Intoxication, illumination, incomprehension, mental indigestion. Not necessarily in that order or exclusively at any one time but it’ll do for now. I’m glad I read McKenzie Wark‘s The beach beneath the street: the everyday life and glorious times of the Situationist International (Verso, 2011). Interesting to be dropped back into this flow of ideas – I’d almost forgotten a more youthful time spent theorising about bourgeois culture – a certain nostalgia then. Here is the genesis, in the bohemia of the Paris district of Saint Germain, of the formal organisation – chimerical though it all seemed – that briefly became the Situationist International. There isn’t as much here as I was expecting of the interventions of the group in the events of 1968, or of its legacy in the McLaren wing of British punk, while Guy Debord‘s theory of ‘the spectacle’ is taken as read (a shame because reading it is something I’ve never quite got round to). But what Wark does give us is a fascinating sketch of the lives, loves, ideas and quarrels of the significant groupscule of radicals and utopians seeking something way beyond proletarian marxism – a way out of the century, as they later put it. Here we have:
comrades in a civil war against a culture intent on settling for warmed-up leftovers, banalities such as abstract painting, Beat writing, or existential philosophy (p36)
What the Situationists were struggling to achieve was a new kind of collective being, unlike both the Communists and previous avant-gardes … (p64)
This tiny band would set themselves against power in its totality. A futile project, perhaps, but powerful in its very futility … (p43)
Well, someone has to do it, with all the inevitable splits of theory and praxis that are endemic to such a project, not least a paranoia (meaning expulsions) that for some it’s just another avant-garde a stepping stone to art world success. It’s a simplification, I know, but two concepts became the core of Situationist practise – the dérive and détournement – in the creation of moments, of situations. From the first (“a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences” in an urban setting involving “playful-constructive behaviour” and awareness of a place’s totality, and “thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll” – quotes from the Bureau of Public Secrets website) we get the current notion of psychogeography, though as Wark nevertheless points out
Debord was a sort of street ethnographer, although his method was more intoxicant peregrination than participant observation
Fun, then – and the notion of play, as opposed to labour, was important. And doesn’t that name – Guy Debord – with the shortened French pronunciation of Guy, sound just like a character in a novel: a slightly dark side mate of the musketeers, maybe? While détournement was an exercise in subversion – more fun – in using and transforming old forms with new revolutionary messages (new words in old speech bubbles), so the very existence of the Situationist Intermational was a détournement of the Communist Internationals which still held intellectual sway in the ’50s. The British contribution – writer Alex Trocchi of Cain’s book fame – was a way of writing socially that anticipated, as it can now be seen … web digests and blogging!
I’ve always suspected Debord got it right about western civilization and – no matter how unhelpful it is – it would seem that subsequent events have proved him, um, spectacularly right about the colonisation and commodification of everyday life. Indeed, it could be said the notion of the dérive has led to the organised Jack the Ripper walks through London’s East end and their ilk (those depressing guide-led Rock tours), while détournement is now a basic technique of the advertising industry. And what better short description of the current financial crisis than as “a great pyramid scheme” with the consequences:
Looting and arson are recurring events within what Rene Vienet calls the ‘overdeveloped world.’ They are the mark of overdevelopment, of the quantitative expansion of production outstripping the qualitative transformation of everyday life, of desires spinning the wheels, without traction in the elaboration of needs. (p149)
Such language! But yes, in such circumstances, you can see the continuity of SI logic in Occupy. “Better to tilt at windmills than pawn the lance.” Someone has to do it.
The characters in Esi Edugyan‘s novel Half blood blues (Serpent’s tail, 2011) have to make music. A bunch of jazzers in the cabaret years of Germany, they decamp from Berlin to Paris, only for the Nazis to catch up with them there. The core of the band, an American rhythm section and a young black German trumpet genius make a record before leaving, which is lost for decades but becomes the stuff of legend. Young Heiro is presumed lost in the camps. Come 1992 a documentary film is dramatically premiered in Berlin and the ‘gates’ – the novel is written throughout in the jazz vernacular – return for its premiere and then go on a journey to a remote spot in Poland to meet up again with the long-presumed dead trumpeter. That’s the bones of it, with a love story and a guest appearance of Louis Armstrong thrown in. It also involves a sojourn in the moral maze of betrayal – a lot of betrayals, it must be said, more than just the one mentioned on the cover of the British edition. Which leads us to a moan …
Here’s the superior American paperback cover – it was a paperback original both sides of the Atlantic – and it says so much more about the matter in hand, because this is one of those really hard things to pull off: a really good novel about musicians and their music. May look like a thriller from the UK cover – and obviously that is a big part of it – but I would hazard thriller readers be lost, would miss a lot, at the very least, if they don’t care about the music. For a start, as already said, it’s written in the jazz idiom, with the rhythms and jangled grammar of speech, as narrated by the guilt-ridden bass player, relating what’s going on in 1992 and looking back on their times in Europe, and it is sustained pretty well without dropping a note throughout. Maybe he was to blame for certain things but it was another betrayal of his that meant the record all the fuss is about survived to be rediscovered by a generations of musicians futher on. There is an awful lot going on in the pages of this novel: the interaction between the players, what happens in bands, what happens in wartime, what happens to what happened in documentary films, just what happens between people. It’s an intensely human document, exquisitely delivered, and the final chapter in Poland is just stunning, the writing achieving states of heart-breaking beauty. Even as what you’d think would be an important part of the story – how Heiro’s survived – is sidelined.
In an audacious imaginative coup, this is the music at the book’s heart, pre-bepop, its actual content only revealed towards the end of the book. They use that song:
Half Blood Blues. That’s what he going call it, our Horst Wessel track. It wasn’t true blues, sure, aint got the right chord structure, but the kid aint cared none. ‘Blues,’ he said, coughing roughly, ‘blues wasn’t never about chords.’ I figured, hell, aint nothing else these days what it claim to be.
There being no clues in the book, and no photo, should I have been surprised to discover from the web that the author is – in the language of the text – a ‘jane’? Cause she is. Lovely book.