The Silkebjorg Tyrandynamon Machine: ​​the Influence of Finnegans Wake on Situationist Theory and Practice – With Provisional Edit added 17/12/16

When I discovered the systematic structures of the situationist tendency, I myself understood that here was a method which exploited in secret by us could give us a great direct social power… I did not hesitate to explain this view to Guy Debord, who completely refused to take it into consideration, which obliged me to make my remarks public. He then told me that it was necessary to leave such methods to people like Pauwels and Bergier and the mystical old women who are enraptured by minor occult insights.

Asger Jorn, Open Creation and Its Enemies, 1960.

How Copenhagen Ended

Finnegans Wake as ‘autopsy of its corpse’. Conceived as the caput mortuum of the alchemical process.

Fin de Copenhague

Structuring the Conjunction

The situationist critique of the ‘objective chance’ of the surrealists and its submission to random events – c.f. ‘Au bout du monde’ and the laws that govern ‘chance’

Finnegans Wake as a ‘form book’ (Tip!) which structures conjunctions around the diagram on p.293.

‘Such a satuation, debauchly to be watsched for, would empty dempty him down to the ground’ (Or words to that effect)

Engraving from Elias Ashmole's Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, 1652

Engraving from Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, 1652

To be continued…

‘Outragedy of poetscalds!’ – incomplete draft found on file, but most complete so far:

James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake exercised an influence, I suggest, on the development of situationist theory and practice, particularly through its impact upon the Danish artist Asger Jorn (1914-1973).

From 1936 to 1939 Jorn was resident in Paris. It was at this time that he became interested in the works of Joyce. Indeed, their paths must have come very close to crossing. Jorn was employed by Le Corbusier on his exhibition. Joyce and Le Corbusier were introduced to each other by Carola Giedion-Welcker in 1937, but to her dismay their entire conversation turned on two parakeets which Joyce had recently acquired (Ellmann: 700). Like Joyce, Jorn saw the cycle of Vico’s ideal history, so similar to the Grundtvig triad, as an eternally repeated falling cadence (4:105, 5:33), a suitable metaphor for the possibility of return to a previous high point for a new beginning (Shield 1998: 158). Jorn describes his series of Luxury Paintings from 1961 as having ‘to do with the world of light and Lucifer…a Faustian world’ (ibid.: 162). Many of these paintings have titles derived from Finnegans Wake, which Jorn read over and over again (ibid.), titles such as Plurabella, Linking Class Girl, Shaun the Ondt, Phornix Park, Shem the Gracehoper, Noksagt, and Narcoleptics on the Lake of Coma (ibid.: 178). It is likely that the radiant figure of Lucifer derives in part from Joyce (ibid.: 162).

The seeds of many of Jorn’s structural ideas can be found in the so-called ‘Grundtvig triad’, a ‘historico-poetic unity of vision’ the Danish poet and writer NFS Grundtvig developed to articulate a structure for the interpretation of Nordic myths:

the historical view soon teaches us that any great event has three sections, not just in its shape as beginning, middle, end, but also in its real development as prediction or conjecture, as a struggle against all sorts of obstacles and finally as an outcome corresponding to the conjecture, so in the Scandinavian historical view the trinity of the Norns must correspond to this, and here their names also really indicate this, as Urd means the prospective, from which the Norn oracle is also called the Seat of Urd, Verdan means the averting or hindering and Skuld what must happen nevertheless and thus the consummation of Urd’s prophecy, the drama and the scene where we instinctively make the demand that the end should correspond to the beginning and that the middle with suitable obstacles excite our attention and increase our participation

(Shield 1998: 46).

Although the Grundtvig triad is always temporally oriented, when it is applied to the history of Nordic poetry it gains a complementary dimension, from ‘Asa-speech’ (age of imagination) to ‘Biarka-speech’ (age of feeling), to ‘crow’s speech’ (age of intellect), the latter beginning with Icelandic skaldic poetry (Shield 1998: 47). In such anti-Hegelian trinary ways of thinking – complementary rather than dialectical – Jorn identifies a particularly Scandinavian form of comprehending the world (ibid.), a Nordic accent which he wished to bring into play with the Latin accent of Debord. The correspondence of this complementary view, of three principles which cannot be derived from each other, with his ‘Silkeborg Interpretation’ is no accident.

The structure of Finnegans Wake as a ‘trifolium librotto’ (FW 425.20) is expressed in the symbol used as the logo for the Situationist Bauhaus, founded in 1960 at Drakabygget, a farmhouse in southern Sweden. Jorn’s design for the Second Situationist International – formed by the excluded Scandinavian and German sections of the Paris-based SI – was based on a motif carved on the Jelling Stone in Denmark. Regarded as a symbol of a life that never stands still (Nash?), Jorn celebrated the glyph as being emblematic of Nordic Art (ELPAN 16). It can be seen as a depiction of Joyce’s representation of Vico’s cycles – three ages and a ricorso – shown in the continuous recursion of a line drawing three leaves. Among the trinary references abounding in the Wake is ‘her triliteral roots’ (FW 505.4), an allusion to the three letter roots in Semitic languages and the three roots of the world tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, beneath which springs the Well of Urd, from where the three Norns make their prophecies. The three ages of Vico and Thomsen’s three ages of archaeological periodisation – another Scandinavian triad – become less static modes of production, but in their complementarity, dynamic modes of prediction – three wishes – brought into play through the ‘crow speech’ – ‘Outragedy of poetscalds!’ (FW 425.24) – scavenging in the ruins of a decadent culture. The pictorial form that Jorn found expressed the divergence of Nordic and Latin sensibilities was the labyrinth. The unicursality of the classical labyrinth meant that one never recrossed one’s tracks, whereas the multiple intertwinings of, say, the three-leafed husdrapa symbol marked a poetic improvisation of the same motif (Jorn 1980: 164-165), illustrating the openness to cultural diversity that Jorn thought typified the art of the Viking age (Birtwistle 1986: 175).

Jorn argued for the special character of early Nordic art, which has nothing to do ‘with any notion of a “mystical” independent Aryan creativity’ (1946, Birtwistle 1986: 175). He found an analogue for the Oriental principles he had mobilised, in the form of the arabesque, against an Apollonian tradition exemplified on the one hand by the classical Romanic mentality of Nazism, and on the other, by the reaction against the perceived ‘Nordic’ inspiration of Nazism from a left-wing radicalism organised on the same principles as the Roman Catholic church (Jorn 1964: 162).

After his departure from the SI Jorn recalled that in the wake of COBRA’s dissolution he had wanted to found a new group, but one that would avoid the confusionism and the Nordic accent of COBRA (Jappe 1999: 111). This led him to seek the collaboration of Guy Debord, ‘the ideal successor to Andre Breton as a fertile promoter of new ideas’ (Jorn, quoted in ibid.). Jorn was fully aware of the dynamic tension inhering to a group whose internal theoretical coherence increased in proportion to the departure or expulsion of more artistically-inclined members between 1957 and 1962. In ‘Open Creation and its Enemies’ he identifies two opposed tendencies dividing ‘the field of situlogical experience’: the ‘ludic tendency’ and the ‘analytical tendency’ (Jorn 1994b: 38). The former is the tendency of ‘art, spinn and the game…the creation of variabilities within a unity’, while the latter is that of ‘science and its techniques…the search for unity amongst the variations’ (ibid.: 38-39). The dialectical intertwinement of these tendencies was what Jorn sought through his involvement, in a way consistent with what he saw as the achievement of James Joyce in Finnegans Wake who, ‘by pronouncing the absurd phrase “No sturm, no drang”, had overcome the ancient conflict between classicism and romanticism and opened a ski-slope towards the reconciliation of passion and logic’ (Jorn 1994b: 34).

The Dialectic – v – the Trialectic

The opposition of two tendencies that Jorn describes as the condition of the SI is homologous to a recurrent theme in the Wake, that is, the coincidence of opposites, which Joyce derives from the philosophy of Giordano Bruno. Alongside the play of binaries, however, Joyce also mobilises a trinary principle.

Detournement has been described as ‘the mutual interference of two worlds of feeling’, a dynamic interplay which can aptly be symbolised by the dialectical image of two interlinked circles, the diagram of ALP on page 293 of the Wake. Debord defines the situation as based on ‘the complex factors of two components in perpetual interaction’ (1957 1981: 22), in which they would direct themselves

beyond present-day culture, by a clear-eyed critique of existing spheres and their integration into a single space-time construction (the situation: a dynamic system in an environment and playful behaviour) that will bring about a higher harmony of form and content


Above all the situation was concerned with overcoming the division between subject and object, an aim inherited from mysticism:

We think we are living in the world, when in fact we are being positioned in a perspective. No longer the simultaneous perspective of primitive painters, but the perspective of the Renaissance rationalists. It is hardly possible for looks, thoughts and gestures to escape the attraction of the distant vanishing point which orders and deforms them, situating them in its spectacle

(Vaneigem 1983: 68).

The very principle of spectacle

The situation, defined in IS no. 1 as ‘a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events’ (1981: 45), afforded a practical critique of the topological chains of chronology in that

the exclusion of singularities and interruptions, the constancy of intensity and the unique feeling of the propagation of the processes, which defines a situation, also excludes the division in several times

(Jorn 1994b: 32).

Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ offers an additional perspective:

We have already pointed out the need of constructing situations as being one of the fundamental desires on which the next civilization will be founded. This need for absolute creation has always been intimately associated with the need to play with architecture, time and space

(1981: 3).

