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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
The Reversal of Perspective

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 20 "Creativity, Spontaneity, and Poetry"

3

The qualitative. I have already said that creativity, though equally distributed to all, only finds direct, spontaneous expression on specific occasions. These occasions are pre- revolutionary moments, the source of the poetry that changes life and transforms the world. They must surely be placed under the sign of that modern equivalent of grace, the qualitative. The presence of the divine abomination is revealed by a cloying spirituality suddenly conferred upon all, from the rustic to the most refined: on a cretin like Claudel as readily as on a St.John of the Cross. Similarly, a gesture, an attitude, perhaps merely a word, may suffice to show that poetry's chance is at hand, that the total construction of everyday life, a global reversal of perspective -- in short, the revolution -- are immanent possibilities. The qualitative encapsulates and crystallizes these possibilities; it is a direct communication of the essential.

One day Kagame heard an old woman of Rwanda, who could neither read nor write, complaining: "Really, these whites are incurably simple-minded. They have no brains at all." "How can you be so stupid?" he answered her. "I would like to see you invent so many unimaginably marvellous things as the whites have done." With a condescending smile the old woman replied, "Listen, my child. They may have learned a lot of things, but they have no brains. They don't understand anything." And she was right, for the curse of technological civilization, of quantified exchange and scientific knowledge, is that they have created no means of freeing people's spontaneous creativity directly; indeed, they do not even allow people to understand the world in any unmediated fashion. The sentiments expressed by the Rwandan woman -- whom the Belgian administrator doubtless looked upon, from the heights of his superior intelligence, as a wild animal -- are also to be found, though laden with guilt and thus tainted by crass stupidity, in the old platitude: "I have studied a great deal and now know that I know nothing". For it is false, in a sense, to say that study can teach us nothing, so long as it does not abandon the point of view of the totality. What this attitude refuses to see, or to learn, are the various stages of the qualitative -- whatever, at whatever level, lends support to the qualitative. Imagine a number of apartments located immediately above one another, communicating directly by means of a central elevator and also indirectly linked by an outside spiral staircase. People in the different apartments have direct access to each other, whereas someone slowly climbing the spiral stairs is cut off from them. The former have access to the qualitative at all levels; the latter's knowledge is limited to one step at a time, and so no dialogue is possible between the two. Thus the revolutionary workers of 1848 were no doubt incapable of reading the Communist Manifesto, yet they possessed within themselves the essential lessons of Marx and Engels' text. In fact this is what made the Marxist theory truly radical. The objective conditions of the worker, expressed by the Manifesto on the level of theory, made it possible for the most illiterate proletarian to understand Marx immediately when the moment came. The cultivated person who uses their culture like a flame thrower is bound to get on with the uncultivated person who experiences what the first person puts in scholarly terms the lived reality of everyday life. The arms of criticism do indeed have to join forces with criticism by force of arms.

Only the qualitative permits a higher stage to be reached in one bound. This is the lesson that any endangered group must learn, the pedagogy of the barricades. The graded world of hierarchical power, however, can only envisage knowledge as being similarly graded: the people on the spiral staircase, experts on the type and number of steps, meet, pass, bump into one another and trade insults. What difference does it make? At the bottom we have the autodidact gorged on platitudes, at the top the intellectual collecting ideas like butterflies: mirror images of foolishness. The opposition between Miguel de Unamuno and the repulsive Millan Stray, between the paid thinker and their reviler, is an empty one: where the qualitative is not in evidence, intelligence is a fool's cap and bells.

The alchemists called those elements needed for the Great Work the materia prima. Paracelsus' description of this applies perfectly to the qualitative: "It is obvious that the poor possess it in greater abundance than the rich. People squander the good portion of it and keep only the bad. It is visible and invisible, and children play with it in the street. But the ignorant crush it underfoot everyday." The consciousness of this qualitative materia prima may be expected to become more and more acute in most minds as the bastions of specialized thought and gradated knowledge collapse. Those who make a profession of creating, and those whose profession prevents them from creating, both artists and workers, are being pushed into the same nihilism by the process of proletarianization. This process, which is accompanied by resistance to it, i.e., resistance to co-opted forms of creativity, occurs amid such a plethora of cultural goods -- records, films, paperback books -- that once these commodities have been freed from the laws of consumption they will pass immediately into the service of true creativity. The sabotage of the mechanisms of economic and cultural consumption is epitomized by young people who steal the books in which they expect to find confirmation of their radicalism.

Once the light of the qualitative is shed upon them, the most varied kinds of knowledge combine and form a magnetic bridge powerful enough to overthrow the weightiest traditions. The force of plain spontaneous creativity increases knowledge at an exponential rate. Using makeshift equipment and negligible funds, a German engineer recently built an apparatus able to replace the cyclotron. If individual creativity can achieve suck results with such meagre stimulation, what marvels of energy must be expected from the qualitative shock waves and chain reactions that will occur when the spirit of freedom still alive in the individual re-emerges in collective form to celebrate the great social fete, with its joyful breaking of all taboos.

The job of a consistent revolutionary group, far from being the creation of a new type of conditioning, is to establish protected areas where the intensity of conditioning tends toward zero. Making each person aware of their creative potential will be a hapless task unless recourse is had to qualitative shock tactics. Which is why we expect nothing from the mass parties and other groupings based on the principle of quantitative recruitment. Something can be expected, on the other hand, from a micro- society formed on the basis of the radical acts or thought of its members, and maintained in a permanent state of practical readiness by means of strict theoretical discrimination. Cells successfully established along such lines would have every chance of wielding sufficient influence one day to free the creativity of the majority of the people. The despair of the anarchist terrorist must be changed into hope; those tactics, worthy of some medieval warrior, must be changed into a modern strategy.

4

Poetry. What is poetry? It is the organization of creative spontaneity, the exploitation of the qualitative in accordance with its internal laws of coherence. Poetry is what the Greeks called poiein, 'making', but 'making' restored to the purity of its moment of genesis -- seen, in other words, from the point of view of the totality.

Poetry cannot exist in the absence of the qualitative. In this absence we find the opposite of the qualitative: information, the transitional programme, specialization, reformism -- the various guises of the fragmentary. The presence of the qualitative does not of itself guarantee poetry, however. A rich complex of signs and possibilities may get lost in confusion, disintegrate from lack of coherence, or be destroyed by crossed purposes. The criterion of effectiveness must remain supreme. Thus poetry is also radical theory completely embodied in action; the mortar binding tactics and revolutionary strategy; the high point of the great gamble on everyday life.

What is poetry? In 1895, during an ill-advised and seemingly foredoomed French railway worker's strike, one trade unionist stood up and mentioned and ingenious and cheap way of advancing the strikers' cause: "It takes two sous' worth of a certain substance used in the right way to immobilize a locomotive". Thanks to this bit of quick thinking, the tables were turned on the government and capitalists. Here it is clear that poetry is the act which brings new realities into being, the act which reverses the perspective. The materia prima is within everyone's reach. Poets are those who know how to use it to best effect. Moreover, two sous' worth of some chemical is nothing compared with the profusion of unrivalled energy generated and made available by everyday life itself: the energy of the will to live, of desire unleashed, of the passions of love, the power of fear and anxiety, the hurricane of hatred and the wild impetus of the urge for destruction. What poetic upheavals may confidently be expected to stem from such universally experienced feelings as those associated with deaths, old age, and sickness. The long revolution of everyday life, the only true poetry-made-by-all, will take this still marginal consciousness as its point of departure.

"What is poetry?", ask the aesthetes. And we may as well give them the obvious answer right away: poetry rarely involves poems these days. Most art works betray poetry. How could it be otherwise, when poetry and power are irreconcilable? At best, the artist's creativity is imprisoned, cloistered, within an unfinished oeuvre, awaiting the day when it will have the last word. Unfortunately, no matte how much importance the artist gives it, this last word, which is supposed to usher in perfect communication, will never be pronounced so long as the revolt of creativity has not realized art.

