Deep into that darkness peering: A critique of The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists

 “Romanticism! This is going to kill dad.” He ran to his house, singing happily some gurgled crazy kidyell of happiness.

 --- Jack Kerouac, cityCityCITY


 With the decline, from the late 1970s onwards, of the various tendencies towards social revolution, situationist theory, “the thought of the collapse of a world [1], inevitably came to be abandoned. It has since been picked up by artists, academics and other creatures of the dominant society, and used for very different ends. Like any other unexploded ordinance, it first has to be disarmed. Artists tend to do so by tearing a few of the first ideas and practices of the Situationist International (such as the dérive, détournement and psychogeography) from their context of a practical critique of art and capitalism, and ignoring everything that came later. Academics too may employ the same wilful myopia. However, their abuse does not stop there. The academic critic must establish at least the appearance of superiority for his or her standpoint. To this end, the situationists may be reproached for having failed to anticipate some currently fashionable academic absurdity, or just dumped into whatever broad intellectual category (such as ‘modernism’ or ‘the avant-garde’) represents failure for the school of thought the critic belongs to. Or situationist theory may be changed from a practical tool of revolutionary subversion into a narrow contribution to philosophy or social science, a contribution to be dismissed or incorporated with equal condescension. Or some straw situationist of the critics’ own imagining may be quickly conjured up and then suavely knocked back down. One way or another, the message tends to be clear: dear oh dear, how very foolish it was of the situationists to take on the practical project of suppressing capitalism and reinventing everyday life. How much better to crawl on one’s knees to a PhD, and then stay on one’s knees as a licenced supplier of broken graduates and tamed thought.

 In this text I shall look in detail at just one example of the academic mistreatment of the situationists, The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists, an article by Sam Cooper (of the School of English at University of Sussex) thatrecently appeared in The Cambridge Quarterly [2], an academic journal published by Oxford University Press. It has the novelty of discussing the English section of the Situationist International and King Mob, two groups that have until now largely escaped the predatory attention of the academics. Apart from this, the paper is a fairly ordinary example of its genre. In other words, it is almost complete bullshit.


The English section of the Situationist International

 Cooper begins with the English section of the Situationist International. In a footnote (footnote 9, page 22) he says:

“I shall refer to English, and not British, Situationist activity partly in concordance with that group’s identity, and partly to distinguish this activity from that of Alexander Trocchi, a Scot, who was a British member of the SI before it established an English Section.”

 This leaves Ralph Rumney (a founder member of the Situationist International who was born in Newcastle in 1934 [3] unaccounted for. Never mind. I’m sure few will notice.

 Cooper argues that the English section sought to “anglicise Situationist practice” (page 22) by “attempting to reconstruct an English Romanticism that deployed something of its original radicality in the present” (page 23). He cites two items of evidence in support of this contention. The first comes from the English section’s text The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution. According to Cooper:

“‘Delinquent violence’, the English Section asserts, ‘is a spontaneous overthrow of the abstract and contemplative role imposed on everyone.’ The phrase ‘abstract and contemplative role’ is clearly drawn from the SI’s critique of spectacular society, in which alienated representation has replaced direct social engagement. Yet the English Section subtly alludes also to Wordsworth’s famous statement in his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’”

 He later adds:

“The English Situationists definitely read him [Wordsworth], and, to judge by their détournement, did so closely” (page 28).

 However, the two passages that Cooper highlights have almost nothing in common apart from a reference to spontaneity and the fact that the word “spontaneous” is followed by a three-syllable word beginning with the letter “o.” This falls a long way short of demonstrating a deliberate détournement based on close reading. Consider, also, the two sentences that Cooper cites in their entirety:

“Delinquent violence is a spontaneous overthrow of the abstract and contemplative role imposed on everyone, but the delinquents' inability to grasp any possibility of really changing things once and for all forces them, like the Dadaists, to remain purely nihilistic [4].”

“For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply [5].”

 If the English section had had Wordsworth in view, it could fairly easily have made its point about the delinquents' failure to “grasp any possibility of really changing things once and for all” by way of a modification of Wordsworth’s suggestion that good poetry requires not just the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings but also unusual “organic sensibility” and long and deep thought (reader: try it). That the authors of The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolutiondidnot do so suggests to me that the Wordsworth’s Preface was not on their minds.

 Cooper’s second piece of evidence is the English section’s translation of the French text, De la misère en milieu étudiant. Cooper claims that:

The English Section also takes a discreet liberty in translating the text’s penultimate sentence, in which the SI boasts of its own transgressiveness: ‘Icicommeailleurs, ils’agit de dépasser la mesure’ (roughly, ‘Here as elsewhere, it is a question of exceeding the limit’). Rather than attempt a literal translation of this abstruse sentence, the English Section make it echo an aphorism from William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (begun 1790): ‘in revolution the road of excess leads once and for all to the palace of wisdom.’”

 However, as Cooper’s own footnote self-defeatingly points out, the phrase “Ici commeailleurs, ils’ agit de dépasser la mesure” is the penultimate sentence not of De la misère en milieu étudiant but of a completely different text, Maintenant, L’I.S., which appeared three years earlier in issue 9 of the journal Internationale Situationniste [6]. In his 1981 Situationist International Anthology the American Ken Knabb translated this sentence as “Here as elsewhere, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom [7].” Somewhere along the way Cooper has got these two borrowings from Blake confused.

 All the same, the English section’s translation of De la misère en milieu étudiant did introduce an echo of Blake. Compare the following:

“Les revolutions proletarian nesseront des fêtes ou ne seront pas, car la vie qu'elles annoncent sera elle-même créée sous le signe de la fête. Le jeuest la rationalité ultime de cette fête, vivre sans temps mort et jouir sans entravessont les seules règles qu'ilpourra reconnoitre” (final two sentences of the French original [8].

“For proletarian revolt is a festival or it is nothing; in revolution the road of excess leads once and for all to the palace of wisdom. A palace which knows only one rationality: the game. The rules are simple: to live instead of devising a lingering death, and to indulge untrammelled desire” (English section’s translation [9].

