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«THE ASSAULT ON CULTURE Utopian currents from Lettrisme to Class War STEWART HOME A.K. Press Stirling 1991 • • British Library Cataloguing in ...»

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Utopian currents from Lettrisme

to Class War


A.K. Press Stirling 1991

• •

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Home, Stewart, 1962The assault on culture: utopian currents from Lettrisme

to class war.-2nd ed.

I. Avant garde style. History

I. Title


ISBN 1-873176-35-X

ISBN 1-873176-30-9 pbk

Typeset by Authority, Brixton.

First published by Aporia Press and Unpopular Books, I 988.

Second edition published by AK Press 1991.

This edition published by AK Press, PO Box 12766, Edinburgh, EH8 9YE.

"Our programme is a cultural revolution through a total assault on culture, which makes use of every tool, every energy and every media we can get our collective hands on... our culture, our art, the music, newspapers, books, posters, our clothing, our homes, the way we walk and talk, the way our hair grows, the way we smoke dope and fuck and eat and sleep - it's all one message - and the message is FREEDOM."

John Sinclair, Ministry Of Information, White Panthers.

"Frankly, all he asked for now was an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the B lack Panthers and uncover the man behind the scenes. Hart had been right about this. There were whites actively engaged in supplying facilities, legal advice, aid for the 'cell '. Liberals they were called. Some were honest citizens trying to carry through the mayor's instructions that peace depended upon total, unbiased co-operation between New York's polyglot millions. Others had a stake in anarchy - destruction being their aim, civil strife their immediate target.

And, too, there were the Mafia with tentacles waving for a share of the lucrative drug traffic. Pot and acid were not enough for the pushers. They wanted 'H' and coke the mainstemming narcotic that every militant used."

Richard Allen "Demo" (New English Library, London 1971).

"It should be re-affirmed that the creation of a counter-culture, in itself a haphazard, chancy and unpredictable affair, has profound political implications.

For while the Establishment, with its flair for survival, can ultimately absorb policies, no matter how radical or anarchistic (abolition of censorship, withdraw! from Vietnam, Legalized Pot, etc), how long can it withstand the impact of an alien culture? - a culture that is destined to create a new kind of man?" Richard Neville "Play Power'' (Jonathan Cape, London 1970).

CONTENTS Preface Introduction Cobra The Lettriste Movement (1952-57) The Lettriste International The College Of Pataphysics, Nuclear Art and the International Movement for an lmaginist Bauhaus From the "First World Congress of LiberatedArtists" to the foundation of the Situationist International

–  –  –

Auto-Destructive Art ADA APT International Neoist Apartment Festival CP Communist Party Destruction In Art Symposium DIAS International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus IMIB IP Industrial Painting IS Internationale Situationiste (journal) LI Lettriste International LM Lettriste Movement LPA London Psycheogeographical Association Mail Art MA NYCS New York Correspondence School PP Principle Player SI S ituationist International (group) SouB Socialisme ou Barbarie


G abrielle Quinn for tran s l ating research material from Italian. Simon Anderson, D.C., A.O., Mick Gaffney, Rene Gimpel, P.O., Pete Horobin, John Nicholson, Steve Perkins, Paul Sieveking, Stefan Szczelkun, Jayne Taylor, F.T., Michael Tolson, Andrew Wilson, & Tom Vague for making available m ateri al I would not otherwise have seen. Ed B axter, Peter Kravitz & M.S.P.W., for reading the typescript and making numerous suggestions for improvement. Professor Guy Atkins, Vittore Baroni & Ralph Rumney for enthusiastically answering research enquiries. John Berndt, Graf Haufen & Mark Pawson for their general advice and encouragement. The staff of the British Library and the Tate Gallery Library for their invaluable assistance during the course of my re se arch. Several of the authors listed in the bibliography from whom I have shamelessly plagiarised passages and ideas.

PREFACE Those reading this text will better understand it if they bear in mind the audience for whom it was written. The primary audience was seen as those who were already engaged in activities relating to the tradition sketched out in the text. The secondary audience was seen as those who - for whatever reasons - were interested in the tradition described, but played no role in its The text is written so as to be clear to the contemporary manifestations. 1 secondary audience if it is understood that the author writes from a position of engagement. It should thus be borne in mind that although certain of the ideas described are relatively obscure, they have had considerable influence within the milieus from which they emerged.

The text contains large chunks of quotation, both to give a flavour of the material being discussed - and to save time and effort on the part of the author. It should be understood that these quotations are being used to illustrate a specific argument and that to keep the text as brief as possible the author does not fully explore the contradictions or assumptions that any given quotation may contain.2 For example, the Introduction begins with a quotation from the American section of the (specto) Situationist International (SI). The quotation is used because it illustrates that a specto-situationist would dismiss as ridiculous the treatment their movement receives in this text (although such a reaction does not prove that this treatment is ridiculous). The same quotation contains a number of very questionable assertions; for example, the phrase "competes with, and is thereby equal to". To take a different example from the one used by the specto-SI, Ghana competes with the USSR in the Olympic Games, but to deduce from this that the two states are equivalent is to succumb to a gross and ultimately meaningless form of generalisation. 3 Where possible a date and a place of birth has been given for any individual mentioned in the text; the severe difficulty encountered in tracing biographical material on the subjects of this study has meant that the occurrence of such data is somewhat erratic.

1. The first paragraph of this preface is obviously an exception to this rule since it is written for the benefit of the secondary audience.

2. In particular the ideas of Henry Flynt, Gustav Metzger, COUM Transmissions, Pauline Smith, Vittore B aroni & Tony Lowes could very easily be taken apart and shown to be contradictory or ridiculous.

3. As will be demonstrated in the course of the text, the basic theoretical technique of the various situationist groups - and particularly the Debordist faction - was to present gross generalisation as incontestable fact. This produced effective propaganda and atrociously poor theory. For example, Debord writes in "The Scoiety of the


"Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities, is fundamentally nothing more than the lesiure of going to see what has become banal. The economic organisation of visits to different places is already in itself the guarantee of their equivalence. The same modernisation that removed time from the voyage also removed it from the reality of space."


"This world tries to bring the most radical gestures under its wing: the avant-garde of its subculture serves to make it appear that the S.I. competes with, and is thereby equal to, Regis Debray who equals the Panthers who equal the Peace and Freedom Party which equals the Yippies who equal the Sexual Freedom League which equals the ads on the back which equal the price on the cover. The Barb, the Rat, Good Times, and so on - it makes no difference. Same old show, new markets."

"The Practice Of Theory" by the American section of the (specto) Situationist International (included in "Situationist International" 1, New York 1969).

–  –  –

in which the male is heroicised by displaying 'female' traits; and the female is reduced to an insipid subordinate role. 1 'Bohemia' is colonised by bourgeois men - a few of whom are 'possessed by genius ', the majority of whom are 'eccentric'. Bourgeois wimmin whose behaviour resembles that of the 'male genius' are dismissed as being 'hysterical' - while proletarians of either sex who behave in such a manner are simply branded as 'mental'. Art, in both practice and content, is class and gender specific. Although its apologists claim 'art' is a 'universal category', this simply isn' t true. Every survey of attendances at art galleries and museums demonstrates that an 'appreciation' of 'art' is something restricted almost exclusively to individuals belonging to higher income groups. 2 S ince 'art' as a category has been projected back onto the religious icons of the middle ages, it is not surprising that those who oppose it should situate themselves within a 'utopian current' that they, in tum, trace back to medieval heresies. After the event, it is easy enough to perceive a tradition running from the Free Spirit through the writings of Winstanley, Coppe, S ade, Fourier, Lautreamont, William Morris, Alfred Jarry, and on into Futurism and Dada - then via Surrealism into Lettrisme, the various Situationist movements, Fluxus, 'Mail Art', Punk Rock, Neoism and contemporary anarchist cults. Taking this as our hypothesis - we will not trouble ourselves over whether such a perspective is 'historically correct' - we will construct a 'meaningful' story from these fragments. Whether or not our 'fiction' is factually valid, it can assist our understanding of disparate phenomena.

Medieval expressions of this utopian current have usually been viewed as essentially 'religious' in content; whereas during the present century, this tradition has been seen as primarily artistic in nature. Such categorisation reflects the reductionist strategies of academics: the utopian tradition has always aimed at the integration of all human activities. The heretics of the middle ages sought to abolish the role of the church and realise heaven on earth, while their twentieth-century counterparts have sought the end of social separation by simultaneously confronting 'politics' and 'culture'. 3 The discursive shift in this tradition, which occurred with Futurism, was necessitated by the development of modem technologies and systems of mass transportation. To satisfy the ideological demands of their paymasters, historians have usually treated Futurism as yet another tum-of-the-century art movement. But Futurism went beyond painting, poetry and music, to create 'futurist' clothes and architecture and, perhaps most importantly, a futurist 'politics' which fused with all other futurist activities in a rediscovered 'totality'. ("We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal omnipresent speed" - First Futurist Manifesto). To dismiss Futurist politics as fascist is as common as it is incorrect. At its inception Futurism was chiefly influenced by the writings of Proudhon, Bakunin, Nietzsche and, especially, Georges Sorel. ("So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers!

Here they are! Here they are!... Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Tum aside the canals to flood the museums!... Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly ! " - First Futurist Manifesto).

Dada at its peak gave Utopians a more coherent theoretico-practice than Futurism. Dada began in Zurich but was realised in Berlin. In the manifesto "What Is Dadaism and What Does It Want in Germany?" 4, Richard Huelsenbeck was demanding the "introduction of progressive unemployment through comprehensive mechanisation of every field of activity" and the establishment "of a Dadaist advisory council for the remodelling of life in every city of over 50,000 inhabitants". In his essay "En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism" (1920), Huelsenbeck further clarified the relation of his own ' brand' of Utopianism.to 'art' by stating that: "The dadaist considers it necessary to come out against art because he has seen through its fraud as a moral safety valve". And further, that "Dada is German Bolshevism. The bourgeois must be deprived of the opportunity to ' buy up art for his justification'. Art should altogether get a sound thrashing, and Dada stands for that thrashing with all the vehemence of its limited nature."

In a later essay, "Dada Lives" (1936), Huelsenbeck: provides the clue as to why it has been possible for historians to treat Dada as an art movement. He s ays: "Tzara, in Paris, eliminated from Dadaism its revolutionary and creative element and attempted to compete with other artistic movements... Dada is perpetual, revolutionary 'pathos ' aimed at rationalistic bourgeois art. In itself it is not an artistic movement To quote the German Chancellor, the revolutionary element in Dada was always greater than its constructive element. Tzara did not invent Dadaism, nor did he really understand it. Under Tzara in Paris Dada was deformed for the private use of a few persons so that its action was almost a snobbish one".

Paris Dada was later renamed Surrealism. Under this title it became the most degenerate expression of the Utopian tradition during the pre-war years.

Whereas Berlin Dada rejected both art and work (themes that were later taken up by the Situationist International), the Surrealists embraced painting, occultism, Freudianism and numerous other bourgeois mystifications. Indeed, if Surrealism had been a movement in its own right, rather than a degeneration from Dada, any claim that it belongs within the Utopian tradition would be open to question.

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