The Sinister Science

wreck-smash-destroy

I have started a new blog over at the sinister science. There I will continue to write about situationists and critical theory and practice, but with the added focus of science fiction. Yep, that’s right, the barely repressed science fictional nature of Notes from the Sinister Quarter in full flower.

Since I finished my PhD in 2017 I have been somewhat adrift–and not always in the dialectically positive situationist sense. When I was considering dropping out of my PhD program many years ago I toyed with the idea of turning my thesis from a critique of the situationists to a critique of written science fiction–in particular, the transformations and even avant-garde posturings of sf during the twenty years after the end of the Second World War. Now, on the back of a more comprehensive, though far from exhaustive exposure to the published sf of this period, I am keen to explore the intersections of science fiction with the critical and revolutionary theory and practice that emerged during the same time. And so, the sinister science

I will still update Notes from the Sinister Quarter from time to time, particularly if I ever finish the various–and far from finished–translations I have underway. But mostly I will be posting to the sinister science.

So see you there.

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Spectacle in Space

ShadowsOfGod

the spectacle in space…

Doing our bit for 50 years of cold war shenanigans and the alienation of technique and knowledge in the service of spectacular power. The text on the poster is adapted from Eduardo Rothe’s text The Conquest of Space in the Time of Power, first published in Internationale Situationniste no. 12, September 1969. The image is the justly famous photo Armstrong snapped of Aldrin at Tranquility base. A pdf of the poster is available here.

In Promethean mode, Rothe continues:

The “Conquest of the Cosmos” is the greatest spectacular expression of scientific oppression. […] The conquest of space is part of the planetary hope of an economic system which, saturated with commodities, spectacles and power, ejaculates into space when it arrives at the end of the noose of its terrestrial contradictions. Functioning as a new “America,” space must serve the states as a new territory for wars and colonies — a new territory to which to send producer-consumers and thus enable the system to break out of the planet’s limitations. […] But the revolutionary old mole, which is now gnawing at the foundations of the system, will destroy the barriers that separate science from the general knowledge that will be accessible to everyone when people finally begin making their own history. No more ideas of separate power, no more power of separate ideas. Generalized self-management of the permanent transformation of the world by the masses will make science a basic banality, and no longer a truth of state. […] Humanity will enter into space to make the universe the playground of the last revolt: the revolt that will go against the limitations imposed by nature. Once the walls have been smashed that now separate people from science, the conquest of space will no longer be an economic or military “promotional” gimmick, but the blossoming of human freedoms and fulfillments, attained by a race of gods. We will not enter into space as employees of an astronautic administration or as “volunteers” of a state project, but as masters without slaves reviewing their domains: the entire universe pillaged for the workers councils.

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The new politics?

trumpofthewill

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I designed this image for an imaginary zine called ANTIANTIPOETRYPOETRY dated 1 March 2016. That means it’s been sitting in my dropbox since at least then, maybe a bit before. I called it “the new politics”.

There is little new in Trump’s playbook. Sure the details have changed. Technology has rolled on, capitalism has developed across the globe. If Trump is not a fascist, in the classical sense, then maybe he is a new type of fascist? Or emblematic of a softening of “mainstream” politics for fascism?

Fascism is a form of capital’s rule, one exception in what is already a too long exception.

Is this a new politics? Hardly. A (new) anti-politics? But politics has always been anti. It is the reduction of something to something, the rendering identical of an abstract capacity, whether as a citizen or refugee, worker or consumer.

The politics of the nation state is the work of capital, the figure of the wage-slave become the wooden puzzle and product, the dream of the utterly equivalent. The perfect subject to be organised, catalogued, integrated, empowered, and turned against one another, all under the sign of the free individual–surely a less interesting mythos than that of Cthulhu.

Be careful you masks of capital. To unleash the rule of the universal so violently and restrictively raises the question, why this measure and this life?

The shuddering wonder of it.

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On Gilles Dauvé and the Situationist International

libert_hotel_ville_paris_commune_ruines_1871

ghosts of the future ruin

This article is available as a pdf here. I hope to publish a follow up in the near future in which I will critically examine Gilles Dauvé’s and Bruno Astarian’s critique of Marx’s value theory.

Minor update, 15 December 2018

Critical notes on Gilles Dauvé
& the Situationist International

Anthony Hayes

1. If we have learnt one thing about past struggles it is about how we are more or less consciously caught up in their betrayal. The return of the repressed gives way to the return of repression—more and less refined sublimations to which we submit or are submitted. May 1968 is fifty years in the past this year, as far away from us as the October Revolution was from those that made it up. And yet the questions they faced are both less aged and longer lived than those of us born at that time. The task is to do away with this old world of alienations, of its despair as well as its prayers of salvation. The past is littered with our glorious failures, the petrol fumes of barricades, the sweat of collectives, the corpses of public works and pollution, the rigorous abstractions and tocsin for practice and theory. The present world is a sketch for the barbarism by which capitalism falls. Between here and the future we can still dream of supersession, of the how-to of revolutionary negation that remains both the most pressing, and the furthest from our experience. Into this present falls the question of what replaces this epochal unity of design and entropy, what is the form and content of this new world espied, drowsily.

2. Were the International Situationists right to call for workers councils amidst the struggles against work that erupted in the late 1960s? Is this a dead argument, mere historiography? Or do we misapprehend its ongoing significance? The Situationists, more than their contemporaries, forcefully updated Marx’s notion of alienation. Their early suggestion was that urban games and play offered a better insight into life after the revolution. Their suggestion soon became a pointed rejection of wage labour as work under modern, spectacular conditions. Like Marx, they posed that the road of dis-alienation must follow that of alienation. In the experiences of revolutionary councils of the previous half century the Situationists found a world beyond work. But even though the councils were the most conscious expression of the proletarian revolt against capitalism, by no means did they consider them to exhaust the question of what constituted a new world. For the SI the festivities of rebellion in their manifold expressions were surer guides to a life beyond than the alien mundane of wages and conditions.

3. “I must confess that things continue as ever.” (Hegel).[1] The refusal of life as it is presently organised, characterises, to different degrees, black Africans, young rebels “without a cause” in Scandinavia, the Asturian miners who have effectively been on strike almost continuously for two years, and Czechoslovakian workers.[2] The “festive atmosphere” of the strike in Lagos [in June 1964] was also evident in Wallonia in January 1961 and in Budapest [in 1956].[3]Everywhere the question of a new revolutionary organisation is obscurely posed—an organisation that will have a good enough understanding of the dominant society so as to function effectively at all levels against this society in order to détourn it entirely, without reproducing it in any way, and “in a flash and at a single stroke sketching the form of the new world”.[4]

4. Gilles Dauvé has said that the Situationist International (hereafter ‘SI’) overestimated the role of organisation in mediating the process of communist revolution. Taking the last three years of the SI, and beyond, as an indication, perhaps we are inclined to agree with him. What seems to be clear from the dying days of the SI, was that the organisation was not just overwhelmed by its spectacular success (thus the less than useful theory of the pro-situ as an instance of the mass recuperation of the SI), but even more so the group was confused by the sketch of proletarian insurrection made in France and Italy in 1968 and 1969.

5. Guy Debord argued that ‘the central question of organisation’ became the weakest, most ‘inconsistent’ aspect of 19th century radical theory. One consequence was that both anarchists and Marxists tended to revive the ‘hierarchical and statist tactics borrowed from the bourgeois revolutions’.[5] What distinguished the Situationist conception of revolutionary organisation was that they identified it with a principle immanent to forms of struggle against capitalism and work. However, this “immanence” is necessarily contradictory. If the path of dis-alienation necessarily followed the path of alienation, then the cure to capitalism, would simply be present in the struggles against capitalism. The festivity the SI so often drew attention to among rioting youth as much as striking workers, was important. The new world was already beginning to take shape beyond the drudgery of work and the play of commodities. Similarly, workers councils would prove central to the SI conception of revolution. Unlike the hierarchical organisations that had dominated working class struggle so far, the councils were, and would be simultaneously organs of anti-capitalist struggle and a rough sketch of the coming society. There is more to dis-alienation than destroying capital, and the revolution is a festival or it is nothing.

6. Dauvé has written that the SI stood at the crux of a ‘contradiction’: the ‘historically insurmountable incompatibility between “Down with Work!” and “Power to the Workers!”.’[6] However, why this contradiction is ‘historically insurmountable’ is never clearly explained by Dauvé. Worse, if opposing capitalism by capitalist means invites insurmountable contradiction, then we get the false idea that an anti-capitalist revolution cannot be carried out by those under capitalism. The living contradiction that is the proletariat is precisely the contradiction between being reduced to mere labour-power for sale and the need and desire to be more than this. The Situationists, who demanded self-managing workers councils, made such a demand from the perspective of the abolition of alienated labour. In doing so, they faced a problem that seems intractable—at least theoretically. What constitutes a revolutionary class? Can the lived experience of proletarian negativity (the reduction of the human to labouring capacity) be the foundation for its positive negation? What is the nature of revolutionary self-organisation? Is such self-organisation the creation of the new world or just a vehicle for the destruction of the old?

7. More recently Dauvé has abandoned core aspects of his early criticism of the SI. He has tempered his criticism of the Situationist call for ‘generalised self-management’ and workers’ councils. Dauvé writes, ‘the situationist vision [of self-management] differed greatly from the usual councilist approach. If daily life is given its real broad sense, extending worker management to generalised self-management of daily life meant a qualitative leap which exploded the concept of work and managing . . . and therefore of workers’ councils: if you modify the whole of life, then production, workplace, work, and the economy cannot exist as separate domains anymore’.[7] Dauvé otherwise maintains his criticism of councilism.[8]

8. Though Dauvé accepts that the SI criticised and rejected what they also called ‘councilism’ (i.e. the ideology of councilism), he believes that they ‘owed a lot more to councilism than they ever realised’.[9] Dauvé thinks that the SI, despite their critique and rejection of ‘councilism’, bear some responsibility for the influence this ideology has exerted on the ultra-left in the wake of 1968.[10] However, why they bear this responsibility is largely left unexplained.

9. Because Dauvé’s repudiation of his earlier critique of the SI remains partial, I propose that we should revisit the Situationist demand for workers councils and ‘generalised self-management’. This allows us to better understand how the SI’s critical appropriation of the experience of workers’ councils and ‘self-management’ should not be reduced to the mere elaboration and extension of ‘councilism’. However, and perhaps most importantly, we can begin to understand that Dauvé’s own critical appropriation of the Situationist demand for the ‘abolition of work’ is flawed.

10. Dauvé has argued that the SI’s conception of the abolition of work is undermined by their demand for workers’ councils. In its stead he offers what he considers a more radical conception: the complete abolition of labour, all labour, even those forms that do not immediately appear to be labour in the present sense of the term. However, here Dauvé’s radicality is deceptive, because he depends upon an ahistorical conception of labour. His error is based upon a flawed critique of Marx’s conception of the substance of value.[11]

11. In what follows I will first examine Dauvé’s critique of the SI before turning to an examination of the Situationist conception of ‘generalised self-management’. It is my belief that such ‘self-management’ cannot be merely reduced to the ideology of self-management that Dauvé and others have criticised. Indeed, Dauvé’s partial repudiation of his earlier criticism, at least pertaining to the SI, confirms my perspective. We must remain aware that the SI, while using the idea of ‘self-management’ (autogestion) explicitly criticised its reduction to the self-management of alienated labour—thus they proposed ‘generalised self-management’.[12] Dauvé’s failure to properly account for this contributes to his erroneous ideas on labour and value.

Gilles Dauvé, critic of the Situationist International

12. Over the last forty years and more, Gilles Dauvé, in cooperation with others and alone, has attempted to critically appropriate the work of the SI into his “communisation” perspective. The way Dauvé has attempted this is by highlighting what he has called the central contradiction of the SI: that between their advocacy of the ‘abolition of work’ alongside of their call for ‘workers councils’.

13. Dauvé’s criticism of the SI resolves into two basic claims. First, he has criticised the SI for not penetrating beyond the apparent realm of the circulation of commodities, what they called ‘the society of the spectacle’, in their criticism of capitalism. Secondly, and as a consequence of the latter, the Situationists ‘exaggerated the mediation of the organisation’.[13] For Dauvé, it is this ‘exaggeration’ that led to the central contradiction of the SI’s practice—in particular after their adoption of the perspective of ‘workers councils’ in 1961. However, for the SI it was the movement of revolutionary organisation from isolated and marginal ‘micro-societies’ (like themselves) to mass movements of proletarians that held the key to resolving the contradictions of the self-organisation of workers against work.

14. Dauvé considers that what he calls ‘councilism’ and the ‘councilist ideology’ is a special case of this contradiction. Here, ‘ideology’ is used by Dauvé in Marx’s sense of the term, to refer to a body of ideas that becomes opposed to, or distorts, the social reality it purports to describe and act within.

15. Dauvé tells us how ‘councilism’ is an ideology and why it leads to the work/non-work contradiction. It begins by illegitimately abstracting from the specific, historical experience to a general principle of revolutionary proletarian self-activity—notably the experience of ‘workers councils’ in the first quarter of the twentieth century. This error enables councilism to conflate the council form of self-organisation with the goal of communist revolution.

16. For Dauvé, the SI’s ‘councilism’ is a special case because they carried out what he considers a limited criticism of councilism. The SI spoke of ‘generalised self-management’ (l’autogestion généralisée). They posed this both as an extension of, and critique of, the conception of ‘self-management’ (l’autogestion) elaborated by the ultra-left group Socialisme ou Barbarie (‘Socialism or Barbarism’, hereafter ‘SB’). Later, the SI criticised ‘councilism’ and ‘councilist ideology’ in the last issue of their journal (1969). We will consider the SI’s critique of ‘councilism’ in detail below.

17. Though Dauvé criticises what he considers the councilism of the SI, he nonetheless draws attention to what he also considers their singular achievement: the forceful rediscovery of the negative content of communist revolution. Against the positive conception of labour, and the liberation of labour via its ‘self-management’ that the SI found in SB, the Situationists reaffirmed the self-destruction of the proletariat by way of the abolition of labour. However, Dauvé believes the SI’s critique of the other aspect of ‘councilism’, namely the self-management of labour, remained incomplete.

The Situationist International: for workers councils and generalised self-management

18. The chief inspiration for the SI’s turn to the question of workers councils and self-management was Guy Debord’s brief encounter with SB in 1960 and 1961. At first this was by way of Debord’s collaboration with Daniel Blanchard (aka ‘Pierre Canjuers’), and soon after this his brief membership in the SB associated group, Pouvoir Ouvrier (‘Workers Power’, hereafter ‘PO’). As Dauvé notes, Debord and Raoul Vaneigem then sketched a criticism of SB’s and Cornelius Castoriadis’ conception of the ‘self-management of production’. However, Dauvé was initially quick to dismiss this criticism, likening it to a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference between differing conceptions of self-management: ‘Chaulieu [aka Castoriadis] confined himself to the factory, [whereas] Debord wanted to self-manage life’.[14]

19. Dauvé believes that the source of the alignment between the SI and the councilism of the SB group is to be found in the former’s conception of the ‘spectacle’ of ‘non-intervention’. Dauvé draws an analogy between the SI’s conception of ‘spectacle’—i.e. of the division between ‘actors’ and ‘spectators’ as it was initially conceived by Debord in 1957—and the SB group’s conception of ‘order-givers’ (dirigeants) and ‘order-takers’ (executants).[15] Indeed, Debord and the ‘Social Barbarian’ Daniel Blanchard made such a correspondence explicit at the outset of the encounter: ‘The relation between authors and spectators is only a transposition of the fundamental relation between order-givers and order-takers’.[16] For SB, the ‘classical’ division of capitalists and workers had given way, under the modern conditions of ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’, to the division of managerial ‘order-givers’ and managed ‘order-takers’.

20. The question for SB, then, was one of the proletarians—i.e. the ‘order-takers’—taking over the role of separated management and self-managing production.[17] Similarly, for the SI, the problem of the alienated, spectacular passivity of capitalism was to be resolved by way of the participation of all in the construction of the ‘situations’ of life—hence ‘situationists’. For Dauvé, it is precisely this correspondence between the SI and SB that drove the SI into the impasse of ‘councilism’: ‘Like Socialism or Barbarism, it saw in capital a form of management depriving proletarians of any power over their lives, and concluded that it was necessary to find a mechanism permitting the involvement of all’.[18]

21. The encounter between the SI and SB was initially the tale of a passing friendship and collaboration, ‘during long talks in bistros, and endless roamings through the city streets’, of the ‘Social Barbarian’ Daniel Blanchard and the Situationist Guy Debord.[19] The literary result of this encounter, Preliminaries toward defining a unified revolutionary program, brought key aspects of their respective projects into dialogue. However, even though the authors noted an intimacy in their respective theories (authors & spectators/order-givers & order-takers), the document is marked by a certain theoretical distance.

