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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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