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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
The Reversal of Perspective

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 20 "Creativity, Spontaneity, and Poetry"

Human beings are in a state of creativity twenty-four hours a day. Once revealed, the scheming use of freedom by the mechanisms of domination produces a backlash in the form of an idea of authentic freedom inseparably bound up with individual creativity. The passion to create which issues from the consciousness of constraint can no longer be pressed into the service of production, consumption or organization. (1). Spontaneity is the mode of existence of creativity; not an isolated state, but the unmediated experience of subjectivity. Spontaneity concretizes the passion for creation and is the first moment of its practical realization: the precondition of poetry, of the impulse to change the world in accordance with the demands of radical subjectivity. (2). The qualitative exists wherever creative spontaneity manifests itself. It entails the direct communication of the essential. It is poetry's chance. A crystallization of possibilities, a multiplier of knowledge and practical potential, and the proper modis operandi of intelligence. Its criteria are sui generis. The qualitative leap precipitates a chain reaction which is to be seen in all revolutionary moments; such a reaction must be awoken by the scandal of free and total creativity. (3). Poetry is the organizer of creative spontaneity to the extent that it reinforces spontaneity's hold on reality. Poetry is an act which engenders new realities; it is the fulfilment of radical theory, the revolutionary act par excellence.

1

In this fractured world, whose common denominator throughout history has been hierarchical social power, only one freedom has ever been tolerated: the freedom to change the numerator, the freedom to prefer one master to another. Freedom of choice so understood has increasingly lost its attraction -- especially since it became the official doctrine of the worst totalitarianisms of the modern world, East and West. The generalization of the refusal to make such a Hobson's choice -- to do no more than change employers -- has in turn occasioned a restructuring of State power. All the governments of the industrialized or semi-industrialized world now tend to model themselves -- after a single prototype: the common aim is to rationalize, to 'automate', the old forms of domination. And herein lies freedom's first chance. The bourgeois democracies have clearly shown that individual freedoms can be tolerated only insofar as they entrench upon and destroy one another; now that this is clear, it has become impossible for any government, no matter how sophisticated, to wave the muleta of freedom without everyone discerning the sword concealed behind it. In fact the constant evocation of freedom merely incites freedom to rediscover its roots in individual creativity, to break out of its official definition as the permitted the licit, the tolerable -- to shatter the benevolence of despotism.

Freedom's second chance comes once it has retrieved its creative authenticity, and is tied up with the very mechanisms of Power. It is obvious that abstract systems of exploitation and domination are human creations, brought into being and refined through the diversion or co-optation of creativity. The only forms of creativity that authority can deal with, or wished to deal with, are those which the spectacle can recuperate. But what people do officially is nothing compared with what they do in secret. People usually associate creativity with works of art, but what are works of art alongside the creative energy displayed by everyone a thousand times a day: seething unsatisfied desires, daydreams in search of a foothold in reality, feelings at once confused and luminously clear, ideas and gestures presaging nameless upheavals. All this energy, of course, is relegated to anonymity and deprived of adequate means of expression, imprisoned by survival and obliged to find outlets by sacrificing its qualitative richness and conforming to the spectacle's categories. Think of Cheval's palace, the Watts Towers, Fourier's inspired system, or the pictorial universe of Douanier Rousseau. Even more to the point, consider the incredible diversity of anyone's dreams -- landscapes the brilliance of whose colors qualitatively surpass the finest canvases of a Van Gogh. Every individual is constantly building an ideal world within themselves, even as their external motions bend to the requirements of soulless routine.

Nobody, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion from lies and constraints. If ever social organization extends its control to this stronghold of humanity, its domination will no longer be exercised over anything save robots, or corpses. And, in a sense, this is why consciousness of creative energy increases, paradoxically enough, as a function of consumer society's efforts to co-opt it.

Argus is blind to the danger right in front of him. Where quantity reigns, quality has no legal existence; but this is the very thing that safeguards and nourishes it. I have already mentioned the fact that the dissatisfaction bred by the manic pursuit of quantity calls forth a radical desire for the qualitative. The more oppression is justified in terms of the freedom to consume, the more the malaise arising from this contradiction exacerbates the thirst for total freedom. The crisis of production-based capitalism pointed up the element of repressed creativity in the energy expended by the worker, and Marx gave us the definitive expose of this alienation of creativity through forced labor, through the exploitation of the producer. Whatever the capitalist system and its avatars (their antagonisms notwithstanding) lose on the production front they try to make up for in the sphere of consumption. The idea is that, as they gradually free themselves from the imperatives of production, people should be trapped by the newer obligations of the consumer. By opening up the wasteland of 'leisure' to a creativity liberated at long last thanks to reduced working hours, our kindly apostles of humanism are really only raising an army suitable for training on the parade ground of a consumption- based economy. Now that the alienation of the consumer is being exposed by the dialectic internal to consumption itself, what kind of prison can be devised for the highly subversive forces of individual creativity? As I have already pointed out, the rulers' last chance here is to turn us all into organizers of our own passivity.

With touching candour, Dewitt Peters remarks that, "If paints, brushes and canvas were handed out to everyone who wanted them, the results might be quite interesting". It is true that if this policy were applied in a variety of well-defined and well-policed spheres, such as the theatre, the plastic arts, music, writing, etc., and in a general way to any such sphere susceptible of total isolation from all the others, then the system might have a hope of endowing people with the consciousness of the artist, ie., the consciousness of someone who makes a profession of displaying their creativity in the museums and shopwindows of culture. The popularity of such a culture would be a perfect index of Power's success. Fortunately the chances of people being successfully 'culturized' in this way are now slight. Do they really imagine that people can be persuaded to engage in free experiment within bounds laid down by authoritarian decree? OR that prisoners who have become aware of their creative capacity will be content to decorate their cells with original graffiti? They are more likely to apply their newfound penchant for experiment in other spheres: firearms, desires, dreams, self- realization techniques. Especially since the crowd is already full of agitators. No: the last possible way of coopting creativity, which is the organization of artistic passivity, is happily doomed to failure.

"What I am trying to reach", wrote Paul Klee, "is a far-off point, at the sources of creation, where I suspect a single explanatory principle applies for people, animals, plants, fire, water, air and all the forces that surround us". As a matter of fact, this point is only far off in Power's lying perspective: the source of all creation lies in individual creativity; it is from this starting point that everything, being or thing, is ordered in accordance with poetry's grand freedom. This is the take-off point of the new perspective: that perspective for which everyone is struggling willy-nilly with all their strength and at every moment of their existence. "Subjectivity is the only truth" (Kierkegaard).

Power cannot enlist true creativity. In 1869 the Brussels police thought they had found the famous gold of the International, about which the capitalists were losing so much sleep. They seized a huge strongbox hidden in some dark corner. When they opened it, however, they found only coal. Little did the police know that the pure gold of the International would always turn into coal if touched by enemy hands.

The laboratory of individual creativity transmutes the basest metals of daily life into gold through a revolutionary alchemy. The prime objective is to dissolve slave consciousness, consciousness of impotence, by releasing creativity's magnetic power; impotence is magically dispelled as creative energy surges forth, genius serene in its self-assurance. So sterile on the plane of the race for prestige in the Spectacle, megalomania is an important phase in the struggle of the self against the combined forces of conditioning. The creative spark, which is the spark of true life, shines all the more brightly in the night of nihilism which at present envelopes us. As the project of a better organization of survival aborts, the sparks will become more and more numerous and gradually coalesce into a single light, the promise of a new organization based this time on the harmonizing of individual wills. History is leading us to the crossroads where radical subjectivity is destined to encounter the possibility of changing the world. The crossroads of the reversal of perspective.

2

Spontaneity. Spontaneity is the true mode of being of individual creativity, creativity's initial, immaculate form, unpolluted at the source and as yet unthreatened by the mechanisms of co- optation. Whereas creativity in the broad sense is the most equitably distributed thing imaginable, spontaneity seems to be confined to a chosen few. Its possession is a privilege of those whom long resistance to Power has endowed with a consciousness of their own value as individuals. In revolutionary moments this means the majority; in other periods, when the old mole works unseen, day by day, it is still more people than one might think. For so long as the light of creativity continues to shine spontaneity has a chance.

"The new artist protests", wrote Tzara in 1919. "He no longer paints: he creates directly." The new artists of the future, constructors of situations to be lived, will undoubtedly have immediacy as their most succinct - though also their most radical - demand. I say 'succinct' because it is important after all not to be confused by the connotations of the word 'spontaneity'. Spontaneity can never spring from internalized restraints, even subconscious ones, nor can it survive the effects of alienating abstraction and spectacular co-optation: it is a conquest, not a given. The reconstruction of the individual presupposes the reconstruction of the unconscious (cf the construction of dreams).

What spontaneous creativity has lacked up to now is a clear consciousness of its poetry. The commonsense view has always treated spontaneity as a primary state, and initial stage in need of theoretical adaptation, of transposition into formal terms. This view isolates spontaneity, treats it as a thing-in-itself - and thus recognizes it only in the travestied forms which it acquires within the spectacle (e.g. action painting). In point of fact, spontaneous creativity carries the seeds of a self- sufficient development within itself. It is possessed by its own poetry.

For me spontaneity is immediate experience, consciousness of a lived immediacy threatened on all sides yet not yet alienated, not yet relegated to inauthenticity. The centre of lived experience is that place where everyone comes closest to themself. Within this unique space-time we have the clear conviction that reality exempts us from necessity. Consciousness of necessity is always what alienates us. We have been taught to apprehend ourselves by default -- in absentia, so to speak. But it takes a single moment of awareness of real life to eliminate all alibis, and consign the absence of future to the same void as the absence of past. Consciousness of the present harmonizes with lived experience in a sort of extemporization. The pleasure this brings us -- impoverished by its isolation, yet potentially rich because it reaches out towards an identical pleasure in other people -- bears a striking resemblance to the enjoyment of jazz. At its best, improvisation in everyday life has much in common with jazz as evoked by Dauer: :The African conception of rhythm differs from the Western in that it is perceived through bodily movement rather than aurally. The technique consists essentially in the introduction of discontinuity into the static balance imposed upon time by rhythm and metre. This discontinuity, which results from the existence of ecstatic centres of gravity out of time with the musical rhythm and metre proper, creates a constant tension between the static beat and the ecstatic beat which is superimposed on it."

The instant of creative spontaneity is the minutest possible manifestation of reversal of perspective. It is a unitary moment, i.e., one and many. The eruption of lived pleasure is such that in losing myself I find myself; forgetting that I exist, I realize myself. Consciousness of immediate experience lies in this oscillation, in this improvisational jazz. By contrast, thought directed toward lived experience with analytical intent is bound to remain detached from that experience. This applies to all reflection on everyday life, including, to be sure, the present one. To combat this, all I can do is try to incorporate an element of constant self-criticism, so as to make the work of co-optation a little harder than usual. The traveller who is always thinking about the length of the road before them tires more easily than his or her companion who lets their imagination wander as they go along. Similarly, anxious attention paid to lived experience can only impede it, abstract it, and make it into nothing more than a series of memories-to-be.

If thought is really to find a basis in lived experience, it has to be free. The way to achieve this is to think other in terms of the same. As you make yourself, imagine another self who will make you one day in his or her turn. Such is my conception of spontaneity: the highest possible self-consciousness which is still inseparable from the self and from the world.

All the same, the paths of spontaneity are hard to find. Industrial civilization has let them become overgrown. And even when we find real life, knowing the best way to grasp it is not easy. Individual experience is also prey to insanity -- a foothold for madness. Kierkegaard described this state of affairs as follows: "It is true that I have a lifebelt, but I cannot see the pole which is supposed to pull me out of the water. This is a ghastly way to experience things". The pole is there, of course, and no doubt everyone could grab onto it, though many would be so slow about it that they would die of anxiety before realizing its existence. But exist it does, and its name is radical subjectivity: the consciousness that all people have the same will to authentic self-realization, and that their subjectivity is strengthened by the perception of this subjective will in others. This way of getting out of oneself and radiating out, not so much towards others as towards that part of oneself that is to be found in others, is what gives creative spontaneity the strategic importance of a launching pad. The concepts and abstractions which rule us have to be returned to their source, to lived experience, not in order to validate them, but on the contrary to correct them, to turn them on their heads, to restore them to that sphere whence they derive and which they should never have left. This is a necessary precondition of people's imminent realization that their individual creativity is indistinguishable from universal creativity. The sole authority is one's own lived experience; and this everyone must prove to everyone else.

 

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