Situationism explained! and its affect on punk and pop culture

Just who and what were the situationists and what was their influence on punk? Amy Britton investigates…

“Ha Ha you think its funny/ turning rebellion into money?”
The Clash “(White Man At) Hammersmith Palais.”

The above words may be from the Clash, but like so much challenging punk rhetoric, it could so easily have come from the writings of the influential Situationist International.

The influence of Situationism on popular culture, particularly on the punk music of the mid to late 1970’s, is undeniable. Managers such as Bernie Rhodes and Malcolm McLaren were committed, consummate Situationists (the latters bands the Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow, were initially based around its principles). Some people even used Situationism as a bridge to punk, such as Brigadange vocalist Michelle Brigadange, who says, “I was really interested in the whole punk thing from the Situationists onwards. Guy Debord’s theory of the Spectacle is the resonant one. Simply put, the world we see is not the real world but the world we are conditioned to see, and the Situationist agenda is to explain how the nightmare works so that everyone can wake up.”

Brigandage has summarised one of the central theories of Situationism rather well here, but what more is there to it? Who exactly are this hugely important and influential group who helped shape punk culture as we know it?

The Situationist International were founded in 1957, but they will always be best associated with 1968, the year of Paris famous wildcat strikes and riots, and operated until 1972.

They believed that advanced capitalism bred dissatisfaction and thus human desire needed to be fulfilled by finding alternatives to capitalist society. They suggested for this “the construction of situations,” through the avant-garde, art, psychogeography and urbanism, all of which we shall return to.

The concept of a “situation,” in this context may be drawn from Sartre’s concept of a “Theatre of Situations,” (in which Sartre claims the situation in a theatrical play is breaks the spectators positivity towards the spectacle), but it is Situationism’s key figure Guy Debord who it the life we know it; his important work “The Society of The Spectacle,” (the Situationists movements most important text) is the argument that the “spectacle,” is a fake reality which masks the capitalist degradation of human life. He defines the expression “situation,” as a “moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organisation of a unitary ambience and a game of events.” Situationism should make individuals critically analyze every day lives in order to pursue their genuine desires. You can sense the roots of McLaren’s claims that you “should be an insult to your useless generation.” Questioning the everyday of that particular generation and analyzing it, is the only thing which allows to insult it and create a question out of this.

Situationism was not born overnight out of thin air.

It had originally emerged as a part of Lettrism. Situationism has come to be defined by Debord, but we cannot ignore the influence of the Lettrist leader Isidore Isou, a Romanian-born French poet and visual artist.

The Lettrists, operating in 1940’s Paris, were heavily influenced by Dadaism, Surrealism, Lautremont and the general avant-garde, and they attempted to apply critical theories based on these concepts to all aspects of the arts and culture, such as poetry, film and painting. One of their key concepts was the “lettrie,” (a style of poem which reflected pure form yet was devoid of all semantic content) alongside new synthesis of writing which they labelled metagraphics and hypergraphics, and new creative techniques in filmmaking (used extensively by Debord in his films “Howls for Sade,” and “Society of the Spectacle.”)

The Lettrists provided the roots for what would become many of the key theories in Situationism, such as the new theory of psychogeography (which Debord further expanded with his theory of the derive, an unplanned tour through an urban landscape directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings, serving as the primary means for mapping and investigation the psychogeography of these different areas.

The Situationist idea of detournement also emerged at this point. Detournement is the idea of reworking or recontextualising an existing work of art or literature in order to radically shift its meaning to one with revolutionary significance.

Situationist International was fully born in 1956 when members of the Lettrist International made contact with several different artistic collectives at the First World Congress of Free Artists in Alba, Italy, and finding significant common ground. In July the following year, the Situationists were formed by fusing several of their groups ”“ Lettrits, the London Psychogeographical Asociation, and the International Movement for an Imaganist Bauhaus. Debord then wrote the newly-formed Situationist International’s manifesto, a re-reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital entitled “Report on the Construction of Situations.”

It was from here that a new group highly influential in at, politics and urbanism had been born. Its advocation of a cultural revolution and creation of Situationism made it the perfect backdrop to influence popular culture, even though this did not happen until four years after it had dissolved. As the subject of its influence, punk shook up the media in a way few movements had before; the tabloid outrage and moral panic of the “man in the street,” and the excitement of those that were there ensured a genuine “situation,” of a movement about to born. Whether it had any lasting significance will continue to be open to debate”¦

It is rare for a movement to be completely original. The “go forward” meanings of “avant garde,” do not mean that its schools are a tabula rasa, and this is certainly true of Situationism.

Its manifesto was in the tradition of other twentieth century manifestos; the influence of the historical avant-garde, particularly the Surrealists. One of the early Situationist articles, “The Sound and The Fury,” showed reservations with the current wave of “degenerate surrealism,” they were respectful in it to how the original wave had had a clear cause, and been liberating.

But the lineage of influence goes even further back. The Surrealists, and thus the Situationists, had been highly influenced by Comte de Lautremont (born Isidore Ducasse). Lautremont declared “the father of the Surrealists,” by Andre Breton ”“ was influenced by the darkness and decadence of writers such as Charles Baudelaire, had unconventional writing methods, allegedly writing at night at the piano, randomly pounding notes to produce the rhythm of his words, and this resulted in the collage-montage feel of works like “Chants de Malador.” His impact on the Surrealists ”“ a word that, having died in 1870, he would never had known ”“ was enormous. In turn, the feel of early Surrealism is clearly influential of Situationism.

But it is the Situationist who had the real impact on popular culture ”“but how much were its ideas actually realised? A good situation may have to be well-crafted (something evident in how carefully crafted the Sex Pistols were) but there was also something joyfully id-centric about punk. This was almost a version of the importance of play to the Situationists. For them, the worker of advanced capitalism only functions with the goal of survival. The world they were writing about became more relevant, not less, over the years ”“ one in which technological efficiency had increased production exponentially, the workers of society still dedicating the whole of their lives to survival and production.

