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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
The Reversal of Perspective

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 23 "The Unitary Triad: Self-Realisation, Communication And Participation"

3. Radical Subjectivity

Each subjectivity is different from every other one, but all obey the same wilt to self-realisation. The problem is one of setting their variety in a common direction, of creating a united front of subjectivity. Any attempt to build a new life is subject to two conditions: first, that the realisation of each individual subjectivity will either take place in a collective form or it will not take place at all; and, secondly, that "To tell the truth, the only reason anyone fights is for what they love. Fighting for everyone else is only the consequence." (Saint-Just)

My subjectivity feeds on events. The most varied events: a riot, a sexual fiasco, a meeting, a memory, a rotten tooth. Reality, as it evolves, sweeps me with it. I'm struck by everything and, though not everything strikes me in the same way, I am always struck by the same basic contradiction: although I can always see how beautiful anything could be if only I could change it, in practically every case there is nothing I can really do. Everything is changed into something else in my imagination, then the dead weight of things changes it back into what it was in the first place. A bridge between imagination and reality must be built. Only a truly radical perspective can give everyone the right to make anything out of anything. A radical perspective grasps men by their roots and the roots of men lie in their subjectivity - this unique zone they possess in common.

You can't make it on your own. You can't live your own life to the full in isolation. But can any individual - any individual who has got anything at all straight about himself and the world - fail to see a will identical to his own among everyone he knows: the same journey leaving from the same place?

All forms of hierarchical power differ from one another and yet all betray a fundamental identity in their oppressive nature. In the same way, all subjectivities are different from one another and yet all reveal a fundamental identity in their will to total self-realisation. Only because of this can one speak of a real "radical subjectivity".

There is a common root to every subjectivity, though all are unique and irreducible: the will to realise oneself by transforming the world, the will to live every sensation, every experience, every possibility to the full. This can be seen in everyone, at different stages of consciousness and determination. Its real power depends on the degree of collective unity it can attain without losing its variety. Consciousness of this necessary unity comes from what one could call a reflex of identity - the diametrically opposite movement to that of identification. Through identification we lose our uniqueness in the variety of roles; through the reflex of identity we strengthen our wealth of individual possibilities in the unity of federated subjectivities.

Radical subjectivity can only be based on the reflex of identlty. One's own quest searches for itself everywhere in others. "While I was on a mission in the state of Tchou", says Confucius, "I saw some piglets suckling their dead mother. After a short while they shuddered and went away. They had sensed that she could no longer see them and that she wasn't like them any more. What they loved in their mother wasn't her body, but whatever it was that made her body live." Likewise, what I am looking for in other people is the richest part of myself hidden within them. Can the reflex of identity spread naturally? One can only hope so. Certainly it's high time for it.

No one has ever questioned the interest men take in being fed, sheltered, cared for, protected from hardship and disaster. The imperfections of technology - transformed at a very early date into social imperfections - have postponed the satisfaction of this universal desire. Today, planned economy allows one to foresee the final solution of the problems of survival. Now that the needs of survival are well on the way to being satisfied, at least in the hyper-industrialised countries, it is becoming painfully obvious, to say the least of it, that there are also human passions which must be satisfied, that the satisfaction of these passions is of vital importance to everyone and, furthermore, that failure to do so will undermine, if not destroy, all our acquisitions in terms of material survival. As the problems of survival are slowly but surely resolved they begin to clash more and more brutally with the problems of life which have been, just as slowly and just as surely, sacrificed to the needs of survival. The chickens are all coming home to roost: henceforward, socialist-type planning is opposed to the true harmonisation of life in common.

*

Radical subjectivity is the common front of rediscovered identity. Those who can't see themselves in other people are condemned for ever to be strangers to themselves. I can't do anything for other people if they can't do anything for themselves. It's along these lines that concepts such as those of 'cognition' and 're-cognition', of 'sympathy' and 'sympathising', should be re-examined.

Cognition is only of value if it leads to the re-cognition of a common project - to the reflex of identity. To realise radical imagination requires a varied knowledge, but this knowledge is nothing without the style with which it is handled. As the first years of the S.I. have shown, the worst crises within a coherent revolutionary group are caused by those closest by their knowledge and furthest away by their lived experience and by the importance they place upon it. Likewise, 'partisans'. They both identify themselves with the group and get in its way. They understand everything except what is really at stake. They demand knowledge because they are incapable of demanding themselves.

By seizing myself, I break other people's hold over me. Thus I let them see themselves in me. No one can evolve freely without spreading freedom in the world.

"I want to be myself. I want to walk without impediment. I want to affirm myself alone in my freedom. May everyone do likewise. Don't worry any more about the fate of the revolution - it will be safer in the hands of everyone than in the hands of political parties." So said Coeurderoy. I agree one hundred per cent. Nothing authorises me to speak in the name of other people. I am only my own delegate. Yet at the same time I can't help thinking that my life isn't solely my own concern but that I serve the interests of thousands of other people by living the way I live, and by struggling to live more intensely and more freely. My friends and I are one, and we know it. Each of us is acting for each other by acting for himself. Honesty is our only hope.

4. The project of communication

Love offers the purest glimpse of true communication that any of us have had. But, as communication in general tends to break down more and more, the existence of love becomes increasingly precarious. It is threatened on every side. Everything tends to reduce lovers to objects; real meetings are replaced by mechanical sex: by the posturing of countless Playboys and Bunnies. Really being in love means really wanting to live in a different world.

Although the three passions underlying the threefold project of self-realisation, communication and participation are of equal importance, they have not been repressed to an equal extent. While creativity and play have been blighted by prohibitions and by every sort of distortion, love, without escaping from repression, still remains relatively the most free experience. The most democratic, all in all.

Love offers the model of perfect communication: the orgasm, the total fusion of two separate beings. It is a glimpse of a transformed universe. Its intensity, its here-and-now-ness, its physical exaltation, its emotional fluidity, its grateful acceptance of the value of change - everything indicates that love will prove the key factor in recreating the world. Our emotionally-dead survival cries out for multidimensional passions. Lovemaking sums up and distils both the desire for, and the reality of, such a way of life. The universe lovers build of dreams and one another's bodies is a transparent universe: lovers want to be at home everywhere.

Love has been able to stay free more successfully than the other passions. Creativity and play have always 'been granted' an official representation, a spectacular acknowledgment which did its best to cut them off at their source. Love has always been clandestine - "being alone together". It turned out to be protected by the bourgeois concept of private life; banished from the day, reserved for work and for consumption, and driven into the darkest corners of the night; lit by the moon. Thus it partly escaped the major mopping-up of daily activities. The same cannot be said for communication, and it is precisely the ashes of false (daily) communication that choke the spark of sexual passion. And today consumer society is extending falsification further and further... into the reaches of the night...

*

People who talk about 'communication' when there are only things and their mechanical relations are working on the side of the process of reification that they pretend to attack. 'Understanding', 'friendship', 'being happy together' - so much bullshit. All I can see is exploiters and exploited, rulers and ruled, actors and spectators. And all of them flailed like chaff by Power.

Things aren't necessarily expressionless. Anything can become human if someone infuses it with their own subjectivity. But in a world ruled by privative appropriation, the only function of the object is to justify its proprietor. If my subjectivity overflows, if my eyes make the landscape their own, it can only be ideally, without material or legal consequences. In the perspective of power, people and things aren't there for my enjoyment, but to serve a master; nothing really is, everything functions as part of an order of possessions.

There can't be any real communication in a world where almost everything one does is ruled by fetishes. The space between people and things isn't empty: it's packed with alienating mediations. And as power becomes increasingly abstract its own signals become so numerous, so chaotic, as to demand systematic interpretation on the part of a body of scribes, semanticians and mythologists. Brought up to see only objects around him, the proprietor needs objective and objectified servants. Only subjective truth, as historically it becomes objective, can withstand this sort of thing. One must start with immediate experience itself if one wants to attack the most advanced points to which repression has penetrated.

*

The main pleasure of the middle class seems to have been degrading pleasure in all its forms. It wasn't enough to imprison people's freedom to fall in love in the squalid ownership of marriage (interlarded of course with the occasional one-night stand). It wasn't enough to set things up so that dishonesty and jealousy were bound to follow. The great thing was to sabotage people on the few occasions they really did meet.

Love's despair doesn't come from sexual frustration. It comes from suddenly losing contact with the person in your arms; of both of you suddenly seeing one another as an object. Swedish social democracy, as hygienic as ever, has already got its own horrible caricature of free love out on the market: one-night stands dealt out like a deck of cards.

How sickening these endless lies one says and hears! How much one wants to be straight with someone! Sex really does seem to be our only break. Sometimes I think that nothing else is as real, nothing else is as human, as the feel of a woman's body, the softness of her skin, the warmth and wetness of her cunt. Even if there were nothing else at all, this alone would be enough for ever.

But even during really magical moments the inert mass of objects can suddenly become magnetic. The passivity of a lover suddenly unravels the bonds which were being woven, the dialogue is interrupted before it really began. Love's dialectic freezes. Two statues are left lying side by side. Two objects.

Although love is always born of subjectivity - a girl is beautiful because I love her - my desire cannot stop itself objectifying what it wants. Desire always makes an object of the loved person. But if I let my desire transform the loved person into an object, have I not condemned myself to conflict with this object and, through force of habit, to become detached from it?

What can ensure perfect communication between lovers? The union of these opposites:

- the more I detach myself from the object of my desire and the more objective strength I give to my desire, the more carefree my desire becomes towards its object;

- the more I detach myself from my desire insofar as it is an object and the more objective strength I give to the object of my desire, the more my desire finds its raison d'etre in the loved person.

Socially, this playing with one's own attitudes could be expressed by changing partners at the same time as one is attached more or less permanently to a 'pivotal' partner. All these meetings would be the communication of a single purpose experienced in common. I have always wanted to be able to say: "I know you don't love me because you only love yourself. I am just the same. So love me."

Love can only be based on radical subjectivity. The time is up for all self-sacrificial forms of love. To love only oneself through other people, to be loved by others through the love they owe themselves. This is what the passion of love teaches; these are the only conditions of authentic communication.

*

And love is also an adventure; an attempt to breakfree of dishonesty. To approach a woman in any spectacular, exhibitionistic way, is to condemn oneself to a reified relationship from the very first. The choice is between spectacular seduction - that of the playboy - and the seduction exercised by something that is qualitatively different - the person who is seductive because he isn't trying to seduce.

Sade analyses two possible attitudes. On the one hand, the libertines of the 120 Days of Sodom who can only really enjoy themselves by torturing to death the object they have seduced (and what more fitting homage to a thing than to make it suffer?); or, on the other, the libertines of the Philosophy in the Boudoir, warm and playful, who do all they can to increase one another's pleasure. The former are the feudal-type lords, vibrant with hatred and revolt; the latter, the masters without slaves, discovering in one another only the reflection of their own pleasure.

Today, seduction tends to become increasingly sadistic. Sadism is inability to forgive the desired person for being an object. Truly seductive people, on the contrary, contain the fullness of desire in themselves; they refuse to play a part and owe their seductiveness to this refusal. In Sade, this would be Dolmancé, Eugénie or Madame de Saint-Ange. This plenitude can only exist for the desired person if they can recognise their own will to live in the person who desires them. Real seduction seduces only by its honesty. And not everyone is worth seducing. This is what the Beguines of Schweidnitz and their companions (13th century) meant by saying that resistance to sexual advances was the sign of a crass spirit. The Brethren of the Free Spirit expressed the same idea: "Anyone who knows the God inhabiting him carries his own Heaven in himself. By the same token, ignorance of one's own divinity really is a mortal sin. This is the meaning of the Hell which one carries with oneself in earthly life."

Hell is the emptiness left by separation, the anguish of lovers lying side by side without being together. Non-communication is always like the collapse of a revolutionary movement. The will to death is installed where the will to life has disappeared.

*

Love must be freed from its myths, from its images, from its spectacular categories; its authenticity must be strengthened and its spontaneity renewed. There is no other way of fighting its reification and its recuperation in the spectacle. Love can't stand either isolation or fragmentation; it is bound to overflow into the will to transform the whole of human activity, into the necessity of building a world where lovers feel themselves to be free everywhere.

The birth and the dissolution of the moment of love are bound to the dialectic of memory and desire. At first, desire and the possibility of its reciprocation strengthen one another. In the moment of love itself, memory and desire coincide. The moment of love is the space-time of authentic lived experience, a present containing both the past and the future. At the stage of breaking-up, memory prolongs the impassioned moment but desire gradually ebbs away. The present disintegrates, memory turns nostalgically towards past happiness, while desire foresees the unhappiness to come. In dissolution the separation is real. The failure of the recent past cannot be forgotten and desire gradually melts away.

In love, as in every attempt to communicate, the problem is avoiding the stage of breaking up. One could suggest:

- developing the moment of love as far as one can, in as many directions as possible; in other words, refusing to dissociate it from either creativity or play, raising it from the state of a moment to that of the real construction of a situation;

- promoting collective experiments in individual realisation; thus of multiplying the possibilities of sexual attraction by bringing together a great variety of possible partners;

- permanently strengthening the pleasure-principle, which is the life-blood of every attempt to realise oneself, to communicate or to participate. Pleasure is the principle of unification. Love is desire for unity in a common moment; friendship, desire for unity in a common project.

5. The erotic or the dialectic of pleasure

There is no pleasure which is not seeking its own coherence. Its interruption, its lack of satisfaction, causes a disturbance analogous to Reichian 'stasis'. Repression keeps human beings in a state of permanent crisis. Thus the function of pleasure, and of the anxiety born in its absence, is essentially a social function. The erotic is the development of the passions as they become unitary, a game of unity and variety, without which revolutionary coherence cannot exist ("Boredom is always counter-revolutionary" - I.S. no. 3).

Wilhelm Reich attributes most of neurotic behaviour to disturbances of the orgasm, to what he called 'orgastic impotence'. He maintains that anxiety is created by inability to experience a complete orgasm, by a sexual discharge which fails to liquidate all the excitement, all the foreplay, leading up to it. The accumulated arid unspent energy becomes free-floating and is converted into anxiety. Anxiety in its turn still further impedes future orgastic potency.

But the problem of tensions and their liquidation doesn't just exist on the level of sexuality. It characterises all human relationships. And Reich, although he sensed that this was so, fails to emphasise strongly enough that the present social crisis is also a crisis of an orgastic nature. If "the source of neurotic energy lies in the disparity between the accumulatiorn and the discharge of sexual energy", it seems to me that the source of energy of our neuroses is also to be found in the disparity between the accumulation and the discharge of the energy brought into use by human relationships. Total enjoyment is still possible in the moment of love, but as soon as one tries to prolong this moment, to extend it into social life itself, one cannot avoid what Reich called 'stasis'. The world of the dissatisfactory and the unconsummated is a world of permanent crisis. What would a society without neurosis be like? An endless banquet. Pleasure is the only guide.

*

"Everything is feminine in what one loves", wrote La Mettrie, "the empire of love recognises no other frontiers than those of pleasure". But pleasure itself doesn't recognise any frontiers. If it isn't growing, it is beginning to disappear. Repetition kills it; it can't adapt itself to the fragmentary. The principle of pleasure cannot be separated from the totality.

The erotic is pleasure seeking its coherence. It's the development of passions becoming communicative, interdependent, unitary. The problem is recreating in social life that state of total enjoyment known in the moment of love. Conditions allowing a game with unity and variety, that is to say, free and transparent participation in particular achievements.

Freud defined the goal of Eros as unification or the search for union. But when he maintains that fear of being separated and expelled from the group comes from an underlying fear of castration, his proposition should be inverted. Fear of castration comes from the fear of being excluded, not the other way round. This anxiety becomes more marked as the isolation of individuals in an illusory community becomes more and more difficult to ignore.

Even while it seeks unification, Eros is essentially narcissistic and in love with itself. It wants a world to love as much as it loves itself. Norman O. Brown, in Life Against Death, points out the contradiction. How, he asks, can a narcissistic orientation lead to union with beings in the world? "in love, the abstract antimony of the Ego and the Other can be transcended if we return to the concrete reality of pleasure, to a definition of sexuality as being essentially a pleasurable activity of the body, and if we see love as the relationship between the Ego and the sources of pleasure." One could be more exact: the source of pleasure lies less in the body than in the possibility of free activity in the world. The concrete reality of pleasure is based on the freedom to unite oneself with anyone who allows one to become united with oneself. The realisation of pleasure passes through the pleasure of realisation, the pleasure of communication through the communication of pleasure, participation in pleasure through the pleasure of participation. It is because of this that the narcissism turned towards the outside world, the narcissism Brown is talking about, can only bring about a wholesale demolition of social structures.

The more intense pleasure becomes the more it demands the whole world. "Lovers, seek greater and greater pleasure," said Breton. This is a revolutionary demand.

Western civilisation is a civilisation of work and, as Diogenes observed: "Love is the occupation of the unoccupied." With the gradual disappearance of forced labour, love takes on a greater and greater importance. It has become the major resource to develop. And it poses a direct threat to every kind of authority. Because the erotic is unitary, it is also acceptance of change. Freedom knows no propaganda more effective than people calmly enjoying themselves. Which is why pleasure, for the most part, is forced to be clandestine, love locked away in a bedroom, creativity confined to the back-stairs of culture, and alcohol and drugs cower under the shadow of the outstretched arm of the law...

The morality of survival has condemned both the diversity of pleasures and their union-in-variety in order to promote obsessive repetition. But if pleasure-anxiety is satisfied with the repetitive, true pleasure can only exist in terms of diversity-within-unity. Clearly the simplest model of the erotic is the pivotal couple. Two people live their experiences as honestly and as freely as possible. This radiant complicity has all the charm of incest. Their wealth of common experiences can only lead to a brother and sister relationship. Great loves have always had something incestuous about them; one could deduce that love between brothers and sisters was privileged from the very first, and that it should be worked on in every possible manner. It's high time to break this, the most ancient and ugliest of all taboos, and to break it once and for all. The process could be described as sororisation. A wife and a sister all of whose friends are also my wives and sisters

In the erotic, there is no perversion apart from the negation of pleasure: its distortion into pleasure-anxiety. What matters the spring so long as the water is pure? As the Chinese say: Immobile in one another, pleasure bears us.

And, finally, the search for pleasure is the best safeguard of play. It defends real participation, it protects it against self-sacrifice, coercion and dishonesty. The actual degree of intensity pleasure reaches marks subjectivity's grasp on the world. Thus, flirtatiousness is playing with desire as it is born; desire, playing with passion as it is born. And playing with passion finds its coherence in poetry, whose essentially revolutionary nature can never be over-emphasised.

Does this mean that the search for pleasure is incompatible with pain? On the contrary, it's a question of re-inventing pain. Pleasure-anxiety is neither pleasure nor pain; it's just scratching yourself and letting the itch get worse and worse. What is real pain? A set-back in the game of desire or passion; a positive pain crying out with a corresponding degree of passion for another pleasure to construct. A delay in full participation.

 

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