While the rare intensely engaging situations found, by chance, in life ‘strictly confine and limit this life’, constructed situations must determine ‘the quality of a moment’ (Debord 1981: 24) through an ensemble of elements that are dynamised (anon 1981: 43). Hence, the creation of situations ‘possesses vastly superior perspectives to those outlined by the surrealists and the constructivists’, as a desirable life is not ‘natural’, but ‘constructed’ (Dunbar 1989: 37). The situationists supercede constructivist utilitarianism by combining the basic concepts of surrealism with constructivism: they propose ‘the actual construction of ludic situations which in effect would make “real” or “construct” the “fantasies” of surrealism’ (ibid.). It manifests the ‘reconciliation of passion and logic’ that Jorn saw as operative in Finnegans Wake. At the same time it seeks to escape the surrealist enslavement to chance by ‘structuring the conjunction’, just as the Wake is a network of structured conjunctions extending in all directions.

Yet, Asger Jorn, in his theorisation of the spectacle, differs from the dialectical bias of Debord in finding three principles underlying the construction of situations. This can be traced, in part, to Jorn’s critique of the classical in art, which he extended to a critique of science in the 1950s. He was dissatisfied with the failure of the physicists Heisenberg and Bohr to abandon ‘classical concepts’ at a time when new ideas for more ‘natural’ philosophies were becoming current (expand here on the conflict between classical/aristocratic and natural Dionysian). This spurred his critique of Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation, the theory of complementarity which conceived a dyadic relationship between wave theory and particle theory (Shield 1998). Inspired by Archimedes’ claim that he only needed a single point outside the world to be able to move it, Jorn found in Bohr’s theory ‘that point from which I could begin to manoeuvre around dialectical materialism and investigate it from new points of view’ (Shield 1998: 27). The bipolarity of both dialectics and complementarity he saw as limiting, collapsing within the triad thesis, antithesis, synthesis:

The misunderstanding of the Copenhagen Interpretation is to drag around with it the classical identification of object and reality instead of using these two concepts as opposites and acknowledging that three and not two complementary elements exist, namely the objective, the real and the subjective or object, instrument and observer

(ibid.: 33).

The ‘sanctification of the classical interpretation of the concepts of elementary physics and geometry’ renders the new physics indescribable, because of the limited range of applicability of those very concepts, even as they determine the descriptive form (Jorn 2002: 12). Against the postulation of Bohr and Heisenberg, Jorn cites C.D. Darlington in that the most fundamental scientific discoveries cannot be looked upon as the creation of new knowledge which can be added to the great body of old knowledge (13)

Bohr does neither… ‘He has done a third thing, created a both-and’ (14).

Movement is the instrument by which one determines positions, and positions are the instrument by which one determines movements. To move or change something, one must at any rate have the Archimedean point outside what has to be moved


Thus, while Debord describes the situation as based on ‘the complex factors of two components in perpetual interaction’ (1981: 22), Jorn talks of the ‘necessity…of three complementary (pieces of) information to describe what we call a situation’ (Shield 1998: 49). These apparently contradictory perspectives are anticipated in an extensive section of Finnegans Wake


The ascendancy of the analytical over the ludic tendency of the SI is evident when Jorn writes:

When I discovered the systematic structures of the situationist tendency, I myself understood that here was a method which exploited in secret by us could give us a great direct social power…I did not hesitate to explain this view to Guy Debord, who completely refused to take it into consideration, which obliged me to make my remarks public. He then told me that it was necessary to leave such methods to people like Pauwels and Bergier and the mystical old women who are enraptured by minor occult insights

(Jorn 1994b: 38).

Jorn ‘disentangled himself’ from the SI in April 1961 (Shield 1998: 7).

Systematic Structures

S G Wildman, in his book, The Black Horsemen (1971), draws a link between the geographical distribution of Black Horse pubs and the reputed locations of the legendary battles of King Arthur, a hypothesis which fits in with the Wake’s ‘futurist one-horse balletbattle pictures’ (FW 221), which ‘Uncovers Pub History’ (FW 602.24):

only an amirican could apparoxemete the apeupresiosity of his atlast’s alongement; sticklered rights and lefts at Baddersdown in his hunt for the boar trwth but made his end with the modareds that came at him in Camlenstrete…he divested to save from the Mrs Drownings their rival queens while Grimshav, Bragshaw and Renshaw made off with his storen clothes; taxed and rated, licensed and ranted; his threefaced stonehead was found on a whitehorse hill

(FW 132.2-13).

The significance of the White Horse as a motif in the Wake and as a pub name is as ‘the specific emblem of the House of Hanover, the English ruling dynasty (later the Windsors) (Cheng 1995: 256). It is ‘the essential ideal of authorized horseness’ (ibid.).

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