Leading Situationists, London (1960) (from l. to r.): Attila Kotányi, Hans-Peter Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Asger Jorn (covered), Jørgen Nash (front), Maurice Wyckaert, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm, and Jacqueline de Jong. Image Source: Wiki.
There is always a big difference between the ideas of the moment as they were at seminal points in history and what they became. Dismal outcomes alter our understanding of concepts that once inspired. A good example is flowering of thought that graced the year 1968. As economic problems and other tensions drag on in the new Millennium, criticism of the Baby Boomers is reaching raw points and promises to become ever worse.
One of history's most valuable lessons is to take the past on its own terms, and not to bend it anachronistically with hindsight. Sometimes, looking at the past without thinking about what was to come recovers lost information and neglected perspectives. An arbirtary enforced reading from those looking back is disarmed. Accordingly, this blog will in coming weeks occasionally review some visions of the Millennium which developed during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, before the Boomers' future was set in stone.
First up: the Situationists. They were really a Silent Gen movement, a short-lived and limited European movement, which was a weird type of Marxism enacted by means of artistic creation. The Situationists tried to recover freedom as an imperiled source of creativity in modern capitalist societies. They drew conclusions that are now commonplace among Millennial conspiracy theorists, marketers, spin doctors, hackers, gurus and visionaries: "Their theoretical work peaked with the highly influential book The Society of the Spectacle in which Guy Debord argued that the spectacle is a fake reality which masks capitalist degradation of human life."
The Situationists focussed on how power and popular that could be manifested through confusion between the real and fake, and the fake and real. This connundrum is, of course, familiar in the new Millennium.
Consider Raoul Vaneigem's words at the opening of Chapter 5, "The Decline and Fall of Work," in his important Situationist book, The Revolution of Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations; read it online here):
From Chapter 9, "Technology and Its Mediated Use":"In an industrial society which confuses work and productivity, the necessity of producing has always been an enemy of the desire to create. What spark of humanity, of a possible creativity, can remain alive in a being dragged out of sleep at six every morning, jolted about in suburban trains, deafened by the racket of machinery, bleached and steamed by meaningless sounds and gestures, spun dry by statistical controls, and tossed out at the end of the day into the entrance halls of railway stations, those cathedrals of departure for the hell of weekdays and the nugatory paradise of weekends, where the crowd communes in weariness and boredom? From adolescence to retirement each 24-hour cycle repeats the same shattering bombardment, like bullets hitting a window: mechanical repetition, time-which-is-money, submission to bosses, boredom, exhaustion. From the butchering of youth’s energy to the gaping wound of old age, life cracks in every direction under the blows of forced labour. Never before has a civilization reached such a degree of contempt for life; never before has a generation, drowned in mortification, felt such a rage to live. The same people who are murdered slowly in the mechanized slaughterhouses of work are also arguing, singing, drinking, dancing, making love, holding the streets, picking up weapons and inventing a new poetry. Already the front against forced labour is being formed; its gestures of refusal are moulding the consciousness of the future. Every call for productivity in the conditions chosen by capitalist and Soviet economy is a call to slavery."
From Chapter 22, "The Space-Time of Lived Experience":"Alienated [technological] mediations make man weaker as they become indispensable. A social mask disguises people and things. In the present stage of privative appropriation, this mask transforms its wearers into dead things, commodities. Nature no longer exists. To rediscover nature means to reinvent it as a worthwhile adversary by constructing new social relationships. ...
Technocratic organisation raises technical mediation to its highest point of coherence. It has been known for ages that the master uses the slave as a means to appropriate the objective world, that the tool only alienates the worker as long as it belongs to a master. Similarly in the realm of consumption: it's not the goods that are inherently alienating, but the conditioning that leads their buyers to choose them and the ideology in which they are wrapped. ...
The stolen mediations separate the individual from himself, his desires, his dreams, and his will to live; and so people come to believe in th myth that you can't do without them, or the power that governs them. Where power fails to paralyse with constraints, it paralyses by suggestion: by forcing everyone to use crutches of which it is the sole supplier. Power as the sum of alienating mediations is only waiting for the holy water of cybernetics to baptise it into the state of Totality. But total power does not exist, only totalitarian powers. And the baptism of cybernetics has already been cancelled owing to lack of interest.
Because the objective world (or nature, if you prefer) has been grasped by means of alienated mediations (tools, thoughts, false needs), it ends up surrounded by a sort of screen: so that, paradoxically, the more man transforms himself and the world, the more it becomes alien to him. The veil of social relations envelops the natural world totally. What we call 'natural' today is about as natural as Nature Girl lipstick. The instruments of praxis do not belong to the agents of praxis, the workers: and it is obviously because of this that the opaque zone that separates man from himself and from nature has become a part of man and a part of nature. Our task is not to rediscover nature but to make a new one, to reconstruct it."
"[S]urvival sickness soon turns a young man into a haggard old Faust, burdened with regrets, passing through the youth he longs for without realizing it. The 'teenager' bears the first wrinkles of the consumer.
Little separates him from the sixty-year-old; consuming faster and faster, he wins precocious old age to the rhythm of his compromises with inauthenticity. If he doesn't take hold of himself quickly, the past will close up behind him; he won't be able to return to what he's done, not even to remake it. So much separates him from the children he played with only yesterday. He has become part of the market's triviality, willing to exchange the poetry, freedom and subjective wealth of childhood for representation in the society of the spectacle. ...
Einstein's speculations on space and time remind us how dead God is. When myth could no longer contain the dissociation of space and time, the malaise to which consciousness was then subject made Romanticism's heyday (viz. The attraction of far-off lands, anguish at time's slipping away...)
How does the bourgeois mind conceive of time? No longer as God's time, but rather as the time of power, fragmented power. Time in shreds has a common measurement in the moment, which attempts to recall cyclical time. The circumference no longer exists; instead we have a finite and infinite straight line. In place of everyone's synchronous regulation according to hours fixed by God, there are succeeding states in which everyone is chasing after himself but never catching up, as if the curse of Becoming damned us to getting only a glimpse of the back while the human face remains unknown and inaccessible, forever turned towards the future. If there is no longer a circular space under the all-seeing central eye of the Almighty, there is a series of little points which appear autonomous but are in reality being integrated in a ripple of succession along the line they trace as each one joins on to the next. ...
[W]e are in the age of watchmakers. The economic imperative has converted man into a living chronometer, distinguishing feature on his wrist. This is the time of work, progress and output, production, consumption and programming; it's time for the spectacle, for a kiss, or a photo, time for anything (time is money). The time-commodity. Survival time.
Space is a point on the line of time, in the machine transforming the future into the past."
For all my posts on 60s Legacies, go here.