"A Situationist ethnography has its own distinct methods" - an extract from The Beach Beneath the Street

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The below is an extract from The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International by McKenzie Wark - currently 50% off on our website as part of our Political Guide to Walking.



Adventure is close at hand. It does not require Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses,” but rather, an arrangement of the sensible. There is nothing exotic about it. It does not require a surrealist expedition to foreign lands. What James Clifford calls a “Surrealist ethnography” still relies on a notional other, an exoteric to contrast to the esoteric, however much it might trouble or surprise accepted notions of which is which. A Situationist ethnography has its own distinct methods. It emerges out of Debord’s close study of Saint-Germain delinquents. It adopts their habits, their ethnos , and turns it into method. The Letterist International are ethnographers of their own difference, cartographers of an attitude to life. This life did not lie outside the modern, Western one, but inside, in the fissures of its cities. It did not yearn for a primitive life from before history, but rather for one that was to come after it. In the life of the Saint-Germain delinquents’ tribe  could be found particles of the future, not the past, and not from some colonial Donogoo Tonka but from the very epicenter of what history had wrought: the colonization of everyday life at the heart of empire.

Chtcheglov’s other source was not previous art or writing, but a certain kind of practice, what he and his friends would call the dérive . It’s a curious word. A note in the Letterist International’s journal Potlatch gives some of its resonances.10  Its Latin root “derivare” means to draw off a stream, to divert a flow. Its English descendants include the word “derive” and also “river.” Its whole field of meaning is aquatic, conjuring up flows, channels, eddies, currents, and also drifting, sailing or tacking against the wind. It suggests a space and time of liquid movement, sometimes predictable but sometimes turbulent. The word dérive condenses a whole attitude to life, the sort one might acquire in the backwaters of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

“Note: a certain Saint-Germain-des-Prés, about which no one has yet written, has been the first group functioning on a historical university studies and her bourgeois background, Bernstein (b. 1932) started hanging around Saint-Germain in1952 and found herself in the company of the Letterist International. She was the one who, on a rented machine, typed up the articles for Potlatch , which mixed news snippets, in-jokes, theoretical texts and notes on the dérive. As her friend Jacqueline de Jong says: “Without her there would not have been any Potlatch .”

“‘Alienation’—I know it is there whenever I sing a love song or recite a poem, whenever I handle a banknote or enter a shop, whenever I glance at a poster or read a newspaper. At the very moment the human is defined as ‘having possessions,’ I know it is there, dispossessing the human.” Henri Lefebvre introduced many French readers to Marx, but to a Marx not quite containable by party orthodoxy. When Lefebvre published his Critique of Everyday Life  (1947) he was a member of the Party, but—and one can’t resist the gesture—he was increasingly alienated from it. The party was an imitation, a thing apart, not an expression of proletarian power. Lefebvre’s critique of the abstract and mystified disaffections of the surrealists with everyday life nevertheless implied another critique, of the limits of official Marxist orthodoxy. What he did not yet have was a practice that could produce a knowledge of the relation between the workers’ dispossession of the product of their labor during the working day, and the encounter with these same products as potential possessions during leisure hours. Lefebvre writes of how capital makes the modern city. Capitalism divides time into work time and leisure time. It further divides work time up into equivalent units—workers are usually paid by the hour— and tries to make each unit as productive as possible. Leisure time is free from work, but tends increasingly to be used for consumption. The worker is paid to work in the factory, and pays to spend her free time consuming factory-made products. Such is the standard Marxist view of time. It corresponds to a certain experience of space. There is work space, leisure space, and resting space. The worker works in one space, spends free time in another, and schleps home to sleep in a third.

A graffiti slogan proposed in Potlatch for the dormitory suburbs around the factories: “Remember, you are sleeping for the boss!.” Unlike the surrealists, the Letterist International put little faith in the dream world. They stay awake nights. They implicitly accept the denunciation mounted from such otherwise incompatible sources as Sartre, Isou and Lefebvre of the futile gestures of surrealism. Rumney: “It was an exquisite corpse that was beginning to give off a bad smell.” Their chosen terrain was not the dream, but rather a lucid practice outside of and against the work and leisure diptych. Debord’s attack on latterday surrealists was called “The Big Sleep and Its Clients”(1955) which neatly connects the title of a Hollywood movie, the most palpable channel of unconscious desires in postwar France, with the aging surrealist champions of radical desire.

Patrick Straram (1934–88) arrived in Saint-Germain in 1950, but left for Canada in 1958 to avoid national service. In that brief time he hung out in the jazz cellars, drank with the tribe, signed texts by the Letterist International and wrote a novel about it. The Bottle Reclines  (1953) describes dérives with characters resembling Debord and Chtcheglov in a style somewhere between the surrealists and the Beats: “The wine went to his head. Rambler well led despite himself in a labyrinth of colors and shadowy forms, incapable of assimilating them, distorted interpretation, according to a deformed optic, and however shockingly accurate.”

The dérive, with Straram, is a groggy and disorienting affair, continued from night to day:

It was already dirty and bluish whiteness, something lazily mechanic, the chloroformed ambiance of sprawled-out rays of a staggering, sleepy sunrise. A nearly medical beam of scraped sun on the heavy walls of unhealthy sleepwalking, perpetual surveillance of the city, clinical guards/prisoners. The battle picked up from the point where it was brutally interrupted yesterday, from the heap of bricks and fire, automatic incubator, and from the perverse perforation, certain, of light. The ultimate everyday renaissance. 

Straram never finished his novel. Perhaps the novel is not the ideal form for writing about the dérive. Perhaps the dérive could be a practice that leads to quite another project than literature.

While the critical theory of commodified experience of time and space that Lefebvre initiated would become a commonplace in the postwar years, Chtcheglov, Debord, Bernstein, Straram and friends were one of the few groups to imagine a critical practice. The derive cuts across the division of the space of the city into work, rest and leisure zones. By wandering about in the space of the city according to their own sense of time, those undertaking a dérive find other uses for space besides the functional. The time of the dérive is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. It is a time that plays in between the useful and the gratuitous. Leisure time is often called free time , but it is free only in the negative, free from work. But what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive. The breakaway Letterist International created a new practice, a new way of being in the world, out of which to derive a new kind of practice. 

Strikingly, both capital and labor accept the division between work time and leisure time. Capital extends or intensifies the working day; labor struggles to shorten it, and within it to resist speed-ups and other attempts by capital to extract more value from it. Perhaps it is this shared fixation on productive time that will draw both capital and labor towards the middle-class cultural norm. While they are at odds as to its use, both take for granted a certain functional concept of time, and a certain acquisitive and accumulating approach to everyday life that comes with it. The Letterist International sought a quite different concept of time, resolutely based on non-work.

Debord’s first major work , by his own later accounts, was a simple three-word graffiti that translates as “Never work!”. Rather than reduce the working hour, avoid it as much as possible. But if there is no work, then there is no leisure either. It is rather like Nietzsche’s annunciation of the death of God which is also the death of a certain understanding of Man, since God and Man form a conceptual couple, each made in the other’s image. Debord’s “Never work!” frees time from its binary form of work time and leisure time. The dérive then becomes the practice of lived time, time not divided and accorded a function in advance; a time inhabited by neither workers nor consumers. 

Chtcheglov’s text announced some forthcoming books, including one by his friend Henry de Béarn which provisionally names the people of  the dérive and their passion: The New Nomadism . This book would never be written, or at least not by de Béarn. In the 1970s, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) would join with the psychiatrist and activist productive powers of desire. As they write: “A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch.” By the time they wrote this, much of what had once been critical thought had laid its weary head on that analyst’s couch—depressed, anxious, irritable, neurotic. Obsessed with old wounds. Unable to forget. Unable to get up. At its melancholy end.

Deleuze and Guattari’s exemplary walkers were literary characters, but it turns out Chtcheglov was that schizophrenic out for a walk, and he already had a theory of his own nomadism. Years before Deleuze and Guattari, he already saw the dérive as a kind of analysis. “The dérive is certainly a technique, almost a therapeutic one.” Unlike psychoanalysis, it did not sever language from the continuum of practices in which it is embedded. “The dérive (with its flow of acts, its gestures, its promenades, its encounters) was to the totality exactly what psychoanalysis (in the best sense) is to language,” Chtcheglov writes. The Letterist International refuse the separation of urban space from urban culture, each assigned to their own specialists. They refuse the separation of the external, social space of the city from the internal, private space of subjectivity. The subjective belongs to the city and can be analyzed experimentally, much as the city is subjective and can be reconstructed to expand with our desires.

The dérive was an intervention against geography as much as against psychoanalysis. Academic geography in France arose out of the defeat of the Franco-Prussian war. If the dominant form narrowed its focus to an objective science of landscape existing outside of social practice, there was also a counter-geography, more interested in social practices of landscape-making.  Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe (1913–98) offered a synthesis of both the objectivity of the former and the attention to social process of the latter. From an aristrocratic family, Chombart was a Catholic, with progressively more leftist leanings throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Before the war he studied with Marcel Mauss, from whom he took an organic conception of socialism and a commitment to social science as the study of social problems, with a view to their solution. He crossed the Sahara in 1936 on a tourist flight, as his contribution to Marcel Griaule’s legendary ethnographic expeditions. During the war he joined the Resistance, before becoming a fighter pilot for the Free French. His monumental study of Paris and its environs came out in 1952, and would become a critical point of reference for the Situationist theory and practice of psychogeography .

Chombart used a range of methods to construct an understanding of the city as both form and process, ranging from aerial surveillance to interviews with workers. Drawing on his wartime experience he became an expert in techniques of aerial surveillance, and these in turn had given Chombart a bird’s-eye view of class struggle. He could clearly see in the photographs of Paris a slightly squished version of the concentric rings that the Chicago School claimed defined urban space. These concentric zones, like the rings of Saturn, orbit what the Chicago urbanists christened a central business district . (A notion that would have horrified Bataille.) The qualities of the zones are determined by the price of land within them, which is a function of their distance from the center. Or as Chombart might say more directly: class maps onto space.

Chombart came to advocate a participatory approach to town planning, but always with something of an aerial—or what Bataille would call Icarian—view, flying over and detached from the city and its tangle of situations.  He represented the best of progressive postwar urban thought: leftist but not Stalinist, sympathetic and engaged with working-class struggles, but viewing these from within orthodox social science as problems to be solved rather than battles to be engaged. He recuperated social geography for the science of landscape. He was all too easily seduced by the idea of housing the working class in Corbusian mega-blocks, for their own good.  All this made him a conspicuous target for attack by Debord and friends. Chombart’s aerial techniques in particular were to be détourned in the service of a quite different practice—psychogeography.

Psychogeography is a practice of the city as at once an objective and subjective space. It is not the city as mere prompt for surrealist reveries. Nor is it a thing apart, to be dissected by social science, no matter how well-meaning. The city of Debord, Chtcheglov and their friends is a complex beast, always in process, with its own rhythms and life cycle, as it is for Chombart. What Chtcheglov and Debord add to this is a certain turbulence. The city simultaneously has subjective qualities that are nevertheless interpersonal. Debord: “From a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.” The dérive discovers these contours. The city is a aesthetic practice irreducible to the interests of state or market.

The surrealists brought psychoanalysis to the streets, but it was only a detour, on the way back to literature. Chombart brought social science to the streets, but again it was a detour, back to planning from above. The Letterist International invent a new kind of knowledge, a street ethnography, whose primary method is the dérive. What the dérive discovers is psychogeography: the lineaments of intersubjective space. In place of the chance encounters of the surrealists, they create a practice of play and strategy which invents a way of being, outside of commodified time and outside of the separate disciplines of knowledge— including geography. Henceforth the city will not be a site for fieldwork but a playing field, in which to discover intimations of a space and time outside the division of labor. The goal is nothing less than to invent a new civilization which will make a mark on historical time with the grandeur of the Temple of the Sun. 

The civilization of play had already existed. Even little Saint- Germain—a handful of city blocks—left a trace. The artist Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920–2005), who will feature in our story further on, had a rather different experience of the place to Vian’s bohemians, Vali’s tribe or Chtcheglov’s renegade Letterists, because he was there with his little boy: “The Parisians are not so nice, that is why they paint abstracts, and that is also why they slam the door when, with Victor holding my hand, I ask for a room. Yes, everything is abstract here …”—even compassion. And yet writing about it later Constant could not but agree with Chtcheglov: “The atmosphere of this bourgeois quarter of Paris was so profoundly altered by a small group of intellectuals, the so-called existentialists, that it acquired international fame and even became a tourist attraction.”

The model, in negative, for a city of play is Las Vegas: a city in the desert, with no harbor, no river, which since 1931 was dedicated—if not consecrated—to wasting time. To Chtcheglov, the ideal setting for a new avant-garde was not the metropolis of commerce or industry, but tourism. Las Vegas would eventually sprout its own pyramid, and take on all the pretensions to immortality that to Bataille already seemed ridiculous, and are perhaps more so in the twenty-first century. In 2003 the United States government issued a warning that if nothing was done, Las Vegas would run out of water by 2025.34  Much as it fascinated Chtcheglov, Las Vegas was not the prototype of the Situationist city. 

