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The Situationist City
The Situationist City. By Simon Sadler. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999; 223 pp.; illustrations. $42.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Guy Debord. By Anselm Jappe. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; 188 pp. $45.00 cloth, $17.95 paper.
What happens to a Marxist theory of performance when we sever it from the stages of traditional theatre? What happens when Brecht's alienation effect is extended to everyday life and the nonstop theatre of the commodity spectacle? One possible answer might be the theories of the Situationist International (SI), an avantgarde movement and revolutionary strain of Western Marxism that thrived in France during the late 1950s and the tumultuous 1960s. Two recent books about Guy Debord's thought and the legacy of the Situationist International--Simon Sadler's The Situationist City and Anselm Jappe's Guy Debord--provide scholars with a variegated and complex understanding of SI and suggest that this avantgarde movement has many theoretical ideas and strategies that are of interest to performance studies.
There has been a steady stream of publications about the Situationist International since the late 1980s. Many of these scholarly works place the SI under the rubric of Western Marxism and the postwar avantgarde. While many of these works have been useful to a general audience and to academics alike, they have also had an unforeseen consequence: they have overemphasized the SI's theoretical dimension and inadvertently pried Guy Debord and the SI away from their cultural and historical milieu. Sadler's The Situationist City is to be commended for reconnecting Situationists to their vibrant cultural moment: bohemian Paris in the late 1950s and 1960s. Unlike many other scholarly works on [End Page 171] the Situationist movement, The Situationist City contains over 100 illustrations--maps of Paris, Situationist collages and design projects, and rarely seen black-and-white images of the Left Bank in the 1950s and 1960s. The visual material and detailed captions are extremely valuable because they illuminate Situationist theory, which, without visual aids, can seem abstruse and pretentious.
Sadler is also the first writer attempting to view the SI from the lens of urban theory; he deliberately focuses on the earlier phase of Situationism--1957 to 1962--"when art, architecture, design and urbanism were still primary concerns for the movement" (3-4). The post-1962 writings of the SI contain almost no discussions of architectural form and design. This turn was prompted by the Situationist hardliners who steadfastly maintained, "there is no such thing as Situationism or a Situationist work of art." The hardliners also argued that the SI existed only as a (nonmaterial) form of revolutionary praxis and it should focus all of its energies on direct forms of political engagement.
The first chapter ("The Naked City Realities of Design and Space Laid Bare") focuses on the Situationists' radical critique of the urban environment of postwar capitalism. Sadler begins with the Situationists' opposition to city planning and the beloved "rationalist grid of Piet Mondrian and Le Corbusier." Sadler notes in his introduction that, "the benign professionalism of architecture and design had [...] led to a sterilization of the world that threatened to wipe out any sense of spontaneity or playfulness" (5). This excerpt emphasizes the debt to Johan Huizinga's contention that the wellspring for all great culture was the instinct for play. In opposition to rational technocratic capitalism, the Situationists attempted to retain urban spaces where "play" could still spontaneously happen. Sadler also introduces the concept of détournement, an essential component of the SI's critique of consumer capitalism. Détournement literally means "diversion" or "deflection." For Sadler, this definition is far too tame; a more evocative translation might be "'rerouting,' 'hijacking,' 'embezzlement,' 'misappropriation,' [or] 'corruption'" (17). In theoretical terms, the Situationists defined détournement as the reversal of preexisting aesthetic elements to create a new subversive effect.
In performative terms, détournement can be linked to Brecht's alienation effect. In Brechtian epic theatre, the actor uses...