Situationist Inheritors

Disclaimer: this article was written by an academic for a popular french magazine. The ending is crap, and its tone is shit as well. Enjoy.

April 2009 – Around the time of the arrest of Julien Coupat and the [other] people accused of sabotaging the lines of the SNCF[1] in the autumn of 2008, among all the names, more or less fanciful, used by the Minister of the Interior and the police to describe the nebulous political ideology to which these “terrorists” adhered, there was one — a single one — that had some legitimacy: “ultra-left.” Contrary to what one might believe, this term wasn’t created for the occasion, like the rather comic expression “anarcho-autonomous.” And even if its usage gas sometimes been contested by those to whom it was supposed to designate, it undoubtedly possesses a descriptive value. Indeed, although it remained attached to the communist project, the movements that one groups together under the name “ultra-left” are still distinguished from the extreme left by their opposition to Lenin, Trotsky and their inheritors.

What also particularizes the ultra-left is the critique, even the pure and simple rejection, of the modes of action proper to the extreme left: organization into parties or unions; parliamentarianism; and the support of anti-fascist or national-liberation struggles. The ultra-left has always privileged anti-hierarchical forms of organization, based upon direct democracy and the concentration of all of its forces upon a single goal: revolution.[2]

This is why it can be said, without exaggeration and perhaps even with praise, that Julien Coupat — as well as those who published in the journal Tiqqun or in the works with which this name is associated[3] — are parts of the ultra-left. Indeed, by consigning the traditional formulations of the extreme left to the Gemonies,[4] the movement inspired by Tiqqun and its successive avatars only recognized itself in an “imaginary party”: the party of those “who choose to live in the interstices of the market world and participate in whatever is connected to it.”[5] Which does not prevent this movement from once again taking up the question of communism in a new light, not as a political or economic system — “Communism can do very well without Marx. Communism doesn’t give a fuck about the USSR.” — but as the instauration of a form of authentic community: “A thing is mine to the extent that it enters into the domain of my usage, and not by virtue of some legal title. Legal property has no other reality, in the final analysis, than the forces that protect it. The question of communism is thus, on the one hand, the suppression of the police and, on the other, the elaboration of modes of sharing, of usage, among those who live together” (The Call).

More exactly — and the police have themselves recognized it[6] — Tiqqun, Coupat et al inscribe themselves in the filiation of the Situationist International (SI), which was a singular movement from all points of view. Guy Debord, who was one of its principle leaders, defined it thus in 1963: “at once an artistic avant-garde, experimental research into the free construction of everyday life, and finally a contribution to the theoretical and practical edification of a new revolutionary contestation.”[7] Born in the 1950s from the encounter between several artists who came from Surrealism and Lettrism, this group progressively came to adopt the political positions of the ultra-left of its time, which was a singular trajectory that can be explained by the group’s encounters with certain “heretical” Marxist intellectuals (Henri Lefebvre, Cornelius Castoriadis, etc) as well as by its ardent research into means capable of rendering life completely poetic, beyond the limits that are imposed on it by a certain ordering of the social world.

When the first two issues of Tiqqun appeared, almost ten years ago, the journal was instantly identified by all its prospective buyers as a new component in the small milieu that keeps the spirit of the SI alive, even today. They could recognize among the people associated with Tiqqun the names of Joel Gayraud, a habitue of post-situationist circles,[7] and even Coupat himself, the author a short time previously of a university thesis on the SI, was thanked by the sociologist Luc Boltanski, who utilized Tiqqun’s conclusions in a work written at the same time.[9] But even more than names, it was the style [facture] of the journal that signaled its adherence to post-situationist movements: a burning style, one that “burns like ice,” in the words of Baudelaire; the recurring usage of the concept of the spectacle as it was elaborated by Guy Debord; and a beautiful and sober presentation, which contrasted with the radicality of the texts. There were even several small polemics within the milieu, against this or that remarkable figure — for example, Jean-Pierre Voyer and Jaime Semprun[10] — in perfect conformity with “the old leftist tradition that consists in hitting as hard as possible the currents that one believes to be the closest [to oneself] and that one wants to distinguish oneself from at all costs.”[11] Thus, Tiqqun resembled all of those publications that were distributed in the hundreds through the classic bookstores of the post-situationist milieu in Paris: Actualites, on the rue Dauphine (since closed); Un regard moderne, on the rue Git-le-Coeur; and the basement of the Compagnie bookstore.

“Theory of Bloom,” “Theory of the Young Woman,” “Theses on the Terrible Community” . . . . Someone who turns the pages of Tiqqun today will think they are reading the words of theorists, not terrorists. In the pages of the journal, there developed a manner of thinking that was greatly nourished by philosophy and inspired by a simultaneously demanding and inventive reading of the works of Hegel, Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, but also Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and many others. Especially Agamben, who became a friend of Debord at the beginning of the 1990s, [12] held the work of Tiqqun in high regard, [13] and ended up close to several of its editors, including of course Julien Coupat, whose public defense he has taken up;[14] Joel Gayraud, who became Agamben’s translator in France; and even Fulvia Carnevale, with whom Agamben had the occasion to lead seminar in Venice.[15] A discreet homage in return and a pledge of loyalty, The Coming Insurrection — the last treatise published in the Tiqqun line,[16] which the police considered to be a manual for terrorists — alluded in its title to The Coming Community, an enigmatic and seminal book published by Agamben in 1990.

The passion for theory was always constitutive of the situationist movement, which — so as to launch its accusations against the ensemble of social life — was strongly inspired by the masters of suspicion: Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. To such an extent that this philosophical passion sometimes turned to drunkenness among some of its continuers. The curious reader can even convince herself of this by consulting, for example, the texts published in a neo-Hegelian style and interrupted by choleric flashes that was published during the last 20 years by the team at the center of the Bibliotheque des Emeutes, then the Observatoire de Teleologie,[17] which was a small group whose doctrine is not without analogy to that of Tiqqun in its fascination for diverse figures of the contemporary lumpenproletariat (gangs, the youth of the banlieus, marginals and others who have been demoted).[18] In a general fashion, the theory of the situationists and their followers is still managing to be maintained at a sufficiently estimable level to keep the attention of a good number of intellectuals. The influence of the situationists thus has been decisive for thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Paul Virilio;[19] and even today the publications of the Encyclopedia of Nuisances, for example, are read with interest in the leftist circles of the university-based intelligentsia. [20]

It is not necessary to believe, as the result of all this, that the situationist and post-situationist movements have remained as pure theory. What made their reputation was their capacity to give to this theory a striking force, to engage it in practice, to make the arms of critique transform themselves into a critique of arms (to take up an expression from Marx for which the SI had particular affection). Contrary to a certain vulgate who wants the situationists to have been a bunch of schoolkids, that is, the arty version of the great student parade [monome of ’68, it is necessary to recall that the situationists brought fire to the powders at the faculte de Nanterre, fought at the barricades in the Latin Quarter before they took part in the first Occupation Committee at the Sorbonne and organized the provision of supplies for the factory workers who were on strike.[22] The authorities did not deceive themselves about the subversive character of the SI: its publications were seized several times; and its members were pursued by the courts, surveilled by the police and sometimes put in prison or physically threatened.

The care of putting their ideas and actions into accord has pushed many movements issued from the situationist nebula to continue this tradition, either by involving themselves directly in social conflicts or by intervening punctually in a more isolated fashion. For example, let us cite several instances of brilliance, such as the 1990 public divulging by the Cangaceiros[23] of the secret plans for several French prisons so as to prevent their construction; or even the two sabotage campaigns that revealed to the public at large the noxiousness of GMO [genetically modified organisms] — the first begun in January 1998 on the initiative of Rene Riesel, an ex-situationist connected to the Encyclopedia of Nuisances[24] and the second launched in the summer of 1999 by a multitude of small groups whose tracts clearly showed situationist inspiration. No doubt it was this tradition of sabotage and active participation in contestatory movements — that is to say, its capacity for perturbation — that drew the attention of the police to Coupat and his companions. Tiqqun‘s declarations of intention in favor of illegalist strategies and a generalization of social chaos no doubt were accompanied by a humor typical of the situationist milieus: one remembers the very scholarly “Society for the Advancement of Criminal Science,” founded by Tiqqun in the pages of issue #2, and which proposed the use of recipe cards that would allow someone to realize a fictive use of a Molotov cocktail. But does not humor constitute an aggravating circumstance when it passes from black to red and threatens to explode all social contradictions?

In the midst of many perspicacious ideas and very exact formulations about our era, it is perhaps the insurrectionism of Tiqqun that poses the most problems. In their desperate quest for an intensity of words and acts, Coupat and his fellows have systematized and carried to its summit a certain discourse of struggle that is proper to radical movements. They have thus forged a veritable ideology, which desires that the exercise of domination is understood as a permanent war and that a revolutionary attitude consists in taking note of this situation, that is, in carrying the conflict that is in this situation to the end. “We protest nothing, we demand nothing. We constitute ourselves in force, in material force, in autonomous material force at the heart of the global civil war,” The Call announces. And [they constitute themselves] by dreaming that this force will emerge in the manner of a guerrilla who has “his farms, schools, weapons, medicines, collective houses, editing tables, print shops, covered trucks and beachheads in the metropolises.” And that, one fine day, a series of subversive actions will converge upon a general tipping-point . . . in what? That’s the question. Simone Weil, who lived in the middle of the Spanish [Civil] War that Tiqqun has presented as a model, nevertheless foresaw that, in this armed upheaval, “the necessities, the atmosphere of civil war, have the upper hand over the aspirations that one seeks to defend by the means of civil war.”[25] Which he had already formulated several years before in the following manner: “It seems that a revolution engaged in a war has only the choice between succumbing under the murderous blows of the counter-revolution and transforming itself into counter-revolution by the very mechanism of military struggle.”[26]

(Written by Patrick Marcolini, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nice, and published in Le Tigre, volume 30, March/April 2009. Translated by the French by NOT BORED! May 2009. Footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

[1] Translator: the Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer francais is the National Railway of France. It provides high-speed train travel to the rest of Europe.

[2] In France there is only one synthetic work on the ultra-left, the one by Christophe Bourseiller, which is unfortunately blemished by a certain number of errors and misinterpretations: Histoire generale de l’ultra-gauche, Denoel, 2003.

[3] The journal Tiqqun came out with two issues: February 1999 and October 2001. Several texts were extracted from them and published by diverse publishers. A Call was then distributed anonymously in 2004. The Coming Insurrection was published in 2007 by Editions La Fabrique under the signature of “The Invisible Committee.” A preface to a collection of writings by Blanqui was also published by La Fabrique in 2006 (signed “Several Agents of the Imaginary Party”), and finally a long tract from the Invisible Committee entitled “Mise au point” and distributed since the end of January 2009. All these documents are available at bloom0101.org

[4] Translator’s note: Staircase in Rome where the bodies of murdered prisoners were displayed.

[5] Several formulae from “Theses on the Imaginary Party,” in Tiqqun #1.

[6] In its report to the procurer of Paris, the anti-terrorist task force of the judicial police wrote that the thought of Julien Coupat was formed “in the school of situationism, an international anarchist movement that extols struggle against the current structures of society.” This report is available on-line.

[7] Guy Debord, “The situationists and the new forms of action in politics and art,” reprinted in his Oeuvres, Quarto Gallimard, 2006, p. 647.

[8] Joel Gayraud is also known for having attached his name to French translations of the writings of the Italian section of the SI (published by Editions Contre-Moule in 1988), as well as more classical translations of the works of Giacomo Leopardi. He is also a member of the Surrealist Group of Paris. Note that La peau de l’ombre, a poetic-political essay that was published by Editions Jose Corti in 2004, also reveals a certain “Tiqqunian” spirit.

[9] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Gallimard, 1999. The work of Julien Coupat — a term paper for the course “History and Civilization,” under the direction of Nicolas Tertulian, EHESS, Paris, 1996-1997 — was entitled Perspective et critique de la pensee situationniste.

[10] Translator’s note: Jean-Pierre Voyer once worked with Guy Debord on his film La Societe du Spectacle (1973). After being dismissed by Debord and having some of his books refused by Editions Champ Libre, Voyer became a dedicated anti-Debordist. A couple of Jaime Semprun’s books were published by Champ Libre in the 1970s. In 1984, Semprun — attempting to defend Champ Libre in the aftermath of the murder of its founder, Gerard Lebovici — founded the Encyclopedia of Nuisances.

[11] Le Cauchemar de Don Quichotte: Sur l’impuissance de la jeunesse d’aujord’hui, Climats, 2004.

[12] Translator’s note: While it is true that Agamben and Debord exchanged letters in 1989 and 1990, and that Agamben helped publish Italian translations of Debord’s two books on the spectacle, the two were not “friends.” According to Debord, Agamben wasn’t discriminating enough in his praise for other writers. In his letter to Agamben dated  6 August 1990, Debord states: “You have spoken so well, in all of your texts, of so many authors, chosen with the greatest taste (about which I am reassured, with the exception of several exotics of whom I am very regrettably ignorant and four or five contemporary Frenchmen whom I do not want to read at all), whom one finds inevitably honored with figuring in such a Pantheon.”

[13] See, among others, “Une biopolitique mineur,” interview with Giorgio Agamben, conducted by Stany Grelet and Mathieu Potte-Bonneville for the journal Vacarme #10, Winter 2000.

[14] Translator’s note: see Terrorism or Tragicomedy, dated November 2008.

[15] Seminar held 11-15 October 2005 at the University Institute of Architecture in venice. In 2004, Fulvia Carnevale, along with the artist James Thornhill, founded the Claire Fontaine collective, which mostly adopted the theses of Tiqqun on an artistic plane by utilizing the codes of conceptual art in an ironic manner.

[16] Beyond the identity of style and thought between Tiqqun and The Coming Insurrection, the name “The Invisible Committee” appeared in Tiqqun #2, p. 84, at the end of a short narrative that appears to have been a sketch of the passage that closes The Coming Insurrection and that describes the harbingers of the revolution announced by its authors.

[17] Editions Belles Emotions being the point of contact between the two. Today, the members of the three groups pursue their activities under the name Teleologie Ouverte

[18] One will note furthermore that the writer and philosopher Medhi Belhaj Kacem, who participated in the Tiqqun adventure for a while, had fashioned his first arms in the Bibliotheque des Emeutes. See EvidenZ / Medhi Belhaj Kacem, Theory of the Trickster, Paris, Sens & Tonka, 2002 and Medhi Belhaj Kacem, Pop philosophie, interview with P. Nassif, Paris, Denoel, 2005.

[19] Translator’s note: A Maoist in the 1960s, Jean Baudrillard tried to convince his readers in the 1970s that Debord’s theory of the spectacle was no longer relevant to contemporary society. Debord detested him.

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe was the co-author of a book on psychoanalysis that was translated into English by the ex-situationist Donald Nicholson-Smith. Paul Virilio is in fact an anti-situationist.

[20] Before becoming a publishing house in 1993, the Encyclopedie des Nuisances was at first a journal of post-situationist and anti-industrial social critique, founded by Jaime Semprun and Christian Sebastiani (a former member of the SI). Guy Debord briefly participated in it in 1985-1986. [Translator: this version of the events in question completes side-steps the roles of Jean-Francois Martos and Jean-Pierre Baudet, co-authors of The Encyclopedia of Powers: Public circular relative to several theoretical nuisances verified by the strikes during the winter of 1986-1987.]

[21] Translator’s note: English in original.

[22] Years previously, in fact in March 1965. The SI was at the origin of the demonstrations against NATO troop maneuvers in Denmark. These demonstrations turned into riots and durably marked [people’s] minds.

[23] Translator’s note: For Os Cangaceiros, follow this link.

[24] Translator’s note: For Rene Riesel, see  this interview, which took place in 2001.

[25] Simone Weil, “Reflexions pour deplaire” (1936), reprinted in his Oeuvres, Gallimard, 1999, p. 401.

[26] Simone Weil, “Reflexions sur la guerre” (1933), ibid. p. 459.


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