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McKenzie Wark Interview: People Who Specialise in Not Working

08/09/2011

McKenzie Wark is an associate professor in culture and media at the New School for Social Research in New York where he teaches courses in Game Culture, Media Avant-Gardes, and the Military Entertainment Complex. He’s written a bunch of cultish books, including A Hacker Manifesto which received enthusiastic reviews from Michael Hardt, Terry Eagleton and Jean Baudrillard, who called it “a jubilation”. I met Wark when he was in London recently to promote The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (Verso, £14.99). Over three nights I watched him parlay his ideas before very different crowds: at the Café Oto in East London, an artsy music venue full of tweeting students; at Housmans, the radical bookshop in Kings Cross, where he spent the afternoon before his talk playing Guy Debord’s Game of War; and in the refurbished  Whitechapel Art Gallery, where he also showed his short film, an homage to one of the Situationists’ more ambitious ideas – Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon project which envisages an alternative world infrastructure, no less. Finally, Wark settled down long enough for me to interview him in the offices of Verso, his Soho publisher.

KW:     How do you think the atmosphere of Paris in the postwar years – the hardships and rationing, the level of deracination of many of the people you discuss in the Beach Beneath the Street, some of whom had been in Auschwitz – how far do these circumstances shape the ideas of the Situationists, and how far were they a reaction to them?

MW:   Paris is a pretty miserable place after the war. It’s the city of lights, but the lights don’t go on again until the early 50s. Money is scarce, the economy doesn’t work. It sounds like a terrible thing to say but in many ways people are worse off after the war than during it. People who have jobs have to work for longer hours for less money. Plus a lot of the characters who are important to telling the story of the Situationist International were children during the war, so they’re not of the age to have been drafted, but they’ve come through that time as adolescents. And two things have happened to them. Firstly, they’ve been dislocated from their families – sometimes because parents have gone to the camps and died, or just because of the effects of war. Secondly, there’s been the delegitimisation of big chunks of French culture because of collaboration. This really only leaves a slender range of alternatives. One is the Communist Party that’s claiming the mantle of resistance and wrapping itself in the bloodied flag, and not without some legitimacy. The other is the attempt to stay outside of that. Sartre and de Beauvoir would be an example, although they want to have some relation to the Communist Party  because they assume it’s the representative of the working class. Their real relation, however, is with publishing and the media: establishing the intellectual wing of the whole postwar spectacle of a new French culture. There’s also the Saint Germain nightclub scene – the jazz that survives the war and that sort of stuff.

KW:     And what’s interesting is how the media spectacle and bohemian Saint Germain feed off one other.

MW:    Of course, there’s a continuum between those things. My characters who feed into the Situationist story are on the fringe – they’re existentialists with a lower case ‘e’. They’re younger and more marginal and haven’t gone to the right universities – or to university at all. There’s a continuum from that bohemia to delinquency and even to what we used to call ‘the dangerous classes’. So that’s the sort of territory out of which, interestingly enough – and this doesn’t happen very often – the Situationists’ concepts come. Art often comes out of bohemia but conceptual thinking rarely does.

KW:     You describe it as if the Situationists were themselves the street kids, about whom you say in your book many needed to scratch a living either from prostitution or petty thieving. But the Situationists aren’t quite that class of people. Isn’t it, rather, that they are simply hanging out with the most destitute? It could be argued that their behaviour is not so different from de Beauvoir and others who also go to the cafés and nightclubs. Or do you think it is, somehow, qualitatively different?

MW:    Well de Beauvoir will describe exactly what’s going on in the nightclubs and then say, But, of course, I never went there! So you wonder just what that relation was.

KW:     Because her need for propriety was much stronger than the Situationists’, she had more at stake in being respectable?

MW:    And she’s older, of another generation, properly educated and playing the main game. She’s realised a cultural opportunity. But you’re absolutely right. The central figure in this story – although I want to displace him a little – is Guy Debord. He’s from the provinces and has lived through the war as a youth. Disowned by his step-father, he’s a person of slender means who comes to Paris, ostensibly to go to university. But it’s really just for the stipend and the free meals (which might shock anyone who’s been a student recently). He becomes what I call a street ethnographer. He’s involved in a genuine learning experience by hanging out with street kids and teenage alcoholics. It’s an intellectual exercise and the question, I think, he’s substantially interested in is: what would that life be and what could you actually produce outside of wage labour? So while there’s a heroism of labour and a valuing of the working class, he wants to ask a slightly different question. If the whole point is to abolish wage labour, how do we start to think about what the ‘outside of wage labour’ would look like?

KW:     But Debord’s ‘Never work!’ slogan could only arise from someone in a financial position to think such a thing. What does it mean even to propose this to people who can’t afford not to work?

MW:    That’s the thing…

KW:     …it’s meant to be incendiary not practical.

MW:    Yes. And living outside wage labour, then as now, is extremely difficult to do. Of course, the other way is to have a vast inheritance. That’s also interesting: to find something really useful to do with vast amounts of money is not an insignificant problem. For most people, though, the problem is that you have to work. But is there not something to learn from: what would it be like to live outside of wage labour given that like most people I have to go to work and that consumes so much time that when I’m not working I don’t really know what to do because I haven’t had the time to think about it! So it struck me as interesting to study people who specialise in not working.

KW:     Can we pursue a little further the relationship of the Situationists to the Existentialists? How much would you say Michèle Bernstein’s novels share with writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute? There’s a similar interest in game-playing and formalism – the sort of stuff you get when you empty God and moral authority out of the world and it all becomes about structure. To what extent did they consciously share territory? Or did they see themselves as separate and opposed?

MW:    At the risk of a cliché, there is a coterie quality to how French intellectual life has always worked. Someone like Michèle Bernstein is intensely aware of the example of Simone de Beauvoir, who’s of another generation and who’s not an attractive model for lots of reasons. But the reverse is not the case. I’m quite sure that de Beauvoir never heard of Bernstein in the 50s and 60s. The Situationists are marginal people, publishing just initially on a Roneod sheet. You meet a lot of people who are veterans of French intellectual life in the 50s and 60s who will just straight up tell you: I never heard of these people! They were marginal at this moment and got famous later, as is often the case.

KW:     Or not. And that’s part of your version of the Situationists, you look not just at the ‘great men’, at Debord and [Asger] Jorn, but also those who have been edged out of the story.

MW:    Yeah, well: “can the subaltern speak?” There’s always someone who’s been cut off and whose voice you didn’t hear at all. But if you get as far as the marginal lives that are documented, it gestures towards those other lives that you can never retrieve. So I wanted to get women back into the story – and I got two that I think are worth telling [Michèle Bernstein and Jacqueline de Jong]. I would have loved to have gotten the North African stories back in – there are three – but there’s hardly a trace! [Abdelhafid Khatib is the only one Wark mentions: the other two were Mohamed Dahou and Mutsapha Kayati]. They’re the folks who didn’t get recorded into history in the same way.

KW:     Yes I want to talk about the importance of the record, and the problems where it doesn’t exist. I was interested yesterday to see that while you were playing Debord’s Game of War you were recording every move. When I asked why, your opponent, [Richard Barbrook, from Class Wargames] said, “Because this is history!”

MW:    Tongue in cheek.

KW:     Of course. But if you don’t make the record you ‘aint in history! Given what you’ve just said about the lack of awareness of de Beauvoir and others about the International, how far do you think making the record was an important part of what they were doing?

MW:    Debord self-consciously tried to write himself into cultural history from the time he was a teenager. Some correspondence has surfaced from that period and he’s already astonishingly well-read in a certain avant-garde tradition. He starts to archive the Situationist International before it even exists! So there’s a real self-consciousness about the significance of documents. And I think particularly in his later writing he becomes a very sophisticated thinker and ‘artist’.

KW:     So from the outset his tactic involved self-reflexiveness?

MW:    It’s not self-reflexive because that takes you off in a postmodern direction and he doesn’t do that. But it’s the specific question of: what’s the legitimate form in which you can document evanescent situations? One of his major themes is the passage and liquidity of time. How can one find ways of making cinema? Because in the absence of the revolution that didn’t happen, what you do is make cinema and write books and create a game. These are the three major ways he has of trying to document the tactics of negotiating situations. He’s a strategist, that’s his entire life. He’s an amazingly interesting character and I wanted to tell some slightly different stories about what he’s doing early on and his role as an organiser. What he does is co-ordinate and organise activity among other people, and that’s a role we tend to neglect. It’s the writers who get famous, not the folks who hold it all together. He does both, which is what makes him so interesting.

KW:     That’s a skill you indentified as your own in your talk at Housmans. You mentioned your background as an organiser on the left and how easy that made it for you to fit into academia.

MW:    I never particularly claimed to be a good organiser but I had a certain training in how you get things to happen, including mass meetings. We tried to get the President of the New School Social Research to resign in 2008, which involved meetings of up to 300 people. I remember walking in there and going, Oh I haven’t done this for so long, but I still remember how to do it: Move that the motion be put!; Let’s get unity on this! So, yeah, having had that experience it struck me as worthwhile to look again at the role of organiser on the boundary between politics and media. Everything you organise is a compromise with something so negotiation requires very subtle tactics.

KW:     This is all part of why there’s such a great interest now in Debord – because these questions of organisation and tactics are being re-thought once more. To go back to the record, though: how much does Debord talk about the impact of making the record on the practice itself? We live now in a state of almost incessant self-recording and self-surveillance. Often it seems the prior thought, before the action.

MW:    Debord was very good at seduction. He was able to make it appear like things were happening before they were, and this called them into being. It was a bootstrap operation in that regard. He realised early on you don’t need a lot of people. A lot of people could actually be an impediment to getting things done. A small group of carefully chosen comrades can achieve more than a mass movement.

KW:     An elite cadre?

MW:    It wasn’t quite like that.

KW:     But there’s some resonance, isn’t there?.

MW:    A little bit. It’s partly modelled on the surrealists and it’s partly a reaction to Communist Party type organisation. There are definitely people associated with the Situationists who’ve been through the Party but who are also hostile to it as well.

KW:     I want to push you on how far the recording-making and act are now one and the same thing: what kind of impact does recording have upon the act itself?

MW:    I’m also a writer of an obviously somewhat more minor kind and we’re always very self-conscious people about how you craft the appearance of either an individual or collective subjectivity. I’m resistant to Debord becoming canonised as a great writer – although he was – but he has an intense self-awareness of role-plays.

KW:     So you’re suggesting the self-awareness and role-playing that’s occupational for writers and artists is now prevalent in the general population? You don’t think there’s a downside to any of this?

MW:    Oh of course. You have to think about all of these things dialectically. It’s not like you can parcel out the good bits and the bad bits – you’re always involved in these complicated tensions. But that’s where the Situationists are interesting, because they’re looking for tactics that can deal with these complicated things where you can’t decide in advance what’s good and what’s bad.

KW:     No, but you can be aware of a general drift. In the book you say there are two fathers in the head for the Situationists: the Surrealist bad father, and the Dadaist good father. But there’s a third begetter, surely? Marx. As you say, some of the Situationists were Party members. Can you talk about what they took from Marx?

MW:    I think the interesting person who’s writing has been ignored is Asger Jorn. He was of the older generation, meaning he was an adult during the war. He was in the Danish Communist Party and was active – probably not doing anything more than printing a journal in his apartment, but this is still a serious thing to do in a Nazi-occupied country so I don’t want to exaggerate or belittle what he did. The Party was somewhat broadminded about cultural politics at this period and didn’t know what its policy was. But it became narrowly…

KW:     …Zhdanovite?

MW:    Yes, and socialist realist after the war, and Jorn leaves it. Anyway, he was always much more influenced by Danish syndicalist thought. So he goes through this intense process of re-thinking Marxism as he understands it, which actually has a lot to do with Engels. We forget: a lot more people read Engels than Marx at that time. And Jorn has a really quite strange and interesting critique of Marx on commodity form. He’s trying to think about the question of what class artists belong to. Because it’s not quite labour. What they do is more like the innovation of form, rather than the manual labour of repeating an action that’s been already formed in advance. And his argument, in essence, is that there are two subordinate classes – the working class and the creative elite (which is tongue in cheek – a joke on C. Wright Mills’s Power Elite). But his argument is the vital thing, it’s the experimental attempt to extract from nature new possibilities of form.

Asger Jorn, The Avant-Garde Doesn’t Give Up, 1962

KW:     And the artist’s labour, he says, not the worker’s, creates the only genuine production of value.

MW:    No, it does not come from workers. The idea of the commodity form is that when you can make it all in the same form, it actually has no value. And Jorn is speaking here in the context of the postwar ramping up of consumer economy. The problem is what he calls ‘tin can philosophy’, where there’s no relation whatsoever between the content and the form. It’s an interesting argument, that it’s partly because of the form of the tin can, that the content starts to be goop. At the end of the day, it’s goop. Right there, he anticipates the argument of the whole food movement!

KW:     It is interesting. But it’s not so different from the critique of capitalism that was made in the 1880s by William Morris and the arts and craft movement – the desire to reinstate meaningful labour. But their vision was not of a creative elite, as Jorn envisages, but of returning workers to some kind of pre-industrial craft culture.

MW:    Oh absolutely, and Jorn definitely partakes of that. But he adds a few things to Morris. One is, he reads Marx closely and tries to understand the contemporary economy of his time, which is a real advance on the romantic critique of capitalism. The other thing he does is come up with a critique of European aesthetics that covers a period of 10,000 years. He thinks we’ve got the story wrong – it’s an astonishing claim to make.

KW:     He attacks the Renaissance. Can you explain his reservations about the idea of purity?

MW:    He’s resistant to the Platonist idea that the goal is to reduce everything down to purity of form, which is definitely one of the things that’s alive and well in modernism. Modernism reconstructs a history of the value of things like the Renaissance and selectively reads the classical art of Greece to make this a consistent story. Jorn completely reverses that. Partly this has to do with a desire to restore the Northern European story rather than the Southern one. He thinks there’s a much more organic form coming out of the North. It’s a little bit ethnocentric.

KW:     Yes, but inevitably so, because he’s arguing against another ethnocentrism.

MW:    Exactly. And the other context to bear in mind is that he’s formed by Nazi occupation in Denmark where the Nazis insisted the Danes were Aryans, so to say there’s such a thing as Scandanavian culture is a resistance position. He continues with that line and makes it into an astonishing re-thinking of the whole of European aesthetics. That’s why I have two whole chapters on Jorn because his writing’s been ignored, when he’s actually one of the major figures, I think, of the postwar period.

KW:     Can you say something about why the idea of ‘everyday life’ was so important to the Situationists? And something, too, about their Benjaminesque idea of boredom as an instigator of action, “the dreambird that hatches the egg of experience”.

MW:    Arguably it’s the surrealists who discover everyday life as a space and a concept. It’s also in Baudelaire. But maybe the turning point is a character called Henri Lefebvre who writes The Critique of Everyday Life in 1947. Lefebvre identifies the space of the everyday.

KW:     He has the idea of ‘moments outside’.

MW:    Yes, it’s outside of work and family and state. So the everyday is the inbetween bits – the things that are inbetween that might become something else.

KW:     So it’s not like the counter-culture: opposed, parallel, outside?

MW:    Exactly, it’s inside. And, incidentally, it’s why Lefebvre and what comes after him is an interesting counterweight to the Beat version of outsiderness, with its romantic figure.

KW:     And the counter-culture that this leads to.

MW:    Yes, which thought it was outside but is more inside than it knows! But within the space of the everyday there are moments that come and go, moments of love and of challenge and of play. They can then crystallise out into something more…

KW:     …threatening? Can they start to erode the other parts of life? Or does Lefebvre hold them in abeyance?

