“Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?”Raoul Vaneigem,The Revolution of Everyday Life 1967
“In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle 1967
In 1967 the French film-maker, writer and head theorist of the Situationist International (Moving Images, The Hacienda Must Be Built), Guy Debord published an influential book of Marxist critical theory, The Society of the Spectacle, consisting of 221 thesis. Within its elegantly written and rigorously argued pages Debord advanced the theory of the Spectacle. The Spectacle has degraded authentic life and replaced it with mere representation, a decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. The Spectacle has supplanted relationships between people with relationships between commodities and we passively identify with the Spectacle. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord notes, “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” The Spectacle obliterates the past and annihilates the future so that we live in an never-ending present. In this affect-less neuter-time there has been a systematic degradation of knowledge and we are incapable of critical thought, unaware that we are living in a moment in history.
In 1992 Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, announced that Western neo-liberalism was the final point in human evolution; it wasn’t going to get better than this and that we were living in a post-historical period: the Spectacle had won.
But of course the statement by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem quoted above holds true, and after a period when the Spectacle lacked a certain zest and an inability to hold our complete and undivided attention, the world has really turned upside down again. The true is a moment of the false. And we watch and wait with bated breath, in a rapt trance, with a horrified fascination as to what comes next. Maybe this time it will be the Ultimate Spectacle?
It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Charles Baudelaire upon modernity. The entire Symbolism/Decadent movement that so dominated the 19th Century fin-de-siecle in Europe owed its very existence to Baudelaire.
Baudelaire’s importance extends far deeper that the creation of one transitory artistic school however. Although he didn’t invent the concept of dandyism (that honour belongs to Beau Brummel), his example gave it a wider cultural currency that eventually resulted in the carefully constructed persona of the ultimate aesthete and wit, Oscar Wilde. His wanderings around the Parisian streets led to Walter Benjamin formulating a new type of man, the flaneur. The figure of the flaneur recurs frequently in Benjamin’s massive, unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project. The spirit of the Baudelairean flaneur guided the Surrealists in their impromptu flea-market jaunts and nocturnal adventuring. The Situationist International (see Moving Images) took the flaneur a step further and the central tenets of the SI, Unitary Urbanism and psycho-geography are based upon the needs of this recently evolved city-dweller.
Beyond shaping some of the major artistic and intellectual currents of the 19th and 20th Century, Baudelaire presence can be felt in Punk (with his dried green hair and urgent provocations) and dominated Goth (Dreams of Desire 5 (That Look).
His influential art criticism (and the inspiration he provided to visual artists, see The Sleepers) and his re-definition of the poet as cultural agitator and arbitrator paved the way for Guillaume Apollinaire (In The Zone) and Andre Breton (The Pope of Surrealism).
Baudelaire’s fame largely rests upon his volume of poetry, Le Fleurs Du Mal.First published in 1857 it immediately caused a scandal. Baudelaire’s originality lay not in the versification (which is traditional) but in the explicit, morbid subject matter.
Below is a translation of one of his finest love poems, Le Balcon, inspired by his muse and mistress of twenty years, the ‘Venus Noire’, Jeanne Duval (she was a Creole of Haitian-French heritage).
Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
you who are all my pleasures and all my duties,
you will remember the beauty of our caresses,
the sweetness of the hearth, the charm of the evenings,
mother of memories, mistress of mistresses.
On evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire
and evenings on the balcony, veiled with pink mist,
how soft your breast was,
how kind to me was your heart!
Often we said imperishable things
on evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire.
How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!
How deep is space! How powerful the human heart!
As I leant over you, oh queen of all adored ones,
I thought I was breathing the fragrance of your blood.
How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!
The night would thicken like a wall around us,
and in the dark my eyes would make out yours,
and I would drink your breath, oh sweetness, oh poison!
And your feet would fall asleep in my brotherly hands.
The night would thicken like a wall around us.
I know how to evoke the moments of happiness,
I relive my past, nestling my head on your lap.
For why would I seek your languid beauties anywhere
except in your dear body and your oh-so-gentle heart?
I know how to evoke the moments of happiness!
Will those sweet words, those perfumes, those infinite kisses
be reborn from a chasm deeper than we may fathom
like suns that rise rejuvenated into the sky
after cleansing themselves in the oceans’ depths?
Oh sweet words, oh perfumes, oh infinite kisses!
The Situationist International was the bastard child of Dada and Surrealism. Determined to resolve the contradiction that was at the heart of those movements, namely that though they were resolutely anti-art they ended up (through the process of recuperation) being a chapter in art history, they jettisoned art altogether to concentrate on ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life‘. Oh, and Liberation Marxist theory, a lot of Liberation Marxist theory.
But as its members all started as artists in various avant-garde micro movements (the movement was formed by the coalition of the Lettrist International, an offshoot of the Lettrist movement, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, an offshoot of COBRA and the London Psychogeographical Association, I kid you not), talents had to be put to use. Guy Debord, top theoretician and de facto leader of the Situationists developed the practise of detournement (examples of detourned art above and below) which consisted of ‘turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself’. Personally I find these comic strips with their earnest Marxist dialectic speech and thought bubbles very funny, though I am not sure that is their main intention.
The Situationist International and Enrages (whom they influenced) played an important part in the May 1968 uprising in Paris. The walls were daubed with Situationist and Surrealist slogans, Luis Bunuel in his autobiography My Last Sigh comments on his shock of seeing painted everywhere ‘All power to the imagination’ and ‘It is forbidden to forbid’.
In A Cavalier History of Surrealism, one of the leading member of the Situationist International (see Moving Images), the Belgian Raoul Vaneigem states that for all the revolutionary intentions expressed by the Surrealists in their manifestos and publications, they were still haunted by the old dream of Château living. The above statement written by Ivan Chichegiev in one of the earliest SI texts Formulary For A New Urbanism also explicitly references the SI’s forebearers, ‘We are bored in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun. Between the legs of the women walking by, the dadaists imagined a monkey wrench and the surrealists a crystal cup. That’s lost.’
The SI suggested that it was futile to be looking nostalgically back at a lost Golden Age that never existed, instead we must build the Hacienda for ourselves. Tony Wilson, a Manchester TV presenter, music critic and record label boss (the independent Factory Records, home of Joy Division and New Order), did exactly that when he opened the legendary nightclub The Hacienda in the mid 1980’s which was the centre of Manchester night-life for over a decade. Wilson was long familiar with the Situationists International as he had previously promoted punk bands on his TV show and had even ran his business ventures (unsuccessfully, from a purely financial standpoint) along lines suggested by the Situationists.
Ironically, yet somehow grimly predictable, the defunct Hacienda was recently converted into a luxury apartment block. Regardless of this recuperation, we must demand the impossible and make the dream of the Hacienda a reality.