Saturday, May 28, 2005

Dérive à Chicago (Qu'est-ce que c'est?)

For each of the last two falls, I have taught an undergraduate course called "Aesthetics and Literature." Adapting Thalia Field's concept, it's an "impossible" course. The university is structured in nine-week quarters (followed by reading and exam weeks). And nine weeks is a very short amount of time to cover anything, but enough to create a feeling of relentless, forward movement, a kind of frenzy of activity that is more draining mentally and physically than a long, four-month semester. (In fact, in a teaching development and improvement fellowship program I was enrolled in during 2003-2004, we learned that it usually takes most students between 2-3 weeks just to assimilate what they've learned. And if you're striving for "deep" learning, nine weeks is far too brief for this to occur. But hey, you do what you gotta do.)
Naked City
In this impossible course, we read a wide range of philosophical and critical texts by the likes of aestheticians beginning with Ellen Dissayanake, Plato and Aristotle, and ending with Audre Lorde, Robert Farris Thompson (thanks Mendi!) and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. We also read texts by literary figures starting with Shakespeare (his "Sonnets") and concluding with Harryette Mullen, Marjane Satrapi and Theresa Cha. Because of the course's brevity, I assigned too much reading and had to omit countless works I'd loved to have included. Both times, at least in terms of the philosophical-critical material, we bogged down on Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Bourdieu (while Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, and Thompson are always the favorites); and yet the students zipped through what I think is one of the most difficult aesthetic movements I've included both times, mainly because of my own fascination with it, Situationism.

We read several texts by Guy Debord, the polemarch of the Situationist movement and author of the landmark Society of the Spectacle, including "Theses on Cultural Revolution" and "Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency." It would require months of blog entries to define Situationism fully, but suffice it to say that it consists of a series of Marxist-derived liberatory theories and practices--as praxes--that aim to respond to the "decomposition" stage of bourgeois society by resituating practioners (particularly the economically, socially and politically alienated) as participants in a reconstituted lifeworld through their active individual and collective constructions of reality, and in particular time and space, so as to reclaim an autonomy of authentic experience, and organize the "higher senses" to "produce" oneself. Situationism first appeared in France in the mid-1950s and spread across Europe and the United States in subsequent decades, constituting what Debord envisioned as a guild of workers in an advanced cultural sector, or a "collective avant-garde." I particularly appreciated the irony that one of its tenets, in Hegelian fashion, denies the continued existence of literature as a functional art form. One can see the problems in such theories right away, and yet situationism has had a profound influence on punk rock, and on a wide array of performance artists.

One of the chief Situationist practices is the dérive (French for drift or drifting). It entails a voyage on foot and by other means, ideally lasting a day, through a cityspace (though not a stroll, a march or flânerie), mapped according to a series of pre-existing data and maps, as well as self-constructed geographical and temporal coordinates, and may involve other linked and affiliated activities (ludic, political, etc.) as so deemed to ensure a transformative, relational, psychogeographical experience. Rendez-vous may be either fixed or "possible." One can even have "static" derives. A dérive thus requires both planning as well as an openness and flexibility. In both classes, I had hoped to include a dérive, or as I called it, a "neo-dérive" (since I wanted to call attention to a certain nostalgic and reinstitutive aspect in my sense of the term and practice). The first year, it turned out that I had to be away for a conference, and worsening weather situation made such an adventure unworkable. This past fall, I made it a possible but not required activity, but we ended up spending so much time on certain figures (cf. Kant above) that I kept postponing a date, and then, the quarter was over. I had whetted that first class's interest, though, and so, a year and a half later, a small group of 6-7 students, most of them former students in the university's creative writing program, actually undertook a dérive in the city of Chicago!

The leader of the excursion was a terrific poet named Chris Shannon; the journey would begin from a cafe in Lincoln Square. I knew of the initial coordinate and two others, one at 2-2:15 pm, near Graceland Cemetary at Cullom and Clark, and at 5 pm at Winnemac Park. Because I was running last-minute errands, I wasn't able to start with them, but at 2, I arrived at the appointed coordinate, only to find no one there. I called Chris--mobile phones didn't exist, of course, when Debord first set forth his theories--and learned that it had taken them a little while to hash out exactly what they were doing. (Reading Debord, I have had the feeling that this was the case for him and fellow Situationists as well.) He also told me about another coordinate, at 3:30 pm, which would either be located at Belmont Harbor or across town, depending. At any rate, I asked him to draft me an account when he could, because I'm particularly interested in his interpretatioon of Debord's theories, the group's ideological and theoretical understanding of what the dérive aims to accomplish and whether or not they achieved this in constructing it and in practice (or how closely they approximated their own defined goals). I want to know how it went. After I hung up with Chris, I tarried in front of Graceland's tall brick wall for a little while, watching people and thinking about how, when I return to the New York area this summer, I'd like to organize a dérive myself. Perhaps July will work best. I'm wondering, are any readers of this blog interested? If so, let me know, and I'll try to make it happen, very likely in Manhattan or Brooklyn, since I sort of have a sense of both places. Or maybe even Jersey City, which is walkable as well.

It was very gratifying, however, to witness and actively participate (if even in a minor way) in what had resulted from what I thought of as an obscure part of a very difficult course. This unperformed class activity--this "potential act"--had captured the imaginations of (former) students, to the extent that they were willing to realize it several years later. Isn't this what teaching is all about?


  1. Yes, this is what teaching is about. I love the thought of the students aching to take the ideas of the course further. Of course those courses where you've planned to do so much are frustrating, but I think it's helpful, too, for your students to know that there's so much more you would have liked to cover. I once had a course with a prof who would often be late because he was "reading"! It seems strange now, but that inspired me so much to think of him unable to tear away from his research. And yes, let us know if you're doing a dérive in Jersey or NYC.

  2. Hey Mendi, I will definitely let you know if I'm doing a dérive. I want to think a bit more about the "maps" that Debord talks so much about. One of my colleagues, Kevin Bell, actually taught an entire class on Debord this past spring, and he'll be in the area in July too, so maybe we can get him and others we know to go along for the...well, can't call it stroll! LOL

  3. Is any organization currently conducting derives in Chicago? If not, is there some other Situ-aware group that would have the infrastructure to undertake some derives this winter?