Thursday, 25 March 2010

Why Break the Seals of Mute Despair Unbidden, and Wail Life's Discords into Careless Ears? A Reply to Bill Not Bored

In his text Form a new Situationist International? Let's not and say we did, Bill Not Bored criticises my proposal for the creation of a new international association of situationist revolutionaries. This is my reply.

According to Not Bored, the defining quality of proletarian life is not a craven acceptance of the separate commodity economy and the state as unchangeable givens but “a constant struggle to make a living in an unliveable world”. It is not clear to me what he means by this. How does “a constant struggle to make a living in an unliveable world” differ from the practical capitulation to an unending cycle of alienated work and alienated consumption that I would suggest constitutes the reality of the everyday lives of the vast majority of ordinary people in the advanced capitalist countries? A clue perhaps comes from Not Brown’s contention that: “Spencer’s attention is on ideology, not socio-economic conditions”. Is he suggesting that proletarians are merely grimly working away trying to provide for their basic, utilitarian needs, while the spectacle’s claims about specific products and wider forms of life pass unheeded above their heads? If he is, I think he has failed properly to take into account the rather large amount of discretionary spending that the large majority of people engage in, and the uses to which they put it. More importantly, it ignores the fact that even basic needs are now saturated in ideology. A suburban house or a hip pad in an inner city redevelopment is not just a roof over a family’s head. A car is not just a means to convey people and objects from A to B. A meal at MacDonalds or a macrobiotic restaurant is not just (or even) a means of absorbing essential nutrients and calories into the body. This year’s array of fashions is not just a collection of rags to protect the body from inclement weather. These and many other things are also parts of spectacular ideologies of pleasure, happiness, normal life, etc, that people absorb and pursue in their daily lives. But I do not propose to settle this point of contention here. I would merely appeal to readers to keep their eyes and ears open at work, in shops of all kinds, in the houses of friends and family, on holiday, during leisure time, and in all the other domains of everyday life. What are people discussing, and what are they doing? What do they wish for and what do they aspire to? Where does all this thought, action and desire have its origins? If dissatisfaction is expressed, what practical action is directed against its causes? Readers might also care to direct the same scrutiny at their own lives.

If Not Bored is to be believed, I place myself outside all of this: “with respect to the proletariat -- he places himself outside of it, as a nay-sayer to its ‘craven’ acceptance, not inside, as an inmate in the same prison”. But Not Bored should not be believed. In the very first paragraph of my proposal I wrote: “This practical submission […] is equally ubiquitous […] in your life and mine, amongst many others”. In paragraph 8 I added that the proposed new association “would not consist of individuals who claim to possess unusual abilities or see themselves as having already transcended the sordid, stupid and miserable lives that everybody else leads. Rather, its members would be, and would see themselves as being, perfectly ordinary proletarians”. Not Bored might also have given some thought to why I chose to begin my text with this quotation from Rimbaud: “Perhaps he has secrets for changing life? No, he’s just looking for some, I told myself”.

Not Bored next contends that discontent is not buried but “front-page news”. He mentions in particular “the student occupations movement in America; the on-going rioting and social strife in Greece; the popular demonstrations against the government in Iceland; the social movements in France against detention centers and expulsions”, etc. Leaving aside my doubts about the more or less openly-avowed reformist intentions of some of these activities, I would suggest that the frequency with which contestation appears in the media is rather less important than its prevalence as an ongoing practical project amongst ordinary people. If we assume that the four movements Not Bored mentions in particular have involved around 100,000 people, this would represent 0.0073% of the total population of Europe, Scandinavia and North America. That is, those movements have failed to involve 99.9927% of the population. Of course, this calculation includes the owners and managers of the dominant society, and no doubt Not Bored would wish to add in a few more tens of thousands of participants to the ranks of the rebels. However, there is no escaping the fact that the overwhelming majority of the proletariat is not, at present, translating its profound but buried discontent with work and consumption into practical refusal. When the rioting in Greece was reported to the European proletariat by the media, the vast majority did precisely nothing.

We could also approach this question by considering some evidence from opinion polls. One typical example is contained in the recently-published Eurobarometer report on Social Climate. This asked a sample of the European population whether, on the whole, they are satisfied with the life they lead. If ordinary people were admitting their discontent to themselves, and acting on it, it seems reasonable to expect them to take the minimal step of expressing dissatisfaction with life to an opinion pollster. However, the poll found that 80% of respondents professed to be very satisfied or fairly satisfied with their lives. Only 4% of respondents were very dissatisfied. We could go on to discuss many more polls about self-reported happiness and even some polls that somewhat surprisingly asked large samples whether they considered revolutionary change necessary; but we won’t. Suffice it to say that much the same picture emerges.

