Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: To those unfamiliar with the Situationists how would you introduce them, their contribution to the understanding of political events while they were writing, and their “contemporary resonance”?
McKenzie Wark: Only seventy-odd people were ever members of The Situationist International. It was an extremely marginal avant-garde movement that was formed in 1957 and then dissolved itself in 1972. Why the hell would anybody be interested in this tiny marginal activity? The footprint the Situationists left in political aesthetic culture is vastly greater than their actual numbers. As their leading light, Guy Debord, said ‘all you need is a few trustworthy comrades’.
So, why look at this stuff again? Well, if you are interested in how to think critically about everyday life, how to think and act outside of institutionalized forms of knowledge, in ways of inventing practices that are at least partially outside of the commodity system, then they are great precursors for dozens of things happening now such as Copy Left and Creative Commons on one side and forms of autonomous organisations in the media on the other.
There are also certain calcified stories about what was important about them, and it’s not as if those stories were wrong but sometimes it is worth going back to see what we have missed and what we have forgotten.
In The Beach Beneath the Street I wanted to tell the stories and extract the concepts of some of the figures who have not really been discussed. I have to say, though, now I am in the UK, that it is British comrades who have done a lot of work in saying that is not just about Debord—it’s also about Jacqueline De Jong, Alexander Trocchi, Asger Jorn.
Instead of looking at the one famous person, I look at it as a movement, a collective practice.
JGF: You start the book with an amusingly accurate critique of an unambitious academy that is unable to create “a critical thought that is indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or art world”. What is low theory and how is it part of the Situationist’s story?
MW: Well, I am obviously not concerned with being inconsistent because not only am I a tenured professor, I was also associate dean for two years, so I am about as institutional as you can get, even if at that strangely marginal place that is the New School for Social Research.
It is not there is anything necessarily wrong with what I call high theory, which is critical thought that is created within spaces such as the university. It is just that it is created within the space of a given game. There is a game—you write books that get noticed and then you get promoted and so on. This is completely independent of the politics and social concerns of the everyday.
I am interested in low theory, which comprise those somewhat rarer moments when, coming out of everyday life, you get a certain milieu that can think itself. It happens when there is a mixing of the classes (another thing higher education doesn’t do). It happens in certain spaces that we used to call bohemia. Low theory is the attempt to think everyday life within practices created in and of and for everyday life, using or misusing high theory to other ends. It happens in collaborative practices that invent their own economies of knowledge.
The Situationists are a really interesting example of that but they are not the last. It has been going on for years before them and years after them. So, I was trying to carefully pick through that bit of the story as a resource for people now who are trying to do the same thing. It was not an attempt to fetishise or be nostalgic about the past but show there are real lessons about what these guys did and failed to do if you are trying to be a critical autonomist in the twenty first century.
JGF: To extend the question about low theory, you speak of the Situationists “pushing philosophy out into the streets”. How do they do this?
MW: They always maintained that there was no such thing as Situationism—it was not a doctrine but more a group that experimented with creative practices. And it is not so much “out into the streets” as “from the street”. Debord is a provincial petit bourgeois alienated from his family who comes to Paris and goes to university really for the free food and stipend. Here, he is hanging out with delinquents and he starts the whole thing with an ethnography of delinquent life—as life outside of wage labour. His famous slogan of the 50s is “never work”, which is extremely hard to do and he is not consistent in not working. Even harder than “never work” is “make no art” and he definitely fails at this, as you can make art without even knowing it.
So, it is more that it came out of the streets, literally. Debord is not a delinquent, he is an alcoholic, but he is hanging out with delinquents, bohemians, and the dangerous classes. It’s all about the margins between these lives as much as the margin between these lives as a whole and straight life. This kind of bohemian world often produces things that are aesthetically interesting such as novels and art but it rarely produces theory. This is an interesting example where a group is able to consciously think while practicing outside the space of traditional thought.