Situation (Sartre)

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One of the first times in which Jean-Paul Sartre discussed the concept of situation (French: situation) was in his 1943 Being and Nothingness, where he famously said that

there is freedom only in a situation, and there is a situation only through freedom... There can be a free for-itself only as engaged in a resisting world. Outside of this engagement the notions of freedom, of determination, of necessity lose all meaning

Earlier in 1939, in his short story The Childhood of a Leader, collected in his famous The Wall, referring to a fake turd, he said that in pranks "There is more destructive power in them than in all the works of Lenin."[1][2][3][4] Another famous use of the term was in 1945, in his editorial of the first issue of Les Temps modernes (Modern Times); arguing the principle of the responsibility of the intellectual towards his own times and the principle of an engaged literature, he summarized: "the writer is in a situation with his epoch."

An, influential use of the concept was in the context of theatre, in his 1947 essay For a Theatre of Situations.[5] A passage that has been frequently quoted is the following, in which he defines the Theater of Situations:[6]

if it's true that man is free in a given situation and that in and through that situation he chooses what he will be, then what we have to show in the theatre are simple and human situations and free individuals in these situations choosing what they will be.... The most moving thing the theatre can show is a character creating himself, the moment of choice, of the free decision which commits him to a moral code and a whole way of life.

He then published his series Situations, with ten volumes on Literary Critiques and What Is Literature? (1947), the third volume (1949), Portraits (1964), Colonialism and Neocolonialism (1964), Problems of Marxism, Part 1 (1966), Problems of Marxism, Part 2 (1967), The Family Idiot (1971-2), Autour de 1968 and Melanges (1972), and Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken (1976).

Guy Debord, Letterist and Situationist International[edit]

Sartre's concept of Situation was reprised by Guy Debord at least since the times of the Letterist International.[7][8][9] In January 1954, the Letterist International declared: "The new beauty will be that of THE SITUATION, that is to say, provisional and lived."[10][11]

Claire Gilman called Sartre a "father figure" for the Situationist International, and wrote that "Sartre and his philosophy of the situation are fundamental to the SI's notion of everyday life authentically experienced".[12] The relationship between Sartre's philosophy of the situation and the Situationist International is clarified by Peter Wollen in his essay Bitter victory.[13]


  1. ^ Jean-Paul Sartre, Lloyd Alexander (1969), The wall (Intimacy) and other stories, p. 109 quotation:

    What particularly surprised Lucien was the enormous quantity of practical jokes Bergere had accumulated on a shelf: solid liquids, sneezing powder, itching powder, floating sugar, an imitation of a turd and a bride's garter. While Bergere spoke, he took the artificial turd between his fingers and considered it with gravity. "These jokes," he said, "have a revolutionary value. They disturb. There is more destructive power in them than in all the works of Lenin."

  2. ^ Jean-Paul Sartre, W. D. Redfern (1997), Sartre: Le Mur, p. xxxii quotation:

    Bergere's room boasts a hotchpotch decor of Surrealist curios, which his new mentor informs his disciples have greater revolutionary clout than the complete works of Lenin. This is a self-evidently ludicrous claim, further undermined by the revelation that Bergere's idea of revolution is to slip itching-powder into a whore's bed.

  3. ^ Stuart Zane Charmé (1993) Vulgarity and Authenticity: Dimensions of Otherness in the World of Jean-Paul Sartre, pp.184-5
  4. ^ "Il ya plus de puissance destructrice en elles que dans les œuvres complètes de Lénine" (L'enfance d'un chef, in Le Mur)
  5. ^ Sartre (1947) Pour un théâtre de situations (For a Theatre of Situations), first published in the journal La Rue, n.12 November 1947, p.8. Then republished in The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre vol.2 (Contat and Rybalka, 1972), and the anthology of most of his theatre essays, Un theatre de situation. The English translation is also available in George W. Brandt Modern theories of drama: a selection of writings on drama and theatre 1850-1990
  6. ^ original French: "S' il est vrai que l' homme est libre dans une situation donnée et qu'il se choisit libre dans une situation donnée et qu'il se choisit lui-même dans et par cette situation, alors il faut montrer au théâtre des situations simples et humaines. Ce que le théâtre peut montrer de plus émouvant est le moment du choix, de la libre décision qui engage toute une vie. Et comme il n'y a de théâtre que si on réalise l'unité de tous les spectateurs, il faut des situations si générales qu'elles soient communes à tous (Ö).Il me semble que la tâche du dramaturge est de choisir parmi ces situations limites celle qui exprime le mieux ses soucis et de la présenter au public comme la question qui se pose à certaines libertés." LE THÉÂTRE EXISTENTIALISTE DE SARTRE Archived 2010-02-20 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Hussey, Andrew (2002) The game of war: the life and death of Guy Debord p.105
  8. ^ Touza, L. Sebastian (2008) Antipedagogies for liberation politics, consensual democracy and post-intellectual interventions p.171
  9. ^ Kaufmann, Vincent (2011) Guy Debord Archived 2011-07-23 at for the Institut français. English translation Guy Debord by Martin Richet
  10. ^ Letterist International, January 1954 in La Carte d’après Nature. Republished in Potlatch n.5
  11. ^ Sheringham, Michael (2006) Everyday life: theories and practices from surrealism to the present, p.162
  12. ^ Claire Gilman Asger Jorn 's Avant-Garde Archives, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International, p.201 and note 18 on p.210
  13. ^ Peter Wollen Bitter Victory: The Art and Politics of the Situationist International, published in Elisabeth Sussman (1989) On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957-1972

Further reading[edit]

  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1973). "Théâtre populaire et théâtre bourgeois". Théâtre populaire. n° 15, 1955. Also in Un théâtre de situations.