Reflecting on Raoul Vaneigem, Subjectivism, and the Situationist perspective.
The Situationists began their run as the premier avant-garde group of Left Marxists in 1957, and made their biggest impact on the European political scene in the infamous summer of 1968. Their philosophy empowered the student movements in Paris that almost brought the French social order to its knees, with their slogans of “boredom is always counterrevolutionary” and “going through the motions kills the emotions” fueling the radicalization of the uprising.
Among the pillars of Situationist ideas were primarily two strands of the “philosophy of the spectacle”: Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, both of whom published their most influential works in 1967. The former is considered the voice of objectivity within analysis of the spectacle, or the idea that that modern consumer culture is dominated by imagery, advertising, and the effects of commodification. Vaneigem, however, is known for promoting the subjectivity of this discourse. And in his most influential work, The Revolution of Everyday Life, there’s a quantitative lack of judgements of the spectacle and its various forms. For the relentlessly subjective Vaneigem, no value judgements are necessary when the rigors of poetic observations put the spectacle to the test.
In the Revolution of Everyday Life, the burden of proof is placed squarely on the shoulders of “the ideology of consumption”, as well as its counterpart, “the consumption of ideology”. The book is even divided into two parts, which are designed to endure (and be understood) simultaneously as contradictory perspectives on everyday life: Power’s Perspective and Reversal of Perspective. To Vaneigem, neither withstands this burden—not even within his unique subjectivity itself. “The objective conditions of the contemporary world advance the cause of subjectivity day after day”, he writes. “Everything starts from subjectivity, but nothing stays there.”
To invent everyday experience is to make the mistake of defining something that cannot be defined: a living thing. If the idea of “Situationism” has an ideological core, or a strand of common philosophy, this would be it. But ask Vaneigem about Situationism, and he will dismantle any discussion of overlap between the situationists and ideology. He writes, “the whole of isms, whether it envelops the whole of humanity or a single person, is never anything but a world drained of reality.” When asked by Adbusters’ Siné Mensuel to give a brief definition of the situationists, Vaneigem responded, “No.”
To speak of situationism would be to place an ideology where there isn’t one.
This is precisely why situationist philosophy remains as unpopular to intellectual opinion as Chomsky’s anarchism. Both have offered very little prideful empowerment to the international intelligentsia, instead delegating their focus to the voiceless and the victimized. Situationist leader Guy Debord, however, was much less committed to this focus than Vaneigem, who speaks to all those who have ever as much as thought about the effects of consumer culture, advertising, commercialism, and materialistic exploitation within modern economic systems. He knows we cannot shut ourselves off from the effects of the modern economy and the commodifying spectacle, but makes a call for recognition of the dire need for a reversal: a revolution of everyday life.
Like other Situationists who focused on the quality of student life surrounding May ’68, Vaneigem speaks with most urgency of generational differences in the context of materialism. Just a few years after The Revolution of Everyday Life was published, American left-wing organizer Saul Alinsky was writing about the children of the new middle classes lacking materialistic goals because “they’ve already had it”. And without goals such as flying first class, vacations, expensive cars, and general comfort, the youth in the early 1970′s lacked what the previous generation created for itself: an identity with dreams, but most importantly, an identity itself.
Vaneigem forecasts this identity crisis in a generation that did not grapple onto what its forefathers could:
“To consume without respite is to change illusions at an accelerating pace which eventually dissipates in the illusion of change… People without imagination are beginning to tire of the importance attached to comfort, to culture, to leisure, to all that destroys imagination. This is not to say that people are tired of comfort, culture, and leisure, but merely of the use to which they are put…”
Though a new edition is slated to appear on bookshelves in November, the popular conception of the book as being most valuable in fragments rather than as a front-t0-back experience still holds. The book, written in the form (but not exactly) of a dialectic, begs to be excerpted, like a journal by Oscar Wilde or Camus. The author asks:
“But what about the impossibility of living, what about this stifling mediocrity and this absence of passion? What about the jealous fury in which the rankling of never being ourselves drives us to imagine that other people are happy? What about this feeling of never really being inside your own skin? Let nobody say these are minor details or secondary points.”
These critical questions maintain their significance to today’s culture more than ever. Simon Reynolds, a notable English music critic, has called for an applicable resurrection of situationist ideas. Reynolds said to radio host Amy Britton in an interview:
“Right now it seems like a rebooted and remodelled Situationism might have stuff to say about Internet culture, social media etc. One of the ideas I’ve been considering recently is that the Internet, Facebook, blogs, Tumblr, Google etc have captured the dérive/psychogeography and the idea of do-it-yourself and put them in service of capitalism. When consumer capitalism is inciting us to express ourselves and be creative and active and generate all this self-documentation, is it really emancipatory or are we being distracted, politically sidelined?”
To Vaneigem, the most emancipatory project to be undertaken at this point is to desire something different than the status quo and, most importantly, believe that it is possible. Perhaps the most universally valuable insight that The Revolution of Everyday Life offers is its emphasis on political resistance and concern for human beings as a vocation, not a profession; a lifestyle, not an attitude. For the often unsubstantiated amount of subjectivist apologetics, Vaneigem revolves around moral precepts within paradoxical prose like the earth revolves around the sun.
In the new preface, the author makes a concerted effort to comment on the possibility of environmental calamity and raises a parallel that has formed between 1967 and today: it’s not just moral precepts that are burning, but to our peril, the earth itself.