Audio version read by George Atherton
The Paris riot of May 1968 was the largest wildcat strike that ever stopped the economy of an advanced industrial country, and the weeks of worldwide rioting that followed was the first global general strike in history. But this brief, hot, Situationist-inspired happening stopped short of becoming a full-fledged global mindshift. The riots died down. The protests petered out. Governments restored control, and the status quo crept back in. The Situationists failed to get the ball over the line, so to speak, because they were, in several respects, ahead of their time. The spectacular, mediated world of spectacle they so compellingly described and its menacing implications were too new and strange for people in the 60s to fully grasp. And the Situationists themselves were, I think, caught wrong-footed. They and the students, workers, artists and intellectuals they inspired didn’t have their memes figured out. At the height of the uprisings, when they had the ear of the world, they did not know what to say beyond a few cryptic pronouncements: “The Beginning of an Epoch,” said the Situationists. “The death rattle of the historical irrelevants,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to the US president.
But we’ve had 40 years to think about what the Situationists were talking about, and it’s finally starting to make sense. In that time, modern media culture has metastasized. Consumer capitalism has triumphed. We’re in the spectacle. The spectacle is in us. We are living in what Guy Debord, in the last years of his life, described as the “integrated spectacle,” characterized by “incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy, unanswerable lies, an eternal present.”
Today, as ecosystems crash, climate tipping points loom and a last mad scramble is underway for what’s left of the world’s resources, a confused and deeply troubled population is ready to act out. “Direct our cynicism, direct our rage,” they seem to be saying. Forty years ago the Situationists had a half-baked idea about détourning consumer capitalism, putting power in the hands of the people and constructing a spontaneous new way of life. Now it’s up to a new crop of culture jammers and creatives with a fresh set of memes and strategies to finish the job.
How can we pick up where the Situationists left off? How can we détourne consumer capitalism during this November’s Carnivalesque Rebellion.
Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam