The Long Walk of the Situationist International | Greil Marcus (The Village Voice)

“The situationists were bent on discovering the absolute ability to criticize anyone, anywhere — without re­straint, without the pull of alliances, and without self-satisfaction. And they were bent on turning that criticism into event.”

by GREIL MARCUS

Originally published May 1, 1982

How Extreme Was It

— 1 —

I first became intrigued with the Situ­ationist International in 1979, when I strug­gled through “Le Bruit et la Fureur,” one of the anonymous lead articles in the first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste. The writer reviewed the exploits of artistic rebels in the postwar West as if such matters had real political consequences, and then said this: “The rotten egg smell exuded by the idea of God envelops the mystical cretins of the American ‘Beat Generation,’ and is not even entirely absent from the declarations of the Angry Young Men… They have simply come to change their opinions about a few social conventions without even noticing the whole change of terrain of all cultural activ­ity so evident in every avant-garde tendency of this century. The Angry Young Men are in fact particularly reactionary in their attribution of a privileged, redemptive value to the practice of literature: they are defending a mystification that was denounced in Europe around 1920 and whose survival today is of greater counterrevolutionary significance than that of the British Crown.”

Mystical cretins… finally, I thought (for­getting the date of the publication before me), someone has cut through the suburban cul-de-sac that passed for cultural rebellion in the 1950s. But this wasn’t “finally” — it was 1958, in a sober, carefully printed magazine (oddly illustrated with captionless photos of women in bathing suits), in an article that concluded: “If we are not surrealists it is because we don’t want to be bored… Decrepit surrealism, raging and ill-informed youth, well-off adolescent rebels lacking perspective but far from lacking a cause — boredom is what they all have in common. The situationists will execute the judgment contemporary leisure is pronouncing against itself.”

Strange stuff — almost mystifying for an American — but there was a power in the prose that was even more seductive than the hard-nosed dismissal of the Beat generation. This was the situationist style — what one commentator called “a rather irritating form of hermetic terrorism,” a judgment situ­ationist Raoul Vaneigem would quote with approval. Over the next decade it never really changed, but only became more seductive and more hard-nosed, because it discovered more seductive and hard-nosed opponents. Beginning with the notion that modern life was boring and therefore wrong, the situationists sought out every manifestation of alienation and domination and every man­ifestation of the opposition produced by al­ienation and domination. They turned out original analyses of the former (whether it was the Kennedy-era fallout shelter program in “The Geopolitics of Hibernation” — what a title! — or the Chinese cultural revolution in “The Explosion Point of Ideology in China”) and mercilessly criticized the timidity and limits of the latter. In every case they tried to link specifics to a totality — why was the world struggling to turn itself inside out, and how could it be made to do so? What were the real sources of revolution in postwar society, and how were they different from any that had come before?

The Situationist International Antho­logy contains pre-SI documents, 250 pages of material from the situationist journal, May 1968 documents, two filmscripts, and far more, stretching from 1953, four years before the Situationist International was formed, to 1971, a year before its formal dissolution. It is exhilarating to read this book — to confront a group that was determined to make enemies, burn bridges, deny itself the rewards of cele­brity, to find and maintain its own voice in a world where, it seemed, all other voices of cultural or political resistance were either cravenly compromised or so lacking in consciousness they did not even recognize their compromises.

— 2 —

The attack on the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men — in 1958, it is worth remembering, considered in the English-­speaking world the very summa of “anti­-Establishment” negation — was an opening round in a struggle the situationists thought was already going on, and a move toward a situation they meant to construct. “Our ideas are in everyone’s mind,” they would say more than once over the next 10 years. They meant that their ideas for a different world were in everyone’s mind as desires, but not yet as ideas. Their project was to expose the empti­ness of everyday life in the modern world and to make the link between desire and idea real. They meant to make that link so real it would be acted upon by almost everyone, since in the modern world, in the affluent capitalist West and the bureaucratic state-capitalist East, the split between desire and idea was part of almost everyone’s life.

Throughout the next decade, the situationists argued that the alienation which in the 19th century was rooted in production had, in the 20th century, become rooted in consumption. Consumption had come to de­fine happiness and to suppress all other pos­sibilities of freedom and selfhood. Lenin had written that under communism everyone would become an employee of the state; that was no less capitalism than the Western ver­sion, in which everyone was first and fore­most a member of an economy based in com­modities. The cutting edge of the present-day contradiction — that place where the way of life almost everyone took for granted grated most harshly against what life promised and what it delivered — was as much leisure as work. This meant the concepts behind “cul­ture” were as much at stake as the ideas behind industry.

Culture, the situationists thought, was “the Northwest Passage” to a superseding of the dominant society. This was where they started; this was the significance of their attack on the Beat generation. It was a means to a far more powerful attack on the nature of modern society itself: on the division of labor, the fragmentation of work and thought, the manner in which the material success of mod­ern life had leaped over all questions of the quality of life, in which “the struggle against poverty… [had] overshot its ultimate goal, the liberation of man from material cares,” and produced a world in which, “faced with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.”

I have presented a bare outline of the situationist perspective, but perhaps more important for a reader in 1982 is the use the situationists made of that perspective. Un­like many with whom they shared certain notions — Norman Mailer, the Marxist soci­ologist Henri Lefebvre, the gauchiste review Socialisme ou Barbarie — the situationists were bent on discovering the absolute ability to criticize anyone, anywhere — without re­straint, without the pull of alliances, and without self-satisfaction. And they were bent on turning that criticism into events.

— 3 — 

The situationists thought of themselves as avant-garde revolutionaries, linked as clearly to dada as to Marx. One could trace them back to Saint-Just — the 22-year-old who ar­rived in Paris in 1789 with a blasphemous epic poem, Organt (an account of the raping of nuns and of endless sexual adventures), and became the coldest, most romantic, most brilliant, most tragic administrator of the Terror. Prosecutor of Louis XVI, he gave his head to the same guillotine a year later.

More directly, situationist thinking began in Paris in the early 1950s, when Guy Debord and a few other members of the Lettrist International — a group, known mostly to itself, which had split off from the Lettrists, a tiny, postwar neodada movement of anti-­art intellectuals and students — devoted themselves to dérives: to drifting through the city for days, weeks, even months at a time, looking for what they called the city’s psychogeography. They meant to find signs of what lettrist Ivan Chtcheglov called “forgot­ten desires” — images of play, eccentricity, secret rebellion, creativity, and negation. That led them into the Paris catacombs, where they sometimes spent the night. They looked for images of refusal, or for images society had itself refused, hidden, sup­pressed, or “recuperated” — images of refusal, nihilism, or freedom that society had taken back into itself, co-opted or rehabilitated, isolated or discredited. Rooted in similar but intellectually (and physically!) far more lim­ited surrealist expeditions of the 1920s, the dérives were a search, Guy Debord would write many years later, for the “supersession of art.” They were an attempt to fashion a new version of daily life — a new version of how people organized their wishes, pains, fears, hopes, ambitions, limits, social rela­tionships, and identities, a process that ordi­narily took place without consciousness.

The few members of the grandiosely named Lettrist International wanted to re­shape daily life according to the desires dis­covered and affirmed by modern art. Dada, at the Cabaret Voltaire “a laboratory for the rehabilitation of everyday life” in which art as art was denounced and scattered, “wanted to suppress art without realizing it,” Debord wrote in 1967, in his book The Society of the Spectacle. “Surrealism wanted to realize art without suppressing it.” In other words, dada wanted to kill off the claim that art was superior to life and leave art for dead. Sur­realism wanted to turn the impulses that led one to create art into a recreation of life, but it also wanted to maintain the production of art works. Thus surrealism ended up as just another debilitated, gallery-bound art move­ment, a fate dada avoided at the price of being almost completely ignored. The Let­trist International thought art had to be both suppressed as separate, special activity, and turned into life. That was the meaning of supersession, and that was the meaning of a group giving itself up to the pull of the city. It was also the meaning of the LI’s attack on art as art. Debord produced a film without images; with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, he created a book “ ‘composed entirely of prefabricated elements,’ in which the writing on each page runs in all directions and the reciprocal relations of the phrases are in­variably uncompleted.” Not only was the book impossible to “read,” it featured a sand­paper jacket, so that when placed in a book­shelf it would eat other books.

In 1952, at the Ritz, the LI broke up a Charlie Chaplin press conference, part of the huge publicity campaign for Limelight. “We believe that the most urgent expression of freedom is the destruction of idols, especially when they present themselves in the name of freedom,” they explained. “The provocative tone of our leaflet was an attack against a unanimous, servile enthusiasm.” (Pro­vocative was perhaps not the word. “No More Flat Feet,” the leaflet Debord and others scattered in the Ritz, read: “Because you [Chaplin] identified yourself with the weak and the oppressed, to attack you was to strike the weak and the oppressed, but in the shadow of your rattan cane some could al­ready discern the policeman’s night­stick…”) The lettrist radicals practiced graffiti on the walls of Paris (one of their favorite mottoes, “Never work!,” would show up 15 years later during May 1968, and 13 years after that in Bow Wow Wow’s “W.O.R.K.,” written by Malcolm McLaren). They painted slogans on their ties, shoes, and pants, hoping to walk the streets as living examples of détournement — the diversion of an element of culture or everyday life (in this case, simply clothes) to a new and displacing purpose. The band “lived on the margins of the economy. It tended toward a role of pure consumption” — not of commodities, but “of time.”

From On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Period of Time, Debord’s 1959 film on the group:

Voice 1: That which was directly lived reappears frozen in the distance, fit into the tastes and illusions of an era carried away with it.

Voice 2: The appearance of events we have not made, that others have made against us, obliges us from now on to be aware of the passage of time, its results, the trans­formation of our own desires into events. What differentiates the past from the present is precisely its out-of-reach objectivity; there is no more should-be; being is so consumed that it has ceased to exist. The details are already lost in the dust of time. Who was afraid of life, afraid of the night, afraid of being taken, afraid of being kept?

Voice 3: That which should be abolished continues, and we continue to wear away with it. Once again the fatigue of so many nights passed in the same way. It is a walk that has lasted a long time.

Voice 1: Really hard to drink more.

This was the search for that Northwest Passage, that unmarked alleyway from the world as it appeared to the world as it had never been, but which the art of the 20th century had promised it could be: a promise shaped in countless images of freedom to experiment with life and of freedom from the banality and tyranny of bourgeois order and bureaucratic rule. Debord and the others tried to practice, he said, “a systematic ques­tioning of all the diversions and works of a society, a total critique of its idea of happiness.” “Our movement was not a literary school, a revitalization of expression, a mod­ernism,” a Lettrist International publication stated in 1955, after some years of the pure consumption of time, various manifestos, numerous jail sentences for drug possession and drunk driving, suicide attempts, and all­-night arguments. “We have the advantage of no longer expecting anything from known activities, known individuals, and known in­stitutions.”

They tried to practice a radical decondi­tioning: to demystify their environment and the expectations they had brought to it, to escape the possibility that they would them­selves recuperate their own gestures of re­fusal. The formation of the Situationist In­ternational — at first, in 1957, including 15 or 20 painters, writers, and architects from Eng­land, France, Algeria, Denmark, Holland, It­aly, and Germany — was based on the recog­nition that such a project, no matter bow poorly defined or mysterious, was either a revolutionary project or it was nothing. It was a recognition that the experiments of the dérives, the attempts to discover lost intima­tions of real life behind the perfectly com­posed face of modern society, had to be trans­formed into a general contestation of that society, or else dissolve in bohemian solipsism.

— 4 —

Born in Paris in 1931, Guy Debord was from beginning to end at the center of the Situationist International, and the editor of its journal. The Society of the Spectacle, the concise and remarkably cant-free (or cant­-destroying, for that seems to be its effect) book of theory he published after 10 years of situationist activity, begins with these lines: “In societies where modern conditions of pro­duction prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Every­thing that was lived has moved away into a representation.” Determined to destroy the claims of 20th-century social organization, Debord was echoing the first sentence of Capital: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails ap­pears as an ‘immense collection of com­modities.’ ” To complain, as French Marxist critics did, that Debord misses Marx’s quali­fication, “appears as,” is to miss Debord’s own apparent qualification, “presents itself as” — and to miss the point of situationist writing altogether. Debord’s qualification turned out not to be a qualification at all, but rather the basis of a theory in which a society organized as appearance can be disrupted on the field of appearance.

Debord argued that the commodity — now transmuted into “spectacle,” or seemingly natural, autonomous images communicated as the facts of life — had taken over the social function once fulfilled by religion and myth, and that appearances were now inseparable from the essential processes of alienation and domination in modern society. In 1651, the cover of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan presented the manifestation of a nascent bour­geois domination: a picture of a gigantic sov­ereign being, whose body — the body politic­ — was made up of countless faceless citizens. This was presented as an entirely positive image, as a utopia. In 1967, International Situationniste #11 printed an almost identical image, “Portrait of Alienation”: countless Chinese performing a card trick which pro­duced the gigantic face of Mao Zedong.

If society is organized around consump­tion, one participates in social life as a con­sumer; the spectacle produces spectators, and thus protects itself from questioning. It induces passivity rather than action, con­templation rather than thinking, and a deg­radation of life into materialism. It is no matter that in advanced societies, material survival is not at issue (except for those who are kept poor in order to represent poverty and reassure the rest of the population that they should be satisfied). The “standard of survival,” like its twin, the “standard of boredom,” is raised but the nature of the standard does not change. Desires are de­graded or displaced into needs and maintained as needs. A project precisely the op­posite of that of modern art, from Lautréa­mont and Rimbaud to dada and surrealism, is fulfilled.

The spectacle is not merely advertising, or propaganda, or television. It is a world. The spectacle as we experience it, but fail to perceive it, “is not a collection of images, but a social relationship between people, mediated by images.” In 1928 in One-Way Street, writing about German inflation, Walter Benjamin anticipated the argument: “The free­dom of conversation is being lost. If it was earlier a matter of course to take interest in one’s partner, this is now replaced by inquiry into the price of his shoes or his umbrella. Irresistibly intruding upon any convivial ex­change is the theme of the conditions of life, of money. What this theme involves is not so much the concerns and sorrows of individu­als, in which they might be able to help one another, as the overall picture. It is as if one were trapped in a theater and had to follow the events on the stage whether one wanted to or not, had to make them again and again, willingly or unwillingly, the subject of one’s thought and speech.” Raoul Vaneigem de­fined the terrain of values such a situation produced: “Rozanov’s definition of nihilism is the best: ‘The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn around… No more coats and no more home.’ ” “The spectator feels at home nowhere,” Debord wrote, “because the spectacle is everywhere.”

The spectacle is “the diplomatic represen­tation of hierarchic society to itself, where all other expression is banned” — which is to say where all other expression makes no sense, appears as babble (this may be the ironic, protesting meaning of dada phonetic poems, in which words were reduced to sounds, and of lettrist poetry, in which sounds were re­duced to letters). The spectacle says “nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.’ ” (In a crisis, or when the “standard of survival” falls, as in our own day, hierarchic society retreats, but main­tains its hegemony, the closing of questions. The spectacle “no longer promises any­thing,” Debord wrote in 1979, in a new pref­ace to the fourth Italian edition of his book. “It simply says, ‘It is so.’ ”) The spectacle organizes ordinary life (consider the following in terms of making love): “The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the con­templated object is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him.”

Debord summed it up this way: “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” — by spectacle­ — “leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing.” We are twice removed from where we want to be, the situationists argued — yet each day still seems like a natu­ral fact.

 — 5 —

This was the situationists’ account of what they, and everyone else, were up against. It was an argument from Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, an argument that the “spectacle-commodity society,” within which one could make only meaningless choices and against which one could seemingly not intervene, had suc­ceeded in producing fundamental contradic­tions between what people accepted and what, in ways they could not understand, they wanted.

This was the precise opposite of social science, developed at precisely the time when the ideology of the end of ideology was con­quering the universities of the West. It was an argument about consciousness and false consciousness, not as the primary cause of domination but as its primary battleground.

If capitalism had shifted the terms of its organization from production to consump­tion, and its means of control from economic misery to false consciousness, then the task of would-be revolutionaries was to bring about a recognition of the life already lived by almost everyone. Foreclosing the construc­tion of one’s own life, advanced capitalism had made almost everyone a member of a new proletariat, and thus a potential revolutionary. Here again, the discovery of the source of revolution in what “modern art [had] sought and promise” served as the axis of the argument. Modern art, one could read in Internationale Situationniste #8, in January of 1963, had “made a clean sweep of all the values and rules of everyday behav­ior,” of unquestioned order and the “unani­mous, servile enthusiasm” Debord and his friends had thrown up at Chaplin; but that clean sweep had been isolated in museums. Modern revolutionary impulses had been separated from the world, but “just as in the nineteenth century revolutionary theory arose out of philosophy” — out of Marx’s dic­tum that philosophy, having interpreted the world, must set about changing it — now one had to look to the demands of art.

At the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, workers discussed matters that had previously been the exclusive province of philosophers — suggesting the possibility that philosophy could be realized in daily life. In the 20th century, with “survival” conquered as fact but maintained as ideology, the same logic meant that just as artists constructed a version of life in words, paint, or stone, men and women could themselves begin to con­struct their own lives out of desire. This desire, in scattered and barely noticed ways, was shaping the 20th century, or the super­seding of it (“Ours is the best effort so far toward getting out of the twentieth century,” an anonymous situationist wrote in 1963, in one of the most striking lines in the 12 issues of Internationale Situationniste). It was the desire more hidden, more overwhelmed and confused by spectacle, than any other. It had shaped the lettrist adventures. It was the Northwest Passage. If the spectacle was “both the result and the project of the exist­ing mode of production,” then the construc­tion of life as artists constructed art — in terms of what one made of friendship, love, sex, work, play, and suffering — was under­stood by the situationists as both the result and the project of revolution.

— 6 —

To pursue this revolution, it was neces­sary to take all the partial and isolated inci­dents of resistance and refusal of things as they were, and then link them. It was neces­sary to discover and speak the language of these incidents, to do for signs of life what the Lettrist International had tried to do for the city’s signs of “forgotten desires.” This de­manded a theory of exemplary acts. Society was organized as appearance, and could be contested on the field of appearance; what mattered was the puncturing of ap­pearance — speech and action against the spectacle that was, suddenly, not babble, but understood. The situationist project, in this sense, was a quest for a new language of action. That quest resulted in the urgent, daring tone of even the lengthiest, most sol­emn essays in Internationale Situationniste — the sense of minds engaged, quickened be­yond rhetoric, by emerging social contradic­tions — and it resulted in such outrages as a six-word analysis of a leading French soci­ologist. (“M. GEORGES LAPASSADE,” announced almost a full page of I.S. #9, “EST UN CON.”) It led as well to a style of absurdity and play, and to an affirmation that contestation was fun: a good way to live. The situationists delighted in the discovery that dialectics caused society to produce not just contradictions but also endless self parodies. Their journal was filled with them — my favorite is a reproduction of an ad for the Peace o’ Mind Fallout Shelter Com­pany. And the comics that illustrated I.S. led to détournement of the putative heroes of everyday life. Characters out of Steve Canyon and True Romance were given new balloons, and made to speak passionately of revolution, alienation, and the lie of culture — as if even the most unlikely people actually cared about such things. In the pages of I.S., a kiss suggested not marriage but fantasies of liberation: a sigh for the Paris Commune.

The theory of exemplary acts and the quest for a new language of action also brought the situationists’ pursuit of ex­tremism into play. I.S #10, March 1966, on the Watts riots: “…all those who went so far as to recognize the ‘apparent justifications’ of the rage of the Los Angeles blacks… all those ‘theorists’ and ‘spokesmen’ of interna­tional Left, or rather of its nothingness, deplored the irresponsibility, the disorder, the looting (especially the fact that arms and alcohol were the first targets for plunder)… But who has defended the rioters of Los Angeles in the terms they deserve? We will.” The article continued: “The looting of the Watts district was the most direct realization of the distorted principle, ‘To each according to his false needs’… [but] real desires begin to be expressed in festival, in the potlatch of destruction… For the first time it is not poverty but material abundance which must be dominated [and of course it was the rela­tive “affluence” of the Watts rioters, at least as compared to black Americans in Harlem, that so mystified the observers of this first outbreak of violent black rage]… Comfort will never be comfortable enough for those who seek what is not on the market.”

“The task of being more extremist than the SI falls to the SI itself,” the situationists said; that was the basis of the group’s con­tinuation. The situationists looked for ex­emplary acts which might reveal to spec­tators that that was all they were. They cited, celebrated, and analyzed incidents which dramatized the contradictions of modern so­ciety, and contained suggestions of what forms a real contestation of that society might take. Such acts included the Watts riots; the resistance of students and workers to the Chinese cultural revolution (a struggle, the situationists wrote, of “the official owners of the ideology against the majority of the owners of the apparatus of the economy and the state”); the burning of the Koran in the streets of Baghdad in 1959; the exposure of a site meant to house part of the British government in the event of nuclear war; the “kidnapping” of art works by Caracas stu­dents, who used them to demand the release of political prisoners; the Free Speech Move­ment in Berkeley in 1964; the situationist-­inspired disruption of classes taught by French cyberneticians in 1966 at Strasbourg, and by sociologists at Nanterre in 1967 and 1968; and the subversion of Berlin actor Wolfgang Neuss, who in 1963 “perpetrated a most suggestive act of sabotage… by placing a notice in the paper Der Abend giving away the identity of the killer in a television serial that had been keeping the masses in suspense for weeks.”

Some of these actions led nowhere; some, like the assaults on the cyberneticians and sociologists, led to May 1968, where the idea of general contestation on the plane of ap­pearances was realized.

The situationist idea was to prevent the recuperation of such incidents by making theory out of them. Once the speech of the spectacle no longer held a monopoly, it would be heard as babble — as mystification ex­posed. Those who took part in wildcat strikes or practiced cultural sabotage, the situationists argued, acted out of boredom, rage, disgust — out of an inchoate but inescapable perception that they were not free and, worse, could not form a real image of free­dom. Yet there were tentative images of free­dom being shaped, which, if made into theory, could allow people to understand and maintain their own actions. Out of this, a real image of freedom would appear, and it would dominate: the state and society would begin to dissolve. Resistance to that dissolution would be stillborn, because workers, soldiers, and bureaucrats would act on new possi­bilities of freedom no less than anyone else­ — they would join in a general wildcat strike that would end only when society was reconstructed on new terms. When the theory matched the pieces of practice from which the theory was derived, the world would change.

— 7 — 

The situationist program — as opposed to the situationist project, the situationist practice — came down to Lautréamont and work­ers’ councils. On one side, the avant-garde saint of negation, who had written that poetry “must be made by all”; on the other, the self-starting, self-managing organs of di­rect democracy that had appeared in almost every revolutionary moment of the 20th cen­tury, bypassing the state and allowing for complete participation (the soviets of Petro­grad in 1905 and 1917, the German Räte of 1919, the anarchist collectives of Barcelona in 1936, the Hungarian councils of 1956). Be­tween those poles, the situationists thought, one would find the liberation of everyday life, the part of experience that was omitted from the history books.

These were the situationist touchstones — and, oddly, they were left unexamined. The situationists’ use of workers’ councils re­minds me of those moments in D.W. Grif­fith’s Abraham Lincoln when, stumped by how to get out of a scene, he simply had Walter Huston gaze heavenward and utter the magic words, “The Union!” It is true that the direct democracy of workers’ councils — ­where anyone was allowed to speak, where representation was kept to a minimum and delegates were recallable at any moment — was anathema both to the Bolsheviks and to the Right. It may also have been only the crisis of a revolutionary situation that pro­duced the energy necessary to sustain council politics. The situationists wrote that no one had tried to find out how people had actually lived during those brief moments when revo­lutionary contestation had found its form — a form that would shape the new society — but they did not try either. They spoke endlessly about “everyday life,” but ignored work that examined it both politically and in its smallest details (James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, the books of the Annale school, Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street and A Berlin Chronicle, the writing of Larissa Reissner, a Pravda correspondent who covered Weimar Germany), and pro­duced nothing to match it.

But if Lautréamont, workers’ councils, and everyday life were more signposts than true elements of a theory, they worked as signposts. The very distance of such images from the world as it was conventionally un­derstood helped expose what that the world con­cealed. What appeared between the signposts of Lautréamont and workers’ councils was the possibility of critique.

Pursued without compromise or self-censorship, that critique liberated the situ­ationists from the reassurances of ideology as surely as the experiments of the Lettrist In­ternational had liberated its members from the seductions of the bourgeois art world. It opened up a space of freedom, and was a necessary preface to the new language of action the situationists were after. A single example will do: the situationist analysis of Vietnam, published in I.S. #11 in March 1967 — almost frightening in its prescience, and perhaps even more frightening in its clarity.

“It is obviously impossible to seek, at the moment, a revolutionary solution to the Vietnam war,” said the anonymous writer. “It is first of all necessary to put an end to the American aggression in order to allow the real social struggle in Vietnam to develop in a natural way; that is to say, to allow the Vietnamese workers and peasants to re­discover their enemies at home; the bureau­cracy of the North and all the propertied and ruling strata of the South. The withdrawal of the Americans will mean that the Stalinist bureaucracy will immediately seize control of the whole country: this is the unavoidable conclusion. Because the invaders cannot in­definitely sustain their aggression; ever since Talleyrand it has been a commonplace that one can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it. The point, therefore, is not to give unconditional (or even conditional) support to the Vietcong, but to struggle consistently and without any concessions against Ameri­can imperialism… The Vietnam war is rooted in America and it is from there that it must be rooted out.” This was a long way from the situationists’ rejection of the Beat generation, but the road had been a straight one.

If the situationists were fooled, it was only by themselves; they were not fooled by the world. They understood, as no one else of their time did, why major events — May 1968, the Free Speech Movement, or, for that mat­ter, Malcolm McLaren’s experiment with what Simon Frith has called the politiciza­tion of consumption — arise out of what are, seemingly, the most trivial provocations and the most banal repressions. They understood why the smallest incidents can lead, with astonishing speed, to a reopening of all ques­tions. Specific, localized explanations tied to economic crises and political contexts never work, because the reason such events de­veloped as they did was what the situationists said it was: people were bored, they were not free, they did not know how to say so. Given the chance, they would say so. People could not form a real image of freedom, and they would seize any opportunity that made the construction of such an image possible.

— 8 — 

Leaving the 20th Century, edited and translated by former British situationist Christopher Gray, published only in the UK and long out of print, was until Ken Knabb’s book the best representation of situationist writing in English, and it was not good. Translations were messy and inaccurate, the selection of articles erratic and confusing, the commentary often mushy.

With the exception of a good edition of The Society of the Spectacle put out by Black & Red of Detroit in 1977, other situ­ationist work in English was far worse. A few pieces — “The Decline and Fall of the Specta­cle-Commodity Society” (on Watts), “On the Poverty of Student Life” (the SI’s most fa­mous publication, which caused a scandal in France in 1966 and prefigured the May 1968 revolt), “The Beginning of an Era” (on May 1968) — appeared as smudgy, sometimes gruesomely typeset and translated pamphlets. Most were put out by the short­-lived British or American sections of the SI, or by small situationist-inspired groups in New York or Berkeley.

The situationist journal, and the situ­ationist books as they were originally pub­lished in Paris, could not have been more different. Wonderfully illustrated with photos, comics, reproductions of advertise­ments, drawings, and maps, Internationale Situationniste had an elegant, straight­forward design: flat, cool, and direct. It made a simple point: what we have written is meant seriously and should be read seriously.

The Situationist International Anthology does not present the complete text of the situationist journal, and it has no illustrations. But the translations are clear and readable — sometimes too literal, sometimes inspired. Entirely self-published, the anthology is a better job of book-making than most of the books published today by com­mercial houses. There are virtually no typos; it is well indexed, briefly but usefully an­notated, and the design, binding, and print­ing are all first class.

In other words, Knabb has, unlike most other publishers of situationist material in English, taken the material seriously, and allowed it to speak with something like its original authority. One can follow the devel­opment of a group of writers which devoted itself to living up to one of its original prescriptions: “The task of an avant-garde is to keep abreast of reality.”

The situationist journal was never copyrighted. Rather, it bore this legend: “All the texts published in International Situationniste may be freely reproduced, trans­lated, or adapted, even without indication of origin.” Knabb’s book carries an equivalent notation.

— 9 — 

The role of the Situationist International, its members wrote, was not to act as any sort of vanguard party. The situationists “had to know how to wait,” and to be ready to disap­pear in a common festival of revolt. Their job was not to “build” the SI, as the job of a Trotskyist or Bolshevik militant is to build his or her organization, trimming all thoughts and all pronouncements to that goal, careful not to offend anyone who might be seduced or recruited. Their job was to think and speak as clearly as possible — not to get people to listen to speeches, they said, but to get people to think for themselves.

Rather than expanding their group, the situationists worked to make it smaller, ex­pelling careerist, backsliding, or art-as-poli­tics (as opposed to politics-as-art) members almost from the day the group was formed. By the time of the May 1968 revolt, the Situationist International was composed mostly of Parisians hardly more numerous­ — perhaps less numerous — than those who walked the streets as the Lettrist Interna­tional. Behind them they had 11 numbers of their journal, more than a decade of fitting theory to fragments of practice, and the scan­dals of Strasbourg and Nanterre, both of which gained them a far wider audience than they had ever had before. And so, in May, they made a difference. They defined the mood and the spirit of the event: almost all of the most memorable graffiti from that explosion came, as inspiration or simply quota­tion, from situationist books and essays. “Those who talk about revolution and class struggle, without understanding what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints,” ran one apparently spontaneous slogan, in fact a quote from Raoul Vaneigem, “such people have corpses in their mouths.”

At the liberated Sorbonne and later in their own Council for Maintaining the Oc­cupations, the situationists struggled against reformism, working to define the most radi­cal possibilities of the May revolt — “[This] is now a revolutionary movement,” read their “Address to All Workers” of May 30, 1968, “a movement which lacks nothing but the con­sciousness of what it has already done in order to triumph” — which meant, in the end, that the situationists would leave behind the most radical definition of the failure of that revolt. It was an event the situationists had constructed, in the pages of their journal, long before it took place. One can look back to January 1963 and read in I.S. #8: “We will only organize the detonation.

— 10 — 

What to make of this strange mix of post-surrealist ideas about art, Marxian concepts of alienation, an attempt to recover a forgot­ten revolutionary tradition, millenarianism, and plain refusal of the world combined with a desire to smash it? Nothing, perhaps. The Situationist International cannot even be justified by piggy-backing it onto official his­tory, onto May 1968, not because that revolt failed, but because it disappeared. If 300 books on May 1968 were published within a year of the event, as I.S. #12 trumpeted, how many were published in the years to follow? If the situationist idea of general contestation was realized in May 1968, the idea also re­alized its limits. The theory of the exemplary act — and May was one great, complex, momentarily controlling exemplary act —­ may have gone as far as such a theory or such an act can go.

What one can make of the material in the Situationist International Anthology is perhaps this: out of the goals and the perspectives the situationists defined for themselves came a critique so strong it forces one to try to understand its sources and its shape, no matter how much of it one might see through. In an attack on the Situationist International published in 1978, Jean Barrot wrote that it had wound up “being used as literature.” This is undoubtedly true, and it is as well a rather bizarre dismissal of the way in which people might use literature. “An author who teaches a writer nothing,” Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Author as Pro­ducer,” “teaches nobody anything. The de­termining factor is the exemplary character of a production that enables it, first, to lead other producers to this production, and secondly to present them with an improved apparatus for their use. And this apparatus is better to the degree that it leads consumers to production, in short that it is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators.” The fact is that the writing in the Situationist International Anthology makes almost all present-day political and aesthetic thinking seem cowardly, self-protecting, careerist, and satisfied. The book is a means to the recovery of ambition. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 18, 2020

  

Watch the Tate Modern Restore Mark Rothko’s Vandalized Painting, Black on Maroon: 18 Months of Work Condensed Into 17 Minutes



Here is a video and article from the site Open Culture. It relates to what I have written previously about art vandalism and the harsh treatment of it’s less famous perpetrators, especially as it is seen as real artistic expression by some major World artists, particularly Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei. It raises real issues of cognitive dissonance in how art is viewed, commodified and fetishized by modern capitalistic society.

“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.” — Mark Rothko

In 2012, a Russian artist calling himself Vladimir Umanets wrote his name and the words “A potential piece of yellowism” in black marker on the corner of Mark Rothko’s 1958 canvas Black on Maroon. The damage to the painting, housed at the Tate Modern since 1970, was substantial, and it turned out to be one of the museum’s most challenging restoration projects, as well as one of its most successful — “far more successful than any of us dared hope,” said Tate director Nicholas Serota. The painting went back on display in May of 2014.

Due to Rothko’s layered technique, the painting’s “surface is really delicate and it turned out that most of the solvent systems that could dissolve and remove the ink could potentially damage the painting as well.” Patricia Smithen, the Tate’s head of conservation, told The Guardian. The video above from the museum shows the art and science that went into restoring the famous work, an eighteen-month-long process that involved some reverse engineering from a canvas donated by the Rothko family.

Black on Maroon seemed like an odd choice for a protest, as a blogger at Art History Abroad wrote the following day: “‘Why Rothko?’. His paintings [are] often criticised by those who don’t favour their abstraction, but rarely deemed politically or socially motivated to a point that they might provoke vandalism.” The presence of Black on Maroon and other Seagram Murals at the Tate, in fact, mark an act of protest by Rothko himself (who committed suicide the day the paintings arrived at the London museum).

The Seagram Murals were originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Seven paintings were commissioned, Rothko made 30. He reportedly told Harper’s editor John Fischer he wanted to create “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” When he finally got the chance to dine at the completed restaurant, he was disgusted, withdrew his work, and returned his commission, writing, “it seemed clear to me at once that the two were not for each other.” He spent the next decade thinking about how and where to display the paintings.

Umanets did not seem to care much about the history of the murals in the Tate’s Rothko Room and claims his choice had no meaning. “I didn’t single out Rothko to make my statement,” he wrote in a public letter of apology published after he spent a year and a half in prison. “I would have done the same had the artist been Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin. It was a spontaneous decision and nothing personal.” Likewise, his Dada-esqe “Manifesto of Yellowism” outlines a program with a distinct lack of concern for specificity and a vaguely satirical desire to flatten art into one color, one purpose, one meaning.

Even as he publicly abjured his act of protest (maybe by order of the court?), Umanets also expressed a genuine concern for the future of art, “Art has become a business, which appears to serve only the needs of the art market. As a result the art world no longer has radical thinkers and polemicists willing to scythe new and different pathways. Everyone is playing safe.” He might have made his point more clearly by going after Jeff Koons. Rothko was a radical thinker, and his Seagram Murals represent a final refusal to compromise with the demands of the art market.

Black on Maroon by Mark Rothko

Black on Maroon is a large unframed oil painting on a horizontally orientated rectangular canvas. The base colour of the painting is a deep maroon. As is suggested by the work’s title, this is overlaid with a large black rectangle, which in turn encloses two slimmer, vertical maroon rectangles, suggesting a window-like structure. The black paint forms a solid block of colour but the edges are feathered, blurring into the areas of maroon. Different pigments have been used within the maroon, blending the colour from a deep wine to a muted mauve with accents of red. This changing tone gives a sense of depth in an otherwise abstract composition.

Black on Maroon was painted by the abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko. He is best known, alongside fellow Americans Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell, as a pioneer of colour field painting. The movement was characterised by simplified compositions of unbroken colour, which produced a flat picture plane. Black on Maroon was painted on a single sheet of tightly stretched cotton duck canvas. The canvas was primed with a base coat of maroon paint made from powder pigments mixed into rabbit skin glue. The glue within the paint shrank as it dried, giving the painting’s surface its matt finish. Onto the base Rothko added a second coat that he subsequently scraped away to leave a thin coating of colour. The black paint was then added in fast, broken brushstrokes, using a large commercial decorator’s brush. With broad sweeping gestures Rothko spread the paint onto the canvas surface, muddying the edges between the blocks of colour, creating a sense of movement and depth. Accents of red acrylic paint were dabbed onto the lower left corner. With time these have become more apparent as the pigments within the maroon portion of the canvas have faded at different rates.

In early 1958 Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko was interested in the possibility of having a lasting setting for his paintings to be seen as a group. He wanted to create an encompassing environment of the sort he had encountered when visiting Michelangelo’s vestibule in the Laurentian Library in Florence in 1950 and again in 1959:

I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library in Florence. He achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.
(Quoted in Breslin 2012, p.400.)

Rothko started work on the Seagram commission in a large new studio, which allowed him to simulate the restaurant’s private dining room. Between 1958 and 1959 Rothko created three series of paintings, but was unsatisfied with the first and sold these paintings as individual panels. In the second and third series Rothko experimented with varying permutations of the floating window frame and moved towards a more sombre colour palette, to counter the perception that his work was decorative. Black on Maroon belongs to the second series. By the time Rothko had completed these works he had developed doubts about the appropriateness of the restaurant setting, which led to his withdrawal from the commission. However, this group of works is still referred to as the ‘Seagram Murals’.

The works were shown at Rothko’s 1961 retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, and in 1965 Norman Reid, then Director of Tate, approached Rothko about extending his representation in the gallery’s collection. Rothko suggested a group of paintings from the ‘Seagram Murals’, to be displayed in a dedicated room. Black on Maroon was the first painting to be donated in 1968, although it was known as Sketch for ‘Mural No. 6’ or Two Openings in Black Over Wine. The following year Reid provided Rothko with a small cardboard maquette of the designated gallery space to finalise his selection and propose a hang. (This maquette is now in Tate’s Archive, TGA 872, and is reproduced in Borchardt-Hume 2008, pp.143–5.) Rothko then donated eight further paintings and the title of Black on Maroon was brought in line with the rest of the group (Tate T01163T01170), four of which are also titled Black on Maroon and four Red on Maroon (Tate T01163–T01170). The ‘Seagram Murals’ have since been displayed almost continuously at Tate, albeit in different arrangements, in what is commonly termed the ‘Rothko Room’ (for installation views see Borchardt-Hume 2008, pp.98, 142).

Statement by Vladimir Umanets

Back in 2012 I made a mistake. I wanted to change the art world by introducing Yellowism – an autonomous phenomenon in contemporary visual culture – to the people. But defacing Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon at the Tate Modern was not the right way of going about it.

First, it was wrong to deface the work of a fellow artist, more poignantly a piece by Rothko, whose work and ethos I greatly admire. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.” I didn’t single out Rothko to make my statement; I would have done the same had the artist been Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin. It was a spontaneous decision and nothing personal.Advertisement

Second, my actions were wrong because they served not only to heap ridicule upon myself, but also to turn the public against Yellowism. It doesn’t matter how important one believes one’s ideas to be, nor how genuine one’s intentions are, it is unacceptable to deface someone’s property without permission. What I did was selfish. My act has hurt many art enthusiasts and I deeply regret it.

I spent a year and a half in prison, in which time the British public has paid huge restoration costs, and Yellowism has became associated with crime. While doing time I tried to be as constructive as possible, making drafts and notes on art, and studying British culture. After being released, I realised that as long as one’s health is good, and one is able to live freely, the problems we face, big or small, are things that everyone has to go through and there is no need to sweat the small stuff.

Notwithstanding the negative repercussions of my actions, I believe I can use this valuable experience for good. For example, I think it is important to comment on the contemporary art world as it stands today, which to my mind isn’t good.

Contemporary artists simply produce things which aren’t creative in their essence or spirit. Every work is a duplicate of a previous piece. It’s like dealing with exactly the same work only in different variations. The graphic designer Neville Brody once compared this condition to that of using the ingredients of different colours, shapes and sizes, where in fact real creativity is missing.

Our generation has become more productive but less effectual in the visual language that we use. Maybe because of the demands of the market, artists have lost genuine creativity. Where are the new art movements? Where lies the voices of visceral dissent and thirst for change? Art has become a business, which appears to serve only the needs of the art market. As a result the art world no longer has radical thinkers and polemicists willing to scythe new and different pathways. Everyone is playing safe.

Yellowism was established to confront this issue. I still believe that the concept of Yellowism is apposite, and for me, it is a tool that can bring about necessary change in visual culture. It shows that any intellectual or even emotional messages can be easily changed and reversed. Using very primitive and absurd examples of flattening all the meaning into a yellow colour, Yellowism shows in a very direct way that creativity in its pure form has completely vanished. That said, Yellowism cannot be used as an excuse to scribble on someone else’s art.

From this whole farrago, I have gained a valuable experience and learned an expensive lesson. I offer my sincere apologies to the Rothko family, to art enthusiasts and to the British public. I am very glad that the restoration project has finished, and visitors can enjoy Rothko’s masterpiece again.

The Guardian Thu 15 May 2014

Further reading
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, London 1991.
Achim Borchardt-Hume (ed.), Rothko: The Late Series, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008, reproduced pp.114–15.
James Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 2012.

Phoebe Roberts
May 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Phil Riley: “Such a Tiny Boat” new E.P. released on Spotify and YouTube 1st June 2021

Phil Riley is part of a group I belong to called “Reynard Collective”. We are all singer/songwriters promoting and developing our work. It is already yielding results. Here is a link to a Spotify playlist of Phil’s new E.P. “Such a Tiny Boat”

“Such a Tiny Boat” by Phil Riley

Out on June 1st, ‘Such a Tiny Boat’ is the latest digital-only release from Phil Riley. Available on Spotify, YouTube Music, Amazon and other major streaming platforms, it is a five song EP of original material, recorded in-home in true lockdown fashion, mixed, mastered and produced by Phil. Two tracks feature Chris Chambers on lap-steel, dobro and electric guitar. Listen carefully too for a special backing vocal guest appearance from Deborah Seabrook.

“Such a Tiny Boat” on YouTube

Review: “Bob Dylan In London (Troubadour Tales)” by Jackie Lees and K G Miles | Kenny Wilson

I am aware that every book I have read about Bob Dylan seems to raise more questions than answers. That includes this charming and well presented publication that takes us on a tour of Dylan’s time spent in London over the years. It’s full of amusing and interesting anecdotes and a remarkable level of detail for what amounted to a relatively short time in the city. In fact, it proves the point that London, and the people he met there, had a profound and important influence on Dylan as a songwriter. It’s set me on the quest to find out more about many of the things mentioned. Fortunately, it includes a map and a comprehensive locations list, so that’s a good start!

The book begins in New York 1962 when a young Dylan was spotted by Philip Saville, a producer from the BBC, and offered a part in a TV play Madhouse on Castle Street. Dylan was to play “an anarchic young student who wrote songs”. It should have been a breeze as it was a role he had been playing, more or less, since he first arrived in New York City in 1961 (along with “travelling hobo and itinerant singer”), but Dylan found the acting and reciting his lines really difficult. He ended up being given one line and singing four songs, including Blowin’ in the Wind which hadn’t been released on record yet. Not a bad gig since he received £500 (about £12000 in todays’ prices) plus expenses for it (and got a free trip to England!).

More importantly, Dylan became familiar with the London folk scene especially folk singer/guitarist Martin Carthy who drew his attention to some remarkable English folk songs including Lord Franklin and Scarborough Fair which he used in his own songs Bob Dylan’s Dream and Girl from the North Country. During his short time there he also met legendary author Robert Graves who he had a walk around “Paddington Square” with and tried to talk about The White Goddess, but couldn’t remember much about it!

He also did a few performances around London folk clubs and venues and even met up with some American friends and did some recordings at Dobell’s Record Shop in Charing Cross Road. He wasn’t particularly well known then and wasn’t very well received by some English folk club audiences especially the friends and associates of brilliant, but narrow-minded, Ewan McColl and the Singers Club. He did better at the coffee bar venues like Bungies, Les Cousins and The Troubadour where he tried out some of his new songs that would appear on his ground breaking second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in June 1963. This album actually refers to Martin Carthy on the sleeve notes. He also jokes about his time in London in the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. In the song I Shall Be Free No.10 he says about the guitar riff he is using “it’s nothing. It’s something I learned over in England”.

Ethan Signer, Martin Carthy, Richard Farina, Bob Dylan and Eric von Schmidt at the Troubadour in Earls Court

The following year Dylan was back in London with his own concert at the Royal Festival Hall. This time he was much better known, with two acclaimed albums behind him. Freewheelin’ had gone to No.1 in the album charts. Dylan was astonishingly prolific and influential. Many people were covering his songs and the concert was a triumph. It contains one of his best performances of all time and shows how he had matured as a writer. Astonishing that the entire concert wasn’t available on CD until 2015 and then only in a limited edition!

The legendary concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1964

When he returned to England again in 1965 he was a big star. This time the London concert was at the Royal Albert Hall. The tour was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker in cinema verité style and has become one of the most acclaimed music documentaries of all time Don’t Look Back. It also contains what some consider to be the first “pop” video Subterranean Homesick Blues, filmed on the steps near the Savoy Hotel. This video features beat poet Allen Ginsberg who a week before had been part of an important and revolutionary poetry reading at the Albert Hall. After this concert the managers banned poetry readings at the hall for the next ten years! Interestingly, this concert was filmed by Peter Whitehead (Wholly Communion) who it is also claimed made the first pop video. Some commentators assert that these two events were so influential that they actually kickstarted the English Counterculture (Underground) that became so influential in the late 60s. American writer and critic Greil Marcus goes even further and suggests that the release of the single Like a Rolling Stone actually created the global youth counterculture! Certainly, by 1966, when Dylan toured again, he was considered by many to be the “voice of his generation”, a label he came to resent (as he also did the label “protest singer”).

A superbly laconic Bob Dylan in his video of Subterranean Homesick Blues. Looks like a great way to get some really nasty paper cuts! I think I would have worn gloves!

Dylan didn’t return to London until 1978 twelve years later when he did the hugely successful Street Legal tour and performed several concerts at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre.

I really enjoyed Jackie Lees and K G Miles book. There is a wealth of information in there and it is a great starting point for discovering Dylan and the times he lived in. I will certainly be visiting some of the places, especially Flukes Cradle, a café on Camden High Street. This was where the cover of World Gone Wrong was taken with Dylan wearing an elegant top hat. The painting behind him has got a wonderful story of it’s own! Get the book!

Cover of “World Gone Wrong

“A Folly Called Old John” by Kenny Wilson

Old John” is a famous “folly” at Bradgate Park, Leicester well known to people in the East Midlands. A great place to visit. It is built to look like a beer tankard!

Here’s a new recording of a song I have written and recorded about a building on a hill at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire, England. It is a strange building (known as a folly) that is built to look like a beer tankard. My friend Al Owens wrote the lyrics and I did the music. It was built as a memorial to a miller who’s name was “Old John”

A FOLLY CALLED OLD JOHN
Lyrics: Al Owens  Music : Kenny Wilson

Old John worked at the windmill 
On a hill in Bradgate Park.
John was there when the mill collapsed
In a storm; the night was dark.
Too long it took to lift the beam
That threatened certain death
And no-one in that howling gale
Heard John breathe his last breath.

Later on in that same year
The owner of the lands
Built a tower from the scattered stones -
He and his farmyard hands.
They stuck an archway on the side
Of that folly on the hill.
From the left and right Old John looks quite
Like a tankard you could fill.

Bradgate house has become a ruin -
Crumbling, ghostly, stark.
No Lords or Ladies dwell there now
And the public own the park.
Footprints of those darker days
Have faded out and gone.
Yet upon that hill upright and still
Stands a folly called Old John.

Remarks on Timothy Leary’s “Politics of Ecstasy” by Allen Ginsberg

“The new consciousness born in these States can be traced back through old gnostic texts, visions, artists & shamans; it is the consciousness of our ground nature suppressed & desecrated.”

by ALLEN GINSBERG

Originally published December 12, 1968

1968 Village Voice article by Allen Ginsberg on Timothy Leary's Politics of Ecstasy
RCB VV COLLAGE

‘Christmas in Earth’

By the late ’40s of this memory Century the people I knew best and loved the most had already broken through the crust of old Reason & were dowsing for some Supreme Reality, Christmas on Earth Rimbaud said, Second Religiousness according to Spengler’s outline of civilization declining through proliferation of non-human therefore boring technology; Blake had called “O Earth O Earth return!” centuries before, echoing the ancient gnostic prophecy that Whitman spelled out for America specifically demanding that the Steam-engine “be confronted and met by at least equally subtle and tremendous force-infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine aesthetics, and for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness —” Ezra Pound’s mind jumped to diagnose the dimming of the world’s third Eye: “With Usura the line grows thick.”

One scholar who transmitted Blake’s kabbalah, S. Foster Damon, can remember his sudden vision of tiny flowers carpeting Harvard Yard violet before World War One, an image that lingers over 60 years in mind since his fellow student Virgil Thomson gave him the cactus Peyote to eat. Damon concludes that rare beings like Blake are born with physiologic gift of such vision, continuous or intermittent. William James, whose pragmatic magic probably called the Peyote God to Harvard in the first place, had included shamanistic chemical visions among the many authentic “Varieties of Religious Experience.” His student Gertrude Stein experimented in alteration of consciousness through mindfulness of language, an extremely effective Yoga since mechanical reproduction of language by XX Century had made language the dominant vehicle of civilized consciousness; her companion Alice B. Toklas contributed a cookbook recipe for Hashish Brownies to enlighten those persons over-talkative in drawing rooms unaware that “the medium is the message.”

This synchronism is exquisite: William S. Burroughs also once of Harvard shared Miss Stein’s mindfulness of the hypnotic drug-like power of language, and collaborated on cut-up rearrangement of stereotyped language forms with friend Brion Gysin, who had originally given Miss Toklas the recipe for her famous Brownies. Burroughs among others had begun experiments with drug-shamanism after World War Two — for the author of “Naked Lunch” it was a pragmatic extension of his Cambridge interest in linguistic Anthropology. That same gnostic impulse broke through to clear consciousness simultaneously in many American cities: Gary Snyder realized the entire universe was alive one daybreak 1948 in Poland when a flight birds rose out of the tree stillness in a gully by the city river, a natural vision — The masters of the Berkeley Renaissance read Gertrude Stein aloud and practiced Poetic kabbalah (charming synchronism that psychologist Timothy Leary met poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan in that same 1948 student scene) — Neal Cassady drove Jack Kerouac to Mexico in a prophetic automobile to see the physical body of America, the same Denver Cassady that one decade later drove Ken Kesey’s Kosmos-patterned schoolbus on a Kafka-circus tour over the roads of the awakening nation — And the wakening began, some say, with the first saxophone cry of the new mode of black music which shook the walls of white city mind when Charles Parker lifted his birdflightnoted horn & announced a new rhythm of thinking, and extended breathing of the body in music and speech, a new consciousness. For as Plato had said, “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”

The new consciousness born in these States can be traced back through old gnostic texts, visions, artists & shamans; it is the consciousness of our ground nature suppressed & desecrated. It was always the secret tale of the tribe in America, this great scandal of the closing of the doors of perception of the Naked Human Form Divine. It began with the white murder of Indian inhabitants of the ground, the theft and later usurious exploitation of their land, it continued with an assault on all races and species of Mother Nature herself and concludes today with total disruption of the ecology of the entire planet. No wonder black slaves kept for non-human use into this century in tear-gassed ghettos of megalopolis were the first Aliens to sound the horn of Change, first Strangers to Call the Great Call through Basilides’ many Heavens. Amazing synchronism again, that Mr. Frank Takes Gun, Native American Church amerindian Peyote Chief, invited the brilliantly talkative silver-haired psychiatrist who directed a Saskatchewan mental hospital in the early ’40s to participate in a Peyote ritual, and that the same Dr. Humphrey Osmond having recognized a wonder of consciousness thus experienced passed on the catalyst in Mescaline synthetic form to Aldous Huxley; and that Huxley’s 1945 essay on the chemical opening of the Doors of Perception found its way to the tables of Bickford’s Cafeteria Times Square New York & the couches of Reed College and Berkeley, where artist persons, having heard the Great Call of the Negroes, already initiated themselves en masse to subtle gradations of their own consciousness experienced while smoking the same Afric hemp smoked by Charles Parker Thelonius Monk & Dizzy Gillespie.

Dr. Timothy Leary takes up his part of the tale of the tribe in a Mexican hut and brings his discovery to Harvard harmoniously — and there begins the political battle, black and white magic become public visible for a generation. Dr. Leary is a hero of American consciousness. He began as a sophisticated academician, he encountered discoveries in his field which confounded him and his own technology, he pursued his studies where attention commanded, he arrived beyond the boundaries of public knowledge. One might hesitate to say, like Socrates, like Galileo? — poor Dr. Leary, poor Earth! Yet here we are in Science Fiction History, in the age of Hydrogen Bomb Apocalypse, the very Kali Yuga wherein man’s stupidity so overwhelms the planet that ecological catastrophe begins to rehearse old tribe-tales of Karmaic retribution, Fire & Flood & Armageddon impending.

