‘The Spectacle of Disintegration’ reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

The Spectacle of Disintegration

Verso, London and New York, 2013. 256pp., $26.95 / £16.99 hb
ISBN 9781844679577

Reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

About the reviewer

Jeffrey Petts is an independent scholar and guest professor at the Faculty of Arts, Northeastern …


In 1914 a dead dog killed by a tram on the Fulham Road was a spectacle. Arnold Bennett used this example to illustrate how his ‘author’s craft’ would make something of such an incident – he ‘sees life’ in it and a potential ‘work’, while the ordinary public just observe a kerfuffle and make no more of it than that. In 2014 we’re all geared for the spectacle, not with the artist’s tools of imagination and craft but with iPhones and social media. Now rather than mere observation, Bennett would witness an intense, everyday vicarious interest, the dead dog’s dying whimpers gone viral before its final breathe. Some time between, the Situationists noticed this change in the everyday, that increasingly it presented itself as its spectacular version – directly experienced life moved to a representation of it, and all of life tended to an accumulation of these spectacles – but perhaps little realising its disintegrating digital, selfie apotheosis, the shared dead-dog-and-me image.

The ‘wager’ – as MacKenzie Wark puts it – of The Spectacle of Disintegration and his previous work on the Situationists (The Beach Beneath the Street) is that critical practice needs to examine and develop three aspects of their 20th century work before any 21st century equivalent can be successful (19). Two are covered in the earlier work – namely the artistic phase of the Situationists in the 1950s and their 1960s political thought and action. The Spectacle of Disintegration tackles a third aspect: the idea ‘that the defeat of May ’68 did not mark the end of the Situationist project’ to end the ‘society of the spectacle’ and that this is evident in, particularly, the art criticism of T.J. Clark, Raoul Vaneigem’s thoughts on utopia, René Viénet’s film-making, and in some of the later work of Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho, from the 1970s onwards (19). Wark’s stated method is to connect their situationist theory and practice to everyday life here and now. And this ‘here-and-now’ is conceived as a ‘disintegrating spectacle’, the stage beyond the concentrated and diffuse forms of society identified by Debord (where the commands of the spectacle are to ‘obey’ and to ‘buy’ respectively), beyond too their integration, to a society where every real thing ‘gradually ceases even to be its own image’ (44). It is a notion that Wark fails to define or even describe, but its general characterisation is illustrated by the arresting openings of both Beach and Disintegration with their metaphors of the current spectacle as a giant inflatable dog turd breaking loose from its moorings, and as a huge gyre of discarded white goods awash in the Pacific. It would be foolish then to examine this notion independently of Wark’s elucidation of it in terms of the specific analyses and works of Clark, Vaneigem, Viénet, and so on. As a preliminary too, it is worth establishing some dominant themes in non-metaphoric terms that structure Situationists’ work and Wark’s updating of it. I think there are essentially two. First, that Situationist dérives and détournements remain sufficient means of enquiring into and challenging the spectacle, even in its disintegrating state. Second, that a post-spectacle society is properly based on ‘play’ rather than ‘work’.

Wark’s examination of Clark occupies chapters 3, 4 and 5 and focuses on his art historical analyses of various painters, especially the anarchist point of view expressed in some of Camille Pissarro’s works. Wark quotes Clark at length, generally letting the quotes do the work of, supposedly, elucidating a Situationist position on the proper making of artworks and their use in political struggle. So, essentially, Wark supports Clark’s idea that works like Two Young Peasant Women ‘possessed some of the forms to describe and resist the developing nature of bourgeois society’, and that closing off anarchism deprived socialism of ‘an imagination adequate to the horror confronting it, and the worse to come’ (42). Wark summarises Clark as ‘restoring to view the life of the image and an anarchist vision’ (48). Whether this is true would need some detailed analysis of Clark’s own analysis of, for example, Pissarro’s work, but Wark doesn’t engage at that level. His strategy (indeed throughout the book) is to publicise rather than scrutinise Situationist texts (and films and so on), and so to reveal supposed resonances with 21st century life. I wonder whether Clark’s art history and criticism comprises a Situationist body of work at all, but Wark expects us to be unconcerned by that, and rather to note that a 60s and 70s Situationist (Clark was briefly in the British section of the Situationist International) wrote social art history. Of course that work is going to be concerned with images and the truths they hide or reveal, but in the end that’s a sine qua non for art history and criticism, and Wark doesn’t convince that there’s any special Situationist insight to be had (into Pissarro or any other artist).

