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Avant-Situ: Apollinaire, the Derive, & the Politics of the Third Dimension

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Joshua Clover
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The essay may appear to be in search of some poetic pre-history for the Situationist Internationale, reaching back to an undiscovered source in Apollinaire, whereupon it shifts to some more familiar Apollinairean texts, comes about at the far terminus of the 20th century, and returns to Guy Debord & Cie's 1950.

What I am looking for is not some intellectual genealogy of the SI, but a certain strand in how the century did its thinking about politics and art, how it drifted between them with an eye always toward preserving their difference and another eye on that difference's dissolution. The drift of this essay's course is not only back and forth in time, but between politics and art, those two powerfully regulated spaces. It does its looking in the passages between the somewhat less abstract forms of architecture and literature — undistricted passages where the law is weak and meanings are up for grabs, where stuff from one policed category might sneak into another.

Such sneaking, such passages — these things are doubly necessary. On the one hand, no amount of homologizing, structural isomorphism, or analogical description can make any of those categories disappear into another; critical technologies write the difference with every stroke of similitude. But on the other hand, the threat that the famously "semi-autonomous spheres" of culture, politics, and the rest have lost their autonomy — have become equivalent and indistinct elements within the society of the spectacle — is exactly the vision and horror which animated Debord’s greatest thinking, and seem to have troubled Apollinaire as well. These passages, then, are where a particular and difficult vision of the Twentieth century might be seen, even as they present themselves alternately as impasses and hallucinations.

What, then, occupies the passage between the static three-dimensionality of architecture and the frail temporality of writing, which has to itself either two or no dimensions? To begin to theorize the question more particularly: what serves both as a space which allows otherwise-unavailable forms of consciousness, and as a motion of consciousness itself? This is largely a question of applying a name to a practice that already exists, that of passing through architecture, through the city, discovering a line like a sentence, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience. It is tempting to capture the name "circulation," rescuing it from its dull fate as a term of art for Urban Planners, by which is designated flows of traffic and capital.

The question, paused between that literary formulation of Baudelaire and the quotidian practice of de Certeau, midwifed the birth of the Situationist International, who worried it so intently, so dialectically, that they are familiarly thought to have formulated it. They used the general term "unitary urbanism" for their program, and the term "dérive" for the specifics of the wandering, the drift.

The issue "art or politics" haunted unitary urbanism, the dérive, like a halo; the debate over whether the Situationist International was an art movement or political tendency remains unsettled and angry, as seen most recently in the essay by T.J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith titled "Why Art Can’t Kill the Situationist International," the aggrieved response by Peter Wollen, and the vitriolic retort. It’s a debate that must not come to rest; as soon at it is settled, possibilities congeal into definitions. Dialectics, in that regard, might be considered first and foremost an anti-boredom machine.

It is certain the SI refused the art traditions offered them, including even potentionally sympathetic negationist tendencies as Surrealism. And yet, the language of art pervades their descriptions of the dérive, of the "psychogeographic" engagement with buildings, streets, arrangements of urban material. The talk of poetry is everywhere in the SI writings of the Fifties; one wishes they had mentioned dance instead, so that unitary urbanism could be described as "dancing about architecture." But it was far closer to poem-ing about architecture, and here we intend "about" not as in "lie about your age" but as in "lie about the house." "Let us say," concluded Guy Debord, the prose stylist who seems to have written no poems, "that we have to multiply poetic objects and subjects, and that we have to organize games of these poetic subjects among these poetic objects. There is our entire program, which is essentially ephemeral." (McDonough 47)

Following in the wake of his comrade Ivan Chtcheglov’s crypto-mysticism, Debord takes up an exaggerated and even ironical tone of the critical-theoretical: "The research we are thus led to undertake on the arrangement of the elements of the urban setting, in close relation with the sensations they provoke, entails bold hypotheses that must constantly be corrected in light of experience" (Andreotti 20). Still the literary remains: The dérive is not the design of the city but the passage through it, a nuanced engagement with the formal relations of the city, and of the hidden content stored within the express claims of urban structure. It is to be a politics of close reading and rewriting. I say "politics" here not to settle the argument but to get a sense of the expansiveness of the concept, how casually it might include disparate forms of citoyenage. Even petty crime and local vagabondage are to be considered part of the practice; indeed, they constitute the practice as a kind of social negation. "Thus," Debord explained,

a loose lifestyle and even certain amusements considered dubious that have always been enjoyed among our entourage —- 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. — are expressions of a more general sensibility which is nothing other than that of the dérive. (Andreotti 26)

