July 2011

David Winters


The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International by McKenzie Wark

As Adorno once wrote, "Thought waits to be woken one day by the memory of what has been missed." McKenzie Wark's new book on situationism, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, aims to stir up just such an awakening, through a closer look at the neglected legacy of a movement whose members were "bohemian at best, delinquent at worst," and whose ambition was, unabashedly, "to change the world." His narrative follows this group from its roots in the cellar bars of Saint-Germain in the 1940s, through twenty tumultuous years of expulsions and fracturing factions, to a time when everything briefly cohered around the nexus of a situation: May 1968.

Yet this is no ordinary history. Instead, "it's a question of retrieving a past specific to the demands of the present." The Beach Beneath the Street rereads that past in a way that prefers not to smooth out its messier edges, refuses to reify (to pick up the jargon) what made it radical, what still makes it relevant. Wark wants to take stock of the situation, for sure, but not by rehearsing the stories of its "great men" (Debord, Vaneigem), or by pinning it down to a unified project. For him, such standard scholarly lines are "designed to be disabling," at a time when what's called for is not an archival account of some failed utopia, but a renewal of creative and critical praxis, right now, in the recoil of our own misfiring century.

Thus, in Wark's hands, situationism is to undergo its own détournement, be rendered untimely, made alien again, just as it was for those who lived it. This is why, in his book's constellation of remembered events, "the criterion for inclusion is not historical importance, but contemporary resonance." If the spirit of an age is to be recalled and made "current," then that currency can't be crudely cashed out in a linear logic of actors and actions, causes and cases in point. No, says Wark, we need a new model of memory, one that keeps its objects perpetually "in play," not isolating "prominent figures" from the movement that moved them, or parsing out concepts in pockets of studious usefulness. Situations are fleeting and changeable things, and "they call for a different kind of remembering."

What a sterilized secondary text might call "key concepts" are, therefore, rephrased as conceptual poetry. This is a book that abounds with aphorisms and impressions, inventions and appropriations. Along the way, the spectacle, capital's arsenal of commodified affects and percepts, is summed up as a circular argument, a tightening noose through which "what is real is what is known; what is known is what is real." What breaks up this stream of pseudo-events is the situation, understood both as a "moment that creates a time of its own" and a "zone in which otherwise different elements confront each other." Just as the dynamism of the group itself grows out of its infighting, so the implosive or insoluble qualities of a moment are what make it a situation. As the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms once put it, "Only miracle interests me, as a break in the physical structure of the world."

On Wark's account, situations arise through a new "distribution of the sensible," a phrase he takes from Rancière. What this means is a renewal of the everyday in ways that break its routines and restructures them. In this sense, techniques like the dèrive (the aleatory stroll through the city) are attempts to "construct a positive freedom within time." They put us in touch with our nature as "builders of worlds," players, to adopt a Debordian phrase, of "games of events" that free up our sense of what makes us unfree. Nor does Wark's walk-through stick to what's most familiar. Landmarks ignored, we're led through a labyrinth of detours. Here there are no destinations, only departures. Highlights of Wark's wayward history include Isidore Isou's controlled demolition of language (the proto-situationist poetics of Letterism), Alex Trocchi's overcoming of literature (Project Sigma) and Constant Nieuwenhuys's anti-capitalist architecture (New Babylon). What's at stake in all this is a "critique of both wage labour and of everyday life, expressed in acts." Or, in the book's best definition of what situationists want and do: "A practice of creating collective experiences of space and time that have their own singular coherence, but neither collapse back into the dead time of routine, nor ossify into mere artifacts."

So what can we learn from the memory of a moment when such experiences still seemed possible? The Situationist International was formally dissolved in 1972. After the slogans, after Strasbourg and the Sorbonne, nothing, or worse: recuperation as art history; institutionalization. Wark's book rallies against this loss of ambition. It wants to recover the SI's critique from the grips of the art world, and from the petrified mass of what passes for theory. The academy, Wark warns in a maverick passage, is merely a factory for "the production of new dead masters." The philosophies on offer today are "no more than the routine spasms of an era out of love with itself." In one sense, then, the situationist message is simple: refuse what you're given. Refuse high theory, and turn your life into a test site for new forms of thought: "low theory," premised on the knowledge of the world's broken promises. Low theory's scene is the street, a field lab for concrete enactments. Here, defrocked and freed from its context, theory becomes an engine for the execution of situations: of tactics and practices. Thought is put to work in the world, and philosophy grasped again as what it always was: "a ruthless criticism of all that exists."

The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International by McKenzie Wark
ISBN 978-1844677207
224 pages