No one wants to be here
June 9, 2013 7:00 PM   Subscribe

McKenzie Wark, author of A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory, has turned his attention to the Situationist International.

In an interview with 3am magazine titled "no one wants to be here", Wark spans a diffuse breadth of topics touching on figures such as Debord, TJ Clark, Ranciere, Badiou, Kenneth Goldsmith ( and Leonard Cohen:

3:AM: I think you say in The Spectacle of Disintegration that détournement is perhaps the Situationists’ greatest strategic legacy, but I wonder whether you’d agree that the dérive is a useful strategy for negotiating the networked environment, or what you called the coming ‘topological world’?

MW: Yes, the dérive resonated with me as someone who wandered the streets of both Sydney and New York excessively. I can’t really do it anymore. I was born with club-feet so I hobble around now. The great tragedy of my life is that I can’t dérive like I used to. The other thing that was really important for me was the Internet. You know, from the eighties when you’d stick your phone on the modem and connect up through the phone line. It was this exciting space. People called it surfing the Internet. You don’t hear that anymore, no one surfs the Internet. I thought about it through the dérive. One of my personal experiences of avant-garde energy was in the nineties and how it connected to all these media theories, politics, avant-gardes all over the world. Its main mission was to cross the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, to find languages and create networks. It was our Dada, in a way.

I wanted to write about the 90’s, but it’s very rhizomatic and I thought ‘well how do you write a book about that?’ Then I re-read The Society of the Spectacle and I thought ‘holy crap, that’s not the book I thought it was.’ Its most important chapter is the second last one on détournement, not the stuff on the spectacle. That was a prequel for writing about this stuff. So for me in the 90’s there was this great global derive going on and it’s bifurcated, it has two layers. One is the internet itself which was a kind of wild west area, and the other was about networking together across various cities, we’d travel around and visit each other and form temporary associations. You know, like ‘we’re all in Amsterdam next Tuesday, let’s get a book done’, that sort of thing. A sort of détournement of art fairs. We’d be paid to go there for one reason or another, but really we were taking over little corners to plot our own work.

colliding and clashing, fucking and fighting:

3am:And are emergent ‘para-academic’ sites (say, The Public School, or examples of ‘low theory’ at work, or not?

MW: A lot of readers are quite shocked by this. Apparently one can be irreverent about just about anything these days except the Great Philosophers. Makes one wonder what role the notion of a Great Philosopher plays in the culture. And of course for a thinker to be Great they have to become a Philosopher. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are now, apparently, philosophers. This would be enormously surprising to Marx, of course, who was anything but.

It would appear critical theory retreated so far into the academy that it became legitimate to simply accept its conventions and protocols without question. This might not be tactically wise. Universities are complicated beasts that serve a lot of functions, not all of them terribly friendly to critical thought and practice, as the Situationists well knew.

I’m interested in what one can do within universities. I inhabit one myself. The internal politics of universities is a pretty vast and complicated terrain. And yes, I am interested also in para-universities, in the re-invention of knowledge practices outside of it. But perhaps more important is the relationship between the two. or The Public School depend on universities, and I would argue, universities benefit from these para-institutional sites as well. (Marx, Freud and in some ways Nietzsche came back to the university from without.) Critical theory and practice requires a tactics of invention, a détournement of available resources.

@Verso: Wark explained the twenty-first century relevance of the SI’s critical approach towards technology, culture and capital:

There’s an absolute failure to perform the critical task in relation to technology. There’s a kind of “No, I don’t like the iPhone.” Well, what the fuck do you like then? What do you want? Describe another world. Describe it to me. For seven billion people. Among the Situationists, someone like Constant Nieuwenhuys did exactly that, he imagined an entire other planet based on mid 20th Century technology.

TJ Clark, who had a brief, early, interest in the SI recently penned For A Left With no Future for the LRB, noting: Left intellectuals, like most intellectuals, are not good at politics; especially if we mean by the latter, as I shall be arguing we should, the everyday detail, drudgery and charm of performance. Intellectuals get the fingering wrong. Up on stage they play too many wrong notes. But one thing they may be good for: sticking to the concert-hall analogy, they are sometimes the bassists in the back row whose groaning establishes the key of politics for a moment, and even points to a possible new one. And it can happen, though occasionally, that the survival of a tradition of thought and action depends on this—on politics being transposed to a new key. This seems to me true of the left in our time.

