Correspondence with a Cybernetician

[from Internationale Situationniste no. 9,  August 1964]

Abraham A. MOLES – judging by his letterhead: Doctor of Letters (Phil.), Doctor of Science (Phys.), engineer, assistant professor (University of Strasbourg), Professor of the E.O.S.T.[1] – has addressed, on the 16th of December, 1963, this Open Letter to the Situationist Group:

Sir,

I learned about the Situationist Group through my friend and colleague Henri Lefebvre.[2] The significance of the term “situationist” therefore comes largely from what he has told me and from reading a number of your bulletins, to which I ask you subscribe me.

The interpretation I have here adopted of the word “situation” is purely personal and may not agree with yours. It seems to me that, faced with the personal drama of technological alienation that we perceive on our own account; with the unbridled consumption of the work of art that destroys the very meaning of the term; with a certain number of concepts, such as anesthetic happiness or the planned obsolescence dear to Vance Packard; individuals may ask where can we locate creative originality in a refrigerated society – with or without the mystique of the vacuum clearer, according to Mr. Goldman[n].[3] Freedom within society is rolled back little by little to zero, as and when the technocratic cyberneticians – to which I belong – progressively record three billion insects.[4]

Daily life is a series of situations; these situations belong to a very limited repertoire. Can we extend this repertoire, can we find new situations? It seems to me that this is where the word “situationist” makes sense. A situation seems to me [to be] a system of perceptions linked to a reaction system in the short term. I certainly would like to see in your publications a study on what you call “situation”: [for example] an individual who, for some reason, walks on the ceiling rather than the floor, is he in a new situation? A tightrope walker, is he in a rare situation?

It seems to me that two characters can appreciate this concept. First there is the novelty of a given situation in relation to the complete set of those that we know. For a traveler, a foreign language brings a great many new situations and there is, obviously, a grand metric: the “quantity of strangeness” that he perceives in the exterior world. We currently live in slightly new situations for which we need to create behavior. Here this term has a simple statistical character: that which is the value of X is not the value of Y, but there may be a “marginal situationism” in which individuals systematically search for “slightly queer” perceptions or behaviors.[5]

An important source of new situations will come from the extraordinary assembly of a large number of ordinary micro-situations; it this which creates the value of Graham Greene’s editorial technique, assembling in a gathered together sequence a great number of banal acts which are found to be extraordinary through their assembly. Each of these elementary situations [positions], correctly, rationally or conventionally linked to the exterior world, appeared perfectly normal: thousands of bourgeois find themselves here at every moment. The particular set of situations is, for him, extraordinary because it is not “customary” that they succeed each other in this order (Ministry of Fear, Stamboul Train, The Third Man).[6] I would point out to you that the theoreticians of Information are capable (in pure theory) of measuring the quantity of novelty that such a system brings.

There are, moreover, intrinsically rare situations: for example, homosexuality is statistically less frequent than juvenile and conventional sexuality; the threesome is less [frequent] than lawful copulation. To kill a man – or a woman – is a rare situation, and thus, all the more interesting: the amount attached to the situation, as measured by a certain excursion outside the field of social freedom, is greater than a series of petty traffic violations (see Dostoevsky, because I think that detective fiction only brings, in this domain, a situational statistic (!) – fictitious what’s more). It is here that our freedom within society will soon be reduced to zero, from the moment where technology brings us the control of everyone by everyone, the matrix of elementary acts, and the machine to inventory the content of [the] thoughts of everyone at every moment.

To rarely break out of many norms, or to break a few very often. On this point we see appear thus two “dimensions” of situations: their intrinsic novelty or the rarity of their assembly.

Society controls more and more the first with the combined weapons of social morality, files and cards, medical prescriptions of the pharmacist, etc. It still controls the second badly and it seems to me that we can still live an “original” life in the Situationist sense, through a new pattern of small [and] mundane deviations.[7] In their everyday life, the Surrealists had already sensed it although they had discovered that the worst enemy of Surrealism could be physical fatigue or the exhaustion of reserves of intellectual courage.

But it seems to me that – unless [we are] inconsistent vis-à-vis our own acceptance of the automobile, the refrigerator and the telephone, that is to say of the technological civilization in which we live – it is in the axis of technology that we need to look for new situations; and I ask in what way your movement accepts this. It seems to me extremely easy to define new situations based on a technical change; the physical conditions are already realised, or realisable, or reasonably conceivable. For example, living without gravity, living under water, walking on the ceiling, in a general way to live in strange environments are situations with which we are furnished by technology [la technique], in the classic sense of the term.

One might think that technology is far from our daily lives. But I think that would be to ignore that the household possessing a stove thermostat experiences a new situation. It is evident, from these examples, that it is the psychological impact of a situation which creates its value for a Situationist philosophy.

Here a politics takes shape: to ask the sociologists where are the social sources of convention [conventionalisme]. Most obviously, there is sexuality which is certainly open to a great number of new situations. The manufacture, biologically conceivable, of women with two pairs of breasts is, without any doubt, a proposition from biology to tradition. The invention, in addition to the two traditional sexes of one, two, three, n different sexes, offers a sexual combination which follows the theory of permutations and suggests rapidly an immense number of amorous situations (n factorial).

Another source of variation – thus of situations – could be based on the use of our senses. For example the “olfactory” arts have only developed an exclusive and highly sexualized rating system, and rather as an instrument of struggle between the sexes but never as an abstract art. In the artistic domain, a very large number of other situations will follow in the near future from technical capacities – and if American film directors only know how to make Cinerama (even more so Circlorama), perhaps it is legitimate to hope for here a source of new arts.[8] The dream of Total Art is conditioned by the poverty of the artistic imagination.

What would become of a society made up of social strata based on those Michael Young calls the “Meritocracy” where they would be inscribed in the laws of the State? This is certainly the function of sociological fiction to prefigure. In fact, everyday life, as we know it, is capable of offering infinitely new situations through differences [écarts] which can appear negligible. I think, for example, of the great rift between men and women based on a random but definitive a priori categorization. It is no longer inconceivable that human beings change sex over the course of their life, and new situations, initially of an individual character and then a social one, are here perfectly conceivable. It seems to me that this would be one of the roles of the Situationist International: to explore them. If we simply assume that the vectors of attraction of men for women, women for men, become symmetrical instead of the temporal asymmetry which is the current statistical rule, we can assume that 90% of Theatre, Film, Literature and figurative art must be replaced.

We could continue this enumeration indefinitely, but it seems to me, in short, that the search for new situations which appears to me, if I understand correctly, one of the objects that Situationism could settle, is relatively easy and should be linked, among other things, to a study of what biological techniques bring, that various taboos leave virtually untouched.

In summary:

1. My interest in your movement comes from the basic idea of research for new situations, in a society constrained by technological happiness,

2. It seems to me that the term “situation” should be better defined or redefined from your own perspective and that a doctrinal report from you on this term would be necessary. In particular, the extent of the novelty value of a situation seems to me an indispensable criterion.

3. It is not difficult to find a great number of new situations – I have listed a dozen above – but we can push the reasoning further. These can be derived:

a) from the transgression of taboos which, within the field of legal freedom, still restrict our practical freedom, in particular in the sexual and biological domain;

b) from “crime” in the sense of the sociology of Durkheim;

c) from numerous strange deviations, but of a small magnitude around the norm;

d) finally, from technology, which is to say from the power of man over the laws of nature.

I pray that you accept, sir, the expression of my best sentiments.

Doctors

Response to Moles, 26 December 1963.

Little head,

It was useless to write to us. We had already noted, like everyone, that the ambition which incites you to depart from your immediate functional use is always unfortunate, because the capacity to think of anything else does not enter into your programming.

Scarcely is it necessary, therefore, to point out that you have understood nothing in any of the situationist materials you have read (in which, evidently, you missed all the basics). Tilt. Redo your calculations, Moles, redo your calculations: here is a satisfaction that no positive result will ever rob you of.

If we looked for your “open letter” – which was lost to us, but which various people have read – it is because we thought that, coming from a being of your type and addressed to us, it could only be a letter of insults.[9] Not even! We have no need of knowing if your letter truly reflects the average level of your clumsiness, or if you aimed sometimes at a joke. False problem, because all that you can ever do, in our eyes, is contained in the redundant and coarse joke that constitutes your existence.

Knowing the human appearance which your programmers have cloaked you in, one can appreciate that you dream of the production of women with n series of breasts. One supposes that you have difficultly having sex with less. Your personal circumstances aside, your pornographic dreams seem as ill-informed as your philosophical and artistic pretensions.

Yet there is a point where you were more lost still: despite your letterhead, you are a robot too rustic to make believe that you can take up the role of a university professor. Despite many deficiencies, the bourgeois university – before the cybernetic bureaucratisation that you so elegantly represent – leaves a certain margin of professional objectivity for its teachers. In the case where brilliant students have an opinion opposed to their examiner, sometimes the reality of their studies is recognised all the same; and above all, it should not be possible that extra-curricular grievances held against them are artlessly proclaimed in advance, with the results that can follow. But you, awe-stricken manager of the dusty authority which falls upon you, you cannot let pass the first opportunity to get even. This is how miserably (in the sense “like a coward” and in the sense “this was disastrous”; meditate on the anti-combinatorial value of a word), running at full speed on your little legs, you tried to remove one of our comrades from an examination last June, whose intelligence and humanity you probably envy. You think that we will forget your behaviour because of your failed blow? Error, Moles.

That machines like you are in the end, by way of official channels, superior to someone; that they have power to enforce their inept decisions, and thus the ones who unleash the stimulus. But such power is still fragile after so much ambition! We laugh at you.

Believe, nevertheless, that we will observe all that follows from your career with the attention it deserves.

[signed] Guy DEBORD


TRANSLATOR’S FOOTNOTES

[1] L’école et observatoire des sciences de la Terre: School and Observatory for Earth Sciences. A French Grande École associated with the University of Strasbourg.

[2] To understand the S.I.’s ‘relations’ with Henri Lefebvre at this time, late 1963, see their circular Into the Trashcan of History!

[3] Vance Packard, an American writer whose three most famous books, The Hidden Persuaders (1957 ), The Status Seekers (1959), The Waste Makers (1960), respectively criticised the advertising industry, social stratification and planned obsolescence. Packard’s arguments, in essence liberal and non-revolutionary, were nonetheless important insights into the changing nature of modern capitalism in the two decades after World War II. Lucien Goldmann was a Marxist academic who had, by turns, influenced and incurred the wrath of the Situationist International. See, in particular, The Avant-Garde of Presence, I.S. no 8 – we hope to present a more accurate version of this translation in the near future.

[4] ‘les trois milliards d’insectes’: no doubt Moles deploys this term with some irony, and yet it appears to reveal also his attitude, i.e. to deal with the human race as mere objects of enquiry.

[5] ‘slightly queer’: English in the original.

[6] All works of Graham Greene’s. The first are two novels, whereas the third is best known as the screenplay Greene wrote for Carol Reed’s 1949 film, The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Greene later turned his screenplay into a novella.

[7] ‘pattern’: English in the original.

[8] In 1963 Cinerama and Circlorama were two technically advanced film shooting and projection systems. The latter projected onto a fully circular screen, i.e. a 360° view. It is perhaps better known in its iteration as a system used by the Disney Corporation: Circle-Vision 360°. The Situationists had already written on a similar process known as ‘Circarama’ in a 1958 article criticising the tendency of new cinema techniques (and technology tout court) being presented “as a passive substitute for the unitary artistic activity that is now possible” (In and Against Cinema, I.S. no. 1). It is worth noting that the 1960s saw the highpoint of big budget Hollywood films using Cinerama or related systems.

[9] Letter from Guy Debord to Nicole Beaurain,  November 29, 1963:

Dear Nicole,

We have not received any letter from Moles. As our address has long been changed, the choice of posting to the old one has everything of the pretense.

The most probable is that he prefers only to use copies – perhaps to avoid an ear bashing? – without having ever posted the original.

This type of excess [franchise] is not uncommon among such thinkers.

Sincerely,

[signed] Guy

First published in Internationale Situationniste no. 9,  August 1964, pp. 44-48. The letter from Guy Debord to Nicole Beaurain first published in Guy Debord, Correspondance, volume II, septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris, 14 février 2001. Translated from the French by Anthony Hayes, June 2013.  Thanks to Alastair Hemmens for help with the translation. I will endeavor to make available a complete scan of the original article sometime in the not too distant future. 

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One Response to Correspondence with a Cybernetician

  1. ledpup says:

    That was pretty funny. The whole time reading the first letter I was thinking about what the response was going to be. It didn’t disappoint.
    First sentence of Debord: “It was useless to write to us.”

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