How situationism changed history

Luke Haines on the situationists – the avant-garde art movement that sparked off the riots and foresaw the future

14 July 2018 9:00 AM

‘Never work’: graffiti on the walls of Nanterre University, March 1968

Unless you have been sleeping under a barricade or a pile of Molotov cocktails it will not have escaped your attention that we — that is, a few broadsheets and BBC4 — have been having a good old think about the events of 1968. When student rioting brought France to its knees and the revolution didn’t quite happen. The Independent helpfully reminded us that Sgt. Pepper’s was released ‘around about then’, and that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned (also ‘round about then’). It is highly probable that Philip Larkin was mentioned. Over on BBC4, Joan Bakewell did a slightly better job of framing the whole caper. Daniel Cohn-Bendit got his props, as did the enragés. Of course the BBC dug out that footage of the hippies holding hands and dancing around
a tree, which has been used only slightly more than its footage of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Joan didn’t make too bad a fist of it really — that is, if you like your soixante-huitard insurrectionary slogans dished out to you in the voice of a jolly hockey sticks head girl, whose every intonation purrs ‘I invented the middlebrow’. What all the coverage missed was the most interesting and perhaps most prescient ‘presence’ throughout the Paris riots — that of the situationists.

The Situationist International (SI) was formed in Switzerland in 1957 and led by the fabulously chippy, overtly intellectual, and very French Guy Debord. Two avant-garde groups, the International Movement Towards An Imaginist Bauhaus, and the London Psychogeographical Society, pooled their not inconsiderable avant-garde chops, and before you could say ‘Constant Nieuwenhuys’ (briefly a situationist) the SI was born.

The Situationist International was one of the most important art movements of the 20th century, and Debord was as much of a scryer of the future as Warhol. Between 1958 and 1972 Debord and co published their manifestos in a metal boarded journal called LInternationale Situationniste. The first issue attacked modern art, Marxism and, in a brilliant article by Asger Jorn, ‘Leisure, which society accorded its highest social value’. Also included in that first issue was a glossary of situationist terms: ‘constructed situations’ were in. (Essentially, what Abbie Hoffman and the theatrical anarchist group the Yippies got up to a few years later.) ‘Psychogeography’ and ‘dérive’ were also in. The former ‘a way of studying the precise effects of the geographical milieu, whether consciously arranged or not’. And the latter: ‘An experiential behavioural mode linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.’ Which roughly translates as going on an all-day bender and getting so apocalyptically hammered that you have no idea where you live. ‘Situationism’, it should be noted, was ‘out’.


While the situationists were playful, they were not playing around. By late 1967, the university of Nanterre, just outside the Paris city limits, was a dry wood waiting for a spark, overpopulated with 12,000 students and surrounded by a slum that housed North African workers. The situationists (whose shit-stirring abilities make Momentum look like toddlers), sensing the makings of a damn good tear-up, provided that spark by distributing a pamphlet called ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’. The students were crackling with the possibilities. Come January, President de Gaulle had dispatched his minister of youth, the hapless François Missoffe, to try to calm the situation. In a somewhat odd debate, student Daniel Cohn-Bendit complained loudly to Missoffe about students’ ‘sexual problems’. The minister told Cohn-Bendit, aka Danny the Red, to take a cold shower. Nothing.
A few days later, Cohn-Bendit was singled out for deportation. The gaff was about
to blow sky-high. Enter the enragés.

The enragés, styled upon 18th-century Hérbertistes, were loutish thugs dressed in leather, drunk and violent. They were also the secret black hand of Debord, and led by the situationist René Riesel. By the evening of 3 May, after a crisis meeting in the Sorbonne between university officials, student leaders, Danny the Red and the enragés — and with the brooding presence of the riot police — Paris exploded. For a week the city went on the rampage. The Sorbonne was taken over by enragés and situationists, Renault workers marched in solidarity with students and France was on the verge of a general strike. De Gaulle, seriously underestimating the ‘situation’, almost lost control — almost.

The revolution didn’t happen. Much to Cohn-Bendit’s chagrin. Cohn-Bendit hated Debord, who he (rightly) regarded as an intellectual agitator. That the revolution stalled was a mere trifle to the situationists and Debord, the poetic master of chaos, who spent the 1970s in Italy playing war games with the Mafia and meddling in the Red Brigades — far away from the stilted new-left dreams of Danny the Red and the other soixante-huitards.

Guy Debord shot himself through the heart in 1994, seemingly too tired and alcoholic to stir any more trouble. And Debord’s ‘legacy’? Was it the ghostly slogans that appeared on walls throughout ’68? ‘Never Work’, ‘Take Your Desires For Reality’. Perhaps. Was it pop culture’s assimilation of his ideas? Malcolm McLaren brazenly plundered the SI when he marketed the Sex Pistols via Jamie Reid’s designs (famously the Queen with a safety pin through her mouth). Undoubtedly, Debord’s greatest achievement was his theory of ‘the Spectacle’ first aired in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle. We are all slaves to the Spectacle. A society whose desires are neutered and put to sleep by the Spectacle. The Spectacle of consumerism, entertainment, escapism, work, politics. In 2001 the Spectacle became terrorism, as in a terrorist ‘Spectacular’. Now the Spectacle has turned in on itself. We live in a world of virtual reality and social media, a rabbit hole of somebody else’s design, unable to see the virtual wood for the virtual trees.