Chapter 15 (in part): Roles
Our efforts, our troubles, our failures, the absurdity of our actions – all stem largely from the imperious necessity in our present situation of playing hybrid parts, parts which appear to answer our desires but which are really antagonistic to them. ‘We would live,’ says Pascal, ‘according to the ideas of others; we would live an imaginary life, and to this end we cultivate appearances. By striving to beautify and preserve this imaginary being we neglect our real being.’ This was an original thought in the seventeenth century: at a time when the system of appearances was still hale, its coming crisis was apprehended only in the intuitive flashes of the most lucid. Today, amidst the disintegration of all values, Pascal’s observation is a banality, obvious to all. By what magic do we attribute the vivacity of human passions to lifeless forms? Why do we succumb to the seduction of borrowed attitudes? What are roles?
Is what drives people to seek power not the very weakness to which Power reduces them? The tyrant is irked by the duties the very subjection of his people imposes on him. The price he pays for the divine consecration of his authority over human beings is perpetual mythic sacrifice, a permanent humiliation before God. The moment he quits God’s service, he no longer ‘serves’ his people — and his people are immediately released from their obligation to serve him. What vox populi, vox dei really means is: ‘What God wants, the people want.’ Slaves are not willing slaves for long if they are not compensated for their submission with a shred of authority: all subjection entails the right to a measure of power, and there is no power without submission. This is why some agree so readily to be governed. Wherever it is exercised, on every rung of the ladder, power is partial, not absolute. It is ubiquitous, thus ever open to challenge.
The role is a consumption of power. It locates one in the representational hierarchy, and hence in the spectacle: at the top, at the bottom, in the middle — but never outside the hierarchy, whether short of it or beyond it.
The original, restricted meaning of the expression ‘to play a role in society’ clearly indicates that roles were at first a distinction reserved for a chosen few. Roman slaves, mediaeval serfs, agricultural day-labourers or proletarians brutalized by a thirteen-hour day do not have roles - or such rudimentary roles that refined people treat them as animals rather than human beings. There is of course such a thing as a poverty from which it is impossible to rise to the level of the spectacle’s poverty. By the nineteenth century the distinction between good worker and bad worker had begun to gain ground as a popular notion, just as the master-slave idea had spread, under the mythic system, with the coming of Christ. True, the currency of this new idea was achieved with less effort, and it never acquired the importance of the master-slave scheme (although Marx deemed it worthy of his derision). Like mythic sacrifice, roles have been democratized. Inauthenticity for everyone – the victory, as it were, of socialism.
Consider a thirty-five year-old man. Each morning he starts his car, drives to the office, pushes papers, has lunch in town, plays poker, pushes more papers, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, greets his wife, kisses his children, eats a steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love and falls asleep. Who reduces a man’s life to this pathetic sequence of clichés? A journalist? A cop? A market researcher? A populist author? Not at all. He does it himself, breaking his day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of prevalent stereotypes. Taken over body and consciousness by the blandishments of an emotionally arid asceticism the basis of a satisfaction so attenuated and so ostentatious that it can only be a façade. The assumption of one role after another, provided he mimics stereotypes successfully, is titillating to him. The satisfaction of a well-played role is fuelled by his eagerness to remain at a distance from himself, to deny and sacrifice himself.
What omnipotence masochism can boast! Just as others were Count of Sandomir, Palatine of Smirnoff, Margrave of Thorn, Duke of Courlande, our everyman can bestow a quite personal majesty upon his gestures as motorist, employee, superior, subordinate, colleague, customer, seducer, friend, philatelist, husband, paterfamilias,television viewer, or citizen. And yet such a man is not just the idiot machine, the lethargic stooge that all this suggests. For brief moments his everyday life generates an energy which, of only it were not co-opted, dispersed and squandered in roles, would suffice to overthrow the universe of survival. Who can gauge the striking-power of an impassioned daydream, of pleasure taken in love, of a nascent desire, of a rush of sympathy? Everyone seeks spontaneously to prolong such brief instants of genuine life; at bottom, everyone wants to extend them to the whole of their everyday experience. But conditioning succeeds in making most of us pursue these moments in exactly the wrong way — by way of the inhuman — and lose them forever at the very instant we attain them.
