Exposing the Society of the Spectacle: Guy Debord and the Situationist International

The term ‘”situationist” refers to one who engages in the construction of resistant “situations” and is generally associated with the Situation International movement. This term is thought to have originated from a concept discussed in Jean Paul Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” in which he states:

there is freedom only in a situation, and there is a situation only through freedom… There can be a free for-itself only as engaged in a resisting world. Outside of this engagement the notions of freedom, of determination, of necessity lose all meaning

revolt

It was Guy Debord (French filmmaker and political theorist), however, who founded the Situationist International movement and wrote the movement’s manifesto “Society of the Spectacle” in 1967. Situationist International (SI) was a worldwide, left wing revolutionary movement whose members consisted of an eclectic group of avant garde artists, theorists and other intellectuals in Paris during the 1960’s. Inspired by the political concept of Libertarian (anti-authoritarian) Socialism and twentieth century abstract art movements like Dadaism and Surrealism, the situationist’s pushed back against the juggernaut of global capitalism and the commodity fetishism that drove it.

In Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle”, he stated his belief that the market actually dominated the lives of workers and consumers as opposed to the popular belief that it liberated them. Debord believed that people in advanced capitalist societies were programmed to be passive subjects in the ‘spectacle’ of  a mass media dominated consumer culture,  a culture that supplants the authentic identities of the individual with individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities. Debord believed the ‘spectacle’ was a tremendous threat to the quality of human life for both individuals and society and worked diligently with other members of SI to counteract it through  Sartre’s ‘construction of situations’ –  moments of life deliberately constructed for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life as it was truly meant to be lived. Liberation of the individual was the goal.

Charles de Gaulle holds a baton behind his back and patronizingly pats a representation of France. "Just vote, I will do the rest."

A protest poster depicting de Gaulle holding a baton behind his back,  patronizingly patting a representation of France. “Just vote, I will do the rest.”

The situationists finally had their moment in 1968 when a massive student uprising and general workers strike led to a period of volatile civil unrest  that brought the French economy to its knees. For a two week period, at the height of unrest, 22% of France’s entire population was on strike.  The political climate became so grave that it almost caused the collapse of President Charles DeGaulle’s government, to the point that he temporarily fled the country in a panic as it was of his opinion that a new revolution had begun in France. SI’s publications were instrumental in defining the message of the 1968 uprisings in Paris and many of their slogans and phrases were seen on posters and graffiti all over the city. The moment was short-lived, however, due to the fact that its message was co-opted by larger student groups and unions during the uprising as well as a subsequent loss of momentum after the general strikes officially ended, people returned back to work and the de Gaulle government not only recovered but strengthened after a historically significant turnout for his party during the  June 1968 elections. In 1972 the Situationist International movement published its last newsletter and shortly thereafter dissolved as an organization.

The situationist’s influence, however, continued to be felt after the movement was officially ‘dead’ when several politicized post-punk bands from the UK looked to SI for inspiration as they rebelled against the bleak socio-political climate of working class England in the 1970’s. In particular, the Leeds band Gang of Four incorporated much of the situationist’s message and overall aesthetic in it’s music and imagery. Manchester’s Durutti Column was also equally inspired by the SI and even derived its name from a 1967 situationist poster.

Even today you can see the influence of the situationist movement in Banksy’s  street art, AdBusters magazine and the protest posters used by students in Egypt, Turkey, Greece and the global Occupy movement.

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The following documentary on Situationist International  was directed by Branka Bogdanov and produced in 1989 and includes interviews with art critics Greil Marcus and Thomas Levine as well as pop culture impresario Malcolm McLaren.

Part 2 , Part 3

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