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Ludicity and the Anti-work Ethic
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"Mankind will not be free until the last capitalist has been hung from the entrails of the last bureaucrat."
Situationist theory (cf. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle) called for the smashing of the spectacle's hypnotic power and the reclaiming of desire. Time (because of work, consumption and consumer training), playfulness (because of an obsolete work ethic), and desires divorced from commodities have been lost under the present system. The situationists offer some still relevant strategies for recovering the third, and in the process the second. Subjects, they argued, are not wholly duped or cowed; they passionately desire back their chance at life--"life," that is, as used by situationist theorist Vaneigem in opposition to "survival," roughly analogous to Marx's freedom and necessity respectively-- which is visible but separated from them behind the glass of the shop window. They resent capitalism's theft of the control of and access to meaning, and rebel against commodification and spectacularization. The situationists called for revolution in the realm of everyday life, to wrest back all that which lay suppressed, but not dead, under the weight of the spectacle and the archaic lies of productivity and comfort used to keep the machine of capitalist profit churning. Tactics were devised for undermining the spectacle and simultaneously conjuring up a space of wonder, surprise and agency.
The structure of society demanded change, but instead of deferring revolution-- as they accused established branches of the left of doing--the situationists demanded it out now, in the realm of the everyday and immediate. The SI were the scribes and jesters of the May 1968 revolts, providers of slogans, posters and graffiti which kept the possibility of revolution in the field of vision of everyone in the Paris streets. ("I believe in the reality of my desires because I take my desires for reality." "Under the sidewalk lies the beach!") They constructed spontaneous public happenings--"situations"--on the premise that passersby who were drawn into the esctasy of ludic mayhem for a moment would be forever after dislocated somewhat from the dead banality of their lives, having seen how life could provide the unexpected, unthinkable and delightful. This is how play can undermine the existing order. The power of the situation as a weapon against the spectacle: people return to the spectacle, but their frames of reference have been slightly altered. There has been a disruption of the spectacle which keeps capitalism's "subjects" paralyzed, unsatisfied but unsure why. The public gaze is diverted from the spectacle; the desire for experience is addressed outside the realm of exchange.
How to Play: Situationist Games
(1) Create situations, thus reappropriating control over the direction and object of the gaze, as well as the informed choice of sensory input, as opposed to life under the spectacle.
(2) Unitary urbanism, related to situations. "It is our thesis that cities should embody a built-in play factor. We are studying here a play-environment relationship." The science of psychogeography begins with attention to the sensory and psychical impact of environments--architecture, smells, sounds, ornamentation, etcetera, and their sum, ambiance. Such attention is instructive, as it proves that surroundings do affect experience and quality of life and shows possibilities for the modification, planning, and conscious use of environments for chosen experiences and ambiances. The design of a more permanent environment based on psychogeographical findings is known as unitary urbanism.
(3) Drive, or drift, is the method by which one takes up psychogeographical information and enjoys the variety of ambiances in the city. It is a kind of fleneurism, but (owing to the era it occurs in, postmodern, auto-mobile, electronic) it is resistant and subversive, since it disrupts traffic flow and the (capitalists') intended uses of the street. (Cf. Michel De Certeau on transhumance and walking in city space as utterance.) Drift has no goal, no telos; as an expenditure outside rationality and productivity, in the terms of capitalist production, it is excessive, decadent movement. Enough driveurs could force traffic to a halt.
(4) Detournement, or distortion. Alter an advertisement, a drawing, or another document, distorting its originally intended meaning. "If the new meaning dominates or at least disturbs the meaning perceived by the reader of the original, the desired aim is achieved. It may involve a sudden awareness, an invitation to reflect, to doubt, or at least to participation in the game that will produce a certain detachment from the thing criticized... all the more effective... in context of an event, production, etc. that already possesses an audience." The spectacle's power is used to undermine it. Detournement is akin to Baudrillard's suggested tactic of talking back to the spectacle (he calls it the media): according to Baudrillard, since its power lies in the fact that its communication is one-way, merely commenting on an advertisement with a magic marker renders communication two-way again.
I want to argue that the reason situationist tactics brought about no revolution is that they had no strategy for repossessing the fundamental energy of workers which capitalism usurps and translates into profit: lived time, reified and commandeered. The dedicated situationist requires the abandonment of all work, the better to give oneself over to play--for, as surrealist Andre Breton said, "only the idle can be at the complete disposal of chance." And here is a difficult problem left unresolved. How that most crucial stolen element of life, necessary to all others--time--might be recovered for anyone not already battened on capitalist profits and thus in the position to really quit work under the present system was never addressed. As Ivan Stang points out in his introduction to Bob Black's Abolition of Work, Black isn't purporting to explain how to stop working, he's ranting on why. The same holds for the situationists. After all, the latter question is much easier to answer. It is fine to be a champagne socialist, if we are all given an equal chance at the bottle. Without solving this problem, the situationist project is doomed to be of extremely limited use, and only for a small segment of the population which suffers less than most under capitalism.
I must now briefly invoke Bataille's theory of general economy and conditions in Western Europe to illustrate one solution for recapturing time under a partially capitalist system, albeit one whose conditions of possibility are nonexistent in the US. Autonomist communities have been built in Western Europe, inside and outside the cities, since 1968, out of the excess resources of capitalism: empty buildings and land (and squatting rights laws), plus cash from state assistance, were the raw materials for the construction of semi-permanent autonomous zones. While welfare benefit laws and anti-squatting laws are tightening, the infrastructure is in place and resources, though scarcer than in the 70s and 80s, are still to be had. Here, through barter, volunteerism, and collectivity, and a resolutely antiprofit system (plus the indispensable individual monthly check siphoned from the paychecks of the wealthy), individual employment is obsolete and one's time is largely one's own. It is surely no accident that virtually all radical political movements in countries like Germany, Holland and Denmark are nurtured inside, supported by and affiliated with the autonomist housing and economic system. Thanks to the existence of the welfare state, independent income is not a prerequisite for crossing over. A welfare state does seem to be a precondition for founding parallel communities under capitalism open to all, and indeed perhaps the one the US must achieve before any kind of anticapitalist solution can be thought through here. For a global (i.e. statewide) diversion--as opposed to at the individual or family level--of the excess of capitalism, such as the dole, can be used to undermine capitalism itself, loosen its chokehold on individuals, and fund experimentation with alternative economic formations.
In the absence of auspicious conditions for diverting the resources held by capitalism, an ambulatory, nomadic playfulness may be a useful situationist legacy. The topology of real space is crooked, so the overarching surveillance machine cannot see every cranny, cannot coopt everything, at least not instantaneously, not yet. In Temporary Autonomous Zones (1992), Hakim Bey and the Association for Ontological Anarchism exhort the temporary squatting of zones of autonomy away from the eyes of the surveilling state: this must pass for immediate revolution and autonomy, since revolution in the sense of dismantling the state is now seen to be impossible. Bey holds that there are pockets in the landscape hidden from control, which can only partially cover its uneven terrain: uncharted spaces which can serve as temporary zones of autonomy. Bey deliberately leaves specific forms of the TAZ vague, but the obvious flourishing of TAZ activity must be noted here. Pirate media is a TAZ, especially when mobile. It is almost always temporary; staying transitory is the way not to get caught by the state. A TAZ can be a festival (non-corporate- sponsored, of course), a performance or installation, a prank. For autonomist theorists BILWET (The Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge), the squatted house is a TAZ avant la lettre, a site for brief and euphoric, subjective or rather multisubjective "space travel." Their 1990 book on the Amsterdam squatters' movement (more or less synonymous with the autonomist scene) celebrated early squatting's appropriation and use of space, the squatters' trying on of multiple subjectivities and their explosion of the spectacle through spontaneous riots. But what kind of change can TAZs effect? Do we really have no further choice than to become nomads, forever on the run, briefly squatting a TAZ space and then disappearing like hobos before they can find what we've done and take it away from us? Since there is no longer any space left uncharted on the present global map, we must squat the geography of time. TAZ strategy is an acknowledgment that altering the total system no longer looks like a viable plan.
But TAZ activity can create ruptures, like the situationists used to, perhaps helping others to realize the deadness of existence under the split--to recognize the little horrors of capitalism which have perhaps been given short shrift lately alongside the massive perpetuation of iniquities and destruction, to which so many seem to have become anaesthetized and to which so many feel so far removed (owing in no small part to the spectacle). The TAZ refuses to argue with ideology, intent as it is on making its good time. Perhaps if people can be awakened to a defiant space outside consumption, they might find fresh energy to resume some sort of battle. Would simple individual resistances on a mass scale and general loss of enchantment with the "fun" capitalism offers us renew impetus for a breakdown, for some kind of change? It should be worth trying to find out. If the colonies expand, if the ranks of autonomists swell, perhaps they will encroach on the zones of surveillance, challenge them, extend roots, and become permanent autonomous zones.
In 1973 members of a San Francisco situationist group were picked up by the police for pasting up a poster (Bey, 22). After verifying the accuracy of the names and phone numbers, the police released them. "The gullibility factor in all this was astonishing--it's amazing how one can exploit the conventional media just by re-deploying letterheads and logos...The whole point is: it's simply a matter of using existing communication channels to one's own advantage..."
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Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. New York: Zone Books, 1988.
Baudrillard, Jean. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Telos Press, 1981.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin, 1972.
Bey, Hakim. TAZ: Temporary Autonomous Zones and the Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism. New York: Autonomedia, 1992.
Black, Bob. The Abolition of Work. Port Townsend, Washington: Loompanics, no date.
Blazwick, Iwona, ed. An endless adventure... an endless passion... an endless banquet: a situationist scrapbook. London: ICA, and London and New York: Verso, 1989.
BILWET. Bewegingsleer: Kraken aan gene zijde van de media. Amsterdam: Ravijn, 1990.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1978.
Knabb, Ken. Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1989.
Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces. Cambridge USA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Plant, Sadie. The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
RE/Search #11: Pranks. San Francisco: RE/Search Publications, 1987.
Schnapp, Alain and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, The French Student Uprising. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.
Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Vaneigem, Raoul. "The Decline and Fall of Work." Anarchy #26, Autumn 1990.
Williamson, Judith. Decoding Advertisements. New York: Marion Boyars Publishers Inc., 1978.
This article appeared in Cultronix #1, 1994. Cultronix is a journal of art, art criticism and cultural theory. All issues to date appear to be online.
Also available online at the anti-copyright library, textz.com.