Thoughts on Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life Vol. 1

by tigermanifesto

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At last, I finished my reading of Henri Lefebvre’s 1947 Critique of Everyday Life Volume 1, the beginning of a trilogy of volumes examining the quotidian. As the Michael Trebitsch’s preface to this edition notes, the book appeared at a time of acute division in the world, the moment where the euphoria of fascism’s defeat collided with the realization that the world had split into two camps, crystallized by Churchill and Truman on one side and Zhdanov on the other. Soon after its publication, his membership in the French Communist Party ended acrimoniously and he retreated from writing on Marxism for some time. This is, therefore, a biographically and politically pivotal book that explores many of Lefebvre’s core principles in regard to Marxism and its relation to sociology and philosophy.

Central to the entire scheme of the book is the theory of alienation. It is not too far a stretch to say that alienation is the conceptual core of his critique of everyday life, the measuring stick by which we can qualify the emancipation of true humanity from its capitalist shackles. Before he defines his critique of the everyday, though, he launches a preliminary barrage on other modern treatments of the everyday, particularly that of modernist literature and the Surrealist camp. He castigates the Romantics for denigrating everyday life, which looked so pale to them exposed to the light of the marvelous. Baudelaire, to Lefebvre, was a more subtle saboteur, exploring the everyday for a repository of symbols and avatars of the Bizarre. At this point, there is a fascinating passage that connects to theories of orientalism and imperialism. He quotes Baudelaire:

“When Flaubert set out for the Orient – Flaubert the petty bourgeois who hated the petty bourgeoisie (they all hated and despised one another) – he was unaware that the journey would change nothing, that he would end up once more living on his private income in some provincial backwater – with his ageing mother – and with nothing to show for it but oriental bric-à-brac and incipient syphilis – just as Baudelaire, that half-starved bohemian clown, lived with his memories of tropical islands, black women and a pampered childhood.”[1]

I would also connect this to a Baudelaire quotation that Lefebvre uses: “Cruelty and sensual pleasure are identical.”[2] One of the most important facets of Orientalism is that it sees the East as a land of overt cruelty and unhinged passions, where the moderate middle––the Ego of the Universe that is the West––holds no authority. Everything is both punitive and rigid and loose and libertine. In this context, Gauguin is clearly of the same type, though he might emphasize the pleasure end of the oriental rather than that of cruelty. Though Lefebvre does not speak to this point, it indicates that the birth of the literary nineteenth century was marked by surging European colonialism, for only then could the “memories of tropical islands” and “black women” intersect with that of Flaubert’s indulgent childhood. This denigration of everyday life––as Lefebvre argues, actually everyday life constrained by capital––has as its companion the fetishization of both the subconscious and its geographical partner, the Orient of the Western imagination.

One of the more difficult passages to read was the author’s denunciations of Surrealism along similar lines: it sanctified the bizarre and strange through its techniques of juxtaposition and what Lefebvre calls its false dialectic of dreams and reality. The Surrealist desire for purity and pure experience led them to condemn all of waking, everyday life. He sees the entire movement as a symptom of the greater malaise of bourgeois society and the art world after the First World War, mired in cynicism and continuing to disparage the everyday. I mentioned that this part was difficult, but it is not because of a language barrier or the esoteric nature of the history Lefebvre cites, but rather that I was an enthusiast for Surrealism when I was younger. I have to admit that most of his criticisms meet the mark, however, and it is clear that Lefebvre has some remaining sympathy for them.

As previously mentioned, the rest of the book is an examination of Marxism and its relation to everyday life, to sociology, and to philosophy. Lefebvre wants to enshrine for the quotidian a place among the great subjects for all three fields. He even defines Marxism at one point as the critical knowledge of everyday life. His primary tool in this final section of the book is the concept of alienation, as humanity creates things that turn back to oppress their creators. Capitalism alienates the products of labor from the worker, of course, but for Lefebvre, alienation is a much more total concept, a description of the all-round separation of human beings from their true potential. He even names this potential as “true man,” in the patriarchal style of the time. His writing puts him as far away from Althusser and the anti humanists as possible:

“Man and the human have always constituted a whole: in and through contradictions, i.e. alienations. As for the total man – universal, concrete and alive – he can only be conceived of as a limit to the infinity of social development.”[3]

Alienation plays out in every facet of life. Technology, religion, relations of production, education, etc. At every point, Lefebvre sees the human subject torn from his rightful possessions and rightful power over everyday life. Alienation and the process of dis-alienation are the great measures of how far humanity has progressed towards communism. I admit that I have difficulty accepting either this full-throated affirmation of the human subject as the subject of history as well as the employment of alienation in this way. It would seem to me that, though the word has its uses in understanding the parasitic nature of the capitalist, “alienation” tends to be too general to be descriptive of what’s going on in the realm of ideology or even in the process of capitalization and exploitation. Perhaps it comes down to my historian’s preference for specificity––and my philosophical preference for Althusserianism or a version of it rather than Marxist humanism––that prejudices me against this idea. I don’t believe that it explains historical development, and that Lefebvre made a mistake by employing it so liberally in this manner.

All the same, the book is an impassioned work of literature as well as a tome of philosophy. I have to admit that I found its tone and prose infectious, and its insights, despite their somewhat defective or at least metaphysical foundations, can be powerful. I’ll end with one of my favourite bits:

“Woe betide the bewitched adolescent! He is in danger of being lost for ever; he is in danger of no longer belonging to this world; polluted, fanatical, his blood has become tainted. Did he long for a mysterious woman. absolute love, ‘ideal’ beauty? Real love, real women, real beauty will never be his. ”[4]

Notes:

1. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life (New York: Verso, 2014), 342. ebook.

2. Ibid, 341. ebook.

3. Ibid, 236. ebook.

4. Ibid, 377-8. ebook

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