cliché burns with truth today, if we link it back to the real material possibilities of our time. The sleeping creator must awaken, and his state of waking could well be called situationist.

The notion of standardization is an attempt to reduce and simplify the greatest number of human needs to the greatest degree of equality. It is up to us as to whether standardization opens more interesting realms of experience than it closes. Depending on the result, we could end up with a total degradation of human life, or the possibility of perpetually discovering new desires. But these desires will not come about on their own, in the oppressive frame of our world. Communal action must be taken to detect, manifest, and realize them.

Asger Jorn (June 1958)

Translated 1995 by a.h.s. boy