“The newspapers are devolving, bit by bit, into shopping guides. The ‘quality’ magazines are just coded investment advice. One turns with hope to the blogosphere, only to find that it mostly just mimics the very media to which it claims to be an alternative. Alternative turns out just to mean cheaper…” McKenzie Wark 50 Years of Recuperation… (Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2008, page 4).
McKenzie Wark is probably best known as a cyber-theorist, but 5o Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International is an amusing essay he’s written on the Situationists with some groovy illustrations at the back. In his text Wark stresses the importance of the 2nd Situationist International, Asger Jorn and others from outside the Parisian circles centred on Guy Debord. Obviously I’m sympathetic to Wark’s line that it is useful to reignite the dialectical tensions between various aspects of Situationist activity that were rent asunder when the movement split into rival factions 1962; this position is after all close to the line on the subject that I have been taking for some time.
I am also in basic agreement with Wark’s contention that: “…for me the interesting things are not so much the works of scholarship about the Situationists as the attempts to plunder the treasures of this material for contemporary purposes. The Situationists created the theory and practice of detournement, of sampling past cultural products and integrating them into new creations, and hence the reverential quotation of Situationist texts or art is always necessarily outside the spirit of the thing. Hence my attraction to works by the Bernadette Corporation, DJ Rabbi, DJ Spooky, Critical Art Ensemble, the Association for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge, the Luther Blissett Project, the Neoist Alliance and the Radical Software Group. These different outfits, in their various ways, treat the Situationist International as common property. They appropriate from it as they see fit, in precisely the manner of ‘literary communism’ that the Situationists themselves advocated. My interest in the Situationists is in part a prolegomenon to an account of such groups….” (page 9).
Wark has an easy-to-read writing style and excels at taking positions and practices from outside the academy and getting those within it to take them seriously. He is in many ways a populariser who carefully picks his way through material, making it accessible to those whose knowledge of what goes on outside the walls of universities is sketchy. Thus while there are undoubtedly differences between my positions and those expounded by Wark, they are generally narrower than they appear at first glance. For example, the Lettrists and Situationists may have come up with the term ‘detournement’ but the literary communism Wark writes about can already be found in Marx (The Communist Manifesto can be viewed as an adroit compendium of earlier revolutionary slogans) or even Thomas de Quincey (a notorious ‘plagiarist’). Wark knows this, he is simply adopting a tactical position because there are severe limits as to how far thinking within the academy can be manoeuvred by a single book. Likewise, what needs to be synthesised and/or placed back into dialectical tension with this material is not just the fragmented aspects of the original Situationist practice but elements of Fluxus and Auto-Destructive Art etc. too.
Wark cites and quotes from a wide range of sources including both Greil Marcus and me. Not wishing to alienate Marcus, Wark specifically cites the 2nd edition of my book The Assault On Culture, not the first edition that dates from 1988, the year before Marcus published Lipstick Traces. Marcus is obsessed with the idea that he was the first person to write a book in this area, and so citing the 2nd and not the 1st edition of Assault On Culture is Wark’s means of placating Marcus (who is influential in institutions Wark wishes to effect). That said, other books had already covered this area well before mine, even if much of the material was not at that time readily available in English. In doing this, Wark demonstrates how he’s been influenced by Guy Debord’s Game of War: “In the war of position, tactics are dictated from above by strategic concerns with taking and holding institutions across the landscape of state and civil society. The Game of War refutes this territorial conception of space and this hierarchical relation between strategy and tactics. Space is always partially unmarked: tactics can sometimes call a strategy into being. Some space need not be occupied or contested at all; every tactic involves a risk to one’s positions..” (page 32).
Wark deploys sources many academics would miss. To give one example, in the case of Howard Slater’s Divided We Stand, he makes good use of a text that hasn’t gained the readership it deserves because the prose is rather heavier than contemporary taste dictates. However, one potentially key source appears to me to be conspicuously missing here: Fabian Tompsett/Richard Essex prefigured many of Wark’s positions on Asger Jorn and Debord’s Game of War in his texts for both Unpopular Books and the journal Transgressions, not to mention his activity with the revived London Psychogeographical Association and the ongoing series of Class War Games. I’d guess that Wark hasn’t come across Tompsett/Essex, although many of those he cites (including of course me) have learnt a trick or two from him.
50 Years of Recuperation… is a fast and fun read, and summaries a lot of other material fantastically well. You probably won’t want to buy a copy, since it is rather expensive, but that shouldn’t put you off reading it!