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Reprinted from the May, 1998 issue of The Economist

May 1968 . . .
Tricky Situations

Of all the ideological "isms" competing for Parisian students' attention in the heady days of May 1968, none was more pervasive than situationism

MAOISM AND TROTSKYISM were trendy in the Quartier Latin; and hedonistic anarchism prevailed at the newly-built University of Nanterre where Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his group of enrages threw tomatoes at fashionable left-wing professors and laid siege to the female students' residences.

LIKE MOLIERE'S Monsieur Jourdain, who spoke prose without knowing it, Mr Cohn-Bendit and his pals were all situationists without quite realising it. According to Guy Debord, around whom the fragile movement circled, a situationist is "one who engages in the construction of situations". When students turned the boulevard Saint Michel into a lecture hall or invited workers into the Sorbonne to set up Workers' Councils, they were being situationists.

SITUATIONIST GRAFFITI scrawled on the Sorbonne walls (which were copied down by members of the staff and are now in print: "Sorbonne 68: Graffiti", Editions Verticales; FFr68) proclaimed "Ne travaillez jamais" (Never work) and "Il est interdit d'interdire" (It is forbidden to forbid). In his essay "Guy Debord ou la beaute du Negatif", Shigenobu Gonzalvez writes: "The situationists were funny, provoking, irreverent.They offered a refreshing contrast with the gauchistes.

SITUATIONISM EMERGED as a movement in the mid 1950s and rapidly went into decline after 1968. Members were expelled almost as fast as they joined and never amounted to more than a few dozen. Its artistic roots lay in surrealism, its philosophical ones in existentialism, even though Debord spat on both. He had little patience with Sartre and other intellectuals who adopted anti-establishment poses while enjoying the perks of fame. He dismissed a top film maker, Jean-Luc Godard, as an "offspring of Mao and Coca Cola".

PERUSAL OF L'INTERNATIONALE SITUATIONNISTE, a periodical written by Debord and a clutch of friends between 1958 and 1969 (which is now available in a single hefty volume from Fayard; FFn80), shows how situationism appealed to the students of 1968. A key idea was subversiveness. Everything could be subverted: authority and its representatives, of course, be they politicians, parents, trade unions or trendy intellectuals, but also behaviour and art forms.

ANOTHER NOTION dear to the situationists was derive ("drifting"), which they explored essentially in terms of urban landscapes. People like AsgerJorn, a Danish artist, proposed to redesign cities so that they had separate bizarre, happy, sinister, tragic and useful quarters that people could drift in and out of.

THIS SITUATIONIST "psychogeography" is enjoying a revival among architects who are using derive as a means of investigating urban space. An American architect, Libero Andreotti, traces the situationists' influence in structures such as the Paris Pompidou Centre. Bernard Tschumi, who designed the Parc de la Villette on the site of Paris' old slaughterhouses, claims situationist affiliations. And a recent exhibition in Vienna celebrated the situationists' dynamic approach to architecture.

DERIVE INFORMS the style of Debord's autobiographical "Panegyriques" in which he retraces his Parisian youth in the early 19505 in the company of poets, rebels and the odd murderer. Born in 1931, Debord inherited a small income from his father and never had a job in his life--he would have been outraged at the idea. Mostly he sponged on wealthy fellow situationists such as Gerard Lebovici, a French publisher who was mysteriously murdered in 1984.

IN 1952 DEBORD provoked a scandal with "Hurlements en faveur de Sade", a patchwork film of black and blank screens with a soundtrack that alternated silence and a "collage" of quotations. But he was essentially a theoretician who wrote and lectured extensively. Some of his slogans were taken up after he committed suicide in 1994 by a few far-right French writers and British singers who briefly posed as situationists. But Debord's finest hour was in May 1968 on the streets of Paris when for a brief moment his philosophy suited the situation perfectly.

  • Len Bracken, a writer, and 1994 biographer of Debord rebuts this ECONOMIST article with this subsequent letter to the editor.