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23 September 2011

Situationism and spectacle in London’s East End

A dérive around Limehouse with McKenzie Wark.

By Sean Gittins

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.

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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: