by Timothy S. Murphy
What you want is always something within a complex situation in (of) present time.
We will provide the situation without which what you desire will remain a phantom…
the complex of
—Alexander Trocchi, ‘Advt.’ (1972:81)
The opening thesis of Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle, the most sophisticated and influential document produced by the Situationist International (SI) in the course of its stormy 15-year existence, proposes that ‘[t]he whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation’ (1967:12). Three years earlier, in his cutup novel Nova Express, William S. Burroughs wrote that ‘“Reality” is simply a more or less constant scanning pattern—The scanning pattern we accept as “reality” has been imposed by the controlling power on this planet, a power primarily oriented toward total control’ (NE 53). The following year, in conversation with Conrad Knickerbocker of The Paris Review, Burroughs clarified that ‘[i]mplicit in Nova Express is a theory that what we call reality is actually a movie. It’s a film, what I call a biologic film’ (Knickerbocker 1965:70).
What is the relationship between these two surprisingly similar claims, made by two of the most enigmatic figures to emerge from the global cultural ferment of the 1950s and 1960s? They never met or corresponded, as far as I have been able to determine, and they hardly make any direct reference to each other, yet they arrived at critical models of contemporary society that are remarkably congruent not only at the highest level of theoretical generality, but also at the more focused level of practical tactics for resistance. The key to this convergence, I would claim, lies not only in Burroughs’s and Debord’s parallel sensitivities to the postwar economy of the image, but also in the heretofore under-appreciated and unexamined role played by their common friend and ally Alexander Trocchi in translating between Debord’s primarily political analysis and Burroughs’s primarily aesthetic one and (perhaps) vice versa. Today, more than 30 years later, these critical models are still relevant to the extent that they retain their ability to dissect and displace the increasingly integrated economy of the image, whose global reach has only widened in the intervening decades. Despite the setbacks and even defeats they experienced, Burroughs and the Situationists continue to provide us with suggestive means to comprehend, and in so doing to resist, the spectacle of the present.
I: A LOOSE CULTURAL VENTURE
Let us begin by examining Trocchi’s unacknowledged role as a conduit and translator between Burroughs and Debord. Glasgow-born Trocchi met Debord in Paris in 1955, while dividing his time between editing the avant-garde literary review Merlin and writing pseudonymous pornographic fiction for the Olympia Press (which would later publish Burroughs’s Naked Lunch). For the next eight years, even after his relocation to the US in 1956, Trocchi would move relatively freely between the discrete bohemian worlds of the Lettrist International (and after 1957 its successor, the Situationist International) on the one hand and the expatriate Anglophone literary community on the other (Marcus 1989:385–7). In his 1960 novel, Cain’s Book, which would soon bring him into contact and later friendship with Burroughs, Trocchi obliquely acknowledged his continuing involvement with Debord and company: late in the book, his junkie narrator writes: ‘Il vous faut construire les situations’ (Trocchi 1960:236). When Trocchi was arrested in the US that year on drug charges, his fellow Situationists published a resolution appointing Debord and others to ‘take immediate action on behalf of Alexander Trocchi’ and to ‘demand [his] setting free’ (IS 1997:160). Unsurprisingly, the years immediately following the publication of Cain’s Book would see Trocchi’s most ambitious attempt to participate in the articulation of the Situationist project—that is, to ‘construct situations’—an attempt that also involved Burroughs, whom he had gotten to know well during their scandalous joint attendance at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival (Morgan 1988:332–41). This would be, in essence, an attempt to construct a practical conduit between his two bohemian worlds, to establish an alliance between two distinct but overlapping modes of cultural resistance.
The opening move of Trocchi’s effort was the composition of ‘Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds’, a manifesto for what can only be called a revolution in consciousness and at the same time a proposal for the foundation of a ‘limited liability company’, initially called ‘International Cultural Enterprises Ltd’, which would manage the economic exploitation of the work of countercultural artists working toward such a revolution (1963a:190). This company would be a first step toward the establishment of a ‘spontaneous university’ similar to Black Mountain College that would in turn act as the ‘detonator of the invisible insurrection’ of the title (Trocchi 1963a:186–8, 191). I will examine these linked notions further in Section III, below. ‘Invisible Insurrection’ was first published in French in Internationale Situationniste 8 (January 1963) under the title ‘Technique du coup du monde’, which may be translated as ‘Technique for World Takeover’—‘coup du monde’ in contrast to the ‘coup d’état of Trotsky and Lenin’ (IS 1997:346; see also Trocchi 1963a:177). Trocchi was also listed as a member of the journal’s editorial committee for that issue. Later that year, the essay appeared in English under its original title, and in the following year it was incorporated into Trocchi’s open-ended Sigma Portfolio, along with a further elaboration of the notion of a countercultural company and university entitled ‘Sigma: A Tactical Blueprint’ (1964a; see also Trocchi 1964b, #2 and 3).
A few months before the initial distribution of the Portfolio, Trocchi wrote Burroughs to invite him to join the board of directors of Sigma (as the countercultural company had been re-christened), which was apparently incorporated in London in the summer of 1963. ‘The bricks and mortar of our enormous factory’, he wrote, ‘are contingent upon the eventual assent of our nuclear cosmonauts to operate it’ (Trocchi 1963b:208). Trocchi hoped to raise capital for the Sigma ‘factory’ by signing up high-profile writers and artists, the ‘nuclear cosmonauts’ he mentions, as directors and clients of Sigma’s artist management service; in addition to Burroughs, Robert Creeley was invited to become a director, and Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, R. D. Laing, Timothy Leary and Michael McClure were named as ‘people interested’ in Sigma (Trocchi 1964b, #17). Along with the letter, Trocchi ‘enclose[d] a copy of the [“Sigma: A Tactical Blueprint”] essay to acquaint [Burroughs] with the methods we have already evolved’ (Trocchi 1963b:207); thus it seems fair to assume that Burroughs was at least superficially acquainted with Trocchi’s revolutionary ambitions and his Situationist perspectives by this time. There is no evidence that Burroughs was ever formally ‘registered as a director in the company’ as Trocchi wanted (Trocchi 1963b:208), but he did contribute a piece entitled ‘Martin’s Folly’ to the project, which was incorporated into a poster that became the first item in the Portfolio as it was originally distributed (Trocchi 1964b, #1). If we assume further that Burroughs later received a copy of the entire Portfolio, he would also have been able to read Trocchi’s translation/adaptation of the 1960 ‘Manifesto Situationniste’ that was included as well (for the original, see IS 1997:144–6; for Trocchi’s translation, see Trocchi 1964b, #18). Thus the conduit that Trocchi was trying to build between the Anglophone counterculture and the Situationist International began to take shape, although it would have little opportunity to function.
All this work of independent but parallel practical organization did not go unnoticed by the leading members of the SI, who no doubt received copies of the Portfolio. In Internationale Situationniste 10 (March 1966), the editorial committee (headed by Debord and including the influential Situationists Michèle Bernstein, Mustapha Khayati and Raoul Vaneigem) published the following note of clarification regarding the group’s relationship with Trocchi:
Upon the appearance in London in autumn 1964 of the first publications of the ‘Project Sigma’ initiated by Alexander Trocchi, it was mutually agreed that the SI could not involve itself in such a loose cultural venture, in spite of the interest we have in dialogue with the most exigent individuals who may be contacted through it, notably in the United States and England. It is therefore no longer as a member of the SI that our friend Alexander Trocchi has since developed an activity of which we fully approve of several aspects. (IS 1997:495; trans. Knabb 1989:373)
Thus, despite the SI’s ‘interest in dialogue’ with his ‘exigent’ friends like Burroughs (whose Naked Lunch had appeared in French translation in the spring of 1964), Trocchi was effectively expelled from the group just as he was beginning to contribute to it, though in a kinder and gentler fashion than most of the others who were excluded earlier and later. Indeed, in Christopher Gray’s tabular summary of the SI’s membership, Trocchi is listed as one of 19 ‘mutually agreed’ ‘resignations’ (démissions) from the SI, rather than one of the 45 involuntary and rhetorically harsh ‘exclusions’ (Gray 1974:132–3). Debord’s recently published letters to Trocchi confirm this (Debord 2001:299–300, 309–10). In any case, cut off from one of his bohemian worlds, Trocchi was left without a strong political basis for his fundamentally artistic Project Sigma, which seems to have dissolved thereafter, along with his plans for another novel, into junkie recidivism. He spent the bulk of his remaining years dealing in used books, and died of pneumonia in 1984.
II: RETAKE THE UNIVERSE
If we accept the thesis that Trocchi did act as a conduit and translator between the SI’s milieu and Burroughs’s, then the first questions that follow from this are, what exactly did he translate or conduct, and in which direction? Pending a comprehensive investigation of still-unpublished archives (including Trocchi’s and Burroughs’s personal correspondence of the period, much of which is still in private hands), the evidence suggests that the direction of influence, if it indeed took place, was most often from the Situationists to Burroughs rather than the reverse. Most of the key statements of Situationist theory and method to which I will refer hereafter predate, sometimes by many years, the parallel texts by Burroughs that bear the closest similarities to those statements. However, the claim of direct or indirect influence must remain speculative until all the evidence becomes available, no matter how suggestive the similarities may be between Burroughs’s ideas and Debord’s. Nevertheless, a passage in one unpublished letter from Burroughs to his French translator Mary Beach does confirm some degree of recognition of their shared interests, strategies and tactics:
Do you know of a French group called Situationist International— correspondence: B.P. 307-03 Paris? Seemingly a sophisticated anarchist group. I think they would be an excellent outlet for the short pieces I am writing now. Just read a very intelligent analysis of the Watt [sic] race riots by this group. (Burroughs 1967)
This letter was written long after Burroughs’s brief involvement with Trocchi’s Project Sigma, during which time he presumably first learned about the SI, so his description of it as ‘a sophisticated anarchist group’ may be forgetful or ironic. His interest in the SI’s analysis of the Watts riots, however, is quite direct, and it will serve as our password into the extended comparison that follows.
The convergence between Burroughs’s notion of the reality film and the Situationist theory of the spectacle manifests itself in a number of ways, some of which only become apparent when viewed through the lens of Trocchi’s Project Sigma. First of all, despite their common language of visuality, neither model is simply a critique of some perceived misuse of film, television or the mass media generally. As I noted above, for Burroughs, the very reality that the media claim to depict is ‘a more or less constant scanning pattern’ that ‘has been imposed by the controlling power on this planet, a power primarily oriented toward total control’ (NE 53). Similarly, for Debord, ‘[t]he spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images’ (1967:12). It is a control system of which the media are only a subordinate part, for it is ‘the self-portrait of power in the age of power’s totalitarian rule over the conditions of existence’ (Debord 1967:19). As Burroughs argues, to understand the present it is necessary to ‘[p]ostulate a biologic film running from the beginning to the end, from zero to zero as all biologic film run in any time universe—Call this film X1 and postulate further that there can be only one film with the quality X1 in any given time universe’ (NE 8 [note]). The issue of the film’s singularity connects it to Burroughs’s earlier and better-known theory of language as a totalitarian virus that people unwittingly internalize, expressed in Naked Lunch as follows: ‘The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement’ (NL 207). Although ‘[t]he word cannot be expressed direct’ (NL 105) in its totality, it is nevertheless the immediate condition of human reality. The reality film, like the Word or the spectacle, is a totality that is not so much a set of words that we speak or images that we watch as it is a general condition in which we are immersed, even and especially when we are apparently not focused on words or images. It is the material horizon of our existence in that ‘[t]he spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’ (Debord 1967:24). Despite the fact that we are allowed to make certain limited choices that are provided by that segment of the spectacle or film known as the market, we are not free because we are deprived of genuine activity. The spectacle imposes isolation and passivity as conditions of its control.
This material reality of the spectacle thus constitutes a form of economic domination, but unlike earlier forms of domination, it is not organized so as to combat a fundamental scarcity of resources and a concomitant limit to production. Instead, the spectacular reality film produces and distributes scarcity as a subordinate component of a general economy of material abundance, which is the most significant consequence of the global mechanization of commodity production. Trocchi takes this shift for granted when he writes, in ‘Invisible Insurrection’, that ‘[c]learly, there is in principle no problem of production in the modern world. The urgent problem of the future is that of distribution which is presently (dis)ordered in terms of the economic system prevailing in this or that area’ (1963a:179). That is, the massive growth of production under global capitalism (understood in Debord’s terms as referring both to the Western capitalist nations of the ‘diffuse spectacle’ and to the Eastern-bloc socialist nations of the ‘bureaucratic’ or ‘concentrated spectacle’ [1967:41–3], an identification with which Burroughs agrees: ‘[T]he same old formulas’ define both sides [Job 72]) has resulted in a general situation of abundance that could in principle provide every living person with an acceptable standard of living— if a radical redistribution of consumption were carried out.
Of course, it hasn’t been carried out, and instead scarcity and its correlates, poverty and passivity, are represented and reproduced through the spectacle itself. Even the struggle against poverty is determined by the logic of the spectacle, in that ‘reform’ (within the sphere of the diffuse spectacle) and ‘revolution’ (within the sphere of the concentrated spectacle) are equally denied the possibility of addressing the basic axioms of the system. Thus a new form of resistance is called for.
Freedom now is the password of all the revolutions of history, but now for the first time it is not poverty but material abundance which must be dominated according to new laws. Dominating abundance is not just changing the way it is shared out, but redefining its every orientation,superficial and profound alike. This is the first step of an immense struggle, infinite in its implications. (IS editorial committee 1965:156)
For Trocchi as for Debord, the new focus of resistance is not the sphere of production but rather its dialectical mirror image: ‘[O]ur anonymous million [minds] can focus their attention on the problem of “leisure” ’ (Trocchi 1963a:180). Like the Frankfurt School Marxists, the Situationists recognized that leisure was not relief from work but its continuation in another form—‘[t]he forms that dominate [the worker’s] life are carried over into leisure which becomes more and more mechanized; thus he is equipped with machines to contend with leisure which machines have accorded him’ (Trocchi 1963a:180). And thus the spectacle spreads its unfreedom into all the corners of everyday life, colonizing leisure time as it previously colonized non-capitalist spaces.
At the limit, then, our unfreedom is defined by the fact that we are not allowed to turn the spectacle of the reality film off or to step outside it, to take back the material reality of abundance and action from the controlling image of poverty and passivity. To do so would not only trigger a defensive reaction from the administrators of image-capital, it would also threaten the very structure of the spectator’s subjectivity. One of the most disturbing consequences of the domination of the spectacle is the isolation it imposes on the people subjected to it. The spectacle inserts itself into all relationships and alienates them by proposing itself as a necessary point of exchange and communication. As Debord notes, ‘[s]pectators are linked only by a one-way relationship to the very center that maintains their isolation from one another’ (1967:22). The result is, in fact, the very opposite of communication considered as an intersubjective or dialogical process of exchange, for in the spectacle ‘ “communication” is essentially one-way; the concentration of the media thus amounts to the monopolization by the administrators of the existing system of the means to pursue their particular form of administration’ (Debord 1967:19–20). Burroughs had already recognized this in Naked Lunch when he satirized the fascistic ‘Senders’ who seek to establish control by means of ‘one-way telepathic broadcasts instructing the workers what to feel and when’ (NL 148). Thus even the emotional and psychological behavior of the individual is pre-programmed by the ubiquitous image: ‘The spectacle’s externality with respect to the acting subject is demonstrated by the fact that the individual’s own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him’ (Debord 1967:23)
This insidious invasion of the subject’s consciousness (and unconscious) by the spectacle is thorough, but it is not complete. It can be successfully resisted, and has been for brief moments like the Watts riots of 1965 (to which the Situationist essay that Burroughs found so intelligent, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy’ [IS editorial committee 1965], responds). What both civil rights leaders and institutional leftist organizations fail to realize about the Watts rioters is that,
[b]y wanting to participate really and immediately in affluence, which is the official value of every American, they demand the egalitarian realization of the American spectacle of everyday life: they demand that the half-heavenly, half-terrestrial values of this spectacle be put to the test. (IS editorial committee 1965:157)
It’s not a question of living up to the abstract political ideals of the US Constitution, as the civil rights leaders would have it, nor of controlling the means of production as the institutional left insists, but rather of attacking the arbitrary limits imposed on consumption and activity, and hence on life itself, by the hierarchical power of the spectacle. It is a matter of replacing the spectacular logic of mere survival with an affirmation of abundance and the active life that should correspond to it. As Burroughs said with regard to Black Power a few years later, ‘[f]ind out what they want and give it to them […] [W]ho has a better right to it?’ (E! 99).
Chief among the tactics by means of which such resistance expresses itself is what the Situationists called ‘détournement’, which is quite similar to the practice of cut-ups that Burroughs carried on throughout the 1960s. Détournement, ‘the signature of the situationist movement, the sign of its presence and contestation in contemporary cultural reality’ (IS editorial committee 1959:55–6), is the tactic of using the throwaway images of the spectacle against it by removing images or signs from their original or authorized spectacular contexts and placing them in completely different subversive contexts.
Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations. The discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrate that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed […] The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two independent expressions, supercedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. (Debord and Wolman 1956:9)
Drawing on Dadaist and Surrealist precedents, Situationist propaganda made extensive use of détournement in comic strips (the dialogue of which was replaced with dialectical aphorisms), advertising images (which were given ironic new juxtapositions and captions), and most importantly, films.
‘It is obviously in the realm of the cinema that détournement can attain its greatest efficacy, and undoubtedly, for those concerned with this aspect, its greatest beauty’ (Debord and Wolman 1956:12). Cinematic détournement can operate effectively through the accumulation of small detourned elements, as in Debord’s famous film version of Society of the Spectacle (Debord 1973), which detourns a huge mass of pornographic photos, ads, journalistic images, scenes from Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and October, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Gesture and Orson Welles’s Mr Arkadin, among other things. However, it can also function integrally in the détournement of entire existing works, like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which could in principle be detourned ‘as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan’ (Debord and Wolman 1956:12). Onetime Situationist René Vienet’s film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? applies the process of integral détournement to an absolutely generic Chinese martial arts film, which by the total substitution of soundtracks becomes an amusing dramatization of worker revolt against the bureaucratic administration of the spectacle (Vienet 1973).
Burroughs’s work with cut-ups, the method to which he was introduced in 1959 by his painter friend Brion Gysin, parallels virtually all of these points. As he wrote in ‘The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin’ (1961), ‘[t]he cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera’ (3M 29). He found precedents in the work of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara and the American modernists T. S. Eliot and John Dos Passos (Knickerbocker 1965:66). At first, Burroughs treated cut-ups as simply another poetic technique, but soon he realized that their implications went beyond mere aesthetics. By physically cutting printed texts, written by himself and by others, into pieces of various sizes and then reassembling them in random order, he had found a way to evade conscious and unconscious patterns of thought, association and choice that had been dictated by the binary structure of the Word and the reality film itself (see Murphy 1997:103–7). Cut-ups were a form of practical demystification and subversion that could uncover the ideology at work in the political lines of the media—for example, revealing the structural collusion between the police and the drug market in the US and UK (see NE 52–3). Ideology is a constantly repeated pre-recording, and as Burroughs writes in his unpunctuated essay ‘the invisible generation’ (1966), the ‘only way to break the inexorable down spiral of ugly uglier ugliest recording and playback is with counterrecording and playback’ (now in TE 217). Through this insight, Burroughs realized that ‘[c]ut-ups are for everyone. Anybody can make cut-ups. It is experimental in the sense of being something to do. Right here right now. Not something to talk and argue about’ (3M 31). Cut-ups, like détournement, are directly subversive methods that can be practiced and engaged by everyone because they use the omnipresent material of the reality film against itself.
