Whilst suitably engaged in Guy Debord’s boardgame The Game of War at Houseman’s Bookshop, author McKenzie Wark talked with me about his new book, The Beach Beneath the Street, revisiting the Situationists and their legacy.
STIR: To those unfamiliar with the Situationists how would you introduce them, their contribution to the understanding of political events while they were writing, and their “contemporary resonance”?
McKenzie Wark: Only seventy-odd people were ever members of The Situationist International. It was an extremely marginal avant-garde movement that was formed in 1957 and then dissolved itself in 1972. Why the hell would anybody be interested in this tiny marginal activity? The footprint the Situationists left in political aesthetic culture is vastly greater than their actual numbers. As their leading light, Guy Debord, said ‘all you need is a few trustworthy comrades’.
So, why look at this stuff again? Well, if you are interested in how to think critically about everyday life, how to think and act outside of institutionalized forms of knowledge, in ways of inventing practices that are at least partially outside of the commodity system, then they are great precursors for dozens of things happening now such as Copy Left and Creative Commons on one side and forms of autonomous organisations in the media on the other.
There are also certain calcified stories about what was important about them, and it’s not as if those stories were wrong but sometimes it is worth going back to see what we have missed and what we have forgotten.
In The Beach Beneath the Street I wanted to tell the stories and extract the concepts of some of the figures who have not really been discussed. I have to say, though, now I am in the UK, that it is British comrades who have done a lot of work in saying that is not just about Debord—it’s also about Jacqueline De Jong, Alexander Trocchi, Asger Jorn.
S: You start the book with an amusingly accurate critique of an unambitious academy that is unable to create “a critical thought that is indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or art world”. What is low theory and how is it part of the Situationist’s story?
MW: Well, I am obviously not concerned with being inconsistent because not only am I a tenured professor, I was also associate dean for two years, so I am about as institutional as you can get, even if at that strangely marginal place that is the New School for Social Research.
It is not there is anything necessarily wrong with what I call high theory, which is critical thought that is created within spaces such as the university. It is just that it is created within the space of a given game. There is a game—you write books that get noticed and then you get promoted and so on. This is completely independent of the politics and social concerns of the everyday.
I am interested in low theory, which comprise those somewhat rarer moments when, coming out of everyday life, you get a certain milieu that can think itself. It happens when there is a mixing of the classes (another thing higher education doesn’t do). It happens in certain spaces that we used to call bohemia. Low theory is the attempt to think everyday life within practices created in and of and for everyday life, using or misusing high theory to other ends. It happens in collaborative practices that invent their own economies of knowledge.
The Situationists are a really interesting example of that but they are not the last. It has been going on for years before them and years after them. So, I was trying to carefully pick through that bit of the story as a resource for people now who are trying to do the same thing. It was not an attempt to fetishise or be nostalgic about the past but show there are real lessons about what these guys did and failed to do if you are trying to be a critical autonomist in the twenty first century.
S: To extend the question about low theory, you speak of the Situationists “pushing philosophy out into the streets”. How do they do this?
MW: They always maintained that there was no such thing as Situationism—it was not a doctrine but more a group that experimented with creative practices. And it is not so much “out into the streets” as “from the street”. Debord is a provincial petit bourgeois alienated from his family who comes to Paris and goes to university really for the free food and stipend. Here, he is hanging out with delinquents and he starts the whole thing with an ethnography of delinquent life—as life outside of wage labour. His famous slogan of the 50s is “never work”, which is extremely hard to do and he is not consistent in not working. Even harder than “never work” is “make no art” and he definitely fails at this, as you can make art without even knowing it.
So, it is more that it came out of the streets, literally. Debord is not a delinquent, he is an alcoholic, but he is hanging out with delinquents, bohemians, and the dangerous classes. It’s all about the margins between these lives as much as the margin between these lives as a whole and straight life. This kind of bohemian world often produces things that are aesthetically interesting such as novels and art but it rarely produces theory. This is an interesting example where a group is able to consciously think while practicing outside the space of traditional thought.
S: Even though a riot and a planned direct action (the blockading of an oil refinery or bank) is only an interruption to the economic system, it is also an exercise in agency—a realization of the power of those considered powerless. How important are such outbreaks within the course of social and political movements?
MW: The first thing to say about riots is that they are not exceptions but constants. They happen all the time. The second thing to say is that intellectuals of pretty much any stripe always want to say what rioters ought to be doing. On the right that is ‘obey the law, go home and shut up’ and on the left ‘oh, you should follow a movement and carry this banner’. Thirdly, it is always assumed that riots are irrational, that they are some atavistic outbreak or force. The Situationists are interesting, especially Debord in his text on the Watts Riots, because they see a logic in riots. It is, as you are indicating, that looting and arson are particular strategies in relation to the commodity form and private property’s built space. This is obviously quite limited and this is where you have to think dialectically: yes, they are negations, but they are caught up in the form that they negate and they don’t create another form through that act.
It is also a rational response to police provocation. If the police have provoked you and someone has usually been killed by the police (How many people have died in police custody in the UK? 330, with no policeman ever being charged). It is not unreasonable when you are provoked by the police that you refuse to obey the law.
The piece I wrote about the recent riots, repurposed from the book, was trying to understand the logic of the action and this is the most important thing to start from.
S: During the riots a BBC report mockingly remarked that rioters had left a Waterstones’ shop “without a scratch”. Does this confirm that the rioters, those who “have no future in market terms”, are another expression of what Guy Debord saw as the realization of “to each according to their false needs”—simply seizing the things they have been told to desire: mobile phones, watches, video games?
MW: It is probably a myth but one origin story of Hip Hop was the blackout of 1977 (in New York) where people looted recording equipment. Legends are as important as history.
The person who is good on this, and I wrote about him in The Beach Beneath the Street, is Henri Lefebvre because he talks about the relationship between need and desire. He doesn’t presume there is a preexisting objective need—it is always in relation to desire. The paradox of the society of the spectacle is the fabrication of needs out of desires. And so what is really interesting about the Situationists is that they highlight the concept of boredom and say that we should never underestimate the power of boredom in society. They also said that “boredom is counter-revolutionary in every way” and this is not as simple a statement as it sounds. The other turn I would like to put in the mix is that we live in what Rene Viénet called the “overdeveloped world”. So, if we have underdevelopment and development, then this is the overdeveloped world—it has overshot a certain mark and now it’s treading water and spinning its wheels.
S: In Alain Badiou’s reflections on the situation in Tunisia he argues that “the particular problem of the riot, in as much as it calls state power into question, is that it exposes the state to political change (the possibility of its collapse), but it doesn’t embody this change”. Do you agree? And if so, what forms of actions could possibly be taken to promote permanent change—to build the cities that the Situationists wanted to?
MW: Everyone is a critic aren’t they! What is most interesting is always the part that happens after the bit the media are interested in. What is interesting about Tunisia is still to come. What is interesting about Egypt is what happens after Tahir Square. Libya hasn’t got interesting yet but it may next week. The struggle is not the break with the old order but the invention of the new one.
One thing that is very important, and it is true of the Situationist International, is to never be afraid of living the contradiction between theory and action. They can never be aligned. I think critique should press to the limit and Situationist’s critique is a good example of the critique of the totality of everyday life, but their actions are modest and particular. Theirs is a kind of negative action that keeps alive the distance between what can be thought and what can be done.
The struggle is not the break with the old order
but the invention of the new one.
Usually, you are caught going one way or the other and you make ridiculously maximalist statements that are only good for conferences, or you do these really specific, particular things. However, this doesn’t mean that your thought has to be specific or particular though. One can do both at same time: one’s practices are specific but one’s ambition, conceptually, should be the world—and we live in the gap between the two.
S: The recent riots in England have been described as an expression of the “feral capitalism” which David Harvey sees as the new norm of global capitalism, and “aspirational rioting” by Clive Bloom. Would the Situationists accept an account that argues the rioters are merely over-identifying with the ‘smash and grab’ capitalism that led to the financial crisis, the expenses scandal, and a culture of corporate tax dodging?
MW: Well, I think it is always a mistake to think that the moment you occupy is the fulcrum of history or one that in the fullness of time will turn out to be significant. To imagine that one is in the lees of history is a useful corrective. If these riots are specific to a magic novelty of the 21st century then how do we explain the Watts riots? How do we explain the 80s Brixton riots? It might be more helpful to think that one of the conditions of commodity culture is that once you create that exorbitant gap between need and desire, one of the necessary consequences is going to be a) crime and b) organised and collective actions of exactly this kind. But what if the riots have nothing to do with politics whatsoever? What if they are do with political economy—the relation between commodities and gift? There’s no commodity economy without the counter-economy of the gift, but perhaps the latter has to break out from time to time in the open.
S: The problem with saying that the riots are not related to politics—to the savage spending cuts and so on—is that surely this is the argument put forward by the government?
MW: If you put yourself in the shoes of David Cameron, what is your strategy? What would you want to do? Obviously, you would want to exploit the fact that certain events happened and that could be otherwise misconstrued. If you are for law and order and have completely failed to maintain law and order, it is a difficult position to be in. You have to actually try to place yourself on the other side of the story, in a sense. So, if you are Cameron and there is civil disobedience you bring in the police, which might cause more civil disobedience. For Cameron it’s about finding someone to demonize to deflect anger away from himself.
Also, another paradox is if your strategy is recovery through austerity, which incidentally has never actually worked, your strategy is really just austerity through austerity. Perhaps it’s the rioters who see this most clearly. As the Situationists said: Once the spectacle wanted to be loved, now it will settle for just being feared. It has given up the illusion that it has something for everyone. The immiseration of the people is the price of its ongoing drive to accumulate and concentrate wealth.
McKenzie Wark is the author of A Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory and most recently The Beach Beneath the Street. He teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The Beach Beneath the Street is available from Verso.