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An avant-garde in academic hands

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review; BOOKS

The Situationist City by Simon Sadler. mit Press, 1998. 244pp. £24.95

There is something absurd about writing an academic book on Situationism. Simon Sadler knows this only too well, and so offers what must be one of the most apologetic introductions of all time. He argues that what comes out of universities is not necessarily reactionary, dull and opaque. You would have thought, then, that he would try to provide a rip-roaring and fully engaged account of this most flamboyant of avant-garde movements.

We get none of this. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Sadler is never going to nail his colours to the mast. Does he support Situationists such as Guy Debord, who defended their intellectual position by denying the existence of anything called 'Situationism'? Or does he recommend the stance of Constant Nieuwenhuys, who trimmed the most challenging aspects of Situationism in order to come up with his barmy megastructural 'New Babylon'? The fact is that Sadler resorts to precisely the kind of academic irony and detachment that he claims he wants to avoid.

He deals at length with the architectural and urban debates of the 1950s and early 1960s as a cultural context for the Situationist movement (though curiously there is no mention of Hannah Arendt's influential theory of civic engagement). There is much about Team X attacks on ciam's doctrines of functionalism and zoning, and about similarities and dissimilarities between the Situationists and their nearest counterparts in London: Reyner Banham, the Independent Group, and Archigram. He describes well the internal dissensions within the Situationist International during its existence from 1957 until 1972 (always dominated by Debord and the Parisian axis).

It is the wider social factors which are most absent in Sadler's account. Astonishingly, there is no proper explanation of the extraordinary economic and political events that precipitated the Parisian uprising of May 1968, even though the Situationists claimed the riots as a product of their anarchic, confrontational stance. Even more underplayed is the context of Cold War politics. Both the ussr and the usa funded European intellectual groups for propaganda purposes, and this exacerbated the tensions between the Marxist and non-Marxist camps. In this light, so much of Situationism can be seen as rabid anti-Americanism.

Debord's hatred of the 'society of spectacle' was an attack on American cultural imperialism and the values spread through consumerism and the mass media. Similarly, the Situationist emphasis on walking through the city on their famous 'drifts' was not just a revival of the role of the nineteenth-century flaneur - it was also a consciously non-productive provocation to the American pattern of car-based speed and efficiency. The Situationists were left hating everything about the way modern life was going. They wanted to be the ultimate Marxist intellectual guerillas - the avant-garde to end all avant-gardes - but ended up as condescending romantics fetishising the most problematic parts of European cities.

It is clear that the Situationist movement produced a litany of failure. Their walking explorations of cities were little more than slumming. The scissor-and-paste jobs that they deployed on urban maps left cities as a sequence of dismembered body-parts. And they never achieved the aim of staging the subversive and interactive social performances which they described as 'situations'. Equally predictable is that later architects who tried to make capital out of the Situationist approach, notably Bernard Tschumi and Nigel Coates, have quietly dropped this aspect of their work.

Yet there is also much contemporary relevance for Situationism, which Sadler never really draws out. The Sitationists were first to see that the conditions of urban experience would form the contemporary intellectual battlefield. They forced analysts such as Henri Lefebvre to spatialise Marxist theories of dialectical materialism, leading to an increased awareness of the role that cities play in social struggle.

Above all, the Situationists knew instinctively that, to survive, modern cities would need to be dense, open in structure, and multi-functional in their spatial organisation. Given that this view is now becoming cultural orthodoxy, it is a pity that this book did not have the confidence and insight to trace a key historical connection.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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