Review: October 79 - Situationist issue

A very critical review of this MIT Press journal's "Situationist issue" edited by Thomas F. McDonough, by Fabian Tompsett for Transgressions.

Submitted by Fozzie on March 31, 2024

Many readers will no doubt subject this risible anthology of 'criticism'1 to sardonic and even unkind ridicule. But when such a prestigeious organ publishes such complete crap, I feel that we can draw solace from the fact that if this is the best that academica can come up with, the communist movement remains well ahead on a theoretical level. Not that this is any cause for complacency. As William Blake remarked, a man who habitually spends his time in the company of an ape may come to regard himself as highly intelligent, but when once again emersed in the human community, such conceit will readily be seen for the emptiness it is. It matters little if our theorising consistently outstrips the lackeys of the establishment — that is merely as it should be. The proletariat will, however, subject our offerings to a much more intense scrutiny should the social crisis reach such an intensity that they are subjected to any scrutiny at all.

McDonough posits this special issue of October within an Anglo-American context. Almost immediately he makes an idiot of himself — "In the wake of May '68, the perpetuation of the group's legacy was undertaken by those labeled 'pro-situs', i.e. those claiming the Situationist project to some degree as their own." Whilst Black & Red, publishers of the first translation of Debord's seminal work Society of the Spectacle (1972), placed themselves resolutely on the terrain of social revolution, their translation was part of a broader movement which did not revolve around the Situationists nor any other groupuscle:

Black & Red is not a new intellectual current, a new 'cultural trend' within the Capitalist University.
Black & Red is a new front in the world anti-capitalist struggle.
It is an organic link between the theory-action of the world revolutionary movement and the action-theory of the new revolutionary front.
Its aim is: 'To create at long last a situation which goes beyond the point of no return' (International Situationists).

— Founding Statement of Black & Red, 1968

There was no `Situationist project' to claim, but rather a recognition that the situationists were a current within a broader movement struggling to overthrow capitalism. In fact, Black & Red had made it very clear that [they] were not pro-situs. When their collaborators Roger Gregoire and Linda Lanphear criticised Black & Red for printing Radical America, Fredy Perlman of B&R responded angrily.

He was disappointed in his friends' willingness to humiliate themselves; it was their past they were denouncing as well as his. He had expected them to carry out autonomous projects in Paris, similar to ones they had creatively defined in Kalamazoo. Their letters made him question if the past activity of these individuals had really been so admirable if they could now be accepting purges and advocating ideological purity.

Outage was another of Fredy's responses to the letters and the one that permeated is reply which began:

Dear Aparatchiki, your recent letters would have meant much more if a carbon of one and the origanal of the other had not been sent to a functionary of the Situationist International as part of an application for membership. The logic of your arguments would be impressive if it had not been designed to demonstrate your orthodoxy in Situationist doctrine. The sincerity of 'rupture with Fredy Perlman and Black & Red' would be refreshing if it had not been calculated to please a Priest of a Church which demands dehumanizing confessions as a condition of adherence. You're a toady. The odor is made more unpleasant by the fact that you chose to approach the Situationist International precisely in its period of great purges (Khayati, Chasse, Elwell, Vaneigem, Etc). Some people joined the Communist Party precisely at the time of Stalin's great purges.

In a later paragraph Fredy turns one of their complaints against him into an attack of the S.I.:

[I]n your letters you refer to my problem of Organization. You're wrong. I avoid being sucked into oganizations of professional specialists in 'revolution'; apparently you desire to be sucked in. We disagreed about this in Kalamazoo as well, but with this difference: you did not at that time demand unanimity for working together. To avoid being sucked into such organizations is not the same as to avoid the problem of being sucked in. Unfortunately, seen through the 3-D glasses you're wearing today I'm again missing the point. I'm talking about all other bureaucratic organizations, not about the Situationist International. Its bureaucrats aren't bureaucrats. Its purges aren't purges. Its ideology is not ideology: it is practice; whose practice? the anti-bureaucratic practice of the proletarians; this is the practice that justifies the intimidations, insults, confessions, purges which are necessary to keep the Coherence coherent. This Organization is unique: unlike all the Stalinist Parties, unlike the Second, Third and Fourth Internationals, the Situationist International is itself the world revolutionary movement, so that one does not apply to Verlaan for membership but for 'an autonomous positive existence within the international revolutionary movement' (your letter to Verlaan).

The break with Linda and Roger made Fredy even more skeptical that a shared ideological perspective was in itself an adequate basis for undertaking common projects, and it made him decidedly unreceptive to alignments with the adherents of Situationism. One Californian, who had been rejected by the west coast American wing of the SI and who was looking elsewhere for comrades with Situationist views, found our apartrnent on Gladstone and knocked on the door, expecting to be welcomed. Extending his hand while introducing himself, he confidently assured Fredy 'We have everything in common!' Had the newcomer said 'I've come to Detroit to learn how to print!' it's likely he would have been welcomed. But Fredy had heard reports about the California milieu from which the man emerged, wanted no part in the ideological squabbles rending it and squelched the visitor's expectations by responding 'Name one thing!'

Ironically, at the time this young man was seeking Situationist comreades in Detroit, the group he wanted to 'Join' had just undertaken a collective project to translate into English the text which was the cornerstone of Situationist theories: Guy Debord's La Societe du Spectacle. The translating sessions, attended by Hannah, Jon, Judy, Don, Fredy and me, usually turned into commentary on the author's observations. We all found examples to illustrate the truth of his theories, frequently citing our experiences in establishing a print shop without recourse to hierarchy or bureaucracy. As a model of collaborative activity, this translating effort had visible flaws. When there were differences on how to formulate a passage, it was usually Fredy's version that was finally accepted.

Fredy's stubbornness occasionally seemed unkind but when he firmly believed that his choice was better, he refused to give way. He felt that accepting an inferior formulation in order to protect another's self-image was doing a disservice to the common project as well as behaving condescendingly to the individual. The disagreements, in fact, were rarely substantive. A typical one centered on the word 'cleavage'. Jon objected to using the word in the context of Debord's analysis because to him 'cleavage' suggested only a feature of a woman's body.

Debord's book was was profoundly understood by all of us who worked first on translating it and then printing it. Although the Situationists' 'coherence of the critique' was viewed skeptically (as a potential rigid ideology) and a photo of the French Situationists was included in the chapter that denounces self-appointed centralized decision-making, translating Debord's book was a rewarding activity for us in the Detroit of 1970.

Of the six of us, none was more determined or more successful in finding creative responses to life in Detroit than Judy Campbell. Extremely sensitive to and resentful of arbitrary authority, she was confident that others in the integrated, vibrant and rebellious Motor City would quickly see through the absurdities that camouflage unjust social relations. She also had great confidence in her ability to define and carry out projects. Judy installed plumbing in the print shop darkroom, she helped typeset the Debord translation and provided excellent halftone negatives of the graphics she chose to accompany the text; she was a good cook, a responsible housemate, a responsive listener. She read very little and never quoted authors to support an argument, but ideas stimulated her and she incorporated new theories into her 'rap. For a year or more she had been a student at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she rejected the university and scorned people who took academic learning seriously.

McDonough may not have bothered to read this text out of laziness, but I'm not being lazy myself here, using an extensive quote to pad out an article. As I looked through the passage for the few pithy one liners with which to damn McDonough, my attention was drawn to the way Lorraine Perlman moved from discussing how the translation took place to the description of Judy Campbell as someone who "never quoted authors ot to support an argument”, and that really I'm not so much interested in showing up McDonough as the stuffed shirt he clearly is, but trying to recapture some of the excitement I experienced in my early twenties facing the practical and theoretical challenges of the revolutionary movement. Concerning Ken Knabb's Situationist Anthology (1981) McDonough complains that

"The cumulative effect of Knabb's choices is to enforce a misleading construction. of the S.I.'s history: because cultural politics are placed in a decidedly secondary position, the reader is free to see the Situationists as one of the many anarchist 'groupuscules' formed in the wake of the leftist critique of the Stalinist Communist Party (1956-8)."

Aside from McDonough's error in using the appelation 'anarchist', this is precisely what the S.I. were, although it is not all that they were. And it was precisely such groups who studied, discussed and published situationist texts in the seventies, a social fact that is reflected in Knabb's anthology. At that time revolutionaries were assessing what the Situationists had to say in the context of a range of political discussion, which far from being anything to do with Regis Debray, Henri Lefebvre or the New Left Review, was centred around communist politics, particularly currents emerging from Socialisme ou Barbarie.

McDonough's anthology includes 'Why Art Can't Kill the Situationist International' by T.J. Clarke and Donald Nicholson Smith. This effort, if you will excuse such a perjorative term, from two ex- members of the S.I., is no doubt included to lend some 'I was there' authenticity to the entreprise. Indeed, it shines out compared to the lacklustre of the other texts. However, when placed in the context of critical thought going on within the revolutionary milieu, the 'little gem' turns out to be made of paste. It includes extracts from 'Response aux camrades de Rennes — sur l'organisation et l'autonomnie', cited to contradict the claim that "the Situationists were simply 'council communists' whose only answer to the practical questions of revolutionary politics was to hypostasize past experiments with workers' councils as a way of solving all problems of organisation in advance." What is odd is that the text quoted actually confirms that the S.I.'s politics were as much rooted in Council Communism as that of such Dadaists as Franz Jung (who hijacked a ship with Jan Appel to visit Moscow as delegates of the Kommuniat Arbeiter Partei Deutschland). It hardly responds to the criticism levelled in La Banquise #2:

Iconoclasts, free from the problematic of workers' organisations (of which groups like Pouvoir Ouvrier or Information et correspondence ouvrier had not broken free) the S.I. shook up the ultra-left. But their theory of the spectacle lead them into an impasse: that of of councilism. As an expression of attacks against the commodity rather than of a comprehensive movement against capital, they did not make an analysis of the whole process of capital. As with S.ou B., they saw capital a way of managing society which deprived proletarians of all power over their lives, and so concluded with the need to find a way of allowing the particitpation of everyone. To this they added the passive-active opposition. Capitalism was theoretically conceived as spectacle as much as capital, and they sought to overcome passivity through the discovery of a means (democracy), a place (the workers' council) and a way of life (generalised self-management). The notion of the Spectacle swallowed that of capital and opened up a reversal of reality. The S.I. effectively forgot that 'the most significant dominating trait of all capitalist division of labour is the metamorphosis of the worker from the position of an active producer to that of a passive spectator of their own labour.' (Root and Branch, Le Nouveau mouvement ouvrier american Spartacus, 1978, p90)

The spectacle has it roots in the relations of production, of work, where it is a constitutive element of capital. The spectacle can be understood as arising from capital, not the inverse. Spectacle and passive contemplation are the effect of a much deeper phenomenon. It is the relative satisfaction of 'needs' created by capital for 150 years (bread, work, somewhere to live) which gives rise to the passivity found in behaviour. The theoretical conception of the society of the spectacle as a motor, as essence society was idealist.

Thus the S.I. following the German Left [i.e council communism] acknowledged revolutionary spontaneity, but without dealing with the nature of this spontaneous activity. They glorified general assemblies, the workers' councils, instead of dealing with which these forms would have to accomplish.

('Le roman de nos origines' La Banquise 1983, p23)2

If Claire Gilman were a noted humourist her article on 'Asger Jorn's Avant Garde Archives' would go down as a small masterpiece. One of the Situationist's techniques of psychogeography was to wander in one area using a map from somewhere else completely. This can be done intellectually as well - for instance analysing the poems of Baudalaire as if he shared the theoretical outlook of his friend the occultist Eliphas Levi. Gilman does this by applying a debordian gloss to Jorn's paintings. Here she follows Guy Atkins, who unfortunately secured himself a place as the major interpreter of Jorn in the English language. He dismissed all of Jorn's extensive theoretical works as being of little interest, thus allowing Gilman to present her travesty as some sort of critical article. She may well share problems of accessibility to Jorn's texts which have only been published in Danish, but this does not excuse an ignorance of material published in French and English. If this had been some sort of joke planned to make a monkey out of McDonough, it might have some merit, but sadly this is probably not the case.

Such ignorance is also shown by Professor Vincent Kaufman in his 'Angels of Purity': "Communism realized will be the work of art transformed into the totality of everyday life," he glibly quotes from Jorn's 'Critique of Political Economy' albeit from a citation by Jean-Francois Marcos' Histoire de l'Internationale Situationniste. I suppose a man of his station of life doesn't feel it necessary to actually understand works he quotes from, that students across the world will simply swallow his shit willy-nilly. He then continues "Communism, then, is the work of art become totality, the total oeuvre realized, the Book made by everyone and integrated into everyday life, and Situationism is but the implementation of such a Book: a fish dreaming itself in the water of the people-become-artist. Revolution is a precondition for realizition of the Book and vice-versa." Oh lucky reader, you now have in your possession an English translation of Jorn's 'Critique of Political Economy', and instead of relying upon any interpretation I could serve you, you can read for yourself how absurd, even insulting Haufman's claim that Jorn was one of 'the People of the Book' really is. Finally, one piece of good news is that October 79 has some new English translations of some S.I. texts — and some joker is sure to put these out in a pamphlet at a fraction of the price of this august journal.


LA BANQUISE (1983) 'le roman de nos origins' in La Banquise #2, Paris 1983
KEN KNABB (Ed.) (1981) Situationist Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley
LORRAINE PERLMAN (1989) Having Little, Being Much: A Chronicle of Fredy Perlman’s Fifty Years, Black & Red, Detroit