Reflections on the Situationist Legacy
"The workers in the advanced countries have done all they could, or intended, to do -- which was always something short of a revolution." -Oliver Cox
Over 40 years have passed since the Situationist International prophesied the Decline and Fall of the "Spectacular" Commodity Economy, which they saw prefigured in the riots of Watts. Looking back, many their assertions are sharp, timely, and resonant. The essay could be reprinted with little alteration about the 2011 riots in London. But riots have been small. By and large society has stayed loyal to the spectacle. The "developed" world has failed to generate its own negation.
The Situationist alchemy derived the imaginative semantics of the revolution of everyday life from the mechanistic syntax of consumer affluence. Theirs was one of the most advanced efforts within the consumer world to break from objective and subjective conditions and make a leap forwards in human evolution. But it failed.
Today the spectacle is more widespread and more deeply insidious than ever before. Billions still pay the externalized price for this poisonous affluence, like they did before, with poverty and crushed aspirations. And those whose sins they die for have collectively, cumulatively, effectively made their choice. Survival is preferred to life.
Instead of leaving the 20th century, we are living the 20th century 2.0. Look at the metropoles, old and new, from Shenzhen to Manhattan. Like a hot potato or a sub-prime mortgage, the center cannot hold or be held. Conditions -- the elusive objective phenomena that conditioning has succeeded in obscuring definitively -- are in free fall. Everything points to catastrophe, yet the spectacle still grows stronger.
You can see, in the glazed eyes and minds of the metropoles, that they have made their choice. Humanism or no humanism, titillation trumps the totality. Let the billions be damned.
"The more I looked, the less real America became, and the less real it became, the stronger it got," reflected Mason Lang, in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles. The spectacle has become practically (if not truly) hermetically sealed, in some kind of closed, self-referential, and ever expanding phase space. Finance is its posterchild and proof. The cybernetic state has long since arisen, on the trembling boundaries of cause and effect.
The possibilities for situations of autonomy, desire, and playfulness remain, but we have lost the battle to save the spectacle from itself. Tidal waves, earthquakes, economic collapses and mass extinctions have not slowed the window shopping for a minute on Park Avenue. No matter how many of us start choosing love over the garbage disposal machine, it is now too late; no magnitude of revolution can reverse the cumulative choices of our past.
The original Situationist program -- leaving the 20th century -- must, in their terms, be superseded.
The billions excluded from this nightmarish paradise of the apogee of the spectacular commodity economy have seen more than metropolitan myopia could. They know the spectacle has no future, and consequently begin to suspect that we in its society have no future. As Jose Dolores told William Walker in Gillo Pontecorvo's film Burn, “Ingles! Remember what you said: civilization belongs to the whites. But what civilization? And 'til when?”
Time itself has no future measured in the centuries that this dying civilization has imposed on it. Chief Seattle said it long ago: "Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival."
The SI advised whites to join with the blacks of Watts: "Whites who cast off their role have no chance unless they link their struggle more and more the blacks' struggle, uncovering his real and coherent reasons and supporting them until the end."
We must make a still greater supersession; join with those outside this system and this century.
We lost the battle of life against survival, the battle of love against the garbage disposal unit, we failed to seize control of the new techniques of conditioning. The SI spirit is as relevant as ever, their tactics so fresh and unsurpassed that we should be ashamed of ourselves. Dialectics can still break bricks, but time has run down. The spectacular commodity economy and the spectacular survival of its citizens will be shattered not by armed joy, but by ecological crisis, the bare life of mass migrations, and the totalitarianism which is the last if lengthy gasp of every totality.
The coming supersession is upon us. If and when we make the SI praxis our own -- that the priority of the revolutionary movement is the transformation of everyday life -- it will have a new meaning, qualitatively beyond its original.
They warned us that "it's not just the cops, it's the geometry." Now we must comprehend that it's not just the geometry, but the ecology. "It's the planet, stupid."
No longer can we imagine everyone with their own cathedral. Capitalist abundance will die in the clutches of its erstwhile masters because it is fundamentally eco-cidal. The real revolutionary movement will never touch it.
We must still escape survival and return to life. But life itself, playful or not, is going to include a new kind of survival. The cybernetic commune of cathedrals, of which the Situationists dreamed, is an ecological impossibility, and also an objective enemy to the excluded colonies for whom it isn't an option.
The next Situationist supersession must come full circle, from fighting a survival that is a spiritual suicide, to embracing a new kind of survival that is a spiritual liberation. To make subsistence playful and passionate.
First nation peoples all over the world like Chief Seattle, held in contempt by Manifest Destiny on the Left and the Right, prophesied the rise and the fall of the society of the spectacle: "The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste." The fall is coming, it has already begun. It comes just as the Situationists surmised, "gradually at first, and then, suddenly."
The original Situationist weapon was to derive revolution from abundance (life from survival). In the future our theoretical armory must be retooled to derive emancipation from scarcity: a new kind of life from a new kind of survival.
Or else we may choose to wait, agitating the window shoppers and detourning the last gasps of illusion, until the shadow of a tidal wave or the abyss of an earthquake finally arrives over and under us. The billions be damned or not, they are the only hope. Do we share it?
Hampshire College, April 2012