Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Critique of Everyday Life

Historically speaking, Henri Lefebvre’s three-volume The Critique of Everyday Life was a great influence on the New Left, ’68 and all that. Lefebvre also continues to be an influence on the work of David Harvey, Fredric Jameson etc. Rather then discussing Lefebvre’s historical importance, this summary will outline Lefebvre’s argument and emphasizing The Critique of Everyday Life’s contemporary relevance.
Lefebvre’s premise is that “the only real critique was and remains the Critique of the Left…Because it alone is based on knowledge.” Lefebvre acts on this premise by arguing for a Marxian endevour at odds with the vacuous formalism of the official Stalinist Marxism of his time. Emphasizing the sociological basis of Marx’s thought and the central importance of Marx’s concepts of alienation, fetishism and mystification, Lefebvre’s argues these categories should by used to critique everyday life.
These extended quotations demonstrate how Lefebvre conceptualizes and formulates the critique of everyday life.

“We need to think about what is happening around us, within us, each and everyday. We live on familiar terms with people in our own family, our own milieu, our own class. This constant impression of familiarity makes us think that we know them, that their outlines are defined for us, and that they see themselves as having those same outlines. We define them. and we judge them. We can identify with them or exclude them from our world. But the familiar is not the necessarily known. “ 14-15

“For us, in our society, with the forms of exchange and the division of labour which govern it, there is no social relation- relation with the other-without a certain alienation. And each individual exists socially only by and within his alienation, just as he can only be for himself within and by his deprivation (his private consciousness.) 15-16

“To sum up, work, leisure, family life and private life make up a whole which we can call a ‘global structure’ or ‘totality’ on condition that we emphasize its historical, shifting, transitory nature. If we consider the critique of everyday life as an aspect of a concrete sociology we can envisage a vast enquiry which will look at professional life and leisure activities in terms of their many-sided interactions. Our particular concern will be to extract what is living, new, positive—the worthwhile needs and fulfilments- from the negative elements; the alienations.” 42

“so to reach reality we must indeed tear away the veil, that veil which is forever being born and reborn of everyday life, and which masks everyday life along with its deepest and loftiest ambitions” 57

“The true critique of everyday life will have as its prime objective the separation between the human (real and possible) and bourgeois decadence, and will imply a rehabilitation of everyday life. 127

To undertake this Critique of everyday life, Lefebvre articulates how the critical knowledge contained in six Marxian categories can be utilized as a “beacon” in the critique of everyday life. These six categories are still issues of utmost importance in contemporary theory. They are of contemporary relevance and share striking affinities with Wendy Brown’s contemporary work Tolerating Aversion. Following my posting of notes on Brown’s work, I will compare Lefebvre and Brown and discuss why they are remarkably relevant and important.

A) Critique of Individuality. (Central theme; the ‘private’ consciousness’)
“And nowadays we are still struggling with this deep- in other words everyday-contradiction: what makes each of us a human being also turns that human being into something inhuman. More biological than truly human, this organization ( i.e. capitalism ) smothers the individual, dividing him and stunting his development at the very moment it is striving to create him as a human individual….How can this organization be superseded? By practical and theoretical participation in work and in the knowledge of work, in the social and human totality. If the world is to be transformed, this is one of the fundamental problems…we must supersede the “private consciousness.” 150

B) Critique of Mystifications (central theme: the ‘mystified consciousness)

“the private consciousness and the mystified consciousness go hand in hand, reinforcing each other and becoming increasingly entrenched as a result of instabilities which have their origins in real life and not in pure ideas” 153

C) Critique of Money ( central theme: fetishism and economic alienation)

“Although deprivation and alienation are different for the proletarian and the non-proletarian, one thing unites them; money, the human being’s alienated essence. This alienation is constant, i.e. practical and everyday.” 161

D) Critique of Needs (Central theme; psychological and moral alienation)

Consumpton does not satisfy a need. Nor do the needs the culture industry creates.

E) Critique of Work ( Central theme: the alienation of the worker and of man)

“Analysis must therefore distinguish between the real ‘human world’ on the one hand, the totality of human works and their reciprocal action upon man, and, on the other, the unreality of alienation.

But this unreality appears to be infinitely more real then anything authentically human. And this appearance contributes to alienation; its becomes real, and as a result a great abstract ‘idea’ or a certain form of the State seems infinitely more important than a humble, everyday feeling or a work born of man’s hands. “ 169

F) Critique of Freedom (Central theme; man’s power over nature and over his own nature)

The Marxist definition of freedom is concrete and dialectical. The realm of freedom is established progressively by ‘The development of human powers as an end in itself)…it is won progressively by social man. For Power, or, more exactly, the sum total of powers which constitute freedom belong to human beings grouped together in society, and not to the isolated individual….in the realm of necessity, human needs become degraded…they just keep on working, and their lives are spent just staying alive. This, in a nutshell, has been the philosophy of everyday life—and still is.
Freedom needs;

(a) “the associated producers must…govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power.”
(b) The material and moral parameters of practical (everyday) life, which are determined by private property, must be transformed.
(c) Through activities devoted to satisfying and controlling immediate necessities, there must be a growth in the sphere of ‘the true realm of freedom, the development of human powers, as an end in itself, [which] begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis.’ This sphere, this ‘spiritual’ domain of man, consists in the first place in a social and rational organization of free leisure. As Marx asserts in Capital; ‘ the reduction of the working day is the basic requisite.’

This utilization of Marx results in Lefebvre’s programmatic sketch for a critique of everyday life;

(A) It will involve a methodological confrontation of so-called ‘modern’ life on the one hand, with the past, and on the other- and above all- with the possible, so that points or sectors where a ‘ decadence’ or a withdrawal from life have occurred- the points of backwardness in terms of what is possible- the points where new forms are appearing, rich in possibilities can be determined.
(B) Studied from this point of view, human reality appears as an opposition and ‘contrast’ between a certain number of terms; everyday life and festival- mass movements and exceptional movements- triviality and splendour- seriousness and play- reality and dreams, etc.
The critique of everyday life involves and investigation of the exact relations between these terms. It implies criticism of the trivial by the exceptional- but at the same time criticism of the exceptional by the trivial, of the ‘elite’ by the mass- of festival, dreams, art and poetry, by reality.

© Equally, the critique of everyday life implies a confrontation of effective human reality with its ‘expressions’; moral doctrines, psychology, philosophy, religion, literature.
From this point of view, religion is nothing but a direct, immediate, negative, destructive, incessant and skilful criticism of life- skilful enough even to give itself the appearance of not being what it really is.
Philosophy was an indirect criticism of everyday life by an external (metaphysical) ‘truth.’ It is now appropriate to examine the philosophy of the past from this perspective—and that is the task facing ‘today’s’ philosopher. To study philosophy as an indirect crticism of life is to perceive (everyday) life as I direct critique of philosophy

(d) The relations between groups and individuals in everyday life interact in a manner which in part escapes the specialized sciences. By a process of abstraction these sciences infer certain relations, certain essential aspects, from the extraordinary complexities of human reality. But have they completed this task? It seems that once the relations identitifed by history, political economy or biology have been extracted from human reality, a kind of enormous, shapeless, ill-defined mass remains. This is the murky background from which known relations and superior activities (scientific, political, aesthetic) are picked out.
It is this ‘human raw material’ that the study of everyday life takes as its proper object. It studies it both in itself and in its relation with the differentiated superior form that it underpins. In this way it will help to grasp the ‘total content’ of consciousness; this will be its contribution towards the attempt to achieve unity, totality—the realization of total man.
Going beyond the emotional attempt by philanthropists and sentimental (petty-bourgeois) humanists to ‘magnify’ humble gestures, and beyond that allegedly superior irony which has systematically devalued life, seeing it merely as back-stage activity or comic relief in a tragedy, the critique of everyday life- critical and positive- must clear the way for a genuine humanism, for a humanism which believes in the human because it knows it.” 251-252


saralibrarian said...

critique of everyday word processing (i.e. microsoft word)... why does it turn "(c)" into the copyright symbol... that (c), alas, also appears in 501(c)3 and it's so troubling when you try and type that and your nonproft (c) is turned into the evil symbol of intellectual property.
but seriously, i find it difficult to understand this entry... would it be possible to pepper this summary with concrete examples of some kind?

although i certainly can't say "i get this" it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by a situationist named raoul vaneigem... "People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths."

Tobi Vail said...

hello...sometimes theory gets so abstract it is difficult to follow, especially when you are in school and relating theory to other theory...for me it is always easier to understand with examples, but this can be hard to do effectively, like any kind of symbolism or translation....i appreciate the work that was put into this post and wish i had a response...i will think of some questions...i was also reminded of veneigem's famous treatise on everyday life...what did the two works have in common (if anything?) in the early 90's when we were formulating a lot of our ideas in bikini kill and nation of Ulysses we read the situationists and that was the one book i felt i understood. there is a really funny part in there about how shaking hands is really fucked up custom--like when someone offers their hand, you have to submit to them, it's a power play. at the time i had even worse manners than i do now and was really drawn to this political critique of social niceties...however, it made it difficult for me to get along with people...i still have a hard time with salutations and the hand shake...and as an adult, i think getting along with others is really important...not just a concession to 'the man' or whatever. so i would like to go back and re-read it and rethink 'have a nice day',etc in terms of class struggle and my current analysis/existential aesthetic.....incidentally, huggy bear wrote that quote on one of their records and there is an 80's band from england (wah!) i think who has a song that quotes from it. maybe it comes up in a dexy's midnight runners song.
it will always remind me of lance hahn. RIP. RID.

Tobi Vail said...

oh that band is called "the mighty wah" and the song is "the story of the blues" here are the lyrics because they are so good:


Here in my pocket
I got the Story of the Blues
Try to believe me
'Cos it could be front page news

I say I live with it like it hasn't happened yet
I keep thinking of everyone
How I'm the one, the one they're trying to get
To tell the Story of the Blues

First, they take your pride
Turn it all inside
And then you realise
You've got nothing left to lose

So, you try to stop
Try to get back up
And then, you realise
You're telling the Story of the Blues

Feeling browbeaten
Day after day
I think it's over
But I just can't get away

You say forget it
We'll don't jump the gun
You're laughing this time
Next time you might be the one
To tell the Story of the Blues

First, they take your pride
Turn it all inside
And then you realise
You've got nothing left to lose

So, you try to stop
Try to get back up
And then, you realise
You're telling the Story of the Blues


What they gonna say 'bout me
When they tell the Story of the Blues


"...well that's my story and i'm sticking to that. So let's have another drink and let's talk about the blues. Blues is about dignity, it's about self-respect, and no matter what they take away from you - that's yours for keeps. I remember how it was, how every medium - T.V. and papers and radio and all those people were saying: 'you're on the scrap-heap, you're useless', and I remember how easy it was to start believing that. I remember how you'd hear people take it for granted that it was true - just 'cause someone with an ounce of power said so. And that's a problem now, too many oddballs, too many pocketbook psychologists and would-be philosophers with an axe to grind. But there's a solution, it's not easy, but it's a matter of coming to terms in your heart with situation you're in, a matter of choosing how things go for you and not having things forced upon you. There are plenty of forces against you, forcing you against your will, your ideals - you've got to hope for the best, and that's the best you can hope for - you've got to hope against hope... I remember something Sal Paradise said, he said: 'the city intellectuals of the world are debauched from the full body blood-of-the-land and are just rootless fools'. So listen, when the smile, the condescending pat-on-the-back comes and says: 'we're sorry, but you're nothing, you've got nothing for us and we've got nothing for you', you say: 'No', and say it loud: "NO!", and remember, people who talk about revolution and a class-struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love, and what is positive in the refusal and constraint...since people have a corpse in their mouth..."

Tobi Vail said...

scroll down to the end of this vitriolic post on ms. thratcher and download the might wah song

saralibrarian said...

i tried to download that song but it looks like the link has died...

i think i first read about the situationists in 'lipstick traces' maybe? i did a "pathfinder' on them in library school (it's where you choose a library and a subject and make a list for researchers of all the items, in all formats, that a library has on that given subject.) i don't even think i read the "revolution of everyday life" but i remember being really excited by lots of situationist quotes at the time. (is vanegeim's book the book the handshake stuff is in?)

so just to clarify... is the 3 volume "critique of everyday life" a theoretical exploration of the possibility of such a critique (the possibility, the need for, the how to, etc.?) or does it contain points that constitute the critique itself as well?

and chris am i right that this entry is the notes on lefebre, then you're going to post notes on brown, and then you're going to compare them and discuss the current relevance?

where does the quote that ends at the very end of your entry begin?

forgive my densité... it's been a long long time since i tried to read abstract theories of any kind.

CO said...

hi Sarah and Tobi.

Thanks for the response and apologies for my typical density.

in answer to your question sarah, the 3 volumes do it all, they argue for the need for a critique, theoretically construct the basis this critique, and carry out many concrete critiques. My notes tried to emphasize the theoretical basis of Lefebvre's argument because i figured the readers would already agree on the need for a critique and because i thought his many examples of critiques- like Chaplin, Brecht or his notes on the French countryside- would come across as alien or dated. I originally planned to supplement these theoretical notes with my own examples, but after starting the wendy brown book, felt her subject matter- and her discussion of other factors of depolicization- were brilliant concrete contemporary examples. i will post these notes in the next few days, compare them and try to come up with concrete examples of my own.
over the course of these posts i hope to demonstrate how these theories can be vital guides to our current problems so that, as well as asking questions, we can use Lefebvre to discuss and formulate our own critiques of everyday life.
until then here is an interesting concrete/theoretical point Lefebvre makes that seems to me like the perfect description of what is going on in oly;

"our towns may be read like a book... towns show us the history of power and of human possibilities which, while becoming increasingly broad, have at the same time been increasingly taken over and controlled, until that point of total control, set up entirely above life and community, which is bourgeois control....towns tell us about the almost total decomposition of the community, of the atomization of society into 'primitive' individuals as a result of the activities and way of life of a bourgeoisie which still dares claim that it represents the 'general interest.' 233

my scattered response to your points/questions

my understanding is that lefebvre's work was the major influence on the situationists. the vaneigem quote is a good summary of lefebvre.

the last long quote begins at point A.

decomposition said...

I think all of the writers who were affiliated with COBRA, not just Lefebvre, were a major influence on the Situationists. For example, here's Guy Debord on Constant Nieuwenhuis, who wrote about unitary urbanism in the late '40s/early '50s.

I love this sentiment of Nieuwenhuis' that Debord quotes - it stuck with me when I first read it a long time ago, and I ended up using it in the intro for the new Interrobang?! anthology: "Freedom appears only in creation or in strife -- and these have the same goal at heart -- fulfillment of life."

I'm interested to hear more about critiques of everyday life. I think they're still vital (unlike the critiques of the "primitive" or "bourgeoisie" which seem dated).

decomposition said...

Here is something else that is thought provoking from the ArtForum issue I mentioned previously (as a comment to Tobi's Weekend post). Sylvere Lotringer discussed the Situationists with Antonio Negri, in terms of their impact on May '68 and everyday life. It was interesting to see the differences in their perspectives.

Lotringer says, "The rebellion may have been a strong reaction to the consumer society that was just setting in, bringing with it general passivity and individual isolation - what the Situationists called the society of the spectacle."

And Negri replies, "I always find a strong moralistic and religious side to any attack and critique of consumption, and that has notably been the case in Germany. I would strongly disagree with that. I don't believe that May '68 was a rejection of consumer society. For us, in the postwar years, consumption wasn't oppressive; it was restoring life. Introducing hygiene, bathrooms, toilets in the apartments ... It genuinely changed people's entire way of life."

He then goes on to say, "Workers did not want to be slaves any longer...We understood that through work...we could move from class struggle to a new form of social activity. The working class as such could turn into a multitude. And that's huge. The multitude is to Empire, then, what the social classes were to the Nation-States. The United States has been trying to impose its hegemony over globalization, and Empire has begun to become a reality--but the multitude remains virtual...The cognitive dimension of work and knowledge, of immaterial labor, is absolutely essential.

Lotringer says, "But to return once again to the theorization of May '68 and its aftermath, French philosophers were mostly concerned with desire, not with work."

Negri replies, "Work also expresses a desire. It was clear that the relation between work and daily activity had become more intimate. The emancipation of the masses would occur through the shift from paid work to the liberation of work. That's what we need to talk about when we speak of '68. It was the beginning of an era, not an ending."

What I don't understand is this - given the realities of everyday life, how are we supposed to achieve "liberation of work"?

CO said...


Thanks for additional info about COBRA, Niewenhuis etc. I don’t know much about the intellectual history of Situationism, or even Situationism for that matter, so I definitely appreciate it. I also like the Nieuwhenhuis quote, although, wouldn’t freedom also appear in other forms of striving?

I’m glad you want to hear more about critiques of everyday life. I am writing these posts because I think Lefebvre’s general orientation- his framework and target - is still important and should be updated by everyone. I have been trying to collect concrete examples and write about them myself. example customer service is a perfect target.

The lotringer/negri interview is also interesting. I have read what seem like endless reflections on ’68, from the some stupid article in the independent or guardian arguing it was all about France catching up with the uk/usa to Alain Badiou’s fascinating take on it in his article “The Communist Hypothesis.”

I haven’t read much Negri, so i don’t know how he thinks we will achieve liberation from work. many people criticize him for being unrealistic and optimistic. (is the multitude not just a new name for the inevitable proletarian revolution?). But I also read references to how he has argued that the internet has already created some forms of liberation from work. but I think this was in a zizek article, so who knows how accurate it is. At any rate I think Badiou is more realistic in speaking of the development of the what he calls the communist hypothesis; unlike Negri, the form, not just the name , must change;

“At this point, during an interval dominated by the enemy, when new experiments are tightly circumscribed, it is not possible to say with certainty what the character of the third sequence will be. But the general direction seems discernible: it will involve a new relation between the political movement and the level of the ideological—one that was prefigured in the expression ‘cultural revolution’ or in the May 68 notion of a ‘revolution of the mind’. We will still retain the theoretical and historical lessons that issued from the first sequence, and the centrality of victory that issued from the second. But the solution will be neither the formless, or multi-form, popular movement inspired by the intelligence of the multitude—as Negri and the alter-globalists believe—nor the renewed and democratized mass communist party, as some of the Trotskyists and Maoists hope. The (19th-century) movement and the (20th-century) party were specific modes of the communist hypothesis; it is no longer possible to return to them. Instead, after the negative experiences of the ‘socialist’ states and the ambiguous lessons of the Cultural Revolution and May 68, our task is to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode, to help it emerge within new forms of political experience. This is why our work is so complicated, so experimental. We must focus on its conditions of existence, rather than just improving its methods. We need to re-install the communist hypothesis—the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not inevitable—within the ideological sphere.”
Read the whole article here

AL LARSEN said...

"is the multitude not just a new name for the inevitable proletarian revolution?"

I would say it's not a new name but a different concept of collectivity.

The idea of "the multitude" can be contrasted to the idea of "the people."

The people refers to the many that can act as one - think of the phrases "we the people" or "the people have spoken."

The multitude, however, does not reduce to a single voice - it is characterized by a multiplicity of voices.

"For Spinoza, the multitudo indicates a plurality which persists as such in the public scene, in collective action, in the handling of communal affairs, without converging into a One, without evaporating within a centripetal form of motion. Multitude is the form of social and political existence for the many, seen as being many" (Virno p21)

Hardt and Negri identify the diverse groups and individuals converging on Seattle for the 1999 WTO protests - labor unions, Anarchists, environmentalists, etc - as an expression of a multitude consciousness. The protesters did not adhere to a single ideology - they represented many ideologies and concerns. Groups and individuals acted together while retaining autonomy.

The way I understood Hardt and Negri is that while the people corresponds to the nation state, the multitude corresponds to the era of networked communications and globalization. How the multitude becomes politicized is an open question.

"Is it possible today to imagine a new process of legitimation that does not rely on the sovereignty of the people but is based instead in the biopolitical productivity of the multitude?" (Hardt and Negri p79)

Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire - Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
A Grammar of the Multitude - Paolo Virno

saralibrarian said...

can anyone explain what "liberation of work" means? i read the artforum article (you can check the issue out from the library timberlanders) but i still don't have a good idea of what is meant by "liberation of work." theory nerds please explain.

decomposition said...

I think Negri meant to say liberation "from" work. In any case, my understanding of the phrase is that liberation of or from work refers to emancipation of workers from the domination of capitalist means of production. The ideal is to have work that is meaningful, creative and/or productive to the individual and that engages others as well. The engagement can be through collaborative efforts or through discourse or through sharing. Or though networked communication, as Al explains (like this blog!).

The aspects of Negri's (or other neo-Marxists') ideas that I don't understand have to do with an emphasis on the "refusal" of work. It's as if work in and of itself is seen as oppressive. The work ethic is seen as a quality inherent to capitalism. But if you think about it, a lot of DIY activity is very much based on a strong individual and group work ethic.

If work is a desire, as Negri says, then perhaps a critique of work should look at types of work rather than work as a whole. Work can be positive. But when I think of the phrase "liberation of work", it reminds me of the Nazi phrase at Auschwitz "work shall set you free." And when I think of the phrase "liberation from work", I think it refers to doing away with the entire concept of "work". So it's a bit confusing.

Perhaps co or tobi or al can explain more. I'm not sure what the difference is in Negri's or Lefebvre's minds between "work" and "labor".

Co - thanks for that Alain Badiou article. I've been meaning to read something by him. He came and spoke in LA last year and I wanted to hear him, but I couldn't make it.

CO said...


I’ll add what I can to Decomposition’s comments. I haven’t read Negri, but I think Decomposition’s characterization of Negri’s idea of liberation from/of work is largely right.

I think Lefebvre’s and Negri’s distinction between labor and work is Marxian. It certainly follows the logic Marx lays out in his work; Labor is an inherent human activity manifesting itself in different forms in different historical epochs. Work in this context is then the capitalist form of labor. Therefore, in order to be liberated from (capitalist) work, work must be liberated from capitalist and transformed into the communist form of labor…..the liberation of work.(see for instance Marx’s ideas of species-being alienated or estranged labor under capitalism and labor under communism in his notes on James Mill or the economic and philosophical manuscripts)

This at least is what Negri says in translated lecture in London I found on the Internet.

“His (negri’s…I think the use of 3rd person is because it is the translator speaking) own political positions starts with refusal of work, which was a fundamental form under which movements in 60-70’s in which he participated operated. It was against Fordism and it was revolutionary because it showed unsuistanbility of Fordist model. Refusal of work was also construction of self which was free from political and economical contradictions….Emancipation from work and liberation of work was important. He refuses to get rid of the concept of labour, because only concept of labour has the capacity of grasping the construction of life, community and political engangememnt. To refuse is to follow two lines of thought : one that work can be reduced to activity - work is expressive capacity, but that is insufficient since it disconnects labour from concept of poverty. Second line, that he also refuses to follow, which also lives in marxism since 30’s, one of Benjamin, which shows work as creation. Living labour creates being on the edge of void. New theoretical determinations of notion of class are not avoidable. And there are more profound reasons, since investigating immaterial labour gives new insight in creation. Today, labour is imidiately cooperative, while cooperation in the past came after individual work.”

I don’t know what Negri is talking about at the end of this with his labor creating “being on the edge of a void” and all. But I think he lays out clear distinctions between labor and work. In my mind these distinctions seem to indicate that Negri would give the name Labor to what Decomoposition argues are the positive aspects of work, while work would seem to be Fordist wage slavery, which like Auschwitz will never set you free.

That’s my understanding. I hope it was helpful.

Ps. If anyone wants anymore Badiou links let me know. He is one , if not the, theorist of the moment and seems to have taken over the internet.

Tobi Vail said...

I can't really follow what you guys are talking about, but sarah if you right click or option click or whatever on that song it's still there to download, it just says the link is broken when you click on it for some reason....really I can only follow theory like this when there are illustrations. I can go on about my colloquial understanding of Marx's critique of capitalism or how certain parts relate to feminist theory or political philosophy, but other than that I'm of no use here.

decomposition said...

Yes, I'm interested in a couple more Badiou links. thanks.

CO said...

Badiou links

scroll down for a smyposia

good article on history and event in badiou

badiou lectures

loads of articles on lacanink

and just found this; badiou on negri