Thursday, February 21, 2013

Situationist Cred

The room when I entered with a friend was full of empty chairs, the fold out pieces of metal were arranged in three rows with a small platform in the middle. The stage would be filled with Donald Nicholson Smith, a short, portly main with a stringy bush of brown hair and a full white beard. He was soft spoken, and seemed benign. The seats would be filled with poorly dressed whites, mainly men ranging from their early thirties to sixties. A few depraved women had come to see a species of men more hollow than them.

I had come to the event at 518 Valencia, part of their ongoing SF talks series, to see the former situationist and translator of Revolution of Every Day Life speak. Not only as Nicholson-Smith translated Raoul Vaneigem, but he has also translated Jean Patrick Manchette's noir novels; Fatale, 3 to Kill, and The Prone Gunman. He has also translated Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, a noir horror.

Having originally translated Vaneigem's book in 1982 into english from the original french, he felt a need, spurred by the people at PM Press to update the translation. He commented that he wanted to give way to a more literary rather than colloquial feeling of the book. In the 60s and 70s there were lots of attempts to translate the book, in total and excerpts, due to the popularity of the S.I.  These translations were quite ugly to the french at the time. During his translations both in the early days and more recently Nicholson Smith was, however able to speak with Vaneigem about his points and to clear up, as best he could the translation. After a few more comments Nicholson Smith began a long, long reading of his translation from Chapter 15:  (Note to reader, if the below bores you, by all means skip ahead)

Our efforts, our boredom, our defeats, the absurdity of our actions all stem most of the time from the imperious necessity in our present situation of playing hybrid parts, parts which appear to answer our desires, but which are really antagonistic to them. "We would live," says Pascal, "according to the ideas of others; we would live an imaginary life, and to this end we cultivate appearances. Yet in striving to beautify and preserve this imaginary being we neglect everything authentic." This was an original thought in the seventeenth century; at a time when the system of appearances was still hale, its coming crisis was apprehended only in the inhibitive flashes of the most lucid. Today, amidst the decomposition of all values, Pascal's observation states only what is obvious to everyone. By what magic do we attribute the liveliness of human passions to lifeless forms? Why do we succumb to the seduction of borrowed attitudes? What are roles?

The role is a consumption of power. It locates one in the representational hierarchy, and hence in the spectacle: at the top, at the bottom, in the middle but never outside the hierarchy, whether this side of it or beyond it. The role is thus the means of access to the mechanism of culture: a form of initiation. It is also the medium of exchange of individual sacrifice, and in this sense performs a compensatory function. And lastly, as a residue of separation, it strives to construct a behavioural unity; in this aspect it depends on identification.

After his long and pointless reading, I could tell no difference between the current and past translations and the talk was beginning to bore me. Revolution of Every Day Life and its companion book Society of the Spectacle had a huge influence on me in my early twenties, and still exert a heavy weight on my weltanschung currently. The former encouraged a pragmatic hedonism and gave a coherent critique of life within capital, the latter offers a total critique of capitalist society especially with its tendency to reduce every relationship to be that of commodities and their images.

The floor was opened for questions and people asked about revolutionary violence, particularly as Vaneigem had changed his position. Nicholson Smith didn't note how Vaneigem had changed, he just stated he had. Indeed most of the speakers answers were a little off base, as if he wasn't really listening. That was fortunate for him when an audience member, embarrassingly for the rest of the crowd, began to read a critique he and his companions had wrote. After ten minutes of boredom, truncated by the moderator, he ended with a desire to engage with the other audience members. While that was one of the more painful questions the other audience participation was equally banal. One young man stumbled incoherently into a sentence that more or less said "these are big ideas, what do they mean?"

Another man historically situated the book by talking the 60s, when the book was written, specifically in Britain, which still had a strong welfare state. Nicholson Smith noted that while the book was very perceptive in many ways, it was at times completely off base. Vaneigem did not see the fall of the welfare state at all. 

The moderator asked an interesting question in that he felt that the S.I. had felt that all political projects were cup de sacs of failure, of reformism, and to what extent did that influence the future. Nicholson Smith noted that they (the SI) totally thought that political projects were indeed a cul de sac of failure and thus dissolved.

With that the talk closed after an hour and a half of quotes being read and boring questions being asked. I stuck around for a few minutes and then left. For all the excitement that the situationists had caused in my life I had just left a rather dull encounter. I walked down into the mission and wondered what I should do, one thing was clear to me, inebriation was in order, a prescription to forget my wasted, dead time. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You went merely to gaze, with no practical project to share or advance with speaker or audience. You got the boredom you deserved, dear spectator.