McKenzie Wark in conversation with Ilias Marmaras
By Dapper Dan
McKenzie Wark is an Australian writer whose many books examine hacking, game theory and, most recently, the Situationists. He teaches at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. Ilias Marmaras is a media artist based in Athens.
In your book on the Situationist movement, The Beach Beneath the Street, as well as across a wider perception, Guy Debord is a central figure to whom the slogan “not working” (“ne travaillez jamais”) is attributed. The irony of our times is that the systemic crisis of capitalism has created millions of unemployed people all over Western—at least— countries, and people have occupied the streets to demand employment, social security, etc. At the same time, what is named by several thinkers as the “production of subjectivity” is strongly related to the exercise of biopolitical power, which in turn penetrates almost every aspect of people’s lives, especially work. One could say here that capital could apply the “not working” concept in its own favour. Is this a super détournement on the part of the ruling class that, at the end of the story, creates fear and terror in the lives of people who feel like hostages after losing their jobs? And, further, is there any possibility of turning the miserable situation of being unemployed into a liberating one?
I think Debord’s slogan “Never work!” has to be understood as something like a modern version of Nietzsche’s “God is dead!” If God is dead, then the category of “man” falls apart. Likewise, without the category of “work”, its opposite reveals its incoherence. “Leisure” or “play” only have meaning in relation to work.
Interestingly, in the overdeveloped world, the categories of work and play tend to blend into each other. Work becomes playful, but play becomes “workful”. It is no longer clear where or when value is to be extracted. If the ruling class can extract value from everyday life as a social playground, then goodbye social factory. If people will do work of value for free, then why pay them at all? So in that sense, yes, there has been a détournement not of work, of play, in the interests of maintaining the commodity form. Play is not so clearly on the outside of work.
Still, if we’re not getting paid, then the question is how to make something out of everyday life that is indifferent to the commodity form. How to make another life? It is actually the opposite of biopower, at least in the United States. The ruling class couldn’t care less about the populations of the overdeveloped world. The classic statement of the Fordist political economy was, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” These days, the slogan of our disintegrating spectacle is, “What’s good for Goldman Sachs is none of your fucking business!” Biopower is dead. This is the age of thanopower. If there’s no value to be extracted, then we can all go to hell. OK, so we will withdraw from them too! We will make another life!
Regarding the idea of “never work”, at the end of your book you suggest, “Perhaps we could add, never play! For play is becoming as co-opted as work, a mere support for the commodity form.” Now, it is true that we live in a time of the gamification of everything, From internet as playground to the gabbling economy, everything seems to be an endless gamespace, as you also mentioned in your book Gamer Theory. Let me tell you a story. The early Greek historian Herodotus says that Lydia, an ancient Greek city that is now situated on Turkey’s western coast, was once besieged by the Persians. The Greeks, looking for ways to appease their misery and hold their defense as long as they could, while they could not go out of the city and work in the fields or on the sea, reached the decision to eat every other day. They also decided that the days when no eating was to take place would be dedicated to games. And that it was under those circumstances that many of the games we know today were invented.
So, could we think that play tactics, similar to the ones Situationists were using in their time, could be reinvented today and applied as a means of defense, considering the majority of people are besieged by power structures that oblige them to live in a status of hunger, literally and metaphorically? Could global movements become more playful?
In the social movements of the 1960s, play appeared to have a critical force, in part because of an innocence that was imputed to it. This play was naïve, childlike, even childish. That kind of play got co-opted for the production of value. It was subsumed into the commodity form.
But play does not have to have just this naïve, romantic aspect. Play can also be canny, cunning, a matter of strategy and tactics. It can assess situations but not reduce them entirely to calculation. That, I think, is the kind of play that can have its uses. In The Beach Beneath the Street I was writing about tactics of this kind that the Situationists—and not just Debord—invented in the 1950s and ’60s. But these are not those times. The book is about examples of playforms invented under particular historical circumstances. Not so they can be imitated, but rather, so we can learn how to make new playforms under different historical circumstances. We are in an age of inventing new aesthetic practices directly within the everyday.
A major issue for the period of the Situationists, for Henri Lefebvre and later Michel de Certeau, was the idea of “everyday life”. Putting aside their different perspectives on the everyday—as a “moment”, a “situation” or a “critique”—they were all referring to this concept, and during a period when the distinction between analogue and digital was nonexistent simply because the latter was not yet there. Nowadays, the fusion of the “real” and the “virtual” creates a hybrid space and time to live in, and sometimes gives the impression of living in constant flux, or sometimes an endless immobility. Our “everyday life”, for those who are connected, travels at the speed of light and yet goes nowhere. How useful today can the concepts of the past be? What does “everyday” mean while living a screen life?
The technical form of spectacle was different in Lefebvre and Debord’s time, but they were already talking about the continuum of everyday, meaning life on the street, and everyday, meaning life enclosed in some sort of mediated bubble. Perhaps we have not advanced all that far. Both Lefebvre and Constant, whom I also write about in The Beach Beneath the Street, were very interested in “cybernetics”. In different ways, they anticipated where we are today.
Lefebvre thought communication could be divided into three broad bands: code, sign and symbol. Code is digital, a means of control, and he saw that it was advancing into the everyday. He saw that this was more important than the terrain of the sign that so fascinated the semioticians of his time, like Roland Barthes. Language-like signs were interesting but not the main development. The main thing was codification, the coming of what you call the “hybrid space”, where code meets the everyday, and which he saw as the ideological basis of main- stream social science of the postwar period, like rational choice theory. Social science had started to think that everyday life had been completely subsumed into a gamespace of code.
The counter-tactic Lefebvre advocated was to stake out the terrain of symbol. Symbols are not like signs. Their meaning comes from the past and is not produced by the context in which they are used, as signs are. He thought the avant-garde had to advance onto the terrain of the symbol and reani- mate the romantic counter-symbols to the emerging classical order. This is exactly what he saw the Situationists had done in opposing Corbusier’s classically inspired, supposedly “modern” tower blocks, with their art of the dérive, the drift, psychogeography and unitary urbanism. Lefebvre correctly saw that there was something mythic in all of this, a deep working on the underlying symbols within everyday life at a time when everyday life was being invested—in every sense—with code.
Constant [Nieuwenhuys] took another tack. How could code, which is about logic and control, also open up a domain for free play? He did it with a kind of conceptual architecture. He called it New Babylon, and it existed as models, drawings and texts about a utopian urban planning project, but it was much more than that. It’s a kind of conceptual architecture. In New Babylon, the factories are underground, the surface of the earth is for trans- port, and we all live in “superstructures” up above. Labour is fully automated. There’s nothing to do but play.
This is already a critique of Europe and America in these overdeveloped times, right? Code allows the production and distribution of things to be auto- mated. That’s control. But that control produces a surplus which abolishes the struggle over scar- city. There’s nothing left to do but play.We get glimpses of this in everyday life. When you and your friends have a day off and there’s food and wine, and nothing to do but invent the good life. Well, for Constant, that’s a product, in part, of code as control, but it also enables this other side. How can that other side prevail? That’s his question. Can we separate the control of objects by code from the free play of subjects? This strikes me as still a visionary project.
One thing that remains unclear regarding the Situationists is the issue of violence in respect to political struggles and social claims. What was their position towards violence—if at the end they had any clear position?
They were interested in the glamour of the clandestine. They weren’t afraid of a certain organisational rigour. They were on the barricades in May ’68. But beyond that, they were not interested in violence. Violence is anathema to the kind of direct democracy they practiced, however imperfectly.
Debord advanced the thesis, very early, that the Red Brigades in Italy had been infiltrated by agents of the state. It turns out he was not entirely wrong. Maybe it’s a sort of categorical imperative: if a tactic can’t be generalised to the point that everybody can do it, then it belongs to hierarchy and ought to be opposed.
The Situationists were consistent critics of the Stalinists, the Trotskyites and the Maoists. They would have treated recent attempts to resuscitate the “idea” of communism with the contempt it deserves. The fatal mistake is the formation of vanguards that claim to “represent” the people and act on its behalf, whether with violence or—much the same thing, only more boring—bureaucracy.
They pose a very, very contemporary question for us, not least in the context of Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street: how can flat, “horizontal” movements nevertheless have organisational form? What is non-hierarchical communication that can nevertheless resist being reduced to chatter and noise? Their greatness was always in asking very far-sighted questions about form.
In the period of the Situationists, the means of political struggle were “played” on a polarised field defined by big ideologies. Debord, in The Society of the Spectacle, and the Situationists in general, by showing the rules and mechanisms of the production of the spectacle, tried to move the critique from the sterile political vocabulary of the period toward the upcoming field of struggle, the cultural sphere. That explains their involvement in the art scene and their engagement with it, at least to a point. They were right because today, struggles have—more or less, depending on the countries and the cities—a clear cultural character. I will use an actual paradigm: the Occupy movement and the Indignados are not subjects of critique based on their political thesis, but on their aesthetic. In other words, they are criticised on the way they set up their camps, how they are dressed, how they behave and so on. Does this mean that the cultural sphere in which the Situationists found a new space for struggle is now over? Does a movement need today to reinvent a political vocabulary and a social stance that goes beyond art, culture, modes of behavior; in other words, all those images of sublime consump- tion? Does the movement need to “détourner” the Situationists?
Well, the “secret” title of The Beach Beneath the Street should be Détourn This!. A bit like Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book!. It’s not about being a “Situationist” in the 21st century—although there are people who claim they are—but of plagiarising from them and correcting their tactics, “in the direction of hope”, as Lautréamont would say.
I thought a few years ago that they needed to be made available again, in a new way, as a resource for inventing new tactics, and as it happens, that hunch turned out to be not entirely without value. Their concentration on the aesthetics of struggle seems helpful now. In the US at least, it is no accident that the Occupy movement sprang at least in part from a milieu in which the Situationists have been studied closely.
But there’s a sense in which the Situationists diverge from the “cultural turn”. One way of thinking about their project, for all its internal differences, is as an attempt to found a theory and practice of aesthetic economy. Or, rather: if Marxism is a critique of political economy, and not a philosophy, then what the Situationists attempt is a critique of aesthetic economy; again, not a philosophy. What was once “the political” has been subsumed into the spectacle. Power takes an aesthetic form and has to be understood as such and confronted as such. But where we say “aesthetic”, one should think not of images but of forms. Forms of life.
Of course philosophers became obsessed with “the political” after May ’68, and it’s a fetish that persists. Well, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk. It becomes something philosophy can perceive precisely because it has passed away. Of course, power exists, exploitation exists, oppression exists, inequality exists, the spectacle exists. But politics? Whatever goes in the place of politics has to be reinvented. The site of its reinvention isn’t concep-tual: it’s not about “the political”. It’s about politics in the everyday sense. We have to reinvent forms of horizontal organisation, communication, decision, solidarity, in a word, collective being.
What is remarkable, in the United States at least, is that no matter how much the spectacle tried to attack Occupy Wall Street as smelly hippies in stupid clothes, in its first phase at least it attracted enormous public support. As the Situationists used to say, “Our ideas are on everybody’s minds.” In everyday life, people get it. They get that politics is just spectacle, and that the occupation is a kind of negative action, which shows, by doing some- thing, what the gap is between the appearance of a “politics” in the spectacle and what an actual form of popular organisation and communication might look like.
It turns out that such questions of form after politics are something on which the Situationists have a lot to offer, and not just Debord. Asger Jorn was asking about the aesthetic as the practice of form- making of a whole people, a kind of popular and yet also critical practice of formal invention. Michèle Bernstein was already asking what happens to love and sex in situations where we try to live outside the idea of being each other’s property. Jacqueline de Jong was trying to put together forms of trans- national communication about how the aesthetic could offer an alternative library of forms, outside the sanctioned canon of both architectural and social “orders”. In short, there’s no shortage of resources to draw upon in the Situationist legacy, with which, as Rimbaud said, to “change life”.
Of course, the Situationists themselves got absorbed into art and fashion and all that. But the thing about recuperation into the spectacle is that it is always reversible. The spectacle plagiarises the forms invented in everyday life and returns them to us in commodity form. It takes love and play and adventure and returns them as shoes and pants and haircuts. It’s just a matter of repossessing our power of invention of forms, and forming a life of invention outside of the commodity form and its spectacular shadow.
The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International by McKenzie Wark is published by Verso.
Ilias Marmaras personalcinema.org