CEM additions to 'On the poverty of student life'

From the Council for the Eruption of the Marvelous’s rather freely adapted edition (May 1970, 3000 copies) of the 1966 situationist pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life. While making only a few minor changes in chapters 1 and 3, they replaced most of chapter 2 (re the Provos, East European dissidents, Zengakuren, etc.) with a more detailed critique of subsequent developments in the American scene and added the coda after chapter 3. There was also an introduction (not reproduced here), which summed up a few basic points about the Strasbourg scandal and the May 1968 revolt.

Submitted by wojtek on January 20, 2012


. . . The “crisis of youth” — the refusal to become socialized to an alien world — is nearly universal. The variations are, as we have seen, only in the form: delinquent, mental patient, revolutionary. Even the recuperated youth — social worker, “Peace” Corps volunteer, peace marcher — seeks, in his guilt-ridden way, to rebuild the world.

We have seen in the 60s the rise of the “committed generation,” hailed by the dictators of power as the hope of the world. Youth everywhere is venting its dissatisfaction with society through more or less respectable political means. Often the refusal is expressed in pure form; at such times it is met with brutal repression. More often, however, we have seen youth be fooled into the “politics of the possible,” which only serves to legitimize the process which they oppose. “Fragmentary opposition is like the teeth on a cogwheel; they marry one another and make the machine go ’round, the machine of the spectacle, the machine of power” (Vaneigem).

We see this fragmentary opposition characterized by the French National Student Union (UNEF), which — as the training ground for future “Communist” parliamentarians — is nothing but the travesty of a travesty, the parody of a party which is the parody of itself. We saw it in England, and then in France and the U.S., with the rise and fall of the peace movement. The recent anti-imperialist marches lack the vigor of the early, naïve British marches, even though the politics have “escalated.” Pleading gets to be a bore after a while. Aimed primarily at television, the marches should be shown on the Late Show with the other old movies.

We see recuperation being purposefully perfected in America. The Peace Corps cherubs trudge off to exorcise their guilt; they return more guilty than when they left. When they return to the States they spend their summers in the South or in northern ghettoes killing the poor with kindness. (When this fails — as in the Watts celebration — power has other means at its disposal.) Then, since their devastating altruism knows no bounds, these children will walk a picket line in a trade union strike, mouthing incoherencies about restructuring the world through economism.

But what about Berkeley? Doesn’t the Free Speech Movement transcend this naïve reformism? American society needs its students; and by revolting against their studies they call that society into question. From the start they have seen their revolt against the university hierarchy as a revolt against the whole hierarchical system, the dictatorship of the economy and the State. (See, in particular, Mario Savio’s eloquent statement about the machine of power.) Their refusal to become an integrated part of the commodity economy is a revolutionary gesture. It puts in doubt the whole system of production which alienates activity and its products from their creators. For all its confusion and hesitancy, the FSM has discovered one truth of the new refusal: that a coherent revolutionary alternative can and must be found within the “affluent society.” There is an element of self-determination in their chaotic organization, but what they lack is genuine subversive content. Without it they continue to fall into dangerous contradictions. They may be hostile to the traditional politics of the old parties; but the hostility is futile, and will be recuperated, so long as it remains ignorant of the political system and deluded about the world situation. Abstract opposition to their own society produces facile sympathy with its apparent enemies, the so-called Socialist bureaucracies of China and Cuba. Brandishing little red books, quoting the monstrous logic of Chairman Mao (“The enemy’s enemy is your friend” is like saying “If you hate Coca-Cola, you’ll love Pepsi”), many American students can in the same breath condemn the State and praise the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” that pseudo-revolt directed by the most elephantine bureaucracy of modern times.*

*[Note to 1970 edition: We have seen, in the four years since the first publication of this pamphlet, the decay of the American New Left in the reduction to absurdity of two tendencies which had plagued it from the beginning: economism and blind worship of the Third World. The first tendency was manifest in the torturous strike at San Francisco State, where hundreds of students were injured and jailed while fighting for membership in the bureaucracy which repressed them. The second tendency is clearly seen in the amusing faction fights within SDS, where each faction claims a Third World bureaucrat/martyr as its guiding light in the fight for bureaucratic power within the organization.
A neo-Marxist economism has been adopted by the students through their curious relations with the trade unions: They lend support to wage strikes in an effort to “radicalize” the workers; yet by this very support the students actually reinforce union hierarchy. They go so far as to mimic trade-union style in their own “struggles” in an effort to “be like the workers.” The second tendency — worship of the Third World — has its roots in bourgeois guilt (“white skin privilege”) and nihilism.]

Many youths have expressed their anomie in an a-politicality which rejects both the Huntley-Brinkley World of Affairs and its New Left antagonists. These non-political people often offer a more profound critique of the spectacle society than does any political opposition. They understand that their lives are impoverished and that no political party, right or left, offers a way back from alienation. So they drop out and try to establish alternative lifestyles. Their refusal is limited, however, by their inability to sustain their lifestyles in the face of either political repression, or economic exploitation by record companies, dope-pushers, and hip clothiers. Country communes fail to support themselves, city communes are busted for possession of narcotics, tribes degenerate into random accumulations of fragmented individuals, drop-out communities become slums rife with VD and hepatitis. The counterculture is a mere alternative spectacle promoting consumption of alternative commodities: rock stars instead of politicians and football players, bellbottoms instead of pin-striped suits, dope instead of beer.

