from The Revolution Of Everyday Lifeby Raoul Vaneigem, A new translation from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Chapter 12: Sacrifice
There is such a thing as a reformism of sacrifice that is really just a sacrifice to reformism. Humanist self-mutilation and fascist self-destruction both leave us nothing — not even the option of death. All causes are equally inhuman. But the will to live raises its voice against this epidemic of masochism wherever there is the slightest pretext for revolt: beneath what appear to be partial demands, that will is at work preparing a nameless revolution, the revolution of everyday life. The refusal of sacrifice is the refusal to be bartered: human beings are not exchangeable.
Where people are not broken — and broken in — by force and fraud, they are seduced. As a means of seduction Power deploys internalized constraints based on lies and cloaked in a clear conscience: the masochism of the model citizen. To this end castration had perforce to be called selflessness, and a choice of servitudes freedom. The feeling of ‘having done one’s duty’ makes everyone into their own honourable executioner.
The master-slave dialectic implies that the mythical sacrifice of the master subsumes the real sacrifice of the slave: masters makes a spiritual sacrifice of their real power to the general interest, while slaves make a material sacrifice of their real life to a Power of which they partake in appearance only. The framework of generalized appearances or, if you prefer, the essential lie required initially for the development of privative appropriation (the appropriation of things by means of the appropriation of beings) is an intrinsic aspect of the dialectic of sacrifice and the root of the notorious separation that it entails. The mistake of the philosophers was that they built an ontology and the notion of an unchanging human nature on the basis of a mere social accident, a purely contingent necessity. History has been seeking to eliminate privative appropriation ever since the conditions which called for it ceased to exist. But the metaphysical maintenance of the philosophers’ error continues to work to the advantage of the masters, the ‘eternal’ ruling minority.
The misfortune of sacrifice is inseparable from that of myth. Bourgeois thought exposes the materiality of myth, deconsecrating and fragmenting it. It does not abolish it, however, for otherwise the bourgeoisie would cease to exploit — and hence to exist. The fragmentary spectacle is simply one phase in the disintegration of myth, a process accelerated today by the dictatorship of the consumable. Similarly, the old sacrifice-gift ordained by cosmic forces has shrivelled into a sacrifice-exchange minutely metered in terms of social security and social-democratic justice. And sacrifice attracts fewer and fewer devotees, just as fewer and fewer people are seduced by the miserable show put on by ideologies. The fact is that today’s tiny private masturbations are a feeble replacement indeed for the orgiastic heights offered by eternal salvation. How could hoping for a promotion conceivably vie with the wild dream of life everlasting! Our only gods are heroes of the fatherland, heroes of the shop-floor, heroes of the Frigidaire, heroes of fragmented thought. How are the mighty fallen!
Nevertheless. The knowledge that an ill’s end is in sight is cold comfort when you still have to suffer it in the moment. And the praises of sacrifice are still sung on every side. The air is filled with the sermonizing of red priests and ecumenical bureaucrats. Vodka mixed with holy water. Instead of a knife between our teeth we have the drool of Jesus Christ on our lips. Sacrifice yourselves joyfully, brothers and sisters! For the Cause, for Order, for the Party, for Unity, for Meat and Potatoes!
The old socialists were wont to say, ‘You think you are dying for your country, but really you are dying for Capital’. Today their heirs are berated in similar terms: ‘You think you’re fighting for the proletariat, but really you die for your leaders’. ‘You are not building for the future; men and steel are the same thing in the eyes of the Five-Year Plan.’ And yet, what do today’s Young Turks of the Left do after chanting such slogans? They enter the service of a Cause — the ‘best’ of all Causes. The time they have for creative activity they squander handing out leaflets, sticking up posters, demonstrating, or heckling local politicians. They become militants, fetishizing action because others are doing their thinking for them. Sacrifice has an endless succession of tricks up its sleeve.
The finest Cause is one in which individuals can lose themselves body and soul. The principles of death are just the denial of the principles of the will to live. But either death or life must prevail. There is no middle way, no possibility of compromise between them on the level of consciousness. One must be entirely for the one or entirely for the other. The fevered supporters of an absolute Order — Chouans, Nazis, Carlists — have always shown with unwavering consistency that they are on the side of death. As a party line, the slogan ¡Viva la Muerte! could hardly be clearer. By contrast, our reformists of death in small doses — our ennui-promoting socialists - cannot even claim the dubious honour of an aesthetic of total destruction. All they can do is mitigate the passion for life, stunting it to the point where it turns against itself and changes into a passion for destruction and self-destruction. They oppose concentration camps, but only in the name of moderation — moderate power and moderate death.
