La vie quotidienne, in quotes

June 24, 2007

I’ve been reading the second volume of Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, aspects of which are in explicit dialogue with various SI writings and, in particular, Debord. As with the Italian material in my last post, it’s difficult to know whose ideas came first or whether or there isn’t a common intertext that does not immediately suggest itself from this vantage point.

Despite Lefebvre’s critique of structuralism (which, along with critiques of phenomenology, existentialism, he shares with Debord), there’s no doubt that the contemporaneous flourishing of formalism in the social sciences affected him as he set out his own Grundrisse (the first chapter of Vol. II is called “Clearing the Ground”); in this he might be seen as a kind of pre-post-structuralist, capable of saying, in 1961: “If the logical application of the concept of structure disguises the “destructurings” and “restructurings” which are in operation—the changes and actions of the negative—then that too must be submitted” (28). Much more than Debord, Lefebvre sets himself the task of giving a dynamic, and yet spatial, account of the psychic and social asymmetries of capitalism. His is a map that moves.

Everyday life demands a descriptive language that avoids reifying what it holds in its gaze, and which defines the everyday as neither static in time (unchanging) or bounded in space, autonomous. Under the pressure of, on the one hand, the dialectic, and on the other, structuralism—Lefebvre comes up with a rather novel definition of social totality and the everyday:

It is everyday life which measures and embodies the change which takes place ‘somewhere else,’ in the ‘higher realism’. The human world is not defined simply by the historical, by culture, by totality or society as a whole, or by ideological and political superstructures. It is defined by this intermediate and mediating level: everyday life. In it, the most concrete of dialectical movements can be observed: need and desire, pleasure and absence of pleasure, satisfaction and privation (or frustration), fulfillments and empty space, work and non-work. (45)

Against the pieties of a communist criticism which assumes immediate apprehension of totality, Lefebvre anticipates some of arguments of deconstruction and yet still manages, as Jameson will later, to salvage a provisional, friable concept of the total. His nearly monadic concept of “levels” in totality, levels which thread through and are mediated by an interpenetrating totality, solves some of the problems of assimilating dynamic, dialectical theory to the formal concerns of the social sciences. And, importantly, for later theories of artistic and political praxis, it defines the “everyday” as a uniquely undervalued site for resistance, even if the concept always threatens to fall into a kind of hypostatic sterility. The everyday, in his definition, is both a residual level of capitalism—a zone where precapitalist modes of production and relation persevere—and the product of the most advanced forms of manufactured needs, reification and ideology. The everyday is “doubly determined . . . at one and the same time as unformed, and as what forms contain.” As a kind of monadic semi-autonomy, threaded through by the totality of forms, the residual or unformed part of the everyday can be used as a space for resistance, for critique, of the social forms that dominate it. It is an autonomy—an unformed space—that touches on all places in which the individual is not autonomous, is formed. And it is thus a unique space for resistance. Indeed, it might be plausible to claim that Lefebvre defines the everyday in terms strikingly similar to Lukács description of proletarian praxis. Even if Lefebvre is careful to distinguish the everyday from social praxis in general, his privileged area of inquiry is the place where theoretical consciousness and a practical contact with substance—inaccesible for bourgeois consciuosness— come together. In a moment, perhaps, of despair with macropolitical solutions which ignore individuals’ experience, Lefebvre’s is one of the clearest articulations of the micropolitcal as a space of contestation that is not autonomous from the social totality, but in contact with it. Critique of everyday life seeks to determine where, as a level, it intersects larger, extra-ordinary social forms.

Certainly this is what the anti-art of the SI—the dérive, the construction of situations, the assimilation of surrealist techniques to purposes of agitprop, or artistic practice to social research—imagined as a course of action. Where, for instance, do the demands of the capitalist city impinge upon your life as you walk to work, and how can one behave counter to these impingements? But there is a fine dialectical line here, where the attempt to fold the everyday back into the totality can be neatly reversed in a counter-revolutionary formulation, not the becoming-lived of the aesthetic—the very definition of a revolutionary consciousness— but the becoming-aesthetic of the lived. This is, indeed, as Lefebvre notes, precisely what the technological invasion of the everyday—television, radio, mass-produced “fashion”—promises: “In the last fifteen years everyday life has undergone extensive transformations, and this has prompted us to ask whether in fact our aim has not been achieved, in remarkable and unexpected ways, by social practice.”

I am particularly interested in the ways that this problem gets imagined by writers and artists in the late 60’s and throughout the 70s. Take, for instance, Vito Acconci’s work “Service Area,” which was his contribution to the seminal conceptual art exhibition, Information, at the MoMA (1970). Combining Lefebvrian concerns with a Wittgensteinian emphasis on the strangeness of the ordinary, Acconci had all of his mail forwarded to the MoMA and then placed in a transparent receptacle in the center of the gallery. Each day, Acconci would enter the museum, collect his mail and leave. Like his other works from this period, this piece is concerned with the collapse of the private (here, clearly, privation) into the codified space of the public. If mail is the instrument whereby the circulations of capital stitch the public and private together, then perhaps this is Acconci’s attempt to render unto the public what is already public, and thereby secure for himself a freedom outside of the institutional gaze. Or we might think of this as simply a cynical maneuver, a way of contributing to the museumification and administration of the everyday, its penetration by sociologically-enhanced commodity forces. My sense is that both readings are true, and that artists like Acconci—or, for instance, Joseph Beuys— are intersected by impulses running in both directions.

In the arena of writing and the everyday, books like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life or Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (Mayer was editor, with Acconci, of the influential mimeo journal, 0-9) provide an excellent corollary example. Both of these works are from the bust years of the late 1970s, and bring the most hyperprecise, exhaustive descriptive powers to bear on the minutiae and excitements of quotidian life—here a sphere that both writers see coded as the domestic and feminine, definitions that they seek to upset by appropriating to this arena forms associated with the extra-domestic or masculine. Both poems are, quite consciously, epics of the everyday, ones that seek to upset heroic, masculinist notions of epic as adventures in the public sphere. Written in a single day (Winter Solstice, 1978) Mayer’s book may be the single strongest attempt to fold the experimental techniques of writing—free association, catalog, ekphrasis—back into the life from which it arises. Of course, since Mayer, who had two young children and a series of concomitant mundane household business to attend to, could not spend the entire day writing (which would, also, leave her without any content), she is forced to take notes during the day, and then, at night, after the children go to bed, set down everything that happened. As much as writing is a prosthetic enlargement of the senses, of the experience of life lived, it is also one that can never be temporally identical with that life. In this, it’s difficult to decide whether or not this is becoming-lived of the aesthetic or vice-versa. Maybe it’s best to think of this as a transitional stage in the approach to such a state, and one that threatens to become assumed, almost instantly, under the sign of literature.


Vito Acconci. Blinks, Nov 23,1969; afternoon. Photo-Piece, Greenwich Street, NYC; Kodak Instamatic 124, b/w film