Activist Desire, Cultural Criticism, and the Situationist International
(...)(2) In this paper, I will first situate our reception of the S.I. in the context of cultural criticism, demonstrating how contemporary critics mobilize the S.I. to underwrite their activist agenda. Second, I will consider the tense relationship between theory and practice that constantly frustrated the S.I. itself. Finally, taking Guy Debord's and Asger Jorn's Memoires (1957) as a specific example, I will suggest that our current reception of the S.I. has occluded the vital role of theory as a condition of possibility for activism. In short, I will read the S.I. against both its own articulation and our current reception in order to interrogate the one-dimensional sense of practice which animates and frustrates the S.I. and contemporary cultural criticism.
(...)(6) In their book Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (1991), Steven Best and Douglas Kellner argue that the value of any theory is the possibility it offers to actualize "radical social transformation" (298). Like Eagleton, Best and Kellner argue that theory must develop an immediate relationship to practice or remain "just another specialized discourse" whose members accumulate cultural capital and theorize "just for the fun of it" (298). In essence, theorists become, again, manipulators and bureaucrats serving only their own reactionary interests. The problem of theory's relationship to practice is embedded in the many articulations of cultural criticism's project, and, as we shall see, it is precisely these urgencies that have powered the resurrection of the S.I.
(...)(12)The point that I am trying to make here was suggested to me (and far more pivotally articulated) by Paul Trembath in his article "Reactivating Deleuze: Critical Affects After Cultural Materialism." According to Trembath,theory can do other things than transform itself dutifully into common-sensical language and practical alterian politics. Theory can also, in addition to pursuing instrumental goals, and perhaps at the same time, invent or pre-form new "sense" altogether, and move at speeds different from those compatible with the going quotidian or academic instrumentation (2).
Trembath makes a point that both contemporary critics and the Situationists themselves often occlude -- that sometimes theory is the only practice possible, that the sense it creates can overreach the limits of given material possibilities. This is not to say that theory is opposed to instrumental political activism, but it is to say that theory can challenge those limits, creating an untimely sense for practices yet to come. While theory can coincide with activism, it is also a space for the untimely, often the only space; to devalue that space is to separate theory from what it can do, and thus, as Adorno puts it, "choke, as vain, whatever critical thoughts the practical change would require" (3).
(...)(14) For all the activist rhetoric that now surrounds our reception of the Situationists, the revolutionary experiment of transforming the modes in which alienated subjects of the spectacle experience themselves consists in two theoretical strategies: psychogeography and détournement. The most important aspect of psychogeography is the dérive. According to the S.I., the dérive is "a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences" (Blazwick 22). Here, the S.I. takes on the spectacle in its own territory, urban centers devoted to the commodity. Rather than experiencing such an environment in the alienated terms of the spectacle, the drifter uses this environment to generate the intensities of the constructed situation. Similar to the dérive, and far more pervasive in the works of the S.I., is the textual practice of détournement. Just as the dérive cuts up a city into a set of chance encounters that force the drifter to assume an active role unmediated by spectacular images, détournement literally cuts up the totality of culture to produce the chance encounters, unexpected arrangements, and active senses associated with the dérive.
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