The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International In A Postmodern Age

Sadie Plant (1992, Routledge; 226 pages; Notes; Bibliography; Name Index; Subject Index; ISBN 0-415-06222-5) $16.95


"...[F]or PO-CHU-I there is no difference between didacticism and amusement, no wonder we find that learning, practiced as the quick purchase of knowledge for resale purposes, arouses displeasure. Literature, in didactic as in other works, manages to enhance our enjoyment of life. It sharpens the senses and transforms even pain into pleasure." Bertolt Brecht (Journals 1934-1955)


This century is closing on a bad deal: The new German is an American. The new Ugly American is a German. Beautiful symmetry! The first resistance to the rise of the far right has ever been the task of an enlightened minority: The one-eyed man leading the blind. The problem is to restore at least partial political vision to those who suffer from our current socio-economic system yet do not have the tools to articulate either their dissatisfaction or the possible remedies.


Here to help is a book which retraces the history of the radical fringe movements which sprung up in Europe from the horrid experience of WWI (and its antecedents) and continued through the century. The Most Radical Gesture starts with DADA*, concerned with what we would call déconstruction* today. deconstruction of language, thought processes, images, art, literature, etc...Next, this book takes us on a magical history tour of surrealism, structuralism and finally the Situationist International which is the core of the book, both because of its roots in the preceding movements and its influences on postmodernism.


Visit the Provos in Amsterdam and their descendants, the Kabouters, in the Orange Free State! A quick detour through Poland (its elves), Italy (its autonomists) and Britain (its “Arrest those Santa Clauses” & more) will bring you back to France and ‘68 preluding the ‘70s and ‘80s development of the postmodernist French philosophers. Street theater tactics were so successful in the ‘60s that even humorless maoists used them. All shared this shock quality designed to get the casual observer shaken from the perception that the “reality” we endure is the only possible one.


The Situationist International (SI), seeking to establish a serious critique of the société du spectacle*, disliked a lot of these radical gestures:

“The ‘revolution for the hell of it’ attitude of the American Yippies, the counter-cultures of play power, happenings, be-ins, and drop-outs were all haughtily rejected on the grounds that they left themselves open to recuperation and the miserable totality of soci- ety untouched.” (pg 91)

They were also very critical of the Provos who were so successful as to end up with seats in Parliament. Talk about recuperation! All of these movements disbanded because of the realization that détournement* could be and is practiced by the state as well. For most people, revolution is equivalent to innovation, at best, (as in washing machines) and doesn’t evoke its eighteenth century roots any longer. Logos and praxis*...


* see Glossary 1

The SI lasted from 1957 to 1969. They disbanded under the pressure of internal strife and dissension, leading to the exclusion of many members, some of whom were soon to be feted in New York and the West Coast as expounders of postmodernism. I’d love to have the “Question Man” ask people on the street what constitutes postmodernism: only one answer per customer, please!


Sadie Plant includes an excellent review of the political philosophies of Guattari, Deleuze, Foucault and Lyotard (who was soon to change his colors). Her discussion of Beaudrillard and Debord is invaluable. She uses Debord’s critique of Beaudrillard to great advantage. Beaudrillard’s language is purposely opaque and few of us have the patience (in French or English) to wade through his turgid prose only to discover that he has little to say. What shines clearly is that Beaudrillard is a turncoat and like many French intellectuals before him, he has found a comfortable niche in which to suckle at the tit of state. You have to understand that sometimes bad weeds root in good ground. It’s not surprising that some of these weeds are indigestible:

“Postmodernity comes equipped with a refusal to countenance the possibilities of social transformation....Talk of revolution becomes embarrassing and the suggestion that histo- ry has ended is embraced with open relief. Situationist desires for a “rise in the pleasure of living” have become the dreams of another age and no longer have anything to say to us.” (pg 185)


Sadie Plant expounds on a complex subject in a clear, concise and comprehensive manner, covering even our small corner of space-time:

“One of Vaneigem’s later books {after The Revolution of Everyday Life*} continued this line of attack with calls for industrial sabotage as a first step to the development of councils and self-management, and workplace rebellion of the “go on, phone in sick” variety since advocated by groups such as Processed World, for whom tactics of confu- sion and theft serve both to enliven work and undermine the logic of labour.” (pg 90)


DADA, the surrealists, structuralists and SI were all dedicated to the exposition of the despair and futility of daily life. The media and all sorts of people blithely use the adjective “postmodern”; One wonders to what end? Postmodernism is a negative and treacherous branching which is so far gone on futility that it has abdicated its power to show the absurd. It claims instead that it is absurd to resist the absurdism of the société du spectacle*. Mirrors within mirrors: Postmodernism claims to have abolished history and gives rise to “revisionist” views of various holocausts, and believes itself to have gone one better than the structuralist and situationist critical thought! Using precepts held by these consecutive movements that protest itself is open to recuperation, they proclaim that, since this is the case, we might as well sit on our hands and await the millennium. Time to give up our chiliastic* ambitions.



Sadie Plant's historical retrospective and analysis is vital to an understanding of intellectual movements that go beyond mere fads. Indeed, intellectuals have been too easily manipulated by class interest over the centuries. By abdicating the power of imagination to work towards a genuine democracy (economic equality for all, boys & girls), they have broken with a century-long comic protest, yet pretend to be derived from this honored (Marxist, Groucho faction) tradition. A useful and fun read. Highly recommended as a travel guide to past and future protests.

by Petra Leuz


* Glossary *


Chiliastic: lasting a thousand years, as in Hitler’s third reich or Jesus Christ’s reign of error which is just about 2000 years old as you probably know. Be nice to lexicographers, buy a dictionary. Check out millenary, not yet the Mad Hatter’s task. So many words, so little time.


DADA: also spelled dada, DaDa, Dada. An important tenet of dada was la dérive, the opposite of routine action: one goes out walking aimlessly and experiences the spontaneous small pleasures the world affordeth. This is preferred to walking to a boring and mostly meaningless job. Dada poets delighted in recitals of meaningless poetry: Abracadabra. Oompah, oompah! Since language had gotten people in such trouble, it needed to be reconstructed. In that, they foreshadowed the Structuralists. Their influence extended to painting and literature and philosophy. Much good it has done us... The same fights have to be won again and again, at great cost to individual fulfillment, and sometimes life.


Deconstruction: the critical examination of language, ideas and political “realities”. Taking things apart the better to view their inner works.


Détournement: practiced by Billboard artists. Take a message and, subtly (or not) turn it to your advantage. Render the works transparent.


Logos: The Word, a theological concept borrowed from the Greeks by the Christians, then by the Cartesians. Go figure... The rational reason for all existence. Ha!

Praxis: Best understood by marxists as the unity of theory and practice. Means “to do” in Greek. Practice, custom.


Société du spectacle: Originally the title of Guy Debord’s 1967 book. “...dry and uninspiring, with the only hints of situationist provocation and extravagance appearing in the wealth of italicized enthusiasm and the stolen goods it collects.” (page 8). Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life was published the same year. Here’s Sadie Plant’s take on it: “Vaneigem’s rejection of the spectacle was a moral, poetic, erotic, and almost spiritual refusal to co-operate with the demands of commodity exchange.It unleashed witty and compelling tirades against the myths and sacrifices of consumer society, asserting a radical subjectivity which could fire pleasures, spontaneity, and creativity at the all-encompassing equivalence and emptiness of modern life.” (page 8) Vaneigem took a vacation from Paris in May 1968.

Rooted in marxist socio-economic analysis, the spectacular society is the core situationist concept which describes the alienation of people watching life rather than living it.

Guy Debord committed suicide on November 30, 1994, RIP. He was a founder of the SI. In ‘67, the SI predicted that revolution was no longer feasible Commune-style in a modern society. Then came ‘68... The Communards lasted longer but the soixante-huitards suffered less loss of life and limb. Sanity however...