Recently I presented a paper at a graduate history conference at the University of Sydney. The paper is called Toward the realisation of philosophy: The Situationist International between 1957 and 1960. It is brief and has a rather abrupt end. It represents some of my current research, particularly with an eye to identifying the emergence of a coherent critique in the early, 1957 to 1961 period of the Situationist International. I also deal with the widely misunderstood and enigmatic Hamburg Theses.
A pdf of the paper is available here. This paper can also be accessed through the linked title above. It is also reproduced below.
Any criticism is welcome. Please send it to: antyphayes [at] gmail [dot] com
Toward the realisation of philosophy:
The Situationist International between 1957 and 1960
by Anthony Hayes
In early September 1961, Guy Debord, Attila Kotànyi and Raoul Vaneigem, spent a few days in Hamburg ‘in a series of haphazardly chosen bars’. Members of the Situationist International the three were returning to France and Belgium from the group’s just concluded Fifth Conference held in Gothenburg, Sweden. This conference was marked by heated arguments between, on the one hand, the Scandinavian and German sections of the Situationist International (hereafter SI), and on the other, the Belgian and French sections. These arguments centred on the role of art amongst Situationists, whose group had up until that time been known, when it was known, as primarily an avant-garde group of artistic origins. However what was significant about the pub crawl in Hamburg, what to a passing stranger may have seemed just another group of men on a drinking binge, was what the three Situationists discussed and composed during these few days. The fruits of these discussions came to be known as The Hamburg Theses in the SI, and though a direct consequence of the arguments at the Fifth Conference, their aim was more general. Indeed they were directed at resolving the impasse the group had reached as a whole, what Debord would later describe as ‘a theoretical and strategic discussion that concerned the totality of the conduct of the SI.’ Over the previous two years not only had the dispute over art continued to develop, but perhaps more pointedly the French and Belgian sections of the group had become more engaged with the French ‘ultra-left’ — in particular with the Socialism or Barbarism group.
The Hamburg Theses were significant for several reasons: first, given the live disputes in the group they were an attempt to outline a coherent practice for the group as a whole; secondly, they were never written down or publicly quoted in the group’s publications; and finally precise details of the Theses were never given to anyone outside of the group. Indeed when Guy Debord finally spoke at some length about them almost 30 years later he wrote:
It was found that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: ‘The SI must now realize philosophy.’ Even this very phrase wasn’t written down. Thus, the conclusions were so well hidden that they have remained secret until now.
The ephemeral nature of the Theses — the hand written notes that were destroyed once the discussions were concluded — belies their importance to the group. Indeed the act of leaving no obvious trace apart from the actions they informed was perhaps the most important aspect of the Theses. And it is without doubt they were of central importance to the group. Debord, in the same note quoted above, went as far to write that the Theses ‘fixed the departure point for the intervention that led to the movement of May 1968 and subsequent events.’
‘The SI must now realize its philosophy’. This quote from Debord, from a letter written in 1989, 28 years after the composition of the Hamburg Theses, and 17 years after the dissolution of the SI, is all that remains of this primary source, if we can even conceive of it as a primary source. It is as if the Situationists set out to deliberately recreate a pre-Socratic fragment in the midst of a modern, information saturated world; a deliberate attempt at resistance to the incessant representations and misrepresentations of what they would increasingly call the world of the spectacle. And indeed it was a deliberate act.
Debord pointed out that the source of this quote was Marx, specifically from an early text that Marx composed over the winter of 1843 and 1844. In this text — the intended Introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right — Marx criticised the political liberals and left-wing philosophers of the scattered German states of the 1840s. Of the former he argued that they tried to suppress philosophy without realising it; of the latter he argued that they tried to realise philosophy without suppressing it. For Marx the point was to realise philosophy and suppress it; suppress it, that is, as an activity apart from other activities of everyday life; as an activity that merely reflects upon the state of the world rather than engages in practical transformations. As he would later put it, perhaps more pithily and famously: ‘[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’
Perhaps the most important part of this work of Marx is to be found in his evocation of the proletariat as the revolutionary force that will, by turns, realise and suppress philosophy. For Marx what makes the proletariat capable of such is its sheer negativity: as the living embodiment of the denial of human possibility: from its domination by the burgeoning industrial labour as much as from its exclusion from the political and civil community of its day, the proletariat is the inversion of the idea of human community, made over into a negative image of its potential creativity harnessed not for it, but for a small minority of the social body. It is this idea of the creative force of negativity that Debord and the Situationists drew upon with The Hamburg Theses, for these Theses attempted to encompass the idea of revolutionary negativity in terms of both form and content.
Thus The Hamburg Theses herald the negative revolutionary potential not only by force of its unrecorded argument, but also through the gesture of its physical absence. As Debord would write later
the ‘Theses’ were a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, which until then had given the impression of being avid to explain themselves.
Such a connection was made even more explicit in one of the few, and presumably enigmatic references to The Hamburg Theses at the time. In an article published in the 7th issue of the SI’s journal in 1962, the group wrote:
The SI must expose what is hidden, thereby exposing itself as the possibility ‘hidden’ by its enemies. Picking up on the contradictions that others have chosen to forget, we will succeed in transforming ourselves into the practical force laid out in the Hamburg Theses, as established by Debord, Kotányi, Trocchi and Vaneigem (summer 1961).
The play on the words ‘hidden’ and ‘to forget’ draws attention not only to the hidden nature of the Hamburg Theses, but also the hidden and forgotten nature of modern subjectivity: the alienation of the individual from their social being and from each other. Indeed in the article quoted — a collectively written one as were many by the Situationists — the SI pose themselves as the positive pole of alienation. In a similar way to the young Marx they presented the modern revolutionary project as positive to the extent that it is based on the suppression or negation of the truly negative, i.e. the reduction of the human to mere means for the production of capital, commodities and profit, which is to say alienation in the sense that Marx gave it. Again, the modern revolutionary project was positive to the extent that it pointed out what needed to be done away with, and what impeded the positive constitution of a human community.
Unfortunately I cannot go into a detailed examination of Marx’s theory of alienation here. However the point of raising it schematically is this: the movement toward posing themselves in the words of Marx belies the fact of their emergence from the artistic avant-garde milieus of the twentieth century, rather than the Marxist milieus. No doubt these were not strictly separated, and in particular in France in the post war 1950s the artistic and political avant-gardes tended to draw from the same well, as it were. However The Hamburg Theses signified a startling development on the part of the Situationists. First, they began to draw a comparison between the philosophical project of Marx in the1840s and the project of the successive artistic avant-gardes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And secondly, and most obviously here, they argued that Marx’s philosophical project, by signalling not so much the end of philosophy as its transformation into a practical force mirrors the successive artistic avant-gardes’ search for a practice that moved beyond the merely artistic. Indeed this was the fabled ‘north west passage’ the Situationists had been searching for since their founding conference in July 1957.
In what remains of this talk I want to examine the first attempts of the Situationists to chart such a practice designed to move beyond the impasse of art and the state of the avant-gardes in the post-war world. The Hamburg Theses had two main targets: on the one hand Debord wrote that the summary, ‘the SI must now realise its philosophy […] signified that one must no longer give the least importance to the conceptions of any of the revolutionary groups that still existed as inheritors of the old social emancipation movement that was destroyed in the first half of our century’. On the other hand, it signified ‘that it would no longer be necessary to count on the SI alone to relaunch a new era of contestation by renewing all of the starting points of the movement that was constituted in the 1840s.’ Both of these points have multiple referents. The most obvious ones are to other ultra-left Marx inspired groups, like Socialism or Barbarism, and the French and European anarchist and left-communist milieus, as well as the artistic milieus from which the SI emerged. The other implicit reference is to the SI itself. Indeed the argument over art and its role in the SI, of which the Theses is a sort of apotheosis, had also been fought over whether or not the SI was the sole expression of a purely cultural revolution; or whether or not it should aspire to such. As we will see the terms adopted by Debord, Vaneigem, Kotànyi and the other Situationists that remained in the group after the expulsion of the artists in 1962, the terms used by Marx in the 1840s and elaborated into a philosophy that poses its realisation through its suppression as an alienated activity, were first posed in the terms, practices and heritage from which the SI emerged: the artistic avant-gardes of the first half of the twentieth century.
The SI in 1957
The founding document of the SI, the Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action, was written by Debord and presented at the founding conference of the group in July 1957. For our purposes the two most important parts of the Report are the critique of the early twentieth century avant-gardes — in particular Dada and Surrealism — and the presentation of distinctly Situationist practices — in particular the ‘construction of situations’ and ‘Unitary Urbanism’.
In the Report Debord argued that Dada and Surrealism had foundered in turn, Dada on its utter negativity and Surrealism through its attempt to positively reconstitute the Dada project on more artistic lines. In what would become common to Debord’s style of criticism, he argued that both Dada and Surrealism misapprehended their greatest strengths while hailing their weakest attributes. As he would put it after The Hamburg Theses, in The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967:
Dadaism wanted to suppress art without realizing it; Surrealism wanted to realize art without suppressing it. The critical position later elaborated by the Situationists has shown that the suppression and the realisation of art are inseparable aspects of the same overcoming of art.
For Debord what was significant about the Surrealism of the 1920s was its assertion of ‘the sovereignty of desire and surprise’ and its proposition that a ‘new way of life’ was possible in opposition to a bourgeois world organised around wage labour and the family. Rather than the apparent success of Surrealist activity — e.g. the unsettling dream scapes of the painters as much as the automatic verse of the poets — it was the more ephemeral practice of living that was the most important legacy of the original Surrealists: their general non-conformism, their rejection of the prevailing morality (sexually or otherwise), their penchant for scandal, and so on.
Indeed such a critique was extended to the successors of Surrealism, in particular the post-war avant-gardes, which drew precisely on the weakest phenomenal success of Surrealism at the expense of its practical non-conformism and original commitment to ‘change life’ and ‘transform the world.’ Thus Debord positioned the Situationist International as inheriting the Surrealist project at its most radical — the Surrealism of 1924 rather than 1958, as it was put in the second issue of the SI’s journal. And because Surrealism still existed as an organised tendency in the late 1950s, mired in all that Debord criticised (e.g. the artistic practices, the evocation of mysticism and the power of the unconscious), the Situationist project was necessarily a break not a continuation. Indeed the Situationist International derived its name from what was to be the central idea of the early SI: the construction of situations.
Constructed situations & unitary urbanism
In the first issue of the Situationist journal the constructed situation was defined as ‘[a] moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambience and a game of events.’ The constructed situation was opposed to the phenomenal results of previous artistic avant-gardes: painting, poetry, prose, sculpture, cinema, etc.; indeed the production of any object that could potentially be isolated and fetishized as a commodity for sale. This was not to say that the Situationists were opposed to the production of artistic objects at such; rather they saw the very artistic techniques as necessarily being appropriated by the constructors of situations, reappropriating such diverse practices and others in order that they would be combined in new totalities, new ‘ambiances’ for living rather than as objects solely for spectatorship or sale.
This brings us to a central if often misrepresented aspect of the idea of the ‘constructed situation.’ Most often the constructed situation is conceived as a type of artistic ‘happening’ or, to use a term favoured by art criticism, a type of Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’ — indeed this is how Simon Sadler describes it in his truly terrible book, The Situationist City. However the SI from the outset presented the constructed situation as only possible on a material basis utterly transformed from the present capitalistic one. As Debord put it in the Report, ‘[t]he construction of situations begins beyond the modern ruins of the spectacle’; i.e. short of a radical transformation of the possibilities of the everyday — indeed a revolutionary transformation — the constructed situation was not possible. Certainly such a conception is very different from Jean Paul Sartre’s ontological conception of the ‘situation’, another point lost on Sadler when he attempts to foster a Sartrean genealogy onto the Situationists. In fact we can consider the Situationist’s theory of the ‘constructed situation’ as both a critique of and an inversion of Sartre’s idea of the situation. For the SI the ‘situations’ of everyday capitalist life were endured rather than created; thus the ‘constructed situation’ was implicitly a critique of a life determined by capitalist social relations and explicitly a theory of the free construction of everyday life.
The SI in its first few years often referred to its activities as ‘pre-situationist’, insofar as they worked toward a world of ‘constructed situations’. To underline their stance, pinned to the theory of the ‘constructed situation’, Debord in the same founding Report proposed a type of experimental practice through which to develop the theory of situations, as well as to experiment with the possibilities of freely constructed situations albeit under the constrained conditions of present day capitalism. Such an experimental practice he termed ‘Unitary Urbanism’. Unitary Urbanism was defined as ‘the use of all arts and techniques as means contributing to the composition of a unified milieu.’ Debord distinguished it from contemporary architectural theory and practice, particularly that which had begun to appear under the term ‘urbanism’, by drawing attention to its critical perspective and its aspiration to be associated with a thoroughgoing revolutionary transformation of everyday life. Unitary Urbanism was both a critique of contemporary capitalist urbanism and an experimental platform for investigations into an alternative urbanism. Thus it was a type of bridge between the theory of the ‘constructed situation’ and the realisation of conditions for ‘constructed situations’ in a post-capitalist future. And as a bridge, unitary urbanism was considered as ‘pre-situationist’.
The dispute over art: 1958 to 1960
On the basis of the similarities and differences between the theory of ‘constructed situations’ and the theory and practice of ‘unitary urbanism’, we can argue that there was a tension between the Situationist’s theoretical critique of art and the practice of the Situationists up until the so-called end of the artistic phase in 1962. In September 1958 this tension became explicit. Constant Nieuwenhuys (better known as simply ‘Constant’), member of the Dutch section of the SI, initiated a discussion over the idea of the ‘free artist’, an idea advocated by another Situationist, Asger Jorn. Both Jorn and Constant had been members of a group that the SI considered one its immediate precursors: the CoBrA group which existed between 1948 and 1951. In the wake of CoBrA both Jorn and Constant became engaged with more architectural concerns; concerns which would bring them into contact with Debord’s Lettrist International group and ultimately the foundation of the SI in 1957.
The crux of the debate was this: Constant believed that Situationists like Jorn continued to emphasise traditional artistic practices like painting. Constant proposed ‘invent[ing] new techniques in every domain’ rather than the mere incorporation of the ‘threadbare’ traditional arts in new urban ‘ambiances’. Such techniques must be based on the most advanced machinery techniques rather than the romantic individualism inherent in the traditional arts. In this debate Debord played a mediating role (which in itself goes some way to refuting the caricature of Debord the unbending dogmatist). On the one hand Debord agreed with Constant that the traditional arts were ‘retrograde’. However he posed that alongside the appropriation of the most advanced techniques of present day capitalism, a revolutionary transformation of everyday life would also appropriate the artistic techniques of the traditional arts. Debord argued such appropriations would necessarily be transformative rather than merely additive as long as the aim of such practices was revolutionary, i.e. the establishment of conditions conducive to ‘constructed situations’. Thus Jorn’s conception of the ‘free artist’, rather than being a romantic throwback could be conceived as the evocation of a future subjectivity — which is to say when everyone is an artist there will be no more artists. Or, to paraphrase Marx, one could paint amongst other activities without ever being just a painter.
