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Archive for Issue #2

Raoul Vaneigem: The Other Situationist

Jason McQuinn

 

(Note: The following essay was written as an introduction to the 2012 LBC Books edition of the 1983 Donald Nicholson-Smith translation of Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations under the new title of Treatise on Etiquette for the Younger Generations.)

 

Raoul Vaneigem’s Treatise on Etiquette for the Younger Generations has, despite its epochal importance, often been overshadowed by Guy Debord’s equally significant Society of the Spectacle. And Vaneigem himself, along with his wider insurrectionary and social-revolutionary contributions, has too often also been overshadowed by Debord’s very successfully self-promoted mystique. As a result Vaneigem’s contributions have been rather consistently underappreciated when not at times intentionally minimized or even ignored. However, there are good reasons to take Vaneigem and his Treatise more seriously.

The Situationist myth

A half-century ago in 1967 two related books appeared, authored by then-obscure members of the Situationist International (hereafter, the SI). Each has made its permanent mark on the world. On the one side, a slim but dense book, The Society of the Spectacle,¹ appeared under the authorship of one Guy Debord – an avant-garde film-maker, but more importantly the principle theorist and organizer from its earliest days of the tiny “International” of curiously-named “Situationists.” On the other side, a how-to book on living “for the younger generations,” describing a surprisingly combative “radical subjectivity” in extravagant and often poetic language. The latter was originally entitled Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations, but was initially translated into English as The Revolution of Everyday Life,² appearing under the authorship of Raoul Vaneigem. Both books exemplified a savagely critical and creatively artistic, historical and theoretical erudition rare among the usual offerings of the then still new New Left. But stylistically the books could hardly have been more different, though they ostensibly argue for the same end: inspiring the creation of a social revolution which would both destroy capitalism and realize art in everyday life!

“In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish that society.”

Only a short year later the anarchistic (though fairly incoherent) March 22nd Movement and the charismatic “Danny the Red” (Daniel Cohn-Bendit), along with a small group of more coherently-radical, reinvented Enragés (who were protégés of the SI), helped incite spreading student protests, initially from the University of Paris at Nanterre to the Sorbonne, and then throughout France. A protest that soon led to the tumultuous – now semi-mythical – “May Days” as student strikes and street protests were amplified by a huge wave of wildcat strikes that became a general strike and severely threatened the stability of the Gaullist regime. Situationist themes more and more frequently appeared in this social ferment. They were expressed not only in SI books and pamphlets, but most importantly through increasingly widespread graffiti, posters, occupations and other interventions. “Power to the imagination.” “Never work.” “Boredom is counterrevolutionary.” “Live without dead time.” “Occupy the factories.” “It is forbidden to forbid.” “In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish that society.” “I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.” “Under the paving stones, the beach.” Wherever one looked the SI’s slogans were urging the rebellion forward! While most other supposedly “radical” groups were peddling the same old (or the same old “new”) leftist lines and rituals which usually, like the Stalinists in the French Communist Party, amounted to urging restraint and respect for their leaderships. Or at most, the urging of politically-correct, “responsible” agitation, respecting the limits of directly democratic procedures which tolerated the inclusion of Leninists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, Maoists and liberal reformists of all types, guaranteeing their incoherent impotence.

Only hints of social revolution were really ever in sight during the May Days, despite the recurring waves of violent street demonstrations and the widespread students’ and workers’ occupations that culminated in the massive (but in the end, frustratingly passive) general strike across France. However, even hints of social revolution are never taken lightly, as otherwise sober governing bureaucrats began to panic, and at least the thought of revolution began to be taken seriously by the general population. A survey immediately following the events indicated that 20% of the French population would have participated in a “revolution,” while 33% would have opposed a “military intervention.”³ Charles De Gaulle even fled at one point for safety in Germany before returning to France once he had ensured the backing of the French military. These hints of revolution were especially powerful when much of the world was watching while experiencing its own various waves of anti-war protest, constant student and worker unrest, and a creative cultural contestation that at the time (throughout the 1960s at least) had as yet no very clear limits. Then it all quickly evaporated with the excuse of new national elections welcomed by all the major powers of the old world in France: the Gaullists, the Communist and Socialist parties, the established unions, etc.

As it turned out, in the 1960s most people in France, like most people around the world, were not ready for social revolution, though a few of the more radical of the French anarchists, the Enragés and the Situationists had made a decent effort to move their world in that direction. In the end, neither the more radical of the anarchists nor the Enragés and Situationists proved to be up to the task. And the historic trajectory of radical activities through the ensuing half century is still grappling with the question of just what it will take. But it remains hard to argue that, among those who even tried, it wasn’t the Situationists who were able to take the highest ground in those heady May Days in 1968.

