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Interview with Raul Vaneigem: "Between the World sorrow and joy of life"

In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem

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 SI, 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.

Situationist International, November 1962 (from left to right: an unknown woman, J.V. Martin, Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord). ©
 

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: What were your reasons for resigning from the group?

RV: Following the occupation movements of May 1968, we knew that some recuperation was afoot. We were familiar with the mechanisms of alienation that would falsify our ideas and fit them neatly into the cultural puzzle. It became clear to us, during the last conference in Venice, that we had failed to shatter those mechanisms, that in fact they were shattering us from the inside. The group was crumbling, the Venice conference was demonstrating its increasing uselessness, and the only answers put forward were commensurate with the self-parody we had fallen into.

Dissension intensified to the point of paranoid denunciation: of betrayals of radicality, of breaches of revolutionary spirit, of dereliction of conscience. Those times of catharsis and anathema are now long past, and it might be useful to examine how it is that we sowed the seeds of failure for which the group ended up paying such a heavy price. The shipwreck, however, did not indiscriminately sweep away to the shores of oblivion all of us who participated in the adventure.

The group vanished in such a way as to allow the individuals to either consolidate their radicality, disown it, or lapse into the imposture of radicalism. I have attempted to analyze our experimental adventure in Entre le deuil du monde et la joie de vivre [Between Mourning the World and Exuberant Life].

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.

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