Ken Wark, PhD in Communication, Murdoch University, is Professor, Culture and Media at the Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts. His research interests include: media theory, new media, critical theory, cinema, music, and visual art. Other books include A Hacker Manifesto (2004), Dispositions (2002), and Speed Factory (2000).
Per this review, Wark’s book is a call to consider the Situationist International’s inventory of forms of praxis: dérive, détournement, the gift, and potlatch. Together these uphold individuation and collective belonging in opposition to the synchronizing, flattening spectacle.
Wark pithily bemoans high theory’s inwardly vertiginous obsession with the few “famous fathers” of yore and select “new demigods” (1). High theory, he claims, evolves as a response to disappointment; hence the productive time following May 1968. However, today “[we] are bored with this planet” (1). Boredom invites an altogether divergent low theory, one “dedicated to the practice that is critique and the critique that is practice” (3). The SI, Wark avers, explored such a critical practice, only too much has been made of the Situationists’ perceived dysfunctions and far too much emphasis placed on select “great men” (3). Were we to conceive of the SI as an experiment in social form and acknowledge Debord’s scrupulous decision to dissolve the collective before it was crushed “beneath the weight of its own incoherence” (121), we might more readily recognize the enduring value in the Situationists’ inventory of forms of praxis: dérive, détournement, the gift, and potlatch.
Wark’s book is best apprehended in terms of stages, chronological and conceptual, that catalog the contributors to Situationism – be they from within, the periphery, or even exile. The first portion details the SI’s forebear collective, the Letterist International, the misfit tribe of bohemian Saint-Germain, who together devised the critical praxis of negative action, making visible that which is impossible “within the limits of actually existing capitalism” (30). Then and there George Bataille, Michèle Bernstein, Ivan Chtcheglov, Guy Debord, Gil Wolman, and others conceived the dérive, psychogeography, and détournement with an ambition no less than to invent a wholly new civilization, leaving the 20th century behind them in distant memory.
Wark begins the middle of the book with the formation of the SI from other collectives in 1957, and this section pertains to formative theories within the Situationists’ active years. The portions on Asger Jorn’s and Henri Lefebvre’s respective provisions, as well as the chapter, “A Provisional Micro-Society,” are the section’s and book’s most successful, underscoring the SI’s emphasis on play, romance, even the collective’s own contradictions. Painter and theorist Jorn, a heavily modified and eventual ex-Marxist, proffers artistic materialism, noting art is not embedded in Marx’s superstructure but within our infrastructure; it is playful, social. As an alternative to Althusserian Marxism, Jorn proposes games and an “ontology of nature as flux, difference, and cooperation” (53).
Lefebvre never was a Situationist, but he and Debord shared an impassioned, if brief, intellectual encounter, during which they explored five concepts of interest, constituted by and constitutive of the Situationist project: “the everyday, totality, moment, spectacle, and the total semantic field” (96). For Lefebvre, the total semantic field’s three registers – signals, signs, and symbols – communicate deeply a notion rooted in romantic theory and reified in bohemia. Here and with these tools we can reverse fates and alienate the spectacle within society, itself “the concrete manufacture of alienation” (Debord, 1983, 32). Wark asserts a primary stratagem of the SI was taking up a romantic investigation of the total semantic field to a point, then reversing and establishing a new classicism in the wreckage. Such is just one lesson of the SI’s peculiar provisional micro-society: contradictions can prove creatively generative. It could and did not last, but Debord defended his paradoxical doctrine of no doctrine. Never doctrine, but “‘perspectives…a solidarity around these perspectives’” (as cited on 65). Founded on such ambiguity and fueled by a gift economy of donation for reputation, Wark recognizes the SI could not sustain. Games are not meant to endure.
However, Wark assures us this game has valuable lessons, thus the final portion of the book is a deliberate nod to the feasibility of Situationist practice as enacted by Alexander Trocchi and Constant Nieuwenhuys in the years subsequent to the SI. Trocchi’s project sigma attempts to bypass the cultural industry and arguably traces the beginnings of blogging. Constant’s New Babylon is noteworthy because his intent is that the transformation of the built form will, in fact, emerge from a transformation in social relations.