Guy Debord’s 1967 Situationist manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle, presented a coolly scathing look at how capitalist consumer culture has overflowed the banks of merchandising and flooded our brains, transforming us into preening narcissists unable to envision life beyond endless consumption. Symbolic life has supplanted human reality: shopping is self-expression. We are spectators of our own lives.
If that thesis resonated with the antiwar, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist students of 1968 Paris who painted the walls and plastered the streets with Debord citations, its truth is more blatantly obvious in the Trump era, when a hypnotized quarter of the country suicidally votes against its own interests in order to bolster its fragile self-esteem against dubious threats.
A decade ago, when I taught and recounted Debord’s scorn for capitalism, I felt that his mixture of Marxism, Dadaist absurdism and Surrealist utopianism was overstated. Weren’t the postwar 1950s a time of relative material plenty in Western nations that is now seen by American cultural conservatives as a prosperous golden age? Workers alienated from the products of production; a first-world problem, n’est-ce pas? But not quite. Nowadays, fifty years après Debord, in our entropically collapsing world, with its cavalcade of cruel stupidities (Giuliani’s “Truth isn’t truth,” Trump’s “What you see is not what’s happening,”) what looked like the paranoia of French intellectuals seems visionary and prescient — on a par with Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World (though not in their literary league, of course).
Pro Arts Gallery is hosting a series of Situationist films, succeeding its just-closed show on John Law and Burning Man, and its 2017 exhibition, The New Situationists, curated by Natalia Ivanova Mount and Sarah Lockhart.
What then is Situationism, and Situationist film? Situationism is a belief that inherent or innate personality traits matter less in predicting behavior. There is plenty of proof that man is not only a social animal, as the Greeks believed, but often a conformist herd animal: Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment showed that nice Stanford students could easily take on the role of jailers and prisoners, and had to be terminated; Stanley Milgram’s study proved that Yale students could be induced to give electric shocks, or think that they were, when ordered to do so.
Debord saw the creeping dehumanization in the supposedly good times, and detailed it in his book. Not a philosophical tract but a series of 221 numbered paragraphs grouped by theme — “The Commodity as Spectacle,” “Spectacular Time,” “Ideology in Material Form,” etc. — The Society of Spectacle is readable, free of the neologisms and specialized jargon that bedevil some other theorists. The author has a gift for the memorable phrase (“the colonization of social life,” “false consciousness,” “degenerate ersatz of myth,” “the bourgeois-bureaucratic spectrum”) and the piquant aphorism, e.g., “The ruling class … [is] owned by things.”
Anyone interested in Debord nowadays, in our quasi-post-literate world of Matrix simulacra, can watch the author’s 1973 movie, La Societé du Spectacle, first, er, d’abord. This 88-minute montage of found film snippets, détourné or recontextualized from anonymous bureaucrats and famous directors (John Ford, Orson Welles, Sergei Eisenstein), includes voiceover narration of excerpts from the book by the author. Lent coherence by an omniscient narrator, the cascade of seemingly random images in the mode of Bruce Conner’s 1958 A MOVIE is mesmerizing, and the out-of-synch juxtaposition of the visual and the verbal has since been used by filmmakers like Chris Marker and Trinh T. Minh-ha, and visual artists like Barbara Kruger. Situationism as a group of activists ended in 1972, but its influence served as the bridge between Marxism, Dada/Surrealism and today’s anticapitalist, anticonsumerist culture.
The film series begins with a reception and introductory remarks by Mehdi El Hajoui, a Harvard-trained scholar representing the Internationale Situationiste archive in Mountain View, which is open to the public, free, by appointment. (Many of its materials are available online at SituationnisteBlog.Wordpress.com.) La Societé du Spectacle screens on Sep. 6, introduced by Ken Knabb. René Vienet’s La dialectique peu-il casser les briques? (Can Dialectic Break Bricks?) screens Sep. 12, introduced by Keith Sanborn. Call it Sleep and And the War Has Only Just Begun by Isaac Cronin and Terrel Seltzer screen Sep. 19. And Society of the Spectacle by Heath Schutz and Debord screens on Sep. 27, introduced by Schutz. All films are at 7 p.m.; doors open at 6:30.
Against Cinema: Situationist Film and Its Legacy, Aug. 30-Sep.27, opening reception August 30, 6-9 p.m., Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, 150 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, ProArtsGallery.org.