The Beach Beneath the Street

The lack of politicisation in the recent riots around Britain can be frustrating to those steeped in French theory, those who see the riot as what Martin Luther King described as the “language of the unheard”. But London 2011 is quite evidently not Paris 1968. A new book about the ideas that led to that moment in Paris sheds light on quite how different the two countries’ traditions are.

“The beach beneath the street” (or, in my preferred translation, “Beneath the pavement, the beach”), was a slogan sprayed on Paris walls amidst the barricades of 1968. As well as a terrific title for heavyweight seaside reading, it embodies a deliciously dual meaning.

Literally, it was taken as a reference to sand found beneath the cobblestones lifted by students to hurl at the police. Its real roots lie in the ideas of an obscure, fluid, hugely influential movement called the situationists and their conviction that the city streets, the expression of capital and consumption, could be rediscovered and subverted through a new praxis of aimlessness, of drifting through them discovering new connections and revealing unexpected histories.

This was the continuation of a wobbly line, a drunkard’s walk, derived from the tradition of the flâneur, from Baudelaire through to Walter Benjamin’s Parisian musings (though, surprisingly, a French tradition heavily indebted to English literature, notably Thomas De Quincey’s stoned ramblings).

The situationists gave the name dérive to this urban trail or “drift” that would subvert the authoritarian and capitalist intentions of the city by ignoring superficial structure and function.

In The Beach Beneath the Street, McKenzie Wark, a US-based Australian academic and writer who specialises in “media space” and what he terms “virtual geography”, has done a commendable job of tying together deliberately loose threads and vague, often contradictory theory which, in the best French tradition, makes situationism enticing yet impenetrable. He explains the tools key figures used, the dérive, but also the détournement – the use of a familiar media image in a new way to subvert its intention (think of the Sex Pistols album cover with Jamie Reid’s day-glo ransom note graphics).

The key figures of situationism coalesced around Guy Debord, the brilliant Marxist irritant and proselytiser whose criticism of the modern city, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), incredibly remains far more applicable today in an era of themed restaurants, malls and insidiously privatised public space than it was when published.

Wark’s readable explanation of the movement’s ideas about how to deal with increasing leisure time in a capitalist context where free time is treated as an extension of service to the consumer society, a kind of enforced consumption, is the best I have read.

He also covers the less-known members of the movement in absorbing detail. There’s Asger Jorn, the Danish expressionist painter with his highly developed ideas on a new society; there’s Alexander Trocchi, the Glaswegian junky novelist; and there’s Constant Nieuwenhuys, the architect of “New Babylon”. The latter was an extraordinary attempt to articulate situationist ideas into a series of superstructures suspended above existing cities and countryside (leaving the city streets intact) as a continuous space for play, experimentation and new forms of communal life in which private property dissolves into a changing landscape of invention.

Debord’s Paris has become a bourgeois playground, far more extreme than anything he ever envisaged, while London, with the Olympics and (as I write) riots, has become his city of spectacle incarnate.

Wark has done us a great favour by explaining how situationist ideas (which included a proto-internet, an information super-network free of government control) still represent the sharpest and most surprisingly prescient critiques of the contemporary city.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, by McKenzie Wark, Verso, RRP£14.99, 208 pages

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