Advanced capitalism is based around this as opposed to happiness or freedom. The increasing efficiency of work causes the work to become more trivial, which as part of the spectacle manufacture alienation ”“ to reclaim ourselves, we must rediscover play. The return to a state often linked with childhood is easily linked to the way punk seemed to be so much about acting on primitive urges ”“ and the way they turned it into art is fantastically Situationist, considering the artistic heart of the Situationist International.

So much of what I have just said is mere history. Historicity is not technically what breeds artistry, its content is. The story of Situationist International fulfilled its true place in history in the famous events of May 1968, their ideas helping to provide the foundation for the uprisings.

In an aftermath speech of June 7th, Charles De Galle said that “this explosion was provoked by groups in revolt against modern consumer and technical society, whether it be the communism of the East or the capitalism of the West.” 1968 as a historical event is hugely embedded in its own timeline, almost collapsing under its own weight, and as a consequence there are various stories linked to what actually sparked the riots. They occurred in the midst of a range of tempestuous political events, such as the collapse of the Bretton Woods Arrangements, the successful Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the suppression of the Prague Spring, and the Algeria crisis. But a popular belief is that the event which sparked the riots is the failure of Nanterre University to provide mixed-sex dormitories. After all, this was the 1960’s ”“ the age of sexual revolution, not just political revolution. But, if there was a single cause or event which particularly contributed to the riots and ensuing strike, it has almost been lost from history in relation to the “event” of Paris ’68 itself.

The student protests were important (which saw Situationist sloganeering scrawled all over Paris), but perhaps more important and politically worthwhile was the workers strike that followed. It was May 13th when the workers joined, with a one day general strike, also joining teachers and workers to build an 80,000 strong body of people marching through Paris demanding the fall of De Galle’s government, whilst protesting against the police brutality against their riot (something later echoed in the Notting Hill riot in Britain eight years on.)

The group grew larger as they crossed the river as they crossed the river to the Left Bank student quarter, and up to the Boulevard of Michel to Place Denfert-Rocherchaue.

Armed with flags and banners, the students, workers and teachers were united in their chants of “De Galle assassin,” and “CR-SS” (a comparison of the riot police to the Nazis). The BBC reports of the protest at the time describes the varying demands of different members of the group, saying “left-wing students ”“ no doubt inspired by similar protests in the United States and the spring pro-democracy riots in Prague- want reform of the “bourgeoisie” university system and an end to the “police state.”

They also called for a release of their leaders, many of whom were arrested after a night of rioting three days ago when students ripped up cobbles from the streets to set up barricades.” This demolishing of the streets for barricades does not take any analysis in its primary motive, but, intentionally or not, its use of the urban geography may have made it the most Situationist element of the whole protest, as much as any of the slogans scrawled on the walls.

For the Situationists, your city was there to be misused, to be detourned. This is because of how much your streets are an extension of capitalism. The mere act of the derive upsets the uses capitalists intend of the city; to literally rip up the streets pushes it further.

A particularly important thinker on this is Henri Lefebvre, a critic often associated with the Situationist International. We shall return to Lefebvre shortly, but, returning to history, it is important not to underestimate the workers role in the protests, as they are to often “faded out,” in favour of history choosing to focus on the radical students instead. The BBC listed the workers as having a “series of grievances including poor state salaries, centralisation and discrimination.” And it was the workers who really, temporarily, created the biggest “situation,” hampering public transport, air travel, power supplies, postal services and manufacturing. The message to De Gaulle at this time was loud and clear.

So, were was De Gaulle throughout all of this? Romania; his nation being left solely in the hands of his Prime Minister Georges Pompidou. The riots were undeniably the biggest test of Pompidou’s career and he proved somewhat inept ”“ his decision to send in the notorious CRS riot police did little to calm the riots, but Pompidou was fearful that this was the beginning of a revolution”¦

Many of the issues that protestors in Paris had were just as relevant in Britain, so can we say it was the drive of the Situationists that truly bought protest to France? Was protest a dead concept over in Britain?

No, it was not. Shortly after the May ’68 riots, in the summer of that year, there were a number of demonstrations in London against the American involvement in the Vietnam War, centred on the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. One of the organisers, noted left-wing student Tariq Ali, recalls somebody telling him that they planned to bomb the embassy.

He told them that this was a terrible idea and the bombing never happened. However, if not at the Embassy, other bombings would occur. The figure who had spoken to Ali was representing The Angry Brigade, Britain’s first Situationist-inspired protest group. Heavily influenced by The Society of The Spectacle, the group used small bombs to keep collateral damage to a minimum while gaining maximum media exposure to their demands.

In their year-long bombing campaign, running from 1970-1971, nobody was killed, (and they did not spark the same fears of Revolution that the Paris riots of two years previous had) but they have been described as a “serious embarrassment to Ted Heath’s government.” The Angry Brigade, whose bombing campaign we shall track shortly, were the first “use” Britain had made of Situationism in this way, several years before it was picked up on and popularised by pop culture. So, if later years were the right time for pop culture to take on Situationism, why was 1970 so right for radicals in Britain to adopt its ideas?

After an extensive period of Labour rule under Harold Wilson, Edward Heath made a surprise return to power in 1970. Naturally, a return to Conservative rule was the last thing any radical young thinker wanted.

Heath is best remembered for his pro-European attitude and determined, ongoing fight to gain Britain entry into the EEC, but other issues appeared under his government too, such as high unemployment figures.

To add insult to injury, Heath’s constant speak on striving work ethics lent the unemployed body politic a feeling of insignificance and worthlessness. Heath was also a huge supporter of business ”“ the “autonomous working classes,” who the Angry Brigade claimed to represent were oft-dismissed in favour of more business like figures. (The irony of the Angry Brigades claim here, however, is that only one of the group, petty criminal Jake Prescott, was actually working-class, the rest being middle-class, well-educated individuals from the universities of Cambridge and Essex.)

