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Low Theory

Sometime in the early 1990s, I stumbled across Greil Marcus’s book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989). I had finished a bachelor’s degree and was doing next to nothing other than drinking coffee, playing chess and lingering aimlessly at the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda. There was a sense of almost boundless freedom, but also a creeping anxiety at the complete absence of purposeful activity and the feeling of being fundamentally unable to make meaning out of all that empty time. Lipstick Traces jolted me in a way that I still remember. It took the apparent formlessness of everyday life and made it an object of serious, even urgent interrogation. It spoke directly to the sense of powerlessness that virtually everyone I knew (other than law graduates) was experiencing. It insisted that there could be a politics to not working. And it abandoned the formal style of academic discourse in favour of a cultural criticism that moved between music journalism, autobiographical reflection, and an experimental intellectual history that put the Sex Pistols and the Frankfurt School together as if they were volatile elements capable of blowing a hole in the fabric of existence: ‘listen to Metal Box by PiL, Johnny Rotten’s post-Sex Pistols band, read Minima Moralia as you listen, and see if you can tell where one leaves off and the other begins.’

Much of the book’s energy, however, came from its account of Guy Debord and Situationist International, a milieu that in the 1950s and ’60s was fighting an ongoing guerilla war against the tyranny of commodity fetishism, against the instrumentalisation of everyday life, and against the deadening dichotomy of work and leisure. The forms of critical theory I had studied at university seemed suddenly relevant to the mundane existence I was living beyond it, and this sense of relevance felt like an awakening. The ‘shock of punk’, Marcus wrote, is that even years later ‘every good punk record can still sound like the greatest thing you’ve ever heard.’ Something similar might be said of Debord and the Situationist International. Their schemes for a cultural revolution still carry the promise of an event that is about to happen, of a future still to be written, of an interruption that is looming somewhere on the horizon.

McKenzie Wark writes about the Situationist International, its legacies and its futures, in this same vein. The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International tells the story of what Wark describes as ‘a small band of artists and writers whose habits were bohemian at best, delinquent at worst, who set off with no formal training and equipped with little besides their wits, to change the world.’ In his subsequent book, The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages Out of the Twentieth Century, he explains that the Situationist International is something ‘up-to-date intellectual types think they have outgrown, and yet somehow the Situationists refuse to be left behind.’ Like the punk records that sound forever new, they ‘keep coming back as the bad conscience of the worlds of writing, art, cinema and architecture that claim the glamour of critical friction yet lack the nerve to actually rub it in.’

Wark’s two books work sequentially, although they also loop around the same figures and concepts. They could be treated as histories of the Situationist milieu and its aftermaths, but to do so would miss entirely what makes them such compelling and, at times, hilarious reading. Wark does not set out to write a conventional scholarly account of the Situationists. As he reminds us at numerous moments, his work has no claim to originality. He does emphasise some of the more neglected figures associated with the movement, but what really drives The Beach Beneath the Street and The Spectacle of Disintegration is their impatience with contemporary cultural and intellectual institutions that, for all of their posturing, are largely complicit with the prevailing political order. Wark is himself a Professor of Culture and Media at the New School in New York City, and while I am guessing that the New School isn’t as obviously neo-liberal as many other universities in the U.S., the sense of him writing angrily about institutional conditions he knows all too well is partly what gives his work its verve and energy.

Both books have a sharpness, bordering on petulance, that takes aim squarely at the fashionable dissent of tenured academics and commercially-oriented art. The introduction to The Beach Beneath the Street sets the tone:

Art has renounced the desire to give form to the world. Having ceased to be modern, and finding it too passé to be postmodern, art is now merely contemporary, which seems to mean nothing more than yesterday’s art at today’s prices. If anything, theory has turned out even worse. It found its utopia, and it is the academy. A colonnade adorned with the busts of famous fathers: Jacques Lacan the bourgeois-magus, Louis Althusser the throttler-of-concepts, Jacques Derrida the dandy-of-difference, Michel Foucault the one-eyed-powerhouse, Gilles Deleuze the taker-from-behind.

Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben don’t escape unscathed either, and psychoanalysis emerges as a conspiracy to make tedious bourgeois lives seem interesting.

It is not that Wark is against theory. In fact, his books are full of it. What he is writing against is the insular, institutionalised version of theory that languishes in literature and cultural studies departments as a form of professional currency with no real political purchase outside of the university (and little within it, for that matter).

The Situationists offer something different: strategies, tactics, appropriations, interruptions, events, and situations that promise (or threaten) to reconfigure the fabric of lived experience. This is the realm of what Wark calls ‘low theory’: a species of ‘critical thought indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world’, one dedicated to the merger of theory and practice. What stops Wark’s writing from sliding into the sort of liberal complacency he clearly abhors is its splendidly aphoristic quality, and a consistent focus on institutionalisation, commodification and intellectual property that raises the possibility of an activism that ends up looking surprisingly feasible. This is the beauty of low theory. Its orientation to the everyday means that its implications have to be thought and worked through the most ordinary of contexts and materials, which is precisely what the Situationist International tried to do.

To produce a neat and systematic account of the Situationists would be as tedious as it would be difficult. The boundaries between the Situationists and other avant-garde groups – such as the Letterist International (a precursor to the Situationists), the Cobra movement and the Spur group – were extremely porous. Allegiances and animosities were constantly shifting. It would be easy enough to get lost in the details of Debord’s relentless policing of Situationist membership. The movement has dates: 1957-1972. It has a cast of lead and supporting characters – Debord, Asger Jorn, Ivan Chtcheglov, Michèle Bernstein, Constant Nieuwenhuys, among others – as well as some inspired cameos (Alexander Trocchi, for instance). It also has a range of seminal, even canonical, texts, such as Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967).

Wark covers all of this, but it is not where he wants to lay the emphasis. What he stresses, first and foremost, is a series of strategies – strategies for thinking, creating and living outside of the limits of capitalism. As he puts it in The Spectacle of Disintegration, the group’s project was ‘to advance beyond the fulfillment of needs to the creation of new desires.’ It is in this sense that the Situationists can be imagined as the ‘bad conscience’ of intellectuals and artists, who all understand the utopian impulse behind what they do, yet find themselves helplessly assimilated by the market or the academy.

One of the operative terms here is ‘spectacle’. In Society of the Spectacle, Debord sets out his best-known statement of how the categories of capitalism colonise everyday life to such an extent that we can barely imagine an existence beyond them. What Debord means by the spectacle is not simply a collection of images. It is the existing order’s expression of itself, before which individuals are largely helpless. Work, leisure, need, desire, security, stability – for Debord these form the vast web in which what appears is all there is. This ‘empire of modern passivity’ ensures that we all play our role in its reproduction.

The challenge of the Situationist International was to reconfigure the everyday beyond these limits. In a 1961 essay entitled ‘Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life’, Debord describes everyday experience as the potential battleground for a revolutionary cultural politics: ‘Everyday life, policed and mystified by every means, is a sort of reservation for the good natives who keep modern society running without understanding it.’ At the same time, however, it is the space in which all the thwarted desires of ordinary people can come into play: ‘if people censor the question of their own everyday life, it is both because they are aware of its unbearable impoverishment and because sooner or later they sense – whether they admit it or not – that all the real possibilities, all the desires that have been frustrated by the functioning of social life, are focused there.’ Debord’s aim was not to show people a life, but to make them live one, to break the spell of their passivity by demolishing the structures and the categories that organise their alienation.

Central to this was a rejection of artistic forms that claimed to transcend everyday life. Situationist practice instead stresses a kind of DIY creativity that showed no respect for ‘great’ works, genius, originality, or the forms of private property bound up with them. Its principle strategy, and the thread that winds its way through Wark’s writing, is the technique of détournement. The way Debord and Gil J Wolman glossed the idea in the 1956 essay ‘A User’s Guide to Détournement’ stressed their investment in class struggle, and reminds us of a politics that today seems increasingly remote:

Détournement not only leads to the discovery of new aspects of talent; in addition, clashing head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle. The cheapness of its products is the heavy artillery that breaks through all the Chinese walls of understanding. It is the real means of proletarian artistic education, the first step towards a literary communism.

‘Culture is nothing,’ Wark adds in The Spectacle of Disintegration, ‘if not what the Situationists called détournement: the plagiarizing, hijacking, seducing, detouring, of past texts, images, forms, practices, into others. The trick is to realize in the process the undermining of the whole idea of the author as owner, of culture as property, that détournement always implies.’

Two things are going on here. Firstly, there is an ethos of critical appropriation that turns the spectacle against itself, that draws on cultural materials ready-to-hand and wrestles them free from their complicity with the reproduction of capitalism. Secondly, this form of appropriation is also an assault on the legal infrastructure that turns culture into private property rather than a collective resource, and people into consumers rather than cultural and political agents. As The Spectacle of Disintegration puts it, in a typically canny détourning of Marx: ‘The people make meaning, but not with the media of their own choosing.’ Writing against the idea of passive consumers filing like sheep through galleries and museums as a brief respite from the tedium of work, Wark wants to incite a counter-culture of expression from below, a creative commons of appropriation and interruption. ‘Capital produces a culture in its own image, a culture of the work as private property, the author as sole proprietor of a soul as property,’ he writes in The Beach Beneath the Street. By contrast, détournement ‘sifts through the material remnants of past and present culture for materials whose untimeliness can be utilized against bourgeois culture.’ Its aim is ‘the destruction of all forms of middle-class cultural shopkeeping.’

The Situationist archive is full of material that puts this ethos of creative piracy into practice: détourned films, paintings and texts that have the effect of forcing authorised culture to speak against itself. But works, in the sense of objects, are not important here. In fact, when members of the Situationist International became too focused on art or their status as artists, Debord would promptly kick them out. It is the idea of subversive unoriginality that resonates beyond any of the artifacts the Situationists might have created. In A Hacker Manifesto (2004), his reworking of The Communist Manifesto and Society of the Spectacle, Wark develops a similar impulse into the basis of an alternative cultural politics – one that refashions the idea of class struggle for the information age. He conceives of a ‘hacker class’ capable of wrestling information away from a ruling ‘vectoralist’ class by creating abstraction in defiance of the regimes of intellectual property (linked to patents, copyrights and trademarks) that increasingly regulate the public sphere: ‘Commodified life dispossess the worker of the information traditionally passed on outside the realm of private property as culture, as the gift of one generation to the next, and replaces it with information in commodified form.’

