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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 14 "The Organization of Appearances"

The organization of appearances is a system for protecting the facts. A racket. lt represents the facts in a mediated reality to prevent them emerging in unmediated form. Unitary power organized appearances as myth. Fragmentary power organizes appearances as spectacle. Challenged, the coherence of myth became the myth of coherence. Magnified by history, the incoherence of the spectacle turns into the spectacle of incoherence (eg, pop art, a contemporary form of consumable putrefaction, is also an expression of the contemporary putrefaction of consumption) (1). The poverty of 'the drama' as a literary genre goes hand in hand with the colonization of social space by theatrical attitudes. Enfeebled on the stage, theatre battens on to everyday life and attempts to dramatize everyday behaviour. Lived experience is poured into the moulds of roles. The job of perfecting roles has been turned over to experts (2).

1

The ideal world," says Nietzsche, "is a lie invented to deprive reality of its value, its meaning, its truth. Until now the ideal has been the curse of reality. This lie has so pervaded humanity that it has been perverted and has falsified itself even in its deepest instincts, even to the point where it bows down to values directly opposed to those which formerly ensured progress by ensuring the self-transformation of the present." The lie of the ideal is of course merely the truth of the masters. When theft needs legal justification, when authority raises the banner of the general interest while pursuing private ends with impunity, is it any wonder that the lie fascinates the minds of men, twisting them to fit its laws until their contortions come to resemble 'natural' human postures? And it is true that man lies because in a world governed by lies he cannot do otherwise: he is falsehood himself, he is trapped in his own falsehood. Common sense never underwrites anything except the decree promulgated in the name of everyone against the truth. Common sense is the lie put into lay terms.

All the same, nobody lies groaning under the yoke of inauthenticity twenty-four hours a day. There are always a few radical thinkers in whom a truthful light shines briefly through the lie of words; and by the same token there are very few alienations which are not shattered every day for an instant, for an hour, for the space of a dream, by subjective refusal. Words are never completely in the thrall of Power, and no one is ever completely unaware of what is destroying him. When these moments of truth are extended they will turn out to have been the tip of the iceberg of subjectivity destined to sink the Titanic of the lie.

* * *

After shattering myth, the tide of materialism has washed its fragments out to sea. Once the motor force of this tide, the bourgeoisie will end up as so much foam drifting out along with all the flotsam. When he describes the mechanism whereby the king's hired assassin returns in due time to carry out his orders upon the one who gave them, Shakespeare seems to offer us a curiously prophetic account of the fate reserved for the class that killed God. Once the assassins of the established order lose their faith in the myth, or, in other words, in the God who legalizes their crimes, the machinery of death is turned against its devisers. Revolution was the bourgeoisie's finest invention. It is also the running noose which will help it take its leap into oblivion. It is easy to see why bourgeois thought, strung up as it is on a rope of radicalism of its own manufacture, clings with the energy of desperation to every reformist solution, to anything that can prolong its life, even though its own weight must inevitably drag it down to its doom. Fascism is in a way a consistent response to this hopeless predicament. It is like an aesthete dreaming of dragging the whole world down with him into the abyss, lucid as to the death of his class but a sophist when he announces the inevitability of universal annihilation. Today this mise en sc? of death chosen and refused lies at the core of the spectacle of incoherence.

The organization of appearances aspires to the immobility of the shadow of a bird in flight. But this aspiration amounts to no more than a vain hope, bound up with the ruling class's efforts to solidify its power, of escaping from the course of history. There is, however, an important difference between myth and its fragmented, desanctified avatar, the spectacle, with respect to the way each resists the criticism of facts. The varying importance assumed in unitary systems by artisans, merchants and bankers explains the continual oscillation in these societies between the coherence of myth and the myth of coherence. With the triumph of the bourgeoisie something very different happens: by introducing history into the armoury of appearances, the bourgeois revolution historicizes appearance and thus makes the progression from the incoherence of the spectacle to the spectacle of incoherence inevitable.

