Sticky Situationists

On the origins of the modern spectacle

America’s comic-book villain president is a reality TV star who has been in the public spotlight since the 1980s. Britain’s floppy-haired prime minister plays the bumbling posh man out of a 1990s romantic comedy. And Canada’s prime minister is a handsome failed actor who looks like an action hero — if they actually made action movies about Canadian prime ministers. In all three countries, politics is reduced to jingoist phrases about “the people” and “hard-working taxpayers,” as political leaders repeat their talking points in carefully rehearsed sound bites designed for the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle. At the grassroots, technologies once trumpeted for making politics more participatory have also made it more performative. Twitter hashtags, sign-­holding Facebook selfies, and Instagram stories are the new terrain of semiotic warfare. Public affairs are more mediated and more performative than ever before.

To get away from this disorienting landscape, we retreat into scripted reality TV shows whose very existence raises questions about the nature of reality itself, and all we know for certain is that the lives on the screen are better than our own. There is so much content available to us on streaming services that we can never hope to watch it all. Leave Netflix on for too long, and the episodes will keep playing until the screen asks if we’re still there. When not posting smug, self-affirming diatribes, we use our hand-held telephonic devices to stare passively at the lives of others. For a night out, we head to our local gentrified shopping district for a meal at whatever chain restaurant is the key anchor tenant in that property developer’s shopping plaza or condominium, before driving over to the multiplex to watch the latest reboot of Spider-Man.

One is tempted to explain this as nothing more than a postmodern malaise, rehashing the 1980s critiques that foresaw the changes wrought by our contemporary digital culture. But as Trent University’s David Penner notes in Rethinking the Spectacle, to examine properly the theoretical antecedents of postmodern thought, we must look back further — to the work of Guy Debord and his comrades in the Situationist International, a group of French avant-garde artists and intellectuals active from 1957 to 1972. He shows how the hypermediation and passivity bemoaned by contemporary cultural ­commentators are characteristics of the “society of the spectacle,” a term the Situationists used to describe the social configuration that had emerged in the West following the Second World War. This was a society defined by mass industrial production and the welfare state, which produced a post-war settlement between capital and labour.

Marxism predicted the inevitability of proletarian revolution, yet the Situationists despaired at a working class more interested in shopping and watching television than in agitating for radical change. The affluence produced during the post-war settlement was an obvious culprit, for the industrial worker was content with his or her lot in life and had much more to lose in the case of strike, let alone revolution. Social theorists struggled to come to grips with the age of the affluent worker. The American sociologists Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch, for example, worked to update Marxist theory, while the project of British cultural studies shifted Marxism’s focus from the factory to the cinema, discotheque, and shopping centre, locating its proletarian vanguard in the disaffected youth of spectacular style subcultures.

The Situationists were pioneering thinkers, shaped in part by developments in Marxist theory and, closer to home, the Paris uprising of May 1968. As Penner puts it, “The primary focus of Situationist writings related to May 1968 is on what they saw as the key threats to [direct] democracy: recuperation by trade union and party bureaucracy in particular, but also by capital and the state.” With their innovative social critique, the Situationists advanced Marxist thought so that it might make sense of May 1968 and address the highly mediated consumer culture — or ­“spectacle”— of the period. Since the spectacle is reproduced in culture, they advocated détournement, a process of laying bare the ideological foundation of culture. One might, for example, change words in a romance comic book to reveal the inherent contradictions of bourgeois society.

The logic of consumer society had come to permeate every aspect of daily life, leaving individuals alienated and spiritually impoverished, no longer agents of history but passive viewers. Life itself had taken on the form and appearance of TV, reducing individuals to mere spectators. The fact that this critique sounds as relevant today as it did then is precisely why Debord and the Situationists continue to interest activists, artists, and intellectuals. The Situationists advocated the disruption of the spectacle through the creation of “situations”— counter-spectacles in which the participants step out of their assigned role as spectators and become agents. This meant political confrontation that was theatrical, not taking itself too seriously. The playful approach to radical political action, combined with a rejection of the authoritarianism and outdated orthodoxy of established socialist parties, meant that their ideas quickly found currency outside of France. In the United Kingdom, the leftist terrorist group the Angry Brigade took the Situationists’ critique of consumerist passivity to heart, targeting the swinging London fashion store Biba as part of its 1970s bombing campaign — a counter-­spectacle designed to maximize media attention.

At the same time, cultural, economic, and social changes saw the locus of leftist politics move from its traditional home in socialist parties and trade unions to one based in street uprisings, student occupations, and even urban guerrilla warfare. The politics of what became known as the New Left got wrapped up in the cultural politics of the bohemian counterculture. The Situationists themselves, as artists rather than traditional intellectuals, are representative of this shift. Their cultural critique and methods of détournement inspired key architects of the 1970s punk subculture, such as Jamie Reid, Malcolm McLaren, and Bernie Rhodes, cementing a relationship with underground music cultures that found ultimate expression in 1994, when the British electronic duo KLF burned a million pounds in notes, a counter-spectacular situation if ever there was one. Since the late 1990s, Canada’s Adbusters Media Foundation has further popularized Situationist notions, employing détournement in its “culture jamming” of advertising and staging of “situations,” including Buy Nothing Day and Occupy Wall Street.

It was through punk and Adbusters that I first came to know about the Situationists. Somewhere among the fanzines and other ephemera of my adolescence is a translated copy of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, a 1977 Black and Red edition that was once my father’s. While others were pursuing more traditional youthful pursuits, I spent hours poring over French avant-garde radical theory, supplementing Society of the Spectacle with Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life and the Situationist International Anthology, a collection of communiqués and articles. The Situationists were more interested in playing with ideas than in putting forward a coherent argument. And back then I was excited by their radical approach — energized by the challenge of making sense of their writings. Now, nearly twenty years later, the dense, deliberately obtuse texts seem almost impenetrable.

In much more accessible language, Penner’s Rethinking the Spectacle helps us process Debord’s ideas and examine their relevance to today’s cultural and political landscape. Many critics have discussed the Situationists in artistic terms — ­lionizing their work as that of pure genius, ­emanating fully formed from the minds of great men. Penner, however, approaches Debord with more rigour, placing Situationist thought in context. Debord’s thinking on radically democratic self-organization, for example, relates to that of Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and other theorists. When considered in that light, Debord’s playful musings emerge as something more concrete, as do lessons for progressive political action.

Even more interesting — especially for those engaged with contemporary progressive politics — are links between the Situationists and the new social movements, or NSMs, that inherited their modes of theatrical, decentralized political protest: “A number of contemporary NSM groups provide excellent examples of what self-limiting political activism might look like today, for they developed an often playful mode of protest.” Penner shows how the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Reclaim the Streets, and Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) demonstrated “some of the fundamental merits and limitations” that would characterize the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. In doing so, he shows how Situationist ideas can be used to advance the cause of radical democracy — not just as an end but as a means.

The Situationists were libertarian socialists of sorts; they were as critical of doctrinaire Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism as they were of consumer capitalism. They advocated for a radical, consensus-driven mode of organization, which was sometimes at odds with the secretive, cadre-oriented ways they arranged their own affairs: “Despite their noble ideals, the Situationists’ actual practices did not generally yield the best examples of institutions of democratic self-limitation because they were too exclusive as an organization and their situations often too offensive to promote spectator engagement.” These tensions — between a commitment to radical democracy, on one hand, and the need for leadership, on the other — remain unresolved in Situationist-inspired politics, as was evident with the Occupy movement. Here, Penner’s analysis is insightful, cutting through the fetishizing of social media sometimes found in discussions of new social movements. Yes, social media facilitated active participation in Occupy. But that was not itself a panacea for the creation of a sustained and democratic social movement.

One finishes Rethinking the Spectacle still grappling with that age-old question: What is to be done? But at least it gives us a better sense of how it is to be done. Neo-liberalism has precipitated the disappearance of the affluent worker but not of the seductive appeal of consumerism, which is ever more pervasive. The cheapness of today’s consumer goods, from electronic devices to throwaway fashion, masks a declining quality of life marked by the hollowing of the welfare state, rising housing costs, stagnant wages, and precarity of employment. Solace is found in the hypermediated space of social media, where individuals get to shout at one another instead of at their TVs. This space has the potential for the staging of new situations. But I wonder what the Situationists would have made of those involved in radical politics online, who nonetheless perform predetermined roles for the entertainment of others. The likes and views they generate are the economic foundation of the new digital capitalism. Is this not the latest iteration of the spectacle?