'If people approach you and wish to discuss things with you, spit in their faces.’ So reads one sentence in Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. This occurs at the end of one chapter in an almost uncharacteristic frenzy, as if Vaneigem had suddenly become possessed by Jacques Vache, that phantom spirit forever hanging over the surrealists.
Georges Bataille mentions in a note found in his On Nietzsche that he is appalled at the idea of having to explain himself. This philosopher of ‘headlessness’ far surpassed simply calling the bluff of ideas like ‘progress’ and ‘project,’ but was willing to squander any expressive affinity with those ideas. It was in this sense that freedom was, for him, not simply a sensation (as it may well amount to being in the case of many other thinkers concerned with the idea of freedom), but a new project unlike any imposed from the outside—one that has less to do with the satiation of immediate pleasures than it does with acquainting oneself with great anguish in order to achieve one’s limit.
In the case of Vaneigem’s work, we encounter a more immediate, theoretical continuation of what was taking place within surrealism. Breton’s gang was content to keep their ideals semi-hidden—While they might have explained themselves (Breton’s manifestos) now and again, the explanation itself was an act within the movement, almost pushing away all definitive answers in protest of organization in favor of absolute freedom; ‘psychic autonomy,’ in other words. What Vaneigem has in common with surrealism, from the vantage point of his respective collective of choice, The Situationist International, is an unabashed concern for freedom. In Vaneigem’s work, though it is hinted at, suggested, talked around and talked up, there’s no real clear idea or suggestion as to how one might achieve this freedom, and yet, perhaps he didn’t feel he needed to spell it out. After all, no one can write a guidebook for something so abstract as a revolution of the 'everyday,' but only some strong statements of encouragement, which is precisely what The Revolution of Everyday Life is.
Carlo Michelstaedter, had he access to Revolution of Everyday Life, might not have referred to it as a work of persuasion, in keeping with the main thesis of his book, Persuasion and Rhetoric. While Vageinem intuitionally approaches a seductive subject, he works his way toward it from a rhetorical place that pretends to be the starting point.
Michelstaedter’s sole work, while quite different in temperament than Vageinem’s work, often comes to and repeats a similar conclusion—that we are slaves to a life in which death is constantly weighing upon our shoulders and that the solution is to live one's life without shackles. Here comes the often used solution and summit of most existentially concerned philosophies—They both offered, as solution, that you should live every moment as though it is your last.
Comedian Doug Stanhope riffed on this popular suggestion by saying that he does, in fact, live every day as though it’s his last, which means that he spends everyday watching television and drinking.
Perhaps it is time that we develop new existential solutions for living a proper life rather than committing ourselves to self-imposed death threats.
Many systems of thought have sought to extract meaning from life itself. The very fact that life could have ‘meaning,’ or that it is worth saying that it might have meaning, presupposes that there is a chance it may have no meaning (as if there could ever be a point by which we would be able to determine that it is discursively impossible to extract more meaning from life), which then presupposes that ‘nothingness,’ or perhaps, the non activity of matter is the likely original ‘intent’ of the universe. It is also a mistake to apply a word like ‘mistake’ to the inception of matter, the universe or life itself, since this word is often used by secular parties wishing to combat the theistic view that an anthropomorphic personality is responsible for a sole creative act. The grammar of the word ‘mistake’ in their argument still assigns an anthropomorphic nature and a sense of responsibility to the order of things which could only be a ‘mistake’ if some other ‘preferable,’ ‘more likely’ or ‘natural’ set of contingencies had already been revealed to us. Those who hold the scientific/materialistic mindset are no less mythic in their identifying a lack of meaning in the order of things as those whom they mock for identifying meaning in them.
It has never been enough, however, for secular or religious parties to identify meaning within the small, contingent realm in which their ideas find themselves at home. The existential crisis is always renewed, whether aesthetically or through a rephrasing of the original question through the perspective of different values. Even if he believes it, the Christian might wonder why his sins were in need of remission in the first place. The Muslim might wonder why an absent Muhammad is so adamant about acquiring the driest land in the world. The Marxist might wonder if utopia is ever truly possible through the constant manipulation of woolly nature. The fascist may have trouble locating true human sovereignty once economic factors begin to betray the power in which he invests. All of these parties require a large, totalizing belief in order to perpetuate the set of circumstances which protect those espousing these views—it’s cyclical.
The existential crisis, in its crudest form (which is also its most common form) is the one that removes all value but the value of the individual. Since one’s individual moral values have already been thrown out in the declared ‘lack of meaning’ of all other values, the individual is left only with sensation itself as a guiding light (everyone’s sensation is different but it is supposed that everyone has them—the only totalizing factor that the individual is allowed when all other value is taken from them). For one experiencing this loss of value concerning all other descriptions of life, he must create his own meaning—his own project. It cannot be a totalizing one since it does not necessarily come from the ‘outside.’ Since the personal meaning comes from ‘within,’ it must regard all other totalizing values that, at one time, were considered ‘transcendent,’ such as ‘unabliable rights’ and ‘liberty’ as those which one may only fight for so long as it is guaranteed that the real investment is a completely personal one.
While the surrealists and the existentialists have some differences, they are related in their violent, totalizing attitudes toward all other totalizing attitudes. Even that which might well be considered a ‘law of nature’ is deliberately leapt over (if not blatantly ignored) in order for the achievement of a revolutionary action on a small, everyday scale. Breton’s group could enjoy the cafes and all the luxuries that come in small doses during allotted leisure times in a consumerist society because their protest, no matter the size or the degree of violence of their actions, were not aimed with any finality at specific entities (even though specific entities did often suffer their violence). Their actions were made up of a set of subversive rituals that could not exist without the rituals of the realm into which they were thrown. It was necessary for them to move through society like a cold, unexpected water, walking on the same streets, using their money the same way. Their revolution was truly the revolution of the everyday, beating Vaneigem by thirty odd years.
French intellectual groups in the twentieth century kept hooking onto these totalizations of individual freedom that were sometimes all too similar in execution even if their mechanisms for arriving at their ways of life were different. They certainly couldn’t have all been under the delusion that their groups would last forever or that generations of newcomers would somehow be inaugurated and replace each member. But they did all hope for revolution of some kind, and revolution itself is the hope that the aberration will come to be the rule.
Thought experiments can be very stimulating ways of committing oneself to revolutions of the every day without becoming too invested in an ideology to the point where one’s intellect has been compromised. They’re usually less costly as thought experiments don’t ask for money in exchange for eternal happiness or momentary pleasure.
The totalizing thought experiments have already taken place. Perhaps it would be preferable, rather, to consider a series of temporary projects in order to extract meaning from different phases of life, rather than trying to create totalizing meanings that alienate all sensations that might be considered aberrant or not in keeping with one party’s contingent goals. And then, there is the wisdom of time immemorial, to which the west has only had meager access through the likes of writers such as all these I mentioned--stewing in their vulgar inclinations toward destruction but lacking the design of an ultimate totalizing project; that of destroying contingency, not from the Tommy-gun center of the ego, but from far beyond.