22. Debord’s conception of the ‘spectacle’, later elaborated into a critique of the spectacles nested within and across the circuits of capitalist production and consumption, here begins and ends at the factory gates. ‘Outside of work’ the spectacle dominates the culture of ‘leisure’ and the capitalist representations of space and time.[20] On this basis, Blanchard and Debord write that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, as production and spectacle, begins with ‘the management of production and work by the workers themselves’, which ‘would immediately imply a radical transformation of the nature of work’.[21]

23. In the early phase of the encounter between the SI and SB, the commonality of their criticism was emphasised. In particular, both groups had come to believe against the Marxist orthodoxy of the time that the ‘problem’ of work was not to be solved by leaving ‘more and more “free” time to individuals […]. The problem is to make all time a time of liberty and to allow concrete freedom to embody itself in creative activity.’[22] Where they differed was over how such a ‘problem’ would be solved. For SB it was a question of how ‘to put poetry into work’.[23] Whereas increasingly for the SI, partly as a result of the encounter with SB, it was a question of overcoming the reciprocal alienations of work-time and leisure-time. Work, as much as leisure as it presently existed, could never figure as the basis for a new type of free activity.

24. In a 2014 interview, Raoul Vaneigem speaking of the encounter with SB, said that ‘we had to revalorise the artist past of the SI’.[24] Despite finding discussion and advocacy of ‘workers councils’ and ‘self-management’ [autogestion], Vaneigem believes that SB were unable to fully exploit such ideas beyond their single-minded focus on the critique of bureaucracy. ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie […] lacked what we had: poetry, that is to say, self-management, which was the poetry of the proletariat rediscovering its everyday life, rediscovering the veritable substance of class struggle: the self-management of everyday life’.[25]

25. Every revolution has been born in poetry, has first of all been made with the force of poetry. This phenomenon has escaped and continues to escape theorists of revolution—in fact, it cannot be understood if one still clings to the old conceptions of revolution or poetry—but it has generally been sensed by counterrevolutionaries. Poetry terrifies them. Wherever it exists they do their best to get rid of it by every kind of exorcism, from auto-da-fé to pure stylistic research. Those times of real poetry, which have “uncounted aeons of eternity before” them, seeks each moment to reorient the entire world and the entire future to its own ends. As long as poetry lasts, its demands admit of no compromise. It brings back into play all the unsettled debts of history. Fourier and Pancho Villa, Lautréamont and the dinamiteros of the Asturias (whose successors are now inventing new forms of strikes), the sailors of Kronstadt and Kiel, and all those around the world who, with or without us, are preparing to fight for the long revolution are also the emissaries of the new poetry.[26]

26. At the beginning of the Situationist project, Debord argued that the group should stake its ground on a new terrain: the battleground of leisure. It was here, where the alienations of labour-power and capital were being rapidly extended throughout the social field, reconfiguring the time away from work in the image of wage-slavery, there appeared the new labours of leisure and mass consumption. Debord argued that this extension of ‘the alienation of the old world’ was by no means its amelioration, but rather the more extensive development of alienation, and so too the extension of the terrain of contestation.[27] In opposition to capitalist leisure-time, Debord and the early SI proposed the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’.

27. From the start, the Situationist project, as found in the ‘hypothesis of the constructed situations’ and the conception of the ‘battle of leisure’, contained an implicit critique of alienated labour, and the idea that such labour could be either a model for, or a positive point of departure for a dis-alienated life. It was the encounter with SB that allowed the SI to transform the hypothesis from a critique of leisure time to a more full-bloodied critique of the reciprocal and entailed alienations of work and non-work. As Debord said of SB’s conception of political and critical practice, ‘revolution is not “showing” life to people but making them live’.[28]

28. Dauvé has argued that the construction of situations ‘founds what is only a materialist theory of personal relationships […]. [T]he notion of the “construction of situations” isolates the relation between subjects from the totality of relations’.[29] In the founding document of the SI, Debord argued the experimental use of the city that he and his comrades had charted in the 1950s—through their ‘dérives’ and ‘psychogeographical studies’—had led them to pose the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’.[30] Much like the Situationist concept of ‘détournement’, the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’ was not conceived as a theory—of personal relations, as Dauvé puts it—but rather as a ‘working hypothesis’ liable to correction or abandonment depending upon further research.[31]

29. Despite the importance the SI placed upon the cultivation of friendship against and beyond the reduction of human relations to economic relations, the critical perspective of this hypothesis was never one of merely the construction of personal relationships. Rather, the SI hypothesised the construction of situations on the basis of the already present possibilities under capitalism i.e. for the transformation of ‘decors’, ‘environments’, ‘behaviours’ and the totality of social and natural relations. As Debord would later remark, ‘the next rise of the revolutionary movement […] will invent and propose another use of everyday life’.[32]

30. We can best understand the continuing importance of the SI’s hypothesis as a contribution to this project in the present. To be fair to Dauvé, we could read the Situationist hypothesis as a theory of personal relations that are yet to come. But even here, the Situationist perspective always remained that of the social-natural totality, of the conditions that enabled personal relations, and most importantly of all, the transformation of both such personal relations and the social-natural conditions that enabled them. As a preliminary conclusion we therefore must note that Dauvé fails to appreciate how the SI integrated the entire materiality of capital into their critique of capitalist leisure.

31. In PO (Pouvoir Ouvrier) and SB, the SI found an analogue of the factory. A spectacular order of “actors” —the teachers, intellectuals and old-timers of the group—and an order of “spectators” —the usually younger militants, university students, apprentice intellectuals, etc. However, in his critique of PO, Debord attempted to do more than understand how the spectacular organisation of labour in capitalist society had penetrated the revolutionary organisation—not a surprising result given the omnipresence of capitalist social relations. Debord also asked why such a state of affairs remained uncriticised, and fatalistically accepted as inescapable short of a “revolutionary” transformation.

32. Without any real attempt to understand the shortcomings of this particularly revolutionary organisation, such an imagined transformation was of a magical order. Of course, we must understand these shortcomings as flowing from the limitations of human activity under hierarchical relations of production. In Debord’s resignation letter we can recognise the critique of organisational forms and behaviours familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the far-left. ‘PO, founded on the contestation of all aspects of current society, is not particularly favourable to the contestation of the least of its own habits’.[33]

33. In 1961, shortly after Debord’s resignation from PO, the SI—while noting the important work of SB, particularly with regards to their critique of ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’—also offered the following criticism: ‘those who put all the stress on the necessity of changing work itself, of rationalising it and of interesting people in it, neglect the idea of the free content of life (i.e. of a materially equipped creative power that that would be developed beyond the “classic” conception of labour-time—already modified—as well as beyond rest-and-recreation time), and so run the risk of providing an ideological cover for a harmonisation of the present production system in the direction of greater efficiency and profitability without at all having called into question the experience of this production or the necessity of this kind of life’.[34] Here, the SI’s forceful repudiation of taking over or self-managing ‘the present production system’ was accompanied by a poetic vision that owed more to their conception of the construction of situations than Castoriadis’ dry, economistic elaboration of the content of socialism: ‘The free construction of the entire space-time of individual life is a demand that will have to be defended against all sorts of dreams of harmony [in the minds] of the aspiring managers of the coming social reorganisation’.[35] Less than two years later the SI even more forcefully argued that SB’s project to self-manage production (‘a sort of nostalgia for earlier forms of work’) in effect ‘abandoned the very core of the revolutionary project, which is nothing less than the suppression of work in the current sense (as well as the suppression of the proletariat) and of all the justifications for older forms of work’.[36] In short, SB’s perspective ‘neglects the possibility […] of replacing work with a new type of free activity’.[37] Such demands—for ‘a new type of free activity’, and ‘the free construction of the entire space-time of individual life’—would remain at the centre of what the SI would later call ‘generalised self-management’.

34. A Situationist, Isidore Ducasse, or maybe someone else once wrote that, ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary; progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.[38] The Situationist conception of ‘generalised self-management’ is a case of détournement, i.e. plagiarism consciously aimed at the supersession of the original. Not just imitation of expression, but its correction by way of development; its improvement via deletion and replacement. The SI détourned self-management (autogestion) from SB—not to mention further afield, in the works of Anton Pannekoek for instance. Per Vaneigem’s recent comments, SB were not able to develop the immanent radicality of self-management, as demonstrated by its reduction to the self-management of production. The social barbarians possessed a model of revolution in which poetry would be applied post-festum to the existing forms of production, and so work would become both the ‘font of life’ and mark the limits of human freedom.[39] As Debord would later say about the enigmatic Hamburg Theses, the breaks he, Vaneigem and other members made in 1961 and 1962 ‘meant that we should no longer pay the least importance to any of the conceptions of revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement destroyed in the first half of our century’.[40] Now, the SI spoke about work like they had once spoke of being with and against art and culture. This position is undoubtedly paradoxical, and ‘risky’ as the group later acknowledged.[41] Nonetheless, even amidst the use of artistic means against art, such as the elaboration of the hypothesis of the constructed situation, Debord was clear regarding the negativity of their détournements: ‘We wish to transform these times (to which everything we love, beginning with our experimental attitude, also belongs) and not to “write for it” as self-satisfied vulgarity intends’.[42] The Situationists hailed the negative dialectic by proclaiming themselves ‘artists only insofar as we are no longer artists’, inscribing a ‘poetry necessarily without poems’.[43]

35. One of the first attempts at theoretical détournement was the brief assessment of the Paris Commune by Debord, Vaneigem and Attila Kotányi. Written immediately after the resignation and expulsion of artist members of the SI, the Commune was reimagined in its strengths and weakness—its chief strength being its ‘existence in acts’ (Marx). The SI proposed that we have more to learn from the ‘failures’ of the revolutionary workers movement than the ‘apparent successes’ (like “really existing socialism” in 1962). Reconceived for the present, as a sketch of possibilities and freedom rather than as the doom of structural fate, the poetry of the commune was primarily negative: the destruction of the old world, and the opening abyss of the new.

The story of the arsonists, who in the last days of the Commune came to destroy Notre-Dame, and clashed there with an armed battalion of artists, is rich in meaning. It is a good example of direct democracy. Furthermore, from the perspective of the power of the councils, it also shows problems yet to be solved. Were these artists right to unanimously defend a cathedral in the name of eternal aesthetic values, and so ultimately also in the name of the museum? Meanwhile other men justly wanted to grasp the expression of their day, and through the demolition inscribe their total opposition to a society—which at its moment of victory over them, consigned their lives to nothingness and silence.[44]

The commune as festival was by no means the invention of the SI. But the recognition that its lasting significance was to be found in what some communards proposed to destroy—a condition that requires illusions—would prove crucial to the elaboration of generalised self-management.

36. The term ‘generalised self-management’ (l’autogestion généralisée) first appears in the SI’s article, The class struggle in Algeria. The Situationist sense is that of its emergence from class struggle: ‘Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, a witness to the Paris Commune, noted, “For the first time one can hear the workers exchanging their opinions about problems that until now have been tackled only by philosophers.” The realisation of philosophy, the critique and free reconstruction of all the values and behaviours imposed by alienated life—this is precisely the maximum program of generalised self-management.’[45] Here, the SI attempted to understand and distinguish those tendencies of ‘self-management’ that had begun to emerge in proletarian class struggle from the official policy of ‘self-management’ promulgated by the state socialist regime of Ben Bella. Dauvé would later accuse the authors of ‘distort[ing] the facts concerning Algeria after Boumédiène’s coup d’etat’ by advocating workers self-management and its extension, ‘without the destruction of the State and key transformations in society’.[46] But here, selective quotation triumphs over a more considered reading.[47] As the SI had argued in the first of their two pamphlets which circulated clandestinely in Algeria in 1965, the only ‘alternative is now between the militarised bureaucratic dictatorship and the dictatorship of the “self-managed sector” extended to all production and all aspects of social life’.[48] The conception of the conditions of this ‘extension’ was never left in doubt by the authors: ‘not only the defence of self-management but its extension to the point of dissolving all specialised activity not under self-management’.[49] Certainly we can retrospectively charge the SI with misunderstanding the situation in the immediate wake of the 1965 coup. But such a charge cannot deny the context in which the SI intervened in the unfolding situation—i.e. on the basis of advocating the revolutionary overthrow of state power: ‘self-management, by the simple fact that it exists, threatens all of society’s hierarchical organisation. It must destroy all external control because all the external forces of control will never make peace with it as a living reality, but at most only with its label, with its embalmed corpse. Wherever there is self-management there cannot be an army, police or state’.[50] Indeed, in the reckoning of the SI it was this perceived threat that motivated not only Ben Bella’s attempts to corral proletarian self-organisation, but also the Boumédiène’s coup d’état that was in effect the militarised continuation of the Ben Bella regime’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt at legislative recuperation.

37. Perhaps the clearest elaboration of the difference between the SI’s conception of self-management, and that of councilist groups like PO and SB can be found in the Situationist’s most infamous publication, On the Poverty of Student Life, penned by Mustapha Khayati. Nonetheless, it is redolent of what Dauvé would typify as the incomplete or ambiguous nature of their critique of the ideology of self-management. The critique of the commodity and labour, and the necessity for the complete abolition of labour as it exists, jostles with the Situationist conception of proletarian self-activity as the emergent tasks of the workers councils:

The principle of commodity production is the loss of self in the chaotic and unconscious creation of a world that completely escapes its creators. In contrast, the radically revolutionary core of generalised self-management is everyone’s conscious control over the whole of life. The self-management of commodity alienation would only make everyone the programmers of their own survival: squaring the capitalist circle. The task of the workers councils will thus not be the self-management of the existing world, but its unceasing qualitative transformation: the concrete supersession of the commodity (that gigantic detour in the history of human self-production).

This supersession naturally implies the abolition of work and its replacement by a new type of free activity, thereby the abolition of one of the fundamental divisions of modern society: that between an increasingly reified labour and a passively consumed leisure. Presently decomposing groups like Socialisme ou Barbarie or Pouvoir Ouvrier, although rallying to the modern slogan of Workers’ Power, on this crucial point continue to follow the path of the old workers movement by envisioning a reformism of labour through its “humanisation.” But work itself must be attacked. Far from being “utopian,” this abolition in the everyday life of everyone is the first condition for the effective supersession of commodity society, and for the abolition of the separation between “free time” and “work time”—those complementary sectors of alienated life where the contradiction between use-value and exchange value are continually projected. It is only beyond this opposition that people will be able to make their vital activity an object of their will and consciousness and see themselves in a world that they themselves have created. The democracy of workers councils is the solution to the enigma of all the present separations. It renders “impossible everything that exists outside individuals”.[51]

38. In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord spoke of workers councils in an ambivalent fashion. On the one hand he hailed them, in the words of Marx on the Paris Commune, as ‘the political form at last discovered in which the economic emancipation of labour could be realised’.[52] On the other hand, he spoke of the actual history of councils in the 20th century as ‘no more than a brief sketch’ of a form that poses problems ‘rather than providing a solution’.[53] The council form for the SI, despite reservations, was a first stab at overcoming the fragmentations of capitalist social relations—of communication, hierarchy and the division of labour. Or, as Vaneigem put it in a more tragic register, ‘despite their mistakes and their poverty, I see in the historical experience of workers’ councils (1917, 1921, 1934, 1956), and in the pathetic search for friendship and love, a single and inspiring reason not to despair over present “reality”.’[54] What electrified the SI about the potential of the councils was what they posed by their very existence the possibility of the self-production of life as opposed to the production of an alien power that ruled over it: ‘With the power of the councils […] the proletarian movement becomes its own product, and this product is nothing other than the producers themselves’.[55] The councils which appeared ‘in the first quarter of the century’ were the ‘highest reality’ of this now vanished revolutionary movement—as opposed to the parodic horror of ‘really existing socialism’. In their present (1967) attempts to reconstitute a revolutionary movement, ‘this result returns as the only undefeated point of the defeated movement’.[56] However, the question is not one of restaging the past, but rather posing the project which emerged from the councils as ‘no longer at the periphery of what is ebbing, but at the centre of what is rising’.[57] Which is to say workers councils as the pivot of generalised self-management.

39. The greatest revolutionary idea concerning urbanism is not itself urbanistic, technological or aesthetic. It is the decision to reconstruct the entire environment in accordance with the needs of the power of workers councils, of the anti-state dictatorship of the proletariat, of a dialogue that can be carried out. Such councils, which can be effective only if they transform existing conditions in their entirety, cannot assign themselves a smaller task if they wish to be recognized as well as recognize themselves in a world of their own making. […] This “historical mission of establishing truth in the world” cannot be accomplished by either the isolated individual, or the atomized masses subjected to manipulation. Now, as ever, it is that class which is the dissolution of all classes that is capable of taking back power in the dis-alienated form of realised democracy, [which is to say] the councils, in which practical theory oversees and controls its own actions. This is possible only where individuals are “directly linked to universal history”, and only where dialogue arms itself to make its own conditions victorious.[58]

40. With the ‘lovely month of May’ of 1968, and its immediate aftermath, the SI came to see itself as engaged in the project of fashioning a ‘councilist organisation’ which advocated ‘workers councils’. However, and this point is crucial, the SI declared that ‘such an organisation sees the beginning and end of its program in the complete decolonization of everyday life. It thus does not aim for the self-management [autogestion] of the existing world by the masses, but at its uninterrupted transformation’.[59] In the wake of the May movement, Debord argued that one could not simply reduce their demand for workers councils ‘to some “workers’ power” limited to some sort of pseudo-control of the production of their own alienation’, but rather conceive of it in terms of the ‘total autonomous power’ of a self-organising, revolutionary proletariat.[60]. Or, as Vaneigem put it, ‘outside [of] generalized self-management’ the demand for ‘workers councils loses [its] meaning’—which is to say, the SI’s demand for ‘a new type of social organization through which the proletariat puts an end to the proletarianisation of everyone’.[61] For Situationist René Riesel the ‘victory of the councils is not the end of the revolution, but the beginning of it’.[62] No doubt we can take issue with the SI’s belief that workers councils could be instances of, or the basis for such ‘new type[s] of social organisation’. Indeed, considering the complete absence of workers councils in 1968, Dauvé and other critics of the SI are on firmer ground when they call into question the SI’s optimism[63]—for instance, when Debord infamously wrote ‘the occupations movement [of May] was objectively at several moments only an hour away’ from the constitution of workers councils’[64]).

41. After May 1968, and the blossoming of interest in the history of council communism (a fact, no doubt motivated in part by the role of the Stalinist French Communist Part in May 1968), the SI drew a distinction between their conception of workers councils as a departure and pivot of generalised self-management and those contemporaneous demands for the self-management of production. Thus, it is not surprising that they came to develop a criticism of what they called ‘councilism’ and the ‘councilist ideology’.[65] They defined ‘councilism’ as falling into two main types: First, ‘the social-democratic or Bolshevik ideologies about the councils’. Secondly, those ‘council communist’ conceptions with which they felt a closer affinity. Of the two main types, it was the latter that most interested them, as those that held to it put the council at the centre of their practice (as opposed to Bolshevik ‘councilism’, which conceived of the councils chiefly as a vehicle for the rise to dominance of a “revolutionary” workers’ party and so-called ‘workers state’). Against those communists who emphasised the workers council along the models of those that had emerged historically, the Situationist Riesel argued that in practice these councils had tended to reduce ‘the general assemblies of the rank and file’ to ‘mere assemblies of electors, so that the first level of the “council” is situated above them’.[66] Thus, they had reconstituted the ‘element of separation’ over and against the experience of the ‘highest moments of their practice’—i.e. ‘when all decisions were made by sovereign general assemblies’.[67] Here, the SI’s critique of the problem of representative democracy was given precedence. Nonetheless, and despite some fairly vague statements about the possibilities for the council form to exceed the self-management of production,[68] Reisel’s article on workers’ councils was by far the most councilist of all of the Situationist writings—i.e., councilist in Dauvé’s sense of the term.

42. By the time Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti wrote and published the final document of the SI in 1972, Dauvé argues that they proposed ‘nothing but councilism’ to the proletariat.[69] If one examines this document, it is hard to draw Dauvé’s absolute conviction.[70] Nonetheless, an argument was taking place within the SI and its immediate milieu. In a document written some months before his resignation, amidst the interminable ‘orientation debate’ within the SI, Raoul Vaneigem spoke of ‘implicit tendencies manifesting themselves among us (toward pure councilism, for example)’ against which he suggested ‘our specificity could be reinforced’.[71] Debord agreed with Vaneigem’s suggestion, writing ‘despite their great historical and programmatic interest, the Workers’ Councils of the past were obviously insufficient experiments, and actual councilist organisations are still far from existing. A vague councilist fashion has developed, even among idiots. We have no reason to take our place in it; but to disturb it, starting from today. In the sense of total content that the Councils must attain, in the sense of what the SI can and must do so that this power can exist in reality, I will summarize my thesis in a phrase: it is not so much that the situationists are councilists, it is the councils that will have to be situationist.’[72].

Conclusion

43. Dauvé has said that the SI ‘failed to see that autonomous self-management of factory struggles can only be a means, never a goal in itself nor a principle.’[73] However, it is clear that the SI never saw the self-management of workplaces as an end in-itself, but rather only as a means, i.e. an opening toward ‘generalised self-management’. For the group the principle of self-management was the important thing, and thus their détournement eschewed and criticised SB’s conception of the self-management of production. One could argue that such a position does not extend beyond the anodyne of calling for ‘self-organisation’. However, it is precisely the explicit critique and rejection of work by way of Marx and Dada, and its opposition to both orthodox Marxist and anarchist conceptions that marks out the SI’s conception of self-organisation.[74] Dauvé has argued that capitalist ideology has ‘blurred the difference’ between the real need for revolutionary self-organisation and the dead end of self-managing our own alienation.[75] To the extent that “critical” perspectives take up the capitalist notion of labour, including those that derive such a conception from Marx (particularly the Marx of the Critique of the Gotha Program), is the extent to which labour is conceived as not merely one premise of human life—which it is—but the essence of life itself. This is Cornelius Castoriadis’ belief, and by extension most of the SB group that the Situationists encountered from 1960 and on. ‘Self-management’ when it is appended to ‘work’ or ‘production’ in the sense of existing capitalist social relations of production is, without doubt, the becoming ideological of revolutionary self-organisation. However, it is hard to reconcile Dauvé’s critique of the SI with the SI’s attempt to détourn SB’s notion of self-management with and against work.

44. Vaneigem spoke of the SI as being ‘combatants between two worlds: one that we do not acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist’.[76] He evoked the apparent paradox of taking up a revolutionary perspective within capitalism—of being of and against this world. The problem of revolutionary self-organisation is of a similar order. On the one hand, self-organisation emerges on the basis of alienated labour; on the other hand, it is through such self-organisation that the beyond of wage-labour is charted. For the SI, workers councils constituted a potential break with capital to the extent that they posed the radical participation of all in the poetic reconstruction and festive reappropriation of life beyond wage slavery. Such organisation seems contradictory to the extent that it is of this world and yet against this world. Dis-alienation follows the path of alienation. This is not to argue that one can ‘combat alienation by alienated means’, but rather to note the emergence of dis-alienation from the experience of alienation.[77] Certainly, to the extent that such councils merely self-manage alienation, or fetishize capitalist forms of labour, they must be rejected. Vaneigem also spoke of the ‘positive pole of alienation’ constituting ‘the end of social alienation’.[78] It is this sense of the revolutionary solution to alienation—of alienation being the ground of the rupture with alienation—that Dauvé loses by focussing on the appearance of contradiction.

45. In the next part of this article I will turn to a more detailed examination of Dauvé’s critique of Marx, labour and value. It is here that we will find the philosophical error upon which he has built his critique of the Situationists, among others.

Argentina — Chile, 2018


Thanks to Alistair Hemmens, Peter Jovanovic and Gerald Keaney for editorial assistance and suggestions.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Hegel, letter to F. Creuzer, October 30, 1819. Note that the last quote of this paragraph is also from Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface, paragraph 11.

[2] Here, ‘black Africans’ refers to the Kwilu and Simba rebels in the Congo in 1964. For more on the Asturian miners’ strike in Spain, see Guy Debord. ‘The Asturian Strike [1963]’. For more information on the online availability for most citations check the Bibliography below.

[3] Here, ‘Wallonia’ refers to the general strike in Belgium over the summer of 1960-61. The strike in Lagos was part of a two week long general strike in Nigeria in June 1964.

[4] Internationale Situationniste. ‘Le monde dont nous parlons.’ International Situationniste, no. 9 (Août 1964), p. 20.

[5] Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle. Third ed. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, [1967] 1992, thesis 90.

[6] Gilles Dauvé, ‘Back to the Situationist International (2000)’.

[7] This comment is to be found in a footnote appended to the new introductory remarks Dauvé wrote for chapter four of Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement. These ‘new’ remarks are dated ‘1997-2013’. See, Gilles Dauvé and François Martin. Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement. Oakland: PM Press, [1972/1973/1974/1997] 2015, fn. 1, pp. 99/158, and p. 100.

[8] Similarly, he appears to have given up on his attack on the concept of spectacle: ‘today I would not write that the IS [i.e. Internationale Situationniste] had no “understanding of capital.” While its critique focused more on commodity than on capital, on alienation than on exploitation, it did not ignore the wage-labour/capital relation, hence class struggle, though Situationists approached it via an emphasis on commodity’.[8] I will return to the question of spectacle in a future article in which I will examine and criticise Dauvé’s concept of value.

[9] Ibid, p. 154.

[10] Ibid., p. 99.

[11] Briefly, Dauvé believes that Marx was wrong to associate communism with the idea of ‘saving time’ from ‘necessary’ labour. Here, Dauvé follows the Situationists, to an extent, insofar as he agrees with their criticism that ‘free time’ in capitalism is increasingly an expanded moment of the (re)production of the social relation. However, Dauvé extends this criticism in order to say that necessarily ‘labour’ which entails ‘time-counting’ and ‘time-saving’ is ‘value production’, or could form the basis for a return to capitalistic production. I will examine this belief of Dauvé’s in more detail in a following article.

[12] It is true that the SI’s conception of ‘self-management’ was often a democratic one; however, it is unclear that ‘democracy’ constituted a universal principle of self-management for Situationists (for instance, Debord’s playful and strategic approach to the creation of situations is difficult to reduce to a democratic process).

[13] Jean Barrot [Gilles Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’ In What is Situationism? A Reader, edited by Stewart Home. San Francisco: AK Press, 1996.

[14] Barrot [Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’

[15] Note I have used Maurice Brinton’s translation of ‘dirigeants’ and ‘executants’ as respectively ‘order-givers’ and ‘order-takers’, for the sake of clarity and consistency. See Maurice Brinton. For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton. Oakland: AK Press, 2004.

[16] P. Canjuers [D. Blanchard] & G.-E. Debord. ‘Preliminaires pour une definition de l’unite du programme revolutionnaire [20 juillet 1960].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 511-18. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006, part I, thesis 7.

[17] In some ways, SB’s sense of the immanence of self-management in the social relation—i.e. the idea that one only had to do away with the order-takers in order to unleash proletarian autonomy and so too communism—resonates with the later ideas of Toni Negri.

[18] Gilles Dauvé, Serge Quadruppani & J.-P. Carasso. ‘L’Internationale Situationniste’, in ‘Le roman de nos origines’, from La Banquise No. 2, 1983. Translation modified.

[19] Daniel Blanchard. Debord, in the Resounding Cataract of Time, 1995.

[20] Canjuers [Blanchard] & Debord. ‘Preliminaires pour une definition de l’unite du programme revolutionnaire [20 juillet 1960]’, part I, thesis 7.

[21] Ibid., part II, thesis 1.

[22] Cornelius Castoriadis. ‘On the Content of Socialism, II [1957].’ In Cornelius Castoriadis Political and Social Writings: Volume 2, 1955-1960, edited by David Ames Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 107.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Raoul Vaneigem. Raoul Vaneigem: Self-Portraits and Caricatures of the Situationist International [2014]. Translated & détourned by Not Bored from the French Rien n’est fini, tout commence [2014], 2015.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘All the King’s Men.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), p. 32.

[27] G.-E. Debord. ‘Rapport sur la construction des situations et sur les conditions de l’organisation et de l’action de la tendance situationniste internationale [1957].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[28] G.-E. Debord. ‘Pour un jugement révolutionnaire de l’art [février 1961].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[29] Barrot [Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’

[30] Debord. ‘Rapport sur la construction des situations […] [1957].’

[31] Ibid.

[32] G.-E. Debord. ‘Perspectives de modification conscientes dans la vie quotidienne.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (Août 1961).

[33] Guy Debord. ‘Aux participants à la conférence nationale de Pouvoir ouvrier (5 mai 1961).’ In Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, edited by Patrick Mosconi.

[34] Internationale Situationniste. ‘Instructions pour une prise d’armes.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (Août 1961), p. 4.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Internationale Situationniste [Raoul Vaneigem]. ‘Domination de la nature, idéologies et classes.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), p. 4.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Isidore Ducasse, ‘Poésies [1870]’.

[39] Indeed, Castoriadis would make this insight into the basis of his critique of Marx’s conceptions of the ‘realms’ of freedom and necessity throughout human history, and so too beyond capitalism. See, ‘On the content of Socialism, II (1957)’ and ‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution’ (1960-61).

[40] For more information on the Hamburg Theses, see, Guy Debord. ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’ In Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, 1997 and Anthony Hayes. ‘How the Situationist International became what it was.’ Australian National University, 2017.

[41] Internationale Situationniste. ‘L’Operation Contre-Situationniste Dans Divers Pays.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963).

[42] G.-E. Debord. ‘Encore un effort si vous voulez être situationnistes : L’I.S. dans et contre la décomposition [1957].’ In Guy Debord : Œuvres. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[43] See, Internationale Situationniste. ‘Le questionnaire.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 9 (Août 1964), and Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘All the King’s Men.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963).

[44] Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Sur la commune [1962].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 628-633. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006, thesis 10.

[45] Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord & Mustapha Khayati]. ‘Les luttes de classes en Algérie [orig. décembre 1965].’ International Situationniste, no. 10 (Mars 1966), p. 19. Debord and Mustapha Khayati were the chief authors of this work. However, as it appeared under the collective editorial by-line of the group it is hard to say for sure that he was the originator of the term—a term, more often than not, associated with Vaneigem’s elaboration before and after his departure from the SI. For instance, Vaneigem contributed to an early draft of the pamphlet ‘Adresse aux révolutionnaires d’Algérie et de tous les pays’. See, Guy Debord letter to Mustapha Khayati, 7 June 1965. There is a case to be made for Khayati’s later, more ‘orthodox’ interpretation of Marx’s critique of labour. For instance, see a work published shortly after his resignation from the SI—though possibly written before he resigned: ‘Labour is not a partial and separated economic activity, but literally the essence of man. […] Is this what is sometimes called “economism”, or on the contrary a new conception of man and history—of man and nature?’ Mustapha Khayati. ‘Les Marxisms : Idéologies et révolution.’ Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel no. 51 (Janvier 1970).

[46] Barrot [Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’

[47] As far as I can tell Dauvé never repeated this criticism of the SI with reference to Algeria in 1965.

[48] Internationale Situationniste. ‘Adresse aux révolutionnaires d’Algérie et de tous les pays [orig. juillet 1965].’ International Situationniste, no. 10 (Mars 1966), p. 49.

[49] I.S. ‘Les luttes de classes en Algérie [orig. décembre 1965]’, p. 21.

[50] Ibid, p. 20

[51] Internationale Situationniste [Mustapha Khayati]. ‘De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier.’ U.N.E.F. Strasbourg, 1966.

[52] Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle, thesis 116.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Raoul Vaneigem. The Revolution of Everyday Life (aka ‘Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations’). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Rebel Press, [1967] 2001, p. 31

[55] Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle, thesis 117.

[56] Ibid., thesis 118.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., theses 179, 221.

[59] Internationale Situationniste. ‘Définitions minimum des organisations révolutionnaire.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 11 (Octobre 1967), p. 54.

[60] Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘Le commencement d’une époque.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969), p. 13.

[61] Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Avis aux civilisés relativement à l’autogestion généralisée.’ international situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969), p. 75 (thesis 9).

[62] René Riesel. ‘Préliminaires sur les conseils et l’organisation conseilliste.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969), p. 73.

[63] For a critique of May 1968 as being on the cusp of a proletarian revolution see Michael Seidman. The Imaginary Revolution. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004, and Mouvement communiste. ‘May-June 1968: an occasion lacking in workers’ autonomy.’ Mouvement communiste, April 2008.

[64] I.S. [Debord]. ‘Le commencement d’une époque.’ IS, no. 12, p. 12.

[65] Partly, this was in response to being accused of being purveyors of ‘a councilist ideology’ by the ICO (Informations, Correspondance Ouvrières). The ICO was a group that had emerged from a split in the Socialism or Barbarism group (SB) in 1958. They rejected both revolutionary vanguardism, and the SI’s and SB’s conception of a revolutionary organisation. Against the SI, in particular its advocacy of the formation of workers councils in May 1968, the ICO had declared that ‘any other attempt […] to declare the necessity of creating workers councils’ apart from their organic emergence from ‘strike committees under the influence of the situation itself and in response to the very necessities of the struggle’ signified a councilist ideology. ICO no. 84, August 1969, cited in Riesel, ‘Préliminaires sur les conseils et l’organisation conseilliste.’ IS, no. 12. It is possible the SI détourned the sense of ‘councilist ideology’ from the ICO’s use of it against them.