Wark’s attention moves, hardly seamlessly, to Raoul Vaneigem, another Situationist at least, who ‘brings back to our attention the poetry of utopia’ (48). Chapters 6, 7 and 8 wander through this idea, with emphasis on Charles Fourier’s designs for utopia and their relations to Vaneigem’s ideas about a post-spectacular everyday life. As with Wark’s exposition of Clark, the point at issue itself – in this case the proper nature of work and play – is often lost in a plethora of quotes. This only undermines Wark’s overarching justification for these potted Situationist histories, namely that it’s relevant now. And if there’s one point of specific, contemporary interest it is, ironically, that Fourier’s and Vaneigem’s utopian thinking – rather than supporting the kind of radical subjectivity one would expect of a Situationist – has uncomfortable resonances with the New Digital Age’s claims for free, creative labour carried out on Apple-style campuses. Wark is at least right to point out their necessarily dystopian features and their similarities with Fourier’s ‘phalanstery’ (particularly the gameification of work used to mobilise technical and creative employees, and their working conditions akin to – with offices like adult playgrounds – the marble-encrusted workshops available to some of Fourier’s workers) (79). These do indeed seem to be features of the ‘spectacle’ and not of ‘utopia’, and deserve to be challenged accordingly, but again we can dispute whether this is a uniquely Situationist insight (given all kinds of Marxist and existentialist arguments for ‘authenticity’ for example).

In chapters 9 and 10 Wark picks up on the issue of squaring utopian aspirations for work with the Marxist critique of the society of the spectacle in the context of the films of Viénet in the early 1970s (83). In films like Can Dialectics Break Bricks (an exemplary Situationist détournement from 1973, an attack on statist socialism using a kung-fu movie as a resource), Viénet, we’re told, successfully asserts his lived experience against the concentrated form of the spectacle. The problem for the reader is assessing the truth of this without seeing the film, which it seems fair to say is obscure. Wark asserts too that this and other films by Viénet are not really just spectacular versions of other films, merely remixes or mash-ups, but effectively work against the society of the spectacle. Again then, Wark simply directs us to Situationist works that may or may not be authentic works by a general, critical standard, and also fails to convince that there is a uniquely effective Situationist act of making (in Viénet’s case, films) that challenges the society of the spectacle. It is perhaps a general problem of the détournement, described by Debord (in a glossary in the first issue of Internationale Situationniste in 1958) as the working of pre-existing aesthetic elements into superior constructions, and that as such there are no situationist works but only situationist use of these means. In which case, what are we to make of Wark’s claims for Viénet’s films? We are barred from treating them aesthetically – as works in other words – yet they claim the value of authenticity and meaning, of being genuine ‘artistic’ responses to lived experience. Having to regard them simply as means to other ends, apart from seeming a deceit given they are works, only introduces justifiable scepticism about their political effectiveness. It illustrates perhaps the problems that accompany a general assertion of ‘play’ over ‘work’ that bedevil the Situationists. In another but related context we see examples of the problems associated with a resistance to ‘worked’ solutions when, for example, WikiLeaks refuses to allow secret government information to be properly edited, politically contextualised, and published as specific, comprehensible texts; when Edward Snowden’s revelations are lost in spectacular videos about him and childish Twitter games about his whereabouts.

A similar problem of being able properly to assess Situationist works (or their ‘works’ as political means against the spectacle) is evident when Wark turns to the films Debord made in the 1970s after the official break-up of the Situationist International. A description of one as a détourning of TV news coverage as a way of illustrating the analysis of his Society of the Spectacle is historically interesting, but the film’s playful editing of TV news now would seem just that, a commonplace of 21st century satire.

The whole Situationist strategy is brought into focus by Wark’s final dérive through its 20th century history. Debord and his wife Alice Becker-Ho devised a board game called Game of War (175). Wark gives a long description of how it is vastly more complex than Risk, which boils down to it being a game less dependent on dice and essentially a game involving ‘participant observation’ (186). Becker-Ho reveals the key to the game (and to being a Situationist) is ‘loyalty to oneself’ in the ‘play’ (187). And this reveals, for Wark, the Situationist as a strategist not a philosopher, someone committed to the ‘low theory’ of everyday actions rather than the ‘high theory that institutionalizes the mere thought of extremes’ (187). The argument remains at this level of generality and so is impossible to engage, but it is perhaps sufficient to note that a general view of ‘playing the game’, ‘loyalty to oneself’ and mocking theory is one comfortably held by property developers and hedge fund managers too.

Relatedly, for Situationists in the 21st century, the emphases on play and on strategic manoeuvring to a utopia of non-spectacular life seem exactly the grist of the spectacle’s own marketing managers. The spectacular society still promises a better life of ‘play’ after all. It’s perhaps a conventional criticism of Situationists that their acts are too easily subverted themselves, quickly converted into everyday spectacular versions of life too. A main street in Bristol is closed on the May Bank Holiday 2014 and replaced with a giant waterslide, but this ‘intervention’ to reclaim a street for everyone to play in and enjoy is supported by the local council for the day and reported as ‘Thrill-seekers Soaked’. We shouldn’t want to dampen the spirits of Situationists, but Bennett’s story of the spectacle is salutary. It reminds us that to make something of a situation is to understand it and to craft it (which is more than observing and subverting). Of course Bennett’s understanding didn’t necessarily extend to a political appreciation of everyday spectacles. In Edward Upward’s short story, `The Spectacle’, people rush to see an oil tanker on fire just off the coast, but he despairs that they see little more than the flames, and certainly not the deeper economic causes that might result in such an accident. If Upward ‘sees politics’ and Bennett ‘sees life’, then together we see the everyday properly, not strategically and playfully, but philosophically and aesthetically, and these remain our best theoretic and experiential routes out of the society of the spectacle.

12 May 2014

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