critique of everyday life by henri lefebvre (2)

the development of marxist thought

this section is about the importance of marxism and dialectical materialism as a 'dynamic, living science' about 'thought in movement and about movement in things' (196). a lot of it is fairly basic marxist theory and i don't want to rehash it here, although it's a good place to get the fundamentals from for those unfamiliar. lefebvre is very good at describing alienation, fetishism, and mystification. it's important to lefebvre that dialectical materialism is a means of 'reintegrating the humbler reality of everyday life into thought and consciousness' since 'consciousness cannot free itself from existing illusions by its own strength alone' i.e. 'without the 'demystifying' influence of action' (201); 'men are what they do, and think according to what they are' (200). we can only know what our activity has allowed us to know. i like how humanist this philosophy is.

a lot of this is specific to a midcentury french marxist milieu, which is to say that a lot of this is just lefebvre doing owns on sartre, which gets a little boring. lefebvre argues that sartre's committed intellectual is a chimera, and that the task for today (today being 1968, lol) is 'becoming decommitted from a singularly ambiguous, confused and equivocal era' (205). lefebvre's priority is alienation: 'we need to gain control' (205). 'we do not know how we live' (215). 'during a day at work or a holiday, we each enter into relations with a certain number of social 'things' whose nature we do not understand, but which we support by our active participation; without realizing it we are caught up in a certain number of social mechanisms' (217).

he's funny when he's bashing on literature, which 'does deserve to be held in excessively high esteem. . . . whatever its 'function' may be - testimony or aesthetic pleasure, or something else again - it has only one' (205).

notes written one sunday in the french countryside

an interesting chapter, a deviation in aesthetic from the others written in a very evocative style to describe the community life of premodern france. 'festivals contrasted violently with everyday life, but they were not separate from it. they were like everyday life, but more intense, and the moments of that life . . . were reunited, amplified, magnified in the festival' (227).

as natural disaster and the formation of class rule made previous life untenable, 'the social process was now masked by its own conditions. how was it possible not to attribute it to 'mysterious' causes, external to everyday life . . . . the developing social mystery - the reality which escaped men's consciousness, although they were it authors and actors - was destined to become a religious mystery' (228). social life became subordinate to hierarchical 'realized abstractions' while human action was deprived of 'living substance in favour of 'meanings'' (229).

lefebvre walks back some of the postlapsarian tone but you can see the influence of nietzsche on his thought: [re the church and christianity's cannibalization of older rituals] 'by appearing to stand up for the weak you ended up being the strongest of all' (237). lefebvre's theory of religion is that it is the accumulated form of human alienation (245).

we spend each day of our lives crawling along at ground level, while the 'superior' moments fly away into the far reaches of the stratosphere. religion 'snowballs' as a result of all the practical helplessness of human beings, constituting an immense obstacle; it is there in life's most infinitesimal detail, knowing the weaknesses and provoking them, breathing in the positive substance of everyday life and concentrating its negative aspects. at each everyday event, at each emotive, disturbing moment when something begins or something ends, religion will raise its head; it reassures, consoles, and above all supplies an attitude, a way to behave. (246)

i like that quote because it shows how theatrical a writer lefebvre is (which i really admire). and as always, he concludes: 'the end, the aim, is to make thought . . . intervene in life in its humblest detail. . . . to recreate everyday life.' 'marxism alone' can do this (247).

what is possible

everyday life is not unchangeable; it can decline, therefore it changes. and moreover the only genuine, profound human changes are those which cut into this substance and make their mark upon it. (248)

this is the last chapter of the first volume. it's an elegant synthesis of what's come before, arguing for a dialectic of 'material progress, 'moral' progress' and 'the deprivation, the alienation of life' in modern human history (249). hence, 'life is lagging behind what is possible' (250). (this is really useful to understand the weird delayed time that seems to follow the concepts of everyday life and modernity around.)

lefebvre's work is more rehabilitative here, arguing that critics of bourgeois life need also to see the greatness embedded in alienated forms. uh, then, he goes off about how american literature is so much better than french literature again, which is funny but boring also. he returns to the point that there's 'no substitute for participation' (257) and this is why so many intellectuals have an atrophied view of human possibility, which i agree with: 'abstract culture places an almost opaque screen . . . between the cultivated man and everyday life' (258) and so leads the intellectual 'forgets the social foundations of 'his' thought' (259). lefebvre wants instead 'to attain a consciousness of life in its movement' (259).

the myth of the triviality of everyday life is dispelled whenever what seems to be mysterious turns out to be really trivial, and what seems exceptional is exposed as manifestly banal. (259)

lefebvre turns here, surprisingly but persuasively, to the holocaust, quoting from numerous survivor testimonies. here 'human reason appears only as a terrifying, distant, dehumanized reason: scientific barbarity' (263). he calls auschwitz a 'capitalist housing estate' (265), arguing - similar to cesaire or adorno - that 'fascism represents the most extreme form of capitalism' and 'the concentration camp . . . the most extreme and paroxysmal form of a modern housing estate, or an industrial town' (265). i'm not really qualified to touch this stuff but i was surprised by how extensively he quotes from the testimonies in an otherwise quite monologic book.

then he returns to his central theme in the chapter of untapped human possibility, the total man, the unification of subject and object, and how it becomes individualized at the ideological level:

the contrast between the possible and the real, which is historical and social in character, is thus shifted (within) the most gifted individuals; it becomes the more-or-less conscious conflict between theory and practice, dream and reality; and this conflict results in disquiet and anguish, like any contradiction which remains unresolved or appears unresolvable. (267)

instead of keeping these as metaphysical aporia, the critique of everyday life is directed toward actualizing this potential:

the total problem of man (the problem of total man) is posed and is resolved on the level of everyday life - by a new consciousness of that life, by the transformation of that life. (270)

marxism is thus the philosophical and practical redemption of 'the human masses, a mere accumulation of moments in time, fog-bound marshy plains, 'enormous, stupid' crowds' (270).

and that's where the first volume ends, polemically arguing for the necessity of a dialectical materialism which is grounded in and attentive to everyday activity over and against histories of the few or philosophies of the metaphysical. in the next volume, he lays out the groundwork for a precise scientific method, which is the foundation of marxist sociology. not sure if i'm gonna read that immediately or break for something else though.