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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 13 "Separation"

Privative appropriation, the basis of social organization, keeps individuals separated from themselves and from others. Artificial unitary paradises seek to conceal this separation by assimilating, more or less successfully, people's prematurely shattered dreams of unity. To no avail. People may be forced to swing back and forth across the narrow gap between the pleasure of creating and the pleasure of destroying, but this very oscillation suffices to bring Power to its knees.

People live separated from one another, separated from what they are in others, and separated from themselves. The history of humanity is the history of one basic separation which precipitates and determines all the others: the social distinction between masters and slaves. By means of history men try to find one another and attain unity. The class struggle is but one stage, though a decisive one, in the struggle for the whole man.

Just as the ruling class has every reason in the world to deny the existence of the class struggle, so the history of separation is necessarily indistinguishable from the history of the dissimulation of separation. This mystification results less from a deliberate intent than from a long drawn out and confused battle in which the desire for unity has generally ended up being transformed into its opposite. Wherever separation is not totally eliminated it is reinforced. When the bourgeoisie came to power, fresh light was shed on the factors which divide men in this most essential way, for bourgeois revolution laid bare the social and material character of separation.

* * *

What is God? The guarantor and quintessence of the myth used to justify the domination of man by man. This repellent invention has no other raison d'être. As myth decomposes and passes into the stage of the spectacle, the Grand External Object, as Lautréamont called him, is shattered by the forces of social atomization and degenerates into a remedy for intimate use only--a sort of salve for social diseases.

At the high point of the crisis brought on by the end of classical philosophy and of the ancient world, Christianity's genius lay in the fact that it subordinated the recasting of a mythic system to one fundamental principle: the doctrine of the Trinity. What does this dogma of the Three in One, which caused so much ink and blood to flow, really mean?

Man belongs to God in his soul, to the temporal authority in his body, and to himself in his spirit. His salvation depends on his soul, his liberty on his spirit, his earthly existence on his body. The soul envelops the body and the spirit, and without the soul these are as nothing. If we look more closely at this schema, we find an analogy for the union of master and slave under the principle of man envisaged as a divine creature. The slave is the body, the labor power appropriated by the lord; the master is his spirit which governs the body and invests it with a small part of its higher essence. The slave sacrifices himself in body to the power of the master, while the master sacrifices himself in spirit to the community of his slaves (e.g., the king 'serving' his people, de Gaulle 'serving' France, the Pope washing the feet of the poor). The slave abdicates his earthly life in exchange for the feeling of being free, that is, for the spirit of the master come down into him. Consciousness mystified is mythic consciousness. The master makes a notional gift of his master's power to all those whom he governs. By drenching the alienation of bodies in the subtler alienation of the spirit, he economizes on the amount of violence needed to maintain slavery. The slave identifies in spirit, or at least he may, with the master to whom he gives up his life force. But whom can the master identify with! Not with his slaves qua possessions, qua bodies, certainly: rather, with his slaves qua emanation of the spirit of mastery itself, of the master supreme. Since the individual master must sacrifice himself on the spiritual plane, he has to find someone or something within the coherent mythic system to make this sacrifice to: this need is met by a notion of mastery-in-itself of which he partakes and to which he submits. The historically contingent class of masters had thus to create a God to bow down to spiritually and with whom to identify. God validated both the master's mythic sacrifice to the public good and the slave's real sacrifice to the master's private and privative power. God is the principle of all submission, the night which makes all crimes lawful. The only illegal crime is the refusal to accept a master. God is a harmony of lies, an ideal form uniting the slave's voluntary sacrifice (Christ), the consenting sacrifice of the master (the Father; the slave as the master's son), and the indissoluble link between them (the Holy Ghost). The same model underlies the ideal picture of man as a divine, whole and mythic creature: a body subordinated to a guiding spirit working for the greater glory of the soul--the soul being the all embracing synthesis.

We thus have a type of relationship in which two terms take their meaning from an absolute principle, from an obscure and inaccessible norm of unchallengeable transcendence (God, blood, holiness, grace, etc.). Innumerable dualities of this type were kept bubbling for century after century like a good stew on the fire of mythic unity. Then the bourgeoisie took the pot off the fire and was left with nothing but a vague nostalgia for the warmth of the unitary myth and a set of cold and flavorless abstractions: body and spirit, being and consciousness, individual and society, private and public, general and particular, etc., etc. Ironically, though moved by class interests, the bourgeoisie destroyed the unitary myth and its tripartite structure to its own detriment. The wish for unity, so effectively fobbed off by the mythic thinking of unitary regimes, did not disappear along with those regimes: on the contrary, the wish became all the more urgent as the material nature of separation became clearer and clearer to people's consciousness. By laying bare the economic and social foundations of separation, the bourgeoisie supplied the arms which will serve to end separation once and for all. And the end of separation means the end of the bourgeoisie and of all hierarchical power. This is why no ruling class or caste can effect the transformation of feudal unity into real unity, into true social participation. This mission can only be accomplished by the new proletariat, which must forcibly wrest the third force (spontaneous creation, poetry) from the gods, and keep it alive in the everyday life of all. The transient period of fragmentary power will then be seen in its true light as a mere moment of insomnia, as the vanishing point prerequisite to the reversal of perspective, as the step back preparatory to the leap of transcendence.

* * *

History testifies to the struggle waged against the unitary principle and to the ways in which a dualistic reality began to emerge. The challenge was voiced to begin with in a theological language, the official language of myth. Later the idiom became that of ideology, the idiom of the spectacle. In their preoccupations, the Manichaeans, the Cathari, the Hussites, the Calvinists, etc, have much in common with such figures as Jean de Meung, La Boème or Vanino Vanini. We find Descartes desperately locating the soul, for want of any better place, in the pineal gland. The Cartesian God is a funambulist balancing for some perfectly unaccountable reason atop a perfectly intelligible world. Pascal's, by contrast, hides himself from view, so depriving man and the world of a justification without which they are left in meaningless confrontation, each being the only criterion for judging the other: how can something be measured against nothing?

By the close of the eighteenth century the fabric was rending in all directions as the process of decomposition began to speed up. This was the beginning of the era of "little men" in competition. Fragments of human beings claimed the status of absolutes: matter, mind, consciousness, action, universal, particular-- what God could put this Humpty Dumpty together again?

The spirit of feudal lordship had found an adequate justification in a certain transcendence. But a capitalist God is an absurdity. Whereas lordship called for a trinitarian system, capitalist exploitation is dualistic. Moreover, it cannot be dissociated from the material nature of economic relationships. The economic realm is no mystery: the nearest things to miracles here are the element of chance in the functioning of the market and the perfect programming of computerized planning. Calvin's rational God is much less attractive than the loans with interest that Calvinism authorizes so readily. As for the God of the Anabaptists of Munster and of the revolutionary peasant of 1525, he is a primitive expression of the irrepressible thrust of the masses towards a society of whole men.

The mystical authority of the feudal lord was very different from that instituted by the bourgeoisie. For the lord did not simply change his role and become a factory boss: once the mysterious superiority of blood and lineage is abolished, nothing is left but a mechanics of exploitation and a race for profit which have no justification but themselves. Boss and worker are separated not by any qualitative distinction of birth but merely by quantitative distinctions of money and power. Indeed, what makes capitalist exploitation so repulsive is the fact that it occurs between 'equals'. All the same, the bourgeoisie's work of destruction--though quite unintentional-ly, of course--reveals the justification for even revolution. When peoples stop being fooled they stop doing what they are told.

* * *

Fragmentary power carries fragmentation to the point where the human beings over which it holds sway themselves become contradictory. At the same time the unitary lie breaks down. The death of God democratizes the consciousness of separation. What was the "Romantic agony" if not a response to the pain of this split? Today we see it in every aspect of life: in love, in the human gaze, in nature, in our dreams, in reality. Hegel spoke of the tragedy of consciousness; he would have been nearer the mark had he spoken of a consciousness of tragedy. We find such a consciousness in revolutionary form in Marx. A far more comforting picture, from the viewpoint of Power, is offered by Peter Schlemiel setting off in search of his own shadow so as to forget that he is really a shadow in search of a body. The bourgeoisie's invention of artificial unitary paradises is a self-defensive reflex which is more or less successful in retrieving the old enchantment and reviving prematurely shattered dreams of unity.

Thus in addition to the great collective onanisms--ideologies, illusions of social unity, herd mentalities, opiums of the people--we are offered a whole range of marginal solutions lying in the no-man's-land between the permissible and the forbidden: individualized ideology, obsession, monomania, unique (and hence alienating) passions, drugs and other highs (alcohol, the cult of speed and rapid change, of rarefied sensations, etc). Now all these pursuits allow us to lose ourselves completely while preserving the impression of self-realization, but the corrosiveness of such activities stems above all from their partial quality. The passion for play is no longer alienating wherever the person who gives himself up to it seeks play in the whole of life--in love, in thought, in the construction of situations. ln the same way the wish to kill is no longer megalomania if it is combined with revolutionary consciousness.

Unitary palliatives thus entail two risks for Power. ln the first place they fail to satisfy, and in the second they tend to foster the will to build a real social unity. Mystical elevation led only to God; by contrast, horizontal historical progression towards a dubious spectacular unity is infinitely finite. It creates an unlimited appetite for the absolute, yet its quantitative nature is limiting by definition. Its mad rush, therefore, must sooner or later debouch into the qualitative, whether in a negative way or-- should a revolutionary consciousness prevail--through the transformation of negativity into positivity. The negative road does not lead to self-realization: it precipitates us into a willful self-destruction. Madness deliberately sought, the voluptuousness of crime and cruelty, the convulsive lightning of perversity--these are the enticing paths open to such unrepentant self-annihilation. To take them is merely to respond with unusual enthusiasm to the gravitational pull of Power's own tendency to dismember and destroy. But if it is to last, Power has to shackle its destructiveness: the good general oppresses his men, he does not execute them. On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether nothingness can be successfully doled out drop by drop. The limited pleasures derived from self-destruction could end up bringing down the power which sets such limits to pleasure. We only have to look at Stockholm or Watts to see that negative pleasure is forever on the point of tipping over into total pleasure--a little shove, and negative violence releases its positivity. I believe that all pleasure embodies the search for total, unitary satisfaction, in every sphere--a fact which I doubt Huysmans had the humor to see when he solemnly described a man with an erection as 'insurgent'.

The complete unchaining of pleasure is the surest way to the revolution of everyday life, to the construction of the whole man.

 

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