Friday, May 24, 2013

McKenzie Wark Responds

From Facebook:  The pro-situ crowd are annoyed. What makes them think i disagree with any of this? Or that they themselves would not be implicated in such broad brush 'critique'?

As a specific response to question #1: well, the words and actions that have brought us to this point.  In the first instance, because Mr. Wark's books are historically inaccurate and often factually incorrect.  In the second instance, because "3D-Guy" doll represents a distortion of Situationist theory.  Mr. Wark claims it a work of detournement, but that technique is about hijacking elements of dominant culture (or spectacle, if you like) to attack dominant culture.  So, either detourning Guy Debord is intended to attack Guy Debord for being a representative of dominant culture, or the intention is to use the image of Guy Debord to make some kind of meta-commentary on the proliferation of disposable/degraded images, in which case the whole thing becomes an abstract, hall of mirrors, academic intellectual exercise; in other words, precisely the thing myself and others have objected to.

... we must reject not only the remains of specialized art 
but also those of specialized politics... IS #6, 1961

To be very clear: we are not Debord cultists.  We do not hold the man up as an idol beyond reproach.  Indeed, newly translated writings (found here) from our comrade Gianfranco Sanguinetti (the man who first brought the Rhizome contest to our attention), offer an evolving, multi-faceted portrait of a complex and contradictory figure - a human being, in other words.  So: McKenzie Wark offers a 3D doll, we offer at least a glimpse of  the real man.

The SI's work was subjected to distortion and calumny (Masperized, to use their own idiom) in its own time.  As time goes on, the danger grows ever larger that a distorted view of the SI will be entrenched in the common lexicon, especially since we're talking about a theoretical vantage point shared by only a very small group of people at any given time.  That is why we respond so vehemently to what we see as falsifications - recuperations.  Relegating the Situationists to history as a curio worthy of academic discussion is antithetical to the both the spirit and the stated aims of the Situationists.  Or, to be a bit more sloganeering about it: don't bring the SI into the university, bring down the university with the SI.

Perhaps some of their [the Situationists'] subtle arts might work within the belly of this new digital beast, so that we might live within it, but not give it our undivided attention.  So ends Mr. Wark's recent Guardian op-ed, and it amounts to an eloquent auto-critique.  The Situationist project was manifestly not about finding ways to survive within the belly of the beast.  It was about slicing the beast's belly open and making something better out of its entrails.  What sounds "utopian" to some is more simply radical.  Yes, the theories and demands are grand; as they should be in a world whose masters can no longer even be bothered to offer hope, just more belt-tightening and drudgery on the long march to annihilation.

The comments to the Facebook post are very illuminating.  First off, I am glad to see that someone appreciates the phrase "pub quizzes for dolls."  I was rather happy with that one myself.  I can't be bothered to respond to what are mostly ad-hoc attempts to out-snark one another, but I must point out the amazing irony at being called "misanthropic," "disabling," and a purveyor of an "everything sucks" attitude by someone who apparently hopes for nothing more from existence than "some actual bright spots that might make people pause for a brief moment before pissing on my grave."

The rest posted without comment.

  • Ben Brucato Clearly written by Americans who string together a series of conservative and reactionary tropes and call it radical critique. I'd consider most of this garbage had they not penned one excellent phrase: "pub quizzes for dolls"!
  • Aragorn Bang this critique would have been AWESOME 15 years ago
  • Aragorn Bang (the critique of you... )
  • Davin Heckman Intellectual life in the 21st century tends to privilege misanthropic postures.... it's just intellectually easy to think that because a lot of things suck, everything sucks. If you answer everything sucks before it's even considered, it comes across like a kind of rigorous skepticism. And, given the state of the academic job market and my many friends who struggle to find good teaching jobs, I have to admit that I can fall into the trap of resenting people who enjoy inflated market share. I cannot say they are entirely wrong with pushing back against "expertise".... but, hey, you've been given a platform, I trust you to use it! And I think you know this. Anything that can turn the charms of commodity culture against itself, and popularize the idea of a critical human creativity is an opportunity.
  • McKenzie Wark Davin Heckman yes, i quite agree with many of their sentiments. I just find the overall affect of it disabling.

  • Davin Heckman Of course it's disabling... That's the point? Utopia is impossible, so you can pursue it indefinitely, but never have to actually get there.... and, of course, people are always the obstacle in these pure schemes. There's real injustice in the world. We all are benefiting from injustice in various degrees. So, you make a calculation about what to do. Resist? Sell out? Or try to find some way to bring justice closer to realization, recognizing that every decision carries with it a capacity for error and, at best, compromised benefits. I've only found one reasonable way to work through it.... Trying very hard to love people.
  • McKenzie Wark Davin Heckman there's always a gap between theory and practice, but i think it best to openly acknowledge that gap and work inside it, rather than try to wish it away with maximalist theoretical statements. But i don't want to limit theory's utopian drive. That keeps the gap open and alive.
  • Davin Heckman That's what I try to do. At least that's what I have told myself. But, of course, in the grand reckoning of all things, I should be accountable to others. The big list will undoubtedly be a litany of humiliations and embarrassments, with, if I am open enough and dedicated enough, some actual bright spots that might make people pause for a brief moment before pissing on my grave.
  • Stephen Caldwell Whenever "recuperation"gets casually thrown around as original sin,I always bear in mind Peter Doggert's point in 'There's a riot goin' on' that corporations were advertising "The revolution" at least a year before the events of 1968


  1. For me, this is the crux of the argument is this: is there an outside to the "belly of the beast" or does radical politics require that we admit that we ARE the beast, not simply for building and enbling a specific system, but for our propensity to build systems at all? Many systems are useful, and debates over how things are often significant. My own propensity for folly, though significant, does not measure up to the coordinated and caustic lattice of predation that motivates our common desire to critique spectacle. But what makes the spectacle so pernicious is not it's location or the degree towhich we are habituated into it, it is the degree with which it resonates with our own desire to belong and to be individuals. Remove the entertainment industry and consumer society, and we will be tempted to recreate distorted systems of belonging and contrive ill schemes for trumpeting our exceptional individuality.

  2. Hi there. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    Your point about "trumpeting... exceptional individuality" is well taken. That would be a central element of the spectacle's seductive power: it promotes a banal form of self-identity within a generalized mediocrity, with one's individuality only being recognized to the degree that it adheres to the dictates of the spectacle. Or, more simply, the spectacle is a mirror that reflects what IT wants to see, and to the extent that you except the distorted image looking back at you as you own, you get a sense of self-worth and a sense of belonging to a greater whole. "Pernicious" is exactly the word.

    There is a fundamental tension at the core of Situationist theory, which is the notion of autonomous, liberated individuals acting collectively of their own accord. I can't claim to have solved the issue, except to say that it seems to sometimes work among smaller groups of people.

    But then again, the divide and conquer aspect of our spectacular society makes it ever more difficult....