Critique of the Situationist Dialectic: Art, Class Consciousness and Reification


By David Black

(Being the first part of Critique of the Situationist Dialectic: Art, Class Consciousness and Reification, a re-write of a much shorter article published in The Hobgoblin - issue 4 2001. First published in Metamute July 2009: http://www.metamute.org/critique_of_the_situationist_dialectic_part_1 )


1 –ART

Pre-history –Surrealism and the Crisis of the Object

‘Balzac was the first to speak of the ruin of the bourgeoisie. But it was surrealism which first allowed its gaze to roam freely over it’.1

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin, in his 1935 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, analysed the implications of technologies which ‘liberated’ the ‘forms of creation’ from Art. In the visual field, photography could reproduce nature, and the masterpieces of fine art could be churned out en masse as mechanically-reproduced images. In the modern world, the work of art had suddenly lost its ‘aura’ and artists were faced with what the Surrealist Andre Breton called the ‘crisis of the object.’ Surrealism, deeply influenced by Freud's ideas on the interrelation of the conscious and the sub-conscious, had recognized that the ‘residues of the dream-world’ lay scattered amongst the products of bourgeois consumer culture; and that in the waking process of liberation these objects and images could be utilized by poetic invention. In a concrete unity of subjective and objective experience, Surrealism creatively ‘deviated’ the objects of the world from their accepted roles and properties. Surrealism, in Benjamin’s estimation, was an expression of dialectical thought in the organic process of historical awakening:

‘Every epoch not only dreams the next, but while dreaming impels it towards wakefulness. It bears its end within itself, and reveals it - as Hegel had already recognised - by a ruse. With the upheaval of the market economy, we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.’2

In the early nineteen thirties, Andre Breton (1896-1966) published a French translation of Lenin's previously unknown Notebooks on Hegel's Science of Logic in the journal Le Surrealisme au Service de la Revolution. Breton himself made a study of Hegel's Aesthetics in order to trace the historical dialectic in Art. Hegel’s analysis begins with Symbolic art, in which the object is presented not as what it is but as representing something else: in Egypt the labyrinth of the temple symbolizes the movement of the heavens; the sphinx symbolises the riddle of life itself in the relation of the human to nature. In the classical period, Hegel sees the highest unity of form and content: the statues of the Greek gods show them as liberated from abstraction into beautiful, individual (and human) form. Hegel sees the poetic art as superior to the prosaic, because poetry, the most universal art, had proved itself capable as representing all of the stages of historical life. In Romanticism, the poetic art comes into its own – and also reaches its limit. According Hegel the true content of Romantic thought is absolute internality in the form of conscious and free personality. But as the universal, representing the wholeness of life, it is the absolute negativity of all that is finite and particular; it dissolves all ‘particular divinities’ and consumes them: ‘In this pantheon all the gods are dethroned. The flame of subjectivity has consumed them’; and ‘No matter how excellent we find the sculptures of the Greek gods, and how fitting perfect we consider the representations of God the Father, Christ and Mary – we bow the knee no longer’.3

In Romanticism Hegel sees the sensuous, material character of art losing its ability to express the ideal content it depends on in order to exist as art. For the romantic, the ideal eventually becomes the object which is revealed to the ‘inner’ self. But since ‘the spiritual has now retired from the outer mode into itself’, the ‘sensuous externality of form’ which it assumes becomes impoverished, with ‘an insignificant and transient character’: ‘Feeling is now everything. It finds its artistic reflection, not in the world of external things and their forms, but in its own expression.’4

Rene Crevel (1900-35) saw Hegel as an ally of Surrealism in the fight against the Romanticism which attempts to obliterate the world in its own subjective anguish. The narcissistic individual, in devouring the universe and suppressing its objects, ‘becomes himself the object, and not only becomes insufficient but destroys himself… [and] succumbs before the mirror he questioned... the most mediocre, the most vain, the most superficial of waters’.5 Anna Balakian’s Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute, interprets Hegel’s critique of Romanticism as showing how ‘the romantic draws the object within himself and makes an abstraction of it, while the true modern projects himself into the concrete existence of the object’.6 Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air, highlights Goethe’s Faust as one of the primary sources of the crisis in romanticism, which led to the growth of modernism of the nineteenth century:

‘Faust participates in and helps to create, a culture that has opened up a range and depth of human desires and dreams beyond classical and medieval frontiers. At the same time, he is part of a stagnant society that is still encrusted in medieval and feudal social forms; forms like the guild specialization that keeps his ideas locked away. As a bearer of a dynamic culture within a stagnant society, he is torn between inner and outer life.’7

