On the passage of a few people through a very brief moment in time: notes Suggested by The Spectacle Issue of Deconform
I like the catalogues of Situationist retrospectives, and a lot of the recent literature on or anthologizing Situationism. I saw one show in London and one is Paris; the Paris book, if I recall correctly, had an unpleasantly shiny mirrored cover, while the London catalogue was boards covered in sandpaper. There was no way to replace or remove it from your bookshelf without destroying or damaging the books around it.
That abrasiveness, of course, was an excellent metaphor for the Situationist displacement of categories, which has to be updated in each succeeding generation. The idea of the dérive was all too easily translated into the purposelessness of the slacker generation of the 1980s and part of the 1990s. (Cf. the classic Situationist appropriation of a Western comic strip that shows two cowboys riding along; I have it in the French original, but the English translation, in its appropriation and displacement of the technical terminology of the classic Western, is nothing short of brilliant, even if the initial setup line reeks of the 1960s when it was written (this is quoted from memory):
COWBOY 1: What’s your thing, man?
COWBOY 2: Reification.
COWBOY 1: Wow. Guess that means sitting with a lot of thick books at a big library table.
COWBOY 2: Nope. I just drift. Mostly, I just drift.
The Spectacle Issue of the Atlanta/Decatur magazine Deconform, with its muted cover quoting the classic 1950s photo of a movie audience wearing 3-D glasses that adorns the American edition of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, pays homage to the Situationist heritage both with a channeled “interview” with Guy Debord and with the anti-spectacular design of the publication, Seldom has something been more carefully created to be overlooked. It pretty much disappears into invisibility even when the competition for attention is the all black-and-whtie front page of the Emory University newspaper in a downtown Decatur coffeehouse.
But it raises the issue of how one passes the lessons of one generation into succeeding ones. I was struck, reading the translation of Debord’s autobiography, at how ironically literate a human being Debord really was; when not being opaque for strategic reasons, he showed off the influence of the thorough grounding in European civilization that was his inheritance by virtue of being a member of the generation of French intellectuals from which he sprang.
And I was vaguely reminded of how, as Hugh Kenner remarked, Ezra Pound (on the other end of the political spectrum, some thought) took for granted an excellent formal education that onky needed to be modified in a few significant ways; what Pound got were half-educated admirers who adopted his worship of Confucius and of Major Douglas’ theories of Social Credit without any idea of the substructure that Pound wanted to remodel, not topple.
To some degree, it is apparent that Debord’s psychogeography (on which topic I recommend a recent book by that title) was anarchist in the sense of the immensely cultivated individuals who developed the notion of mutual aid; the playfulness and the overturning of crass commercial structures was in the service of a vision of society that was seldom explicated because it did not need to be.
But for all of that, the three Atlanta artists interviewed in this issue of Deconform have gotten at ways of displacing the sleep of spectacle by presenting their own spectacle in the service of a higher humane vision. Kiki Blood derives her own updated contemporary practice from performance theories and examples of Viennese Actionism that sprang from the same unsettled post-World-War-II period as Situationism,. Ben Fain is more along the lines of re-inventing Matthew Barney to more intelligent ends, but he possesses the perspectiive to admit the partial failure of one large-scale enterprise while moving resolutely towards another dryly witty replacement for the everyday use of the spectacular that Barney’s Cremaster films merely metaphysicalize on a grand scale.
I can see why the folks who edit Deconform would want to produce a publication so resolutely ugly and out of it in promotional terms; the spectacle has today taken the form of supercool uses of Flash on websites and shrinking of cool magazines to tiny pages of color photos overlaid with snippets of what used to be called agate type (four to six point pocket eye-test; what one friend calls “a format designed to exclude anyone whose eyes are over the age of thirty”). To thumb one’s nose at trendiness as these younger editors have chosen to do is an appropriate gesture.
Yet the Situationists’ anti-movies and anti-comic strips were displacements of the dominant media of their day. A new Situationism would have to figure out ways to displace digital media in parallel but not similar fashion. Today Debord and company would be distributing their stuff as downloadable to iPods and uploadable to YouTube.
Or more likely, not. For as the inheritors of the Situationists taught us in the 1980s (or at least the purveyors of the simulacrum and semiotics did), the spectacle has recuperated irony as a means of intensifying sleep; Situationist sarcasm no longer cuts it in an era when everythying is reflexively sarcastic and advertisers have recognized that the only way of marketing to younger generations is to ridicule their own product so attractively that it will be hip to buy it.
Ben Grad’s essay on the old-hippie values of the Lake Claire Land Trust reflect the challenge of maintaining an authentic level of resistance at a moment when even things like Land Trusts could be (but so far haven’t been) recruited as incidental décor for the Slow Food movement or the gourmet uses of All Local, All Fresh products in hundred-dollar dinners. “Authenticity” is all too easily co-opted (to use an antique term) as another means of looking down on the unperceptive preferences of people who use flash-frozen foods because they cost less and cook quickly after a very long day at work.
But that’s what Deconform is out there to accomplish, to get critique and discussion started, and I for one am quite glad they are doing it.