Radical media, politics and culture.

Gary Kamiya, "The Original Mad Men"

The Original Mad Men
What Can OWS Learn From a Defunct French Avant-Garde Group?
Gary Kamiya

Strange bedfellows don’t get any stranger than this. To the joy of a few
dozen graduate students and culture jammers, and the utter bemusement of
just about everybody else, the most significant American protest
movement in years has been spending time under the sheets with an
obscure French avant-garde movement whose ideas are so crazily
millenarian they make Jacques Derrida look like Mitt Romney.

I’m referring to the peculiar liaison between Occupy Wall Street and the
Situationists – creators of one of those whacked-out intellectual
commodities that have constituted France’s most lucrative cultural
exports for more than a century.

The link between Occupy Wall Street and the Situationists is the
Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine and organization Adbusters,
whose call to occupy Wall Street kicked off the now-global protests. In
a recent interview, Adbusters co-founder and editor Kalle Lassn told
Salon’s Justin Elliott, “We are not just inspired by what happened in
the Arab Spring recently, we are students of the Situationist movement.”

This connection was odd enough that I decided to dust off my old copy of
“The Society of the Spectacle” and see what, if any, help the
Situationists might be able to offer the Occupy Wall Street movement.
What I found would make those worthies spin rapidly enough in their
graves to shake the Eiffel Tower.

I first heard of the Situationists in 1989, when I was doing research
for a review of Greil Marcus’ weird and wonderful book “Lipstick Traces:
A Secret History of the 20th Century,” in which they play a leading
role. They also popped up as one of the inspirations behind a zanily
creative San Francisco-based group called the Cacophony Society, several
of whose odd urban expeditions I took part in during the 1980s. Founding
members of the Cacophony Society, in turn, helped create Burning Man,
the most rockin’ Saturnalia since Nero fiddled.

There is thus a strong connection between the Situationists and various
counter-cultural carnivals, provocations and eruptions – a fact that
holds both promise and peril for any political movement influenced by them.

That playfulness should be the most lasting legacy of the Situationists
is ironic, for it’s hard to imagine anything less playful than “The
Society of the Spectacle,” the 1967 book by Situationist founder Guy
Debord that is the movement’s bible. Grim, pedantic, hectoring and, not
to put too fine a point on it, mad as a hatter, it is one of those works
of Grand Theory that clank along like an ideological tank, crushing
everything, including logic and common sense, in their path. Debord’s
theory is psychotically simple: “Everything that was directly lived has
receded into a representation.” Yes, you heard right — reality itself
has been taken over, emptied out, by capitalist society, which has
converted it into what Debord called “an immense accumulation of
spectacles,” mere images at which people can only gape like stupefied

Debord’s bête noire is the commodity, which he regards as a demonic
force that has literally taken over the world. “The fetishism of
commodities generates its own moments of fervent exaltation,” he writes.
“All this is useful for only one purpose: producing habitual submission.”

The Situationists did not talk much about an alternative world, an
authentic universe outside the nightmare of the Spectacle. They aspired
to create what one of their mentors, the radical French historian Henri
Lefebvre, called “moments,” and what they called “situations” (hence
their name), that were radically new, that escaped the gravity of
ordinary life.

Basically, Situationism is cultural Marxism on acid. It’s an
apocalyptic, hyper-theoretical variation on the Marxist theme that
commodity capitalism has destroyed – or, in the jargon, “reified” –
genuine human relations. Alas, like most Grand Theories, it looks better
from a distance. “The Spectacle” is a concept so vast, malign and
indefinable that it is essentially theological, like hell. And when
Debord gets down to details, the contrast between the paltriness of his
examples and the great and powerful Oz of the Spectacle can be
positively ludicrous. “Trinkets such as key chains which come as free
bonuses with the purchase of some luxury product, but which end up being
traded back and forth as valued collectibles in their own right, reflect
a mystical self-abandonment to commodity transcendence,” he pronounces.
“Those who collect the trinkets that have been manufactured for the sole
purpose of being collected are accumulating commodity indulgences –
glorious tokens of the commodity’s real presence among the faithful.
Reified people proudly display the proofs of their intimacy with the

Reified people of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your
key chains!

It’s a weird explosion of lucid paranoia. But the weirdest thing about
the Situationists – and the one relevant to today’s political scene —
was not their insidious, omnipresent enemy “the Spectacle,” but the
peculiar tactics they advocated to fight it. To overthrow the
“pseudo-world” of the Spectacle, the Situationists proposed two
“interventions.” The first was so-called detournement, a fancy word
denoting the practice of doctoring existing works of art, advertisements
or publications so as to subvert their meaning. In practice,
detournement is an erudite variant of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

The now-famous Adbusters poster calling on people to occupy Wall Street
is a subtle detournement. Ironically slick, it features a ballet dancer
pirouetting atop a charging bull, which not coincidentally calls to mind
the famous Merrill Lynch “Bullish on America” ad. (Presumably those
Merrill Lynch executives who lost billions in collateralized debt
obligations, then walked away with $3.6 billion in bonuses – a third of
the now-defunct company’s TARP bailout money – are even more bullish on
America.) The ballet dancer is a pure Situationist icon: rather than
being an allegory of earnest struggle, like a figure in a Stalinist
boy-meets-tractor painting, she evades and exceeds politics.

The Situationists’ second intervention was even odder. It consisted of
the derive, a “creative drift” through the city in search of a lost
“psychogeography” in which streets and neighborhoods, seen anew, would
yield their dark and ecstatic secrets.

Call out the National Guard! The Situationists are drifting through the
streets again!

By any real-world measure except for providing grist for countless
future Ph.D. theses, the Situationists were a complete failure. They did
have an outsize impact on the rhetoric – expressed on posters,
publications and most famously in graffiti — of the 1968 French protests
that almost toppled Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. “Never work,”
“Boredom is counterrevolutionary,” “Under the paving stones, the beach”
– these and dozens of other provocatively poetic pronouncements were
written by or inspired by the Situationists. But their claim to have
been the driving force behind the student revolt was overblown (Lefebvre
flatly denied it), and Situationism itself as a movement barely
outlasted those delirious days in May. The group never had more than 70
members, and Debord’s tyrannical insistence on ideological purity meant
that he was constantly purging fellow Situationists until by the end it
was pretty much a party of one.

By refusing to bring their ideas down into the real world – it’s hard to
see how they could, since they considered the “real world” to be an
empty fraud – the Situationists ensured that their influence would
remain purely intellectual, not tangible. They paid lip service to the
proletariat but had no knowledge of or interest in actual workers, and
were unwilling to engage in the nitty-gritty work of organizing. At the
end of “The Society of the Spectacle,” Debord writes, “By rushing into
sordid reformist compromises or pseudo-revolutionary collective actions,
those driven by an abstract desire for immediate effectiveness are in
reality obeying the ruling laws of thought, adopting a perspective that
can see nothing but the latest news … A critique seeking to go beyond
the spectacle must know how to wait.”

Despite the portentous italics (a favorite Debord device to create a
sense of dramatic pseudo-profundity), this statement comes across as the
temporizing of a mandarin. Just what we are supposed to wait for, and
for how long, is never made clear: Presumably, we should still be
waiting for Debord to give the all-clear. Because they remained snootily
above the fray, the Situationists ended up as a cultural hood ornament,
another flashy appendage of the “society of the spectacle” they were at
such pains to decry. (The fact that they knew this would happen – they
were constantly wringing their hands over the fact that commodity
capitalism “recuperates” into itself all attempts to escape it – does
not let them off the hook. Quite the contrary.)

It would seem the last place progressives should look for ways to build
an effective movement would be a tiny, extinct priesthood of
jargon-spouting frogs. As Ben Davis argued in a recent piece in
ArtInfo,” offering the Situationist playbook as an alternative guide for
political engagement today would be like offering alcohol as a
substitute for mother’s milk.”

When Adbusters did try to create an explicitly Situationist movement, it
flopped. In November 2010, the magazine called for a “Carnivalesque
Rebellion.” “From November 22nd to the 28th, culture jammers of all
kinds – from artists to churchgoers, anarchists to carpenters – will
disregard the illegitimate laws of consumer society. For seven nights,
they will honor instead the dictates of their hearts and the demands of
their conscience. Overwhelmed by a myriad of insurrections and
unexpected acts of resistance, consumer capitalism will grind to a
halt,” the manifesto incorrectly predicted. Its conclusion: “The
Carnivalesque Rebellion is, above all else, a chance to rise above
cynicism, skepticism, and ironic detachment. It is an invitation to don
the prankster’s mask, to regain the sense of magical possibility, and to
finally start living.” If he took a bunch of Prozac, Guy Debord could
have written those words himself. And the number of people who turned
out in clown costumes to bring consumer capitalism to a grinding halt
was probably similar to the number of his acolytes.

But if the Situationists’ ideology offers no guidance to the Occupy Wall
Street movement, they still have something to offer it. Their ideas are
good: The problem was that they elevated them into crackpot dogmas,
suitable only for medieval scholastic disputations of the
how-many-Spectacles-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pseudo-event variety.

One does the Situationists no favors by taking their ravings literally.
Strip away the crazy-Marxist, quasi-religious claim that under
capitalism “spectacle” has completely replaced reality (an elementary
category violation, in which a subjective feeling of alienation or
grievance is elevated into a foundational principle – see “Tea Party”
for an example on a heroic scale, with “government” replacing
“spectacle”), and what is left is a smaller, but legitimate, insight
about the insidious power of media to shape consciousness in the modern
age. The Situationists’ obsession with subverting pop media is evidence
that they unconsciously recognized this. In similar fashion, strip away
their hyperbolic rhetoric about how escaping the “spectacle” creates a
totally new life and what is left is a smaller, but legitimate, insight
into the liberating quality of rebellion – the carnivalesque (yes) fun
of breaking out of habitual life. Both insights have inspired
contemporary movements like culture jammers, and contemporary
mass-controlled deliriums like Burning Man.

At bottom, despite their icy rhetoric, Frankfurt-School-Marxist-tinged
pretensions to objective analysis and Young Turk-like aversion to
sentimentality, the Situationists were romantics. Like a super-brainy,
sex-starved Dante wandering through the Left Bank, they simply made the
object of their desire impossible to obtain. Their ideology reflected
the French mania for theory, but it also reflected the intoxicating
spirit of the times. As the historian Walter Laqueur pointed out, “the
European revolutionary movement of the sixties was, as in America,
basically motivated by cultural discontent … It was romantic in
inspiration, and romantic movements are always based on a mood rather
than a program.”

So what can the Situationists offer today’s progressive movement? First,
it’s pretty obvious what they can’t offer. Mere cultural pranksterism is
not enough: In fact, it’s an insult. Today America – and the world — is
facing more serious issues than cultural discontent. Income inequality
has reached grotesque levels: The 400 richest Americans own more wealth
than the bottom 150 million, half the entire population of the country.
Millions of people are out of work, healthcare is a disgrace, and the
corrupt American financial and political system is incapable of
responding. A nascent popular movement has sprung up in protest, but to
be effective it must grow exponentially. On Oct. 15, when hundreds of
thousands of protesters turned out in cities across Europe, an estimated
100,000 turned out in America – a decent showing, but not enough to
shake the system. In particular, the movement needs to reach beyond its
base, which is currently – at least in San Francisco, which may not be a
fair sample — made up overwhelmingly of the young and culturally
disgruntled, those who have not even been able to get a foot in the
American door. When I went down to the protesters’ camp in Justin Herman
Plaza this week, I talked to several highly intelligent young people
with articulate grievances (including one recent college graduate who
cited Erich Fromm’s “Escape From Freedom,” a book referenced by Debord)
but there was nary a middle-class-looking person to be seen. This is not
a judgment, and the vanguard of a movement are never the mainstream. But
it is going to be extremely difficult for Occupy Wall Street to be
effective unless this changes.

It’s all about advertising. And this is where the Situationists come in
– the most unwilling creative team in history.

The Situationists were the original Mad Men (in both senses of “mad.”)
Yes, they felt about advertising the way the Spanish Inquisition — whose
management style they appear to have emulated — felt about heretics. But
they hated it so much that they became experts in it. Their demented
worldview, in which we’re all trapped forever inside a gigantic Reality
Commercial, led them to devise escape routes that utilized some of
modern advertising’s favorite techniques — irony, collage and pastiche.
Moreover, their interventions exuded a silly lightheartedness that, if
used right, can move product.

Proof of the Situationists’ ad acumen is that their successors have
followed in their talented footsteps. According to Naomi Klein in “No
Logo,” several large corporations tried to hire AdBusters to create
ironically hip ads for them.

So we’re giving the Occupy Wall Street account to the firm of Debord and
Debord. You got a problem with that, Campbell?

Debord and Debord will have to bring their A-game. OWS is a tough
account, for reasons that were summed up succinctly by Mad Man and
proto-Situationist nonentity Don Draper. “Advertising is based on one
thing, happiness. And you know want happiness is? Happiness is the smell
of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of
the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is OK. You
are OK.”

The problem is that the people OWS is trying to sell to are not OK – and
that fact has to be part of the pitch. How do you sell unhappiness?
Making things worse, you’re selling an act of individual rebellion – and
Americans don’t rebel. It’s a comfort issue. How do you break through
the inertia, fear of embarrassment, isolation and aversion to doing
anything different that surrounds most middle-class Americans like a moat?

As the failure of the Carnivalesque Rebellion campaign shows,
traditional Situationist techniques won’t cut it. But as the
ballerina-on-the-bull poster shows, the zany Situationist spirit can be
effectively used. As Don Draper said, it’s all about happiness. To get
Middle Americans out of their armchairs and onto the street, the OWS
campaign will have to do a tricky two-step. It will have to acknowledge
that its viewers are unhappy, and use that as a motivation to buy the
product — but also convince them that they will be happier in the end
when they do.

It’s a tough sell, but Debord and Debord are pros. And ironically, a
form of mass media far more omnipresent, inescapable, and all-devouring
than the Situationists’ worst nightmare may be their best friend. One
shudders to think what the Situationists would have made of the
Internet. And yet the Internet is what allowed the Occupy Wall Street
movement to go global on Oct. 15. The Internet has allowed all kinds of
information –mediated and unmediated, official and subversive and
everything in between – to be instantly disseminated around the world.
In Situationist terms, it is at once the Spectacle and its detournement.
And most important, the Internet has expanded people’s comfort zones. As
familiar and unthreatening as television, a two-way form of
communication that is now so internalized it functions like an extension
of the individual, the Internet has changed the rules of the game. At
least to some degree, it can help erode passivity. The success of MoveOn
in raising millions of dollars for progressive candidates, on the left
side of the political spectrum, and the rise of the Tea Party on the
right, is evidence of this.

The big question, of course, is whether a movement can use the Internet
to build communities beyond self-selecting ones. So far, no one has been
particularly successful at this. But we are in a crisis, and things
change during crises. Social media (although used disproportionately by
young people) could play a role. One can imagine all sorts of creative
ways of trying to mobilize middle-class people. Debord, who wrote that
the family “remains repressive and offers nothing but
pseudo-gratifications,” would not sign off on this idea, but a “Take
Your Mom to Protest Day” aimed at America’s millions of unemployed
college graduates would be a good start.

But for the campaign to really be effective, it will need to go beyond
wit and playfulness. It will need to reflect the sense of solidarity and
agency, rising at times to euphoria, that suffused the crowd at the
Occupy San Francisco protest I attended. It will need to capture that
rare, heart-lifting quality, one I witnessed on so many faces moving
down Market Street: hope.

The Situationists were masters of carnival – but carnival is free. The
happiness of people who have come together to work to change the world
is something that has been paid for — and it is precisely the price they
have paid that constitutes their happiness. The language for this
happiness is beyond the Situationists. To find it, we must turn to
another, much greater, French philosopher.

In “The Rebel,” Albert Camus wrote, “Awareness, no matter how confused
it may be, develops from every act of rebellion: the sudden, dazzling
perception that there is something in man with which he can identify
himself, if only for a moment … What was at first the man’s obstinate
resistance now becomes the whole man, who is identified with and summed
up in this resistance. The part of himself that he wanted to be
respected he proceeds to place above everything else and proclaims it
preferable to everything, even to life itself … [Rebellion] lures the
individual from his solitude. It founds its first value on the whole
human race. I rebel – therefore we exist.”

Even a pitch as eloquent as Camus’ probably won’t get Americans to hit
the streets. The economic-political-media system is deeply entrenched,
Americans are notoriously passive, and the civic culture that encourages
entering the agora to speak one’s mind has withered. The odds are
stacked against the Occupy Wall Street movement, no matter what it does.
But it’s worth a shot. The alternative is a future world even grimmer
than that imagined by the Situationists."Gary Kamiya