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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 15 "Roles"

Stereotypes are the dominant images of a period, the images of the dominant spectacle. The stereotype is the model of the role; the role is a model form of behaviour. The repetition of an attitude creates a role; the repetition of a role creates a stereotype. The stereotype is an objective form into which people are integrated by means of the role. Skill in playing and handling roles determines rank in the spectacular hierarchy. The degeneration of the spectacle brings about the proliferation of stereotypes and roles, which by the same token become risible, and converge dangerously upon their negation, i.e., spontaneous actions (1,2). Access to the role occurs by means of identification. The need to identify is more important to Power's stability than the models identified with. Identification is a pathological state, but only accidental identifications are officially classed as "mental illness." Roles are the bloodsuckers of the will to live (3). They express lived experience, yet at the same time they reify it. They also offer consolation for this impoverishment of life by supplying a surrogate, neurotic gratification. We have to break free of roles by restoring them to the realm of play (4). A role successfully adopted ensures promotion in the spectacular hierarchy, the rise from a given rank to a higher one. This is the process of initiation, as manifested notably in the cult of names and the use of photography. Specialists are those initiates who supervise initiation. The always partial expertise of specialists is a component part of the systematic strategy of Power, Power which destroys us even as it destroys itself (5). The degeneration of the spectacle makes roles interchangeable. The proliferation of unreal changes creates the preconditions for a sole and real change, a truly radical change. The weight of inauthenticity finally provokes a violent and quasi-biological reaction from the will to live (6).

1

Our efforts, our boredom, our defeats, the absurdity of our actions all stem most of the time from the imperious necessity in our present situation of playing hybrid parts, parts which appear to answer our desires, but which are really antagonistic to them. "We would live," says Pascal, "according to the ideas of others; we would live an imaginary life, and to this end we cultivate appearances. Yet in striving to beautify and preserve this imaginary being we neglect everything authentic." This was an original thought in the seventeenth century; at a time when the system of appearances was still hale, its coming crisis was apprehended only in the inhibitive flashes of the most lucid. Today, amidst the decomposition of all values, Pascal's observation states only what is obvious to everyone. By what magic do we attribute the liveliness of human passions to lifeless forms? Why do we succumb to the seduction of borrowed attitudes? What are roles?

Is what drives people to seek power the very weakness to which Power reduces them? The tyrant is irked by the duties the subjection of his people imposes on him. The price he pays for the divine consecration of his authority over men is perpetual mythic sacrifice, a permanent humility before God. The moment he quits God's service, he no longer 'serves' his people and his people are immediately released from their obligation to serve him. What vox populi, vox dei really means is: "What God wants, the people want." Slaves are not willing slaves for long if they are not compensated for their submission by a shred of power: all subjection entails the right to a measure of power, and there is no such thing as power that does not embody a degree of submission. This is why some agree so readily to be governed. Wherever it is exercised, on every rung of the ladder, power is partial, not absolute. It is thus ubiquitous, but ever open to challenge.

The role is a consumption of power. It locates one in the representational hierarchy, and hence in the spectacle: at the top, at the bottom, in the middle but never outside the hierarchy, whether this side of it or beyond it. The role is thus the means of access to the mechanism of culture: a form of initiation. It is also the medium of exchange of individual sacrifice, and in this sense performs a compensatory function. And lastly, as a residue of separation, it strives to construct a behavioural unity; in this aspect it depends on identification.