The Situationist Reality

The Situationist International, created in 1957, was a grouping of various artists from a number of tendencies – influenced by Dada, Surrealism and the Lettrists – who to one degree or another wished to suppress art as a specialized activity and realize art in everyday life. The group published a journal titled Internationale Situationiste from its beginning, founded by Guy Debord, who was the dominant (and sometimes domineering) personality within the organization. At first, the Situationist emphasis was largely a continuation of the radical Lettrist investigations into filmmaking, psychogeography4 and unitary urbanism,5 including the development of a theory and practice of creating situations, in conjunction with the practice of dérive (unplanned drifting, following the influences of one’s environment) and détournement (a practice of subversive diversion, reversal or recontextualization of commoditized cultural elements). But the membership changed frequently, sometimes drastically, over the life of the organization with exclusions and denunciations becoming far more the rule than the exception. And with the changes in membership came changes in emphasis and direction. Of the original founders only Debord himself was left at the dismal end.6

Fairly early on there was an increasing split between those pushing more and more to radicalize the organization under the leadership of Debord (who after 1959 abandoned his own filmmaking for the duration), and those who intended to continue functioning as radically subversive, but still practicing, artists – like the Danish painter and sculptor Asger Jorn, his brother Jørgen Nash, the Dutch painter and (hyper-) architect Constant Nieuwenhuys. The radical artists regrouped in a number of directions, including around Jacqueline de Jong’s Situationist Times, published from 1962-1964 (in 6 issues), and Jørgen Nash’s Situationist Bauhaus project, not to mention their influence on the Dutch Provo movement. The poetic-artistic radicals, on the other hand, continued the SI itself under the influence of Debord’s developing synthesis of Marxism and Lettrism. (Of note, a central player, Asger Jorn, left the SI in 1961. But as a good friend of Debord who continued to fund the SI, as well as being the companion of Jacqueline de Jong and brother of Jørgen Nash, his loyalties remained divided.) It was during and after the development of these original splits and the redirection of the SI that Raoul Vaneigem (in 1961) and most of the other non-artist radicals – including Mustapha Khayati, René Viénet,7 René Riesel8 and Gianfranco Sanguinetti9 – signed on to the project.

From its beginning the Situationist International fully embraced a practice of scathing critique and scandalous subversions. And at the same time, initially through the impetus of Guy Debord, the SI at least attempted to incorporate and integrate many of the more radical social ideas of the time into its critical theory. Before the SI appeared, the Lettrists had already become notorious for the blasphemous 1950 Easter Mass preaching the death of God at the Cathedral of Notre Dame by ex-seminary student Michel Mourre.10 The subsequently-organized Lettrist International (including Debord) launched its own little blasphemous attack on the aging cinema icon Charlie Chaplin in 1952, interrupting his press conference by scattering leaflets titled “No More Flat Feet.” By the time the SI had settled on its final radical trajectory, explosive events like the 1966-67 Strasbourg scandal – which culminated in the funding and distribution of 10,000 copies of Mustapha Khayati’s Situationist attack On the Poverty of Student Life11 by the University of Strasbourg Student Union – were inevitable. The massive SI graffiti, postering and publishing campaigns from March through May of 1968 can be seen as the culmination of this line of attack.

At the same time, the SI’s exploration, incorporation and integration of scandalously radical social theory paralleled its practice of subversive scandal. Although the backbone of Situationist theory remained Marxist, it was at least a Marxism staunchly critical of Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist and Maoist ideology and bureaucracy, and a Marxism at least partially open to many of the more radical currents marginalized or defeated by the great Marxist-inspired counter-revolutions experienced around the world. Along with the avant-garde art movements like Dada and Surrealism, there was room for at least the mention of a diversity of anarchists and dissident non-Leninist Marxists, radical poets, lumpen terrorists, and even transgressive characters like Lautréamont and de Sade in the Situationist pantheon. It can be argued that it was the coupling of its penchant for scandalous incitements with its shift from experimental artistic practices to developing a more and more radically critical theory that made for whatever lasting success the SI attained. Certainly, the creatively subversive gestures without the radically critical theory, or the radically critical theory without the creatively subversive gestures would never have captured imaginations as did their serial combination and recombination. It should also be noted that although the SI obviously was not the creator of the May Days in 1968 France, the SI was the only organized group which had announced the possibility of events like these, and which was actively agitating for them before they occurred. Although some pronouncements by Debord and other Situationists, and some comments by enthusiastic “pro-situationists”12 after the fact sometimes bordered on megalomania, at least there were reasons for misjudgments about the SI’s actual effectiveness. They were not merely figments of imagination.

The SI theorists: Guy Debord or Raoul Vaneigem

That the two most important theorists of the SI were Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem is indisputable. Of what their contributions (and their relative values) consisted is another matter. At first, during the heat of the struggles in France the meanings of their contributions were generally considered to be so similar as not to require much analysis. However, it didn’t take long – especially after Vaneigem left the SI in 1970 – for divergent lines of interpretation to form and attributions or accusations of “Vaneigemism” and “Debordism” to begin flying in some quarters. The pro-Debordists tended to emphasize the over-riding importance of Marxism to the Situationist project, along with a resulting accompanying emphasis on sociological analysis and critique of class society – centering on Debord’s concept of the spectacle. It was also from this direction that most talk of Vaneigemism seems to have come (in fact, I have yet to come across anyone claiming to similarly criticize Debord based on any ideas or analyses from Vaneigem). The so-called “Vaneigemists” seem to be lumped into this category on the basis of an alleged tendency to see potential signs of total revolt in minor or partial refusals within everyday life,13 along with a resulting exaggeration of the potentialities of radical subjectivity for the construction of an intersubjective revolutionary subject. At its extreme, the argument equates radical subjectivity with attempts at narrowly “personal liberation” or even bourgeois egoism, implying that any true participation in the construction of a collective revolutionary subject demands the complete subordination of one’s personal life to a rationalist conception of revolution.14 While the former argument would seem to be largely a question of emphasis (just how important can refusals within everyday life actually be for potential social revolutionary upsurges in comparison to mass sociological factors), the latter appears to verge on the negation of most of what is distinctive and innovative within the Situationist project! At the least these conflicts reveal an underlying tension that was never resolved within the SI.

This underlying tension between the sociological and the personal, between the idea of a collective or social revolutionary project and a revolution of everyday life, still remains the central unresolved problem of the libertarian social revolutionary milieu to this day. (The impossibility of including and incorporating any critique of everyday life in the authoritarian, bureaucratic and inevitably unimaginative mainstream left is one major reason for its own steady decline.)

This underlying tension between the sociological and the personal, between the idea of a collective or social revolutionary project and a revolution of everyday life, still remains the central unresolved problem of the libertarian social revolutionary milieu to this day. (The impossibility of including and incorporating any critique of everyday life in the authoritarian, bureaucratic and inevitably unimaginative mainstream left is one major reason for its own steady decline.) The unfinished synthesis and critique of the SI is just one of many unfinished syntheses and critiques which litter radical history from 1793 to 1848, from 1871 to the great revolutionary assaults of the 20th century in Mexico, Russia, Germany, Italy, China and Spain. Certainly, as Vaneigem argues in his Treatise, there has to have always been “an energy…locked up in everyday life which can move mountains and abolish distances.” Because it is never from purely sociological forces that revolutions spring. These forces themselves are mere abstract, symbolic formulations concealing the everyday realities, choices and activities of millions of unique individual persons in all their complexity and interwoven relationships.

Despite Guy Debord’s increasing fascination with the austere, rationalistic sociological theorization revealed in the Society of the Spectacle, his entire commitment to the critique of art and everyday life, and his genuine search for new forms of lived radical subversion guarantee a substantial understanding of the central importance of Vaneigem’s work for radical theory. Still, though I know of no libertarian radicals who deny the critical importance of Debord’s work, there remain plenty who minimize, or even denigrate, the importance of Vaneigem’s. What is it in Vaneigem’s poetic investigations of the insurrectionary and social revolutionary possibilities of refusal and revolt in everyday life that so threaten these would-be libertarians? Could it be that these supposedly radical libertarians – whether “social” anarchists or some form or other of non-orthodox Marxists – may not be so different from the decaying mainstream left as they imagine?

Whereas Debord used his Society of the Spectacle largely to update Lukácsian Marxism by elaborating the sociological connections between some of the more important aspects of modern capitalism,15 Vaneigem sought in his Treatise on Etiquette for the Younger Generations to elaborate the subjectively-experienced, phenomenal connections between most of these same aspects of capitalist society. In Society of the Spectacle this meant Debord focused on: description of contemporary capital developing new forms of commodity production and exchange, the increasing importance of consumption over production, the integration of the working class through new mechanisms of passive participation, particularly the development of spectacular forms of mediation – communication and organization, and the overarching integration of these new forms of production and exchange in a continually developing, self-reproducing sociological totality which he called “spectacular commodity society.” Vaneigem’s innovation is the systematic description of these same developments from the other side, the side of lived subjective experience in everyday life: phenomenal descriptions of humiliation, isolation, work, commodity exchange, sacrifice and separation he has himself undergone or suffered, which help readers interpret their own experiences similarly.

Raoul Vaneigem and the revolution of everyday life

Raoul Vaneigem’s Treatise was a first, exploratory 20th century attempt at the descriptive phenomenology of modern slavery and its refusal.16 Through the Treatise Vaneigem urged rebellion against this enslavement through the refusal of work and submission, along with the reappropriation of autonomous desire, play and festivity. This phenomenology of lived rebellion was soon played out in the protests, occupations, graffiti, and the general festivity of the 1968 Paris May Days – within mere months of its initial publication. This is what makes Vaneigem still exciting to read a half century later.

A look at the wide variety of the most popular slogans and graffiti from the May Days in Paris – the ones that captured people’s imagination and gave the period its magic – makes it hard to ignore the fact that the emotional power they expressed (and still express) was based primarily on the excitement of the new focus on changing everyday life. And that Vaneigem’s Treatise was probably their most common source. Largely gone were the old leftist slogans exhorting workers to sacrifice for the advancement of their class organizations, to put themselves at the service of their class leaders, or to build a new society by helping class organizations take over management of the old one. Instead, people were exhorted to organize themselves directly on their own not only outside of the ruling organizations, but also outside of the pseudo-oppositional organizations of the left. And not with the relatively abstract political goal of building systems of Socialism or Communism, but with the here and now, practical goal of organizing their own life-activity with other rebels directly and without giving up their initiative and autonomy to representatives and bureaucrats.

This refusal of representation and bureaucracy, along with the emphasis on autonomous desire, play and festivity obviously has much more in common with the historical theory and practice of anarchists than with most Marxists. In fact, Marxists of the old left and the new will often be the first to point this out – and criticize it. But there still remains a surprisingly large area of crossover and cross-pollination between the multitude of creative, grass-roots movements, rebellions and uprisings within the broad libertarian milieu and some of the more libertarian-leaning of the minority traditions within Marxism. Of the latter, it was the council communists in particular, whose politics were largely adopted by the SI. And this is where the deep ambiguity of the SI is based. All of Marxism – including its dissenting minorities, and all of its myriad splinters, both mainstream and marginal – is fundamentally based upon the unavoidable sociological perspectives of species, society and class. All Marxism begins and ends with these abstractions. This is counter to the broad libertarian tradition, where actual people – with all their messy lives and struggles, hopes and dreams – are necessarily the center of theory and practice. This is the real “unbridgeable gap” – as the sectarians so love to put it. But it is between the ideologically-constructed, abstract subjectivity of reified concepts (like society and the proletariat) and the actual, phenomenal, lived subjectivity of people in revolt together. The SI was never able to overcome this divide. Nor was Vaneigem’s Treatise. But Vaneigem did make it farther than anyone else at the time in his text.

The only reason sociological investigations, analyses and theories can tell us anything beyond the most obvious banalities is the extent to which they reflect the dominant forms of enslavement in a society of modern slavery. “Scientific,” “objective” descriptions incorporating sociological explanations for mass human behavior depend upon predictable patterns of human action based upon broad social dictates of conduct, codified and enforced by institutions of domination.

If it hasn’t yet ever been made clear enough, then now is the time to finally put to rest the necessarily ideological nature of any and every reified collective subject, whether religious, liberal, Marxist, fascist or nationalist, reactionary or revolutionary. And this isn’t a question of adopting a methodological individualism over a methodological holism. One or the other may or may not be an appropriate choice for any particular specific investigation or analysis, depending upon one’s goals. But beginning with a reality defined in terms of an abstracted species, society or class makes no more sense than beginning with a reality defined in terms of abstract individuals. The only reason sociological investigations, analyses and theories can tell us anything beyond the most obvious banalities is the extent to which they reflect the dominant forms of enslavement in a society of modern slavery. “Scientific,” “objective” descriptions incorporating sociological explanations for mass human behavior depend upon predictable patterns of human action based upon broad social dictates of conduct, codified and enforced by institutions of domination. They are sociologies of mechanical human behavior. No significant, non-trivial sociology of autonomous self-activity is possible, since there is no possibility of predicting genuinely free, autonomous activity. This means that while Marxism may attempt to investigate, analyze and interpret human activity under the institutions of modern slavery – using scientific, dialectical or any other semi-logical means – it can tell us very little of any detailed significance about what the abolition of capital and state might actually look like. And to the extent that Marxist ideologies demand any particular forms, stages or means of struggle they will always necessarily make the wrong demands. Because the only right forms, stages and means of struggle are those chosen by people in revolt constructing their own methods. Council communism, as a form of Marxism, is not essentially different from the other ideologies of social democracy on this score. Nor, for that matter, are all the various ideological variations of anarchism struggling for an increased share in the ever-shrinking leftist-militant market.

Vaneigem himself understands to a great degree what is at stake here. This is one major reason Vaneigem’s text still inspires anarchists around the world. And the reason we decided to serialize the original translation of his Treatise in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed back in the ‘80s. As he explains in his introduction:
“ From now on the struggle between subjectivity and what degrades it will extend the scope of the old class struggle. It revitalizes it and makes it more bitter. The desire to live is a political decision. We do not want a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation is bought by accepting the risk of dying of boredom.”
And, in the first chapter of his Treatise:
“The concept of class struggle constituted the first concrete, tactical marshaling of the shocks and injuries which men live individually; it was born in the whirlpool of suffering which the reduction of human relations to mechanisms of exploitation created everywhere in industrial societies. It issued from a will to transform the world and change life.”

Class struggle is not a metaphysical given. It is the cumulative result of actual flesh-and-blood personal decisions to fight enslavement or submit to it.