The African work of art -- poem, music, sculpture, or mask -- is not considered complete until it has become a form of speech, a word-in-action, a creative element which functions. Actually this is true for more than African art. There is no art in the world which does not seek to function; and to function -- even on the level of later co-optation -- consistently with the very same will which generated it, the will to live constantly in the euphoria of the moment of creation. Why is it that the work of the greatest artists never seems to have an end? The answer is that great art cries out in every possible way for realization, for the right to enter lived experience. The present decomposition of art is a bow perfectly readied for such an arrow.

Nothing can save past culture from the cult of the past except those pictures, writings, musical or lithic architectures, etc., whose qualitative dimension gets through to us free of its form - - of all art forms. This happens with Sade and Lautréamont, of course, but also with Villon, Lucretius, Rabelais, Pascal, Fourier, Bosch, Danté, Bach, Swift, Shakespeare, Uccello, etc. All are liable to shed their cultural chrysalis, and emerge from the museums to which history has relegated them to become so much dynamite for the bombs of the future realizers of art. Thus the value of an old work of art should be assessed on the basis of the amount of radical theory that can be drawn from it, on the basis of the nucleus of creative spontaneity which the new creators will be able to release from it for the purpose, and by means of an unprecedented kind of poetry.

Radical theory's forte is its ability to postpone an action begun by creative spontaneity without mitigating it or redirecting its thrust. Conversely, the artistic approach seeks in its finest moments to stamp the world with the impress of a tentacular subjective activity constantly seeking to create, and to create itself. Whereas radical theory sticks close to poetic reality, to reality in process and to the world as it is being changed, art takes an identical tack but at much greater risk of being lost and corrupted. Only an art armed against itself, against its own weaker side -- its most aesthetic side -- has any hope of evading co-optation.

Consumer society, as we well know, reduces art to a range of consumable products. The more vulgarized this reduction, the faster the rate of decomposition and the greater the chances for transcendence. That communication so urgently sought by the artist is cut off and prohibited even in the simplest relationships of everyday life. So true is this that the search for new forms of communication, far from being the preserve of painters and poets, is now part of a collective effort. In this way the old specialization of art has finally come to an end. There are no more artists because everyone is an artist. The work of art of the future will be the construction of a passionate life.

The object created is less important than the process which gives rise to it, the act of creating. What makes an artist is their state of creativity, not art galleries. Unfortunately, artists rarely recognize themselves as creators: most of the time they play to the gallery, exhibitionistically. A contemplative attitude before a work of art was the first stone thrown at the creator. They encouraged this attitude in the first place, but today it is their undoing: now it amounts to no more than a need to consume, an expression of the crassest economic imperatives. This is why there is no longer any such thing as a work of art in the classical sense of the word. Nor can there be such a thing. So much the better. Poetry is to be found everywhere: in the facts, in the events we bring about. The poetry of the facts, formerly always treated as marginal, now stands at the centre of everyone's concerns, at the centre of everyday life, a sphere which as a matter of fact it has never left.

True poetry cares nothing for poems. In his quest for the Book, Mallarmé wanted nothing so much as to abolish the poem. What better way could there be of abolishing the poem than realizing it? And indeed a few of Mallarmé's contemporaries proved themselves rather brilliant exponents of just such a 'new poetry'. Did the author of Herodiade have an inking, perhaps, when he described them as "angels of purity", that the anarchists with their bombs offered the poet a key which, walled up in his words, he could never use?

Poetry is always somewhere. Its recent abandonment of the arts makes it easier to see that it resides primarily in individual acts, in a lifestyle and in the search for such a style. Everywhere repressed, this poetry springs up everywhere. Brutally put down, it is reborn in violence. It plays muse to rioters, informs revolt and animates all great revolutionary carnivals for a while, until the bureaucrats consign it to the prison of hagiography.

Lived poetry has effectively shown throughout history, even in partial revolts, even in crime -- which Coeurderoy so aptly dubbed the "revolt of one" -- that it is the protector par excellence of everything irreducible in mankind, i.e., creative spontaneity. The will to unite the individual and the social, not on the basis of an illusory community but on that of subjectivity -- this is what makes the new poetry into a weapon which everyone must learn to handle by themself. Poetic experience is henceforth at a premium. The organization of spontaneity will be the work of spontaneity itself.

 

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