Knowledge @ ESCP Europe

Entrepreneurship Education

Entrepreneurial Learning and Situationism


By Jacqueline Fendt, Professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at ESCP Europe and Scientific Director of the Chair for Entrepreneurship Research, and Sylvain Bureau, Assistant Professor in the Information and Operations Management Department of ESCP Europe.

Is it irony – or insolence – that lets business school professors succumb to the "Debordology in its integrated stage […] raging everywhere – just look who is behind which microphone, in front of which camera, in which newspaper, or speaking from what cesspit, openly quoting Guy Debord or going on record about him - people who, by the way, have liberally ignored him until now"?  Why 'borrow' from a way of thinking that was developed by an a priori anti-capitalist trend such as Situationist International, led by a thinker who had painted the slogan "Never work!" by the banks of the river Seine, and had done his utmost to live up to that injunction. The case seems lost in advance. Yet this method of taking old thinking to create new thinking is common throughout history and our search for novel and relevant pedagogic arrangements for future entrepreneurs have been intensely nourished over the past three years by Situationist tools.

Indeed, Debord himself encouraged and justified détournement:

"All the material published by the SI is, in principle, usable by everyone, even without acknowledgment, with no concerns as to literary property. […] You can make all the détournements that appear useful to you." (Debord, as secretary of the SI journal, in Wark, 2009, p. 7)

"It is in fact necessary to eliminate all remnants of the notion of personal property in this area. The appearance of new necessities outmodes previous 'inspired' works. They become obstacles, dangerous habits. […] Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can be used to make new combinations. Restricting oneself to a personal arrangement of words is mere convention. The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the juxtapositions of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used. It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work, or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of those fragments in any appropriate way, leaving the imbeciles to their slavish reference to citations." (Debord & Wolman, 1956, p. 84)

Dérive, the method we are most interested in and currently experimenting with in the classroom, is related to a number of movements: Dadaism, Surrealism, Lettrism, and International Situationism, of course. All these movements have put forward different experiments aiming to rethink the world using processes where chance, the non-rational and a certain form of radicalism played a central role. There were two phases of Situationist activity. From 1957 to 1962, the pursuit of superiority of art was the primary objective then, from 1962 to 1972, it became a more radical, more holistic revolutionary project (Knabb, 2006), concerned with a radical societal change. This part is what interested us for entrepreneurship education – or for education itself (savoir être), which in a graduate classroom is never far apart. The idea was to rethink life by rethinking modern cities. For this to be possible, new situations had to be constructed: everyone had to be permitted to create new situations in order to create a new reality and thus change life (Barnard, 2004). Urban planning was the pivot of this huge project. Thus, in "urban ambiences" envisaged by the Situationists, "residents would be invited to create their own environment" (Chollet, 2004, p.36). There was a need to reject the terrible approach to cities at the time (the construction of large satellite cities) to open up new cultural and political perspectives. This vision employed numerous theoretical and operational tools such as dérive, détournement and constructing situations. All these experimental elements aimed to result in "changing human behavior" (Comisso, 2000, p. 12). They felt that the very place where "repression and [or] urban planning happens, supports repression" (Violeau, 2006, p. 128) and therefore the setting for urban life needed to be completely modified:

"To liberate life means first to liberate the city, which is life’s immediate environment. But this implies, most of all, that art and contemporary techniques must lose their aesthetic character or practices become divorced from the reality of daily life by melding into a superior activity, which alone will be worth living: the construction of life itself by knocking down its framework. This desire to create liberating urban planning in the search for a new way of living is the positive side to the destruction of art and this attack on culture, its dialectic superior" (Martos, 1995, p. 15)

In our research we first argue the need for novel approaches in entrepreneurship education, by synthesizing current preoccupations in contemporary entrepreneurship education and by developing a model along the dimensions 'environment', 'process' and 'decision' by which we confront entrepreneurs’ realities and current entrepreneurship teaching. From this first exploratory phase it is clearly evidenced that more radical, more subversive approaches to entrepreneurship education are necessary. Such tools and approaches must permit students and participants to juggle with chance, fortuitousness and serendipity. The creation of situations, the dérive and the détournement have evidenced to have potential to respond to this need.

We are at the beginning of our reflection but we are receiving emergent support for our case from results of more than a dozen pedagogic experiments with diverse participant types over three years. In terms of emerging theoretical contributions we evidence and purport, for example, that ‘dérive’ and ‘situation creation’ exercises:

  • are a potent means of subverting a largely conformist and homogenous audience, used to comply, and constrained by this duty of compliance, with the expectations and stereotypes of business school training (1st hypothesis);
  • facilitate the development of new methods of collaboration and communication in a different language: our students are engineers, entrepreneurs, designers, artists, urbanists, etc., or (depending on the context) future engineers, future entrepreneurs, future designers and so on. One objective is to define a kind of neutral ground, or a place that differs from the usual semantic field that is adopted in entrepreneurship teaching (2nd hypothesis);
  • result in a reinvention of space (3rd) and of time (4th): we wanted to accelerate, or indeed slow down time, and change the usual frontiers – so as to ultimately, and literally, break out of the school walls – in order to see differently, to see different things, be different, see different beings, different sounds and different images.