 

Class struggle is not a metaphysical given. It is the cumulative result of actual flesh-and-blood personal decisions to fight enslavement or submit to it. Those who wish to reduce these personal decisions to effects of social laws, metaphyiscal principles, psychological drives or ideological dictates are all our enemies to the extent that we refuse to submit. And we do refuse.

 

Notes

1. La Société du Spectacle was first translated into English as The Society of the Spectacle by Fredy Perlman and Jon Supak (Black & Red, 1970; rev. ed. 1977), then by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone, 1994), and finally by Ken Knabb (Rebel Press, 2004).

2. Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations was first translated into English by Paul Sieveking and John Fullerton as The Revolution of Everyday Life (Practical Paradise Publications , 1979), then by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Rebel Press/Left Bank Books, 1994) and (Rebel Press, 2001).

3. Dogan, Mattei. “How Civil War Was Avoided in France.” International Political Science Review/Revue internationale de science politique, vol. 5, #3: 245–277.

4. In his 1955 essay, “Introduction to a critique of urban geography” (originally appearing in Les Lèvres Nues #6), Guy Debord suggests that: “Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.” (Ken Knabb, editor and translator, Situationist International Anthology, 1989, p. 5.)

5. Unitary urbanism consists in an experimental “critique of urbanism” that “merges objectively with the interests of a comprehensive subversion.” “It is the foundation for a civilization of leisure and play.” (unattributed, “Unitary Urbanism at the end of the 1950s,” Internationale Situationiste #3, December 1959.)

6. By the time the SI disbanded in 1972 Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti (relatively new to the organization) were the only remaining members.

7. René Viénét is the listed author of Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement: Paris, May, 1968, essentially the SI’s account of its activities during the May Days, written in collaboration with others in the group.

8. René Riesel was one of the Enragés at Nanterre who went on to join the SI.

9. Gianfranco Sanguinetti is notorious for his post-Situationist activities, most importantly, his scandalous authorship – under the pseudonym Censor – of The Real Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy, which was mailed to 520 of the most powerful industrialists, academics, politicians and journalists in Italy, purporting (as an assumed pillar of Italian industrialism) to support the practice of state security forces using terrorism under cover in order to discredit radical opposition. When Sanguinetti revealed his authorship he was expelled from Italy.

10.This episode led to a split in the Lettrists and the later founding of the more radical Lettrist International, which itself was one of the founding groups of the Situationist International. Debord was a member of the Lettrist International. Unfortunately, it’s reported that a quick-thinking organist drowned out most of the Notre-Dame intervention.

11. The full title is On the Poverty of Student Life considered in Its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual, and Especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for Doing Away With It. Mustapha Khayati was the main, but not the sole, author.

12. “Pro-situationist” or “pro-situ” was the (sometimes derisive) label given by Situationists to those who (often uncritically, or less than fully critically) supported and promoted Situationist ideas and practices as they (often incompletely) understood them, rather than constructing their own autonomous theoretical and practical activities. This includes most of the Situationist-inspired activities in the SF Bay area in the 1970s wake of the SI’s own dissolution. There was a proliferation of tiny pro-situ groups like the Council for the Eruption of the Marvelous, Negation, Contradiction, 1044, the Bureau of Public Secrets, Point Blank!, The Re-invention of Everyday Life and For Ourselves. Most Situationist-influenced anarchists at the time (for example, Black & Red in Detroit, and a bit later John & Paula Zerzan’s Upshot, the Fifth Estate group, Bob Black’s Last International, the group around Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, and others) stood apart from these interesting attempts to carry on the Situationist project in a very different North American social, political, economic and cultural situation, if for no other reason than basic disagreements with the SI’s Marxism, councilism, fetishization of technology, ideological rationalism, inadequate ecological critique and seemingly complete ignorance of indigenous resistance. (Which is not to say that Situationist-influenced anarchists didn’t have their own, often equally-debilitating problems.)

13. See Ken Knabb’s translator’s introduction to the third chapter of Raoul Vaneigem’s From Wildcat Strike to Total Self-Management, included in Knabb’s Bureau of Public Secrets web site at: http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/selfmanagement.htm

14. “Vaneigemism is an extreme form of the modern anti-puritanism that has to pretend to enjoy what is supposed to be enjoyable…. Vaneigemist ideological egoism holds up as the radical essence of humanity that most alienated condition of humanity for which the bourgeoisie was reproached, which ‘left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest’….” – page 256 of Ken Knabb, “The Society of Situationism” published in Public Secrets (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1997).

15. Debord borrowed heavily from the Socialisme ou Barbarie group’s flirtation with council communism, or councilist social democracy. He was a member of S. ou B. for a time.

16. Vaneigem’s is so far the best update of Max Stirner’s original nineteenth century phenomenology of modern slavery and autonomous insurrection, Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum, mistranslated into English as The Ego and Its Own. (A more accurate translation would be The Unique and Its Property.) Although Vaneigem mentions Stirner in his text, it is unclear how well he understands Stirner’s intent, and how much he has been influenced by Stirner.

 

Curtains of Blood: A Peek behind the Phenomena of the Grand Guignol

by Paul Z. Simons

“Eyes wide open! Eyes wide open!
Do you not realize how much horror
is contained in those three words.”

– from “In the Darkroom” 1911, Maurice Level & Étienne Rey

The images conjured by the mention of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol are singular – oozing madness, amorality run riot, blood flowing by the bucketful, and intricate sadistic revenges. One imagines the conclusion of a night at the theatre off rue Chaptal where patrons stumble out into the night and vomit on the curb, and one or two of the more suggestible types faint outright in the street. A little theatre with its own house physician to tend to patrons overcome by the images, content, and presentation of the performances. The truth, of course, is somewhat different than the image, but the image lives on in spite of the actual theatre’s demise in 1962, the dearth of plays translated and available in English, or any other language for that matter; indeed the virtual loss of this entire theatrical tradition. Considered by some as an example of incredibly bad French taste, like Jerry Lewis worship or taking the post-modernists seriously. Regardless, the Grand Guignol seems as dead as one of it’s own brutalized and tortured victims … yet perhaps the real horror of death is contained not in its reality, but in the ultimate distrust by the living that the dead won’t really stay dead for very long. And so it goes….

History

Of course I didn’t jump into Grand Guignol without having the strong feeling that somewhere buried in there were some deep, twisted anarchist roots. The theatre was, after all, located just off the Place Pigalle, the natural habitat of bohemians, drug addicts, revolutionaries, prostitutes, proletarians and assorted flotsam; and this in Paris – the Mother of Revolutions, and timed in the final decade of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century. Which immediately brings to mind the great anarchist terrorists Vaillant, Émile Henry and Ravachol, and from the individualist anarchist menu, the Bonnot Gang – who, among other havoc raised, engineered and perfected the motorized bank robbery getaway. And sure enough without too much digging one uncovers the “Théâtre Libre,” the first artistic move towards what would become the Grand Guignol. The Théâtre Libre opened its doors in 1887, and presented comédies rosse (“nasty comedies”), short plays that showed various aspects of the lives and language of workers, and the underclasses. The theatre was above all meant as an experiment in naturalism, which shines through during the Grand Guignol’s heyday. The Théâtre Libre closed its doors due to bankruptcy in 1893, and one of its founders, Oscar Méténier, walked away from the whole experience with a few ideas. Why not stage what these Parisians liked? They read about violence, mayhem, and death daily in such scandal sheets as Le Petit Journal, and the faits divers sections of newspapers, accompanied by graphic presentations of the crimes described. Perhaps they’d pay to see some of the same. Further, what should ever really stop anyone from doing his best to offend the sensibilities of just about everyone? These two seemingly opposed notions co-existing side by side in an intimate theatre of 285 seats and a stage measuring a meager 20 feet by 20 feet – may just yield a profit.

So Méténier opened the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in 1897, the name Guignol is slang for puppet, based in part on a popular puppet-character from Lyon (a Gallic version of Punch and Judy). Therefore Theatre of the Big Puppet – perhaps we’ll return later and dig into this. A brief note about the building. Originally a Jansenist church, it was deconsecrated during the Terror and probably used for one of the areas political clubs, in the early 19th century a blacksmith’s shop, briefly a church again, an artists studio, and then a theatre. A photo exists (figure 1) from 1937 of an audience watching one of the plays and in it one can see the interior is still decorated by crosses and one can also make out one of the two wooden carved angels that adorned the side panels. From the very first season, Paris knew it was in for something new, an experience of theatre that wrenched you from your seat, that scared you out of your wits, offended your wife and turned your stomach. One offering from the first two seasons shows a general direction, the play is called “Lui!” (the English version is titled “Jack”), authored by Méténier. In it two prostitutes are reading the Petit Parisien and commenting on the story of a fellow prostitute murdered horribly by a customer. Eventually a knock comes at the door – a new customer, Jack (of course everyone knows he’s the killer – now it’s just a question of time and method, the emotional roller coaster starts to climb the hill). The younger of the two prostitutes takes Jack into her boudoir – he pays for champagne, sleeps a bit, she finds the proceeds from his previous murder as she shakes down his pants – and just as homicide draws near the police close in and arrest him. A close call, not overly thrilling, nor particularly erotic – but a nice start.

After two years Méténier handed control of the theatre over to Max Maurey, who after familiarizing himself with Montmartre and its artists turned immediately to stamping the theatre as The Theatre of Fear. He was a master at playing on the public’s impressions of the theatre, and the hiring of the house doctor was done with much publicity and it figured in many of the early reviews of the Theatre. A cartoon from the era shows a doctor examining patrons before entry to ensure that they have a sufficiently stout constitution to withstand the horrors inside. Maurey loved the cartoon so much it was included in early publicity and playbill material. Méténier also introduced Maurey to André de Lorde who for the next two decades would become the writer par excellence of the Grand Guignol style. In virtually all GG revivals at least one, and occasionally several, of his plays are included. De Lorde would always maintain a tone of naturalism in his works, and as the plays became more bloody and horror-filled he sought out help in looking into the souls and psyche of the insane and the criminal; as an example, one of his collaborators was the psychologist and Director of the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at the Sorbonne, Alfred Binet, the developer of the Binet Intelligence test (and DeLorde’s psychotherapist). A fact I find incredible, like having Jung on the set of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to rework dialogue. A final example of this commitment to naturalism is the content of the plays, which avoid all supernatural causation; no werewolves or vampires at the GG. Rather what makes the plays so immediate is that much of the content is so damned possible; like being bitten by a rabid dog, or suffering a terrible vengeance by the hand of a jealous, crazed lover. Maurey also paid close attention to the unique stage tricks required to pull off a GG play. In this he was assisted by Paul Ratineau, effectively the theatre’s stage manager, and a master of making the grisly happen (cheaply and effectively) on stage. The stage gags and tricks associated with GG are legendary and are still written about by theatre professionals. It is said that Ratineau and those managers who came later had perfected at least 9 different types of stage blood. Note that each type was for different kinds of wounds, or effects, some flowed, some stuck to the skin, another type squirted. The most popular blood at the GG actually coagulated after application – it is known that this type required heating just prior to use and “scabbed” as it cooled. A neat fact understood by return patrons of the GG who when they heard whispered from backstage – “Edmond quick! Warm the blood!” knew that things were going to get intense – and soon. One other gag that was uniquely Grand Guignol was the eyeball gouged from the socket. For this trick Ratineau used sheep eyes purchased from local butchers, they were drained of fluid and anchovies dyed red were placed (sewn? stapled?) inside. The GG stage crew were proud of the fact their stage eyeballs bounced when gouged out and squirted horrifically when stomped on. Add to this the knives with retractable blades, scissors that squirted blood, artificial limbs hacked off and you have an idea of what the audience so feared, and had paid to see. Recall also that these stage tricks were being done within feet of the first row in the audience, and there were neither retakes nor do-overs – an eye gouge had to work for every performance, perfectly. Ratineau put his skills to making all these stage tricks effective and after his leaving the theatre several other masters of the trade stepped in and developed upon his promising start.

 

(Read the entire article: Order a copy of MS issue #2 for $12.95 + 2.05 postage & handling from: CAL Press, POB 24332, Oakland, CA 94623. Or, we should soon have a new payment system operative on our web site at: modernslavery.calpress.org )

American Uprising: The untold story of America’s largest slave revolt

American Uprising: The untold story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen

Review by Paul Z. Simons

      American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen (Perennial Books, New York, 2011). 276 pp., $26.99 hardcover/$15.99 paper.

So to keep the rhetoric and material in Modern Slavery alive with tales of slave revolts and insurrections, I inadvertently picked this book up while on my way through some airport, somewhere. After looking at the young face of the author, and reading that his alma mater was Harvard, and that he had received a number of prizes during his years there, my worries grew; surely this couldn’t be a book that demonizes slaves for revolt? Harvard is a primitive place – but could it have reverted even deeper into the muck of ruling class snobbery, inbred genetic mutation, and bad nicknames? Finally I relented and bought the damn thing – what the hell, its better than watching the movie on the plane.

Dangerous Cargo
The author begins by focusing on the night of Epiphany, January 6, 1811, and details the extravagant balls, meals and gambling of the local white slave owning gentry who lived in or near New Orleans. Epiphany of course being the kickoff for the entire Carnival season that culminates annually in the liver-ossifying orgy of Mardi Gras. Simultaneously, as the masters were celebrating, he describes the revelry of the local slaves gathered on the Commons in the city. Perhaps as many as 500-600 individuals all told were present, and they danced in large circular formations, drank local fermented products, crowned a king for the event, even as the local gentry crowned their own Rex for Mardi Gras; and also plotted to pull the whole economic and political superstructure down by armed rebellion.

        The real touchstone for the revolt, as it was for John Brown, was the success of the Haitian Revolution in 1803, which, as noted elsewhere freed the slaves, granted independence to the island nation, and as if to put paid to the whole deal banned all French citizens from Haiti – forever.

The planters were men who had abandoned Enlightenment era France for the possibility of huge profit and reward as a result of hacking some kind of living out of the wilderness. Sugar, as it turns out, was the right crop for the areas directly west of New Orleans, that ran along the northern banks of the Mississippi River. This area, named the “German Coast,” was famous for its heat, humidity, snakes, swamps, and many planters justified the use of African slaves as a result of this harsh environment. The transport of slaves to the United States was outlawed in 1808, but it is estimated that in the forty years prior the passage of the law proscribing importation of slaves that as many as 24,000 Africans were disembarked in New Orleans. The mortality rates of the slave trade are staggering. Forty percent of those captured never even made it to the west coast of Africa for transportation, ten percent perished during the Middle Passage, and only about a third would survive through the first four years in the New World. There is another side to this, though, and it shouldn’t be overlooked, many of those transported and who survived were some very tough customers indeed. The two slaves most associated with the German Coast Revolt are Kook and Quamana. The names suggest that the men were Akan, an African empire at the height of its power in the late eighteenth century; essentially a military union of a number of different tribes. The Akan controlled significant tracts of land throughout modern Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana. Many of the Akan slaves brought to the US were common soldiers who had been trained to make up the impressively large armies that African nations at that time fielded in warfare. It is likely, therefore that Kook and Quamana at least knew how to use weapons, and very probably had been trained to fight, even if they had never gone into battle. » Read more..

MS #2 Contributors

Karen Goaman has a PhD in Anthropology, University College London. She has written numerous articles in anthologies (2009, Jun & Wahl eds., New Perspectives on Anarchism; 2008, Roca Martínez ed., Anarquismo y Antropología; 2004, Purkis & Bowen eds., Changing Anarchism; 1997, Purkis & Bowen, Towards a 21st Century Anarchism) and in Anarchist Studies. She has worked as a Senior Editor in book publishing and as a part-time Lecturer in Communications at London Metropolitan University.

James Koehnline is a Seattle-based artist and library worker, long-time member of Autonomedia publishing collective and contributor to Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed and other radical publications. Online gallery at:
http://james119.deviantart.com/

Wolfi Landstreicher is a long-time anarchist and egoist, the author of the book Willful Disobedience from Ardent Press, publisher of the egoist anarchist bulletin, My Own, pamphleteer through his project Intellectual Vagabond Editions, translator (Italian and German, with occasional forays into French) and contributor to Anarchy, A Journal of Desire Armed, as well as Modern Slavery.

Bruno Massé is an environmental activist devoted to the anti-civilisation critique. As a fiction writer, he has published several works of horror, cyberpunk and erotica in French and English. He is a member of the Anarchist Writers Bloc and performs annually at the International Anarchist Theatre Festival of Montréal.
www.brunomasse.com  http://www.daemonflower.com/?lang=fr

Jason McQuinn, the juggling anarchist, is a founder and was a long-time editor of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed from 1980 to 2006; as well as the founder and editor of Alternative Press Review and North American Anarchist Review while they were published, and now of the Modern Slavery journal.

Ron Sakolsky is a rainforest renegade whose recent books include Creating Anarchy (Fifth Estate,2005), Swift Winds (Eberhardt, 2009), and Scratching The Tiger’s Belly (Eberhardt, 2012); all meant as fleeting signposts illuminating a myriad array of marvelous adventures, disconcerting pitfalls, and dead ends on the constantly unfolding road from mutual acquiescence to mutual aid.

Paul Z. Simons was born May 3, 1960 – Salt Lake City – to an unwed mother, an act under Utah state law that made both he and his mother subject to arrest and fine or imprisonment. In his words, “I was born fighting against the law, I live that way and I’ll probably die that way.” An anarchist and Buddhist he has consistently staked out positions that motivate towards contestation with the authoritarian structure that currently labels itself Capital and society. He has written a number of widely read pieces including “Seven Theses on Play,” “Keep Your Powder Dry,” a chapter in Gone to Croatan, and the Afterword for John Zerzan’s Elements of Refusal.  Finally he says, “My proudest moment was participating in the Tompkins Square riot. I found out what freedom and democracy were made of – in an instant.” Simons lives, works, and writes in LA.

Maurice Spira was born in Kent, England in 1944. After four years of quite traditional studies at a provincial art school, and a stint in advertising in London, he left in 1966 for the “new world.” In the ensuing years 1966-74, the psychoactively enriched counter-cultural milieu in Montréal transformed him utterly. Then, after travelling and painting in Mexico during the mid-seventies, he settled in Vancouver. By the early ’80s, requiring a breath of fresh air, Spira vacated the metropolis for a somewhat more rural existence on the Sunshine Coast. More than two decades later, he continues to paint and print in his Roberts Creek studio, while still finding time to grow excellent red cabbages and spuds.

Lawrence S. Stepelevich is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Villanova University. He served as President of The Hegel Society of America and, from 1977 to 1996, was the executive Editor of the Journal of that Society, The Owl of Minerva.

Joseph Winogrond (BA New School, MLitt Ethnology Aberdeen) studied at the University of Wisconsin under Walter R. Agard, Paul MacKendrick, Herbert M. Howe, Herbert S. Lewis and others in the classics and anthropology. After a “Flower Raj” year with the Tibetans at Benares he transferred to the New School where Stanley Diamond was teaching. In 1967 he was co-partner of the Liberation News Service, the New York wire service operated out of its basement offices on Claremont Avenue for more than 400 disparate 1960s underground newspapers. He is presently assembling a pre-market-economy dictionary of northern Europe, Wild English.