Educational institutions, Wark insists, contribute to this by making culture a matter of scarcity and cultural capital a badge of conformity:

The so-called ‘middle class’ achieve their privileged access to consumption and security through education, in which they are obliged to invest a substantial part of their income, acquiring as their property a degree which represents the sorry fact that ‘the candidate can tolerate boredom and knows how to follow rules’.

In opposition to all of this, the hack is a creative act that, in the spirit of the Situationists, reconfigures relations of production governing the circulation of information. This sense of interrupting, or reconfiguring, the fabric of everyday life also informs the other key strategy identified with the Situationists: the dérive. The term is bound up with the notion of ‘psychogeography’ – the ‘study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behaviours of individuals.’ In a way that is very similar to the surrealist interest in flâneurie, the dérive turns on aimless, tangential wandering that generates a new sense of space and its possibilities. As Debord put it in ‘Theory of the Dérive’, ‘In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’ At the heart of the practice is the blissfully non-purposive activity that is the Situationist’s greatest strategy of resistance: hanging out and wandering around – a refusal of the command structure that insists we either work or engage in commodified leisure activities (which are often more onerous than work). It is in something as ephemeral as this that we can see the immense ambition of the milieu: the Situationists wanted to free physical and mental space for new forms of experience not governed by capitalism, to forge social networks not captured by the world of the spectacle.

Wark’s books return us to some fascinating and neglected manifestations of this practice, especially those that occurred after the formal dissolution of the Situationist International in 1972. This is the particular focus of The Spectacle of Disintegration, which takes us well beyond accounts of the Situationists that cleave closely to its official history. Wark discusses, amongst other things, T.J. Clarke’s work in art history as a continuation of his involvement with Debord (in the late-1960s Clarke was briefly a member of the Situationist International); Raoul Vaneigem’s reworking of Charles Fourier in The Revolution of Everyday Life; Debord’s detourned ‘anti-cinema’; and, perhaps most interestingly, Alice Becker-Ho’s work on the Romani and their use of a clandestine language that resists incorporation into the spectacle by virtue of its secrecy.

But throughout all of this, it is Wark’s demand that we grasp the ‘now’ of Situationist practice that resonates most powerfully. The aphoristic, often epigrammatic, energy of his prose feels like a wrecking ball launched against the pieties of the academy. At times, the prose reads as if the Situationists themselves were merely a pretext, albeit an inspired one, for Wark’s own brand of maverick intellectualism. If this sounds like a criticism, it isn’t intended as one. Both The Beach Beneath the Street’s and The Spectacle of Disintegration’s strongest moments are about assaulting the institutional context in which they are most likely to be read: the quietism of professional intellectual historians and theorists.

‘Stupefied by its own powerlessness,’ Wark writes in The Spectacle of Disintegration, ‘critical thought turned into that drunk who, having lost the car keys, searches for them under the street lamp.’ Anyone who has hung out at the Modern Language Association annual conference will know what he means. And if contemporary critical thought is politically useless, it isn’t much fun either. Wark clearly wants to reintroduce the Situationist sense of adventure into cultural critique: ‘If most civilized philosophies are just castles in the air, then why do they not at least have orgies going on inside them?’ The spirit of mischief here speaks to the extent to which academic labor itself has become one more form of alienation, obsessed with ‘the Political just at the time when it has all but ceased to exist’.

This absence of the political is partly what Wark means by the term disintegrating spectacle, as opposed to moments at which the spectacle was structured around cold war or totalitarian ideologies. Now, however, the world of appearances has unhinged itself from any explicit political doctrine. The only enemy it can recognise is the terrorist, ‘the spectacular negation of the middle-class ideal.’ In this world, according to Wark, high theory has had its day. The strategic know-how and dissident creativity of low theory, however, provides a way of doing and a way of being that still holds out the possibility of reconfiguring the everyday. Wark wants to remind us of this. Perhaps he wants to radicalise the Humanities and reimagine the university as a space of political and cultural experimentation. The idea of low theory seems like as good a place as any to begin. It all might sound idealistic, even quixotic: who is really going to risk her hard won cultural capital in the losing fight against global capitalism? But that kind of criticism itself carries within it an implicit affirmation of the dissident element Wark sets out to provoke. As he puts it in The Spectacle of Disintegration, ‘Only those who throw stones can begrudge us our glass houses.’

References

Guy Debord, ‘Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life,’ Situationist International Anthology, edited by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006) 90-99.
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Black and Red, 1983).
Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive,’Situationist International Anthology, edited by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006) 62-66.
Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman, ‘A User’s Guide to Détournement,’ Situationist International Anthology, edited by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006) 14-21.
Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Secker & Warburg, 1990).
McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004).