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Beyond Mechanical Reproduction

Dominique Routhier on the Situationists' critique of automation

Dominique Routhier24 October 2023

Beyond Mechanical Reproduction

When Guy Debord and the Danish painter Asger Jorn set out to make the artist book Fin de Copenhague in 1957, they were engaged intensely with the question of automation. Sometime around March 1957, in response to a lecture by the Argentinian designer Tomás Maldonado at the ICA London, Jorn wrote two extensive drafts on the topic of automation (each comprising around five handwritten pages) with allusive titles such as L’Âge robot. Sur le rôle de l’incertitude pour le développement de l’intelligence’, and, more simply, ‘Contre l’Automation de l’homme’.

These texts, though following their own anarchic Jornian development of thought and argument, clearly prefigure the more concise ‘Les Situationnistes et l’automation’, which was first published under the sole signature of Jorn in the collection of essays that made up the book Pour la Forme (and which, like most Jorn’s French texts, Debord helped revise and edit). Debord apparently considered the article a cornerstone in emergent situationist theory, as it was included in the first issue of the SI’s eponymous journal (1958) and republished on several occasions during the SI’s existence, for instance in the little-remarked bulletin Cahier pour un paysage à inventer (Montreal, 1960) that was conceived as a situationist outpost in North America.

In this crucial text, Jorn engages with the concept and reality of automation primarily by way of adversarial or ‘ideological’ viewpoints. One of the principal antagonists was the Catholic, traditionalist, right-wing writer Louis Salleron, whose book L’Automation had recently appeared in the popular Que Sais-Je? series. The series – with its unique mix of a tendency to vulgarize complex matters (often philosophical, scientific, or technical in nature) and a flair for singling out topics that would resonate across the public imaginary – had instituted the livres de poches sales revolution in France. Any title appearing in the series would have been printed, according to the publisher’s minimum requirements, in 10,000 copies per edition. As one author quipped on the subject of the Que Sais-Je? series, the bulk output taken together formed one of the world’s largest printed encyclopaedias and provided an ‘answer to everything’. In the first three decades of the series’ existence (from 1941 onwards), so many paperbacks had been pumped into circulation that, if stacked on top of one another, they would have dwarfed the Eiffel tower twenty-four times over!

Salleron’s L’Automation, together with George-Théodule Guilbaud’s La Cybernétique, which had appeared in the same series and to which Salleron repeatedly refers, undoubtedly matched the publishing house’s criteria for haute vulgarisation and helped set the stage for a broader public discussion of cybernetics and automation. Salleron opens with the following précis:

In 1947 a new concept destined to a singular fortune was born: automation. Two men have claimed paternity: D. S. Harder, executive vice-president of Ford, Cleveland, and, John Diebold, professor at Harvard University . . . What is automation? Hundreds of definitions exist already. We could say, in the simplest manner, that automation is the ensemble of automatic procedures that replace the labor of man.

As Salleron admits, replacing the labour of man has always been an incentive for capitalism even in the age of simple mechanization. One of the great points of discussion in relation to the topic of automation, a topic that, according to Salleron, already ‘counts articles in the thousands’, was to define the term vis-à-vis the term mechanization. ‘How is automation different from mechanization?’ Salleron asks, and runs the reader through attempts to define the essence of the word. Like The Frankfurt School theorist Friedrich Pollock, but without the Marxist class analysis that distinguishes his approach, Salleron stresses cybernetic control systems and electronic feedback mechanisms as the core distinguishing feature for automation proper. But Salleron ignores capital’s core incentive to reorganize production cybernetically – to reduce the costs of human labour power and boost productivity – and thus fails to see beyond the standard narrative of technological progress. This is where the situationist analysis of automation becomes relevant.

