67. Sam Cooper, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists”
I don’t remember where I ran across a reference to Sam Cooper’s essay, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists”—probably in Phil Smith’s book Walking’s New Movement. What I had hoped this essay would discuss would be the connection between contemporary British psychogeographers and Romanticism—a connection I keep seeing, and one which would make me unpopular among contemporary British psychogeographers if I were to meet any. But Cooper is after something else: by “English Situationists,” he is referring to the English Section of the Situationist International (SI), which existed briefly in the mid-1960s before it was expelled by the SI. So Cooper is much more specific in his investigation; nevertheless, I think this essay might be of some use. At least, it confirms my hunch that there is some Romanticism lurking in the background of English evocations of the Situationists.
Cooper begins with George Robertson’s claim that the British got the Situationists wrong. Robertson argues that the British are too suspicious of intellectualism, and he “regards the Romantic inheritance of ‘the British left avant-garde’ as self-evidently conservative,” incongruous with the Situationists’ avant-gardism (20-21). However, Cooper argues “that, actually, the earliest English Situationist groups were actively involved in a radicalised reworking of what it might mean to reproduce English Romanticism, whose politics may not be so far from those of the SI, nor so distant even now” (21). He is very clear about his plan for this essay:
The first half of this essay will investigate how the earliest English Situationists used Romanticism as the archive and medium through which to anglicise the late modernist programme of the SI, with a focus on the historical reasons for doing so. The second half, through reading the Situationist Guy Debord alongside William Wordsworth, will argue that the English Situationists’ decision serves also to illuminate a latent Romanticism in Situationist aesthetic practice even in its ‘proper’ francophone articulations. (21-22)
He immediately explains who he is talking about: in the 1960s, the Situationist International maintained an English Section, “but when that group began to anglicise Situationist practice, it was deemed to have the SI and was expelled” (22). That group imagined the Gordon Rioters, the Swing Rioters, and the Luddites as their precursors (23); they saw themselves as “part of an ongoing current of vernacular English dissent” (23). They also associated the Situationists with Romantic poetry (23). Their aesthetic, “which is principally a literary aesthetic,” with “its own subterranean legacy, most obviously by way of punk culture,” was “an attempt to reconstruct an English Romanticism that deployed something of its original radicality in the present” (23).
The English Situationists only produced two publications. In their first, a long essay from 1967 entitled “The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution,” the English Section argued that juvenile delinquents were the true inheritors of Dadaism (23-24). In doing so, they also alluded to Wordsworth’s famous statement that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (qtd. 24). According to Cooper, that allusion is a détournement used on both Wordsworth and the Situationists’ own work; that it “conflates violence and poetry, to recall a long avant-gardist tradition of violent provocation as (anti-)art gesture”; and that “the ease with which the two analyses are brought together serves to align the SI’s project with something of Wordsworth’s early politico-aesthetic sensibility” (24).
In the second of the English Section’s texts, the English Situationists alluded to William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in a translation of the penultimate sentence of a French Situationist text (24-25). “Such irreverent treatment of the group’s decrees, and such disrespect shown to the SI’s paranoid proprietorship of its genealogical identity, led to the English Section’s expulsion,” Cooper writes (25). After their expulsion, one member formed a group called King Mob; Cooper treats King Mob and the English Section together, as the English Situationists (25). “King Mob’s programme was confrontational, aggressive, and black-humoured, and involved playing the role of the juvenile delinquents who, it maintained, were spectacular capitalism’s agents of negation,” Cooper argues (25). However, he also claims that their actions were “very likely informed by the group’s reading of Wordsworth” (26)—and other English Romantic poets: King Mob used quotations from Coleridge and Blake in graffiti (26). “King Mob’s reproduction of these lines running as paint down tenement walls literally inscribes their everyday environment with the spectral presences of Blake and Coleridge,” Cooper writes (26).
However Cooper is quick to point out that the English Situationists weren’t alone in turning to the Romantics in the 1960s, and that they weren’t interested in Romanticism’s more conservative and rural forms (27). But he sees the influence of the Romantics elsewhere: he suggests that Guy Debord’s Situationist statement Society of the Spectacle is an “estranged descendant” of Wordsworth’s 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads (28): “As the former has come to serve as the most comprehensive account of Situationist theory, so the latter has come to serve as a de facto manifesto of early English Romantic poetry” (28). Both texts offer “an aesthetic theory and a reflexive explication of how that aesthetic theory has been applied to its own articulation” (28). “It may seem overdetermined or historiographically abrupt to read these two writers together, but my interest here is to be a little more specific about the version of Romanticism that the English Situationists emphasised in their anglicisation of the SI,” Cooper argues (28).
Cooper’s reading of both writers generates some surprises. For instance, he suggests that
the English Situationists recognised that Wordsworth’s early project responded to large-scale political changes and their effects on everyday life—which I will discuss in terms of capitalist accumulation and the possibility of ‘authentic’ experience—and sought aesthetic responses whose very form might be antagonistic or even incommensurable with the new social order being imposed. (28)
“The dichotomy that Wordsworth establishes between a rustic life that is experienced in all its richness and a more sophisticated life that has lost its immediate connection with nature is echoed by a distinction made by Debord in the first thesis of Society of the Spectacle” (30), he continues, noting that Debord’s first thesis claims that life is presented as an accumulation of spectacles, and that “[e]verything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (qtd. 30). “Like Wordsworth, Debord associates authenticity with that which is experienced directly, without mediation,” Cooper continues (30). In addition,
both Wordsworth’s and Debord’s aesthetic formulations (both of which rely on idyllic, even prelapsarian, conceptions of authenticity) were issued as responses to socio-economic changes in late eighteenth-century England and in post-war France respectively. More specifically, Wordsworth and Debord both held that authentic experience, or at least its possibility, was being obscured and sequestered by successive phases of capitalist accumulation (30)–
primitive accumulation for Wordsworth, and spectacular accumulation for Debord (30). Cooper also notes that Jacques Rancière recognizes that the SI’s critique of the spectacle is based in Romanticism (32)—a moment in The Emancipated Spectator that I missed. However, after these similarities, Debord’s and Wordsworth’s paths diverge: “Wordsworth believed that there were poetic subjects appropriate for the representation of authenticity; Debord believed that any affirmative art would ultimately collude with the spectacle” (32).
The English Situationists, however,
recognised that Wordsworth’s commemoration of soon-to-be eradicated, pre-capitalist ways of life was not simply nostalgic, but a tactic of resistance and assault. When they anglicised the work of the SI, the English Situationists replicated Wordsworth’s tactic: they privileged the SI’s discussion of juvenile delinquency over its many other discussions, and even attempted to locate that delinquency structurally as evidence of a ‘new lumpen’ class which was the repository of revolutionary potential. (33)
As a result, they ended up reproducing “Wordsworth’s faith that authenticity can be identified and represented, that positive representation is not necessarily spectacular or alienating,” a position with which the Situationist International disagreed (36). The English Situationists
attempted to transpose the core political content of the SI’s critique of spectacle into a distinctly English literary tradition, but in severing the SI’s political analysis from its aesthetic one, in articulating the former by way of a Romantic, affirmative, and positivistic mode of exposition, the English Situationist aesthetic practice became diametrically opposed to that of the SI. (36-37)
This put them into conflict with the SI: “In direct contravention of the SI’s aesthetic austerity, the English Situationists went directly to the three Ss—the subjective, the superficial, and the spectacular—which remain the bêtes noires of Situationist discourse, to ask whether they could yet be sabotaged into becoming sites of contestation” (37). However, Cooper concludes that, “in their attempt to reclaim for the present something of the project of early English Romanticism, the English Situationists remained in full accordance with Debord’s account of the function of détournement” (37), which reradicalizes “previous critical conclusions” that have become “respectable truths” and therefore lies (qtd. 37). In other words, the English Situationists’ borrowing from the English Romantics wasn’t just a borrowing, it was a détournement.
All of this is interesting, but it doesn’t give me anything I can refer to in a discussion of the Romanticism I see in contemporary British psychogeography, or in its source texts, like Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering. I’m certain that what I’m seeing is there, however unpopular such a claim might be, and I’ll keep my eyes open for a critical discussion that is more on target. In some ways, the relationship between psychogeography and Romanticism doesn’t matter, because I’m not interested in claiming to be a psychogeographer, but at the same time, I don’t want to get sidetracked and find myself rereading the Romantics in order to make the connection myself. I’d much rather find a text in which someone else argues that connection is there. Perhaps there’s something in the secondary literature on Iain Sinclair; if I run out of things to read (and that’s not likely to happen), I’ll take a look.
Sam Cooper, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists,” The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-37.
Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering, Martin Secker, 1924.
Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.