Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The N.Y. Times ran a heartbreakingly vacuous article on the subject of the May 1968 riots in Paris on April 30, 2008. Titled "Barricades of May '68 Still Divide the French," the piece suggested that the Sorbonne's occupation was touched off by a demonstration against restrictions on men visiting women's college dorms, completely failed to mention the Situationist International (S.I.), and to add insult to injury, attributed the occupation's S.I. slogans solely to Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Viewed from this perspective, the occupation seems like nothing more than an incredibly destructive student dust-up, the kind that occasionally follows a college basketball playoff in the States.

The Times missed every nuance of the occupation and the S.I. itself, from the striking graphics and their incisive captions that were printed up during the occupation and posted around Paris; to the sprawling "tribes" of the Lettrist International and the S.I. with their artists, thinkers, poets, and strange hangers-on; the tongue-in-cheek, cut-and-paste philosophy of the S.I. Journal and its "detourned" comic strips; the strange beauty of ideas such as the urban derive and other psychogeographic adventures; the films of Guy Debord; and finally, the far-reaching influence of the S.I. on punk rock, literature, and current cultural saboteurs such as Adbusters. There is a whole, magical world within the borders of the S.I. that reaches back to brush shoulders with Lautreamont, the Paris Commune, the Cabaret Voltaire and Dada, and Surrealism, and yet the S.I.'s critique of commodity society remains vital.

It would be incredibly superficial to note, as the Times did, that the idea never occurred to student leaders to march on the presidential palace and attempt to replace DeGaulle's government with one of their own making, thus causing the Paris occupation to ultimately fizzle and end. The S.I. disavowed any desire to give birth to some kind of dogmatic "Situationism," a concept abhorrent to them. Instead May 1968 remains a striking example of human capability, where factory workers grasped student concerns and launched a general strike in concert with the occupation, where demonstrators rendered riot police ineffective, and where the occupation denounced communist bureaucracies in China and Soviet Russia simultaneously with its outcry against DeGaulle's government. If your curiosity is aroused, you can go to S.I. Archives and begin exploring.

Or perhaps it would be nice sometime this month, 40 years after that exquisite ruckus, to simply stroll through a nearby city and make a mental catalog of the various emotions that are called forth within you by different neighborhoods, their people, streets, and buildings, while thinking fondly of Ralph Rumney, who was vanquished by the enormity of just such an investigation of the wondrous city of Venice while on assignment for the S.I.