But, one might respond, I practice unitary urbanism every day. All I have to do is go for a walk.... Such skepticism demands a tiger’s leap into the past, to an Apollinaire story written before he wrote Alcools, before he wrote a fair portion of our Twentieth Century into existence in the poem "Zone." The story is called in full "The False Amphion or the Stories and Adventures of Baron D’Ormesan," and is relatively lengthy; as it happens, only the first section concerns the figure of "The False Amphion" itself. The narrator, Jourdain, who like many of Apollinaire’s narrators seems to exist at the edge of the law, encounters an old college friend Dormesan, whom he accuses of being a tourist guide. Not so.

"I am an artist, my dear friend, and what is more, I invented a branch of art myself, and am the only one to practice it," explains the former Dormesan, who has taken for himself an aristocratic title, like Georges-Eugène Haussmann and the Medicis before him. "I called this art amphionism, in memory of the strange power which Amphion possessed over stone and the different materials of which cities are made."

"The instrument of this art, and its subject matter, is a town of which one explores a part in such a matter as to excite in the soul of the amphion, or neophyte, sentiments that inspire in them a sense of the sublime and the beautiful, in the same way as music, poetry, and so on.

"In order to preserve for posterity the pieces composed by the amphion, and so that they can be created more easily, he marks them down on a map of the city indicating the exact roads to follow. These compositions, these poems, these amphionic symphonies are called antiopics, on account of the name Antiope, who was Amphion’s mother.

"I myself practice amphionism in Paris."

Dormesan then describes his latest composition, a stroll titled "Pro Patria" originating on the Rue St-Lazare, pausing at the Rothschild mansion, promenading the Champs Elysees, passing before the Arc de Triomphe and Les Invalides, and so forth. At Dormesan’s evocation of this evocation of noble sentiments, exalted notions, tears, etc, our narrator shows himself a skeptic. "But," I said laughingly, "I practice amphionism every day. All I have to do is go for a walk..."

"Monsieur Jourdain," cried Baron d’Ormesan, "what you say is perfectly true! You practice amphionism without knowing it."

The "Baron" matters. An old college chum is taking on airs; a common enough story. But this story is actually doubled. The fallen bourgeois passes himself off an aristocrat; the shiftless tour guide pretends to art. These two plays are one and the same: that’s the heart of it. Of course he takes on a noble title, summoning the pre-Revolutionary era of aristocratic indolence; anything to disguise the degraded activity which has forcibly asserted itself against any noble pastimes. Art and aristocracy stand identically beyond the new truth of labor, of work itself, and the material needs that require it — or so we like to imagine. It’s no coincidence that our artist’s "Pro Patria" tour of Napoleonic sites visits early the family home of the nation’s leading bankers (founded in Paris in 1812): the new bourgeois nobility, as it were.

But truth wills out: the truth of Dormesan, and the truth of the era. The threat that art itself might now be just another form of making due, work by any other name (if not indeed dishonest labor), haunts the story. Shortly after their encounter, Jourdain witnesses Dormesan’s performance of "Lutetia," an abbreviated production for the benefit of paying tourists displaying all the must-sees of Paris in just a few minutes, through the simple artifice of misidentifying building after building (a scene which will be repeated with hilariously greater detail in Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le Metro). It’s a comedy of capital, naturally; the flaneur’s stroll replaced by the worker’s hustle. The walk has become a for-profit venture, albeit a failed one.

As the section ends, Dormesan is given to describe a final antiopic’s debut, though he must perforce describe it from jail, insofar as "The Golden Fleece" involves at its climax the breaking of various jewelers’ windows and indeed the attempt to gather certain materials found therein. All part of the performance, of course.

