On his whirlwind tour through the UK, McKenzie Wark (author of The Beach Beneath The Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International) has given a number of fascinating interviews on the contemporary relevance of Situationist thought and practice. In an interview with STIR, over a game of Guy Debord's own Game of War no less, Wark suggests revisiting the Situationist canon in order to make sense of the commodity form (both virtual and real) and resist the institutionalization of knowledge:
So, why look at this stuff again? Well, if you are interested in how to think critically about everyday life, how to think and act outside of institutionalized forms of knowledge, in ways of inventing practices that are at least partially outside of the commodity system, then they are great precursors for dozens of things happening now such as Copy Left and Creative Commons on one side and forms of autonomous organizations in the media on the other.
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.
McKenzie Wark's The Beach Beneath the Street has received more positive reviews, this time from the Financial Times and the Morning Star.
Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote praises Wark's readable treatment of the Situationist movement; a movement whose "enticing" ideas on boredom, work, protest and and capitalism are particularly pertinent in light of the UK's recent rioting.
Wark's readable explanation of the movement's ideas about how to deal with increasing leisure time in a capitalist context where free time is treated as an extension of service to the consumer society, a kind of enforced consumption, is the best I have read.
Riots have their own logic. Both those who celebrate and decry them tend to think of riots as irrational outbursts, which can be channeled back towards order either by offering a few concessions or by sending in more police. There is invariably some moralizing that goes along with all this, none of it terribly helpful for understanding why riots are a constant of modern urban life rather than some inexplicable exception.
There's a short text that always does the rounds whenever riots occur again. It was written by Guy Debord, legendary co-founder of the Situationist International, and bearing the jargon-heavy title of ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy.' These days you don't have to hunt around for the photocopies passed from hand to hand, it can be easily googled. Its subject is the Watts riots of 1965. Its leading provocation, and the reason for its underground popularity, is this: "But who has defended the rioters of Watts in the terms they deserve?
"The Los Angeles revolt was a revolt against the commodity," Debord said. It was at least partly so. "The flames of Watts consumed consumption." In the spectacle of consumer society advertises a life in which all that is good appears on television and all that appears on television is good. This constant circulation of images of the consumer lifestyle, which came into its own in the sixties, could but be a cruel reminder for African Americans in particular of the inequities underlying such images.
The Beach Beneath the Street, McKenzie Wark's historical account of The Situationist International, has been recently reviewed by David Winters for Bookslut. Describing the book, he writes:
[T]his is no ordinary history. Instead, "it's a question of retrieving a past specific to the demands of the present." The Beach Beneath the Street rereads that past in a way that prefers not to smooth out its messier edges, refuses to reify (to pick up the jargon) what made it radical, what still makes it relevant.
Wark's title has also been the subject of an editorial piece at Mute Magazine, a piece in which Christopher Collier describes The Beach Beneath the Streets as a "beautifully written, exciting and broad study," - and a "sexy book for a sexy movement."
Throughout the text Wark deftly weaves a sustained engagement with the themes of situation, potlatch, détournement and dérive across an array of semi-biographical accounts of the main actors[...] In this Wark achieves something not to be under-estimated, producing a coherent and yet inherently pluralist work on the legacy of the SI and particularly their less well-known predecessors the Letterist International.
In addition, Mackenzie Wark has spoken at length about The Beach... on the ABC Night Air radio show. Discussing his thougts on the Situationist movement, his conversation with presenter Brent Clough touches on the development of the movement, as well its relation to Marxism, existentialism, psychogeography, and utopian thinking.
Lastly, 3:AM Magazine has run a fascinating interview with Wark, in he discusses with David Winters some of the topics covered in the book, and how they informed the style utilised in its writing. Speaking about his approach to writing, Wark says:
I wanted something that would give a sense of the immediacy of ideas to everyday life, and of the role that different forms of social interaction play in producing this self-critical everyday life. This I think produces that effect of a ‘derailment' or detour away from received ideas about the whole thing. At the same time, I want it to be seductive, to be a playful, pleasurable read. Certain kinds of sentence can produce that effect. As to which, and how to write them, well, that's a trade secret!