The upshot of this debate is not what you may expect. As a direct result of the argument Debord and Constant wrote the ‘Amsterdam Declaration’ in November 1958. This draft, written for the upcoming Third conference of the SI planned for Munich in April 1959, synthesised the results of the argument with an eye to refocusing the group on the experimental practice of Unitary Urbanism. The Declaration clearly repudiated the ‘renovation’ of the ‘individual arts’ as in any way commensurate with Situationists activity. Indeed of all the points in the Declaration this point was strengthened at the April 1959 conference, being changed to a clear repudiation of the ‘practice’ of the traditional arts. Which is odd if we consider the following: At the Third conference the German Spur group of artists joined the SI en masse. The Spur group (meaning ‘way’ of ‘trail’ in German) were predominantly painters, and had been recruited by Asger Jorn (another painter). From the outset both Debord and Constant expressed concerns about the enrolment of so many painters, considering their relative lack of success in recruiting non-artists. Indeed the Spur group would go on to prove increasingly troublesome in the SI, consisting flouting the very injunction against the practice of the ‘individual arts’ which they had agreed on from their entry into the SI in April 1959 until the expulsion of the last of the Spur members from the SI in February 1962.
The other oddity regarding the acceptance of the Amsterdam Declaration by the group was the future trajectory of Constant. A little more than a year after the Third conference Constant had resigned from the SI. There were two main reasons for this. First Constant had managed to recruit some non-artists to the group, two Dutch architects who became involved with his ‘New Babylon’ elaboration of Unitary Urbanism. However these architects were expelled from the SI in 1960 for not only accepting a commission to design a church but more importantly for refusing to repudiate such a commission. Indeed not only were they involved in a questionable religious endeavour but they were clearly in contravention of the Amsterdam Declaration. Constant resigned shortly after on the 1st of June 1960. However the reasons were made more explicit for his resignation in the December 1960 issue of the Situationist journal:
Constant found himself in opposition to the S.I. because he has been primarily concerned, almost exclusively, with structural questions of certain assemblies [architectural models] of unitary urbanism, so that other situationists had to recall that at the present stage of the project it was necessary to put the accent on its content ([e.g.] play, free creation of everyday life). Thus Constant’s theses promoted the technicians of architectural forms over any search for a global culture.
The cruel irony here is that Constant, despite his campaign against the painters, in particular, and artists more generally, had ended by elaborating Unitary Urbanism in an exclusively artistic and artisanal fashion. And even worse, with his withdrawal and the expulsion of the Dutch architects, practicing painters made up a sizable portion of the group — perhaps even more so than at the founding three years earlier. Debord’s immediate answer to this was three-fold: he continued to seek out ‘non-artist’ members for the group; he began an active engagement with Socialism or Barbarism, an ultra-left Marxist group whose critique of modern capitalism began to resonate with the Situationists; and he continued to argue against the practice of art within the group, apart from its use for propagandistic ends, i.e. as means to argue and develop the Situationist critique of contemporary capitalism.
And so we find ourselves back in Hamburg, September 1961, after a fashion. Unfortunately the course of the SI between mid-1960 and the most crucial aftermath of the Hamburg Theses, the expulsion of the Spur group of artists in February 1962, is beyond the limits of this talk. Without doubt the arguments over art and its overcoming as a limited and indeed alienated practice had reached a high point in the first three years, but as yet was unresolved by mid-1960. However we can conceive of the Hamburg Theses as the ultimate resolution of the problem raised through Constant’s, Jorn’s and Debord’s argument over the role of art and artists in the group. Whereas Constant held to an overcoming of the alienated specialisation of the ‘traditional arts’, he ended by transforming Unitary Urbanism into something not so dissimilar. Indeed his New Babylon project and his New Babylon models went on to be considered as ‘art’, and were influential on such artistically inclined architects as those associated with the Archigram group in the UK, the Utopie and Architecture Principe groups in France, and the Superstudio group in Italy. And as a perhaps depressing coda to his militant opposition to the ‘painters’, Constant resumed painting in 1969.