2

In a restrictive sense, the expression "to play a role in society" clearly implies that roles are a distinction reserved for a chosen few. Roman slaves, medieval serfs, agricultural day-labourers, proletarians brutalized by a thirteen-hour day -the likes of these do not have roles, or they have such rudimentary ones that 'refined' people consider them more animals than men. There is, after all, such a thing as poverty founded on exclusion from the poverty of the spectacle. By the nineteenth century, however, the distinction between good worker and bad worker had begun to gain ground as a popular notion, just as that between master and slave had been vulgarized, along with Christ, under the earlier, mythic system. It is true that the spread of this new idea was achieved with less effort, and that it never acquired the importance of the master-slave idea (although it was significant enough for Marx to deem it worthy of his derision). So, just like mythic sacrifice, roles have been democratized. Inauthenticity is a right of man; such, in a word, is the triumph of socialism. Take a thirty-five-year-old man. Each morning he takes his car, drives to the office, pushes papers, has lunch in town, plays pool, pushes more papers, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, greets his wife, kisses his children, eats his steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love, and falls asleep. Who reduces a man's life to this pathetic sequence of clichés? A journalist? A cop? A market researcher? A socialist-realist author? Not at all. He does it himself, breaking his day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes. Taken over body and consciousness by the blandishments of a succession of images, he rejects authentic satisfaction and espouses a passionless asceticism: his pleasures are so mitigated, yet so demonstrative, that they can only be a facade. The assumption of one role after another, provided he mimics stereotypes successfully, is titillating to him. Thus the satisfaction derived from a well-played role is in direct proportion to his distance from himself, to his self-negation and self-sacrifice.

What power masochism has! Just as others were Count of Sandomir, Palatine of Smirnoff, Margrave of Thorn, Duke of Courlande, so he invests his poses as driver, employee, superior, subordinate, colleague, customer, seducer, friend, philatelist, husband, paterfamilias, viewer, citizen with a quite personal majesty. And yet such a man cannot be entirely reduced to the idiotic machine, the lethargic puppet, that all this implies. For brief moments his daily life must generate an energy which, if only it were not rechannelled, dispersed and squandered in roles, would suffice to overthrow the world of survival. Who can gauge the striking-power of an impassioned daydream, of pleasure taken in love, of a nascent desire, of a rush of sympathy? Everyone seeks spontaneously to extend such brief moments of real life; everyone wants basically to make something whole out of their everyday life. But conditioning succeeds in making most of us pursue these moments in exactly the wrong way by way of the inhuman with the result that we lose what we most want at the very moment we attain it.

* * *

Stereotypes have a life and death of their own. Thus an image whose magnetism makes it a model for thousands of individual roles will eventually crumble and disappear in accordance with the laws of consumption, the laws of constant novelty and universal obsolescence. So how does spectacular society find new stereotypes? It finds them thanks to that injection of real creativity which prevents some roles from conforming to ageing stereotypes (rather as language gets a new lease on life through the assimilation of popular forms). Thanks, in other words, to that element of play which transforms roles.

To the extent that it conforms to a stereotype, a role tends to congeal, to take on the static nature of its model. Such a role has neither present, nor past, nor future, because its time resembles exposure time, and is, so to speak, a pause in time: time compressed into the dissociated space-time which is that of Power. (Here again we see the truth of the argument that Power's strength lies in its facility in enforcing both actual separation and false union.) The timeless moment of the role may be compared to the cinematic image, or rather to one of its elements, to one frame, to one image in the series of images of minimally varying predetermined attitudes whose reproduction constitutes a shot. In the case of roles reproduction is ensured by the rhythms of the advertising media, whose power of dissemination is the precondition for a role's achievement of the status of a stereotype (Monroe, Sagan, Dean). No matter how much or how little limelight a given role attains in the public eye, however, its prime function is always that of social adaptation, of integrating people into the well policed universe of things. Which is why there are hidden cameras always ready to catapult the most pedestrian of lives into the spotlight of instant fame. Bleeding hearts fill columns, and superfluous body hair becomes an affair of Beauty. When the spectacle battening on to everyday life takes a pair of unhappy lovers and mass-markets them as Tristan and Isolde, sells a tattered derelict as a piece of nostalgia, or makes a drudging housewife into a good fairy of the kitchen, it is already way ahead of anything modern art can dream up. It was inevitable, perhaps, that people would end up modelling themselves on collages of smiling spouses, crippled children and do-it-yourself geniuses. At any rate we have reached that point and such ploys always pay off. On the other hand the spectacle is fast approaching a saturation point, the point immediately prior to the eruption of everyday reality. For roles now operate on a level perilously close to their own negation: already the average failure is hard put to it to play his role properly, and some maladjusted people refuse their roles altogether. As it falls apart, the spectacular system starts scraping the barrel, drawing nourishment from the lowest social strata. It is forced, in fact, to eat its own shit. Thus tone-deaf singers, talent-free artists, reluctant laureates and pallid stars of all kinds emerge periodically to cross the firmament of the media, their rank in the hierarchy being determined by the regularity with which they achieve this feat.

Which leaves the hopeless cases those who reject all roles and those who develop a theory and practice of this refusal. From such maladjustment to spectacular society a new poetry of real experience and a reinvention of life are bound to spring. The deflation of roles precipitates the decompression of spectacular time in favour of lived space-time. What is living intensely if not the mobilization and redirection of the current of time, so long arrested and lost in appearances? Are not the happiest moments of our lives glimpses of an expanded present that rejects Power's accelerated time which dribbles away year after year, for as long as it takes to grow old?

3

Identification. The principle of Szondi's test is well known. The patient is asked to choose, from forty-eight photographs of people in various types of paroxystic crisis, those which evoke sympathy in him and those which evoke aversion. The subject invariably prefers those faces expressing instinctual feelings which he accepts in himself, and rejects those expressing ones which he represses. The results enable the psychiatrist to draw up an instinctual profile of his patient which helps him decide whether to discharge him or send him to the air-conditioned crematorium known as a mental hospital.

Consider now the needs of consumer society, a society in which man's essence is to consume to consume Coca-Cola, literature, ideas, emotions, architecture, TV, power, etc. Consumer goods, ideologies, stereotypes all play the part of photos in a gigantic version of Szondi's test in which each of us is supposed to take part, not merely by making a choice, but by a commitment, by practical activity. This society's need to market objects, ideas and model forms of behaviour calls for a decoding centre where an instinctual profile of the consumer can be constructed to help in product design and improvement, and in the creation of new needs liable to increase consumption. Market research, motivation techniques, opinion polls, sociological surveys and structuralism may all be considered a part of this project, no matter how anarchic and feeble their contributions may be as yet. The cyberneticians can certainly supply the missing co-ordination and rationalization if they are given the chance.

At first glance the main thing would seem to be the choice of the "consumable image." The housewife-who-uses-Fairy-Snow is different and the difference is measured in profits from the housewife-who-uses-Tide. The Labour voter differs from the Conservative voter, and the Communist from the Christian, in much the same way. But such differences are increasingly hard to discern. The spectacle of incoherence ends up putting a value on the vanishing point of values. Eventually, identification with anything at all, like the need to consume anything at all, becomes more important than brand loyalty to a particular type of car, idol, or politician. The essential thing, after all, is to alienate people from their desires and pen them in the spectacle, in the occupied zone. It matters little whether people are good or bad, honest or criminal, left-wing or right-wing: the form is irrelevant, just so long as they lose themselves in it. Let those who cannot identify with Khrushchev identify with Yevtushenko; this should cover everyone but hooligans and we can deal with them. And indeed it is the third force alone that has nothing to identify with no enemy, no pseudo-revolutionary leader. The third force is the force of identity that identity in which everyone recognizes and discovers himself. There, at least, no one makes decisions for me, or in my name; there my freedom is the freedom of all.

* * *

There is no such thing as mental illness. It is merely a convenient label for grouping and isolating cases where identification has not occurred properly. Those whom Power can neither govern nor kill, it taxes with madness. The category includes extremists and megalomaniacs of the role, as well as those who deride roles or refuse them. It is only the isolation of such individuals which condemns them, however. Let a General identify with France, with the support of millions of voters, and an opposition immediately springs up which seriously seeks to rival him in his lunacy. Horbiger's attempt to invent a Nazi physics met with a similar kind of success. General Walker was taken seriously when he drew a distinction between superior, white, divine and capitalist man on the one hand, and black, demoniacal, communist man on the other. Franco would meditate devoutly and beg God for guidance in oppressing Spain. Everywhere in the world are leaders whose cold frenzy lends substance to the thesis that man is a machine for ruling. True madness is a function not of isolation but of identification.

