Proposal: Inventing situations

The Situationist International were a 1960s anti-capitalist revolutionary group who combined ideas from Marxism and 20th century avant-garde art in search of “the revolution of everyday life” (the title of an essay by Situationist writer Raoul Vanigem). Situationists took a playful, poetic approach to cultural criticism through practices which today might fall under the heading of performance art. They constructed “situations” to generate alternative life experiences, using methods such as psychogeography, the exploration and re-mapping of urban space, and detournement, “the reversal of preexisting aesthetic elements to create a new subversive effect.” (James L. Penner). The SI also played an active role in the May ’68 uprisings in Paris. Perhaps the best known Situationist text is Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (also a film of the same name), which reinterprets Marx’s work, particularly his theories of alienation and commodity fetishism, in relation to contemporary mass media.

Despite having been a relatively obscure, small-scale movement, Situationist ideas remain a point of interest for contemporary artists and theorists. The first reference I saw to the Situationists was in Greil Marcus’ epic “secret history” of punk rock and late-20th century counterculture, Lipstick Traces, which draws heavily on Debord’s ideas. Since then, I’ve found references to the SI popping up in all kinds of places. Among others: the work of ‘Net artist Heath Bunting, who I researched for an art history class last semester; a travel column by Will Self called “Psychogeography”; and (extending Marcus’ theme) in punk and post-punk music.

I propose to research the background and contemporary applications of Situationist ideas in the hopes of answering the following (rather broad) questions: What is the impact of Situationist thought on culture today? As an offshoot of Marxism with an emphasis on media and the arts, how does the Situationist International function as a cultural reference point and what does it teach us about the legacy of Marxism?

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