Stereotypes have a life and death of their own. An image whose allure makes it a model for thousands of individual roles will eventually crumble and disappear in accordance with the laws of consumption, the laws of novelty and obsolescence. So how does spectacular society develop new stereotypes? It does so thanks to injections of real creativity that prevent some roles from conforming to aging stereotypes (rather as language gets a new lease on life by assimilating popular forms). Thanks, in other words, to that element of play which transforms roles.
To the extent that it conforms to a stereotype, a role tends to congeal, to take on the static nature of its model. Such a role has neither present, nor past, nor future, because its time is that of the pose, and is, so to speak, a pause in time: time compressed into the dissociated space-time which is the space-time of Power (once again according to the principle that Power’s strength resides in its ability to effect both real separation and false union). The role might well be compared to the cinematic image, or rather to a feature of cinema, namely the rapid repetition in quick succession, and with minimal variation, of predetermined attitudes. In the case of roles, reproduction is ensured by the rhythms of the advertising and news media, whose capacity to stimulate word of mouth is prerequisite to a role’s promotion to the status of a stereotype (Brigitte Bardot, Françoise Sagan, Bernard Buffet, James Dean, etc.). But no matter how much or how little weight roles attain in the dominant ideas of the time, their main purpose is always adaptation to social norms - the integration of people into the well-policed universe of things. Which is why the hidden cameras of celebrity are always ready to catapult the most pedestrian of lives into the spotlight of instant fame. Broken hearts fill columns and superfluous body hair becomes a matter of beauty. By disguising a jilted lover as a discount Tristan, marketing a tattered derelict as a piece of nostalgia, or turning a drudging housewife into a good fairy of the kitchen, the spectacle, battening on everyday life, has long been way ahead of anything Pop Art could dream up. It was foreseeable that some people would model themselves on collages (always profitable) of smiling spouses, crippled children or do-it-yourself geniuses. The fact remains that by descending to such ploys the spectacle is manifestly approaching a critical stage – the last stage before the eruption of everyday reality itself. Roles have drawn perilously close to their own negation: already failures are hard put to it to play their role properly, while the maladjusted refuse theirs altogether. As the spectacular system falls apart, it scrapes the barrel: trawling the most deprived areas of society, it is reduced to feeding on its own refuse. Thus tone-deaf singers, talent-free artists, reluctant laureates and pallid stars of all kinds periodically cross the firmament of the media, their rank in the hierarchy reflected in the frequency with which they achieve this feat.
Which leaves the hopeless cases — those who reject all roles and those who theorize and practise that rejection. It is undoubtedly from such maladjustment to spectacular society that a new poetry of real experience and a reinvention of life will spring. The deflation of roles precipitates the decompression of spectacular time in favour of lived space-time. What is living intensely if not the redirection of the current of time, so long lost in appearances? Are not the happiest moments of our lives glimpses of an expanded present that rejects Power’s accelerated time, which flows away year after empty year for as long as it takes to grow old?
The principle of Szondi’s test is well known. The patient is asked to choose, from forty-eight photographs of people in various types of paroxysmal crisis, those facial expressions which evoke sympathy in him and those which evoke aversion. Subjects invariably prefer expressions suggesting instinctual feelings which they accept in themselves, while rejecting those suggesting feelings that they repress. They define themselves, in other words, by means of positive and negative identifications. The results enable the psychiatrist to draw up an instinctual profile of a patient which can help determine whether they should be discharged or sent to the air-conditioned crematorium known as a mental hospital.
Consider now the needs of consumer society, where the essence of the human being is to consume – to consume Coca-Cola, literature, ideas, emotions, architecture, TV, power, etc. Consumer goods, ideologies, stereotypes — all resemble photos in a gigantic version of Szondi’s test in which each of us is supposed to take part, not only by making a choice, but also by making a commitment, and by engaging in practical activity. This society’s need to market objects, ideas and model forms of behaviour calls for a decoding centre where an instinctual profile of the consumer can be developed to help in product design and improvement, and in the creation of new needs better suited to the consumer goods on offer. Market research, motivation techniques, opinion polls, sociological surveys and structuralism all contribute to this project, no matter how anarchic or feeble their efforts may be as yet. If we give them free rein, our cyberneticians can be counted on to remedy the lack of co-ordination and rationalization.
At first glance the main thing would seem to be the choice of the ‘consumable image’. The housewife-who-uses-Fairy-Snow is different (and the difference is measured in profits) to the housewife-who-uses-Tide. The Labour voter differs from the Conservative voter, and the Communist from the Christian Democrat, in much the same way. But such differences are increasingly hard to discern. The spectacle of incoherence ends up putting a value on the zero point of values. Eventually identification with anything at all, like the need to consume anything at all, becomes more important than brand loyalty to a particular type of car, idol, or politician. The essential thing, surely, is to alienate people from their desires and pen them in the spectacle, in the policed zone. Good or bad, honest or criminal, left-wing or right-wing - what does the mould matter, so long as we are engulfed by it?
There is no such thing as mental illness. It is merely a convenient label for grouping and isolating cases where identification has not occurred properly. Those whom Power can neither govern nor kill, it taxes with madness. The category includes extremists and megalomaniacs of the role, as well as those who deride roles or refuse them. It is the isolation of such individuals that marks them out. Let a general identify with France, with the support of millions of voters, and an opposition immediately springs up which takes his pretensions seriously enough to contest them. Was not Hanns Hörbiger hailed far and wide for inventing a ‘Nazi physics’? Or General Edwin Walker and Barry Goldwater for contrasting superior, white, divine and capitalist man on the one hand to black, diabolical, Communist man on the other? Or Franco for communing with God and begging him for guidance in tyrannizing Spain? Or tyrants the world over for arguing from their ice-cold delusions that human beings are machines in need of regulation? It is identification, not isolation, that creates madness.
The role is a self-caricature that we carry about with us everywhere, and which brings us everywhere face to face with an absence. An absence, though, which is structured, dressed up, prettified. The roles of paranoiac, schizophrenic, or sadistic killer do not carry the seal of social utility; in other words, they are not distributed under the label of Power, as are the roles of cop, boss, or army officer. But they are useful in specific places, notably in asylums and prisons, which are museums of a sort, serving the double purpose, from Power’s point of view, of confining dangerous opponents while supplying the spectacle with negative stereotypes. Bad examples and their exemplary punishment add spice to the spectacle and protect it. If identification were somehow encouraged and isolation increased, the false distinction between mental and social alienation would quickly dissolve.
At the opposite extreme from absolute identification is a particular way of putting a distance between the role and one’s self, of establishing a zone of free play, a breeding ground for attitudes disruptive of the spectacular order. Nobody is ever completely swallowed up by a role. Even turned upside-down, the will to live retains a potential for violence liable to divert individuals from the paths laid down for them. The faithful lackey who has always identified utterly with his master may slit his throat at an opportune moment. A time comes when his right to bite like a dog arouses his desire to strike back like a human being. Diderot has described this well in Rameau’s Nephew — and the case of the Papin sisters is even more eloquent in this regard. The fact is that identification, like all manifestations of inhumanity, has its roots in the human. Inauthentic life feeds on authentically felt desires. And identification through roles is doubly successful in this respect. In the first place, it co-opts the play of metamorphoses, the pleasure of putting on masks and being everywhere in every guise. Secondly, it appropriates mankind’s ancient love of mazes, of getting lost solely in order to find one’s way again: the pleasure in simply wandering and changing. Roles also lay under contribution the reflexive search for identity - the desire to find the richest and truest part of ourselves in others. Play then ceases to be a game, and is reified because the players can no longer make up the rules. The quest for identity degenerates into identification.
Let us reverse the perspective for a moment. A psychiatrist tells us that ‘Recognition by society leads the individual to discharge his sexual impulses in pursuit of cultural goals, and this is the best way for him to defend himself against those impulses’. Read: the aim of roles is to absorb vital forces, to exhaust erotic energy by means of permanent sublimation. The less erotic reality there is, the more abundant sexualized forms in the spectacle become. Roles — Reich would say ‘armouring’ — ensure orgastic impotence. Conversely, true pleasure, joie de vivre and orgastic potency shatter body armour and roles. If individuals could only stop seeing the world through the eyes of the powers-that-be, and look at it from their own point of view, they would have no trouble discerning which actions are really liberating, which moments are lived the most authentically - lightning flashes in the dark night of roles. Real experience can illuminate roles — can x-ray them, so to speak — in such a way as to redirect the energy invested in them, to extricate the truth from the lies. This task is at once individual and collective. Though all roles alienate equally, some are more vulnerable than others. It is easier to escape the role of a libertine than the role of a cop, executive, or priest. A fact to which everyone should give a little thought.
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 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.