Before beginning this essay, let’s imagine that I am currently an ordinary college freshman living and writing in the 1960s. As people generally know, this period stands as a moment of great political and economical change. However, change isn’t always positive. In fact, this change, as Guy Debord believes, is a spectacle, which began in the 1920s. The spectacle itself is a combination of advanced capitalism, the mass media, and the types of government that promote commodity fetishism. In this sort of society, which Debord calls “The Society of the Spectacle”, the commodities rule the workers and consumers instead of the other way around. Advanced capitalism, which defines this society, encourages predictable and monotonous experiences of everyday life for the citizens. This society degrades human life, human knowledge, and hinders critical thought. As a result, a basic situationist practice known as the “derive” came into existence, which gives these people an opportunity for a new, authentic, and fun experience of the different surroundings and emotions generated by the urban landscape. The majority of this essay will be about my experiences of “deriving” around the city of Los Angeles, and how those experiences reflect the society of the spectacle, as well as the city’s mechanisms of social control and self-reproduction. However, we will be exploring the essential concepts of situationism before dwelling into these experiences.
In a sense, a derive is a method of travel which involves neither a goal nor a plan. It’s very much like a loose lifestyle with no destination and chance. You’re put into a situation, and you travel based on the environment that surrounds you. You must set aside all work, leisure activities, and completely immerse yourself into the attractions of the places and the encounters you find there. This method requires an awareness of psychogeographical effects. Psychogeography aims to study the specific effects that a certain geographical location has on the behavior and emotions of an individual. Therefore, in the city of Los Angeles, I must travel based on how it is structured, not where I should go.
Another concept is commodity fetishism, which is the transformation of human relations, where social relationships are now expressed with economic relationships, such as between the products and the money used to buy them. In the sixties, people obsess over commodities, lead mundane lives and work for a higher power. In fact, the situation gets so bad that people become the commodities. Therefore, an internationalist group of revolutionaries known as the “Situationist International” (SI) came into existence, which advocates a different life from those in advanced capitalism for the fulfillment of human desires. In the book “On the poverty of student life”, we can see how 5 students in the University of Strasbourg and members of the SI revolted against the life of advanced capitalism: First of all, the 5 students exploited the indifference of their colleagues in order to be elected into the University’s Students’ union.
They then proceeded to create a pamphlet that consisted of advanced situationist concepts, theories, and tactics. They also printed out 10,000 copies of the pamphlet, which are against the ideological conditions imposed upon students by the university system, families, and the state. These pamphlets encouraged bohemianism, otherwise known as unconventional life, where humans get to fulfill their desires. In addition, they also encouraged the students to stop being a slave to the life in which they led. They should stop and think for a moment about their society, what it had become, and how it had affected them. Essentially, these situationist theories can be summed up as “pro-anarchist theories”. At the beginning of the academic year, these copies were distributed to all students. Even though this caused uproar among the local, national, and international media, which caused the 5 students to be expelled from school, this scandal raised SI’s profile to a significant extent. On another note, this scandal had also had an influence on the French and German students who rebelled in 1968.
After having explored the essential concepts of situationism, let’s look at my experiences. My derive took place in 3 notable spots: Glendale Galleria, Target, and LA Live. My walk started at an unknown place, as I didn’t have a map. However, about 3 blocks away, I saw a large building known as Glendale Galleria. This attracted my attention immediately, as I’ve always had a preference for massive buildings inside a city, since they usually represent beauty and wealth. After coming in, I saw a colorful shop called Target. Inside were groceries, and of course, each product is considered a commodity. The beauty of it made me want to go to LA Live, which I did. Finally, my walk ended after having explored the biggest and tallest skyscraper in LA Live. The elements of attraction and size were the main basis of my derive. The weather itself, which was sunny and windy, also had an influence because it encouraged me to explore. A bad weather would deter me from doing so. Places where there are a lot of cars also attracted my attention.
The presence of automobiles indicates the success and richness of the place. From a situationist perspective, my walk, to a certain extent, reflected society of the spectacle, for many things were commodities, such as the products in every store. Advertising was also abundant in most of the display devices of the city (TVs, monitors, computers). In a sense, we may call this commodity fetishism. On the other hand, the social control of the city was excellent as the rules and regulations of the traffic by the police force are strict; there were cameras everywhere. In addition, the roads and buildings were structured in a way that automobiles and the citizens could walk freely and easily. Whenever people needed to cross the roads, they could just click on a button to turn on the red lights, where all of the cars will stop.
In normal roads, cars had a maximum speed. On the highways, however, cars had a minimum speed because they had to go quickly. If you don’t follow the rules, you may lose your life, and it’s your own fault. Despite the strict traffic, which represented a good social order of the city, social relationship between people is based on the commodity and the money used to buy them. You must have money if you want to survive in this society. People mainly associate with each other because of status, power, and money. Guy Debord truly despised this, because it represents the spectacle, where commodities rule the workers and consumers.
As a student following a situationist practice, I’ve managed to become a bohemian through deriving. College students, according to the book “on the poverty of the student”, may be referred to as slaves as we have to comply with the expectations of our society, the state, and our families. Deriving frees us from this, as we can do whatever we want, and fulfill our human desires. From this experience, I could feel a sense of freedom and satisfaction, since I had got an opportunity to fulfill my desires.