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

by Raoul Vaneigem

Chapter 15 "Roles"


Initiation. As it seeks to safeguard the poverty of survival by loudly protesting against it, the compensatory tendency bestows upon each individual a certain number of formal possibilities of participating in the spectacle a sort of permit for the scenic representation of one or more slices of (private or public) life. Just as God used to bestow grace on all men, leaving each free to choose salvation or damnation, so modern social organization accords everyone the right to be a success or a failure in the social world. But whereas God appropriated human subjectivity in one fell swoop, the bourgeoisie commandeers it by means of a series of partial alienations. In one sense, therefore, there is progress here: subjectivity, which was nothing, becomes something; it attains its own truth, its mystery, its passions, its rationality, its rights. But this official recognition is bought at the price of its subdivision into components which are graded and pigeonholed according to Power's norms. Subjectivity attains objective form as stereotypes, by means of identification. In the process it has to be broken up into would-be-absolute fragments and pathetically reduced (witness the Romantics' grotesque treatment of the self, and the antidote for it, humour).

I possess badges of power, therefore I am. In order to be someone the individual must pay things their due. He must keep his roles in order, polish them up, enter into them repeatedly, and initiate himself little by little until he qualifies for promotion in the spectacle. The conveyor belts called schools, the advertising industry, the conditioning mechanisms inseparable from any Order -all conspire to lead the child, the adolescent and the adult as painlessly as possible into the big family of consumers.

There are different stages of initiation. Recognized social groups do not all enjoy the same measure of power, nor is that measure equally distributed within each group. It is a long way, in hierarchical terms, from the boss to his workers, from the star to his fans, or from the politician to his supporters. Some groups have a much more rigid structure than others. But all are founded on the illusion of participation shared by every group member whatever his rank. This illusion is fostered through meetings, insignia, the distribution of minor 'responsibilities', etc. The spurious solidarities maintained by such expedients are often friable. This boyscout mentality is frighteningly pervasive, and it throws up its own stereotypes, its own martyrs, heroes, models, geniuses, thinkers, good niggers, great successes e.g., Tania, Cienfuegos, Brando, Dylan, Sartre, a national darts champion, Lin Piao. (The reader is asked to assign each to the appropriate category....)

Can the collectivization of roles successfully replace the quondam power of the old ideologies? It has to be remembered that Power stands or falls with the organization of appearances. The fission of myth into particles of ideology has produced roles as fallout. The poverty of power now has no means of self-concealment aside from its lie-in-pieces. The prestige of a film star, a head of a family, or a chief executive is not worth a wet fart. Nothing can escape the effects of this nihilistic process of decomposition except its transcendence. Even a technocratic victory preventing this transcendence can only amount to the condemnation of people to meaningless activity, to rites of initiation leading nowhere, to unrewarded sacrifice, to enrollment without roles, t o specialization.

The specialist is, indeed, an adumbration of just such a chimerical being, cog, mechanical thing, housed in the rationality of a perfect social order of zombies. He turns up everywhere among politicians, among hijackers. Specialization is in a sense the science of roles, the science of endowing appearances with the éclat formerly bestowed by nobility, wit, extravagance or wealth. The specialist does more than this, however, for he enrolls himself in order to enroll others. He is the vital link between the techniques of production and consumption and the technique of spectacular representation. Yet he is, so to speak, an isolated link a monad. Knowing everything about a small area, he enlists others to produce and consume within the confines of this area so that he himself may receive a surplus-value of power and increase the significance of his own hierarchical image. He knows, if need be, how to give up a multitude of roles for one only, how to concentrate his power instead of spreading it around, how to make his life unilinear. When he does this he becomes a manager. His misfortune is that the sphere within which he exercises power is always too restricted, too partial. He is like the gastro-enterologist who cures a stomach but poisons the rest of the body in the process. Naturally, the importance of the group which he holds in thrall can allow him the illusion of power, but the anarchy is such, the clash of contradictory competing interests so violent, that he must eventually realize how powerless he really is. Just as heads of state with the power to unleash thermonuclear war contrive to paralyze each other, so specialists, by working at cross-purposes, construct and (in the last analysis) operate a gigantic machine Power, social organization which dominates them all and oppresses them in varying degrees according to their importance as cogs. They construct and operate this machine blindly, because it is simply the aggregate of their crossed purposes. We may expect, therefore, that in the case of most specialists the sudden consciousness of such a disastrous passivity, a passivity in which they have invested so much effort, will eventually fling them all the more energetically in the direction of an authentic will to live. It is also predictable that others among them, those who have been longer or more intensely exposed to the radiation of authoritarian passivity, will follow the example of the officer in Kafka's Penal Colony and perish along with the machine, tormented to the end by its last spasms. Every day the crossed purposes of the powerful make and unmake the tottering majesty of Power. We have seen with what results. Let us now try to imagine the glacial nightmare into which we would be plunged were the cyberneticians able so to co-ordinate their efforts as to achieve a rational organization of society, eliminating or at any rate reducing the effects of crossed purposes. They would have no rivals for the Nobel Prize, save perhaps the proponents of thermonuclear suicide.

* * *

The widespread use of name and photograph, as in what are laughingly referred to as 'identification' papers, is rather obviously tied up with the police function in modern societies. But the connection is not merely with the vulgar police work of search, surveillance, harassment, torture and murder incorporated. It also involves much more occult methods of maintaining law and order. The frequency with which an individual's name or image passes through the visual and oral channels of communication is an index of that individual's rank and category. It goes without saying that the name most often uttered in a neighbourhood, town, country, or in the world has a powerful fascination. Charted statistically for any given time and place, this information would supply a perfect relief map of Power.

Historically, however, the degeneration of roles goes hand in hand with the increasing meaninglessness of names. The aristocrat's name crystallizes the mystery of birth and title. In consumer society the spectacular exposure of the name of a Bernard Buffet serves to transform a very ordinary talent into a famous painter. The manipulation of names fabricates leaders in the same way as it sells shampoo. But this also means that a famous name is no longer the attribute of the one who bears it. The name 'Buffet' does not designate anything except a thing and a pig in a poke. It is a fragment of power.

I laugh when I hear the humanists whining about the reduction of people to ciphers. What makes them think the destruction of men complete with tricked-up names is any less inhuman than their destruction as a set of numbers? I have already said that the obscure antagonism between the would-be progressives and the reactionaries boils down to this: should people be smashed by punishments or by rewards? As for the reward of celebrity, thanks for nothing!

In any case, it is things that have names nowadays, not people. To reverse the perspective, however, it makes me happy to think that what I am cannot be reduced to a name. My pleasure is nameless: those all too rare moments when I act for myself afford no handhold for external manipulation of whatever kind. It is only when I accede to the dispossession of my self that I risk petrification amidst the names of the things which oppress me. This is the context in which to grasp the full meaning of Albert Libertad's burning of his identification papers. Such an act echoed much later by the black workers of Johannesburg is more than a rejection of police control: it is a way of giving up one name so as to have the pick of a thousand. Such is the superb dialectic of the change in perspective: since the powers-that-be forbid me to bear a name which is as it was for the feudal lord a true emanation of my strength, I refuse to be called by any name, and suddenly beneath the nameless I discover the wealth of real life, inexpressible poetry, the antechamber of transcendence. I enter the nameless forest where Lewis Carroll's gnat explains to Alice: "If the governess wanted to call you for your lessons, she would call out 'Come here -', and there she would have to leave off, because there wouldn't be any name for her to call, and of course you wouldn't have to go, you know." The blissful forest of radical subjectivity.

Giorgio de Chirico, to my mind, also has an admirably lucid knowledge of the way to Alice's forest. What holds for names holds too for the representation of the face. The photograph is the expression par excellence of the role, of the pose. It imprisons the soul and offers it up for inspection this is why a photograph is always sad. We examine it as we examine an object. And, true enough, to identify oneself with a range of facial expressions, no matter how broad a range, is a form of self-objectification. The God of the mystics at least had the good sense to avoid this trap. But let us get back to Chirico a near contemporary of Libertad's. (Power, if only it were human, would be proud of the number of potential encounters it has successfully prevented.) The blank faces of Chirico's figures are the perfect indictment of inhumanity. His deserted squares and petrified backgrounds display man dehumanized by the things he has made things which, frozen in an urban space crystallizing the oppressive power of ideologies, rob him of his substance and suck his blood. (I forget who speaks somewhere of vampiric landscapes; Breton, perhaps.) More than this, the absence of facial features seems to conjure up new faces, to materialize a presence capable of investing the very stones with humanity. For me this ghostly presence is that of collective creation: because they have no one's face, Chirico's figures evoke everyone.

In striking contrast to the fundamental tendency of modern sculpture, which goes to great lengths to express its own nothingness and concocts a semiology on the basis of its nullity, Chirico gives us paintings in which this absence is evoked solely as a means of intimating what lies beyond it namely, the poetry of reality and the realization of art, of philosophy, of man. As the sign of a reified world, the blank space is incorporated into the canvas at the crucial spot; the implication is that the countenance is no longer part of the representational universe, but is about to become part of everyday praxis.

One of these days the incomparable wealth of the decade between 1910 and 1920 will be clearly seen. The genius of these years, however primitive and intuitive, lay in the fact that for the first time an attempt was made to bridge the gulf between art and life. I think we may safely say that, the surrealist adventure aside, nothing was achieved in the period between the demise of this vanguard of transcendence and the inception of the situationist project. The disillusionment of the older generation which has been marking time for the last forty years, as much in the realm of art as in that of social revolution, merely reinforces this view. Dada, Malevich's white square, Ulysses, Chirico's canvasses -all impregnated the absence of man reduced to the state of a thing with the presence of the whole man. And today the whole man is simply the project which the majority of men harbour under the sign of a forbidden creativity.


In the unitary world, under the serene gaze of the gods, adventure and pilgrimage were paradigms of change in an unchanging universe. Inasmuch as this world was given for all time there was really nothing to be discovered, but revelation awaited the pilgrim, knight or wanderer at the crossroads. Actually revelation lay within each individual: the seeker would travel the world seeking it in himself, seeking it in far lands, until suddenly it would surge forth, a magical spring released by the purity of a gesture at the same place where the ill-favoured seeker would have found nothing. The spring and the castle dominate the creative imagination of the Middle Ages. The symbolic theme here is plain: beneath movement lies immutability, and beneath immutability, movement.

Wherein lies the greatness of Heliogabalus, Tamerlane, Gilles de Rais, Tristan, Perceval? In the fact that, once vanquished, they withdraw into a living God; they identify with the demiurge, abandoning their unsatisfied humanity in order to reign and die under the mask of divine awe. This death of men, which is the God of the immutable, lets life bloom under the shadow of its scythe. Our dead God weighs more heavily than the living God of old; for the bourgeoisie has not completely disposed of God, it has only contrived to air-condition his corpse. (The Romantic attitude was a reaction to the odour of that corpse's putrefaction, a disgusted wrinkling of the nostrils at the conditions imposed by survival.)

As a class rent by contradictions, the bourgeoisie founds its domination on the transformation of the world, yet refuses to transform itself. It is thus a movement wishing to avoid movement. In unitary societies the image of immutability embraced movement; in fragmentary societies change seeks to reproduce immutability: "Wars (or the poor, or slaves) will always be with us." Thus the bourgeoisie in power can tolerates change only if it is empty, abstract, cut off from the whole: partial change, changes of parts. Now although the habit of change is intrinsically subversive, it is also the main prerequisite to the functioning of consumer society. People have to change cars, fashions, ideas, etc., all the time. For if they did not, a more radical change would occur which would put an end to a form of authority that is already reduced to putting itself up for sale as parcels of power: it has to be consumed at all costs, and one of the costs is that everyone is consumed along with it. Sad to say, this headlong rush towards death, this desperate and would-be endless race deprives us of any real future: ahead lies the past, hastily disguised and projected forward in time. For decades now the selfsame 'novelties' have been turning up in the marketplace of fad and fancy, with the barest attempt to conceal their decrepitude. The same is true in the supermarket of the role. The system is confronted by the problem of how to supply a variety of roles wide enough to compensate for the loss of the qualitative force of the role as it existed in the prebourgeois era. This is a hopeless task for two reasons. In the first place, the quantitative character of roles is a limitation by definition, and inevitably engenders the demand for a conversion into quality. Secondly, the lie of renewal cannot be sustained within the poverty of the spectacle. The constant need for fresh roles forces a resort to remakes, to transparent mummery. The proliferation of trivial changes titillates the desire for real change but never satisfies it. Power accelerates changes in illusions, thereby hastening the eruption of reality, of radical change.

