Or, the peculiar case of the Hamburg Theses

Guy Debord, filmmaker, Situationist and author of The Society of the Spectacle, called The Hamburg Theses ‘the most mysterious of all the documents that emanated from the Situationist International.’ What makes the Hamburg Theses most enigmatic, apart from the fleeting and elusive references made to them in the Situationist journal, is that they were never published — left to fade along with the memories of their ‘co-authors’. Nonetheless their significance to the group was paramount. The Theses were formulated in response to the crisis regarding the role of art and artistic practice within the group. In essence their apparent failure to appear was intended to reflect the Situationist project itself: the rejection of the fetish of objects and other forms of reified human activity beloved of capitalism. In the Hamburg Theses, then, we have the Situationist project expressed in its most concise and impossibly elusive form, making it one of the most vital works of the Situationist International.

 

Keywords: Situationist International - art - Hamburg - radical - avant-garde
 

1.

In early September 1961, Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem, spent a few days in Hamburg ‘in a series of haphazardly chosen bars’ (Debord 1989).1 Members of the Situationist International (SI), the three were returning to France and Belgium from the group’s just concluded Fifth Conference held in Gothenburg, Sweden. The conference was marked by heated arguments between, on the one hand, the Scandinavian and German sections of the SI and on the other, the Belgian and French sections. These arguments centred on the role of art amongst Situationists, who had been known up until that time as primarily an avant-garde group of artistic origins. What was significant about the pub crawl in Hamburg, what to a passing stranger may have seemed like just another group of men on a drinking binge, was what the three Situationists discussed and composed during these few days. The fruits of these discussions came to be known in the SI as the Hamburg Theses

In 1989 Guy Debord lifted the lid on some of the mysteries surrounding the Hamburg Theses in a letter to Thomas Y. Levin:

It was found that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: “The SI must now realize philosophy.” Even this very phrase wasn't written down. Thus, the conclusions were so well hidden that they have remained secret until now (Debord 1989)

Until Levin’s letter the Hamburg Theses had only appeared via elusive references in some of the SI’s publications. Responding to Levin’s enquires, specifically about the paucity of information on the Theses, Debord revealed that the Theses did not in fact exist as a document, but rather as the ephemeral memory of its participants. Debord described the Theses as ‘a theoretical and strategic discussion that concerned the totality of the conduct of the SI’ (Debord 1989).  Indeed its form was in many ways as important as its content, at once an attempted summary of all that was radical in the avant-garde artistic and political heritage of the SI group.

Composed in September 1961 on the cusp of the first two phases of the group — that is its transformation from a group engaged in experimental activity to one that was explicitly working solely on the problem of bringing about an anti-capitalist revolution — the Theses are a missing link of sorts, literally missing simply because they were never written down. Their importance was precisely a function of their form; perhaps even more than their unrecorded content. As an absent ‘document’ the Hamburg Theses are perhaps the best summary of the practice of the Situationist International and its attempt to overcome the suffocating alienations of life under capitalism.

In essence the Theses were the Situationist critique of the art-object and artist as marketable things. Debord wrote that they were ‘the height of avant-gardism in the formal presentation of ideas’; ‘a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, which until then had given the impression of being avid to explain themselves’ (Debord 1962; 1989). Yet they were also redolent of the more general revolutionary critique emerging from their critique of art. As a ‘failed object’ of sorts they were directed against their recuperation, i.e. against all who consciously or unconsciously aided the ossification of the Situationist conception of practice into so many frozen things for sale or passive consumption.2 In the intentional failure of this object to manifest, Debord, Kotányi, Vaneigem and Trocchi had even outdone those artists who continued to peddle the old joke of the destruction of art. Here was the argument against those who would, in good faith or bad, recuperate the Situationist project, effectively defang it to be placed on a shelf with other passing radical fancies. Indeed we can consider the Hamburg Theses as the SI’s answer to the apparent ‘success’ and actual ‘failure’ of Surrealism, as an attempt to refuse the success of the commodifiable object while gesturing — via its absence — at the Surrealists’ desire to overturn the world of everyday boredom and humiliation itself.

 

2.

