Situating the Pro-Situs

In his "Translator's Notes" to the Situationist International Anthology, Ken Knabb writes: "pro-situ: pejorative term referring to followers (passive or active) of the SI." In the words of the SI itself, a pro-situ is one who lacks "cohabitation with their own practice" (Debord, "Remarks on the SI Today"), one who has not applied his or her own theory "in the very activity of the formulation of that theory or in the general conditions of its struggle" (Debord, "Untitled Text"). Elsewhere (in his "Remarks on Contradiction and Its Failure"), Knabb writes: "There is hardly a thesis in the Debord-Sanguinetti portrait of the pro-situ where I do not recognize myself -- in the past and far too much right now!" I think this is an extraordinarily honest remark. Anybody who reads the texts the situationists left behind and is inspired to attempt something similar -- and this (of course) includes myself -- starts out as a pro-situ. The serious attempt to "do something similar" to what the SI did must start out with the recognition of this starting point before it can proceed. My criticisms of the Feederz, Bob Black (of the Last International) and Dan Todd (of AntiAuthoritarian Anonymous) are based on the belief that these men have repressed the fact that they are pro-situs. Their misogyny, hostility to students, and total refusal to take seriously any criticisms of them flows from this basic repression.

Sometime earlier this year, I received a copy of Popular Reality (Number 6, April-May 1985), in which there was a reprint of the cover of Not Bored #4. I was pleased this particular graphic of mine had been reprinted, because it is one of the few that addresses itself to the problem of sexual oppression, an issue about which the situationists had very little to say. It depicted a nude, 10-year-old Brooke Shields saying "Love must be freed from its myths, images and spectacular categories" and "To approach someone in any exhibitionistic way is to condemn oneself to a reified relationship from the very first." What displeased me greatly was that this graphic of mine was included in a publication that also included three highly offensive remarks about women (two of them by pro-situs). I wrote each of the three offending parties a letter, indicating my displeasure and the reasons for it.

1) In an article reprinted from The Free Beer Press (POB 1513, Kalamazoo MI 49005), an unidentified writer announced, without the slightest touch of sarcasm, "I'll back you up in anything you attempt, be it shows, ads, or (especially) killing Madonna." And this immediately after claiming that "I don't need to slice up my 'friends' or my enemies to make myself feel complete"! In a world in which women are routinely beaten, raped and killed, I see nothing funny about a proposal to kill Madonna, even if it was made sarcastically and Madonna is terribly annoying. Kill power, I said, not people.

2) In an article explaining and defending Bob Black's campaign against the San Franciscan magazine Processed World, an unidentified member of AntiAuthoritarians Anonymous (POB 11331, Eugene OR 97440) (who later identified himself as Dan Todd) felt compelled to describe the situation in the following manner: "Those familiar with CHRLA (the Council for Human Rights in Latin America) will appreciate the similarity to the PW (Processed World) operation. At the center of both groups one finds a dominatrix with money, surrounded by a core of loyal executants, depending on a large group of volunteers doing the shit work and largely kept in the dark." My objection was that it was unnecessary (and no doubt inaccurate) to call these women dominatrixes. A "dominatrix" is a slang expression referring to women who sexually dominate sex. Given that the in question dominate their followers by means other than the sexual, Dan Todd's use of the word "dominatrix" in this context was metaphorical. My suggestion was that Todd should refrain from such metaphors, because they are of a piece with the radical Right to the extent that they encourage people to define women (solely) by their sexuality. Once they are defined by their sexuality, women can be controlled by the (male) administrators of sexuality -- the doctors, the psychoanalysts and the rapists.

3) In "The Correct Line," its parody of dogmatism, The Last International (2000 Center St. #1314, Berkeley CA 94704) (later identified as Bob Black) lined up two columns if "Incorrect" and "correct." But all (except one) of the 33 items in the "Correct" list were Sadean, situationist or Reichian catch-phrases: sedition (not sedation), after-hours parties (not vanguard parties); playing (not praying); sex (not sects); erotics (not neurotics), etc. Thus Black's piece ended up reinforcing dogmatism rather than negating it. Significantly, the only item in the "Correct" list that wasn't "correct" concerned female sexuality: whores (not wars). My objection was that prostitution and those whose job it is, unlike sedition, after-hours-parties, playing, etc., are thoroughly imbued with commodity relations. The concept of "whores" is unreconstructed (or undeconstructed) and thus cannot be translated as is into the corpus of Sadean, situationist, Reichian discourse.

I have not yet received a reply from The Free Beer Press, and I do not expect to in the near future. Dan Todd and I, and Bob Black and I, have exchanged three letters each. At the time of this writing, I've gotten the last laugh in both instances (whatever that's worth).

Dan Todd's reaction to my criticism of him was as follows:

Your point is not well-taken re: our use of the word 'dominatrix,' meaning a woman as aspires to dominate or does so in fact. Why does this choice of words offend your sensibilities? The only pertinent question here is: do Link and Manning [CHRLA and PW, respectively] in fact dominate their milieus and willing subjects? Since you indicate no first-hand knowledge of either of them, you must assume in the abstract that to call a woman a 'dominatrix' is a slur of some sort. What sort of half-assed sub-liberal feminism is this? Don't you accept that women -- given the opportunity and inclination -- have shown equal aptitude in dominating those they can? For someone who presumes to write about Sade, it seems to me you've missed one of the essential truths: women can be just as cruel as men.

It was obvious that Todd still didn't understand that the word dominatrix was coined within the subculture of S&M sexual practices, and that in fact it was a poor description, a misleading description, of the state of affairs at CHRLA and PW. If Todd wanted to say that these women dominated their milieus and willing subjects, why didn't he say it just like that, without bringing sexual metaphors into it? I pointed out to him that he and Bob Black, both pro-situs, manifested a similar insensitivity to language, to the workings of language. "As previously happened with surrealism, the internal development of the Situationist International shows that when the crisis of language and poetry is pushed beyond certain limits it ends up putting in question the very structure of society" ("La Tour de Feu," quoted in Knabb's Anthology).

I didn't expect that Todd would immediately contact and join forces with Black. The second letter that the former sent me was all pumped up with Blackian bellowing. I regret that I can't quote from it, on account of the fact that I sent it back to him with my letter attached to it (as if it had been by a teacher. I did this because this was what Todd did with my previous letter. At the top he'd written "Go to the back of the class (struggle) Brown." His mode of attack had changed from ridiculing my "half-assed sub-liberal feminism" to ridiculing (never properly critiquing) me for attending grad school in critical theory. The level of his violence, his insults, had noticeably increased. He was on the verge of totally breaking with me because I had dared to question a remark he'd made. I called his attention to the fact that in my previous letter I had made [it] clear that I liked most of what he did under the name AntiAuthoritarians Anonymous and was only asking for modifications in just one area.

Todd's last letter to me runs as follows:

You're damn right about my total rejection of you. It wasn't instantaneous, however, as you claim: it took two letters to convince me you had shit for brains, and your last letter only confirmed it. I didn't need your fucking credit to begin with, and the modifications in one area you wanted to see we dealt with extensively in my previous letters: namely a patient explanation of why 'dominatrix' accurately described the two people under discussion. You would whimper about the tone of my letter, since you have no substantive ground to stand anymore. You can only snivel that Manning/Link shouldn't be described in sexual terms. You're really a precious little shit!

It's been fun kicking you around, but it's so easy it's starting to feel like child molesting. If you bother to write again, don't expect an answer. You can have the last word and the last laugh.

It seems that I got both the last word and the last laugh. I told him that I wasn't going to totally reject him, but that I was going to totally embrace him and his organization! He's now selling an anthology of his fliers from 1981 to the present. I found this out by turning over the letter he had written me. I told him that I was going to review them in every spectacular magazine that would accept the review and thus sell so many of his anthologies that he wouldn't know what hit him.

Bob Black's reaction to my criticism of him was as follows:

It's no big deal -- stand 'em on their heads they all look the same -- but I'd lay off hassling the whores as politically incorrect, they have enough problems, and the two I've known intimately flatly deny the feminist/USA Today consensus that prostitution (even from their point of view) "has little to do with sex." Another convenient myth bites the dust. If is agreeable to your leftist morals you can put the johns in the incorrect column, but lay off the ladies (of the night), okay? Any other move smacks of misogyny, a la the dykes and other prurient feminists who wish to suppress prostitution -- but not out of any generalized opposition to commodity relations, no way! -- but because, so long as there are hookers around, sometimes straight-laced feminists are mistaken for whores and this error oppresses them. Life is tough. As I once asked, 'Why won't these women get in bed with any man except the DA?'

Black also sent me a total of nine pages worth of various things he'd written, including a long statement about Processed World.

Pages of situationist-influenced writing notwithstanding, it was immediately clear that the questionable opposition of wars with whores was only the tip of the iceberg. Here was a huge, undifferentiated floating block of misogynist stupidities! Black seems incapable of admitting that there are active feminists who are not prurient (Sheila Rowbotham, for example) and that the desire to suppress prostitution isn't the same as the desire to repress sexuality, just as the desire to suppress wage-labor isn't the same as the desire to repress the human ability to mold the world. I pointed out to him that he'd misunderstood me: I wasn't hassling the whores as politically incorrect, but was hassling him for uncritically thinking of whores as politically correct. I maintained that the word whore defined a function, the selling of sex for money, and only secondarily referred to whores as people.

Black responded as follows:

Why don't you send me your thing so I can go on the offensive?

No, no, you misunderstand me on whores, to begin at start, my text, which you persist in investing with a precision far from it, said "whores" (who are people) were "correct," not that prostitution (which is a social relation) was correct. I've sung your commodity-relations tune on prostitution for at least a decade, and I still know the score, but what relevance for practice it has when real whores, pimps and john sashay across the phenomenal field is not so clear.

Black also sent me more fliers about his work and his work for others.

