The Revolution of Everyday Life
Impossible Realisation or Power as the Sum of Seductions
Published in The Revolution of Everyday Life 1967
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).
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.
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?
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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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