Aktion Surreal 1991-1994

AktionSurrealStall1992

Aktion Surreal stall, ANU Union Court, Canberra, 1992

Back in 2011 Gerald Keaney published a critical account of the group Aktion Surreal. Aktion Surreal (hereafter AS) was formed in late 1991 by myself and Gerald. Early the following year we launched the group on an unsuspecting world (ok, the ANU in Canberra) and were pleasantly surprised to find that many others were keen to join our experiment. I think around 25 or 30 people came along to the first meeting in January, 1992, in the ANU Uni bar (now, unfortunately, reduced to so much rubble and dust). Our initial inspiration was a sort of mash up of Punk DIY and 1920s Parisian Dada and Surrealism. On this basis we wanted to see whether we could attract other wretched souls to participate in what we then understood as “avant-garde” or “experimental” art. Considering that I  expected about 5 people at most (including me and Gerry) at the first meeting, I was pretty stoked with the actual turn up. The group quickly took on a life of its own, AS transmogrifying from Action to Aktion for reasons that still remain obscure to me. Indeed, the vision that Gerry and I had for the group, complete with a dash of the para-Trotskyist politics we both then subscribed to, was rapidly reduced to one of the three main factions of the group: the Body Performers/Postmodernists; the Pagans; and the Trot-Surrealists.

My feelings about AS remain mixed. I am glad that I participated in it, but I am left with a sense that what we did fell short of what we could have done. And, as is often the case with such unwieldy projects, the competing visions and practices soon led to the disintegration of the commonality. Additionally, I find that the political vision I had at the time was much too naive and unreflective, both in terms of orthodox Marxism and the desire to replicate the dreams of Surrealist automatism. Indeed the ambiguous results of AS soon led me out of Trotskyism and “orthodox” Surrealism, toward a more extreme perspective, under the influence of my readings of Guy Debord and other Situationists. 

I have written a few thoughts on Aktion Surreal here (in a leaflet put out during You Are Here in Canberra in 2014), here and here. What I really need to do is sit down like Gerry and hash out a longer, more considered account of AS and my experiences of Canberra in the 1990s. Despite what you may have heard about this little burg, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” For me, what was wonderful about the Canberra I found in the early 1990s, armed with my evanescent youth and a head full of thoughts, was the sense that almost anything was possible as long as you just tried. I have a sense that this is no longer possible, simply because the city and its then barely noticed underbelly has become completely invested with the logic of the commodity under the assaults of gentrification and trendy “hipsterisation”.

Alongside of Keaney’s pioneering account of AS, we need more such attempts. By no means is Keaney the “historian” of the group. For one, his account is (rightly) partisan, as his perspective is one of being an Aktion Surrealist. It is from this engaged perspective that his account draws both its strengths and weaknesses. However, where it is weak is where it necessarily must be, which is to say restricted to the limits that any one person must face when trying to record and understand an enterprise that was always, even if fitfully, a collective endeavour. And so, as you will discover, this “weakness” is in truth a strength, one of many that you’ll find in this account of the strange times and magnificent daze of Aktion Surreal…


[Note, the following article originally appeared in 2011 on a defunct blog. This version is taken from Gerald Keaney’s current web archive. A PDF of this article is available here.]

Aktion Surreal: a critical overview

by Gerald Keaney

 

Contents

0. Introduction

1. Origins

2. The body performers and criticisms of them

3. Influences, other performances and publications.

4. Demise of the group

5. Aftermath

6.Conclusion

 

0. Introduction

Explorers and castaways alike
Put their maps into the ground
and cried ‘We found
some new ideas to chase around.’

(Crime and the City solution)

Aktion Surreal (November 1991- some time in mid 1994) was a group of performers, theorists, writers and others based in Canberra. The point was never for the members to be specialised in creativity; rather the group rode on what we might call “second wave DIY.” The newfound availability of photocopier and desktop publishing made what it did possible by making it accessible to all comers. Here I am going to portray the Aktion Surrealists as a reaction to the conservatism of the late 1980s, especially what I will term “Triumphalism” and “The Backlash.” I will argue against understanding them along the lines of the post-modernism popular at the time, and of interest to some members of the group. Instead I will concentrate on the merits and otherwise of other animating ideas and approaches.

This page is a broad overview that will be fleshed out in more detail in my Aktion Surreal a critica History in bits project. As I do this, links will be added and eventually separate pages will replace less detailed sections here. So far I have only done this for the origins of Aktion Surreal.

1. Origins

For a detailed account of the origins of Aktion Surreal, including thoughts on how the conditions that produced Aktion Surreal have in some ways changed, go here.

Academics and the institutionalised left can also ignore smaller positive developments, despite lip-service to the contrary. A fact that deserves more attention is that in the earlier 1990s the Backlash was arguably in part curtailed by DIY practicioners. Many of the later 1980s attitudes Susan Faludi documents in her book The Backlash soon no longer had pride of place in movies and sitcoms. Grass roots/DIY cultural activists like Aktion Surreal may have nowhere near the huge audience of mainstream media, but they are both more personal and more innovative. So they are quite able to make points resonating with those uncomfortable with the official corporate line. In fact by having influence in and of themselves these DIY activities permitted developments that did have mass audience. Feminist grunge rock is an example, retaining a mass market for a good 10 years and so into the earlier 2000s. The subset of Aktion Surreal most relevant here were mainly women. I will term them “The Body Performers.”

2. The Body Performers and criticisms of them.

I woke up under Renior
…It’s a roman orgy
…and Jesus wouldn’t like it

(Canberra band The Club of Rome. Their single “Germany/Jesus wouldn’t like it” was for many years on the ANU Bar Jukebox).

Awombda, (Amanda Cod) Sophie Bord, Nadie (surname to be inserted) Sarah Schnell, Emma Robertson and others were members of an explicitly pro-feminist cohort that soon gave Aktion Surreal its most infamous flavour. These people were introduced to Aktion Surreal via the higher profile Splinters Theatre Company, crucial to the Canberra underground of the time. Aktion Surreal came to represent a more theoretical alternative to Splinters Theatre Company, a kind of sister organisation. These “Body Performers” were interested in Post-modernist ideas, and concentrated on performance involving direct intervention on the human body. They were influenced by artists such as Karen Finley and Cindy Sherman. They also orchestrated group sex experiments. Related was Aktion Surreal founding member tiM McCann’s interest in post-modern activism and fellow Aktion Surreal founder Neil Freeman’s interest in the Vienna Aktionists. The latter had changed the spelling of the group name from “Action Surreal” on the first zine to “Aktion Surreal” (from here on it will be referred to as “AS”) from the second issue on.

At one point early on in AS, The Body Performers began a disturbing theatrical banquet at the ANU Art School with a chant of “Donna Martin graduates.” This was a reference to a Backlash TV show. More usually their performances were gore fests. Later I saw a nipple chopped off in a nightclub. There was plenty of blood, public injection of salt water/possibly other drugs, body piercings and other fun-time assaults on the sensibilities of the Canberra public of the time. By explicitly articulating The Backlash, The Body Performers shamed ideas that passed without comment in popular media. Beneath the lipstick smiles, pastels and florals of Backlash mass media was violence and virulent misogyny. Body performance rammed the point home. Much like, on a porno celebrating forcible masculinity, an oversized cock is rammed into a shaved pussy for the titillation of baby-kissing politicians and other church-goers. One further idea was that this hidden violence could even be used for pleasure, itself domineered by being expressed. For instance, Awombda would have others rub salt into her wounds after being whipped and cut.

How effective were The Body Performers as a DIY/grass roots reaction to the Backlash? There were a number of ways the body performance were criticised. 1) Artist Ex de Medici (check here), involved in AS, observed that The Body Performers ignored issues relating to blood diseases, notably hepatitis. (Hep C is now recognised as widesread amoung intravenous drug users). 2) Kate McNamara (more on her below, for now check here) held that public mutilation of the female body could only convey a misogynist message. It could not scorn, or reuse for pleasure, Backlash messages that it made explicit. Finally 3) after an initial love affair, I increasingly became suspicious of the post-modernism espoused by The Body Performers. While Marxism uses class-based productive relations to explain social features, post-modernism refers to a variety of irreducibly disparate power formations and has nothing outside texts. Post-modernism then seems to unjustifiably confine rebellious activity to to-ing and fro-ings amid cultural diversity. My criticism was this overlooks the foundational social features. It cannot then theoretically underwrite conscious action (or aktion) against the extra-textual economic dictates underwriting the Backlash and Triumphalism.

Merely by have such a frictive social presence The Body Performers to some extent addressed criticism 3). They did make people more conscious of the shameful misuse of electronic media by power, and of the stupidly restrictive nature of Backlash family values. This implied extra-discursive criticism. So while it is hard to deny a post-modernist influence inspired them to do what they did, I came to think their praxis was inconsistent with these theories. What criticisms 1) and 2) strongly suggest is that The Body Performers sometimes confused people with extraneous and contrary messages. They brutally did their bit against the Backlash, but it is hardly surprising body performance seems a little passé today. For instance the nipple piercing once performed as an act of rebellion by The Body Performers would now be carried out on a teenager by a local chemist. It does not have an obvious feminist or other message, and instead is capable of invoking a confusing array of medical, sexual and psychological issues.

3. Influences, other performances and publications.

The towers of ivory are crumbling
And the swallows have sharpened their beaks
…gone are the days of remorse

(Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)

Criticisms 3) of The Body Performers indicates post-structuralism was not uncritically accepted in AS as it was in the ANU Art School (that for a time fostered AS). Criticism 1) and 2) rightly suggests a variety of interests and approaches within AS itself. In the icy winters of 1992 and 1993 the group was at their most active pursuing this variety. Members discussed many ideas. True to its own criticism of the limits of academia, the group spread out into more alternative venues hiding under Canberra’s skeletal trees and clinical height-restricted office blocks. This included an art exhibition in Kingston (other side of Lake Burley Griffin to the ANU Bar) where some of The Body Performers sealed themselves up in a perspex box and took amphetamines for three days. Another event AS staged was a party in Commonwealth Park intended to summon the aliens. There were satanic and other rituals, alongside formal 3-a-side debates in their home base, the Uni Bar.

As concerns the Uni Bar, around this time Chris Hughes, singer of an AS-associated band Sex-Pol that incuded Hayes, had gagged himself and been masking-taped to the floor in front of the service area. This was after a joint Sex-Pol and tiM and Emma Robertson performance had been shut down. tiM and Emma had a made a film containing a scene of a fly being unzipped while light shone from inside the pair of pants. Sex-Pol then played their song “Love Urge” as it was screened. Authoritarian bar management had taken offence. They were to soon wish they had let it pass.

The Childers street squat on the perimeter of the ANU was also an important venue. Now levelled for carparks and overpriced student accommodation, it was under siege from the police who would dump mental health patients on the doorstep of the place. This is a standard procedure. Police often try to disrupt rebellious groups and meetings by inserting/planting mentally unwell individuals, or agents feigning mental illness. At least the squatters had the support of AS, who were mad in a more enjoyable and productive way. Poetry was read as people swung on a trapeze, and AS performed in the old hall that was part of the squat. The AS-associated band The Lovesick Fools played there.

Tilley’s Café, founded on feminist activism, was also an important venue for discussion; a mere pushbike ride from ANU. In nearby Civic, The Mud Club was set up by Splinters and included performance and DJ-ed underground music (poster here). AS performed at Gorman House. Later they performed at Asylum nighclub in the city run by Criag [surname to be inserted]. In 1993 AS made an alliance with The Canberra Jazz initiative via Murray Jackson. This was related to the famous Club Toilet events. Wits such as James Judge, academic philosophers such as Adrian Heathcote, and disaffected mainstream journalists were all part of the AS circle at various times, even if not active in full agreement with the rebellious tone of AS.

Throughout this time Hayes’ original vision continued to have some sway even though Hayes distanced himself from AS. It led to sustained interest in both automatic writing and Marxist politics. Phil Crotty, a writer and theorist in AS and also associated with Splinters, termed the move back to automatic techniques “formal surrealism.” The term fits dryly with Bretons’ message in the Manifestos of Surrealism, widely read in if not always put into practise in AS. “Formal Surrealism” is supposed to dovetail into Marxist revolutionary politics when, activated by automata, liberation of the pre-conscious is sufficient to overthrow a restrictive and unfree capitalist order (iii). Women’s surrealist art, such as that of Varo and Kahlo, was widely appreciated in the group. Maria Petriella, beside a surreal/abstract expressionist graphic artist, was an avid feminist non-Leninist reader of Marx and a vital influence on some of us.

In addition the early 1990s witnessed other intellectual/literary currents that influenced AS. This included a renewed interest in thermodynamics (chaos theory), “cyberpunk” and “steampunk” literature (Gibson, Sterling etc) and recognition of the formal and substantial value of more experimental sci fi (Lessing, Burroughs, H.P.Lovecraft etc). I recall pretending to masturbate over car accidents as the character from J.G.Ballard’s “Crash.” It was with Chris Hughes behind the thick hedges that shrouded an AS planning meeting at Gina Dow’s Ainslie residence.

