Design for Living Dangerously: On the Situationist Text 'Mémoires'

The sun is shining, angry birds are tweeting, bees are dropping like flies: ’Tis a good day for a picnic in the graveyard of honor and humanity. Let us go and pay our disrespects at the tomb of 1959. A bygone age, suffused with the cologne of the quaint. Underneath lies an anarchic spirit waiting to be born again. Or snuffed out once and for all. The spirit in question can be summed up in a saying Graham Greene once procured from Gauguin: “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.”

This idea was given its funniest, most wraithlike expression within Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s short, radically obscure, maleficent, poetic this-is-not-a-book, Mémoires (1959), which was

The Situationist exhibition and performance "Destruktion af RSG-6” at Galerie EXI, Denmark, 1963.
The Situationist exhibition and performance "Destruktion af RSG-6” at Galerie EXI, Denmark, 1963.

Here, you may be nodding: Way cool. Or groaning with irritation: Not this shit—not again! But those reactions really amount to the same thing. Relevance. Relatability. What’s in it for me? You’ve already got the tentacles of the spectacle coming and going up your wifi wazoo like a human centipede jacked into an Xbox. Mémoires may reek too much of the past; too little, too literary, too late to be of any use. You can smell the stale air of an autoerotic, everything-is-possible crusade, or the stench of yet another decomposed dream in a muddy ditch. Some underwater kingdom where Marx and Rimbaud were supposed to rule, healing the separation between theory and praxis, officiating the wedding of chaos and harmony—before the bottom fell out and the investors bailed. Leaving Mémoires stranded as, more or less, one more antiquated objet d’art that happened to beat the ’60s to the starting gate. First to go all-in at the deep end of the drowning pool, before Godard, Naked Lunch, Dylan, Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari, Pynchon, Rivette, and all the rest took the big plunge.

So when that impossible dreamtime—the severe, phantasmagoric, old-world-toppling, freedom-rising-from-the-ashes Lettrist/Situationist project—came unglued, the events of May ’68 served as a double-edged validation/epitaph. Nice try—better luck next time. In the poly-aftermaths, everything path-breaking and bridge-burning about Mémoires came to seem an awful lot like a phantom limb reminder of a grenade that blew up before it could be thrown.

Yet somehow the absolute still beckons, if only as guilty pangs felt by the over-indulged or under-challenged. What would it really be like to let the truly anarchic—as opposed to anarchy-chic—in? To reboot that poetic consciousness-razing process, start one’s very own personal war on socialized appearances: Throw your degrees in the dumpster, abandon your career track, desert your work station, chuck your position, default on your student loans, reject the societal niceties in all their Colgate-white brightness. You have nothing to lose, as the saying goes (or went), but your chains.

There’s the trouble with “the Spectacle-Commodity Economy,” Twenty-First Century Edition: Our chains are a wireless morphine drip-cum\-feeding tube that anesthetizes us to the remaining traces of the real—whatever ideology and socialized delusion haven’t yet erased. Self-medicating via Ebola-strength dogmas, righteous tattoos, and joystick excursions through the hoops of virtual individualism in the latest edition of Grand Theft Autonomy, postmodern individuals assemble themselves from an Identikit panoply of masks, postures, and apps.

Everyone from the cultural workers to the identity cops is busy servicing the spectacle or being serviced by it: The cultural one-percent dutifully bay at the economic elites, the disaffected bourgeoisie square off with patrician doppelgangers-on, privileged so-and-sos bitterly squabble among themselves over who is properly credentialed to Mao-Mao the managerial-bureaucratic dogcatchers. This and that little cult-de-sac will bitch at the ho-ho-horror of the capitalist theme park—the senseless wars, the terrible inequities, the junk culture (splitting the difference between crap and smack)—but when we get right down to brass tactics, the majority of our wannabe dissidents are securely ensconced in the blubber of the Leviathan, headphones clamped down tight and drone eyes on the Facebook prize. What if the role of the intelligentsia in this sham “class struggle” is less about “resistance” than beefing up their painfully marginalized status through role-playing collaboration? Like professional wrestling, but with lower stakes and more unimaginative costumes.

“Every époque aspires to a more beautiful world,” alleged Mémoires, citing the historian Johan Huizinga’s 1919 volume The Waning of the Middle Ages (one of just three attributed passages in the book). “The more dark and confused the present is, the more profound this desire.” What’s most absent from our deeply confused and compromised time is the ability to imagine some revolution more profound than swapping one doctrine, one orthodoxy, one operating system, for another. It is easy enough to express dismay at capitalism, because a couple centuries of oppositional leftism has bequeathed to the spectatorial intelligentsia a boilerplate of rebellion, a superstructure of disgust. Translating protest into praxis—growing a movement, building a credible alternative society that goes beyond repainting the status quo in rainbow logos, and actually delivers needed resources to the underclass—is the hard part. It’s lovely someone would take it upon herself to remove a Confederate flag from a state capitol flagpole, but the true task is building a critical mass of people who’ll make the same risks part of their everyday lives, who are willing to make genuine sacrifices on behalf of something greater than themselves.