Like the Situationists, Burroughs also applied his subversive methods to film. He too realized that cut-up recontextualization can function both on a local level, as in Nova Express (which cut together Shakespeare, Joyce, Rimbaud, Genet, Kafka, Conrad, pulp science fiction and other texts [Knickerbocker 1965:68–9]) and his films Towers Open Fire and The Cut-Ups (in Burroughs and Balch 1990), and also on an integral level, as he argued in ‘the invisible generation’:
what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track on your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track […] (now in TE 205)
The closest Burroughs came to realizing this integral form of the cut-up was in his short film collaboration with Antony Balch, Bill and Tony, in which the talking heads of Burroughs and Balch swap names and voices halfway through the film and in the process become one another (in Burroughs and Balch 1990; see also Murphy 1997:206–16). Though less immediately seductive than Vienet’s detourned martial arts film, Bill and Tony is nevertheless an accessible and indeed pedagogical example of the potentials of the cut-ups.
For both Burroughs and the Situationists, the final goal of this systematic deployment of guerilla citation is the total transformation of everyday life. The Situationists called the ‘tendencies for détournement to operate in everyday social life’ ultra-détournement, and insisted that ‘when we have got to the stage of constructing situations, the ultimate goal of all our activity, it will be open to everyone to detourn entire situations by deliberately changing this or that determinant condition of them’ (Debord and Wolman 1956:13–14). In the wake of a successful revolution, therefore, détournement would change its modality from being purely critical of the organization of the spectacle to being creative of new conditions of living. The result would then be the simultaneous realization and suppression of art: that is, the elimination of art as a particular sector in the social division of labor, access to which is limited to specialized producers (artists) and consumers (collectors and critics), at the same time that creative activity becomes the general condition of human life in all its aspects. As Trocchi put it, ‘[a]rt can have no existential significance for a civilization which draws a line between life and art and collects artifacts like ancestral bones for reverence’; in contrast, ‘we envisage a situation in which life is continually renewed by art, a situation imaginatively and passionately constructed to inspire each individual to respond creatively, to bring to whatever act a creative comportment’ (1963a:181). Such would be the revolution of everyday life made possible by the new economy of abundance.
Burroughs too offers a model for this final goal of revolutionary theory, again as a consequence of his conception of the cut-ups. The cut-ups render visible or ‘make explicit a psycho-sensory process that is going on all the time anyway’ in every mind: ‘[A] juxtaposition of what’s happening outside and what you’re thinking of’ (Knickerbocker 1965:67–8). Burroughs encourages his readers to experiment not only with the cutting-up of printed texts but also with the experiential cutting-up of everyday life, as in ‘The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton-Smith’:
Sit down in a café somewhere drink a coffee read the papers and listen don’t talk to yourself […] Note what you see and hear as you read what words and look at what picture. These are intersection points. Note these intersection points in the margin of your paper. Listen to what is being said around you and look at what is going on around you. (Burroughs 1966:28)
The reality film operates to integrate all these elements as coherently as possible into a seamless whole and thus prevent the reader from imagining that there is something outside of it, some other principle of juxtaposition; this is its ideological function. But multimedia cut-ups can challenge this integration. In his own practice, Burroughs compiled elaborate collage scrapbooks of found juxtapositions between places visited, words read, sounds overheard, and images and objects seen, many of which served as source material for his novels (see the reproductions in BF 156–83 and Sobieszek 1996:38–53). These mixed-media collages, which ‘spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yipes and the slamming steel shutters of commerce’ (NL 207), do not simply resemble Debord and Asger Jorn’s collages in Mémoires (see the reproductions in Sussman 1989:128–9); rather, like Debord and Jorn’s assemblages, they point toward and demand a practice of everyday life that would realize art on a mass scale and suppress it as a specialized market niche.
The key to the large-scale success of ultra-détournement and multimedia cut-ups is the reconceptualization and reconstruction of the human environment, especially the urban environment. The SI called this reconceptualization ‘unitary urbanism’, by which they meant ‘the theory of the combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behavior’ (IS editorial committee 1958:45). To counter modern urban planning, the spectacular integration of the human environment around the production and distribution of economic scarcity, the SI proposed the total reorganization of lived space around patterns of human affect and association. This would be the ultimate realization and suppression of art and the triumph of life over mere economic survival. Although Burroughs never conceived such a comprehensive project of urban reorganization, he was consistently interested in the unevenness and alienating effects of modern urban space. As I have argued elsewhere (Murphy 1997:47–50), Burroughs’s first novel, Junky (1953), examines the heroin addict’s navigation of the economic organization of urban space, and demonstrates that his reliance on the underdetermination of that space converts what was intended as a productive spatial order into an intermittently anti-productive one. That is, the junkie gravitates toward those parts of the urban landscape that undergo only inconstant and predictable surveillance by the authorities, and there he carries on his economy of theft and fencing as a parodic mirror image of capitalist production and exchange. While this economy of anti-production is not strictly analogous to the Situationist concept of non-economic unitary urbanism, it does identify and criticize the link between capitalist control and the experiential organization of urban space.
Given their small numbers and bohemian attitude toward the accumulation of capital, it’s not surprising that the members of the SI never managed to put their grandiose dreams of unitary urbanism into construction. They got only as far as the mapping of urban space according to contours of affect and association, a mapping that parallels Burroughs’s focus on derelict spaces of anti-production. Indeed, in his later works, Burroughs favored Trocchi’s description of them both as ‘cosmonauts of inner space’ and considered his job to be that of ‘a mapmaker […] an explorer of psychic areas. … And I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed’ (cited by Morgan 1988:338). Similarly, the Situationists called their program ‘psychogeography’, ‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’ (IS editorial committee 1958:45). Since most cities are organized into well-defined sectors, neighborhoods and quarters according to the demands of economic production, psychogeographical mapping sometimes involved ‘detourning’ or ‘cutting up’ city maps in order to defamiliarize the given economic landscape (for example, Debord’s psychogeographical map of Paris entitled Naked City , reproduced in Sussman 1989:135 and on the cover of Knabb 1989).
The theory of psychogeographical mapping was materialized by the Situationist practice of the dérive or ‘drift’ through a city. The dérive is ‘a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances’ (IS editorial committee 1958:45). Instead of following the planned lines of circulation through a metropolis, lines that are almost exclusively designed to smooth the turbulent flow of capital, commodities and their producers, the drifter would follow contours of personal affect, aesthetic juxtaposition, unplanned encounter and/or psychic association, and in the process discover an alternative city (or cities) within the spatial confines of the economically rationalized urban environment. Drifters would ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. The element of chance is less determinant than one might think: from the dérive point of view cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones’ (Debord 1956:50). Clearly this notion of the dérivebears a striking resemblance to Burroughs’s advice to his readers for creating a multimedia experiential cut-up, including the clarification about the comparatively minor role that is played by chance.
The dérive is also the nodal point of Trocchi’s understanding of the fundamental category of ‘situation’ as a kind of artistic ‘happening’. In his adaptation, the ‘Manifesto Situationiste’ (sic) included in the Sigma Portfolio, he insists that: ‘Within an experimentally constructed context, due attention paid to what we call “psychogeographic” factors, the situation is the gradual and spontaneous realization (articulation: happening) of a superior game in which each participating individual is vitally involved’ (Trocchi 1964b, #18/3).
The other Situationists were, perhaps predictably, less inclined to see any genuine similarity between their covert, unspectacular dérives and the garish public spectacles of the professional (and thus integrative) artistic ‘happenings’ that proliferated throughout the 1960s:
Our project has taken shape at the same time as the modern tendencies toward integration. There is thus not only a direct opposition but also an air of resemblance since the two sides are really contemporaneous. We have not paid enough attention to this aspect of things, even recently. Thus, it is not impossible to interpret Alexander Trocchi’s proposals in issue #8 of this journal as having some affinity—despite their obviously completely contrary spirit—with those poor attempts at a ‘psychodramatic’ salvaging of decomposed art […] (IS editorial committee 1964:136)
In fact, the further development of this aspect of Trocchi’s interpretation of the Situationist project may have been the spur that led the other Situationists to expel him, rather gently, later that same year.
Thus the SI’s concept of revolution as life taking control over the real production of abundance and eliminating the spectacular distribution of scarcity dovetails nicely with Trocchi’s demand for an ‘invisible insurrection’ of those trapped by their own commodified and spectacular leisure time and Burroughs’s appeal to the ‘invisible generation’ for a cut-up, detourned rebellion of ‘counterrecording and playback’ against the reality film’s insidious control:
there was a grey veil between you and what you saw or more often did not see that grey veil was the prerecorded words of a control machine once that veil is removed you will see clearer and sharper than those who are behind the veil whatever you do you will do it better than those behind the veil this is the invisible generation it is the efficient generation (now in TE 209)
Appropriately enough, and in confirmation of his intuition that the Situationist milieu would offer ‘an excellent outlet for the short pieces I am writing now’ (Burroughs 1967), Burroughs’s essay ‘Electronic Revolution’ (1971), the sequel to ‘The Invisible Generation’, was published in French in 1974 by Editions Champ Libre, the publishing house run by Debord’s close friend Gérard Lebovici that kept all the major Situationist texts in print through the 1970s and 1980s (now in Job). Burroughs’s rallying cries of ‘Total Exposure’, ‘Wise up all the marks everywhere’, ‘Show them the rigged wheel of Life-TimeFortune’, ‘Storm the Reality Studio’, and ‘retake the universe’ (NE 59) resonate with the Situationist-inspired slogan directing the reader to ‘[t]ake your desires for reality’ and thereby abolish the society of the spectacle (IS editorial committee 1969: 244). Only if we do so will we ever see ‘The Reality Film giving and buckling like a bulkhead under pressure’ (NE 59).
III: SPONTANEOUS UNIVERSITY
As noted above, the Watts riots offered the Situationists an example of the revolutionary interruption or realization of the spectacle that they sought, and so did the radical students’ takeover of the university quarter of Paris in May 1968. The Situationists had been attentive to the specific constraints faced by students for some time; indeed, they first attracted the attention of the mainstream mass media as a result of their collaboration with the militant students of the University of Strasbourg on a withering exposé of the ‘poverty of student life, considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual and especially intellectual aspects’ (IS et al. 1966:319). In that pamphlet they argued that the spectacle ‘allots everyone a specific role within a general passivity. The student is no exception to this rule. His is a provisional role, a rehearsal for his ultimate role as a conservative element in the functioning of the commodity system’ (IS et al. 1966:320). Consequently, ‘the student cannot revolt against anything without revolting against his studies’ first of all (IS et al. 1966:325) because ‘the suppression of alienation necessarily follows the same path as alienation’ (IS et al. 1966:319). Or, as Burroughs later put it, ‘[t]he way out is the way through’ (WB 82). The early, abortive efforts of the international student radical movements, according to the SI, constituted a confused but nonetheless real
revolt against the whole social system based on hierarchy and the dictatorship of the economy and the state. By refusing to accept the business and institutional roles for which their specialized studies have been designed to prepare them, they are profoundly calling into question a system of production that alienates all activity and its products from their producers. (IS et al. 1966:328)
Trocchi had anticipated the SI’s contemptuous analysis of student discontent two years earlier, when he insisted that ‘[w]e can write off existing universities’, which are ‘hopelessly geared and sprocketed to the cultural-economic axles of the status quo’, as ‘factories for the production of degreed technicians’ (1964a:197).
But Trocchi was also more optimistic, indeed utopian, about the politics of education and university reorganization than his fellow Situationists, who lampooned the fictitious spectacular ‘politicization’ of students (IS et al. 1966: 324–5), and Burroughs came to share that utopian optimism, though somewhat belatedly. Trocchi recognized that his ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds’ would need a ‘detonator’, and in that role he cast the spontaneous university, which he conceived as ‘a vital laboratory for the creation (and evaluation) of conscious situations; it goes without saying that it is not only the environment which is in question, plastic, subject to change, but men also’ (1963a:186). Unlike the existing university, the spontaneous university would not reflect the alienating divisions of labor from consumption, of art from life, of living space from affect that characterize modern survival; rather, it would attack those divisions through Situationist methods of détournement and unitary urban reconstruction in order to bring creativity to everyday life. There would be no fixed departments, exams or career paths, but rather constant experimentation. ‘What is essential is a new conscious sense of community-as-art-of-living; the experimental situation (laboratory) with its “personnel” is itself to be regarded as an artefact, a continuous making, a creative process, a community enacting itself in its individual members’ (Trocchi 1964a:200). Instead of reflecting and reinforcing the hierarchical totality of the spectacle, ‘[t]he community which is the university must become a living model for society at large’ (1964a:201).
Events would prove Trocchi right, to a certain extent. When the series of occupations and strikes that now go by the name of ‘May 1968’ broke out in Paris, the Situationists were quick to leap into the fray despite their distrust of the students’ inadequate politicization. These events were very complex and are too well known to be summarized here, but the Situationist interpretation of them is quite relevant to our inquiry (see also Vienet 1968). The ‘May movement was not a student movement’, according to the SI, but rather ‘a revolutionary proletarian movement’ that ‘was able to concretely express itself and take shape only on the very unfavorable terrainof a student revolt’ (IS editorial committee 1969:229). What this means is that while the student movement did not ultimately dominate or determine the significance of the events that occured, the student uprising did act as precisely the ‘detonator’ of insurrection that Trocchi had been looking for. The student occupation of the Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter triggered the very first ‘wildcat general strike’ of industrial workers in history, and effectively though belatedly brought down the De Gaulle government (IS editorial committee 1969:225, 252).
For the Situationists, this was ‘the complete verification of the revolutionary theory of our time and even here and there the beginning of its partial realization’ (IS editorial committee 1969:225), and by ‘the revolutionary theory of our time’ they of course meant their own conception of the spectacle and of the necessary means for its overcoming. ‘Situationist theory had a significant role in the origins of the generalized critique that produced the first incidents of the May crisis and that developed along with that crisis’ (IS editorial committee 1969:241). The strikes and university occupations constituted, they insisted, a ‘critique in acts of the spectacle of nonlife’ that corresponded to and dialectically realized Situationist theory (IS editorial committee 1969:226). Despite the high-profile presence of several Situationists at the Sorbonne during its occupation, they did not claim to have led any part of the revolt—neither the student struggles that detonated it, nor the workers’ strikes that gave it material force. All they claimed was the accuracy of their theory, which had been adopted in whole or part by a crucial subset of the rebels. ‘If many people did what we wrote, it was because we essentially wrote the negative that had been lived by us and by so many others before us’ (IS editorial committee 1969:227).
Indeed, the Situationist interpretation of May 1968 downplayed its members’ activities during the occupation, and claimed that their only crucial contribution to its progress lay in their insistence upon mechanisms of direct democracy, in the form of students’ and workers’ councils, for all decision-making during the revolt. The refusal of delegation or political representation had always been a key element in Situationist models of radical organization, and in May they got a chance to practice it. Their dedication to radically democratic organization made them unreservedly hostile to all attempts to appropriate or reform existing non-democratic institutions, however. For example, although other factions of the student movement saw the Sorbonne occupation as an opportunity to create an autonomous popular university to replace the integrated spectacular university, the Situationists did not: ‘[I]n our eyes the Sorbonne was of interest only as a building seized by the revolutionary movement’ and not ‘as a university—albeit “autonomous and popular”—something we despise in any case’ (IS editorial committee 1969:250–1). For them, the university was an essential functional component of the spectacle and therefore not something that could be detached from the spectacle for relocation to a different position— that is, not an institution that could be detourned as a whole.
Like the Situationists, Burroughs reacted affirmatively to the events of May 1968, and to the broader international cycle of struggles of which they were a part, but like Trocchi’s, his attitude toward the students was more generous. In an interview with French writer Daniel Odier just a few months after the riots and occupations of May, he called for ‘more riots and more violence’, which were justified because ‘[y]oung people in the West have been lied to, sold out and betrayed […] The student rebellion is now a worldwide movement. Never before in recorded history has established authority been so basically challenged on a worldwide scale’ (Job 81). Though he was more supportive of the students’ specific claims and objectives than the Situationists were, he did implicitly agree with the SI in seeing the student uprising as a symptom of a deeper conflict and as the detonator of a more far-reaching revolutionary offensive against the basic structure of the reality film. He noted that ‘the incidents that trigger student uprisings are often insignificant […] [for example,] a refusal to change the examination system’ (Job 81), but much more significant intersection points can be found in the universities. Perhaps the most
crucial reason for all young people to rebel is the issue of top secret research carried on in universities or anywhere else. All knowledge all discoveries belong to everybody […] A worldwide monopoly of knowledge and discoveries for counterrevolutionary purposes is the basic issue […] All knowledge all discoveries belong to you by right. It is time to demand what belongs to you. (Job 81–2)
At that point, in the middle of the Cold War, universities constituted key links in the military-industrial complex just as today they act as research partners for private enterprise; in both cases, institutions supposedly dedicated to the non-partisan search for and humanitarian dissemination of knowledge restrict access to that knowledge according to the demands of the global image economy (as universities always have, of course, from their origins in the Middle Ages to the present). Contrary to this, Burroughs tried to convince the students to ask for the free and equal distribution of all knowledge, which is another way of formulating the Situationist demand for the freedom to live in place of the coercion of mere survival: ‘If you want the world you could have in terms of discoveries and resources now in existence be prepared to fight for that world. To fight for that world in the streets’ (Job 224).
The street fighting soon stopped, at least in the US and France, but in the months following May 1968, Burroughs often revisited the issue of education and its role in stabilizing (or destabilizing) the order imposed by the reality film. He realized that training in conformity, the prefabrication of expectations and opinions, was essential to the continued functioning of the film, and so he began to theorize alternative educational institutions to counteract the conformist socialization inculcated by the existing universities instead of simply denouncing the latter as the Situationists did. He called these alternative institutions ‘academies’, and defined ‘academy training’ as ‘precisely decontrol of opinion […] The program proposed is essentially a disintoxication from inner fear and inner control, a liberation of thought and energy to prepare a new generation’ (Job 138). This program, which is essentially congruent with Trocchi’s model of the spontaneous university, would promote a new way of thinking that would correspond to a different, more critical apprehension of reality:
Like a moving film the flow of thought seems to be continuous while actually the thoughts flow stop change and flow again. At the point where one flow stops there is a split-second hiatus. The new way of thinking grows in this hiatus between thoughts […] The new way of thinking is the thinking you would do if you didn’t have to think about any of the things you ordinarily think about if you had no work to do nothing to be afraid of no plans to make. (Job 91)
One of the academies’ key elements is the negation of the division of labor that is embodied in the departmental structure of the traditional university. Students would be offered instruction in a variety of disciplines, ‘[a]ny one of [which] could become a way of life but […] [the] point is to apply what we have learned from one discipline to another and not get stuck in one way of doing things’ (Job 95). The ultimate goal of the new way of thinking and the academies that foster it would be the extinction of work along with fear and control, an extinction that the Situationists intended to implement through the simultaneous revolutionary realization and suppression of the spectacle. Thus the students would indeed be an ‘invisible generation’, with a different kind of consciousness and subjectivity than the spectator–participants of the reality film.
Burroughs’s most important literary expression of his conception of radical education is to be found in The Wild Boys and Port of Saints. As I have argued elsewhere, Burroughs’s wild boys must be understood in part as a hyperbolic intensification of countercultural revolt (Murphy 1997:145–7). They represent a break with the reality film so profound that it requires a new calendar: ‘The wild boys have no sense of time and date the beginning from 1969 when the first wild boy groups were formed’ (POS 73). In this, they constitute a step beyond the radicals of 1968. They are the graduates of the academies that Burroughs theorized in his essays and interviews of the period in that they conform to no division of labor, no dominant model of public opinion, and no onerous work discipline. They copulate and consume at will, unfettered by the reality film’s iron logic of scarcity and passivity, work and leisure, and in the end they are the only ones who can carry out the electronic revolution.
On the penultimate page of The Wild Boys, the narrator blows up the time barrier separating present time from the wild boys’ future, and in so doing ruptures the reality film. ‘The screen is exploding in moon craters and boiling silver spots’ (WB 184), and then the film is done and everyone is invisible, unspeakable, free …
IV: SWIRLS AND EDDIES AND TORNADOES OF IMAGE
But the invisible insurrection, the electronic revolution, the revolution of everyday life, did not take place—at least not according to the expectations of Trocchi, Burroughs and the Situationists. What did happen is well known, if still poorly understood. In the wake of the worldwide radical movements, the spectacle briefly lost its luster; the reality film momentarily slipped its sprockets; then the process of image circulation and accumulation incorporated the bulk of the movements and picked up where it had left off. Détournement and the cut-ups were taken up by advertising, to no one’s surprise, not even their authors’. Even in their first articulation of the method, the Situationists recognized that ‘it is in the advertising industry, more than in a decaying aesthetic production, that one can find the best examples’ of détournement (Debord and Wolman 1956:10). By the mid-1960s, Burroughs too admitted that: ‘I’ve recently thought a great deal about advertising. After all, they’re doing the same sort of thing [I am]. They are concerned with the precise manipulation of word and image’ (Knickerbocker 1965:76). Ultra-détournement and the dérive, the experiential cut-ups that Burroughs advocated, had to wait a little longer to be recuperated in the form of multimedia, computer games and virtual reality. No longer content to be even apparently external to its subjects, the spectacle drew them into its own representational substance—with their enthusiastic approval.
The new media that form the cornerstone of the contemporary version of the spectacular reality film often lay claim to the educational imperatives of Trocchi’s and Burroughs’s utopian project as well as Burroughs’s cut-up methods and the psychogeography of the SI. In a recent report on the use of three-dimensional animation in advertising, video consultant Jeff Sauer profiles a media company that specializes in 3D: Reality Check Studios. One of their most impressive projects, from the spectacular point of view, is a multimedia CD-ROM designed for the telecommunications giant SBC (Southwestern Bell Communications). Sauer’s description is worth quoting in full:
The CD-ROM starts with an amazing four-minute, high-speed flythrough of a fictitious future city. But the journey isn’t just for fun; SBC wanted to educate, too. So the fly-through stops at the metropolis’ movie theater to show the entertainment possibilities of broadband service. From there, viewers fly to a concert venue to learn about the music available on the Internet and to an animated shopping mall to learn about commerce on the Web. They can learn about home security and wired smart homes and, of course, how to sign up for DSL. (Sauer 2002)
This fictitious city seems an unlikely example of unitary urbanism, though no doubt that concept too is subject to recuperation within the spectacle. And ‘education’ here is conceived exclusively as the most seductive method for informing the consumer of the choices the market has made (available) for her. Advertising is our academy and commodities our education, the only education we’ll ever need for life in the reality film.
In the same piece, Sauer also discusses the perfect dialectical counterpart to this fictitious city: a ‘real’ cityscape that becomes just as fictitious, just as mediated, just as spectacular. It’s Times Square, of course, in which ‘any new construction’ must ‘have electronically lit signage with a size compensatory to the size of the building’, according to a recent New York City ordinance (Sauer 2002). While most buildings have simply been equipped with external billboards and giant pre-programmable TV monitors, the Lehman Brothers Corporation, an investment banking firm, went much further with its office tower, perhaps in an effort to literalize its motto, ‘Where vision gets built’. As Sauer notes, not content with simply displaying electronic signs, ‘the Lehman Brothers building is itself an electronic sign’ (Sauer 2002). And what a sign:
The sign is a huge system of LEDs, 5340 by 736, that stretches vertically from the third floor to the fifth floor of the building. Horizontally, the sign wraps around the building from halfway down the 49th Street side across the entire length of the building facing Times Square, then halfway down the 50th Street side. (Sauer 2002)
The images projected on this immense three-dimensional screen are not merely prefabricated ads, but real-time mixes of pre-constructed content with live images from the building’s environs.
The Lehman Brothers sign content will be controlled by a database that runs on a schedule, but the sign also has the ability to be affected by external input. For example, if the weather in Times Square turns gray and rainy, the sign’s mode, color tone, or message may change to match or contrast with the dreariness. Similarly, if the financial markets are up or down on a given afternoon, that input could trigger the sign to change mood. (Sauer 2002)
This is integrative unitary urbanism with a vengeance, and a tidy allegory for the recent mutations of the global economy of the image: a spectacular sign equipped with the resources to steal affect (‘mood’) from its environment and re-project it as its own. As such screens and images proliferate throughout the world, the functional control of the spectacle increases.
Burroughs anticipated something like this in Nova Express, although he expected it to function as a critical cut-up rather than an integrative element of the reality film. In the novel’s concluding chapter, ‘Pay Color’, the Subliminal Kid (in collaboration with the ubiquitous Muslim heretic and revolutionary Hassan i Sabbah) deploys independent media technology against the controllers of the reality film in an effort to force them to ‘pay back’ the ‘stolen colors’ of human life (NE 149–50). In particular, he
set up screens on the walls of his bars opposite mirrors and took and projected at arbitrary intervals shifted from one bar to the other mixing Western Gangster films of all times and places with word and image of the people in his cafés and on the streets his agents with movie camera and telescope lens poured images of the city back into his projector and camera array and nobody knew whether he was in a Western movie in Hong Kong or The Aztec Empire in Ancient Rome or Suburban America whether he was a bandit a commuter or a chariot driver whether he was firing a ‘real’ gun or watching a gangster movie and the city moved in swirls and eddies and tornadoes of image […] (NE 148)
The final clause suggests that the key to this sabotage of the reality film lies in its disordering of the carefully integrated images that give the film its consistency and predictability. However, the reality film of the twenty-first century can incorporate the turbulence of these ‘tornadoes of image’ into its own structure without thereby loosening its hold on the human landscape. After all, chaos theory has taught us that most disorder is only a differential of a higher integration of order. Indeed, to the extent that it more effectively seduces the eye and the other senses, the chaotic image in fact tightens its hold on the mind and body.
Not only does the spectacle continue to seduce us into looking at it, thinking with it and living in it, but now it also looks back at us from a thousand different angles at once. The one-way communication that both Burroughs and the Situationists attacked as the reality film’s unilateral chain of command has given way to multidirectional surveillance that masquerades as democratic dialogue and informational collaboration. In a late essay, Gilles Deleuze argues that this shift demonstrates that ‘[c]ontrol societies are taking over from disciplinary societies [in Michel Foucault’s sense]. “Control” is the name proposed by Burroughs to characterize the new monster’ of technological monitoring (Deleuze 1990:178), and thus the society of control is a further development of, if not the direct successor to, the reality film or the society of the spectacle. Unlike modern discipline, which was long-term and discontinuous (as Burroughs showed with regard to urban space in Junky), ‘[c]ontrol is short-term and rapidly shifting, but at the same time continuous and unbounded’ (Deleuze 1990:181). We have the security of holographic IDs, the convenience of credit cards, the amusement or edification of web surfing, and the spontaneity of e-mail and instant messaging, but all these forms of instantaneous information transfer leave a residue that is tirelessly collected by credit agencies, merchants, employers, police and the State in order to map our movements, plans, desires and affects. In the US, recent proposals to fully integrate all these presently separate collections of personal data in order to ‘mine’ it for purposes of national security (such as the joint Pentagon–FBI Total Information Awareness project) have provoked a backlash from civil libertarians, although no doubt such integration is already under way in less monumental and hence less visible enterprises, as the rising tide of personalized junk mail and telemarketing shows.
Following Deleuze’s lead, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri also note that in the contemporary global economy of the image, ‘the freedom of self-fashioning is often indistinguishable from the powers of an all-encompassing control’ of the sort that Burroughs anatomized (Hardt and Negri 2000:216, 448, n14). They insist as well that like Burroughs’s theory, ‘Debord’s analysis of the society of the spectacle, more than thirty years after its composition, seems ever more apt and urgent’ right now (2000:188). In particular, the concept of the spectacle, like Burroughs’s notion of control, helps to explain the dematerialization of politics in the contemporary world.
[The] spectacle is a virtual place, or more accurately, a non-place of politics. The spectacle is at once unified and diffuse in such a way that it is impossible to distinguish any inside from outside—the natural from the social, the private from the public. The liberal notion of the public, the place outside where we act in the presence of others, has been universalized (because we are always now under the gaze of others, monitored by safety cameras) and sublimated or de-actualized in the virtual spaces of the spectacle. The end of the outside is the end of liberal politics. (Hardt and Negri 2000:188–9)
Liberal politics, the politics of delegation and representation, have been completely subsumed by the spectacle and in the process have lost their grounding in the populace. They have consequently been replaced by imperial politics, the spectacular politics of Empire.
‘Empire’ is Hardt and Negri’s term for the present global situation of decentralized, transnational capitalism, and should not be mistaken for a reference to classical nationalist imperialism of the British, Spanish or French sort. Empire, the society of control, began to manifest itself in 1968, the ‘beginning of an era’ as the Situationists put it (and Burroughs’s wild boys would agree). Empire is the rule of the spectacle, in that its ‘control operates through three global and absolute means: the bomb, money, and ether’ (Hardt and Negri 2000:345). All three of these means are directly spectacular—they define and orient the reality film. Thermonuclear weapons, which Burroughs called ‘Soul Killer[s]’ (WL 7), function as a standing threat of total annihilation whose deployment is both unthinkable and constantly expected. Imperial control uses their actual possession (for example, in American hands) as a nightmarish goad that overdetermines and subordinates all other conflicts, and their virtual possession (for example, in Iraqi hands) as a pretext for the direct and violent subordination of recalcitrant groups. Thermonuclear weapons are very real ‘tornadoes of image’ that destroy even when they aren’t actually used.
The other two means are more like swirls and eddies of image, though that doesn’t mean they are insignificant. Money and its transnational flows have always been central means of control for the spectacle; after all, Debord did write that ‘[t]he spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’ (1967: 24). Burroughs too argued that human reality is being consumed and replaced by money as image: ‘the money machine […] eats youth, spontaneity, life, beauty and above all it eats creativity. It eats quality and shits out quantity […] People want money to buy what the machine eats to shit money out. The more the machine eats the less remains’ (Job 73–4). Lastly, by ‘ether’, Hardt and Negri mean ‘the management of communication, the structuring of the education system, and the regulation of culture’; that is, the mass media and educational/creative institutions such as universities, which ‘cannot help submitting to the circulating society of the spectacle […] Communication is the form of capitalist production in which capital has succeeded in submitting society entirely and globally to its regime, suppressing all alternative paths’ (2000:346–7). Of the three, in fact, ‘[c]ommunication has become the central element that establishes the relations of production’ (2000:347–8), as Burroughs and the Situationists already knew, and it is communication that is most likely to provide opportunities of resistance, as, for example, the media-savvy Zapatistas showed in 1994 (Hardt and Negri 2000:54).
Despite its acknowledged inability to provide tactics that could replace the now-recuperated techniques of détournement, cut-ups, unitary urbanism and the dérive, Hardt and Negri’s theory of Empire has been taken up by a wide range of groups currently engaged in contesting the globalization of capitalism—including the Tute Bianche and Ya Basta, who protested at Genoa, and many of the organizers of the Porto Alegre World Social Forum, to name just two key sites of struggle (On Fire 2001:101–3)—and through it the Situationist critique of the spectacle and Burroughs’s subversion of the reality film’s control continue to provide critical leverage for the resistance to the present. As Burroughs wrote late in his career, ‘[m]aybe we lost. And this is what happens when you lose […] [Yet] there were moments of catastrophic defeat, and moments of triumph’ (WL 252–3). The Situationists too acknowledged that in the past century, ‘revolution has so far not been victorious anywhere, but the practical process through which its project manifests itself has already created at least ten revolutionary moments of an extreme historical importance that can appropriately be termed revolutions’ (IS editorial committee 1969:236). Those moments have continued to erupt, from Watts 1965 and Paris 1968 to Seattle 1999 and Genoa 2001, and there is no reason to expect them to cease so long as the spectacle retains control and the reality film remains unexposed. Once again it will be necessary, no doubt, to ‘Storm The Reality Studio’, and ‘retake the universe’ (NE 59).
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Retaking the Universe(William S.Burroughs in the Age of Globalization)/Part1:Theoretical Depositions/Exposing the Reality Film: William S. Burroughs Among the Situationists/Edited by Davis Schneiderman and Philip Walsh
First published 2004 by Pluto Press 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, VA 20166–2012, USA
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