The punk movement with its emphasis on DIY was also a powerful influence on AS. Beside the zine format found in punk we can think of the popularity among AS-ists of Throbbing Gristle etc, Lydia Lunch, Godflesh/Pitchshifter, Nick Cave and associates such as Crime and the City Solution, all performers coming out of punk scenes. Naturally many lesser known such acts were influential, alongside more commercially viable New Wave performers such as Kate Bush. Some have claimed punk is post-modern, but even Greil Marcus (iv) has trouble fitting demands for freedoms not available to consumers (that is within the market considered as a kind of text) in with this diagnosis. In AS such demands ran hot under the clear air of chilly Canberra autumns and winters.

Beside The Body Performers, other performances were staged by the group. Kate McNamara’s anti-Backlash feminism diluted any post-modernist influence with mythic concerns. She was central in organising performance. Possibly the most active writer for Splinters, she became involved with AS in the aftermath of the death of her eldest son, Eamon. Though striken with grief, she was intrigued by the O week stall of late February 1992. For her capitalism had fallen away from the mythic beauty we find in some tribal traditions. Problematically for her involvement in AS, the default myths of today are as pre-conscious as we expect from myth, and examples wind up being nationalism, race, work, religion and platonistic ideas of great art. If we valorise these by valorising myth, we tend by default to reflect unthinking acceptance of powerful institutions. The episcopal origins of the backlash are an example, and hence we find Yeats etc, Jung and Mann all winding up in the Auschwitz of far right politics.

This itself is not an argument against these men’s ideas, though such arguments can easily be made. (Paul Griffith, for instance, has recently strongly argued that innateness and universality come apart. This would be fatal for Jung’s theory of mythical archetypes even if his ethnographic evidence is in order). What is important here is that in AS McNamara avoided a similar move by promoting a range of anti-institutional interests such as indigenous Australian Dreaming and women’s self expression. Charismatic, she chimed with the tone of AS by using myth and ritual to ceaselessly advocate DIY praxis, art in daily life, women’s struggle and creativity, and personal freedom as ways of addressing the contemporary fall. I would suggest this implies a criterion for selecting the right (use of) myths from outside myth itself. Given the content here, traditional moral values would not do the job. As in the parallel instance of the Body Performer’s post-modernism (criticism 3 above) McNamara seems driven, at least implicitly, to recognising and critiquing the foundational economic features of an unfree society.

With varying degrees of success, McNamara’s performances were undertaken by the group. A memorable one involved Awombda staring into a mirror/ pool. This was at AS’s opening of The National Gallery of Australia’s arguably most successful exhibition ever, Surrealism: Revolution by Night in 1993 (v). One AS publication was financed when AS was paid for their antics at this opening, which included a fine speech by Hayes against the de-politicisation of surrealism. Another would-be performance harmed McNamara’s reputation when The Body Performers, supposed to be in her myth-driven play Morgana, boycotted the opening at Gorman House. This may have been due to the fact McNamara, while sympathetic to a post-modern analysis of the media, did not overall share the philosophies of The Body Performers. I have also noted she had been critical of them (criticism 2) above).

Throughout its life Aktion Surreal engaged in many performances. Some were of a distinctly art terrorist nature including detonating an effigy, an attack that upset a polling booth leaving it drenched in performer’s blood, burning “surreal” advertisement and an artistic act of public indecency staged at The Terrace Bar, a kind of second base camp for Aktion Surreal. The latter three actions had the Australian Federal Police looking for the AS members repsonsible. AS has been understandably described as anarchist. It was also an art-terrorist organisation.

AS performed with Splinters. This included in the 1993 Flowers of Gold (Market place and concluding performance) staged in the Kingston Bus Shed. The Body Performers had a presence in Splinter’s intense Thirst is a place, also performed in an industrial space. Chris Barnett, a writer working in France and interested in the work of post-Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (also of interest to Freeman and myself) had come to Canberra to work with Splinters. While there he also published with AS and attended their meetings. He read powerfully at an incongruous poetry event AS dominated in an up-market city restaurant, “Dorrettes.”  Here too, I experimented with voice distortion, reading poetry through Hal Judge’s kick-arse digital delay. Splinter’s poet Brian “Desire” Hinksman found in AS a natural home. Other important performers were punk-beatnik and zine machine Michael Dargaville, Jaspar Perry’s utterly carefree guitar playing, bands The Lovesick Fools, The Piltdown Frauds (a few songs here), Cunt and Sex-Pol. The perfomances involved, like much AS output, often had an absurdist edge. This owed soemthing to formal surrealism, that, whatever its own loss into the pre-conscious, regained a certain freshness in the dire aftermath of Triumphalism.

The group cohered around the eponymous publication, and it was here this edge and the variety in AS really made itself felt. Within the publication, McNamara fostered an interest in paganism, also found in the work of Geir Folkstein (who did a horoscope for the group), Jacqui Caddy and others. Among other contributors on other subjects, in one issue Tony Blattman wrote an excellent article on how to eat healthily for less, while a range of graphic artists contributed to the publication. These included Kathleen McCann, Clint Hurrel, Damien Molony, Maria Petriella and Lindy Graham.There was a humorous comment on Aktion Surrealist’s combination of automata with later twentieth century imagery by Hal Judge, a more mainstream writer. Judge did not necessarily share the dissatisfactions that drove Aktion Surreal. He appeared to believe that artistic participation in the free market could give us a roughly satisfactory agonistic liberalism (more on Judge below). There were cartoons and work from a group of art school renegade comics: Karl Hopper, Dave (surname to be added) and Lushan Tan. Sasha Gibbons wrote parodically on geomantic Canberra and the numerology of the local bus services. Patrick Troy stirred up controversy in the group contributed with a blunt satire of the psychoanalytic aspects of some feminism.

A strength of AS was that they laughed, not just at their Triumphalist/Backlash predicament, but at themselves. AS theorist Phil Crotty in fact held that all high Modernism, including more formal surrealism, was one gigantic fart joke. Formal surrealism does indeed often seem to centre around flatulence and similar mildly taboo themes. Specifically, Crotty had in mind the interests the likes of Dali’s coprophilia and “counter-surrealist” Bataille’s love of entrails. Within AS, the ideas of the original counter-surrealists were championed by Neil Freeman. Crotty’s point is that such powerful influences on Modernism are driven by a child-like glee over bodily functions, and so Modernism itself should be laughed at rather than put on a pedestal.

Graham Ussher’s contributions to the main publication, both hilarious and dark, were closer to Hayes’ ideas in that he experimented with formal surrealism. Ussher was a natural at using dream accounts to critique late 20th century life. His eerily moving work compared the draining experience of such rackets as tourism, Australiana and American Culture with the marvellous attainable in REM sleep. He dressed colourfully and inaugurated experiments in binding and covering zines. His breakthrough effort was “The Memoirs of a Meaty Clock.” Material from this zine was performed under the guidance of McNamara in a hijacked poetry reading on the south side in 1992. Ben Keaney transcribed what poetic utterances he could glean from the mad, and developed something of the same oneric feel as Ussher. When in AS Ben Keaney explored themes around recollection, the (urban) bush as well as militarism. He used a paranoid critical method assisted by psychoactive substances. Beside Ussher, others in AS made perzines/poetry/surreal zines, often publishing under “Aktion Surreal publications.” This included tiM McCann (see f.n. (iii)), Anthony Hayes, Sophie Bord and a surreal hagiography by myself (check here).

4.Demise of the group

Systems in a forest
The plans they design work well
Then they escape into sleep

(The Piltdown Frauds)

In 1994 Canberra experienced a piercingly crisp winter, the fourth or so comparatively bitter one in a row. It was also clear that the AS group was cooling off. It was not the diversity that eventually destroyed AS; it never seemed too fractured in its prime. Certainly, there was dissatisfaction with the main publication. In 1993 this caused myself to start a separate more DIY publication, Front Jugged. It was named after one of Hayes’ poems and evinced more similarity to a fanzine and issue 1 of ‘Action Surreal’ than the flashier later publications. The gripe though, was editorial control, not the diversity. That diversity was all too easily re-established by DIY means. What had a more destructive effect on the group was the use of heroin. This complemented the lucrative but time and energy consuming move into the sex industry by The Body Performers.

From 1994 on Hayes developed a critique of this move. He insisted it was a form of workerism; that is that it unjustifiably romanticised paid employ. Early 1990s academics interested in feminism often argued that sex work was liberatory on the grounds that housewives were unpaid prostitutes and domestics anyway. The Backlash rendered women’s domestic activity invisible once more, and the argument had at least startlingly challenged the oversight. However Hayes countered that this argument unfortunately ignored both the overall powerlessness of work (“alienation”) and the specific industrial issues which regularly confront sex workers.

Once we keep this in mind we have a strong motive to question the conservative dichotomy the argument presents: family values or sex industry. We might suspect both Backlash types and sex industrialists accept the exclusive disjunction because it benefits them both, rather than because the exclusive disjunct is mandated. Activism arguably in fact implies niether disjunct. Hayes’ repost certainly captured the effects of sex work on AS. This was a move from grass roots rebellion into the “serious” business of making money. The result was a creeping apathy that could equally have been achieved with a public service job (also a fate of several of those involved in AS).

Frustrated with the structrualist/relativist tone of post-modernist writers like Althusser and Delueze, it seemed to me Hayes’ original, more focussed, vision had been lost. So I too moved for a time into formal surrealism and socialism. I was not alone. Like others I was impressed with ISO success on campus in 1994 including two heroic building occupations. Capitalism was being directly and forcibly contested here! It was real rebellion at a time when AS had lost some verve. In one of these occupations, I rocked out with a monophonic synth on the Vice Chancellor’s desk, wearing a tentacle beret, a mask that read “goat” and a bright blue safari suit. I was playing with my band, The Piltdown Frauds.

Many other AS-ists played a prominent role in the same student movement, including tiM McCann and Emma Robertson working as meeting facilitators. AS-ists Erica Kerrush, Sasha Gibbons, Pete Wood, Chris Hughes and Body Performer and ex-navy sailor Dominic Bromilow were committed activists and gave the movement both character and backbone. Despite the hieght of the student movement coinciding with the demise of AS, the relationship between the two turns out to be a close one; AS had begun in and around irreverent dissatisfaction with academia, and helped foster this. I have made some remarks about this close relationship elsewhere.

Others felt the need to move beyond AS for other reasons. Kate McNamara, for instance, may have realised that AS would never be a vehicle for great art or mythic moral values. Her belief in gifted individuals as conduits for mythical values could easily lead to suspicion of the often shonkey activists that composed AS. Recall that AS was kickstarted by a Gutenburg-like opening up of DIY publication to anyone.

By 1994 Hal Judge had already begun to move into a more mainstream direction, insisting art should be accessible (he also carried on some AS approaches as we shall find in the next section). Hal Judge may have realised AS would never give him the exposure he desired. Judge went onto enlist the help of others including Splinters honcho David Branson (here) and eventually Sydney performance poet Tug Dumley. From 1995 he organised poetry readings and publishing ventures designed to create popular accessible Canberra poetry. In the years following AS he paved the way for Slam Poetry, which has actual rules designed to make it more accessible. Slam only really made an impact in Australia from about 1999 when it was taken up in Melbourne and Sydney, though the form, originating in the US, is slightly older. In Canberra there is still Slam poetry: the Bad Slam No Biscuit Readings (here).

AS-ists did not follow Hal Judge into more mainstream expression, and later in general were to become suspicious of slams. While Judge’s suggestion that challenging ideas should be more broadly circulated is attractive, there was good reason to be careful. For a start Judge sometimes deprecated the nuts and bolts of a rebellious creative process. This includes experimentation which may “fail” to communicate stimulate or entertain. I have argued there should be spaces for this “failure” outside of commercial constraints or those incurred in the drive to be popular (vi). As Kate McNamara once remarked, Judge (and I might add those he fostered) tended to play it safe. On the other hand most AS-ists were experimental and not afraid to fall flat.

In any case the other perennial and more serious difference between Judge and AS-ists is over a trade off. Challenging ideas frighten people. They are rightly worried that if associated with such ideas they will be penalised in some way (economically, socially or violently) for deviating from work and consumption. We have found reasons why those in AS already usually believed that there were economic determinants preventing freedom in contemporary western society (vii). Theodore Adorno has similarly explained entertainment as work dominating life. Workplaces require conformity and a facile lack of extraneous thought. Equally entertainment is the easiest thing to do when you knock off, and it lacks challenge.

Judge held that DIY events minimise on the trade off, and that challenging ideas can be commercialised. I agree. Like the International Socialists, Adorno reduces everything to economics. Adorno forgets that entertaining activities organised around well-argued social criticism should not be understood in terms of economic determinants. But Judge went the other way and forgot economic determinants altogether, hence neglecting economic criticism. The result was an (unwitting) encouragement of the mechanism identified by Adorno, and “alternative” expression conveying the impression that western society is free. As I have said, this was a false impression by AS lights.

Only five or so years after the demise of AS a Canberra “alternative” poetry/music venue, the Gypsy Bar (viii), could even host a conservative scene attracting ASIO operatives and a Backlash witch hunt. Judge was a prominent patron and organiser at the Gypsy. Obviously the point is not that Judge is personally responsible for this rapid cultural degeneration. But it could have been avoided by an approach superior to his own drive for accessibility. The superior approach would aim for a larger public by recognising and actively combating economic imperatives to free expression. This would be accessible in a different and at least at first more restricted way. The superior approach would make a wider audience conscious of the limitations on current social life. It would be better thought of as “catalysing” than “accessible.”

So it is unsurprising that as AS ran out of steam most AS-ists did not believe Judge’s later endeavours offered a viable replacement activity. In general they did not seek out other more commercial or accessible means of expression, as some of the original surrealists or many of the punks had. But nor did they embark on the superior approach, at least in Canberra. Hayes’ experimental poetry reading “Situation Normal X” is an attempt to do so in the Canberra of today.

5. Aftermath

You cannot step into the same river twice
The fresh waters are ever rushing upon you

(Heraclitus of Ephesos)

In fact post-AS initiatives were lacking altogether. Here I must refer to recent writing by Gavin Findlay about the loss of earlier 1990s underground cultural initiative in Canberra (check here and here). As concerns a large, active, theory-focused rebellious art group, there were no immediate replacements for AS. Several involved in AS became active with the International Socialists and other Leninist groups; but after some mid 90s successes, these group also lost influence. In 1996 ex-members of AS did perform in the market place for Splinters production of Faust with, among others, Acme, Belly dancers, the band Sidewinder and Geir Folkstein’s martial arts group of the time. However this was as philosophers and other roving performers, not as AS. Splinters, too, wound down after some striking mid-to later 1990s performances such as Utopia/Dystopia in 1996 (my recollection here).

Other projects also attracted ex-AS-ists later in the 1990s, though none with the coherency or momentum of AS. Beside more mainstream ventures already mentioned, Hal Judge toured Canberra and Sydney with his cyberpunk play Silicon Spies in 1996. He read poetry through electronic distortion after the play. So this was a return to ideas that animated AS. And it did involve ex-ASists Jasper Perry, Body Performer Jude (surname to be inserted) and myself. At one point I suggested a brain zip across the stage (a stray AI in the cyberpunk play). Jasper made a brain mould out of greyish jelly and placed it on top of a remote controlled toy car. It duly zipped across the stage. Judge has since tried to take Silicon Spies to Hollywood (ix).

In Canberra ex-AS members also became involved in the City Project (two eponymous publications, both available in the National Library of Australia) and McNamara’s Aberrant Genotype Press (also known as Abreaction, hereafter “AGP”). AGP were co-publishers of the City Project, and funded the freezing cold but enjoyable launch of the second (though to my mind inferior) volume in 2003 at ANU. Recalling comments about McNamara and myth above, AGP began promisingly as McNamara tirelessly and charismatically championed grassroots-creative initiatives, but lost its other ex-AS-ists in the mid 2000s. This was mainly because McNamara did eventually bog in right politics, implicitly relying on the valorisation of myth to extol family, work, and religion. AGP duly attracted conservative defence personnel and police types before expiring.

By contrast some of those involved in AS stood on the 1998 MUA picket lines. In Sydney you might find ex-AS people in Sub Rosa or Urban Theatre Projects in 1999/early 2000s. In 1999 Ussher published a dreamy story with Sydney literary magazine Abbadon (it’s here) (x). From the mid 1990s, and for a decade or so, Hayes and I churned out zines under the title Ern Malley Press (some are here). tiM MCann still runs a spoken word radio show on 2XX that often carries on the evil work of AS. Of course others from AS kept performing as individuals. For instance Michael Dargaville, Hayes, Hinksman, Ben Keaney, Paul O’Brien, Clare O’Brien and others did so both alone and as a band called Avatron. Avatron continues experimenting to this day. Again, though, such projects are all smaller and more individual than the activities of the AS days.

tiM McCann, Emma Robertson, Hayes myself and others attempted to restage AS in 1997. On a dreary afternoon in the Uni Bar we dishearteningly found the old differences, once the lifeblood of the group, had hardened into insuperable antagonisms. Hayes and myself were motivated by the idea of a surrealist group that was closer to Hayes’ original conception. The initiative resulted in one zine in 1997, ‘The Surrealist Revolt,’ but after that folded. This happened when, immediately following the failed meeting, Hayes penned a leaflet against the sex workerism (see his critique of this above). tiM and Emma had wanted the restaged AS to gravitate to sex industry issues. We distributed Hayes’ leaflet where AS was supposed to be relaunched, at a ‘Dreams of a lime green cat suit’ poetry gig at Heaven nightclub in late 1997. The well-argued pamphlet scuttled the AS relaunch.

One reason Hayes and I were disappointed with tiM and Emma’s approach to a restaged AS is because we thought a new AS could avoid the mistakes of the old. We had in mind a group acting more solidly in tandem with student activism (see remarks and hyperlink above relating to an AS/student activism marriage). In context ‘Dreams of a Lime Green Cat Suit’ (DLGCS) zine and performance gig did in fact form something of a feline tail-end to AS. It was certainly a large active group; at the time (1997) The Uni Bar was still a lively venue for discussion and there was a brief re-flowering of student activism. This was mainly around the attempt of ANU management to shut down the Classics and subsequent student activist occupations of ANU admin. In one I was willingly thrown through a window in an attempt to enter a building by International Socialist honcho Luke Deer. I was promptly and briefly arrested.

So unsurprisingly some ex-AS-ists could be found on the peripheries of DLGCS, and DLGCS produced experimental material, often with uncanny similarity to AS initiatives. Xtian put out several formally surreal publications and later some sites, Heather Catchpole for a time championed rebellious poetics. Lady Cadaver staged some ‘pro-surrealist’ splatter performances in Canberra c. 1999, including at the Gypsy Bar. But instead of using creativity to help expand upon this, DLGCS dabbled with the problematic ideas of accessibility encountered in relation to Hal Judge’s later endeavours (xi). It soon devolved into individual projects.

The sad fact is that around the end of the 1990s the Australian student movement was defeated, at least for now. By 2005 the age old dream of the ANU Liberal Club had even come true and the Uni Bar, too, was devoid of any counterculture. The voluble and eccentric indigenous contingent had been removed by racist entry policies some time ago, and the punk scene was long gone. The jukebox got worse then took itself off in shame. In fact almost no pubs have jukeboxes anymore; no one can afford to drink and play ’em. Publicans tend to be gun ho about shoving CNN-style corporate agitprop down drinker’s throats, and the ANU Uni Bar is no different. I am told The Bar is currently under authoritarian management of the type AS, Sex-Pol and the student movement had successfully opposed. The specific conditions that had enabled AS are gone along with the group itself.

6.Conclusions

What more to say about the AS experience? I have understood AS as a reaction to late 1980s Backlash and Triumphalism. AS did not follow Leninism to reduce all rebellion to economic/workplace struggle, but on the other hand was not so niave as to discount economic deterimants, and became suspicious of the potentially conservative results of  such discounting. AS also should not simply be identified with the post-modernism that was taking more “left” of centre Australian art by storm at the time. The group should be understood as responding to extra-textual social features as recognised by Marxism, and sometimes even dovetailing into communism and formal surrealism. Contribution to the student movement presented in some ways a natural direction and base for the group, even though by the time of the 1994 peak of the student movement on ANU campus, AS was on the wane.

Later with the (hopefully temporary) demise of the student movement such a direction/base was in any case closed off.  In 1997 with the failed restaging of AS it was time to recognise that was then, this is now. Likewise a decade later the 13 year reunion mooted by some in 2007 seemed to me a product of nostalgia rather than of a sense of renewed initiative around everyday creativity.  All that is left for me to add about AS itself is that people had worked through and experienced a number of different ideas in a fun often sex-affirmative environment, but now we need new directions and learn from mistakes. One direction could be the ‘catalysing’ I opposed to ‘accessiblity’ above. One mistake to aviod seems to be an excessive relaince on automata/absurdism to liberate. Even at the time, AS’s discussions and irreverence to Modernism promised some alternative to this reliance.

As concerns the future it is disturbing that in the crackdown following the staged attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, AS-like groups seemed to become rarer and less active. Hayes and myself found this in attempting to launch an Australia-wide Destructivist art group in 2004. It emphasised destruction in and of art. In Brisbane this involved burning art in Brunswick street, cheered on by sex workers and even uniformed police (though we were shut down by plainclothes on one occasion). This group may also have been a tad too negative. And, in fact in 2011, things are looking up again. Much as, after the Backlash and Triumphalist ballyhoo of the late 1980s, many were ready for a change.

Rather than writing too much more about the history of AS as an inspirational group, the time has come to get out there. As Findlay has intimated, we need more DIY groups prepared to contest the non-freedom of early twenty first century capitalism. We need groups interested in vibrant creativity and strong clear argument that we need the superior approach mentioned at the end of the last section, this time to give us a superior society.

RIP

To the AS-ists no longer with us. Over its 2 and ½  year life 200-250 people would have been active to some extent in the group, and many of them lived on the edge. Mention goes to David Morris (Graphics and layout) and editor of by far the swishest Front Jugged, mild mannered Pete Dunn who rightfully found little to be enticing about his 1980s experience, DIY distro artist Daniel McFadden (here) and of course Maria Petriella, a font of many great ideas and a woman who tirelessly fostered critical thought. These and all the others no longer with us will be remembered for lives truly lived under today’s repressive apocalyptic conditions: as rebellion.

Graphix

I did the Aktion Surreal letterhead that was never used, until now. 1st and 3rd Canberra building photo by Maria Petriella. 2nd Canberra building photo taken by Maria Petriella and I when we did an inner city drift together, randomly entering offices. All photos taken around 1993. Click on to magnify. I apologise for my poor preservation of Maria’s work.

Later photos from a performance at the art school organised in the last days of AGP press, 2005. The main part of this was written by McNamara, it was called the “Parliament of Fowls.” The first such photo is Brian “Desire” Hinksman reading poetry, the second Ben Keaney and Paul O’Brien. All are performing after McNamara’s play. Sorry, I forgot who took these photos (Fiona Edge?).  Please inform me if they are your work.

Notes

Anthony Hayes edited this and made suggestions. Thanks to all of those who have archived AS material whether or not I looked at their archives: Neil Freeman, Anthony Hayes and Kate McNamara.

Please inform me of any proof errors and misspelt names: geraldkeaney@hotmail.com. I am also open to including other incidents and names if requested. My criticisms of the ideas involved in AS will be revised in blog below given decent argument/evidence, but not otherwise.

References

(i) Faludi, S. 1991. “Backlash.” London: Chatto and Windus.
(ii) Sample in “Slugging for Jesus” by British midlands band Cabaret Voltaire
(iii) Breton, A. 1998. Manifestos of Surrealism, trans H.Lane and R.Seaver. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.I have written in more detail about instances of formal AS surrealism in my M.A: Keaney, G. 1998. “Surrealism as Revolutionary Art” hard copy available in the ANU library system as well as in the National Gallery of Australia’s library. Phil Crotty himself was more post-modernist, and was skeptical of attempts to change extra-textual foundational social features.

So we find Surrealism is committed to the idea that captialism cannot be free, and is not free today. Whatever the other problems of surrealism (how can the pre-conscious alone give us liberation?) the idea that western capitalism was unfree was understandably the general feeling amoung Aktion Surreal. More than anything explains this general feeling the reuse of the surrealist moniker by the the group. To pick two astounding examples of open repression in the supposedly free west, men who dress differently or are openly gay are subject to summary violence under western capitalism. Within AS tiM McCann for instance took up the oppression of queer men in his perzine. By “queer” he meant both those who are gay-identifying as well as those who dress differently. (So I do not pick these examples to downplay the violence suffered by women who do not conform to family values, or even those that do. Rather I am investigating a position within AS).

Interestingly, and to investigate the neglect of this example of western repression, in co-operating with fundamentalists to ensure “stability” when seizing Iraqi oil production, the US army has helped increase the murder rate of effeminate men. As in the Bible Belt so in the middle east. As, indeed, in downtown Brisbane, Canberra, and even Sydney.  Almost no-one remarks that there is a dress code in western life, enforced by the official and unofficial corridor monitors of corporate Maoism. It has been sung about by The Dead Kennedys in “Halloween” and by the Theatre of Hate in “Clan.” It is alluded to by The Saints. Outrageous queen Boy George was a good boxer and physically defeated unofficial corridor monitors on a number of occasions. AS in part felt it was redressing the neglect of these goings on, as had the punk movement.

(iv) Marcus, G. 1989.  “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century.” Cambridge: Havard University Press.
(v) See Dawn Ades, Murray Bail, Timothy Baum, Christopher Chapman, John Clark, Helen Ennis, Ted Gott, Mary Jane Jacob, Adrian Martin and Kenneth Wach. 1993. Revolution by Night. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia.
(vi) Keaney, M and Keaney, G. 2007. “The DNA of DIY.”In Photofile 81:60-63.
(vii) Recall that on my reading this was what informed the initial opposition to both the Backlash and Triumphalism. See section 1 above, esp f.n.iii.
(viii) I do not mean to characterise the Gypsy Bar solely by reference to this negative outcome. For a more positive side to this venue check the memorial to it here. As will be suggested by mention of Lady Cadaver’s performances in the coming section, many great performances and nights were had in the place. Hal Judge released an anthology of contributors who frequented this venue, Sound and Fury: The Gypsy Anthology (KGB, Turner ACT, 2000, check it here). In a way relevant to the above comments I have described Hal Judge’s editorial error in respect of my submission to this anthology. (Find the description of the error under the heading “Wanted” here, in the second paragraph. My submission as it should have been produced is here).
(ix) I have recently learnt that Judge’s film has been shot. I am currently attempting to track it down.
(x) While in Sub Rosa I criticised this same magazine, Abbadon. The first 5 paragraphs of the review published in The Last Head 2, the zine of Sub Rosa, concern Abbadon’s first issue (review archived here). The 5th paragraph of the review concerns Abbadon’s mistreatment of me. I should mention that Ned Matijasevic, a writer I criticise there, redeemed himself by going on to do some fine work with Urban Theatre Projects, a group alluded to in section 5.
(xi) A drive to ‘accessibility’ certainly became more prevalent in John Howard’s grim honeymoon period following 1996. It can be read as part of an attempt to resurrect Triumphalism since it valorises the market, and in Canberra it seemed artists were buying it. We can glimpse the same trend in the fact this was only a year after Judge began his drive to greater accessibility. As in the case of Judge’s drive, ex-AS-ists (and certain others) in DLGCS were cagey about ‘accessibility

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How the Situationist International became what it was

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I finally submitted my thesis on the SI last April, 2017. It was accepted by the university in August of the same year after being given the green light by my three markers. It is available here.

So, the project is finished for the time being.

Some notes on the limitations of my thesis. First, I have concentrated exclusively on the SI prior to 1968, and even more so on a the period 1957 to 1963. The question for me was not one of posing the limitations or superiority of the ‘first’ (1957-62) or ‘second’ (1962-68) period of the SI, but rather addressing the question of the continuity across the so-called break with the artists. To that end I conceive of the ‘Situationist hypothesis’ (i.e. what Debord posed as the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’ in 1957) as being (i) sublimated in the more consciously general, ‘revolutionary’ project the group outlined from 1961 an onward; and (ii) generally ignored or misunderstood by most of the Situationists who identified as primarily artists before 1962. In my thesis I consider the Hamburg Theses (Les thèses de Hambourg) as a singular exemplar of the SI attempting to ‘realise and abolish’ art and politics, as a moment of elaborating just such a supersession in the present.

Secondly, some of the chapters are better than others. If and when I work this thesis up for publication, chapter six will suffer the most at the hands of the future cutter and re-writer. Additionally, I would be keen to substantially re-write chapters five and seven in order to better, and more clearly draw out what I consider some of the more interesting arguments in my thesis.

If you want a overview of the thesis, read the introductory chapter. If you want to continue, concentrate on chapter one, three, four, five and seven.

If you have any comments, suggestions or criticism to make of my arguments or methods, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra
January 2018

THESIS ABSTRACT (thesis available here)

The Situationist International (1957-1972) was a small group of communist revolutionaries, originally organised out of the West European artistic avant-garde of the 1950s. The focus of my thesis is to explain how the Situationist International (SI) became a group able to exert a considerable influence on the ultra-left criticism that emerged during and in the wake of the May movement in France in 1968. My wager is that the pivotal period of the group is to be found between 1960 and 1963, a period marked by the split of 1962. Often this is described as the transition of the group from being more concerned with art to being more concerned with politics, but as I will argue this definitional shorthand elides the significance of the Situationist critique of art, philosophy and politics. The two axes of my thesis are as follows. First, that the significant minority in the group which carried out the break of 1962, identified a homology between the earlier Situationist critique of art — embodied in the Situationist ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’ — and Marx’s critique and supersession of the radical milieu of philosophy from which he emerged in the mid- 1840s. This homology was summarised in the expression of the Situationist project as the ‘supersession of art’ (dépassement de l’art). Secondly, this homology was practically embodied in the resolution of the debates over the role of art in the elaboration of the Situationist hypothesis, which had been ongoing since 1957. However, it was the SI’s encounter with the ultra-left group Socialisme ou Barbarie that would prove decisive. Via Guy Debord’s membership, the group was exposed to both the idea of a more general revolutionary criticism, but also ultimately what was identified as the insufficiently criticised ‘political militancy’ of this group. Indeed, in the ‘political alienation’ found in Socialisme ou Barbarie, a further homology was established between the alienation of the political and artistic avant-gardes. This identity would prove crucial to the further elaboration of the concept of ‘spectacle’. By way of an examination of the peculiar and enigmatic ‘Hamburg Theses’ of 1961, and the relationship between these ‘Theses’ and the Situationist criticism of art and politics worked out over the first five years of the group, I will argue that the break in 1962 should be conceived as one against politics as much as art (rather than just the latter, as it is more often represented). Additionally, I will outline how the SI, through the paradoxical reassertion of their artistic origins, attempted to synthesise their criticism of art with the recovery of the work of Marx beyond its mutilation as Marxism. Indeed, it was the synthesis of these critiques that enabled the considerable development of the concept of ‘spectacle’, opening the way to the unique influence the SI exerted in the re-emergence of a revolutionary movement at the end of the 1960s.

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A Palinode for the Bureau

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A little over two years ago I applauded Eric-John Russell’s review of Ken Knabb’s revised translation of The Society of the Spectacle, saying:

Knabb’s attempt to make Debord’s work more accessible seems to have ossified it – perhaps inadvertently.

On further reflection, I now believe this assessment was wrong. Indeed, unless we reckon with the context of Debord’s work in a similar fashion to Knabb (a context moreover receding rapidly into an inaccessible past accessible only through its various and often contradictory representations), we will make no sense of it, either as a work of its time or as a work of continuing relevance.

To be absolutely clear, it is my previous assessment that I now consider in error. Russell’s review, despite some rhetorical exaggeration (‘everything is listed in the back’) raised both the advantages and disadvantages of Knabb’s latest edition of Debord’s book. My cheering of Russell from the sidelines, however, emphasised only what I then unfairly characterised as the ‘increasing inadequacy of Knabb’s translation of the Situationist project’.

In his review, Russell raised some important questions about the way ideas are presented in capitalism, in particular those ideas deployed in the critique of capitalism, and how such critical ideas can be overwhelmed by the lack of considered reflection, as well as the often implicit and explicit attention given to the ownership of ideas (rather than their critical use). Nonetheless, I hailed Russell’s criticisms in a sectarian spirit which ultimately undermined the critical worth of my comments. Moreover, I now believe that Russell’s key criticism of the purported deficiency of Knabb’s revised translation is wrong. This is not to say there is no critical worth in Russell’s review; rather it is to draw attention to my maladroit interpretation and use of it.

In the review, Russell drew attention to Knabb’s addition of many explanatory footnotes. For Russell, this addition was unquestionably problematic:

Since everything is listed in the back, one no longer stumbles upon an idea that, for instance, looks vaguely familiar and compels the reader to reflectively grapple with its meaning.

Nonetheless, Russell appeared to be caught between acknowledging the usefulness of Knabb’s explanatory notes, and decrying what he perceived as their implicit prohibition of discovering the multiple sources of Debord’s détournements:

As a tutorial to the theoretical work of the Situationist International and Debord, Knabb’s edition irrefutably excels. However, as a work that takes seriously the notion that there is peril in revealing too much all at once – and that perhaps revolutionary critique should be an impartial burden rather than easily adaptable to prevailing modes of discourse – Knabb’s edition is remiss to have forgotten that sometimes less is more.

Russell’s point that ‘[o]urs is, without fail, an epoch without the strength to pause in the presence of an idea’ is well made. However, it is questionable whether one can hold Knabb’s translation to account for this.  During the time of the SI—1957-1972—Situationists were resistant to the overly exegetical apparatus of academic citation, preferring to use and re-use ideas rather than inter them and endlessly interrogate them for little or no purpose. However, the SI’s time has passed, and the references and context of the SI are often lost to those of us who did not participate in the movement of 1968 and its immediate aftermath. Indeed, today, in order to make sense of the SI, one needs to excavate the historical context of the SI itself, not to mention the many and varied references and détournements that draw upon a vast array of literary, philosophic and political antecedents. With Knabb’s new translation, remarkably free of annoying in-text footnotes, a reader can easily choose to read Debord’s work as it was originally presented, largely free of citations—or not, as the case may be. The overly abstract conception of such a reader, implicit in Russell’s review, seems to preclude the possibility of multiple readings, i.e. readings that variously pay attention to the notes, or ignore them depending on the perceived needs or desires of particular readers and their context. No doubt The Society of the Spectacle can be read in a non-reflective fashion. However, Russell over-burdens Knabb’s scholarly footnotes with a role that is almost certainly beyond either their intent or purpose.

Russell is on firmer ground when he identified some striking lacunae in Knabb’s footnotes, such as the absence of clearer references to the notion of ‘alienation’ used by Debord, his debt to Lukács’s notion of the ‘contemplative attitude’, and the central importance of Marx’s early and mature work in Debord’s conceptualisation of the past dominating the present in societies of commodity production. Similarly, I raised in my original post the question of providing a more complete picture of Debord’s 1967 text, by including translations of Debord’s later reflections on this work in his later Preface to the fourth Italian edition (1979), and his book length Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988). Certainly, it is here that we can criticise Knabb’s presentation. Additionally, we can take issue with his translation, and contest the efficacy of his choices in the name of clarity and fidelity to the original. But to question the need for a comprehensive scholarly supplement to The Society of the Spectacle, particularly in the midst of so much sloppy and mendacious “scholarship” on Debord and the group, surely only contributes to the confusion that reigns around commentary on the SI and its bequest to the present.

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Beyond salvage: Andrea Gibbons on the Situationists

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In late 2015 Andrea Gibbons published an article entitled, Salvaging Situationism: Race and Space. If we leave aside for the moment her maladroit use of the term ‘situationism’, what we find is an argument charging the predominantly white, male membership of the Situationist International circa 1958 to 1960 with the neglect and racist ‘betrayal’ of an Algerian member of the group, namely Abdelhafid Khatib. Gibbons charge is a serious one, and if correct calls into question the Situationist critique of race and racism.

The Situationist International (hereafter SI) is certainly not beyond the scope of criticism. Despite many commentators drawing attention to the so-called “purity” of the group, the SI never claimed to have extinguished all traces and lived reality of modern alienation within their ranks. This is not to justify obvious failings of the SI, but only to point out that the survival of hierarchical and ideological forms within the group was acknowledged and often contested. Thus the question, to what extent race, racism, sexism, and other ideologies of capitalism played a role in the Situationist group, is an important one. However Gibbons method of attack muddies the water by way of shoddy scholarship and a dogged attachment to a single line of speculation.

In what follows I will concentrate on Gibbons questionable use of sources to construct her argument. Indeed I will demonstrate that her argument against the SI is based almost entirely upon (1) claims about source material which do not stand up under examination, and (2) the sloppy use of both textual and historical evidence which ultimately undermines her argument. Without doubt Gibbons makes more general claims about the way race and racism (and to a lesser extent gender and sexism) should be contested as a part of radical, anti-capitalistic critique. However a criticism of her argument in this regard is beyond the scope of this essay. Luckily Gerald Keaney has taken on this aspect of Gibbons argument in his article Andrea Gibbons’ Situationism.

Gibbons begins her argument against the SI with the ‘Editorial Note’ attached to the publication of Abdelhafid Khatib’s ‘incomplete’ psychogeographical study of Les Halles (an area in central Paris). So should we. Note that I have retranslated it from the French:

EDITORIAL NOTE: This study is incomplete on several fundamental points, principally those concerning the ambient characteristics of certain crudely defined areas. This is because our collaborator, since September, has been the victim of police regulations [règlements de police] banning North Africans from the streets after 21:30 hours. The core of A[bdelhafid]. Khatib’s work concerned the ambiance of [Les] Halles at night. After two arrests and two stays [deux séjours] in a holding cell [“Centres de Triage”] he gave up. Therefore the present cannot be abstracted from considerations bearing upon psychogeography itselfno more than a future politics can.

