ECA: Situationist International

Wanting to know more about Situationists, I read Guy Debord’s article ‘Towards a Situationist International//1957’ (Claire Bishop, Participation, Whitechapel, London, MIT, Cambridge, 2006). Not only did I find myself on Google many times trying find the definition of words I had never heard, but I had to read it over and over many times to make sense of it.
What I immediately learnt is that the central purpose of this movement was the construction of situations (pg 96, line 6). Apparently it’s all about interventions of the material setting of life and the behaviours that it incites. Situationism was first formed as a trend within the Letterist movements, but eventually grew bigger and took over (pg 100, line 6).

Much of this article I had trouble relating to, except for a few points that I thought I understood. Debord mentions one of his ‘comrades’ that promotes an interesting idea: ‘a theory of states-of-mind districts, according to which each quarter of a city would tend to induce a single emotion, to which the subject will consciously expose herself of himself.’ (pg 96, line 34). This made me want to consider what ’emotions’ made up Melbourne. However I don’t know each corner of Melbourne City well enough to analyse it, so my mind drifted to the suburbs in which I reside. I live in Eltham North, so the first thing that came to mind was ‘calm’. I realised then that you turn the corner and arrive at Eltham and there’s a slightly different aura: it’s ever so slightly more frantic. This ‘comrade’ of Debord’s might be on to something.
This then led onto the idea that building a new space isn’t just about architecture and purpose and atmosphere, but about the emotions that come with it (pg 97, line 4). It’s all about the behaviour of the viewers as a situation, after all, what use is a magnificent new building without people to admire it?

Once I started reading about politics and propaganda, I felt lost. All I could understand from it was that the so called ‘proletariat’ – which I understand to be a collective of working-class people – have essentially dug their own graves (pg 98, line 4). On the contrary, there were some aspects of Debord’s piece that I could relate to myself and every day life. One part being that we must ‘broaden the non-mediocre portion of life, to reduce it’s empty moment as much as possible’ (pg 97, line 24). Now if that isn’t an old fashioned way of saying what teenagers of today know as ‘YOLO’, then I don’t know what is. (Definition of ‘YOLO’: you only live once; live life to the fullest.)
Another is: ‘There will be no more painters, only situationists who, among other things, make paintings’. I like the idea of banishing labels and structure – even if the idea of a ‘classless society’ seems unnatural and unimaginable.

I found myself reading one particular line over and over to try and make sense of it. ‘It is easy to see to what extent the very principle of the theatre – non-intervention – is attached to the alienation of the old world’ (pg 98, line 34). At first I thought it was just a phrase beyond my academic understanding, but when thinking about it further, I realised that we do indeed not intervene when at the theatre. We sit in our chairs like good little children and never say a word to the characters in the show about their choices and decisions. We let  them live how they choose to live and just watch from afar. In the past, it was impartible to live a certain way and society’s structures were strict – which is why I think our lack of intervening in the theatre is an alienation of the old world.
… But then I read about how we apparently psychologically identify with the hero, therefore provoke capabilities to revolutionise our own lives (pg 98, line 37). So basically my interpretation was going off in a completely different direction.

After reading the article, I have come to understand that Situationist International was modern, involved experimental research and planned on destroying the bourgeois idea of happiness. However I immediately felt like I was more confused than how I was when I began. Desperate for clarity, I resorted to Google:

situationism   noun

  1. the theory that human behaviour is determined by surrounding circumstances rather than by personal qualities.
  2. a revolutionary political theory which regards modern industrial society as being inevitably oppressive and exploitative.

I can now say I understand what Situationist International was all about. Regardless of whether Google gave an accurate definition or not, Situationist International was certainly an interesting movement.

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