At the Fifth Conference of the SI in late August 1961 an argument erupted over the status of art and more specifically the results of artistic practice and their relationship to Situationist practice. The argument itself was a result of a longer lived, more drawn out dispute in the group regarding the role — if any — of the ‘traditional arts’ in the work of the Situationist group. The upshot of the argument at the 1961 conference was the suggestion of the term ‘anti-Situationist’ to describe all artistic work by Situationists. The point of the term was to refocus the group on its initial program, i.e. that the Situationist project of the Construction of Situations lay in a post-capitalist future; at best its present practice could be an experimental exploration of such claims, or theoretical and artistic propaganda to such ends. Anything else, and specifically participation in the artistic milieus and the art market, risked dissolving the Situationist project in the rapidly growing spectacle of cultural commodities.

The Situationists were ostensibly against all aesthetic systems, even and especially such monstrosities as ‘situationist aesthetics’ that have been batting around the universities since at least the 1960s.3 Of primary concern for the SI was experimentation with new ways of living, summarised in the group’s ‘central idea’: the hypothesis of the Construction of Situations.

As originally envisaged the hypothesis of the Construction of Situations proposed ‘a systematic intervention [in everyday life] based on the complex factors of two components in perpetual interaction: [1] the material environment of life and [2] the behaviours which that environment gives rise to and which radically transform it’ (Debord 1957) To that end Guy Debord proposed the possibility of immediate experimentation under the rubric of ‘Unitary Urbanism’:

Unitary urbanism is defined first of all as the use of all arts and techniques as means contributing to the composition of a unified milieu. […] Secondly, unitary urbanism is dynamic, in that it is directly related to styles of behaviour. […] [O]n the scale of the constructed situation. […] Architecture must advance by taking emotionally moving situations, rather than emotionally moving forms, as the material it works with (Debord 1957).

The two ideas, Unitary Urbanism and the hypothesis of the Construction of Situations, seem to be a one to one match. They both speak of material environments and behaviours as the objects of playful construction. And they are playful (against wage-labour) and scientific to the extent that they propose both knowledge and the transformation of the environment and behaviours on the basis of observation and experimentation. However the hypothetical Constructed Situation was posed as the exact opposite of the ‘work of art’, whereas Unitary Urbanism was proposed as one present practice of the SI toward the end of realising the hypothesis. Unitary Urbanism as presented by Debord, entailing the ‘the use of all arts and techniques’ to such an end was a sort of experimental ‘bridge’ toward the hypothetically posed Construction of Situations. As such it encompassed all of the tensions of the Situationist project as originally conceived, i.e. the opposition between its anti-artistic goal and the artistic means proposed.

The most cited and perhaps best remembered example of Unitary Urbanist speculation and experiment was the ‘New Babylon’ work of Constant Nieuwenhuys. Constant’s primary work during his time in the SI (he is known by the one name) involved the reimagining of cities in Europe in the 1950s. Bombed and broken by the Second World War many of these cities and towns — some of them ‘ancient’, their architectural forms stretching back into the misty past of slaves and empires — were reimagined by Constant as ‘suspended’ playgrounds, built over the pre-existing cities, away from cars and other forms of terrestrial locomotion. Here was Europe and the whole world imaginatively rebuilt for play and socialism, in opposition to its actual reconstruction in keeping with recent theories of ‘urbanism’ and capitalist modernisation. New Babylon would be a place of new technologies, but primarily of hedonism and adventure in place of wage-labour and commodity consumption.

Constant believed that Unitary Urbanism simply was the practice of the SI and that New Babylon was its most singular expression. Debord, who had mediated the argument Constant was having with the more painterly and ‘traditional’ artists of the SI (primarily Asger Jorn and the Spur artists), defended the more expansive hypothesis of the Construction of Situations against Constant’s increasingly technical appreciation of the problems of ‘applied’ Unitary Urbanism. What Debord found was that despite Constant’s militant opposition to the ‘traditional arts’ his conception of Unitary Urbanism, primarily the models and descriptions of ‘New Babylon’, were assuming a form that was decidedly traditional:

Constant found himself in opposition to the SI because he has been primarily concerned, almost exclusively, with structural questions of certain assemblies [architectural models] of unitary urbanism, so that other situationists had to recall that at the present stage of the project it was necessary to put the accent on its content ([e.g.] play, free creation of everyday life). Thus Constant’s theses promoted the technicians of architectural forms over any search for a global culture (Situationist International 1960).

The tension between the ‘traditional arts’ and Situationist activity, insofar as the latter posed the Construction of Situations as opposed to the former’s fetish of the art-object, was not done away with in the SI by mere fiat. Indeed as the trajectory of Constant and his work on Unitary Urbanism showed, such a tension tended to play out in favour of the dominant modes of artistic expression. In the same issue of the SI’s journal in which Constant’s New Babylon figured prominently, the Situationist hypothesis of the Construction of Situations was clearly posed against the work of art:

The situation is conceived as the contrary of the work of art, which is an attempt at absolute valorisation and preservation of the present moment. […] Every situation, as consciously constructed as it can be, contains its [own] negation and moves inevitably toward its own reversal. In the conduct of individual life, a situationist action is not founded on the abstract idea of rationalist progress (which, according to Descartes, “makes us masters and possessors of nature”), but on the practice of arranging the environment that conditions us. The Constructor of Situations, to take over a few words from Marx, “by acting on external nature and transforming it… at the same time transforms his own nature (Situationist International 1959).

It is this opposition that was never clearly resolved in the favour of the hypothesis of the Construction of Situations until the final break with the artists in 1962. When Debord wrote in 1971 that ‘one cannot speak of “coherence” in the first years of the SI’ it is this that he refers to rather than Situationist activity tout court (Debord 1971). No doubt he reserved ‘coherence’ for the perspective he and his chief collaborators championed in the group at this time — or at least the emergence of such. That his idea of the Situationist ‘work’ as opposed to the ‘work of art’ gained traction only as an ideal rather than as the prime focus of the group at this time helps us to understand the difficulty faced by such an idea ‘within and against’ the decomposition of art.

 

3.

‘The SI must now realize philosophy’: the source of the détournement was Marx’s ‘celebrated formula’, from his ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right — Introduction’ (Debord 1989; Marx 1975). In this work Marx took aim at his Young Hegelian confreres, arguing that the two wings of their group variously attempted to realise philosophy without abolishing it as a separate practice, or abolish philosophy without realising its radical project of comprehending and transforming the world. Common to both, according to Marx, was the inability to locate an agent of transformation, one which could by turns realise and abolish philosophy. Marx located such an agent in the burgeoning proletariat of wage workers, who he conceived of as the ‘negative’ being of bourgeois society, thoroughly dehumanised and excluded from its wealth and yet at the same time the sole source of this wealth which they had not effective control over. And so he famously argued that this class, ‘which flings at the adversary the defiant words, I am nothing and should be everything’ could only free itself from its exploitation by realising and abolishing at once its human potential and the negation of this potentiality (Marx 1975). For the composers of the Hamburg Theses such a conception resonated with the SI’s struggle against art and its desire to realise the creative promise of radical, avant-garde art while abolishing it as a separate, specialised and progressively exploited realm of human activity. 5

Debord (1989) wrote that the ‘summarised conclusion’ of the Hamburg Theses,

signified that one must no longer give the least importance to the conceptions of any of the revolutionary groups that still existed as inheritors of the old social emancipation movement that was destroyed in the first half of our century; and that it would no longer be necessary to count on the SI alone to relaunch a new era of contestation by renewing all of the starting points of the movement that was constituted in the 1840s.

Debord was not merely talking about the arguments over the role of art and the SI’s relationship to the broader artistic milieus which some of its members participated in. Rather he was speaking of the exclusively political and artistic practices of those groups and individuals that were either close to the SI or even members of it. The Hamburg Theses were a response to two of the main practices within the group. On the one hand the ongoing debate over artistic practice and the SI’s relation to such; on the other the increasing engagement amongst some SI members with ‘ultra-left’ revolutionary groups (notably Socialisme ou Barbarie) and the related possibilities and actualities of insurrectionary proletarian activity (notably during the General Strike in Belgium over the Winter of 1960-61).

In an article written around the time of the break with the artists, one that is patently influenced by the Hamburg Theses, the SI wrote that ‘Situationist theory is in people like fish are in the sea’ (Situationist International 1962). The point of such a claim, carefully drawn out over the course of the article, was precisely the rejection of the perspective that conceived of the SI as bringing a radical perspective from without. Thus Debord’s point about the significance of the Theses: on the one hand they were aimed against the perspective of those ‘ultra-leftist’ groups close to them, like Socialisme ou Barbarie, who were then tending to become lost in the arcane and scholastic elaboration of a theory to explain the apparent quiescence of the working class; and on the other hand against those Situationists (primarily the artists) who believed that workers had ceased to be potentially revolutionary through their ‘integration’, via the dubious benefits of work and commodity ‘satisfaction’, into bourgeois society (Situationist International 1960).4  Common to both perspectives was the belief that capitalism had triumphed to such a degree that an autonomous revolutionary perspective on the basis of the experience of capitalist alienation was no longer possible. What those Situationists who composed the Hamburg Theses offered instead was the argument that the apparent ‘victory’ of capitalism, manifest in the burgeoning commodity abundance, was in fact a deepening of the process of alienation, not its alleviation; thus the ground was being more thoroughly prepared for a revolutionary insurrection. Indeed the Theses offered a stark alternative to those artists and political radicals who retreated in despair into their respective ‘ghettoes’: the realisation and suppression of art, politics, and wage-labour, i.e. of all alienated and separated activities.

 

4.

The Situationists left the objectification of the Hamburg Theses in the ephemeral act of their drunken ‘composition’ on purpose; not only to ridicule the increasingly specialised and bureaucratic practice of even the most apparently ‘critical’ intellectuals, but more importantly to draw out the intimate relation between means and ends in their revolutionary practice. A few days after the expulsion of the bulk of the artists from the SI Debord wrote to Raoul Vaneigem that, ‘we agreed not to write the Hamburg Theses, so as to impose all the better the central meaning of our entire project in the future. Thus, the enemy cannot feign to approve it without great difficulty.’ To the unwary the Hamburg Theses were a sort of trap, at once strangely present and beyond the reach of the most determined of researchers. For the SI, in opposition to contemporary artistic and political practice, the practice of being a revolutionary was necessarily more important than the results of such a practice. Which is to say that to the extent to which such practices become objectified as so many ‘works’, ‘manifestoes’, ‘theses’, etc., is the extent to which the apparent results of such activity can be separated from the process of their production and alienated as cultural commodities. In the refusal to set down the Hamburg Theses for all time, the SI took a stand against the increasing complicity — consciously or not — of critical intellectuals in the development and consolidation of the ‘commodity-spectacle’.

By the late 1980s such strategic concerns were no longer an issue. The Theses had long ago served their purpose of immediate clarification and as trap to the unwary; nothing had been left to the gnawing criticism of the mice. The revolution the SI had worked for, May 1968 and the occupations movement in France had passed into the radical and revolutionary ferment of the 1970s. The SI was gone too. All that was left was its memory; its legacy fitfully interpreted and carried on by those seeking to overturn capitalism as much as by those recuperators committed to the SI’s burial in an eternity of noisy insignificance. No doubt a future revolutionary movement will require its Hamburg Theses, under changed conditions and different guises.

 

Endnotes

[1]. These discussions also later involved Alexander Trocchi who was not, however, a participant in the 5th Conference or the dérive (i.e. urban ‘drift’) from Gothenburg to Hamburg that was the preamble to the Hamburg Theses.

2. Already in the 1960s the SI attracted those seeking to fetishize their output — their ultra-modern journal with its differently coloured metallised covers, their infamous détourned comic-posters and leaflets, their films, even (and especially) the paintings and architectural models of the early group. Indeed today Situationist paraphernalia are much sought after collectibles fetching tidy sums that reflect their new found exclusivity (and thus effective recuperation as mere things). However while the group persisted the most scorn was reserved for those people who fetishized the radical theory of the SI, approving of all of its statements from on high (or afar), without contributing to either the elaboration or development of a peculiarly Situationist project. Debord would end by calling such fetishists ‘pro-situs’. Perhaps the most famous example is Jean Baudrillard, whose work was a self-conscious attempt to one-up the SI in terms of radicality, but who rarely moved beyond the orbit of the university.

3. The Situationist position against ‘aesthetics’ was fairly straightforward. As Debord wrote in the founding document, ‘[i]n contrast to the aesthetic modes that strive to fix and eternalize some emotion, the situationist attitude consists in going with the flow of time’ (Debord 1957). Indeed the Hamburg Theses was an attempt to encapsulate such a perspective, against the fetish of the art-object, and other forms of ‘objectified’ and ‘alienable’ results of practice — artistic and otherwise — that attempted to ‘to fix and eternalize’. Nonetheless the Situationists were fully cognizant of the fact that their production of things would be fetishized and ‘aestheticized’ (cf. 2 above). Such objects would, perforce, not be examples of a ‘Situationist aesthetic’ but rather examples of the ‘anti-Situationist’ practice of Situationists. As the Situationist Attila Kotányi argued at the 5th Conference of the SI, ‘I urge you not to forget that our present productions are anti-Situationist […] [W]e know that such [artistic & theoretical] works will be recuperated by the society and used against us’ (S.I. 1962). Kotányi’s broader point was that anything produced by the SI under conditions of persisting capitalism was liable to recuperation; however the Situationist project was not reducible to such but rather ‘certain truths which have an explosive power’ entailing not only the formal rejection of commodification and ‘aesthetics’ but the practical task of working toward the end of capitalist society and the specialised modes of artistic representations and aesthetics (ibid.). Unfortunately such a straightforward and clearly anti-aesthetic perspective has, alas, been lost on many scholastic recuperators, wilfully or not — recent examples include McKenzie Wark (2011), Tom McDonough (1997, 2009), and Sam Cooper (2012) (the organiser of a conference in June 2012 called ‘Situationist Aesthetics’).

4. Such was the argument that Debord and others argued against at the Fourth conference of the SI in 1960. Cf. Situationist International, 'The Fourth Conference of the SI in London [1960]', trans. by Reuben Keehan and Ken Knabb.

5. Without doubt there is more buried away in this phrase, particularly the debt owed to Hegel’s conception of ‘aufheben’ (i.e. the abolition and preservation of past ideas in their dialectical ‘transcendence’). Debord’s historical account of the origins of ‘independent’ artistic practices in the late feudal/early Modern period of capitalism’s rise to global dominance is crucial in this regard, pointing to the movements in artistic practice as themselves a form of dialectical change. Cf. The Society of the Spectacle, in particular, chapter 8; ‘Negation and Consumption within Culture’.

 

Works cited: 

Cooper, Sam. 2012 “The Anxiety of Recuperation.” Sam Cooper at https://samcooperwriting.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/the-anxiety-of-recuperation/ (accessed  24 February 2015)

Debord, Guy 1957 'Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action ', trans. by Ken Knabb in  http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/report.htm (accessed 24 February 2015)

Debord, Guy 1989  'The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 (Note to serve in the history of the Situationist International)', trans. by Not Bored! at  http://www.notbored.org/debord-November1989.html (accessed  24 February 2015)

Debord, Guy 1962 'Letter to Raoul Vaneigem, 15 February 1962', trans. by Not Bored!, http://www.notbored.org/debord-15February1962.html (accessed  24 February 2015)

Debord, Guy  1983 Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Freddy Perlman & John Supak. Detroit: Black & Red

Kotányi, Attila  and  Raoul Vaneigem 2006.'Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism [1961].' In Ken Knabb (ed) .Situationist Interational Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets,

Marx, Karl 1975  'Contribution to Critque of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Introduction [1843-44].' In Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works Vol. 3,  Moscow: Progress Publishers, 175-187

McDonough, Tom 2009 The Situationists and the City: A reader,  London and New York: Verso

McDonough, Thomas F. 1997. “Rereading Debord, Rereading the Situationists.” October 79 (January): 3–14.

Sadler, Simon 1999 The Situationist City,  Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press,.

Situationist International, 1962  'The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg [1962]', trans. by Ken Knabb & Reuben Keehan at http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/goteborg.html (accessed  24 February 2015)

Situationist International 1960 'The Fourth Conference of the SI in London [1960]', trans. by Reuben Keehan and Ken Knabb at  http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/london.html (accessed  24 February 2015)

Situationist International, 1962 'The role of the S.I. [1962]', trans. by Reuben Keehan at http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/role.html (accessed  24 February 2015)

Wark, McKenzie 2011  The Beach Beneath the Streets: The everyday life and glorious times of the Situationist International,  London: Verso