Book Review: Spectacle out of focus

Leaving the 20th Century : The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International. Translated and edited by Christopher Gray. Free Fall Publications, 80p.


Of the 167 pages in this book, 148 are extracts from Situationist pamphlets and articles. Christopher Gray adds only short linkages: the Situationists’ history and antecedents, their breaking-up, and some brief final comments. Was there more, or is that all?


From inside an exclusive, fanatical group the view is inevitably distorted. Gray was himself a Situationist, and attributes a far greater resonance to the members and activities than they actually had. He uses the word “famous” repeatedly, and in no instance is it applicable. There are unsupported presumptions of a wide influence, and a claim that: “The censorship of the Situationist International has probably been the most blatant case of cultural repression since before the war.” Really?


The aim of the Situationists is said to have been “a new revolutionary critique of society”. More accurately, they tried to make artistic-cum-political doctrines from a collection of phenomena—new technology, the spread of dropping-out, the vogue for condemning “consumer-orientated society”. They added one phrase to the vocabulary of social criticism: “the society of the spectacle” for the mass culture of alienation.


In art and politics, Situationist practice was simply the making of rude or violent gestures against the rest of society. Their centre remained in Paris, and according to Gray they faded out after the student revolts of 1968. One version is that they went underground. However, their name remains as a synonym for intellectualized subversion, and small groups of people in that frame of mind have tried—and no doubt will try again—to revive it. It has been considered, and Gray hints, that Situationists either assisted or egged-on the Angry Brigade; certainly the Angry Brigade communiques incorporated the Situationist language.


Christopher Gray thinks the Situationists “made the same mistake as all left-wing intellectuals: they thought that everyone else was plain thick.” The book has, despite its perfunctoriness, a good deal of interest. The message which comes through clearly is that to try to stand outside society, and try to justify it from a rag-bag of political and sociological half-ideas, means being pernicious or futile or both.


The ending tells it all: the author feels in a mess, divided between the needs for social analysis and for self-analysis. So it was not society at all that the Situationists viewed, but a model made of matchboxes on somebody’s shelf.


Robert Barltrop