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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 16 "The Fascination of Time"

People are bewitched into believing that time slips away, and this belief is the basis of time actually slipping away. Time is the work of attrition of that adaptation to which people must resign themselves so long as they fail to change the world. Age is a role, an acceleration of 'lived' time on the plane of appearances, an attachment to things.

The growth of civilization's discontents is now forcing every branch of therapeutics towards a new demonology. Just as, formerly, invocation, sorcery, possession, exorcism, black sabbaths, metamorphoses, talismans and all the rest were bound up with the suspect capacity for healing and hurting, so today (and more effectively) the apparatus for offering consolation to the oppressed medicine, ideology, compensatory roles, consumer gadgetry, movements for social change serves the oppressor and the oppressor alone. The order of things is sick: this is what our leaders would conceal at all costs. In a fine passage of The Function of the Orgasm, Wilhelm Reich relates how after long months of psychoanalytic treatment he managed to cure a young Viennese working woman. She was suffering from depression brought on by the conditions of her life and work. When she was recovered Reich sent her back home. A fortnight later she killed herself. Reich's intransigent honesty condemned him, as everyone knows, to exclusion from the psychoanalytic establishment, to isolation, delusion and death in prison: the duplicity of our neodemonologists cannot be exposed with impunity.

Those who organize the world organize both suffering and the anaesthetics for dealing with it; this much is common knowledge. Most people live like sleepwalkers, torn between the gratification of neurosis and the traumatic prospect of a return to real life. Things are now reaching the point, however, where the maintenance of survival calls for so many analgesics that the organism approaches saturation point. But the magical analogy is more apt here than the medical: practitioners of magic fully expect a backlash effect in such circumstances, and we should expect the same. It is because of the imminence of this upheaval that I compare the present conditioning of human beings to a massive bewitchment.

Bewitching of this kind presupposes a spatial network which links up the most distant objects sympathetically, according to specific laws: formal analogy, organic coexistence, functional symmetry, symbolic affiliation, etc. Such correspondences are established through the infinitely frequent association of given forms of behaviour with appropriate signals. In other words, through a generalized system of conditioning. The present vogue for loudly condemning the role of conditioning, propaganda, advertising and the mass media in modern society may be assumed to be a form of partial exorcism designed to reinforce a vaster and more essential mystification by distracting attention from it. Outrage at the gutter press goes hand in hand with subservience to the more elegant lies of posh journalism. Media, language, time these are the giant claws with which Power manipulates humanity and moulds it brutally to its own perspective. These claws are not very adept, admittedly, but their effectiveness is enormously increased by the fact that people are not aware that they can resist them, and often do not even know the extent to which they are already spontaneously doing so.

Stalin's show trials proved that it only takes a little patience and perseverance to get a man to accuse himself of every imaginable crime and appear in public begging to be executed. Now that we are aware of such techniques, and on our guard against them, how can we fail to see that the set of mechanisms controlling us uses the very same insidious persuasiveness though with more powerful means at its disposal, and with greater persistence when it lays down the law: "You are weak, you must grow old, you must die." Consciousness acquiesces, and the body follows suit. I am fond of a remark of Artaud's, though it must be set in a materialist light: "We do not die because we have to die: we die because one day, and not so long ago, our consciousness was forced to deem it necessary."

Plants transplanted to an unfavourable soil die. Animals adapt to their environment. Human beings transform theirs. Thus death is not the same thing for plants, animals and humans. In favourable soil, the plant lives like an animal: it can adapt. Where man fails to change his surroundings, he too is in the situation of an animal. Adaptation is the law of the animal world.

According to Hans Selye, the theoretician of 'stress', the general syndrome of adaptation has three phases: the alarm reaction, the phase of resistance and the phase of exhaustion. In terms of real life he is still at the level of animal adaptation: spontaneous reactions in childhood, consolidation in maturity, exhaustion in old age. And today, the harder people try to find salvation in appearances, the more vigorously is it borne in upon them by the ephemeral and inconsistent nature of the spectacle that they live like dogs and die like bundles of hay. The day cannot be far off when men will have to face the fact that the social organization they have constructed to change the world according to their wishes no longer serves this purpose. For all this organization amounts to is a system of prohibitions preventing the creation of a higher form of organization and the use therein of the techniques of liberation and individual self-realization which have evolved throughout the history of privative appropriation, of exploitation of man by man, of hierarchical authority.

We live in a closed, suffocating system. Whatever we gain in one sphere we lose in another. Death, for instance, though quantitatively defeated by modern medicine, has re-emerged qualitatively on the plane of survival. Adaptation has been democratized, made easier for everyone, at the price of abandoning the essential project, which is the adaptation of the world to human needs.

A struggle against death exists, of course, but it takes place within the limits set by the adaptation syndrome: death is part of the cure for death. Significantly, therapeutic efforts concentrate mainly on the exhaustion phase, as though the main aim were to extend the stage of resistance as far as possible into old age. Thus the big guns are brought out only once the body is old and weak, because, as Reich understood well, any all-out attack on the attrition wreaked by the demands of adaptation would inevitably mean a direct onslaught on social organization i.e., on that which stands opposed to any transcendence of the principle of adaptation. Partial cures are preferred because they leave the overall social pathology untouched. But what will happen when the proliferation of such partial cures ends up spreading the malaise of inauthenticity to every corner of daily life? And when the essential role of exorcism and bewitchment in the maintenance of a sick society becomes plain for all to see?

* * *

The question "How old are you?" inevitably contains a reference to power. Dates themselves serve to pigeonhole and circumscribe us. Is not the passage of time always measured by reference to the establishment of some authority or other in terms of the years accumulated since the installation of a god, messiah, leader or conquering city? To the aristocratic mind, moreover, such accumulated time was a measure of authority: the prepotency of the lord was increased both by his own age and by the antiquity of his lineage. At his death the noble bequeathed a vitality to his heirs which drew vigour from the past. By contrast, the bourgeoisie has no past; or at any rate it recognizes none inasmuch as its fragmented power no longer depends on any hereditary principle. The bourgeoisie is thus reduced to aping the nobility: identification with forebears is sought in nostalgic fashion via the photos in the family album; identification with cyclical time, with the time of the eternal return, is feebly emulated by blind identification with a staccato succession of short spans of linear time.

This link between age and the starting-post of measurable time is not the only thing which betrays age's kinship with power. I am convinced that people's measured age is nothing but a role. It involves a speeding up of lived time in the mode of non-life on the plane, therefore, of appearances, and in accordance with the dictates of adaptation. To acquire power is to acquire 'age'. In earlier times only the 'aged' or 'elders', those old either in nobility or in experience, exercised power. Today even the young enjoy the dubious privilege of age. In fact consumer society, which invented the teenager as a new class of consumer, fosters premature senility: to consume is to be consumed by inauthenticity, nurturing appearance to the advantage of the spectacle and to the detriment of real life. The consumer is killed by the things he becomes attached to, because these things (commodities, roles) are dead.

Whatever you possess possesses you in return. Everything that makes you into an owner adapts you to the order of things makes you old. Time-which-slips-away is what fills the void created by the absence of the self. The harder you run after time, the faster time goes: this is the law of consumption. Try to stop it, and it will wear you out and age you all the more easily. Time has to be caught on the wing, in the present but the present has yet to be constructed.

We were born never to grow old, never to die. All we can hope for, however, is an awareness of having come too soon. And a healthy contempt for the future can at least ensure us a rich portion of life.

 

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