Book Reviews

Andy Merrifield

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12: Sprawl and Spectacle


In November 1994, a sixty-two-year-old reclusive Frenchman, living in the village of Auvergne, put a bullet through his heart. The man was Guy Debord, once the guru of the Situationist International, a radical political and artistic movement made up of romantic young men and women—poets, writers, artists, and socialists—that flourished in the late 1950s and ’60s and then languished as the conservative rot set in during the ’70s and ’80s. By the 1990s, the spectacular, show-biz-obsessed society that Debord had so vehemently denounced had all but taken over the world. Debord had plainly had enough; the jaded prizefighter had taken too many punches to the head. He saw only darkness. His radiant dream of spontaneous freedom never became real. But for one brief instant, on the volatile streets of Paris in May ’68, “imagination seized power,” and the dream seemed within sight. The students who threw bricks and Molotov cocktails and demanded the impossible, whom Jean-Luc Godard christened “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” were famous for (at least) fifteen minutes. For a while, the city was theirs; it never would be again. Thirty-odd years on, the Situationists’ legacy and spirit lingers, continuing to tell us much about ourselves and our cities, especially about what we’ve lost and have yet to gain. The publication of Simon Sadler’s The Situationist City and Mark Wigley’s handsome Constant’s New Babylon suggests that some people out there still want to listen.

The City of Marx and Coca-Cola

The Situationists are lost prophets of a bygone age, an age of innocence and na•veté, of dreams and hopes, of espresso and wine and Gauloises and mad raving ideals. They were immature people—many of them students—who taught grown-ups a thing or two about mature life and politics. They were the most marginal of dissidents, never more than a dozen or so free spirits; little of their activity extended beyond the centers of Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels. Their program was epigrammatic not systematic, and its legacy consists only of scraps and preliminary ideas, blurry vignettes and vague hypotheses. No completed or coherent body of work endures. And yet somehow, after the Situationists, urban politics and radical art and design would never quite be the same.

The tale is complex, full of acronyms and bad faith, camaraderie and vanity, with close friends falling out over each other’s petit bourgeois pretensions and counter-revolutionary predilections. Sadler does his best to unravel the fine-grained detail. He locates the Situationists in European cultural and architectural history and reveals the ideas and shenanigans of their precious inner circle: Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Ivan Chtcheglov, Michle Bernstein, Asger Jorn, and Constant Nieuwenhuys. (Ralph Rumney sat on the fringes in London, while Henri Lefebvre, an older figure who taught many budding Situationists sociology and Marxism at the University of Strasbourg in 1958, towered somewhere overhead.) It’s a ripping yarn, with egos on show everywhere. There’s hope and glory, too, as well as blood and tears, back-stabbing and expulsions, ideological deviations and squabbles, especially between Debord and Constant, and Debord and Lefebvre, and Constant and Jorn. As is so often the case with the Left, the Situationists at times seem harder on themselves and their fellow travelers than they do on their ruling-class antagonists.

The prehistory of the Situationists involves several small subversive art groups. First came the Lettrist International, an underground Minimalist set-up pioneered by Debord. Next was COBRA, the Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam Surrealist and experimental design conglomerate, dominated by the Dutch utopian architect and ex-Provo and anarchist Constant Nieuwenhuys (who later abbreviated his name to the snappier “Constant”). Then the Imaginist Bauhaus entered the fray, Asger Jorn’s brainchild, a Brussels-based crew with an Abstract Expressionist bent. London’s Psychogeographical Association belongs in there somewhere, as does the so-called Congress of Free Artists. All these groups were politicized, revolutionary in their intention to renew art, to rey«ew the action of art on life, and to transform both life and the city in the process. Spontaneity and playfulness became their lingua franca. They found intellectual sustenance in the works of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Rabelais, Piranesi, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Artaud, Brecht, and Breton played cameo roles in the drama that began to unfold after July 1957, when delegates from all the above groups gathered in the Italian village of Cosio d’Arroscia, “in a state of semi-drunkenness,” to establish the Situationist International.

The SI was a reaction to bourgeois culture and politics, on the one hand, and to the sterile, austere functionalism of High Modernism, on the other. And right from the start the SI engineered an attack. Both bourgeois and avant-garde high culture, they said, eviscerated the city; each left its debilitating imprint on the built environment and on social space; each was pathological to the human spirit and to genuine social progress and freedom. Architecture or revolution? Neither, to the Situationists, could be avoided. In the modern city, Logos triumphed over Eros, order over disorder, the organization man over the rebel. The cities of the Communist Eastern bloc were reviled as much as their commodified capitalist counterparts. Le Corbusier’s machine aesthetic and “radiant” utopia received the thumbs down, as did the rigid minimalism of CIAM. Ditto the notorious grand ensembles of barrack blocks; and Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, Sadler notes, was “one of the modern movement’s most extraordinary achievements, and as such was despised by the Situationists” (48). According to the SI, all these places and ideas embraced the Cartesian master plan—strict zoning laws and spatial compartmentalization created desolate desert-like spaces, and these desert spaces created deserts of the mind, Alphavilles of the body and soul. In response, the Situationists defended the urban mix, wanted to move beyond the rational city, strove to reassert daring, imagination, and thrill in social life and urban culture.

Guy Debord remained the SI’s leading theoretical light throughout its brief life, and Paris became his workshop. Much like Walter Benjamin two decades earlier, Debord adored Paris, yet lamented its downfall, detested itsembourgoisement, seethed in the face of corporate colonization and anodyne museumification. His beloved Les Halles, with its cheap bars, gritty streets, and market halls—and where Debord lived on a shoestring in a studio apartment with Michle Bernstein—was especially under threat. The modernizing bulldozer and the chic boutiques and wine bars cast their shadow right outside Debord’s doorstep. Before long, Les Halles became the testing ground for the ideas contained in his masterpiece, The Society of the Spectacle (1967). Indeed, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s infamous Pompidou Center, located in the quarter, was, in Sadler’s words, “a showcase for industrial design, canonically great modern painting, and information, sheathed in a brash functionalism.” As such, it “represented one of the purest and most refined forms of spectacle, an attraction more popular than the Eiffel Tower. Profoundly divorced from the sort of radical local initiative implied by situationist urbanism, Beaubourg seemed to be one more piece of territory lost in the battle for urban space” (65).

The Society of the Spectacle, since translated into dozens of languages, delved into the belly of the spectacular beast. Its 221 strange, short theses, aphoristic in form, peppered with irony, are Nietzschean to a T. Yet the content of the theses is uncompromisingly Marxist. In Thesis 35, Debord writes, typically: “In the essential movement of the spectacle, which consists of taking up all that existed in human activity in a fluid state so as to possess it in a congealed state as things which have become the exclusive value by their formulation in negative of lived value, we recognize our old enemy, the commodity, who knows so well how to seem at first glance something trivial and obvious, while on the contrary it is so complex and so full of metaphysicalsubtleties.” “This is the principle,” Debord adds in the next thesis, “of commodity fetishism”—Marx’s major insight from the opening chapter of Capital. Marx recognized how market economies cannily transform relationships between real people—workers and consumers and citizens—into relationships between “things” like money and capital and labor power. After a while, these “things” begin to control and condition every human being and assume a perverse logic of their own, severing organic ties between people and their environments, and between people and other people. “Things” become at once illusory and material, deceptive and seductive, the worst and best that modern culture has to offer.

But Debord takes commodity fetishism a step beyond Marx. In postwar capitalism, he reasons, “the spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life” (from Thesis 42). The “world of things” has colonized images and events, architecture and culture, mass media and everyday life. Little wonder that Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle “with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacle society,” of puncturing the fetishism, overcoming the alienation. In the process he and Constant and their SI comrades formulated some weird truths of their own. One was a holistic and wholesome type of urbanism, an alternative city, sublime and prototypical, where there’d simply be more there there. At the heart of the Situationist city—at the heart of The Situationist City—thus resides a major political and spatial impulse: “unitary urbanism.”