In Pussy Riot’s 2012 hit-and-run performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior—a cadre of sacred-space invaders in comic-book-heroine balaclavas, combining negation (of Putinist Christianity and/or Orthodox Neo-Sovietism) with exuberant participation (making a scene, a situation, unfiltered history)—the spirit of Debord and his old gang mingled with the incense. Pussy Riot’s gesture, laughing and shouting “fuck you” in an Orthodox cathedral, snowballed into a magnificently absurd show trial that put the entire post-Soviet system in the dock. The names of Kafka and Debord were invoked by the accused, like guardian angels, who in turn prosecuted Putin and his ally Patriarch Kirill as unholy high priests of the union of KGB and Church, Kleptocracy and Theocracy. The judge in the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup could hardly have matched the Margaret Dumont stand-in who called for order in the Russian courtroom, saying: “We are not in a theater.” In terms of exposing the spectacular fraud of Putin’s apparatus and its apparatchiks, the house of cards that is that world, it is impossible to conceive of a more thorough, hilarious, and moving example of political theater than that of Pussy Riot, as documented in Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (2014) and the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013).

An unmistakable signal, Pussy Riot’s performance rippled through the wider world and, if you were watching closely, tore a hole in the fabric of constraint and denial under which business as usual is conducted. But as a political act, it was an exercise in exquisite futility: Another exhibit in the museum of fear and loathing Putin curated, reinforcing “the threat” posed by liberal Western values to the sanctity of Russian identity. Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova told reporters at her first hearing that they were “just one of many groups that should appear.” As with the Situationists, the idea was for others to spontaneously organize and assemble; in testing the limits of society’s assumptions, as well as their own, Pussy Riot’s action exposed not only the bankruptcy of the Russian state but the resignation of the citizens.

Power won. Pussy Riot had not been intimidated and had not backed down, and the cravenness of the state could not have been more transparent and laughable. Yet hardly anyone laughed; a few people protested (for and against the group), and the collective shrugged. Even with a captive media like Russia’s—where Fox News devils wear Pravda—you can’t help but wonder how much of the spectacle’s power rests in its crude deceptions and how much can be attributed to the assent of its audience. If spectacle has replaced—or rather conjoined with—religion as the opiate of the masses, consider just how hard it is to get people to go cold turkey.

The Situationists had a slogan (one of so many—not for nothing did Debord’s then-wife Michèle Bernstein put in time at an ad agency): “Comfort will never be comfortable enough for those who seek what is not on the market.” As bracing as that tagline is, history has shown how eminently questionable it is, too: Comfort can never be too comfortable for those who are invested in and umbilically attached to things as they are. Everyone wants the have-nots to get more of the pie, as long as the have-mores can keep going back for seconds: The class-formerly-known-as-the-proletariat is reduced to dysfunctional Survivor tribes, fighting over the crumbs. “We all have good intentions,” reasoned the Gang of Four. “But all with strings attached.”

Life being what it is…. You want to change it, so give it your best shot. There are so many wonderful commotions to be made, troubles to be stirred up, doubts to be sown like wild oats or Johnny Rotten apple-seeds. Such actions would require a willingness to not only play, but play for keeps. Which is where things get tricky: Whether you call it the Spectacle or neoliberalism (isn’t that just the politically correct term for the dreaded New World Order?), it is remarkable how durable, adaptable, omnivorous, and seductive the thing is. It is a bullet train snow-piercing its way through history while progressives totter after it like a couple of winos on a handcar. You start out contesting it and next thing you know you’ve been exiled to an episode of House of Cards, playing yourself or a simulacrum thereof (as Pussy Riot did in Season 3 of the show, like Girls gone political). Is that punishment or reward, humiliation or confirmation? Congratulations, your country’s fucked, your hopes are dashed, and you get a lovely swag bag from the producers as your consolation prize.

This is what they mean when they say life is unfair. But according to the Memphis stone blues gospel of Mud Boy and the Neutrons, as preached in the sermon “Money Talks”: “Fair’s got nothing to do with it . . . fair is where you go when you wanna see the pigs race.” It’s where they hold the contest between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, Kanye West and Donald Trump: Who’s the fairest of them all? Think of Mémoires as poor shattered mirror-mirror, reflecting the beautiful atrocities of a disfigured humanities pageant. A tombstone or a lodestone, either way, it’s the perfect antidote to the void that we’ve either been cast into or volunteered for, Peace Corps-style.

Howard Hampton is a frequent contributor to Artforum, Bookforum, and Film Comment and the author of Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (Harvard University Press, 2007).