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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
Impossible Realisation or Power as the Sum of Seductions

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 11 "Mediated Abstraction and Abstract Mediation"

Today, reality is imprisoned in metaphysics in the same way as it was once imprisoned in theology. The way of seeing which power imposes, 'abstracts' mediations from their original function, which is to extend into the real world the demands which arise in lived experience; it resists the magnetic pull of authority. The point where resistance begins is the look-out post of subjectivity. Until now, metaphysicians have only organised the world in various ways; the point is to change it, by opposing them (1). The regime of guaranteed survival is slowly undermining the belief that power is necessary (2). This leads to a growing rejection of the forms which govern us, a rejection of their (coercive) ordering principle. (3) Radical theory, which is the only guarantee of the coherence of such a rejection, penetrates the masses because it extends their spontaneous creativity. "Revolutionary" ideology is theory which has been recuperated by the authorities. Words exist as the frontier between the will to live and its repression; the way they are employed determines their meaning; history controls the way in which they are employed. The historical crisis of language indicates the possibility of superseding it towards the poetry of action, towards the great game with signs (4)

 

1

What is this detour in which I get lost when I try to find myself? What is this screen that separates me from myself under the pretence of protecting me? And how can I ever find myself again in this crumbling fragmentation of which I am composed? I move forward with a terrible doubt of ever getting to grips with myself. It is as though my path is already marked out in front of me, my thoughts and feelings following the contours of a mental landscape which they imagine they are creating, but which in fact is moulding them. An absurd force -- all the more absurd for being part of the rationality of the world, and seeming incontestable -- keeps me jumping in an effort to reach a solid ground which my feet have never left. And by this useless leap towards myself I succeed only in losing my grip on the present; most of the time I live out of step with what I am, marking time with dead time.

I think that people are surprisingly insensitive to the way in which the world, in certain periods, takes on the forms of the dominant metaphysic. No matter how daft it may seem to us to believe in God and the Devil, this phantom pair become a living reality the moment that a collectivity considers them sufficiently present to inspire the text of their laws. In the same way, the stupid distinction between cause and effect has been able to govern societies in which human behaviour and phenomenae in general were analysed in terms of cause and effect. And in our own time, nobody should underestimate the power of the misbegotten dichotomy between thought and action, theory and practice, real and imaginary... these ideas are forces of organisation. The world of falsehood is a real world, people are killing one another there, and we'd better not forget it. While we spiel and spout ironically about the decay of philosophy, contemporary philosophers watch with knowing smiles from behind the mediocrity of their thought; they know that come what may the world is still a philosophical construction, a huge ideological foozle. We survive in a metaphysical landscape. The abstract and alienating mediation which estranges me from myself is terrifyingly concrete.

Grace, a piece of God transplanted into man, outlived its Donor. Secularized, abandoning theology for metaphysics, it remained buried in the individual's flesh like a pace-maker, an internalised mode of government. When Freudian imagery hangs the monster Superego over the doorway of the ego, its fault is not so much facile oversimplification as refusal to search further for the social origin of constraints. (Reich understood this well.) Oppression reigns because men are divided, not only among themselves, but also inside themselves. What separates them from themselves and weakens them is laos the false bond that unites them with power, reinforcing this power and making them choose it as their protector, as their father.

"Mediation", says Hegel, "is self-identity in movement." But what moves can lose itself. And when he adds "it is the moment of dying and becoming", the same words differ radically in meaning according to the perspective in which they are placed: that of totalitarian power or that of the total man.

As soon as mediation escapes my control, every step I take drags me towards something foreign and inhuman. Engels painstakingly showed that a stone, a fragment of nature alien to man, became human as soon as it became an extension of the hand by serving as a tool (and the stone in its turn humanised the hand of the hominid). But once it is appropriated by a master, an employer, a ministry of planning, a management, the tool's meaning is changed: it deflects the action of its user towards other purposes. And what is true of tools is true for all mediations.

Just as God was the supreme arbiter of grace, the magnetism of the governing principle always draws to itself the largest possible number of mediations. Power is the sum of alienated and alienating mediations. Science (scientia theologiae ancilla) converted the divine fraud into operational information, organised abstraction, returning to the etymology of the word: ab-trahere, to draw out of.

The energy which the individual expends in order to realise himself and extend into the world according to his desires and dreams, is suddenly braked, held up, shunted onto other tracks, recuperated. What would normally be the phase of fulfilment is forced out of the living world and kicked upstairs into the transcendental.

But the mechanism of abstraction is never completely loyal to the principle of authority. However reduced man may be by his stolen mediation, he can still enter the labyrinth of power with Theseus' weapons of aggression and determination. if he finally loses his way, it is because he has already lost his Ariadne, snapped the sweet thread that links him with life: the desire to be himself. For it is only in an unbroken relationship between theory and lived praxis that there can be any hope of an end to all dualities, the end of the power of man over man, and the beginning of the era of totality.