[66] Ibid., p. 65.

[67] Ibid.

[68] ‘[T]he council as permanent basic unit […], as the assembly in which all the workers of an enterprise must participate […] and all the inhabitants of an urban district who have rallied to the revolution […]. This practical experience is the terrain where people learn how to become conscious of their own action, where they “realize philosophy”.’ Ibid, pp. 71, 72.

[69] Barrot [Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979]’.

[70] For instance, a common theme of late Situationist writing on councils is the idea that the immanent ‘logic of their own power’ pointed beyond their merely proletarian content to ‘the beginning of an era of great historical production; the indispensable and urgent renewal of the production of man by himself’. Guy Debord & Gianfranco Sanguinetti. ‘Thèses sur l’Internationale situationniste et son temps [1972].’ In Guy Debord : Œuvres. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[71] Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Notes on the SI’s Direction, March 1970’. Translated by Reuben Keehan.

[72] Guy Debord. ‘À toutes les sections de l’I.S [17 mars 1970]’, in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 4, 1969-1972. Unfortunately for us, perhaps, the SI’s plan for a new manifesto in 1970, which would have, among other things, clarified their position on workers’ councils and ‘councilist’ organisations, never came to fruition. See, Guy Debord. ‘À toutes les sections de l’I.S [27 avril 1970], in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 4, 1969-1972.

[73] Dauvé. ‘Back to the Situationist International (2000)’.

[74] For more on the SI’s critique of Marxist and anarchist orthodoxy, see Jean-Christophe Angaut. ‘Beyond Black and Red: The Situationists and the Legacy of the Workers Movement.’ In Libertarian Socialism: Politics in Black and Red, edited by Alex Prichard, Ruth Kinna, Saku Pinta and David Berry, pp. 232-250. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

[75] Dauvé. ‘The Bitter Victory of Councilism (2014)’.

[76] Vaneigem, cited in Internationale Situationniste. ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 27.

[77] Debord. La Société du Spectacle, thesis 122.

[78] Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Banalités de base (I).’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 32 (thesis 2).


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jean-Christophe Angaut. ‘Beyond Black and Red: The Situationists and the Legacy of the Workers Movement.’ In Libertarian Socialism: Politics in Black and Red, edited by Alex Prichard, Ruth Kinna, Saku Pinta and David Berry, pp. 232-250. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Daniel Blanchard. Debord, in the Resounding Cataract of Time, http://www.notbored.org/blanchard.html, 1995.

Maurice Brinton. For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton. Oakland: AK Press, 2004. Available online: http://libcom.org/library/workers-power-maurice-brinton.

Cornelius Castoriadis. ‘On the Content of Socialism, II [1957].’ In Cornelius Castoriadis Political and Social Writings: Volume 2, 1955-1960, edited by David Ames Curtis, pp. 90-154. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Available online: https://www.marxists.org/archive/castoriadis/1957/socialism-2.htm.

Cornelius Castoriadis. ‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution [1960-61].’ In Cornelius Castoriadis Political and Social Writings: Volume 2, 1955-1960, edited by David Ames Curtis, pp. 226-343. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Available online: https://libcom.org/library/modern-capitalism-revolution-paul-cardan.

Mouvement communiste. ‘May-June 1968: an occasion lacking in workers’ autonomy.’ Mouvement communiste, April 2008. Available online: http://mouvement-communiste.com/documents/MC/Booklets/booklet_may_68.pdf.

[Gilles Dauvé] Jean Barrot. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’ In What is Situationism? A Reader, edited by Stewart Home, pp. 24-53. San Francisco: AK Press, 1996. Available online: https://libcom.org/library/critique-situationist-international-gilles-dauve.

Gilles Dauvé, Serge Quadruppani & J.-P. Carasso. ‘L’Internationale Situationniste’, in ‘Le roman de nos origines’, from La Banquise No. 2, 1983. English translation available online: http://www.oocities.org/~johngray/rome09.htm.

Gilles Dauvé. ‘et L’I.S. ?’, from La Banquise No. 4, 1986. English translation available online: https://thesinisterquarter.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/and-the-s-i/.

Gilles Dauvé, ‘Back to the Situationist International (2000)’, http://www.troploin.fr/node/5.

Gilles Dauvé. ‘The Bitter Victory of Councilism (2014)’. Available online: https://www.troploin.fr/node/50.

Gilles Dauvé and François Martin. Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement. Oakland: PM Press, [1972/1973/1974/1997] 2015. Available online: https://libcom.org/library/eclipse-re-emergence-communist-movement.

G.-E. Debord. ‘Rapport sur la construction des situations et sur les conditions de l’organisation et de l’action de la tendance situationniste internationale [1957].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 308-328. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/report.htm.

G.-E. Debord. ‘Encore un effort si vous voulez être situationnistes : L’I.S. dans et contre la décomposition [1957].’ In Guy Debord : Œuvres, pp. 345-350. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online: https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/onemore.html.

G.-E. Debord. ‘Pour un jugement révolutionnaire de l’art [février 1961].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 558-563. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/breathless.htm.

Guy Debord. ‘Aux participants à la conférence nationale de Pouvoir ouvrier (5 mai 1961).’ In Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, edited by Patrick Mosconi, pp. 82-88. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001. English translation online: http://www.notbored.org/debord-5May1961.html.

G.-E. Debord. ‘Perspectives de modification conscientes dans la vie quotidienne.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (Août 1961), pp. 20-27. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/6.everyday.htm.

Guy Debord. ‘The Asturian Strike [1963]’, translated by Not Bored, http://www.notbored.org/asturian-strike.html.

Guy Debord. ‘Lettre à Mustapha Khayati, 7 juin 1965.’ In Correspondance volume III janvier 1965 – décembre 1968, edited by Patrick Mosconi. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2003.

Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle. Third ed. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, [1967] 1992. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/index.htm.

Guy Debord. ‘À toutes les sections de l’I.S [17 mars 1970]’, in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 4, 1969-1972 (e-book version). Translation available online: http://www.notbored.org/debord-17March1970.html.

Guy Debord. ‘À toutes les sections de l’I.S [27 avril 1970], in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 4, 1969-1972 (e-book version). Translation available online: http://www.notbored.org/orientation12.html.

Guy Debord. ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’ In Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, pp. 703-04. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997. Translation available online: http://hdl.handle.net/1885/132358 (in the appendices of Hayes’ thesis).

Canjuers [D. Blanchard] & G.-E. Debord. ‘Preliminaires pour une definition de l’unite du programme revolutionnaire [20 juillet 1960].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 511-18. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006, thesis 7. English translation online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/prelim.htm.

Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Sur la commune [1962].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 628-633. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/Pariscommune.htm.

Guy Debord & Gianfranco Sanguinetti. ‘Thèses sur l’Internationale situationniste et son temps [1972].’ In Guy Debord : Œuvres, pp. 1088-1133. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online: https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/sistime.html.

Isidore Ducasse, ‘Poésies [1870],’ in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011.

Mustapha Khayati. ‘Les Marxisms : Idéologies et révolution.’ Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel no. 51 (Janvier 1970). English translation available online: https://thesinisterquarter.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/marxisms-ideologies-and-revolution/.

Anthony Hayes. ‘How the Situationist International became what it was.’ Australian National University, 2017. Available online: http://hdl.handle.net/1885/132358.

Anthony Hayes. ‘Spectacle of what?’, 2018, https://thesinisterquarter.wordpress.com/2018/07/20/spectacle-of-what/.

H.P. Lovecraft. Beyond the Wall of Sleep, 1919.

René Riesel. ‘Préliminaires sur les conseils et l’organisation conseilliste.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969). English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/12.councils.htm.

Michael Seidman. The Imaginary Revolution. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004.

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Instructions pour une prise d’armes.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (Août 1961), pp. 3-5. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/6.insurrection.htm.

Internationale Situationniste. ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962), pp. 25-31. English translation available online: https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/goteborg.html.

Internationale Situationniste [Raoul Vaneigem]. ‘Domination de la nature, idéologies et classes.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963). English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/8.nature.htm.

Internationale Situationniste. ‘L’Operation Contre-Situationniste Dans Divers Pays.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), pp. 23-29. Partial english translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/8.countersitu.htm.

Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘All the King’s Men.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), pp. 29-33. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/8.kingsmen.htm.

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Le monde dont nous parlons.’ International Situationniste, no. 9 (Août 1964), pp. 6-23. English translation available online: https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/is9.html.

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Le questionnaire.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 9 (Août 1964), pp. 24-27. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/9.questionnaire.htm.

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Adresse aux révolutionnaires d’Algérie et de tous les pays [orig. juillet 1965].’ International Situationniste, no. 10 (Mars 1966), pp. 43-49. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/10.address.htm.

Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord & Mustapha Khayati]. ‘Les luttes de classes en Algérie.’ International Situationniste, no. 10 (Mars 1966), pp. 12-21. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/10.Algeria.htm.

Internationale Situationniste [Mustapha Khayati]. ‘De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier.’ U.N.E.F. Strasbourg, 1966. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/poverty.htm.

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Définitions minimum des organisations révolutionnaire.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 11 (Octobre 1967), p. 54. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/11.mindef.htm.

Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘Le commencement d’une époque.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969), pp. 3-34. English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/12.era1.htm & http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/12.era2.htm.

Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Banalités de base (I).’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962). English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/7.basic1.htm.

Raoul Vaneigem. The Revolution of Everyday Life (aka ‘Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations’). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Rebel Press, [1967] 2001. English translation available online: http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/pub_contents/5.

Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Avis aux civilisés relativement à l’autogestion généralisée.’ international situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969). English translation available online: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/12.selfman.htm.

Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Notes on the SI’s Direction, March 1970’. Translated by Reuben Keehan. Available online: https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/direction.html.

Raoul Vaneigem. Raoul Vaneigem: Self-Portraits and Caricatures of the Situationist International [2014]. Translated & détourned by Not Bored from the French Rien n’est fini, tout commence [2014], 2015. http://www.notbored.org/caricatures.pdf.

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Cuadernos de Negación – Against the Valorization of Life – Part I

Cuadernos de Negación (Notebooks of Negation) are a collective based in Rosario, Argentina. So far the majority of their important work remains unavailable in English, though there are some other translations available here and here. Fortunately the ediciones inéditos collective have translated the first half of the 11th issue of the journal Cuadernos de Negación (see below). The second part will follow shortly.

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In the city (1): indifference

In the city (1): indifference

IMG_0778

Détourned sign, Rosario, Argentina

In the city there’s a thousand things I wanna say to you…—The Jam

Somewhere in Marx[1] he writes of the experience of indifference that the individual submitted to capitalist social relations has. He argues that the pro-capitalist ideologue, who imagines that capitalism brought true independence for the individual in contrast to the Feudal relations of dependence (‘as feudal lord and vassal, landlord and serf, etc’) is simply mistaken. Under capitalism we remain dependent, and in many ways more dependent, than people caught in Feudal relations. For instance, we are simply unable to materially reproduce ourselves in the domestic sphere on a continuing basis—like peasants were able to—without recourse to buying our means of subsistence.

Marx notes that ‘the independence and indifference of the consumers and producers to one another’ contradicts the developing social ‘bond and all-round interdependence in production and consumption’ that mark capitalist societies.[2] Even though ‘individuals seem independent […], free to collide with one another and to engage in exchange within this freedom’ under capitalism, they ‘appear thus only for someone who abstracts from the conditions, the conditions of existence within which these individuals enter into contact’.[3] Thus Marx says that ‘this is an independence which is at bottom merely an illusion, and it is more correctly called indifference’.[4]

I think ‘indifference’ is the most appropriate word for our experience of contemporary life; the indifference of the capitalist world to our individuality (except, that is, as individual units of potential value production), and our indifference to each other—unless, of course, we establish personal relations with other individuals. Nonetheless, this indifference seems to permeate even these personal relations, in our impatience to simply be the independent individual we never can be (staring at screens, lost in a good book, curled up in despair, “realising” ourselves, etc.). This indifference is writ large in our cities, in the spaces made over in the interests of commercial indifference; in the selfish indifference of individual capitalists, or the state mediated indifference of urban zoning and inhuman regulations.

As Marx further notes, this historically peculiar indifference, socially constituted via the suffocating dominance of money and commodity production, is anything but natural—so we should not mistake it for an existential condition. The universe may very well be indifferent to our fate. Nonetheless, this experience of indifference, the indifference of the city and of the urban life that has devoured the last redoubts of rural dependence, must be understood as designed. Not by an unmoved mover, but rather by the structured indifference of the masses to the real conditions of their own existence (what Marx sometimes calls the ‘personal definition’ given to the individual by the social conditions of their individuality).

FOOTNOTES

[1] Where?

[2] Karl Marx. Grundrisse: Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). Translated by Martin Nicolaus. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, [1857-61] 1974, p. 161.

[3] Ibid., pp. 163-64.

[4] Ibid., p. 163.

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Spectacle of what?

le_spectacle

spectacle of what?

This is an article I wrote a few months ago. It will soon be appearing in a Spanish translation in the journal 2&3DORM. The complete text of the article in the original English can be found in pdf format here. Below is the abstract.

Abstract (of sorts)

What is at stake in the Situationist critique of the spectacle is the idea of what the spectacle falsifies. For some philosophical critics of the spectacle, it is precisely this which reveals the theory’s shortcomings. Guy Debord’s elaboration, they argue, is merely an updated version of Plato’s indictment of mimesis and poetry. Debord thus demonstrates his philosophical naivety by arguing that behind or beyond the false representations of the spectacle lies the possibility of recovering “true” life. However, this line of argument singularly fails to understand the critique of the spectacle on its own terms, instead reducing the critique to a merely philosophical problem. Debord is largely uninterested in the age old philosophical and religious problem of an ineffable “true world” and its material representations. Rather, he is concerned with the way falsehood is a moment of the truth of capitalist social relations, and, in particular, how this produced falsehood tends to develop under the impact of the technological refinement of material representations in the context of commodity production, exchange and consumption. Debord names ‘spectacle’ the metaphysical assumptions and concrete reality conjured by the commodity through its colonisation of everyday life. Contrary to his scholastic opponents, Debord does not oppose truth to the spectacle—indeed, such an opposition is already encompassed in the spectacle’s reign. Rather he poses the possibility of fashioning a world that does not require the projection and alienation of human powers into an ethereal otherworld, whether secular or religious.

Keywords: appearance, artificiality, Jean Baudrillard, Cornelius Castoriadis, falsehood, Ludwig Feuerbach, Guy Debord, ideology, Karl Marx, orthodox Marxism, the critique of Marxism, metaphysics, mimesis, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, reality, representation, the Spectacle, truth

Full article available here.

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The independence of the commodity (2)

THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE COMMODITY

From internationale situationniste no. 10, March 1966

Page 37 of internationale situationniste no. 10 has exerted a strange fascination for me since I first saw it. The striking way it combines the reproduction of a contemporary ad, appended with Situationist critical commentary, completes this détournement. Unfortunately, the novel use of images alongside of and as a part of Situationist criticism is often overlooked in many of the available English translations.

Here, the SI drew out what they alleged was a critique already present–unconsciously present in their estimation. The resonances are clear. The commodity declaring independence is CAPITAL pants. And the dedicated followers of fashion apparently desire their own slavery, decked out in Confederate threads. Crudely, the ad proclaims the independence of the commodity from the people it is said it is to be “very expression of”. Indeed, this expression of a desire for Confederate style pants–made of Tergal(TM) no less–appears to be no more than a fancy, an assertion of company stooges and their ad men, collated from a purported 60,000 who ‘chose’ to submit to a survey (and so the expression of permitted freedoms…). Thus, “the insolent rebellion of their own activity returns as an alien power”. This is the commodity fetish, the ideological “dictatorship of appearance”, a topsy-turvy world in which things declare their freedom, and people submit and are submitted to the constitutive split between themselves and their objectification.

This most recent presentation can be considered a small exercise in what would be necessary to carry out a complete translation of the original Situationist journals in facsimile form. It is a work in progress. I originally published a translation of ‘L’independence de la marchandise’ back in September 2012, the second month of this blog’s operation. The current translation is better. Additionally, I have attempted to render it as it originally appeared in IS no. 10.  As yet, I am still oblivious to the actual fonts used by the SI, and have only approximated them here with ‘Rockwell’ (for the title) and ‘Gil Sans’ (for the body). You can compare the original French version here.

 

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On tonight’s program… the unconscious

tonight-cesoir

Originally from the pages of internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963

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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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