The Situationist International, or SI, was a small gathering of would-be poets, filmmakers, artists, déclassé bourgeois and lumpen troublemakers, who first met and conspired in the hothouse atmosphere of Left Bank cafés in the 1950s. Its members were perhaps the last Bohemians, renouncing such practicalities as work in favour of long days – and nights – of wine, hashish and explorations of the city that privileged getting lost over orientation. They called the technique dérive, which means drifting, like an unmoored ship caught in the treacherous currents of the urban ocean. It was part Surrealist promenade and part close-to-home ethnographic expedition, and led to an alternative mapping of the city in which “psychogeography” – the emotive states called forth by different neighborhoods – seemed more significant than income distribution or the ratio of indoor toilets to residential density.
This could all seem like so much youthful extravagance, and indeed the latter was not lacking, but a more serious purpose underlay the SI’s fanciful, and often heated, rhetoric. The 1950s saw the triumph of urban renovation in the name of social “progress,” which in practice meant the clearing of slums in order to make Paris safe for the middle classes. As new towns sprouted like mushrooms in the suburbs, the city centre was remade as a boutique and a museum. Against this trend, the SI celebrated life at street level, called for cities free from the scourge of the automobile, and insisted that architecture should be filled with passion, not sterile rationalism. They also set out to discover those remaining islands of urban diversity, the little enclaves of Spanish refugees from Franco, or the North African shantytowns that harboured guerrillas who would fight for Algerian independence. This geography of resistance, and the ways in which its everyday life created an environment suited to its existence, inspired the SI to develop a theory of revolution in which the city played a central role.
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Tom McDonough is Associate Professor of Modern Architecture and Urbanism in the Art History Department at Binghamton University, and an editor of Grey Room. He is the editor of Guy Debord and the Situationist International and the author of The Beautiful Language of My Century.