from The Revolution Of Everyday Lifeby Raoul Vaneigem
A new translation from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith
From Chapter 19:
Reversal of Perspective
The light of Power obscures. The eyes of the illusion of community are holes in a mask, holes to which the eyes of individual subjectivity cannot adapt. The individual point of view must prevail over the point of view of false collective participation. Taking the totality as our reference point, we must confront the social world with the weapons of subjectivity and rebuild everything on the basis of the self. The reversal of perspective is the positive aspect of the negative — the swelling fruit about to shatter the husk of the old world.
One day Herr Keuner was asked just what he meant by ‘reversal of perspective’, and he told the following story. Two brothers, deeply attached to each another, had a strange habit. They would use pebbles to record the nature of each day’s events, a white stone for each moment of happiness, a black one for any misfortune or distress. They soon discovered, on comparing the contents of their jars of pebbles at the end of each day, that one brother collected only white pebbles, the other only black. Intrigued by the remarkable consistency with which they each experienced similar circumstances in a quite different way,they resolved to seek the opinion of an old man famed for his wisdom. ‘You don’t talk about it enough’, said the wise man. ‘Each of you should seek the causes of your choices and explain them to the other.’ The two brothers followed this advice, and soon found that while the first remained faithful to his white pebbles, and the second to his black ones, in neither of the jars were there now so many pebbles as formerly. Where there had usually been thirty or so, each brother would now collect scarcely more than seven or eight. Before long the wise man had another visit from the two brothers, both looking very downcast. ‘Not long ago,’ began the first brother, ‘my jar would fill up with pebbles as black as night. I lived in unrelieved despair. I confess that I only went on living out of force of habit. Now, I rarely collect more than eight pebbles in a day. But what these eight symbols of misery represent has become so intolerable that I simply cannot go on living like this.’ The other brother told the wise man: ‘Every day I used to pile up my white pebbles. These days I only get seven or eight, but these exercise such a fascination over me that I cannot recall these moments of happiness without immediately wanting to live them over again, even more intensely than before. In fact I long to keep on experiencing them forever, and this desire is a torment to me.’ The wise man smiled as he listened. ‘Excellent, excellent’, he said. ‘Things are shaping up well. You must persevere. One other thing. From time to time, ask yourselves why this game with the jar and the pebbles excites you so much.’ The next time the two brothers visited the wise man, they had this to say: ‘Well, we asked ourselves the question, as you suggested, but we have no answer. So we asked everyone in the village. You should see how much it has aroused them. Whole families sit outside their houses in the evenings arguing about white pebbles and black pebbles. Only the elders and notables refuse to take part in these discussions. They laugh at us, and say that a pebble is a pebble, black or white.’ The old man could not conceal his delight at this. ‘Everything is going as I had foreseen. Don’t worry. Soon the question will no longer arise; it has already lost its importance, and I daresay that one day soon you will have forgotten that you ever concerned yourselves with it.’ Not long thereafter the old man’s predictions were confirmed in the following manner. A great joy seized the people of the village. And as dawn broke after a night full of comings and goings, the first rays of sunlight fell upon the heads of the elders and notables, freshly struck from their bodies and impaled upon the sharp-pointed stakes of a palisade.
The function of conditioning is to assign and adjust people’s positions on the hierarchical ladder. The reversal of perspective entails a kind of anti-conditioning. Not a new form of conditioning, but a playful tactic, namely détournement, or repurposing.
The reversal of perspective replaces knowledge by praxis, hope by freedom, and mediation by the will to immediacy. It enshrines the victory of a system of human relationships founded on three inseparable principles: participation, communication and fulfilment.
To reverse perspective is to stop seeing things through the eyes of the community, of ideology, of the family, of other people. To grasp hold of oneself as something solid, to take oneself as starting-point and centre. To base everything on subjectivity and to follow one’s subjective will to be everything. In the sights of my insatiable desire to live, the totality of Power is merely one target on a wider horizon. Nor can Power spoil my aim by deploying its forces: on the contrary, I can track their movements, gauge the threat they pose, and study their responses. My creativity, as insignificant as it may be, is a far better guide for me than all the knowledge with which my head has been crammed. In the night of Power, its glimmer keeps the enemy forces at bay. Those forces are cultural conditioning, specialization of every kind, and Weltanschauungen that are inevitably totalitarian. In creativity everyone possesses the ultimate weapon. But this weapon, like some talismans, must be used wittingly. Where creativity is mobilized against the grain, in the service of lies and oppression, it turns into a sad farce, and is duly consecrated as art. Acts that destroy Power and acts that construct individual free will have the same form but their range is different; as any good strategist knows, you prepare in different ways for defence and attack.
