McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street, Verso, London and Brooklyn, 2011, 208 pages, $26.95 hardback, ISBN 9781844677207
From the subtitle, The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, one might assume The Beach Beneath the Street is yet another winking, frolicking romp through the voluptuous Saint-Germain existence of the ever-titillating Situationist International (SI; 1957-72). However, Wark’s wonderfully written, brilliantly researched, expansive, and decidedly timely monograph about the movement is no less of a manifesto than are his earlier contributions.
Wark pithily bemoans high theory’s inwardly vertiginous obsession with the few “famous fathers” of yore and select “new demigods” (page 1). High theory, he claims, evolves as a response to disappointment; hence the productive time following May 1968. However, today “[we] are bored with this planet” (page 1). Boredom invites an altogether divergent low theory, one “dedicated to the practice that is critique and the critique that is practice” (page 3). The SI, Wark avers, explored such a critical practice, only too much has been made of the Situationists’ perceived dysfunctions and far too much emphasis placed on select “great men” (page 3, italics Wark’s). Were we to conceive of the SI as an experiment in social form and acknowledge Debord’s scrupulous decision to dissolve the collective before it was crushed “beneath the weight of its own incoherence” (page 121), we might more readily recognize the enduring value in the Situationists’ inventory of forms of praxis: dérive, détournement, the gift, and potlatch. Together these uphold individuation and collective belonging in opposition to the synchronizing, flattening spectacle.
Wark’s book is best apprehended in terms of stages, chronological and conceptual, that catalog the contributors to Situationism – be they from within, the periphery, or even exile. The first portion details the SI’s forebear collective, the Letterist International, the misfit tribe of bohemian Saint-Germain, who together devised the critical praxis of negative action, making visible that which is impossible “within the limits of actually existing capitalism” (page 30). Then and there George Bataille, Michèle Bernstein, Ivan Chtcheglov, Guy Debord, Gil Wolman, and others conceived the dérive, psychogeography, and détournement with an ambition no less than to invent a wholly new civilization, leaving the 20th century behind them in distant memory.
Wark begins the middle of the book with the formation of the SI from other collectives in 1957, and this section pertains to formative theories within the Situationists’ active years. The portions on Asger Jorn’s and Henri Lefebvre’s respective provisions, as well as the chapter, “A Provisional Micro-Society,” are the section’s and book’s most successful, underscoring the SI’s emphasis on play, romance, even the collective’s own contradictions. Painter and theorist Jorn, a heavily modified and eventually ex-Marxist, proffers artistic materialism, noting art is not embedded in Marx’s superstructure but within our infrastructure; it is playful, social. As an alternative to Althusserian Marxism, Jorn proposes games and an “ontology of nature as flux, difference, and cooperation” (page 53). Lefebvre never was a Situationist, but he and Debord shared an impassioned, if brief, intellectual encounter, during which they explored five concepts of interest, constituted by and constitutive of the Situationist project: “the everyday, totality, moment, spectacle, and the total semantic field” (page 96). For Lefebvre, the total semantic field’s three registers – signals, signs, and symbols – communicate deeply a notion rooted in romantic theory and reified in bohemia. Here and with these tools we can reverse fates and alienate the spectacle within society, itself “the concrete manufacture of alienation” (Debord, 1983, page 32). Wark asserts a primary stratagem of the SI was taking up a romantic investigation of the total semantic field to a point, then reversing and establishing a new classicism in the wreckage. Such is just one lesson of the SI’s peculiar provisional micro-society: contradictions can prove creatively generative. It could and did not last, but Debord defended his paradoxical doctrine of no doctrine. Never doctrine, but “‘perspectives…a solidarity around these perspectives’” (as cited on page 65). Founded on such ambiguity and fueled by a gift economy of donation for reputation, Wark recognizes the SI could not sustain. Games are not meant to endure.
However, Wark assures us this game has valuable lessons, thus the final portion of the book is a deliberate nod to the feasibility of Situationist practice as enacted by Alexander Trocchi and Constant Nieuwenhuys in the years subsequent to the SI. Trocchi’s project sigma attempts to bypass the cultural industry and arguably traces the beginnings of blogging. Constant’s New Babylon is noteworthy because his intent is that the transformation of the built form will, in fact, emerge from a transformation in social relations.
If there are deficiencies in this fine work, one is the chapter on Michèle Bernstein, “Permanent Play.” It is unique among the chapters for being primarily descriptive, a diegetic summation of Bernstein’s novels, with the claim that in her fictionalized autobiographies, “women win” (page 73). Only what follows is a storyline of apparent insecurity-soaked manipulation from all sides, with no discernible winners. Also, while the foldout poster collaboration with Kevin C. Pyle, Totality for Beginners, is a delightful add-on, concomitantly engrossing and relevant as a détourned Situationist piece, its existence made me miss a chronological and associational guide within the book itself. Wark’s written introductions to individuals and collectives are exemplary; I only wish there was an illustration, too.
Such shortcomings, however, do nothing to mitigate this book’s merit. Wark’s account succeeds in righting the post-Situationist legacy ship (and then some), traversing well- and lesser-known people and modes to offer up some alternatives: “praxis [Lefebvre], not therapy [Lacan]; form [Jorn], not structure [Althusser]; situation [Debord], not power [Foucault]” (page 159). Moreover, it is timely. Throughout 2011, citizens fatigued by spectacular global injustices have charged erstwhile bedrock institutions. If we needed evidence that there exists a potent low theory-based critical practice, borne of boredom and likewise indifferent to the academy and other such hallowed institutions, we need look no further than the astonishing Arab Spring, UK riots, and now fully global Occupy Wall Street. This book, then, is appropriate for devotees and newcomers to the SI alike, as well as cultural theorists, historians, art historians, urban planners – anyone remotely interested in learning more about this period or acquiring more tools for leaving the 21st century.
Brettany Shannon, Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089 USA
Debord G, 1983 Society of the Spectacle Trans. Fredy Perlman (Black and Red, Detroit)