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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser