Publisher: Verso Books
Genre: Political History
Australian author McKenzie Wark is Associate Professor of media and culture at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City. His focus is on the intersection of media, culture and politics. He is interested in low theory, in thinking critically about everyday life, about how to think outside institutionalised forms of knowledge.
Last Tuesday, October 18, he launched his new book, 'The Beach Beneath The Street' at the Sydney University Law School Foyer. His aim was to write an accessible but challenging history of the Situationist International movement, detailing the 'secret history' of this contemporary philosophy. Wark says, 'the point is to show there is a real counter tradition to received opinion. It is a book for anyone who wants to negotiate a better life for themselves in the margins of work, shopping, media and all that other routine stuff.' His previous books include, 'A Hacker Manifesto,' 'Gamer Theory,' and '50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International'.
1. What was your impetus for writing 'The Beach Beneath The Street'?
There has to be more than one very good reason for embarking on something that takes as long as writing a book. One was that I wanted to pay tribute to the bohemian and activist circles I knew and lived among when I was younger. That all happened in Sydney in the '80s and none of it is as notorious as the Situationists, but certain things about a way of life are related. Another is that there is an increasing dominance of a kind of professional philosophy in progressive thinking that I don't find all that congenial. I wanted to go back to what I call the low theory of delinquents and minorities, trying to make sense of everyday life but in a conceptual language. A third reason is that it's just such a great story, and in need of retelling for the present. The Situationists thought that revolt was always just below the surface of everyday life, and once again they have been proved right.
2. Can you give a brief overview of the Situationist International movemement?
The Situationist International was an avant garde group who wanted to supersede both art and politics and embark on far less mediocre games. They wanted to build new cities for fun and pleasure. This proving very difficult, they were obliged to do much more. They were founded in 1957 and dissolved themselves in 1972, after the failure of the May '68 revolt, which they were one of the few groups to anticipate.
3. How long did it take you to research and write your book?
Hard to know; I have been thinking about it for years, and trying to write it for years. I had to abandon a couple of fairly complete manuscripts that just didn't read well. Then when I had the first few sentences, it all came together and wrote itself quite quickly.
4. Do you think the current economic environment has led to a renewed interest in SI ideas?
As they used to say: 'Our ideas are on everybody's minds'. They were finely tuned to the boredom just below the surface of everyday life, the fact that shopping really isn't much substitute for life after a while. They lived and loved through colonial wars, recessions, crises in the universities and a coup d'etat. They were never sucked in by Stalinism yet remained vigorously leftist. (They would have laughed at the revival of interest in "communism" among today's intellectuals). They believed in spontaneous, self-organized kinds of politics, of which Occupy Wall St is an interesting example, not to mention the far more momentous events in Tunisia and Egypt. So yes, I think they are the best precursors to study for our own situation.
5. In terms of worldview, what do you believe?
As Guy Debord, a leading Situationist put it, "to be at war with the whole world, but light heartedly". To not have to parrot all the banalities that pass for thought these days, by which people justify themselves. I quite happily inhabit the contradiction between what I can dare to think and the practicalities of what I can figure out how to get away with in everyday life.
6. What do you doubt?
That economics is a science. That what passes as 'politics' is actually politics. That what we are told we are supposed to buy has any value at all. That conversations about schools and real eastate at dinner parties are the best way to spend one's time.
7. How is your current worldview different to the one you were brought up with?
The big change in my worldview is climate change. That was really not conceivable in the way I was brought up. That we are now working within finite constraints on this planet rather than spreading out to 'colonize' other ones is a big change. I was about 8 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It was a sad day when I had to explain to my 8-year-old son it might not happen again any time soon.
8. What's in your "too hard" basket?
Anything involving mathematics past anything I learned in primary school.
9. Can you give us a snapshot of your next planned project?
'The Beach Beneath The Street' ends in 1968. The sequel is called 'Spectacles of Disintegration,' and takes us through the '70s to the present, following some of the main characters in the Situationist International. Everyone goes on about the '60s, but the '70s were a deeply weird time we still have not come to grips with.
10. McKenzie's Favourite:
Book: 'Panegyric' by Guy Debord (This will changed once I get 'The Beach Beneath the Street' out of my head).
Music: Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis
Film: In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igny, by Guy Debord
Motto: The ones I make up (with a little help from my kids) as dedications in my books. The next one is for my daughter, Vera: "Hoc et cogitatione et realitate vera est".
Charity: Panhandlers. Direct, no middleman, and they can buy the drugs of their choice without some do-gooder lecturing them. But I'm also treating my favourite bookstores as charities at the moment, as most are facing extinction.
I don't know about you, but I find it absolutely fascinating that ideas can change the world, that ideas I don't even know about have already impacted on the world. And most fascinating, is the habit of ideas to resurface in different shapes and forms through the decades.
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