from The Revolution Of Everyday Lifeby Raoul Vaneigem
A new translation from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith
My aim is not to make the real experience contained in this book comprehensible to readers who have no real interest in reliving it. I fully expect this experience to be lost—and rediscovered—in a general alteration of consciousness, just as I am convinced that the present conditions of our lives will one day be no more than a memory.
The world is going to be remade, not reconditioned. All its would-be renovators are powerless to stop this. If these experts do not understand me, so much the better; I certainly have no desire to understand them.
As for my other readers, I beg their indulgence with a humility that should not be hard to see. I would have wished a book such as this one accessible to minds quite unschooled in the jargon of ideas. I hope I have not failed entirely. Out of this confusion will one day come formulations capable of firing point-blank on our enemies. In the meanwhile, let sentences remembered here or there have what effect they may. The path of simplicity is the most tortuous of all and, especially here, it seemed better not to wrench commonplaces from the many roots that make it possible to transplant them to other soils and cultivate them to our own profit.
I have never claimed to have anything new to say; I am not trying to launch novelties on the culture market. One tiny adjustment in what is essential has much greater import than a hundred incidental improvements. The only truly new thing here is the direction of the stream that carries commonplaces along.
Since humans came upon the earth, and read Lautréamont, everything has been said, yet few have taken advantage of it. Since all our knowledge is fundamentally banal, it can be of value only to minds that are not.
The modern world has to learn what it already knows, become what it already is, through a great exorcism of obstacles, through practice. We can escape the commonplace only by manipulating it, controlling it, thrusting it into our dreams or surrendering it to the free play of our subjectivity. I realize that I have given subjective will an easy time in this book, but let no one reproach me for this without first considering the extent to which the objective conditions of the contemporary world advance the cause of subjectivity day after day. Everything starts from subjectivity, but nothing stays there. Today less than ever.
The struggle between subjectivity and everything that corrupts it is widening the battleground of the old class struggle, revitalizing that struggle and making it more bitter. The desire to live is a political decision. Who wants a world where the guarantee of freedom from starvation means the risk of death from boredom?
The man of survival is a man ground up in the machinery of hierarchical power, caught in a net of crossed purposes, a chaos of oppressive techniques whose ordering awaits only patient programming by programmed minds.
The man of survival, however, is also the unitary man, the man of absolute refusal. Not a moment passes without each one of us experiencing, on every level of reality, the contradiction between oppression and freedom; without each one of us being caught up and weirdly twisted by two antagonistic perspectives simultaneously: the perspective of power and the perspective of supersession....
My shortcomings as a writer also reflect on the reader—as a reader and even more as a human being. If the element of boredom I experienced in writing finds an echo in the reader, here is but one more proof of our failure to live. For the rest, the gravity of the times must excuse the gravity of my tone. Levity always lies either before words or beyond them. For our purposes irony will consist in never forgetting this.
This work is part of a subversive current of which the last has not yet been heard. It constitutes one contribution among others to the reconstruction of the international revolutionary movement. Its significance should escape no one; in any case, as time will show, no one is going to escape its conclusions.
Chapter 1: The Insignificant Signified
Because of its increasing triviality, everyday life has gradually become our central preoccupation. No illusion, sacred or secular, collective or individual, can now hide the poverty of our day-to-day actions. The enrichment of life calls for an unblinking analysis of the new forms taken by poverty and the perfecting of old weapons of refusal.
The history of our time calls to mind those Walt Disney characters who rush madly over the edge of a cliff without seeing it: the power of their imagination keeps them suspended in mid-air, but as soon as they look down and see where they are, they fall.
Contemporary thought, like Bosustov’s heroes, can no longer rest on its own delusions. What used to hold it up, today brings it down. It rushes full tilt in front of the reality that will crush it: the reality that is lived every day.
Is this dawning lucidity essentially new? I don’t think so. Everyday life always produces the demand for a brighter light, if only because of the need everyone feels to walk in step with history. There are more truths in twenty-four hours of an individual’s life than in all the philosophies. Even a philosopher cannot ignore it, for all his self-contempt—that same self-contempt that the very comfort of philosophy has taught him. After somersaulting onto his own shoulders to shout his message to the world from a greater height, the philosopher finishes by seeing the world upside down; and everything in it obligingly goes askew, and walks on its head, to persuade him that he is standing upright. But he is the centre of his delusional state, and struggling to contest it merely renders his delusion more uncomfortable.
The moralists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries presided over a vast stock of platitudes, but so active were their efforts to conceal this fact that a veritable stuccoed palace of speculation arose above it, an ideal palace to shelter and imprison real experience. From its gates emerged a conviction and sincerity quickened by a sublime tone and by the fiction of the ‘universal man’ but contaminated by a breath of permanent anxiety. The analytic approach of these philosophers sought to escape the gradual atrophying of existence by attaining some essential profundity; and the further into alienation their philosophy led them by embracing the age’s dominant imagery (the feudal image in which God, monarchy and the world are indivisibly united), the more their lucidity photographed the hidden face of life, the more it ‘invented’ everyday experience.
Enlightenment philosophy accelerated the descent into the concrete, for the concrete was in some ways brought to power along with the revolutionary bourgeoisie. From the ruins of Heaven, humanity fell into the ruins of its own world. What happened? Something like this: ten thousand people are convinced that they have seen a fakir’s rope rise into the air, while so many cameras prove that it hasn’t moved an inch. Scientific objectivity exposes mystification. Very good, but what does it show us? A coiled rope of absolutely no interest. I have little inclination to choose between the doubtful pleasure of being mystified and the tedium of contemplating a reality which does not concern me. A reality which I have no grasp of—isn’t this just the old lie recycled, the highest stage of mystification?
From now on the analysts are in the streets. Lucidity is not their only weapon. Their thinking is no longer in danger of being imprisoned, either by the false reality of gods or by the false reality of technocrats.
Religious beliefs concealed humans from themselves, a Bastille walling them up in a pyramidal world with God at the summit and the king just below. Alas, there was not enough freedom to be found on that fourteenth of July among the ruins of unitary power to prevent those ruins themselves from becoming another prison. Behind the rent veil of superstition appeared, not naked truth, as Meslier dreamed, but the slime of ideologies. The prisoners of fragmented power have but a shadow of freedom as their only refuge from tyranny.
Today no action and no thought evades the web of received ideas. The slow fall-out of particles from the old myth, now exploded, spreads the dust of the sacrosanct everywhere, choking the spirit and the will to live. Constraints have become less occult, more blatant; less powerful, more numerous. Docility is no longer ensured by priestly magic; it results from a mass of minor hypnoses: news, culture, city planning, advertising, mechanisms of conditioning and suggestion ready to serve any order, established or to come. We are like Gulliver, stranded on the Lilliputian shore, with every part of his body tied down; determined to free himself, he looks keenly around him: the smallest detail of the landscape, the smallest contour of the ground, the slightest movement, everything becomes a sign on which his escape may depend. The surest chances of liberation lie in what is most familiar. Was it ever otherwise? Art, ethics, philosophy bear witness: under the crust of words and concepts, the living reality of maladjustment to the world is always crouched ready to spring. Since neither gods nor words can any longer decently cover it up, this commonplace creature roams naked in railway stations and vacant lots; it confronts you at each self-evasion, it grasps your shoulder, catches your eye, and the dialogue begins. You go down with it, or make your escape with it.
Too many corpses strew the paths of individualism and collectivism. These seemingly contrary principles cloak one and the same gangsterism, one and the same oppression of the isolated individual. The hand that smothered Lautréamont returned to strangle Sergei Esenin; one died in the lodging-house of his landlord Jules-François Dupuis, the other hanged himself in a nationalized hotel. Everywhere the same law holds good: ‘There is no weapon of your individual will which, once appropriated by others, does not turn against you.’ If anyone says or writes that practical reason must henceforth be based on the rights of the individual and the individual alone, he negates his own proposition if he does not incite his audience to make this statement true for themselves. Such a proof can only be lived, grasped from within. That is why everything in the notes that follow should be tested and corrected by everyone’s immediate experience. Nothing is so valuable that it need not be started afresh, nothing is so rich that it has no need of continual enrichment.
