critique of everyday life by henri lefebvre (4)

the last volume, published in 1981, is a reflection on how everyday life has changed since the first two volumes. it's lefebvre's reflection on what he sees as a failure of revolutionary potential in the twentieth century, so it's a bit less hopeful and energized than the previous volumes, but it's not a totally pessimistic diagnosis either. it's divided into two sections, continuities between then and now (1946-1968/1981) and discontinuities, with an extensive intro and conclusion. you get the sense that he knows he's out of his depth with some of the changes--his attempt to reckon with the obvious importance of race and gender as analytics is a somewhat halfhearted distinction between 'difference' and 'particularity'; his reflections on communications technology feel almost reluctant--but he remains incredibly shrewd on his central preoccupations: daily life, revolutionary possibility, the relationship between theory and life, the reconstruction of a marxism contemporary with the times.


daily life, like language, contains manifest forms and deep structures that are implicit in its operations, yet concealed in and through them. (678)

lefebvre opens by pointing out that when he first wrote the critique, he was attempting to redeem a subject (everyday life) that was considered unremarkable and not something that merited serious consideration. the situation has changed, and now a fixation with everyday life characterizes nearly every aspect of culture and science. but lefebvre is not celebrating this development, because the new interest in the subject has not been critical, political, or pointed toward possibility (680). my favorite bits of lefebvre are when he ventriloquizes different povs, like when here he stages a dialogue between an 'optimist' and a 'nostalgic' on whether daily life has improved or declined over the twentieth century (683).

lefebvre then theorizes 'social time' and 'rhythmanalysis' more in depth since these concepts, he admits, were not explained in the earlier volumes after he introduced them. social time is indissoluble from his more fleshed out concept of social space, since 'use of space involves a certain use of time.' his perspective on social time is similar to adorno's writings around the same time on the topic. there's a constant interruption between the time of use (labor-time) and the time of exchange ('free' time):

the time of non-labour forms part of social time, as compensation for the time devoted to production (sold as productive capacity to those who possess the means of reproduction). like labour, non-labour, or rather the time of non-labour, forms part of the mode of production. it impels the economy - first because it is the time of consumption, and next because vast sectors generating products and surplus-value are constructed on the basis of this non-labour: tourism, the leisure industry, show business, 'culture' and the culture industry. thus daily life encompasses these modalities of social time, the time of labour and of non-labour alike, and in particular being bound up with use. (688)

lefebvre is parsing this in this detail because, in 1946 and 1968, everyday life was undergoing a transformation, and had not established 'the relations between bodies, the relations of the corporeal to the spatial and temporal' that appear to him in 1981 (689). but this does not alter the underlying motivation of the critique: 'to bring out the implicit, unexplored content of daily life' and to see how 'everyday mundanity, its time and space, contained things that were seemingly incompatible with it - play, the festival, surprise' and thus 'to open up marxist thought to the realm of possibilities' (691).

lefebvre is playing defense here, apologetically. he says that the context in which he was writing was a marxist climate that was preoccupied with totality. if he was pushing against the particular methods that were being used, he did not mean to champion the naive empiricism that was soon to become popular: 'daily life provides a mediation between the particular and the universal, the local and the global' (692). the critique of everyday life had to be flexible, because its object was protean, but it 'imparted content to alienation' (693). that is, lefebvre was not trying to abandon the critique of political economy in marx, but extend it. he then distinguishes his approach to everyday life from heidegger and lukács (although i think he overstates his differences re the latter).

for marx . . . the other is both alienation and disalienation (its possibility): alienation in class relations, disalienation in revolutionary potentialities. (695)

the critique of everyday life is needed because 'people in general do not know how they live' even though increasingly (1981, but i think this is true today) 'they are less and less taken in' (697). in order to bring people to critique, lefebrve 'aimed to shatter marxist orthodoxy . . . to put an end to the notion of an orthodoxy' (698). of course, he had no way of knowing that the popularity of marx would be eclipsed so quickly after he was writing, to his dismay. the split he observes--between a failed stalnism and a subversive cultural politics which had abandoned revolution--is in some way cause and in some way result of this eclipse.

he gives a capsule history of the various radical movements of the twentieth century (although he overlooks anticolonial struggle for the most part), and then points to some possibilities he sees in protest movements: 'abolishing work' and 'the social relations of domination' (701). unlike many a marxist, he's actually quite sympathetic to--and prescient about--struggle which centered pleasure and did not valorize labor:

against an economism void of values other than those of exchange, protest stood for reuniting the festival and daily life, for transforming daily life into a site of desire and pleasure. the protesters were protesting against the fact, simultaneously obvious and ignored, that delight and joy, pleasure and desire, desert a society that is content with satisfaction. (701)

but without a marxist idea of totality (in everyday life) on its side, this was an incomplete protest. his earlier critique aimed to explore how 'daily life is insidiously programmed' so that 'people were having it explained to them how they should live . . . how they would use their time and space. these features marked society while wrecking the social.' it was thru the colonization of daily life that everyday life was depoliticized 'by disembodied images and alien voices, by the discursive and spectacular moulding' of a vast media apparatus (702).