The transformation of the Romantic sensibility into the modernist Mephisto-spirit that ‘negates all’ happened because, as Hegel had previously suggested, art could no longer be a true representation of bourgeois civil society, since the abstract principles in law and economics had negated the organic unity of life. The unity of subject and object which the art of Greek Antiquity once represented had become impossible for a society in which the ‘lower world’ of economic nature promoted a ‘bestial contempt for all higher values’, tossed all sense of the divine into the world of ‘superstition’ and ‘entertainment’, and reduced the temple to ‘logs and stones’ and ‘the sacred grove to mere timber’.8
What then was left for art? Hegel said that ‘as regards its highest vocation, art is and remains for us something past. For us it has lost its genuine truth and vitality; it has been displaced into the realm of ideas…’ Hegel did not doubt that works of art would continue to be produced and that artists would strive for perfection with new imaginative techniques. However in Hegel’s aesthetic what is aroused in us by art beyond immediate enjoyment is ‘the judgment that submits the content and medium of representation of art to reflective consideration’. ‘For this reason,’ Hegel argued, ‘the science of art is a far more important requirement in our own age than it was in earlier times when art simply as art could provide complete satisfaction.’9

Breton saw in Hegel’s aesthetics a brilliant insight into the poetic personality's overcoming, through ‘objective humour’, of romanticism's ‘servile imitation of nature in its accidental forms’. Given the repeated efforts of modern art to escape from ‘servile imitation’ in the movements of Naturalism, through to Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Dadaism, Hegel's assertions had a ‘tremendous prophetic value.’ Hegel's speculative idealism, in refusing to recognise any force outside of concrete mental and material reality, had envisioned a revolutionary and objective reconcilation of human becoming and its universe - a true solution to ‘the crisis of the object.’10

The radicalism of the Surrealists’ theory and practice, articulated in the journal Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, brought them into conflict with the Communists at a time when the art-and-thought police of the Soviet Union were resuscitating romanticism as 'socialist-realism' and perverting dialectical philosophy into a positivist materialism; not to mention the fact that Breton and Crevel were allied with Trotsky at a time when Stalin was preparing for the first Moscow show-trials. In 1935, Breton responded to some anti-Surrealist slanders written by the Russian stalinist Ilya Ehrenburg by assaulting him in a Parisian street. This got Breton excluded from the Paris International Congress for the Defense of Culture, which was sponsored by the PCF as part of the new ‘Popular Front’ strategy. Rene Crevel, who as a theorist was Breton’s most important collaborator, committed suicide in protest at the exclusion. Other leading Surrealists, notably Tristan Tzara and Paul Eluard, chose loyalty to the PCF over loyalty to Breton. After 1945, Surrealism, as a movement, found itself weakened by the disruptions of the War, splits and defections. And because of the newly-found academic respectability of Surrealism’s leading lights, soon artists of a new generation were challenging its avant-garde hegemony. One such was Guy Debord (1931-1994). Looking back from the nineteen-sixties, Debord credited the Surrealists for having asserted the 'sovereignty of desire and surprise' in their projection of a 'new way of life'. But he found an 'error at the root' in the surrealist idea of the ‘infinite richness of the unconscious imagination'. The 'techniques' born of this idea, he argued, such as automatic writing, had tended towards tedium and occultism. Furthermore, Surrealism had mistakenly put itself 'au service' of a revolution in Russia that had already been lost. Debord said that the defeat of the social revolutions following the First World War had left the Surrealists and the Dadaists 'imprisoned in the same artistic field whose decrepitude they had denounced'. Whereas 'Dadaism had tried to repress art without realising it; Surrealism wanted to realise art without suppressing it'. What was necessary, in Debord's view, was to project suppression and realisation as 'inseparable aspects of a single supercession of art.' 11

