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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 4 "Suffering"

Suffering caused by natural alienation has given way to suffering caused by social alienation, while remedies have become justifications (1). Where there is no justification, exorcism takes its place (2). But from now on no subterfuge can hide the existence of an organization based on the distribution of constraints (3). Consciousness reduced to the consciousness of constraints is the antechamber of death. The despair of consciousness makes the murderers of Order; the consciousness of despair makes the murderers of Disorder (4).

The symphony of spoken and shouted words animates the scenery of the streets. Over a rumbling basso continuo develop grave and cheerful themes, hoarse and singsong voices, nostalgic fragments of sentences. There is a sonorous architecture which overlays the outline of streets and buildings, reinforcing or counteracting the attractive or repulsive tone of a district. But from Notting Hill to Oxford Street the basic chord is the same everywhere: it's sinister resonance has sunk so deeply into everyone's mind that it no longer surprises them. "That's life", "These things are sent to try us", "You have to take the rough with the smooth", "That's the way it goes"... this lament whose weft unites the most diverse conversations has so perverted our sensibility that it passes for the commonest of human dispositions. Where it is not accepted, despair disappears from sight. Nobody seems worried that joy has been absent from European music for nearly two centuries; which says everything. Consume, consume: the ashes have consumed the fire.

How have suffering and it's rites of exorcism usurped this importance? Undoubtedly because of the struggle to survive imposed on the first men by a hostile nature, full of cruel and mysterious forces. In the face of danger, the weakness of men discovered in social agglomeration not only protection but a way of co-operating with nature, making a truce with her and even transforming her. In the struggle against natural alienation -- death, sickness, suffering -- alienation became social. We escaped the rigours of exposure, hunger and discomfort only to fall into the trap of slavery. We were enslaved by gods, by men, by language. And such a slavery had its positive side: there was a certain greatness of living in terror of a god who also made you invincible. This mixture of human and inhuman would, it is true, be a sufficient explanation of the ambiguity of suffering, its way of appearing right through history at once as shameful sickness and salutary evil -- as a good thing, after a fashion. But this would be to overlook the ignoble slag of religion, above all Christian mythology, which devoted all its genius to perfecting this morbid and depraved precept: protect yourself against mutilation by mutilating yourself!

"Since Christ's coming, we are delivered not from the evil of suffering but from the evil of suffering uselessly", writes the Jesuit father Charles. How right he is: power's problem has always been, not to abolish itself, but to give itself reasons so as not to oppress 'uselessly'. Christianity, that unhealthy therapeutic, pulled off its masterstroke when it married man to suffering, whether on the basis of divine grace or natural law. From prince to manager, from priest to expert, from father confessor to social worker, it is always the principle of useful suffering and willing sacrifice which forms the most solid base for hierarchical power. Whatever reasons it invokes -- a better world, the next world, building communism or fighting communism -- suffering accepted is always Christian, always. Today the clerical vermin have given way to the missionaries of a Christ dyed red. Everywhere official pronouncements bear in their watermark the disgusting image of the crucified man, everywhere comrades are urged to sport the stupid halo of the militant martyr. And with their blood, the kitchen-hands of the good Cause are mixing up the sausage-meat of the future: less cannon-fodder, more doctrine-fodder!

*

To begin with, bourgeois ideology seemed determined to root out suffering with as much persistence as it devoted to the pursuit of the religions that it hated. Infatuated with progress, comfort, profit, well-being, it had enough weapons -- if not real weapons, at least imaginary ones -- to convince everyone of its will to put a scientific end to the evil of suffering and the evil of faith. As we know, all it did was to invent new anaesthetics and new superstitions.

Without God, suffering became 'natural', inherent in 'human nature'; it would be overcome, but only after more suffering: the martyrs of science, the victims of progress, the lost generations. But in this very movement the idea of natural suffering betrayed its social root. When Human Nature was removed, suffering became social, inherent in social existence. But of course, revolutions demonstrated that the social evil of pain was not a metaphysical principle: that a form of society could exist from which the pain of living would be excluded. History shattered the social ontology of suffering, but suffering, far from disappearing, found new reasons for existence in the exigencies of History, which had suddenly become trapped, in its turn, in a one-way street. China prepares children for the classless society by teaching them love of their country, love of their family, and love of work. Thus historical ontology picks up the remains of all the metaphysical systems of the past: an sich, God, Nature, Man, Society. From now on, men will have to make history by fighting History itself, because History has become the last ontological earthwork of power, the last con by which it hides, behind the promise of a long weekend, its will to endure until Saturday which will never come. Beyond fetishised history, suffering is revealed as stemming from hierarchical social organization. And when the will to put an end to hierarchical power has sufficiently tickled the consciousness of men, everyone will admit that freedom in arms and weight of constraints have nothing metaphysical about them.

2

While it was placing happiness and freedom on the order of the day, technological civilization was inventing the ideology of happiness and freedom. Thus it condemned itself to creating no more than the freedom of apathy, happiness in passivity. But at least this invention, perverted though it was, had denied that suffering is inherent in the human condition, that such an inhuman condition could last forever. That is why bourgeois thought fails when it tries to provide consolation for suffering; none of its justifications are as powerful as the hope which was born from its initial bet on technology and well-being.

Desperate fraternity in sickness is the worst thing that can happen to civilization. In the twentieth century, death terrifies men less than the absence of real life. All these dead, mechanized, specialized actions, stealing a little bit of life a thousand times a day, until the exhaustion of mind and body, until that death which is not the end of life but the final saturation with absence; this is what lends a dangerous charm to dreams of apocalypses, gigantic destructions, complete annihilations, cruel, clean and total deaths. Auschwitz and Hiroshima are indeed the 'comfort of nihilism'. Let impotence in the face of suffering become a collective sentiment, and the demand for suffering and death can sweep a whole community. Consciously or not, most people would rather die than live a permanently unsatisfying life. Look at anti-bomb marchers: most of them were nothing but penitents trying to exorcise their desire to disappear with all the rest of humanity. They would deny it, of course, but their miserable faces gave them away. The only real joy is revolutionary.

Perhaps it is in order to ensure that a universal desire to perish does not take hold of men that a whole spectacle is organized around particular sufferings. A sort of nationalized philanthropy impels man to find consolation for his own infirmities in the spectacle of other people's.

Consider disaster photographs, stories of cuckolded singers, the ridiculous dramas of the gutter press; hospitals, asylums, and prisons: real museums of suffering for the use of those whose fear of entering them makes them happy to be outside. I sometimes feel such a diffuse suffering dispersed through me that I find relief in the chance misfortune that concretizes and justifies it, offers it a legitimate outlet. Nothing will dissuade me of this: the sadness I feel after a separation, a failure, a bereavement doesn't reach me from outside like an arrow but wells up from inside me like a spring freed by a landslide. There are wounds which allow the spirit to utter a long-stifled cry. Despair never lets go its prey; it is only the prey which isolates despair in the end of a love or the death of a child, where there is only its shadow. Mourning is a pretext, a convenient way of spitting out nothingness in small drops. The tears, the cries and howls of childhood remain imprisoned in the hearts of men. For ever? In you also the emptiness is growing.

3

Another word about the alibis of power. Suppose that a tyrant took pleasure in throwing prisoners who had been flayed alive into a small cell; suppose that to hear their screams and see them scramble each time they brushed against one another amused him a lot, at the same time causing him to meditate on human nature and the curious behaviour of men. Suppose that at the same time and in the same country there were philosophers and wise men who explained to the worlds of science and art that suffering had to do with the collective life of men, the inevitable presence of Others, society as such -- wouldn't we be right to consider these men the tyrant's watchdogs? By proclaiming such theses as these, a certain existentialist conception has demonstrated not only the collusion of left intellectuals with power, but also the crude trick by which an inhuman social organization attributes the responsibility for its cruelties to its victims themselves. A nineteenth century critic remarked: "Throughout contemporary literature we find the tendency to regard individual suffering as a social evil and to make the organization of society responsible for the misery and degradation of its members. This is a profoundly new idea: suffering is no longer treated as a matter of fatality." Certain thinkers steeped in fatalism have not been troubled overmuch by such novelties: consider Sartre's hell-is-other-people, Freud's death instinct, Mao's historical necessity. After all, what distinguishes these doctrines from the stupid "it's just human nature"?

Hierarchical social organization is like a system of hoppers lined with sharp blades. While it flays us alive power cleverly persuades us that we are flaying each other. It is true that to limit myself to writing this is to risk fostering a new fatalism; but I certainly intend in writing it that nobody should limit himself to reading it.

*

Altruism is the other side of the coin of 'hell-is-other-people'; only this time mystification appears under a positive sign. Let's put an end to this old soldier crap once and for all! For others to interest me I must first find in myself the energy for such an interest. What binds me to others must grow out of what binds me to the most exuberant and demanding part of my will to live; not the other way round. It is always myself that I am looking for in other people; my enrichment, my realization. let everyone understand this and 'each for himself' taken to its ultimate conclusion will be transformed into 'all for each'. The freedom of one will be the freedom of all. A community which is not built on the demands of individuals and their dialectic can only reinforce the oppressive violence of power. The Other in whom I do not find myself is nothing but a thing, and altruism leads me to the love of things, to the love of my isolation.

Seen from the viewpoint of altruism, or of solidarity, that altruism of the left, the sentiment of equality is standing on its head. What is it but the common anguish of associates who are lonely together, humiliated, fucked up, beaten, deprived, contented together, the anguish of unattached particles, hoping to be joined together, not in reality, but in a mystical union, any union, that of the Nation or that of the Labour Movement, it doesn't matter which so long as it makes you feel like those drunken evenings when we're all pals together? Equality in the great family of man reeks of the incense of religious mystification. You need a blocked-up nose to miss the stink.

For myself, I recognize no equality except that which my will to live according to my desires recognizes in the will to live of others. Revolutionary equality will be indivisibly individual and collective.

4

The perspective of power has only one horizon: death. And life goes to this well of despair so often that in the end it falls in and drowns. Wherever the fresh water of life stagnates, the features of the drowned man reflect the faces of the living: the positive, looked at closely, turns out to be negative, the young are already old and everything we are building is already a ruin. In the realm of despair, lucidity blinds just as much as falsehood. We die of not knowing, struck from behind. In addition, the knowledge of the death that awaits us only increases the torture and brings on the agony. The disease of attrition that checks, shackles, forbids our actions, eats us away more surely than a cancer, but nothing spreads the disease like the acute consciousness of this attrition. I remain convinced that nothing could save a man who was continually asked: have you noticed the hand that, with all die respect, is killing you? To evaluate the effect of each tiny persecution, to estimate neurologically the weight of each constraint, would be enough to flood the strongest individual with a single feeling, the feeling of total and terrible powerlessness. The maggots of constraint are spawned in the very depths of the mind; nothing human can resist them.

Sometimes I feel as if power is making me like itself: a great energy on the point of collapsing, a rage powerless to break out, a desire for wholeness suddenly petrified. An impotent order survives only by ensuring the impotence of its slaves: Franco and Batista demonstrated this fact with brio when they castrated captured revolutionaries. The regimes jokingly known as 'democratic' merely humanize castration. At first sight, to bring an old age prematurely seems less feudal than the use of the knife and ligature. But only at first sight: for as soon as a lucid mind has understood that impotence now strikes through the mind itself, we might as well pack up and go home.

There is a kind of understanding which is allowed by power because it serves its purposes. To borrow one's lucidity from the light of power is to illuminate the darkness of despair, to feed truth on lies. Thus the aesthetic stage is defined: either death against power, or death in power: Arthur Cravan and Jacques Vaché on one side, the S.S, the mercenary and the hired killer on the other. For them death is a logical and natural end, the final confirmation of a permanent state of affairs, the last dot of a lifeline on which, in the end, nothing was written. Everyone who does not resist the almost universal attraction of power meets the same fate: the stupid and confused always, very often the intelligent too. The same rift is to be found in Drieu and Jacques Rigaux, but they came down on different sides: the impotence of the first was moulded in submission and servility, the revolt of the second smashed itself prematurely against the impossible. The despair of consciousness makes the murderers of Order, the consciousness of despair makes the murderers of Disorder. The fall back into conformity of the so-called anarchists of the right is caused by the same gravitational pull as the fall of damned archangels into the iron jaws of suffering. The rattles of counter-revolution echo through the vaults of despair.

Suffering is the pain of constraints. An atom of pure delight, no matter how small, will hold it at bay. To work on the side of delight and authentic festivity can hardly be distinguished from preparing for a general insurrection.

In our times, people are invited to take part in a gigantic hunt with myths and received ideas as quarry, but for safety's sake they are sent without weapons, or, worse, with paper weapons of pure speculation, into the swamp of constraints where they finally stick. Perhaps we will get our first taste of delight by pushing the ideologists of demystification in front of us, so that we can see how they make out, and either take advantage of their exploits or advance over their bodies.

As Rosanov says, men are crushed under the wardrobe. Without lifting up the wardrobe it is impossible to deliver whole peoples from their endless and unbearable suffering. It is terrible that even one man should be crushed under such a weight: to want to breathe, and not to be able to. The wardrobe rests on everybody, and everyone gets his inalienable share of suffering. And everybody tries to lift up the wardrobe, but not with the same conviction, not with the same energy. A curious groaning civilization.

Thinkers ask themselves: "What? Men under the wardrobe? However did they get there?" All the same, they got there. And if someone comes along and proves in the name of objectivity that the burden can never be removed, each of his words adds to the weight of the wardrobe, that object which he means to describe with the universality of his 'objective consciousness'. And the whole Christian spirit is there, fondling suffering like a good dog and handing out photographs of crushed but smiling men. "The rationality of the wardrobe is always the best", proclaim the thousands of books published every day to be stacked in the wardrobe. And all the while everyone wants to breathe and no-one can breathe, and many say "We will breathe later", and most do not die, because they are already dead.

It is now or never.

 

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