The Situationist International (SI), an international political and artistic movement, originated in the Italian village of Cosio d'Arroscia on 28 July 1957 with the fusion of several extremely small artistic tendencies: the Lettrist International, the International movement for an imaginist Bauhaus, and the London Psychogeographical Association. This fusion traced further influences from COBRA, Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus, as well as inspirations from the Workers Councils of the Hungarian Uprising.

The journal Internationale Situationniste defined situationist as "having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations." The same journal defined situationism as "a meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists."

One should not confuse the term "situationist" as used in this article with practitioners of situational ethics or of situated ethics. Nor should it be confused with a strand of psychologists who consider themselves "situationist" as opposed to "dispositionists", meaning they believe people's actions are conditioned by the situation they find themselves in rather than some internal moral character. (See also: fundamental attribution error)


History and overview

The most prominent member of the group, Guy Debord, has tended to polarise opinion. Some describe him as having provided the theoretical clarity within the group; others say that he exercised dictatorial control over its development and membership. Other members included the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, the English artist Ralph Rumney (sole member of the London psycho-geographical society, Rumney suffered expulsion relatively soon after the formation of the Situationist International), the Scandinavian vandal-turned-artist Asger Jorn, the veteran of the Hungarian Uprising Attila Kotanyi, the French writer Michele Bernstein, and Raoul Vaneigem. Debord and Bernstein later married.

One way or another, the currents which the SI took as predecessors saw their purpose as involving a radical redefinition of the role of art in the twentieth century. The Situationists themselves took a dialectical viewpoint, seeing their task as superseding art, abolishing the notion of art as a separate, specialized activity and transforming it so it became part of fabric of everyday life. From the Situationist viewpoint, art is revolutionary or it is nothing. In this way, the Situationists saw their efforts as completing the work of both Dada and Surrealism while abolishing both. Still, the Situationists answered the question "What is revolutionary?" differently at different times.

The SI experienced splits and expulsions from its beginning. The one prominent split in the group resulted in the Paris section retaining the name Situationist International while the Scandinavian section, or the Second Situationist International organised under the name of Gruppe SPUR. While the entire history of the Situationists was marked by their impetus to revolutionize life, the split between the French and the Scandinavian sections marked a transition from the Situationist view of revolution possibly taking an "artistic" form to it taking an unambiguously "political" form.

Those who followed the "artistic" view of the SI might view the evolution of SI as producing a more boring or dogmatic organization. Those following the political view would see the May 1968 uprisings as a logical outcome of the SI's syncretic approach: while savaging present day society, they sought a kind of utopia in the fusion of the positive tendencies of capitalist development. The "realization and suppression of Art" is only one of many supercessions which the SI sought over the years. For Situationist International of 1968, the world triumph of workers councils would bring about all these supercessions.

An important event leading up to May 1968 was the so called Strasbourg scandal. A group of students managed to use public funds to publish the pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life: considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy ( The pamphlet circulated in thousands of copies and helped to make the situationists well known throughout the nonstalinist left. [need paragraph on SI involvement in May 68, including occupation of the Sorbonne by the situs & Enrages...]

Legacy of the SI

The SI dissolved in 1972, but despite their membership never having risen above 40 at any one time (and sometimes numbering as few as 10), Situationist ideas have continued to echo profoundly through many aspects of culture and politics in Europe and the USA.

The Situationist movement exerted a strong influence on the UK punk rock phenomenon of the 1970s, for example, which in itself could be said to have changed the English cultural landscape during the last quarter of the twentieth century. To a significant extent this came about due to the Situ-literate inputs of Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and particularly Jamie Reid into the marketing and imagery of the Sex Pistols.

One can also trace situationist ideas within the development of other radical currents within society such as the Angry Brigade, Class War, Neoism and more recent Reclaim the Streets, AdBusters campaigns, Seahorse Liberation Army[1] (, the Makeup, Libre Society and musical artists such as Swedish hardcore band Refused and the welsh art-rockers Manic Street Preachers.

The development of Parkour, originating in Paris, is an attenuated example of the influence of SI. Parkour is redolent with many of its ideas, including the reclaiming of the city environment, and the freeing of the citizen from urban and psychological constraints. It also is following a similar path to SI of widening influence, but destructive factionalism among its practitioners.

Classic Situationist texts include On the Poverty of Student Life, "Open Creation and its Enemies" by Asger Jorn, "Society of the Spectacle" by Guy Debord, "The Revolution Of Everyday Life" and "The Book Of Pleasures' by Raoul Vaneigem, "Leaving The 20th Century' edited by Chris Gray and "The Situationist International Anthology" edited by Ken Knabb.

Also of interest is an earlier book produced by Debord in pre-SI times, called "Memoires," the original edition of which featured a sandpaper cover. The idea was that it would destroy any books that were placed either side of it on the shelf, thus serving as a metaphor for the supercession of 'old ideas' by a radical avant-garde. This idea is also an interesting forerunner of the SI's later determination not to be 'recuperated' and thus rendered harmless by spectacular society, instead remaining aloof and refusing to 'explain' themselves or their ideas.

Many of the original Situationist texts tend to be dense and inaccessible. However, during the early 1980's English Anarchist Larry Law produced a series of 'pocket-books' under the name of "Spectacular Times" which aimed to make Situationist theory more easily understood. Some people, though, feel that he much reduced the theory by this process.

