26 January 2012

Graeber on the Academy and the Situationists

From pages 22-23 of Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber's introduction to Constituent Imagination:

If you ask a scholar in, say, a cultural studies department what they think of the Situationists, you are likely to witness some kind of intellectual brush of the hand. The usual response is a dismissal of them as silly '50s or '6os Marxists, along the lines of the Frankfurt School who believed that capitalism was an all-powerful system of production and consumers were hapless dupes being fed manufactured fantasies. Eventually, you will then be told, students of popular culture came to realize this position was elitist and puritanical. After all, if one examines how real working people actually live, one will discover that they construct the meaning of their lives largely out of consumer goods but that they do it in their own creative, subversive fashion and not as passive dupes of marketing executives. In other words, real proletarians don't need some French bohemian pamphleteer to call on them to subvert the system, they're already doing it on their own. Hence, this sort of literature is an insult to those in whose name it claims to speak. It doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

This is one reason we think the case of Baudrillard is so telling. After all, if Debord and Vaneigem are being elitist, Baudrillard is obviously a thousand times more so. Debord and Vaneigem at least thought it was possible to strike back against the spectacle. Baudrillard no longer does. For him, we are nothing but helpless dupes and there's nothing we can do about it; except, perhaps, to step back and admire our own cleverness for at least (unlike the pathetic fools still insisting they can change things) having figured that out. Yet Baudrillard remains an academic superstar. One has to ask: if the cultural studies folks are right to dismiss the Situationists as elitists with contempt for the real lives of non-academics, why is it that non-academics continue to buy their books? Why is it that non-academics are pretty much the only people who continue to buy their books? Because it's not just info-shops. Since the late '70s, Situationist ideas, slogans, and forms of analysis have become so thoroughly inscribed in the sensibilities of punk rock that it's almost impossible to listen for very long to certain strains of counter-cultural music without hearing some catchy phrase taken directly from the works of Raoul Vaneigem. The Situationists have managed to become part of popular culture while cultural sties has remained completely trapped in the academy. It is these practices of do-it-yourself cultural production that Ben Holtzman, Craig Hughes, and Keven Van Meter describe in this volume as forms for developing post-capitalist social relations in the present.

The obvious conclusion is that it's precisely Baudrillard's elitism that makes him palatable for academics, because it's the kind of elitism that tells its readers not to do anything. It's okay to argue that it's not necessary to change the world through political action. It's okay to argue it's not possible. What's not okay - or anyway, what's considered tiresome and uninteresting - is to write works that cannot be read as anything but a call to action. Debord can be read simply as a theorist, though it requires a good deal of willful blindness. In the case of Vaneigem it's nearly impossible. Hence, in the eyes of the academy: Debord is a minor figure and Vaneigem does not exist.

No comments: