The Situationists and Automation

It is rather astonishing that almost no one until now has dared to examine the ultimate implications of automation. Instead of debating its various possible consequences, one has rather the impression that engineers, scientists and sociologists are trying to smuggle automation into the society.

Yet automation is now at the heart of the problem of the socialist domination of production and of the preponderance of leisure time over labor time. The issue of automation is bursting with positive and negative possibilities.

The  goal of socialism is abundance — the greatest number of goods for the greatest number of people, which statistically implies reducing the unexpected to the level of the improbable. Increasing the number of goods reduces the value of each. This devaluation of all human goods to a level of “total neutrality” will be the inevitable consequence of a purely scientific development of socialism. It is unfortunate that many intellectuals fail to get beyond this idea of mechanical reproduction, and are instead contributing toward the adaptation of humanity to this bland and symmetrified future. Artists, whose specialty is seeking uniqueness, are consequently turning in increasing numbers against socialism. Conversely, socialist politicians are suspicious of every expression of artistic power or originality.

Attached to their conformist positions, both of these sides display a certain antagonism to automation because it threatens to undermine their economic and cultural conceptions. The various “avant-garde” currents all show a defeatist attitude in the face of automation. At best, they underestimate the positive aspects of the future that is being so suddenly revealed by the early stages of automation. Meanwhile the reactionary forces flaunt their moronic optimism.

A revealing anecdote: Last year, in the journal Quatrième Internationale, the militant Marxist Livio Maitan reported that an Italian priest had already suggested that increasing free time might necessitate adding a second weekly Mass. Maitan responded: “The error consists in supposing that man in the new society will be the same as in the present one, whereas he will in fact have completely different needs that are difficult for us to even imagine.” But Maitan’s error is to leave to a vague future the new needs he finds “difficult to even imagine.” The dialectical role of spirit is to steer the possible toward desirable forms. Maitan forgets that “the elements of a new society are formed within the old” (Communist Manifesto). The elements of a new life should already be in formation among us — in the realm of culture — and it’s up to us to draw on them to liven up the debate.

Socialism, which strives for the fullest liberation of the energies and potentials in each individual, will be obliged to see automation as an inherently antiprogressive tendency, a tendency that can be rendered progressive only by relating it to new provocations capable of bringing forth the latent energies of man. If, as the scientists and technicians claim, automation is a new means of liberating man, it should imply the supersession of previous human activities. This means that man’s active imagination has to go beyond the realization of automation itself. Where can we find such perspectives, perspectives that will make man the master and not the slave of automation?

In his study L’Automation, Louis Salleron explains that automation, “as almost always happens in matters of progress, adds more than it replaces or eliminates.” What does automation, as such, add to man’s possibilities of action? We have learned that it completely eliminates man within its own domain.

The crisis of industrialization is a crisis of consumption and production. The crisis of production is more important than the crisis of consumption, the latter being conditioned by the former. Transposed to the individual level, this amounts to the thesis that it is better to give than to receive, better to be capable of adding than of suppressing. Automation thus contains two opposing perspectives: it deprives the individual of any possibility of adding anything personal to automated production, thus representing a fixation of progress, yet at the same time it saves human energies by massively liberating them from reproductive and uncreative activities. The value of automation thus depends on projects that supersede it and open the way for the expression of new human energies on a higher plane.

Today, experimental activity in culture has this incomparable field of play. And a defeatist attitude here, a failure to confront the possibilities of our time, is symptomatic of the old avant-gardes that remain content, as Edgar Morin puts it, “to gnaw on the bones of the past.” A surrealist named Benayoun says in the latest expression of the movement (Le Surréalisme même #2): “The problem of leisure is already tormenting the sociologists. . . . Technicians will no longer be in demand, but rather clowns, sexy singers, ballerinas, freaks. One day of work for six of rest: the balance between the serious and the frivolous, between the lazy and the laborious, is at great risk of being upset. . . . The idle ‘worker’ will be cretinized by convulsive and invasive television that is short of both ideas and talent.” This surrealist fails to see that a week of six days of rest will not lead to “upsetting the balance” between the frivolous and the serious, but to changing the nature of both the serious and the frivolous. Looking at the world through his faded surrealist glasses, he sees it as a sort of vaudeville show and can imagine nothing but reruns of its ludicrous routines and misadventures. Why should this future be nothing but an overdevelopment of present-day vulgarities? And why should it be “short of ideas”? Does that mean that it will be short of 1924 surrealist ideas as updated in 1956?(1) Very likely. Or does it mean that the imitation surrealists are short of ideas? We are well aware of that.

The new leisure time appears as an empty space that present-day society can imagine filling only by multiplying the pseudoplay of pathetic hobbies. But this leisure time is also the basis on which could be built the most magnificent cultural construction that has ever been imagined. This goal is obviously outside the concerns of the partisans of automation. It is in fact antagonistic to the direct tendency of automation. If we want to talk with the engineers, we will have to enter their field of interest. Maldonado, who currently directs the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, explains that the development of automation is in jeopardy because young people show little enthusiasm for going into advanced engineering, except for those specializing in automation itself, who lack any general cultural perspective. But Maldonado himself  fails to present, or even to be aware of, any such perspective: Automation can develop rapidly only once it has established as a goal a perspective contrary to its own establishment, and only if it is known how to realize such a general perspective in the process of the development of automation.

Maldonado proposes the opposite sequence: first establish automation, then figure out what to use it for. This schema might be worth discussing if its goal were not precisely automation. The problem is that automation is not an action in a domain, which would provoke a counteraction. It is the neutralization of a domain, which will also end up neutralizing other domains if conflicting actions are not undertaken at the same time.

Pierre Drouin (Le Monde, 5 January 1957) sees the growth of hobbies as fulfilling the potentialities that workers can no longer express in their professional activity, and concludes that “a creator lies dormant” in each person. This old platitude is now of vital importance if we relate it to the real material possibilities of our time. The sleeping creator must awaken, and that waking state could be termed “situationist.”

The idea of standardization is an attempt to reduce and simplify the greatest number of human needs to the greatest degree of equality. It’s up to us whether standardization opens up more interesting realms of experience than it closes. Depending on the outcome, we may arrive at a total degradation of human life or at the possibility of perpetually discovering new desires. But these new desires will not appear by themselves within the oppressive context of our world. There must be a collective action to detect, express and fulfill them.




1. The original text says “updated in 1936,” but that date has no particular significance in the history of surrealism. I suspect that it is a typo for 1956 (the year of the surrealist article that Jorn is criticizing).

“Les situationnistes et l’automation” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #1 (Paris, June 1958) and was also included in a large collection of Asger Jorn's texts: Pour la Forme: ébauche d’une méthodologie des arts (Paris, 1958; reprinted by Éditions Allia, 2001). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright. It has also been reproduced in Fraternité Avant Tout: Asger Jorn’s Writings on Art and Architecture, 1938-1958 (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2011, edited by Ruth Baumeister).

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