This particular practice of Dormesan's, this poem-ing about architecture — this degraded "NO" to the degraded city which has swallowed up art and indolence in a single gulp, this new new art that pretends to recover the depths of feeling and nuances of consciousness by reading the city as am ordered series of signs and meanings — is a story the century has been telling, across varying registers, since its outset. It’s a story that evolvingly but consistently poses as an art something very much like a stroll, taken in the shadow of work — though the story always ends by suggesting that the category "art" won’t suffice, for better and for worse. What is the century thinking as it develops this tale of circulation-as-art-as-social-negation?

It is thinking, among many other things, of the third dimension, and of violence. Certainly this was on the mind of Apollinaire, the theorist of cubism, that shattering of figuration driven by the incommensurability of the second and third dimensions: the picture plane’s violent judgment on itself for its own bad faith, one might say. A few years later, Apollinaire would suggest that you and I and "the class of 1915"

...don’t weep for the horrors of war
Before the war we had only the surface
Of the earth and the seas
After it we’ll have the depths
Subterranean and aerial space (Apollinaire II 161)

If there is a cannier, more dialectical understanding of what’s concealed inside the word "progress," the somatic thrill of futurity and the dominations and barbarisms that both feed and require that thrill, it is only Walter Benjamin’s — and Apollinaire may do better with the problems of technological determinism. It's not that mechanized war, per Marinetti’s fevers, is the true art of the Twentieth century, the real modernism (though we remember well Arseni Avraamov’s Symphony of Factory Sirens, which employed for instrumentation artillery guns, the foghorns of the Caspian navy, a number of full infantry regiments and all the factory sirens of Baku). But art does share with war, with submarines and fighter planes, the capacity to invent a new spatiality for human bodies. And these things were in turn called into being by forces of modernity: the crisis of Western politics, and its nascently global regime of capital. This has given us the third dimension. Or, if it seems obvious that we have had it all along, say instead that this has given us the third dimension as historical fact and historical experience.

Apollinaire must have suspected that the contest needed to be taken up there. Before then, alongside work on Peintres cubistes (1913), between "The False Amphion" and the First World War, he wrote his masterwork, "Zone," about which one may say a decent portion of everything. For the moment, suffice to say that it is a poem trying to find its way into the modern, or rather one that has found itself in modernity’s midst and is trying to reconcile itself with the forces that drove it there like the storm blowing Benjamin’s reluctant Angel forward through history. It ends with a sparagmos heisted from classical Greek tragedy, the head of the old century (played by the sun) ripped off to make way for the new, a wound that can’t help but remind one also of the guillotine, if one is a citoyen.

The poem tracks "the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls....gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke" (Andreotti 20). That’s Debord, as it happens, describing psychogeography. It’s hard not to think of Debord’s famous cut-up psychogeographical maps, or the Situationist painter/architect Constant’s visual superimpositions of one city on another (or for that matter, Jean-Luc Godard’s famed jump-cuts) as the poem attempts to leap its own continuities: "Now you are in an inn-garden near Prague," and then immediately, "Here you are in Marseilles among the water-melons" (Beckett 147).

This continues for the eight pages of "Zone" (the version cached and translated in the Collected Poems in English and French of Samuel Beckett); it’s an interesting length. It cannot perch in the atemporality of the lyric with its singular definitive image; neither does it really reach after the long arc of the epic with its brutal sequentiality. Neither of these has drift, neither promenades...and this is exactly what "Zone" must do, unhurried, undirected, wandering about time. It’s a description avant la lettre of the dérive. Still, "Zone" is a poem, not an antiopic. It’s trapped in the second dimension, a map of the city made of text. The narrator wanders Paris while Apollinaire wanders the length and breadth of the page, both of them looking for a way out, a way out of the book, a way out of the narrative of progress, exhausting themselves against the forms and managements of modernity, against its concatenation of older symbols and apparitions, searching through an extended circulation, only to discover not an exit but "a terrible and magnificent peace, the true taste of the passage of time."

That last phrase is Debord again, assaying the ends of intoxication. "There will be rooms more conducive to dreams than any drug," said Chtcheglov — shortly to be institutionalized for madness and then excluded from the SI for the crime of "mythomania" — "and houses where one cannot help but love. Others will be irresistible to travelers..." (Andreotti 16) Debord, Chtcheglov, the SI of the 1950s, are the children of Apollinaire and his double, who have left the poem behind. The city will be our text, they say; nothing expresses this restless present without exit better than this ancient phrase that turns completely back on itself, being constructed letter by letter like an inescapable labyrinth. We turn round in the night, consumed by fire.

That last phrase is a palindrome, as it happens, with which Debord was fascinated. It turns completely back on itself only in Latin: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. It is signal that one anthology of Situationist writings on the city takes as its cover a sort of map, with the Latin phrase winding in the place of streets (Andreotti cover). It is perhaps coincidental that the phrase was devised by a Fifth century Gaul — one of the earliest of French writers, that is to say — named Sidonius Apollinaris.

Such classical reach is familiar in Debord’s writings; the SI existed, one might say, before and after poetry. Modern poetry, at least. By linear measure they are implausibly ahead of their time, stating the desire for "leaving the Twentieth century" before most of its inhabitants had arrived. But for what future? Just as surely they were Les enfants du paradis they claimed to be — acting out a romance in occupied Paris, under the noses of occupying power — they were les enfants perdus. "We live like lost children, our adventures incomplete"; these are the last words of Debord’s curious 1952 film Hurlements en faveur de Sade. One recalls well Apollinaire’s claim that the writings of de Sade would dominate the 20th century. One recalls in addition that Benjamin had found film to be the art of the future just sixteen years earlier...and yet, in Hurlements, Voice Two declares that "The art of the future will be the overturning of situations or nothing."

This is a fine phrase to end on — but that would be a disservice. This essay is provisional and partial; it has a latter passage, just as there was a latter passage to the Situationist International, coming to a head amidst the all-too-material architecture of the Sorbonne. I have no wish to suggest that the first years of the SI are the interesting years; I certainly don’t wish "to turn the SI safely into an art movement" (McDonough 491). Almost the opposite, in fact. I want to read the period I have been looking at, from 1952-1958 more or less, as a radical quest to destabilize what the concept "art movement" could possibly mean, as a negation of poetics that can’t help but reverse itself into a poetics of negation. Through this dialectical trickery, it serves as a strategy for debordering the categories of art, everyday life, political critique, so that meanings can circulate among them.

This is the alternative to the nothing: the everything, the totality, the imagining of a future not compelled to separate categories such as art and politics, poets and architects, and every other alienation. What is at stake, as I have intimated earlier, is exactly not whether this walk — antiopic, dérive, circulation — is art or politics. It is why the century wanted to think about this question, to think about totality, using this peculiar instrument, where text and the city are the media of thought.

It is the nature of the walk we’re after, and what such a narration of space can mean in particular historical circumstances. Just as Lukacs saw the novel as the necessary literary form of modernity and the epic’s necessary place in the classical, Apollinaire and the SI understand — in their different ways — that specific historical conditions have made possible, made inevitable, this particular expression. This walk is the bad faith of the Twentieth century, the bad faith of both literature and architecture, taking itself for a stroll.

If Modernism is, in T. J. Clark’s elegant formulation, formalism’s response to modernity, unitary urbanism is modernity’s form returned against it. In Michèle Bernstein’s roman a clef Tous les chevaux du roi, Gilles — the Debord character — is asked by Carole what he works on. "Reification," he responds flatly, to which his girlfriend Genevieve adds, "It’s a grave study."

"I see," Carole observed admiringly. "It’s serious work, with big books and lots of papers on a big table."

Non, dit Gilles, je me promène. Principalement, je me promène.


Andreotti, Libero, and Xavier Cost, eds. Theory of the Dérive and other situationist writings on the city (1996). ACTAR.

Apollinaire, Guillaume. The Heresiarch & Co. (1996). Exact Change.

Beckett, Samuel. Collected Poems 1986. John Calder.

McDonough, Tom, ed. Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents 2002. MIT Press.