Unitary urbanism would battle against planners and efficiency experts and men in suits who sat in fancy offices high above everyone else; it would work against market-driven cities, too, against cities where spaces became “abstract” commodities, monopolized by the highest bidder. The unitary city would be disruptive and playful, reuniting all that had been physically and socially sundered, emphasizing forgotten and beleaguered places, mysterious corners, quiet squares, teeming neighborhoods, sidewalks filled with strollers, parks with old-timers in berets sitting on the benches. The only predictable thing in the Situationist city would be its unpredictability, its random intensity, its “unity of ambience.” To highlight their ideal city—their Naked City—Debord and Jorn cut up a map of Paris and rearranged the parts into a thrilling collage. The counterpart activity was a surreal trip, a dreamy journey through Parisian passageways, always on foot, drifting for hours, often at night, identifying subtle moods and nuances of neighborhoods. In this way the SI would tap the city’s unconscious; primitive walkie-talkies helped them communicate with each other, sometimes miles apart. Through these imaginary and real dérives, Situationists became latter-day fl‰neurs, aimless strollers, botanizing on the asphalt, wandering in and out of public spaces, accumulating rich qualitative data, key ingredients in their experimental “psychogeography.”

To up the political ante, the Situationists also invented détournement, or hijacking, which monkey-wrenched accepted behavior and received meaning in bourgeois cities. Squatting and occupying buildings and streets are classic examples of détournement, as are graffiti and “free associative” expressionist art. These actions would somehow create new “situations,” turn things around, recreate meaning out of nonsense (and nonsense out of meaning); they would inspire revolts inside one’s head as well as revolts out on the street. The détourned city would transform the Platonic Republic into Rabelais’s Abbey of Thélème: “hypocrites, bigots . . . hungry lawyers . . . [and] money suckers, stay away.” Détournement involved collective and individual feats of resistance, both serious—deadly serious—and fun. At best these feats were infectious “festivals of the people,” luminous street demonstrations that recalled the glory days of the 1871 Paris Commune; they combined rent strikes with a general strike, while retaining—but only just—a rambunctious carnivalesque spirit. A lot of the May 1968 skirmishes incorporated détournement; the streets of Paris became something of a microcosm of the Situationist city, the staging of epic—or absurd—theater. “To be free in 1968,” read one wall graffito, “is to participate.” In the end, détournement, as Harold Rosenberg once said, is really “surrealism in the streets.”1

One of the nice things about Sadler’s book is that, unlike much writing on the Situationists, it is relatively unpretentious. These days the topic seems to be fair game for hip cultural critics and “discourse” merchants, those who speak about transgressive and emancipatory counter-hegemonic strategies and radical postmodern deconstructivist interventions. In contrast, Sadler says what he has to say in plain language. If anything, the language is maybe a little too plain for its own good. The prose is often flat and, given the subject, surprisingly uninspired and uninspiring. Occasionally the narrative gets clogged, unable to bear the weight of the accumulated history, and its shifts back and through time, as well as the large cast of characters who enter and depart the scene, can become confusing, even bewildering. The Situationist City has none of the idiosyncratic charm and imagination of Greil Marcus’s “secret history of the 20th century,” Lipstick Traces, which explores the continuity between Dada and Situationism and punk rock. (Apparently Malcolm McLaren, flamboyant creator of the Sex Pistols, was smitten by the Situationists.) Moreover, Marcus sketches in the connections between the utopian events of ’68—when protestors demanded the impossible—and the nihilism of the early ’80s—a period that saw the “end of history,” and the “No Future” of Johnny Rotten. Sadler stays curiously silent on this crucial theme, and says nothing, too, about how “No Future” eventually became the platform for the “There Is No Alternative” mantra propounded by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. (The refrain lives on, of course, in the wishful thinking of today’s proponents of globalization.) Ultimately, The Situationist City lacks serious political engagement; it strives for but never quite achieves the radical oomph of its subject.

This same shortcoming mars Constant’s New Babylon, Mark Wigley’s impressively designed, lavishly illustrated monograph about the work and career of Constant Nieuwenhuys. Some of the photos are quirky, like the black-and-white close-up of Debord and Constant, et al., toasting each other’s health in Munich’s HofbrŠuhaus. There are exhilarating images of bright-colored deconstructed landscapes and plexiglass models of futuristic cities. A few of Constant’s designs look like aircraft hangers, or half-finished shopping malls, massive construction sites with gaping steel scaffolding that dwarf anything Richard Serra has done. A lot of the designs appear incomprehensible and dumb. In their inimitable way, these are all raw attempts to “concretize” unitary urbanism, to make it more graphic; though it’s hard to see any of this as a “hyper-architecture of desire”—as the book’s subtitle puts it—especially since none of the images contains people.

Wigley’s accompanying text, which prefaces Constant’s own scribbles, is equally disembodied. It skirts real-life content; written in the self-indulgent tone of the haute cognoscenti, it has little humanity. Wigley seems as detached from his own prose as he is from the people who’d supposedly live in Constant’s city. “The floating transparent layers,” he says, “carry delicate tracery of some kind of embedded technical system and the division between spaces is formed by folded metal screens, cut-outs in the floor, changes in lighting, and so on. . . . Inhabitants of New Babylon were meant to promiscuously combine resources to produce unique transient spaces. . . . Perhaps the most striking resonance is the way the project prefigures contemporary concerns with electronic space. Its fantasy of an infinitely flexible, ever-shifting, interactive spatiality is echoed in countless computer-based models” (11, 63).

Debord first coined the term “New Babylon” one winter’s night in 1959, when he responded enthusiastically to Constant’s drawing-board visions. The name stuck, even as his and Constant’s friendship waned. The project received its first public unveiling a year later in a small gallery in Essen, Holland. Constant effectively gave the finger to the architectural profession: architects, he insisted, must shift their emphasis from form to atmosphere—ambience—“so radically that architecture itself will disappear as a discrete practice” (34). With New Babylon, Constant strove to model dérive by constructing redolent passageways and shocking landscapes, by superimposing routes and spaces on other routes and spaces, sometimes on existing cityscapes, other times on new cities. Above all, he posited an urban environment overflowing with content and texture and topographic fantasy; Constant’s hope against hope was that Marx’s normative Good Life, in which “the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all,” would become the means as well as the ends. As Constant conceived it, all useful yet repetitive activity would become automated; mobilized at grand scale, technology would release people from the drudgery of necessity, guaranteeing a healthy dose of free time. There’d be big institutional transformations, too, like collective ownership of land and the means of production, together with the rationalization of the manufacturing of consumer goods, making scarcity old hat. In this vein, Wigley admits, “Constant designed a provocation rather than a city”; “like striptease,” New Babylon “stimulates action and therefore it is real” (71).

Throughout the 1960s, Constant mentored a lot of Provo street actions and rebellion. After a while, he started to borrow a few of the Provo’s disruptive tropes for himself, inserting them into his radical architectural models. While he rejected the idea that human nature was intrinsically violent, Constant saw violence as legitimate in urban realpolitik, fundamental to the achievement of New Babylon ends. However, before the dust could settle in the streets of Paris, “revolutionary violence and postrevolutionary life became indistinguishable” (70). Both the progressive dreams of the insurgents and the flailing batons of the cops left a lot of bruised bodies. Suddenly, the very idea of a postrevolutionary life, with its optimism and promise, dissipated. Constant’s visionary city idea dissolved, the music was over, there was no other side to break on through to.