In unitary societies, whenever the merchant class, with its disrespect for tradition, threatened to deconsecrate values, the coherence of myth would give way to the myth of coherence. What does this mean? What had formerly been taken for granted had suddenly to be vigorously reasserted. Loud professions of faith were heard where previously faith was so automatic as to need no stating, and respect for the great had to be preserved through recourse to the principle of absolute monarchy. I hope closer study will be given to these paradoxical interregnums of myth during which we see the bourgeoisie trying to sanctify its rise by means of a new religion and by self-ennoblement, while the nobility engages in the corollary but very different activity of gambling on an impossible transcendence. (The Fronde springs to mind--but so do the Heraclitean dialectic and Gilles de Rais.) The aristocracy had the elegance to turn its last words into a witticism; the bourgeoisie's disappearance from the scene will have but the gravity of bourgeois thought. As for the forces of revolutionary transcendence, they surely have more to win from lighthearted death than from the dead weight of survival.

There comes a time when the myth of coherence is so undermined by the criticism of facts that it cannot mutate back into a coherent myth. Appearance, that mirror in which men hide their own choices from themselves, shatters into a thousand pieces and falls into the public realm of individual supply and demand. The demise of appearances means the end of hierarchical power, that facade "with nothing behind it." The trend is clear, and leaves no room for doubt as to this final outcome. The Great Revolution was scarcely over before God's motley successors turned up at bargain prices as 'unclaimed' items on a pawnbroker's shelves. First came the Supreme Being and the Bonapartist concordat, and then, hard on their heels, nationalism, individualism, socialism, national socialism, and all the other neo-isms--not to mention the individualized dregs of every imaginable hand-me-down weltanschauung and the thousands of portable ideologies offered as free gifts every time someone buys a TV, an item of culture or a box of detergent. Eventually the decomposition of the spectacle entails the resort to the spectacle of decomposition. It is in the logic of things that the last actor should film his own death. As it happens, the logic of things is the logic of what can be consumed, and sold as it is consumed. Pataphysics, sub-Dada, and the mise en scène of impoverished everyday life line the road that leads us with many a twist and turn to the last graveyards.

2

The development of the drama as a literary genre cannot but throw light on the question of the organization of appearances. After all, a play is the simplest form of the organization of appearances, and a prototype for all more sophisticated forms. As religious plays designed to reveal the mystery of transcendence to men, the earliest theatrical forms were indeed the organization of appearances of their time. And the process of secularization of the theatre supplied the models for later, spectacular stage management. Aside from the machinery of war, all machines of ancient times originated in the needs of the theatre. The crane, the pulley and other hydraulic devices started out as theatrical paraphernalia; it was only much later that they revolutionized production relations. It is a striking fact that no matter how far we go back in time the domination of the earth and of men seems to depend on techniques which serve the purposes not only of work but also of illusion.

The birth of tragedy was already a narrowing of the arena in which primitive men and gods had held their cosmic dialogue. It meant a distancing, a putting in parentheses, of magical participation. This was now organized in accordance with a refraction of the principles of initiation, and no longer involved the rites themselves. What emerged was a spectaculum, a thing seen, while the gradual relegation of the gods to the role of mere props presaged their eventual eviction from the social scene as a whole. Once mythic relationships have been dissolved by secularizing tendencies, tragedy is superseded by drama. Comedy is a good indicator of this transition: with all the vigour of a completely new force, its corrosive humour devastates tragedy in its dotage. Molière's Don Juan and the parody of Handel in John Gay's Beggar's Opera bear sufficiently eloquent testimony on this score.

With the advent of drama human society replaces the gods on the stage. Now, although it is true that nineteenth-century theatre was merely one form of entertainment among others, we must not let this obscure the much more important fact that during this period theatre left the theatre, so to speak, and colonized the entire social arena. The cliché which likens life to a drama seems to evoke a fact so obvious as to need no discussion. So widespread is the confusion between play-acting and life that it does not even occur to us to wonder why it exists. Yet what is 'natural' about the fact that I stop being myself a hundred times a day and slip into the skin of people whose concerns and importance I have really not the slightest desire to know about? Not that I might not choose to be an actor on occasion--to play a role for diversion or pleasure. But this is not the type of role-playing I have in mind. The actor supposed to play a condemned man in a realist play is at perfect liberty to remain himself: herein lies, in fact, the paradox of fine acting. But this freedom that he enjoys is contingent upon the fact that this "condemned man" is in no danger of feeling a real hangman's noose about his neck. The roles we play in everyday life, on the other hand, soak into the individual, preventing him from being what he really is and what he really wants to be. They are nuclei of alienation embedded in the flesh of direct experience. The function of such stereotypes is to dictate to each person on an individual, even 'intimate', level the same things which ideology imposes collectively.

 

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