Demand the Impossible!: The moment of revolt, which means now, is hallowing out for us in the hard rock of our daily lives, days that miraculously retain the delicious colours and the dreamlike charm which - like an Aladdin's cave, magical and prismatic in an atmosphere all its own - is inalienably ours. The moment of revolt is childhood rediscovered, time put to everyone's use, the dissolution of the market and the beginning of generalised self-management.

The long revolution is creating small federated microsocieties, true guerilla cells practising and fighting for this self-management. Effective radicality authorises all variations and guarantees every freedom. That's why the Situationists don't confront the world with: "Here's your ideal organisation, on your knees!" They simply show by fighting for themselves and with the clearest awareness of this fight, why people really fight each other and why they must acquire an awareness of the battle.

Four passages from The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International: “Philosophy,” says Simon Critchley, “begins in disappointment.” After the death of God, the end of Art, the failure of the Revolution, there’s nothing left but philosophy, the moment of contemplation of the ruins. For Jacques Rancière, it is not that literature arises out of failed revolutions, but that revolutions are failed literature. Certainly the high theory of the post-’68 era was born of the disappointments, not just of May but of the red decade of 1966-1976, of which May was the high water mark. If other failed revolutions gave us Hegel and Stendhal, Marx and Baudelaire, this one gave us Foucault and Deleuze, Derrida and Lyotard. Whatever interest such thoughts may once have held, they are now no more than the routine spasms of an era out of love with itself.

Low theory returns in moments, not of disappointment, but of boredom. We are bored with these burn offerings, these warmed-up leftovers. High theory cedes too much to the existing organization of knowledge and art. It is nothing more than the spectacle of disintegration extending into knowledge itself. Rather a negative theory that reveals the gap between this world and its promises. Rather a negative action that reveals the void between what can be done and what is to be done. Rather a spirited invention of genuine forms within the space of everday life, than the relentless genuflection to the hidden God that is power. For such experiments the Situationist legacy stands ripe for a détournement that has no respect for those who claim proprietary rights over it. There is plenty of fruit to be gleaned from the vine.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (17 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
This is gonna take some time to work through, but so far pretty interesting.
posted by SounderCoo at 7:15 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Had to look these up: Dérive and Détournement, and still not sure I grok them enough to comprehend the article.
posted by smcameron at 7:36 PM on June 9, 2013

smcameron, this may be of interest:

"psychogeography and the dérive"

or, to be schematic: dérive, think of aimless wandering within the confines of a city while unconsciously mitigating such confines (close to Baudelaire's flaneur, unplanned drifting); détournement, think of early adbusters 'ads' that would take, for example, an actual Calvin Klein advertisement and somehow subvert it through witty text or through addition or removal of images… a subversion that reuses the "ad" for adbusters' own purposes.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 7:47 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

What a cool post.

I've attempted to read the SI Anthology by Ken Knabb. My favorite bits are their theories on traffic and radical urbanism. They argue that cars "break up the dialectic of the human milieu" and they will soon be replaced by small helicopters being tested by the US military.

I think detournement is slightly different than appropriation. In Methods of Detournement, they say that the aim of detournement is devaluation. It is a "negation of value of the the previous organization of expression" they offer the example of using cloak and dagger type passwords and disguses as a game, as an assault on the mindset that makes passwords and disguises necessary. They say that "far from aiming at arousing indignation to laughter by alluding to some original work will express our indifference towards meaningless and forgotten original" of course I'm not French so I can't possibly fully understand.

Ill be back when I read though the links, so see you in about 3 week.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:12 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think detournement is slightly different than appropriation.

yes—crucial point. asger jorn's 'detourned' paintings are perhaps a succinct example of this stripping away of exchange-value (slight irony today as I'm sure those works are worth $ as are daniel buren's, but that's another topic—or perhaps it is just an adjustment of value towards the user who detournes the object or whatever) in favour of the SI/COBRA's own use-value. rhetorically, I wonder if acts of détournement can offer effective strategies in countering all this NSA stuff.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 8:19 PM on June 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am a hacker (old school sense). I am educated. I attempted to read A Hacker Manifesto and couldn't get past page five of what seemed to be impenetrable prose.
posted by zippy at 8:50 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

tvtropes really does have everything.

I always think of Laibach's cover of One Vision. I can't hear any Queen at all now without thinking of Hitler.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:52 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

wow, what a timely post for me, especially his differentiation of detournement. i like that he drops 'rhizomatic' as a casual hat tip to Deleuze.

a lot to read and think about here. i've tended to focus more and more on 'the Spectacle' lately as the trappings of daily life become more hellish i.e. Kardashian. but this really makes me want to rethink detournement as an effective cultural strategy. as a kid, with my first exposure to the SI, i never felt that i was really grasping all of what was going on. now, i can't help but notice how much of what they were doing was ultra prescient.

even more so this makes me want to go back and reread Henri Lefebvre.

posted by Conrad-Casserole at 9:19 PM on June 9, 2013

For those looking for an introduction to these ideas, Stewart Home's The Assault on Culture: Utopian currents from Lettrisme to Class War is an excellent choice for positioning the SI within a broader spectrum - essentially from Dada to punk.

For the deeper, yet still readable (very important with the SI) is Sadie Plant's The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age. (The whole book as a pdf).

While you are checking out Sadie Plant, her treatise on Women and computing is also brilliant: Zero's and Ones. (The whole book as a pdf).

The Amazon synopsis:
"Not since The Female Eunuch has there been a book so radical in its scope, so persuasive in its detail, so exhilarating in its polemical energy. Beginning with Ada Lovelace and her unheralded contributions to Charles Babbage and his development of the Difference Engine, Sadie Plant traces the critical contributions women have made to the progress of computing. Shattering the myth that women are victims of technological change, Zeros + Ones shows how women and women's work in particular--weaving and typing, computing and telecommunicating--have been tending the machinery of the digital age for generations, the very technologies that are now revolutionizing the Western world.

In this bold manifesto on the relationship between women and machines, Sadie Plant explores the networks and connections implicit in nonlinear systems and digital machines. Steering a course beyond the old feminist dichotomies, Zeros + Ones is populated by a diverse chorus of voices--Anna Freud, Mary Shelley, Alan Turing--conceived as exploratory bundles of intelligent matter, emergent entities hacking through the constraints of their old programming and envisioning a postpatriarchal future.

Astonishing, inspiring, witty, and perverse, Zeros + Ones is a love song to Ada, a soundtrack for the next millennium, a radical revision of our technoculture that will forever change the way we perceive our digital world."
posted by datakid at 9:46 PM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for about a year and a half, mostly drawing and discovering that I'm no good at film. But my favorite film class was taught by a Marxist who made hour-long epics comprised entirely of found footage, in which we read piles of stuff about the SI. Great times.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:22 PM on June 9, 2013

One fine hour I'll read the rest of this; but it's 6:40am and I got to page 3 of that piece and already wanted to slap the author for his tedium. I've heard chihuahuas yapping that had more gravitas. I will however finish it in the hopes that something is actually transmitted.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 3:42 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dear god, this couldn't possibly be more relevant to my interests.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 5:02 AM on June 10, 2013

Great post. There's also his polarising Guy Debord action figure. Discussion here...
posted by debord at 5:48 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

And here.
posted by debord at 5:56 AM on June 10, 2013

> People called it surfing the Internet. You don’t hear that anymore, no one surfs the Internet.

In all my time on various nets and internets I never knew, or indeed knew of, anyone who called it "surfing the internet" except clueless writers in print media, usually a "what my teenagers are doing" column in the local gardening section.

"all my time" expands to:

1979 local dial-up BBS (300bps) (Apple II DOS 3.2.1)
1985 Fidonet store-and-forward echomail (2400bps, still dialup) (MS-DOS)
1989 home Usenet and mail feed via uucp (still dialup, 19200bps claimed) (SysV r3.2 unix on 486)
1995 thick-ethernet connection at work, still dialup at home (also got TCP/IP over packet radio working at home, but it was even slower that dialup)
2002-present ADSL at home

> Beginning with Ada Lovelace and her unheralded contributions to Charles Babbage and his
> development of the Difference Engine

Unheralded? There must have been a time when I didn't know about the Countess and her association with Babbage, because I spent some time as an infant. But I don't remember a time when I had heard of Babbage but not of Augusta Ada. I don't think there was such a time. The Department of Defense named their then-new it's-going-to-replace-everything language Ada in her honor in 1979. Folks who knew of him but not of her are certainly all long dead.
posted by jfuller at 11:26 AM on June 10, 2013

I'm all for détourning the SI legacy, as Wark suggests, but perhaps the most interesting way to détourne it would be in such a way that nobody uses the word "détourne" as they do it. For example, I would say that Chris Morris, et al. have done a much better job of keeping the concept alive than anyone in academia, whether or not Chris Morris has any knowledge or care about the concept as it has been named and identified.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:37 PM on June 10, 2013

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