In the jungle is a city that moves. When its inhabitants build new districts it is always to the west. Each time they cut the ribbon opening a new quarter, an old one to the east is abandoned, gradually to disappear  beneath the overgrowth of tropical vegetation. This is more like it! The moving city would burst the bubble of the sustainable city, the fantasy that the city can become one with its environment, a pure homeostasis, outside of history.  It would lay bare the process by which the city transforms nature into second nature, in the process making nature appear as a resource for the city’s consumption. And besides, the ruins left behind in the east would be perfect terrain for the dérive. Why can such a city not exist? The conceit of private property is that it is something fixed, eternal. Once it comes into existence it remains, passed in an unbroken chain of ownership from one title-holder to the next. Yet in the course of time whole cities really do disappear. We live among the ruins. We later cities know we are mortal. And yet in the name of property we would hold back the very sea. 

The village of Siasconset sits atop a bluff on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, a prize location for those of means, except for one thing. Erosion, like Marx’s old mole, is burrowing away underneath, threatening to topple the palaces perched above. So in 1992 twenty or so owners of such mansions joined together to form a Beach Preservation Fund, which intends to spend at least $25 million of its own money on dredging 2.6 million cubic yards of sand from a site offshore and pumping it onto the beach below the cliff. “They realize that the sand will inevitably wash away, so they are prepared to do much of the work all over again, perhaps as often as every five years.” There seems now more merit than ever in the proposal for a city in the jungle, a city that records its own consumption of the terrain. Chtcheglov’s intuition of the opening of the city to the temporality of the cosmos was perhaps more profound than he knew. Even the great city of Teotihuacan failed to stop time. “Today much of the city is buried under five towns, one of Mexico’s largest military bases, numerous farms, commercial centers and a string of highways.” 

What the Letterist International intended was not a new kind of urban planning, but a critique of it. “We need to flood the market—even if only for the moment the intellectual market—with a mass of desires whose fulfillment is not beyond humanity’s present means of action on the material world, but only beyond the capacity of the old social organization.” They had the old Marxist faith that the development of the forces of production, the machinery of industrial capitalism, would yield the means to free us from necessity. Yet as early as 1953 they realized that capital could not go on treating all of space and time as resources for its own quantitative expansion. They had lived through the war as children and knew, at least secondhand, of the destructive power of modern technology. Why could that power not be used to build a different kind of civilization in the ruins? In the twenty-first century we live more and more with the consequences of the failure to make just such a qualitative break.

The Letterist International used the practice of the dérive as a method for creating a kind of knowledge outside of the division of labor, and outside even of the intellectual division of labor between disciplines. They aimed it not only at rival avant-gardes, but at geography, urban studies, sociology—the legitimate knowledges of the city. It was a “subcultural knowledge,” drawing on a delinquent’s distrust of social scientists and their questionnaires. Psychogeography made the city subjective and at the same time drew subjectivity out of its individualistic shell. It is a therapy aimed not at the self but at the city itself. Letterists did not shrink from the aerial surveillance made possible by wartime technical advances, but did not make a fetish of it either.

It may well seem that the moving city is impractical, impossible. But is it any less impossible than holding back the sea? Is it any less impossible than building garden suburbs in the Nevada desert? The Letterist International discovered the power of a kind of negative action . They show what cannot be done within the limits of actually existing capitalism. As Debord writes: “The greatest difficulty in any such undertaking is to convey through these apparently extravagant proposals a sufficient degree of serious seduction.” As with any seduction, a kind of strategic game is in play, the key move in which is to act as if the new desire already exists. What will emerge out of the dérive, as practiced by the young Letterists, is a quite different concept of space and time, which, like the dérive, would be outside of property. It may only exist in a few interstitial moments out and about in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but those few moments marked the exit to the twentieth century.

Having failed to take that exit, now we are trapped on an expressway that seems to keep going until the end of the world. There could be worse plans than turning back to look for the last exit, for which the Letterist International thought it saw the signs. Actually, the Letterist International scouted at least two exits. One leads to a small-scale, local and temporary situation, discovered via the dérive. The other point to a larger scale and a longer duration, perhaps to history itself, but grasped by its most tenuous emanations—language, images, the sign.

- extract taken from  The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International by McKenzie Wark - currently 50% off on our website as part of our Political Guide to Walking.

As part of our Walking Week, we're putting up lots of extracts on our website:

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