The Spectacle of Disintegration

An interview with McKenzie Wark.

McKenzie Wark’s new book, The Spectacle of Disintegration, picks up where his last, The Beach Beneath the Street, left off. Written in a prose style that captures some of the urgent fury of the Situationist International, a group of left-wing intellectuals who were caught being creating avant-garde art and practising radical philosophy, The Beach Beneath the Street aimed to decentralise the history of the SI, previously dominated by its autocratic leader, Guy Debord. The Spectacle of Disintegration looks at the activities of leading Situationists after the SI collapsed in 1972, and how their ideas and actions might help us find alternatives to 21st century neoliberal capitalism.

JULIET JACQUES: Debord contrasted the concentrated spectacle – a society organised around cults of personality, in Stalinist, Maoist or Fascist states – with the diffuse spectacle, which manipulates its citizens with endless images of desirable commodities, particularly models. Shortly before his death in 1994, Debord wrote of the integrated spectacle, in which the workings of power were less transparent. So why call your 21st century take on Debord’s ideas The Spectacle of Disintegration?

MCKENZIE WARK: Certainly, Debord divides the spectacle into periods. It’s interesting that he dates it from the early 20th century: to him, the spectacle emerges when organised labour gets absorbed into it, so he’s dating it from the Russian Revolution and the failure of the German uprising after the First World War. In order to cut through the Cold War noise, he looks at West and East as both being versions of spectacular organisation of society.

Then he thinks a new form emerges, partly in response to the events of May 1968, particularly in France and Italy. The practices that are associated with Soviets, particularly the secret police apparatus, get incorporated into Western states. So I was interested in the trajectory of the spectacle after the collapse of the Soviet model, when the spectacle disintegrates and fragments, but doesn’t go away. Social media and the internet made it microscopic – still centrally controlled, but diffuse, and reproduced and reiterated through fragments.

JACQUES: In spring 2011, we were being told in Britain about how these new technologies had brought down the undemocratic regimes in North Africa, and then in summer 2011 that the government had considered the possibility of preventing ‘suspected rioters’ from using Twitter and Facebook during the riots in London and elsewhere. We’ve heard plenty about the radical possibilities of new media, but have these been negated by their incorporation into the spectacle?

WARK: It’s a category error to see technology as a new or separate thing, rather than looking at how it fits into the existing social space and time. I say, half-jokingly, that the first Twitter revolutions were in 1848, after the invention of the telegraph, which gradually reshapes how information works in space and time. The thing to pay attention to is how the spatial and temporal possibilities of action change for all the actors. There’s changing degrees of freedom but also of surveillance. Just because relatively new space opens up, it doesn’t mean that only one side will use it. There was plenty of monitoring and organised dissemination of disinformation during these ‘Twitter revolutions’. The Situationists, incidentally, were good at thinking tactically about both spectacular media spaces and how to work in and against them.

JACQUES: The Situationists were torn between radical art and politics, and it seems that more than anything else, their legacy was picked up by politicised artists – notably in pop music, from the Sex Pistols and the Gang of Four to the early Manic Street Preachers – and by the Luther Blissett group, who documented their own cultural pranks. What can the Situationists offer the present in terms of political praxis?

WARK: One of the SI projects was a critique of the separation of politics and aesthetics, and looking for ways of superseding them. There are various partial and particular realisations of different aspects of their critiques in different domains – you can trace strands of it in Occupy, the Yes Men, Anonymous, Wikileaks, Copyleft and elsewhere. File sharing is a pop-Situationist social movement in all but name. To me, the most enduring piece of their legacy is probably détournement – seduction, plagiarism, remix. Crucially, they realised that all cultural and social space is collectively produced, so how does one act as if everything is already a commons, and do it critically and consciously?

JACQUES: Discussing what happened to the Situationists after 1972, you mention that the French Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel, declared Debord’s archive a “national treasure”, and the Bibliothèque Nationale went to great lengths to procure it. Have Debord’s ideas become respectable? How would he have felt about it, and how should we feel about it?

WARK: I think it’s great – the more this stuff gets canonised, the better, in a way. There’s a specific dynamic in French intellectual culture, though, which is hard to imagine in Anglophone context. Mind you, we still celebrate Percy Bysshe Shelley despite him being, essentially, a proto-Communist. There are official versions of Shelley that downplay this but it’s always there to be discovered. If a thinker’s ideas are institutionalised, there are collections, reprints and publications, all for critical minds to find.

On the other hand, there are also plenty of archives of SI material online, with terrific resources, so there are these official and popular canons. As the Situationist filmmaker René Vienet said, “Our ideas are on everyone’s minds” – particularly those exploring the constant threat of boredom and commodification. People relate to that and keep their work alive as ‘low theory’ outside the academy, and that’s a good thing too.

JACQUES: It’s funny that you mention Shelley – I went to sixth form college in Horsham, where he was born. I always say that if all Europe went Communist, Horsham would be the last place to fall, but there’s a fairly radical fountain dedicated to Shelley in the town centre, despite the town’s rigid aesthetic and ideological conservatism. (There’s also a nightclub named after him.)

WARK: That’s interesting - Debord went to the same provincial high school as Lautréamont the outsider poet who was a great inspiration to the Surrealists and Situationists, and discoverer of détournement. Sometimes there are traces of other histories that are available, even in these unlikely places. Message in a bottle.

JACQUES: The Spectacle of Disintegration is particularly strong on contemporary labour conditions – the way that smartphones mean we never really leave the office, but also that workers end up in wars of attrition with their employers, trying to find ways to resist the pressure to dedicate themselves to repetitive, meaningless tasks. In my dullest jobs, I’ve always resented this expectation that I not just do such stifling work but also that I display enthusiasm for it, so I especially liked the story about Emmalee Bauer, fired by her employers when they discovered that she kept a journal of ways she avoided doing any work. Is worker boredom and indifference the greatest threat to late capitalism?

WARK: Yes, and I’d love to track this down as a fact that more labour time is lost in UK through sickies and absenteeism than strikes – I’m not sure if it’s true, but it’s certainly plausible. There’s this Bartleby-esque feud now between labour and the workplace, which doesn’t look like organised labour any more. It’s a sort of disorganized labour. Subtle and opaque. We’re bored with this idea of work and their paltry trinkets the wages of it purchase.

The Situationists were canny in seeing that coming, and especially in describing the politics of boredom in our ‘overdeveloped world’. Even if a successful revolution could never have happened in May 1968, there is a sense that Western civilisation has overshot. We are all working madly to prop up a way of life that can’t endure. I think people feel this residually even if they can’t express it. This lack of language was a problem in 1968, and still is now. Experimental practices are needed, starting with a critique of this everyday life, and looking for hints of other ones.

JACQUES: For me, one of the biggest problems on the Left is that large parts of it still offer 20th century solutions to 21st century problems. There is plenty of intelligent analysis, such as Mark Fisher on capitalism realism, and I constantly see smart, well-connected people angry about individual news stories or the overarching political conditions, but none of this seems to coalesce into a plausible, organised movement. You were exploring ‘Situationist passages out of the 21st century’ in The Spectacle of Disintegration – did you find any answers or strategies for these circumstances?

WARK: I do not have any magic solutions. Politics is not consumer culture with its miracle promises. Another interesting thing about the SI is that they extolled the virtues of patience: moments will arise when things happen, when the spectacle is slow to respond to changing circumstances, so be prepared. Everyone sees that our modes of overproduction cannot go on much longer – climate disruption will probably happen in our generation or next. So you play long game of trying to keep certain seeds of the idea of another life going, and beyond that to develop some experimental spaces. As a writer, that’s my job – keeping open the resources for when these moments arise, and people ask: What the hell do we do now?

McKenzie Wark is speaking with former SI members Michèle Bernstein and Jacqueline de Jong at the Southbank Centre on 26 May. More information here.

 

Occupy Washington. Situationist ideas can be seen in Occupy, the Yes Men, Anonymous, Wikileaks, Copyleft and elsewhere. Photograph: Getty Images.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

AKG-IMAGES/DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY
Show Hide image

Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt