Urban Wanderings

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Book Review:The Situationists and the City, edited by Tom McDonough, (2009) Verso.

It isn’t entirely clear why Verso thought now would be a good time to publish a book of extracts from the writings of the Situationists about the urban environment and experience. Editor Tom McDonough, whose excellent introductory essay renders much of the subsequent material in the book redundant, tells us in the acknowledgments at the rear that,

This book would not have come into being if not for Mike Davis, who first suggested a reader that would concentrate on the Situationist International’s work on the city, and I would not have been involved in this project if not for the generous support of Rowan Wilson and Tom Penn at Verso, who invited me to edit this volume and who saw it through to publication,

which I suppose helps to identify at least three of the culprits. The decision to publish is peculiar for a number of reasons. First of all, there is the dearth of material to work with. As readers go, this is a short one, with McDonough’s essay comprising the first 30 pages of the 242 pages of text and the inclusion of pre-Situationist writings and pieces by the non-Situationist Henri Lefebvre helping to pad things out.

Second, there is not a great deal in these writings that remains relevant; the texts are very much of their moment, and while they may therefore prove to be of some use to undergraduates in architecture or urban studies, at best they constitute a historical curio, an anti-modernist declaration of war with elements of romanticism and, in the case of Guy Debord’s writings, an almost Nietzschean celebration of youth and bodily exhilaration (someone should write a thesis on Debord’s fascination with the word “thrilling”). In Simon Parker’s book Urban Theory and the Urban Experience, which, “brings together classic and contemporary approaches to urban research in order to reveal the intellectual origins of urban studies . . .,” the Situationists merit only one mention, and even at the time they were active, McDonough tells us,

. . . when critic Françoise Chouay published her epochal anthology on modern-city planning in 1965, the S.I. went unmentioned.[)] Having categorically refused all architectural experimentation . . . by this point the Situationists had become all but invisible within the arguments that were shaking up architecture and urbanism at this time.

This is because, McDonough explains,

In its place, the S.I. was developing a disabused theory of the place of building and city-planning in advanced capitalism, and sketching the outlines of its negation.

Which brings me to my third reason: the argument advanced by the Situationists themselves that urban theory that is not at the same time a total critique of capitalist society is pointless. While McDonough’s judicious selection of texts does at least allow us to see how the Situationists’ thought arrived at this conclusion over a period of a decade and a half, the irony should not be lost on us that it comes at the end of a book that has isolated the Situationists’ writings on the city from the rest of their thought. Here’s Debord in an extract from The Society of the Spectacle that is included towards the end of McDonough’s book:

Capitalist production has unified space, which is no longer limited by external societies. This unification is at the same time an extensive and intensive process of banalization. As the accumulation of commodities mass-produced for the abstract space of the market had to shatter all regional and legal barriers, and all the guild restrictions of the Middle Ages that maintained the quality of craft production, it had also to annul the autonomy and quality of places. This homogenizing power is the heavy artillery that has battered down all Chinese walls.

. . .

This society that abolishes geographical distance shelters a new internal distance inside itself, as spectacular separation.

. . .

Byproduct of the circulation of commodities, human circulation considered as a form of consumption, tourism comes down fundamentally to the freedom to go and see what has become banal. The economic planning of the frequenting of different places is already in itself the guarantee of their equivalence. the same modernization that has withdrawn the element of time from journeying, has also withdrawn the reality of space.

It is at this point in their trajectory, in fact, that the Situationists’ thought becomes interesting and relevant. Notwithstanding Debord’s heavy indebtedness to Hegel, Marx, and the Surrealists, his theorizing of the spectacular society in 1967, prior to Les Événements that catapulted the Situationists to notoriety, was subsequently to provide both inspiration and a vocabulary for postmodernists like Baudrillard and Lyotard (a former member of Socialisme ou Barbarie), whose defanged Situationism provided the basis for the academicization of revolutionary theory, a prime example of the kind of recuperation that the Situationists warned us against. Even the classic Marxist text on the subject, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, which attempts to reduce the postmodern experience to an epiphenomenon of a change in the regime of accumulation within capitalism beginning around 1972, manages to excise the Situationists from the debate, even though they had thoroughly formulated a description and explanation of what subsequently came to be described as the postmodern experience five years before this purported change in the regime of accumulation began. McDonough’s book thus provides at least a partial corrective and a necessary one.

Social and political science students of a certain vintage will still be able to recollect the delight of their first encounter with Situationist theory and practice, particularly if they recall the wittiness of its détournements, the emphasis on pleasure and autonomy at the expense of the Protestant ethic and puritanical doctrinaire “revolutionary” parties, its insurrectionary posturing and enthusiasm for pranks. With the benefit of hindsight it’s a perspective that feminist theorists of urbanism might easily tear to pieces, and there are gaping holes in the Situationists’ own account of the city and the urban experience that subsequent theorists, such as Castells and, indeed, Harvey, might drive a coach and horses through, if you’ve forgive the metaphor. What’s more, in an era of iPods, iPhones, portable TV and DVD players, flash mobs, YouTube, street festivals, handheld video, and the like, the opportunities afforded individuals and groups to manipulate their affective response to any environment is already in the hands of the consumer, albeit in commodified form; not only has Situationist theory been recuperated, but so, it would appear, have its solutions. Nonetheless, as Sadie Plant has ably shown in her work The Most Radical Gesture, Situationist ideas continue to inform and pervade our political, philosophical and theoretical debates. Moreover, they enable us to more adequately situate and contextualize both postmodern theory and postmodernity. While McDonough’s book manages to decontextualize the Situationists’ writings on urbanism, we can hope that readers of it will be stimulated enough by its contents to look for and explore other, more germane Situationist texts that will help them understand Situationist theory as a whole and their writings on the city within it.

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