Andrea Gibbons’ Situationism

The Situationist International (1957-1972) were a group of thinkers with a grand narrative, a big story about exploitation and passivity, a story about generalising creativity beyond capitalism and works of art (‘art’ and ‘creativity’ are defined by me here). If you don’t know this story here is Not Bored’s brief run down. The Situationists’ claim this story is true no matter who you are in late capitalism.

From now on I am going to assume you know this story. This is so I can defend it against Andrea Gibbons’ idea that instead of such a grand narrative we should tell a lot of small stories about power imbalance. She most immediately has in mind stories about being black, Arabic or being a woman. The point of telling these smaller stories is the telling is in these groups interests. Gibbons presents this idea in Salvaging Situationism [sic]: Race and Space, here, in the publication Salvage.

The Situationists’ is a grand narrative also in that they go from concrete particulars to a story about all of a certain sort of concrete particular. These particulars are all the persons in a late capitalist framework. As not thereby specifying any particular persons under capitalism, whom we could physically touch as concrete realities, we can call the Situationist story ‘abstract.’

The Situationists made some astounding critiques, giving us an “either or:” creativity is generalised or we are stuck with a capitalist society which withholds all but the most illusory of freedoms. But as concerns their story being abstract, there is nothing unusual.

coliderPeople use abstract stories all the time, for instance in atomic physics. Scientists need not be concerned about this or that particular concrete atom, but can instead narrate a story that describes regular behaviour in many atoms. By using abstraction in this way they can build a Large Hadron Collider or an x-ray machine (if also produce more destructive items). For the moment let us further consider this physical story.

If we had to take into account the trajectory of each atom as a concrete unique particular, we would be overwhelmed by data we could process no further. We could not, for instance, construct devices that relied upon patterns and rules about how all atoms in our experience behave, such as the collider or the medical imaging devices just mentioned.

On a philosophical level, Gibbons’ criticism of the Situationists is essentially that when they apply their abstract grand narrative to social subject matter, the results are often undesirable. They lose the stories of concrete individuals. In context, they first lose the stories of people already most discursively invisible or subaltern, since it is easiest for these stories to fall under the radar. The stories of black or Arabic persons are vulnerable in just this way. Gibbons also gestures at losing the stories of women.

So for Gibbons abstraction as used by the Situationists has ethically unacceptable results. Her main example is when black and Arabic persons were victimised and murdered by Parisian police at the time that the Situationists were active. She thinks that the murders and the victimisation were not properly cognised by white (usually male) Situationist comrades theorising abstractly. Gibbons then thinks white Situationist intellectuals did not “have the back” of black and Arabic Situationist and International Letterist comrades. (International Letterists were precursors of the Situationists.)

Gibbons thinks this explains why the stories of black and Arabic Situationists and Letterists such as Khatib and Dahou faded into historical invisibility. She detects this invisibility in the writings of Situationists such as Debord or Vaneigem. For her, black and Arabic Situationists and International Letterists were also not assisted by white intellectual co-members when targeted by racist police. Gibbons also contends the massacre of more than 200 Algerian demonstrators in 1961 by French police on the Saint-Michel Bridge (aka the Paris massacre of 1961) was largely overlooked by the Situationists.

For the moment I will only say that I was very surprised by Gibbons’ historical claims. Take the Situationist defence of the 1965 black American rioters in Watts, Los Angeles. A written defence of the riot was not common at that time (see section 10 of the Not Bored summary of the Situationists for similar examples).

There is no denying Gibbons would be on firmer ground to point out that the abstract Situationist grand narrative cannot consider all the trajectories of the atomic units to which it refers, namely given individuals. The result does indeed seem to be that the Situationists lose information. We can express Gibbons’ idea analogically: just as an abstract physical theory cannot consider the trajectory of every atom, so the Situationist story could not consider the trajectory of every person, qua atoms, traversing even a brief unity of time.

Before we go on to agree with Gibbons that this is unethical, we should note that no one can really consider all the individual trajectories of any significant social identity. This is in fact clear if that identity is black, Arabic or female-identifying; it would amount to literally billions of persons even in the 1960s. Indeed, Gibbons herself discusses the life experiences only of men who have a certain claim to fame, men involved in the well-known Situationist and Letterist Internationals. It is effectively impossible to advocate social change and also consider the life experiences of every individual, even from a “minority.” We would be overwhelmed by accounts of goings-on, urban and otherwise.

This limitation is not properly recognised by Gibbons. Salvage, the group that published her article on the Situationists, want to avoid a grand narrative about different forms of oppression, including that of blacks, Arabs, queers and women. Salvage think that these groups can unite along with workers anyway; that cumbersome abstract grand narratives are old-fashioned and unnecessary.

Without a grand narrative, presumably concocted by white male intellectuals, Gibbons likewise thinks that the identity of subaltern groups need not be under threat. It would be absurd to think that you have to be white white middle class male to concoct a grand narrative, but Gibbons point would be that white etc privilege helps and is helped thereby. By dispensing with such grand abstract stories, Gibbons hopes less grand stories need not be rendered invisible.

