The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

from The Revolution Of Everyday Life

Chapter 14: Sacrifice
The Organization of Appearances


According to Nietzsche, the ‘ideal world’ is a construct based on a lie: ‘Reality has been deprived of its value, its meaning, its veracity to the same degree as an ideal world has been fabricated.... The lie of the ideal has hitherto been the curse of reality; through it mankind itself has become mendacious and false down to its deepest instincts – to the point of worshipping the inverse values to those which alone could guarantee it prosperity and a future, the exalted right to a future.’ What can the lie of the ideal be if not the truth of the masters? When theft needs legal justification, when authority waves the banner of the general interest in order to pursue private ends with impunity, is it any wonder that the lie captures minds, so distorting people by shaping them to its ‘laws’ that their very deformity comes to resemble a natural human attitude? It is true that human beings lie because in a world governed by lies they cannot do otherwise: they are themselves false, and shackled by their falsehood. As for common sense, it supports nothing except the decree against the truth promulgated in everyone’s name. Common sense is the lie codified and vulgarized.

All the same, nobody lies groaning under the yoke of inauthenticity twenty-four hours a day. In the case of the most radical thinkers, the mendacity of words may secrete revelatory flashes of truth; similarly, there are very few everyday alienations that are not dispelled at least for an instant, for an hour, for the duration of a dream, by subjective rebuttal. Just as no one is ever completely hoodwinked by what is destroying them, words are never utterly in thrall to Power. Merely prolonging transient moments of truth, the tip of the iceberg of subjectivity, will suffice to sink the Titanic of the lie.

After shattering myth, the tide of material reality has washed the fragments out to sea. Once the driving force of this tide, the bourgeoisie will end up as so much foam drifting out along with all the other flotsam. When he describes the backlash effect whereby the King’s hired assassin returns in due time to carry out his orders upon the one who gave them, Shakespeare seems to give us a curiously prophetic account of the fate reserved for the class that killed God. Once the hired killers of the established order lose their faith in the myth, or, if you will, in the God who legalizes their crimes, the machinery of death no longer recognizes its master. In this sense revolution was the bourgeoisie’s finest invention. It is also the running noose which will help it take its leap into oblivion. It is easy to see why bourgeois thought, strung up as it is on a rope of radicalism of its own making, clings with the energy of desperation to every reformist solution, to anything that can lengthen its reign, even though its own weight must inevitably drag it down to its doom. Fascism is in a way the herald of this ineluctable fall. It resembles the aesthete dreaming of dragging the whole world down with him into the abyss, lucid as to the death of his class but a sophist when he announces the inevitability of universal annihilation. Today this mise en scène of death chosen and refused lies at the core of the spectacle of incoherence.

The organization of appearances aspires to the immobility of the shadow of a bird in flight. But this aspiration, bound up with the ruling class’s efforts to solidify its power, amounts to no more than a vain hope of escaping from the course of history. There is, however, an important difference between myth and its fragmented, deconsecrated avatar, the spectacle, with respect to the way each resists reality’s critique. The varying importance assumed in unitary systems by artisans, merchants and bankers explains the continual oscillation in these societies between the coherence of myth and the myth of coherence. With the triumph of the bourgeoisie something very different happens: by introducing history into the arsenal of appearances, the bourgeois revolution historicizes appearances and thus makes the shift from the incoherence of the spectacle to the spectacle of incoherence an irreversible one.

In unitary societies, whenever the merchant class, with its disrespect for tradition, threatened to deconsecrate values, the coherence of myth would give way to the myth of coherence. What does this mean? What had hitherto been taken for granted had suddenly to be vigorously reasserted. Spontaneous faith gave way to loudly professed faith and respect for the great of this world had to be preserved by resort to the principle of absolute monarchy. I hope closer study will be given to those paradoxical interregnums of myth during which the bourgeoisie may be seen striving to sanctify its rise by means of a new religion and byself-ennoblement, while the nobility embraces the directly opposite strategy of wagering on an impossible transcendence (I am thinking of the Fronde here, and also of the Heraclitean dialectic and Gilles de Rais). The aristocracy had the elegance to turn its last words into a witticism; the bourgeoisie’s disappearance from the scene will be accompanied only by the solemnity of bourgeois thought. As for the forces of revolutionary supersession, surely they have more to win from light-hearted death than from the dead weight of survival.

Undermined by the critical effect of the fascism of the facts, the myth of coherence has proved unable to establish a new mythic coherence. Appearances - the mirror in which human beings hide their own choices from themselves – shatter into a thousand pieces and fall into the public realm of individual supply and demand. The demise of appearances means the end of hierarchical power - a façade ‘with nothing behind it’. There can be no doubt as to this final outcome. The French Revolution was barely over before God-substitutes turned up at deep-discount prices. First came the Supreme Being and the Bonapartist concordat, and then, hard on their heels, nationalism, individualism, socialism, national socialism, and a host of neo-isms - not to mention the individualized dregs of every imaginable hand-me-down Weltanschauung and the thousands of portable ideologies offered as free gifts every time you buy a TV, a cultural artefact or a box of detergent. In due course the disintegration of the spectacle entails the resort to the spectacle of disintegration. It is in the logic of things that the last actor should film his own death. As it happens, the logic of things is the logic of what can be consumed, and sold as it is consumed. Pataphysics, sub-Dada, and the mise-en-scène of impoverished everyday life line the road that leads us with many a twist and turn to the last graveyards.


The development of the drama as a literary genre repeatedly illuminates the question of the organization of appearances. After all, a play is the simplest form of that organization, and, in a sense, a set of instructions for it. The earliest theatrical productions were indeed nothing else, intended as they were to reveal the mystery of transcendence to mankind. The gradual desanctification of theatre produced the template for later, spectacular stage management. Aside from the machinery of war, all ancient machines were responses to the needs of the theatre. The crane, the pulley and other hydraulic devices started out as theatrical paraphernalia; only much later did they revolutionize production relations. It is a striking fact that, no matter how far we go back in time, the domination of the earth and of human beings seems to depend on techniques which serve the purposes not only of work but also of illusion.

The birth of tragedy was already a narrowing of the arena in which early humans and their gods faced off in a cosmic dialogue. It meant a distancing, a putting in parentheses, of magical participation, which was now organized according to a refracted version of the principles of initiation, and no longer according to the rites themselves. What emerged was a spectaculum, a thing seen, while the gradual relegation of the gods to the role of mere props seemed to presage their eventual eviction from the social scene as a whole. Once mythic relationships had been dissolved by secularizing tendencies, tragedy was superseded by drama. Comedy is a good indicator of this transition: with all the vigour of a completely new force, its corrosive humour devastated tragedy in its dotage. Molière’s Don Juan and the parody of Handel in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera bear eloquent testimony to this.

With the rise of the drama, human society replaced the gods on the stage. And while it is true that nineteenth-century theatre was merely one form of entertainment among others, we must not let this obscure the fact that during this period theatre left the theatre, so to speak, and colonized the entire social arena. The cliché which likens life to a play seems to evoke a fact so obvious as to need no examination. The carefully maintained conflation of life and play-acting brooks no discussion. Yet what is natural about the fact that I stop being myself a hundred times a day and slip into the skin of people whose concerns and significance I have really not the slightest desire to assume? Not that I might not choose to be an actor on occasion — to play a role for diversion or pleasure. But this is not the type of role-playing I have in mind. The actor supposed to play a condemned man in a realist play is quite free to remain himself: herein lies, in fact, the paradox of fine acting. The freedom he enjoys obviously stems from the fact his physical being is not threatened by any sneering executioner; the threat is directed solely at the stereotypical image that he creates by means of his dramatic technique and flair. The roles played in everyday life, by contrast, permeate individuals, distancing them from what they are and what they really want to be; they are nuclei of alienation embedded in the flesh of lived experience. At this point the game is over: there is no more ‘playing’. The function of stereotypes is to dictate to each person on an individual (even an ‘intimate’) level the same things that ideology imposes collectively.

Piecemeal conditioning has replaced the ubiquitous conditioning of divinity, for Power must now call upon a host of minor forms of brainwashing in its attempt to attain the quality of the law and order of old. This means that prohibitions and lies have been personalized, and bear down hard on each individual to force him into an abstract mould. It also means that from one point of view — that of the government of human beings - progress in human knowledge improves the mechanisms of alienation: the more we see ourselves through official eyes, the greater our alienation. Science is a rationale for the police. It teaches how much torture people can endure before they die, and above all to what degree a person may be turned into a heautontimoroumenos, a dutiful self-torturer. It teaches how to become a thing while still retaining a human appearance, and this in the name of a certain appearance of humanity.

