In her first book, entitled The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age (1992), Sadie Plant provides a detailed exploration of the ideas and practices devised by the protagonists of the Situationist movement, which developed in France in the mid 1960s, whose political and intellectual endeavours simultaneously found their dramatic culmination and their demise in the tumultuous political events that took place in Paris in May 1968.
Amongst these protagonists are the key intellectual figures of the movement, in particular Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem who, each in their own manner, elaborated a theoretical praxis that sought to reclaim society and subjectivity from the alienating, inhibiting and eminently destructive character of post-War Capitalist society, this latter embodied in its governing principle: the commodity exchange. They and their allies came to posit a number of strategies for achieving this reclamation, at once deadly serious in their revolutionary intentions, and yet playful in their attempts to restore desire, joy and affirmation to a disintegrating society and an imploding subjectivity. For example, they would develop the strategy known as ‘dérive’ or ‘drifting’, or the psychogeographical mapping of urban spaces, to posit a direct connection between the social and the desiring subject, in a way that might restore integrity to both. Philosophy, art, architecture, urban planning and political activism would all be combined in an attempt to develop this strategy, far-reaching and eminently ambitious in its aims.
Sadie Plant, for her part, did not wish simply to produce another historical survey of the Situationist movement, but rather – as indicated by the subtitle of her book – she wanted to re-situate it in relation to more recent developments, in particular the emergence of post-May ’68 intellectual currents, at once attempting to confront the legacy of the movement’s ideas, and – in the light of May ’68 and its aftermath - their failure to instigate wide-scale social and political change. Numbering amongst the intellectuals and philosophers Plant finds tapping into these currents are Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who – each in their own manner – were directly influenced and inspired by the Situationist legacy and who sought to reconfigure political philosophy and theory in the light of the movement’s ostensible failure. However, it is Guy Debord whose words and slogans resonate most powerfully through the book, and through the dense, seemingly impenetrable superficialities of what he famously called, in the book of the same name, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, and despite the ubiquity of commodity, celebrity, mass mediation and alienation of contemporary society there still might be ‘a world of pleasures to win’. Plant’s book deftly explores the relationship between the Situationists, their ideas and their important influence on what have since become some of the most important intellectual and political ideas to have emerged in the last three decades.
In her 1997 book, Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, Sadie Plant takes up what was – at the time – an emerging, though still relatively unexplored, connection between feminism and ‘cyberculture’, through a cultural historical and poststructuralist philosophical exploration of the history of technology via the development of the first computing machines in the industrial age of the 19th century. The main example to which she refers is the ‘difference engine’ – an invention usually attributed solely to Charles Babbage, and it is the first and most obvious strength of Plant’s analysis that she shows the essential role played by a woman in the development of the difference engine: the mathematician Ada Lovelace. It is by drawing attention to the contributions of Lovelace that Plant shows how women have generally been excluded from the narrative discourses supplying the established history of industrial and post-industrial technologies, and thereby it is women, in this case Lovelace, who provide a condition of possibility for the development of these world-changing inventions. This leads to the second remarkable feature of Plant’s analysis: drawing on what became in the mid-1990s the burgeoning field of ‘cyberculture’ and a co-emergent interest in the work of the French post-structuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Luce Irigaray. By recourse to a ‘post-humanist’ approach, Plant explores the relationship between the human and the machine, in which the idea of ‘man’s’ dominance of industry was turned on its head, with the persuasive and, to many, highly alarming suggestion that what constitutes the ‘human’ is actually a complex interweaving of machine-based processes. Whilst this approach has met with a degree of scepticism on the part of those who view it as ‘cyber-celebrationism’, it has provided some very valuable insights into the ways in which thinking ‘machinically’ can provide new ethical and political ways of understanding what it means to be ‘human’.
In her 1999 book entitled Writing on Drugs, Plant develops a number of concerns and themes that were important as part of the ‘cyberculture’ moment in the mid-1990s, in particular the potential for transformation or ‘becoming’ through the production of virtual domains which, as Plant argues, has a history that extends much further back than the relatively recent advent of VR. Developing and further exploring the innovative approach to cultural history as developed in her previous books, Plant looks at the ways in which figures from literature and art have used drug experiments to attain a different perception, not just of themselves or their immediate environments, but also of the cultural and political factors that challenge the idea that hallucination and delirium are solely the preserve of the imagination or the interiority of the individual. Plant does this by a reconsideration of the human body with the help of scientific discourse, attempting to restore a more thoroughgoing sense of its materiality than theoretical discourse usually permits. Drawing on an impressive range of philosophical and theoretical sources, she considers the ways in which artists and writers have not only gained insights through the use of drugs, but more strikingly that drugs prove to be a major factor in many of their greatest discoveries and achievements. Amongst such figures Plant considers De Quincey, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Freud and Michaux, producing a powerful and insightful book.
Dr M. McQuillan, 2003