Walking Off the Big Apple with the Situationist International

I've recently been reading fascinating, stimulating, and exasperating literature by members of the Situationist International, an avant-garde assembly of street-aware groups active in Europe in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Paris, with its ancient central core, a multitude of meandering streets, and engineered wide and straight boulevards, served as their main laboratory. This tight-knit but contentious group, whose central figure was an impassioned, brilliant and sometimes ill-tempered intellectual by the name of Guy Debord, took upon themselves an intense investigation of what they called psychogeography, an inquiry into the ways our environment affects emotions and behavior.

Their advocacy for a radical rethinking of how we relate to our own physical environment and the ways we interact with the street in our everyday life should appeal to anyone fantasizing an escape from their normal route (and routine). Reading their essays in Situationist International: Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, rev. and expanded 2006), is already causing me to rethink how I relate to the streets of New York.

The Situationists sought to challenge the ideology and power of urban planners in post-war Europe and what they perceived as the deadening imposed conformity of these plans. The Situationists were inspired by their predecessors in the surrealist and dadaist avant-garde, but their anarchist politics took them beyond the dictates of the subconscious. The world of dreams and the irrational was not the final frontier. Rebellious to the core, they eschewed following the paths dictated by the state, a notion they took literally.

The revolutionary frontier was the street. The events of May 1968 took place within a complex organization of barricades, the result of tactical manoeuvres by students who had read their Situationist texts. The uprising is sometimes cited as the culmination of these works.

Through their strategy of dérive, a complex practice of unplanned walks, and the concept of détournement, a form of culture jamming, the Situationists seem truly visionary. Yet, Guy Debord and his associates were not alone in questioning the shape of the modern city. Jane Jacobs' resistance to the New York of Robert Moses comes to mind. Her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, dating from 1961 and contemporaneous with the Situationists, celebrates chaos, natural urban order and the camaraderie engendered by historic neighborhoods of a human scale. Of course, as a resident of Greenwich Village, the book is pretty much required reading. The points of departure are considerable, however, only partially explained by the historical, political, cultural and ideological differences between the United States and France.

Debord introduces his essay "Theory of the Dérive" (1958) with the necessary distinction: " One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll." In a dérive, Debord writes, the person lets go of any preconceptions and normal motives to "let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there."

I have not made my way through the anthology adequately enough to comment further, but I am in process of some self-psychoanalysis with regard to my chosen identity as a flâneuse. After these readings (on top of Walter Benjamin's famous flâneur critique) the concept seems hopelessly bourgeois. Re-reading some of my writings, though, I might already be engaged in some situationist practices and just didn't know it. I may be up for this game. At the very least, I'll be more aware of the false barriers that separate spaces in the city and will keep my eyes open to new possibilities within the great urban labyrinth. My goal is not passive tourism but the re-enchantment of the street. I may have found some new company here.

Image: Le parapluie rose de Greenwich Village. August 2008. Walking Off the Big Apple.

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