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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle