Over fifty years after the Situationist International appeared, its legacy continues to inspire activists, artists and theorists around the world. Such a legend has accrued to this movement that the story of the SI now demands to be told in a contemporary voice capable of putting it into the context of twenty-first-century struggles.
McKenzie Wark delves into the Situationists’ unacknowledged diversity, revealing a world as rich in practice as it is in theory. Tracing the group’s development from the bohemian Paris of the ’50s to the explosive days of May ’68, Wark’s take on the Situationists is biographically and historically rich, presenting the group as an ensemble creation, rather than the brainchild and dominion of its most famous member, Guy Debord. Roaming through Europe and the lives of those who made up the movement—including Constant, Asger Jorn, Michèle Bernstein, Alex Trocchi and Jacqueline De Jong—Wark uncovers an international movement riven with conflicting passions.
Accessible to those who have only just discovered the Situationists and filled with new insights, The Beach Beneath the Street rereads the group’s history in the light of our contemporary experience of communications, architecture, and everyday life. The Situationists tried to escape the world of twentieth-century spectacle and failed in the attempt. Wark argues that they may still help us to escape the twenty-first century, while we still can ...
Twenty years ago, on 30 November 1994, Guy Debord put his affairs in order and shot himself through the heart, ending one of the most brilliant and original careers in modern European history. In his sixty-three years he had co-founded the Situationist International, the last of the historic avant-gardes. He had written some enduring revolutionary texts, including his best known, The Society of the Spectacle. And he had made several remarkable avant-garde films. For someone who managed to live up to his early slogan “Never Work!” he was remarkably busy.
He is now something of a canonical figure in literature, cinema and the art world. It has become commonplace to refer to the media sphere as a spectacle, and the cut and mix practices of today’s aesthetics appeals to the apparently similar Situationist practice of détournement for legitimation. He has been, as he might say, recuperated back in to spectacular commodity production. Such is the fate of all avant-gardes.
“Property not merely has duties, but has so many duties that its possession to any large extent is a bore. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it.”
Let’s start with a defense of Xmas, or of what is essential to it: that there is a tree, and a gift for a child under a tree, that is “from Santa.” It is a way to enact for a child the opposite of Nietzsche's theory of universal debt. An adult, usually a parent, enacts the possibility that the child owes the world nothing. On the contrary the world can make for the child at least one moment of joy. Something will come from the world for the child.
For the child, Xmas has nothing to do with 'consumerism'. The gift just appears. Its a bit of what the surrealists called the marvelous. For the adult, it is a way to give to the child without expecting the child to be grateful to the parent. Rather, it is so the child can know that world itself could be generous. Nothing is owed in return. At least not yet. Later, the child can be let in on the secret: that we are staging a marvelous ritual about how the world itself could be experienced as bounty and plentitude, but we do so in a long loop through the generations. The gift the child will owe does not come until much later, when the child grows up, and owes a gift in turn to another child. Such long loops are what constitute the plural subject ‘we.’
That the critique of Xmas as 'consumerism' is a pseudo-critique is easily seen. What is supposedly wrong is the 'excessive' consumption of Xmas. This lets supposedly normal consumption off the hook. Genuine critique would of course start from the reverse premise: Only excessive consumption is of any interest because it is outside the realm of calculation. So-called 'normal' consumption is what calls for critique. The purely excessive, aesthetic consumption, the gift from nowhere, is the only defensible form, and not only of consumption, but also of the gift.