Selected Opinions on Ken Knabb
(Part I: 1975-1996)
I have paid you a rare compliment; I have assumed that
you mean what you say. (Nero Wolfe)
David Jacobs & Chris
Anonymous (Jerry Beers)
Michael Bradley & Michel Prigent
International Correspondence (Hong Kong)
Bill Brown (Not Bored)
Left Bank Books worker
Although the theoretical output of the Knabbist axis amounts to very little in terms of conceptual presentation, they have achieved a certain preeminence within the American situationist movement by virtue of their sheer prolificacy, their ability to maintain at least the appearance of a continuing project. . . . In Double Reflection, theory appears as meta-theory, as, in a restricted sense, a theory of theory and theorizing about theorizing. This deliberate narrowing of the scope of critical inquiry marks a retreat from an historical plane of analysis. . . . The critical undertakings of the Bureau of Public Secrets and his allies find their culmination in the project of a Phenomenology (sic) of the Subjective Aspect of Practical-Critical Activity. . . . This trivialization of theory appears not only in Knabbs crude parody of the Hegelian system but in his simplistic psychologization of practical-critical activity. In the Knabbist cosmos, which is surprisingly impervious to historical change, the theorist becomes the experiencing subject, who develops endlessly through a sequence of subjective moments, arriving finally at an ultimate goal of realization. This development, although erratic, is hardly dialectical: Knabb, in his Hegelian mimicry, does not even attempt a parallel construction to the latters Phenomenology. His pseudo-phenomenology does not involve the subjects interpretation of the world as it appears to him; there is no movement analogous to the progression of naive consciousness from sense-certainty to perception to understanding. . . . In his poster, The Blind Men and the Elephant, Knabb himself wishes to play the role of curator of the situationist movement; since everyone outside of himself and his associates is unable to interpret the situationist project, Knabb takes upon himself the task of explaining the S.I. and of translating its texts. . . . It is, of course, no accident that Point-Blank formed a primary object of the Knabbists scorn; we, and later Diversion, constituted the most formidable threat to their hegemonic ambitions. . . . If we recognize the failure of Point-Blank, it is certainly not out of a capitulation to our former antagonists. Our present interests lie outside the situationist movement.
David Jacobs & Chris Winks, At Dusk: The Situationist Movement in Historical Perspective (Berkeley, August 1975)
Using their names in public is presumably a device for demystifying activity, for teaching the elementary but generally poorly appreciated lesson that it is from for-real individuals that theory and practice come. Furthermore, their public self-presentation over time provides a certain sort of continuity, provides data for others to use in studying and creating situationist activity and theory. . . . The Notice poster discouraged idle readers from writing the Notice Comrades idly, encouraging them to show us their agreement by their own public work. . . . Theyve taken on a difficult task, attacking one manifestation of a central problem. Namely that to the extent that a radical generates some temporary successes, there will be others who enjoying the successes, will, if anything, become relatively content because of the successes and will appreciatively expect more of the same, from others; while the leaders, personally feeling the sterility of the followers, will tend to see in the evolving relationship a justification for the maintenance of their role . . . . Early in this century this process was so poorly appreciated that the revolutionary movement decimated itself without even taking the crudest anti-hierarchical formal organizational measures. Now it is fairly clear that the destruction of this process requires the destruction of the whole spectacle. Which is difficult for seven individuals to accomplish in front of an audience all too interested in participation in the show. . . . The Notice Comrades, dealing with the above, employ an enriched technique of invitation to join-in-the-fun. Namely, they insult the passive reader . . . and along with their insults, they offer to him, perhaps intentionally, certain defects just waiting for him to attack publicly.
Diverse Comments on the Public Activity
of the Bay Area Notice Comrades
(anonymous pamphlet, New England, July 1976)
This pamphlet is in favour of the humanization of daily life and the realization of religion. The super-reform of the detestable and unpalatable; the call for compassion and magnanimity in a world of loathing is just a bad joke. . . . Just as Spartacus slave revolt shocked the world of antiquity (1st century BC Italy), into producing a millenarian adventist Messiah (Jesus the Toad of Nazareth), and saddled Judas Iscariot with the wicked debt for his sacrifice, so the fierce and nasty revolutionary project since the 1960s has been arousing similar messianic cults Knabbs is one. Cruelty is less harmful than indulgence and fake compassion. Such compassion in the face of roles and ideology can only be complicity and commiseration. CLASS WAR MUST BE WARLIKE. Our enemies know well how to exploit our humanity and sympathy. Death to all exploiters, no forgiveness!!
Michael Bradley & Michel Prigent, The Catalyst Times #0 (London, July 1977)
The notion of behindism as originally treated in Double-Reflection was acceptable as an attempt to describe and comprehend what the author considered to be a permanent organizational problem of our epoch. If it already manifested a rather dubious concern to distinguish a somewhat more sincere, well-intentioned form of followerism from other more crude forms, it was nevertheless worth reading; it did not pretend to be anything but a tentative contribution to an ongoing discussion, one way among others of approaching a certain problem. The most serious drawback of this notion stemmed from the authors assumption that practical-critical activity was sufficiently established and perfectly studiable as such, without seeing that the notion of behindism had only manifested itself within a particular sector of the social practice of theory and within a narrow conception of the notion of theory. . . . Theoretical activity doesnt exist, it is nothing but a representation which tends to justify the role of petty specialists in revolution while reinforcing the paralysis of their direct imitators. . . . The very term theorist reflects the fetishism of language, which is dominated by the logic of the division of labor and which recreates this logic. . . . The Bay Area comrades perspective tended to reinforce the image of the model-theorist that the behindist already had in his head. . . . It was necessary to criticize the theoretical model that this notion implied. It takes two for there to be a behindist the other party has to go along with the relation. Behindism is a phenomenon that can persist only in the context of illusionistic relations between individuals, accompanying an enterprise whose objectives are abstract and insufficiently defined. When the task, and therefore the obstacles that must be overcome, become clear, the behindist can only conquer or give up, he cant settle for half-measures.
Daniel Denevert, Sur le fond dun divorce (Paris, October 1977)
No anarchist do refute or cast a diatribe toward Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and Spanish C.N.T. like you except a Marxist, an ultra-nationalist and an ignorant liberalist. . . . You know When you are in Rome you must do as a Roman do. It is at least an etiquette over the world. Surely you have done it in the bad manner like some Japanese anarchists.
Yoshiharu Hashimoto, A Reply to a Situationist, in Libertaire (Tokyo, November 1977)
The hierarchy of the American situationists was divided along traditional lines: At the top sat Knabb, the reluctant pope, encouraging autonomy or intervening benevolently according to which action seemed more likely to maintain both the family of dependent social relations and a modicum of public production. . . . Knabbs Double-Reflection is central to a comprehension of the American situationists. In it he concentrated and solidified their image of revolutionary practice as a series of acquirable techniques transmitted hierarchically through a supervised apprenticeship which created a community with its own standards of conduct and criteria of judgment. . . . Knabbs recent text The Realization and Suppression of Religion is a strikingly self-conscious moment of this superficial reformation which openly rejects the objective determinants of the anti-statist struggle even going so far as to adopt the viewpoint of the enlightened spectator, in order to better lure him into the camp. . . . He gently strokes those people who have had the good sense to ignore society and go off on their own . . . and leaves open the role of theorist for himself should these people seek a little advice on the social context of their struggles. Those of us who know Knabb personally can recognize that each time he broadens his conception of serious struggles it more and more closely conforms to his own narrow private life and preoccupations. He can never set aside the manipulative tactics he appears to bemoan because beneath the humble exterior, its flip-side, lies a bottomless arrogance based on a belief in an absolute truth himself.
Isaac Cronin, The American Situationists: 1972-77 (Berkeley, February 1978)
The recent publication by Ken Knabb called Situationist International Anthology needs a few critical words in order to cut to size this pretentious creep. But above all what is striking when one picks up this anthology is the way it is edited. The English speaking reader can only read what Knabb has selected. In so doing he has put his stamp on this anthology, shaping it to his own ideological perspectives. It is no more than a knabbization. One day when the whole of the review called Internationale situationniste is made available in English, as it stands in French, no more, no less, everyone will be able to notice that Knabbs anthology is but a poor rendering of the original texts, today it is no more than a boring morass in the hands of this editor. . . . what this Saint forgets to tell his readers is of his own contradictions, his own mistakes, his own confusion, in fact his own stupidity that he has dished out in numerous neo-pamphlets over a period of more than ten years. . . . anyone with a bit of critical insight can see that Knabb is a jerk and a Berkeley pseud. Here are a few examples of this knabbery, in fact all of it could be included in his Blind Men and the Elephant. It is shameful on his part to have brushed all his false consciousness under his California carpet, so there is nothing left for us but to pull the rug from under his editors feet. Knabb in his Realization and Suppression of religion, published in 1977, went so far as to say: when religion is treated by the situationists, it is usually brought in only in its most superficial, spectacular aspects, this is a lie, pure hogwash. How can this student in revolution say such a thing and include for example Vaneigems text Basic banalities which deals extensively with God, religion, and modern alienation. . . . Maybe the Reverend Knabb should have gone to Jonestown (Guyana), in fact the massacre orchestrated by that other swine-priest called Jones contradicted Knabbs intervention mania, it was another irony of history and it fell on Knabbs thick head! And yet he continues to distribute his magnificent piece on religion. And of course there is no mention of all this in his anthology, it is disgusting. Knabb should try to intervene armed with his new Bible, in Salt Lake City or try the terrain of all Christian Revivalists, the repugnant Billy Graham included. . . . A couple of years earlier, he went so far as to admit in his Bureau of Public Secrets (a sort of dishrag) that he had been a book fetishist, at last he has another fetish his anthology with his name on the front and he is even known in the Library of Congress, why not send a copy to Reagan?! . . . Mr. Knabb in his journal called League of Secret Misery, once more gave us another gem to laugh at, and goddamit did we laugh, he had sent himself a telegram, today he can do the same, congratulating himself on his new venture. It is pitiful. . . . At the time of the fall of the last shah of Iran, our Saint issued a poster called The Opening in Iran (Freudian slip no doubt!). Anyone with a bit of common sense would have realized that which was to come in that part of the world, was a nightmare. . . . Knabb in fact took his ready-made schema out of his suitcase and started applying it to Iran, the result was a disaster that did not help a critique of religion in that country.
Michel Prigent, Biography of the Anthologer (London, April 1982)
[NOTE: Amazingly enough, Michel Prigent eventually changed his mind. In July 2016 I received the following email: “Dear Ken Knabb, You probably will be surprised to receive a message from me. I have been reflecting on your writings on religion [where] you criticize the SI. I agree with you religion is more complicated, it can help people recentre themselves, there is a therapeutic aspect to religion and a humanism. At present friends and myself are going to publish a book by Robert Kurz: The Substance of Capital for Chronos Publications. All best wishes, Michel.” His subsequent messages were brief but friendly. For example, a few months later he wrote: “Thanks for your email about Rexroth. A great guy. We need a Rexroth today to write about Trump, Bannon, Putin.” Michel died in 2019.]
In the U.S.A. the Situationist International is mostly known, if it is known at all, as a small group of dadaist provocateurs that had something to do with the May 1968 uprising in France. The name has been batted around in reference to punk, because Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren was supposedly connected with the situationists. . . . The situationists were, ah, sort of like the Yippies, one hears. Or New Yorks Motherfuckers. . . . Or the Frankfort School . . . the ideas were similar, right? Situationist International Anthology the result of years of work by Ken Knabb, an American student of the group makes clear that the Situationist International was something considerably more interesting: perhaps the most lucid and adventurous band of extremists of the last quarter century. . . . It is exhilarating to read this book to confront a group that was determined to make enemies, burn bridges, deny itself the rewards of celebrity, to find and maintain its own voice in a world where, it seemed, all other voices of cultural or political resistance were either cravenly compromised or so lacking in consciousness they did not even recognize their compromises. . . . The Situationist International Anthology does not present the complete text of the situationist journal, and it has no illustrations. But the translations are clear and readable sometimes too literal, sometimes inspired. Entirely self-published, the anthology is a better job of book-making than most of the books published today by commercial houses. There are virtually no typos; it is well indexed, briefly but usefully annotated, and the design, binding, and printing are all first class. In other words, Knabb has, unlike most other publishers of situationist material in English, taken the material seriously, and allowed it to speak with something like its original authority. . . . The writing in the Situationist International Anthology makes almost all present-day political and aesthetic thinking seem cowardly, self-protecting, careerist, and satisfied. The book is a means to the recovery of ambition.
Greil Marcus, Village Voice Literary Supplement (New York, May 1982)
[The complete Village Voice article is now online here: https://www.villagevoice.com/2020/03/18/the-long-walk-of-the-situationist-international/]
Marx rightly noted that it was in the most democratic state of his time, the United States of America, that the citizens were the most religious. . . . If the world of the commodity is a religious world, the fact that the state is liberated from religion leads the citizens to become all the more submissive to religion. . . . Thus it is not surprising that it was an American, and specifically a Californian, Ken Knabb, who is to our knowledge the first person to have pointed out (in his 1977 pamphlet The Realization and Suppression of Religion, which has since been translated into French) the insufficiencies of the situationist critique regarding religion.
Jean-Pierre Voyer, Revue de Préhistoire Contemporaine #1 (Paris, May 1982)
In 1978, after visiting the 70s in Hong Kong, the American situationist Ken Knabb wrote a critique of the group entitled A Radical Group in Hong Kong. . . . Despite our vastly differing positions, we find most of Knabbs criticisms well-founded. In the libertarian tradition of adversion to critique, anti-critique and self-critique (about which even Bakunin must turn in his grave), the 70s never cared to reply (some of the groups overseas contacts even wrote to the group expressing their disgust for Knabbs doing so!).
International Correspondence, Open Letter on Our Split from Undercurrents/Minus (Hong Kong, July 1982)
Anyone who cannot read French and is now interested in the Situationist International owes Ken Knabb some kind of debt. It was Knabb who single-handedly introduced the SIs writings to the United States. (In 1974, of course, Christopher Grays Leaving the Twentieth Century: The Incomplete Work of the SI introduced them to the United Kingdom. But Grays book wasnt well-translated or very representative in its selections; furthermore it wasnt adequately distributed in the U.S.) . . . Im sorry to have to report that by and large [Knabbs other publications] suck. . . . The Relevance of Rexroth looks like a poetry magazine but reads like a doctoral dissertation, which has got to be one of the most unpoetic things around. Knabbs book wants the truth to be known about Rexroth that he is under-rated and that more of his books should be brought back into print but it also wants to criticize him, on precisely the grounds that the situationists made their own. Rexroth didnt understand the spectacle, Knabb claims, and thus Rexroth didnt understand the May 1968 revolt in France. But who cares if he did or he didnt? . . . The second thing Knabb sent me that, ah, sucked was the little thing called The War and the Spectacle, which he wrote, reproduced and distributed in April, 1991. (Why so late, Ken? The ground war was over on 28 February.) It begins with the sentence, The orchestration of the Gulf war was a glaring expression of what the situationists call the spectacle the development of modern society to the point where images dominate life, which has got to be one of the all-time great turn-offs. Not only is the tone appropriate to grade schoolers, and not only is the definition of what the spectacle is simplistic, but the whole concept seems to be that recent events prove that the situationists were right. . . . Rest in peace, Ken: the situationists were indeed right. And so, in a way, are you when you write, The point is to undermine [the spectacle-spectator relation] to challenge the conditioning that makes people susceptible to media manipulation in the first place. But how?
Bill Brown, Ken Knabb, R.I.P., in Not Bored #19 (Rhode Island, June 1991)
[Bill Brown complained that the above excerpts misrepresented his position, so I reproduced the complete text of his article below.]
KEN KNABB, R.I.P.
Anyone who cannot read French and is now interested in the Situationist International owes Ken Knabb some kind of debt. It was Knabb who single-handedly introduced the SIs writings to the United States. (In 1974, of course, Christopher Grays Leaving the Twentieth Century: The Incomplete Work of the SI introduced them to the United Kingdom. But Grays book wasnt well-translated or very representative in its selections; furthermore it wasnt adequately distributed in the U.S.) Knabbs selections and translations were, of course, published under the title Situationist International Anthology in 1981, under his own auspices, after he couldnt find a publisher who knew the value of the texts. Although the Anthology contains no situationist images, it has become a classic and is now in its second printing (its second printing by Knabbs Bureau of Public Secrets, that is).
Personally, I owe Knabb some kind of debt, above and beyond the fact that I would not be able to read the SI, or even know about them, were it not for his Anthology. He has answered my requests for help in locating hard-to-find documents such as debat dorientation de lex-internationale situationniste, which is still untranslated into English and has provided photocopies of his documents when originals cannot be located. I get the feeling that he likes NOT BORED! because he keeps sending me things that he has done since the Anthology. Im sorry to have to report that by and large, they suck. Now I know that some people on the basis of the things Knabb wrote and published about religion and the situ-influenced group Contradiction in the 1970s will not be surprised by this pronouncement. Hey guess what, shmuck? Hes always sucked: the Anthology, because he didnt write it himself, is the only good thing hes ever attached his name to. (Those 1970s pamphlets did look a lot like poetry magazines, didnt they?)
The first thing from Knabb that really disappointed me was The Relevance of Rexroth, a 1990, looks-like-a-poetry-magazine book about the writer, critic, and teacher Kenneth Rexroth. The book was published by the Bureau of Public Secrets, so one imagines that it, like Knabbs 200-page anthology of Rexroths Examiner and San Francisco columns, did not yet find a suitable publisher. And for good reasons, it would appear. The Relevance of Rexroth looks like a poetry magazine but reads like a doctoral dissertation, which has got to be one of the most unpoetic things around. Knabbs book wants the truth to be known about Rexroth that he is under-rated and that more of his books should be brought back into print but it also wants to criticize him, on precisely the grounds that the situationists made their own. Rexroth didnt understand the spectacle, Knabb claims, and thus Rexroth didnt understand the May 1968 revolt in France. But who cares if he did or he didnt? Farewell, wonderful old mentor! Knabb cries out to Rexroth at the end of the book. Yes, we want to add, Good-bye and good luck!
The second thing Knabb sent me that...ah...sucked was the little thing called The War and the Spectacle, which he wrote, reproduced and distributed in April, 1991. (Why so late, Ken? The ground war was over on 28 February.) It begins with the sentence, The orchestration of the Gulf war was a glaring expression of what the situationists call the spectacle the development of modern society to the point where images dominate life, which has got to be one of the all-time great turn-offs. Not only is the tone appropriate to grade schoolers, and not only is the definition of what the spectacle is simplistic, but the whole concept seems to be that recent events prove that the situationists were right. Its always a drag when someone reverses things and has the practice prove the theory right (instead of having the theory prove the practice right), but especially where the situationists are concerned. Like they really need to have their theory of the spectacle proved right, again? and at this stage of things?
Rest in peace, Ken: the situationists were indeed right. And so, in a way, are you when you write, The point is to undermine [the spectacle-spectator relation] to challenge the conditioning that makes people susceptible to media manipulation in the first place. But how?
Many on the left . . . distrust interaction with the outside world for fear that it may corrupt the purity of their means. One of their greatest fears is cooptation and inclusion of their activities and beliefs in the structure of the status quo. The article from Anarchy (see War and the Spectacle, page 18) in this issue of The Thistle echoes this concern with its warning that the spark of the protests against the war risk being smothered by organized political movements to do irrelevant things like register people to vote. . . . We abjure participation in structured, hierarchical organizations at the risk of distorting our view of the world and foiling our attempts to achieve far-reaching progressive change.
Grant Emison, The Thistle (Massachusetts, 28 August 1991)
Ken Knabb gets at the essence of Rexroth through his ideas, quoting a few poems but mainly choice passages of prose. Knabb also gets at the way Rexroth talked, the way he bantered with people or slipped into an ironic showbiz persona . . . to get his points across without too much solemnity (p. 4). Yes, that is exactly the way he was at times. . . . Knabb insightfully connects Rexroths chief themes, sex, mysticism, and revolution, showing how Rexroth persistently interrelated these and other apparently incongruous topics: civilization and nature, sex and mathematics, personal intimacies and history, visionary contemplation and birthday parties, verse rhythm and riding a horse, for instance. Knabb is especially insightful in his shrewd analysis of Rexroths revolutionary theory and practice, his Buddhist anarchism, his communitarian personalism, his affinities with Martin Buber. . . . Knabbs main disagreement with Rexroth is that he offered insufficient guidance for the massive revolts of the late 1960s, when he had decided that personal freedom, poetry, song, and the arts generally subverted the oppressive society more than social action. Knabb argues that even the arts of rebellion have been co-opted in the barrage of spectacles that maintain the status quo, a thesis that is developed further in his Situationist International Anthology and other publications. Rexroth might well have welcomed such intelligent criticism, but who can say what his precise response would have been? My dissatisfaction about Knabbs book is that it is too short to offer full explanations for Rexroths ideas. . . . Like Eliot Weinberger, Knabb thinks that Rexroths writings require little explication: but few critics have read as widely as they have, and I know of no one, in or out of academia, who has read more widely than Rexroth. The point of many of his allusions may be clear, but the processes of his imaginative thinking are not so easily grasped. More, not less, explication of his work is needed.
Morgan Gibson, Poetry Flash (Berkeley, January 1992)
The development of the radical critique of religion has been hitherto unsatisfactory, with the exception of Ken Knabbs The Realization and Suppression of Religion. Rarely, if at all, more than a vulgar materialism, such contributions to the critique as exist almost always fail to get to the root of the matter, overlooking the content of religion in order to attack the form. The fact, however, that religion has certain characteristics and plays a certain role within a given social form does not limit it to that. . . . [Knabbs pamphlet] stands alone within the radical milieu as an attempt to grasp what it is in religion that speaks to the human heart. He calls for a discovery of the content that is expressed in religious form, and criticises the previous development of the critique for its failure to meet the mark. . . . On a practical and personal level for Knabb, the notion of the revolutionary movement as focus of meaning takes the form of affective detournement. . . . I understand this as theory that is practiced, a kind of self-applied Reichian psychoanalysis. Not that this is changing the world by changing oneself; Knabb states explicitly that any personal liberation is condemned to failure without historical practice. But his striving for a sort of authenticity under the character-armour does seem to have a mystic quality about it; I was reminded, while reading Knabbs Affective Detournement: A Case Study, of the Spanish Christian mystic St. John of the Cross, who would Desire nothing in order to desire everything / Love nothing in order to love everything.
Trevor Carles, Notes on Religion, in Lantern Waste #1 (Petersham, Australia, September 1992)
Loved your Strong Lessons really good. The lack of analysis the simplemindedness (not to put too fine a point on it) of the Buddhist Peace Fellowships work has been driving me bonkers. . . . By chance, I spoke with Alan Senauke [a BPF board member] after getting your leaflet and mentioned it to him, whereupon he told me hed organized a meeting to discuss it! . . . I hope therell be a substantive response.
Nelson Foster (Zen teacher and BPF cofounder), November 1993
We have circulated your latest broadside around the city and it has created quite a stir. One Buddhist group has been rocked to the core. Apparently this group is trying to expel the members who brought your statement up for discussion. These tainted members also sent copies to their associates in NYC and a ruckus arose there.
Left Bank Books worker (Seattle, May 1994)
From Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb (1997).