The Situationists and the City
Edited by Tom Mcdonough
Verso publishing 2010

With a shimmering silver cover reminiscent of the Situationist Internationale’s (S.I.) journal and Jean Barrot’s “The Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, medications ” this collection of texts brings together the group’s writings on the city. While these writings have been published elsewhere, remedy this edition helps brings some organization, view if only through the accessibility of not having to scour through other books to locate texts, to the group’s writings about the city. Tom McDonough’s introduction provides a useful context to both the chronology of the Situationist International and of its predecessors. The strength of McDonough’s work is in opening remarks which is one of the clearest introductions I’ve read. McDonough does a good job of placing the S.I. within a critical architectural and urban sphere.

The Situationists, for those not in the know, succeeded the European avant-gardes Surrealist and Dadaist movements in France in inter-war period of the twentieth century. The group that became the SI was the merging of the Lettrist International, International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, and the London Psychogeographical Society, three “art” groups that shared a similar trajectory of wishing to negate current artistic practice and to carry action into everyday life.

The S.I.’s activity can be split into two periods, an early artistic one, and a later political portion, with the group’s high point being the general strike in France in May of 1968 in which Situationist ideas would play a dramatic part. Mcdonough notes that the early participation of studio artists petered off by the early sixties. Two of the SI’s only “working artists/architects” Constant and Asger Jorn were some of the first to resign. This shift in focus can be seen by about 1962 as the SI Journal moves from the art realms towards explicitly political subject matter. Most of the Situationist writings on the city emerged in this earlier stage of their existence.

For the S.I. the city “…was less a physical container— an assemblage of structures and routes, of functions and their interrelations—than the space constituted by and constitutive of the drama of self- consciousness and mutual recognition that lay the heart of Hegel’s Phenomenology1 (p.3”).” The self-consciousness and mutual recognition that the situationists sought for could only be achieved with a radical rupture of capitalist commodity society, which has advanced to a degree in which everything has turned into image, an immense accumulation of spectacles. With spectacular commodity society reigning poignantly over everyday life, inhabitants of the city only see reflections of themselves as commodities and consumers. The S.I. appropriately quoted Marx as saying, “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive (p. 80).” The intangible social relations of capitalism create concrete manifestations in the structure of the city: in buildings, in streets, sewers, buses, subways etc. A critique of capital without a critique of the physical structure of the social relationships that manifest it is as emotionally empty as the hooks of a pop song.

Unitary Urbanism, one of the ideas developed by the S.I., is “not a doctrine of urbanism but a critique of urbanism (p. 100).” Opposed to the fixation of people at points, Unitary Urbanism was to change the landscape of the city, into a field of permanent play. The writing of Ivan Chtcheglov (Gilles Ivain) points to this when he envisages a city which would correspond to a catalog of feelings. The city would be chopped into quarters; here the Bizarre quarter, there the Noble and Tragic Quarter (for good children), the Useful Quarter (tool shops, hospitals) and down the way the Sinister Quarter. Constant, a member of the group and an imaginative architect, created models of the city which were nomadic. Sections of the city would be able to move along their raised stilts, similar in style to gypsy encampments.

Contained within the paradigm of Unitary Urbanism are the ideas of the dérive, psychogeography, détournement, and recuperation, all of which are crucial to an understanding of the S.I.’s ideas of space. The dérive, or drift, was a surrealist-derived practice of floating through a landscape encountering different ambiances. Similar to an extent as Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur, the derive structured by Debord in his article “Theory of the Derive” would be a group of three or so people exploring, for the utmost of a day, the varying psychogeographies of a location.

Psychogeography can be understood as analyzing the way in which a location impacts a person’s emotional state. For Debord, psychogeography aims to, “study the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic milieu, consciously planned or not, acting directly on the affective comportment of individuals (p.59).” Cemeteries give the feeling of sinister fear, a draping of death on the land of the living, playgrounds are places where the mind is struck by leisure and recreation, the open ocean is a landscape of exploration, etc.
Détournement, to divert, is linked to the idea of recuperation, to catch, specifically within how capital deals with attacks against it. The physical détournement of space can be seen in acts such as graffiti, rioting, and looting. In their piece on the Watt’s riots, “The Decline and Fall of Spectacle-Commodity Society” the détournement of space via looting is made clear, “Through theft and gift, they (the looters) are recovering a use that immediately denies the oppressive rationality of the commodity, and makes its relations and its very manufacture appear arbitrary and unnecessary…People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities. (p.180)” Détournement is not just a physical but a social re-rendering of space in which previous meanings, and purposes are diverted to new seditious ones. Often the acts of revolt are recuperated, caught back up into the order of things. We can see the recuperation of space in anti-graffiti campaigns, and or the placement of spacers on benches to prevent people from sleeping on the benches. Capital must always recuperate; it must always manage the crisis that it creates because the physical rotting of society is a détournement of commodity logic. With the abandonment of houses, we see more occasions of squatting, and with the neglect of structures physically we see nature retaking its place.

The wealth of the S.I. writings goes beyond this meager review but, it’s worth looking at two pieces, as examples of their outlook. Guy Debord’s short piece, “Situationist positions on Traffic,” is quintessential in its look at the automobile as the sovereign good of an alienated life. The physical structure of society is geared to cars, and their ability to transport the populous to and fro. Inseparable from daily life the automobile is the primary vehicle of transit time, dead time that is surplus labor for capital. Debord states that “We must go from circulation as supplement of work, to circulation as pleasure (p. 141)” Commuting should not be an obligation, a chore, but rather an adventure through unique terrains rather than a passage from one sphere of consumption or capital creation to another.
Debord makes clear the need for a radical remaking of the city as he closes the short piece stating “Revolutionary urbanists will not only attend to the circulation of things, and of human beings immobilized in a world of things. They will try to break these topological chains, by experimenting with terrains for circulation of people through authentic life (p. 143).”

Lastly we’ll look at the “Geopolitics of Hibernation.” The S.I. saw the creation of personalized shelters during the balance of terror that reigned in global politics in the 1960s as a scheme; “… as in every racket, protection is only a pretext. The real use of shelters is to test—and thereby reinforce— people’s submissiveness and to manipulate this submissiveness in a way favorable to the ruling society (p. 201).” What is sold in the shelters is not safety but a commodity that only recuperates constructed desire. The reigning society needs people’s participation, however, it is schizophrenically at odds with itself as it attempts to reinforce and battle with its created contestations. Again we go back to the need for creativity as the piece closes eloquently. “In fact, the root of the reigning lack of imagination cannot be understood if one does not have access to the imagination of lack – that is to conceiving what is absent, forbidden, hidden, and yet possible, in modern life (p. 207).”
It is a challenge to bring a fresh perspective on old material, especially if that material has been combed through again and again. The Situationists have become fashionable once again especially in relation to the architecture and urban studies fields. It has taken nearly fifty years for the wider culture to even grasp what they were saying back then. Certain of the SI’s analysis have been transcended in the age of Twitter and Facebook but many of their critiques remain salient today.

Vis-à-vis The Situationist and the City, McDonough’s decision to re-translate everything is a little suspect, unless it was simply a cost or legal issue for the publisher. Certain texts are shown in a new light while others are (even) less readable. A good number of these texts can be found online in Ken Knabb’s Bureau of Public Secrets website.. It may be helpful to compare different translations if one were to do a close reading of any of the texts. Additionally, McDonough should have created a table of contents that included the SI pieces he was using. His thematic grouping of the texts works but makes it difficult to find specific pieces.
Overall McDonough provides a good sampling of the Situationist Writings and a handy book for reference.

1 Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or “recognized.” Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Mind