Situationism and the recuperation of an ideology in the era of Trump, fake news and post-truth politics.

Author:Bleakley, Paul


Amidst the sociopolitical upheaval of the mid-20th century, the philosophy of antiauthoritarian Marxism assumed a divisive position that rejected the traditional notions of structural change that typified the mainstream activist movement. From its inception in 1957 until the early 1970s, this branch of libertarian Marxism was primarily led by acolytes of the Situationist International. A collective of predominantly European social revolutionaries and avant-garde intellectuals, the Situational International advocated the need for total upheaval of established sociocultural structures in the developed world; situationism argued that the revolutionary movements of the early 20th century had already failed and been replaced by an advanced capitalism in which all human experience was commodified and mediated to achieve the pacification and subjugation of the masses (Plant 1992). As situationism developed from its origins as an artistic cultural movement into a more defined political theory in the late 1960s, the concept of 'the Spectacle' assumed a central position within the discourse of the movement. Established in a series of Marxist treatises espoused by Debord in 1967, the Spectacle refers to the concept that social life has been replaced by a facsimile of reality that was constructed by a controlling elite and sold to the masses by way of the commodification of experience (Debord 2002). Situationists argued that this mediation of reality and fetishisation of material commodities led to a degradation in society that was at the core of class inequality and alienation. It was the position of Situationists that it was impossible to rectify this condition within the existing social system, advocating instead in favour of a total societal overhaul and a state of permanent revolution (Mubi Brighenti 2008).

Situationism served throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s as a rallying point for libertarian Marxists in their struggle against their opposition in the capitalist establishment; nevertheless, by the mid-1970s, the popularity of situationism had waned in favour of more traditional forms of political resistance (Shank 1999). Despite the relatively short-lived ascendency of situationism, the emergence of post-truth politics provides sufficient cause to reassess the validity of the Situationist philosophy and the existence of the Spectacle as a guiding factor of contemporary sociopolitical relations. To a certain extent, it seems that the support for the idea of 'fake news' by establishment figures like US President Donald Trump is in clear alignment with the Situationist belief that the mass media intentionally shapes the perception of reality experienced by the general public as a means of consolidating power. That being said, the rise of Trump in itself could be perceived as an illustration of the Spectacle at its zenith wherein a reality television personality notorious for his material excess was able to ascend to what is arguably the supreme position of political authority in the modern world. Analysis of Situationist philosophy in the post-truth era, particularly in regard to the Trump presidency, highlights a contradiction in terms wherein the apparent repudiation of the Spectacle is used as a weapon in the advancement of a political figure that embodies the qualities of advanced capitalism. Trump's reference to the Spectacle and 'fake news' could be argued as a recuperation of the Situationist model itself, using the tools of the mid-20th-century movement to capitalise on the public's hostility towards the mainstream media to reassert the primacy of the capitalist agenda.


Situationism's roots can be traced to the Lettrist movement led by French poet and artist Isidore Isou in the mid-to-late 1940s (Cabanas 2014). Lettrism drew upon a combination of Dadaism and Surrealism in its construction of an avant-garde philosophy that sought to reassert the primacy of the creative in post-war society; in particular, Isou felt that young people and the creative bohemian community were fundamentally excluded from the capitalist structures of European society and that it was necessary to establish a role for this considerable section of the population to avoid their creativity being channelled into criminal activity and other forms of deviance (King 2016). Situationism initially developed as an offshoot of Isou's artistic movement referred to as the Lettrist International, which consisted of many of the younger and more radical adherents to Lettrism such as prominent future leaders of situationism Michele Bernstein and Guy Debord. The schism between Isou's Lettrism and the Lettrist International occurred in late 1952 as a result of Isou's opposition to the group's engagement in direct political action (Wollen 1989). Nevertheless, it was 5 years before the Lettrist International would develop into the Situationist International. In the intervening period between the formation of the Lettrist International and its transition into the Situationist International, many of the tenets of the latter philosophy were developed and shaped into a philosophy that foregrounded political radicalism in lieu of the artistic ambitions of Lettrism.

From its earliest origins as an offshoot of Lettrism, it was the intention of Debord and his cohorts that situationism would not constitute an ideology in the traditional sense of the term. Debord held the position that ideology was 'the intellectual basis of class societies ... (and) represent a distorted consciousness of realities' in a manner that is intrinsically associated with the development of the Spectacle (Debord 2002: 56). As a result of this view, early adherents such as Debord considered situationism more of a philosophy than an ideology in the same vein as Marxism or Capitalism. Rather than solely focusing on political considerations, situationism was conceived as a set of ideas that drew more on the tenets of social psychology than it did economics. It was the belief of Debord and his fellow breakaway Lettrists that emotive force-fields existed within the urban landscape that operated to perpetuate the oppression of the proletariat. Debord (2008) defined these patterns as psychogeography or 'the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals' (p. 23).

Debord and the Lettrist International advocated a practice of derive, or drift, to combat the conditions of psychogeography in the urban environment. Engaging in derive required an individual to aimlessly explore their physical environment outside of their traditional areas of residence; to do so would allow a person to traverse through a range of emotional ambiences and precipitate a 'situation' wherein they were able to have an authentic and unmediated psycho-emotional experience (Bonnett 1989). Later interpretations of psychogeography under a Situationist framework considered the emotional ambience of urban locales to be a manifestation of the state's attempt to suppress the general population. By contributing to a situation in which the masses were forced to live in certain environments based on capitalist considerations, Situationists typically believe that the establishment commits an act of state violence in limiting the opportunities of the people to live an authentic and genuine reality (Carr 2010). Control of the physical environment acted as a repressive manifestation of advanced capitalism that maintained the status quo and restricted opportunity for authentic experience to an exclusive subsect of the population with the financial ability to rise above the confines of psychogeography. Belief in the substantial influence of psychography on the subjugation of the masses was a key philosophy developed by the Lettrist International and was later adopted by the Situationist International after it was established as a collective of radical political organisations on 28 July 1957 (Gray 1998).

Despite the fact that the Situationist International was formed as a coalition of similarly inclined left-wing organisations, it is clear that former members of the Lettrist International were integral in the foundation of the Situationist philosophy. Indeed, it was Debord who was responsible for the publication of situationism's seminal text in 1967 by way of The Society of the Spectacle. Although written in the form of 221 individual theses, the overarching aim of Debord's book was to outline the concept of 'the Spectacle': a societal construct in which the mass media is purposefully used to facilitate the fetishism of commodities, class-based alienation and reinforce existing power structures to the benefit of the capitalist establishment (Debord 2002). It was Debord's belief that the Spectacle had come into existence in the 1920s as a result of the growing importance of the mass media and the public relations techniques pioneered in the campaigns developed by Bernays. A steadily rising wave of consumerism throughout the 20th century had led to a scenario in which material objects had accrued a social value by which they were able to, in the words of Marx (1977), 'rule the producers instead of being ruled by them' (p. 477). While an aversion to consumerism is a standard element of most strands of Marxist philosophy, Debord sought to develop Situationist philosophy around the mechanisms by which these material items obtained a social value; to this end, the Spectacle was designed to explain the means by which the mass media imposed value on the ownership of material goods and perpetuated a cycle of capitalist oppression (Debord 2002).

Resistance to the sociocultural pressures of the Spectacle was also at the forefront of Debord's development of the Situationist philosophy. More than simply referring to the ownership of consumer goods, it was the Spectacle's contention that advanced...

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