Blog post

Long live low theory!—McKenzie Wark on the legacy and continued relevance of Situationism

Chris Webb 5 September 2011

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.

One of the most valuable legacies of Situationism, although by no means unique to it, is the importance of "low theory," or the autonomous production of knowledge outside of institutional channels:

I am interested in low theory, which comprise those somewhat rarer moments when, coming out of everyday life, you get a certain milieu that can think itself. It happens when there is a mixing of the classes (another thing higher education doesn't do). It happens in certain spaces that we used to call bohemia. Low theory is the attempt to think everyday life within practices created in and of and for everyday life, using or misusing high theory to other ends. It happens in collaborative practices that invent their own economies of knowledge.

Situationism is often mistakenly credited with inciting the French revolt of 1968 instead of being a mere cultural component of the general collective consciousness. The Observer's Christopher Bray takes this common error to the point of hyperbole by suggesting that without Debord, there "would have been no David Bowie, no Tracey Emin, no Sex Pistols, no Wachowski brothers ... Certainly there would have been no Jean Baudrillard." While he was certainly their chief theorist, Wark's book is in fact a rather welcome attempt to decenter the story away from Debord. 

In The Beach Beneath the Street I wanted to tell the stories and extract the concepts of some of the figures who have not really been discussed. I have to say, though, now I am in the UK, that it is British comrades who have done a lot of work in saying that is not just about Debord-it's also about Jacqueline De Jong, Alexander Trocchi, Asger Jorn.

Retrieving this lost past speaks to the present, or as he tells an interviewer from Berfois it can help illuminate the darkness of the present political moment:

At the moment, there is a real fetishising of ‘the Political', and I think that in an era when politics is so miserably failing, why are our philosophers fetishising ‘the Political'? Isn't that the last place you'd want to go? So Constant asks, why don't we think of the infrastructural organisation of life, and how that could be done differently?

Rethinking and redesigning politics and theory in everyday life were, of course, enduring Situationist legacies that have inspired countless theorists. There exists, however, a great tension between this theory and radical practice, between the imagined and the real; a contradiction that Situationists were not afraid of. While our Observer reviewer considers this "a book for anyone not convinced that there is no alternative to the way we live now," the Situationist dream of a better world seems to lie in a murkier realm— somewhere in the drink soaked streets of Paris, between the conceptual and the practical. As Wark puts it:

I think critique should press to the limit and Situationist's critique is a good example of the critique of the totality of everyday life, but their actions are modest and particular. Theirs is a kind of negative action that keeps alive the distance between what can be thought and what can be done ... One can do both at same time: one's practices are specific but one's ambition, conceptually, should be the world-and we live in the gap between the two. 

Filed under: interviews, reviews