Back to The Situationist Papers

Get You Back Home


The SI Bootsale:
The Betrayal of Lettriste Poetics & Proletarian Politics by the Popsicle Academy

Address to the Conference on the Situationist International Hacienda, Manchester, 28 January 1996

Debord's Proletarian Politics

Writing in Potlatch between 1954 and 1957, Guy Debord broke through art squabbles to the spark that motivated the thought of Karl Marx's: revolution. This was an idea practically extinguished by Churchill, Stalin and Truman in 1945. Debord's formulations were designed to annoy anyone with investment in official society. But from the point of view of Trotskyist politics, the positions were not startling. In 1948, C.L.R. James had published Notes On Dialectics, which broke with the concept of Russia as a workers' state, and explained the Communist Party affiliations of first world Trade Union bureaucrats as a suitable ideology for world-capitalist stasis. He called Russia state-capitalist. The same year, Tony Cliff circulated papers in manuscript that became State Capitalism In Russia, an economic anlysis that argued that capitalist relations of exploitation were in place in Stalinist Russia. Defence of Stalinism has been just as powerful a brake on the revolutionary proletariat as reactionary denunciations of godless Bolshevism. If Russia is (or was) state-capitalist, Marxism can still be a critical method: the epoch of working class hegemony is yet to come, revolution is still possible, and genuine socialism doesn't entail nuclear bombs, secret police, repetitive drudgery and gala performances by Elton John.
Debord's politics were fastidious. He pointed out how the establishment tolerated criticism from its own, but when the secretary of the Trotskyist Fourth International, Pierre Frank, and several of his comrades, were imprisoned there wasn't a squeak from the liberal or communist press (1). Because he was concerned to criticise bourgeois art production, solidarity always spelt compromise for Debord. He may not have joined Socialisme ou Barbarie, but he nonetheless fulfilled Tony Cliff's anti-sectarian dictum, "Always shoot from the left". Potlatch was perceptive enough to single out Pierre Naville as untouched by Communist party disregard for the proletariat in an issue of Temps Modernes dedicated to the tasks of the left (2). Debord is devoid of the imprecision of English anarchists with Situationnist pretensions, those who confuse Debord's attacks on the Communist Party with attacks on Lenin, and end up with confusionist stunts that have more in common with Monty Python and the late Viv Stanshall - aristocratic japes - than the SI. Potlatch's analysis of the Guatemalan crisis of June 1954 - if Arbenz Guzman relies on the regular army and refuses to arm the workers, he will lose to US imperialism (3) - was born out in July. Debord's insight did not come from the aether; he was applying the lessons Trotsky drew from Spain. When he advised mobilising Algerian workers against the fascists harassing leftwing paper-sellers in Paris, Debord was providing seriously good advice. This is another world from pseudo-leftists using sub-situationnese to claim that the SWP fabricate the threat of the BNP in order to gain recruits.
But Debord's insights did not just stem from untouchable integrity, however much his vaunted disappearance from public life might encourage such fantasies. His polemic was developed in a hot-house on the edge of a precipice. Paris had been the site of Impressionism and Cubism, two key moments in unsettling the confidence of bourgeois institutions regarding artistic innovation. But its position was threatened. Existentialism, for example, was clearly a retreat from Marxism into religious quandaries of identity; it was also evident that the new artistic productions of the avantgarde were piss-poor. American film, American music, American comics, Abstract Expressionism, finally Pop Art - all these threatened to topple Parisian cultural hegemony, to blunt its cutting edge. Elvis Presley? What was a poor Parisian intellectual to do in the late 50s? Revolution upped the stakes, it was the ultimate card to play. Take this and stick it up your jumper, Mr Jackson Pollock!
The transition of the epicentre of modern art from Paris to New York was inevitable as long as art still provided objects for capital investment. As America established its economic hegemony after the Second World War, it would inevitably establish New York as the world centre of modern art. That it used an ex-Trotskyist called Clement Greenberg to do so is one of the great proofs that economic facts carry more weight than mere ideas. It is now common knowledge that the CIA were involved in promoting artists like Pollock and Rothko, but one hardly needs such proof of conspiracy, if one is prepared to admit that art entails technical advance, and that art can be bought.

Postmodernism and Abasement to the Yankee Dollar

As the saviour of postwar capitalism in Europe, the United States is the inevitable antagonist for Debord. It figures in the pages of his journals Potlatch and Internationale Situationniste as an object of hatred, as the personification of Capital, as the font of the Spectacle. We can observe the same point of view developing in the analyses of the Frankfurt School.
Postmodernism's new emphasis on "consumption" is western Marxism giving up any critical guise it once adopted, and making a truce with America. The real consumer issues of hunger and aesthetics are abandonned as irrelevant to the science of calculating how to get customers. Postmodernism is radical thought swallowed by bourgeois sociology, society looked at from the point of view of those in charge of production. Naturally business needs information about its object - the consumer. Postmodernism begins by rhetorically "defending" the consumerist pleasures of the working class against the "mandarin" critiques of Debord and Adorno, and ends by giving advice to the government on how to manage the population. Before Sadie Plant dumped critical thought for the Popsicle Academy (cyber-feminist department), she demonstrated conclusively how Jean Baudrillard depends on invert-situationism, on adopting the concept of the Spectacle, while drawing its critical sting (4). The sight of pop sociologist Simon Frith handing out the Mercury Awards - a limp palm extended to the young men who have turned a buck for entertainment capital - is a lesson in the perils of positivism. Frith's school of banal academic back-scratching is evidently of no use to anyone not in on the racket, but the fact that they quote Baudrillard shows just how much Situationnist ideas have been turned on their heads; for an example of someone turning a possible adventure in modern life back into a bureaucratic chore, look no further than the school's new star, Sarah Thornton. Her book on rave culture is proof that any E-brained, headbanging raver is more intelligent than a sociologist (5).

The Popsicle Academy

The Popsicle Academy is a name for intellectuals who pride themselves on leaping the so-called "boundary" between academia and mass-market culture. Playing the game of in-and-out-the-Academy-and-Shop is replacing the old one of playing off state education versus the commercial sector. After the demise of Communism in 1989, it became impossible to play off state-capitalism against market capitalism. For one thing, a great ideological example had bitten the dust; for another, the decline in the rate of profit and the onset of crisis meant that capitalism was demanding harsher measures. Reform is not a possible solution any more. A new ideology was required in a privatised world: the petty-intelligentsia queued up to theorise "postmodernism".
Where previously academics argued for the need to fund the worthy institutions of the museum and the school and the university to "balance" the harmful effects of commercial culture, now the two antagonists have started copying each other, a giddying hall of mirrors. Educational institutions are run like businesses, so the new tactic is to run between the Academy and the Shop, to add in the rewards of "high" culture to those of "low", as if rampant careerism constitutes "breaking down barriers". This last phrase, a standby for every brochure that advertises some loathsome rubbish at the South Bank, is the biggest lie of all: just as real incomes are diverging as never before, "breaking down barriers" becomes an excuse for extra work in the commercial sector. Capital's need for a low-paid, flexible labour force is greeted as a feminist revolution (6). Maybe the toilers of academe need to stop glamourising moonlighting and build up some barricades instead. You could do worse than giving NATFHE and the AUT some activist teeth.
In the Middle Ages, priests would journey to Rome to study the minutiae of theology, then return to the village to spread servile religiosity among the poor. Today, pop journalists imbibe the tenets of postmodernism at college - Derrida, Baudrillard, Cyborg "Theory" - in order to regurgitate them in magazines targeted at proletarian youth. The shock of writing journalism after all that bibble-babble is probably feels like "breaking a boundary" for the sad hacks, but all that has really changed is their function in serving capital. If it wasn't obvious enough that computer mania is a CIA-funded diversion, like acid in the 60s, Timothy Leary was to prove it by emerging as a virtual-reality guru. Debord's proletarian politics, his reminder of strikes and wars and the resistance of colonized people, are suddenly omitted, even when - if you're writing about On-U Sound, or Hendrix, or Rai music, or Gangsta Rap - they're highly relevant. The collusion between Academy and Shop vulgarizes learning and glamorizes commerce, creates lubricant for the system instead of critical grit to fuck up the gears. The Popsicle Academy is academia lite - it simply hasn't the data weight to interpret form as sedimented content, to use historical precedent to explicate the stasis of culture-industry standards, to discern the returning eversame behind sham novelty. The Popsicle Academy itself has to play the commercial game and claim its concepts are brand-new. In doing so it ducks its responsibility to historical truth in favour of commercial lies (7). In its most self-conscious form - and there is actually a satirical gleam to Baudrillard's cynicism, though Angela McRobbie will never clock this - it actually declares itself ideology: appearance is preferable to essence, all is conjury and bullshit, my career is the only thing that's holy. But careerism inevitably packs in every feature of bourgeois ideology - individualism, competition, the family, morality, house-prices, public schools. Like Tony Parsons denouncing beggars in his column in the Telegraph, half-made punks simply dig their own gravy trains.

Debord's mistake was to ignore rock'n'roll

Should Debord be cited as an instance of virtue versus the self-justifying parrot-chorus of the Popsicle Academy? His purism has its bad side. Debord never dirtied himself with organisation, with dealing with non-intellectuals - this has an intense appeal for petit-bourgeois intellectuals who sense that Karl Marx's involvement with trade unions showed a sentimental attachment to the real. Debord's Marxism also betray an abstract character, a Stalinist taint. The only real way to find out what Stalinism means is to try organising in a workplace, and then seeing how the fine words of the union official crumble when it comes to action. That is why the SWP's critique of Stalinism, for example, is not simply the philosophical demur that so easily slithers into bourgeois liberalism. Debord's philosphy of art also tends to system-building idealism. Rather than using the facts of aesthetic response to pick holes in the single web of explanation provided by ideology, Debord's makes philosophy an aesthetic object itself - a seamless, Lukácsian totality. Debord talks of radical subjectivity, but never addresses the impact of music. It wasn't just its American provenance that made Debord ignore Hendrix and Coltrane, it was also his failure to admit impulses below the level of verbal communication, his Lukácsian rationalism. What is missing in Debord is any hint of what fires Theodor Adorno, Nick Tosches and Joe Carducci - any understanding of the social subjectivity of abstract art, a subjectivity whose last refuge is music. The 60s established music as the preeminent pre-echo of a potential new society. Going on about anti-art is a waste of time. To talk about pleasure and vandalism in 1956 without mentioning Elvis is just the sort of blindspot that invites the penetrating insight of a spiv like Malcolm McLaren.
This is not to imply that Adorno, Tosches and Carducci are wonderful examples of happy socialisation. Far from it. It is precisely their sociopath choler that allows them to perceive things denied the media-sycophancy of the Popsicles in their lucrative flounder between Academy and Shop. The dialectic between their integrity and a social form like music generates friction, it articulates truths. Because he proclaimed the virtues of Schoenberg and Webern, Postmodernism labels Adorno a Eurocentric mandarin, but Adorno thought more about the commodity situation facing music - a matter of direct concern to anyone who looks at rock'n'roll and the concrete possibility of a proletarian culture - than the Popsicle Academy will ever do (8).
Tosches and Carducci love rock'n'roll as much as Adorno hated it, but despite this, and despite the fact that Carducci is a redneck, they also grasp the social critique embedded in musical form, the incapacity of bourgeois market relations to deal with the musical object. They break through Adorno's last-ditch defence of subjectivity against totalitarian edicts - his negative dialectic - to the political potential of collective music-making, to rock against racism, and rap aginst boring uptight motherfuckers everywhere.
Because he was blind to the class conflict that flaws consumer culture - seeing only the monolith of the Spectacle - Debord missed rock'n'roll. However, it was precisely rock'n'roll that solved technical problems encountered by the Parisian avantgarde: the retreat of poetic discourse into the actuality of the speaking voice, the replacement of individualistic, bourgeois expression by collective play, a confrontation with the spectacle unmediated by class concepts of high culture.