“Proletarian revolutions will be festivals or nothing, for festivity is the very keynote of the life they announce. Play is the ultimate principle of this festival, and the only rules it can recognize are to live without dead time and to enjoy without restraints” (Ken Knabb’s translation [10].

 In his reflections on the English section’s translation, Charles Radcliffe, a former member of the section, says nothing about the text being used to forge an association with Romanticism, stressing instead how the pamphlet’s Postscript sought to express the ideas differently for an English and American audience, and allowed the English to continue to formulate “an English Situationist critique, one that emerged from observation of the apparently terminal socio-political-cultural collapse that surrounded us on all sides” [11] The present and not the past appears to have been on their minds.

 It also appears that the passage in the English section’s translation that includes the borrowing from Blake has, in comparison with the French original, extended festivity from the “revolution” itself to the earlier process of “revolt.” And it seems to have inserted a different justification of festivity, a justification that sees an indulgence in excess as the means of discovering and opening up the way to revolution. Does this tell us something about the English section (is it, for instance, a harbinger of King Mob’s notions of revolutionary praxis)? More importantly, what practical relevance do these matters have to the central question of our times, that of how we as individuals can undermine our own misery and alienation in this society? Merely pointing out that the English section’s passage about excess happens to be drawn from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell does not take us a whit closer to answering that question.

 Is there any other evidence that the English section had a profound interest in English Romanticism? It would seem not. The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolutionrepeatedly and expressly mentions various predecessors, notably the Dadaists and the Surrealists, but it is silent about the Romantics. So too is Heatwave, the journal in which Charles Radcliffe and Christopher Grey participated prior to their admission in the Situationist International [12]. But what about the thought and conversation going on behind the scenes? In his recollections of his political life before during and after the time when he was a member of the English section, Charles Radcliffe does not allude to any especial interest in the English Romantics on the part of him or his comrades [13]. What did inspire him can perhaps be seen from the elements of issue six of Rebel Worker with which he unfavourably contrasts the Situationist International’s theory and practice:

“Blues, Jazz, Malcolm X, the Wobblies, Fourier, Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops, Bugs Bunny, Tom O’Bedlam, Beano, Marvel Comics, Ann Radcliffe, Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoomian pulp, Dr Syn, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, H.P. Lovecraft, Will Eisner, de Sade, the IWW, William Blake, Gerard Winstanley, Abiezer Coppe, Gary Snyder, Huizinga, Norman O. Brown, Simon Rodia’s Watts Tower, Maxwell Street, Surrealism and much much more.” [14]

 This hardly testifies to an overriding interest in English Romantic pastoralism. Indeed, while Blake is included (having been praised in Rebel Worker for “the extraordinary depth of his perception and the prophetic surreality of his vision,” [15] as well as “the truly subversive, anti-religious and liberating message of his works”) Wordsworth is not.

 Dave Wise, who was subsequently a member of King Mob, has also written about the discussions taking place at this time, saying:

“Initially what resulted was a series of euphoric get-togethers in London ardently discussing everything under the sun in flats, pubs and other venues. A meeting - if you like – between north and south - (to give a posthumous revision to Disraeli's book of the same name) between us, Chris Gray, Don N Smith, Tim Clarke and Charles Radcliffe. In short, the English section of the Situationists. There was nothing formal at all about these passionate conversations and no thought of making groups, reconstituting ourselves etc and nothing about organisational forms/structures and what have you. Nor did we discuss much about our different survival situations – us on the dole, them with some money or other. Mainly it was all about what was unfolding in America – the student rebellion and the urban insurrections especially in Watts, Newark and Detroit, along with endless piecing together of radical theory coming together from the best of the old world of art and politics - usually emphasising their most destructive aspects. Marx smashing the street lamps in London's Kentish Town, Durutti smashing up chairs as bourgeois domesticated articles and inevitably the practical demolition of the world of art as conceived by the most aware artists, especially Lautremont. We equally lauded anti-art measures deployed by people other than artists. Insurgent anarchists were praised like when Bakunin hauled masterpieces from art galleries hanging them on the barricades of 1848 knowing full well the military top brass would balk at destroying priceless artefacts thus giving some protection to the insurgents. […] Everybody was also reading voraciously at the same time anything from Hegel to Marx, to Lefebvre to histories of the Spanish revolution of 1936 etc. A rapid coming together of revolutionary knowledge and thought from all over was kind of quickly assembled and in haste. In retrospect, there was too much haste as the immanent pressure of the times wasn't allowing much space for good, reflective digesting. A few years later we sadly realized this was to prove a much more serious omission.

Of course we also passionately discussed the Situationists and their predecessors finding out by word of mouth - from the horse’s mouth if you like - all the unknown history of post second world war cultural and political subversion and how we could no longer separate the two as they inevitably tended more and more to enmesh. Astonished, we heard about the International Lettrist interventions in the 1950s particularly Michel Mourre's invasion of Note Dame dressed as a priest incarnating a litany proclaiming ‘God is Dead’ only to be set upon by the Swiss Guards with swords drawn ready to hack him to pieces finally escaping with some nasty cuts. Why had all this information been withheld from us was an initial response and only confirmed what we'd felt deep down all our lives: England was a truly conservative shit hole!” [16]

 This too suggests that the members of the English section had a very broad array of interests, of which English Romanticism was at best a small part. Of course, the recollections that Radcliffe and Wise have so far recorded may be incomplete. The fact remains, however, that the best accounts we have of what was discussed offers no support for Cooper’s suggestion that the English section was deliberately engaged in the reconstruction of English Romanticism.

 Cooper also suggests that the English section’s purported dalliance with English Romanticism had something to do with its expulsion from the Situationist International:

“when that group began to anglicise Situationist practice, it was deemed to have compromised the SI and was expelled” (page 22); and

“Such irreverent treatment of the group’s decrees, and such disrespect shown to the SI’s paranoid proprietorship of its genealogical identity, led to the English Section’s expulsion, after it had allegedly sided with the American anarchist Ben Morea in a dispute with the SI’s Raoul Vaneigem” (page 25).

