Based on McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street, it appears as though the legacy of the Situationist movement has permeated various aspects of mainstream society and popular culture. For instance, Wark explains that the ideas of dérive and détournement either influenced or can be seen in everything from urban planning (specifically through architecture that recalls Constant Nieuwenhuys’ plans for New Babylon) to literature, and from cinema to the Internet itself (which Wark argues resembles Nieuwenhuys’ plans for a decentralized communication network). Indeed, much of 21st century society revolves around a philosophy of play, with corporate overlords introducing ludic elements into the workplace as a way of increasing productivity (one only need look at Google’s or Facebook’s corporate headquarters to see that they resemble a McDonald’s play land rather than a traditional office setting).
In many ways, as with so many fringe movements or protest groups, their tactics have become assimilated into mainstream culture while their central message has been somewhat forgotten. For instance, in the final chapter of his book, Wark describes René Viénet’s 1972 film Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, which uses détournement to transform a kung fu film into a “pointed allegory for the co-option of radical desires by the supposedly leftist wing of spectacular power” (153). Here, Viénet reorders scenes and alters the dialogue to expound on radical French philosophy and to offer up “a critique of class conflicts, bureaucratic socialism, the failures of the French Communist Party, Maoism, cultural hegemony, sexual equality and the way movies prop up Capitalist ideology” (Metzger). Yet, in many ways, his film recalls Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), which engages in a similar act of détournement by re-purposing a Japanese spy film and turning into a tale of one man’s futile search for the perfect egg salad sandwich. Rather than commenting on existing power structures, Allen instead employed these tactics solely in the name of comedy. In the process, the Situationist’s tactics become sanitized for mainstream consumption.
Such co-option of radical ideologies seems to be de rigueur, especially in capitalist nations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo while quelling any sort of rebellion that might interrupt the flow of capital. Indeed, one only need look at the assimilation of punk, grunge, and hip hop cultures, all of which revolve around a ludic sense of play that is directed at mainstream institutions and longstanding power dynamics. Punk, which evinced an anarchic ideology that advocated for tearing down existing institutions and replacing them with something new or different, was quickly gobbled up by the mainstream to the point that it eventually lost all meaning and became little more than an expensive fashion statement as malls around the country stocked overpriced pre-ripped jeans. Meanwhile, socially conscious hip-hop and political rap, which originally served as a means to draw attention to black culture and the issues surrounding it, soon transformed into little more than music used to sell everything from breakfast cereals to used cars.
More recently, the image of Guy Fawkes featured in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta and its subsequent film adaptation (directed by James McTiegue and written by Lana and Lily Wachowski) became a prominent symbol of rebellion, specifically among members of the international hacktivist group Anonymous. Since 2005, the year the movie was released, members of the group have showed up at numerous rallies and produce numerous videos sporting the distinctive mask. Yet, Warner Media owns the copyright to this image and receives a licensing fee every time someone purchases one. Thus, the corporation has found a way to monetize revolution, much like Hot Topic has turned the punk attitude into a mainstream cottage industry.
The Situationists imagined a world that revolved around ludic pursuits, with play serving as life’s guiding philosophy. That world has come to pass, but like so many other things in the capitalist sphere, it has been co-opted and monetized for maximum profits. As Wark notes, this idea aligns with Marx’s assertion that everything becomes ground up in the capitalist mill, even crime itself: “Marx goes on to show how the criminal produces the police, the judiciary, a whole division of labor, ‘creating new needs and new ways of satisfying them'” (154). Indeed, why should anarchy, rebellion, and play be exempt from this sort of co-option. It all just becomes another brand, another style that people can adopt to announce that they are different just like everyone else. More importantly, thought, capitalist structures absorb these rebellious ideologies as a way to perpetuate the tenets of free enterprise and thereby maintain a status quo that reinforces class boundaries and economic realities (while placating the masses with the false promise of a revolution that never comes). From the examples described above to Dodge remixing the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to sell trucks, massive multinational corporate entities appear capable of transforming any sort of uprising into an advertising slogan. Thus, I wonder once again whether the tactics of those like the Situationists can have any real lasting effect beyond become just another catchy jingle.
Metzger, Richard. “Cinema subverted in ‘Can Dialectics Break Bricks?’ (1972).” Dangerous Minds. February 21, 2012. Web. February 16, 2018.
Wark, McKenzie. The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. Verso, 2011.