We have not chosen the reversal of perspective out of some kind of voluntarism. It has chosen us. Caught up as we are in the historical stage of NOTHING,the next step can only be a change in EVERYTHING. Consciousness of total revolution — or rather, of the necessity for it — is the only way we have left of being historical,our last chance to undo history under specific conditions. The game we are about to join is the game of our creativity. Its rules are radically opposed to the rules and laws of our society. It is a game of loser wins: what is left unsaid is more important than what is said, what is actually lived more important than what is represented by appearances. And the game must be played out to the end. How can anyone who has suffered oppression till their very bones rebel turn down the life-raft of the will to live without reservations? Woe betide those who abandon their violence and their radical demands along the way. As Nietzsche noted, murdered truths become poisonous. If we do not reverse perspective, Power’s perspective will succeed in turning us against ourselves once and for all. German Fascism was spawned in the blood of Spartakus. Our everyday renunciations — no matter how trivial — lend fuel to our foe, who seeks nothing short of our complete destruction.
From Chapter 20: Creativity
Human beings live in a state of creativity twenty-four hours a day. The manipulation of the notion of freedom by the mechanisms of domination, once it is exposed to view, sheds a positive light on its opposite, namely the exercise of a genuine freedom inseparable from individual creativity. Thereafter, the injunctions of production, consumption and organization can no longer co-opt the passion to create, which dissolves the consciousness of constraint.
In a fractionary world whose common denominator throughout history has been hierarchical social power, only one freedom has ever been tolerated: the freedom to change the numerator, the unchanging freedom to change masters. Freedom so understood has finally lost its appeal, the more so since even the worst totalitarianisms, East and West, are incessantly invoking it. The present generalization of the refusal to simply change bosses coincides with a reorganization of the State. All the governments of the industrialized or semi-industrialized world now tend to model themselves — to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the level of development — on a single prototype: the common aim is to rationalize – to automate, as it were - the old mechanisms of domination. And herein lies freedom’s first opportunity. The bourgeois democracies have clearly shown that individual freedoms can be tolerated only insofar as they limit and destroy one another. Now that this is clear, it has become impossible for any government, no matter how sophisticated, to wave the muleta of liberty without everyone discerning the sword concealed behind it; without the incessant evocation of freedom producing a backlash, as freedom, rediscovering its true roots in individual creativity, violently refuses to be no more than the permitted, the licit, the tolerable – the smile on the face of authority.
Freedom’s second opportunity comes once it has retrieved its creative authenticity, and it relates to the mechanisms of Power themselves. Abstract systems of exploitation and domination are obviously human creations, brought into being and refined through the redirection or co-optation of creativity. The only forms of creativity that authority can deal with, or wishes to deal with, are those which the spectacle can co-opt. But what people do officially is nothing compared with what they do in secret. Creativity is usually evoked apropos of works of art, but what are works of art alongside the creative energy displayed by each individual a thousand times a day? Alongside seething unsatisfied desires, daydreams in search of a foothold in reality, feelings at once confused and luminously clear, ideas and actions presaging nameless upheavals? All this energy, of course, is relegated to anonymity and deprived of adequate means of expression, imprisoned by survival and obliged to find outlets by sacrificing its qualitative riches and conforming to the spectacle’s categories. Think of Cheval’s palace, Fourier’s inspired system, or the pictorial universe of Douanier Rousseau. Even closer to home, consider the incredible diversity of our own dreams — landscapes the brilliance of whose colours qualitatively surpass the finest canvases of a Van Gogh. We are all forever at work on an ideal world within ourselves, even as our outward motions comply with soulless routines.
No one, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion by lies and constraints. If ever social organization extends its control to this stronghold of humanity, its dominion will no longer be exercised over anything save robots, or corpses. And, in a sense, that is why consciousness of creative energy increases, paradoxically enough, as a function of consumer society’s efforts to co-opt it.
