Essay on Situationists

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The situationists were a small but influential collective of anti-capitalist thinkers, active from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, which theorized the alienated character of modern consumer society and its revolutionary overcoming. Targeting the capitalist colonization of everyday life, the situationists sought to overcome the political limitations of the avant-gardes. Capitalist culture was to be undermined through a deliberate political and aesthetic practice of “constructing situations” that would rupture the alienation of the worker-consumer from their capacities and desires. The situationists advocated a unitary urbanism” that would reactivate the sedimented potentials of the city, creating spatial experiences freed from the tyranny of commodities. They also practiced “detournement,” the subversive usage of the materials of capitalist culture, from films to comic strips.

The principal theoretical contribution of the Situationist International is Debord’s 1967 The Society of the Spectacle. Relying heavily on Hegel, Feuerbach, the early Marx and Lukacs, this book proposed to update the categories of ideology critique to confront the novelty of advanced capitalism. Debord argued that the hegemony of capital over life had become virtually total, as capital was accumulated not just in the guise of material commodities but in that of “spectacles.” According to Debord, the social relations underlying such spectacles were alienated in a manner far more severe than the one envisaged by Marx’s account of commodity fetishism. In the spectacle, life itself vanishes into its separate or independent representation and capitalism perpetually celebrates its own existence. Even the most revolutionary of practices (situationist ones included) can be “recuperated” and made functional to the perpetuation of alienated life.

The situationists’ theory of contemporary society was accompanied by a bleak estimation of the human sciences, which they regarded as forms of passivity deriving from the separation of intellectual from manual labor, collaborating with the reign of the spectacular economy.


  • McDonough, T. (ed.) (2002) Guy Debord and the Situationist International. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

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