As Not Bored claims that “Spencer speaks of a world that was destroyed more than 40 years ago”, it may be useful to consider a study of 123 industrial conflicts in France conducted in 1971 by Claude Durand and Pierre Dubois. This found that “significant illegalities”, such as occupations of premises or physical violence against employers, cadres, supervisors or police, had occurred in half of all disputes. I invite Not Bored to identify a single American town or city (or indeed a town or city elsewhere in the advanced capitalist economies) in which a similar state of affairs existed last year. If he cannot do this, perhaps he can explain how the process of practical contestation of the dominant society can properly be regarded proceeding quite satisfactorily over the past 40 years when in the vital field of work it has not even maintained the levels of resistance with which it began?

Not Bored claims that “Spencer speaks as if revolutionary theory stopped cold in 1972”. He also cites various theoretical and practical developments he considers have occurred since then. However, my proposal refers to “the twenty five or so years since the development of the situationist project was largely abandoned” (paragraph 4). “Largely” does not mean “completely”. Moreover, if Not Bored had subtracted 25 from 2010 he would have arrived at an approximate date of 1985 not 1972. This date was selected partly because it was roughly the point at which the last of the comrades once linked by the Declaration Concerning the Center for Research on the Social Question and the Notice Concerning the Reigning Society and Those Who Contest It largely abandoned their development of theory largely abandoned their development of theory, and partly because it could be stretched to include the best parts of Debord’s ‘Comments on the Society of the Spectacle’ of 1988. My text also expressly recognized that “here and there one can find small fragments of insight that can be put to good use when torn out of their original context and reintegrated into a new critique” (paragraph 4). The existence of some useful work within and without a situationist framework is not, therefore, logically inconsistent with what I wrote.

I am very doubtful that the ideas and actions mentioned by Not Bored adequately adapt the theory and practice of revolutionary contestation to the exigencies of our times. But the reasons for my scepticism need not detain us. I once said that an up-to-date revolutionary theory might include (but not be restricted to) a nuanced critique of:

1) The mainstream spectacle, the worlds of high street shops, shopping malls, suburban homes, family life, family cars, sport, gardening, gossip, and holidays spent by the sea or in cities seen through the eyes of guide books; of newspapers, women’s magazines, popular television programmes, gymnasiums, guides to better sex on DVD, and trashy books and films despised by the critics; of run-of-the-mill jobs tolerated because they pay quite well or provide opportunities to meet the public, socialize with colleagues or exercise a little power or creativity within the narrow limits dictated by one’s employer. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of people who regard themselves and others like them as just “ordinary”.

2) The sophisticated spectacle, the world of design, elegance, the supposedly exclusive, and gentrification; of prize-winning books, broadsheet newspapers, self-help techniques, world music, the theatre, and arthouse films; of spiritual retreats, holidays off the beaten track, second homes, haut cuisine, artisanal goods, and slow food; of concern for the third world or eulogies to self-reliance and the rewards of enterprise; of straining one’s finances in order to have a large home in a good area and children capable of passing examinations; of careers, work in research centres, arts administration, the creative industries, therapies, or the tattered remnants of the professions. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who regard themselves as just a little above the vulgar.

3) The hedonistic spectacle, the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll; of the fast, the frenzied and the dangerous; of drunkenness, madcap escapades, exhibitionism, carnival, and choruses of collective laughter; of raves or nightlife in the regenerated cities. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who regard themselves as experiencing life to the full, if only during the evenings and weekends.

4) The youth culture spectacle, the world of the ever-changing tribes of the young and the gadgets, clothes, body shapes, haircuts, makeup, music, films, celebrities, slang, attitudes and poses that define them. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who may be subordinated by school, dependency on parents, and the menial jobs now left to the young but who nonetheless regard themselves as superior to the old, the uncool, and the passé.

5) The criminal spectacle, the world of drug-dealing, burglary and street crime; of respect, revenge, guns, knives, flash cars, hip talk, branded training shoes and sportswear; of hard men, bitches and the rap music about them; of dreams of movie gangsters, the hope of one day living like a rap star or a millionaire sportsman; of predatory hierarchies amongst prisoners. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who regard themselves as better than the sad losers who play the game.

