Selected Opinions about Ken Knabb

(Part II: 1997-2005)


Thomas McDonough
Jean-Pierre Baudet
John Zerzan
Unruh Lee
John Zerzan
Eugenia Lovelace
Fifth Estate
John Filiss
L.D. Hobson (Anarchy)
Mister Hook


While the value of such a groundbreaking work [the Situationist InternationaI Anthology] must be acknowledged, the obvious prejudices of Knabb’s selection of texts for translation makes the book particularly problematic. First, Knabb adheres to a strict chronological definition of the S.I., one that largely coincides with the eleven-year run of the group’s eponymous journal (1958-69). This means that the first six years of the group’s existence, when it was known as the Lettrist International, are omitted except for a handful of texts that give little sense of the richness of this period, when the group was finding its place in the cultural avant-garde of the immediate postwar years, with its roots in the struggle over the legacy of the historical avant-garde (in particular that of Surrealism). Knabb’s chronology also omits much of the — admittedly less interesting — post-1968 debate within the S.I. over the organization of an artistico-political avant-garde. . . . The cumulative effect of Knabb’s choices is to enforce a misleading construction of the S.I.’s history: because cultural politics are placed in a decidedly secondary position, the reader is free to see the Situationists as one of many anarchist “groupuscules” formed in the wake of the leftist critique of the Stalinist French Communist Party (1956-58). . . .

But it is not because of its eternal truths, nor for its anticipations of postmodernism, nor for its superb melancholic style that we return to the Situationist International a quarter century after its auto-dissolution. We return, rather, to complete the record of the historical avant-garde, and to reassess the role of Debord, one of its most complex figures. The articles collected herein mark a turn to this project of historicization.

—Thomas McDonough, in October #79 (special situationist issue; MIT Press, Winter 1997)



Many thanks for the Collected Skirmishes you sent me. This allowed me to read as a whole what you wrote about religion (and sometimes to re-read it, as far as I already knew parts of it). No doubt that religion is a question that has to be faced nowadays for the very simple (although deplorable) reason that on different levels and in various modes, religion did not pass away, as could be possibly fancied (and hoped) some decades ago. On the contrary: in all modern countries, a modern sort of religion (economy) keeps ruling the people, with its specific ethics, theology, and clergymen, and nevertheless traditional religions survive as well; and in countries with more archaic structures, traditional forms of religion not only survive, but increase and strengthen heavily, mainly in the Islamic part of the world. So, however, it seems quite impossible to neglect the question of religion.

The Realization and Suppression of Religion was written in 1977 from an American point of view, I mean out of a country where the society of the spectacle was already fully developed, and where it was already obvious that some new kinds of religion (sects) were not (as could be wrongly believed from a European perspective) a mere compensation for an uncomplete degree of spectacle, and accordingly destined to disappear, but that on the contrary both, completely developed spectacle and religion, proved to be joint phenomena, able to coexist. In one word: the spectacle (though itself a kind of religion more appropriate to “modern times”) did not replace religion, did not fulfill what it was expected to do from a strictly radical point of view. But should this not have led to an analysis somehow deeper of the question: what kind of religion passed away, and what kind stayed?

In the past, “religion” comprehended quite a lot of different, and even contradictory elements. Amongst them, some have obviously been picked up by the spectacle, some others have been left behind and had to be resolved by traditional (religious) means. But which ones remained? Apparently, the elements you put forward are all more or less linked with what I could call the “medical” (or “hygienic,” or “therapeutic,” or “Californian”) dimension of religion: in modern society, people have obviously needs concerning a “personal equilibrium” they only can appease through — let’s say — semi-religious, essentially therapeutic techniques.

But we all know that this was only a single aspect of past religions. Religion tried in the same time to be this kind of “medicine,” but also a system of knowledge (mythology, stories of genesis, magical practice, comprehension of nature); a direction for art and aesthetics; a way of structuring social exchange inspired by man’s supposed relations to gods and to the world in general; and, last but not least, an attempt from man to consider himself, his life and death, the contrast between his finite body and “infinite” spirit — all this mixed together in a completely alienated context and attempting to lead it to a coherent whole, placed almost without exception under the control of an already ruling or of a newly growing political power. We know of course that nothing can be found in man’s contemporary activity and existence that did not originate in religion, because religion was for many thousand years the unitarian element of man. So the history of the following periods, beginning with the old empires in Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, initiated slowly the long and irreversible movement of centrifugal splitting which led to today’s extreme division of knowledge and practice. But remembering all this, are we entitled to speak of “religion” for pointing out most of today’s sects and “religious” needs? I do not quite think so. These needs are too therapeutic to be considered as a religion from a religious point of view, and too religious to be accepted as purely therapeutic from an anti-religious point of view. All this explains from my point of view why your attempt to make a synthesis could not make any good: what was left from religion was mainly the “therapeutic” dimension, i.e. the most prosaic one, the one that ruling religions (at least occidental ones) have always rejected as a lower perspective, as an essentially nonreligious part of religion: recovery had not to be looked for for itself, but to come in addition to consciousness (to speak with Freud). Religion, when strong, never thought about being adopted only by sick and weak people. Don’t you think all religions of the past would have been quite upset by such a medical justification? Well, of course I don’t care a single minute about what old religions would have thought of it: but was their point of view not extremely richer than the therapeutic one, and insofar would their contempt not be “right.”

For these reasons, I think that the theory of the spectacle was quite right to present religion as mostly replaced by economy and spectacle. What was left apart was only single parts, pieces of religion. The need to feel part of a unity, or to be oneself, that overwhelms people from time to time, could for example only be answered by a free society in which man would be practically a part, a personal and original, irreplaceable part of the whole (that’s why classical Athens did not need any real religion: problems which religion is only able to ask were already being solved by active democracy), but in the meanwhile (quite a long time) people keep trying to solve the problem with beliefs, faith, and of course revolutionaries as such can only be against such methods, such lullabies, such anesthetics. The lack of the proper solution must be experienced and felt by everyone: this is indeed a healthy solution, insofar as health has something to do with intelligence! The fact to practice yoga, for example, or other relaxation techniques for one’s personal health, is to me a strictly personal question, like drinking wine or liking sex, and has not to be propagated or attacked publicly, and should not be mixed with social ideas, radical theory and so on (besides, I believe that wine or sex can prove to be more compatible with an emancipated social life than sitting all day long on a prayer-carpet). Therefore, I think that you argue on a double and contradictory basis: when attacked on Zen, you plead the personal side, but then you try to propagate the whole thing. Thus, you tried to conciliate people and activities (Buddhism and critical activism) which have nothing in common, and which cannot have anything in common. . . . [*]

Your analysis and critique deals only with Christian religion, while Buddhism is treated as a positive “personal experience” (“Zen in particular is more a practice than a belief system,” p. 145). Because you don’t like the first and do like the second? A very unfair treatment. And do you really think that the description of your sojourn in Tassajara can be taken as “a hint of how life could be”? Of course, life could be like this, but should it be? And do you expect people to fight and struggle for such a “life”? . . .[*]

I don’t think that any of your European readers could approve this part of your book publicly, and as for myself, I would have of course to repudiate it at the first occasion. I suppose you are aware of such consequences, and would like to know your comment.

—Jean-Pierre Baudet (Paris, March 1997)

[In most cases I have reproduced Baudet’s English text just as he wrote it, but I have silently corrected a few of his Frenchisms that could lead to misunderstanding his meaning. Texts and correspondence by Jean-Pierre Baudet and some of his friends are online at lesamisdenemesis.com.]

[*Here and elsewhere on this webpage ellipses indicate omissions within a text. Unless otherwise indicated, the passages quoted on this webpage are only excerpts, they do not claim to be complete texts. In this particular case Baudets letter included extensive other remarks on the history of religion and other more or less tangentially related topics (e.g. music); as well as other information that had nothing to do with the question of religion. Those passages are not included here because they have little if any bearing on my writings.]




One of the most striking things about this hefty volume, Ken Knabb’s magnum opus, is how firmly it is stuck in the past. Intelligent and articulate, Knabb is, above all, a card-carrying Situationist. And time has evidently stood still for him since the Situationist International disbanded in 1972. The ten-page index to Public Secrets contains close to 800 names and subjects; I didn’t find even one entry that could not have been written in the ’70s, mainly the early ’70s at that. Knabb’s collected flyers and pamphlets, which constitute half the book, were in fact mostly written during that decade.

The rest of Secrets is largely a temperate, jargon-free outline for a political revolution that would usher in universal self-management based on the model of classic workers’ councils. In an argument reminiscent of Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), Knabb holds that we now have the “material development” necessary for an egalitarian, ecology-enhancing revolution. He overlooks the fact that the course of this technological development has been the material embodiment of inequality and the destruction of nature, inseparable from social and political domination and division.

In common with other prescriptions for self-management, Knabb’s puts the emphasis on democratic process while overlooking what it is that’s being managed. It really adds up to self-managed alienation, because it is worker control of essentially the same basic system we now endure, minus, it is hoped, excesses like war, famine, and Kathie Lee Gifford.

The social landscape Knabb outlines would employ “credits” instead of money, but otherwise it wouldn’t be qualitatively different from what exists now, including specialized expertise and computerized “coordination of global production.”

If one compares Public Secrets with Bookchin’s 1995 rant, Social Anarchism vs. Lifestyle Anarchism, the two seem glaringly different. Employing a calm, carefully modest, non-argumentative approach to his councilism, Knabb avoids any substantial discussion of critical thought in the 25 years since the S.I. signed off. In contrast to this self-proclaimed “mild-mannered enemy of the state,” Bookchin rages and orates, naming names and delivering detailed denunciations of the degeneracies he sees afflicting the anti-authoritarian milieu. Beneath the stylistic surface, however, the two are as one, holding up a leftist lamp of the past to light the way to their vision (sic) of the future.

Neither really analyzes the present — its magnitude of psychic immiseration, the incredible poverty of an all-pervasive postmodern culture, the reasons why leftism is all but extinct, the truly pathological imperative of contemporary techno-capital. Nor do they even acknowledge the foundational elements of our present nightmarish situation, including division of labor, symbolic culture, domestication, Progress, and industrialism, among others. Knabb’s book, like Bookchin’s, has something of the swan song about it, an ode to a limited and dying contestation in direst need of superseding itself.

Public Secrets is clear and reasonable-sounding, pitched in an effective, self-effacing mode. But I find it disappointing that manifest reason and sensitivity are not open to the urgent needs of current reality. As things worsen demonstrably and dramatically, what seems more to the point than a quiet, not ineloquent, recipe from the ideological past, is a deepening of our understanding of how much further we need to go than we thought in the 1970s.

—John Zerzan, in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #43 (Missouri, Spring-Summer 1997)

[The above review and the following exchange are reproduced complete.]

* * *


When it comes to our lovely modern society, I am what you might call an “uncooperative character,” lazy-subversive, more petty-criminal syndicalist than anarcho-syndicalist. I’m willing to bet people in the Paleolithic and before had it made compared to us. So proposals for social revolution based optimistically on the inheritance of modern material development tend not to enthuse me. However, Zerzan’s review of Knabb’s new book gave a distorted reading of his ideas on revolution, and those ideas do hold some appeal.

Zerzan states: “It really adds up to self-managed alienation, because it’s worker control of essentially the same system we now endure . . . the social landscape Knabb outlines would employ ‘credits’ instead of money, but otherwise it wouldn’t be qualitatively different from what exists now.” But Knabb says explicitly: “Traditional syndicalism and councilism have tended to take the existing division of labor too much for granted, as if people’s lives in a postrevolutionary society would continue to center around fixed jobs and workplaces. . . . The ultimate goal, however, is not the self-management of existing enterprises.” Concurring with Paul Goodman and others that most of the work done at present is superfluous or worse, he expects fixed work positions to fade through the obsoleting of most jobs and the reorganization of all activity. The whole money-commodity economy must be abolished — no words are minced about this — and the “work” week could be reduced to 10­15 hours a week. Most important, what does Knabb envision for uncooperative characters? They will be left alone! In short, Zerzan downplays or ignores the emphasis on qualitative transformation. This sounds quite different from the current system to me.

Although emphasizing decentralization and small-scale, informal organization, Knabb does seem to embrace a fair amount of regional and even global centralization. And he is optimistic about automation and the re-design and re-direction of computers and other modern technologies. But he envisions people keeping “a wary eye on experts until the necessary knowledge is more widely available or the technology in question is simplified or phased out” (page 66). That’s pretty different from the social relations/technics nexus of this system. He offers ideas on how the whole technical landscape could be vastly transformed, including the phase-out of many technologies, the restoring of large areas for undisturbed wilderness, and the rapid dismantling of the automobile industry and infrastructure. That at least deserves a more probing critique.

Lastly, there’s a valuable attempt to point out recurring patterns in times of revolt: how the illusion of powerlessness to oppose the system collapses; the contagiousness of liberation and its limits; how there are more possibilities but less time; examples of what must be avoided as well as what can be done. Public Secrets is well worth a read and it calls for more than a brush-off review.

—Unruh Lee (Oregon)   


It isn’t that I find Public Secrets to be completely without merit, rather that a major frustration remains paramount: that its rather gifted author remains, over 25 years, so resolutely in the dark about the considerable deepening of analysis that has taken place. This is what accounts for a dismissive impulse on my part, which makes it difficult to engage in a longer, more accepting review of this book that crowns his achievements.

But even if my review is a rebuke in short-hand, I resist Lee’s judgment that it “distorts” Knabb in any fundamental way. In fact, both Lee and Knabb provide the material for resisting this charge.

Knabb says he opposes “existing division of labor,” only to embrace every manifestation (and illusion) of that division of labor. He favors work, banking, specialisms, automation — even computers! He seems to want the Internet while forgetting that it embodies the highest level of alienated existence yet devised, including mining, smelting, drudgery, toxicity, national power grids, etc., etc. Even a moment’s reflection reveals the levels of coercion, artificiality, and estrangement from nature congealed in those gleaming machines!

My point is that Knabb’s outlook does not represent a qualitative break with the world we now inhabit. In fact, he’s not even close to the kind of vision or analysis needed, because he has no real problem with production, Progress, or work, not to mention their ultimate basis, division of labor. There can be no wholeness or re-connecting with the natural world, in my view, that does not begin with the rejection of these categories.

Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #44 (Fall/Winter 1997)




Ken Knabb’s Public Secrets illustrates the self-obsessed nature of the situationist milieu after the heady days of 1968. . . .

Consistent with the rejection of the role of “the militant” and compulsive hack-like activism, the Knabb book, as an account of the “second wave” of situationists in the United States, is notable for its lack of references to the routine meetings and ongoing activism familiar to many of us. For example, when he had finished editing the Situationist International Anthology, instead of involving himself in another struggle, Knabb took up rock-climbing.

This puts us in mind of a common criticism of Vaneigem’s account of radical subjectivity: that it risks degenerating into bourgeois individualism. While it was a necessary attack on the sterility of the typical leftist approach during a period of upturn in interest in revolutionary ideas, how is it applied during times when the movement and its ideas are in retreat? Was Knabb burnt out after editing the Anthology, or were there really no struggles going on around him at that time in which he could usefully participate?

The revolutionary movement is so small today, and the threat of leftism so diminished, that it is easy to feel that pendulum of “pleasure” versus commitment should swing the other way. To get even the most modest of activities going, it is sometimes all hands to the pump! Those comrades who don’t turn up to meetings, pickets and demonstrations aren’t for the most part inventing new, more creative, consistent and pleasurable forms of resistance. Instead, they are expressing their critique of routine and mundane activism merely by staying in bed or going to the pub. . . .

The second wave of situationists, in particular, held that in the same way that we should give expression to our desires rather than suppress them — since it is our desires that are the motor of our struggle against alienation — so it is necessary to realize the political in the personal. This wasn’t simply an attack on inconsistency in one’s personal relations, but an argument that sorting yourself out could help you in your quest to sort out the world. The argument went: how can one criticize the workers for not breaking with capital if not questioning one’s own collusion in alienated personal relations?

Those who made this claim were adamant that it wasn’t an argument for the revolutionary value of therapy, and that therapy was not some kind of solution. But they certainly made use of certain ideas from therapy by drawing on the work of Wilhelm Reich. Reich’s influence is evident both in Vaneigem’s work and in the practices of Knabb and his sometime cohorts. Public Secrets includes a piece by Voyer, "Reich: How To Use," which argues that character (in Reich’s sense) is the form taken by the individual’s complicity in the spectacle. To end this complicity, Knabb and others continued the SI’s practice of breaking, sometimes using an individual’s character as their rationale. In circulated letters announcing breaks, they detailed each other’s limitations such as superficiality and pretentiousness, both in understanding the SI and in personal relations. . . .

But the quest for “authenticity,” openness and honesty became important in its own right, and breaking became a compulsion. Defending the practice of breaking, Knabb says that the SI and their followers were doing “nothing more than choosing their own company” (Public Secrets, p. 132). Well that’s very nice for them, but in many struggles you can’t choose who is on your side; you may have to act alongside people you don’t like personally. Breaking helps draw clear lines, as Knabb says. But it comes across to us as self-indulgent purism, and the result is smaller and smaller groupuscules. What has that got to do with the revolutionary movement? Far from overcoming the personal/political dichotomy, what these post-SI situationists showed in totally politicizing their personal relations was that they themselves were the most obsessively one-sided politicos! . . .

Knabb went through the pre-hippy scene and anarchism before he discovered the writings of the SI. After Knabb had — in his own words — “become a situationist,” he and others produced “On the Poverty of Hip Life” (1972), an analysis of what was valid in the hippy movement as well as some of its profound limitations. . . . However this early 70s stuff applying situationist critique to wider movements gives way by the mid 70s to increasingly introverted “theorizing about theorizing.” Two of the more recent pieces in the Knabb collection, “The Joy of Revolution” and his interesting autobiography “Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State” place pieces like these in context. Knabb’s discovery of the SI’s texts provided him with the basic theory which he stuck with and applied loyally for the rest of his life. There has been little subsequent development of the pioneering SI analyses, either by Knabb or anyone else. Debord himself, post 1968, was more concerned with his reputation than with developing new theory. Loyal followers of the SI seemed to live off past glories; carrying forward the authentic SI project seemed to them to be a matter of repeating the ideas rather than superseding them where necessary, as the SI superseded previous revolutionary theory. Hence, Knabb’s “The Joy of Revolution” is not meant to be original; rather it is a somewhat didactic but readable introduction to the “common sense” of non-hierarchical revolutionary theory, intended for readers not otherwise convinced. Although, within these terms, the article has its merits, some readers, like us, will find Knabb’s treatment of democracy far too uncritical — another unchallenged inheritance of the SI.

If the ideas of the SI are more or less complete, as Knabb seems to believe, then the most important thing is to get them across. What is striking in Knabb’s account of his activity is how much of it was text-centred: his “interventions” were mostly writings, posters and leaflets. Within this “pedantic precision fetishism” it was essential to Knabb to choose the correct words, even if this meant writing and re-writing his leaflets repeatedly till he got it right. Hence his short leaflet in response to the Gulf War took almost two months to write and wasn’t distributed until the campaign against the war was almost over. Other documents in the collection express the same loyalty to the insights of the SI. Knabb’s response to the LA riot of 1992 was not a fresh analysis, learning from the new expressions of anti-capitalist practice of the uprising. Instead, he issued a new translation of the classic SI text “Watts 1965: The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”!

The worst feature of Knabb’s loyalty is his Debord-like lumping together of all the different critics of the SI. In “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” Knabb juxtaposes a number of critical quotations on the SI, not just from shallow bourgeois commentators, but also from revolutionaries. Among them is a critical comment from Barrot and Martin’s Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement. The inclusion of the quote demonstrates not Barrot and Martin’s dogmatic refusal to comprehend, but Knabb’s. Barrot’s critique, expounded at length elsewhere, is, from a revolutionary perspective, perhaps the most useful critical analysis of the SI published to date. . . .

Aufheben #6 (England, Fall 1997)

[The complete text of the above article, which goes on to discuss Jean Barrot’s would-be critique of the SI and Stewart Home’s What Is Situationism? A Reader,” is online at www.reocities.com/aufheben2/auf_6_situ.html.]




This eminently readable book has three distinct parts. The first, The Joy of Revolution, is a simple, but not simplistic, outline of why and how a non-hierarchical, non-statist society might be possible. The second part, Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State, is, as the title implies, an autobiographical sketch — “part political chronicle, part self-analysis, part simple nostalgia.” The last, and largest, part is a collection of Knabb’s previous publications, most of them, naturally, from or about a situationist perspective.

John Zerzan gave it a somewhat offhand and unfavourable review in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. Zerzan, while conceding that it is “temperate, jargon-free” with a “calm, carefully modest, non-argumentative approach” — comments that I fully agree with — nevertheless criticises the book, not for what it is, but for what it is not. That I think is a pretty unfair form of criticism. He says, for example, “Intelligent and articulate, Knabb is, above all, a card-carrying Situationist.” So? As far as I know Knabb has never claimed otherwise. Another criticism Zerzan makes is that “I didn’t find even one entry that could not have been written in the ’70s, mainly in the early ’70s at that.” Again so what? Surely the point is whether what is written is informed and informative. Further, given that the largest part of the book is a collection of previous publications, which as Zerzan also notes “were in fact mostly written during that decade,” it is hardly surprising that it has a ’70s slant. Ditto with the autobiographical section: how could the autobiography of someone active in the situationist movement in the ’70s fail to stress either situationism or the ’70s?

Zerzan concludes that: “As things worsen demonstrably and dramatically, what seems more to the point than a quiet, not ineloquent, recipe from the ideological past, is a deepening of our understanding of how much further we need to go than we thought in the ’70s.” But surely to do that one first needs to learn whatever lessons “the ’70s” may have to teach. (And who are these “we” and what is this monolithic “thought in the 1970s”?) I found the Confessions enormously evocative of some aspects of some of the ’70s — some of the things it may well be wiser not to repeat, but not to forget, and some of the things it may well be fun to repeat. Knabb concludes this section: “If some readers consider me an egomaniac for presuming to write about my relatively unspectacular life, I hope that others will be encouraged to reexamine their own experiences” (p. 156). This reader definitely falls into the latter category.

The next issue of Anarchy contains a letter about Zerzan’s review — the gist being that it was an unduly negative review — and Zerzan’s reply to the letter (p. 73). Zerzan writes, concerning The Joy of Revolution: “My point is that Knabb’s outlook does not represent a qualitative break with the world we now inhabit.” Exactly! — and that is exactly why it is worth reading, because it offers suggestions for action in the here and now, not in some future pie in the sky when we are all hunter gatherers again.

Nonetheless, there are areas, especially in The Joy of Revolution, where I question Knabb’s — how to put it? over-optimism maybe? For example, one suggested “solution” for the “violent character” is that he or she “might fit in fine in some more rough-and-tumble, Wild West-type region” (p. 71). What happens if this “rough-and-tumble” community decides to expand its territory? Given reservations such as the one just made I’d especially recommend the book for people who are vaguely sympathetic to the idea of a non-hierarchical, non-statist society but who are skeptical of how, in practice, it could ever happen. There are some pointers given and some common bugbears demolished along the way. And it is all written with that rare combination of readability and logicality and elan.

I will let Ken Knabb have the last word — from The Joy of Revolution:

In the present text I have tried to recapitulate some basic points. . . . they may at least serve to recall what once was possible, in those primitive times a few decades ago when people had the quaint, old-fashioned notion that they could understand and affect their own history. While there is no question that things have changed considerably since the sixties (mostly for the worse), our situation may not be quite as hopeless as it seems to those who swallow whatever the spectacle feeds them. Sometimes it only takes a little jolt to break through the stupor. Even if we have no guarantee of ultimate victory, such breakthroughs are already a pleasure. Is there any greater game around? (p. 13)

—Eugenia Lovelace, in Red and Black #28 (Australia, Spring 1998)

[The above review is reproduced complete.]




Do radicals get more pleasure from life? For most of us around Fifth Estate, the answer is yes. We might not all agree on why, but our detachment from many of this society’s ideological bonds lets us laugh at popes and politicians. We distinguish ourselves from obedient zeks and this gives us satisfaction.

It’s true that we, too, are obliged to sell our labor time, but insist that wage work doesn’t define us. The zek roles we fill at our jobs aren’t our “real” selves; they’re superficial, temporary.

The comfort — and pleasure — we find depends to a considerable extent on our being many. A project like Fifth Estate definitely helps maintain a collective spirit, even for people who don’t actively participate in production of the paper.

In his recent book, Public Secrets, Ken Knabb agrees that pleasure is to be had from revolutionary projects. The “Joy of Revolution” section offers a political perspective which in many ways is shared by Fifth Estate radicals: problems can’t be solved individually, capitalism has extensive capacities for co-optation, and authoritarian and statist programs are trash. In a social transformation that would abolish hierarchy, money and subservience to commodities, neither vanguard parties nor omniscient leaders will play a role.

Knabb admits that individual acts that challenge authority can be difficult to carry out, even ones like speaking out or distributing a written statement. But specific action helps choose subsequent tactics and also provides experience. Here is one of his formulations: “The alpha and omega of revolutionary tactics is decision. . . . The simplest method of bullshit detecting consists in noting whether an individual’s decisions lead to acts and his activity to decisions.”

He warns that it’s easy to get side-tracked fighting extremists: “If all problems can be attributed to a sinister clique of ‘total fascists,’ everything else will seem comfortingly progressive by comparison. Meanwhile the actual forms of modern domination, which are usually more subtle, proceed unnoticed and unopposed.”

Beware, too, of reformism: “To suppose that a series of reforms will eventually add up to a qualitative change is like thinking we can get across a ten-foot chasm by a series of one-foot hops.”

Readers familiar with Knabb’s work as translator and interpreter of the International Situationists will recognize how heavily his analysis has been influenced by Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem and their milieu. His adaptation of this body of thought to the North American context makes the French writers’ abstract formulations more concrete. Knabb’s application of Situationist theories makes them more specific and thus more challenging. Advice to produce and distribute a leaflet can get someone moving in a way that a slogan like “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!” can’t match. But the Situationists’ rigorous, cruel critiques of liberal do-gooders and glib Establishment toadies have helped him analyze and discredit contemporary North American analogues.

Knabb doesn’t take the Situationists as a model in every respect. In “The Realization and Suppression of Religion,” a widely distributed essay written fifteen years before Public Secrets, the concluding paragraph reads:

We need to develop a new style, a style that keeps the trenchancy of the situationists but with a magnanimity and humility that leaves aside their uninteresting ego games. Pettiness is always counterrevolutionary.

A comprehensive social critique is frequently followed by consideration of an ideal society, and Knabb considers utopian writing in “Joy of Revolution.”

Far from being too extravagant, most fictional utopias are too narrow, generally being limited to a monolithic implementation of the author’s pet ideas. As Marie Louise Berneri notes in the best survey of the field (Journey Through Utopia), “All utopias are, of course, the expression of personal preferences, but their authors usually have the conceit to assume that their personal tastes should be enacted into laws; if they are early risers the whole of their imaginary community will have to get up at four o’clock in the morning; if they dislike women’s make-up, to use it is made a crime; if they are jealous husbands infidelity will be punished by death.”

In his view of a post-capitalist society, Knabb rejects parliaments, money and elitist managers but balks at imagining that 20th century machines could be eliminated. In ten succinct paragraphs at the end of “Joy of Revolution,” we find his rant against technophobes, but its vehemence casts shadows over the pages that precede it — pages that consider diverse possibilities for generous, libertarian social relations.

 Once the revolution is accomplished he foresees and welcomes decentralization and diversity. Dissension won’t disappear, but he is confident that rational collaboration on the part of a community’s residents will alleviate much of the distress-causing arrangements imposed by capitalism.

Certain technologies — nuclear power, for example — will be unacceptable in his post-revolutionary society. But please don’t threaten access to what he calls his “dandy computer.” Acknowledging that current computer technology has some shortcomings (sweatshops and pollution), he nevertheless is confident that the problems can be solved with the help of what? “Computer automation.” (!)

Knabb mistakenly asserts that everyone antagonistic to technology foresees “the return of a primeval paradise.” He indignantly rejects the possibility that social satisfaction might be achieved without 20th century urban comforts and toys. His worry that technophobic authoritarians will one day outlaw airplanes, telephones and automobiles in a post-capitalist egalitarian society is misplaced. These objects will disappear because “operatives” for the factories, steel mills and mines — even self-managed ones — won’t be available. Without being coerced, it’s unlikely anyone would spend a single hour in such environments.

He assures us, “Airplanes will be retained for intercontinental travel (rationed if necessary) and for certain kinds of urgent shipments.” It takes a lot of people in disciplined subservience to machinery in order to produce an airplane, provide fuel and runways. True, should a sophisticated object like this exist, rationing will likely be required. And once “urgent” priorities as well as rationing exist, can an administrative cadre be far behind?

Section Two of Public Secrets, “Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State,” is an appealing 70-page autobiographical memoir. Knabb shares with the reader the political and personal itinerary that made him a radical. Influential literary mentors were Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and Kenneth Rexroth.

He was shaped by the revolutionary and counter-cultural movements of the 60s: drugs, music, demonstrations. Between 1970 and 1993, he penned many texts presenting his critiques and analyses of events and political platforms. All are included in Public Secrets and constitute two-thirds of the book’s pages.

As the tumultuous period of contestation wound down, he undertook to translate a large body of Situationist texts and spent time rock climbing, fiddling, playing chess and tennis and in Zen meditation. He continues to publish subversive texts.

It’s disappointing that Knabb’s exposure of various public secrets stops short at technology.

One more step, comrade!

Fifth Estate (Detroit, Summer 1999)

[The above review is reproduced complete.]



[For comments by John Filiss (2000), see The Poverty of Primitivism.]




Complete Cinematic Works
by Guy Debord
translated and edited by Ken Knabb
(AK Press, 2003)
264 pages, hardcover, $29

Hats off to Ken Knabb for his heroic effort to recreate the films of Guy Debord on paper, and in English. Knabb’s format flows and is (mostly) pleasantly clear.

Debord is known for his involvement in the Situationist International, his books (most notably Society of the Spectacle) and his avant-garde films. In all of these he endeavored to describe and critique all types of capitalism and to develop radical/agitating tactics to challenge said systems.

Knabb’s book contains the scripts for Debord’s films alongside detailed descriptions of scenes (or descriptions of image-free moments), followed by select frames from each of the films. The book includes treatments of Howls for Sade, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, Critique of Separation, The Society of the Spectacle, Refutation of All the Judgments, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film “The Society of the Spectacle” and In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.

Knabb also compiles several tantalizing tidbits after the scripts. Specifically, he includes some well-chosen documents about the films, situationist theories and the context of the times. All are worth a thorough reading.

The notes section is quite impressive, offering details for each of the détourned pieces and other interesting facts about the history or context of each of the scenes. It’s a little rough having to flip back and forth, but overall a good decision to separate out the minutia in favor of making the scripts clear and quick to read. For those of you who love details, or are thrilled by situationist ideas, it’s worth the work.

Knabb then offers a bare sketch of Debord’s life. I would have liked this to include more details, especially for Debord’s first 20 years. (For such an influential person, a page and three-quarters of mostly one-liners hardly seems fair.) The Filmography is interesting mostly for the “Unrealized Film Projects” section. The bibliography (including both French and English texts) is reasonably sized, well categorized and contains short reviews of each of the titles, very helpful.

From the evocative cover to the index my complaints are few for this book, however, I feel compelled to suggest that Debord may not have been as happy as I am with the transformation of his work. I’m certainly not implying Ken did a poor job translating (though I personally have no way of checking, I’m sure he did a fine job), but it is clear Debord strove for a bit of confusion, frustration and/or under/overwhelm. Knabb’s concise translations and clear format greatly increase the accessibility and coherence of the contents of the films. Add to this the loss of sensations like sight, sound, and the possibility of a real “situation” in the 24 minutes of silence and black screen (Howls for Sade) and Debord might actually be horrified with the result. Debord, following Brecht’s lead, desired to provoke spectators into thinking/acting for themselves rather than providing them with an escape. I’m not sure the book is true to Debord’s desire for riotous reactions.

But for this myopic, velocity-challenged thinker getting the opportunity to read the scripts at my own pace was an immensely gratifying and elucidating experience. Again, probably not the feelings Debord was striving to create. But don’t worry about it too much, Ken, I’m sure Debord would be even less thrilled with my reviewing your reworking of his work. Would that make this review a third degree spectacle?!? (see page 216).

In short, this book is definitely recommended for anyone who is deeply interested in Debord and/or the situationists. A word of caution, however: the films may lose a little of their bite if you already know how they end. Read at your own risk.

—L.D. Hobson, in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #57 (Missouri, Spring-Summer 2004)

[This is the complete review.]



Mr. Hook’s Counterpoint Edition of The Joy of Revolution by Ken Knabb

What follows is a “Point Counterpoint” Edition of The Joy of Revolution — or at least it would be if the original author actually made any points worthy of note. The article is credited as “The Joy of Revolution,” from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1997). It boasts that it isn’t copyrighted material, for reasons which will become readily apparent. Everything written in purple are the words of Ken Knabb. Everything written in blue are the snide comments of Mr. Hook. I do this for the benefit of my fellow man. And because it brings me joy:


Chapter 1: Some Facts of Life

“We can comprehend this world only by contesting it as a whole. . . The root of the prevailing lack of imagination cannot be grasped unless one is able to imagine what is lacking, that is, what is missing, hidden, forbidden, and yet possible, in modern life.”

—Situationist International

COUNTERPOINT: Translation: In order to make the world a better place we have to figure out what is “missing, forbidden, yet possible” in life. Don’t consider that some things in life are “forbidden” for a reason, only focus on what is “possible” (which is anything). Basically, the world sucks only because people don’t realize how much better it could be.
        It occurs to me that people who think the world sucks are perfectly capable of realizing how much better the world could be. Perhaps they don’t lack imagination, but rather the means or the will to shape the world to their own liking. But that’s just life. Already the author, Ken Knabb (can I call you Ken? I would prefer Knob. But let’s not go there.), mis-diagnoses why the world sucks (presuming it does).


Utopia or bust

Never in history has there been such a glaring contrast between what could be and what actually exists.

COUNTERPOINT: Really? Never? Not even prior to the Agricultural Revolution? I’m not sure if Ken has done his homework on this one.

POINT: It’s hardly necessary to go into all the problems in the world today — most of them are widely known, and to dwell on them usually does little more than dull us to their reality. But even if we are “stoic enough to endure the misfortunes of others,” the present social deterioration ultimately impinges on us all. Those who don’t face direct physical repression still have to face the mental repressions imposed by an increasingly mean, stressful, ignorant and ugly world. Those who escape economic poverty cannot escape the general impoverishment of life.

COUNTERPOINT: Notice that Ken doesn’t feel it necessary to describe the world’s problems in detail. Ken wants to refrain from dulling our senses to reality. (To late, Ken!) Notice also that in Ken’s mind, the world’s problems are imposed by impersonal outside forces, not the people who actually populate the world. Ken’s world is “mean, stressful, ignorant, and ugly.” On his biography page, Ken claims that he was born in 1945 in Louisiana. I didn’t realize Louisiana had fallen on such hard times. Here Ken also clues us in to the fact that most of the repression he suffers from is “mental” (imagined) as opposed to “physical” (real). He’s only trying to escape the “general impoverishment of life.” Good luck with that, Ken! Viva la Revolution!

POINT: And even life at this pitiful level cannot continue for long. The ravaging of the planet by the global development of capitalism has brought us to the point where humanity may become extinct within a few decades.

COUNTERPOINT: This sentence is actually quite helpful. It tells us three things about Ken. First: Ken’s boogey-man, the root all evil on this good earth, is CAPITALISM! Second: Ken thinks an ecological cataclysm is just around the corner. His sky is falling, literally. Ken is an atheist, so he doesn’t believe in any biblical prophecies about Armageddon or the end of the world, so he has conveniently substituted an ecological apocalypse in its place. Repent! Extinction is nigh! Third: Ken is a moron. (Sorry, Ken.)

POINT: Yet this same development has made it possible to abolish the system of hierarchy and exploitation that was previously based on material scarcity and to inaugurate a new, genuinely liberated form of society.

Plunging from one disaster to another on its way to mass insanity and ecological apocalypse, this system has developed a momentum that is out of control, even by its supposed masters. As we approach a world in which we won’t be able to leave our fortified ghettoes without armed guards, or even go outdoors without applying sunscreen lest we get skin cancer, it’s hard to take seriously those who advise us to beg for a few reforms.

COUNTERPOINT: Ghettos? Armed guards? A veiled reference to the great Ozone Depletion? Repent! Extinction is nigh!

POINT: What is needed, I believe, is a worldwide participatory-democracy revolution that would abolish both capitalism and the state. This is admittedly a big order, but I’m afraid that nothing less can get to the root of our problems. It may seem absurd to talk about revolution; but all the alternatives assume the continuation of the present system, which is even more absurd.

COUNTERPOINT: At least Ken is honest enough to tell us that any alternatives to his ideas are absurd. That last sentence is actually quite clever: Propose an inherently absurd idea (revolution) while insisting that all other ideas are MORE absurd. Notice that Ken never actually negates the absurdity of his own idea, but merely tries to slander other people’s ideas. Nice one, Ken! You had me at “hello.” . . .

—Joel L Hoekstra (January 2005)

[Amazingly enough, this staunch believer in capitalism and the American way goes through the entire text of “The Joy of Revolution” in this manner, in four lengthy webpages beginning at http://misterhook.net/rants/confessions1.htm.]


For Ken Knabb’s replies to some of the above opinions, see A Look at Some of the Reactions to Public Secrets.

[Earlier opinions on the BPS (1975-1996)]
[More recent opinions on the BPS (2006-present)]