Still, we find people insisting on the viability of an a-political way of life. Traditionally, so-called revolutionaries have attacked the drop-out or deviant as “useless.” But now, in a society so capable of recuperating disparate elements, being useless is a radical act. However, the drop-outs have elevated their uselessness to the status of a religion, complete with initiation rites (the Acid Test), priests (Leary and the rock bands), dogma (cheap pantheistic love, comic-book astrology, bastardized Zen), and the rest. The drop-outs themselves become missionaries, True Believers proselytizing other youths to their Way. Their critique rigidifies into Holy Writ; it undergoes a closure such that only those who have seen the light can offer criticism of the new religions, and these initiates don’t. You simply can’t talk to them; either you understand and are with them, or you don’t understand and are dismissed as a heathen. This closure becomes the very means of their self-delusion and is the source of false hope. They call their counterculture revolutionary; in the mean time, the spectacle society packages their symbols and sells them back to these revolutionaries in psychedelic wrappings.

The decay of the socialization process and of bourgeois values has forced many to grab onto new ideologies no more viable than the old religions. We have what historians call an ethical vacuum, similar to that which existed before the rise of Christianity. In an escapist revolt against modern reality, many accept their politics as a profession of faith.

This attitude is evident in those Europeans and Americans who follow Fidel and Mao like gods. Their refusal to confront the realities of advanced capitalist society is no less escapist than the mystic’s. Tortured by guilt for living in imperialist countries, reveling in the scum of their own inadequacy, they desire only complete self-destruction. They thrill to the prophecies of their own annihilation: Believing the racist alarums about advancing yellow hordes, they run to prostrate themselves at the feet of the attacking conquerors. Their guilt is surpassed only by their impotence.

Countering this are the somewhat healthy impulses of the anarchists, which unfortunately do not find coherent expression. Like the anti-politician, the self-proclaimed anarchists reject the arena of power, distrusting all ideologies and leaders. Their downfall is their purity, which is manifest in their blind faith in the label of Anarchy. Thus while rejecting ideology they reject all critical theory; while rejecting leaders and hierarchies they think that the way to eliminate them is for everyone to be a leaderless follower. They become helpless waifs, quivering meat for the grinder of power, distinguishable from the beats only by the nagging feeling that maybe they should do something. Only their adamant refusal to study the world prevents them from discovering what to do.

We have outlined some of the roots of anomie and some of its fragmentary expressions. While embracing the “anti-social” sentiments of our contemporaries, we reject their manifestations when they serve to extend the sphere of power. We seek to destroy the hierarchical organization of power. Therefore we need to be unflinching in our critique, even of those closest to us. For unless the impulses of alienation from the spectacle can be converted into a coherent social critique, the revolutionary project is impossible. . . .

* * *


Time: a nonsensual dissection of memory and sensation into predictable clockwork segments. Objectified Time is an opiate which releases us from what we believe to be the horror of unexpected reflective pauses in the life-flow. Within these reflective pauses, we see that our temporal illusions make us sacrifice vision and integrity for mundane expediency. Objectified Time gives us the “advantage” of judging the value of the present from an approximation of the time mortally left to us. This sense of the past present future of life implants in us “expectation,” an evil which obliterates the everpresent for the promise of the future. Objective time, as such, is an artificial barrier, an excuse for less than passion in the same way that immortality is. Subjective time — our own unfixed time of random scales and rhythms — is an immense volume without fixed points of deadline or schedule, in which, therefore, all things are possible.

we go beyond our own stumbling shadows
beyond fear, beyond the gray penumbra
into consciousness
into the poetry of integrity
within (r)each
beyond the historical mirrors
in whose distorted reflections we lived
in whose refraction of desires we sought pleasure and guilt inseparable

we abandon our oaths to lies and less than passion.

something other than a point fixed in time, an explosive moment designating a beginning, delayed and yet to be born.
revolution: as continual birth and rebirth, the unearthing of a common playfulness, arrival out of the void.
revolution: a word for the extended moment
constant watchfulness
intrepid integrity and uninterrupted transformation
we proceed into

Ideology is inimical to uninterrupted transformation because to succeed with specific goals, the format of action must always adhere to the ideology. Ideology cannot be superseded by the information of the experience, and, in this way, does not allow for a chance collision/encounter with arbitrary realities, or for a point of departure. If such information threatens to transport consciousness beyond the edicts of the ideology, the latter is either sustained by enforced stasis or it culminates in its own suicide. The revolutionary process follows indeterminate labyrinthine possibilities: unforeseeable and uncontainable within the limitations of an ideology plotted from beginning to end.

theory, as opposed to ideology, has no stake in immortality and fluctuates/expands with the information of the daily and chance experience. the theory is inseparable from daily activity yet with words it symbolizes the present aspect, suspended for a moment of analysis or for reasons of communication. theory tells of victories: its exposition recapitulates its evolution.

we proceed into a council: no more than each member with each other member and all together; never a separate entity, a consensus. always the council journeys toward the coming closer and simultaneous becoming of revolutionary consciousness. this occurs in the eye of transformation, most rapidly when cohesion stems from the common goal of coherency (i.e., the fusion of oneself with one’s image of oneself, one’s behavior with one’s image of one’s behavior, the council’s theory-oriented image of itself with its daily activities). employing criticism as a merciless incision into the deep-pocketed banalities and contradictions which impair our transformation; uprooting false needs and pleasures and seeking the needs and pleasures of a life integrated with Life; following the answers to the seed of new questions, seeking inexhaustibly:

finding that continuity is change,
that the continuity of the council
is its ongoing metamorphosis.