Gibbons makes two core arguments on the basis of this Editorial Note. First she claims that the editorial committee of the SI did not make good their ‘promise to consider psychogeography in light of these targeted arrests carried out against colonial subjects’.

Secondly, and on the basis of the claim about their ‘promise’, Gibbons claims that Khatib and other Algerian members of the SI (for instance Mahomed Dahou) were betrayed by the other predominantly white, male members of the SI, who failed to demonstrate ‘material solidarity and theoretical rigour’ in the face of Khatib’s racist harassment by French cops. Indeed she goes further and poses the possibility that Khatib and Dahou’s resignation from the SI in, respectively, 1960 and 1959, was largely the result of this lack of solidarity and insight into the peculiar positions of Algerians in the French metropole.

Considering the first claim, the SI as a group made no ‘promise to consider psychogeography in light of these targeted arrests carried out against colonial subjects’. Certainly no promise was made in the Editorial Note. The psychogeographical study of Les Halles was given up after Khatib was harassed and arrested by cops on more than one occasion. Indeed one can conceive that the calling off of the study — whether made by Khatib alone or by the group in collaboration — was an act of ‘material solidarity’, rather than perversely as its absence by Gibbons.

It is clear from Khatib’s write-up of the psychogeographical study that the study was not made by him alone, even if he was solely responsible for the write up. For instance he speaks of collective actions regarding the study of Les Halles: ‘We have chosen…’; ‘First of all we defined the boundaries of the quartier as we conceived it…’; ‘…we arrive at the most extensive and above all most-celebrated of this vast urban complex…’; etc. One member of a collaborative study writing up the results was a common practice among the International Letterists and Situationists. The point of emphasising this — something Gibbons does not do — is to demonstrate that Khatib was almost certainly not alone in this study. However, that it was Khatib alone who called off continuing the study (as indicated in the Editorial Note) is testament to his central, decision making role in the study. A role, moreover, that was supported by his comrade-collaborators. Again this could be interpreted as a sign of solidarity rather than its absence. What is clear from Gibbons article is that apart from her invention of a non-existent ‘promise’ she provides no clear evidence of a lack of solidarity on the part of the editorial committee.

[…]

Indeed one of the more peculiar lapses on Gibbons is that she was unaware that another Algerian member of the SI, namely Mohamed Dahou, was a member of the editorial committee which was responsible for the Editorial Note quoted above. Dahou, alongside fellow Situationists Asger Jorn, Maurice Wyckaert and Guy Debord, constituted the editorial committee for Internationale Situationniste no. 2 (in which both Khatib’s article and the Editorial Note appeared). Unfortunately Dahou’s role in the SI is reduced by Gibbons to that of suffering victim, who ‘stuck it out in these circles for some time’ (as though being a member of the SI was merely a misfortune for non-Europeans).

I would contest that on the basis of the foregoing Gibbons’ claim then that Khatib and Dahou left the group because of the implicit racism is at the very least questionable. More research is certainly needed before one could justify Gibbons speculation. For instance, if Gibbons had bothered to read Guy Debord’s letters she would have discovered that Khatib, after the foundation of the SI in 1957, was relatively inactive (having been more active in the previous Letterist International). Further, it appears that he became more active in the group during 1958, particularly with regard the attempted coup and accession of de Gaulle to the presidency in May 1958 (for instance see the letter Debord to Pinot Gallizio, 16 June 1958, in Correspondence, semiotext(e): 2009, pp. 119-20). Unfortunately for us, even though Debord’s letters are available to researchers (though not all of them), so far few if any letters or other forms of private correspondence of members of the SI are available. But even when it comes to what is available in the public record Gibbons casual approach is less than illuminating.

Gibbons does make the interesting observation that the writing up of psychogeographical studies ended around the same time as Khatib left the SI. However, she inexplicably concludes on this basis that Khatib’s ‘comrades summarily renounce[ed] psychogeography’ in the wake of the incomplete report on Les Halles. ‘Psychogeography’, or at least the practice of writing up psychogeographical studies, does appear to disappear from the publications of the SI from around 1959. However the disappearance of such reports does not constitute the end of psychogeography as such. Indeed it is important to take note of the changing emphasises and the sometime acrimonious debates within the SI regarding its direction during this period — something Gibbons does not do. More importantly psychogeography continued to play an implicit, albeit largely unwritten role in the ongoing urban ‘drifts’ (dérives) and Unitary Urbanist criticism of capitalist “urbanism” carried out by the SI after 1959. Thus even though such reports stopped figuring in the publications of the SI there is no indication that the group ever renounced the theory of psychogeography.

Gibbons’ belief that the supposed renunciation of psychogeography was necessarily related to questions of race and racism betrays her too narrow focus. In the period under consideration — 1958 to 1960 — the arguments over art and the lingering artistic influences in the SI were beginning to move to centre stage. To reduce the move away from psychogeography to Khatib’s membership and departure from the SI is to lose the bigger picture. Other members of the group resigned or were expelled over such questions in this period. Indeed Gibbons’ focus on Khatib (and to a much lesser extent Dahou) also loses sight of other non-European members of the group, notably Mustapha Khayati, originally from Tunisia. After Debord and Vaneigem, Khayati produced some of the most important work of the SI. In particular he was largely responsible for the infamous Situationist pamphlet, On the Poverty of Student Life. I raise Khayati here not in order to deflect Gibbons’ charges, but rather to draw attention to the fact that the question of non-European participation and criticism of racism in the SI did not end with Khatib and Dahou — a conclusion one could too easily draw from her article.

The destruction of the pavilions at Les Halles, 1971

The destruction of the pavilions at Les Halles, 1971

It is possible that Gibbons claims are related to the English translation she used, namely the one available on the situationist international online website. Apart from the last sentence the two translations are effectively the same. However the situationist international online translation has the following as the last sentence:

Therefore the present the political future, no less may be abstracted due to considerations carried out on psychogeography itself.

As we can see the meaning of the sentence is far from clear, and hopefully my new translation has rectified this. However it is hard to see how either translation can be interpreted as a ‘promise to consider psychogeography in light of these targeted arrests carried out against colonial subjects’.

Indeed Gibbons’ use of the materials at hand defies reason. Not only does she draw a dubious conclusion from the above Editorial Note, she also compounds her errors with numerous additional mistakes. For example, despite her claim to have ‘struggled’ through the work of the Situationists, she appears to have gone no further than the English translations available on the situationist international online website. Thus she reproduces an unfortunate typo on the part of one of the translations available on the site: i.e. that Raoul Vaneigem wrote the article ‘A Civil War in France’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 1 (June 1958). Of course Vaneigem did not join the SI until 1961 and did not make contact with a member of the group until 1960 (namely Attila Kotányi). But in the scheme of things this is a minor mistake on Gibbons part, though redolent of a more general sloppiness with regard to her “scholarship”.

Thus we have a far more egregious mistake on her part when she accuses Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein of having signed the Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War in 1962, and further that ‘[t]his was their only public intervention’ regarding the massacre of French-Algerians demonstrating in Paris the previous October, 1961. Unfortunately Gibbons is wrong, and on both counts.

First, the Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War (also known as the Manifesto of the 121) was published on 6 September 1960 (not 1962). Secondly, the Declaration was not issued as a ‘public intervention’ with regard to the Paris massacre of 1961 (how could it be!) but rather as a defence and declaration of the ‘right to insubordination’, in particular in defence of any French recruits and conscripts refusal to fight, and in direct support of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the cause of independence from France. From the Declaration:

  • We respect and judge justified the refusal to take up arms against the Algerian people.
  • We respect and judge justified the conduct of those French men and women who consider it their obligation to give aid and protection to the Algerians, oppressed in the name of the French people.
  • The cause of the Algerian people, which contributes decisively to the ruin of the colonial system, is the cause of all free men and women.

— from an English translation of the Declaration

To sign this Declaration was to publically declare oneself in solidarity with the armed struggle of Algerians against the French occupation. At the time the Declaration was extremely controversial in French public life. The Declaration was made by those supporters of Algerian independence who had become frustrated with the timid and opportunistic politics of the “official” left — predominantly the large, Stalinist French Communist Party (PCF), whose effectively non-existent opposition to the war amounted to a call for peace (as opposed to supporting independence, which the PCF did not). To be publically associated with the Declaration was to risk arrest, state harassment and the loss of employment — a fate that befell many of the signatories. Unfortunately by getting the date of the Declaration wrong no less than twice (and so presumably not the work of a tired or slack editor) Gibbons not only misunderstands the real object of the Declaration, she also unwittingly maligns the role of the Declaration in the attempt to constitute a real opposition to the French war in Algeria.

Recall that Gibbons believed that Debord and Bernstein’s signing of the 1960 Declaration was ‘their only public intervention’ regarding the massacre of French-Algerians demonstrating in Paris in October, 1961. But even if we take into consideration her faulty dating, this was still not the case. The SI as an organisation did comment on the Paris massacre of 1961, a massacre which — as Gibbons points out — was covered up by the French state until the 1990s. What she does not mention, however, is that the “official” left, and in particular the large Stalinist PCF, also effectively colluded in this cover-up. Indeed the SI’s commentary on this massacre, one of the few made on the periphery of the official left, was directed precisely at this collusion. Thus in the seventh issue of their journal, the SI noted that:

The complete separation of workers from France and Algeria — which should be understood as not principally spatial, but temporal — has led to a delirium of information, even from “the Left”, who’s newspapers, on the morning after the killing of eight French protesters by the police on February 8th [1962], spoke of it as the bloodiest clash on record in Paris since 1934, without mentioning that less than four months previously, on October 18th [1961], Algerian demonstrators had been massacred in their dozens.

—from ‘Priority Communication’, Internationale Situationniste no. 7, April 1962 (translation modified)

No doubt the police responsibility for the 8 dead at the Charonne railway station in Paris in February 1962 was an outrage. However as the SI pointed out, the greater outrage was the effective effacement of the October 1961 massacre of French Algerians in Paris by the newspapers of “the Left”. Here the SI demonstrated both ‘material solidarity’ and ‘theoretical rigour’ by drawing attention to not only the role of the French state, but the duplicity of the “official” communist party. That Gibbons is unaware of this comment by the SI is testament to her slack research. That she confuses dates and makes false claims on this basis suggests outright mendacity.

(NB. For more details on the October 1961 massacre and the collusion of the “official” left in the cover up check out Kirstin Ross’s book May ’68 and Its Afterlives).

So, what are we left with after considering Gibbons’ argument? Let us recall how she ended her article:

I tried to summarize the point of this article for him […]. An Algerian tried to study Paris, I said, an Algerian named Abdelhafid Khatib, and because he was an Arab he was harassed and imprisoned. Because he was an Arab, he could not freely move through the city, he could not observe, he could not carry out a dérive the way his comrades could.

And none of them cared.

How fucked up it was that white intellectuals did not have the back of their Arab brother. […]

What arrogance. […]

This is where Gibbons ill-founded argument ends, her vituperative accusation that Khatib’s comrades, in their supposed privileged ‘arrogance’, simply did not care. But in fact she provides no evidence that this was the case. And the “evidence” she does provide, as we have seen, bears little relationship to the conclusion which she extracts. Surely the only carelessness and arrogance in this regard is to be found in her sloppy research and hasty conclusions.

Ironically Gibbons entitled her article ‘Salvaging Situationism’. As anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the Situationists knows, ‘situationism’ was a term of derision and scorn used by the Situationists. For them it signified the recuperation and disarming of their living criticism — i.e. their practice — and its transformation into an intellectual doctrine that was so much grist for the mills of academic dissection. Through her misrepresentation, half-truths, skewed history and outright lies Andrea Gibbons has, indeed, contributed to ‘situationism’. In doing so she has proved herself, at least in this case, beyond salvage.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, October 2016

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A Letter to ‘Rojavist’ Friends

YPG cooperating with their comrades in the US Special Forces

US Special Forces cooperating with the YPG-YPJ

The French language version of this letter is available here. For more information see the Class War Group’s website. A PDF of the English language version available here.

For more critical information of Rojava see the article ‘Kurdistan?’(+ enlarged version of this article here), and LibCom’s Rojava page.

A Letter to ‘Rojavist’ Friends,
Friday, May 13, 2016
[1]

“Yet even then, during those early years of my apprenticeship in life and revolt, the rare news that reached us [from Russia] sometimes contained disturbing news.”
Ngo Van
[2]

This letter is not addressed to those militants who surf the net from one movement or struggle to the next, according to the direction of the media, with the goal of constructing a party or an organisation. It is addressed to you, friends and comrades of different cities, with whom we often share positions, and whose critical sense and reflexion we appreciate, but nevertheless with whom we are sometime in disagreement[3].

