After reading chapters 1 – 7 in McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street, I think I find the concept of détournement most interesting. Wark describes this idea as both “the opposite of quotation” and “a challenge to private property” because it “attacks a kind of fetishism, where the products of collective human labor in the cultural realm can become a mere individual’s property” (40). He also describes how it functions as more than just a remix such as those described by Henry Jenkins, but rather as something that highlights the idea that knowledge belongs to no one person but to society itself. For me, this idea calls to mind both the cut-up technique developed by the Dadaists (though popularized by William S. Burroughs) and the work of street artist Banksy. With cut-up, poets sought to rearrange existing texts into entirely new works, often by literally cutting up a finished text and then rearranging the pieces into a different order to create something entirely new. Such actions seem to attack the fetishism of the written word and therefore represent a kind of challenge to or rebellion against linearity that has been established by literature and its critics. Thus, cut-up, like détournement, appears to function as a challenge to existing elitist power structures as well as an attempt to shift power imbalances in favor of those excluded from so-called “high-minded” pursuits (especially since the Dadaists intended cut-up as another of their surrealist games, thereby demonstrating a ludic aspect to the technique).
Meanwhile, Banksy often repurposes prevailing cultural images (such as corporate logos or well-known pop cultural characters like Mickey Mouse, himself a sort of corporate logo) into subversive new formats that send up corporate culture and reveal the darkness that lies at the heart of capitalism. Significantly, Banksy displays his art publicly on walls or in the form of self-built physical prop pieces often erected on the sidewalk or other high-traffic areas. By placing his artwork out in the open, Banksy demolishes the idea of the art museum, which is sometimes conceptualized as an elitist institution accessible only to a wealthy few or to those with cultured and refined tastes. Therefore, like the Dadaists and other cut-up artists, Banksy appears to create art that also functions as a rebellion against the art world (both as an idea and an institution) and a subversion of the notion that art occupies an exclusive and sophisticated realm. More importantly, by making his artwork freely visible to the public, he is enlisting the populace at large in his rebellion as well.
This then brings me to Wark’s discussion of Jean-Paul Sartre’s desire to walk the streets of Paris during curfew. Wark writes that by walking the streets at this time, Sartre engages in an act of rebellion because his nighttime stroll becomes a situation rather than a mere act of contemplation. As Wark explains, “The situation is the common product of its own unknowable facticity and of Sartre’s freedom” (57). In other words, without the curfew, Sartre is free to walk the streets whenever he wants, but with the restriction in place Sartre is actively exercising his freedom to walk whenever and wherever he wants in a blatant act of defiance. This idea puts me in mind of Michel de Certeau’s “walking rhetoric,” which states that pedestrians actively create a city’s meaning by walking through it as individual subjects capable of ignoring the city planners’ intended regulations of movement (i.e. bus routes, crosswalks, parking spaces, etc.). For de Certeau, the act of walking through a city imbues these different urban spaces with new meanings that sometimes contradict their intended purposes. This suggests that any pedestrian can “rewrite” the conventions and institutions of society simply by choosing to walk a specific route through a city. This idea in turn puts me in mind of the “Standing Man in Gezi Park” video we watched in class, as he was performing an everyday act (i.e. standing still) but in such a way that it becomes a revolutionary act. Ultimately, it seems that the act of placing something into a new context, whether it be literature, art, or simply walking, can reveal that act as a symbolic challenge to legislative or institutionalized power.
de Certeau, Michel. “Chapter VII: Walking in the City.” In The Practices of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall, University of California Press, 1984.
Wark, McKenzie. The Beach Beneath the Street. Verso, 2011.