The Situationist and the City, ed. Tom McDonough


Got this among a number of S.I. books I’m referencing in putting together a syllabus called The Art of Wandering. What started as an interest solely in psychogeography has transformed, in large part thanks to this collection, into an interest in the relationship between art, politics, and everyday life. The city is the landscape that controls this relationship, and the stage on which this relationship plays out.

This anthology took me a while to get through, and not because I found the subject uninteresting. The writing, as a lot of S.I. writing tends to be, is extremely dense. The organization of the book was a useful guide, and helped me figure out whether I needed to read all, some, or none of a particular piece as it related (or didn’t) to my interest.

One of the interesting things that kept coming up, and is coming up in another book I’m reading right now (The Ethics of Authenticity) is a critique of modernism’s perversion of the individual. “The arts have withered on account of the individualism upon which they rest” writes Constant in a piece in this book. And of course the major goal of the S.I. movement, the practice which all others were posited as being in service of, was Unitary Urbanism. The goal is a new way of being in the world. And for most of these writers, being in the city was the only way of being in the world.

Which is interesting, because anecdotally several of our close friends have recently (or not so recently) decided that the “new way of life” they want is utterly disassociated from being in the city. A kind of communal sustainable way of life that is wholly self-contained.

But for the S.I. the city was the center of modern life, and needed to be forcibly open to playful engagement by the arts as a form of actively changing the relationship of power structures. “…the sole thrilling direction remains the fragmentary search for a new way of life.” Debord wrote. Also: “We remind you that it is a question of inventing new games.” Play is extremely important as a method of transgressing inherited boundaries. “To the extent that the spectacle of almost everything that happens in this world provokes our anger and our disgust, so we nevertheless increasingly know how to make fun of it.” See: John Stewart.

Perhaps the best statement of the confluence of city, play, art, politics, and the everyday is in the text “Unitary Urbanism” written by Constant:

“In reality, the modern urbanist regards the city as a gigantic center of production, geared to the efficient transport of workers and goods, to the accommodation of people and the storage of wares, to industrial and commercial activity. The rest, that is to say creativity, life, is option and comes under the heading of recreation and leisure activities.”

And this, of course, is not only soul-sucking, but absolutely untenable. It is not living.

What really impresses me about this texts is, despite the absurdity of some propositions (intentionally provocative in their absurdity), these ideas and the careful analysis behind them really hold up. History has not only borne out a lot of the claims of the destructive nature of modern industrial capitalism on life, but has supplied evidence of it that I think many of even these original thinkers would be surprised at. The tragedy is that we are seemingly unable to escape the inevitable conclusion of this modern “progress,” given how little has substantively changed in the sixty years since S.I.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.