Beneath the Paving Stones: Situationists and the Beach, May 1968

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The writers of the pamphlets reprinted here would surely have avoided the perfunctory expressions of mourning. No, they would have boldly stated that the twin towers' flame-out is the perfect metaphor for a society of the spectacle being beaten at its own game.

Texts collected by Dark Star

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Thursday, September 20 2001, 12:55 PM


Returning to this book in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, my initial resistance to its charms was overcome. The writers of the pamphlets reprinted here would surely have avoided the perfunctory expressions of mourning. No, they would have boldly stated that the twin towers' flame-out is the perfect metaphor for a society of the spectacle being beaten at its own game. And that captures what is good andbad in this volume. It reflects the daring of the heterodox French leftists responsible for the events of May, 1968. But it also showcases their refusal to make the compromises necessary for their movement's long-term survival.

Hardest to understand from our vantage point is the hatred these tracts express for unions. "The stronger the Labour Movement, with its bone-hard hierarchies and its schoolteacher notions of technology and social justice, the greater the guarantee of total repression." This quote from "The Poverty of Student Life," a tract distributed by Situationists at the University of Strasbourg in 1966, testifies to the movement's tendency to think in absolute terms. While these harsh words make more sense if you understand the role that the Communist Party played in controlling French unions, they still reflect a disturbing tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However benighted their leadership may have been, union members did not have the luxury to be "as radical as reality." Unlike most of the students spearheading the movement, they had families to support, jobs they couldn't afford to lose.

Taken with the right dose of realism, however, this book can be a wonderful resource. It's amazing how little the big picture has changed. At one point, the authors of the Strasbourg pamphlet speak of the challenge to the Left posed by the "decline of the spectacular antagonisms (Tory/Labour, East/West, High Culture/Low Culture)." This is a politics for after the Cold War. "The market has once central principle -- the loss of self in the aimless and unconscious creation of a world beyond the control of its creators." In a sense, these tracts heed their own suggestion that "revolution must break with its past, and derive all its poetry from the future." Their future is our present, a time when world trade takes precedence over everything else.

Not surprisingly, the most powerful piece in the volume is the one least constrained by the specifics of the French situation, Raoul Vaneigem's "The Totality for Kids." His dissection of everyday life under "advanced" capitalism retains an urgency that transcends the fixation on May, 1968 as a concept. "The spectacle and everyday life coexist in the reign of equal values. People and things are interchangeable." Watching coverage of the World Trade Center's demise, you couldn't help but wonder whether some of us found it easier to mourn the buildings than the people inside them. "Who is responsible? Who should be shot? We are dominated by a system, an abstract form." Stockbrokers are people too.

Beneath the Paving Stones is available from AK Press 

Copyright © 2001 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
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