Alexander Trocchi and Project Sigma
The following is excerpted from The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, available from Verso Books.
Better known as a novelist, Trocchi tried and failed to form a much more ambitious movement. He called it project sigma, after the mathematical sign which can stand for the sum or the totality. He thought it “free of bothersome semantic accretions.” He set out his sigma project in two luminous texts, ‘The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds’ and ‘Sigma: A Tactical Blueprint’. “Revolt is understandably unpopular,” he writes, and generally conceived in a somewhat backward way. Leon Trotsky knew enough to seize the railways and the power stations while the old guard persisted in defending the offices of the state. “So cultural revolt must seize the grids of expression and the powerhouses of the mind.”
The sigma texts are part manifesto, part manual. The practical side to Trocchi’s proposal is the means of funding it. Project sigma is not just a university, it is also an agency. Those who join it become part of an agency controlled by the creators themselves. Sigma lives off residuals, patents, commissions, even what one would now call consultancy fees. Its network of spontaneous universities function as advertisements for themselves.
One might almost say that they are brands. Trocchi’s solution is a weird kind of Leninist dual power. An autonomous, self-managed, unalienated power of seamless creativity exists alongside the old commodified spectacle until such time as it can subsume it within its new means of creation. It is both science fiction and a business plan, a utopian future and an almost exact description of sophisticated spectacular business in the twenty-first century. It could almost be the model for the Blue Ant agency of Hubertus Bigend (b. 1967), the fictional son of a Situationist in the novels of William Gibson. It is a summation of Trocchi’s own extraordinary experience yet it is also a program he was in no sense fit to carry out in person.
Trocchi survived a genteel-poor upbringing in Glasgow. During the war he sailed on convoy ships taking supplies to the Soviet Union. After a stint at Glasgow University he took advantage of a scholarship to ship off to Paris. He was an editor of the English language journal Merlin (1952-1954), which co-existed in friendly rivalry with the Paris Review of George Plimpton and friends. In Paris he fell under the spell of Samuel Beckett and managed to get Beckett published, together with Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco, with Olympia Press, a Paris-based English language imprint best known for its porn. Like more than a few expats Trocchi wrote porn novels for Olympia’s charming but deeply dodgy impresario Maurice Girodias.
The best of Trocchi’s porn novels is Helen and Desire (1954). Growing up in the far North of Australia, Helen is a bored teenager with only her own immediate sensations to amuse her: “I count the sea as my first love… it was an impersonal one.” She takes off on the adventure of renouncing her own will, her subjectivity, her interiority. Instead she allows herself a terrible and ungovernable thirst for annihilation. And yet Helen remains a writer. The book purports to be a found manuscript, a diary not of a person but of a process of depersonalization. The body becomes a surface for the replacement of self with sensation: “Riven now at twin poles of delight, my glistening torso slithered under discs, flats, and surfaces, under flanges of containment and protusion, all seeking the weld of female union. My breasts, charged with ambiguous alluvial sensations, slipped to and fro under their counterparts…”
Helen’s writing recounts the steps by which the very possibility of authorship is undone. Her diary ends when there is no longer a subject to be writing it: “And gradually the whole desire to commit my experiences to history has been outflanked by the terrible pleasure I experience in approaching the unconscious state of an object… It is indeed doubtful whether I can still usefully use the word ‘I.’” Helen gives herself over to the situation, and abolishes the act of writing, the possibility of literature as a separate art, in the process.
As a writer Trocchi connects Beckett to William Burroughs, and both to Debord. His great book, Cain’s Book (1960), is often considered a Beat classic, but it is rarely read as a Situationist text. Debord was an admirer of Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957), author of Under the Volcano (1947), with whom Trocchi had at least two things in common. One was that they both produced only one book that was a literary success. The other was that they preferred to destroy themselves rather than inflict more literature on the world. Lowry was an alcoholic; Trocchi a drug fiend. Both explored in depth the practice of playing with time, with time outside of both labor and leisure. Trocchi’s advice to ambitious writers: “Let them dedicate a year to pinball and think again.” Both were adepts at what Trocchi called “the chemistry of alienation.” Both found the limits to becoming a professional in the art of intoxication.
“Tomorrow is an age of Doctors,” Trocchi says prophetically. By 2007 the American Environmental Protection Agency will announce that what it calls the emerging contaminants in drinking water come mostly from anti-depressants, painkillers, antibiotics, hormones and blood pressure remedies. It’s the effluent of the affluent world of spectacular medicine. The disintegrating spectacle has inadvertently medicated not only whole populations of humans but of other species as well, a whole biosphere rendered comfortably numb. It’s a byproduct of constantly reintegrating the human body into the uniform time of production and consumption, for a time that repeats the same steady intervals without end, and rendered efficiently, without the blue smoke.
While Cain’s Book is now a captive of its own literary success, the same cannot be said of the sigma portfolio (1964). The portfolio allowed Trocchi to abandon literature and yet keep writing. It’s a project he hatched in New York, but brought back to London with him, “close under his eyelids, an electronic load, an unwritten book, a plan in four dimensions, a shadow one, including time…” This puckish, punkish project would be self generating and self-published. “The sigma portfolio is an entirely new dimension in publishing, through which the writer reaches his public immediately, outflanking the traditional traps of publishing-house policy, and by means of which the reader gets it, so to speak, ‘hot’ from the writer’s pen, the photographer’s lens, etc.”
Trocchi calls it a log to stress the temporal aspect, the sequence of statement and rejoinder: “it should literally discover many things, including the dialectical process of its own growth.” Where the book puts an end to the transformations of the text and sets up a distinction between author and reader, the inter-personal log keeps transforming itself, and makes of its readers writers and of its writers readers. “Essentially ludic, and calling, it seems to me, for a particular kind of gesture, it might be called potlatch.” It might also be called blogging. Trocchi invented a web of logs before there was even an internet.
Or it might be called sigma, that blank, elusive, all-embracing one-word poem that Trocchi put at the heart of the enterprise. “For, sigma is a word referring to something which is quite independent of myself or of any other individual, and if we are correct in our historical analysis, we must regard it as having ‘begun’ a long time ago.” The term sigma stands in for a process, without beginning or end, without subject or goal, and yet which is not a mere abstract force, but something experienced within the lived time of everyday life. This willful and collaborative play within and against creative forces is the thread that becomes lost under the conditions of spectacular society.