6) The spectacle of decomposition, the world of resigned cynicism and contemptuous scoffing; of endless news of real and invented corruption, ineptitude, disaster, crime and conspiracy; of images of suffering, humiliation, disability and decay circulated for entertainment; of hooliganism, vandalism, bad manners, defiant stupidity, proud illiteracy, animal mutilation and other inversions of bourgeois sensibilities. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who hold the world in contempt yet find some measure of contentment in either acting out the decay themselves or watching others doing so.

7) The avant-garde spectacle, the world of conceptual art, artistic manifestoes, small galleries in fashionable parts of fashionable cities, corporate-sponsored major retrospectives of artists declared to be radical or innovative, the music covered by The Wire magazine, street photography, limited edition books and CDs produced by the artists themselves, state-subsidised electro-acoustic experimentation, psychogeographical walks, ‘visual culture’, experimental film, critical studies in the university, post-graduate exhibitions, a horror of any ‘foreclosure’ except that which accepts the basic economic and social forms of the commodity society as immutable, and the hip clothing, hip bars and hip milieus in which the buyers and sellers of the avant-garde are often to be found. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who consider that the separate world of art is a domain in which daring, insight, subversion, innovation or new forms of life can still be practised.

8) The alternative spectacle, the world of trade unionism, ecological activism, community campaigns, culture jamming, the open source movement, exhibitions of radical texts in state museums and university galleries, fair trade, alternative medicine, guerrilla gardening, anarcho-punk, protests in solidarity with the third world, protests in general, children’s rights, the New Age Movement and other claims of the paranormal, the World Social Forum, feminism, reduced consumption and other remedies for ‘affluenza’, welfare rights advocacy, the anti-war movement, ‘dumpster diving’, anti-globalization, campaigns against corporate abuses, and the short-term suspension of ordinary life found in rioting. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who believe that substantive and desirable improvements to everyday life can be brought about, or revolution approached, by changing one or more aspects of the dominant society and leaving the appropriation of labour and life by the commodity unchanged; of those satisfied with the display or repetition of an inadequate revolt.

If Not Bored is right about the adequacy of the developments he cites, he should be able to provide at least a partial list of the work that has already done what I have said is still to be done. I should certainly be grateful to him for this service.

Not Bored rightly regards the appearance of my proposal in English only as unsatisfactory. I am not in a position to translate the text into other languages. Rather than simply sit on my hands, however, I decided I would start with English readers and hope that the proposal eventually reaches individuals who have no interest in a petit-bourgeois display of satisfaction with their language skills and are prepared instead take upon themselves the task of translating and disseminating the text in other languages.

In relation to the SI, Not Bored argues that I have failed to take into account that the theory of the SI changed several times between 1957 and 1972 and failed to outline its basic principles. However, the particular association I propose would be a collaboration between individuals who are already persuaded that the thought of the SI provides an unsurpassed theoretical resource for revolutionaries and who are capable of participating as equals in the practical tasks of applying and developing that resource. I do not think that such individuals would require a theoretical history of the SI (and certainly not a history as poor and unhelpful to revolutionaries as the one that Not Bored offers). Moreover, situationist theory is nothing more than a practical weapon to be directed against dominant society, a means by which dissatisfaction with alienation comes to conceive and execute an evolving practical negation of the social organization of alienation that confronts it. I did not consider that individuals who approached situationist theory as a toolkit for revolutionary contestation would need to be told about the theories and practices that the SI itself long ago rightly discarded as obviously inadequate to a revolutionary transformation of society. I also did not consider it appropriate to attempt a comprehensive summary of the components of situationist theory that remain useful to the practical struggle against capitalism, not least because other revolutionaries with different experiences and another set of specific targets in mind might well be able to supplement or correct any inventory that might occur to me. To the extent that a shared understanding of some basic principles is required, its elaboration was left to the process of discussion that will precede the formation of any new association.

Not Bored also alleges that: “His text is anti-situationist when it comes to matters of organization: the SI never allowed its members the abilities to carry out ‘theoretical and other practical actions […] in the individual names of those who produce them, and on their responsibility alone’ and/or ‘carry out projects outside the framework of the international and to form other associations to do so’ (thesis #7)”. In fact, article 5 of the Provisional Statutes of the SI adopted at the 8th SI Conference says: “It goes without saying that personally undertaken projects or theoretical hypotheses cannot be limited by the section, nor by the SI as a whole — except in cases where they are manifestly hostile to the SI’s very bases”. Far more important, the one and only relevant consideration is whether preventing the members of the association from undertaking any revolutionary thought and action outside of the association is necessary in order to advance revolutionary contestation or to retard its recuperation. For my part, I cannot see any good reason for taking that step. Of course, a facility must exist to expel members who enter into avoidable compromises with the dominant society that are incompatible with the association’s purposes. But no useful end would be served by making the association into a jealous entity claiming exclusive rights over the thought and actions of those who enter it. The association is a means by which individuals unite so as to carry out certain practical goals that they themselves hold, not a collectivity that members submit to and serve.