 There is not the slightest reason to think that a disagreement about Romanticism played a role in the expulsion of the English section. If the Situationist International had been unhappy with the translation of De la misère en milieu étudiant, it would in all probability have demanded that it be withdrawn, as it did with a translation of the same text by Tony Verlaan [17]. But it did no such thing. Indeed, it had earlier reproached Verlaan with having made his translation of De la misère en milieu étudiant without consulting Donald Nicholson-Smith, who was one of the members of the English section [18]. It would hardly have done this if it was dismayed by the English section’s translation. In reality, the dispute concerning Ben Morea that did lead to the expulsion of the English appears to have been the first serious conflict between the English section and the other situationists. As Guy Debord said at the time in a letter to Robert Chasse:

“I must emphasize that, after our first discussion ended in an accord with Chris [Gray] and [Charles] Radcliffe, we still werecompletely confident in the English situationists (which seems quite normal to us), without in any manner ever controlling what they did in England. And then, upon their first intervention in a general debate, we found out that they truly did not feel bound to have the same confidence in Raoul and the others! A useful lesson” [19] (italics in the original).

 The real reasons for the expulsion of the English section are perfectly clear. Following a meeting in England between Guy Debord and the English situationists, in 1967 Raoul Vaneigem travelled to America as the delegate of all the situationists [20]. Veneigem was given a written mandate, which was evidently to the effect that he should sound out how close to the situationists various possible members and contacts in New York were. During his visit, he encountered Allan Hoffman, a member of the Black Mask group, who proceeded to expound to him an astrological interpretation of Vaneigem’s writings. Vaneigem refused to have anything more to do with him. He also refused to see Ben Morea, a fellow member of Black Mask and an associate of Hoffman. After Vaneigem returned to Europe and delivered his assessment, the situationists wrote to Ben Morea. The letter [21], which was signed by Guy Debord and Mustapha Khayati from the French section and Christopher Gray and Donald Nicholson-Smith from the English section, explained that “The situationists have always refused to have anything whatsoever to do with mystics […and] those who collaborate with mystics.” It also said: “On a tactical level, you would seem to [be] overemphasising head-on activism as a be-all & end-all.” Morea was told that “Further dialogue between us must depend on a written reply to the questions raised above.” His response offered no such reply: “Morea wrote once again to all of us saying that the reasons we had given were false pretexts and that the real dispute lay elsewhere; he insulted our New York friends and this time questioned Vaneigem’s testimony.” [22] This was the end of the matter as far as the French situationists were concerned. They expected the English section to break off all contact with Morea. The English prevaricated. Letters were exchanged. Vaneigem also visited London with Rene Vienet to give the English a first-hand account of his experiences in New York and deliver an ultimatum [23]. The French took the view that the situationists could only properly repudiate their delegate’s public break with Morea if (a) “the collusion of Morea with the mystic […] was alleged calumniously” or (b) “such collusion need not be sufficient reason for a public break in the name of the SI.” [24] The French did not accept that either was the case. If the English section agreed, they must break with Morea. If they did not, the basis for any practical solidarity between them and the rest of the organization was gone, and they must leave. They were unable to make the choice the circumstances made unavoidable. They were expelled.

 As well as failing to recognize the real reasons for the expulsion of the English section, Cooper is blind to the real relevance of that expulsion. For instance, the situationists’ practices of breaking with and expelling individuals continue to be misunderstood and disavowed [25]. The result is an avoidable vulnerability amongst many opponents of the dominant regime, especially to sheep in wolves’ clothing. Consider the Occupy Movement. The economic crisis to which the movement was a response has also heightened a burgeoning conflict between the neoliberals who use the state to serve the narrow interests of the corporate and financial elites and a loose coalition of left-liberal administrators, academics, commentators and campaigners who consider that the state must have regard to the wider interests of the economic system as a whole and introduce economic and social policies that promote the long-term viability of capitalism. The entrenchment of the neoliberals in positions of power, and their suicidal intransigence, has prompted some of these frustrated reformers to take to the streets in the guise of opponents of the system. They were one of the forces brought together within the Occupy Movement (they appear to have constituted a large proportion of the inner circle of organisers and activists). For them, it was enough if the movement acted as foot soldiers in actions that pressured the existing regime to change itself, or merely generated reusable images of dissatisfaction. If the best elements of Occupy (the most profound dissatisfactions, the ones that tend to go to the very heart of the dominant society) were to grasp themselves and find an appropriate practice, they had to refuse the limitations of thought and action the reformers sought to impose. Sooner or later, they had to refuse to give the reformers any voice in their decisions. That is, they had to break with them and expel them from their assemblies, something they could not do unless and until they tore away the ideology of tolerance and diversity that is the contemporary antithesis of the situationist practice of “concretely breaking with apologists for any aspect of the present social order.” [26]

 The particular reasons for the expulsion of the English situationists also touch on central issues of our time. “Overemphasising head-on activism as a be-all & end-all,” for instance remains a pathology that afflicts many anti-capitalist groups. The consequences can include the brow-beating dominance of the physically reckless or suicidal, and a convenient relocation of revolutionary praxis away from individuals’ own everyday entanglements and collaborations with alienated society. As for the opposition to mysticism, in 1967 the critique of religion was an essential precondition for all criticism, as the effects of the ‘New Age’ mysticisms entertained by the American counter-culture demonstrated. It continues to be so today in those situations in which religion retains some substantive influence. In North Africa, the uprisings of the Arab Spring have all failed to suppress separate power and take economic and social decisions into their own hands. Instead, they have contented themselves with watching the existing rulers fall and hoping for salvation from their successors. Is religious belief in part responsible? After all, abolishing everything that exists independently of individuals is hardly consistent with the notion of divine power that Islam projects over humanity. Does acceptance of the separate power of the divine tend to keep the believer from the rejection of the alienation of the individual on which the refusal of separate secular power depends, with the result that he or she is reduced to the treadmill of cheering in and jeering out the endless series of proponents of justice and equity that separate politics throws up?