Lettriste poetics

Debord was originally attracted to the Lettristes, because they were explicitly committed to finding new forms of art, rather than attaining the high-literary moral authority of André Malraux or Jean-Paul Sartre. In the same way that Pointillism sought to supersede Impressionism by imitating the way technical progress can be calibrated by ever finer distinctions on the micro-scale, Lettrisme proposed that the Futurists' Parole In Libertà and transition's "Revolution of the Word" be carried through to the letter itself, achieving a qualititatively finer granularity. Lettrisme demanded poetic nanotechnology, the revolution of the letter (9).
When the magazine transition announced the "revolution of the word" in 1929, they issued a "proclamation" in twelve points. The manifesto began:

Tired of the spectacle of short stories, novels, poems and plays still under the hegemony of the banal word ... (10)

So Debord's "spectacle", a word that appeared with increasing frequency in his Potlatch newsletter, and became the prize analytical concept of the Situationnist International, can be found in transition as early as 1929, being used to describe the debilitating effect of cultural production done by other people. Although James Joyce didn't sign the manifesto, Finnegans Wake was first serialised in the journal, and became its prized exhibit. It took Debord's parody of Capital and the Communist Manifesto, his Society of the Spectacle (followed by books on punk by Jon Savage and Greil Marcus), to turn "the spectacle" into a word bandied around by media-studies pundits, people who wouldn't recognise revolutionary art like Finnegans Wake even if it reared up and bit them on the arse.
Debord's insistence on novelty, the refusal to admire art manoeuvres that depend for their effect on the ignorance of the punter, is described as "élitism" those who adopt the patrician model of culture familiar from ST Coleridge, RG Collingwood and TS Eliot - civilisation as a beleaguered set of values that need to be gradually disseminated to the barbarians without. However, Debord's understanding of technical advance in modern art is predicated on literature and painting, on high-art. The fact that his key concept, the spectacle, can be traced to a manifesto in a literary magazine like transition - one financed by the literary columnist for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune - shows how much his ideas were formed by the avantgarde's concern to rubbish the cultural baggage of the previous generation. If he noticed rock'n'roll adopting such a strategy he could only see its bad side - commercialisation, recuperation - not its good side: a proletarian means of criticising the boredom of life under capitalism.
Debord maintained that sound poetry - he calls it "onamatapoeic poetry" - has abolished poetry (11). Poetry can now be read on people's faces - the crucial aspect is therefore to find means of creating new expressions on those faces: "The latest artistic variations only interest us because of the powerful influence they might have" (12). This formulation is close to Walter Benjamin's: Fascism aestheticizes politics, communists respond by politicising art. Anyone who has seen the expressions on people's faces during an Iggy Pop concert cannot fail to see that rock is a social force that cannot be ignored. However, rock'n'roll was a form of urban poetry Debord could only see as an American trick as philosophically vacuous as Coca Cola.


There is a disturbing parallel to be drawn between Debord and the Beats: in the early 60s, William Burroughs and Timothy Leary also speculated about the "death of poetry" (13). I take it for granted that the appeal of the Beats has to be their early discovery of the revolutionary potential of black music, and its art of lived experience, since nothing written by any of them - apart from Burroughs - is worth a toss. The Situationnists found it hard to counter the Beats, and harder still to critique the hippies, punks and ravers who came later, because they had virtually nothing serious to say about music. Composer Walter Olmo's contributions for Potlatch were refused because of his "defective formulations" (14). Debord's dealings with music lack the scrupulous awareness of technical innovation that characterised his other polemics. Debord praised Olmo's willingness to research "ambient sonics" (15), an example of the "conceptual" approach that produced such nauseating phenomena as Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno and the Ambient genre of middle-class tinker-tonker soundtracks.
In Potlatch, Jacques Fillon denounced jazz as primitive and decadent (16). This is careless enough to echo the abuse used by the Nazis (17). Fillon can only rise to sub-Futurist rhetoric about the need for new sounds: "the reign of the valve-trumpet is at an end!" and so on (18). This was written in 1955, oblivious to the huge scandal caused by Varèse's Déserts in Paris the year before, a piece which made fantastic use of trumpets.
Debord quite rightly pointed out that formalism needs to be destroyed from the inside (19); he refused both socialist-realist depictions of cloth-capped workers (20), and works of vacuous abstraction: "all abstract painting since Malevich kicks down doors which are already open" (21). He declared in 1957 that the Lettristes had too many painters, that they need to recruit technicians from other fields; however they must guard against an imperialist marshalling of disciplines that only looks to their instrumental effects: "we must understand the reality of the problems faced by technicians in their specific fields" (22). In philosophical language, this is Marxism: we must understand the immanent dialectic of the real rather than impose a schema. In practical terms, this is revolutionary politics: the task is to understand the problems faced by workers in their actual struggles with the bosses and union leaders, not moralise. However, Debord's fine-art commitment led him to hypostatize the mass media as the font of externally-moulded bourgeois ideas. He omitted to mention that the spectacle is itself riven with class struggle. Those born later than Debord, and in more mediated circumstances, will talk the language of Wapping and rock'n'roll just as he talked the language of La révolution surrealiste (23) and transition.
Serious application of Situationnist ideas must entail looking at all technical forces at the disposal of a critique of capitalism. Only sectarian cretins could maintain that using punk and reggae gigs as weapons against the National Front was capitulation to the spectacle, or that The KLF are inferior to those who place pamphlets to languish on the shelves of Compendium Books. The Popsicle Academy is able to recuperate what they call "situationism" (24) to their sociological drivel because they've been given no experiential block to using Debord's ideas.
Music can provide such an experiential block. The reason that we are so separated, why revolutionary politics appears as a thankless task, why experimental art appears so useless and moribund, is because the forces of reaction have scattered our ability to unite in subjectivity, to create experiences that can push beyond ideological sectarianism. The marketing of John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix suppresses the astonishing fact that the late bourgeois epoch is incapable of creating a music that speaks to the mass that doesn't arrive from the lived experience of the oppressed. This is not a matter of guilty liberals tokenistically applauding regurgitated versions of James Joyce by giving prizes to Salman Rushdie or Ben Okri. This is a matter of art that works. Debord had the courage to look at the failure of postwar Paris to create art that mattered; it does his ideas a disservice to repeat that observation in different contexts, strike out art and long for the grand slam of revolution. We must have the courage to admit that poetry may still be possible, even if it's being created in a milieu that doesn't speak our language or respect our concepts. And I'm talking about Ice T, Bad Brains and Alan Wilkinson here, not Stewart Home.
The conversion of the avantgarde into high-culture esoterica was part of the victory of post-war American capitalism. But the avantgarde is produced in the struggle of classes - the frustration of living expression with its institutionalised betrayal - not in the whingeings of an embattled high culture. Those of us who know about black music and its extensions in rock'n'roll know that mass culture is not a monolith, it's a site of class conflict. As long as collective, proletarian art is pursued, it will come into conflict with the mechanisms of capitalist market relations. As Joe Carducci argues, the very survival of rock bands playing collective improvisations is a blow against the bourgeois idea of creativity as the achievement of the single genius. Futurism, James Joyce, Punk, Free Improvisation, No Wave Jazz, Jungle - all these are avantgardes which want mass involvement without the dead-hand of commodity production. The avantgarde is the vision of a new society struggling to be born along the faultlines of capitalism: to declare it dead (as did the call for papers issued by the organisers of this conference) is to say that capitalism is uncontradictory, a statement that can only make sense to the rich.