The Angry Brigade were something of a template for the way radical young groups are portrayed in today’s fiction, clichés and ideas, all living together on 359 Amhurst Road, poring over texts such as “The Society of the Spectacle,” to help inform their series of bombings, which included banks, embassies and the homes of Heath and employment secretary Robert Carr.

A key, interesting target of there’s was the 1970 Miss World event (or, to be more specific, a BBC outside broadcast vehicle being used in the corporations coverage of the event.) The event was somewhat different at the time as to what it is today in terms of the enormous level of media coverage heaped upon it; it was a major televisual event. It was, in this respect, something the Situationists would certainly have had some kind of comment on.

After all, what was the event if not a Spectacle, with no participation encouraged from the passive viewer, and everything judged on the surface? (Although, in all fairness, it is likely that the criticism usually directed at the event by left-wing thinkers usually has more to do with its undertones of misogyny than any spectacle-based issues.)

The Angry Brigade seemed at the time to be flummoxing the authorities; in January 1971 “The Bomb Squad,” was set up with the specific job of catching them. In August of that year, they received a tip-off that the aforementioned 359 Almhurst Road had been rented by four university students wanted in connection with the bombings. Police had used a copy of “The Society of the Spectacle,” to trace the offenders, and the Brigades ingenuity had required such intelligent methods, but when police broke into the flat their job was made very easy for them, with what they found. At four o’clock that Friday afternoon, they found more than sixty rounds of ammunition, a Browning revolver, a stun gun, and a Beretta apparently used in an attack on the US Embassy in 1967. In a cabinet in the hallway, they found an ill-concealed polythene bag stuffed with 33 sticks of gelignite and yet more ammunition. Also found were detonators, a knife, a hand-operated duplicating machine used for the production of communiqués, and a John Bull printing press used to authenticate Angry Brigade releases to the press. (These releases were a crucial part of the groups whole Situationist agenda, as we shall go on to see.)

Bags of documents removed from the flat included lists of names and addresses of prominent Conservative MP’s ”“ some of whom had already been targeted (Carr, Attorney-General Peter Rawlinson, John Davies, Secretary for Trade and Industry) and those they planned to target (such as Keith Joseph and Geoffrey Howe.) The plot, naturally, thickened rapidly from here and eight suspects (Angela Weir, David Crossland, Kate McLean, Jake Prescott, Anna Mendleson, Hilary Creek, James Greenfield and Chris Bott) were arrested, becoming known as the “Stoke Newington Eight.”

Crucially, Bott had already been a participant in Paris ’68 ”“ now, with the Angry Brigade, he was bringing the Situationist agenda of the riots to Britain, but without the level of popular support. What is also interesting from a Situationist perspective is not just the way the Angry Brigade used the media but the way the media used them, creating a heady blend of both Situation and Spectacle.

“To describe the spectacle, its formations, it functions and all the forces which tend to dissolve it, one must artificially distinguish certain inseparable elements ,” writes Debord in point 11of “Society of the Spectacle.” The Angry Brigade had used this point ingeniously with their manipulation of the spectacle of the press, distinguishing it by toying with it.

Their use of what has since been described as “ironic propaganda,” was crucial to this; they signed one early communiqué from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and another from “The Wild Bunch,” turning the Situationist ideas of real and perceived into a kind of postmodern plaything.

The tabloids behaved as to be expected, before the guilty had even been identified, with headlines such as “Dropouts with Brains Tried to Launch Bloody Revolution!,” and “Girl Slept With Bedside Arsenal!” Most bizarre of all was the Sun’s headline “Sex Orgies at the Cottage of Blood!” alleging that the Angry Brigade indulged in “anarchist-type meetings,” and “bizarre sexual activites,” ”“ in which a turkey was ritually sacrificed.

If not quite on the same level, even the broadsheets fell prey to the Angry Brigades media-based intelligence ”“ particularly the Observer. Thirty years later, the Observers sister paper the Guardian acknowledges, “on the weekend after their trial was over, The Observer used the by-now iconic pictures of the two 22 year olds (Creek and Mendleson) as an eye-catching addition to its table of contents. What the press didn’t know was that every time they used the images, they were contributing to a defence group fund. In a move that demonstrated a canny understanding of the medias thirst for images of pretty girls, Creek and Mendleson had a set of photographs taken during the trial and gave the copyright to friends to manage.”


Barker, Greenfield, Creek and Mendleson all received 10 year sentences, reduced from 15 after pleas of clemency from the jury, for “conspiring to cause explosions likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property.” (The other four defendants were acquitted and Prescott had already been sentenced to 15 years in November 1971, although this was later reduced to ten.)

From a popular culture perspective, the Angry Brigade represent a strange, transitional period lacking an interesting soundtrack, and a lack of anger in popular culture.

Nothing illustrates this better, perhaps, than the song which was at number one in the week of the Angry Brigades arrest ”“ “I’d Like To Teach The World to Sing,” by the New Seekers, a whimsical slice of ultra-optimistic naivety that was a perfect representation of the more apolitical wing of the hippie movement. (Furthermore, the song would repeat its success after appearing on a Coca-Cola commercial ”“ by selling itself not just to advertising, but to an often unethical multinational company, this song had become a representative of the movements hollow failures.)

The Angry Brigade, however, did not want to “teach the world to sing.” They wanted it to rage, to shout, to fight. The Situationists wouldn’t have wanted to teach the world to sing either, and the idea of “keeping it company,” as the New Seekers whimsically sang, was miles removed from their own alienated world of forever trying to break through the spectacle. Three years after the publication of “the Society of the Spectacle,” it had yet to influence popular culture.

The Angries represented a kind of post-hippiedom in which the ideologies and the politics of the hippie movement remained, but its methods of communicating this ”“ peace and love ”“ were something jaded, passé. The hippie movement had failed; the world was still the same. Peace and love just seemed like slogans, rather than applicable ways of putting radical politics into practice. The Angry Brigade are often described as hippies, but this relates as much to their communal living and their ideology. This was radical counter culture, but about using the bomb, instead o banning it. Thus, they were almost playing the Establishment at its own game; the most dangerous and committed use of detournent imaginable. If this action was a sound, it would be punk. Unfortunately, punk did not exist at this moment.

“Were does novelty come from?” “how can it be made to endure?” “how can subjects force novelty?” “How should subjects organise themselves?” In many way, any successful youth or pop culture movement will be a novelty. Badiou says that he novelty cannot come from the “inside,” if it is to be truly novel. So, what does this mean for youth-based counter-cultures? The truth is, most of them only partly create themselves; so much becomes a media invention. This perhaps takes some liberties with Badiou’s definition of “novelty,” but it is still there, something worth considering. But novelty fades, and thus counter cultures fade, thus having to merge into something else ”“ but it would be a while before something new hit Britain.

In Badiou’s theory of novelty, he claims that it must be unexpected, come from nowhere. He cites the events of Paris ’68 as a crucial example of this”¦the combination of the students joining forces with the workers was something few could have predicted. Punk in its “pure form,” as we know it, then, may be problematic in its roots. (Just as the Situationists are, with their cues from Lautremont, Surrealism, and Marxism.)

Its growth certainly came from the inside (unlike many youth and counterculture movements), which for Badiou is a definition of novelty, but it did not completely come from nowhere, having had a gestation period several years earlier, both aurally and visually, just not quite in the forms we recognise. The term “pub rock,” is now to often derided, but it was actually the pub rock groups who bought the edge of menace so reflective of dissatisfied Britain into music. The most exemplary of such acts were the blues-inspired Canvey Island band Dr. Feelgood. The bands name carried a range of connotations which alluded to narcotic abuse (primarily, it means a doctor willing to overprescribe, but can also be slang for street pills or heroin.) There was an edgy, almost threatening realism to them (such as in the criminal activity lyrically documented in their song “Milk and Alcohol” which in many ways “breaks the spectacle.” Point 12 in “The Society of the Spectacle,” says that “the spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable, and inaccessible.” The culture industry as a whole had previously been reflective of this (see Adorno’s scathing writings) but the pub-rock scene could not have been further away from this. It was not just that the music sounded accessible and realist compared to its ornate, “progressive” predecessors ”“ it was the environment. Pub-rock was almost exclusively about the live scene ”“ it was not being communicated through television sets, with a barrier, but in pubs, accessible, close and personal with its audiences. There was little spectacle to speak of. When there was television appearances, such as Dr.Feelgood’s classic 1975 performance of “Roxette” on The Old Grey Whistle Test, they simply served to highlight a binary division between the upcoming scene, and the spectacle of the rest of the world. Lyrical themes in the wider musical world had basically been either the fantasy, wizards and fairies spectacular of progressive rock, or women ”“ an elevated, distance type of woman; the type of spectacle that proves the kind of women that Laura Mulvey focuses on in her essay on the gaze is not necessarily reserved for Hollywood cinema. When women are sung about by the likes of Dr. Feelgood, there is a sense that they are singing for their own wives.
Whilst pub-rock was altering the scene in the UK, the USA had already begun to show signs of breaking the spectacle with the garage-rock scene ”“ when MC5 sang “kick out the jams,” they were singing about cutting through the ornate showiness of music at the time. Twinned with a political ideology that was considered dangerously left-leaning, MC5 (and fellow Detroit bands like The Stooges) were laying a framework for punk. However, the American city which would have the closest links with punk was not the industrial-production base of Detroit but the derive-friendly mix of capitalism and bohemia that was New York.
Like in Britain, America’s counterculture was also feeling the “hippie fallout.” In a 1976 article entitled “The “Me” Generation and the Third Great Awakening,” the novelist Tom Wolfe coined the term “the me decade,” to describe America’s 1970’s in reflection of America’s general shift from communitarism, the prevailing social order of the sixties, towards atomised individualism (it is misleading to think that this kind of social order in the West began with Thatcherism.)
Communitarismhad obviously been largely ideally reflected in the music of the 1960’s, but the new emergent mood needed something brasher and more egotistic. The death of altruism meant a return to adolescent egocentrism. As a result, then, perhaps the most ideal soundtrack could be made by teenagers, such as the brash New York Dolls, a strange mix of camp and menace. The New York Dolls paved the way for a raft of similarly inspired bands ”“ Television, The Ramones etc, in the same way Dr. Feelgood helped pave the way for the likes of Eddie and the Hot Rods and The Stranglers. The main difference between American punk and British pub-rock, however, was that were British pub-rock seemed to be the closest pop culture had ever come to breaking the spectacle, American punk almost seemed to revel in creating an image, using it as a platform to shatter the binary of real and perceived that was such a concern to the Situationists. Stage names and, sometimes, outrageous shows were a key part of this. The New York Dolls had showy pseudonyms like Johnny Thunders, while others like Television’s Tom Verlaine, born Tom Myers, looked to literature for their names. (The Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine being the obvious inspiration here ”“ the Symbolists were an enormous influence on the New York punk scene as a whole with Patti Smith frequently citing Arthur Rimbauldt as her biggest influence.)
In some ways, the figures on this scene were representative of the new generation Wolfe was writing about in “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” as Wolfe attributes to disappearance of the proletariat with the appearance of the “lower middle classes,” which he cites a being due to the economic boom as affording the average American a sort of self-determination and individualisation that runs alongside economic prosperity. Wolfe describes the abandoning of communal, Left and New Deal as “taking the money and running,” tracing the preoccupation of ones self back to the aristocracy, were the nature of the “chivalric tradition,” and the philosophy behind the “finishing school,” are inherently linked to the building and meaning of character of conduct. The way one would interpret Wolfe’s view of the world here is selfish and yet ego-driven, rather than governed by the usual traditional point of selfishness, the id. Punk counteracted this- the primitive nature of bands like the Ramones sounded id-centric ”“ but the doses of social realism reflected a full awareness of that age. Although these bands lacked the conscious, explicit interest in Situationism that UK punk took on, the more urbanist side of Situationism gives an interesting reading of such bands. Some of the bands used New York to an autobiographical advantage, particularly the Ramones. Songs such as “53rd and 3rd,” documented the street were bass player Dee Dee had worked as a prostitute. There was a romanticised sense of nomadic, derive-style wandering in New York punk which somehow always bought its protagonist back to the same spot, something taking its cue from the definitive New York act Velvet Underground waiting on “the Lexington 125” in the classic 1967 song “Waiting for the Man.”
In point 127 of Society of The Spectacle, Debord quotes Hegel’s line about the “wandering of Nomads is only formal because it is linked to uniform spaces.” The complexity and vastness of New Yorks streets (an accurate map looking not dissimilar to a Situationist psychogeograhy map) lends itself to such wanderings, but still has that uniform limitation. Debord capitalises on Hegel’s point by saying that “the society which, by fixing itself in place locally, gives space a content by arranging individualised places, thus finds itself enclosed inside this localisation.” This is perfectly reflected in the specific naming of individual places in New York punk, but it was not aware of its own potential Situationism any more than pub-rock in the UK was. It would not be long before Situationism and pop culture fully collided though; in the lovechild of American punk and British pub-rock. Initially, however, this was not about hearing but wearing. As early as 1971, the situ-literate couple Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren had opened their first boutique, “Let It Rock,” on 430 Kings Road. Westwood had, in her earlier life, dropped out of the Harrow School of Art saying that “I didn’t know how a working class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world.” Class was obviously a preoccupation for Westwood ”“ no wonder she was drawn to Situationism with its talk of the proletarianisation of the world ”“ but also an acute awareness of the snobberies of the art world back then. One of the famous pieces of Situationist graffiti to appear during the Paris ’68 riots was “art is an academic headache.” An “academic headache,” is something few want to be tied to; but Westwood’s move into fashion with fellow Situationist