On the role of the SI—Internationale Situationniste number 7

On the role of the SI (from Internationale Situationniste no. 7, April 1962)

We are totally popular. We only consider problems that are already latent in the population. Situationist theory is in people like fish are in water. To those who believe that the SI is building a speculative fortress, we maintain, to the contrary, that we are going to dissolve ourselves into the populace that lives our project in every moment (living it, of course, primarily in the mode of emptiness and repression).

Those who cannot understand this must recommence their study of our programme. The journal Internationale Situationniste, in which can be found published a provisional report of a supersession, is such that having read the latest issue one finds that it is necessary to start again at the beginning. 

Specialists may flatter themselves with the illusion that they grasp certain areas of knowledge and practice. But there is no specialist who escapes our omniscient critique.[1] We acknowledge that we still lack resources, but our lack of means is primarily our lack of information (both our lack of access to essential documents that exist, as well as the absence of documents on the most important issues we can indicate). But we must not forget that the technocratic scum also lacks information. Even where they have the most extensive information that accords with their own standards, they only have ten percent of what they would need to refute us. In any case, such an eventuality is purely a stylistic provision, because the ruling bureaucracy, by its very nature, does not delve far into quantitative information (it ignores how workers work, and how people really live). Thus, it cannot hope to catch up to the qualitative. On the contrary, we only lack the quantitative. And we will have that in the future since we have the qualitative—which from now on acts to multiply exponentially the quantity of information that we have. We can also use this model to understand the past. Even without access to much of the erudition of historians, we strive to reevaluate and deepen our understanding of certain historical periods.

The bare facts—known by all the specialist thinkers—repudiate the current organization of reality (for instance: the decor of Sarcelles[2] as much as the lifestyle of Tony Armstrong-Jones[3]), insofar as the facts themselves fashion an instant and relentless critique. For too long these hired specialists have congratulated themselves that only they represent these facts, even though the whole of reality in fact presents them. How they tremble! The good times are over. We will cut them up, along with all the hierarchies that shelter them.[4]

We can import contestation into every discipline. We will not let any specialist remain master of a single field. We are ready to temporarily use these forms which we can reckon with and assess. We can do this because we know the margin of error, itself calculable, which is necessarily a part of such calculations. We will then reduce any error introduced by categories we know are false. Each time it will be easy for us to choose the terrain of combat. If we must have a theoretical ‘model’, considering that ‘models’ are the converging points of today’s technocratic thinking (whether of total competition or total planning), our ‘model’ is that of total communication.[5] We are not speaking of utopia. Of course, we acknowledge that such a hypothesis is never exactly realized in reality—no more than any other. In any case we have an additional advantage, whose definitive expression is the theory of potlatch.[6] ‘Utopia’ is no longer possible because all the conditions for its realization are already present. These conditions have been diverted [détourne] to serve the maintenance of the current order,[7] whose absurdity is so terrifying that—no matter the cost—a utopia was first realized without anyone daring to theorize it, even after the fact. It is the inverted utopia of repression: it has all the powers, and nobody wants it.

fig. 1. Translator’s note: Sectional elevation of a home nuclear shelter.

The study we are conducting of the ‘positive pole of alienation’ will be as exacting as that of its negative pole. As a result of our diagnosis of the poverty of wealth, we can map this world by way of the extreme wealth of this poverty. In fact, these maps that speak a new topography will be the first realization of ‘human geography’.[8] Upon them, our surveys of the untapped layers of proletarian consciousness will replace the oil deposits.

Under these conditions, the general tone of our relations with an impotent intellectual generation can be easily understood. We will make no concessions. Obviously, from among the mass who spontaneously think like us, we must exclude all those intellectuals (which is to say, all those people who lease contemporary thought), who, in quasi-unanimity, are so self-satisfied with their own thoughts about thinkers. Yet they continue to discuss the general impotence of thinking, though recognizing themselves as thinkers, and thus, impotent (see the editorial clowns of Arguments no. 20, devoted specifically to intellectuals[9]).

We have been clear from the beginning of our collective action. But now, our game has become so important that we no longer talk to ill qualified people [des interlocuteurs sans titre]. Our partisans are everywhere. And we have no intention of deceiving them. We come bearing a sword.

As for those capable of entering into dialogue with us [des interlocuteurs valables], they should know that such a relationship cannot be innocuous.[10] Though we find ourselves at a turning point, and know full well the extent of our mistakes, we can still force any potential ally into an overarching choice: it is necessary to either accept or reject us as a whole. We will not be broken down into details.[11]

fig. 2. Translator’s note: Detail of a photomontage by Ernest Eugène Appert of the execution of Generals Jacques Leon Clément-Thomas and Claude Lecomte by revolutionary Parisian National Guardsman on the first day of the Paris Commune, 1871.

There is nothing surprising in stating these truths. Rather, what is surprising is that all the opinion-poll specialists ignore, in so many ways, how very close this righteous, rising anger is. One day they will be surprised to see the architects hunted down and strung up in the streets of Sarcelles.

