Dear reader, sometime last year I first read about the Situationists. I thought their theories were super interesting, I would like to share my enthusiasm for those theories with you, and I sincerely hope that they will provide food for thought and crank your brain as they continue to crank mine.
From the late 50’s till the early 70’s, a group called the Situationist International was in its prime. It was a collective of some twenty European artists, centred in Paris, who had planted their theoretical roots largely in Marxist thought, and let their esthetic-philosophical background inform their further ideas. In particular, they thought that consumerism had become so deeply interwoven with the everyday experience of its subjects, that it had gotten them into a kind of creative stranglehold the Situationists called the Spectacle – the Spectacle being a sphere in which commodities rule consumers instead of the other way around: the Spectacle gives its subjects false desires, narrows their imaginations (and with it, their art and other expression), and abstracts (aspects of) their authentic life experiences into inauthentic, emptily broad commodities.
According to the Situationists, the Spectacle was able to keep eyes steadily fastened on it by maintaining a vicelike grip on sense-making – that is, anything a consumer attempted to communicate that was outside the shape and symbols of the Spectacle could only come across as ‘babble’ – ununderstandable, because unconventional. The Situationists attempted to revolt: If they wanted to make a movie, music, song, piece of art, they wanted to be free from convention. This freedom-from-convention is not the same as a rejection of convention: they did not want to be what dissonant music was to consonant music, but wanted to find if there was perhaps some form of expression, some new architecture, some new sound, some new word or shape, that felt truer to them than the ones that were already laid out for them.
The Situationists attempted to retrieve some space for authenticity by finding ways to create ‘situations’ in which authenticity was possible again; situations in which babble was not babble, but sensical expression, expressed in a new sphere in which the expression was not dismissed out of hand as mere babble, but given its due diligence as real expression.
Situations were created in various ways: by dérives (walks around the city in search of new perspectives on the environment); by play – such as play in architecture (Hotel Babylon in The Hague is based on Situationist blueprints, but ironically used by someone decidedly non-Situationist to create a mall); by art, which had powerful subversive political potential, and which they did not like to delineate from regular expression. If you take a revolutionary propaganda poster and put it in a museum, you strip it of its convictions and turn it into a mere object of analysis.
Aside from creating situations, the group focused on subverting the hierarchy of the Spectacle by certain techniques, such as détournement:
“détournement means deflection, diversion, rerouting, distortion, misuse, misappropriation, hijacking, or otherwise turning something aside from its normal course or purpose”
Take, for instance, the cover photo for this article. Or these two images.
Now, I dislike abusing a theory as much as the next person, so I want to avoid School of Life-ing this up. Nevertheless, academia carries non-academic, or less-academic meaning for me too, and I feel that the notion of babble is too cool to remain solely academic about. I know, for instance, that I will often only attempt to express something if I feel confident that I can find words for it, but also that if I am feeling very foggy, I will only be able to find words for about 60% of my thought. What to do with the other 40%? I say say it! It’s not blah, it’s just not sense yet; what’s more, the blah is there. All the more reason to express it. Not all the time, perhaps – you want to get through the day – but for all we know there’s all kinds of interesting and perhaps subversive conversations we could be having if we stopped trying to make sense.
 Knabb, B (transl., 2006), Situationist International Anthology, p.6