December 5, 2023

On Dominique Routhier’s With and Against: The Situationist International in the Age of Automation

Jason E. Smith

Cover of the journal Atomes, October 1956

Guy Debord mentions automation only once in The Society of the Spectacle, in a short thesis tucked into the book’s second section, “The Commodity as Spectacle.” And yet it is hard not to think that the claim he makes in this compact passage is a crucial one, underpinning the construction of the book’s celebrated central concept. “With automation,” he writes, “the world of the commodity must come to terms with the following contradiction: the technical infrastructure which objectively suppresses labor must at the same time preserve labor as a commodity, and as the sole source of commodities.” Here, despite the newfangledness of the terms—“automation,” “spectacle”—his book proposes, Debord restates a fundamental law of capitalist development, first identified by Marx in a work published exactly one century before: the machinery incorporated into capitalist labor processes that raises labor productivity, and therefore the rate of exploitation, also works toward expelling labor, the singular source of surplus value (or “the commodity”), from production altogether. This development has two potential, and apparently offsetting, consequences: it inflicts on labor rising unemployment, downward pressure on wages, and the splintering of class cohesion, even as it lays the foundation for a crisis of profitability for capital, since the diminished base of exploited labor it employs reduces the total mass of surplus value the capitalist class can appropriate. Debord argues that what he calls the “society of the spectacle,” dating roughly from the 1920s, hit upon a brilliant, if fragile and partial, solution to this dilemma. This was to absorb the labor made redundant by increasingly automated production processes throughout the middle of the twentieth century by rapidly expanding commercial activities. The growing centralization of production activities was offset by the capillary dispersion of distribution networks, as more and more labor was set aside for getting products to market (transportation, warehousing, etc.) and, once there, for “sing[ing] the praises of the latest commodities.” The world of the commodity was made to dance to the rhythm of the logo, the earworm, the eidolon, the cliché. Even that ur-commodity, labor-power, was volatilized into its own image, so as to merge with its representation, now part and parcel of the society whose destruction it once pledged. Such, in so many words, is Debord’s claim.

It is no accident that Dominique Routhier’s With and Against: The Situationist International in the Age of Automation (Verso, 2023) opens with this passage, which economically draws together so many salient features of the age named in the book’s subtitle. Let’s get this out of the way now: With and Against can lay claim to being the best book in English to date on the situationist movement, and an indispensable complement to a number of key works on and around the SI, Debord, and the French cultural politics of the postwar decades (works by Hannah Feldman, Tom McDonough, Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, and Kristin Ross, to single out some important interlocutors for the author). Routhier is a Danish scholar who moves easily between European languages (Danish, English, French, German …), and has published essays on everything from self-driving cars, memes, and Danish politics to European social movements and contemporary philosophy; he has also written extensively on sometimes thorny issues in Marxist theory. This span of interests and competencies makes this book on the SI, and more broadly on cultural production in postwar France and “the work of art in the age of automation,” especially rich and sophisticated, since it brings together art history and the close analysis of art objects with sociology and the critique of political economy. What distinguishes Routhier’s approach is the way he identifies the situationists’ complex treatment of automation and cybernetics—not exactly synonyms, but both the subject of broad public debate in the 1950s and ’60s—as a prism through which to understand this group’s historical place and ambitions. With and Against not only examines the way “automation” functioned as a symptomatic site of the group’s changing artistic, theoretical, and political preoccupations, at once an object of critique and “fascination”; it understands the group itself as a charged artifact of the age of automation, maybe even one of its exemplary expressions.

How does Routhier define this epoch, whose duration might be usefully (if approximately) said to correspond to that of the Situationist International itself, 1957–72? First and foremost by the rapid change in industrial production techniques in the “advanced” economies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan after World War II, detonating a surge in labor productivity and with it, the availability of new and cheap consumer goods (one spoke of “abundance” in those days). The effects of this revolution in production techniques were widespread, and deep, resulting in mutations in patterns of consumption and leisure, and more generally quotidian “behaviors.” These changes were made possible not just by the availability of new consumer goods, but the rising real wages needed to purchase them as well. More profoundly, automating important industries like automobile production induced significant changes in the composition of the working class and even the nature of work itself, developments that in the 1950s were the subject of innumerable studies in the field of “industrial sociology.” One of the especially welcome features of With and Against is its engagement with this discourse, especially its left-wing French variants (Alain Touraine, Serge Mallet, the journal Arguments, and so on), and its prophecies of a “new working class.” This revolution in production coincided with a crisis of Marxism that is typically attributed to the revelation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956, but in fact had deeper roots: the crisis of work, on the one hand, and the French left’s disastrous response to the war in Algeria, on the other. Finally, the age of automation assumed a singular cultural shape in postwar France, with the French state playing an indispensable role in the promotion and underwriting of a new, pointedly national and “modern,” neo-avant-garde. This avant-garde in the service not of the revolution but of the state was emblematized—as Routhier’s account has it—in Le Corbusier’s architectural and urban initiatives, Yves Klein’s blue monochromes, and the “cybernetic” sculptures of Nicolas Schöffer, and was virulently attacked by the situationists throughout their short history, as were the left sociology and institutional Marxisms of the moment. Yet for all of the critical venom it reserved for these bêtes noires, the SI’s preoccupations with art, technology, and the end of work were often uncomfortably close to those of its adversaries, betraying at moments what With and Against calls a “secret fascination” with the advanced techniques of capitalist production—a fascination hard to tell apart from that of its similarly bewitched, and perhaps only apparent, enemies.

Indeed, the red thread running through With and Against is the claim that the SI’s response to automation and cybernetics can only be characterized as a “sustained if conflicted engagement,” one that verges at times on being “self-contradictory.” Routhier’s method is economical and elegant: in three of the four chronologically ordered chapters, he starts his analysis by focusing on a single, exemplary print object (a polemical tract, a poster, a book). This object, scrutinized with rigor, serves as a symptomatic point that knots together a number of contradictions, be they cultural, political, or social. In an especially compelling feature of his account, the “cybernetic artist” Nicolas Schöffer—a forgotten figure once championed by French cultural authorities who deemed his work’s marriage of art and technology “avant-garde”—reappears often in Routhier’s narrative, a frequent target of the SI whose preoccupations and programs often mirrored, uncomfortably, their own. This is especially clear as we move from the book’s first chapter, which chronicles the proto-situationist Lettrist International’s attack on the state sponsorship of a postwar French neo-avant-garde festival in Marseille in 1956, to the second, where the Belgian situationist Constant’s mid-fifties sculptures and his early sixties cybernetic “utopia” are compared with at least superficially similar efforts by Schöffer. By Routhier’s account, it is in this second phase of the SI’s historical arc, preoccupied with questions of urban space and architecture, that it veers closest to an outright embrace of the cybernetic ideology it would later relentlessly criticize. With and Against maintains, however, that this brief if intense flirtation with the latent powers unleashed by capitalist modernity is no deviation from a true path, later apparently represented by the “campaign against the cyberneticians” detailed in chapter four. It is rather one pole of a contradictory response to the prospect of a rapid expansion of the principles of automation that runs through and structures the group’s history, mostly unacknowledged by the SI and its future acolytes alike.

With and Against’s centerpiece is arguably its bravura chapter on Asger Jorn’s and Debord’s collaborative anti-book from 1957, Fin de Copenhague, which Routhier understands to be a “proxy for the conflicted situationist stance towards technology as a whole.” Conceived by its assemblers as reactivating Lissitzsky’s “constructivist” concept of the book, it proposes a transcendence of the spectacular work of art by paradoxically exploiting a technical format traditionally associated with privacy and inwardness, in contrast with, say, film’s collectively undergone montage-induced ruptures. The appeal to Lissitzky and the constructivist defamiliarization of the book form opens still another paradox, the most pressing one for the chapter’s argument: the constructivist legacy is mapped onto what Routhier construes as a postwar crisis of Marxism, rooted in the automation-induced decomposition of the socialist imaginary, in stark contrast with the postrevolutionary society in which Lissitzky worked, where the construction of socialism meant building a new world and a new “man” founded on and defined by work. In Fin de Copenhague and elsewhere—Routhier unearths important theoretical interventions as well—Jorn carries out a targeted and thoroughgoing criticism of what Pierre Chaulieu (the pseudonym of Cornelius Castoriadis) called the “moronic optimism” of the end-of-work sociology of Alain Touraine and Serge Mallet, which anticipated the imminent transformation of the rude race of workers of the factory system into “upskilled managers” of automated production, a mutation that would overcome the class antagonisms of that obsolete system by dint of technological development alone. But if Jorn and the SI rejected this vision of the pacific transcendence of the class relation—adopted by a large part of the reformist left in France—they equally insisted on the mid-century labor movement’s seamless integration into the dynamics of capitalist development.

Through a meticulous analysis of Jorn’s use, in his 1961 collection Pour la forme, of an image of a worker in an automated factory from a popular science publication with the ominous name Atomes, Routhier argues that Jorn’s gesture of détournement “attests to a situation in which labor had finally lost its charm for the avant-garde … just as the manual worker was no longer the role model of the revolution.” For all of the polemical poison aimed at the automation theorists, however, Jorn too saw in this final revolution in production the material instantiation of a dream that animated the classical avant-gardes of the 1920s, especially the surrealists on whom the situationists modeled themselves in so many ways: the end of work. Jorn shares with many automation theorists of the moment the conviction that recent transformations of the technological infrastructure of capitalist production might rapidly reduce the quantity of social time allocated to labor in a coming social society. His criticisms of their moronic optimism stem instead from his conviction that these same theorists want at all costs to preserve the “social form that wealth acquired under capitalist relations of production,” and which Marx calls “value”: they want to preserve, at all costs, labor-power as a commodity that is “the sole source of all commodities.”

Routhier’s insistence on the situationist movement’s “self-contradictory” positions on automation and cybernetics is not the charting of a mere inconsistency or incoherence; nor does the chronological format of the story trace an evolution. What we confront across the SI’s history is a structural contradiction whose specific form of appearance mutates from moment to moment. It is structural because it is inscribed in the very nature of automation itself, and expresses itself differently on either side of the capital relation. For workers, revolutionary changes in the labor process should mean the radical reduction of the time of work; instead, it means unemployment, the fragmentation of the class, and the loss of control over production. For the capitalist class, the reduction of the time of necessary labor makes possible the appropriation of more surplus labor. But since the very thing that raises the rate of exploitation also reduces the total amount of labor-power employed in production, the conditions are in place for a crisis of profitability—a reduction in the ratio of surplus value to total capital advanced—that threatens the viability of the system itself. The situationists were not the only actors of this epoch sensitive to these contradictions, as Routhier makes clear, particularly in his chapter on Fin de Copenhague and With and Against’s conclusion. The SI’s place in the history of capitalist modernity is secured instead by the way it seized upon the fraught relation between artistic production and the work of waged labor, on the one hand, and between the work of art and the form of the commodity—its rival and shadow—on the other hand. These concerns are the province of avant-garde art more generally. The situationists were only its most refined, if final, iteration, which did not spare the group the cost of reproducing its thorniest antinomies.

All this seems like the remote past: capitalist modernity, the avant-garde, cybernetic utopias, the end of work. Debord was right when he identified the fix that the “world of the commodity” would need in order to surmount, for a time, the fatal contradiction at that world’s heart: an ever-expanding “tertiary” sector that would absorb the labor cast off by productivity gains in the industrial core. These nouveaux emplois were, by the century’s end, more likely to be low-wage “care” workers in hospitals, schools, and childcare centers than those delivering goods to market or confecting images and jingles to tout them. In the past ten years or so, the business papers and think-tank fellows have promised us a new age of automation, in an eerie return to the postwar rhetoric that preoccupied the situationists, only now rebranded as machine learning and artificial intelligence. Yet this time the hype around automation is taking place in a period of sustained stagnation, rather than in the midst of an unprecedented boom. The admen and -women are no longer simply tasked with singing the praises of new, cheap consumer goods, but of automation itself, now mostly an image to be consumed. Art has its place in this era of ersatz automation. There’s more of it than ever, and no one would propose its abolition. Art no longer seeks solace in its rival, the commodity, mirroring it inimically. It merges with it, and mocks itself.

Avant-Garde, Capitalism
Automation, Post-war

Jason E. Smith teaches at the ArtCenter College of Design in California. His writing and research are largely concerned with contemporary art and aesthetics, modern continental philosophy (Spinoza, Hegel, twentieth century), and post-1968 political thought (primarily French and Italian). He has published in Artforum, Critical Inquiry, Parrhesia, Radical Philosophy, South Atlantic Quarterly, Theory & Event, and Grey Room, among other places. He is the author of Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation (Reaktion Books, 2020).


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