nothingness.org

Printable Version | More in this collection | More in this category | Search:

| << Chapter 2 | Chapter 4 >>

The Revolution of Everyday Life:
Impossible Participation or Power as the Sum of Constraints

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 3 "Isolation"

Para no sentirme solo
por los siglos de los siglos

All we have in common is the illusion of being together. And beyond the illusion of permitted anodynes there is only the collective desire to destroy isolation (1). -- Impersonal relationships are the no-man's land of isolation. By producing isolation, contemporary social organization signs its own death-sentence (2).

 

1

It was as if they were in a cage whose door was wide open without their being able to escape. Nothing outside the cage had any importance, because nothing else existed any more. They stayed in the cage, estranged from everything except the cage, without even a flicker of desire for anything outside the bars. it would have been abnormal -- impossible in fact -- to escape into something which had neither reality nor importance. Absolutely impossible. For inside this cage, in which they had been born and in which they would die, the only tolerable framework of experience was the Real, which was simply an irresistible instinct to act so that things should have importance. Only if things had some importance could one breathe, and suffer. it seemed that there was an understanding between them and the silent dead that it should be so, for the habit of acting so that things had some importance had become a human instinct, and one which was apparently eternal. Life was the important thing, and the Real was part of the instinct which gave life a little meaning. The instinct didn't try to imagine what might lie beyond the Real, because there was nothing beyond it. Nothing important. The door remained open and the cage became more and more painful in its Reality which was so important for countless reasons and in countless ways.

We have never emerged from the times of the slavers.

On the public transport which throws them against one another with statistical indifference, people wear an untenable expression of disillusion, pride and contempt, like the natural effect of death on a toothless mouth. The atmosphere of false communication makes everyone the policeman of his own encounters. The instincts of flight and aggression trail the knights of wage-labour, who must now rely on subways and suburban trains for their pitiful wanderings. If men were transformed into scorpions who sting themselves and one another, isn't it really because nothing has happened, and human beings with empty eyes and flabby brains have 'mysteriously' become mere shadows of men, ghosts of men, and in some ways are no longer men except in name?

We have nothing in common except the illusion of being together. Certainly the seeds of an authentic collective life are lying dormant within the illusion itself -- there is no illusion without a real basis -- but real community remains to be created. The power of the lie sometimes manages to erase the bitter reality of isolation from men's minds. In a crowded street we can occasionally forget that suffering and separation are still present. And, since it is only the lie's power which makes us forget, suffering and separation are reinforced; but in the end the lie itself comes to grief through relying on this support. For a moment comes when no illusion can measure up to our distress.

Malaise invades me as the crows around me grows. The compromises I have made with stupidity under the pressure of circumstances rush to meet me, swimming towards me in hallucinating waves of faceless heads. Edvard Munch's famous painting, The Cry, evokes for me something I feel ten times a day. A man carried along by a crowd, which only he can see, suddenly screams out in an attempt to break the spell, to call himself back to himself, to get back inside his own skin. The tacit acknowledgments, fixed smiles, lifeless words, listlessness and humiliation sprinkled in his path suddenly surge into him, driving him out of his desires and his dreams and exploding the illusion of 'being together'. People touch without meeting; isolation accumulates but is never realized; emptiness overcomes us as the density of the crowd grows. The crowd drags me out of myself and installs thousands of little sacrifices in my empty presence.

Everywhere neon signs are flashing out the dictum of Plotinus: All beings are together though each remains separate. But we only need to hold out our hands and touch one another, to raise our eyes and meet one another, and everything comes into focus, as if by magic.

Like crowds, drugs, and love, alcohol can befuddle the most lucid mind. Alcohol turns the concrete wall of isolation into a paper screen which the actors can tear according to their fancy, for it arranges everything on the stage of an intimate theatre. A generous illusion, and thus still more deadly.

In a gloomy bar where everyone is bored to death, a drunken young man breaks his glass, then picks up a bottle and smashes it against the wall. Nobody gets excited; the disappointed young man lets himself be thrown out. Yet everyone there could have done exactly the same thing. He alone made the thought concrete, crossing the first radioactive belt of isolation: interior isolation, the introverted separation between self and outside world. Nobody responded to a sign which he thought was explicit. He remained alone like the hooligan who burns down a church or kills a policeman, at one with himself but condemned to exile as long as other people remain exiled from their own existence. He has not escaped from the magnetic field of isolation; he is suspended in a zone of zero gravity. All the same, the indifference which greets him allows him to hear the sound of his own cry; even if this revelation tortures him, he knows that he will have to start again in another register, more loudly; with more coherence.

People will be together only in a common wretchedness as long as each isolated being refuses to understand that a gesture of liberation, however weak and clumsy it may be, always bears an authentic communication, an adequate personal message. The repression which strikes down the libertarian rebel falls on everyone: everyone's blood flows with the blood of a murdered Durruti. Whenever freedom retreats one inch, there is a hundred-fold increase in the weight of the order of things. Excluded from authentic participation, men's actions stray into the fragile illusion of being together, or else into its opposite, the abrupt and total rejection of society. They swing from one to the other like a pendulum turning the hands on the clock-face of death.