The greatest victories of cinema and its personalized version, television, are not won on the battlefield of ideas. They have little effect on public opinion. Their influence works in a quite different way. An actor on the stage impresses the audience by the general thrust of his gestures and by the conviction with which he delivers his lines; on the big or little screen, the same character is broken down into a sequence of exact details each of which affects the spectator in a separate and subtle way. This is a school of perception, a lesson in dramatic art in which a particular facial expression or motion of the hand supplies thousands of viewers with a supposedly adequate way of expressing particular feelings, wishes, and so on. Through the still rudimentary technology of the image, individuals thus learn to model their existential attitudes on identikit portraits cobbled together by psycho-sociologists. Their most personal tics and idiosyncrasies become the means whereby Power integrates them into its schemata. The poverty of everyday life reaches its nadir when choreographed in this way. Just as the passivity of consumers is an active one, so the passivity of spectators lies in the ability to assimilate roles and fill them according to official norms. The repetition of images and stereotypes offers a set of models from which everyone is urged to fashion a role. The spectacle is a museum of images, a showroom of stick figures. It is also an experimental theatre. The human being as consumer lets himself be conditioned by the stereotypes (passive aspect) upon which he then models his behaviour (active aspect). The task of dissimulating passivity by inventing new variants of spectacular participation and enlarging the range of available stereotypes falls to our happeners, Pop Art practitioners and sociodramatists. The machines of production-based society are increasingly pressed into the service of the spectacle: the computer as art object. We are returning in this way to the original conception of theatre, to a general participation in the mystery of divinity. But thanks to technology this now occurs on a higher level, and by the same token embodies possibilities of supersession that could not exist in high antiquity.

Stereotypes are simply debased forms of the old ethical categories: knight, saint, sinner, hero, felon, faithful servant, honnête homme, etc. The images which drew their effectiveness within the mythic system of appearances from their qualitative force work in the context of spectacular appearances solely by virtue of the frequency of their iteration as conditioning factors (slogans, photos, stars, catchwords and so on). As we have seen, the technical reproduction of magical relationships such as faith or identification eventually dissipated magic. Coupled with the demise of the great ideologies, this development precipitated the chaos of stereotypes and roles. Hence the new demands placed upon the spectacle.

Real events reach us only as empty scripts. We get their form, never their substance. And even their form is more or less clear according to how often it is repeated and according to its position in the structure of appearances. For as an organized system appearances are a vast filing cabinet in which events are broken up, isolated from one another, labelled and arbitrarily classified: lonely hearts columns, political affairs, wining and dining, etc. Suppose a stroller on the Boulevard Saint-Germain is killed by a young hoodlum. What are we told by the press? We are given a pre-established scenario designed to arouse pity, indignation, disgust or envy. The event is broken down into abstract components that are really just clichés: youth, delinquency, crime in the streets, law and order, etc. Images, photographs and styles are prefabricated and systematically combined so as to constitute a sort of automatic dispenser of ready-made explanations and emotions. Real people reduced to roles serve as bait: the Strangler, the Prince of Wales, Louison Bobet, Brigitte Bardot, François Mauriac — they all make love, get divorced, think thoughts and pick their noses for thousands of people. The dissemination of prosaic details invested with significance by the spectacle makes for strange bedfellows among roles. The husband who murders his wife’s lover competes for attention with the Pope on his deathbed, and Johnny Hallyday’s jacket is on a par with Khruschev’s shoe. It’s all one: everything is equivalent to everything else in the perpetual spectacle of incoherence. The fact is that the structures of the spectacle are in crisis, because so many balls have to be kept in the air at the same time. The spectacle has to be everywhere, so it is watered down and inconsistent. The old, ever-serviceable Manichaeanism is tending to disappear. The spectacle is not beyond good and evil: it falls short of them. The Surrealists were quite mistaken when, in 1930, they hailed the act of the exhibitionist as subversive. They were merely adding the sort of spice to the spectacle of morality that it needed to recover its vigour. Behaving in effect exactly like the gutter press. Scandal is the bread and butter of news, along with black humour and cynicism. The real scandal consists in the rejection and sabotage of the spectacle — something which Power can hope to postpone only by revamping and rejuvenating the structures of appearance. Perhaps this will turn out in the end to have been the structuralists’ chief function. The fact remains that poverty cannot be offset by widening its sphere. The spectacle’s degeneration is in the nature of things, and the dead weight that enforces passivity is bound to lighten; the resistance put up by lived experience and spontaneity must eventually lance the boil of inauthenticity and pseudo-activity.


Raoul Vaneigem, A new translation from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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 (

DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH is a longtime resident of Brooklyn who has translated Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Jean-Patrick Manchette.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues