Thomas McDonough // THE DERIVE AND SITUATIONIST PARIS
In: Andreotti, Libero- Costa, Xavier : SITUATIONISTS- Art, Politics, Urbanism
Museo d’Art Contemporain de Barcelona 1996
In 1957, on the eve of the founding of the Situationist International, Guy Debord produced two unusual maps of Paris. Published with the help of his friend, the Danish painter Asger Jorn, Discours sur les passions de l’amour was an independent, folded map, while The Naked City was included in Jorn’s tract Pour La forme of 1958. Their production coincided with one of the high points of situationist intervention into the spheres of visual culture. Debord and Jorn composed the collage novel Fin de Copenhague in the same year, and the more ambitious Memoires in 1958. Debord’s second film, Sur le passage de quelques personnes a travers une assez courte unite de temps, also dates from this period. Like the maps, these works had something of a retrospective character, summarizing past activities and concerns and assessing their future relevance for the Situationist International.
Yet in discussing these two maps, it is not enough to note their context within situationist history; they must also be understood in their relation to contemporaneous ideas about the city, everyday life, and the representations of both spheres in a postwar urban ethnography. Both maps fragment the totality of the city typically presented by such images. Instead of a city “always already visually present, fully offered to full view” (to quote Louis Marin’s summary of the map’s descriptive function), we are given a “psychogeographical guide” to an array of islets, selected zones of Paris, which are isolated from one another by the white ground of the chart. These zones, collaged from a commercial map of the city, represent distinct “unities of ambiance” and are linked only by red arrows, symbols demarcating the various interstitial “psychogeographic gradients.”
Psychogeography, a situationist neologism, referred to the effects which “the geographical environment, consciously organized or not,” had on “the emotions and behavior of individuals.” In this extensive derives through Paris, Debord came to believe that “cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”‘ These maps delineate these features, and in the process recreate the city through an evocation of spaces known essentially to their inhabitants, but which elude the attentions of the map-maker. What conventional map could register the observation that “the district in Paris between the Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalete conduces… to atheism, to oblivion, and the disorientation of habitual influences?” The various fragments of the city assembled here are unities which resist the cartographer’s symbols and the administrator’s boundary lines.
Debord’s maps and the conventional maps from which they are composed represent two mutually incompatible ways of dividing up the same territory, each of which represents a particular reading not merely of the geography of the city, but of the city’s history itself. For Debord and the situationists, this history of the modern city was one of an increasing spatial homogenization. Pockets of uneven development, sites of urban contradiction, were quickly disappearing in the very years these maps were being researched and created. By the middle 1950s postwar consumer culture was making its visual mark in Paris as large numbers of shops and cafes modernized their fronts; older buildings began the process of restoration known as the ravalement des facades, after the order to clean their exteriors issued by Minister of Construction Pierre Sudreau in 1958. Along with Malraux’s gentrification projects in tte Marais and the Ile St. Louis, Paris was gradually becoming the urban museum we know today.
Later in the 1960s Debord would theorize these local events as integral components of capitalist production’s effect on space. Developing on Marx and Engels’ statement in the Communist Manifesto that the bourgeoisie “created a world after its own image,” he wrote on the unifying and homogenizing quality of late capitalist space. The “free space of the commodity” – the space of consumption, of spectacle – demands the destruction of “autonomy and quality of spaces.” In fact, the spectacle’s relation to modernity may be specified around precisely this point. One of the spectacle’s primary functions can be described as being the hearer of modernity’s totalizing and universalizing myths. That is,
it is the role of the spectacle to project an image of unification and homogenization over urban space, even when pre-modern elements, or sites of contestation and heterogeneity, persist. Given that modernity is never a finished or complete process the spectacle is necessary to maintain the bourgeoisie’s ideological representation of the “naturalness” of its world.
The society of the spectacle is a society of absolute synchronicity and homogeneity, with its own corresponding spatial practice. In an article published one year before the creation of his psychogeographical maps, Debord cites a map created by two researchers working for the urban sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe. It depicts the movements over the course of the year 1950 of a young woman living in the bourgeois XVIe arrondissement; her itineraries almost exclusively define a triangle whose points are her residence, that of her piano teacher, and the School of Political Science. Debord describes this map as an example of “a modern poetry capable of provoking sharp emotional reactions (in this case, indignation at the fact that there are people who live like that).” In contrast to this image of the rationalized use of urban space, the situationist derive roamed over the city in search of subversive unites d’ambiance, spaces of non-synchronicity and productive contradiction.
As the title Discours sur les passions de d’amour suggests, the city should be experienced not as a homogenous field but as an emotionally ambient milieu of possible trajectories. Pursuing a de-reified practice of the city, the derive sought to fragment the seamlessness of the spectacle -a fragmentation registered graphically the collaged psychographic maps of 1957. Chombart de Lauwe’s careful plotting of one pedestrian’s urban trajectory graphically marks his indebtedness to American sociologists of the Chicago School of urban ethnography, and Debord himself was well aware of this work.” In fact, an examination of urban ethnography may seem to reveal much about the nature of the derive. The field emerged al the University of Chicago in the 1920s as a group of rather remarkable professors (including Robert Park and Ernest Burgess) “pressed their students to begin exploring the city as if it were a remote and exotic setting.”
Adolping techniques recently pioneered in anthropology – most notably Malinowski’s notion of the “participant observation” dialectic in the study of native cultures – these students engaged in fieldwork in an attempt to understand the urban other, generally the demimonde of vagrancy, delinquency, and criminality. This meant living with, if not living like, those who were being studied – a precocious American rediscovery of what Henri Lefebvre would later call la vie quotidienne. Indeed these sociologists found “weighty significance in the apparently most trivial of scenes and activities,” seeing in these particularities the outlines of “vigorous, dense, heterogeneous cultures located just beyond the university gates.’ At first glance these ideas seem quite close to those held by the siluationists regarding the derive. Just as urban ethnography documented the social morphology of the city, the derive was concerned with the ecological analysis of tte absolute or relative character of fissures in the urban network, of the role of microclimates, of the distinct, self-contained character of administrative districts, and above all of the dominating action of centers of attraction.”
The Paris of Debord and the situationists, like the Chicago of Park and his colleagues, was one which resisted easy totalization, being seen instead as a discontinuous terrain of competing social groups, each of which was constantly in the process of constructing its local ecology. But were Debord’s and Park’s practices really so transparent to each other? Alter all, urban ethnography always aimed to be the written representation of a given (sub)culture. This representation would constitute an authoritative account which ordered and made sense of the unruly experience of the city in which it was based. Out of an “intense, intersubjective engagement” with the particularity of the everyday life of the urban other, knowledge was produced. Such knowledge production was never the primary goal of the drive, and authoritative accounts of this practice are perhaps impossible – an idea Debord himself expressed when he commented that “written descriptions can be no more than passwords to this great game.” These opposing attitudes toward written accounts indicate a deeper opposition between the derive and urban ethnography. This opposition crystallizes around the question of the participant-observation paradigm for ethnographic analysis. The ethnographer’s task is “a process of living one’s way into an alien expressive universe,” the building of a shared experiential world as a precondition of ethnographic interpretation. The successful fieldworker,through personal participation, will establish “an active at -homeness in a common universe” with the culture studied. But it is precisely this at-homeness that the derive denies, in its concern for “behavioral disorientation.” This becomes clear when Debord writes that the derives sensibility is characterized by “a loose lifestyle and even certain amusements considered dubious” – prototypes for this activity include “… slipping by night into houses undergoing demolition, hitchhiking nonstop and without destination through Paris during a transportation strike in the name of adding to the confusion, wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public, etc.”
The derive seems fundamentally linked to a project of “homelessness” or “uprooting” which places its participants in a position of marginality toward all cultures. In this sense it is a technique du depaysement as Levi-Strauss used the term to denote a more selfreflexive anthropology. In effect the derive hypostatized one half of the or her experience of the ethnographic fieldworker: his or her experience as an exile. Fieldworkers have been described as “marginal natives” or “professional-strangers,” and the terms seem apt to describe those on a derive – those who “during a certain period drop their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”
To paraphrase Evans-Pritchard’s comment on fieldwork, to succeed in the derive, one must be able to abandon oneself without reserve, to submit to what James Clifford calls “a derangement of personal and cultural expectations.” In this submission to the accident and happenstance of the city, the urban exile has much the same experience as the fieldworker in an alien culture, but the derive freezes these ambiguous, multi-vocal encounters, refusing to transform them into definitive readings or exegeses; instead this practice revels in the very heteroglossia to be found in the metropolis.
If the Chicago School was interested in calling attention to the need for reform through its studies, the situationists rejected the humanism implicit in urban ethnography’s progressivist agenda. Their interest in destabilizing their own reality through the appropriation of ethnographic techniques has its basis in the interwar critique of “anthropological humanism” by Georges Bataille and the circle of Surrealists around him. Traditional anthropology considered both the fieldworker and his or her interpretative activity as “innocent,” ignoring the unreciprocal quality of this activity and its political significance. Critics of “colonial” representation called anthropology’s taxonomies into question, refusing the unified voice of ethnographic authority. Rather, different types of voices were allowed to coexist, upsetting established boundaries maintained between different cultural codes. If traditional anthropology relied on concepts of historical continuity or organic structure in order to establish overarching systems of meaning, the ethnographic Surrealists understood culture to Ire a contested reality and reveled in disruptions within the system.
These ideas had their origin on the one hand in Bataille’s writings on the informe, but they are also related to anti-imperialist struggles. The type of ethnography indebted to Bataille (and here Levi-Strauss may he included) sought to place the colonizer’s reality in jeopardy through the portrayal o the cultural realities of other peoples. In this regard it is worth noting that the Situationists included among their membership significant numbers of Moroccan and Algerian immigrants living in and around Paris; their derives could be considered ironic reversals of the anthropological humanist’s gaze. Rather like interwar ethnographic Surrealism, the derive was a technique for disrupting cultural codes and contesting reality. Refusing the hierarchies established by traditional anthropology, the Situationists sought to proliferate the sense of uprootedness provided by the derive. Their “Rational Embellishments to the City of Paris,” for example, are designed to multiply exactly the kinds of derangement of habitual influences mentioned above:
“-Open the metro at night after the trains stop running. Keelp the corridors and tunnels poorly lit by means of weak, intermittently functioning lights.
– With a careful rearrangement of fire-escapes, and the creation of walkways where needed, open the roofs of Paris for strolling. Leave the public gardens open at night. Keep them dark. (In some cases, a weak illumination may he justified by psychogeographical considerations.) Put switches on street lamps, so lighting will be under public control.”
The drive as a technique du depaysement created moments of disruption in everyday life analogous to these – moments in which the. apparent homogeneity of the spectacle city was fractured to reveal the richness of possibilities offered.by movement through the modern city. Yet these possibilities were historically specific, and as spectacle culture assumed its canonic postwar forms in the later fifties the derive ceased to be a redemptory potentiality for living in the late capitalist city. The very title of Debord’s map The Naked City suggests this evolution. ‘The name refers to a 1948 American film noir, directed by Jules Dassin, which broke ground in the genre by utilizing a documentary style that included many views of New York’s street life.The importance of this urban aesthetic was remarked by the film critic Parker Tyler, who explained how the social body itself was “laid bare” through the imaging of architectural symbol: “the vastly complex structure of a great city… is a supreme obstacle to the police detectives at the same time that it provides tiny clues…” to the solution of the crime. The appropriation of this title had obvious resonances for Debord; after all, Paris functioned analogously for the situalionist-detective as the site of an urban modernity which was both an obstacle and a key to a future organization of life.
Nevertheless, scholars of film noir have written that the genre, far all its fascination with its urban setting, actually registers the decline of the metropolis after the Second World War. In the words of David Reid and Jayne Walker, it accomplished “a demonization and an estrangement from its landscape in advance of its actual `abandonment’ – the violent reshaping of urban life” under the renewal schemes of the 1950s. The practice of the derive similarly derived its energy from a city which still bore the marks of the crises of the 1930s and `40s and had not yet been fully subjected to the postwar regime of renewal which Marshall Berman has characterized as the “expressway world. However by the 1950s, France (as elsewhere in the industrialized West) was witnessing the massive development of working-class housing not in the center cities but in suburban new towns, a pattern of building which guaranteed the dispersal of large parts of the working class. With this decline of urbanization, the city would no longer offer up the sites of contradiction and contestation so sought after by Debord.
The Naked City is not merely the city of the situalionist-detective, searching out the concealed suggestions of a non-reified life; it is also our city, the city stripped bare and silent, shorn of history and memory. In this light, these maps come to stand as more than moments in an ongoing struggle over the control of urban space, they also stand as the last articulations olf a city which is irretrievable, a Paris now lost to us. The nostalgia was implicit even in the moment of their creation, as Debord looked back on his years wandering through a city which was changing even at that moment; it can only he explicit for us as viewers today.