Malcolm McLaren continued to be intellectualised. As a reaction against the increasingly hollow hippie movement, the store delved further into the past to sell rock ”˜n’roll, teddy boy and girl designs. This was perhaps the first postmodern fashion boutique; the sign above the door was a quote from Jacques Vache saying “modernity killed every night.” So, why choose this era to revive? Is it so valuable in subcultural history? Dick Hebdige links the teddy-boy movement to that of the “beats,” a reflection of the “unexpected convergence of black and white, so aggressively, so unashamedly proclaimed, attracted the inevitable controversy which centred on the predictable themes of race, sex, rebellion etc, and which rapidly developed into a moral panic.” Perhaps the basis of all great subcultures is the moral panic of its outsiders? Even more significantly, Hebdige notes that “the teddy boy found himself on the outside in fantasy. He visibly bracketed off the drab routines of school, the job and home by affecting an exaggerated style which juxtaposed two blatantly plundered forms (black rhythm and blues and the aristocratic Edwardian style.)” Hebdige here draws on Jefferson’s essay “The Cultural Significance of the Teds,” and it may be this break with the mundane that enabled the Teds as an effective subculture ”“ breaking away, or at least attempting to, from the daily grind and production of labour that the Situationists found so oppressive. One piece of Paris ’68 graffitti reads “no replastering, the structure is rotten.” This is one of the most enduring and representative pieces of graffiti to emerge out of the riots, and the Teds were reflecting this by escaping the imposed structure of their race and class (white, proletariat) to escape routine. No doubt this was a partial factor in the inspiration behind “Let It Rock.”
However, as the Teds revealed themselves to be increasingly narrow minded and thuggish, it was obviously time for Westwood and McLaren to move on, and their rebranding of “Let It Rock,” was nothing like the mainstream sartorial world had ever seen. The rebranding was called Sex, and it pushed the idea of youth-based sartorial anger than Let It Rock ever had, being something of a detournement of fetish wear. The idea of twinning the private world of sexual fetish and deviance with something as public as the clothes worn on the streets is almost a Surrealist collage of placing one thing in an “unsuitable,” environment. Thus, Surrealist almost becomes Situationist; that circle of influence continuing. We have already established what a hero to the Situationists Lautremont was. His key work was “Le Chants de Maladoror,” a piece which brims with violence. The critic Alex De Jonge says that it reads “like a sustained sick joke.” This vein of joking which ran right through Dada and Surrealism was recycled again through Situationism, which could be deeply humorous. Westwood and McLaren also managed to retain this dark humour, combined with a strange unwillingness to bend to consumerism which seemed at odds with their retail profession. “Sex” shop assistant Jordan recalls how she would be ready to sell a customer a complete outfit to a customer, but Westwood would intervene and ask what their motives and reasons for buying were, thus losing herself a sale. This is Situationism in action; a lack of concern with making money, and questioning everything instead. When the dire economic situation in Britain at this time is considered, this becomes even more remarkable (Inflation in 1976 stood at 16.5%, at one point exceeding 24%, leaving it the highest since records began in 1750.) McClaren had spent time in New York, briefly managing the New York Dolls, and came back with the intention of bringing the punk aesthetic of people like the nihilistic Richard Hell back to London. What makes this worth considering is the way New York’s socioeconomics were just as dire as Londons; it was a way of bringing a poverty-infused look to another deprived city, something which would emerge again years later. (Hell sported a low-maintenance, ripped and torn look, his clothes self-emblazoned with nihilistic slogans such as “Please Kill Me.”) Hebdige likens the initial punk look to Duchamps readymades, turning an ordinary object such as a safety pin or a razorblade into, as he puts it, “the province of punk (un)fashion.” But there are perhaps better ideas of Duchamp’s for studying punk. This is the theory of ultra-mince (ultra-thin) and is a conceptualist idea which e developed in the 1930’s and published in 1945. Something which I “ultramince,” would indeed be ultra-thin, but never completely insubstantial ”“ ideal, then, for the study of pop culture, particularly aspects such as its fashions. It cannot be defined as it is only defined by examples ”“ maybe we shall encounter some as we go along! In his 1922 review in “Litterature,” Andre Breton once raised the question “could it be that Marcel Duchamp arrives more quickly than anyone else at a critical point of ideas?” If we can treat Duchamp as a critic, then we have perhaps the best one concerning theorising counter-cultures; more so even than the not-insignificant number of critics actively concerned with pop culture. Using Breton’s comment as a stating point, the critic Robert Hughes says this new relation between art and concept is “a form of trangression of Romanticism.” (“Romanticism,” for Hughes is the theory of a space “between the quasi-divine or sacred poetic institution of the infinite, and the sterile constraints of contrasting reality.”) That space which defines Romanticism was ignored by Duchamp through “ultra-mince,” we shall go on to see how it was crucially ignored to great effect by many punk musicians also.
For any analysis to be undertaken, however, some thought needs to be given to punks historical context. Never before, or since, has a musical movement correlated so perfectly with a political rule. Taking over after Harold Wilson’s surprise resignation, Callaghan dealt with a difficult four years in a way which heralded the beginning of Labours shift to the right, over twenty years before the term “New Labour” had come into use.
Of course, the music itself is often self-theorising. In his intellectualised work “Punk: A Cultural Dictionary,” music, theory and literature expert Nicholas Rombes acknowledges that, with the weight of its intellectual influences, punk can become a kind of theory in itself. He points out “the Marxist, cultural studies mindset was at that time well and truly alive,” before quoting Tommy Gear of The Screamers saying that “this time (1976-1977) was more of an ideological challenge”¦art goes in advance of the general populace whereas commerce follows and tries to make money down the road.”
Gear, as a San Franciscan, was perhaps critiquing Seventies America more than the UK, but his comments are decidedly universal, with the British influence on The Screamers meaning he was almost certainly including Britain in this critique. It certainly serves as an ideal template for the way the story of punk can be used to critique history ”“ lyrics by people like the Adverts TV Smith and Buzzcocks/Magazine’s Howard Devoto can also be used as theory to critique the era which they came from.)
Rombes treats punk in the much the same way we could treat the Situationists ”“ or even people like Lautreamont. It is all part of the same tradition, coming out of the avant-garde. Rombes writes that “it was still possible to have an avant-garde. Today ”“when every new cultural form becomes dessimated in a matter of days via Youtube and other yet-to-be-named delivery devices ”“ there’s really no such thing as the avant-garde, which depends on a cultural lag for its very being. An avant-garde means being in front of something, ahead of it, a gamble, a predictor, a gamble of how things might turn out. The avant-garde depended on a media that would eventually disseminate its ideas, but slowly, slowly. That very lag time gave the avant-garde a chance to be the avant-garde.” Even when the Situationist influence on punk is not always obvious, there is something else they share aside from themes of chaos and boredom ”“ they share a tradition which we have potentially lost. The revival of Situationism that punk prompted is not just political ”“ it relates to a (lack of) media, too.