But Gibbons seems to forget that identities like black or Arabic already involve abstraction by dint of not referring to any one concrete person. To reiterate: if we want to explain and change society, we have to abstract to avoid information overload. In doing this the Situationists made their own theoretical choices and championed a certain grand narrative. Gibbons must also abstract, even if she seems less aware of the fact.

To further compare The Situationist and Gibbons’ abstractions, let us return briefly to the physics example. We found that an abstraction is useful in that we are not forced to track the trajectory of any given particle. However this is not to say we cannot track a trajectory if we want. On the contrary, abstract physics allows us to build a Large Hadron Collider and so track concrete individual atoms more closely if we feel we need to, either to improve a theory or verify it.

Abstraction makes it easier to track a trajectory traversing a brief unity of time by assisting in the search for regularities. For when particulars do not behave according to these regularities, this aberrant behaviour is thrown into relief. So it is that a Large Hadron Collider is constructed according to principles derived from abstract regularity.

Note as well the reason scientists bother building a Large Hadron Collider is  not just to confirm their faith in these already-charted regularities. Scientists also uncover new data to add to their abstract physical theory, or even to get a better such theory. They hope to recover some of the more interesting information about particulars they lost when they initially abstracted.

So abstraction can impart ‘transparency’ to a context in which certain entities behave even if information loss is involved. It predicts the movement of some particles traversing a brief unity of time with enough surety to allow us to also more easily track atoms qua concrete particulars. Where, that is, we want such detail.

Another way to think about both the confirmation of already-discovered regularity, and about the uncovering of new data such as we find if our abstractions make a context transparent, is that theory can improve observation. Philosophers never found any theory-independant observations, once upon a time the holy grail of the positivists. So let us for the moment just flag the fact that today philosophers know well enough not to seek the positivist grail. We want theories that improve how we observe.

Let’s return to some persons, qua atoms, traversing a brief unity of time. It is very plausible that the Situationist grand narrative makes it more possible, not less, to track individual trajectories. This is mainly because the Situationist critique of capitalism deals with individuals as potentially creative and active. In traversing a brief unity of time not every person behaves with the passivity The Situationists theorised as imposed by the market. Observing and theorising aberration allowed the Situationists to deepen their critique to include the appeal of generalised creativity as an alternative to capitalist regularity and passive consumption. This alternative owed something to the license found by the Surrealists in what the Situationists considered the ‘peripheries’ of capitalism. Areas like North Africa, where in their day capitalism was significantly less intensive.

Gibbons could object that this is the real nub of the issue. And admittedly, the Situationists did focus on creatively contesting capitalism where it was most intensive, at its ‘centres.’ Yet this focus only reflects a Situationist belief in the possibility of intervening where power is concentrated.

Instead of further combing through Situationist writing in order to fault Situationist arguments around colonialism or race, Gibbons takes an empirical historical approach to the working of the Situationist International itself. She then finds, and as a matter of fact, that like a poor physical theory the Situationist grand narrative does not permit required detail. So it is that Gibbons relies on her examples, such as the supposed Situationist overlooking of the massacre on the Saint-Michel Bridge. However, Anthony Hayes has given us a short but, it seems, rightly scathing, summary of how Gibbons’ supposed facts are at best highly questionable conjecture. Find it here as a companion piece to this critique.

Gibbons’ own (at some stage necessary) abstraction, by relying upon Arabic etc identities has a name she does not utter: that name is ‘identity politics.’ At least in some respects and to some extent it must be admitted that identity politics provides a theory that itself can improve on our observations. As an example of what I mean, Gibbons wanders (‘drifts’) Paris keeping Arabic interaction with the urbanscape very much in mind. Such research potentially adds a rewarding perspective to a Situationist-inspired exploration of the city.

But the credit we accord Gibbons should be tempered. The criticism of social grand narratives as eliding subaltern discourses itself has a white middle class background. Gibbons makes a show of reading black authors while she traverses the urban sprawl. In fact the bare bones of her attack was popularised and developed by Foucault, a white middle-class man from much the same background as the Situationists disparaged by Gibbons.

Even Foucault shamefacedly relies on his own abstraction and grand narrative. Foucault uses the idea of power, as a discursive setting of limits on concrete persons, to fuel an abstract explanatory strategy. While Foucault often refers to subaltern discourse for his examples, his idea of power purports to explain particulars, again without having to be overwhelmed by the details.

The Situationist story has an advantage over critiques like Foucault’s and critiques drawing upon identity politics like Gibbons’. The Situationists sit more comfortably and in better faith with their abstractions. Instead of a pretense to information about particular persons traversing a brief unity of time actually unusable without a transparent context, the Situationists gave us a powerful explanation of the entirety of capitalist society. What the highly problematic nature of Gibbons historical claims keeps open is that Situationist theory also provides enough transparency to omit no ethically-required detail.

Gerald Keaney

Brisbane 2016