The Situationists – Part 2

Situationist poster, circa May 1968. (photo: Chris Devers via Flickr)
(From Kalle Lasn’s chapter “The Revolutionary Impulse” in his book “Culture Jam”,  2000 paperback edition, pages 102-104)

In some ways, Guy Debord (the leader of the Situationsists) was even more of a pioneer of the mental environment than his high-profile coeval, Marshall McLuhan. Where McLuhan only described the mass-culture trance, Debord developed some effective ways to break out of it. One way was the “derive.” Literally, “the drift,” the derive was an idea borrowed from the Dadaists. The Situationists defined it as “locomotion without a goal.” As a deriviste, you float through the city, open to whatever you come into contact with, thus exposing yourself to the whole spectrum of feelings you encounter by chance in everyday life. Openness is key. You embrace whatever you love, and in the process, you discover what it is you hate.

The Situationists believed that derive could largely replace the old twin occupations of work and entertainment, and become a model for the “playful creation” of a new way of life. The deriviste is a drifter in the best possible sense, not someone down and out but up and beyond, living outside the stifling roles society prescribes for us. Living well, Debord said, involves the “systematic questioning of all the diversions and works of a society, a total critique of its idea of happiness.”

Another of the Situationists’ favorite tropes was “detournement,” which Debord proposed as a way for people to take back the spectacle that had kidnapped their lives. Literally a “turning around,” detournement involved rerouting spectacular images, environments, ambiences and events to reverse or subvert their meaning, thus reclaiming them…

… One famous detournement happened in the Notre Dame cathedral on Easter Sunday in 1950. With thousands of people watching, a Lettrist provacateur dressed as a Dominican monk slipped onto the altar and delivered a sermon accusing the Catholic Church of “the deadly diversion of the force of life in favor of an empty heaven, ” and then solemnly declared that “God is dead”

It was with this spirit of detournement that the Situationsts invaded enemy territory and tried to “devalue the currency of the spectacle.” And it was with this defiance that they intended to pull off a cultural revolution, “a gigantic turning around of the social order.”

(What are some acts of derive and detournement that we have seen in our times?)

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