Beyond Mechanical Reproduction

What might have sparked Debord’s and Jorn’s interest in a critical rethinking of automation is the SI-adjacent French ultra-left journal Socialisme ou Barbarie. As early as July 1956, the journal had treated the topic of automation in relation to reports from a series of strikes in the British automobile industry. In an article penned by Pierre Chaulieu (one of Cornelius Castoriadis’s many pseudonyms), the term ‘automation’ was subjected to critique for producing an ideological mirage that naturalized capitalist progress and obscured the analysis of the actual historical transformations in the organic composition of capital.

According to Castoriadis, automation, when returned to its basis in capitalist exploitation, pointed to problems related to the reorganization of labour and the restructuring of the class relation at a given historical conjuncture:

In order to understand the effects automation has on the concrete structure of the capitalist factory, we must grasp the social function it is called upon to fulfill in an exploitative society and its place in the history of capital-labor relations. Considered in the abstract, the major technical changes in the field of production in capitalist society appear as the result of a relatively ‘autonomous’ technological evolution, and their employment in production appears as the result of an application of an equally ‘autonomous’ principle of profitability – that is, independent of all social considerations. In fact, the application of these changes en masse to industry takes on an extremely precise social content; bluntly speaking, it almost always constitutes a moment in the class struggle, a capital offensive against labor, considered as the originating force in production.

Automation changed the forms but not the content of alienation. That technology has always been used as a weapon in class struggle, and on the level of politics as an argument to install a class of ‘specialists’ in power, was also one of the main points in the hotly debated articles that Castoriadis published in Socialisme ou Barbarie between 1955 and 1957 under the title ‘Sur le contenu du socialisme’ (‘On the Content of Socialism’). In the second article of the series, Castoriadis argues that to see the crisis of managing society politically (the crisis of politics or modern society was one of the controversies of the Keynesian era) as the result of an ‘inevitable’ technical evolution leaves only two options. Either one can adopt a defeatist stance that decries technological evolution but comes up with no alternative – here, Castoriadis is targeting the French critic of technology Jacques Ellul – or one can, inversely, embrace technological development as a pretext for strengthening class-based domination and exploitation, typically arguing something along the lines that ‘the content of politics – namely, the direction and management of society – has become highly complex, embracing an extraordinary mass of data and problems, each of which can be mastered only through advanced specialization’.

Castoriadis’s critical point, foreshadowing Debord’s later arguments, is that the separation between life and politics, mirrored on the level of class by the separation of workers from the means of production, is the root problem of modern alienation no matter the historically specific form:

We discuss this sophism because it puts us on the road to an important truth. In the case of politics as in the case of production, people tend to blame modern technique and modern ‘technicization’ in general instead of seeing that the problems stem from a specifically capitalist technology. In politics as in production, capitalism does not only mean the use of technically ‘neutral’ means for capitalist ends. It also means the creation and development of specific techniques, aimed at ensuring the exploitation of the producers – or the oppression, mystification, and political alienation and manipulation of citizens in general. At the level of production, socialism will mean the conscious transformation of technology. Technique will be put in the service of the people. On the political level, socialism will imply a similar transformation: technique will be put in the service of democracy.

Castoriadis’s intervention in the automation debate in France around 1956–57 clearly anticipates the situationist analysis. Another important text that resonates with the SI’s critique of automation is an article that appeared in March 1957, in the reformist Marxist journal Arguments. In an article entitled ‘L’Automation et ses ideologies’ (Automation and its ideologies), Franco Momigliano charged both left and right with failing to see how automation opened up as yet unexplored horizons for overcoming capital by way of its own internal contradictions. According to Momigliano, even Marxists systematically failed to imagine a transition to a communist society that did not correspond to a Marxist–Leninist orthodoxy of mechanical progress and historical determinism. In a passage that could have been taken from the Internationale Situationniste, Momigliano sets forth a ‘hypothesis of new possible alternatives, new dialectic developments, new qualitative jumps made possible by the new quality of the productive forces’. But, despite the arguments of both Castoriadis and Momigliano, the situationist analysis of automation would remark, ‘it is rather astonishing that almost no one until now has dared to examine the ultimate implications of automation’. Why is this so?