In the Beginning was the Letter

In 1947 a major Paris publishing house put out a book by 20-year-old Romanian exile, Isidore Isou, entitled Introduction d’une nouvelle poésie et d’une nouvelle musique. Isou analyzed poetic language as having gone through an 'amplification' process in the romantic period, followed by a 'chiseling' process under Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarme, until Dada finally destroyed it. For Isou, once the chisel of history had done its work, the truth and beauty of poetic language was no longer to be found in words, but in letters, representing figures and sounds. Isou's 'Letterists' (or 'Lettrists') experimented in sound-poems and paintings made up of letters. They also challenged the separation between art and life. In a manifesto for a ‘Youth Front’ Isou hailed the youth of France as a sort of sub-proletariat: alienated by the educational system, excluded from consumerism by low pay or unemployment, and oppressed by the archaic French Penal Code. The first act of the Youth Front was a riotous attack on the brutal staff at an infamous Catholic orphanage, which ended in arrest and imprisonment for some of the youth. In a similar spirit, in 1950, a group of Letterists led by Michel Mourre, disguised as a Dominican monk, disrupted Easter Mass at Notre Dame by announcing 'God is Dead', and reading out an anti-religious poem. They were attacked with swords by the Swiss guards and almost lynched by the congregation before the police came to the rescue and arrested them. On the cultural front venerable Surrealists, regarded by Isou as conformist and bourgeois, found their exhibitions and poetry readings disrupted by Letterists shouting 'Surrealism is dead!'

Isou attempted to extend the 'chiseling' concept to cinema with his Traite de bave et d'eternite (Slime and Eternity) which, when ‘premiered’ at the Cannes Film Festival, caused a near riot (not least because Isou hadn’t finished it, so that for last 90 minutes the audience was subjected to the soundtrack in total darkness). As an attack on cinematic language, the film uses innovative techniques much repeated by avant-garde directors in years to come, with its discrepancy between the soundtrack and the images on the screen, and its projection of the physicality of the celluloid itself, ‘sculpted’ with scratched images and corrosive bleach. Isou’s voice on the soundtrack says: ‘I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, of rupture, of this corpulent and bloated organization which calls itself film’.12

Although Isou was a talented self-publicist (as is well known his techniques were later adopted by managers of rock bands) he often ‘announced’ more than he could deliver, a trait which would not be lost on his recruits of 1952, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman - both filmmakers, several years younger than him. In Debord’s film of 1952, Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howlings for de Sade) the fragmented soundtrack is accompanied by a completely blank white screen during spoken dialogues. During the silences the screen remains totally dark, plunging the audience into blackness, in which they remain for the final 24 minutes of the film. The dialogues consist of Letterist sound-poems, howls, quotations from movies and, literature, and most importantly, the first articulation of the future Situationist project:

“The arts of the future can be nothing less than disruptions of situations... A science of situations needs to be created, which will incorporate elements from psychology, statistics, urbanism, and ethics. These elements must be focused on a totally new goal: the conscious creation of situations.’13

The importance of the film, apart from its artistic impudence, was Debord’s canny intuition of the effect it would have and the publicity it would get. At screenings in Paris art-houses those who stayed to complain rather than walk out were bombarded by insults and water-bombs thrown by Letterists from the balcony. Those who felt cheated by the misleading title of the film found themselves, literally, ‘howling for de Sade’. Gil Wolman’s Anti-Concept (1952), similarly image-free, but with a strong performance of his improvised sound-poems, was banned by the prefecture. In 1952, at the Paris premiere of Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, Debord and Wolman handed out a statement which ended with the words: ‘The footlights have melted the make-up of the supposedly brilliant mime. All we can see now is a lugubrious and mercenary old man. Go home Mister Chaplin’. Since Chaplin had been barred from the United States of America for suspected ‘communist’ sympathies the Left was deeply offended by the action. The attack was probably motivated in part by a statement of support for Chaplin put out by leading Surrealists; but it was too much for Isou who first praised the action, but then backtracked and denied all responsibility. Debord and Wolman took this as their cue to break with Isou and form a rival ‘Letterist International’, which included the writer, Michele Bernstein.14

Derive and Detournement

The Letterist International assault on art projected a ‘unitary urbanism’, first formulated by the nineteen-year-old Ivan Chtcheglev in 1953. Unitary urbanism expressed a vision of city planning based on aesthetic and technological innovations in architecture, but freed from subordination to the needs of corporate developers and the endless expansion of private car ownership.15 ‘Psychogeography’ - ‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals’ – involved the ‘derive’, a form of daydreaming during Letterist excursions on foot through the urban environment, defined as ‘a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances’ - such pleasurable activity had yet to be impoverished by the pollution and noise of traffic jams and the vandalism of the planners and developers; Chtcheglev could still write of a future in which city dwellers would reclaim the streets: ‘we will construct cities for drifting... but with light retouching, one can utilize certain zones which already exist. One can utilize certain persons who already exist.’16

In the world later theorised as the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (or to be more precise Society of the ‘Spectacle-Commodity’) Debord and Wolman argued in 1956 that art could no longer be justified as a ‘superior activity’ or as an honourable ‘activity of compensation’. In the new conditions of the culture industry only ‘extremist innovation’ was ‘historically justified’. The ‘literary and artistic heritage of humanity’ could however, still be used for ‘partisan propaganda’ because its artefacts could be deflected or, as Isou had said, ‘detourned’, from their ‘intended’ purposes. In the history of the cinema DW Griffith's Hollywood blockbuster of 1915, Birth of Nation, represented a ‘wealth of new contribution’ but, as it was so despicably racist, it did not deserve to be shown in its original form. Debord and Wolman suggested however, that it might be possible to ‘detourne it as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which are continuing in the United States even now.’17 In Birth of a Nation there is a powerful ‘moonlight-ride’ sequence which portrays the Klan as heroes riding to the rescue of the whites. Thirty years after Debord and Wolman's article, Spike Lee actually did ‘detourne’ the scene in Malcolm X, borrowing the images of the sequence, but turning its ‘intent’ around, by showing the Klan from the point of view of the victims of its racist terrorism.

In 1957 the Lettrist International, the Movement for Imaginist Bauhaus, and the former-surrealists of CoBrA (Copenhagen-Brussels-Amsterdam), led by the Danish painter, Asger Jorn, came together to found the Situationist International (1957-72). Within a few months other groups from Italy and West Germany affiliated to the SI, thus inaugurating a stormy fifteen-year process of fusions, schisms and expulsions, and an equally stormy spread across the globe of Situationist ideas, which were themselves by no means immune to ideological and cultural ‘recuperation’. The concept of detournement, in the hands of practitioners throughout the world, was to give rise to numerous innovations, such as the subversive use of comic books and pirate radio, the defacing of advertisements with additional images and words (not to mention SI member Rene Vienet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? an over-dub of a Kung Fu movie directed by Doo Kwang Gee). But detournement was further developed by the Situationists into a more general concept of spontaneous rebellion against the technology of consumption. In 1962, an editorial in Internationale Situationiste spoke of ‘new resistances everywhere’, especially in wildcat strikes and the ‘youth rebellion’. Even ‘vandalism’ represented a resistance against ‘machines of consumption’ as much as the Luddites' ‘primitive’ resistance against mechanised production in the early 19th century: ‘It is evident that now, as then, the value does not lie in the destruction itself, but in the insubordination which can eventually transform itself into a positive project, to the point of reconverting the machines in a way that increases people's real power.’18 A statement entitled 'The Decline and Fall of the Spectacular Commodity Economy' hailed the looting of shops during the Watts/Los Angeles Rebellion of 1965 as a rebellion by young Black proletarians against ‘the world of the commodity in which worker-consumers are hierarchically subordinated to commodity-values’.19

(Parts 2 and 3 of this article will cover Class Consciousness and Reification)

1Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 176 London 1976

2 Ibid. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Illuminations 219-30 London 1970[http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm]

3 Quoted and translated from Hegel, Werke Vol 13. 141-2 in Jason Gaiger, Art as Made and Sensuous: Hegel, Danto and the ‘End of Art’ Bulletin of the Hegel Society 2000

4 Selections from Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, by Bernard Bosanquet & W.M. Bryant, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, London1886[http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/index.htm]

5 Ann Balakian, Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute 139

6 Ibid 139

7 Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air, 43 New York 1982

8 See George Lukacs, The Young Hegel, 43-56 and 398-420, London 1975

9 Quoted and translated from Hegel, Werke Vol 13. 25-6, Jason Gaiger op cit

10 Andre Breton, What is Surrealism? Selected Writings (Ed Franklin Rosemount), 76-82 London 1978. Balakian, op cit 134-39

11 Situationist International Anthology, Ed. Ken Knabb17-20, Berkeley 1981. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle #191

12 On the history of Letterism see Len Bracken, Guy Debord – Revolutionary,Venice CA1997 Jean-Michel Mension, The Tribe, London 2002. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces, London 1989

13 ‘Technical Notes’, in Guy Debord’s Complete Cinematic Works. San Francisco , 2003[http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/howls.htm]

14 Marcus, op cit 279-82, 346-353

15 Knabb op cit 1-4

16 Ibid 23, 50-4

17 Ibid 8-14

18 International Situationiste #7 1963 Knabb 82

19 International Situationiste #10 Knabb 153-160