By Elin Diamond
Melissa Schultheis’s situationist-inspired map appears in the print version of my essay “Reactivating the City: Kibeho, Black Lives Matter, and the Situationist Dérive,” published in the September 2018 issue of Theatre Journal.
Fascinated by the potential of aerial photography, especially in mapping how capital was rationalizing urban space in Paris after World War II, Guy Debord and Asgar Jorn offered a deliberately nonrational, resistant optic on the modern city—a psychogeographic view, one that revealed the psychic impact of the city on its pedestrians. The Naked City (1957) (fig. 1) was not their first psychogeographic map, but perhaps their most famous one.
It is, first of all, a détournement, a rerouting or refunctioning of the old and popular Plan de Paris. Debord cut the Plan into nineteen chunks, thereby banishing any trace of an urban grid. Then he connected the map chunks of streets and buildings with swirling red arrows that represent the psychogeographical explorations or dérives undertaken in Paris in the early 1950s. Debord describes the dérive as a “mode of experimental behavior,” a “letting-go . . . of work and leisure activities,” in order to “be drawn . . . by the city’s psychogeographical contours . . . [, its] constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that discourage entry into or exit.”1 In effect, the dérive was a performative embodied riposte to what Debord would later call “the spectacle”—the experience of alienation and stunted creativity under late capitalism.2 Rationalist city planning fed the spectacle by separating the spaces of life and work, destroying the liveliness of the street, and making the city safe for shopping and other forms of consumption. The dérive, on the other hand, negated separation. Drifting uncovered—and the red arrows indicated—“psychographical pivotal points” connecting an avenue to an intimate square or to a current of revolutionary energy swirling around an intersection of certain streets.3 My essay suggests that the do-it-yourself dérive, in playful, subtle ways, may yet stir up revolutionary energy, stimulating us to reconnoiter new direc- tions for political expression.
Melissa Schultheis, now a graduate student and early modernist in the Department of English at Rutgers University, enjoys dabbling in graphic design and she brilliantly rose to the challenge of connecting the ambiances of the two moments of revolutionary energy that I discuss in my essay: the moment when the actors at a performance of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho raised their arms in the Black Lives Matter gesture, “hands up/don’t shoot,” on December 4, 2014, and the moment when a gathering in New York’s Union Square (“Moment of Silence,” August 14, 2014), commemorating the deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of police, erupted in a march up Broadway to Times Square, against traffic and without a permit, which the police were not able or willing (given public scrutiny after the death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014) to stop with force. New York City gentrification on 42nd Street and Times Square is the setting for these separate but linked performances (fig. 2).
In the spirit of situationist irreverence and creativity, Schultheis has détourned not only Debord–Jorn’s The Naked City, but also Debord’s own détournement, called “Life Continues to Be Free and Easy” (1959), in which he collages pieces of The Naked City with text, postage stamps, and hand-colored figures of soldiers. Schultheis, riffing on both The Naked City and “Life Continues,” digitally collages not soldiers, but actors and demonstrators (fig. 3). She shows terminus sites where demonstrators (and theatre-goers) arrive, depart, and circulate around the city. With vivid red arrows Schultheis connects people to sites and vortices in an imaginary New York City that celebrates the dérive and beckons viewers to launch their own playful, resistant psychogeographical explorations.
1 Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive,” in Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1989, 1995), 62–66.
2 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1984 [1967).
3 Debord, “Theory of the Dérive,” 66.