It would be natural (in fact deja vu) that the very technology stereotyping our consciousness & desensitizing our perceptions should throw up its own antidote, an antidote synthetic such as LSD synchronous with mythic tribal Soma & Peyote. Given such historic Comedy, who could emerge from Harvard technology but one and only Dr. Leary, a respectable human being, a worldly man faced with the task of a Messiah. Inevitable! Not merely because the whole field of mental psychology as a “science” had arrived at biochemistry anyway. It was inevitable because the whole professional civilized world, like Dr. Leary, was already faced with Messianic task of accelerated evolution (i.e. psychosocial Revolution) including an alteration of human consciousness leading to the immediate mutation of social & economic forms. This staggering realization, psychedelic, i.e., consciousness expanding & mind-manifesting in itself, without the use of chemical catalysts, is now forced on all of us by images of our own unconscious rising from the streets of Chicago, where teargas was dumped on Christ’s very Cross in Lincoln Park AD 1968. The drains are backing up in the cities, smog noise and physiologic poison in food turn us to insect acts, overpopulation crazes the planet, our lakes corrupt, old riverways become dank fens, tanks enter Prague and Chicago streets simultaneous, Police State arrives in every major city, starvation wastes African provinces, Chinese genocide in Vietnam, Alarm! Alarm! howls deep as any Biblic prophecy.

Ourselves caught in the giant machine are conditioned to its terms, only holy vision or technological catastrophe or revolution break “the mind forg’d manacles.” Given one by-product of the technology that might, as it were by feed-back, correct the berserk machine and liberate the invertor’s mind from captivity by hypnotic robots, Dr. Leary had in LSD an invaluable civilized elixir. For, as Dr. Jiri Roubichek observed early in Prague (“Artificial Psychosis,” 1958), “LSD inhibits conditioned reflexes.” And this single phrase, for rational men, might be the key to the whole gnostic mystery of LSD and Dr. Leary’s role as unique, alas solitary, courageous, humane & frank Democratic Boddhisatva-teacher of the uses of LSD in America. For he took on himself the noble task of announcing the evidence of his senses despite the scary contumely of fellow academicians, the dispraising timorous irony of scientific “professionals,” the stupidity meanness self-serving cowardice and hollow vanity of bureaucratic personnel from Harvard Yard to Mexico City to Washington, from the ignorant Sheriff’s office in Dutchess County NY to the inner greedy sanctums of the US Treasury Department in D. C., our whole “establishment” of civilization that defends us from knowledge of our own unconscious by means of policeman’s clubs, and would resist the liberation of our minds and bodies by any brutish means available including teargas, napalm & the Hydrogen Bomb.

Dr. Leary conducted himself fairly & equitably, given the extremity of his knowledge; it took an innocent courage to explore his own unconditioned consciousness, to take LSD and other chemicals often enough to be well balanced in praxis as well as explanation, and to attempt to wed the enormity of his experience to Reason. An heroic attempt to communicate clearly and openly through civilized technologic media to his fellow citizens, despite centuries of identity brainwash accelerated now to mass paranoia and Cold War Apocalypse, required Dr. Leary the proverbial wisdom of serpent & harmlessness of dove.

Timothy Leary tells the tale of his tribe in book aptly titled “The Politics of Ecstasy,” & events enlarged since he wrote his book and chose its title charge the author’s handiwork with prophetic enormity. The battle of generations that erupted this year simultaneously in Prague, Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, New York (and Moscow underground) — everywhere the State’s electronic consciousness is interlinked — transcends antique battles of Cold War and Race. We witness planetary confrontation wherein controlling Elders trapped in a suicidal mechanical consciousness deploy their destructive technology against their own children in the streets of their own cities. ‘Tis Blake’s Urizen tormenting tender Los in Eternity! New generations have risen spontaneously with new consciousness and a mutant politics of flower power that is rooted in the ground of human consciousness itself: an acceptance of human identity as one with living nature on a living planet where all creatures are living God. The public philosophies and technologies of all civilized Governments at present are are at war with this God, and the planet itself is within decades of destruction. No wonder there is sudden appearance of Adamic hair. Eve walks naked in the streets; ancient body rhythm beat out thru the airwaves in eclectic mantric Rock from Bratislava to San Francisco, & youths ingest shamanic elixirs to recover consciousness of planetary Archetypes. Hare Krishna!

One politic synchronism that concerns this text should be gossiped forth contextual. Timothy Leary quit public life to write a book in Mexico some years ago, but he was searched by Agents of Government as he went to cross borders, arrested for possession of some herb, and thus forced to interrupt his writing, return to public action, and defend his person from attack by the State. So he traveled to academies and lectured to the young, & thus he paid large legal fees required by the State & thus maintained an Ashram of fellow seekers well known in Millbrook. Agents of Government raided and repeatedly abused the utopia, whereupon Dr. Leary was obliged to be Dr. Leary and lecture more to raise money for his family of imprisoned friends. Agents of Government concluded this phase of prosecution with a piece of Socratic irony so blatantly echoing an old Greek injustice that the vulgar rhetoric of a Tyrannous State would need only be quoted to be recognized, were it not for the fact that these States are by now so plagued with Tyrannously inspired chaos and public communication so flooded with images of State Atrocity from the alleys of Saigon to the parks of Chicago that official public conscience here now, as memorably in Russia and Germany, is shocked, dumbed & amnesiac. I quote from the Spring 1968 State Document in any case for the delectation of gnostic Cognoscenti, that is to say myriads of the present young:

“To Hon. Edw. W. Wadsworth
Clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals
for the Fifth Circuit
Room 408 — 400 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA. 70130
“Re: No 23570
Timothy Leary vs United States of America

“… We are applying for an order from the District Court requiring the Defendant to surrender to the United States Marshal…

“The appellant continues his publicized activities involving the advocacy of the use of psychedelic drugs by students and others of immature judgment and tender years and is regarded as a menace to the community so long as he is at large …

Very truly yours,
Morton L. Sussman,
United States Attorney.

By: James R. Gough,
Asst. U.S. ATTY.
Chief, Appeals Research Division”

Thus requesting revocation of Dr. Leary’s bail’d liberty while his political-religious defense for possession of an herb approached Supreme Court, Agents of Government checked further conversation with the young. The Millbrook Ashram having been simultaneously dispersed by Agents of Government his immediate financial responsibilities lightened, Timothy Leary retired back home to Berkeley with his mate and completed his description of “the Politics of Ecstasy.” ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 21, 2020

“A Poison Tree” (William Blake)

Here is my second recording in the Romantic Poets series. It is “A Poison Tree” by William Blake. I intend to do a few more from the “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. They are obviously intended as songs and are just the right length. Blake is a particular inspiration to me. In 2019 I went to an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London of Blake’s art and poetry. It displayed the work in it’s original context, in book form. Some of the books are tiny, which is something I wasn’t expecting. Seeing the words and pictures together, in print form, really enhanced their meaning for me. It was probably the first time in my life that I really understood these poems. It has encouraged me to undertake far more original work of my own, a real inspiration!

I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears: 
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles. 

And it grew both day and night. 
Till it bore an apple bright. 
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine. 

And into my garden stole, 
When the night had veild the pole; 
In the morning glad I see; 
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Here is a remix of the song. I have taken out the drums and harpsichord and added accordion. Which do you prefer? Let me know!