 There is also the question of friendship. In his recollections of the expulsion of the English section, Dave Wise observes:

“Ben [Morea] was inevitably very upset about Vaneigem and started raving on in letters about the man of letters disposition he put across accusing him of not knowing anything about those at the bottom of the pile and street life in general. This created quite a dilemma in London as Chris Gray and Don N Smith in particular wanted to keep all the newfound friendships here alive and kicking. Knowing our friendliness with Ben Morea they didn't want to cause too many upsets before things had really kicked in in terms of doing something together. Presumably because of their prevarication they were excluded from the Situationists and the rest, as they say, is history. It was a major factor though that never came out in the officially recognised reasons for the exclusion as put out by the French section.” [27]

 More recently, when it emerged that a member of the ultra-left group Aufheben had helped develop crowd control techniques for the police, a number of libertarian communists in the United Kingdom declined to condemn his actions and sever their relations with him in part because he was a friend. In response, Sam Fanto Samotnaf has provided an excellent critique of traditional notions of friendship [28]. Much more can and must be said about the evasions, premature pseudo-satisfactions and paralyses of contemporary friendship. Cooper does not begin to say it. Nor does he take up the expulsion of the English section as an informative case study of how the road to hell is paved with good friendships. He avoids the whole question. He just ploughs straight on with his monomaniac pursuit of an empty hypothesis.


King Mob

 Cooper next examines King Mob. He points out that a translation from Vaneigem it published referred to Romanticism, and that the group included quotations from Blake and Coleridge in its graffiti (he cannot refrain from pedantically mentioning the spelling error in the latter). He then quotes a passage from The End of Music (which he attributes to Dave and Stuart Wise). He comments:

“The Wises explain King Mob’s use of Romanticism as, in the first instance, iconoclasm and aggravation. In a later account, David Wise is a little more candid, and concedes that King Mob actually attempted a ‘revival through appreciative critique’ of English Romanticism.”

 However, in the very “later account” that Cooper cites, Wise explains the nature of The End of Music:

“It may be said we've written about King Mob before in The End of Music so why repeat the exercise? Well yes, apart from the fact the latter text was never meant to be published seeing it was merely a somewhat hastily cobbled together draft handed around to a few people in 1978 for comment and additions. Three or so years we found out the text had been published by a group in Glasgow, which had been tied up with the formerly excellent Castoriadis influenced group, Solidarity. We literally had no knowledge that the text was being printed and moreover the name of David Wise had been supplied as author, which wasn't fully accurate. Part of it contained some kind of critical potted history of King Mob. On seeing the pamphlet for the first time, one of us asked for it to be pulped simply because it was merely some provisional notes strung together which initially had seen the light of day based mainly on conversations - which were quite exhilarating at the times during day to day work plastering, tiling, carpentry etc - on small building sites in East London mainly between ourselves and Nik Holliman who was later to produce The Sprint; c/o BM Chronos. One or two others, in different, mainly pub based scenes, had also made pertinent points which were jotted down but, basically, a name couldn't be put to it. A transcriber maybe, as it was nothing more than a product of collective, passionate yet democratic conversation (in the real and as yet unrealised sense of the term). Moreover, the people in Glasgow had altered sentences and captions - some were even created - and one or two things deleted in that editorial control freakism which is such a baneful cancer on our times and which has subsequently been applied to most of our texts not published by ourselves.” [29]

 To see any supposed shortcomings insuch a text as down to a lack of candour on the part of the Wise brothers is careless scholarship or deliberate calumny. But it serves Cooper’s interests to present Wise as a dubious witness. For although it is clear that King Mob were aware of and used the Romantics, it seems the group unfortunately focussed on the wrong ones. Cooper wishes to present Wordsworth and his Preface as the prime Romantic influence on the group. Yet the group’s graffiti, as Cooper points out, drew on Blake and Coleridge. Also, as Cooper does not mention, their text Two Letters on Student Power reproduced an extract from a letter from Coleridge (about Dorothy Wordsworth) under a picture of a topless woman [30]. This is bad enough for Cooper’s thesis but worse comes from Dave Wise’s recollections of King Mob. For example, he records that:

“Although most of our conversations where we discussed past events and figures had to do with other countries, particularly France, rebel figures, as we've suggested, were particularly plucked out from English literature. Regarding the Romantics, the main emphasis was on De Quincey and Coleridge though not from the revolutionary angle which Hazlitt in the 1830s and Artaud in the 1940s had railed against the ‘traitor’ Coleridge. Hardly surprising, as for our time our biased emphasis had more to do with modern drug taking habits with more than a sympathetic ear applied to the opium habits of both Coleridge and De Quincey. Not for nothing had the latter made that memorable statement embarking on Saturday night pre-derives through the old urban rookeries east of Tottenham Court Rd in London swallowing his laudanum alongside workers and artisans: ‘I identified with the poor not through their miseries but through their pleasures.’


There was also a streak in other King Mobbers too which wanted to actively realise some of that macabre, sinister, grotesque but nonetheless fascinating side of English Romanticism and its fall out that was crystallised in Frankenstein and Dracula, and earlier on in the novels written by Monk Lewis and especially,(and specifically) Walpole's Castle of Otranto.” [31]

 Cooper does not feel it necessary to discuss this contribution from a source he has depicted as unreliable. He passes over it in complete silence.

 If Cooper passes over the available evidence in this way, how does he establish the alleged primacy of Wordsworth? He invokes “the group’s reading of Wordsworth”(page 26), a reading that is said to be ‘close’ (page 28). In support he says (page 26):

“An early King Mob text, for example, speaks of the necessity to move ‘from the Situationist SALON down to Skid Row’, to speak in the ‘language of the streets’. The statement echoes – ‘détournes’, perhaps – Wordsworth’s claim to have forgone ‘poetic diction’ in favour of the ‘language of men.’”

 As before, there is not the slightest reason to see King Mob’s words as a deliberate play on Wordsworth. The phrase “language of the streets” is actually used to describe the “new revolutionary language” of the American Motherfuckers group. Later on the page that Cooper quotes from, the article expressly connects this new language with certain precursors:

“The Motherfucker’s real importance was that they were trying to create this new revolutionary language – at once Lautreamont’s poetry made by everyone and Boehme’s sensual speech.” [32]

 There is no mention of Wordsworth at all. As with the English section, King Mob’s inconveniently broad range of interests and influences is swept under the carpet.


