Exiting from politics, pursued by polar bears
So once again the streets of Paris are filled with protest and clashes – as they were in May 1968, when revolutionary slogans were daubed and pasted all over town by angry students. Many of the student revolutionaries behind the paste, posters and paint back then called themselves ‘situationists’, and like the environmental activists in Paris today, they also had a lot of beef with the corrupting nature of consumerism. Guy Debord, the drunkard in charge, imagined like Marx that the fetishism of commodities led to false consciousness i.e. the false idea that your needs can be met in the ownership and consumption of stuff. By the sixties, though, he argued the rot had advanced: it wasn’t so much ‘having stuff’ that beguiled the masses into subservience to the capitalist mode of production, as ‘appearing to have stuff’:
All that was once directly lived has become mere representation
he wrote in his famous, celebrated and spectacular book ‘Society of the Spectacle’, adding:
The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought… the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual “having” must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.
Society of the Spectacle is a must read for all 16-20 year olds, but like Samuel Johnson kicking a table to refute Bishop Berkeley’s suggestion that reality might be illusory, Kingsley Amis makes a good job of refuting the Situationist’s suspicion of ‘stuff’ in Lucky Jim: ‘Nice things are nicer than nasty ones’ muses Jim Dixon through the novel. In other words, maybe people just like nice things. Maybe they’re not completely kebabbed by the system.
Still, some of the 68 slogans were great. And can happily be applied to this week’s gathering in Paris.
Underneath the pavement, the beach!
The situationists meant this to mean that just beneath the drab, bourgeois facade of rules, economic relations and observances lay a paradise of free-expression and creativity. Parisian pavement culture these last few weeks has, as the world knows, become associated with something very dark and sad, and yet with so many jetting in to the COP conference for their annual tax-funded jollities, it seems that at least some holiday-makers are determined to find the beach under the pavement.
For the situationists, work was a betrayal of your time – play was the thing. With the climate scare going on for over twenty years many people who left university to pursue careers in the environmental NGO sector will now be in their mid-forties and have never done a proper day’s work in their lives.
Elections, a trap for idiots
As per their notion that late capitalist society is an accumulation of images, for the situationists elections are just another aspect of the false, superficial reality of the spectacle. For environmentalists, putting yourself up for election would be idiotic because no-one would vote for you.
Warning: ambitious careerists may now be disguised as “progressives”
I’ll leave that one with you.
In their book The Rebel Sell authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter provide a more accessible account of many situationist ideas about the ‘totalising’ nature of the spectacle – the way in which it (or canny entrepreneurs, to be specific) can quickly co-opt nascent wisps of cultural rebellion and package and sell them to a wider consumer base. (‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ as Johnny Rotten liked to say.) Here they are, giving a quick summary:
Now, have a look at the photos below – a better illustration of the corporate takeover of rebellion you’ll struggle to find. On the left is a painted slogan from 1968; on the right – more sloganeering but this time bought and paid for and glossily on display where more traditional adverts usually find a home. The left-hand slogan was daubed by a situationist; the right-hand message comes courtesy of the advertising company that owns the bus-shelter display units, JC Decaux, who are sponsors of COP21. The Guardian describes this as ‘The melancholic situationist poetry of Robert Montgomery’. Ever get the feeling of wanting to vomit?
I had a soft spot for the situationist critique of modern consumer society when I was quite a bit past 16-20. In fact their theories are not very different from the stuff you found in earnest American liberal diatribes like Vance Packard’s “Hidden Persuaders” (1957) and “the Waste Makers” (1960), except that the French tart it up as philosophy instead of puritan sermonising.
Back in the seventies such ideas seemed positively dangerous; in Europe there were leftwing terrorist groups using the criticism of consumer society to justify killing all sorts of people, including harmless businessmen whose only crime was being richer and therefore better at getting hold of nice stuff than the rest of us.
I was quite surprised one day to find a bloke selling French language situationist literature in Swiss Cottage market. We got chatting and I offered to have a go at translating some of it into English. He was very keen and gave me some, and I gave him my address. Some time later he phoned and came round and asked how I was getting on. I said: not very well. Frankly it was more boring and difficult than I’d thought. He didn’t seem too disappointed, and seemed more interested in looking round my flat. He asked what were those little boxes on the wall above the door and I told him they were mezuzim (my landlord was religious) and he lost interest. He was an odd sort of situationist – well-spoken.
A while later I was burgled. They didn’t steal anything, just cut the wires to the doorbell and went through all my papers and belongings. Funny. I avoid well spoken situationists since.
That poem’s awful, isn’t it.
Geoff, my soft spot for the situationists went on after 20 too if I’m honest. A good deal later. And even now it still holds a strange fascination, like somehow entirely turning your back on it is to admit some kind of deadness of the soul. Describing Debord as a drunkard is not meant as a put-down, for instance…
Ironic that you found it a bit boring, considering boredom was their central bugbear. I wonder who your situationist comrade was? And what he went on to do? (Apart from possibly organise a break in to your flat.) Fascinating story…
One slogan that some like Cohn Bendit should remember :
“Il est interdit d’interdire”