In particular it is the case of Rojava to which we want to address ourselves. Unlike you, for the past year and a half we have had more than simple doubts about the use of the word ‘revolution’ to describe the situation that is happening in this region. Our doubts are concerned equally with the way in which this ‘process’ is presented and supported in the West.

The goal of this letter is not to be exhaustive on this question. Neither is it to ‘shut-down’ your positions or to try to convince you of the contrary — especially not by stringing together into a different reading sources and references you already have access to, nor by using examples of Russia 1917 and Spain 1936. Our goal here is to lay the foundation for a debate, and to avoid some readers enlisting in and enclosing themselves in a war of positions, which would be regrettable.

For us what seems to be in question is the way we perceive a particular movement or situation, and the manner in which we judge and treat them across differences in analysis and geographical distance — differences between discourse and concrete situations. Just as with our engagement in our immediate struggles (which are always partial and often reformist or defensive), our positions on struggles taking place thousands of kilometres away depend neither on a particular norm or of a sense of revolutionary ‘purity’, nor upon the application of pre-established models[4]. Our goal is not to reject this or that movement because they do not appear radical enough, but rather to examine the contents, above all from the perspective of class relations.

The experience in Rojava should not be treated differently. Like all social situations in the capitalist world, this experience is also entangled in class contradictions. Although such situations may be difficult to measure, to know exactly who is involved and what the dynamics are, certain questions must be proposed: What are the transformations which are taking place? Where are the main contractions crystallising, and who are the main figures involved? What relations of power have been established? What contrast is there between discourses and genuine interests? Between our desire for revolution and the limits which they encounter? What about the proletariat? What is our vision of revolution? And etc.

Alone against everyone?

The ‘revolutionary experience’ of Rojava is often presented as being confronted by general hostility and threats from ‘fascist’ and imperialist armies of the region, if not from the entire planet.

Let’s remember first of all the agreement of non-aggression in 2012 which confirmed that the armed forces of Rojava and those of Damascus cohabited peacefully (except a few rare clashes) and even sometimes tactically collaborated (battle of Al-Hasakah in 2015, Aleppo and the Azaz corridor in 2016), in addition to the quasi co-administration of certain areas (Al-Hasakah or Al-Qamishli). An agreement which fed many debates and polemics.

In 2014, some militant revolutionaries protested in France so that Western military forces would provide air-force support and the supply of arms to the YPG[5]. At this time they proposed to collect a few thousand euros in support of the YPG, notably for the purchasing of arms. Since then the United-States, followed by other states, has delivered them tonnes of arms and ammunition. The militant revolutionaries are aware of it, but reproach the West for not providing the YPG with heavy arms[6].

On the ground, the military campaign forming a territorial continuity between the cantons of Kobane and Jazira (October 2014 to June 2015) has demonstrated the close collaboration between the YPG and Western air forces (and inevitably also with US Special Forces on the ground). Thus in a political and military alliance (known as the SDF[7]) the YPG has surrounded themselves with several groups of armed Arabs whose libertarian character we can doubt.

The battles from February to March 2016 around the Afrin canton have demonstrated that there exists at the very least an operational coordination between the YPG, the Syrian Loyalist Army and the Russian air force. That being said, some rebel groups up until then allied with Al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda) have on this occasion decided to join the SDF as well.

Given such alliances, a much larger territory has been taken under control in addition to greater population diversity. The ‘pragmatism’ of the Kurdish command is in no danger of being dropped.

With regards to their diplomatic agenda, the representatives (sic) of the YPG are regularly sent to Western countries with the goal of establishing new contacts. The days in which they were represented as totally isolated, as victims of their revolutionary position (despite their commander being received at the Élysée Palace) have passed. Their presence at the negotiations in Geneva was prevented by the efforts of Turkey, whilst Russia’s presence there was favourable. Since then the government of Rojava opened a diplomatic representation in Moscow in February [2016], which was the occasion of a lovely little celebration (ditto in Prague in April).

From a political, diplomatic and military point of view the leadership of the PYD[8]/YPG (wooed as much by the United-States as by Russia) has known how to opportunistically play its cards right, that is to say, reinforce its political weight by obtaining military support and quasi-international recognition.

With respect to media support, it is very widespread and particularly positive. In France, the combatants of the YPG (and above all those of the YPJ[9]) are presented as models of courage, of feminism, and of democracy and tolerance. Such is the case with ‘Arte’ to ‘France 2’, passing by ‘LCP’. Likewise with the Radio, where from ‘Radio Libertaire’ to ‘Radio Courtoisie’ and ‘France Culture’ one hears the praises of the combatants of freedom.

It is logical that the PYD looks for support and that it takes advantage of communication services and efficient propaganda, but this nevertheless raises questions. Indeed the PYD presents itself to the world as the stronghold of democracy, a responsible collaborator, and a champion of the struggle against terrorism and Islamism. Is this a camouflage? Have the diplomats and soldiers of the imperialist countries been consciously swindled the whole way over these years? Has imperialism so little awareness of its interests that it tolerates, even supports in Kobane a ‘revolutionary process’ in the making, with direct democracy, ‘equality of the sexes’, ‘self-management’ of resources, etc. — all the things that they evidently forbid in London, Paris or Chicago? Is there no other choice for the West?

What about the War?

The resistance of the Kurds in the ruins of Kobane has touched the planet and brought about a wave of international support. As a result, the YPG has achieved – thanks to the US and Russian air forces – a long series of victorious offensives, permitting Kurdish control over a vast territory.

Enthusiastic fighting or political will? The YPG cannot escape the general criticism that one can make of any army on a campaign: villages raised to the ground, populations displaced, Arab homes torched, unpopular police, conscription, youth without legal identity papers forcibly sent to the barracks for military service, etc. The Syrian organizations opposed to the PYD (sometimes Kurds themselves, and generally members of the SNC[10]) regularly denounce these abuses and errors. Indeed international human rights organizations have confirmed some of these abuses but recognize that amongst the belligerents of the region it is the Kurdish militants least of all that we can reproach for these kinds of actions. With respect to the authorities of Rojava, they recognize a part of these ‘abuses’ or ‘flaws’ and have promised or put in to place inquiries and corrections (for example, on the enrolment of child soldiers) with the goal of responding to Western standards of democracy, human rights and the conduct of war. Incidentally, the creation of a ‘genuine’ army has recently been announced (the Autonomous Protection Forces, APF).

It is difficult for us to see in these ‘misbehaviours’ the work of proletarians confronting the difficulties of concrete struggle… it is rather the necessities of war which explain the ‘errors’ of the YPG combatants.

Nationalism?

The present situation in Syrian Kurdistan finds its origins in the defeat of the Syrian revolts in 2011, in the evolution of a regional situation marked by military chaos, and in the dynamics of the Kurdish Nationalist Parties (both in their specific interests and in contradictory alliances). The PYD, a Kurdish organization, is the political force which has imposed itself in this zone. Its discourse is not that of the nationalism of former times, that of the PKK[11]. In reality the vocabulary has changed. The cadres and militants of the PYD-PYG do not seem to be very aware because their remarks are still tinged with Kurdish patriotism, boasting about the special qualities of their ‘people’ to the ‘millennial’ culture — rebellious ‘by nature’, etc.[12]

The fact is that the question of the people and of Kurdish identity (their language, culture, history, customs etc.) remains inseparable from the political project of Rojava. Much like its territory, Kurdistan — that is, the zones defined as having been at some stage populated by a majority of Kurds. And even if the Kurdish leaders are very insistent about the protection of ethnic and religious minorities (in speech and in their Social Contract[13]), they do this as representatives of the majority.

The project of the PYD is thus presented on the one hand as not specifically Kurdish and on the other as being applicable to both Syria or to the Middle East together. Incidentally the YPG has conquered zones around the cantons of Kobane and Jazira, where Kurds are the minority. Nevertheless tensions between the Arab population and militant Kurds still remain.

This territorial expansion, in addition to the necessity of recruitment, of war and of propaganda, explains why the YPG has integrated Arabs into their ranks, fostered the creation of ethnic unities or specific religious groups (Syriac speaking, Yazidis) and why they have allied themselves since October 2015 with Arab militia (in the heart of the SDF).

Authority and Democracy

We will note in passing that the PYD (the Syrian branch of the PKK) was once known for its authoritarian character, but this has apparently changed. For the moment let’s accept this. However it should be noted that this type of organization, which would normally suffer the attacks of anti-authoritarians, has in fact benefited from a strange goodwill. Perhaps it is because the PYD has announced its desire to challenge the power of the state and to assist in a sort of modernization of the old theory of the ‘withering away of the state’ [dépérissement de l’État[14]], of its police[15] and its army.

As the PYD itself argues, the organization is in the process of constructing in Rojava a political and administrative autonomous region whose philosophical inspiration is derived from the works of Murray Bookchin, and whose juridical inspiration is found in the international treaties of civil and political rights. This structure would ultimately aim to overlap with the Syrian state, which would recognise the legitimacy and integrity of its borders.

In fact this is what is proclaimed in the Social Contract and by the leaders of Rojava, that which the major powers are discussing, and which seems to be concretely taking shape. Since 2012-2013 the Rojava administration has been strengthening and normalizing itself, its justice system and police, and perfecting its training and army (notably in the most protected cantons up till now, Jazira and Afrin), thus assuming a number of responsibilities which up till now were reserved for the Syrian state.

Nevertheless, one should note that in the case of a definitive rupture with Syria or the declaration of independence, the administrative structure put in place in Rojava would be almost completely that of a state (what would be missing of course is monetary sovereignty).

Evidently, Rojava is not simply just that. The word ‘revolution’ or at least the adjective ‘revolutionary’ has often been uttered and tapped out on keyboards in order to describe what is currently unfolding, and whose basis is twofold:

  • On the one hand what we are dealing with is a popular movement of revolt, of resistance, of self-defence and of survival in a situation of war.
  • On the other hand there is the implementation of the project of the PYD, which in theory combines centralized power (based on Western democratic models) with local self-organization of daily affairs.
  • The question remains as to how these two projects link together, and what this corresponds to — concretely on the ground[16].

There has been no shortage of Western visitors with lively testimonies later appearing in militant newspapers and blogs. One can see generally described there:

  • A friendly and warm atmosphere with lots of details, and spontaneous discussions in full freedom (rare things in this world).
  • Little about the economy, other than that the disruption of capitalist social relations has been postponed, and that private property has been sanctified by the Social Contract. At best, a handful of agricultural cooperatives are alluded to[17].
  • The information on the democratic functioning of Rojava, such as it can be read on Wikipedia: almost nothing, just one or two modest examples of the actual functioning of hundreds or thousands of popular assemblies supposedly covering the country (in the villages and the suburbs). But let’s put it simply: if in a given district the inhabitants meet up each week to discuss and decide to create a collective vegetable garden, or to repair a street or construct a meeting space, and can find the financial support within a comprehensive municipal administration, this is very great thing for them. Let us note however that it is not in this manner that political, diplomatic and military decisions are made.
  • The inauguration of a formal equality between men and women. The fact that women participate in discussion and in combat would be a shock and would lead to inevitable modifications in the social relations between sexes. Here as well we can ask ourselves what the real scope of this phenomenon is beyond the propaganda (particularly strong on this question), from which large sections of society seem to escape. Ditto on the perhaps caricatured vision of the situation of Kurdish women in Syria before 2012.

It would be particularly surprising if the PYD or the administrative organization of Rojava were to organize their own disappearance in favour of an assembly of popular assemblies, considering that the dynamic of an organization is above all to insure its own survival, role and power.

If in the end a democratic regime is in place in this region, drawing its inspiration from Western models but with a dose of local consultative assemblies, it would be a great innovation for the region, and a much lesser evil for its inhabitants. The PYD would be without doubt hegemonic for a long time in the region, but in time things could change. Is this a pessimistic or and optimistic vision?

Tomorrow?

We hear of a popular dynamic, admittedly paralyzed by war, but nevertheless one that could reappear again, later. We are told that it is necessary to remain hopeful and above all to believe that humanity (or the proletariat) will emancipate itself by making war first and only afterwards the revolution. This seems crazy to us. This is the choice allegedly made by the PYD, and which corresponds to the old ‘revolutionary’ schema (the classical transition phase that is limited to a ‘political revolution’).

We do not believe that the revolution (this great upheaval that will abolish class society) can follow from a list of strategic choices to be made in the correct order. We don’t know what the revolution will be like, but without denying its likely violent character, permit us an affirmation: the revolution will not be a military confrontation, a series of victories of the proletarian army (postponing till tomorrow the radical transformations of society) over those of the capitalists. Revolution is not war. And if occasionally periods of war can lead to political destabilization — generating tensions and social decomposition — it is on the contrary no longer the case here.

It does not seem to us suitable to use the word ‘revolution’ to describe the situation in Rojava, unless you use the fashionable and accepted sense of the word, emptied of meaning and rendered innocuous. Not ‘revolutionary process’ either, even if it is only ‘potential’… because why would there be more potential here than in China or Algeria? In Rojava it is war that dominates — a popular war if you want — but war all the same.

We are thus faced with the question of support[18]. Who are we to support? (Beyond  a supposed millennial ‘people’, exempt from class division and by its very nature revolutionary?).

Are we to support the ‘movement’? The ‘struggle’? The ‘proletariat? How does this translate itself concretely? The most pertinent thing would be, as in most cases, to struggle locally against our own bourgeoisie — but we already know what this is all about. Thus, beyond the symbolic, what solidarity is possible from 4,000 km away?

So far the most involved and enthusiastic revolutionary militants have above all praised the merits and actions of the YPG-YPJ[19], the armed branch of the PYD (even occasionally omitting the acronyms). If there has been support, hardly critical and above all financial, it is to this organization that it has gone (or eventually to the structures which it controls). And it is here that we believe there is a major concern[20].

This party which dominates the political scene of the region and pretends to represent the interests of the Kurdish ‘people’ is the force which is currently structuring the society. Thus it would be completely illusory to hope to support one radical tendency against another moderate one in the heart of the PYD. It would be equally illusory to support a regime in the hope that autonomous proletarian action would overwhelm it.

As you know, or as you have understood — and to say it bluntly: we think that the administration which is being put in place today in northern Syria guarantees in this zone the tasks of a failing state, preserving from chaos the foundations of capitalist society (value, wage labour, classes, private property, production). And tomorrow, from the bases negotiated between Rojava and the United-States, this society will assure order, and will manage the population and classes. As progressive as such a society may be, it is surely this administration which will thus be confronting Kurdish and Arab[21] proletarians. The forces which will repress them will be the Asayish[22], and if necessary the YPG.

On this perhaps abrupt ending, but in expectation of your responses, we send our kind regards.

T.K.G.V.

tkgv@riseup.net

Translated by Pete Dunn with help from Anthony Hayes, Canberra, August 2016

FOOTNOTES

[1] [Translator’s note] Unless otherwise noted all footnotes are by the original authors.

[2] [Translator’s note] Ngo Van, Preface to In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary. Quote taken from the Preface of Ken Knabb’s translation. Translation modified.

[3] “We” and “you” refers also to an ensemble of loosely associated, more or less formal groups and organisations of individual anarchists, libertarians, Marxists (non-Bolshevik), autonomists etc. who form the so called ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’ milieu in which we are more or less taking part.

[4] We do not possess the blueprints for a ‘pure’ revolutionary process, and believe neither in the existence nor the possibility of such a blueprint.

[5] [Translators note] YPG – Yekîneyên Parastina Gel or Peoples Protection Units.

[6] The United-States opposes this, arguing that they could be used by the PKK against the Turkish army.

[7] [Translators note] SDF – Syrian Democratic Forces.

[8] [Translator’s note] PYD – Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat‎ – Democratic Union Party

[9] [Translators note] YPJ – Yekîneyên Parastina Jin – Women’s Protection Units

[10] Syrian National Council, notably supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

[11] [Translators note] PKK – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎ – Kurdistan Workers Party.

[12] One could be tempted to say that these words perhaps don’t have the same meaning everywhere. In France, this type of discourse would at least be qualified as ‘reactionary’.

[13] The Social Contract is the constitution of Rojava, adopted the 29th January 2014.

[14] [Translator’s note] The French here, ‘dépérissement de l’État’ is literally ‘supersession of the State’. ‘Dépérissement’ is the French word used to translate Hegel and Marx’s ‘aufhebung’.

[15] David Graber reports the testimony of the director of the Police Academy of Rojava, the Asayish:  “their ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police”.  [TN: David Graeber and Pinar Öğünç, ‘No. This is a Genuine Revolution’ (2014)].

[16] Another crucial question is this: this process, does it follow on from the protests of the Arab Spring in 2011, or on the contrary has it in fact put an end to them, by substituting for them the political project of the PYD which descended from the mountains after the departure of Assad’s troops?

[17] The self-management of one single factory in Rojava has already been the object of a dozen articles and the cover page of several militant papers.

[18] But there is not just revolution in life. Admittedly our point of view leads us to see in each struggle the concerns of class struggle. But if it is theoretically always possible, is it always necessary? There are causes which have nothing revolutionary about them, which are humanitarian and humanist and which can be supported; ecological or reformist struggles in which we should be able to participate without shame; immediate necessities which occasionally can find responses which are not Marxist or Anarchist. And this is no big deal.

[19] [Translators note] That is, the combined Peoples Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units.

[20] Incidentally, we think that if such an organisation made its appearance tomorrow in France, with the same program, we would be (you and ourselves) amongst the first to denounce its danger — and to suffer its repression.

[21] And what about the deserters, those dodging military service in Rojava? In fact we find some of them amongst the migrants who today are seeking refuge in Europe. It is unlikely that they will demand support from those who help the army that they have fled! A place of Syrian opposition, equally opposed to the PYD, signalling in autumn of 2015 the first protest against conscription in a city of Rojava.

[22] [Translator’s note] The ‘Asayish’ are the police force of Rojava.

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Smashing the fash with ideas

Mick Armstrong demonstrates, despite himself, that ideas and rational argument are central to the creation of a mass movement against creeping fascism and capitalism. However his argument tends to err on the side of a false dilemma: either rational argument or building a mass movement. In doing so Armstrong unwittingly catches himself in an unfruitful, non-dialectical paradox: he resorts to a rational argument in order to assert the non-efficacy of rational argument. He leaves it up to the rest of us to point out his error and show how we must construct a thinking opposition to the irrationalism and unreasonable activity of racism and capitalism.

fig. 1

fig. 1

Smashing the fash with ideas:

Or, Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument alone

Mick Armstrong has recently written an article called ‘Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument’. It would have been better to say: ‘Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument alone’.  Just as rational argument alone won’t defeat fascism, neither will it be defeated without rational argument.

Implicit in Armstrong’s article is a rational argument against the emptiness of much of what passes for reasoned argument in the mass media spectacle; and against the false ideas and solutions of fascism and nationalism and racism. However he presents the role of rational argument in a confused and often one-sided fashion. For instance, when right wingers like Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt and Sonia Kruger put forward racist ideas on television and the internet there is little reasoning or rational argumentation in the presentation of their opinions. Certainly sometimes they ape rationality and even try and convince us that their views are justified and rational.  More usually they are selective in their evidence base and often disregard the existing wealth of scientific knowledge against the false concepts of race and racism. In a word, they are irrational.

Nonetheless we need to rationally demonstrate their irrationality. We need to spell this out and argumentatively demonstrate the falsehoods in their claims. Such practical, rational argument is not opposed to mobilising a mass movement against fascism and capitalism. Indeed it a necessary part of such a movement.

Today, the more “clever” modern racists re-cast their racism as a sort of ‘culturalism’ shorn of some of the more egregious falsehoods of the old race theory promulgated by Hitler and others. But in order to make the claim that such culturalism is no improvement, we need to establish the irrationality of race theory and racism, argumentatively outline its long and intimate connection with capitalist societies, and critically demonstrate that the “new” racism is a variant of the “old”. That is we need to show culture provides no firmer grounds for bigotry than skin colour, genes, cranial measurement or comparison of facial structures, and that those who pretend it does have other, exploitative and divisive agendas. We do this with recourse to building a movement that will not only rationally oppose modern racism but also turn to a unified communist project of rationally understanding the world and transforming it.

At worst Armstrong’s argument tends to reinforce the one-sided, mechanical materialism common to “classical” Social-Democrats and Marxist-Leninists. Such materialism, trading under the name “dialectical”, imagines that ideas are secondary and subordinate to material reality. In truth ideas are a part of material reality, a real product and premise of the social intellect of human societies. For Marx the question of the centrality of materialism was never about the fictional “priority” of matter over ideas, but rather the real objectivity of human practices. Human practice is really objectified in ideas and other things. When we understand either ideas or things as exhausting the nature of material reality, we mistake for all of material reality a part of material reality.

In his early work Marx spoke of the ‘sensuous’ nature of human practices, and considered consciousness an indistinguishable part of such sensuous practise. He posed his materialism ‘in contradistinction to [previous] materialism’ which preferred the object to the subject.

The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.[1]

Marx was not, however, opposed to objective activity or reality. Rather he argued that objects posed or perceived by humans — even the human object itself — were inextricably bound up with subjective practices. According to Marx the human subject was bound up in the use and transformation of the objects of nature — both human and non-human nature. Thus objects like ‘religion’, ‘society’, ‘class’ and ‘racism’ could not be understood separate from the practices in which they were bound, resulted from and implied.  In a way such objects simply are these activities, like much religious activity, the objectified results and premise of further, potentially transformative activity. Religion is doubly relevant as a target since without ground religions claim to access the truth of human life outside of human activity. By abstracting from human activity religions are severely impoverished as explanations of society and the world.

In opposition to the earlier forms of mechanical materialism Marx noted that it was idealist philosophers who developed the ‘active side’— the subjective side of criticism. For instance the various subjective philosophies of Kant, the post-Kantians and Hegel in particular. In the case of Hegel he recognised ‘man’ as both the subject and object of a historical process, even if he imagined this historical process in an ‘inverted’ fashion, positing as first and final cause a supernatural spirit in place of  both exploited and free human agents. Rather than being motivated by a disembodied spirit Marx believed that history was the product of human practice, albeit largely mystified and alienated up until and including capitalist societies.

fig. 2

fig. 2

Marx described ‘human activity itself as objective activity.’[2] In the social bond as much as the individual roles and agency of human societies past and present, human subjectivity itself became a manifest object of practice. That is to say humans posed themselves and each other as transformed and transformative objective powers. The real problem then, for Marx, is the nature of this objectification and whether or not humans are alienated in the process of their objectification.

Humans are alienated from their own powers only to the extent that they pose their own powers mystically and in opposition to themselves. The worlds’ religions are the classic examples. They have imagined the powers of human creativity as the work of gods and other spirits, even reducing the spark of thought into a different substance — sometimes above, sometimes below, always apart from reality. But this is an ideological vision of reality, itself a product of the contradictions of social reality and the subordination of thought to the ruling ideas of the epoch.

Marx dismissed the problem of whether or not ‘objective truth can be attributed to human thinking’ as a merely ‘scholastic problem’ in isolation from practice.[3] Instead of pondering its existence separate from our understanding and transformation of everyday life, men and women ‘must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of [their] thinking in practice’.[4] The question of consciousness then becomes this: to what extent do people become aware of the alienated objectifications of capitalist society and transform them?

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.[5]

Importantly for our age of extreme environmental damage, it is not hard to understand how Marx also avoids posing ‘truth’ as simply a description of action within human society. The activity that allows society to continue perforce must be recognised as embedded in a larger cosmos. While human activity is a vanishingly small part of that cosmos, no activity can be understood without reference to it.

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels considered the division of mental and manual labour as a foundational division of labour in ancient class societies, a division more over that has been developed and “perfected” by capitalism. The development of religion and philosophy can be seen in relation to such a division; ideally projecting the hierarchy into a mystical heaven of the gods in the case of religion. But of course such ‘emancipation’ and ‘autonomy’ is mostly illusory; consciousness is always the ‘consciousness of existing practice’.[6]

Before returning to Armstrong it is important to note that in the case of capitalism, existing practices are contradictory in the sense we can discern and describe a universal tendency to a proper opposition. On the one hand there are those who believe in the further exploitation of human activity via divisions like bigotry, and mystified and mystifying explanations like religion. And on the other hand there are those people who seek a rational basis for the unity of human activity beyond the mutilating exclusivity of private property as communism does.

Scientific ideas, both rationally sought and experimentally verified, have revealed the nature of physical reality, and have helped to develop the needs and nature of the human species alongside the contradictions of our social and economic organisation. New potentialities and possibility slumber in the midst of capitalist alienation. Unfortunately such possibilities are denied and subordinated to irrational ideas such as religion, private property, profit and the capitalist state. Revolutionaries are not immune to irrationality, as Armstrong demonstrates. Consider the example of the undoubtedly revolutionary surrealists of the 1920s and 30s. Against their ultimate idolisation of the unconscious mind and cult of the irrational, Guy Debord argued we need to make reality more not less rational.

Armstrong demonstrates, despite himself, that ideas and rational argument are central to the creation of a mass movement against creeping fascism and capitalism. However his argument tends to err on the side of a false dilemma: either rational argument or building a mass movement. In doing so Armstrong unwittingly catches himself in an unfruitful, non-dialectical paradox: he resorts to a rational argument in order to assert the non-efficacy of rational argument. He leaves it up to the rest of us to point out his error and show how we must construct a thinking opposition to the irrationalism and unreasonable activity of racism and capitalism.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra

For more on the importance of rational argument for revolutionaries see Gerald Keaney’s article Argument is Required.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach [1845],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works, Vol.5, New York: International Publishers, 1976.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Karl Marx & Frederich Engels, ‘The German Ideology [1845],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works, Vol.5 New York: International Publishers, 1976.

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Once more on Dada

Paris_1966

“Can we deny that there was a project conceived, a society formed in order to support materialism, to destroy religion, and to inspire independence and nurture the corruption of morals?”

100 years ago the word “Dada” was coined to name the riot of destructive possibility unfurling at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The “discovery” of the term is disputed by interested parties (now dead). 

One of the participants in the Parisian Dada group, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, wrote that Dada’s “general tendency” was “destructive, but with a view to a superior reality”. In his History of Dada (1931) he also noted that Dada’s anti-art quickly ran up against the impasse of mere scandal: “the crowd is willing to accept anything in an art which is translated into works. But it does not tolerate attacks on reasons for living.” Ribemont-Dessaignes detected that the initial,  largely “spontaneous” Dada demonstration in Paris, in March 1920 had already begun to give way by May to something that smacked of art, which involved too much deliberation and “effort”. By his reckoning the Dadaists were faced with the dilemma of either crystallizing a “Dadaist art, a Dadaist form of expression”, or the “tragic fate” of self-destruction. Ribemont-Dessaignes saw the latter as the “natural” choice of Dada, pushing its own destructive tendency in the correct direction: “the better to negate, it would have to negate Dada; the better to destroy, it would have to destroy itself”. 

Despite Dada coming to an organised end in the early 1920s many ex-Dadaists, and indeed the Dada “tendency” Ribemont-Dessaignes identified, played an important role in the avant-garde art and anti-art which followed it – particularly among the Surrealist and para-Surrealist groups of the 1920s and 30s.

Interestingly Ribemont-Dessaignes identified another possible path for the Dada group. However he quickly dismissed this as inimitable to Dada’s nihilist heart: “To risk similar experiments [in what R-D called the “revolution of the mind”] Dada would have had to risk turning to propaganda and consequently becoming codified”. Ribemont-Dessaignes saw this as precisely the path of perilous repetition, “cheapening its merchandise” and leading straight to the dilemma of art or self-destruction. No doubt he was largely right, but later many of those who became Situationists believed that there was another way out. 

At this point in my account I am going to hand over to Mustapha Khayati. In the following excerpt from his article Les mots captif (Captive Words) from Internationale Situationniste no. 10 (March 1966), Khayati argued that the horns of Ribemont-Dessaignes’ dilemma is largely dissipated so long as we consider “the theoretical critique of the world of Power” (equivalent to R-D’s “revolution of the mind”) as being “inseparable from a practice which destroys it”. Indeed Ribemont-Dessaignes’ dilemma contiues to threaten us today so long as we do not accept that the “practice which destroys” the capitalist world is the only way out of art or its mere nihilistic rejection. Khayati ably demonstrates this by briefly criticising and rejecting the various artistic forms of recuperated Dada  which existed in the 1960s.

Khayati’s account was published in March 1966, 50 years after Dada. And here we are, another 50 years on. Happy anti-anniversary!

Originally from

Les mots captifs (Préface à un dictionnaire situationniste)

(Kenn Knabb’s complete translation available here)

[…]

The insubordination of words during the experimental phase from Rimbaud to the Surrealists, revealed that the theoretical critique of the world of power is inseparable from a practice which destroys it.[1] The recuperation of modern art by power, and its transformation into oppressive categories of the reigning commodity-spectacle, is a sad confirmation of this. “What does not kill power, is killed by it.”[2]

The Dadaists were the first to signify that their defiance of words was inseparable from their desire to “change life”.[3] After the Marquis de Sade, they affirmed the right to say everything, to emancipate words and “replace the alchemy of words with a real chemistry” (André Breton).[4] The innocence of words is from now on consciously denounced, and language is confirmed as the “worst of conventions” — to be destroyed, demystified and liberated.[5]  The contemporaries of Dada did not fail to underline its desire to destroy everything, and the danger it represented to dominant opinions (André Gide was worried that it was a “demolition job”).[6] With Dada it became an absurdity to believe that a word is forever shackled to an idea. Dada realised all the possibilities of what to say, and closed forever the door on art as a specialised practice. It definitively posed the question of the realisation of art. Surrealism was valuable only as the continuation of this demand — in its literary works it was reactionary. Because, the realisation of art (which is to say poetry, in the Situationist sense of the term) signifies that one cannot realise oneself in a “work”, but on the contrary one realises oneself — full stop. De Sade’s inauguration of “saying everything” implied already the abolition of the separated domain of literature (in which only what is literary can be spoken of). This abolition — consciously affirmed by the Dadaists after Rimbaud and Lautréamont — is not alone surpassing [dépassement]. There is no supersession without realisation, and we cannot surpass art without realising it. Practically there has not even been its abolition, since after Marcel Duchamp, Dada and James Joyce, a new “spectacular” literature continues to proliferate. This is because “saying everything” cannot really exist without the freedom to do everything. Dada had a chance of realisation with the Spartakusbund and the revolutionary practice of the German proletariat in 1919.[7] The failure of the German Revolution rendered Dada’s failure inevitable.[8] In the artistic schools which followed, Dada (including the majority of its original protagonists) became the literary expression of the emptiness of poetic practice, and the art of expressing the emptiness of freedom in everyday life. The ultimate expression of “saying everything” deprived of the capacity to act upon it is a blank page…

Modern poetry (Experimental, Computational, Concrete, Surrealist or neo-Dada) is the contrary of real poetry, it is the artistic project recuperated by power.[9] It abolishes poetry without realising it. It feeds off of its continual destruction. “What’s the good in saving language,” Max Bense miserably admits, “when there is no longer anything to say?” — the confession of a specialist![10] Repetition or silence is the only alternative for the specialist of computation. Modern thought and art, protected by power and guaranteeing it in turn, moves within what Hegel called “the language of flattery”.[11] They contribute to the eulogy of power and its products, perfecting reification and banalisation. By affirming that “reality consists of language” or language “can only be considered in-itself and for-itself”, the specialists of language end up posing “language-objects” and “word-things”, and so delight in praising their own reification.[12] The thing has become the dominant model, and the commodity — yet again — has found its poets. The theories of the State, of the economy, of law, of philosophy, and of art — all now can be characterised as precautionary measures and apology.

[translation from Les mots captif updated, 8 December 2016]

[…]

TRANSLATOR’S FOOTNOTES

[1] The Situationist International used the term ‘power’ (‘pouvoir’) in two ways. First they used it in the common fashion of the verb ‘pouvoir’, ‘to be able to’ or ‘to be capable of’. Thus they characterized both the capacity of the agents of capital (primarily owners and managers) to impose the conditions of commodity production and consumption, as well as the ability to refuse such, i.e. the capacity for revolutionary contestation. Such a conception of ‘power’ or ‘powers’ is also clearly related to Marx’s conception of human ‘powers’ and their alienation under conditions of commodity production. Secondly, and most distinctly, the SI used it as a noun — ‘le pouvoir’. It is in the latter sense that they used the term often to characterize the human agency associated with the defence and implementation of capitalist social relations; thus they would speak of the ‘hierarchical power’ of capitalist society. In this sense ‘power’ (‘le pouvoir’) is used as a synonym for the reified practitioners and process of capitalist rule, and the diffuse nature of its operations, i.e. proletarians take part in its propagation. Mustapha Khayati wrote of bureaucratic power that the ‘noun governs; each time it appears the other words automatically fall in around it in the correct order.’ This is contrasted with the capacity to resist or transform (‘pouvoir’) such power, which is often called ‘poetry’ in the ‘Situationist sense’ of the term. For more on the SI and ‘power’ see Debord’s and Vaneigem’s All the King’s Horses and Basic Banalities (II).

[2] The quote is from Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (PM Press, 2012, p. 165). In 1966 Vaneigem’s manuscript was finished but not yet published. Nonetheless it was read by members of the SI. His phrase is almost certainly a détournement from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. In French Khayati quotes Vaneigem thus: “ce qui ne tue pas le pouvoir, le pouvoir le tue” (literally “what does not kill the power, the power kills it”), which is reminiscent of the phrase “Ce qui ne me tue pas me fortifie” (“What does not kill me, fortifies me”) to be found in the French translation of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (Le crépuscule des idoles translated by Patrick Wotling). Walter Kaufmann translates into English this well-known Nietzcshean phrase “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” (Portable Nietzsche, p. 467). Thus Vaneigem pulls off an inversion the equal of any of Ducasse’s or Debord’s.

[3] From, Jean Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, ‘First Delirium: The crazy virgin, the infernal bridegroom’: “I realised — without being afraid for him — that he could be a serious danger to society. Perhaps he has secrets to change life.”

[4] André Breton, in the English translation of the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), says “Alchemy of the word: this expression which we go around repeating more or less at random today demands to be taken literally.” Cf. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, p. 173.

[5] In French “la pire des conventions” (“the worst of conventions”), from a French translation of Sophocles, Antigone (ln. 295). In Antigone, Creon speaks of money — silver — being the worst of current customs. “Silver is the worst currency that ever grew among mankind.” What is most interesting is the way Khayati speaks of language as if it is money — or becomes money under the reign of the commodity-spectacle. The Situationist wager is that language is reduced to being an “abstract equivalent” under the rule of the commodity-spectacle. Dada was recuperated to the extent that it remained only a revolution in language or a revolution in the commodifiable signs of culture. Of course in 1966 Khayati was in advance of Jean Baudrillard and his reformist project of recuperating Situationist critique into a “political economy of the sign”.

[6] André Gide wrote a largely positive article on Dada in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1919.

[7] The Spartakusbund (Spartacus League) was set up by Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and others during the First World War. It emerged from the opposition currents within the German Social Democratic Party against the party’s support for the German war effort from 1914. The Spartakusbund upheld the revolutionary demands of Marx and Engels, in particular the centrality of proletarian “self-emancipation” as the agency which could end wars and the capitalist system, against the Marxist patriots.

[8] Between 1918 and 1921 proletarian revolution stalked Germany. In November 1918 the First World War came to an end thanks, in part, to the refusal of large sections of proletarian soldiers and sailors to continue fighting. This strike against the war spread, leading to the establishment of workers councils throughout Germany.

[9] In France in the 1960s “Computational poetry” and “Concrete poetry” were known respectively under the titles “Poésie permutationnelle” and “Spatialisme”.  “Spatialisme” was coined by Pierre Garnier in 1962 and further elaborated in his Manifeste pour une poésie nouvelle, visuelle et phonique (1963). Garnier’s “innovation” was to put a fashionable, space-age spin on a type of poetry already thoroughly mined out by Futurists, Dadaists and Letterists before him. From his manifesto: “Once we lived safely beneath our stratum of air. Now we are waves spouting in the cosmos. How can we expect our words to remain wrapped up in the atmosphere of the sentence?  Let them be reunited, like ourselves, to cosmic space — word constellations on the white page” (from here). Computational poetry, on the other hand, was chiefly the province of the Oulipo (short for ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’ – Worksop for Potential Literature) founded in France in 1960. The foundational work of Oulipo was Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (One hundred million million poems) published in 1961. Queneau’s ‘One hundred million million poems’ were ostensibly made up of ten sonnets. However, on the basis of making each line of each sonnet interchangeable with every other line, one hundred million million poems could potentially be computed. It has been said that it would take two hundred million years to read every potential permutation, even if reading 24 hours a day. Of course why would you? A labourious task fit only for an angel or a mechanical beast.

[10] Amongst other things Max Bense was a theorist of Concrete Poetry, and an advocate and practitioner of the structural analysis of language by way of semiotic theories and computer analysis. Asger Jorn derisively considered him a mere ‘filing cabinet’ of values, and a ‘gadget of the Household Arts of the mind’. See Jorn, ‘La création ouverte et ses ennemis’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 5. The German Spur group of artists, some months before they joined the SI, amusingly scandalised Bense and the German arts community when they staged a fake Bense lecture delivered by tape recorder in Munich in January 1959. See Lauren A. Graber, ‘Gruppe Spur and Gruppe Geflecht: Art and dissent in West Germany, 1957 – 1968’.

[11] Hegel contrasted the “noble consciousness” positively disposed to power and wealth with the “base consciousness” of those who rebelled against rulers and wealth. In his schema a “noble consciousness” reconciled itself with Monarchical power via the “language of flattery”. See Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.

[12] Khayati’s reference to the “specialists of language” here is relatively wide. He takes in the various “structuralist” theorists of language popular in France in the 1960s, from “Concrete” poets like Eugen Gomringer, who argued that a poem could be “a reality in itself”, all the way through to the strange Stalinist-Maoist-proto-poststructuralist amalgam over at the Tel Quel journal who believed in “nothing outside the text”, amongst other things…


First published in Internationale Situationniste no. 10,  March 1966, pp. 50-55. Translated from the French by Anthony Hayes, April 2016. 

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