Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Correspondence: The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957–August 1960), by Guy Debord
Reviewed by Robert Buckeye
Trans. Stuart Kendall and John McHale. Intro. McKenzie Wark. Semiotexte, 2009. 397 pp. Paper: $19.95.
The Situationist International had its moment—its brief moment—in the streets of Paris in May, 1968, when French students took for their slogan the Situationist cry, "Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach!" to emphasize the need to discard old ways of doing business in order to find ways to live that were free, just, total. Its revolution, Greil Marcus writes, “was to begin and end in the realm of everyday life.” The Situationists sought to turn history around, re-inscribe it so that it could not be read as it had been read. What was crucial was not the goal but the trip; those moments, however spectral, that each of us has, blotting out history books. There—we were alive, more ourselves than we had ever been. Thus, though the Situationists were influenced by surrealism and Dada, their interest in art was to end it. Art, as we understand it, is not transcendence, but a substitute for transcendence. “We are artists insofar as we are no longer artists,” wrote Guy Debord—himself influenced by Hegel, Marx, and Lukács—further arguing that philosophy—doctrine—must disappear in praxis. We must walk the streets until the streets make themselves known to us. It was war, and this correspondence, written between 1957, at the founding of the Situationist International in Italy, and 1960, reflects the strategy and practice of the revolutionary. “The most rigorous secrecy must be maintained,” Debord advises one correspondent. He issues directives, positions the Situationists in relation to the war in Algeria and DeGaulle, expels those who fail to follow the party line (seven of the original eight founders are dismissed, leaving only Debord). They are seen to be a clandestine political organization. Police question Debord. Their publications are held up by customs. It is no accident that Debord, along with his second wife, Alice Ho, design a board game, A Game of War.
Of course, the Situationists were doomed to failure. Of course, their moment never disappears. We conjure it up in the Paris Commune (a seminal influence for Debord); hear it in Johnny Rotten's “NO FUTURE NO FUTURE” and Pere Ubu’s “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”; see it in the riots of Watts; follow it in Bernadette Corporation’s detournement of Michelle Bernstein’s novel, All the King’s Horses, written at the same time as these letters (Bernstein was Debord’s first wife). The No that swallows lives.