The peculiar anxiety of Sam Cooper


Wayne Spencer has written an excellent critique of the English academic Sam Cooper. Cooper, a relatively new academic-commodity and colleague of McKenzie Wark, is in the process of carving out his career niche via a highly idiosyncratic (that is an ill-informed, false and ideological) reading of the Situationists International (SI) and of the English Situationist and pro-situ scene.

Spencer’s critique, Deep into that darkness peering: A critique of The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists, methodically exposes the lies, half-truths and maladroit arguments of Cooper. Indeed Cooper comes off exposed as a producer of “twaddle about irrelevancies for the benefit of power”.

Cooper recently came to my attention for organising a conference with a title that can only be, for anyone familiar with the work of the SI, labelled as oxymoronic: situationist aesthetics. He has since distinguished himself with a truly dreadful article on the English Situationists (the one brilliantly skewered by Wayne Spencer), and an equally bad attempt to write on the Situationist’s notion of ‘récupération’, in an article called The Anxiety of Recuperation. In this article Cooper attempts to put forward ‘récupération’ as an ontological constant, i.e. as a frankly anti-situationist formulation. In his words:

recuperation might not be thought of as a teleology, but as an ontology—and, specifically, as an anxiety. In which case, recuperation is not specific to the stage of capitalism that the Situationists call spectacle, nor would it imply a preceding aesthetic regime in which antagonistic artworks maintained an immediate, causal and uninterrupted relationship with their political effects. Recuperation would instead become an aesthetic phenomenon immanent to any antagonistic structuring of power, albeit a phenomenon exacerbated by modern capitalist social relations. The anxiety arises when an artwork thinks openly about the limits of its political activity; and the expression of that anxiety might even act as an immunisation against the artwork’s recuperation.

However as we can see his half-cocked theory of ‘the anxiety of recuperation’ relies upon interpreting the Situationists as purveyors of a notion of unmediated human practice. In the same article Cooper enrolls Jacques Rancière (former Maoist, disciple of the Stalinist philosopher Althusser, and later day hero of post-everything ‘Marxist’ academics) in his defence:

the Situationists maintained a ‘Romantic vision of truth as non-separation’ [Rancière], which dismissed spectatorship through a host of falsely-maintained binaries: activity as good, passivity as bad; knowing as good, viewing as bad.

In fact the SI did no such thing; and in any case they eschewed such moral attribution for any activity. Further, and as Spenser clearly demonstrates, the SI never subscribed to a simple minded notion, such as the Romantic vision of Rousseau, in which ‘separation’ or ‘alienation’ is posed merely in terms of the recovery of a lost life that is unmediated or un-separated. Indeed the SI’s vision of separation owes more to Marx’s critique of alienation, in which the alienation of capital is not the alienation of a previous un-alienated life but rather the contemporary production of humans and human capacities as if they were an alien force, i.e. as capital or the commodity-spectacle. To quote Spencer:

Just because the culmination of separation, a culmination that comes about when “the images detached from every aspect of life merge into […] a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at,” is criticised, it does not follow that the degrees of separation that preceded it are considered beyond critique. Nor does it imply that there ever was an historical period in which separation did not exist, let alone one that sustained an everyday life to which we might wish to return. In the same way, a critique of the specific mediation of social relations by ubiquitous images that the spectacle now imposes does not rest upon a categorical rejection of anything that might broadly be called “mediated.” It also does not mean that only relations that are spectacular in nature are the object of situationist critique.

Situationist theory is not an abstract philosophy or metaphysic of unmediated experience. It is a practical critique of all of the particular alienations and false separations that cause the poverty of everyday life now. It contains not just a critique of the spectacle but also of (amongst other things) the hierarchical power and alienated labour from which the spectacle arises in conditions of commodity abundance. It also includes a critical view of the past and its pre-spectacular miseries.


Situationist theory is the thought of contemporary dissatisfaction. It arises from, and speaks to, the possibilities for a completely new life to which the development of today’s capitalism has inadvertently given rise, and the modernized miseries that are precisely brought about by the squandering of those possibilities on work, surveillance, control, inconsequential chatter, cancerous urbanism, the banalization of nature, and all the other horrors of a world imperiously dominated by an economy blindly developing for itself. The historical solution it discerns lies in the revolutionary creation of a self-managed individual and collective life. That is, social life and the means to produce the human world must be taken into our hands in their entirety, and the whole of the space and time of everyday life recreated in accordance with what we desire. This is not a return to the past. Outside of certain previous moments of revolutionary struggle from which situationist theory has learned, this transformed world is unprecedented, and perhaps could not have been sustained in full until modern production and knowledge developed to the point where the best of what they in principle offer could be appropriated by and for a liberated life. And until alienated society has been suppressed and superseded (after which it will simply be redundant), situationist theory is merely an evolving tool of combat. Its function is to help the individual understand her collaboration with her own alienation, and to determine for herself the practical steps she might usefully take against that alienation in the particular circumstances in which she finds herself. Except in the hands of enemies, it does nothing else. (pp. 13, 14)

Sam Cooper has enlisted in the ranks of the enemies of the Situationists. Along side such luminaries as McKenzie Wark, Tom McDonough and Andrew Hussey (to name only some of the more recent récupérators), he warks to the end of preserving the Situationists in aspic, de-fanged and safe for purely academic speculation and ridicule. Needless to say he will fail, and not for the reasons he may imagine.

Unlike Cooper we are neither protectors nor arbiters of a dead memory. The project the Situationists advocated and put into practice was never their sole possession; nor can it be. The project of human liberation has deeper roots and a brighter future than either proprietary concerns or the academic dust of power.

As Wayne Spencer argues with regard to the pressing problem of drawing lessons from the past in order to better develop revolutionary contestation today:

Above and beyond these issues of historical accuracy and completeness, the central poverty of Cooper’s work rests in his utter failure to address any of the real practical questions raised by the matters through which he blunders. Why, for example, did the delinquents fail to develop the effective revolutionary contestation the English Situationists hoped they would; and what can be done to reverse this continuing failure today? Also, what were the practical consequences of King Mob’s “role-playing” and “hyperbolising [of] anti-sociality”? Did those tactics reflect or anticipate new features of the very spectacular society the group sought to attack? In general, what lessons must be learned from the experiences of the English section and King Mob? What refinements of refusal can contemporary dissatisfaction draw from them? Cooper is silent. There is no profit in such questions for him.


Of course, Cooper may protest that such questions are not within the remit of academia. So much the worse for academia and academics. It merely shows that part of the academic role is to talk twaddle about irrelevancies for the benefit of power. (p. 18-19)


[Minor edit 10 June 2013 – adjusted page references from an updated version of Spencer’s article]

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