The other day at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Zuccotti Park, I picked up a tract produced by the group prole.info that makes a punchy, graphically illustrated case for working-class revolution: “At work,” write the anonymous authors, “we are under the control of our bosses . . . but an invisible hand imposes a work-like discipline and pointlessness on the rest of our lives as well. Life seems like a kind of show we watch from the outside, but have no control over.” This analysis owes much to the group of political and cultural radicals that came together in the late ’50s under the banner of the Situationist International—which went on to formulate many of the theoretical underpinnings of the May 1968 French uprising. Spray-painted slogans such as “Beneath the pavement, the beach” and “Imagination takes power” revealed a poetic dimension to the political struggle of workers and students against the authoritarian regime of de Gaulle. The movement’s mystique has been furthered by claims (made by Greil Marcus, among others) that it was a progenitor of punk. Thus, it’s surprising to discover that there has never been a proper North American publication of one of the movement’s most influential texts, Raoul Vaneigem’s ironically titled Treatise on Good Manners for the Use of the Younger Generation, known in English as The Revolution of Everyday Life. Vaneigem’s work has been scarce in the US, but Donald Nicholson-Smith’s new revision of his British edition can claim to be the first version to bring Vaneigem’s incendiary style fully into focus for a North American audience.
Vaneigem’s 1967 polemic forms a counterpart to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, published the same year. Both works propose a revolution based on the full realization of the individual’s creative potential in which boredom (a word that figures frequently in the lexicon of the SI) becomes a political issue. As Vaneigem put it in an oft-repeated slogan: “We do not want a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation is bought by accepting the risk of dying of boredom.” Debord, the movement’s arch self-mythologizer, has become so renowned that his reputation has unfairly obscured the contributions of all others (particularly Danish theorist Asger Jorn), but Vaneigem’s high style and romantic rhetoric arguably did more to bring the movement’s ideas into the squats and bed-sits of a generation of would-be European radicals who found the organization of the available factions of vanguardist Marxism uncongenial.
Vaneigem proposed a mode of revolutionary existence based on creativity and spontaneity, in which everyday life (a category initially formulated, like much in the Situationist project, by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre) would take on an unprecedented intensity. With its dedication to Maldoror, the rebellious antihero of the Comte de Lautréamont’s proto-Surrealist prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror, and its disgust for the masses, The Revolution of Everyday Life is often closer to Baudelaire than to Mao in its sympathies, yet it is still an explicitly revolutionary text. “Poetry is an act which engenders new realities,” Vaneigem claims, conventionally enough, but then he writes, it is “the fulfillment of radical theory, the revolutionary act par excellence.” This was not an encomium to the transformative powers of art—Vaneigem was prominent in the “political” faction of the SI, which believed that art (as a profession and an activity) was inherently bourgeois, and would wither in the face of a genuinely revolutionary praxis. After the revolution, “poetry”—understood not as a literary form, but as creative, spontaneous, almost childlike living—would merge with daily life, an authentic expression of the “unmediated experience of subjectivity.”
Apart from a vague attachment to council communism (the “left wing” communism Lenin termed an “infantile disorder”), the book is silent on postrevolutionary social organization. It’s hard (though not boring) to imagine a Situationist health service or highway system. Dismissed by many of the Left as expressions of a sort of bohemian politics-lite, the ideas of the SI have proved remarkably resilient, surfacing again and again in the intellectual border country between art and activism. The SI’s vision of full participation, full communication, and full self-realization has acted as a continual provocation to those whose dissent has taken on a pragmatic, professional, managerial quality. Without some recognition of the SI’s impossible demands, still circulating as an undercurrent in movements like Occupy Wall Street, the project of transforming society is reduced to a stale and ultimately doomed squabble over the allocation of power and resources.