"We have a Situation". From Hegel's Philosophy of Situation to Contemporary Political Art

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.

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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.

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

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.

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. 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