Situationism: Fighting the restraints of our psycho-geography

Creativity is good. That is why situationists (SI) and their subsequent followers such as Phillipe Petit of Man on a Wire are fascinating and worthy in part of emulation. The part worth emulating is the act of creativity which takes us out of our ‘well trodden path’ and reminds us of our human dignity. However the SI fails to show us what our dignity looks like because it defines itself against capitalism rather than as the image bearer of God.

The Situationist International was a movement with its roots in avant-garde art, Marxism and a demi-dollop of pleasure seeking libertarianism. They do rather sound of the loony left, but what makes them interesting is that they wanted to use situations, or (to use a technical term) ‘spectacles’ to allow us to re-evaluate our assumptions and realign our desires and priorities. They are similar to Martin Amis in that they fight a war on cliche, though unlike Amis it is not a war against overused words and badly written books, but a war on our psychogeographical assumptions, the cliches of our physical behaviour or the cliches of our cultural mores reflected in architecture and town planning. The psychogeography are the perceived boundaries constructed around us, the paths that we walk, the billboards that hang around shared spaces. Psychogeography is the space for values we find without as reflections from within.

To a friend of the basic tenets behind capitalism these ideas might sound problematic but they will also appeal since the unconditional pursuit of personal happiness is one of the tenets central to situationism. Situationists, like others of their time and many of ours, desire complete freedom without restraint.

It existed as a formal entity, as a journal and a loose knit group of people, from the late 50s to early 70s. Many of the ideas in the original situationist writings are evident in our shared cognitive space today and they where by no means completely original in their inception. As a group of ‘international revolutionaries’ they thought that applying elements inherent in Dada and Surrealist art as well as Marxist ideals was a good way to critique and subvert capitalism. They thought that some characteristics in those forms of art could be translated into practical life and would lead to a re-humanised humanity which had been de-humanised by the industrial revolution and the modern mass media advertising machine.

The industrial revolution, advertising and mass media created an environment, they say, in which man is no longer man, but an object, a consumer of products and a creator of consumables, aware only of a hyper-reality masking what is real. We lack real freedom because society only offers an illusion of choice. They rightly identify the problem of a hyper-capitalist society, but have no sense of the good that the assumptions underlying capitalism bring about in ordering society and motivating work, creating efficiency all while restraining laziness. They are not very balanced, but revolutionaries rarely can afford that sort of academic detachment.

These ideas and their mode applied to situational spectacle, whether consciously or unconsciously adapted, have influenced many artists, humorists, pranksters, tight rope walkers and activist clown-climbers and would be very familiar to Adbusters readers. Inversion of advertisements leads to a subversion of meaning which critiques the status quo. A philosophical short hand for this activity might be ‘the selfish jesters post-modernity.’

Examples of the last two incarnations mentioned above are Alain Robert (the man who climbs skyscrapers without safety paraphernalia) or Phillipe Petit (protagonist of documentary Man on Wire who walked a tight rope across the twin towers in NY). They apply situationist principles, though I am not aware that either one claims to be a situationist, to their vocations and offer a sort of resistance against the monolithic monochrome psychogeography of modern, and in some cases, not so modern architecture. The architecture and their acts on the chosen symbolic structures reflect the values of our time, which are subverted by the actions performed by the climber and rope walker. They defy authority (tall building security) to create spectacles people watch in rapt fascination. But while Alain Roberts justifies his spectacle by saying he does it in the name of raising awareness about global warming, Petit does it in the name of art. Both athletes talk about their experiences in terms of personal transformation and self fulfilment, leading a critical onlooker to feel the exercise is more about ego, the thirst for fame and the wish to be unique or novel and not for the sake of art creation or climbing on behalf of earth atmosphere.

This leads us to the other part of Situation, the dangerous part, the un-articulated assumption that gives the image of dignity its shape. If we usurp God’s role as image giver, if we say that He did not give us our image, as the Genesis account says He did, by creating us male and female, but instead say we alone are to be the makers of our image, our creativity will turn in on itself, leading to a destructive narcissism. God, the triune God, the one God with three persons has created us in his image, which means that we are relational. How then can we alone be the makers of our image, if our image is a reflection of God made in community and relationship, dependent on more than individual freedom?

The assumed unconditional wish for novelty and the desire for freedom without restraint inherent in situationism leads to an incumbent inability to be creative in a positive and inclusive way, because the only thing grasped for through the spectacle is the denial of capitalism and the mass media advertising machine and some vague notion of freedom. I am thankful that this comes out in the documentary about our tight rope walk artist. In Man on Wire, toward the end of the program we are told that Phillipe Petit, after defying the law, received the ‘punishment’ of having to perform for children in Central Park. He is given a life long pass to enter the twin towers when ever he wants to. However his cohorts, his friends who had given so much of their life to help Petit enter the towers and haul his equipment to the top of those colossi were not given such lenient sentences. They were also banished from the US. In the thralls of fame Phillipe betrays his girlfriend with a slew of other women. We are told that the relationship between Petit and his group of disciples fell apart not long after the event. More than 30 years later one of his most devoted supporters could not speak to the camera without crying. Such a strong event. Such power and such destruction. What then really lies behind the spectacle? A moment’s freedom, a man on a tight rope and his successful symbolic victory over the biggest symbol of capitalism? He reminds us that we control capital. That is the right ordering of things which means that capital does not control us. Yes for the image bearer of God, down with Mammon. But what of his team? Their freedom was denied, usurped by Petit, hungry to be the overman and in a strange way living up to his name.

Some restraints, some bonds are good. Let’s not forget to keep these in our psycho-geography.

(Second edit. Sorry if you have seen this in first draft format and I have confused you)

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One Response to Situationism: Fighting the restraints of our psycho-geography

  1. Pingback: Alain Robert on Howard’s Good News « Fiction and the Reading Public

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