It is not just that the increasing number of roles tends to make them indistinguishable, it also triturates them and makes them ludicrous. The quantification of subjectivity has created spectacular categories for the most prosaic acts and the most ordinary attributes: a certain smile, a chest measurement, a hairstyle. Great roles are few and far between; walk-ons are a dime a dozen. Even the Ubus the Stalins, Hitlers or Mussolinis have but the palest of successors. Most of us are well acquainted with the malaise that accompanies any attempt to join a group and make contact with others. This feeling amounts to stage fright, the fear of not playing one's part properly. Only with the crumbling of officially controllable attitudes and poses will the true source of this anxiety become clear to us. For it arises not from our clumsiness in handling roles but from the loss of self in the spectacle, in the order of things. In his book Medecine et homme total, Soli‚ has this to say about the frightening spread of neurotic disorders: "There is no such thing as disease per se, no such thing, even, as a sick person per se: all there is is authentic or inauthentic being-in-the-world." The reconversion of the energy robbed by appearances into the will to live authentically is a function of the dialectic of appearances itself. The refusal of inauthenticity triggers a near-biological defensive reaction which because of its violence has a very good chance of destroying those who have been orchestrating the spectacle of alienation all this time. This fact should give pause to all who pride themselves on being idols, artists, sociologists, thinkers and specialists of every kind of mise en scene. Explosions of popular anger are never accidental.

* * *

According to a Chinese philosopher, "Confluence tends towards the void. In total confluence presence stirs." Alienation extends to all human activities and dissociates them in the extreme. But by the same token it loses its own coherence and becomes everywhere more vulnerable. In the disintegration of the spectacle we see what Marx called "the new life which becomes self-aware, destroys what is already destroyed, and rejects what is already rejected." Beneath dissociation lies unity; beneath fatigue, concentrated energy; beneath the fragmentation of the self, radical subjectivity. In other words, the qualitative. But there is more to wanting to remake the world than wanting to make love to your lover.

With the weakening of the factors responsible for the etiolation of everyday life, the forces of life tend to get the upper hand over the power of roles. This is the beginning of the reversal of perspective. Modern revolutionary theory should concentrate its efforts on this area so as to open the breach that leads to transcendence. As the period of calculation and suspicion ushered in by capitalism and Stalinism draws to a close, it is challenged from within by the initial phase, based on clandestine tactics, of the era of play.

The degenerate state of the spectacle, individual experience, collective acts of refusal these supply the context for development of practical tactics for dealing with roles. Collectively it is quite possible to abolish roles. The spontaneous creativity and festive atmosphere given free rein in revolutionize moments afford ample evidence of this. When people are overtaken by joie de vivre they are lost to leadership and stage management of any kind. Only by starving the revolutionary masses of joy can one become their master: uncontained, collective pleasure can only go from victory to victory. Meanwhile it is already possible for a group dedicated to theoretical and practical actions, like the situationists, to infiltrate the political and cultural spectacle as a subversive force. Individually and thus in a strictly temporary way we must learn how to sustain roles without strengthening them to the point where they are detrimental to us. How to use them as a protective shield while at the same time protecting ourselves against them. How to retrieve the energy they absorb and actualize the illusory power they dispense. How to play the game of a Jacques Vache.

If your role imposes a role on others, assume this power which is not you, then set this phantom loose. Nobody wins in struggles for prestige, so don't bother with them. Down with pointless quarrels, vain discussions, forums, debates and Weeks for Marxist Thought! When the time comes to strike for your real liberation, strike to kill. Words cannot kill. Do people want to discuss things with you? Do they admire you? Spit in their faces. Do they make fun of you? Help them recognize themselves in their mockery. Roles are inherently ridiculous. Do you see nothing but roles around you? Treat them to your nonchalance, to your dispassionate wit. Play cat and mouse with them, and there is a good chance that one or two people about you will wake up to themselves and discover the prerequisites for real communication. Remember: all roles alienate equally, but some are less despicable than others. The range of stereotyped behaviour includes forms which barely conceal lived experience and its alienated demands. To my mind, temporary alliances are permissible with certain revolutionary images, to the extent that a glimmer of radicalism shines through the ideological screen which they presuppose. A case in point is the cult of Lumumba among young Congolese revolutionaries. In any case, it is impossible to go wrong so long as we never forget that the only proper treatment for ourselves and for others is to make ever more radical demands.


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