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Salvaging Situationism: Race and Space
In an article in Internationale Situationniste #2, Abdelhafid Khattib of the Algerian section of the organisation attempted the first in depth psychogeographical study of the area of Les Halles. The study was cut short due to a continuing curfew against Arabs on Paris streets. As a coda to Khatib’s initial findings, the following note was appended:
This study is incomplete on several fundamental points, principally those concerning the ambient characteristics of certain barely defined zones. This is because our collaborator was subject to police harassment in light of the fact that since September, North Africans have been banned from the streets after half past nine in the evening. And of course, the bulk of Abdelhafid Khatib’s work concerned the Halles at night. After being arrested twice and spending two nights in a holding cell, he relinquished his efforts. Therefore the present – the political future, no less – may be abstracted due to considerations carried out on psychogeography itself.
Despite this promise to consider psychogeography in light of these targeted arrests carried out against colonial subjects, no mention of this incident was to appear in published Situationist writings again.
However, recently discovered among Michèle Bernstein’s previously uncatalogued papers are a draft set of theses on space that show that Khatib’s arrest did have a ripple effect on the thinking of his comrades in struggle. Although critical and historical treatments typically deny her much of a role beyond that of being Guy Debord’s wife, Bernstein, the only prominent woman involved with the loose and shifting groups who formed first the Lettrist and then the Situationist Internationals, wrote numerous articles for Potlatch, Internationale Situationniste and Les Levres Nues, along with two novels. The theses have recently emerged from work to reexamine her oeuvre, and are notable for the way they highlight an awareness – that continued to elude her husband and his confrères – of a key absence in the Situationists’ reimagining of everyday life: colonialism, in all of its ramifications.
Had they been better known, it is plausible that these theses might have radically shifted the thought and direction of Situationism.
They appear here in translation for the first time.
1. Psychogeography cannot be abstracted; it must be concrete. The very word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle to designate the general phenomena with which a few of us were preoccupied around the summer of 1953, is relatively defensible even in times of unrest. It does not stray from the materialist perspective.
2. Police repression and curfew draw our eyes towards the ways in which the geographic milieu conditions a situation differently for each of its players and has never acted equally upon the affective comportment of all individuals. Our striving to attain the highest degree of consciousness of the elements that determine a situation demands a full examination of the implications.
3. While race and nationality are cultural – political – constructs, our psychogeographical experiments have shown that they materially condition our experience of power and the city, the zones of our residence, our work, our play, our movements, even our ability to fully carry out intellectual inquiry.
4. In other words, race and nationality condition each situation we encounter or create, and our human journey through them.
5. Any privilege that comes with race or nationality conditions us as much as any oppression. Since we know with what blind fury so many people – who are nevertheless so little privileged – are willing to defend their mediocre advantages, we must be on guard against its presence.
6. It is hard not to recognise an analogous comportment among the privileged who do not dare speak of problems as they are, as these problems have been made understood to them. One has to wonder: are they the victims of an intimidation racket? Yes, they certainly are. To walk with eyes open exposes those once safe to the possibilities of entering the other side of today’s dialectic of the human relation with capital – the operations of direct exploitation and force.
7. We cannot turn away despite the risks in obtaining a full understanding of the arrangement of the elements of the urban setting, in close relation with the sensations they provoke. It entails bold hypotheses that must be constantly corrected in the light of experience, by critique and self-critique.
8. The dérive as a technique consists of wanderings that express not subordination to randomness but complete insubordination to habitual influence. Yet the length of the colonial war in Algeria has conditioned and broken the youth of France, creating conditions of overwhelming conformism.
9. It is the colonial subject who can most fully realise the dérive, whose presence alone represents a complete insubordination, whose body tests the first binding upon the possible that must be smashed. This is where we must stand.
10. Starting from this position, some must renounce all that we have, others take back all that we never had. Together we must understand the city to tear down, rebuild, repurpose to create a new way of life. This will be the new dérive.
Imagine how these words might have moved the intellectual debates around spectacle and violence, urbanism and architecture, play and struggle. They are simplified, of course, because spectacle does not fully belong to the privileged nor violence to the oppressed: they are just heavily weighted that way. But it is so much more difficult to look past the spectacle to uncomfortable truths than it is to see the other way round.
I confess, however, that pretty much everything written above about Bernstein’s theses is a lie.
Most of the phrases used in the theses are, of course, détourned from Debord’s ‘Architecture and Play’, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ and ‘Theory of a Dérive’, along with Attila Kotanyi’s ‘Gangland and Philosophy’. An assemblage of sentences and ideas with a few additions, cobbled into a declaration that might actually have actually meant something to the man who wentto prison twice for doing nothing more than observing the city.
Instead Khatib’s arrest meant that ‘the present – the political future, no less – may be abstracted due to considerations carried out on psychogeography itself ’. Their results? The dropping of psychogeography, rather than a new challenge against the assumptions of equality in experience or access to space. The dropping of revolutionary possibilities and a silence brutal in its acquiescence to the oppression of Algerians and the role of France as colonial power.
After this, we no longer hear Khatib speak.
This is the moment his comrades decided to cling to the safest possible understandings of capitalism, rather than to start from the position and the struggle of the oppressed made so clear to them through his imprisoned body. They might have begun to disentangle the ways in which colonialism had been fundamental to the growth of Paris and to capitalism itself; how it undercut the power of their own work; the ways in which race and nationality stood in dialectical relation to both spectacle and brutal, death-dealing force at the level of the city as well as at the level of the nation. People were dying all around them as Algeria fought for its independence – fought against former heroes of the French resistance against German occupation. The Situationists did not fail to notice de Gaulle’s return to power and the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958. How could they? Before Khatib’s experiences, Raoul Vaneigem had already written in Internationale Situationniste #1 (8 June 1958):
To maintain its Algerian rule, the colonists, who controlled the government in the government in Paris long before their official appointment, must now rule unopposedin France. Their goal remains the intensification to their profit of the war effort across the whole of France, and at present this necessitates the liquidation of democracy in this country and the triumph of fascist authority.
Over the eight years of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), six French Prime Ministers would fall, along with the Fourth Republic itself. Vaneigem makes explicit the connections between colonialism and widespread fascism, and yet his comrades expended little intellectual energy on this subject. A curious omission.
It is also in 1958 that Éditions de Minuit published Henri Alleg’s The Question, a French Communist’s account of his torture at the hands of French Paratroopers. Censored after 60,000 copies were sold in two weeks, who on the left did not read it? Alleg writes:
It is a bitter and tragic fact that, for the Europeans in Algeria, being a man means first and foremost supremacy to the Moslems. But what if the Moslem finds in his turn that his manhood depends on equality with the settler? It is then that the European begins to feel his very existence diminished and cheapened.
The report from the Third Conference of the Situationist International in 1959 included the following:
The quasi-dissolution of the activities of the French SI group is explained by the conditions of overwhelming conformism inspired by the military and the police, currently dominating the new regime in that country, and the length of the colonial war in Algeria, which has conditioned and broken the youth of France: from now on, Paris can no longer be considered as the centre of modern cultural experimentation.
Surely the connections are clear. Cultural experimentation has all but stopped and yet still there is silence on their position, on the theoretical implications.
On 17 October 1961, over 200 people were killed on the Pont Saint-Michel in Paris during an attack ordered by Maurice Papon, head of the police, during a protest held by the National Liberation Front (FLN) – it took until 1998 for the government to admit anything happened at all. The official figures put the deaths at 40. Bernstein and Debord co-signed a letter in 1962, Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War, the day after de Gaulle had announced strict measures against the first 121 signatories. They were questioned. This was their only public intervention.
Also in 1962, in a letter written to protest the expulsion of the German Spurist group from the Situationist International, Jacqueline de Jong, Jorgen Nash, and Ansgar Elde highlight the reality as lived at the time:
Paris, a witches’ cauldron of political instigations and demonstrations, armoured cars in the streets, the bloody shadow of the Algerian War, the O.A.S. [Organization de Armée Secrete], the F.L.N., mysterious assassinations and torture. Strikes, police raids, censorship, no Gallic clarity but a dark witches’ trial, shootings and reprisals, many dead and wounded. Paris, where our Conseil Central [Central Council] held a meeting of the Internationale Situationniste[on] the 10th and 11th February 1962, [at] 129 Boulevard Saint Germain – even here, [it is] brother against brother!
All these things happening, and the Situationists write their abstractions as though this violence, as though these inequalities and relationships of power, were not being scripted into the fabric of the city itself. As though it had no bearing on architecture, planning, emotional urban currents,authentic life. As though war were not spectacle, and white European skin was the salvation to dream of anything at all.
Abdelhafid Khatib has slipped from us and our limited memory. Perhaps he wanted it that way, wanted to remove himself from everything but a few footnotes in books on the Situationist International, everything but: his recorded presence at the Second Situationist Conference in January of 1958; a signature on an April 1958 address, ‘Against the International Assembly of Art Critics’; and that incomplete psychogeographical study of Les Halles in December of 1958 – the only serious attempt at documenting place the Situationist International would carry out.
If so, I wish him well. I have not been able to dig deep enough to resuscitate his thoughts and feelings, his past, his revolutionary dreams. The possibility of his desire to erase 1958 from his memory, to disappear into either the struggle for his people’s independence, or into oblivion. Instead I have brought forward some of his words, hopeful words, full of his conviction that the revolution is just around the corner and that this project of his will help build it.
The Situationists believe themselves capable, due to their current methods and to the foreseeable development of these methods, not only of rearranging the urban environment, but of changing it almost at will.
When you compare this hope and idealism to the sordid ordeal of curfews and police harassment and nights in jail, followed by his comrades summarily renouncing psychogeography itself rather than rise theoretically or practically to his defence, it seems that it is the movement rather than any specific urbanist who has reduced the possibilities of praxis to nothing. Khatib’s thick description of Les Halles in Paris is an attempt to create such a praxis, yet where it is mentioned it has not inspired more than dismissive footnotes in descriptions of what psychogeography should be.
THE WORLD WE LIVE IN, and beginning with its material décor, is discovered to be narrower by the day. It stifles us. We yield profoundly to its influence; we react to it according to our instincts instead of according to our aspirations. In a word, this world governs our way of being, and it grinds us down. It is only from its rearrangement, or more precisely its sundering, that any possibility of organising a superior way of life will emerge.
A world that narrows, that stifles, that grinds down… These are the descriptions of an oppressed people, and a recognition of the role that surroundings play in shaping that oppression. Nor does he forget our power to reshape them.
There were earlier glimpses of the Algerian member group of the Lettrist International, before they too were swallowed up in the mists of a time far too recent for this kind of swallowing. Just before the civil war began, they wrote:
Modern society is a society of cops. We are revolutionaries because the police are the supreme force of this society. We are not for another society because the police are the supreme force of all societies. We are not nihilists because we do not grant power to anyone.
We are Lettrists for want of something better….
Algiers, April 1953
HADJ MOHAMED DAHOU, CHEIK BEN DHINE, AIT DIAFER
They are probably none of them the ‘illiterate Kabyle’ who coined the term psychogeography, but they might remember his name. Still, they know very well who the enemy is. Mohamed Dahou stuck it out in these circles for some time. He too is mentioned as part of the Second Situationist Conference in January of 1958. Like Khatib, though, he disappears from print shortly thereafter, resigning in 1959, followed by Khatib in 1960.
I find no explanation of Khatib’s – or Dahou’s – absence from Debord’s elliptical and Vaneigem’s vituperous memoirs. Perhaps Khatib remains alive and remembered to Algerians. Perhaps he remains alive in Arabic, or in martyrdom, or in prisons. Perhaps there are more traces of him in French that have not yet been translated and through which I have not struggled: perhaps that explains his absence from the multitude of works available on the Situationist International.
Still, this all tastes to me of betrayal. It signifies an absence both of material solidarity and theoretical rigour. It represents a movement once again claiming such surety in what it was doing, and yet as desperately unengaged with the reality of the city as lived by migrants and workers as it was with the cataclysmic anticolonial struggles toppling government after government and bringing France to its knees. Its members closed their eyes to it.
This troubles me; but the ongoing and continuous nonchalant references to this closing of eyes, and this editorial note on police harassment, a continued inability to honour Khatib by intellectually grappling with the reality, troubles me even more. Especially given its contrast with the Situationists’ open and vocal defense of Trocchi, imprisoned for drugs in New York, rather than in Paris for his nationality and the colour of his skin while in pursuit of Situationist aims. Surely it must mean something that the principal documented attempt at psychogeography was cut short by a curfew and imprisonment of a comrade simply for being an Arab. Surely we must care, even if they didn’t.
I wish they had taken hold of the opportunity, bailed or broken Khatib out as comrades should do, and rethought what understanding psychogeography – in Khatib’s words ‘the study of the laws and precise effects of a consciously or unconsciously elaborated geographical environment acting directly on affective behavior’ – could be. Explored with more integrity ‘the science fiction of urbanism’, to understand a city in some ways multiplied and enriched, in others limited and controlled, through difference. Attempted to see through different eyes, understand what a different skin might experience. Above all, to understand that the built environment does not stand above these things, but is coconstitutive of them. With Lefebvre they edged towards this, but not in a way that held meaning to Abdelhafid Khatib’s experience. The point of it all was to understand the now, in order to build something new. How could they escape the oppressions of the old if they could not even see them?
All of this does not change the fact that Khatib’s is a dry-as-dust exposition of Les Halles, left out of most collections of Situationist Texts. Dust, along with Khatib’s ‘temporary constructions which intervene by the hour’ and ‘the feverish commercialism’, remained constant between his descriptions and arrests in 1958, and our own visit in 2015.
Les Halles is hot. Dusty and hot and there is too much sun. Too many people. Too much noise. Traffic blares everywhere, and it is the only place with construction, here at the centre of it all. Fumes rise with tempers, the bulk of Parisians carrying off short skirts and tank tops the way Londoners and Americans could never do. It doesn’t seem to make them happier.
We pass a square, shade and people and nowhere to sit – no moveable chairs here, no welcoming benches. Perhaps there is a distinction between this place and the parks, a distinction we don’t know. It is noisier here, more of a teenage hangout, less white. There is nowhere to sit without ordering something in this public square, except the too-low edges of statue and fountain already crowded with youth.
They have tried to make this a place for passing through. Construction drills in the background. The giant mall of glass we just walked past rises up in our imaginations.
This is the only place we have seen construction on a large scale.
I don’t think there is anything to do here but shop, eat cheap food, and drink.
We need a drink.
We pass a street from which traffic seems to have been barred, which the sun cannot beat down on. Gratefully we walk up. Rue Montmartre, full of cafes. Couples. Quiet. People pour in and out of the other streets, impossible to tell where they come from or where they are going. We are too new, too untutored to feel the lines of force, to understand these zones.
We only know that it is not an entirely pleasant place to be. But in that, it has not particularly changed. It continues to be ‘extremely animated and well known’.
My own description is boring. It was boring to sit there and observe, despite the drink, and it remains all too true that ‘Les Halles is a quarter that is difficult to penetrate’. There are now piles of studies of urban life and space that get at some of these issues in better, more interesting ways: Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, Donald Appleyard, Jan Gehl and more. But the revolutionary possibilities of a transformation of society are missing: that is the spark to be rescued from the Situationists.
Missing from both is the emotional depth, the differences in how different people must navigate and experience and understand the city. Fiction does it better, or memoir. This opening to the experiences of others is what intrigues me most, of all the psychogeographic propositions that now float through the academic stratosphere.Here is the feeling of Paris streets during Khatib’s time of walking them, from one of Assia Djebar’s stories in Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade.
The couple continued to roam the streets, chatting together, momentarily free of the others and the ‘Revolution’; nevertheless, even if their embraces in a doorway could not claim that they were making history, still their happiness was part of the collective fever, and they were always on the look-out to see if they were being shadowed and to throw the police off their trail. But the police were not seen to be the greatest danger…the couple knew that the secret fratricidal struggle was all around them…
As they strolled through the Paris streets together, at every crossroads the girl’s eyes instinctively avoided the tricolour flag whose red reminded her of the blood of her compatriots recently guillotined in a Lyons prison…
This was Khatib’s reality, this whirlpool of revolution and violence. There is also the continuous police presence, the stop and search, the imprisonment.
Whenever I see an Arab with his hunted look, suspicious, on the run, wrapped in those long ragged robes that seem to have been created especially for him, I say to myself, ‘M. Mannoni was wrong.’ Many times I have been stopped in broad daylight by policemen who mistook me for an Arab; when they discovered my origins, they were obsequious in their apologies…
That is Frantz Fanon in White Skin Black Masks, a black man of the Antilles before he had joined the Algerian cause and come to refer to himself as Algerian. Yet he was only privileged in relation to the Arabs: a second anecdote places him firmly back within the colonial hierarchy as a whole. He tells us of a child starting upon seeing him, crying out ‘Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!’
My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recolored, clad in mourning in that white winter day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly…
Imagine being black and navigating a city to avoid such encounters, imagine building a city to keep your white children from having them. Of his own experience, Mouloud Feraoun writes in his journals (published as Journal 1955-1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War):
Each one of us is guilty for the sole reason that we belong to a category, a race, a people, you fear that someone will make you pay with your life for your place in the world, pay for the color of your skin. You fear that someone will attack you only because nobody has done it yet. – November 2, 1956
All things that white Europeans have not felt, cannot see. They can only try to imagine. Khatib’s arrest might have awoken some of them from slumber into empathy, yet instead they made a note of it, and continued in a new direction. One that did not include confronting power or privilege, much less either of those things as they existed within themselves.
There are words to describe this refusal too. They come from Mouloud Feraoun in 1955.
[T]here is now an impassable breach between us; a rupture that both sides deplore but also endure, knowing that it is inevitable. We avoid talking politics. Our French colleagues are, however, quite tactful. When they comment on a crime, a bomb, an attack, or when they speak about their fears, they always assume that we are on their side, that our fates are identical, in short, that we are just as French as they are. We tolerate the assumption, and everyday life remains bearable. – December 18, 1955
They know, however, that as an assumption it is incorrect, and that it represents a failure of the French. We know that it is a failure of the white imagination that continues.
Alongside repression, cities also contain liberation. Assia Djebar writes once more, of an experience forbidden to women in her own country, the bulk of Fantasiabeing about Algeria’s limits (and its treasures, and finding a voice made out of the two of them).
A woman walks alone one night in Paris. Walking for walking’s sake, to try to understand… Searching for words and so dream no more, wait no longer.
Rue Richelieu, ten, eleven o’clock at night; the autumn air is damp, To understand … Where will this tunnel of interior silence lead? Just the act of walking, just to put one foot energetically down in front of the other, feeling my hips swinging, sensing my body lightly moving, makes my life seem brighter and the walls, all the walls vanish…
Paris was part-haven, as well, for a number of American writers; but who deserved such a haven more than African-Americans? Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, among others, found a release from racism here. Himes, in an interview with Michael Fabre, said of France, ‘Here a Negro becomes a human being.’ Baldwin writes:
Going, going, going, gone were the days when we walked through Les Halles, singing, loving every inch of France, and loving each other…
This city contains oppression and police harassment, all the fear and suspicion and hate faced by Arabs, yet offers for others a new (though still limited) freedom, an escape from old constraints.The spaces of hope and sanctuary and imagination created by people in the grip of such experiences will surely be radically different from those dreamed of, desired, created by men (and they are all men) who share none of this. How different from Guy Debord and the others, the generations of intellectuals (still all men) who seemed perennially bored. ‘We are bored in the city, there is no longer any temple of the sun’ writes Ivan Chtcheglov in his ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’.
Despite the luxury of boredom, Chtcheglov is a reminder that a world of injustice takes its price from everyone. He would end up in a sanatorium, and in a letter to Debord and Bernstein quoted by McKenzie Wark, he explains ‘that the dérive has its limits’, and cannot be practiced continually. ‘It’s a miracle it didn’t kill us. Iron infected our blood.’
Being open to the emotional currents, to the meanings and messages inscribed into stone, to the ways that we shape our cities and the ways in which our cities shape us, has always been toxic.
It is in our fellowship, our love for each other, our solidarity in struggle that the strength and ability to resist this toxicity lies. The turning away from issues like anticolonial struggle and mental illness and the perennial judgment of women who chose to publicly inhabit city spaces – things that have not directly impacted most intellectuals writing on the city thus did not fit into an easy theoretical framework of comfortable activism – is where things perhaps began to crumble. Have always crumbled. Khatib’s experience is written off in a footnote, as though colonialism, racism, police harassment and brutality in service of white supremacy were mere blips we could ignore in the study and transformation of the city and the life within it, rather than fundamental to this struggle.
A truncated list of what gives the lie to such a belief: the continuing racialised tensions in Paris; the regular explosions of the banlieus; the uprisings in cities across the United Kingdom; the intensity of segregation and the horrors of police impunity against communities of colour in America highlighted by the #blacklivesmatter campaign; and the variations of racial and religious hierarchies left by colonialism across the world. This is not a blip, a side note.
This list also forms the basis for solidarity. On a Tube ride home, my nose buried in a book, a man asked me how it was possible that I came to be reading Assia Djebar’s Algerian White. A Maori, he had read Djebar and violence in Algerian women’s writing as part of his anti-colonial studies in New Zealand. We had a slightly awkward but smiling conversation about Algeria, writing, colonialism, Fanon, struggle. A gift of a conversation, a connection however fleeting. I tried to summarize the point of this article for him, as it had brought me to read a whole list of amazing authors that included Djebar. An Algerian tried to study Paris, I said, an Algerian named Abdelhafid Khatib, and because he was an Arab he was harassed and imprisoned. Because he was an Arab, he could not freely move through the city, he could not observe, he could not carry out a dérive the way his comrades could.
And none of them cared.
How fucked up it was that white intellectuals did not have the back of their Arab brother. How fucked up it still is, as #blacklivesmatter shows even more than Khatib’s experience as a continuing footnote to psychogeopgrahy, that so many do not care to see, to understand experiences they cannot share.
What arrogance. Psychogeography could offer the potential to broaden our theory and practice and collective reimagining, to see the city through other(s’) eyes, in an empathy that leads to action;to see collectively, past individual blindnesses, to name in full our oppressions, and overcome them. To overthrow capitalism. To create a new world. Because that’s the point, after all.
Let this practice be a real and effective tool of theory and revolution, not a glib way of imposing a narrow set of arcane interests and obsessions upon our cities that shuts out other voices, voices which speak and write words that cost them dear.
to sing hurts me but who does not dream
– Hocine Tandjaoui, Sand Song
Andrea Gibbons has worked with Latin American refugees on asylum and immigration issues, organised tenants against slum conditions and displacement, helped build a land trust, and edited the noir imprint Switchblade at PM Press. She recently finished a PhD in Geography at the LSE on race and the formation of Los Angeles (and Los Angeles in the formation of race). She is an associate editor of the journal CITY, a committed contributor to drpop.net, and her own website with writings fictional and non- can be found at writingcities.com. She is now busy starting up a community project next to the Limehouse DLR.