Situationism and spectacle in London's East End

A dérive around Limehouse with McKenzie Wark.

Associated with a diverse range of figures including Thomas De Quincy, Walter Benjamin and present day psychogeographers such as Stuart Home, the dérive is a difficult concept to explain concisely. It was popularised by the Situationists who used it as a way of challenging a rampant capitalism they believed to be infringing on every aspect of contemporary life. The group are the subject of new book The Beach Beneath The Street. I recently met its author McKenzie Wark to go on - if that is the right way to put it - a dérive at Limehouse.

On the day, before talking to Wark, I looked over our meeting place at Limehouse train station. Composed partially of old red brown brick and steel girders, it is one of London's oldest having opened in 1840. But it is also essentially modern; the only trains that pass through it are on the relatively new DLR. Limehouse's history is however one of stark contrast.

Once a central hub of London's trade networks during the industrial revolution, Limehouse today is dominated by the buildings of financial corporations that attest to Britain's position as (until recently at least) the financial capital of the world. Swapping the shipyards and cranes for giant glass skyscrapers, it is now a monument to how Britain sought to reinvent and maintain her power after the fall of the Empire in the aftermath of Second World War.

But the transition from industrialism to finance was not smooth and between these two periods there was another Limehouse. It was this Limehouse - a place associated with poverty and crime - that was in its prime when the 4th Conference of the Situationist International (or SI, as it came to be known) met in 1960.

Upon meeting, Wark and I meander through areas of poverty, algae-covered canals and old style tower blocks but soon become lost in the areas of redevelopment that have become commonplace since the 1980s. We discuss many of the topics he touches upon in the book and - given the recent London Riots - the Situtationists' understanding of civil unrest as inextricably linked to the city and wider political economy.

We don't know where we are or where we are going but I think that is the point. As Wark describes in his book, a dérive was seen by the SI's members - comprising individuals such as Asger Jorn, Jaceuline De Jogn, H P Zimmer and, most famously, Guy Debord - as part of a twin project to understand and challenge capitalism's unrestrained growth. It is a wandering "about in the space of the city according to [one's] own sense of time," and finding "other uses for space besides the functional." The time of the dérive, he adds, "is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. Leisure time is often called free time. [I]t is free only in the negative, free from work ... what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive." Debord's Society of the Spectacle, in explaining how the commodity - the fundamental unit of analysis in Marxist theory - had been replaced by the "spectacle", and within it the drive to commodify all forms of human experience, added further theoretical depth to the SI's position.

That the Situationists in 1960 met at a place which was to become a central site of the "spectacle" goes beyond mere serendipity. As they sat debating the Spectacle at the 4th Situationist International, having chosen an area renowned in society for its criminals, it's almost as if they knew what was to come.

After an hour and a half of walking, almost predictably yet unexpectedly, we find ourselves at the centre of towering banks in Canary Wharf. It seems to be a fitting place to end our dérive. Screens of market data on the sides of buildings show the markets are in the middle of another catastrophic day. Nobody seems bothered.

Originally broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM, you can listen to the interview with McKenzie Wark as we embark on our dérive around Limehouse by clicking on the soundcloud player below:



Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood