I The Insignificant Signified
Because of its increasing triviality, everyday life has gradually become our central preoccupation (1). No illusion, sacred or secular (2), collective or individual, can now hide the poverty of our day-to-day actions (3). The enrichment of life calls for an unblinking analysis of the new forms taken by poverty and the perfecting of old weapons of refusal (4).
The history of our time calls to mind those cartoon characters who rush madly over the edge of a cliff without seeing it: the power of their imagination keeps them suspended in midair, 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, because of the need felt by all 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 is 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 organization 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 prepacked 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.
People without imagination are beginning to tire of the importance attached to comfort, to culture, to leisure, to all that destroys the imagination. This is not to say that people are tired of comfort, culture, and
leisure, but merely of the use to which they are put, which is precisely what stops us enjoying them.
The affluent society is a society of voyeurs. To each his own kaleidoscope: a slight movement of the fingers and the picture changes. You can’t lose: two fridges, a Renault Dauphine, a TV set, a free gift, time to kill … But then the monotony of the images we consume gets the upper hand, reflecting the monotony of the action which produces them, the slow rolling motion of finger and thumb that rotates the kaleidoscope. There was no Dauphine, only an ideology almost unconnected with automobiles. Flushed with Johnny Walker, whisky of the élite, we savour a strange cocktail of alcohol and class struggle. Nothing surprises us any more, there’s the rub. The monotony of the ideological spectacle reflects the passivity of life, of survival. Beyond all the prefabricated scandals—Scandale girdles, scandal in high places—a real scandal appears, the scandal of actions drained of their substance to bolster an illusion that becomes more odious by the day as its attraction wanes; actions weakened and dulled by having had to nourish dazzling imaginary compensations, impoverished from enriching lofty speculations to which they play flunkey while being ignominiously categorized as ‘trivial’ or ‘banal’; actions now freed up but feeble, prone to stray once more, or expire from sheer exhaustion. There they are, in every one of you: familiar, sad, newly returned to the immediate living reality which is their ‘spontaneous’ environment. And here you are too, bewildered and lost in a new prosaicness, in a perspective where near and far are one and the same.
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 the 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.
The Impossibility of Participation:
Power as Sum of Constraints
The mechanisms of attrition and destruction: humiliation (II), isolation (III), suffering (IV), work (V), decompression (VI).
The economy of everyday life is based on a ceaseless exchange of humiliations and aggressive attitudes. It conceals a technique of attrition itself subject to the gift of destruction, which paradoxically it provokes (1). The more humans are treated as objects, the more social they become (2). Decolonization has not yet begun (3). It is about to give a new meaning to the old principle of sovereignty (4).
Travelling through a busy village one day, Rousseau was mocked by a yokel whose barbs delighted the crowd. Confused and discountenanced, Jean-Jacques could not think of a word in reply and was forced to take to his heels amid the jeers of the villagers. By the time he had finally regained his composure and thought of a thousand possible retorts, any one of which would have silenced the taunter at a stroke, he was two hours’ distance from the village.
What are most of the trivial incidents of everyday life but this misadventure writ small, in an attenuated and diluted form, reduced to the duration of a step, a glance, a thought, experienced as a muffled impact, a fleeting discomfort barely registered by consciousness and leaving in the mind only a dull irritation at a loss to discover its own origin? The endless minuet of humiliation and responses to it lends human interaction an obscene hobbling rhythm. In the ebb and flow of crowds sucked up and squashed together by shuttling commuter trains, then spewed out into streets, offices and factories, there is nothing to be seen but cringing and flinching, brutal aggression, smirking faces, and cat-scratches delivered for no apparent reason. Soured by unwanted encounters, wine turns to vinegar in the mouth. Don’t talk to me about innocent and good-natured crowds. Look how people bristle, threatened on every side, isolated deep in enemy territory and far, very far, from themselves. Lacking knives, they learn to use their elbows and their eyes as weapons.
There is no remission, no truce between attackers and attacked. A flux of barely perceptible signs assails the stroller, who is anything but solitary. Remarks, gestures, glances tangle and collide, miss their aim, ricochet like stray bullets, and kill just as surely by the unrelenting nervous tension they produce. All we can do is enclose ourselves in embarrassing parentheses, as witness these fingers of mine (I am writing this on a café terrace) slipping a tip across the table, and the fingers of the waiter which pick it up, while the faces of the two of us, as if anxious to conceal the infamy to which we have consented, maintain an expression of utter indifference.
From the point of view of constraint, everyday life is governed by an economic system in which the production and consumption of insults tend to balance out. The old dream of the theorists of free trade is thus fulfilled in the customs of a democracy granted a new lease on life by the lack of imagination of left-wing thought. Is it not strange, at first sight, to see the fury with which ‘progressives’ attack the ruined edifice of liberalism, as if the capitalists, its official demolition gang, had not themselves already planned liberalism’s nationalized reconstruction? But it is not so strange, in fact, for the deliberate purpose of keeping all attention fastened on criticisms already overtaken by events—after all, anybody can see that capitalism is coming to maturity as a planned economy of which the Soviet model is nothing but a primitive form—is to conceal the fact that the only reconstruction of human relationships envisaged is one based precisely on an economic model which, being obsolete, is on offer at a knock-down price. Who can fail to notice the alarming persistence with which ‘socialist’ countries continue to organize life along bourgeois lines? Everywhere it’s hats off to family, marriage, sacrifice, work, inauthenticity, while simplified and rationalized homeostatic mechanisms reduce human relationships to a ‘fair’ exchange of deference and humiliation. And soon, in the ideal democracy of the cyberneticians, everyone, without apparent effort, will earn their portion of indignity that they will be at leisure to share out in the most equitable possible way. Distributive justice will reach its apogee. Good luck to the old people who live to see that day!
For me—and for some others, I dare to think—there can be no real homeostasis in a pathological situation. Planning is merely the other face of the free market. The only thing planned is exchange
—along with the mutual sacrifices it entails. But if the word ‘innovation’ means anything
it means supersession—not camouflage. Indeed, a truly new reality can be founded only on the principle of the gift.
In the historical experiment of workers’ councils (1917, 1921, 1934, 1956), their errors and their slender means notwithstanding, and in the pathetic search for friendship and love, I see a single and inspiring reason not to despair over the circumstances of the present. Everything conspires to keep the positive character of such experiences secret; doubt is cunningly ...