The word «situation» reminds of US-TV-series, French existentialism and German bureaucrats. It is hardly known though that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel devised already in 1817 a theory of the “situation” that has remained important up to this day. His concept allows us to rethink contemporary art as well as political action and resistance.

  • Sabrina Habel

    Sabrina Habel ist Literatur- und Kultur­wis­sen­schaft­lerin und gerade mit einem Rosenzweig-Stipendium an der Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Sie hat in Tübingen studiert, arbeitete als wissen­schaft­liche Assis­tentin an der Universität Zürich, war Redakteurin beim Merkur und bei Geschichte der Gegenwart.

The American language allows for the dry comment „We have a situa­tion“. Both under­stated and yet encom­pas­sing all even­tua­li­ties, it announces an unex­pected and immi­nent circum­s­tance calling for an imme­diate reac­tion. And if things turn dramatic, the Presi­dent and his top-advisors convene in the „Situa­tion Room“, located in the base­ment of the White House, which was estab­lished by John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Situa­tion Room in Stanley Kubrick´s „Dr. Stran­gelove“; Quelle:

In German, the word „situa­tion“ is remi­nis­cent of a philo­so­phical discourse. Georg Wilhelm Fried­rich Hegel’s writings show that this philo­so­phical discourse cannot be sepa­rated from the poli­tical. His „Lectures on Aesthe­tics“ [Vorle­sungen über die Ästhetik] (1817) contain the earliest descrip­tion of the concept of „situa­tion“. These „Lectures“ have become famous for their claim that art has come to an end in the modern era. It is less known, however, that they also devise a theory of the begin­ning of art and of begin­ning altog­e­ther. Hegel’s concept of begin­ning stands for some­thing concrete and prac­tical: His „Lectures on Aesthe­tics“ are a theory of human action, of poli­tical inter­ven­tion and of resistance.

Hegel and the Situation

In theo­ries of lite­rary genres, the subject matter of drama is human action. Hegel takes drama as a case in point to ask where human social and poli­tical action begins – and how it can be provoked. To do this, Hegel elabo­rates a compre­hen­sive and asto­nis­hingly detailed deri­va­tion of the concept of action. For him, the philo­so­pher, the begin­ning of an action must lie within some­thing that precedes the action and that makes it possible. The prere­qui­site of the action, Hegel’s reaso­ning goes, is a uniform or homo­logous [„gleich­förmig“] state. This state is then wittingly inter­rupted by the action. It is this very inter­rup­tion, when non-action becomes action and the status quo becomes acti­vity, that Hegel calls a „situa­tion“. It is one of those Hege­lian concepts of which one only realises in retro­s­pect that they denote a previously unknown cate­gory and subject matter of know­ledge of high analy­tical value.

The „situa­tion“ denotes, on the one hand, the place before the action takes place, where diffe­rent possibilities are waiting; on the other hand, it denotes the very incen­tive to let a specific action emerge. The situa­tion, Hegel explains, begins in an utterly harm­less way – and subse­quently trig­gers a distur­bance which in turn evocates a reaction.

Let us consider an example which, admit­tedly, Hegel could not have taken into account: Between 1908 and 1923 the German writer Carl Stern­heim penned a series of dramas which I have described as socio­lo­gical come­dies. In the first, titled „The Under­pants“ [Die Hose], the wife of a petit bour­geois civil servant loses her under­pants on her way to a mili­tary parade in the honor of Wilhelm II, the German Emperor and King of Prussia. This leads to a series of events which culmi­nate in World War I. Here, an appar­ently harm­less irri­ta­tion of the status quo trig­gers what Hegel calls the „neces­sity“ of reac­ting and ther­e­fore „taking action“ [„Notwen­dig­keit des Agie­rens“] and sets in motion an occur­rence that hence­forth repro­duces itself.

The Status Quo

Action inter­venes in what can be termed the societal status quo – or, as Hegel would have it, the „prosaic“ circum­s­tances of the bour­geoisie. Thus, by inves­ti­ga­ting the begin­ning of action, Hegel has arrived at the „overall/global circum­s­tances“ [„Welt­zu­stand“], and these, to quote Mr. Peachum in Brecht’s Three-Penny-Opera „won’t have it so“. For Hegel, the begin­ning of action lies within the histo­rical and societal circum­s­tances. These circum­s­tances mould the action and influence it: the power of the bour­geois order, ever­yday life, the world of work, the social and economic depen­den­cies, disci­pli­ning and discri­mi­na­tions. The modern subject origi­nates in some­thing else, in history, in society, but also in the acci­dental and the meanin­g­less: it expe­ri­ences itself as „subju­gated“. Hegel sket­ches an expli­citly bour­geois world of nume­rous conditionali­ties, where the possi­bi­lity of auto­no­mously begin­ning and taking action is rather limited.