The death of the avantgarde (according to professors)

The early twentieth century gave birth to a new art that required a social revolution for its realisation: the supersession of private property. Because of impediments to that revolution, the avantgarde devolved to guerilla warfare with the institutions of the bourgeoisie. For professors to declare that war over is par for the course (25); this is not the end of the avantgarde, not the dawn of a new unproblematic age of art-consumption for the bourgeoisie, but simply the recuperation of the Fredric Jamesons and Jean Baudrillard. And it is these voluminous, though theoretically lax, cud-chewers who provide the "heavyweight" concepts that undergird the ingratiating cavorts of the Popsicle Academy.
The Popsicle Academy has betrayed the SI's concept of the spectacle because they have lost its organising principle: the impulse to criticise it. Criticism of the spectacle requires commitment to a singleton protest bourgeois society can only ever picture as a double-barrelled shotgun: to the subjectivity of poetry, and to the objectivity of revolution. The Popsicle Academy has no idea of poetry because its careerist ambitions mean that it cannot do anything so gauche as to look at art that is devoid of social power; they declare the avantgarde dead because it doesn't help them secure another stipend. The Popsicle Academy finds the idea of proletarian politics too daunting, so it has to celebrate the idea of creating penfriends with other intellectuals via the World Wide Web. It cannot stand the idea of demonstrations and picket lines because it knows they'll be beaten to it organisationally by those bastards in the SWP.
Confusing mass markets with mass action is typical of sociologists who have never tried to make anything happen. You need to learn from the trials of rock'n'roll to realize the violence and degradation wrought by the money-relation on utopian aspirations. We wanted a new epoch, and we got capitalism - this central fact remains unchanged, whatever apocalyptic announcements are made by the Popsicles, whether in refereed journals or sci-fi comics. The avantgarde is declared dead by people who want the privilege of niches within the establishment - precisely the people who always fail to recognise the cultural practices later honoured with that title. Likewise, revolutionary politics is deemed hopeless by people who won't even try to bring a strike to victory.

