How the Situationist International became what it was
by Anthony Hayes
The Situationist International (1957-1972) was a small group of communist revolutionaries, originally organised out of the West European artistic avant-garde of the 1950s. The focus of my thesis is to explain how the Situationist International (SI) became a group able to exert a considerable influence on the ultra-left criticism that emerged during and in the wake of the May movement in France in 1968. My wager is that the pivotal period of the group is to be found between 1960 and 1963, a period marked by the split of 1962. Often this is described as the transition of the group from being more concerned with art to being more concerned with politics, but as I will argue this definitional shorthand elides the significance of the Situationist critique of art, philosophy and politics. The two axes of my thesis are as follows. First, that the significant minority in the group which carried out the break of 1962, identified a homology between the earlier Situationist critique of art — embodied in the Situationist ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’ — and Marx’s critique and supersession of the radical milieu of philosophy from which he emerged in the mid- 1840s. This homology was summarised in the expression of the Situationist project as the ‘supersession of art’ (dépassement de l’art). Secondly, this homology was practically embodied in the resolution of the debates over the role of art in the elaboration of the Situationist hypothesis, which had been ongoing since 1957. However, it was the SI’s encounter with the ultra-left group Socialisme ou Barbarie that would prove decisive. Via Guy Debord’s membership, the group was exposed to both the idea of a more general revolutionary criticism, but also ultimately what was identified as the insufficiently criticised ‘political militancy’ of this group. Indeed, in the ‘political alienation’ found in Socialisme ou Barbarie, a further homology was established between the alienation of the political and artistic avant-gardes. This identity would prove crucial to the further elaboration of the concept of ‘spectacle’. By way of an examination of the peculiar and enigmatic ‘Hamburg Theses’ of 1961, and the relationship between these ‘Theses’ and the Situationist criticism of art and politics worked out over the first five years of the group, I will argue that the break in 1962 should be conceived as one against politics as much as art (rather than just the latter, as it is more often represented). Additionally, I will outline how the SI, through the paradoxical reassertion of their artistic origins, attempted to synthesise their criticism of art with the recovery of the work of Marx beyond its mutilation as Marxism. Indeed, it was the synthesis of these critiques that enabled the considerable development of the concept of ‘spectacle’, opening the way to the unique influence the SI exerted in the re-emergence of a revolutionary movement at the end of the 1960s.