a long time ago a young woman called Amy Britton asked me some questions about Situationism for her thesis / dissertation / phD. Being an obliging fellow (and interested in the subject) I answered at some length.
Were do we go from poststructuralism? Badiou and Ranciere seem to trying to move us away from deconstruction, but (for me) they feel old-fashioned and unrewarding. Can there ever be a convincing, capable argument against Derrida et al?
I’m not really familiar with Badiou’s work but he’s basically calling for the idea of Truth to be put back on the table, right? And reason, and justice, and enlightenment, and so forth. Rebuilding the edifice of thought that would lead to a new improved Marxism.
I dunno. I emotionally sympathise with that stance and prefer it to the endless equivocations of postmodernism/post-structuralism/deconstruction. (Or what philosphers like Richard Rorty seem to propose. Which just seems to be a justification for liberal wishy-washiness).
But then I’m fighting my own nature, which is very much capable of seeing many sides to everything and being indecisive. I admire and aspire to fanaticism and certainty but I’m basically awfully liberal really.
I don’t know the answer to your question. Derrida seems to be onto something fundamental tricksy and evasive about knowledge and language. (For that very reason, because he puts it into practice in his texts, I find him incredibly frustrating as a writer. I love lucidity and people taking a stance and committing to statements, which is the very stuff that Derrida is trying to cloudify and disable.)
But if you actually want to get anything done in the world, you have to shove all that to one side – all that self-undermining and endless doubt.
Nicholas Rombes seems to think there is such as thing as "punk as theory." Do you agree?
Well, the ideology of punk as formulated by Lester Bangs, or what Malcolm McLaren thought punk was... these are not academic systematized ideas but they are pretty close to theories – theories of culture, how it works and what really matters. Criticism and self-consciousness are right at the heart of punk. But there is also a lot of instinctive punk, a sort of innate anti-authority impulse, vandalistic.
You could say the way that punk worked, the reason it took off, is because of the alliance of the dissident arty-bourgeois and the delinquent working class.
You can see that in the very composition of the Sex Pistols and surrounding milieu – McLaren and Jamie Reid as outright intellectuals, Johnny Rotten as a working-class intellectual who would reject that term but it nonetheless describes him, and then Steve Jones as a genuine delinquent, a burglar, a jack the lad. (And in between Matlock as another kind of bourgeois, basically a nice boy, a craftsman and tunesmith).
Bohemian-bourgeois meets naturally delinquent proles is the same mix that underwrote the Sixties, in lots of ways. Jeff Nuttall has a good quote on this in his book Bomb Culture:
“what has happened is that the pressure of restriction preceding nuclear suicide has precipitated a biological reflex compelling the leftist element in the young middle class to join with the delinquent element in the young working class for the reaffirmation of life by orgy and violence”
Hebdige thinks that subcultures don't really endure - do you agree or do you think they are of historical importance? Also, does the kind of Situationist thought I'm focusing on endure, and if so is it because of pop culture?
Hard to say. Mod as a subculture doesn’t really exist now as an ongoing extension of the original thing, but you have little revivals of it (apparently in Brooklyn a few years ago there was a spate of people dressing that way and riding Vespas) and it enters the archive of pop history for people to draw on. You could imagine some band coming along that was refloating aspects of Mod, like Ian Svenonius’s band of a while back The Make Up. But that wouldn’t be the same as when it was a proper subculture that emerged seemingly spontaneously and organically out of the class structures and tensions of the UK.
Situationism is one of these sets of ideas that seem to wax and wane in relevance. During punk and postpunk, they seemed super relevant and then they faded away. Then partly helped by Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces they seemed to get currency again, were an influence on groups like Manic Street Preachers, Huggy Bear, Ian Svenoius’s other group Nation of Ulysses.
Right now it seems like a rebooted and remodeled Situationism might have stuff to say about Internet culture, social media etc. One of the ideas I’ve been considering recently is that the Internet ,Facebook, blogs, tumblr, Google etc have captured the derive/psychogeography and the idea of do-it-yourself and put them in service of capitalism. When consumer capitalism is inciting us to express ourselves and be creative and active and generate all this self-documentation, is it really emancipatory or are we being distracted, politically sidelined?
For what it’s worth when I was London this month I got out of the storage unit my copy of Vaneigem's Revolution of Everyday Life, which I never actually got around to reading....
This might be a bit weird to answer but in terms of finding a new lexicon for schools of CTCS do you think there should be such a word as "Reynoldsian," and if so how would you define it?
