Tim Pendry's Reviews > The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International

The Beach Beneath the Street by Kenneth McKenzie Wark
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A flawed but interesting, if somewhat indirect, account of the Situationist International which grew out of the Parisian Left Bank, as a generational reaction to surrealism, existentialism, structuralism and mainstream Marxism, and played an important role in the 'evenements' of 1968.

The problem with the book is that it is low level polemic as much as it is history. Published by Verso, it falls into the classic Verso trap of editorially permitting, indeed encouraging, both posturing rhetoric and obscurity. Verso intellectuals do like to strut and show off like peacocks.

Nevertheless, it is enlightening if only for retrieving key personalities from the movement as highly creative and in giving us at least some idea of why their anarcho-radical ideas were important then and may be even more important now.

I write 'anarcho-radical' cautiously because that is how Situationism might reasonably be interpreted as functionally useful today but, of course (and the book makes this clear), the Situationists spoke within the same standard Marxist discourse as everyone else in post-war Paris.

It is hard to believe today that Marxism held the bulk of the European artistic and intellectual establishment in thrall for much of the immediate post-war period. Its weird tight language infected culture and politics far into the 1980s but acts as a barrier to the modern reader.

To discuss issues of culture and politics required that it be done within a framework of Marxist texts that are now only of interest to specialists - an analogy might be with the necessity of discussing reality or the human condition within a strictly Christian context in earlier periods.

Nevertheless, once we adapt to this strange and ancient language of class struggle and labour value, beneath the cant these artists and intellectuals were genuinely trying to deal with an issue that Christian apologists, Marx himself and the existentialists had all struggled with – alienation.

This is where Situationism and the book become interesting. How do we as subjects of a system that is palpably out of our control regain control. The Situationist response is to emphasise playfulness and an expansive expenditure of what private resources are available to us.

Situationism is fundamentally a romantic reaction to the bureaucratic impulse in both ‘really existing socialism’ (the communism of Stalin and Trotsky) and in the post-war liberal capitalist state that would evolve later into the Hegelian lunacy of the European Federal State.

It also presents an accidental advance critique of what would later become not just a theory of commodity fetishism but an actuality in the form of the debt-fuelled, leisure-based, peasant-worker exploiting capitalism that is now going rather spectacularly through one of its periodic crises.

McKenzie Wark is polemically attempting to recover not Situationism as such but the attitude of Situationists in this context. It has to be said that his few sharp comments on rioting as a response to alienation in the last chapter really are rather good.

There is something as romantic about this book as the movement. It evidences the latter's elan and its imagination, perhaps its paradoxical role in creating the current crisis through its contribution to the post-modern impulse, but not its effectiveness on its own terms.

It is certainly worth reading for its brief accounts of the work of key figures – the novels of Bernstein (whose dissection of post-bourgeois heterosexual sexuality is magnificent), the self-destructive genius of Trocchi, the utopianism of Constant and the central artistic role of Jorn.

I am sure the account of Lefebvre would be fascinating if I cared enough about the Marxist theory of labour value (barely stifles yawn!) – but anyone who reads this book will understand the centrality of Situationist critique to our current predicament and may want to find out more.

And, flitting in and out as Master of Ceremonies, is Guy Debord himself who understands, as Stalin did, that power in any society lies with the man who is given command of the Minutes and the Membership Register. An uneven, occasionally frustrating, book, but well worth reading.
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message 1: by C.J. (new)

C.J. Stone Mmmm, the "Marxist" theory of Labour Value, was actually mainstream in the 19th century. John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, they all subscribed to it. It also makes absolute sense. What is value? It is the work we put into the world. You can't get more straightforward or simple than that. And once you understand that, you also recognise that the value we create as workers on every level, is being stolen from us. Alienation works in both ways: both the alienation of us humans from our own creation, and the alienation of our value into private hands.

message 2: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim Pendry I did not say whether it made sense or not. I simply said I don't care much about it and I find it boring. That is not the same thing by any means.

My critique of Marxism is to be found in other reviews of other texts but it is not a critique of his economic analysis per se. Within its limited bounds, it is, as you imply, a fairly uncontroversial and dull analysis.

But the situationist critique of Marx in this respect does bear scrutiny because it makes my 'yawn' a legitimate response to an analysis that leads to a degree of 'so-whatism' when Marxism excludes other assessments of value than those derived solely from inputs of labour.

On the one hand, there is legitimate criticism of labour value theory from the Right insofar as capital in itself (expressed as social capital, entrepreneurial experience, timeliness of availability of resources through managerial skill, and so on) contributes to the creation of value where labour is a mere managed input.

The thing created would or could not be created without these 'higher inputs' (proven to a degree in the sclerotic economics and poor record of innovation in regard to desires and needs fulfilled of really existing humans in Sovietism).

The situationist critique from the Left (the 'potlach' critique) is equally valid since it takes value as arising from real unalienated human desire and playfulness.

Value is created not from the labour but from the reception of the labour. This too accords with experience since we know that repetitive and inefficient labour (encouraged by the work ethic) destroys value in destroying time for leisure or play where leisure and play and desire are value.

Once again, Marxism (as in its sub-Christian ethics and echatology, its rituals and its forms) is simply an outgrowth of a particular culture to which it is bound more than against which it revolts.

The failure of the organised Communist Party to 'come out' in '68 (an interesting error that enabled the reaction of the 1970s and presaged the Party's destruction as a man of straw once the mother ship in Moscow collapsed) indicates the degree to which this jaded ideology had lost the plot.

Communism was collusive (whether Stalinist or Trotskyist) with an industrial capitalist model that was equally under threat from new and innovative ideas, ideas that eventually emerged under Reaganism in America and have created a networked form of international capitalism with its added value concept of innovation.

The situationist critique based on actual and potential desires (all things being equal) represented a far better response than traditional Marxism.

Situationism's failure was its insistence on being within the Marxist rather than the Bakuninist tradition just as capitalism's failure today is because it insists on working within a managerialist tradition instead of a fully networked artisanal tradition, using capital to mobilise loose networks of talent.

The value is not the work we put into the world but our existence in the world - which includes leisure, relationships, life cycles, inheritances, aspirations, moments of erotic transgression and creative thoughts.

'Work' is simply the dullard reduction of that existence into habit and the economics of work and labour value are a perverse economics from an existential point of view.

It is not that the value is being stolen from us, it is that we are content to exist as victims and not combine and collaborate to take back control of our lives in a much broader sense.

The official left has degenerated into a dull communitarian resentment, a sneering deadly victimhood - as women or workers, or gays or blacks, or whatever identity makes it skulk as an historical loser instead of as persons living in the now and capable of any 'collective crime' to survive and prosper against capital.

Similarly, our value is not ours other than existentially. Once we create, what we create is a creation from the social and it returns to the social. We own nothing because we can own nothing.

The insular and resentful myth of ownership is why those who have less have been misled by intellectuals (who do rather well out of the system) as to their status. They are led to see all progress as seizure and economic seizure at that when progress lies, instead, in cultural autonomy that results in social ownership redirecting, through seizures of culture, from elites to the mass.

The Reaganite market has paradoxically achieved more in this respect than any Marxist Government in history and yet this flexibility in capitalism could be countered with an even more radical flexibility in the street.

This is where the situationists were on to something even if '68 was a disappointment. It is also why the biggest block to liberation lies in the type of person who casts themselves as liberator.

message 3: by C.J. (new)

C.J. Stone OK Tim, I'm not trying to engage you in a huge debate on the relevance or otherwise of Marxist theory, just pointing out that the Labour Theory of Value isn't "Marxist" as such. You are right that is isn't only work, but existence itself (incuding playfulness) that contribute to value, but the point about the Labour Theory is that it acts as a counterpoint to Monetarism and Neo-Liberal economics whose purpose is to lessen or ignore Labour in the creation of value. It's great pointing out to a conservative that, actually, Adam Smith subscribed to it too. It wasn't "dull": it was pretty much the whole basis of economic theory, and without it the world doesn't make much sense.

message 4: by McKenzie (new)

McKenzie Wark Thanks, Tim. Some astute readings there.

message 5: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim Pendry Fair enough, CJ ... except that I have my doubts about the final utility of any economic theory, including that of Mr. Smith, in the very long run (though, clearly, we will all be dead in that same long run).

The ability of economists to comprehend our current situation seems limited to say the least and economics strikes me as a system that proves itself to itself, like Freudian psychology, theology and Marxism, by ensuring that no category is permitted within its structures of thought that can contradict its core assumptions about the human condition.

Remove rationality from economics (when human beings are not socially or intellectually rational at all, as economists would understand the concept) is like removing God, the objective and inevitable outcome of history and infantile sexuality from the other grand narratives - it cuts them all off at the knees.

The world appears to make sense through economics because economics creates a world that makes sense to itself but is not necessarily true in any absolute sense, merely true contingently under certain conditions which are created by those who define the terms of its own truth.

The apparent functioning of the world according to economic theory arises because many of the actors in it believe in a theory that allows them to act as if this particular world was the only one that made sense.

It is thus self-contained thinking by persons trying to order and understand what cannot be fully ordered or understood. It is sufficient pragmatically, I suppose, but not to be taken seriously beyond this function of being social technology.

A healthy scepticism about all claims to knowledge that are not simply contingent and pragmatic might be sensible - and that includes Smith as much as Marx.

Nevertheless, I hold to my position that, to me, economics is unutterably dull ... like politics but without the human interest in gossip and innuendo.

message 6: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim Pendry Thanks McKenzie :-)

message 7: by tout (new) - added it

tout "It has to be said that his few sharp comments on rioting as a response to alienation in the last chapter really are rather good."

The correct response to alienation clearly should be to make a career out of recuperating the situationist international.

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