Situationist Asger Jorn on Automation, 1958

Writer and translator Ken Knabb has made a handful of his translations of texts by Asger Jorn available on Bureau of Public Secrets, his extensive web site. Jorn—a Danish artist and revolutionary thinker—played an important role in the early period of the Situationist International. These texts appear in a collection of translations of Jorn’s work recently published in the Netherlands (Fraternité Avant Tout: Asger Jorn’s Writings on Art and Architecture, 1938-1957).

Particularly interesting is an article from the first issue of the SI’s journal titled, “The Situationists and Automation.” Jorn’s piece is a survey of European radical attitudes toward the phenomenon of automated production and includes brief critiques of the Trotskyist Livio Maitan and the Surrealist Robert Benayoun. On the other side of the Atlantic, the same year this issue appeared—1958—Raya Dunayevskaya published Marxism and Freedom, which, in its original edition, concludes with a section titled “Automation and the New Humanism.” This piece also appears, in excerpted form, in Knabb’s Situationist International Anthology.

This paragraph coveys a sense of Jorn’s position:

Socialism, which strives for the fullest liberation of the energies and potentials in each individual, will be obliged to see automation as an inherently antiprogressive tendency, a tendency that can be rendered progressive only by relating it to new provocations capable of bringing forth the latent energies of man. If, as the scientists and technicians claim, automation is a new means of liberating man, it should imply the supersession of previous human activities. This means that man’s active imagination has to go beyond the realization of automation itself. Where can we find such perspectives, perspectives that will make man the master and not the slave of automation?

Jorn’s brief text is a valuable contribution to a debate which has great relevance in today’s period of persistent mass unemployment coupled to levels of productivity undreamed of at the time of the introduction of automated production, or as it colloquially referred to, “the new normal.”

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