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The Beach Beneath the Street, By McKenzie Wark
Thursday 20 October 2011
Situationism was one of the most enduringly influential cultural movements of the 1960s. In this book, McKenzie Wark offers a far more comprehensive overview than the usual defence of its best-known publication, Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967), his withering attack on mediatised culture. As Wark makes clear, there was far more to Situationism than one clever book. The whole point of the movement was the creation of Situations – moments of radical activity which unmasked the media-led spectacle of consumer culture, and assured those involved that change was possible. One press conference at the ICA in 1960 ticked all those boxes, marking those involved in the movement as true enfants terribles of the art world.
If not as profound an upheaval as the Parisian near-revolution of May 1968, the recent English urban riots did offer a stark confrontation between the angry young and a media-saturated society whose images of sublime consumption are predicated on the circulation of commodities and credit; the social exclusion experienced, the debts incurred, and the riches pocketed by the few as a result. Though the stolen trainers and mobile phones have become part of a parallel economy, they remain part of the Society of the Spectacle.
Even when the Situationist movement formed in 1957, this paradox was apparent. Like many on the post-war left, the Situationists saw the commodification of culture as the final brick in capitalism's wall. Since capitalism had learned to incorporate even the most avant-garde forms, this made a genuinely radical culture of protest difficult – though they had lots of fun trying. The movement finally disbanded in 1972.
There are still genuinely radical gestures in art – such as the work of Guerrilla Girls, or Banksy – which are clearly the legacy of the Situationists. And internet file-sharing has destabilised capitalism's efforts to commodify all cultural production. Neither the Tottenham looter or the "kid with the BitTorrent account" identified by Wark may be consciously opposed to the Society of the Spectacle, but their challenges indicate that we should continue to take Situationism seriously in thought, word, and deed.
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