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New Left Review I/174, March-April 1989


Peter Wollen

The Situationist International

De Sade liberated from the Bastille in 1789, Baudelaire on the barricades in 1848, Courbet tearing down the Vendôme Column in 1870—French political history is distinguished by a series of glorious and legendary moments which serve to celebrate the convergence of popular revolution with art in revolt. In this century avant-garde artistic movements took up the banner of revolution consciously and enduringly. The political career of André Breton and the surrealists began with their manifestoes against the Moroccan war (the ‘Riff’ war) in 1925 and persisted through to the Manifesto of the 121, which Breton signed in 1960, shortly before his death, denouncing the Algerian war and justifying resistance. In May 1968 the same emblematic role was enacted once again by the militants of the Situationist International. The si was founded in 1957, at Cosio d’Arroscia in northern Italy, principally out of the union of two prior avant-garde groups, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (Asger Jorn, Pinot Gallizio and others) and the Lettrist International (led by Guy Debord). [1] For the history of the si, see Mirella Bandini, L’estetico, il politico, Rome 1977, which also reprints a number of crucial documents, and Jean-Jacques Raspaud and Jean-Pierre Voyer, L’Internationale Situationniste, Paris 1972, which contains a chronology, a bibliography and annotated indexes and tables. The full run of the journal is collected in Internationale Situationniste, 1958–1969, Paris 1975, and the ‘official’ history of the movement is by Jean-François Marios, Histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste, Paris 1989. In English, see Ken Knabb, Situationist International, Berkeley 1981. The Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus itself originated from splits in the post-war Cobra group of artists, which Jorn had helped found, and the si was soon joined by another key Cobra artist, Constant. The ancestry of both Cobra and Lettrism can be traced back to the international Surrealist movement, whose break-up after the war led to a proliferation of new splinter groups and an accompanying surge of new experimentation and position-taking. [2] For Cobra, see Jean-Clarence Lambert, Cobra, New York 1983, and Cobra 1948–1951, catalogue of the exhibition held at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1982. For the prehistory of the si see Gérard Berreby, Documents relatifs `la fondation de l’Internationale Situationniste, Paris 1985. For Lettrisme, see the self-presentation in Isidore Isou, De l’Impressionisme au Lettrisme, Paris 1974. See also Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces, Cambridge 1989, for an erudite and sympathetic account of Lettrisme and its aftermath in the si. The si brought together again many of the dispersed threads which signalled the decay and eventual decomposition of surrealism. In many ways, its project was that of re-launching surrealism on a new foundation, stripped of some of its elements (emphasis on the unconscious, quasi-mystical and occultist thinking, cult of irrationalism) and enhanced by others, within the framework of cultural revolution.

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