*

Love in its turn swells the illusion of unity. Most of the time it gets fucked up and miscarries. Its songs are crippled by fear of always returning to the same single note: whether there are two of us, or even ten, we will finish up alone as before. What drives us to despair is not the immensity of our own unsatisfied desires, but the moment when our newborn passion discovers its own emptiness. The insatiable desire to fall in love with so many pretty girls is born in anguish and the fear of loving: we are so afraid of never escaping from meetings with objects. The dawn when lovers leave each other's arms is the same dawn that breaks on the execution of revolutionaries without a revolution. Isolation a deux cannot confront the effect of general isolation. Pleasure is broken off prematurely and lovers find themselves naked in the world, their actions suddenly ridiculous and pointless. No love is possible in an unhappy world.

The boat of love breaks up in the current of everyday life.

Are you ready to smash the reefs of the old world before they wreck your desires? Lovers should love their pleasure with more consequence and more poetry. A story tells how Price Shekour captured a town and offered it to his favourite for a smile. Some of us have fallen in love with the pleasure of loving without reserve -- passionately enough to offer our love to the magnificent bed of a revolution.

2

To adapt to the world is a game of heads-you-win, tails-I-lose in which one decides a priori that the negative is positive and that the impossibility of living is an essential precondition of life. Alienation never takes such firm root as when it passes itself off as an inalienable good. Transformed into positivity, the consciousness of isolation is none other than the private consciousness, that scrap of individualism which people drag around like their most sacred birthright, unprofitable but cherished. It is a sort of pleasure-anxiety which prevents us both from settling down in the community of illusion and from remaining trapped in the cellar of isolation.

The no-man's-land of impersonal relationships stretches between the blissful acceptance of false collectivities and the total rejection of society. It is the morality of shopkeepers: "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours", "You mustn't let people get too familiar": politeness, the art (for art's sake) of non-communication.

Let's face it: human relationships being what social hierarchy has made them, impersonality is the least tiring form of contempt. It allows us to pass without useless friction through the mill of daily contacts. it does not prevent us dreaming of superior forms of civility, such as the courtesy of Lacenaire, on the eve of his execution, urging a friend: "Above all, please convey my gratitude to M.Scribe. Tell him that one day, suffering from the pangs of hunger, I presented myself at his house in order to worm some money out of him. He complied with my request with a touching generosity; I am sure he will remember. tell him that he acted wisely, for I had in my pocket, ready to hand, the means of depriving France of a dramatist."

But the sterilized zone of impersonal relationships only offers a truce in the endless battle against isolation, a brief transit which leads to communication, or more frequently towards the illusion of community. I would explain in this way my reluctance to stop a stranger to ask him the way or to 'pass the time of day': to seek contact in this doubtful fashion. The pleasantness of impersonal relationships is built on sand; and empty time never did me any good.

Life is made impossible with such cynical thoroughness that the balanced pleasure-anxiety of impersonal relationships, functions as a cog in the general machine for destroying people. In the end it seems better to start out right away with a radical and tactically worked-out refusal, rather than to go around knocking politely on all the doors where one mode of survival is exchanged for another.

"It would be a drag to die so young". wrote Jacques Vaché two years before his suicide. if desperation at the prospect of surviving does not unite with a new grasp of reality to transform the years to come, only two ways out are left for the isolated man: the pisspot of parties and pataphysico-religious sects, or immediate death with Umour. A sixteen-year-old murderer recently explained: "I did it because I was bored." Anyone who has felt the drive to self-destruction welling up inside him knows with what weary negligence he might one day happen to kill the organizers of his boredom. One day. If he was in the mood.

After all, if an individual refuses both to adapt to the violence of the world, and to embrace the violence of the unadapted, what can he do? If he doesn't raise his will to achieve unity with the world and with himself to the level of coherent theory and practice, the vast silence of society's open spaces will raise around him the palace of solipsist madness.

From the depths of their prisons, those who have been convicted of 'mental illness' add the screams of their strangled revolt to the sum of negativity. What a potential Fourier was cleverly destroyed in this patient described by the psychiatrist Volnat: "He began to lose all capacity to distinguish between himself and the external world. Everything that happened in the world also happened in his body. He could not put a bottle between two shelves in a cupboard, because the shelves might come together and break the bottle. And that would hurt inside his head, as if his head were wedged between the shelves. He could not shut a suitcase, because pressing the things in the case would press inside his head. If he walked into the street after closing all the doors and windows of his house, he felt uncomfortable, because his brain was compressed by the air, and he had to go back home to open a door or a window. 'For me to be at ease,' he said, 'I must have open space. [...] I must have the freedom of my space. It's the battle with the things all around me.'"

"Outside the consul paused, turning... No se puede vivir sin amar, were the words on the house." (Lowry, Under the Volcano).

 

Page generated by the dadaPHP system.

0.0315 sec.