March 21, 2024

Situationism, Cybernetics, and Art: A Conversation

Dominique Routhier and Benjamin Crais

Cover detail of Dominique Routhier, With and Against: The Situationist International in the Age of Automation (Verso, 2023).

Dominique Routhier is the author of With and Against: The Situationist International in the Age of Automation (Verso, 2023). This conversation took place in early March.

Benjamin Crais: I want to begin with the title of your book—or first, the subtitle, which proposes a particular periodization: “The Age of Automation.” In your project, this period encompasses numerous overlapping transitions, beginnings, and endings: the last breath of the historical avant-garde (in the situationists), the emergence of the cybernetic hypothesis, the crisis of programmatism … To ease into our conversation, could you speak about this periodization that frames your argument and the work it does for you?

Dominique Routhier: The question of periodization is certainly a key concern in this book. The whole idea is to reassess the legacy of the Situationist International (SI)—as a placeholder for the twentieth-century avant-garde project at large—in light of the restructuring of capitalism that followed the Second World War. Obviously, the “age of automation” bit courts cliché by invoking Walter Benjamin’s wildly famous 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There are probably hundreds if not thousands of at-best-mediocre essays and books that do something similar on the level of the title without grappling seriously with any of the fundamental questions that Benjamin addressed: the structural similarities between work in general and the work of art, the parallelism between methods of production and artistic “creation,” etc. I’ll let others judge whether my book says anything beyond cliché but at least I can say I tried to resurrect a die-hard Marxist art theory (which hopefully will upset a handful of tenured art-history boomers).

That being said, my main Marxist reference for the subtitle is not so much Benjamin as his fellow Frankfurt School traveler, Friedrich Pollock. He’s an overlooked figure who wrote a book in the mid-fifties called Automation: A Study of Its Economic and Social Consequences. In that book, Pollock discerns a new capitalist production paradigm based on cybernetics, a then-new science of communication and control believed to usher in “an age of automation.” For me, Pollock’s attempt at periodization is a useful starting point because it points to an epochal shift and highlights some of the material contradictions of the so-called age of automation.

BC: Your reference to “contradictions” brings us to the other part of your title: With and Against. In Tiqqun’s text “The Cybernetic Hypothesis,” they write that “the cybernetic hypothesis exerted an unacknowledged fascination over a whole ‘critical’ generation,” including the situationists. However, while Tiqqun characterizes the situationist response to cybernetics as “outside and above,” you revise that to “with and against,” which highlights a far knottier sense of entanglement and contradiction. Could you talk a bit about how you understand the situationists’ relationship to cybernetics vis-à-vis critique and implication?

DR: With and Against centers squarely on the history of the SI but also uses this movement as a prism through which to observe some of the overarching social, cultural, and artistic fault lines or “contradictions” of the postwar moment. While intellectual historians have mapped cybernetics onto the discourses of structuralism—I strongly recommend Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan’s book CODE in this regard—little has been done to trace the impact of cybernetics on revolutionary theory and practice of the 1960s (to say nothing of art). To me, this is odd given that much of the best work from that period is concerned with the real and imagined consequences of cybernetics as applied to production (“automation”) and to capitalist society at large. Paul Mattick’s 1962 essay on “The Economics of Cybernation” is a case in point, as are the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya or Grace and James Lee Boggs, to mention only a few of the book’s key interlocutors.

Cybernetics, as I argue in the book, constitutes a grossly overlooked concern for the entire New Left generation—as well as more specifically for the French “ultraleft” where the SI belongs, alongside workerist tendencies such as Socialisme ou Barbarie. What distinguishes the SI’s critique of cybernetics is that through their interest in everyday life, they add to Marxist analyses centering on production the question of how cybernetics might contribute to new forms of social domination, management, and control. In short, it is a problem of government (which speaks to the Greek origins of the term cybernetics itself). What was to some a “neutral” scientific and technological breakthrough—a set of engineering problems related to microelectronic feedback circuits—became for the SI, as it did for Foucault at a later point, something suggesting a more encompassing social paradigm of control.

In my book, I take Tiqqun’s suggestion seriously and ask what the history of the postwar moment, and the history of the SI more specifically, look like if we reconsider them sub specie cybernetics, so to speak. Looking back at that period from this perspective, it is striking how much buzz cybernetics created, even on the left. Many people seemed to believe that they were one step from achieving liberation from the drudgery of work and that we’d all soon be living the dream of fully automated luxury communism or some such 1950s equivalent. Debord and the SI formulated one of the earliest and most substantive critiques of the “cybernetic hypothesis” and did not approach it from “outside and above” in any sense. Rather, as you say, their position was much more complicated and often self-contradictory.

