Jonathan Derbyshire reviews McKenzie Wark's The Beach Beneath The Street for the Guardian. He follows the trail of the Situationist International in Britain— where a significant turning point came in 1960 at a "shambolic appearance" at the ICA in London.
It was as romantic revolt rather than social critique that situationism survived in this country. Its principal anglophone representative was the writer Alexander Trocchi, whose novels of disaffected hipsterdom (notably Cain's Book) owe more to William Burroughs and the Beats than they do to, say, Bakunin. Today, Trocchi's influence is felt in the obsessive pamphleteering of the poète maudit Stewart Home, who revived Rumney's London Psychogeographical Association in the early 90s and continues to pledge his allegiance to "non-Debordist situationism". And a vestigial folk memory of situationist dérive ("street ethnography" Wark calls it), as it was practised by Debord and his lettrist comrade Ivan Chtcheglov in Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 50s, is preserved in the literary peregrinations of Iain Sinclair and Will Self, where psychogeography is parlayed into a kind of Blakean metropolitan mysticism.
The British situationists of the late 60s thought Debord and the others had taken a wrong turn. SI apostate Christopher Gray, whose band of London-based provocateurs King Mob included the future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, opined: "What they [Debord et al] gained in intellectual power and scope they had lost in terms of the richness and verve of their own everyday lives." The SI, Gray argued, "turned inward". "Cultural sabotage" and "drunken exuberance" had been replaced by theoretical austerity.
Describing the book as "fascinating," Derbyshire nonetheless challenges Wark's focus on the Situationist movement as a whole rather than some of the most famous individuals.
Because he doesn't want to tell that same tale over again, Wark decides to turn the focus away from Debord and to place it instead upon a "large cast of disparate characters" - artists, bohemians and sundry fellow-travellers of the situationist project. "To reduce a movement to a biography," he writes, "is to cut a piece away from what made it of interest in the first place."
Wark is probably right about the limitations of the great man theory of history. But he also declares at the start of the book that his aim is to find in situationism what is "specific to the demands of this present", to tease out its "contemporary resonance". To do that, you can't ignore Debord, who was described recently, without hyperbole, by political historian and theorist Jan-Werner Müller, as the "most innovative Marxist thinker in Europe after 1945".
Although Derbyshire suggests that this approach hinders Wark's ability to make the Situationist ideas relevant to contemporary times, he offers a different line in a subsequent article.
Writing for the New Statesman, he praises the pertinence of Wark's book, saying that it "makes a strong case for the 'contemporary resonance' of situationism." Derbyshire links two recent stories (on the Olympic Stadium's adjacent shopping mall, and on the government's recent white paper on higher education) to the situationist idea of commodity achieving "total occupation of social life" in this country.
McKenzie Wark will be appearing at a number of events in London this week speaking about The Beach Beneath the Street. Visit our events page for details.