Posted on Arthur Magazine
By Jay Babcock
Hans Ulrich Obrist: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem (2009)
Translated from the French by Eric Anglès
Excerpts from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/62:
First, some biographical notes courtesy of Vaneigem’s American publisher, PM Press:
Raoul Vaneigem (b. 1934) is a native of Lessines (Hainaut), Belgium, a small town whose traditional claim to fame was the production of paving stones but which in the twentieth century also produced the Surrealist painter René Magritte and the Surrealist poet Louis Scutenaire. Vaneigem grew up in the wake of World War II in a working-class, socialist and anticlerical milieu. He studied Romance philology at the Free University of Brussels and embarked on a teaching career that he later abandoned in favor of writing.
Situationist International bongo session, November 1962: from left—unknown woman, J.V. Martin, Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord
In late 1960 Vaneigem was introduced to Guy Debord by Henri Lefebvre, and soon after he joined the Situationist International, which Debord and his comrades-in-arms had founded not long before, and he remained in the group throughout the decade of the 1960s. There is a grain of truth in the stereotypical view that Debord and Vaneigem, as two leading lights of the SI, stood for two opposite poles of the movement: the objective Debord versus the subjective Vaneigem: Marxism versus anarchism: icy cerebrality versus sensualism: and, of course, The Society of the Spectacle versus The Revolution of Everyday Life—the two major programmatic books of the SI, written by the two men without consultation, both published in 1967, each serving in its own way to kindle and color the May 1968 uprisings in France.
Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life offered a lyrical and aphoristic critique of the “society of the spectacle” from the point of view of individual experience. Whereas Debord’s masterful analysis of the new historical conditions that triggered the uprisings of the 1960s armed the revolutionaries of the time with theory, Vaneigem’s book described their feelings of desperation directly, and armed them with “formulations capable of firing point-blank on our enemies.”
“I realise,” writes Vaneigem in his introduction, “that I have given subjective will an easy time in this book, but let no one reproach me for this without first considering the extent to which the objective conditions of the contemporary world advance the cause of subjectivity day after day.”
Vaneigem names and defines the alienating features of everyday life in consumer society: survival rather than life, the call to sacrifice, the cultivation of false needs, the dictatorship of the commodity, subjection to social roles, and above all the replacement of God by the Economy. And in the second part of his book, “Reversal of Perspective,” he explores the countervailing impulses that, in true dialectical fashion, persist within the deepest alienation: creativity, spontaneity, poetry, and the path from isolation to communication and participation.
For “To desire a different life is already that life in the making.” And “fulfillment is expressed in the singular but conjugated in the plural.”
Other works by Raoul Vaneigem already published in English translation include The Totality for Kids (London: Christoper Gray/Situationist International, 1966 [“Banalités de Base”, 1962-63]); Contributions to the Revolutionary Struggle (London: Bratach Dubh, 1981 [De la grève sauvage à l’autogestion généralisée, 1974]); The Book of Pleasures (London: Pending Press, 1983 ) The Movement of the Free Spirit (New York: Zone Books, 1994 ); A Cavalier History of Surrealism (San Francisco: AK Press, 1999 ); and A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings (London: Pluto, 2003 )
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I just visited Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, who have written an appeal to Barack Obama. What would your appeal and/or advice be to Obama?
Raoul Vaneigem: I refuse to cultivate any relationship whatsoever with people of power. I agree with the Zapatistas from Chiapas who want nothing to do with either the state or its masters, the multinational mafias. I call for civil disobedience so that local communities can form, coordinate, and begin self-producing natural power, a more natural form of farming, and public services that are finally liberated from the scams of government by the Left or the Right. On the other hand, I welcome the appeal by Chamoiseau, Glissant, and their friends for the creation of an existence in which the poetry of a life rediscovered will put an end to the deadly stranglehold of the commodity.
HUO: Could we talk about your beginnings? How did your participation in situationism begin, and what was your fundamental contribution? At the outset of your relationship with the Situationist International, there was the figure of Henri Lefebvre. What did he mean to you at the time? Why did you decide to send him poetic essays?
RV: I would first like to clarify that situationism is an ideology that the situationists were unanimous in rejecting. The term “situationist” was ever only a token of identification. Its particularity kept us from being mistaken for the throngs of ideologues. I have nothing in common with the spectacular recuperation of a project that, in my case, has remained revolutionary throughout. My participation in a group that has now disappeared was an important moment in my personal evolution, an evolution I have personally pressed on with in the spirit of the situationist project at its most revolutionary. My own radicality absolves me from any label.I grew up in an environment in which our fighting spirit was fueled by working class consciousness and a rather festive conception of existence. I found Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life captivating. When La Somme et le reste [The Sum and the Remainder] was published, I sent him an essay of sorts on “poetry and revolution” that was an attempt to unify radical concepts, Lettrist language, music, and film imagery by crediting them all with the common virtue of making the people’s blood boil. Lefebvre kindly responded by putting me in touch with Guy Debord who immediately invited me to Paris. The two of us had very different temperaments, but we would agree over a period of nearly ten years on the need to bring consumer society to an end and to found a new society on the principle of self-management, where life supersedes survival and the existential angst that it generates.
HUO: Which situationist projects remain unrealized?
RV: Psychogeography, the construction of situations, the superseding of predatory behavior. The radicality, which, notwithstanding some lapses, never ceased to motivate us, remains a source of inspiration to this day. Its effects are just beginning to manifest themselves in the autonomous groups that are now coming to grips with the collapse of financial capitalism.
HUO: The Situationist International defined the situationist as someone who commits her- or himself to the construction of situations. What were those situations for you, concretely? How would you define the situationist project in 2009?
RV: By its very style of living and thinking, our group was already sketching out a situation, like a beachhead active within enemy territory. The military metaphor is questionable, but it does convey our will to liberate daily life from the control and stranglehold of an economy based on the profitable exploitation of man. We formed a “group-at-risk” that was conscious of the hostility of the dominant world, of the need for radical rupture, and of the danger of giving in to the paranoia typical of minds under siege. By showing its limits and its weaknesses, the situationist experience can also be seen as a critical meditation on the new type of society sketched out by the Paris Commune, by the Makhnovist movement and the Republic of Councils wiped out by Lenin and Trotsky, by the libertarian communities in Spain later smashed by the Communist Party. The situationist project is not about what happens once consumer society is rejected and a genuinely human society has emerged. Rather, it illuminates now how lifestyle can supersede survival, predatory behavior, power, trade and the death-reflex.
HUO: You and Guy Debord are the main protagonists of the situationist movement. How do you see Debord’s role and your role?
RV: Not as roles. That is precisely what situationism in its most ridiculous version aims at: reducing us to cardboard cut-outs that it can then set up against one another according to the spectacle’s standard operating procedure. I am simply the spokesman, among others, of a radical consciousness. I just do what I can to see that resistance to market exploitation is transformed into an offensive of life, and that an art of living sweeps away the ruins of oppression.
HUO: You have written a lot on life, not survival. What is the difference?
RV: Survival is budgeted life. The system of exploitation of nature and man, starting in the Middle Neolithic with intensive farming, caused an involution in which creativity—a quality specific to humans—was supplanted by work, by the production of a covetous power. Creative life, as had begun to unfold during the Paleolithic, declined and gave way to a brutish struggle for subsistence. From then on, predation, which defines animal behavior, became the generator of all economic mechanisms.
HUO: Today, more than forty years after May ‘68, how do you feel life and society have evolved?
RV: We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.
HUO: Your new book takes us on a trip “between mourning the world and exuberant life.” You revisit May ‘68. What is left of May ‘68? Has it all been appropriated?
RV: Even if we are today seeing recycled ideologies and old religious infirmities being patched up in a hurry and tossed out to feed a general despair, which our ruling wheelers and dealers cash in on, they cannot conceal for long the shift in civilization revealed by May 1968. The break with patriarchal values is final. We are moving toward the end of the exploitation of nature, of work, of trade, of predation, of separation from the self, of sacrifice, of guilt, of the forsaking of happiness, of the fetishizing of money, of power, of hierarchy, of contempt for and fear of women, of the misleading of children, of intellectual dominion, of military and police despotism, of religions, of ideologies, of repression and the deadly resolutions of psychic tensions. This is not a fact I am describing, but an ongoing process that simply requires from us increased vigilance, awareness, and solidarity with life. We have to reground ourselves in order to rebuild—on human foundations—a world that has been ruined by the inhumanity of the cult of the commodity.
HUO: What do you think of the current moment, in 2009? Jean-Pierre Page has just published Penser l’après crise [Thinking the After-Crisis]. For him, everything must be reinvented. He says that a new world is emerging now in which the attempt to establish a US-led globalization has been aborted.
RV: The agrarian economy of the Ancien Régime was a fossilized form that was shattered by the emerging free-trade economy, from the 1789 revolution on. Similarly, the stock-dabbling speculative capitalism whose debacle we now witness is about to give way to a capitalism reenergized by the production of non-polluting natural power, the return to use value, organic farming, a hastily patched-up public sector, and a hypocritical moralization of trade. The future belongs to self-managed communities that produce indispensable goods and services for all (natural power, biodiversity, education, health centers, transport, metal and textile production . . .). The idea is to produce for us, for our own use—that is to say, no longer in order to sell them—goods that we are currently forced to buy at market prices even though they were conceived and manufactured by workers. It is time to break with the laws of a political racketeering that is designing, together with its own bankruptcy, that of our existence.
HUO: Is this a war of a new kind, as Page claims? An economic Third World War?
RV: We are at war, yes, but this is not an economic war. It is a world war against the economy. Against the economy that for thousands of years has been based on the exploitation of nature and man. And against a patched-up capitalism that will try to save its skin by investing in natural power and making us pay the high price for that which—once the new means of production are created—will be free as the wind, the sun, and the energy of plants and soil. If we do not exit economic reality and create a human reality in its place, we will once again allow market barbarism to live on.
HUO: In his book Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz argues for a reorganization of globalization along the lines of greater justice, in order to shrink global imbalances. What do you think of globalization? How does one get rid of profit as motive and pursue well-being instead? How does one escape from the growth imperative?
RV: The moralization of profit is an illusion and a fraud. There must be a decisive break with an economic system that has consistently spread ruin and destruction while pretending, amidst constant destitution, to deliver a most hypothetical well-being. Human relations must supersede and cancel out commercial relations. Civil disobedience means disregarding the decisions of a government that embezzles from its citizens to support the embezzlements of financial capitalism. Why pay taxes to the bankster-state, taxes vainly used to try to plug the sinkhole of corruption, when we could allocate them instead to the self-management of free power networks in every local community? The direct democracy of self-managed councils has every right to ignore the decrees of corrupt parliamentary democracy. Civil disobedience towards a state that is plundering us is a right. It is up to us to capitalize on this epochal shift to create communities where desire for life overwhelms the tyranny of money and power. We need concern ourselves neither with government debt, which covers up a massive defrauding of the public interest, nor with that contrivance of profit they call “growth.” From now on, the aim of local communities should be to produce for themselves and by themselves all goods of social value, meeting the needs of all—authentic needs, that is, not needs prefabricated by consumerist propaganda.
HUO: Edouard Glissant distinguishes between globality and globalization. Globalization eradicates differences and homogenizes, while globality is a global dialogue that produces differences. What do you think of his notion of globality?
RV: For me, it should mean acting locally and globally through a federation of communities in which our pork-barreling, corrupt parliamentary democracy is made obsolete by direct democracy. Local councils will be set up to take measures in favor of the environment and the daily lives of everyone. The situationists have called this “creating situations that rule out any backtracking.”
HUO: Might the current miscarriages of globalization have the same dangerous effects as the miscarriages of the previous globalization from the ‘30s? You have written that what was already intolerable in ‘68 when the economy was booming is even more intolerable today. Do you think the current economic despair might push the new generations to rebel?
RV: The crisis of the ‘30s was an economic crisis. What we are facing today is an implosion of the economy as a management system. It is the collapse of market civilization and the emergence of human civilization. The current turmoil signals a deep shift: the reference points of the old patriarchal world are vanishing. Percolating instead, still just barely and confusedly, are the early markers of a lifestyle that is genuinely human, an alliance with nature that puts an end to its exploitation, rape, and plundering. The worst would be the unawareness of life, the absence of sentient intelligence, violence without conscience. Nothing is more profitable to the racketeering mafias than chaos, despair, suicidal rebellion, and the nihilism that is spread by mercenary greed, in which money, even devalued in a panic, remains the only value.
HUO: In his book Utopistics, Immanuel Wallerstein claims that our world system is undergoing a structural crisis. He predicts it will take another twenty to fifty years for a more democratic and egalitarian system to replace it. He believes that the future belongs to “demarketized,” free-of-charge institutions (on the model, say, of public libraries). So we must oppose the marketization of water and air.1 What is your view?
RV: I do not know how long the current transformation will take (hopefully not too long, as I would like to witness it). But I have no doubt that this new alliance with the forces of life and nature will disseminate equality and freeness. We must go beyond our natural indignation at profit’s appropriation of our water, air, soil, environment, plants, animals. We must establish collectives that are capable of managing natural resources for the benefit of human interests, not market interests. This process of reappropriation that I foresee has a name: self-management, an experience attempted many times in hostile historical contexts. At this point, given the implosion of consumer society, it appears to be the only solution from both an individual and social point of view.
HUO: In your writing you have described the work imperative as an inhuman, almost animal condition. Do you consider market society to be a regression?
RV: As I mentioned above, evolution in the Paleolithic age meant the development of creativity—the distinctive trait of the human species as it breaks free from its original animality. But during the Neolithic, the osmotic relationship to nature loosened progressively, as intensive agriculture became based on looting and the exploitation of natural resources. It was also then that religion surfaced as an institution, society stratified, the reign of patriarchy began, of contempt for women, and of priests and kings with their stream of wars, destitution, and violence. Creation gave way to work, life to survival, jouissance to the animal predation that the appropriation economy confiscates, transcends, and spiritualizes. In this sense market civilization is indeed a regression in which technical progress supersedes human progress.
HUO: For you, what is a life in progress?
RV: Advancing from survival, the struggle for subsistence and predation to a new art of living, by recreating the world for the benefit of all.
HUO: In your view there is no such thing as urbanism?
RV: Urbanism is the ideological gridding and control of individuals and society by an economic system that exploits man and Earth and transforms life into a commodity. The danger in the self-built housing movement that is growing today would be to pay more attention to saving money than to the poetry of a new style of life.
HUO: Is Oarystis based on natural power, like the Metabolist cities? Rem Koolhaas and I are working on a book on the Japanese Metabolists. When I read your wonderful text on Oarystis, I was reminded of that movement from the 1960s, especially the floating cities, Kikutake’s water cities. Is Oarystis a Metabolist city?
RV: When Oarystis was published, the architect Philippe Rothier and Diane Hennebert, who ran Brussels’ Architecture Museum at the time, rightly criticized me for ignoring the imaginative projects of a new generation of builders. Now that the old world is collapsing, the fusion of free natural power, self-built housing techniques, and the reinvention of sensual form is going to be decisive. So it is useful to remember that technical inventiveness must stem from the reinvention of individual and collective life. That is to say, what allows for genuine rupture and ecstatic inventiveness is self-management: the management by individuals and councils of their own lives and environment through direct democracy. Let us entrust the boundless freedoms of the imaginary to childhood and the child within us.
HUO: How can the city of the future contribute to biodiversity?
RV: By drawing inspiration from Alphonse Allais, by encouraging the countryside to infiltrate the city. By creating zones of organic farming, gardens, vegetable plots, and farms inside urban space. After all, there are so many bureaucratic and parasitical buildings that can’t wait to give way to fertile, pleasant land that is useful to all. Architects and squatters, build us some hanging gardens where we can go for walks, eat, and live!
HUO: In 1991 I founded a Robert Walser museum, a strollological museum, in Switzerland. I have always been fascinated by your notion of the stroll. Could you say something about your urban strolls with and without Debord? What about Walser’s? Have other strollologists inspired you?
RV: I hold Robert Walser in high regard, as many do. His lucidity and sense of dérive enchanted Kafka. I have always been fascinated by the long journey Hölderlin undertook following his break-up with Diotima. I admire Chatwin’s Songlines, in which he somehow manages to turn the most innocuous of walks into an intonation of the paths of fate, as though we were in the heart of the Australian bush. And I appreciate the strolls of Léon-Paul Fargue and the learning of Héron de Villefosse. My psychogeographic dérives with Guy Debord in Paris, Barcelona, Brussels, Beersel, and Antwerp were exceptional moments, combining theoretical speculation, sentient intelligence, the critical analysis of beings and places, and the pleasure of cheerful drinking. Our homeports were pleasant bistros with a warm atmosphere, havens where one was oneself because one felt in the air something of the authentic life, however fragile and short-lived. It was an identical mood that guided our wanderings through the streets, the lanes and the alleys, through the meanderings of a pleasure that our every step helped us gauge in terms of what it might take to expand and refine it just a little further. I have a feeling that the neighborhoods destroyed by the likes of Haussmann, Pompidou, and the real estate barbarians will one day be rebuilt by their inhabitants in the spirit of the joy and the life they once harbored…
Read the complete interview at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/62