Clearly I wasn't getting anywhere, but I continued to correspond with Black, I even sent him a copy of Not Bored #6, because the tone of his letters was friendly. In the letter just quoted from, Black even went so far as to inform me that "Semiotext(e) is taking a leap into the unknown by doing an issue on the country most foreign to it, America. I have opened my marginals files to them in an effort to help; you might send them post-x material you deem pertinent if you like." In the meantime, Black was contacted by Dan Todd (see above) and the experience resulted (as it did for Todd) in a rage of righteous indignation and insults.

His last letter to me runs as follows:

Sonny, I'm going to tell you a thing or two before I send you to bed without supper. Your invective is puerile, stilted and above all, bookish. I know your type. You think the way to put yourself on the avant-critical map is to play king-of-the-mountain with your betters. Just a friendly word of avuncular wisdom: you're not in Ann Arbor any more, and if you don't curb your tongue, the next recipient of your learned, negativist billingsgate might not make allowance for your distinguished intellectual ancestry and might known your teeth out.

I would not be rejoining you in the sandlot but for my genuine gratitude for the belly-laugh I owe you thanks to Dan Todd sending on your exchange with him. It is the same pseudo-sit scat-scam you tried on me. See Billy write. See Billy bid defiance to the old world and all of its rules! See Billy apply hermeneutics to "The Correct Line," mistaking it for Parmenides. (That's a book by Plato. He was Greek.) See Billy go-by-the-book -- namely, the dictionary. But see Billy flunk the test of his own devising, for, lo! "dominatrix" is in the dictionary: try the OED ("A female dominator; mistress, lady"). Go buy the book. And if it was "obsolete" a few decades ago it is all the rage today.

Laddy, I'm not very old but I haven't had to be to see your kind come and go quicker than ducks at an arcade. You're a 90 pound weakling resentful of men who can pump irony. I wouldn't surmise that you're pussy-whipped, but I think you'd like to be. At best your published tracts are Situationism 101 take-home exams, but you are rarely at your best. I regret I cannot tutor you any further, mindful as I am of Diogenes' query: "Why not beat the teacher when the pupil misbehaves?" So beat it, runt.

As usual, Black also sent me a flyer about how bad Processed World is.

I was struck by the fact that both Dan Todd and Bob Black, when pushed a little and given the opportunity to mutually reinforce their own weaknesses, easily slip into a Total War mentality. The only thing the two of them have in common is, on the one hand, their opposition to Processed World, and, on the other, their opposition and hostility to me. Unlike the situationists, who knew both the value of critique between like minded individuals and the value of exclusions and breaks, pro-situs such as these two know only the value of exclusions and breaks, the politics of hate.

I do not think I got the last laugh on Black, but I most certainly got in the last word. I simply pointed out to him that his theory (that is to say, his macho bellowing, which proclaimed me unfit to be associated with) and his practice (of including copies of his fliers, a gesture which presumes that I or someone I might know are quite fit to be associated with) were at odds with each other. I counseled that he should make up his mind. Apparently he went with his theory. So then maybe I did get the last laugh on Black! He was always complaining that I was too theoretical, too bookish!

I want to make sure that I have the last laugh on Black. To do that it would be necessary to pursue the matter of bookishness a little further. The reader will notice that both Black and Todd consider it to be the greatest insult to someone influenced by the situationists to be called a student. They are joined in this hatred of the student milieu by the pro-situ punk band the Feederz, whose letter to the editor (Maximum Rock 'n' Roll #21) about my "Introduction to the Situationist International" (both Maximum Rock 'n' Roll #19 and Not Bored #6) contained the passage: "One must also ask if your darling little display of 'intellectual virtuosity' didn't double as a term paper for some sociology class. You proved you knew all the catch word but understand SHIT. You also proved that there IS one thing worse than an intellectual -- a PSEUDO-intellectual. Only a student would be capable of such stupidity."

There is no denying that, in their journals, ("as anyone who can well imagine, the pitiful student milieu is of no interest to us") as well as in their interventions (the distribution of On the Poverty of Student Life under the aegis and with the financial support of the Strasbourg University student government), the situationists were openly hostile to all students. On the face of it, given the fact that I'm enrolled in grad school, I and Not Bored as a result should be treated with hostility by real situationists, who (of course!) don't go to school and don't want to return in the future. I'm nothing but a "pedantic little Marxist" (Todd).

But as I remember from Tom Ward's book review of the recent translation of Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life in the Village Voice. Debord was born in 1930 and Vaneigem in '32. That means Debord was 27 when the SI as formed in 1957 and Vaneigem was 29 when he joined in 1961. What I'm suggesting is that the reason both Debord and Vaneigem could afford to be hostile to students was because, well before the formation of the SI, they had already spent years there. Where else could Vaneigem have so fully developed his Nietzschean epigrammatic style? Where else could he have learned who Jean de Meung, La Boetie and Vanino Vanini were?

But the situationists found it expedient to cover up this part of their individual backgrounds by striking a pose. To a certain extent, then, they therefore did a disservice to the revolutionary movements that they knew full well would follow theirs and for which they claimed to be trail-blazing. But we don't have to take the SI's anti-student rhetoric too seriously. We can leave Black, Todd and the Feederz to the ignominious task of aiding the SI in the repression of its origins. The pro-situ at work.

(Published in NOT BORED! #8, July 1985).

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