The task

Poetry and revolutionary politics persist today, if only as nauseatingly separated activities. Those who refuse to engage in anything because it does not promise to be a transcendent unity of both - and look to Debord for justification - end up joining the chorus of those who decry revolt in any form. The only strategy has to be a critical engagement with both - with either - wherever they appear. Subsituationnist inertia is caused by fear of failure - but to be a revolutionary is to fail as no other dare fail, again and again. In a period of worldwide recession, the problem is not the "recuperations" of the 50s and 60s - but the erasure of the idea of proletarian revolution in any form. Faith in working class spontaneism is the consolation of the ineffectual, the sad mumbling of broken souls (26). Pessimism always packs a secret smugness in its overnight valise. Although calls for unity will seem at odds with the radical sectarianism that pushed Debord towards revolutionary Marxism, the low level of debate on the English left means that unbridled Situationnist sectarianism will simply scatter the seeds of criticism to the winds. If we were to unite around something concrete, we could do worse than start with a sustained critique of the Popsicle Academy - one that issues forth at every one of its odious manifestations.
(1) Potlatch #26, 7 May 1956, Potlatch 1954-1957, Paris: Éditions Gérard Lebovici, 1985, pp. 207-308. The prison sentences were carried out in Fresnes in May 1956.
(2) Léonard Rankine, "La Gauche, à la Cravache", Potlatch #22, 9 September 1955, ibid, p. 165; the list of dissed left intellectuals comprised Simone de Beauvoir, Péju, Claude Bourdet, Colette Audry, Duverger, Sauvy and Lavau.
(3) Potlatch #1, 22 June 1954, ibid, p. 13.
(4) "Baudrillard is content to take the spectacle at face value, removing all sense that it can be considered as an inversion of the real. The spectacle must be believed ..." Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 154.
(5) One is spoiled for choice in citing the idiocies of this peculiarly imbecilic text (Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), a mind-numbing inventory of useless details created by the failure of the Frith school to grasp the nettle of objective/subjective relations in theorising society. "One complication of my fieldwork resulted from the fact that the two methods that make up ethnography - participation and observation - are not necessarily complementary. In fact, they often conflict." (p. 105). This is precisely the impasse reached in Michael Thompson's Rubbish Theory (Oxford: OUP, 1979, p. 6), though it seems likely that Frith and Co will continue to dress up their tedious rubbish (reports from youth-industry party-poopers) as "research", since they lack the brains to even spot a theoretical conundrum. For the Frith school being a boring middle-class wanker replaces theoretical stringency as motor for their patronising milk-waggon.
(6) Another round of sackings in industry, how wonderful, I was so looking forward to my next temp assignment ... "Encouraged to specialise and invest in long term career strategies, boys had lost out in a labour market demanding the flexibility and transferable skills which now gave their female peers the edge." Sadie Plant, "Sex & Subversion in Cybersapce: A Fe-Mail Adventure", Deadline #66, December 1994/January 1995, p. 92.
(7) Take Cyborg "theory", the wonderfully novel concept man/machine interfacing. Marinetti's Technical Manifesto of 1914 demanded that we "conquer the enmity that separates our human flesh from the metal of motors" (quoted in Dougald MacMillan, op. cit., p. 37). Marinetti, William Burroughs, William Gibson - we are talking about degradation of an idea here, not innovation, and the task of analysis is to point to the social inertia that prevents such ideas becoming flesh.
(8) To sit and watch some academic who has never heard of Chuck Brown or Ronald Shannon Jackson or Cheba Fadela tell us that Adorno was "Eurocentric" - when he saw the direct connection between the fatuous self-celebration of European tonality and Fascism, and celebrated the Jewish/Bolshevik conspiracy of 12-tone - is more than can be born. It'll do you out of a job, in fact!
(9) It's already happened in rap and rave of course, just look at band names today - they're as lettriste as corporate logos.
(10) "The Revolution of the Word Proclamation", transition 16/17, 1929, reproduced in Dougald McMillan, Transition 1927-38: The History of a Literary Era, New York: George Braziller, 1976, p. 49. The "Proclamation" of the "revolution of the word" cites William Blake for half of its twelve points. William Blake's Marriage Of Heaven And Hell has provided revolutionary materialism with useful salvoes for over 200 years. Wyndham Lewis's Blast in 1914 plagiarized Blake unmercifully, and itself provided the language for such recent "assaults on the spectacle" as the Prynnian poetry magazine Parataxis, the anarchist Underground broadsheet, and advertisements for the Disobey Club in Wire magazine (it should be noted that only the latter had the will and means to successfully reproduce Blast's ugly typography). Whether or not such plagiarisms are to be countenanced depends of course on whether the users are at pains to change the situation - in which case old blunderbuses are more than welcome - or to show off, in which case they make a poor show.
(11) "La poésie onomatopéique et la poésie néo-classique ont simultanément manifesté la dépréciation complète de ce produit." Potlatch #23, ibid, p. 182.
(12) "La poésie a épuisé ses derniers prestiges formels. Au delà de l'esthétique, elle est toute dans le pouvoir des hommes sur leurs aventures. La poésie se lit sur les viages. Il est donc urgent de créer des visages nouveaux. La poésie est dans les formes des villes. Nous allons donc en construire de bouleversantes. La beauté nouvelle sera de SITUATION, c'est-à-dire provisoire et vécue.