The role is the self-caricature which we carry about with us everywhere, and which brings us everywhere face to face with an absence. An absence, though, which is structured, dressed up, prettified. The roles of paranoiac, schizophrenic or psychopath do not carry the seal of social usefulness; in other words, they are not distributed under the label of power, as are the roles of cop, boss, or military officer. But they do have a utility in specified places in asylums and prisons. Such places are museums of a sort, serving the double purpose, from Power's point of view, of confining dangerous rivals while at the same time supplying the spectacle with needed negative stereotypes. For bad examples and their exemplary punishment add spice to the spectacle and protect it. If identification were maximized through increased isolation, the ultimate falseness of the distinction between mental and social alienation would soon become clear.

At the opposite extreme from absolute identification is a particular way of putting a distance between the role and one's self, a way of establishing a zone of free play. This zone is a breeding place of attitudes disruptive of the spectacular order. Nobody is ever completely swallowed up by a role. Even turned on its head, the will to live retains a potential for violence always capable of carrying the individual away from the path laid down for him. One fine morning, the faithful lackey, who has hitherto identified completely with his master, leaps on his oppressor and slits his throat. For he has reached that point where his right to bite like a dog has finally aroused his desire to strike back like a human being. Diderot has described this moment well in Rameau's Nephew and the case of the Papin sisters illustrates it even better. The fact is that identification, like all manifestations of inhumanity, has its roots in the human. Inauthentic life feeds on authentically felt desires. And identification through roles is doubly successful in this respect. In the first place it co-opts the pleasure to be derived from metamorphoses, from putting on masks and going about in different disguises. Secondly, it appropriates mankind's ancient love of mazes, the love of getting lost solely in order to find one's way again: the pleasure of the derive. In this way roles also lay under contribution the reflex of identity, the desire to find the richest and truest part of ourselves in other people. The game ceases to involve play: it petrifies because the players can no longer make up the rules. The quest for identity degenerates into identification.

Let us reverse the perspective for a moment. A psychiatrist tells us that "Recognition by society leads the individual to expend his sexual drives on cultural goals, and this is the best way for him to defend himself against these drives." Read: the aim of roles is to absorb vital energies, to reduce erotic energy by ensuring it permanent sublimation. The less erotic reality there is, the more the sexualized forms appearing in the spectacle. Roles Reich would say 'armouring' guarantee orgastic impotence. Conversely, true pleasure, joie de vivre and orgastic potency shatter body armour and roles. If individuals could stop seeing the world through the eyes of the powers-that-be, and look at it from their own point of view, they would have no trouble discerning which actions are really liberating, which moments are lightning flashes in the dark night of roles. Real experience can illuminate roles can x-ray them, so to speak in such a way as to retrieve the energy invested in them, to extricate the truth from the lies. This task is at once individual and collective. Though all roles alienate equally, some are more vulnerable than others. It is easier to escape the role of a libertine than the role of a cop, executive or rabbi. A fact to which everyone should give a little thought.

4

Compensation. The ultimate reason why people come to value roles more highly than their own lives is that their lives are priceless. What this means, in its ambiguity, is that life cannot be priced, cannot be marketed; and also that such riches can only be described according to the spectacle's categories as intolerable poverty. In the eyes of consumer society poverty is whatever cannot be brought down to terms of consumption. From the spectacular point of view the reduction of man to consumer is an enrichment: the more things he has, the more roles he plays, the more he is. So it is decreed by the organization of appearances. But, from the point of view of lived reality, all power so attained is paid for by the sacrifice of true self-realization. What is gained on the level of appearances is lost on the level of being and becoming.