Human energy does not let itself be led away into the inhuman without a fight. The field of battle is always in the immediate extension of lived experience, in spontaneous action. Not that I am opposing abstract mediation in the name of some sort of wild, 'instinctive' spontaneity; that would merely be to reproduce on a higher level the idiotic choice between pure speculation and mindless activism, the disjunction between theory and practice. I am saying that tactical adequacy involves launching the attack at the very spot where the highwaymen of experience lay their ambush, the spot where the attempt to act is transformed and perverted, at the precise moment when spontaneous action is sucked up by misinterpretation and misunderstanding. At this point there is a momentary crystallization of consciousness which illumines both the demands of the will-to-live and the fate that social organisation has in store for them; living experience and its recuperation by the machinery of authoritarianism. The point where resistance begins is the look-out post of subjectivity. For identical reasons, my knowledge of the world has no value except when I act to transform it

2

The mediation of power works a permanent blackmail on the immediate. of course, the idea that an act can't be carried through in the totality of its implications faithfully reflects the reality of a bankrupt world, a world of non-totality; but at the same time it reinforces the metaphysical character of events, which is their official falsification. Common sense is a compendium of slanders like "We'll always need bosses", "Without authority mankind would sink into barbarism and chaos" and so on. Custom has mutilated man so thoroughly that when he mutilates himself he thinks he is following a law of nature. And perhaps he is chained so firmly to the pillory of submission through suppressing the memory of what he has lost. Anyway, it benefits the slave mentality to associate power with the only possible form of life, survival. And it fits well with the master's purposes to encourage such an idea.

In mankind's struggle for survival, hierarchical social organisation was undeniably a decisive step forward. At one point in history, the cohesion of a collectivity around its leader gave it the best, perhaps the only chance of self-preservation. But the survival was guaranteed at the price of a new alienation: the safeguard was a prison, preserving life but preventing growth. Feudal regimes reveal the contradiction bluntly: serfs, half men and half beasts, existed side-by-side with a small priveleged sector, some of whom strained after individual access to the exuberance and energy of unrestrained living.

The feudal idea cared little about survival as such: famines, plagues and massacres swept millions of beings from that best of all possible worlds without unduly disturbing the generations of literati and subtle hedonists. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, finds in survival the raw material of its economic interests. The need to eat and subsist materially is bound to be good for trade. Indeed it is not excessive to see in the primacy of the economy, that dogma of bourgeois thought, the very source of its celebrated humanism. If the bourgeoisie prefers man to God, it is because only man produces and consumes, supplies and demands. The divine universe, which is pre-economic, incurs their disapproval almost as much as the post-economic world of the total man.

By force-feeding survival until it is satiated, consumer society awakens a new appetite for life. Wherever survival and work are both guaranteed, the old safeguards become obstacles. Not only does the struggle to survive prevent us from really living; once it becomes a struggle without real goals it begins to threaten survival itself: what was ridiculous becomes precarious. Survival has grown so fat that if it doesn't shed its skin it will choke us all in it and die.

The protection provided by masters has lost its justification since the mechanical solicitude of gadgets theoretically ended the necessity for slaves. From now on, the ultima ratio of the rulers is the deliberately maintained terror of a thermonuclear apocalypse. Peaceful coexistence guarantees their existence. Power no longer protects the people; it protects itself against the people. Today, this inhumanity spontaneously created by men has become simply the inhuman prohibition of all creation

3

Every time the total and immediate completion of an action is deferred, power is confirmed in its function of grand mediator. Spontaneous poetry, on the other hand, is anti-mediation par excellence.

One could say schematically that bourgeois/Soviet fragmentary power, which may be characterized as the sum of constraints, is being absorbed gradually into a form of organisation based more on alienating mediations. Ideological enchantment replaces the bayonet. This perfected mode of government inevitably brings to mind the prophets of cybernetics. Following the prudent directives of the technocratic specialised left, the electronic Argus is planning to eliminate the middlemen (spiritual leaders, putschist generals, Franco-Stalinists and other sons of Ubu) and wire up its Absolute State of well-being. But the more mediations are alienated, the more the thirst for the immediate rages and the savage poetry of revolutions tramples down frontiers.

In its final phase, authority will culminate in the union of abstract and concrete. Power already abstracts, and the electric chair is still neing used. The face of the world, lit up by power, is organised according to a metaphysic of reality: and it's a sight for sore eyes to see the faithful philosophers showing off their new uniforms: technocrat, sociologist, specialist...

The pure form which is haunting society is recognisable as the death of men. It is the neurosis which preceds necrosis, survival sickness spreading slowly as living experience is replaced by images, forms, objects, as alienated mediation transmutes experience into a thing; madreporises it. It's a man or a tree or a stone... as Lautréamont prophesied.

Gombrowicz at least gives due respect to Form, power's old go-between, now promoted to the place of honour among pimps of State:

"You have never really been able to recognize or explain the importance of Form in your life. Even in psychology you have been unable to accord to Form its rightful place. We continue to believe that it is feeling, purposes or ideas that govern our behaviour, considering Form to be at most a harmless ornamental addition. When the widow weeps tenderly beside her husband's coffin, we think that she is crying because she feels her loss so keenly. When some engineer, doctor or lawyer murders his wife, his children or a friend, we suppose that he was driven to the deed by violent or bloodthirsty impulses. When some politician expresses himself vacuously, deceitfully or shabbily in a public speech, we say that he is stupid because he expresses himself stupidly. But the fact of the matter is this: a human being does not externalise himself in an immediate manner, according to his nature, but always through a definite Form; and this Form; and this Form, this way of being, this way of speaking and reacting, does not issue solely from himself but is imposed on him from outside.

"And so the same man can appear sometimes wise, sometimes stupid, blood-thirsty or angelic, according to the Form which affects him and according to the pressure of conditioning... When will you consciously oppose the Forms? When will you stop identifying with what defines you?"

4

In this Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Marx writes:

Theory becomes a material force once it has got hold of the masses. Theory is capable of getting hold of men once it demonstrates its truth with regard to man, once it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp something at its roots. But for man the root is man himself

In short, radical theory gets hold of the masses because it comes from them in the first place. It is the repository of spontaneous creativity, and its job is to ensure the striking power of this creativity. It is revolutionary technique at the service of poetry. Any analysis of revolutions past or present that does not involve a determination to resume the struggle more coherently and more effectively plays fatally into the hands of the enemy: it is incorporated into the dominant culture. The only time to talk about revolutionary moments is when you are ready to live them at short notice. A simple touchstone for testing the mettle of the clanking thinkers-errant of the planet's left.

Those who are able to end a revolution are always the most eager to explain it to those who have made it. The arguments they use to explain it are as good as their arguments for ending it, one can say that much. When theory escapes from the makers of a revolution it turns against them. It no longer gets hold of them, it dominates and conditions them. The theory developed by the strength of the armed people now develops the strength of those who disarm the people. leninism explains revolutions too -- it certainly taught Makhno's partisans and the Kronstadt sailors a thing or two. An ideology.

Whenever the powers-that-be get their hands on theory, it turns into ideology: an argument ad hominem against man in general. Radical theory comes out of the individual, being-as-subject: it penetrates the masses through what is most creative in each person, through subjectivity and the desire for realisation. Ideological conditioning is quite the opposite: the technical management of the inhuman, the weight of things. It turns men into objects which have no meaning apart from the Order in which they have their place. It assembles them in order to isolate them, making the crowd into a multiplicity of solitudes.

Ideology is the falsehood of language and radical theory its truth. The conflict between them, which is the conflict between man and the inhumanity which he secretes, underlies the transformation of the world into human realities as much as its transmutation into metaphysical realities. Everything that men do and undo passes through the mediation of language. Semantics is one of the principal battlefields in the struggle between the will to live and the spirit of submission

*

The fight is unfair. Words serve power better than they do men; they serve it more faithfully than most men do, and more scrupulously than the other mediations (space, time, technology...) Hypostatised transcendence always depends on language and is developed in a system of signs and symbols, such as words, dance, ritual, music, sculpture and building. When a half-completed action, suddenly obstructed, tries to continue in a form which it hopes will eventually allow it to finish and realise itself -- like a generator transforming mechanical energy into electrical energy which will be reconverted into mechanical energy by a motor miles away -- at this moment language swoops down on living experience, ties it hand and foot, robs it of its substance, abstracts it. it always has categories ready to condemn to incomprehensibility and nonsense anything which they can't contain, or summon into existence-for-power that which slumbers in nothingness because it has no place as yet in the system of Order. The repetition of familiar signs is the basis of ideology.

And yet men still try to use words and signs to perfect their interrupted gestures. This is why a poetic language exists: a language of lived experience which, for me, merges with radical theory, the theory which penetrates the masses and becomes a material force. Even when it is recuperated and turned against its original purpose, poetry always gets what it wants in the end. The "Proletarians of all lands, unite" which produced the Stalinist State will one day realise the classless society. No poetic sign is ever completely tamed by ideology.

The language that diverts radical actions, creative actions, human actions par excellence, from their realisation, becomes anti-poetry. it defines the linguistics of power: its science of information. This information is the model of false communication, the communication of the inauthentic, the non-living. There is a principle that I find holds good: as soon as a language no longer obeys the desire for realisation, it falsifies communication; it no longer communicates anything except that false promise of truth which is called a lie. But this lie is the truth of what destroys me, infects me with its virus of submission. Signs are thus the vanishing points from which diverge the antagonistic perspectives which make up the world and divide it between them: the perspective of power and the perspective of the will to live. Each word, idea or symbol is a double agent. Some, like the word 'fatherland' or the policeman's uniform, usually work for authority; but make no mistake, when ideologies clash or begin to wear out the most mercenary sign can become a good anarchist (I am thinking of the splendid title that Bellegarigue chose for his paper: L'Anarchie, Journal de l'Ordre).

Dominant semiological systems -- which are those of the dominant castes -- have only mercenary signs, and, as Humpty-Dumpty says, the king pays double time to words he uses a lot. But deep down inside, every mercenary has dreams of killing the king. If we are condemned to a diet of lies we must learn to spike them with a drop of the acid truth. This is the way the agitator works: he charges his words and signs so powerfully with living reality that all the others are pulled out of place. He diverts them.

In a general way, the fight for language is the fight for the freedom to live, for the reversal of perspective. The battle is between metaphysical facts and the reality of facts: I mean between facts conceived statistically as part of a system of interpretation of the world and facts understood in their development by the praxis which transforms them.

Power can't be overthrown like a government. The united front against authority covers the whole extent of everyday life and engages the vast majority of men. To know how to live is to know how to fight against renunciation without ever giving an inch. Let nobody underestimate power's skill in stuffing its slaves with words to the point of making them the slaves of its words.

What weapons do we have to secure our freedom? We can mention three:

1. Information should be corrected in the direction of poetry, news deciphered, official terms translated (so that "society", in the perspective opposed to power, becomes "racket" or "area of hierarchical power") -- leading eventually to a glossary or encyclopaedia (Diderot was well aware of their importance and so are the Situationists).

2. Open dialogue, the language of dialectic; conversation, and all forms of non-spectacular discussion

3. What Jakob Boehme called "sensual speech" (sensualische Sprache) "because it is a clear mirror of the senses". And the author of the Way to God elaborates: "in sensual speech all spirits converse directly, and have no need of any language, because theirs is the language of nature." if you remember what I have called the recreation of nature, the language Boehme talks about clearly becomes the language of spontaneity, of "doind", of individual and collective poetry; language centred on realisation, leading lived experience out of the cave of history. This is also connected with what Paul Brousse and Ravachol understood by "propoganda of the deed"

*

There is a silent communication; it is well known to lovers. At this stage language seems to lose its importance as essential mediation, thought is no longer a distraction (in the sense of leading us away from ourselves), words and signs become a luxury, an exuberance. think of those bantering conversations with their baroque of cries and caresses which are so surprisingly ridiculous for those who do not share the lovers' intoxication. but it was also direct communication that Léhautier referred to when the judge asked him what anarchists he knew in Paris: :Anarchists don't need to know one another to think the same thing." In radical groups which are able to reach the highest level of theoretical and practical coherence, words will sometimes acquire this privelege of playing and making love: erotic communication.

An aside: history has often been accused of happening back-to-front; the question of language becoming superfluous and turning into language-game is another example. A baroque current runs through the history of thought, making fun of words and signs with the subversive intention of disturbing the semiological order and Order in general. But the series of attempts on the life of language by the rabble of tumbloing nonsense-rhymers whose prize fools were Lear and Carroll finds its true expression in the Dada explosion. In 1916, the desire to have it out with signs, thoughts and words corresponded for the first time to a real crisis of communication. The liquidation of language that had so often been undertaken speculatively had a chance to find its historical realisation at last.

In an epoch which still had all its transcendental faith inlanguage, and in God, the master of all transcendence, doubts about signs could only lead to terrorist activity. When the crisis of human relationships shattered the unitary web of mythical communication, the attack on language took on a revolutionary air. So much so that it is tempting to say, as Hegel might have, that the decomposition of language chose Dada as the medium through which to reveal itself to the minds of men. Under the unitary regime the same desire to play with signs had been betrayed by history and found no response. By exposing falsified communication Dada began to supersede language in the direction of poetry. Today the language of myth and the language of spectacle are giving way to the reality which underlies them: the language of deeds. This language contains in itself the critique of all modes of expression and is thus a continuous auto-critique. Poor little sub-dadaists! Because they haven't understood that Dada necessarily implies this supersession, they continue to mumble that we talk like deaf men. Which is one way to be a fat maggot in the spectacle of cultural decomposition

*

The language of the whole man will be a whole language: perhaps the end of the old language of words. Inventing this language means reconstructing man right down to his unconscious. Totality is hacking its way through the fractured non-totality of thoughts, words and actions towards itself. We will have to speak until we can do without words.

 

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