The defect of other groups—those who have more or less seen the necessity of the coming transformations [mutation]—is their positivity. Whether they are trying to be an artistic avant-garde or a new political formation, they all believe they must save something from the old praxis—and so, they lose themselves.[12]

Those who too quickly want to constitute a political positivity, depend entirely upon the old politics. In the same way that so many people have pressed the situationists to constitute a positive art.[13] Our strength is in having never done such a thing. Our dominant position in modern culture has never been more clearly shown than in the decision taken at the Göteborg Conference to classify, from now on, all artistic productionby members of the SI as anti-situationist in the current context—in the sense that they simultaneously contribute to the latter’s destruction and preservation.[14]

The interpretation that we defend in culture can be regarded as a mere hypothesis, which we expect to be effectively verified and surpassed very quickly.[15] In any case it possesses the essential characteristics of a rigorous scientific verification in the sense that it explains and orders a number of phenomena which are, for some, incoherent and inexplicable (and which are sometimes even hidden by other forces); and that it enables the possibility of foreseeing events that are ultimately controllable. Not for an instant are we abusing the so-called objectivity of any researcher, either in culture or what are conventionally known as the human sciences. On the contrary, the rule there is to hide both the problems and the answers. The SI will disclose the hidden, and itself as a possibility ‘hidden’ by its enemies.[16] Highlighting the contradictions that others have chosen to forget, we will succeed by transforming ourselves into the practical force foreseen in the Hamburg Theses created by Debord, Kotányi, Trocchi and Vaneigem (summer 1961).[17]

As freedom is not easy to imagine in the existing oppression, the irreducible project of the SI is total freedom concretized in acts and in the imaginary. This is how we will win, by identifying ourselves with the most profound desire that exists in everyone, and by giving this desire total license. The ‘motivational researchers’ of modern advertising find in the subconscious of people only the desire for objects, whereas we find the desire to break all the shackles of life. We are the representatives of this key insight of the vast majority. Our first principles are not up for discussion.


‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (‘On the role of the SI’) translated by Anthony Hayes, 2022. It was originally published in Internationale Situationniste no. 7, April 1962 (pp. 17-20). The illustrations reproduced above are scans taken from the facsimile edition of the entire run of the Internationale Situationniste journal (Éditions Champ Libre, 1975). Unlike a previous translation, these pictures have been returned to their proper place in the text (as can be ascertained here).

Note that this latest translation, though a complete draft, is liable to updates and corrections.


Link: Translator’s Afterword to ‘On the role of the SI’


FOOTNOTES

[1] When the SI themselves quoted this passage in their circular against Henri Lefebvre, ‘Into the Dustbin of History!’ (February 1963), they left out the term ‘omniscient’.

[2] The situationists are referring to the low-income housing developments that were built in the 1950s and 60s in Sarcelles, in the north of Paris. They considered such developments emblematic of the oppressive urbanism of spectacular capitalism. See, ‘Critique of Urbanism’, Internationale Situationniste no. 6 (August 1961).

[3] Antony Armstrong-Jones (1930-2017) was a well-known English photographer and husband of Princess Margaret in the 1960s.

[4] At this point in the SI’s trajectory, the archetypes of intellectual ‘specialists’, particularly of the intellectual left, were those writers and thinkers grouped around and published in the journal Arguments. See footnote 9.

[5] The situationist suggestion of the critical use of a ‘theoretical “model” […] of total communication’, is strikingly similar to Henri Lefebvre’s suggestion that one can propose a ‘model of communication’ while avoiding the ‘fetishization’ of models seen in the work of contemporaneous structuralists. See, Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume II: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, trans. John Moore, London: Verso, [1961] 2002, pp. 177-79 (chapter 2.9).

[6] ‘Potlatch’, as used by the situationists and earlier, the Letterist International, referred to the exchange of gifts, and was conceived of as a superior social relation to that of capitalist exchange relations of money and commodities. The word is taken from indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the US and was most likely derived by the letterists and situationists from Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (Essai sur le don, 1925).

[7] Note that the SI here speak of a type of counter-détournement, i.e., something akin to what they also elsewhere refer to as ‘recuperation’.

[8] In part, such a ‘human geography’ had been one of the chief axes along which the Letterist International and later the SI, had been moving since the 1950s. See, for example, Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ (1955).

[9] The editors of Arguments no. 20 were Kostas Axelos, Jean Duvignaud, and Edgar Morin. Both Morin and Duvignaud contributed articles to this issue.

[10] These remarks on who can and cannot enter into relations with the SI would later be expressed more clearly in the lead article of IS no. 9 (August 1964), ‘Now, the SI’: ‘To approach us one should therefore not already be compromised, and should be aware that even if we may be momentarily mistaken on many minor points, we will never admit having been mistaken in our negative judgment of persons. Our qualitative criteria are much too certain for us to debate them. There is no point in approaching us if one is not theoretically and practically in agreement with our condemnations of contemporary persons or currents’—and, etcetera.  See, also, footnote 11.

[11] Debord further expounded upon this paragraph in a letter to Serge Bricianer: ‘[W]e are partisans, at all levels, of the free discussion of ideas. And we are resolved to take part in such whenever possible—that is to say, precisely whenever it is not a question of mingling with enemies of the free discussion of ideas, or of freedom in the most general sense. Of course, it is a question of being lucid in the application of this definition, and we would be great victims of ideology if we thought that the left-wing intelligentsia in France, where it holds part of the cultural means, is really favorable to this freedom today. The sentence you quote about “accept[ing] us as a whole” is explicitly addressed to these people, or rather to those among them “capable of entering into dialogue with us”. This whole column–on page 19 [of IS no. 7, i.e., of the article ‘On the Role of the SI’]–concerns, in very clear terms, “an impotent intellectual generation” which monopolizes the spectacular role of progressive thought. | “Accept[ing] us as a whole” means that we refuse (that we will try to prevent) the recognition of some of us, or certain aspects (talents) of such as us, or certain diluted part of our program. Indeed, the SI is first and foremost comparable–sociologically, if I may say–to a group of artists more than to a political organization. Our critique of culture is made from the cultural terrain (where we have our sole economic base). This leads to contradictions and specific risks: the chief risk is seeing a continuation of modern art preached among us, while at the same time as discussion on our common theses is stifled. We have already noted this tendency a lot. Such that we had to respond several times, and indeed, with an obvious brutality (which does not mean that the C[entral] C[ouncil] [of the SI] is really a lasting “management”). There can be no doubt that a political party, having a certain number of rank-and-file militants and an authoritarian centralism, is already entirely engaged in the bureaucratic way, and recomposes in-itself the old society even if its program is ultra-revolutionary. We are on completely different ground, but not sure, however, of arriving at an adequate form of organization.’ See, Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Serge Bricianer, 27 avril 1962,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001. Note that Bricianer was a member of Informations et correspondances ouvrières (ICO, English: Workers’ News and Letters), a council communist group that had emerged out of a split in Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1958.

[12] Of the ‘other groups’ the situationists refer to here, the chief representatives of the ‘old praxis’ they refer to are, respectively, on the political side the Socialise ou Barbarie group, and on the artistic side the ‘Nashists’ and other ex-situationists who constituted a ‘Second Situationist International’ in the wake of their expulsion and resignations from the SI.

[13] See footnote 12 & 14. The political and artistic ‘positivity’ refers here to the old political and artistic practices that the SI are rejecting, whether the hierarchical militancy of Socialisme ou Barbarie, or the ongoing continuation of modern art of the ‘Nashists’ et al. Also see, Guy Debord, The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art (1963).

[14] See, ‘The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg’ (IS no. 7). Having declared artistic production ‘anti-situationist’, some may find it puzzling that such production is then described as ‘contribut[ing] simultaneously to the […] destruction and preservation’ of modern culture. So, if it is destructive of this ‘current context’—albeit liable to preserve it in a recuperative fashion—why is it ‘anti-situationist’? Reflecting upon this exceedingly concise and somewhat opaque statement helps us, in part, resolve the confusion of those commentators who read the declaration of art being ‘anti-situationist’ as an injunction against the production of art (Wark, Home, et al). Such an injunction was always imaginary, particularly when one considers (i) the inability or even desire of the SI to enforce such an injunction, and (ii) the ongoing artistic production of situationists. What the SI were striving to achieve here—and the paradoxical position of avant-garde art as simultaneously destroying and preserving the culture it desires to overcome—was draw attention to the inadequacy of a purely artistic opposition to art. No doubt the demand to supersede the position of art in society lay at the heart of the entirety of avant-garde practice in the first half of the 20th century. And yet this demand exceeded the means of artists to achieve such a supersession, insofar as the artistic realisations of such a demand remain caught in the very field which they purported and desired to go beyond. Debord, thus, was fully aware that his filmic criticism of the society of the spectacle themselves did not get beyond this paradoxical existence of avant-garde art, insofar as they were objects that contributed to the spectacle of culture even if their content was unquestionably critical. In a phrase, they were anti-situationist, if, by ‘situationist’, we mean to describe the possibility of the ephemeral construction and consumption of life against capital’s reified and spectacular domination of the present. Consider Debord’s comments in The Society of the Spectacle: ‘Art in its period of dissolution—as the movement of negation pursuing the supersession [dépassement] of art within a historical society where history is not yet [directly] lived—is at once an art of change and the purest expression of the impossibility of change. The more grandiose its demands, the more its true realisation is beyond it. This art is necessarily avant-garde, and [at the same time] it is not. Its avant-garde is its own disappearance’ (thesis 190).

[15] Consider that the ‘constructed situation’ was presented as a ‘hypothesis’ by Debord in the founding document of the group. See, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957).

[16] It is hard not to take this discussion of what is ‘hidden’ as gesturing, in part, at the elusive Hamburg Theses, also mentioned in this paragraph. See, Debord, The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 (1989) and Hayes, Once More on the Hamburg Theses.

[17] See, Debord, The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 (1989). Note that the composition of the Hamburg Theses, given as the first few days of September in Debord’s 1989 note, corresponds with the more vague ‘Summer’ used here, as September contains the official end of summer in the Northern Hemisphere: 21 September, the eve of the Autumnal Equinox.

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1 Response to On the role of the SI—Internationale Situationniste number 7

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