Great scorners of life that they are, the partisans of absolute self-sacrifice to State, Cause or Führer do have one thing in common with those whose passion for life challenges the ethos and techniques of renunciation: though antithetical, their sense of jubilation is equally acute. For them it is as though life, being so festive in its essence but tormented by a monstrous asceticism, resolves to end it all by distilling all the splendour of which it has been robbed into a single instant: legions of puritans, mercenaries, fanatics, death squads — all experience a moment of bliss as they die. But this is a fête macabre, frozen, caught for eternity in a camera flash, aestheticized. The paratroopers that Marcel Bigeard speaks of leave this world through the portal of aesthetics: they are statue-like figures, mineralized, conscious perhaps of their ultimate hysteria. For aesthetics is carnival paralysed, petrified, as cut off from life as a Jibaro head: the feast of death. The aesthetic element here, moreover, the element of pose,corresponds to the element of death secreted by everyday life. Every apocalypse is beautiful, but this beauty is dead. Remember the Song of the Swiss Guard that Louis-Ferdinand Céline taught us to love.
The end of the Commune was no apocalypse. The difference between the Nazis dreaming of bringing the world down with them and the Communards leaving Paris to the flames is the difference between total death brutally affirmed and total life brutally denied. The Nazis merely activated a mechanism of logical annihilation already set up by humanists preaching submission and abnegation. The Communards knew that a life once constructed with passion cannot be reduced piece by piece; that there is more satisfaction in destroying such a life than in seeing it mutilated; and that it is better to go up in flames with a glad heart than to give an inch, when giving an inch is the same thing as complete surrender. ‘Better die on our feet than live on our knees!’ Despite its repulsive source — the lips of the Stalinist Ibarruri — it seems to me that this cry eloquently expresses the legitimacy of a particular form of suicide, a good way of taking leave. And what was right for the Commune holds good for individuals.
Let us have no more suicide from weariness, which comes like a final sacrifice crowning all those that have gone before. Better one last laugh à la Cravan, or one last song à la Ravachol.
When rebels start believing that they are fighting for a higher good the authoritarian principle is bolstered. Humanity has never been short of justifications for giving up the human. In fact some people possess a veritable reflex of submission, an irrational terror of freedom; this masochism is everywhere visible in everyday life. With what galling ease we give up a wish, a passion, the most essential parts of ourselves. With what passivity, what inertia, we accept living or acting for something, or rather some thing — a word whose dead weight seems to prevail everywhere. It is hard to be oneself, so we give up readily, seizing on whatever pretext we can: love of children, of reading, of artichokes, etc, etc. The wish for a remedy evaporates in face of the abstract generality of the ill.
And yet the impulse to freedom also knows how to make use of pretexts. Even a strike for higher wages or a riot in the streets can awaken the carnival spirit. As I write, thousands of workers around the world are downing tools or picking up guns, ostensibly in obedience to directives or principles, but actually, at the profoundest level, in response to their passionate desire to change their lives. The unstated agenda of every insurrectionary movement is the transformation of the world and the reinvention of life. No theorist formulates these demands; rather, they are the sole foundation of poetic creativity. Revolution is made every day despite, and indeed in opposition to the specialists of revolution. This revolution is nameless, like everything that springs from lived experience. Its explosive integrity is forged continuously in the everyday clandestinity of acts and dreams.
The refusal of sacrifice is the refusal to be bartered. There is nothing in the world of things, exchangeable for money or not, that is equivalent to a human being. The individual is irreducible: subject to change but not to exchange. The scantest examination of movements for social reform shows that they have never demanded anything beyond a purification of exchange and sacrifice, making it a point of honour to humanize inhumanity and make it attractive. But whenever slaves try to make their slavery more bearable they come to the rescue of their masters.
The great religions succeeded in turning people’s wretched earthly existence into a time of voluptuous expectation: at the end of this valley of tears lay life eternal in God. Art, in the bourgeoisie’s conception of it, is more entitled than God to bestow eternal glory. The art-in-life-and-in-God of unitary social systems (Egyptian statuary, African art, etc.) was succeeded by an art which complemented life and sought to make up for the absence of God (fourth-century Greece, Horace, Ronsard, Malherbe, the Romantics, etc). The builders of cathedrals cared no more for posterity than did Sade. Their salvation was guaranteed by God, as Sade’s was guaranteed by himself: neither needed a place in the museum of history. Both strove for a supreme state of being, not for the temporal survival of their work or for the admiration of centuries to come.
History is the earthly paradise of bourgeois spirituality. This realm is reached not through commodities but through apparent gratuity, through the sacrifice attending the work of art, through activity not constrained by any immediate need to increase capital. The philanthropist does good works; the patriot performs heroic deeds; the soldier contrives victory; the poet or scholar creates works of literary or scientific value; and so on. But there is an ambiguity in the very idea of ‘creating a work of art’, for it embraces both the lived experience of the artist and the abandonment of this experience to an abstraction of substantial creation, namely the aesthetic form. The artist sacrifices the lived intensity of the creative moment in exchange for the durability of what he creates, so that his name may live on in the funereal glory of the museum. But is not the desire to produce a durable work the very thing that prohibits the creation of imperishable instants of life?
As a matter of fact, setting aside strictly academic art, artists never fall entirely prey to aesthetic co-optation. Though they may abdicate their immediate experience for the sake of beautiful appearances, all artists (and anyone who tries to live is an artist) are driven by the desire to increase their tribute of dreams to the objective world of others. In this sense they entrust the thing they create with the mission of completing their personal fulfilment within their social group. And in this sense creativity is revolutionary in its essence.
The function of the ideological, artistic and cultural spectacle is to turn the wolves of spontaneity into the sheepdogs of knowledge and beauty. Literary anthologies are replete with insurrectionary writings, the museums with calls to arms. So thoroughly does history pickle them in durability, however, that we omit to see or hear them. But in this area consumer society has abruptly stepped in to perform a salutary task of dissolution. Today art can construct only plastic cathedrals. The dictatorship of consumption ensures that every aesthetic collapses before it can produce any masterpieces. Premature demise is fundamental to consumerism; the imperfection of an automobile ensures its rapid replacement. For art work to be a sudden aesthetic sensation, it has merely to offer some transient novelty to the spectacle of artistic disintegration. Bernard Buffet, Georges Mathieu, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pop Art, pop music - all are available for casual purchase in the department stores. Betting on the perennial value of an art work is much like betting on the eternal value of stock in Standard Oil.
When the most forward-looking sociologists finally grasped the fact that the worth of the art object was now nothing but its market price, and that the once vaunted creativity of the artist was now beholden to the norms of profitability, they decided that we should return to the source of art, to everyday life — not in order to change it, of course, for such was not their mandate, but rather to make it the raw material for a new aesthetic that would defy packaging techniques and so remain independent of buying and selling. As though there were no such thing as consuming on the spot! The result? Sociodramas and happenings which supposedly allow spectators to participate in an unmediated way. All they participate in, however, is an aesthetic of nothingness. The only thing that can be expressed in the mode of the spectacle is the emptiness of everyday life. And indeed, what better commodity than an aesthetic of emptiness? Has not the accelerating disintegration of values itself become the only available form of entertainment? The trick is that the spectators of the cultural and ideological vacuum are here enlisted as its organizers, thus filling the spectacle’s vacuousness by forcing its spectators — passive agents par excellence — to play their part. The ultimate logic of the happening and its derivatives is to supply the society of masterless slaves which the cyberneticians have planned for us with the spectatorless spectacle it will require. For artists in the strict sense, the road to complete co-optation is well posted: they have merely to follow Georges Lapassade and his ilk into the great corporation of specialists. They may be sure that Power will reward them well for applying their talents to the job of dressing up the old conditioning to passivity in seductive new colours.
From Power’s perspective, everyday life is just a latticework of renunciations and mediocrity. A true void. An aesthetic of everyday life would make us all into artists responsible for organizing this nothingness. The final spasm of official art will be the attempt to lend therapeutic features to what Freud, in a dubious simplification, referred to as the death instinct — in other words rapturous submission to authority. The crucified Toad of Nazareth casts his shadow wherever the will to live fails to spring spontaneously from individual poetry. Regression to artistic forms defined by the spirit of sacrifice can never awaken the artist in every human being. Everything has to be begun again from the beginning.
ContributorRaoul 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 (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.