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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
Impossible Communication or Power as Universal Mediation

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 10 "Down Quantity Street"

Economic imperatives seek to impose on the whole of human activity the standardised measuring system of the market. Very large quantities take the place of the qualitative, but even quantity is rationed and economised. Myth is based on quality, ideology on quantity. Ideological saturation is an atomisation into small contradictory quantities which can no more avoid destroying one another than they can avoid being smashed by the qualitative negativity of popular refusal (1). The quantitative and the linear are indissociable. A linear, measured time and a linear, measured life are the definitions of survival, or living on: a succession of inter-changeable instants. These lines are part of the confused geometry of power (2)

1

The system of commercial exchange has come to govern all of man's everyday relations with himself and with his fellow men. Every aspect of public and private life is dominated by the quantitative.

The merchant in The Exception and the Rule confesses: "I don't know what a man is. Only that every man has his price." To the extent that individuals accept power and enable it to exist, power in turn judges them by its own yard-stick: it reduces and standardises them. What is the individual to an authoritarian system? A point duly located in its perspective. A point that it recognises, certainly, but recognises only in terms of the number that define its position in a system of co-ordinates.

The calculation of a man's capacity to produce or to make others produce, to consume or to make others consume, concretises to a T that expression so dear to our philosophers: the measure of man. Even the simple pleasures of a ride in the country are generally measured up in terms of miles on the clock, speeds reached and petrol consumption. With the rate at which economic 'imperatives' are buying up feelings, desires and needs and falsifying them, man will soon be left with nothing but the memory of having once been alive. Living in the past: the memory of days gone by will be our consolation for living on. How could even spontaneous laughter last in a space-time that is measured and measurable, let alone real joy? At best the dull contentment of the man-who's-got-his-money's-worth, and who exists by that standard. Only objects can be measured, which is why exchange always reifies

*

Any excitement that could still be found in the pursuit of pleasure is fast disintegrating into a panting succession of mechanical gestures, and one hopes in vain that their rhythm will speed up enought to reach even the semblance of orgasm. The quantitative Eros of speed, novelty, love-against-the-clock is disfiguring the real face of pleasure everywhere.

The qualitative is slowly taking on the aspect of a quantitative infinity, an endless series whose momentary end is always the negation of pleasure, Don Juan's basic "can't get no satisfaction". If only contemporary society would encourage such dissatisfaction, and allow total licence to the delirious and devastating attractions of an insatiable appetite! Who would deny that there is a certain charm in the life of an idler, a trifle blasé perhaps, but enjoying at his leisure everything that can make passivity sweet: a seraglio of pretty girls, witty and sophisticated friends, subtle drugs, seven-course Chinese meals, heady liqueurs and sultry perfumes: a man whose desire is not so much to change life as to seek refuge in the greatest attractions it has to offer. A libertine in the grand style.

Let's talk sense, though. Nowadays that kind of choice just doesn't exist, for in both Western and Eastern societies even quantity is rationed. A tycoon with only on emonth left to livewould still refuse to blow his entire fortune on one huge orgy... the morality of exchange and profit doesn't let go that easily. Thrift, the capitalist economics of family life.

Yet what a windfall for mystification, to have the qualitative imprisoned in the skin of the quantitative! I mean that a world in which all things seem possible can still harbour the illusion of being a world of many dimensions. But to let exchange be subsumed by the gift, to let all kinds of adventures blossom between heaven and earth (from Gilles de Rais to Dante...) this was precisely what the bourgeoisie couldn't do, this was the door that it had closed on itself in the name of industry and commerce! All it had left was a vast nostalgia. Poor and precious catalyst -- at once all and nothing -- thanks to which a society without class and without authoritarian power will come to realise all the dreams of its aristocratic childhood.

In the act of faith, the unitary societies of tribal and feudal times possessed a qualitative element of myth and mystification which was of major importance. The bourgeoisie, once it had shattered the unity of power and God, found itself clutching fragments and crumbs of power, crumbs which it tried to clothe with a unitary spirit. But it didn't work. Without unity there can be no qualitative! Democracy triumphs along with social atomisation. Democracy is the limited power of the greatest number, and the power of the greatest limited number. The great ideologies very soon abandon faith for numbers. Nowadays 'La Patrie' is no more than a few thousand war veterans. And what Marx and Engels used to call 'our party' is today a few million voters and a couple of thousand bill-stickers: a mass party.

In fact, ideology draws its essence from quantity: it is simply an idea reproduced again and again in time (Pavlovian conditioning) and in space (where the consumers take over). Ideology, information and culture tend more and more to lose their content and become pure quantity. The less importance a piece of news has, the more it is repeated, and the more it distracts people from their real problems. Goebbels said that the bigger the lie, the more easily it is swallowed. But ideology takes us away from the Big Lie by constantly bidding against itself. One after another it lays before us a hundred paperbacks, a hundred washing powders, a hundred political ideas, and with equal conviction proves that each of them is incontestably superior to any of the others. Even in ideology quantity is being destroyed by quantity itself: conflicting conditionings end by cancelling each other out. Is this the way to rediscover the power of the qualitative ,a power that can move mountains?

Quite the contrary. Contradictory conditioning is more likely to end in trauma, inhibition and a radical refusal to be brainwashed any more. Admittedly ideology still has one trick up its sleeve -- that of posing false questions, raising false dilemmas and leaving the conditioned individual, poor bugger, with the worry of sorting out which is the truer of two lies. But such pointless diversions carry little weight compared with the survival sickness to which consumer society exposes its members.

Boredom breeds the irresistible rejection of uniformity, a refusal that can break out at any moment. Stockholm, Amsterdam and Watts (for a start) have shown that the tiniest of pretexts can fire the oil spread on troubled waters. Think of the vast quantity of lies that can be wiped out by one act of revolutionary poetry! From Villa to Lumumba, from Stockholm to Watts, qualitative agitation, the agitation that radicalises the masses because it springs from the radicalism of the masses, is redefining the frontiers of submission and degradation

2

In unitary regimes the sacred was the cement which held together the social pyramid in which each particular being from the highest lord to the lowest serf had his place according to the will of Providence, the order of the world and the king's pleasure. The cohesion of the structure soon disappeared, dissolved by the corrosive criticism of the young bourgeoisie; but, as we know, the shadow of the divine hierarchy remains. The dismantling of the pyramid, far from destroying the inhuman cement, only pulverises it. We see little particular beings becoming absolute: little 'citizens' released by social atomisation. The inflated imagination of egocentricity creates a universe on the model of one point, a point just the same as thousands of other points, grains of sand, all free, equal and fraternal, scurrying here and there like so many ants when their nest is broken open. All the lines have gone haywire since God disappeared, depriving them of their point of convergence; they weave and collide in apparent disorder. But make no mistake, despite the anarchy of competition and the isolation of individualism, class and caste interests are beginning to tie up, structuring a geometry, and impatient to reconquer its coherence.

Now, the coherence of unitary power, although it's based on the divine principle, is a palpable coherence, which each individual lives in and knows. But paradoxically the material principle of fragmentary power can only furnish an abstract coherence. How could the organisation of economic survival hope to substitute itself smoothly for this immanent, this omnipresent God who is called on to witness the most trivial gestures, like cutting bread and sneezing...? The omnipotence of the feudal mode of domination was quite relative anyway, but let us suppose that with the aid of cyberneticians it could be equalled by a secularised government of men. Even so, how could anyone replace the mythic and poetic ethos surrounding the life of communities thast are socially cohesive, an ethos that provides them with some kind of third dimension? The bourgeoisie is well and truly caught in the trap of its own half-revolution

*

Quantification implies linearity. the qualitative is plurivalent, the quantitative univocal. Life quantified becomes a measured route-march towards death. The radiant ascent of the soul towards heaven is replaced by inane speculations about the future. Moments of time no longer radiate, as they did in the cyclical time of earlier societies; time is a thread stretching from birth to death, from memories of the past to expectations of the future, on which an eternity of survival strings out a row of instants and hybrid presents nibbled away by what is past an what is yet to come.

The feeling of living in symbiosis with cosmic forces -- the sense of the simultaneous -- revealed to our forefathers joy which our passing presence in the world is hard put to provide. What remains of such a joy? Only vertigo, giddy transcience, the effort of keeping up with the times. You must move with the times -- the motto of those who make a profit out of it.

Not that we should lament the passing of the old days of cyclical time, the time of mystical effusion. Rather correct it: centre it in man, and not in the divine animal. Man is not the centre of present time, he is merely a point in it. Time is composed of a succession of points, each taken independently of the others like an absolute, but an absolute that is endlessly repeated and rehashed. Because they are located on the same line, all actions and all moments assume equal importance. The definition of prosaism. Down quantity street, everything's always just the same. And these absolutized fragments are all quite interchangeable. Divided from one another -- and thus separated from man himself -- the moments of survival follow one another and resemble one another just like the specialised attitudes that correspond to them: roles. Making love or riding a motorbike, it's all the same. Each moment has its stereotype, and the fragments of time carry off the fragments of men into a past that can never be changed.

What's the use of threading pearls to make a garland of memories? If only the weight of the pearls would snap the thread! But no: moment by moment, time bores on; everything is lost, nothing created...

What do I want? Not a succession of moments, but one huge instant. A totality that is lived and without the experience of 'time passing'. The feeling of 'time passing' is simply the feeling of growing old. And yet, since one must first of all survive in order to live, virtual moments, possibilities, are necessarily rooted in that time. To federate moments, to bring out the pleasure in them, to release their promise of life is already to be learning how to construct a 'situation'

*

Individual survival-lines cross, collide and intersect. Each one assigns limits to the freedom of others; projects cancel one another out in the name of their autonomy. This is the basis of the geometry of fragmentary power.

We think we are living in the world, when in fact we are being positioned in a perspective. No longer the simultaneous perspective of primitive painters, but the perspective of the Renaissance rationalists. It is hardly possible for looks, thoughts and gestures to escape the attraction of the distant vanishing-point which orders and deforms them; situates them in its spectacle. Power is the greatest town-planner. It parcels out loys of public and private survival, buys up vacant lots at cut price, and only permits construction that complies with its regulations. Its own plans involve the compulsory acquisition of everybody. It builds with a heaviness which is the envy of the real town-builders that copy its style, translating the old mumbo-jumbo of the sacred hierarchy into stockbroker-belts, white collar apartments and workers flats. (Like, for example, in Croydon)

The reconstruction of life, the rebuilding of the world: one and the same desire.

 

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