 This paper was originally written for and delivered at the Tethering the Past postgraduate conference at the University of Sydney, 29 November, 2013.
 Debord, Guy. ‘Letter to Thomas Levin, November 1989’, translated by Not Bored!, December 2008: http://www.notbored.org/debord-November1989.html (accessed 13 November 2013). Originally published in Guy Debord Correspondance, Vol 7: Janvier 1988-Novembre 1994 by Librairie Artheme Fayard, 2008.
 Ibid. Translation modified.
 Karl Marx. ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ , in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works Volume 5, New York : International Publishers, 1976
 Debord, Guy. ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organisation and Action’ , in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. & trans. by Ken Knabb, Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, pp. 25-43.
 Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle, Paris : Éditions Gallimard, 1992 , Thesis 191, p. 186.
 Debord  2006: 28
 André Breton: ‘“Transform the world,” Marx said; “Change life,” Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us.’ From ‘Speech to the Congress of Writers (1935)’ in André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. by Richard Seaver & Helen R. Lane, University of Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 241.
 Situationist International. ‘Definitions’ [1958a], in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. & trans. by Ken Knabb, Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, p. 51.
 Perhaps a more obvious target, at least initially, was the reborn Bauhaus of Max Bill’s which had come under attack by Asger Jorn. Indeed Jorn’s post CoBrA group, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus was organised as a counter to Bill’s ‘functionalist’ Bauhaus. It was also an indicator of Jorn’s growing interest in architecture that would eventually lead him to contact with the Lettrist International, and ultimately the foundation of the Situationist International.
 Simon Sadler. The Situationist City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998, pp. 105-07.
 Debord  2006: 40. Trans. modified.
 Debord  2006: 38
 CoBrA: an acronym derived from the originating cities of its initial participants: Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam. From 1949 it was more formally known as the International of Experimental Artists (Internationale des Artistes Expérimentaux).
 Situationist International. ‘Situationist News’ , in Internationale situationniste no. 5, trans. by Anthony Hayes, http://thesinisterquarter.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/situationist-news-december-1960/, 2012.
Breton, André. ‘Speech to the Congress of Writers (1935)’ in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. by Richard Seaver & Helen R. Lane, University of Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, pp. 234-241.
Constant & Guy Debord, ‘Amsterdam Declaration’ [1958c], in Internationale situationniste no. 2, trans. by Paul Hammond, http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/amsterdam.html, no date.
Debord, Guy. ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organisation and Action’ , in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. & trans. by Ken Knabb, Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, pp. 25-43.
________ La Société du Spectacle, Paris : Éditions Gallimard, 1992 .
________ ‘Letter to Thomas Levin, November 1989’, translated by Not Bored!, December 2008: http://www.notbored.org/debord-November1989.html (accessed 13 November 2013). Originally published in Guy Debord Correspondance, Vol 7: Janvier 1988-Novembre 1994 by Librairie Artheme Fayard, 2008.
Marx, Karl. ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ , in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works Volume 5, New York : International Publishers, 1976, pp. 3-5.
Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998.
Situationist International. ‘Definitions’ [1958a], in Internationale situationniste no. 1, ed. & trans. by Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, pp. 51-52.
________ ‘On Our Means and Perspectives’ [1958b], in Internationale situationniste no. 2, trans. by Paul Hammond, http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/means.html, no date
________ ‘Corrections to Adopting the Eleven Points of Amsterdam’ , in Internationale situationniste no. 3, trans. by Paul Hammond, http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/corrections.html, no date
________ ‘Situationist News’ , in Internationale situationniste no. 5, trans. by Anthony Hayes, http://thesinisterquarter.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/situationist-news-december-1960/, 2012.
________ ‘The role of the S.I.’ , in Internationale situationniste no. 7, trans. by (Reuben Keehan, http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/role.html, n.d.