The Romantic Situationist International

 At this point, Cooper’s argument takes an unexpected turn. Having previously argued that it was the Romanticism of the English situationists that distinguished them from the Situationist International, Cooper now suggests that the theory of the Situationist International had important things in common with Romanticism all along. One parallel he sees between Wordsworth and the Situationist International is that:

“like Society of the Spectacle, his Preface [to the Lyrical Ballads] offers an aesthetic theory and a reflexive explication of how that aesthetic theory has been applied to its own articulation.”

 An aesthetic theory? This notion is soon joined by that of an “aesthetic ideology” (page 29). Debord and other situationists may have distanced themselves from aesthetics, for example by arguing that:

“Of all the affairs we participate in, with or without interest, the groping quest for a new way of life is the only thing that remains really exciting. Aesthetic and other disciplines have proved glaringly inadequate in this regard and merit the greatest indifference.” [33]

“The revolutionary alteration of the present forms of culture can be nothing less than the supersession of all aspects of the aesthetic and technological apparatus that constitutes an aggregation of spectacles separated from life. […] [T]he revolutionary project […] can in no case produce an aesthetics because it is already entirely beyond the domain of aesthetics. The point is not to engage in some sort of revolutionary art-criticism, but to make a revolutionary critique of all art.” [34]

“Aesthetics, that secular substitute for the religious otherworld.” [35]

“This fragmentary opposition can then only withdraw to an aesthetic position and harden rapidly into a dated and ineffectual aesthetic in a world where it is already too late for aesthetics — as has happened with surrealism, for example.” [36]

 They may also have repudiated “ideology,” contending that “ideology is the intellectual basis of class societies” [37] and “the situationists do not put forward any ideological principles.” [38] The academic, however, simply forces situationist theory and practice into the ordinary categories of bourgeois life and thought that are the foundation of his life and work. He reduces them to dead grist for his academic mill.

 Be that as it may, the key similarity that Cooper postulates between Wordsworth and the Situationist International has to do with what he calls “the possibility of ‘authentic’ experience” (page 28).

 He explains that Wordsworth held to “the conception of an inherently good human nature from which people are distanced as society becomes more ‘civilised’ and sophisticated” (page 29). More specifically

“Nature, as the physical correspondent of that universal human nature, figures in the Preface as the source of authentic experience. Rustic lives allow a closer proximity to that source of authenticity, and a rustic aesthetic allows for its representation with minimal mediation. Wordsworth radicalism is here literal: a return to the roots, to radix” (pages 29-30).

 According to Cooper, Debord also relies on “idyllic, even prelapsarian, conceptions of authenticity” (page 30). In his view:

“The dichotomy that Wordsworth establishes between a rustic life that is experienced in all its richness and a more sophisticated life that has lost its immediate connection with nature is echoed by a distinction made by Debord in the first thesis of Society of the Spectacle. ‘In societies dominated by modern conditions of production’, writes Debord, ‘life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’ The title of the first chapter of Debord’s text heralds the spectacle as ‘the culmination of separation’. Like Wordsworth, Debord associates authenticity with that which is experienced directly, without mediation” (page 30).

 In effect, “As Rancière has recently remarked, the SI’s critique of the spectacle is based in ‘the Romantic vision of truth as non-separation’” (page 32). For Cooper, this can be seen as a form of “vitalism”:

“For the SI, positive representation in an era of spectacle only perpetuates alienation. The SI feared that if it were to represent positively that which it deemed authentic, such representations would inevitably be co-opted by the spectacle, divested of their authentic content and circulated as mere images; the inauthentic sign would replace the authentic signified. The Situationist Attila Kotányi encapsulated the SI’s position when he proposed:

We are against the dominant conditions of artistic inauthenticity… we know that [our artistic] works will be coopted by society and used against us. Our impact lies in the elaboration of certain truths which have an explosive power whenever people are ready to struggle for them.

The evasiveness of Kotányi’s phrase ‘certain truths’, like Debord’s ‘everything that was directly lived’, confirms the normative basis of the SI’s critique of spectacle, which Benjamin Noys has recently described as its vitalism, its ‘retention of a ground of reality as positivity’ at odds with its professedly negative critique. That vitalism is, I believe, its principal Romantic inheritance.”

 This is all so much nonsense. Just because the culmination of separation, a culmination that comes about when “the images detached from every aspect of life merge into […] a separate pseudo world that can only be looked at,” [39] is criticised, it does not follow that the degrees of separation that preceded it are considered beyond critique. Nor does it imply that there ever was an historical period in which separation did not exist, let alone one that sustained an everyday life to which we might wish to return. In the same way, a critique of the specific mediation of social relations by ubiquitous images that the spectacle now imposes does not rest upon a categorical rejection of anything that might broadly be called “mediated.” It also does not mean that only relations that are spectacular in nature are the object of situationist critique.

 Situationist theory is not an abstract philosophy or metaphysic of unmediated experience. It is a practical critique of all of the particular alienations and false separations that cause the poverty of everyday life now. It contains not just a critique of the spectacle but also of (amongst other things) the hierarchical power and alienated labour from whichthe spectacle arises in conditions of commodity abundance [40]. It also includes a critical view of the past [41] and its pre-spectacular miseries. Not even the most ‘prelapsarian’ societies tend to inspire nostalgia, at least on Debord’s part. As Debord stressed at the conference at which the Situationist International was founded:

“Reacting against the alienation of Christian society has led some people to admire the completely irrational alienation of primitive societies. But we need to go forward, not backward. We need to make the world more rational — the necessary first step in making it more exciting.” [42]

 After the dissolution of the Situationist International, he also said in a letter to Daniel Denevert:

“It is true that, on one side of current revolutionary ideology [révolutionnarisme], there is an aspect of ‘longing for the golden age’ that is not formally enunciated, but which one can detect, for example, in many pages by [Raoul] Vaneigem. One must critique it, especially if one estimates that the current (deteriorating) conditions of life can reinforce this emotional reaction (which becomes almost frankly ideological in the ‘ecological’ current of the American Left). The loss of life is a quite real phenomenon (for example: anyone who has lived in Paris for the last 20 years can testify to a ‘loss of the town’), but obviously it only exists within the very heart of a form of life that is already fundamentally ‘absent.’ In [The Society of the] Spectacle, I evoke the two or three past eras in which one can recognize a certain historical life and [also] the limits of these eras. Considered coldly, it appears that there’s not too much to losein the entirety of the old world.” [43]

 Situationist theory is the thought of contemporary dissatisfaction. It arises from, and speaks to, the possibilities for a completely new life to which the development of today’s capitalism has inadvertently given rise, and the modernized miseries that are precisely brought about by the squandering of those possibilities on work, surveillance, control, inconsequential chatter, cancerous urbanism, the banalization of nature, and all the other horrors of a world imperiously dominated by an economy blindly developing for itself. The historical solution it discerns lies in the revolutionary creation of a self-managed individual and collective life. That is, social life and the means to produce the human world must be taken into our hands in their entirety, and the whole of the space and time of everyday life recreated in accordance with what we desire. This is not a return to the past. Outside of certain previous moments of revolutionary struggle from which situationist theory has learned, this transformed world is unprecedented, and perhaps could not have been sustained in full until modern production and knowledge developed to the point where the best of what they in principle offer could be appropriated by and for a liberated life. And until alienated society has been suppressed and superseded (after which it will simply be redundant), situationist theory is merely an evolving tool of combat. Its function is to help the individual understand her collaboration with her own alienation, and to determine for herself the practical steps she might usefully take against that alienation in the particular circumstances in which she finds herself. Except in the hands of enemies, it does nothing else.

 What on earth has all this do with Wordsworth’s fantasies of an imagined rural past? What, one might whimsically ask, has Wordsworth’s pastoral idyll to do with Eduardo Rothe’s notion that we go into outer space “as masters without slaves reviewing their domains: the entire universe pillaged for the workers councils”? [44] It is only by giddily ascending to a completely useless and uninformative level of abstraction that these radically dissimilar things can be associated with each other. This is a game by and for fools.

 What about Rancière’s assertion that the situationist critique of the spectacle is based in “the Romantic vision of truth as non-separation”? Does this assist Cooper? No. Rancière’s entire argument consists of these two sentences:

“In fact, the theoretical foundations of the critique of the spectacle are borrowed, via Marx, from Feuerbach’s critique of religion. The basis of both critiques consists in the Romantic vision of truth as non-separation.” [45]

 There are at least three problems with Rancière’s argument. First, he fails to show that Feuerbach’s critique of religion managed to pass through Marx to the situationists unscathed by Marx’s criticism of it in the Theses on Feuerbach [46] and elsewhere. Second, he fails to show where and how the critique of the spectacle are based on Feuerbach’s critique. Third, he fails to show that the Romantics actually held a vision of truth as non-separation and what precisely it consisted of. At every stage it assumes what it should prove. It is wholly devoid of merit. One would expect no better from a philosopher intent on demonstrating that “there is no contradiction between the critique of the spectacle and the quest for a theatre restored to its original essence.” [47]

 Cooper also relies on Benjamin Noys’ reference to the Situationist International’s“retention of a ground of reality as positivity.” However, the passage Cooper cites is a summary of a position that Noys goes on to reject in the next paragraph onwards. For instance, Noy says:

“First, we have to note that this dismissal of Debord and the SI rests on the treatment of politics, or anti-politics, as philosophy. A specific (political) assault on particular mediations (of the state and of capital) is treated as a (philosophical) attack on representation itself. This is what then supposedly leads this thought into bad metaphysics, as it can only naïvely posit some underlying ‘true’ alternative to the reign of representation. In aiming to destroy all mediations one has to posit some unmediated point from which to mount this critique. T. J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith make the point that: ‘We shall never begin to understand Debord’s hostility to the concept ‘representation,’ for instance, unless we realize that for him the word always carried a Leninist aftertaste’. Contra Nancy, it is not a matter of a violent attack on representation itself for the sake of some Rousseauist fantasy of dancing round the social may-pole, but a general assault on political mediation that threatens leftism as much as capital.” [48]

 Cooper wholly fails to answer these criticisms [49]. At the same time, he ignores the suggestion in Noys’ summary that the situationists’ purported “vitalist metaphysics” is said to be “most self-evident in the work of Raoul Vaneigem, such as when, in The Book of Pleasures (1979), he posits the force of ‘real life’ ‘pushing through, under my very feet’” (page 97). However confusedly, there issomething in this. What is more, it can have important practical consequences, notably in the form of a subjectivism that “wants the realisation of all existing desires, including those desires which belong to the spectacle,” [50] for which reason it was criticised decades ago by certain situationists. However, Cooper fails to recognize differences between the continental European situationists. He is also unlikely to be troubled by the prospect of taking up spectacular desires. After all, where does his wish to chisel out a niche in academia for himself with papers such as The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationistscome from, if not from the spectacle’s representations of what is good and what is inescapable?

 Cooper’s final contention in this connection is that “the evasiveness of Kotányi’s phrase ‘certain truths’, like Debord’s ‘everything that was directly lived’, confirms the normative basis of the SI’s critique of spectacle.” In effect, Cooper has converted brevity into evasiveness. In doing so, it ignores some obvious reasons for this brevity.

 Kotanyi was in fact speaking at an internal conference of the Situationist International. The conference, which was held in Göteborg in 1961, was an important moment in the clash between the revolutionary faction of the Situationist International and the reactionary elements within the organization who wished to associate situationist practice with artistic work. The revolutionary position was first defended by Raoul Vaneigem, who amongst other things argued that:

“The existing world, in both its capitalist and its supposedly anticapitalist variants, organizes life in the form of spectacles. . . . The point is not to elaborate a spectacle of refusal, but to refuse the spectacle. In order for their elaboration to be artistic in the new and authentic sense defined by the SI, the elements of the destruction of the spectacle must precisely cease to be works of art. There is no such thing as situationism, or a situationist work of art, or a spectacular situationist. Once and for all.

Such a perspective means nothing if it is not directly linked to revolutionary praxis, to the desire to change life (which is not at all the same as merely changing the bosses of existing occupations).”

 Dieter Kunzelmann and Jørgen Nash were sceptical. The question had also been raised of whether any of the experimental films on which several members of the Scandinavian section had worked could properly be termed ‘situationist.’According to the published report of the conference (the document from which Cooper himself quotes):

“Kotányi responds to Nash and Kunzelmann: ‘Since the beginning of the movement there has been a problem as to what to call artistic works by members of the SI. It was understood that none of them was a situationist production, but what to call them? I propose a very simple rule: to call them ‘antisituationist.’ We are against the dominant conditions of artistic inauthenticity. I don’t mean that anyone should stop painting, writing, etc. I don’t mean that that has no value. I don’t mean that we could continue to exist without doing that. But at the same time we know that such works will be coopted by the society and used against us. Our impact lies in the elaboration of certain truths which have an explosive power as soon as people are ready to struggle for them. The movement is only in its infancy regarding the elaboration of these essential points. It has yet to attain the degree of purity found in modern explosives. Until we attain this purity, i.e. this necessary degree of clarity, we cannot count on the explosive effects of our approaches to everyday life and to the critique of everyday life. I urge you not to forget that our present productions are anti situationist. The clarity that comes from recognizing this fact is indispensable for attaining any greater clarification. If we sacrifice this principle, Kunzelmann would be right in a negative sense: the SI would be unable to attain the most meager power.’” [51]

 Kotányi was, therefore, briefly contrasting, for the purposes of an internal discussion, two basic notions of situationist practice: the production of artistic works and the elaboration of certain explosive truths (“making petrified conditions dance by singing them their own tune,” to borrow a phrase from Ken Knabb). Moreover, as his subsequent words show, Kotányi was of the view that further clarification of these truths was required, and that this could only be attained by a recognition that the present productions by situationists were anti situationist. Given this context and this position, his failure to elaborate on the “certain truths” is understandable. For him, neither the truths themselves nor the necessary conditions for their elaboration as yet existed. To allow that elaboration to take place, the organization has to make the choice to repudiate the notion of situationist art, which was precisely what he was proposing to the situationists that they do. It is simply absurd to see some element of evasiveness in this.

 As for Debord, the perfunctory nature of his phrase “everything that was directly lived” expresses not evasion but indifference. What is important is the world that exists now that the spectacle has come into being, and its suppression.


The unity it presents is divided

 Finally, having established to his own satisfaction that both the Situationist International and the English Situationists were related to Romanticism, Cooper once again pulls the two apart (pages 36-7):

“Perhaps the English Situationists deemed Debord’s negative-dialectical mode of exposition to be the stumbling block in the SI’s anglophonic reception, the target of the accusations of ‘intellectualism’. When they decided that the crucial unit of the SI’s analysis was its attention to youth revolt and delinquency, and when they proceeded to develop a textual practice of role-playing and even hyperbolising that anti-sociality – a lumpen aesthetic analogous to Wordsworth’s rustic one – the English Situationists reproduced Wordsworth’s faith that authenticity can be identified and represented, that positive representation is not necessarily spectacular or alienating. They attempted to transpose the core political content of the SI’s critique of spectacle into a distinctly English literary tradition, but in severing the SI’s political analysis from its aesthetic one, in articulating the former by way of a Romantic, affirmative, and positivistic mode of exposition, the English Situationist aesthetic practice became diametrically opposed to that of the SI.”

 The distinction that Cooper draws here, between a Situationist International that is anxious to present itself as wholly negative and English Situationists who more inclined to positive depictions, is specious. The English Situationists tended to praise the delinquents for their subversiveness not their authenticity. [52] The Situationist International equally did not hesitate to identify and applaud the tendencies toward revolutionary subversion it saw in the world. For example, it concluded its Address to Revolutionaries of Algeria and of All Countries [53] with the following:

“Long live the comrades who in 1959 burned the Koran in the streets of Baghdad!

Long live the workers councils of Hungary, defeated in 1956 by the so-called Red Army!

Long live the dockers of Aarhus who last year effectively boycotted racist South Africa, in spite of their union leadership and the judicial repression of the Danish social-democratic government!

Long live the ‘Zengakuren’ student movement of Japan, which actively combats the capitalist powers of imperialism and of the so-called ‘Communist’ bureaucracies!

Long live the workers’ militia that defended the northeastern districts of Santo Domingo!

Long live the self-management of the Algerian peasants and workers! The option is now between the militarized bureaucratic dictatorship and the dictatorship of the ‘self-managed sector’ extended to all production and all aspects of social life.”

 Furthermore, to the extent that the English Situationistsdid attempt to “level a critique of the spectacle by way of supposedly spectacularised forms; a critique that was based on the affirmation of images of authenticity” (page 37), did this have its roots in Wordsworth’s rustic aesthetic, or something else? Just what was Romanticism’s legacy for King Mob? In the case of the quotations that King Mob used in its graffiti (Coleridge’s “A grief without a pang, void, dark, drear, a stifled drowsy grief” and Blake’s “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”), there is no sense of the positive. One phrase serves as rather a good description of the state to which the dominant society often reduces us, while the other reflects King Mob’s insistence on a visceral detestation of this society. As for “the opium habits of both Coleridge and De Quincey” and “the macabre, sinister, grotesque but nonetheless fascinating side of English Romanticism” that Dave Wise says were attractive to elements of King Mob, perhaps it was thought that drugs and the monstrous might open the way to a new and more desirable life. There may also have been some element of ‘positivity’ in King Mob’s bringing together of Coleridge’s rather chaste description of the charms of Dorothy Wordsworth and a modern representation of a ‘brazen’ woman. Neither, however, obviously has anything to do with Wordsworth or a hankering after the “authentic.” Something else was being done with these selected fragments of Romantic thought. What was it? Cooper is too busy building a career out of nonsense to shed any light on this question.

 Above and beyond these issues of historical accuracy and completeness, the central poverty of Cooper’s work rests in his utter failure to address any of the real practical questions raised by the matters through which he blunders. Why, for example, did the delinquents fail to develop the effective revolutionary contestation the English Situationists hoped they would; and what can be done to reverse this continuing failure today? [54] Also, what were the practical consequences of King Mob’s “role-playing” and “hyperbolising [of] anti-sociality”? Did those tactics reflect or anticipate new features of the very spectacular society the group sought to attack? [55] In general, what lessons must be learned from the experiences of the English section and King Mob? What refinements of refusal can contemporary dissatisfaction draw from them? Cooper is silent. There is no profit in such questions for him.

