Monday, 21 November 2011

the beach beneath the street [mckenize wark]

McKenzie Wark’s book narrates the history, theory and practice of the Situationists, an apparently marginal movement in twentieth century cultural history. It couldn’t be much more timely. The likes of Paul Mason have recently been labelling the nascent “Occupy” movement as a kind of Situationist protest. Highly visible, non-confrontational, this movement converts town centres into a kind of playground/ camping site. In keeping with the reclaim the streets movement, it’s aim is both to reappropriate public space and to flag up the potential for alternative modes of living within the heart of the capitalist domain.

Exploring alternative methods of living is all part of the Situationist project. Attempting to find cracks in the system which would allow people to engage with their humanity and creativity in a post-capitalist, even post-Marxist fashion. In a strange way, from Wark’s account of Debord, Jorn et al’s thinking, in some ways modern capitalism seems to have embraced some aspects of the project. In an Apple-shaped world, we are all potential filmmakers, writers, musicians creatives. I-men and i-women are expected to incorporate these qualities into their everyday existence. It’s almost a crime not to. On the other hand, capitalism’s dependence on individualism means that this activity tends to occur in a fractured, isolated context. Society as a whole still prioritises the individual’s economic production as the index of their worth. The situationist dream of a restructured society, liberated from the tyranny of wage labour, seems as far away as ever.

Wark’s prescient book steers the reader through this evolving and frequently complex history, ranging from the theory of Debord to the seemingly dilettante antics of the likes of Isou in the fifties. There’s something about Situationism which appears on some levels to be Romantic and insubstantial. In part this is because it’s a movement that never proselytised, content to remain a club one was invited to join (or was thrown out of) rather than a party seeking members. Wark does a strong job of rectifying this, examining the texts and the more rigorous philosophical writings of the movement’s key members. This is a detailed introductory handbook to a way of thinking that might just be on the point of coming into its own, fifty years after its heyday. It also makes one wonder who are the contemporary intellectual architects of the current political movement, labouring away in obscurity, their work filtering through into the mainstream, their names as yet unheralded.

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