How the Situationist International became what it was


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

So, the project is finished for the time being.

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

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

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

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

Anthony Hayes
January 2018

THESIS ABSTRACT (thesis available here)

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

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