Neither Sadler nor Wigley offers a happy ending. In fact, neither offers any discernible ending at all. We hope for an epilogue, some coda to the tale, anything that might bring the Situationists’ legacy up to date. But we are left wondering what these books have in mind beyond the retrieval of eccentric architectural history—beyond the vivid descriptions, the glossy pictures, the remembrances of lost spaces. What happened to those children of Marx and Coca-Cola? We already know about Debord’s grim fate; other ’60s children, of course, simply lost their minds, while some, like Jerry Rubin, turned to Wall Street for some sort of redemption. But what about their ideals, their dreams? Did they get buried in the rubble, or did they get dialectically inverted? For during the 1980s and ’90s, our would-be revolutionaries had to do the truly impossible: they had to demand not the utopian but therealistic; they had to wise up, grow up, listen up to the pinstriped spin doctors, to the technocrats and the disciples of the Third Way. In the face of the emerging Coca-Cola realism, the Situationists’ urban romance and in-your-face politics began to appear juvenile, even idiotic. Those children of Marx who tried to overthrow the spectacular society eventually got consumed by it; eventually they plunged down the abyss they’d been staring into for way too long.

In The Situationist City and Constant’s New Babylon, the story pretty much stops in 1972, when the Situationist International evaporated. Perhaps this premature closure can be explained by the fact that neither book makes any argument, posits a central thesis. They leave the reader with nothing that cuts through the description, that might let us out the other side, into daylight. In both books the Situationist saga is a benign not an active history; neither book seems to see the past as meaningful in the present, as a past that might still be alive today—even if the action has slowed. Indeed, if the light grew dim in the 1980s, a shaft of sunshine could be glimpsed in the 1990s. Slowly, air began to penetrate the vacuum, water began to nourish arid ground, and “childish” pranks erupted in the streets once again. This time around the hair styles and the fashions were different and the protagonists spoke a different language. And yet the spirit remained definitively Situationist: the new protestors wanted the world, and they wanted it now.

“Reclaim the Streets,” one such group calls itself. In recent years their demonstrations have closed streets in Times Square in Manhattan, in Sydney, Australia, in north, south, and central London, and in many European cities. In these places crowds have danced and shouted and partied, crowds of men and women (and children) from diverse backgrounds—revolutionaries, students, dancers, workers, activists, madmen, malcontents. In their “Festivals of Love and Life,” they’ve brought traffic to a standstill and demanded pedestrians’ and bikers’ right to the city. In New York, they’ve rallied against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign against the homeless, sidewalk vendors, and the poor. In Seattle, right under the noses of World Trade Organization bigwigs, Reclaim the Streets and several other radical groups established “Seattle’s Citizen Committee.” This grassroots alliance instigated widespread civil disobedience, embarrassed the politicians and business honchos who were meeting to carve up the world into profit centers, and made a lot of noise demanding an “alternative to global capitalism and local commercialism.” These sorts of initiatives are rediscovering a new-millennium Situationism, “transforming stretches of asphalt into a place where people can gather without cars, without shopping malls, without permission from the state . . . to develop the seeds of the future in the present society,” in the words of a poster I saw on a wall somewhere on the Lower East Side of New York. Much like their ’60s forebears, these participants have a keen sense not only that cities should be exciting places but also that politics can be exciting too. And they’ve shown an amazing capacity to politicize young people—hitherto alienated from ballot-box politics—and to make them care about the fate of our cities and about democracy. This is one way to read Situationist history backwards.

Ultimately, the Situationists remind us of what’s gone, of the cheap thrills of the everyday city, the city now beleaguered from every side, airbrushed by corporate logos, plagued by burgeoning rents and inflated property values, greed and exploitation. The Situationists still sing a paean to the oppressed minor leaguer, to those who play in worn-out city ballparks—to those who still mix and mingle in street-corner societies in the fast-disappearing affordable parts of the city. Meanshile, the Situationists remind us of what we need, of what we have yet to achieve. Like Nietzsche, they were “preparatory men,” people of the future, who wanted “their own festivals, their own weekdays, their own periods of mourning,” and whose “greatest enjoyment” was to live dangerously, to build a city under Vesuvius. Maybe one day we too can build a preparatory city, our very own Situationist city, under a smoldering volcano.

Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).

Mark Wigley, Constant’s New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1998).

1 Harold Rosenberg, The Re-Definition of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), Chapter 4.

Andy Merrifield teaches urbanism and social theory at the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. His books include The Urbanization of Injustice, coedited with Erik Swyngedouw; his articles have appeared in The Nation, Social Text, Rethinking Marxism, and Monthly Review.