Thus lived experience always furnishes the raw material of the social contract, the coin in which the entry fee is paid. Life is sacrificed, and the loss compensated by means of accomplished prestidigitation in the realm of appearances. The more daily life is thus impoverished, the greater the attraction of inauthenticity, and vice versa. Dislodged from its essential place by the bombardment of prohibitions, limitations and lies, lived reality comes to seem so trivial that appearances become the centre of our attention, until roles completely obscure the importance of our own lives. In an order of things, compensation is the only thing that gives a person any weight. The role compensates for a lack: ultimately, for the lack of life; more immediately, for the lack of another role. A worker conceals his prostration beneath the role of foreman, and the poverty of this role itself beneath the incomparably superior image of a late-model car. But every role is paid for by self-injury (overwork, the renunciation of 'luxuries', survival, etc.). At best it is an ineffective plug for the gaping wound left by the vampirization of the self and of real life. The role is at once a threat and a protective shield. Its threatening aspect is only felt subjectively, however, and does not exist officially. Officially, the only danger lies in the loss or devaluation of the role: in loss of honour, loss of dignity, or (happy phrase!) loss of face. This ambiguity accounts to my mind for people's addiction to roles. It explains why roles stick to our skin, why we give up our lives for them. They impoverish real experience but they also protect this experience from becoming conscious of its impoverishment. Indeed, so brutal a revelation would probably be too much for an isolated individual to take. Thus roles partake of organized isolation, of separation, of false union, while compensation is the depressant that ensures the realization of all the potentialities of inauthenticity, that gets us high on identification.

Survival and its protective illusions form an inseparable whole. The end of survival naturally entails the disappearance of roles (although there are some dead people whose names are linked to stereotypes). Survival without roles is to be officially dead. Just as we are condemned to survival, so we are condemned to "keep up appearances" in the realm of inauthenticity. Armouring inhibits freedom of gesture but also deadens blows. Beneath this carapace we are completely vulnerable. But at least we can still play "let's pretend" we still have a chance to play roles off against one another.

Rosanov's approach is not a bad one: "Externally, I decline. Subjectively, I am quite indeclinable. I don't agree. I'm a kind of adverb." In the end, of course, the world must be modelled on subjectivity: then I will 'agree' with myself in order to 'agree' with others. But, right now, to throw out all roles like a bag of old clothes would amount to denying the fact of separation and plunging into mysticism or solipsism. I am in enemy territory, and the enemy is within me. I don't want him to kill me, and the armour of roles gives me a measure of protection. I work, I consume, I know how to be polite, how to avoid aggravation, how to keep a low profile. All the same, this world of pretence has to be destroyed, which is why it is a shrewd course to let roles play each other off. Seeming to have no responsibility is the best way of behaving responsibly toward oneself. All jobs are dirty so do them dirtily! All roles are lies, but leave them alone and they'll give each other the lie! I love the arrogance of Jacques Vache when he writes: "I wander from ruins to village with my monocle of Crystal and a disturbing theory of painting. I have been in turn a lionized author, a celebrated pornographic draftsman and a scandalous cubist painter. Now I am going to stay at home and let others explain and debate my personality in the light of the above mentioned indications." My only responsibility is to be absolutely honest with those who are on my side, those who are true partisans of authentic life.

The more detached one is from a role, the easier it becomes to turn it against the enemy. The more effectively one avoids the weight of things, the easier it is to achieve lightness of movement. Comrades care little for forms. They argue openly, confident in the knowledge that they cannot inflict wounds on each other. Where communication is genuinely sought, misunderstandings are no crime. But if you accost me armed to the teeth, understanding agreement only in terms of a victory for you, then you will get nothing out of me but an evasive pose, and a formal silence intended to indicate that the discussion is closed. For interchange on the basis of contending roles is useless a priori. Only the enemy wants to fight on the terrain of roles, according to the rules of the spectacle. It is hard enough keeping one's phantoms at arm's length: who needs 'friendships' which put us back on the same footing? Would that biting and barking could wake people up to the dog's life roles force them to live wake them up to the importance of their selves!

Fortunately, the spectacle of incoherence is obliged to introduce an element of play into roles. Its levelling of all ethical distinctions makes it impossible to take seriously. The playful approach to roles leaves them floating in the sea of its indifference. This accounts for the rather unhappy efforts of our reorganizers of appearances to increase the playful element (TV game shows, etc.), to press flippancy into the service of consumption. The disintegration of appearances tends to foster distancing from roles. Some roles, being dubious or ambiguous, embody their own self-criticism. The spectacle is destined eventually for reconversion into a collective game. Daily life, seizing whatever means it has to hand, will establish the preconditions for this game's never-ending expansion.

 

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