"Les dernières variations artistiques ne nous intéressent que pour lau puissance influentielle que l'on peut y mettre ou y découvrir. La poésie pour nous ne signifie rien d'autre que l'élaboration de conduites absolument neuves, et les moyens de s'y passionner." Potlatch #5, 20 July 1954, ibid, pp. 37-38.
(13) In 1961, Ginsberg wrote to Gary Snyder: "I see no way of writing at the moment since my original interest was something like mind transmission and present scientific research techniques have made great leaps forward and perhaps now obviated words. At least that's the opinion of William Burroughs and Timothy Leary. That is, any aesthetic thrill or awareness a poem can bring can be catalyzed by wires and drugs, much more precisely." (Barry Miles, Ginsberg: An Autobiography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, p. 291). He wrote to Peter Orlovsky: "Leary told me he agreed with Bill that poetry was finished. Because he felt the world was really moving on to a new super consciousness that might eliminate words and ideas." (Ibid, p. 292) There is something embarassing about admitting that the clinical accuracy of Debord can co-exist in a world that includes Jack Kerouac - so embarassing in fact, that it can make you lose youself in heroin.
(14) Walter Olmo "qui ne manque pas de bonne volonté pour relier ses recherches sonores aux constructions des ambiances, emploie des formulations si défectueuses dans un texte récemment soumis ..." Potlatch #29, 5 November 1957, ibid, p. 239.
(15) Ibid.
(16) Jacques Fillon, "De L'Ambiance Sonore dans une Construction Plus Étendue", Potlatch #21, 30 Jane 1955, ibid, pp. 144-145.
(17) A mistake also made by Adorno.
(18) "le règne de cornet à piston a pris fin", ibid, p. 144.
(19) "L'utilité de detruire le formalisme par l'intérieur est certaine ...", Potlatch #22, 9 September 1955, ibid, p. 155.
(20) Potlatch #25, 26 January 1956, ibid, p. 192.
(21) Potlatch #23, 13 October 1955, ibid, p. 187.
(22) Potlatch #28, 22 May 1957., ibid, p. 229.
(23) Having castigated André Breton and Benjamin Péret for wishing to celebrate Rimbaud's centenary (displaying an acute sensitivity to the deadbeat romanticism concealed in the Rimbaud cult, as demonstrated later on by Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine), Debord recommended rereading La révolution surrealiste "qui, vers la fin du premier quart de ce siècle, fut une entreprise intelligente, et honorable" Potlatch #14, 30 November 1954, ibid, p. 79.
(24) Debord always vehemently denied that he had launched a new "ism" on the market, and anyone sympathetic to his ideas shouldn't use the term.
(25) The end of the avantgarde is an idea most sedulously propagated by Fredric Jameson. In Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic Of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1991, his list of cultural artefacts that breathe Postmodernity reads like a deathroll of establishment tedium in, variously: novels (EL Doctorow's Ragtime), language poetry (Bob Perelman), art (Andy Warhol), film (American Graffiti, La Grande Bouffe) and architecture (Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Michael Graves). He notes that Hans Haacke "does not compute within the paradigm" (p. 159), but does not investigate why this should be the case; likewise he notes that James Joyce does not fit Postmodernism's denunciation of modernism as "anti-democratic" (p. 303), but carefully sidelines such flaws in his argument: he cannot afford the eccentricity of declaring that most of what America's intelligentsia think about is rubbish. In order to achieve his guru-like status he must kowtow to the tastes of the highbrow mass market - precisely where no life is to be found. The simple truth is that without learning from cultural opposition that bets on the future ("the avantgarde"), you cannot get a perspective on the media; the flat, seamless monotony of postmodernism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You cannot prove that Wynton Marsalis is a charade without referencing the work of Olu Dara. Jameson also betrays a typically American misunderstanding of the European avantgarde project. He calls it an effort to "renew perception" (p. 121). While making his case he uses the panoramic conceit, "from Ezra Pound to surrealism" (ibid): this casual citing of a Fascist with Surrealism - a movement founded on enthusiasm for the ideas of Marx and Freud, both Jews - shows how all political conflict is merely literature for American academics. Political Correctness provides no serum against the idealism endemic to bookishness. Jameson's crassly formalist summary of the avantgarde actually derives from Victor Shklovsky's "make it new", a phrase enthusiastically quoted by the American New Criticism, a reactionary Southern school of literary critics that succeeded in making Eliot, Pound and Joyce the patron saints of a new, "difficult" modern literature. Jameson likes to be described as America's foremost Marxist critic, yet his reason for concluding that the avantgarde can no longer exist is because late capitalism has now colonised both nature and the unconscious, the sole sites for a "renewal of perception" (ibid, p. 122). This is a philosophical version of a degraded (Rainbow-coalition) Marcuserite politics: the answer to capitalism is not the opposite which it creates (the working class), but something "outside it", ie blacks (nature) or women (the unconscious). Jameson's formulation removes the working class from the picture - demonstrating (albeit in negative form) the intimate connection between the idea of proletarian revolution and the idea of avantgarde art.
(26) E.g. C.L.R. James when interviewed at the end of his life.


Back to The Situationist Papers

Get You Back Home