Just as we distinguish in private life between what a man thinks and says about himself and what he really is and does, everyone has learned to distinguish the rhetoric and messianic pretensions of political parties from their organisation and real interests; what they think they are, from what they are. A man’s illusions about himself and others are not basically different from the illusions which groups, classes and parties cultivate about themselves and within themselves. Indeed they come from the same source: the dominant ideas, which are the ideas of the dominant class, even when they take an antagonistic form.
The world of -isms, whether it envelops the whole of humanity or a single person, is never anything but a world drained of reality, a terribly real seduction by falsehood. The three crushing defeats suffered by the Commune, the Spartakist movement and Kronstadt-the-Red (1921) showed once and for all what bloodbaths could be precipitated by three ideologies of freedom, namely liberalism, socialism and Bolshevism. Before this was universally understood and admitted, however, bastard or hybrid forms of these ideologies had to vulgarize their initial atrocity with even weightier evidence: concentration camps, Lacoste’s Algeria, Budapest. The great collective illusions, anaemic from shedding the blood of so many, have since given way to the thousands of pre-packed ideologies sold by consumer society like so many portable brain-scrambling machines. Will it take as much bloodshed to prove that a hundred thousand pinpricks kill as surely as a couple of blows with a club?
What could I possibly do in a group of militants who ask me to leave in the cloakroom, not a few ideas—for if anything ideas would be the reason for my signing up—but the dreams and desires which never leave me, the wish to live authentically and without restraint? What is the use of exchanging one isolation, one monotony, one lie for another? Once a change has been exposed as illusory, merely replacing it with another illusion is intolerable. Yet such is precisely our situation: the economy cannot stop making us consume more and more, and to consume without respite is to change illusions at an accelerating pace which eventually dissipates the illusion of change. We find ourselves alone, unchanged, frozen in the void created by the cascade of gimmick-objects, Volkswagens and paperback books....
In its concrete and tactical form, the concept of class struggle constituted the first marshalling of responses to the shocks and injuries which people experience as individuals; it was born in the whirlpool of suffering which the reduction of human relationships to the mechanisms of exploitation created everywhere in industrial societies. It issued from a will to transform the world and change life.
Such a weapon needed constant adjustment. Yet we see the First International turning its back on artists by making workers’ demands the sole basis of a project which Marx had nevertheless shown to concern all those who sought, in the refusal to be slaves, a full life and a complete humanity. Lacenaire, Borel, Lassailly, Büchner, Baudelaire, Hölderlin—wasn’t this also poverty and its radical refusal? Perhaps this mistake was excusable then: I neither know nor care. What is certain is that it is sheer madness a century later, when the economy of consumption is absorbing the economy of production and the exploitation of labour power is being subsumed by the exploitation of everyday creativity. A single energy, wrested from the workers as easily now during their leisure time as during their hours on the shopfloor, drives the turbines of Power which the custodians of the old theory blithely lubricate with their purely formal opposition.
Anyone who talks about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life—without grasping what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints—has a corpse in his mouth.
About the Author
RAOUL VANEIGEM was born in Lessines, Belgium, in 1934. A leading light in the Situationist International in the 1960s, he is a prolific writer and a relentless critic of late capitalism.
His Traite de savoir-vivre a l'usage des jeunes generations, known in English translation as The Revolution of Everyday Life, was written during the Cold War in 1963-65. It is one of two influential books, the other being Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, published by the Situationist International just months before the May 1968 upheavals in France. The extract presented here is from a completely revised translation forthcoming next fall from PM Press (www.pmpress.org).
DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH is a longtime resident of Brooklyn who has translated Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Jean-Patrick Manchette.