 In relation to Romanticism in general, what ultimately matters is whether and how its legacy supports the dominant society and therefore destroys life, and whether and how it might be used to undermine that society and therefore liberate life. Can it serve as a new North-Western Passage to the supersession of art, and thence to a new revolution, as Dave and Stuart Wise suspect? [56] Cooper has nothing to say about this either. [57]

 Of course, Cooper may protestthat such questions are not within the remit of academia. So much the worse for academia and academics.It merely shows that part of the academic role is to talk twaddle about irrelevancies for the benefit of power.

 Wayne Spencer

 May 2013. Slightly added to in June 2013.

No Copyright. Use in any way you wish.

The author can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 [1] Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Theses on the Situationist International and its Time, 1972. In: Situationist International, The Real Split in the International, London: Pluto Press, 2003, page 6.

 [2]Cambridge Quarterly,2013, Volume 42(1), pages 20-37. A copy can be found at:

 [3] Ralph Rumney, The Consul, London: Verso, 2002, page 2.

 [5] See: Wordsworth repeats his assertion that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” later in the Preface.

 [11] Charles Radcliffe, Two Fiery Flying Rolls: The Heatwave Story, 1966-1970. In Franklin Rosemont and Charles Radcliffe (editors), Dancin’ in the Streets! Anarchists, IWWs, Surrealists, Situationists &Provos in the 1960s as Recorded in the Pages of the Rebel Worker and Heatwave, Chicago: Charles H Kerr, 2005, page 374.

 [12] See King Mob Echo: The English Section of the Situationist International, Edinburgh: Dark Star, 2000, pages 19-58.

 [13] See Radcliffe’s Two Fiery Flying Rolls.

 [14] Radcliffe’s Two Fiery Flying Rolls, page 378.

 [15] Franklin Rosemont, Souvenirs of the Future – Precursors of the Theory and Practice of Total Liberation, Rebel Worker 6, In: Dancin’ in the Streets!, page 196.

 [17] See the letter from Guy Debord, Christopher Gray, Mustapha Khayati, Donald Nicholson-Smith and Rene Vienetto Robert Chasse and Tony Verlaan dated 5 December 1967:

 [18] See the letter from Guy Debord, Mustapha Khayati, Donald Nicholson-Smith and Raoul Vaneigem to Tony Verlaan dated 3 October 1967:

 [19] Letter from Guy Debordto Robert Chasse dated 23 December 1967:


 [22] Situationist International, The Latest Exclusions, InternationaleSituationniste 12, 1969:

 [23] See the letter from Guy Debord to Robert Chasse dated 23 December 1967:, and the Situationist International’s Circular to all Sections dated 21 December 1967:

 [24] See the letter from Guy Debord to Donald Nicholson-Smith and Christopher Gray dated 16 December 1967:

 [25] For a justification of such measures, see Situationist International, The Ideology of Dialogue, InternationaleSituationniste10, 1966:

 [28] See the section Frayed Threads of Friendship in Cop-out – The Significance of Aufhebengate:

 [30]See King Mob Echo: The English Section of the Situationist International, Edinburgh: Dark Star, 2000, page89.

 [32]King Mob Echo: The English Section of the Situationist International, Edinburgh: Dark Star, 2000, page113.

 [33] Guy, Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, Les LèvresNues 6, 1955:

 [34] Guy Debord, For a Revolutionary Judgment of Art, Notes Critiques: bulletin de recherche et d’orientationrévolutionnaires3, 1962:

 [35] Situationist International, Geopolitics of Hibernation, InternationaleSituationniste7, 1962:

 [36]J.V. Martin, Jan Strijbosch, Raoul Vaneigem and René Viénet, Response to a Questionnaire from the Center for Socio-Experimental Art, InternationaleSituationniste9, 1964:

 [37] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, thesis 212:

 [38] Italian Section of the Situationist International, 1969:

 [39] Thesis 2 of The Society of the Spectacle:

 [40] See, for example, theses 26-34 of The Society of the Spectacle:

 [41] See, for example, thesis 25 and chapter 5 of The Society of the Spectacle:, and Raoul Vaneigem, Basic Banalities (Part 1), InternationaleSituationniste7, 1962:

 [42] Guy Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action, 1957:

 [43] Letter from Guy Debord to Daniel Denevert dated 26 February 1972: We shall touch on Raoul Vaneigem below.

 [44] Eduardo Rothe, The Conquest of Space in the Time of Power, InternationaleSituationniste12 ,1969: Today, we may wish to consider a little less pillaging and a little more conservation of finite resources.

 [45] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, London: Verso, 2009, page 6.

 [47] Page 7 of The Emancipated Spectator.

 [48]Benjamin-Noys, The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010, page 98.

 [49] Alas, after making one or two good points, Noys immediately descends into absurdities of his own. Thankfully, these are beyond the scope of the text.

 [50]JoëlCornuault, Some Reflections on Subjectivism and Intellectualism, 1977. In: Revolutionary Theory for Beginniners (Pure and Applied): Three Situationist Texts, London: BM Combustion (1978), page 7.

 [51] Situationist International, The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg, InternationaleSituationniste7, 1962:

 [52] See the section The Real Avant-Garde: The Game-Revolt of Delinquency, Petty Crime and the New Lumpen in the English Section’s text The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution:

 [53] Situationist International, Address to Revolutionaries of Algeria and of All Countries, InternationaleSituationniste10, 1966: See also, amongst others, The Bad Days Will End, InternationaleSituationniste 7, 1962:, The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy, InternationaleSituationniste10, 1966:, and theses 115-18 of Guy Debord’sThe Society of the Spectacle:

 [54] For a few thoughts from me, see my Nothing Burns in Hell: On Delinquents and Respectable Citizens:

 [55] For analysis of this, see Dave Wise, A Critical Hidden History of King Mob:

 [56] See, for example, Stuart Wise, Reflections on English and German Romanticism and the Revolt of Poetic Form:

 [56] Indeed, throughout his highly-selective characterization of the English Situationists he is also silent about their interest in and commitment to the realization and suppression and art, even though it was one of the main subjects of their writings.