BC: The SI’s views developed substantially over the course of the 1950s and ’60s, and you’ve organized your book around a developing series of moves or stratagems in relation to cybernetics—e.g., a moment of withdrawal, fascination, attack … Could you speak to how you narrate this trajectory of the SI—or, really, the Lettrist International (LI) and the SI? That is, how the “with and against” contradiction develops for them?

DR: I argue that over the course of the SI’s existence as a movement—from roughly 1956 (when they were still the LI) to 1972 when the SI auto-dissolves—one can distinguish four distinct, if partially overlapping, phases. In my book I characterize these phases as “refusal and withdrawal” (Chapter 1), “secret fascination” (Chapter 2), “with and against” (Chapter 3), and a “rage against the machine” (Chapter 4). So the book progresses from an initial fascination towards a Luddite stance characterized by a series of orchestrated attacks on some of the leading French cyberneticians. Obviously, it’s a bit of a forced narrative, schematic. And of course, none of this is clear cut. But I think it’s a much more useful way to structure the narrative of the history of the SI than the conventional approach, which sees merely two phases: one “political,” the other “artistic.” One of the key interventions in my book is to show how this separation mirrors the bourgeois conception of life as perfectly compartmentalized. At no point in the history of the SI, or in the history of the avant-garde for that matter, were these two terms—art and politics—in any real tension with each other. It became a problem ex post facto, and mostly a problem for Ivy League art historians trying to salvage an “artistic” kernel of the SI.

BC: This brings us to what I would say is the organizing concept of the book: the avant-garde. In many ways, your book primarily thinks the SI in its relation to the historical avant-garde on the one hand, and to the cybernetically informed “neo”-avant-garde on the other. There’s a lot to say about this, but perhaps you could talk about your relationship to Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, which plays a major role in how you theorize the historical avant-garde as well as the neo-avant-garde.

DR: I’m really happy you brought that up. For some reason, up until now, when I’ve spoken about my book, it’s been mostly in a Marxist context. And I think a lot of Marxists are mystified when they hear the concept of the avant-garde. But apart from the question of periodization that we started with, the core concern in this book is coming up with a coherent theory of the avant-garde. Basically, the book is trying to revive Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde vis-à-vis what we might call the October interpretation (after the influential art journal) and see how it might apply to the SI. I think Peter Bürger’s book—written, if I remember correctly, in 1974—was one of the first serious conceptualizations of what the avant-garde was and what that term meant, historically. But for some reason, Bürger does not discuss the situationists at all. I’m pretty sure he probably wasn’t even aware of them. At that point, the SI was still rather obscure and completely unknown in the Anglophone art world and academy.

I think for the October generation of art historians it was important to dismiss Bürger because he actually had a concept of the avant-garde that was essentially political, in which being “avant-garde” still implied a sense of commitment to the revolutionary movement. So the avant-garde in Bürger’s sense would reject the institution of art—that was one of his central premises: that to qualify as an avant-garde, you would operate on the margins of or in direct opposition to the established art world. For many art critics and academics trying to make their careers throughout the 1980s and ’90s by being a little bit “French and edgy,” it was important to have a concept of the avant-garde that would not make their whole high-theory enterprise seem suspect. So the way it appears to me, in retrospect, is that they threw Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde under the bus and positioned themselves—the postmodern art critics—in the driver’s seat of that same bus, essentially claiming to be placeholders of a nonexistent avant-garde.

All this to say that I think that my book remains within Bürger’s theoretical framework. And so, for me, the “neo-avant-garde” is a misnomer. I mean, it’s a concept invented by someone who wanted to make a career from speaking about, writing about, and thinking about the evolution of “advanced” or “experimental” art within (or sometimes synonymous with) the art institution. As I argue in my book, the neo-avant-garde recuperates the term “avant-garde” and empties it of revolutionary content. That’s why I start the book with the LI’s boycott of an avant-garde art festival in Marseille in 1956, which was, to my knowledge, the first time the term “avant-garde” appeared after the war in an explicitly state-backed context, designed to reinvent and depoliticize the idea of the avant-garde. I think it’s very clear from the broader context of postwar French cultural politics that this festival was a deliberate attempt to give the term “avant-garde” a different semantic content—to wrest it from its connotations of anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois, essentially revolutionary art politics. Peculiarly, that exact moment coincides with the first public appearance in France, in postwar art altogether I believe, of a “cybernetic” robot. So, the whole “art and tech” conundrum that we’re still immersed in today, where one is effectively an alibi for the other and both join together to celebrate “progress,” can be traced back to this moment in French postwar art. It’s no coincidence that Debord started theorizing “the society of the spectacle” from these precise historical coordinates, where art moves abruptly to the fore of a rapidly modernizing capitalist society, deflecting from decolonial struggles abroad and centering attention on ridiculous “dancing robots.”

BC: All the interesting reconsiderations of Debord in recent decades have turned to a German (or really, Hegelian) thinker to elucidate his thought—whether Eric-John Russell’s use of Adorno or yours of Bürger. This brings us to one of the book’s major contributions, which is to clarify the historical conditions for the concept of the “spectacle” and Vaneigem’s theory of power. That’s where you end the book, with the expansion of capital to the peculiar decor of everyday life, with the spectacle. How would you describe your contribution to theorizing the concept of the spectacle in relation to the Hegelian readings of Debord (which elucidate this concept with reference to Lukács, Marx, and Adorno)?

DR: I take the Hegelian-Marxist reading to be the starting point for any serious discussion of Debord, who was deeply steeped in Hegel and Marx as well as in the left-communist tradition more generally. So I’m not so much trying to correct as to supplement these readings by situating the concept of the spectacle in its proper historical moment. The concept of the spectacle, as I argue, emerges from a very specific set of historical coordinates and reflects Debord’s and the SI’s deep, if conflicted, involvement with contemporaneous art. I think I quoted Kristin Ross somewhere in the book to the effect of saying something like, “No concept is innocent of historical content.” I think this is particularly true of the concept of the spectacle.

BC: I’d like to follow up on what you said about the situationists’ attempt to maintain a fidelity to the historical avant-garde through a “unitary” approach to art and politics in a moment when state-led modernization efforts appropriated the language of the avant-garde. In your book it’s not just about the appropriation of avant-garde discourse but also about the avant-garde project reaching real historical limits—limits that have to do with transformations of industry and class composition. If I remember Bürger’s argument correctly, he claims that the avant-garde adventure really ends prior to World War II. In some ways, you are in line with this thinking. But you extend it to say that the situationists are the last of the historical avant-gardes—or the last attempt to seriously reckon with or maintain fidelity to this project in a moment marked by the eclipse of its conditions. Could you talk about these conditions for the eclipse of the avant-garde project and how the situationists attempted to navigate them?

DR: It’s definitely true that I stage the SI as the last avant-garde, which is something I picked up from art historian Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen’s (as-yet-untranslated) book about the SI, Den sidste avantgarde (The last avant-garde). And of course, that doesn’t really seem to fit with Bürger’s theory because he believes that the avant-garde project came to an end in the interwar years and that whatever came after was effectively an empty rehearsal. But I think it’s also important to reckon with the fact that Bürger’s account is weirdly ahistorical in a sense. He doesn’t speak of any of the political-economic shifts or any of the historical context that would, in effect, support his own argument. I feel like his intuition is right, but his reasons for claiming that it was “over” seem arbitrary. I guess I accept Bürger’s avant-garde definition but reject his periodization. If we look at the avant-garde project as a historical arc tied to capitalist modernization efforts, we see that it extends across or even intensifies in the postwar decades—Les Trente Glorieuses—before petering out with the onset of deindustrialization in the late sixties and early seventies. I think it makes sense to say that the historical conditions that made the avant-garde project seem possible are not really there anymore. And I think that the SI already sensed that they were embarking on an impossible project that was always, in a sense, tied to the idea of “unity” (the search for a unitary revolutionary Subject) and “progress” (the idea of the maturing of the productive forces of capital as a precondition for revolution), when in fact all they saw was separation and gradual disintegration. That’s essentially what I mean by “with and against”—the way that the historical contradictions and paradoxes of the notion of the avant-garde were something to be reckoned with and explored rather than simply ignored.

On the one hand, the situationists are eager to try to reconstruct the “unitary” revolutionary approach of the historical avant-garde, connecting working-class politics with culture and art. On the other hand, they’re also already reckoning with the fact that this has become impossible, that they are playing out their part in the revolutionary farce. My chapter on Fin de Copenhague, the artists’ book that Debord and Asger Jorn made together in 1957, is a good example of the SI’s peculiarly self-aware and contradictory political aesthetics, which perfectly summarize what I see as the eclipse of the traditional revolutionary imaginary.

BC: An eclipse that, for them, was tied to the restructuring of capitalism and advances in production.

DR: Right. The “age of automation” …

BC: Shifting gears slightly, could you talk about the method of your book? Each chapter is centered on a close examination of a certain print object—a 1956 boycott tract, Fin de Copenhague, a 1968 poster, etc. What is your method for reading these objects and the ways they mediate larger questions of capitalist restructuring and revolution?

DR: To be honest, this kind of close examination, as you call it, of objects (and in particular of printed matter) is an attempt to engage art historians by “mimicking” art-historical methods of analyzing discrete objects or artworks. As someone broadly sympathetic to the situationist rejection of the “work of art” as a meaningful category but still invested in the history of art and political aesthetics, this close attention to objects and questions of form is my way of trying to challenge a core assumption of much traditional art history: the idea that “art” is a transhistorical category equally applicable to all times and all societies and that formal evolution in the arts happens autonomously, so to speak.

BC: In several places in the book you seem to be approaching, through the SI, a theory of political aesthetics that problematizes, exceeds, or even refuses the category of “art” as such. I am thinking, for instance, about your discussion of Jorn’s theory of aesthetic “counter-values” and the SI’s emphasis on the “revolutionary surplus” of poetic language. Could you articulate the theory of the aesthetic voiced here by Jorn et al.? How does it relate to the situationist investment in a realization of art in life?

DR: I think Jorn is onto what we might term an artistic value-form theory, which is based on a similar critique of “wealth” by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Program. Marx famously states that the socialist imagining of labor as “the source of all wealth and all culture” is inadequate and contradicts its purpose as an emancipatory slogan. Labor is not the source of all wealth; nature, too, factors in. To focus solely on labor in isolation from its conditions of natural and social reproduction leads to fruitless discussions about “fair” distribution instead of discussions about how to abolish labor and its capitalist counterpart, the wage. I’m simplifying a great deal here, but Jorn picks up on this line of thinking and tries to position the artistic imagination and material sensibilities as belonging to the preconditions of any form of labor, remunerated or not. In other words, he is trying to imagine the future form of “wealth and culture” after the abolition of the value form of the commodity. So “art” was not simply something to be set free but, more fundamentally, an impulse of primal creation available to all in and through a refusal of wage labor as the organizing center of life. And in 1956–57, when “automation” was all the rage and many on the socialist left imagined a straightforward path to emancipation through labor-saving technology, this seems like an important insight.

In much the same way, Debord imagined that real art was elsewhere than in the established formats and mediums he himself had been working to dismantle, détourn, or reimagine (cinema, painting, collage, literature, etc.). For Debord, the “true heirs” to the historical avant-garde were not any of the competing artistic movements in postwar France but rather the spontaneous revolutionary uprisings in the decolonizing countries, or the so-called race riots in the US. So if Debord has anything like a theory of art it would be that the realization of art in life—the avant-garde program—necessarily takes place outside the framework of historically recognized and institutionally sanctioned art forms. Obviously the riot would be one place for the realization of art. And equally so, something like vandalism. Jorn founded an Institute of Comparative Vandalism where they documented and studied what was basically early forms of graffiti writing, on churches and other places, and came up with this whole alternative art history, a counternarrative of sorts. There are obviously a lot of problems in Jorn and Debord’s projection of a kind of primal creativity onto racialized peoples struggling to overcome colonization and other forms of oppression. But the importance that Debord attributed to something like the Watts rebellion also needs to be put in its historical context, in which the majority of the established left was overtly racist and condemned these riots as “primitive” or, at best, as “premature” (the favorite Stalinist epithet). The SI was quick to dismiss all that and defend the looters while singing an ode to the riot as a historically adequate form of struggle. In their view, there was nothing excessive or irrational about the Watts moment: looting and rioting were simply natural responses to an irrational society. So I’m interested in the history and problem of “vandalism,” not just in relation to the history of art (to which it forms a kind of undercurrent) but also in relation to our present cycle of struggles, which seems to be defined by the riot. Right now, I’m compulsively rereading Tobi Haslett’s “Magic Actions” and trying to figure out how to contribute meaningfully to the conversation Tobi so brilliantly initiates in that essay.

BC: Is this for a new book project or an essay?

DR: For an essay right now, but who knows what it will ultimately be.

Avant-Garde, Technology
Revolution, Post-war, Cybernetics

Dominique Routhier is a writer, critic, and independent researcher based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has published extensively in Scandinavian journals such as K&K, Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, and Paletten as well as internationally in Rethinking Marxism, Historical Materialism, Boundary 2 online, Los Angeles Review of Books, and New Left Review Sidecar, among others. His debut book, With and Against: The Situationist International in the Age of Automation, was published by Verso Books in 2023.

Benjamin Crais is a critic and PhD candidate in the Program in Literature at Duke University. He is currently completing a dissertation on literary narratives of deindustrialization and is at work on a second project on the agrarian question in twentieth-century political cinema. His work has appeared in publications including Discourse, New Left Review Sidecar, Polygraph, and MUBI Notebook.


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