Not Bored does not appear to have recognized that the organizational principles I have proposed have their roots in a situationist critique of the failures of the SI as an organization (an organizational failure manifested in, amongst other things, its ability to foster the growth of the satisfied inactivity that eventually produced the crisis and dissolution of the SI). This critique appears not to be well-represented on the Web. But it can be found in such texts as Daniel Denevert’s Suggestions for the Legitimate Eulogy of the SI and of all Revolutionary Activity in Order to Arrive at a Merciless Critique of Our Enemies (1976). One of the insights informing this critique was expressed in Denevert’s text in these terms:

“Everything is said about the spectacle except what it always and fundamentally is: the colonization of the point of view of the individual by the point of view of the collectivity”.

The distance between Not Bored and this perspective is plainly revealed by the latter’s concluding set of criticisms. This includes a perfectly reasonable question about who would decide whether or not any individual was to be excluded from the founding conference of any new association. The answer is the participants in the conference as a whole. There are various ways in which this could be done. However, even if I drew up a provisional list of participants who should be invited myself, I would circulate a list of the excluded individuals, and copies of all relevant documents, in advance of the conference convening and ask the invited individuals to ratify or revoke the exclusion of each person concerned. If a majority took the view that they would wish to associate with an excluded person, he or she would be invited to participate in the forthcoming conference.

Unfortunately, Not Bored’s comments are not restricted to a commendable concern with democratic procedure. In his view, my proposal is a “monologue” that descends into “a sterile dialogue with himself”. If Not Bored really believes that I am merely talking to myself, it is not obvious why he has wasted time responding to me; unless, of course, he is taking an opportunity to publicly display his supposedly superior grasp of situationist matters for the benefit of the admirers who consume his work on that basis. It is equally unclear why a text that addresses a foreseeable and reasonable objection to itself should be equated with a sterile dialogue with oneself. No grounds are given for this characterization. I fear it may have more to do with rhetorical display than reasoned critique.

Yet this is not all, for Not Bored points out that my proposal is made by a person who “is not a member of any organization, no matter how small, but an isolated individual”. Yes, I am just an ordinary individual, known to a few friends, neighbours, associates, family members and work colleagues. I am not even a famous isolated individual, like Raoul Veneigem, whose post-SI work Not Bored deigns to publish and translate. In fact, I could be just any person in the street, the factory or the office. Who would seriously entertain a suggestion from such a source? Not Bill Not Bored, it seems. Not for him the rabble who speak only for themselves. Not for him any notion of autonomous individuals coming together for specific ends. Before he is prepared to consider a proposal, it must have already been approved by others. Before he is prepared to act, there evidently must be a collectivity into which he can assimilate himself. It looks rather like he walks only where reputation and collective approval has cleared the way. His is a timid soul, it seems.

No doubt Not Bored can be assured that he is not speaking to himself. He presents his work at galleries. He lectures at subsidized cultural events. He speaks to the press and appears in documentary films. He leads walks. He stages plays and displays placards before passers-by and surveillance camera workers. He complains that his civil liberties are not upheld. He translates and comments. But after 25 or so years of presenting tepid social critique to spectators who have evinced no practical dissatisfaction and passively view his activities with no practical revolutionary purpose in view, nothing in the way of revolutionary contestation has been achieved. His efforts do not disrupt the processes by which his own life becomes foreign to him, however briefly. Nor do they attack the processes by which his audiences’ lives become foreign to them. Yet he continues untroubled by the compatibility of what he does with the persistence of the society of alienation and takes no steps to turn against his palpably inadequate praxis. Indeed, he seems quite content with the cultural and pseudo-oppositional niche he has found within that society. For him, it seems, revolution is a process that is satisfactorily unfolding at some distance from his own everyday life and will one day deliver salvation to his door. All this is very different from the views that prompted my proposal for a new international association of situationist revolutionaries. It is no surprise that Not Bored views that proposal with contempt.

Wayne Spencer
23 March 2010