One of the most relevant points as a whole in the “Society of the Spectacle,” with regards to McLaren’s wider project is point 64, which includes the line “celebrity is the master of non-consumption, and the heroic image which gives an acceptable meaning to the absolute exploitation”¦” However, what McLaren sought to create through Sex and then Seditionaries was a very different kind of celebrity. One who was an anti-hero, and a master of consumption. The scene that gathered around Sex was somewhat self-lionizing anyway; with members of what was would become known as the “Bromley Contingent,” gathering there. Bromley is a very-middle class, suburban area but the group could be almost feral in their behaviour (one particularly notable member, Siouxsie Sioux, put her friend on a lead and would walk into pubs ordering a “bowl of water for her dog.”) This could be seen as a simple rebellion against middle-class boredom and restriction, but if we consider British class snobbery throughout the years and read the behaviour of the Bromley Contingent that way, they become more Situationist. Point 100 of “The Society of the Spectacle,” says that “the representation of the working-class radically opposes itself to the working class.” Were the Bromley Contingent a strange kind of representation of the working class? Would a “traditional,” thinker in the mid-70’s be surprised that people who looked and behaved like them were from comfortable middle-class backgrounds? And yet this was something separate to the mere age-old, still prevalent today story of middle-class young people “acting working-class”; as believers in decadence, influenced by Husyman’s “A Rebours,” and Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin,” the Bromley Contingent potentially opposed both the working class and their own class by becoming other. This could also be linked back to point 26 in “Society of the Spectacle,” about how “the success of the economic system of separation is the proleterianisation of the world.” We have already seen the self-proletarianisation of individuals with the middle-class Angry Brigade dropping out of university and acting on behalf of the “autonomous working classes.” By contrast, the Bromley Contingent created a world within a world which involved something not-quite-like proletarianisation. The scope of this tiny world, however, means it is only their economic separation which rests on it. And economics, and money in general, seemed a conflicting issue in Sex. Westwood may have talked herself out of sales by questioning the customers motive, but McLaren was more shrewd. He knew the skill of good marketing and was prepared to take it to a new level in a way which made him part of a new kind of spectacle. Punk in Britain had to go beyond the aesthetics of Sex.
Westwood and McLaren were well qualified to do this; having been the ones to unpick the predominant subculture of the fading hippie movement, starting with “Let It Rock,” and then “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die.” In the “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die,” shop, they made use of the theories of Valerie Solanas, as well as their heroes the Situationists. Solanas is remembered historically for shooting Andy Warhol, but her SCUM (“Society for Cutting Up Men”) Manifesto, published in 1968, made her a hero of extreme counter-culture feminism. In 2004, McLaren told the Guardian that he had “ripped out the dance floor and used wood to make parallel bars. I covered the walls with sponge and sprayed slogans with pamphlets I’d picked up in NYC ”“ the SCUM manifesto, adding the words “does passion end in fashion, or does fashion end in passion?” This, final, added sentiment echoes the slogan that the Angry Brigade used to accompany their BIBA bombing, “in fashion, as in everything else, we can only go backwards.” The representation of the Angry Brigade of the hippie fallout can also be found in a later, vicious manifesto of Solanas’ entitled “Isolation, Suburbs, and Prevention of Community,” in which her vitriolic hatred of the hippie movement both predates and exceeds the sentiment shared by punk. She writes, “the hippie babbles on about individuality, but has no conception of it than any other man. He desires to get back to nature, back to the wilderness, back to the home of furry animals that he’s one of, away from the city, were there is at least a trace, a bare beginning of civilisation, to live at the species level, his time taken up with simple non-intellectual activities ”“ farming, fucking, bead-stringing”¦ the “hippie” is enticed to the commune mainly by the prospect of free pussy”¦the main commodity to be shared.” Writing in the wake of Situationism, Solanas had realised that everything could be a commodity, even the body, and that the counter cultures who thought that they were fighting against it were the most guilty, fitting with Hebdich’s cynical conclusions about the failures of subcultures. Maybe what countercultures needed to do was be more honest about the fact that they, to, were often chasing money. The money which McLaren was chasing was what Debord calls “the youth capital,” (something he would push even further with his later, early 80’s project Bow Wow Wow). Debord is still cynical about youth-capital, saying in point 160 of Society of the Spectacle that “even a youth-capital, contrived for the most mediocre uses, could never acquire the durable and cumulative reality of financial capital.” But McLaren seems resolutely determined to undo this ”“ to make youth capital something to be put to exciting, not mediocre uses ”“ to obtain, as the slogan put it, cash from chaos. Youth capital is a key concept of Debord’s as capital itself, as something which was part of the enslaving capitalist system, was something responsible for the daily grind of boredom and depression that the structure of industrial modern life had left us with. And the young could be victims of this too. One of the inspirational starting points of all this, Richard Hell, sang with his band the Voidoids, “I belong to the blank generation.” Closer to home, the British pub-rock scene managed to summise the empty use of youth-capital even more in a way which gleefully rejected it ”“ Eddie and The Hot Rods “Teenage Depression,” could be the ultimate anthem for this. “Well I’m spending all my money and its going up my nose,” sings frontman Barrie Masters in the opening line . Youth-capital has been spent, but not in the way the system would want ”“ rather than going on a commodity, it has gone towards a narcotic (most likely amphetamines; cocaine not being popular at the time) experience. Equally, “Teenage Depression,” tackles the issue of authority (“it really makes me mad when they always ask me why/ that I never comb my hair and I never wear a tie/schoolteacher bugging me it’s the same old thing”¦) showing the Situationist idea of “it is painful to submit to our bosses” is just as relevant to the young, and obviously, depression, with its repeated lines about having “the teenage depression.” Youth-capital, with its limited potential and attempts to enslave young people into the consumer system has left them trapped in a hollow, nihilistic boredom and depression. This was something understood by McLaren, whose answer to this was those claims about being “an insult to your useless generation.” What he marketed would have to be the perfect advertisement for Sex whilst still being a provocative shock to the system. Badiou’s post-68 claims that novelty must come from the outside were partly used by McLaren in his willingness to look outside of his age and class, but he wisely looked within the scene that he and Westwood were presiding over. The band he had taken on to represent this (named The Sex Pistols as both provocation and to incorporate the shops name “Sex” into their name) were a capable group of musicians (something rewritten by history), Glen Matlock, Paul Cook and Steve Jones (a warrior against consumerism by instinct rather than belief, being a compulsive kleptomaniac). But the important component was obviously the frontman. Point 60 of Society of the Spectacle runs that “the celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisation which are actually lived.” So, a celebrity, if they are to be a true celebrity, which is clearly what McLaren was seeking, needs to go beyond being a mere human being and into the realm of being a representation, and they must embody a role ”“ in McLaren’s ambition, the role of provocation. But, as a believer and supporter of Situationism, McLaren would want to fight against what appalled Debord so much, not go along with it. So the “star” he found could not possibly “embody banalism” or a “possible role.” He had to be exciting, with a real role. Once he had found him in the form of John Lydon, his concept became unstoppable. Lydon ”“ renamed Johnny Rotten ”“ fit every inch of Debord’s description of the celebrity. His stage name carried with it a whole persona; the barriers of the real and perceived breaking down. In the wake of the Sex Pistols, the ideas of real and perceived would become challenged heavily by punks toying with identity. Psuedonyms appeared everywhere on outlandish characters such as Siouxsie Sioux and the Damned’s Captain Sensible. But not everybody felt that this was necessary. Situationism would have been torn ”“ welcoming the form of play but dismissing the spectacle ”“ and with, McClaren not the only Situationist manager on the scene, ideas about what reflected the construction of a situation varied from person to person. Another noted Situationist as that time was Bernie Rhodes, who was manager of the Clash. Brimming with Socialist integrity and sloganeering, the Clash were an important reflection of dissatisfaction in Britain. But Rhodes relationship with McLaren was one of rivalry, not unity. McLaren did have allies in ideology, though, with the Situationist artist Jamie Reid. Describing his own work, he says that “from the Surrealists to the Dadaists, to the Situationists and the whole movement of community agit-prop politics, down into the punk, and then into all sorts of things. It’s a continuing story. What I did was to take these movements into popular culture.”

With Jamie Reid, McClaren and Rhodes politics inducing a wave of Situationism to a dissatisfied Britain, mired in economic strife and reaching degrees of unbearable heat in the famous heatwave of 1976 latched on to its outlet. The only thing higher than the temperatures was the wave of moral panic beginning to rise in the air.

This truly hit its peak in December, 1976, with the Sex Pistols notorious appearance on the Bill Grundy show which led to moral outrage throughout the nation. How much was this in keeping with the Situationist rhetoric yearned for by McLaren (who was actually mortified by the incident)? The truth is, it was incredibly appropriate to the very earliest ideas of Situationism, which involved acting like pranksters to a response of serious moral outrage. This behaviour, inspired heavily by Dada, was seen as a form of cultural sabotage. A particularly famous exemplary moment can be traced to the Lettrists, in which they sabotaged Easter High Mass as Notre-Dame in 1950. In “Leaving the Twentieth Century,” Christopher Gray tells us how “just before the High Mass, a small group of Lettrists, including one who had previously intended to be ordained, slipped unobserved into the back of the cathedral. In a side-room, they caught, gagged, stripped and bound one of the priests. The ex-Catholic Lettrist put on the priests vestments, and just before service was about to begin, gravely ascended the steps to the main pulpit. A moments respectful silence. ”˜Freres Deu Mort,” he said: and began to begingly discuss the implications of this conclusion. Several minutes passed before the congregation actually realised what was happening. He managed to escape out of the back of the cathedral, but the congregation caught up with him on the quais, were they proceeded to try and lynch him. The lettrist, alas, was forced to surrender to the police in order to save his neck.”
This kind of behaviour was basically buffoonery, but still enough to provoke a moral panic. The same could be said of that notorious television appearance, which was enough to break the spectacle of this supposedly respectable television show. The broadcast featured an inebriated Grundy, an established and respected figure, interviewing the Sex Pistols, flanked by members of the Bromley Contingent. Viewing the footage back, it becomes apparent that Grundy is goading them into their use of bad language. Grundy was sacked for his blatant encouragement; something not helped by his drunkenness. Inadvertatly, the Pistols had broken the spectacle of his own celebrity character as mere spectacular representation ”“ rather than being a respectable television personality, he was a drunk who flirted tastelessly with Siouxsie Sioux (or, a “dirty old bastard,” as guitarist Steve Jones put it.) The general public was appalled, the switchboard was jammed with complaints and angry letters, including one from an angry woman demanding money for a new television set because her husband had allegedly been so angry he had kicked the old one in. But this moral outrage over punk wasn’t new. 1976 as a whole had bought forward huge controversies ”“ it was not the music which caused the initial panic, but what with hindsight can be seen as postmodern “punk art,” particularly COUM Transmissions “Prostitution” show at the ICA.
“Punk Art,” at the hands of COUM Transmissions had been being created as early as 1969. They had become particularly controversial with their graphic show “The Alien Brain,” in 1971, at the dawn of postmodernism. Interestingly, COUM Transmissions were still representing the hippie fallout. They opted for communal living, free love and society-rejecting activities such as sharing all their clothes from a communal chest (the group included a woman, Cosey Fanni Tutti) and eating meals at strange times. P-Orridge explains this way of living in a manifesto were he fights talks about the fight against control. During his education at Solihull University, studying philosophy, he would have become educated in matters of Situationism and this is evident in his dislike of the constraints that capitalist society places on us by driving us into routine. This is the Lefebvre view of capitalism informing our day-to-day decisions dealt with head on; fighting the “routine,” the system creates for us by living outside of it. Living a certain way is infinitely more Situationist than merely writing about it, and in artistic terms it reflects P-Orridge and his fellow artists commitment to the concept of the avant-garde. The avant-garde, in its key historical period, called for the sublimation of art into life, as opposed to the autonomy which had previously existed in art. Artistic theory was also beginning to take on ideas of sublimation and involvement with thinkers like Ranciere, but he never cites artists as bold as COUM Transmissions. Their art was very much about actually “doing,”; witness what Tutti and P-Orridge put themselves through in “Cease to Exist,” a riot of self-harm, sex, blood, vomit, and milk enema’s creating otherly substances. The post-68 thinker Julia Kristeva writes in her essay “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Objection,” that the abject blurs the boundary between self and other, inside and outside, and is therefore disturbing. Feelings of objection are triggered by things that dissolve individuating boundaries such as vomit, urine and menstrual blood. COUM Transmissions used all of these boundary-individuating bodily fluids ”“ this was a group that appeared to be revelling in a moral panic.
In a way, COUM Transmissions “Prostitution” show and the Sex Pistols appearance on Bill Grundy can be grouped together in terms on 1976’s moral panic. In manner which rivalled the “Death Orgies At the Cottage of Blood,” headline over the Angry Brigade, that great spectacle-creator the tabloid press created iconic, hysteria-inducing headlines over both of these events. The Daily Mirror opted for “The Filth and the Fury!” over the Grundy debacle, whereas the “The Wreckers of Civilisation!” was screamed across newspapers in relation to COUM Transmissions (which is how the Conservative MP Nicholas Fairban had described them upon attending the Prostitution show, raising questions in Parliament.)
The government ought to have had more serious issues to be debating, with the state of the economy being dire and the year having heralded such potential debate as police behaviour ”“ something which would continue into the next year, twinned with the theme of racial tension.

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7 comments on “Situationism explained! and its affect on punk and pop culture”

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  1. Interesting but it does need some editing, not least because there are auxiliary verbs and articles missing here and there.. Cheers though

  2. Amy, I really enjoyed reading that, well done mate !!

  3. schoolgirl error – it’s not an “ism”

  4. an appreciable enthusiasm but too many assumptions, misinterpretations, over estimations and mistake to even begin addressing individually. the assocation with punk, presumably the reason for this appearing here, is vastly over egged and endless third hand threadbare yarns are leaned on one more time. the ideas of the situationists (not situationism) are still incredibly powerful and- with reservation- applicable in many modern instances. if you want a easy digestion of who they were and what they intended, see andrew hussey’s book, the game of war.

  5. Petros does have a point. No one can expect an article of this length to be completely error free without a team of sub editors, which obviously LDW doesn’t have. But a title without a glaring typo (affect should be effect) would lend it more credibility.

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