‘The Beach Beneath the Streets’: A Pleasant Meander Through the Situationist Labyrinth

In the Romantic mythologies of the market niche formerly known as the counterculture, the Situationist International (SI) occupies a special place. Founded officially in Alba, Italy, in 1957 and dissolved in 1972, the SI sought alternatives to the strictures of the capitalist ruling order by exploring techniques for opening up experience to the fulfillment of authentic desire. Among those techniques were derive, the drift, unplanned excursions typically into the urban environment to uncover its objective and subjective conditions; detournement, diversion or derailment, the appropriation and alteration of images and other expressions of the market system that would expose their contradictions; and the potlatch, grand expenditures of time and resources in defiance of capitalist rationality and utility.

The SI is said to have played a leading role in the general strikes in France in May 1968, inspired the fashion, music, and lifestyles of ’70s punk subculture, and set the agenda for postmodern media interventions such as culture jamming, sampling, and other forms of hacktivism. McKenzie Wark‘s new book The Beach Beneath the Streets: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, takes its title from one of most the famous SI phrases from May 1968: “Sous les paves, la plage!” (“Under the pavement, the beach!)

Given his profile as a prominent contemporary media theorist, it should come as no surprise that Wark has been heavily influenced by Situationism. Indeed, his celebrated book A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004) took obvious cues from SI frontman Guy Debord‘s magnum opus, The Society of Spectacle, both in terms of its sublimely aphoristic form and its cryptic theoretical content. His next book Gamer Theory (Harvard, 2007) was in essence a requiem for the unrestrained spirit of play animating the notion of derive, now corralled within the multilevel structures of computer video games, set by the boundaries of what Wark terms their ruling “allegorithms” (a mashup of the words allegory + algorithm, meant to convey the way in which imaginative possibility has been short-circuited by the digital code embedded in predetermined game narratives).

Most recently, Wark lectured on the Situationists at Columbia University, the documentation of which has been issued by Princeton Architectural Press under the title 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. The Beach Beneath the Streets expands on that last text, including whole sections that have been incorporated nearly verbatim.

Following the concept of derive, Wark meanders through the Situationist labyrinth, paying special attention to the byways that have often been overlooked by the purveyors of what has now become an academic cottage industry. As with other accounts, Wark starts the story with the Letterists, the mid-20th century French avant-garde movement led by Romanian poet and filmmaker Isadore Isou and of which Debord was a member, that sought to deconstruct the semiotics of aesthetic practice down to the level of pure signifier.

Other influences on the Situationists include the unrepentant 19th century plagiarist Comte de Lautreamont and 20th century urbanologist Henri Levebvre. But contrary to standard procedure, Wark de-emphasizes Debord to focus on other personalities and currents, especially those outside the Parisian circle. Wark cannot help but summon Debord from time to time, of course, for leaving him out entirely would be akin to staging Hamlet sans the Dane. But Debord emerges in this telling as more of a superego, seeking to control the group with his dictates and excommunications, whereas the deviancies of the others expose its arguably more genuine id.

Among the most important figures in this regard is Danish artist Asger Jorn, who was one of the founding members of the Stituationist International. Though he officially quit the SI in 1961, for many years Jorn continued to support the group financially off proceeds from the sales from his artwork, which had gained international renown and substantial patronage. For Wark, Jorn is significant as a model of the true spirit of the SI, in some respects more so than even Debord, who had ironically painted himself into a theoretical corner in trying to keep the group true to its ideals as he understood them.

Wark doesn’t survey much of Jorn’s artwork, which has been well documented and analyzed, by former SI member T. J. Clark among others. He instead focuses on Jorn’s writing, relatively little of which has been translated into English and is mainly known through Jens Staubrand’s study of the artist’s publications under the auspices of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. Inspired by Nietzsche, Jorn’s aesthetic and political philosophy opposed Dionysian demiurges of desire against the Apollonian refinement and restraint of bourgeois society to thereby unleash the demotic aspirations of potlatch vis-à-vis the duty of capital accumulation.

Jacqueline De Jong, a Dutch painter who for a decade was Jorn’s lover, is another noteworthy personage. From 1962 to 1967, she edited the Situationist Times, a renegade journal (if there can be such a thing in light of Situationism’s call for the continual creation of ever-new situations) published outside the imprimatur of the SI redoubt in Paris, a kind of Trotskyite riposte, as it were, to what may be seen as Debord’s perceived Stalinism. While Wark describes these and other ephemera in some detail, it would have been nice to have some visuals to accompany the narrative. This is something 50 Years of Recuperation has and it is all the better for it. The Beach Beneath the Streets instead has a foldout graphic essay as its dust jacket titled ‘Totality for Kids’, featuring illustrations by Kevin C. Pyle and detourned snippets of text selected by Wark from Situationist primary sources. It’s amusing enough, I suppose.

But this is to kvetch about what is all in all, another masterful Wark performance. As with earlier books, Wark seamlessly weaves together a dizzying array of sources both vintage and contemporary. He connects SI debates with present-day questions of cultural politics. He offers a number of well-wrought turns of phrase. The book is less stylized than much of his recent output but very agreeable to read. In this respect, it constitutes a welcome respite from the hagiography and over-heated prose of what Wark has elsewhere termed the “hypo-critical theory” within which Situationism has often come to be entangled. And in surveying that which would not be recuperated, Wark honors the SI’s legacy.

RATING 8 / 10