('colonization' is lefebvre's language, as well as debord's and to be honest i don't like it very much, especially given how little consideration he gives to historical anticolonial struggle that was taking place alongside.)

lefebvre is partly cataloging his own shortcomings here, such as his neglect of 'the role of multinationals' and 'their intervention in daily life' (703). he neglected the role of middle class hegemony and mass media, and did not fully develop an 'analysis of reproduction, as concealed not under but in production' (704). and of course, there was the failure of 1968, which he both inspired and in which (to his credit, considering the role of althusser and adorno) he took part. after 1968, we have what i will somewhat jokingly term a marx/foucault split:

revolutionaries confined themselves to the politico-economic, whereas subversives distanced themselves from it. in short, these two aspects of daily life were dissociated. failure ensued. (705)

lefebvre is much more foucauldian than many other marxists of his period: 'daily life entered into the circuits of the market and managerial practice . . . . this can extend to the 'self-management' of daily life' (707).

but lefebvre is not interested just in atoning; he has his targets, too. he is very angry at the abandonment of humanism that endures today and in particular he has no kind words for althusser:

critical knowledge was going to spawn hypercriticism - at the extreme, sheer abstract negation of the existing order, rejection of the 'real' treated as a shadow theatre. . . . on the pretext that humanism bore the marks of bourgeois liberalism and suspect ideologies, it was blithely trampled underfoot without anything being put in its place. on the road to hypercriticism, the ultra-leftist intelligentsia demolished all values, for excellent reasons, but in the process destroyed reasons for living. (707)

on another front, though he sympathizes with the 'rejection of work' because at present people 'exercise only a tiny proportion of their potential for pleasure,' it was an organizing mistake that 'could originate only in a certain middle class and an intelligentsia undeterred by paradoxes.' for all its slogans, this utopian sect 'specified nothing about space, the use of time, social relations' (708).

rather than these thought experiments about the end of the humanist subject, attempts at reconciling neo-positivist scientism with marx, or speculative utopianisms that were alienated from everyday life, 'human rights should have been defended, illustrated, strengthened' (709). abdicating this role has led to a generalized rhetoric--by no means exclusive to leftists (and prominent today, imo)--of crisis. 'they talk about containing or controlling' crisis. but crisis is no longer crisis: 'it is becoming the mode of existence of modern societies on a world scale' (713). 'crisis is not some malady of society, but henceforth its normal, healthy state' (714). lefebvre's 'theory of permanent crisis' (715) is a critique of the very idea of crisis. this is a point that rancière has made too, which is that it is exactly the people who pounce on the word crisis who then authorize themselves to administer to the crisis indefinitely, permanent doctors and rulers of our neoliberal hell.

lefebvre wants us to return to the ruthless critique of everyday life. 'is daily life a shelter from the changes, especially when they occur abruptly? is it a fortress of resistance to great changes, or certain minor but significant changes? or, contrariwise, is it the site of the main changes, whether passively or actively?' (717)


so, what's remained consistent in the situation across all three volumes? in a characteristically ambitious move, lefebvre doesn't just start in 1946. he starts with so-called modernity itself: 'around 1910, the main reference systems of social practice in europe disintegrated' (720). but while this happened at the scale of nation-states and scientific paradigms, 'daily life was consolidated as the site where the old reality and the old representations were preserved, bereft of reference points or surviving in practice.' to replace the old values in the wake of their collapse, three came to characterize the modern period: 'technique, labour and language' (721).

technique won out, becoming as autonomous as commodities, though labour put up a fight as the organizing principle of the socialist countries. in terms of higher values, only language was left. (it is extremely funny that his evidence includes the increased popularity of crosswords.) but language as a value in itself is merely 'uninhibited signification . . . separated from expression. meaning lies dying. . . . freed from all ties, signifiers take flight. thought disappears at the very moment thinkers believe they are thinking freely' (722).

this is a familiar story, and one that lefebvre doubts (in an echo of raymond williams): 'modernity appears as an ideology - that is to say, a series of more or less developed representations that conceal a practice. modernity was promising. what did it promise? happiness, the satisfaction of all needs' (423). 'the ideology of modernity above all masked daily life as the site of continuity, by floating the illusion of a rupture with the previous epoch.' with its promises of infinite novelty unfulfilled and nothing in its place, 'the optimism of modernity becomes tinged with nihilism,' enabling 'a clear field for the deployment of technology and the proclamation of the end of ideologies' as our new myths (724). modernity may or may not have occured; capitalism persists.

and in what forms did capitalism persist? well, the big one--and a somewhat surprising one given how many predicted its fragmentation or dissolution--is the 'consolidation of the family . . . . the family is affirmed not only as a micro-centre of consumption and occupation of a small local space . . . but as an affective group reinforced by a sense of solidarity, the moral complement of social security' (725). this was the flipside of the technological acceleration of the twentieth century, and it is in some sense an attempt to compensate for (but in fact exacerbates) how 'capitalism leads to the solitude of the individual . . . in daily life.' but the socialisms of the twentieth century could only offer an alternative of 'general mistrust and suspicion . . . internalized repression' (725).

neither of these offered much to those who 'sought to take back control of their everyday life.' this is a nice quote: ''solidarity' is neither theology nor politics in the usual sense: it is 'ordinary life' emerging into the daylight, making demands, calling for help - sometimes incautiously, for it is on the brink of despair' (726).

the forms that dominates the twentieth century, much more so than even the capitalist family, is the commodity.

in their present form the world and planet derive, in the first instance, from the extension of the market and commodities to the entire earth, in an uneven process that has swept aside all resistance. (727)

hence the perennial importance of marx, and the commodity as a form that contains and conceals social relations in their totality. the transformation of information into a commodity in the twentieth century is pivotal, as it 'makes possible all other exchanges: all the flows in which daily life is immersed.' we live in a 'commodity-world,' a world which 'tends towards a sort of nothingness, through the abstraction of exchange.' 'it is in this way that the commodity can constitute and determine the global.' 'only knowledge of the commodity as reality-producing gives us access to the global. . . . it alone makes it possible to situate daily life in the global, and to asses the retroactive impact of international space on its own conditions, on the contradictions it contains' (730).

because 'modern society' is constituted as a system of systems of equivalence,' so does it exert a flattening pressure on daily life in which 'all moments would be equivalent.' only, 'the moments assert themselves.' this is why everyday life contains a critical charge, and why we must resist an 'everyday life managed like an enterprise within an enormous, technologically administered system.' although they are all commodities on the market, the minimal differentiation of sex, labour, and information from other commodities is useful. these are the source of 'intense instants' that can 'shatter the everydayness trapped in generalized exchange.' they connect--and can disconnect--everyday life and the abstract system of universal exchange in which we are caught (731).

there's a brief bit about identity in these environs and in an increasingly automated domestic sphere ('to be attached to objects . . . is today, as in the past, to create a shell or a bubble . . . against the assaults of a hostile world', 'domestic appliances have certainly altered daily life. . . . they have aggravated its closure, by reinforcing repetitive everydayness and linear processes' (734-735)).

he recapitulates his idiosyncratic view of language. lefebvre sounds like blanchot (who sounds like lefebvre) when he writes that 'redundancy . . . is the basis of intelligibility' (744). everyday life is both stable and fragile, owing to the fact that

social relations have for a long time, if not always, been relations of force. . . . such relations are tolerable only when they are masked. . . . discourse and daily life cover the harshness and brutality of structural relations, the skeleton of society, with a weak but soft flesh.' (739)

daily life is where 'we' must live; it is what has to be transformed. . . . daily life harbours the site, if not the content, of a creation which transforms it, and is to be accomplished (740).

the everyday content of the discursive form is simultaneously and inseparably individual and social: the social is the content of the individual . . . everyday discourse performs an important function: translating into ordinary language . . . the sign systems and different codes employed in a society . . . . unbeknown to itself, everyday discourse performs this continuous, indispensable labour. (742)

he sounds like derrida here: 'a kind of venerable manichaeanism is still with us, and tends to crystallize into a system in everyday life' (743). and: 'death-in-life is the great presence-absence . . . . is this not the figure, its strangeness softened by familiarity, which forms the link between everyday life and great works?' (743).

in daily life, time and discourse, everything, seems reversible, unlike historical time and natural time, as well as subjective duration. daily life and its discourse tend to be installed in a space that has priority over temporality. a (seeming) simultaneity obtains. this sets traps for memory and thought alike. . . . daily life would be reduced to its reversible continuity were this one-dimensionality not continually interrupted, making way for dreams, daydreams, fantasies. (745)

there's a chapter on vulgarity, which is funny but i'm going to skip because i'm being way too exhausive--i really need to start paring these down. i just think he's neat! there's a bit about the family, sex, a critique of de certeau. there's a fun schema of everyday life, which is actually really useful for fleshing out the concept of social time:

these are each, for lefebvre, what must be resisted and ultimately abolished along their respective axes.

next is discontinuities! we'll see if i have the energy for that.


first, a radical politics organized not around but against work: 'what might daily life become from the viewpoint of not working? how can we inflect it in this direction? . . . what should we expect - an expansion of the everyday, or its decline?' (764). lefebvre remains open to the power of play, but increasingly skeptical about the potential of 'the ludic to rupture to daily life' given 'the obduracy of the system of equivalents' (767). his point is that if the commodity once stifled imagination, it can now as easily exploit and stimulate it.

the enemy is powerful and by no means limited to (though reliant on and formed in) the market: 'political power everywhere sets about obtaining by all possible means . . . the celebrated consensus, which assumes and creates stability' (769). this means as well, and lefebvre namedrops neoliberalism here, a greater 'discrepancy between the institutional level and daily life' (771). but if it's going to be a hard trek to amassing power at the everyday scale, it is also true that 'today everyone banks on daily life: politicians' as much as revolutionaries (775).

the question is then what resources are available to a critical or revolutionary project. lefebvre has no time whatsoever for keynes, the capitalist appropriation of marx, but he remains intransigent on 'human rights.' 'the fact that some dangerous forces, even imperialism, have sought to make use of them . . . cannot justify abandoning or disavowing them. . . . through a hard-fought battle they must be wrested from those who seek to use and abuse them. it was a serious political error (a) to regard these rights as political tools permanently in the service of those who are dominant; (b) peremptorily to refute the ideology that has historically supplied their envelope . . . (c) not to give them a different foundation . . . (d) not open them out by adding a multiplicity of rights' (780).

one such right would be the 'right to difference' (781). i don't want to talk about this section, honestly. it's not that it's bad or compromising--it's admirable that lefebvre really wanted to synthesize his marxist background with struggles around race and gender, and he does so in unobjectionable enough terms--i just don't think it adds anything. it's transparently lefebvre's attempt to catch up with other terrains of struggle, and that's fine. i don't think we need it from him, particularly. maybe i'll change my mind on reread. i do like--though it baffles me why it's in this section--his brief takedown of pierre bourdieu's sociology, whose positivism 'destroys potentiality' (789).

then there's a good bit about the relationship between the state and daily life, a subject on which lefebvre is always very useful. this section is notable for his coining 'normalized' before that word was annoyingly meaningless and for a brilliant connection between the functionalist obsession with state management: 'the everyday . . . unfolds, or rather stagnates, under this dominion, with functionalism and official formalism disguising the enterprises of the will to power' (796). 'the state manages daily life directly or indirectly.' in contrast to foucault (who is namechecked), 'today, everything that is not permitted is prohibited.' but the state does not simply rule over everyday life with an iron fist because 'it chiefly relies on the world of commodities, an active form in everyday life' (798). the relationship is mutual: one of control (of the everyday by the state) and vulnerability (of the state at the site of the everyday).

then there is an extended treatment of 'social time and space' (800). lefebvre's emphasis here is as ever on the plurality of social rhythms, the 'sudden mutual interference between rhythmical vital processes and linear operations' that characterize industrial capitalism (801). his 'new science' is 'rhythmanalysis' which attends to 'the progressive crushing of rhythms and cycles by linear repetition' (802). 'time is projected into space through measurement, by being homogenized, appearing in things and products. . . . memory-objects, these palpable, immediate traces of the past, seem to say in daily life that the past is never past. not explicitly but implicitly, it signifies the reversibility of time' (805).

okay, then there's the chapter on information technology. to be honest, it's a lot better than it could be! it's certainly not as silly as baudrillard, nor is it as uncritical as mcluhan (whom he explicitly critiques). i'm not going to go step by step but i like this description of a kind of circuit sublime:

enormous networks, channels, circuits thus start out from daily life, pass through various levels to the planetary . . . and then return towards daily life. (816)

lefebvre clearly wants to give information a central place in a reconstructed marxist theory, putting it on even terrain with production. that's laudable insofar as it's taking the problem seriously, and he's more serious about doing so than so many handwaving theories of 'immaterial labor.' but i don't think it's a highlight of the book, and i do think lefebvre knows he's out of his depth, both here and in the 'right to difference' stuff. that's fine. he was almost 90 years old! he was trying!


if there is a reconciliation, or at least a compromise, between first and second natures, it will occur not in the name of an anthropological or historical positive knowledge, but in and through daily life transformed from within by tragic knowledge. . . . daily life has served as a refuge from the tragic, and still does: above all else, people seek, and find, security there. to traverse daily life under the lightning flash of tragic knowledge is already to transform it - through thought.