The Situationist City
by Simon Sadler
MIT Press, 1999 233 pp $18.95 paper
by Anselm Jappe; translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith; foreword by T. J. Clark
University of California Press, 1999
188 pp $17.95 paper
On November 30, 1994, Parisian dailies reported the suicide of Guy Debord. His death, at age sixty-two, brought to a conclusion one of the stranger episodes of postwar French politics, cinema, and letters.
In the early 1950s Debord met Romanian exile Isidore Isou, with whom he would co-found the Letterist International. Frustrated by the stagnation and immobility of postwar Europe, the Letterists sought to reenact the provocations of the interwar avant-garde in order to facilitate the renewal of culture—and, thereby, the renewal of life. Because once vibrant movements like surrealism had become canonical and thereby lost their critical edge, the Letterist watchword became “the suppression of art.”
Isou had first come to Debord’s attention at the 1950 Cannes festival, where the Romanian showed, to a chorus of hoots and whistles, his Treatise on Slobber and Eternity—a film devoid of images that consisted of dissociated monologues and smatterings of onomatopoetic poetry. The same year Isou’s group had, à la the surrealists, provoked a scandal at the Notre Dame cathedral when one of their number dressed up as a priest, mounted the pulpit, and announced the death of God. Following in Isou’s footsteps, in 1952 Debord showed his first film, Howlings in Favor of Sade. “Cinema is dead. Films are no longer possible,” declared a voice during the opening sequence. “If you want, let’s have a discussion.” As the screen oscillated between totally blank white and black backgrounds, choice quotations and theoretical tidbits punctuated interminable stretches of silence. The audience put an end to the spectacle after twenty minutes. (Why, one wonders, did they wait so long?)
Although Debord is probably best known as the co-founder of the Situationist International, during the 1950s he was an animating presence among a number of innovative and prophetic avant-garde cultural groupings such as Potlatch (a Letterist journal) and the Imaginist Bauhaus. Drawing upon a pan-European constituency, these groups took critical aim at the disasters wrought by commodification, technology, urban planning, and the architectural brutality of the International Style. In the course of their experimental sketches and musings, Debord and his colleagues—Ivan Ctcheglov, Gil Wolman, Michele Bernstein (Debord’s wife), the architectural futurist Constant, and the Danish painter Asger Jorn—developed a radical interpretation of the modern metropolis. This interpretation, its origins and implications for contemporary urban space, are at the heart of Simon Sadler’s timely and insightful study, The Situationist City.
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