More recently, a book called The Situationist City by Simon Sadler (MIT 1998 ISBN 0262692252) focuses on Constant's unitary urbanism vision but also provides a useful overall perspective.

Key ideas in Situationist theory

Ideas central to Situationist theory include:

  • The Situation: a notion which had been circulating in philosophical, scientific and artistic circles for some time. Asger Jorn was greatly influenced by Niels Bohr, and we can see within the concept of situation a connection with the notion of locality in Quantum physics.
  • The Spectacular society: "We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience."- Larry Law, from Images And Everyday Life, a 'Spectacular Times' pocket book.
"The spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images... The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living... The liar has lied to himself"- Guy Debord
The Situationists would argue against any separation between a "false" spectacle and a "true" daily life. Debord reverses Hegel by arguing that within the spectacle, "the true is a moment of the false". The spectacle is not a conspiracy. The Situationists would argue that society reaches the level of the spectacle when nearly all aspects of culture and experience have become mediated by capitalist social relation.
  • Recuperation: "To survive, the spectacle must have social control. It can recuperate a potentially threatening situation by shifting ground, creating dazzling alternatives- or by embracing the threat, making it safe and then selling it back to us"- Larry Law, from The Spectacle- The Skeleton Keys, a 'Spectacular Times pocket book.
"Ha! You think it's funny? Turning rebellion into money?"- The Clash, White Man In The Hammersmith Palais.
Recuperation is the process by which the spectacle takes a radical or revolutionary idea and repackages it as a saleable commodity. An ironic example of recuperation, it could be argued, was the 1989 Situationist exhibition staged in Paris, Boston, and at the ICA gallery in London's Mall, wherein both original situationist manifestos, and contemporary Pro-Situ influenced works (records, fanzines, samizdat-style leaflets and propaganda) were presented as museum artifacts for the mass consumption of the art establishment. This event of course contrasts sharply to the occasion when the Situationist International gave a presentation at the ICA themselves, which famously ended when an audience member asked the group "what is situationism?" to which one of them answered "we are not here to answer stupid questions" before marching off to the bar. Although all would agree that a lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1989 with regard to the image of the SI in the media, another example that might be cited would be the exhibition and other events on "The SI and After" that were staged by the Aquarium art gallery in London in 2003.
A longer-lasting example, it could be argued, would be the "Hacienda" nightclub in Manchester (1982-1997). Highly commercially successful, this was named by its owner, British music-industry businessman Tony Wilson, after a reference in the 1953 work "Formulary for a New Urbanism" by Ivan Chtcheglov. Millionaire Wilson's company Factory Records was one of the sponsors of the 1989 ICA exhibition (along with Beck's beer). Later, in 1996, he allowed a conference on the SI to be staged at the Hacienda night-club. Veteran Situationist-influenced critics of recuperation were not surprised to learn that Wilson had invested funds in collecting Situationist-linked artworks, including Debord's "Psychogeographical Map of Paris" (1953), some of which he allowed to be shown in public at the Aquarium event in 2003. An index of the financial astuteness of such speculation is the fact that there are now dealers in artworks and fine books who count Situationist-linked works among their specialisms.
  • Detournement: "short for: detournement of pre-existing aesthetic elements. The integration of past or present artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no Situationist painting or music, but only a Situationist use of these means.", Internationale Situationiste issue 1, June 1958.
One could view detournement as forming the opposite side of the coin to 'recuperation' (where radical ideas and images become safe and commodified), in that images produced by the spectacle get altered and subverted so that rather than supporting the status quo, their meaning becomes changed in order to put across a more radical or oppositionist message.
Such a pro-situ technique can be seen in action in the present day when looking at the work of Culture Jammers including AdBusters 1 (, whose 'subvertisements' 'detourn' Nike adverts, for example. In this case the original advertisement's imagery is altered in order to draw attention to said company's policy of shifting their production base to cheap-labour third-world 'free trade zones'. However, the line between 'recuperation' and 'detournement' can become thin (or at least very fuzzy) at times, as Naomi Klein points out in her book No Logo. Here she details how corporations such as Nike, Pepsi or Diesel have approached Culture Jammers and Ad Busters (sometimes successfully) and offered them lucrative contracts in return for partaking in 'ironic' promotional campaigns. She points up further irony by drawing attention to merchandising produced in order to promote Ad Busters' Buy Nothing day, an example of the recuperation of detournement (or of culture eating itself) if ever there was one.
In contrast, evoL PsychogeogrAphix are very fond of pointing out the differences between 'detournement', the postmodern idea of appropriation and the Neoist use of plagiarism as the use of similar techniques used for different means, effects and causes.


  • "live without dead time" - vivez sans temps mort - Guy Debord
  • "It is forbidden to forbid" - Il est interdit d'interdire - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "Be realistic - demand the impossible!" - Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible! - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "Beneath the pavement - the beach!" - Sous les pavés, la plage! - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "Never work" - Ne travaillez jamais - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
  • "People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth"- Raoul Vaneigem, "The Revolution Of Everyday Life"

See also


eo:Situaciista Internacio fr:Internationale situationniste nl:Situationisten


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