Not sure about that – I don’t think I’m the one to do that really. And once you become a kind of fixed body of ideas then it becomes a doxa or dogma or just a trap for yourself. That said, I think there’s definitely preoccupations running through most of my stuff, betrayed by some of the words I over-use like “utopian”. Obviously with the recent work I’ve become very interested in ideas of time and space as they relate to music and pop culture.
But then there’s not many things about music/pop culture that I’m not interested in. It’s all interesting!
Another running preoccupation is this idea of music, in the way that it works on us, as fundamentally irrational. . You can talk rationally and lucidly about the cultures that spring up around music, how they work and what their wider implications are. But the actual thing itself, music... It’s all about bliss, violence, mysterious powers.... there’s a pure senselessness.
You seem interested in Situationism - when did this happen? Do you think that either (or both) the late years of Callaghan's power/early days of Thatcherism invited a revival of interest in it?
It had everything to do with punk and really with the presence right at the heart of it of McLaren and Jamie Reid, who I think had both been in King Mob, a sort of UK chapter of the Situationiste International. Reid’s graphics for the pistols singles were often directly modeled on Situationist posters and graphics. They put the issue of boredom and of doing-it-yourself as being anti-Spectacle, anti-passivity, right up front. It was present on a vernacular, instinctive level obviously (in the same way that it’s present in all rock – glam, metal, you name it. Boredom and nothing-to-do and the lust for action or thrills to kill time is at the heart of all rock’n’roll, back to “Summertime Blues” via “My Generation”). But McLaren and Reid articulated those themes using Situationist ideas.
The first time I heard of the term the Situationists was in a Melody Maker piece on McLaren. It was the first copy of a music paper I ever bought and it was the third part of an interview series by Michael watts profiling McLaren from the start all the way through the Pistols to his current position (exiled in Paris having lost control of the band). When they’re mentioned, I thought naively that they were a rock band from the Sixties. I was like, wow they sound even more evil and subversive than the Pistols, how do I get hold of their records?
Then the penny dropped. At that time if you looked around you could find this slim book with a green cover by Christopher Gray, a collection of Situationist articles and illustrations and cartoons he entitled Leaving the 20th Century. I found mine in Blackwells in Oxford when I went up to interview at colleges. That book had a huge influence on those who got hold of one. Gray had been in King Mob with McLaren and is said to have been the one who planted the idea of a really obnoxious, subversive teenybop band in McLaren’s head. What was great about the book was that it was short, the extracts were well chosen and attractively presented, and it was full of fantastic photographs and illustrations and poster images and comic strips. So the forbidding density of Debord’s writing was offset by all this much more digestible material. And Gray’s own commentaries were very lucid and opened up the subject well. Situationist connoiseurs gripe about his selection missing out important texts but the later much more comprehensive anthology that came out is much more impenetrable. I bought it the same time as the Vaneigem book but again, never actually read it. partly because Situationism was going into one of its waning phases but also because it’s such an unenticing looking book.
I was so inspired by this Christopher Gray collection I used to go around my home town sticking speech bubbles with subversive slogans over advertising posters, like the Situs used to do, and came up with my own cartoon strips that I also glued here and there. Epater le bourgeois, a standard suburban bookworm phase to go through!
Yeah Situationism was a widespread influence at that point, nothing to do with Callaghan and Thatcher, but because it offered a critique of rock as a leisure industry, recuperating the rebellious energy of youth and turning it into profits. An example of this argument taken to the limit that I saw in Compendium books in Camden at the time but never actually bought is this pamphlet The End of Music. Some blogger has scanned it in and put it out there as a pdf. As I understand it basically concludes from the punk/pistols adventure that the idea of rock as a liberating or subversive force is now bankrupt and obsolete. We should all just move on. The meaning of punk is that rock is dead.
I'll be using lots of thinkers like Lefebvre et al who actively describe themselves as "post Paris '68 thinkers." One who stands out as being a bit different is Julia Kristeva; its like she takes some of Nietzsche's theories on health and fluid and makes them psychoanalytically relevant. In order to open the era up to a Kristevan reading, would you say that the post-punk era had an "unhealthy" aesthetic?
Not sure about that as a whole – a lot of postpunk groups were very rational and right-on, if you think about Au Pairs or Gang of Four and their demystified approach to love and sexuality. It’s like, if we just can get all this superstitious and sentimental nonsense out of the way, we can have a total rational approach to personal relationships, without dependency or neurosis or any of that Freudian stuff.
But Kristeva on abjection is very useful in terms of understanding things like the Birthday Party and the whole noise/horror axis in the early to mid Eighties. So Powers of Horror, and also the book on melancholy, Black Sun I think it is.
In Blissed Out and Sex Revolts, Kristeva is used with that kind of music quite a bit.