MW:    It’s a question of whether they should become oppositional. Because the problem is when you oppose something, you legitimise it. But, yeah: can moments in the everyday gently secede? Sometimes they’ll be antagonistic, but sometimes not. Lefebvre is struggling to find a language in which all the ways and practises of the construction of everyday life might be brought forward.

KW:     So rather than being avowedly oppositional, we should just try to amplify these moments and push them to their fullest expression?

MW:    Lefebvre is interested in memory – and this goes back to your question about the self-consciousness of writing – because part of stabilising something out of the everyday is to do with memory. Not in the sense of an idea in your head, but in the sense of a form that enables you to revisit and repeat something. How do you build something out of memory that sustains itself? Just to give you an everyday example: you set up a social club

KW:     And how does that relate to the idea of memory?

MW:    Well if you set up a social club it has a certain repetition of itself. Let’s say you have a social club that meets every Friday. This is not a memory in your head but it’s embodied in the fact that it meets every Friday. It’s in everyone’s calendars, they know to go to a certain place. So it crystallises out as a form. Lefebvre is interested in this not as politics with a capital P, but as practises in everyday life that construct spaces of autonomy.

KW:     And there’s none of the anxiety about memory that’s present in, say, Nausea – no worry about the deceptive nature of memory?

MW:    Nausea is a prewar novel. It’s about the bourgeois individual struggling with the facticity of material life, and the difference between consciousness and the facticity against which it rubs up. But Sartre is a dualist and Lefevbre – and very definitely Jorn – are trying to think outside of that. Hence the idea of the situation being at the centre.

KW:     A situation is a much more organic idea?

MW:    Yeah, it’s unitary, there isn’t a separation between consciousness and materiality. It’s where you don’t know where the boundaries are between those things.

KW:     What about the idea of ‘the gift’? You discuss Debord’s notion of this as not at all religious, but strategic. And the way it was deployed in Situationist circles seems sometimes fraternal, but at others deliberately menacing. In The Beach the description of Debord demanding a gift from new Situationists in return for being allowed into the International, but without explaining what the nature of the return gift might be, and then expelling those who couldn’t come up with the goods, seems Kafkaesque.

MW:    Well you could read it that way. We owe to Kafka that sense of seemingly negligible, everyday things creating a bottomless pit of anxiety and nightmare. But we’re dealing here with a somewhat more French sensibility that says: Yeah, of course it’s a bottomless pit but that’s everyday life and one plays with it. One plays with the little bottomless pit.

KW:     But expulsion isn’t play is it?

MW:    I’m sure a lot of people have either a direct experience of, or have observed this situation: you’re given a gift you don’t expect and you don’t know what the hell to do about it. For example, you have a birthday party and someone that you invite but don’t really know very well gives you a gift that’s just a little bit too extravagant. You think, Oh my God, that’s a really good bottle of wine! Or what’s even worse is you’ve exchanged gifts with a friend and you’ve given them a tin of biscuits and they’ve got you…

KW:     …a bottle of fantastic champagne!

MW:    You think, oh shit! Or someone’s given you something and your first thought is, I have to give them something back.

KW:     So a gift immediately implies an economy, an exchange value?

MW:    But if it’s an exchange it doesn’t work, that negates the gift. If I give you a bottle of wine and you give me one back, then there was no gift, one cancels the other out. My brother and I used to give each other cheques for Christmas and it was this game of making sure the cheques were the same. It ended up being an interesting game: I think he’s given me x dollars, so I’d better give him x dollars. We’ve all had these sorts of experiences. This is the other side of the commodity economy where you buy and sell stuff. Here, it’s where you give stuff.

KW:     So are the Situationists interested in the idea of the gift as an attempt to circumvent capitalist economy? Or attack it? Or as a game?

MW:    All of the above. It’s one of the keys to how the whole of the economy works. The thing about the commodity exchange is, if I go into a shop and buy something, then there’s absolutely no other obligation involved in that transaction, whatsoever. But if you give someone a gift, you put them under an obligation. And it isn’t necessarily to give you something back; the obligation is to the culture of the gift in general. And that’s what’s astonishing about gifts: they obligates you sometimes to a particular individual, but in general to the whole culture of gift-giving.

KW:     Sorry, I’m laughing because what’s coming to mind is a lousy American film I saw…

MW:    Pay it Forward? The film itself is symptomatic. Gift is a central problem in anthropology because it’s irresolvable and the literature on it is enormous. The Situationists are not anthropologists…

KW:     …but they read and are interested in anthropology.

MW:   Sort of, indirectly. They read Georges Bataille who read Marcel Mauss who read certain more technical, empirical papers about potlatch in the Pacific Northwest. So the idea of the gift comes into European discourse from the outside, geographically, which is interesting. Mauss has this astonishing intuition that it’s already always going on. Don’t we always think that culture belongs to all of us collectively? Another thread to this is Wittgenstein’s bulletproof argument that there is no private language. By definition language involves you in something that can’t be bought, can’t be privatised. So the commodity economy always has this other side, and maybe one of the ways of understanding the whole of modernity is that it’s a struggle between what parts of it are commodified, and what parts are not. What’s the boundary and the relation between them? The Situationists push particularly on culture being something that is common property and, in fact, not even property – it’s outside the property system. This is what they call détournement, the detour or the subversion, plagiarism in essence. So there are huge chunks of Debord’s major work, Society of the Spectacle [1967] that are straight out plagiarised from other books. Now it’s not plagiarisim if you tell people you’re doing it! The book says, This is what I’m doing. People say, Oh it’s all Hegelian. That’s cos it actually is Hegel – a whole paragraph of Hegel, only stuck in another context where it becomes something else. You realise that’s the way the whole of language works. If I was to create an absolutely original text I would have to make up the letters. And of course the Situationists did have another precursor, the Letterists, and that’s exactly what they did: made up a whole other alphabet. So there’s that precedent in the background. But rather than making up everything from scratch, as the Letterists did, Debord goes in this other direction: he borrows everything all over again as a way of saying language is common.

Situationists and Swedish Workers, Göteborg, Sweden, 1961

KW:     So with the Situationists you have that idea of commonality, common cultural property – they talk about “literary communism” – but also a desire to escape the commodity form. This dilemma came up last night [at Housmans] in relation to questions of transcendence. It’s the desire for a purer space in which to operate that leads to the most significant of their many splits, when the Situationists divide over art and writing.  I have to say, it seems a strange argument premised on the idea that writing can somehow be exempt, existing outside, while painting is necessarily sullied from its operation in the market.

MW:    Well, art and writing are involved in different economies. But you’re right, and the Situationists never quite manage a total critique of how they are involved in different ways. To renounce painting in favour of a purely written practice isn’t an escape. You’ve got to put the two together and think about the whole thing.

KW:     Are they conscious of the problem? Do they attempt to solve it in their work?

MW:    No. As everyone does, you get so far and then that’s the thing you want to push a little further.

KW:     What about the Situationist idea of ‘recuperation’, of compromise and assimilation? Is there a way of framing this in relation to the respective fates of the hippies and the punks – the extent to which they were recuperated?

MW:    Debord is already writing about this fairly early on. At the level of content everything gets recuperated. And in a sense, the commodity economy particularly likes to recuperate that which appears to be opposed to it. That’s one of the most desirable commodities of all – the thing which refuses to be a commodity!

KW:     And Debord has this rather grandiose sense of providing ammunition for the other side.

MW:    Yeah. So he’s imagining in Comments on Society of the Spectacle [1988] that this book will only be read and understood by 60 people – half of whom are dedicated to maintaining the spectacle and the other half who are dedicated to overthrowing it. It’s a fantastic paragraph, but there’s that bootstrapping operation we talked about, and in some senses it becomes true: when you write like that the secret police will pay attention. But while you can recuperate the content, what can’t be recuperated is the practise of decommodifying and gifting what it is that they are doing. There are several examples of that.

KW:     For instance?

MW:    The proto-Situationist journal, Potlatch, was never for sale, it was always given away to particular people, but it had copyright restrictions. Then they do a journal that’s expensive if you wanted to buy it, but it’s copyright free. The third model is Jorn, who does have a solution: he’s an artist, rich folks collect his paintings. So what he does is give the money away and creates all of these astonishing networks and collective projects. At the end he creates this amazing museum in Silkeborg.

KW:     Yes, by exchanging his paintings for others. That’s a wonderful story.

MW:    Every great collection of modern art that you can point to was put together by patronage or plunder except for Jorn’s. He did it through the gift. That in itself is an astonishing achievement. So I could multiply examples but that’s it – it’s all about the tactics of how you intervene.

KW:     Finally I wanted to talk a little about where your interest in the Situationists came from. You said at the Café Oto that you were a third generation atheist, that you still trust Australian social democracy more than American, and that when you were young you were in the Australian Communist Party.

MW:    Yes, but the Australian Communist Party was exceptional in that it was not Moscow aligned.

KW:     How did you get from there to writing about the Situationists and new technologies?

MW:    Well I was always interested in that space between politics and art. I had a bohemian youth in Sydney, which was a pretty good town to do it in, even though it was a peripheral one.

KW:     Not so peripheral these days – the ‘cultural cringe’ is gone and the world is turning upside down.

MW:    Certainly was then! And it’s remote from what it’s near to still: if you can find three people who speak Indonesian then good luck to you! So I occupied that space, in a marginal way, I don’t want to overstate the case. As we say inAustralia, I’m not going to sell tickets on myself.

KW:     No. But this is what shaped you.

MW:    I got into the university system. But to me it seems what not to do when you enter that system is to think you necessarily have only to value the things it does. The question is: how do you honour other kinds of intellectual practices? Which is not to negate the value of scholarship and documenting things properly and so forth. But to realise scholarship is a game with its own rules, at least indifferent to, and sometimes antithetical to this other thing, which is the self-conscious thinking about the practising of everyday life. What’s the politics of knowledge? You have to do that a little bit self-consciously. So I’m still interested in folks who’ve thought about that and hence I’ve ended up telling this story as I think it’s one from which there’s still all these really key lessons to draw. They were in my life and I hope they will be for other people – not to imitate but to try to learn from past examples of how the Situationists created concepts and practises.

KW:     In terms of making this material address the present – one of the avowed intentions of your book – can you think of any specific, useful examples?. You talked about the creation of Jorn’s gallery. To create anything like that, of course, you have to have some kind of capital – financial or artistic, but something that allows you to exchange. And that’s not available to most people. Are there any more modest examples from the Situationists we might learn from?

MW:    I’m always reluctant to talk about things people are doing in the present because not everybody wants to be publicised.

KW:     You said that at Housmans, and I wondered what you meant by it. Are you suggesting that people are engaged in secret activities against the state?

MW:    Well not secret. That’s the thing, one of the traps of the society of the spectacle is that to not want to be publicised immediately seems to be suspicious.

KW:     So you’re talking about activities that people want to keep under the radar?

MW:    Yeah. It’s just not everybody’s goal to be in newspapers. It’s like outing people.

KW:     I’m not asking you to out people. I’m not even asking about what activists are up to today. I’m just wondering if there are any ideas that come out of Situationism that have been lost or forgotten, that now might usefully be fed into our everyday life.

MW:    Well as [the Situationist and Sinologist] René Viénet says, ‘Our ideas are on everyone’s minds’. Who hasn’t experienced boredom with spectacle commodity life and wondered what you might do about it? It’s not like there’s a grand plan. It’s more a question of, What are the everyday spaces and practises? How am I to practise my everyday life with the people who matter to me in ways that aren’t always sucked into celebrity culture and all of its avatars?

KW:     So you’re not going to give me an answer, a specific example?

MW:    No, God no, of course not!

KW:     You want just to encourage people to think more self-consciously about these things?

MW:    That’s right. I’m not a preacher, I’m a pedagogue!

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