Alexander Trocchi: Psychedelic Situationist

The following text is an extract from David Black’s book. Psychedelic Tricksters: A New Secret History of LSD (BPC Publications, 2020)

In 1965 Timothy Leary sent Michael Hollingshead, the Englishman who introduced him to LSD,  to London with 5000 trips of LSD. One part of his mission was to rent the Albert Hall for a psychedelic jamboree with big-name rock bands and poets; and with Leary himself hosting the event in his role as the High Priest of LSD. This plan never came off, because of Leary’s bust for marijuana possession in the US at the end of 1965. Another task was to set up a centre for running LSD sessions and promoting psychedelia in the arts. One thing Hollingshead was concerned about was the tendency of the London acid heads – such as those around Alexander Trocchi — to politicise, rather than spiritualise, the psychedelic experience. As he put it in The Man Who Turned On the World:

‘From what I had heard in letters and conversations, the psychedelic movement in England was small and badly informed. It appeared that those who took LSD did so as a consciously defiant anti-authoritarian gesture. The spiritual content of the psychedelic experience was being overlooked’.[i]

Hollingshead had been sending shipments of LSD to Trocchi, who distributed it to his contacts in what was to become the London cultural ‘Underground’. Trocchi, born in Glasgow in 1925, had moved to Paris in 1952, where he edited Merlin, an English-language literary magazine. In its pages, Merlin featured contributions from avant-guard writers such as Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Becket — who, at the time, were unable to get their work published anywhere else in English. Trocchi himself, surrounded by young expatriate American writers, such as Terry Southern and George Plimpton, was, in the words of Greil Marcus, ‘seen as a man of towering literary genius, fated to cut a swath through the world’.[ii]

In Paris, Trocchi joined the Lettrist International, led by Guy Debord. In 1957, the Lettrists, some former-Surrealists and others from several countries came together at a meeting in Italy to found the Situationist International. One of the central Situationist concepts was ‘psychogeography’: defined as the ‘study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. In the ‘experimental mode’, they employed the derive: the basic idea of which was that individuals or groups would ‘drift’ through the city and lose themselves; their customary rationales for movement (work, relationships and leisure) would be abandoned in order to ‘succumb to the enticements of the terrain and the encounters associated with it’.[iii] One of the inspirations for such adventures was a passage in Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 book, Confessions of an Opium Eater:

‘I used often, after I had taken opium, to wander forth…[to] parts of London, in which the poor resort to on a Saturday night… an opium eater is too happy to observe the motion of time. And sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a northwest passage… I came suddenly upon such knotty contradictions of alleys, such enigmatical entires, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares… I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of the terre incognito and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London’.[iv]

The theory of the Derive, according to Debord, rested on the belief that future developments would bring about an ‘irreversible change in the behaviour and the decor of present-day society’. The Situationist concept of ‘unitary urbanism’ expressed a vision of city planning based on aesthetic and technological innovations in architecture, but freed from subordination to the needs of corporate developers and the endless expansion of private car ownership. Given the ravages of homogenised planning in the urban environments of the twenty-first century, with city centres given over to big business and tourism, functionalist architecture, and streets polluted by the noise and fumes of automobile traffic, it is difficult now to re-imagine the experience of the dérive in the Paris of the early 1950s. Ivan Chtcheglov, the young Situationist seer, could still write of a future in which city dwellers would reclaim the streets: ‘We will construct cities for drifting… but with light retouching, one can utilize certain zones which already exist. One can utilize certain persons who already exist’.[v]

Trocchi enjoyed the dérive with Guy Debord:

‘I remember long, wonderful psycho-geographical walks in London with Guy. He took me to places in London I didn’t know, that he sensed, that I’d never have been to if it hadn’t been with him. He was a man who could discover a city… [Debord had] a magical quality… Distances didn’t seem to matter to the man. Walking in London, in the daytime, at night, he’d bring me to a spot he’d found, and the place would begin to live. Some old forgotten part of London. Then he’d reach back for a story, for a piece of history, as if he’d been there. He’d quote from Marx, or Treasure Island, or De Quincey’.[vi]

Trocchi’s first novel, Young Adam, published in Paris in 1954, is a bleak existentialist parable about how a young anti-hero, caught up in a murder-hunt, grapples with the meaning of responsibility in a mean world. Set on a coal-barge on a Scottish canal, the narrator charts his ‘voyage’ towards an irrevocable break with the deadening world of the work ethic, blind justice and bourgeois marriage.

Trocchi began using heroin in the mid-fifties and would be addicted for the rest of his life (he died in 1984). In Paris, Trocchi financed his heroin habit by turning out porn stories for Olympia Press under the name ‘Frances Lengel’. In 1956, he moved to New York and wrote his second novel, Cain’s Book. This is another barge novel, which describes his time living on a scow, hauling cargoes of rubble along the Hudson, and shooting heroin in the back streets of Manhattan. The inner-voyage here is Trocchi’s wilful abandonment of his own status and vocation in the artistic-literary world. But rather than a case of biting the hand that was feeding him, Cain’s Book is an act of artistic self-destruction, with the narrator declaring himself as, ‘a decadent at a tremendous turning point in history, constitutionally incapable of turning with it as a writer, I am living my personal Dada…. The steel of logic has daily to be strengthened to contain the volcanic element within. It grows daily more hard to contain. I am a kind of bomb’.

Trocchi had originally titled Cain’s Book as The Making of a Monster. Trocchi’s ‘personal Dada’ was his projection of Guy Debord’s ideas on subversion as a ‘game’ of ‘constructed situations,’ played in deadly seriousness, and whose rules were constantly shifting. In the context of ‘the necessity of creating situations’, the junkie fix was, in Trocchi’s mind, ‘a purposive spoon in the broth of experience’. Trocchi’s heroin habit became a serious problem for him. Charged with supplying heroin to a minor in New York in 1961, he faced the near certain prospect of years of imprisonment. The Situationist International in Paris defended their wayward member, with a statement by Guy Debord, Jaqueline de Jong and Asger Jorn entitled Hands off Alexander Trocchi!:

‘Alexander Trocchi, whose case is due to be tried in October, is in effect accused of having experimented with drugs. Quite apart from any attitude on the use of drugs and its repression on the scale of society… a very great many doctors, psychologists and also artists have studied the effects of drugs without anyone thinking of imprisoning them… Indeed, we consider that the British intellectuals and artists should be the first to join with us in denouncing this menacing lack of culture on the part of the American police, and to demand the liberation and immediate repatriation of Alexander Trocchi… We ask everyone of good faith whom this appeal reaches, to sign it, and make it known as widely as possible.’[vii]

Trocchi however, was not relying on a political campaign for his freedom. As soon as he could get bail, he fled to Canada and then to Britain by boat, ‘cold-turkeying’ all the way. By this time Trocchi, in his own search for the ‘north-west passage’, had discovered a new beacon on the voyage: LSD. He had been introduced to it in California by Dr Oscar Janiger, a leading expert in the psychology of creativity, who had been tripping-out Hollywood film people, such as Cary Grant. Janiger had obtained the LSD from the British philosopher Gerald Heard, who had himself obtained it from Alfred Hubbard. Janiger explained ‘Gerald Heard… told me the emergence of LSD in the twentieth century was simply God’s way of giving us the gift of consciousness. He believed that LSD was a device for saving humanity from Armageddon’.[viii]

Coming after his bleak experiences in New York, Trocchi’s psychedelic experiences seemed to give him a new optimism and enthusiasm for re-engagement with the world of culture and politics — even though he never let up on his heroin intake. Trocchi arrived back in Britain at a time when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of One Hundred were making a big impact. By this time Trocchi’s novel, Cain’s Book, had made him notorious. At the 1962 Edinburgh Writer’s Conference in 1962 — where he coined the phrase ‘astronauts of inner space’ — he was denounced by the pillars of the Scottish literary establishment, including the Stalinist-nationalist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him ‘cosmopolitan scum’. The legal authorities in Britain likewise disapproved: some local councils banned and burned his books under the obscenity laws.

In London, Trocchi launched a new project named Sigma. This aimed to build ‘a new decentralised organisation of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, physicists, bio-chemists, philosophers, neurologists, engineers, and whatnots, of every race and nationality’. To co-oordinate a ‘catalogue of such a reservoir of talent, intelligence and power’ would be ‘of itself a spur to our imagination’. For London he planned to found a ‘living-gallery-workshop-auditorium-happening situation where conferences and encounters are to be undertaken… It will be our window on the metropolis, a sigma-centre… an experimental situation in which what is happening cannot be described in terms of conventional categories (which it transcends)…’[ix]

Trocchi argued that ‘Certain hallucinatory properties of drugs make them central and urgently relevant to any imaginable enquiry into the mystery of the human mind. Unfortunately, ignorance, hysteria and sensationalism have contributed to making this largely a police matter’. Trocchi believed that RD Laing’s ideas on the usefulness of LSD in treating schizophrenia were ‘entirely in line with those proposed by Sigma’. Trocchi planned to produce a book titled ‘Drugs of the Mind’ with Laing and Willam Burroughs but, like so many of Trocchi’s projects, it was never carried through. In 1965, Trocchi did however pull off an event which gave birth to the term, ‘Underground’. On June 5, 1965, several thousand people attended an international poetry reading he organised at the Albert Hall, called Wholly Communion.  Next, along with experimental artist, Jeff Nuttall, Trocchi initiated the Art Laboratory, which put on multi-media and performance art in an old warehouse in Drury Lane.[x] When the 1967 British ‘Summer of Love’ kicked off at the Technicolour Dream gig in Alexandra Palace with the Pink Floyd, it was Trocchi who warmed up the audience with his poetry.

The Situationists in Paris by this time considered Trocchi’s alliances to be politically dubious, so they expelled him. According to Trocchi:

‘Guy [Debord] wouldn’t even mention the people I was involved with – Timothy Leary, Ronnie Laing. I remember the last letter he sent me: “Your name sticks in the minds of good men.” He was like Lenin; an absolutist, constantly kicking people out…’[xi]

In London in 1967, Charles Radcliffe, a Situationist supporter who later formed a hash-smuggling syndicate with Howard Marks, co-authored a cultural/political manifesto with three English members of the Situationist International: Timothy Clark, Chris Gray and Donald Nicholson-Smith. The manifesto highlighted the Dadaists and Surrealists of the inter-war period as their forerunners; as engaged in ‘a revolutionary avant-garde experimenting with a new life-style, drawing on new techniques, which were simultaneously self-expressive and socially disruptive. Art was a series of free experiments in the construction of a new libertarian order’. The Situationists however, went even further than their revolutionary predecessors:

‘Our wildest fantasies are the richest elements of our reality. They must be given real, not abstract powers. Dynamite, feudal castles, jungles, liquor, helicopters, laboratories… everything and more must pass into their service’.[xii]

When the Toronto Expo-67 festival exhibited cybernetic and televisual technology which pointed the way towards virtual reality computer games, the English Situationists commented:

‘Still more sinister is the combination of total kinetic environments and a stiff dose of acid. “We try to vaporise the mind,” says a psychedelic artist, “by bombing the senses” … To date Leary is the only person to have attempted to pull all this together. Having reduced everyone to a state of hyper-impressionable plasticity, he incorporated a backwoods myth of the modern-scientific-truth-underlying-all-world-religions, a cretin’s catechism broadcast persuasively at the same time as it was expressed by the integral manipulation of sense data… a crass manipulation of subjective experience accepted ecstatically as a mystical revelation’.

They did, however, take Leary seriously, carefully adding that, ‘Leary’s personal vulgarity should not blind anyone to the possibilities implicit in this’. ‘The urban guerrilla’ (using the term somewhat metaphorically) would ‘have to be inventive. We must learn to subvert existing cities, to grasp all the possible and the least expected uses of time and space they contain. Conditioning must be reversed’.

(C) All rights reserved. Please contact the editor of this for enquiries about fair use.

[i]  Ibid.

[ii]  Greil Marcus, Preface to Alexander Trocchi, Cains Book.

[iii] Guy Debord, “Theory of The Dérive,” International Situationist, No. 2 (1958), S.I. Anthology, p. 23,pp.50-4.

[iv] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, p.27.

[v] Debord, ibid.

[vi] G Marcus, Lipstick Traces, p.388.

[vii] Guy Debord, Jacqueline de Jong and Asger Jorn – ‘Hands Off Alexander Trocchi!’, Situationist International, October 1960.

[viii] Leary, Flashbacks, p.132.

[ix] Sigma Portfolio No. 5, 1964. Reprinted in A Life in Pieces – Reflections on Alexander Trocchi. Eds A Campbell and T Niel. Rebel Inc. 1999.

[x] Jonathan Green, All Dressed Up – The Sixties and the Counter-culture, ps.128-47.

[xi] Marcus, Lipstick Traces, p.387; Situationist Anthology, p.204-212.

[xii] Chris Gray, TJ Clarke, Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution.

Situationist Theses on the Paris Commune

Introduction

14 March 2021

A couple of years ago, as railway workers demonstrated in Paris against proposed government labour reforms, a slogan on a banner read, “We don’t care about May ’68. We want 1871.” The memory of the Paris Commune of 1871 and its bloody barricades has a darker, edgier status than other Parisian uprisings. “Unlike 1789, the Commune was never truly integrated into the national story,” French historian Mathilde Larrère recently explained to the Guardian. The Commune was loathed by the liberal bourgeoisie as well as by the conservatives and monarchists of the right, whose world began to come apart in July 1870 with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s declaration of war on Prussia. Two months later he was taken prisoner by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan. After a bloodless popular uprising in Paris, a provisional Government of National Defence was formed. Headed by the constitutional monarchist, Adolphe Thiers, it was essentially a ‘republic without republicans’.

The new government formed a 200,000-strong National Guard as a defence of the city against the German siege. The siege dragged on through the freezing winter of 1870-71. As food supplies ran out, poorer Parisians were reduced to eating rats and the city’s zoo animals. While the French army suffered defeat after defeat in the countryside, German artillery bombarded Paris.

In January 1871, the new government capitulated and sued for peace. Under the terms of an armistice, Thiers agreed to cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German Empire, promised to pay a 5 billion francs war indemnity and granted the German army a victory parade on the streets of Paris on 17 February. As this latter spectacle induced a silent rage amongst the Parisians, some 200,000 of the city’s better-off residents began an exodus to the countryside in fear of what was to come next.

As the rank and file of the National Guard became increasing radicalised, the provisional government ordered that its cannons be seized and transferred to Versailles. On the morning of 18 March 1871, Versaillais troops arrived at the Butte de Montmartre, a strategic hill overlooking the city, to remove the cannons. The alarm was raised by the Parisian milkmaids, and National Guardsmen rushed to the scene to protect the cannons. As hostile crowds agitated by the Blanquist Left mobilised, mutinous troops refused to fire on them. The generals Lecomte and Clement-Thomas were captured and summarily executed by their own men. The Paris Commune was proclaimed the same day. On 26 March, representatives of the Commune were elected by the citizens of Paris. Thiers’ government decamped from Paris to the relative safety of the palace of Versailles, 17 kilometres from the city.

In the nine weeks of the Commune’s existence, the standing army was abolished along with conscription; control of the schools by the Catholic clergy was replaced by a new system of free compulsory, secular education for all children, including girls; and far-reaching reforms enacted what workers had long demanded, such as the establishment of workers’ cooperatives and restriction of hours.

In what was now a civil war, rural France was now ‘enemy-held territory’. Military efforts to break out of Paris foundered as Thiers, with help from German Chancellor Bismarck, shored up the Versaillais army.

On 21 May 1871, General MacMahon’s Versaillais army entered the city and what became known as the Bloody Week began. During the fighting, the Communards killed or wounded thousands of the invading Versaillais soldiers and torched a number of buildings including the Tuileries Palace and the Hotel de Ville. The pétroleuses (female incendiaries) were blamed for many of burnings by the bourgeois press, but the instances were exaggerated to detract from the achievements of feminists and working-class women communards. In conquering the city the Versaillais army massacred at least 10,000 Communards, including those taken prisoner. 40,000 people were arrested.

A century and a half after the Commune, says Mathilde Larrère, in post-industrial France a new, poorly paid precariat is voicing similar demands for better democracy and a more social republic. Popular movements outside the political mainstream such as the gilets jaunes have begun to invoke the memory of 1871.: “The people are sovereign”, “Elected officials, you are accountable” – were communard in spirit.

For Marxisant orthodoxy in the 20th century the Paris Commune, lacking centralised unity and strategy, was history’s ‘rehearsal’ for the Russian Revolution. But if the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ has any meaning for today then the legacy of the Communards rises in many respects above that of ‘Bolshevik Leninism’. The Situationists’ Theses on the Paris Commune, written in 1962, whilst recognising the Commune’s obvious lack of a ‘coherent organizational structure’ pointed out that the problem of political structures had turned out to be ‘far more complex to us today than the would-be heirs of the Bolshevik-type structure claim it to be’. Rather than labelling the Commune just as ‘an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism’, revolutionaries should examine it ‘as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled’. They still should.

(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

 

Theses on the Paris Commune

Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi & Raoul Vaneigem

18 March 1962

(Translated by Ken Knabb)

“THE CLASSICAL workers movement must be reexamined without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudotheoretical heirs, for all they have inherited is its failure. The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future.” (Internationale Situationniste #7

2

THE COMMUNE was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century. Underlying the events of that spring of 1871 one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of “governmental” politics as on the level of their everyday life. (Consider, for example, the games everyone played with their weapons: they were in fact playing with power.) It is also in this sense that Marx should be understood when he says that “the most important social measure of the Commune was its own existence in acts.”

3

ENGELS’ REMARK, “Look at the Paris Commune — that was the dictatorship of the proletariat,” should be taken seriously in order to reveal what the dictatorship of the proletariat is not (the various forms of state dictatorship over the proletariat in the name of the proletariat).

4

IT HAS BEEN easy to make justified criticisms of the Commune’s obvious lack of a coherent organizational structure. But as the problem of political structures seems far more complex to us today than the would-be heirs of the Bolshevik-type structure claim it to be, it is time we examine the Commune not just as an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism, all of whose mistakes can easily be overcome, but as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled.

5

THE COMMUNE had no leaders. And this at a time when the idea of the necessity of leaders was universally accepted in the workers movement. This is the first reason for its paradoxical successes and failures. The official organizers of the Commune were incompetent (compared with Marx or Lenin, or even Blanqui). But on the other hand, the various “irresponsible” acts of that moment are precisely what is needed for the continuation of the revolutionary movement of our own time (even if the circumstances restricted almost all those acts to the purely destructive level — the most famous example being the rebel who, when a suspect bourgeois insisted that he had never had anything to do with politics, replied, “That’s precisely why I’m going to kill you”).

6

THE VITAL importance of the general arming of the people was manifested practically and symbolically from the beginning to the end of the movement. By and large the right to impose popular will by force was not surrendered and left to any specialized detachments. This exemplary autonomy of the armed groups had its unfortunate flip side in their lack of coordination: at no point in the offensive or defensive struggle against Versailles did the people’s forces attain military effectiveness. It should be borne in mind, however, that the Spanish revolution was lost — as, in the final analysis, was the civil war itself — in the name of such a transformation into a “republican army.” The contradiction between autonomy and coordination would seem to have been largely related to the technological level of the period.

7

THE COMMUNE represents the only implementation of a revolutionary urbanism to date — attacking on the spot the petrified signs of the dominant organization of life, understanding social space in political terms, refusing to accept the innocence of any monument. Anyone who disparages this attack as some “lumpenproletarian nihilism,” some “irresponsibility of the pétroleuses,” should specify what he believes to be of positive value in the present society and worth preserving (it will turn out to be almost everything). “All space is already occupied by the enemy. . . . Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics.” (Basic Program of Unitary Urbanism, Internationale Situationniste #6.)

8

THE PARIS COMMUNE succumbed less to the force of arms than to the force of habit. The most scandalous practical example was the refusal to use the cannons to seize the French National Bank when money was so desperately needed. During the entire existence of the Commune the bank remained a Versaillese enclave in Paris, defended by nothing more than a few rifles and the mystique of property and theft. The other ideological habits proved in every respect equally disastrous (the resurrection of Jacobinism, the defeatist strategy of the barricades in memory of 1848, etc.).

9

THE COMMUNE shows how those who defend the old world always benefit in one way or another from the complicity of revolutionaries — particularly of those revolutionaries who merely think about revolution, and who turn out to still think like the defenders. In this way the old world retains bases (ideology, language, customs, tastes) among its enemies, and uses them to reconquer the terrain it has lost. (Only the thought-in-acts natural to the revolutionary proletariat escapes it irrevocably: the Tax Bureau went up in flames.) The real “fifth column” is in the very minds of revolutionaries.

10

THE STORY OF the arsonists who during the final days of the Commune went to destroy Notre-Dame, only to find themselves confronted by an armed battalion of Commune artists, is richly provocative example of direct democracy. It gives an idea of the kind of problems that will need to be resolved in the perspective of the power of the councils. Were those artists right to defend a cathedral in the name of eternal aesthetic values — and in the final analysis, in the name of museum culture — while other people wanted to express themselves then and there by making this destruction symbolize their absolute defiance of a society that, in its moment of triumph, was about to consign their entire lives to silence and oblivion? The artist partisans of the Commune, acting as specialists, already found themselves in conflict with an extremist form of struggle against alienation. The Communards must be criticized for not having dared to answer the totalitarian terror of power with the use of the totality of their weapons. Everything indicates that the poets who at that moment actually expressed the Commune’s inherent poetry were simply wiped out. The Commune’s mass of unaccomplished acts enabled its tentative actions to be turned into “atrocities” and their memory to be censored. Saint-Just’s remark, “Those who make revolution half way only dig their own graves,” also explains his own silence.

11

THEORETICIANS who examine the history of this movement from a divinely omniscient viewpoint (like that found in classical novels) can easily prove that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been successfully consummated. They forget that for those who really lived it, the consummation was already there.

12

THE AUDACITY and inventiveness of the Commune must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the solidarity of all the common assumptions that it blasted to pieces. The profound solidarity of presently prevailing assumptions (right and left) gives us an idea of the inventiveness we can expect of a comparable explosion today.

13

THE SOCIAL war of which the Commune was one episode is still being fought today (though its superficial conditions have changed considerably). In the task of “making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune” (Engels), the last word has yet to be said.

14

FOR ALMOST twenty years in France the Stalinists and the leftist Christians have agreed, in memory of their anti-German national front, to stress the element of national disarray and offended patriotism in the Commune. (According to the current Stalinist line, “the French people petitioned to be better governed” and were finally driven to desperate measures by the treachery of the unpatriotic right wing of the bourgeoisie.) In order to refute this pious nonsense it would suffice to consider the role played by all the foreigners who came to fight for the Commune. As Marx said, the Commune was the inevitable battle, the climax of 23 years of struggle in Europe by “our party.”

 

Asger Jorn, Détourned Painting and the Situationists

JORN, Asgar, 1963, Artiste, membre du groupe Cobra, (DK) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©

JORN, Asgar, 1963, Artiste, membre du groupe Cobra, (DK) © ERLING MANDELMANN

[15 November 2020]

In 1954 the celebrated Danish painter Asger Jorn (1914-73) became aware of, and made contact with, Guy Debrod’s Paris-based Letterist International. Jorn, who had founded the International Movement for an Imaginative Bauhaus in 1953, shared the Letterist International’s hostility to abstract expressionism and socialist realism, and saw their concepts of unitary urbanism and psychogeography as in line with his own critique of functionalist design and architecture.[i]

Debord’s new friendship with Jorn and other leading figures of the artistic avant-garde convinced him that the time had come for the Letterists to shift their focus from the bars of Paris to developments in the wider cultural field of struggle. In an article published in Potlatch in 1957, entitled “One Step Back,” Debord argued that the L.I., rather than constitute itself as an “external opposition,” needed to “seize hold of modern culture in order to use it for our own ends” and join forces with artists – even painters, whose activities has been generally despised by the Letterists. Although Debord accepted that the L.I. might have to initially settle for a minority position within a new international movement, he thought, “all concrete achievements of this movement will naturally lead to its alignment with the most advanced program”:

‘…we need to gather specialists from very varied fields, know the latest autonomous developments in those fields… We thus need to run the risk of regression, but we must also offer, as soon as possible, the means to supersede the contradictions of the present phase through a deepening of our general theory and through conducting experiments whose results are indisputable. Although certain artistic activities might be more notoriously mortally wounded than others, we feel that the hanging of a painting in a gallery is a relic as inevitably uninteresting as a book of poetry. Any use of the current framework of intellectual commerce surrenders ground to intellectual confusionism, and this  includes us; but on the the other hand  we can do nothing without taking into account from the outset this ephemeral framework.’[ii]

Debord cannily added that the L.I. needed an expansion of its “economic base,” being well aware of the huge amount of money being made out of avant-garde art by the artists themselves as well as the curators and galley-owners. Debord’s potlatch anti-book, Mémoires, published in 1959, featured collages produced in collaboration with, and financed by, Asger Jorn. In July 1957, at a conference in Cosio d’Arroscia, Italy,  the Situationist International was founded. Those attending were: Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein of the Letterist International; Giuseppe Pinot Gallizio, Asger Jorn, Walter Olmo, Piero Simondo, Elena Verrone and Ralph Rumney (Rumney was representing the London Psychogeographical Association, of which he was the sole member).  Debord argued in his Report on the Construction of Situations and the Prerequisites for the Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency that “the problems of cultural creation can now be solved only in conjunction with a new advance in world revolution.” In order to combat the passive consumption he saw defining spectacular culture, Debord called for the international to organize collectively towards utilizing all of the means of revolutionizing everyday life, “even artistic ones.”

‘We need to construct new ambiances that will be both the products and the instruments of new forms of behavior. To do this, we must from the beginning make practical use of the everyday processes and cultural forms that now exist, while refusing to acknowledge any inherent value they may claim to have… We should not simply refuse modern culture; we must seize it in order to negate it. No one can claim to be a revolutionary intellectual who does not recognize the cultural revolution we are now facing… What ultimately determines whether or not someone is a bourgeois intellectual is neither his social origin nor his knowledge of a culture (such knowledge may be the basis for a critique of that culture or for some creative work within it), but his role in the production of the historically bourgeois forms of culture. Authors of revolutionary political opinions who find themselves praised by bourgeois literary critics should ask themselves what they’ve done wrong.‘[iii]

 

The S.I.’s later judgment that production of works of art was “anti-situationist,” should be seen in the context of this founding declaration. Although any genuinely experimental attitude, based on critique and supersession of existing conditions, was usable, production of artistic forms was seen as a dead end, leading at best to recuperation and commodification within the spectacle:

‘It must be understood once and for all that something that is only a personal expression within a framework created by others cannot be termed a creation. Creation is not the arrangement of objects and forms, it is the invention of new laws on such arrangement.‘[iv]

Within a few months on the founding of the S.I. in 1957, other groups and individuals from Italy, West Germany and Scandinavia affiliated, thus inaugurating a stormy fifteen-year process of fusions, schisms and expulsions, and an equally stormy spread across the globe of Situationist ideas, which were themselves by no means immune to ideological and cultural “recuperation.” Vincent Kaufman suggests that it would be a mistake to see the exclusions and resignations of the artists (thirty-two in the first four years) as a breakup of, or split in, the S.I.; or as a significant change of direction on Debord’s part:

It was a clarification, a return to a stance that was more coherent, more radical, and certainly closer to that of the defunct Lettrist International… Unitary urbanism survived, but in a politicized form, and developed its critical side, freed of the chimeras, utopias, and models that had characterized it until then. [v]

In the world theorized as the “Society of the Spectacle-Commodity,” Debord and Wolman argued (in 1956) that art could no longer be justified as a “superior activity” or as an honorable “activity of compensation.” In the new conditions of the culture industry only “extremist innovation” was “historically justified.” The “literary and artistic heritage of humanity” could however, still be used for “partisan propaganda” because its artifacts could be deflected or “détourned” from their “intended” purposes.

(Asger Jorn, Ainsi s’Ensor (Out of this World – after Ensor), 1962)

Asger Jorn, in an essay entitled “Détourned Painting,” published in the Exhibition Catalogue of the Galerie Rive Gauch, Namur, in May, 1959, wrote,

‘Intended for the general public. Reads effortlessly.

Be modern,

collectors, museums.

If you have old paintings,

do not despair.

Retain your memories

but détourn them

so that they correspond with your era.

Why reject the old

if one can modernize it

with a few strokes of the brush?

This casts a bit of contemporaneity

on your old culture.

Be up to date,

and distinguished

at the same time.

Painting is over.

You might as well finish it off.

Détourn.

Long live painting.’

Jorn then added, in a section entitled “Intended for connoisseurs. Requires limited attention”:

‘The object, reality, or presence takes on value only as an agent of becoming. But it is impossible to establish a future without a past. The future is made through relinquishing or sacrificing the past. He who possesses the past of a phenomenon also possesses the sources of its becoming. Europe will continue to be the source of modern development. Here, the only problem is to know who should have the right to the sacrifices and to the relinquishments of this past, that is, who will inherit the futurist power. I want to rejuvenate European culture. I begin with art. Our past is full of becoming. One needs only to crack open the shells. Détournement is a game born out of the capacity for devalorization. Only he who is able to devalorize can create new values. And only when there is something to devalorize, that is, an already established value, can one engage in devalorization. It is up to us to devalorize or to be devalorized according to our ability to reinvest in our own culture. There remain only two possibilities for us in Europe: to be sacrificed or to sacrifice. It is up to you to choose between the historical monument and the act that merits it.’[vi]

(Asger Jorn – Le Canard Inquiétant, 1959)

Although Asger Jorn’s membership of the Situationist International ended in 1961, when he decided he could not reconcile his working life as an artist with the organizational demands of the International, his financial support for Debord’s work continued until his death in 1973. The concept of détournement, in the hands of practitioners throughout the world, was to give rise to numerous innovations, such as the subversive use of comic books and pirate radio, and the defacing of advertisements with additional images. But detournement was further developed by the Situationists into a more general concept of spontaneous rebellion against the technology of consumption.

(This text has been extracted from David Black’s book, The Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism: Essays on History, Culture and Dialectical Thought, Part Two ‘Critique of the Situationist Dialectic: Art, Class-Consciousness and Reification’, Lexington Books 2013/                                                                           

[i]      Kaufman , Guy Debord, pp. 131-32.00/

[ii]    Debord, “One Step Back,” in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, (Cambridge: MIT press. 2002), pp. 25-27. Quoted in Vincent, p. 99.

[iii]   Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations” (1957). S.I. Anthology (excerpts), pp.17-25. Reproduced in full at www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/report.html

[iv]   Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations.”

[v]    Kaufman, pp. 149-50.

[vi]             Asger Jorn, Situationist International Archive Online. www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/painting.html

 

 

King Mob Echo issues1-6

King Mob Echo issues1-6 -1968-70

Complete run in 5 issues (no.4 was never published) of this legendary British counter-culture magazine King Mob Echo, put out by David & Stuart Wise, later joined by Christopher Gray, Donald Nicholson-Smith and TJ Clark (all former members of the British Section of the Situationist International).Also included here is a leaflet listing all King Mob publications.

See HERE

Charles Radcliffe, former Situationist

Extract from Charles Radcliffe, Don’t Start Me Talking: Subculture, Situationism and the Sixties, Bread and Circuses. Kindle Edition.

Our final visit, to Paris to meet Guy Debord and other Paris-based Situationists, would decide whether Chris and I would join L’Internationale situationniste, as we hoped, or whether we would be dismissed, hurled centrifugally into pro-situ orbit, like countless others before and after… We spent most of our time in a typical, old Paris apartment in rue St Jacques, small, comfortable and over-crowded with Situationists. Wine was poured immediately and often. Whenever you stood your head was thrust into a richly aromatic Gauloise cloud. Guy, no longer the studied left-bank dandy of the much-used early photograph with Pierre Feuillette, had put on some weight, was noticeably more jowly and had adopted an altogether more anonymous sartorial style…

Guy, revelling in being the centre of devoted attention of assembled Situationists and would-be Situationists, was at his most urbane, amusing and charming. His talent for vituperation was evident. Most denizens of the French left and cultural avant-garde seemed, almost to a person, to qualify as “stupid, completely cow-like, little cunts”, “cretins” or “imbeciles”. In London it tended towards ‘peace and love, man’, so this flood of scurrilous epithets was both slightly shocking and undeniably refreshing, particularly since the squibs were delivered with a sense of humour. He meant it, but they were also delivered as lines for assenting nods and laughter of the attendant gallery, which included not only his former long-term companion and co-worker, Michelle Bernstein, and his current companion Alice Becker-Ho, a beautiful French-Chinese woman, but Mustapha, René Vienet, Donald Nicholson-Smith and his very attractive girl friend Cathy (Pozzo di Borgo). (There was no sign of Debord’s ‘austere cell’ so elegiacally rhapsodized by the aesthete Tim Clark in his introduction to Anselm Jappe’s Guy Debord.) Much, but not all of what Debord said was too quick for me but was invariably greeted with rapid assent or appreciative laughter from the assembled Sits.

We drank a lot, ate well, talked a great deal (in my case mostly with Michelle Bernstein, who spoke good English and was highly sympathetic, intelligent, widely interested and attractive, and Donald, the bluff, bearded and affable established English member of the group), and wandered around Paris. We enjoyed potato and onion soups at Les Halles and ate horse steaks and cous-cous in Algerian restaurants near the Gare du Nord. Perhaps it was the wine, but I began to feel more relaxed in this strangely rarefied world. I would have loved a joint, though.

Charles Radcliffe at Housmans bookshop, London in 2012

 

The Brief Passage in Time of the Letterist International 1954-57

On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Moment In Time (1959) – English Subtitles

‘The form corresponds to the content. It does not describe this or that particular activity (merchant marine, oil exploration, some historic monument to admire — or even to demolish, as in Franju’s magnificent Hôtel des Invalides, but the very core of present-day activity in general, which is empty. It is a portrayal of the absence of “real life.” This slow movement of exposure and negation is what I was trying to embody in Passage. But very summarily and arbitrarily, I must admit. Despite the prevalent fixation on the economic obstacles, the main problem is actually that short films are quite unsuitable for truly experimental cinema. Their very brevity tends to encourage a moderate, neatly edited form of expression. But it does seem interesting to detourn the fixed form of the traditional documentary, and this tends to tie us to the inviolable 20-minute limit.’

GUY DEBORD
1960

Extract from David Black, The Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism –Essays on History, Culture, and Dialectical Thought (Lexington Books (2014), Part 2, ‘Critique of the Situationist Dialectic: Art, Class Consciousness and Reification’

Derive and Detournement

The members and fellow-travelers of the Letterist International were young; nearly all of them in their teens or early twenties. These “lost children” (les enfants perdus) were of the generation who had grown up during the Nazi occupation (some of their parents had been Jewish deportees or Maquisards), but had been too young to fight in the resistance. Their youthful radicalism had been betrayed by the re-imposition of “traditional” conservatism on French society, with its authoritarian penal code and reactionary clericalism, its Gendarmarie who had in large part collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, and its conscription of French youth to fight imperialist wars in Indo-China and Algeria. They also felt betrayed by the bureaucratic class-collaborationism of the Communist Party, the ineffectiveness of Trotskyism, and the recuperation of the Surrealist avant-garde by the culture industry. The headquarters of the new international was a bar in the Arab quarter of Paris’s Left Bank. According to one of the regulars, Elaine Papai (who married Jean-Louis Brau, the Letterist poet):

‘The life of the Situationist International cannot be disentangled from Saint-German-des-Prés and the climate that once reigned in that neighbourhood. The Letterist International had set up its headquarters at Moineau’s, a low dive in Rue du Four where the letterists were joined by hitherto unaffiliated young revolutionaries. Drugs, alcohol, and girls (especially underage ones) were part of the folklore of the Letterist International, as revealed in certain slogans of that time which, curiously enough, reappeared on the walls of Paris in May 1968. “Never Work!” “Ether is freely available,” or “Let us live!”’