Acting as resisting

Valie Export: Akti­ons­hose Geni­tal­panik (1969); Quelle:

Instead of arri­ving at the begin­ning of action, Hegel has reached its crisis, where action is perma­nently slowed down by circum­s­tances and condi­tions. But Hegel is not content with describing the bour­geois state as a control­ling, uber-powerful destiny: For him, art is indeed an objec­tion to the depen­den­cies and the power­less­ness of indi­vi­dual action. Accor­ding to Hegel, Art expresses outrage against limi­ta­tion and thereby against nothing less than „the whole bour­geois society“. Art insists on testing and setting begin­nings – and this means: on produ­cing situations.

The „situa­tion“ provokes man to take a stand by taking action. This is not only its drama­tical, but also its poli­tical func­tion, as exem­pli­fied by the „Situa­tio­nists“ – a group of artists, intellec­tuals and acti­vists in the years 1957-1972 – and the way they deve­loped the concept. The Situa­tio­nist Move­ment counts Hegel’s writings (which were made known in France by Alex­andre Kojève) among its chief points of refe­rence. Indeed, the Situa­tio­nists‘ poli­tical and artistic deve­lo­p­ment of the concept is rooted in Hegel’s Lectures: Hegel defined a „situa­tion“ as „a provo­ca­tion of a reac­tion“ and as trig­ge­ring and ‚arou­sing moment‘ („erre­gendes Moment“), that leads up to a form of inter­ven­tion and play.

The Situa­tio­nists

The first issue of the movement’s journal, the „Situa­tionistische Inter­na­tio­nale“, published  in June 1958, features a program­matic article titled „Prepa­ra­tive Problems in the Cons­truc­tion of a Situa­tion“ („Vorbe­rei­tende Probleme bei der Konstruk­tion einer Situa­tion“). Like Hegel, the situa­tio­nists went back to where the action has not yet taken place. They did this not only to describe the count­less possibilities and ways of action that are inherent in the situa­tion, but to acti­vate them. By consciously plan­ning and „equip­ping a moment“ („Ausstat­tung eines Moments“) they intended to disrupt ever­yday life and the routines of action asso­ciated with it.

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„Bikini-Mädchen“, Inter­na­tio­nale Situa­tio­niste, Nr. 1, 1958; Quelle:

The first issue of the journal is illus­trated with a series of pictures showing women in bikini-panties. The name „Bikini“ alludes, as is well known, to the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll under­taken by the United States of America from 1946 on, which indeed created a new „situa­tion“. The „situa­tion“, as unders­tood and conceived by the Situa­tio­nists, is at the same time a societal inter­ven­tion and a social expe­ri­ment: It provokes the spec­tator to act in an unplanned and alter­na­tive way and intends to push him to become active spon­ta­neously and crea­tively. With these inten­tions, Situa­tio­nism was no longer oriented towards bour­geois theatre, as it was in Hegel’s Lecture. Instead, flying the banner „Theatre is dead!“ („Le théâtre est mort!“), it suspended the divi­sion between the public and the spec­tator, between world and stage, between ever­yday life and art. It replaced theatre with perfor­mance, inter­ven­tion and poli­tical action.

The „consciously cons­tructed situation“

In the Situa­tio­nists‘ vision the poli­tical indi­vi­dual would be able to set a begin­ning through his action and the situa­tion would gene­rate a „NEW REALITY“ („NEUE WIRKLICHKEIT“). But even this new reality would have to impose itself on the power of circum­s­tances and ever­yday life. Accor­ding to the program­matic article, when in ever­yday life situa­tions occur that trigger action, these situa­tions are not able alter the status quo. When „sepa­rated and aimlessly wande­ring indi­vi­duals“ happen to meet by chance, „their diffe­ring emotive expres­sions cancel each other out and perpe­tuate their status quo of boredom“ („Getrennte, ziellos herum­zie­hende Indi­vi­duen“ treffen zwar zufällig aufein­ander, doch „ihre vonein­ander abwei­chenden Gemüts­re­gungen heben sich gegen­seitig auf und erhalten ihre feste Umwelt der Lange­weile aufrecht.“) Only the „consciously cons­tructed situa­tion“, the article states, poss­esses the means to disrupt this state of boredom and to guarantee a true distur­bance of ever­yday life, thus hopefully produ­cing a disrup­tion and momentum that will even­tually shape to a new society.

However, the situa­tio­nists paid a heavy price when they pitted the „consciously cons­tructed situa­tion“ against the circum­s­tances: The down­side of the situa­tio­ni­stic libe­ra­tion of ever­yday life by way of the „situa­tion“ consisted in having to employ a game­master, a cons­tructor who consciously sets up a situa­tion, combines and coor­di­nates the charac­ters and inter­venes from time to time. His „predo­mi­nant posi­tion“ („Vorrang­stel­lung“) and the „tempo­rary subor­di­na­tion“ of the game to him intro­duce a moment of domi­na­tion to the game – a moment that finds its further expres­sion in the situa­tio­nist phan­tasy of a „coll­ec­tive world domination“.

Petr Pavlensky, scrotum nailed to Red Square; Quelle:

Petr Pavlensky. Or: The anar­chist situation

Is it possible to think of a situa­tion that does not build on this moment of power? The situa­tions of Petr Pavlensky, an action artist, expose struc­tures of hier­archy and domi­nance and confront them with the idea of the lack of autho­rity: an-archism. Pavlensky adds an inte­res­ting twist to the situa­tio­nists‘ approach: while the Situa­tio­nists cons­truct situa­tions to have them provoke some­thing, Pavlensky provokes situa­tions that expose their own cons­truc­ted­ness and thereby their autho­rity: In an inter­view that was published in 2016, titled „Prison of Ever­yday Life“ („Gefängnis des Alltäg­li­chen“), Pavlensky impres­si­vely confirms the meaning of the „situa­tion“ for poli­tical art.

Pavlensky explains his so called „action“ with the name FIXATION, under­taken on 10 November 2013, in which he sat naked and with his scrotum nailed to the ground in Red Square. He declares that „The gesture of nailing one’s scrotum to the floor is deeply rooted in our culture“. It is a gesture employed by the inmates of Russian prisons, to show the limi­ta­tion of their personal free­doms by taking it to extremes. Pavlensky makes this gesture visible, he trans­ports the prison to the city center, to the square, where the state cele­brates itself in mili­tary parades and society cele­brates itself in mass events. In the midst of society and in front of the Kremlin’s walls, Pavlensky cited the prison-gesture, choo­sing a special date: „November 10 is Police Day. Every year, banners are hung in the whole city.“ For Pavlensky, working with „cultural markers“ like that is funda­mental. The fact that the refe­rence points that his action postu­lates become appa­rent only with hind­sight is part of his approach. Poste­rio­rity and the delay of under­stan­ding are tools in the artist’s kit.

(Un)witting actors

Pavlensky explains that in this setting the police played the most important role, as it was the police who created the situa­tion. The police have guide­lines and regu­la­tions which they act upon, and whose object they are at the same time. The police are forced to act but are not free to act as they please. On Red Square, this leads to a paradox: Accor­ding to Pavlensky, the police are required to

„Neutra­lise events, to liqui­date, to keep a street or a square clean. But here, they are coerced into doing exactly the oppo­site. They cons­truct an event. They become active players [Hand­lungs­träger]. Ever­y­thing is based on them. My acti­vi­ties [on the other hand] are reduced to a minimum. I just sit there and do nothing…“

The poli­cemen are made to be unwil­ling situa­tio­nists, it is them who make Pavlensky (into a „situa­tion“), while he is the one who reduces himself to a state („I remain static“) and trans­poses himself into the overall status quo. This static entity is in turn disrupted by some­thing that here has to reveal itself as a moment of domi­na­tion. Pavlensky merges with the „situa­tion“. He embo­dies it and with his naked body he incor­po­rates a form of passive and anarchist resis­tance. Pavlensky calls his art a „work with mecha­nisms of gover­nance/regulation“ („Arbeit mit Steue­rungs­me­cha­nismen“). The poli­cemen, masters of the situa­tion, are drawn into the process of poli­tical art, they shift from being a func­tion of power to being a function of art: Art that subver­si­vely shows the entanglement of auto­nomy and heteronomy.

Reason as resistance

At this point, Pavlensky’s art does not only count on a poste­rior and delayed reflec­tion of the spec­tator, but also bets on it. While power in the guise of poli­cemen unmasks itself by taking action visce­rally and auto­ma­ti­cally, the situa­tion encou­rages the poten­ti­ally revo­lu­tio­nary subject to reflect upon it. Accor­ding to Pavlensky, a witness of a situa­tion has two possi­bi­li­ties of how to react: „He [or she] can either react quickly or he pauses to reason and then decide. This inter­space [between action and non-action] is exactly where the fight takes place.“ Pavlensky’s art aims at disrupting the unwit­ting patterns of percep­tion and the auto­ma­tisms of action and thus at making them acces­sible to reason and change. Disrup­tion stands at the begin­ning of some­thing new, of the possibility of an auto­no­mous decision, of an outset that can be a role-model: Pavlensky calls his actions „prece­dents in meaning“. Thus, the power to set a begin­ning lies not only in action itself, but also in the act of reflec­ting on it, in philo­so­phical thin­king as such, which, accor­ding to Hegel, always is a form of – situa­tio­nist and poli­tical – taking action.


Trans­la­tion: Alex­ander Alon