Argus is blind to the danger right in front of him. Where quantity reigns, quality has no recognized legal existence; but this is the very thing that safeguards and nourishes it. I have already noted that the dissatisfaction bred by the manic pursuit of quantity calls forth a radical desire for the qualitative. The more oppression is justified in terms of the freedom to consume, the more the malaise arising from this contradiction exacerbates the thirst for total freedom. The crisis of production-based capitalism pointed up the element of repressed creativity in the energy expended by the worker. The alienation of creativity through forced labour, thanks to the exploitation of the producers, was denounced once and for all by Marx. Whatever the capitalist system and its successors (even antagonistic ones) have lost on the production front they try to make up for in the sphere of consumption. The plan is that, as they gradually free themselves from their duties as producers, human beings should be trapped by newer obligations as consumers. By opening up the empty lot of leisure time to a creativity liberated at long last by shorter working hours, the well-intentioned apostles of humanism have merely mustered an army fit for drilling on the training-grounds of the consumer economy. Now that the alienation of the consumer is being laid bare by consumption’s own internal dialectic, one may wonder what kind of prison awaits the highly subversive forces of individual creativity. As I pointed out earlier, the rulers’ last chance here is to turn us all into organizers of our own passivity.
With touching candour, Dewitt Peters suggests that handing out paints, brushes and canvas to everyone who requested them would produce very interesting results. It is true that if this policy were applied in a variety of well-defined and well-policed spheres, such as the theatre, the plastic arts, music, writing, etc., and in a general way to any such sphere susceptible of total isolation from all others, then the system might have a hope of endowing people with the consciousness of the artist, which is to say the consciousness of someone who professes to exhibit their creativity in the museums and shop windows of culture. The popularity of such a culture would be a clear sign of Power’s success. Fortunately, the chances of people being successfully ‘culturized’ in this way are now slight. Do the cyberneticians and their ilk really imagine that people can be talked into ‘free experimentation’ within bounds laid down by authoritarian decree? Or that prisoners at last aware of their creative capacity might daub their cells with ‘original graffiti’ and leave it at that? What would prevent them from extending their new-found penchant for experiment to weapons, desires, dreams, and all manner of means of self-fulfilment? The crowd, after all, is already full of agitators. No: the last possible way of co-opting creativity - the organization of artistic passivity – is, happily, doomed to failure.
‘What I am trying to reach,’ wrote Paul Klee, ‘is a far-off point, at the source of creation, where I suspect a single explanatory principle applies for man, animals, plants, fire, water, air and all the forces that surround us.’ As a matter of fact, this point is far off only in Power’s deceitful perspective: the source of all creation lies in individual creativity; it is from here that everything, being or thing, is ordered in accordance with poetry’s grand freedom. This is the starting-point of the new perspective, the perspective that everyone is striving with all their might and at every moment of their existence to reach. ‘Subjectivity is the only truth’, says Kierkegaard.
Power cannot co-opt true creativity. In 1869 the Brussels police thought they had found the famous gold of the International, about which the capitalists were losing so much sleep. They seized a huge strongbox hidden in some dark corner, but when they opened it they found only coal. Little did the police know that the pure gold of the International would turn into coal if touched by enemy hands.
A revolutionary alchemy transmutes the basest metals of daily life into gold in the laboratories of individual creativity. The most important thing is to dissolve the consciousness of constraint, the sense of impotence, by means of creativity’s magnetic power; to melt such feelings away in a surge of creative energy serene in the affirmation of genius. As sterile as it may be in the race for prestige in the spectacle, megalomania is a vital feature of the struggle of the self against the massed forces of conditioning. The creative spark, which is the spark of true life, shines all the more brightly in the night of nihilism triumphant. But as the project of a new and improved survival aborts, such sparks will proliferate and gradually coalesce into a single light, the promise of a form of organization based on the harmonizing of individual wills. History is leading us to the crossroads where radical subjectivity meets the real prospect of changing the world: that privileged moment when the perspective is reversed.
The extract presented here, the last in the series, is from a completely revised translation forthcoming in September from PM Press with a new preface by Raoul Vaneigem (www.pmpress.org).
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 Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations, 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 in September from PM Press (www.pmpress.org)
DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH is a longtime resident of Brooklyn who has translated Antonin Artaud, Thierry Jonquet, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and Jean Piaget.