Part of the reason why the SI did not pay adequate tribute to existing critiques of automation was most likely (apart from avant-garde snobbism) that they were unhappy with the implied solution offered by Marxists of all stripes who wanted to ‘socialize’ the means of production and redistribute wealth. One of the basic critical points that Jorn makes in his article is that to socialize production does not fundamentally change the problematic capitalist nature of automation. To socialize the means of production without at the same time establishing counter-values (redefining the form of wealth) would be to continue the capitalist devaluation and neutralization of the singularity and uniqueness of human existence:

The goal of socialism is abundance: the greatest number of goods for the greatest number of people, which statistically implies reducing the unexpected to the level of the improbable. Increasing the number of goods reduces the value of each. This devaluation of all human goods to a level of ‘total neutrality’ will be the inevitable consequence of a purely scientific development of socialism. It is unfortunate that many intellectuals fail to get beyond the idea of mechanical reproduction, and are instead contributing toward the adaptation of humanity to this bland and symmetrified future.

Pointing to ‘abundance’ as the highest goal of socialism, and showing that adherence to the capitalist course of technical progress contradicts that goal, Jorn argues against socializing production without revolutionizing the foundations of this kind of production at the same time, to wit: capitalist production oriented towards the extraction of surplus value and the realizations of profits. The much fabled ‘takeover’ of the means of production would merely imply a formal change of ownership in which workers would then take part in the exploitation of all, by all, to the detriment of free individual expression. But what alternative proposal did Jorn and the SI offer?

Asger Jorn’s Ontological Inversion

In this and other articles from the late 1950s, Jorn imagined that art, if wrested from the claws of a bourgeois and alienated form of expression, could again provide a productive counter-value: a human surplus of excess, festivity, and luxury incommensurable with the value-form of the commodity.

To Jorn, going beyond the ideological stalemate of socialism – which shares with its proclaimed class enemies an unblinking faith in historical progress and nurtures an impoverished illusion of abundance – meant imagining communism differently. Communism could not be the result of technological development, in and by itself, but was, rather, a collective project that would emerge in the process of its own becoming, if it were fostered by an artistic experimentation with new forms of life and ‘constructed situations’.

Echoing Marx’s famous statement that ‘what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality’, Jorn argued that the artistic imagination was something like a distinctively human capacity without which no collective future project – communism – would even be possible.

Hence, to Jorn, traditional Marxist theory had failed to think the question of technology through. Consequently, the problem of automation, to the bourgeois mind as well as to the socialist mind, appeared as a problem of how to plan for a future conceived as an extension of the present, rather than planning for a future oriented towards what technical progress had made imaginable and hence also possible. Automation expends with labour and frees up time for leisure – everyone agreed on this point. But, as Jorn sarcastically notes:

The new leisure time appears as an empty space that present-day society can imagine filling only by multiplying the pseudo play of pathetic hobbies. But this leisure time is also the basis on which could be built the most magnificent cultural construction that has ever been imagined. This goal is obviously outside the concerns of the partisans of automation. It is in fact antagonistic to the direct tendency of automation . . . Automation can develop rapidly only once it has established as a goal a perspective contrary to its own establishment, and only it is known how to realize such a general perspective in the process [au fur et à mésure] of the development of automation.

Considered in the light of Jorn’s theory of art, the situationist project comes across as a necessary ‘artistic’ corrective to Marxist thought. The artistic imagination, Jorn believed, was a precondition for the eventual overthrow of capitalist relations of production. An ontological inversion thus takes place in Jorn’s theory, where ‘art’, as Graham Birtwistle argued in his seminal examination of Jorn’s theoretical oeuvre, is ‘placed in the base and not in the superstructure’.

This ontological inversion reads not only as a response to orthodox Marxist thought, or to what Jorn calls the ‘moronic optimism’ of the prophets of the end-of-labour, such as Alain Touraine and other prominent voices in the sociological cacophony of the post-industrial conundrum. Jorn’s theory of the ontological primacy of art was also, if implicitly, a riposte to a competing current of situationist thought secretly fascinated with the prospects of cybernetics and automation. I am thinking, of course, about Constant’s vision of the future, New Babylon (discussed in Chapter 2). One of the most speculative and future-oriented approaches pursued at that point, New Babylon comes across, as cultural theorist McKenzie Wark notes, as though it has been extrapolated from an imaginary unfettered capitalist development.  Constant pushes the traditional Marxist assumption of a ‘fettering thesis’ – the idea that capitalist relations of production at some point begin to function as a brake on development but also at the same time necessarily produce the means to overcome these limitations – towards its own immanent conclusion.

By contrast, throughout his theoretical oeuvre, Jorn insists on the necessity of a Nietzschean (or Bataillean) overturning of values as a precondition for a successful revolution that would not merely ‘complete’ the bourgeois revolution. In fact, Jorn’s critique of automation reads as an early approximation to a value-critical method insofar as he singles out the historical specificity of the value-form of the commodity. Jorn’s critique essentially aims to show that it is

possible to accept Marx’s analysis and critique of the capitalist form of value, the commodity, without thereby accepting the identification of this form with value as such [la valeur en soi]. That is to say that is possible to accept the scientific side of Das Kapital without thereby automatically accepting the political conclusions that have been drawn from it.

Having made an impoverished economic conception of wealth the basis of its programme, the workers’ movement, Jorn charges, has imagined communism as simple ‘socialization’ without inquiring critically into the historical specificity, the social form, that wealth acquires under capitalist relations of production. This is why automation, which is a tendency in capitalism pushed to its most extreme and inhuman consequence (making labour itself super- fluous to production), will never in and by itself accomplish communism as something qualitatively different from capitalism. According to Jorn, what is required is an inversion of the principles upon which automation is founded. The basis of communism, if we take Jorn’s argument to its conclusion, will not be work, with abstract labour as the supreme social value, but the creation of a different kind of surplus irreducible to the value-form of the commodity.

This reading of Jorn, to return to Fin de Copenhague, also points to a latent conflict between the constructivist ethos of mass production (which historically implies a celebration of work) and the ‘critique of work’ in situationist discourse. Considered in the context of its enunciation, Fin de Copenhague complicates standard conceptions of the relationship between Debord and Jorn. As Jorn scholar Ruth Baumeister notes, Jorn is usually portrayed as the ‘artist-impresario’ while Debord is cast in the role of the ‘theoretician and/or philosopher’, even though Jorn contributed in equal measure to shaping the theoretical output of the SI.

And what about art, then? Although Jorn sees art as a point of departure for establishing a ‘counter-value’ and emphasizes the singularity of human creative existence, he is no more arguing to reinstate artistic subjectivity in its specialized and historically specific bourgeois form than he is arguing to revalorize human labour or work. For Jorn, work and art, as historically separated domains, are equally problematic. This is why Fin de Copenhague cannot be unproblematically assimilated to the category of a work of art. The separation between art and labour is at the heart of the bourgeois social ontology that Fin de Copenhague critically addresses, as do many other situationist works from that period, for instance Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio’s industrial paintings or Jorn’s series of painterly modifications. Likewise, Debord and Jorn situated Fin de Copenhague, to use once more the art historian Jaleh Mansoor’s terms of analysis, ‘as at once a repository of historical symptoms and as a form of resistance’. In this sense, Fin de Copenhague embodies a performative strategy of being with and against, a simultaneous devalorization/revalorization of the work of art that becomes legible through an analysis not just of its intellectual content but of its material form.

This is an edited excerpt from With and Against: the Situationist International in the Age of Automation by Dominique Routhier.

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With and Against
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