Another young woman of the group, the Australian artist, Vali Myers, recalls,

‘They were the rootless children from every corner of Europe. Many had no home, no parents, no papers. For the cops, their legal status was “vagrant.” Which is why they all ended up sooner or later in La Santé [prison]. We lived in the streets, in the cafes, like a pack of mongrel dogs. We had our hierarchy, our own codes. Students and people with jobs were kept out. As for the few tourists who came around to gawk at “existentialists,” it was all right to con them. We always managed to have rough wine and hash from Algeria. We shared everything.’

Unlike the rest of the avant-garde, the LI refused to be “answerable” to the court of art criticism and the gaze of the “other,” refused to seek fame, and refused to market anything they produced. The LI’s mimeographed journal Potlatch, which appeared in 20 issues between June 1954 and November 1957, with an eventual print run of 500 copies, was always given away free to friends of the group, or mailed to people who expressed an interest.

The Letterist International’s theory of “unitary urbanism” was first formulated by the nineteen-year-old Ivan Chtcheglev in a 1953 article in Potlatch. Unitary urbanism expressed a vision of city planning based on aesthetic and technological innovations in architecture, but freed from subordination to the needs of corporate developers and the endless expansion of private car ownership. “Psychogeography” – “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals” – involved the “derive,” a form of daydreaming during Letterist excursions on foot through the urban environment, defined as “a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances.” Such pleasurable activity had yet to be impoverished by the pollution and noise of traffic jams, and the vandalism of planners and developers. Chtcheglev could still write of a future in which city dwellers would reclaim the streets: “we will construct cities for drifting… but with light retouching, one can utilize certain zones which already exist. One can utilize certain persons who already exist.”

This “first phase” of the LI lasted until 1954, when Debord moved the headquarters from the nihilist atmosphere of the Rue du Four to another bar, this time on the Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. But, for Debord, that early phase of the LI, in which the bloom of youth, like the old Paris Left Bank, passed by them before it could even be seen as what it truly was, was the “golden age” of real struggle and potential; and it is this, rather any utopian vision of the future, that haunts all of his subsequent work. As Kaufman points out, in the Society of the Spectacle, written fifteen years later (1967), the first thesis states that in a world in which “all that was once directly lived has become representation,” the “separation from, and disappearance of, life has become perfected.” By 1968, when the streets of the Paris were once again fought over, the city of the Letterists had disappeared and its utopian urbanist potential had already been destroyed.

In 1954 the celebrated Danish painter Asger Jorn (1917-73) became aware of the existence of Potlatch and the Letterist International, and made contact with Debord. Jorn, who had founded the International Movement for an Imaginative Bauhaus in 1953, shared the LI’s hostility to abstract expressionism and socialist realism, and saw their concepts of unitary urbanism and psychogeography as in line with of his own critique of functionalist design and architecture. Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920–2005, known as “Constant”), the Dutch artist friend of Jorn, was also coming into the Letterist orbit. In 1948, Constant’s Manifesto for the Dutch Experimentalists, who later became part of CoBrA group (Copenhagen- Brussels-Amsterdam), argued:

‘A new freedom will be born that will allow mankind to satisfy its desire to create. Through this development the professional artist will lose his privileged position. This explains the resistance of contemporary artists.’

Debord’s new friendship with Jorn, Constant and other leading figures of the artistic avant-garde had convinced him that the time had come for the Letterists to shift their focus from the bars of Paris to developments in the wider cultural field of struggle. In an article published in Potlatch in 1957, entitled “One Step Back,” Debord argued that the LI, rather than constitute itself as an “external opposition,” needed to “seize hold of modern culture in order to use it for our own ends” and join forces with artists – even painters, whose activities has been generally despised by the Letterists. Debord accepted that the LI might have to initially settle for a minority position within a new international movement; although, he thought, “all concrete achievements of this movement will naturally lead to its alignment with the most advanced program”:

‘…we need to gather specialists from very varied fields, know the latest autonomous developments in those fields.. We thus need to run the risk of regression, but we must also offer, as soon as possible, the means to supersede the contradictions of the present phase through a deepening of our general theory and through conducting experiments whose results are indisputable. Although certain artistic activities might be more notoriously mortally wounded than others, we feel that the hanging of a painting in a gallery is a relic as inevitably uninteresting as a book of poetry. Any use of the current framework of intellectual commerce surrenders ground to intellectual confusionism, and this includes us; but on the the other hand we can do nothing without taking into account from the outset this ephemeral framework.

Debord added that the LI needed an expansion of its “economic base.” He was well aware of the huge amount of money being made out of art by the artists themselves as well as the curators and galley-owners. Debord’s potlatch anti-book, Mémoires, consisted of collages produced in collaboration with, and financed by, Asger Jorn (whose financial support for Debord’s work continued long after Jorn decided in 1961 that he could not reconcile his working life as an artist with Debord’s organizational demands).

In July 1957 at the conference in Cosio d’Arroscia, Italy, the Situationist International was founded. Those attending the were: Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein of the Letterist International; Giuseppe Pinot Gallizio, Asger Jorn, Walter Olmo, Piero Simondo, Elena Verrone of the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus; and Ralph Rumney, representing the London Psychogeographical Association (of which he was the sole member).

Kindle edition now available

 

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