Raoul Vaneigem

In this installment of Opening the Canon, Robert Porter argues for a reconsideration of the Situationist International through the work of lesser-known member Raoul Vaneigem.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to orgasm…

When the editor of the ‘Opening the Canon’ section of this very fine journal agreed to my suggestion of writing something about the political activist and artist Raoul Vaneigem I was very excited indeed. For it presented me with a great opportunity to sing the praises of a thinker I’ve come to admire in the last few years, maybe even to encourage others to read the work of someone who occupies a rather curious, even marginal, place in our contemporary intellectual culture. Vaneigem is a Belgian writer, known most famously for his incendiary, hilarious, hyperbolic, downright saucy, but utterly serious, book The Revolution of Everyday Life.1Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, London: Rebel Press, 2006. Published in 1967, and popping up in tandem with Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, these two texts came to be associated, somewhat journalistically it has to be said, with a ‘theoretical turn’ that increasingly defined the politics of The Situationist International (SI) in its later years. As has been stressed many times in the commentaries on SI, the love affair between Debord and Vaneigem was an intense one, but one that ended rather badly indeed.2See, for example, Mackenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath The Streets, London: Verso, 2011. It was a kind of arranged marriage, set up by the celebrated French urbanist Henri Lefebvre, and much ink has been spilled in gossiping about the interpersonal relationships and politics of the SI (Debord and Vaneigem falling out, the exclusion of Lefebvre, expulsions in the broader membership, factional infighting and splits, Debord’s totalitarian control freakery…); the emphasis clearly on how the everyday life of the SI betrayed its intellectual and political principles. Put simply, or so the argument goes, they were good comrades in theory, but, in practice, their moral purism, arrogance, hubris and conceit made them a horrible bunch of self-righteous bastards who treated one and another terribly.

The problem with this kind of retrospective critique of figures like Vaneigem and Debord, of Situationism more generally, is not its inaccuracy, but its lack of class and humour, its breathtakingly smug and self-satisfied arrogance. Imagine Monty Python ground down, liquidised and stuck in a test tube with a powdered form of Austin Powers, heated up to create big bubbly fart noises. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a tendency, even from those who are in some ways sympathetic to the work of Vaneigem, to look askance, to liberally look down their nose with a wry smile of conceit, to retroactively code him as a rather funny 1960s anarchist of sexual liberation, to think of the work as politically naïve, or even as bordering on a dangerous moral purism.3See, for example, Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless, London: Verso, 2014. So he is not the Messiah, but a naughty boy. Or, he is a saucy character who we can look back at as a figure of swinging 60s fun, but Christ let’s not take him seriously. So why do these impeccably liberal critiques lack class? Why am I so keen to characterize them as breathtakingly smug and arrogant? Well, this has something to do with what we could call the ‘the problem of recuperation’. One of the easiest strikes against Vaneigem is that he and his SI comrades were beaten before they even started, ‘recuperated’, as they were, by the system of consumer capitalism that they wanted to criticize. Yet, and as Sadie Plant never tires of rightly pointing out in The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, this very problem of recuperation, its critical negotiation and confrontation, is one of the things that defined and animated the Situationists from beginning to end. As she says: ‘one of the distinguishing features of Situationist theory was its recognition that all forms of criticism, dissent, and resistance occupy an internal relation to the system they oppose’.4Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 75. Put bluntly, then, nobody knew better than the Situationists themselves the recuperative traps that lay in wait for them as they set about trying to interrogate the society of the spectacle or dramatize what the revolution of everyday life might look like. The lack of class of contemporary critics of Situationism glibly pointing to this problem of recuperation without engaging the Situationist archive to see how it was confronted and negotiated is enough to make you want to throw up in your mouth.

The problem of recuperation is poorly posed unless and until we think of it as a two-way street. Now, set against the backcloth of the diet Adorno, ‘capitalist realist’, melancholic leftism that blights contemporary critical theory, this is heresy, pure and simple. To be sure, Vaneigem sees the dangers of recuperation just as the melancholic leftist does. But heaven knows he is nowhere near as miserable in the here and now. The constant danger of recuperation is an old problem, for Vaneigem, but it is also a continuing and contemporary problem to be faced down in everyday life. Melancholic resignation in the face of the constant threat of recuperation reaches its nadir when we cast it away as an old problem that no longer warrants our critical attention at all. As Sadie Plant importantly shows in her 1990 article in Radical Philosophy, ‘The Situationist International: A Case of Spectacular Neglect’, this is where the Situationism of figures such as Vaneigem, Debord, and even Lefebvre, can flip over into a Baudrillardian ‘postmodernism’, an unrelenting passive nihilism that gives up on the very idea of a critical movement that takes any distance from a dominant and dominating system, a totalizing system that is already assumed to have integrated all critique and dissent in advance.5Sadie Plant, ‘The Situationist International: A Case of Spectacular Neglect’, Radical Philosophy, 1990, 55, pp. 3-9. On this, Baudrillardian view, then, the concept of ‘recuperation’ is indeed a flawed or ‘mistaken’ one.6Plant, ‘The Situationist International: A Case of Spectacular Neglect’, p. 8.

This again is the smugness of the wry, in this case Baudrillardian, smile, and against such smugness that delights and amuses itself by anticipating its own pacification and passive nihilism, Vaneigem channels a different kind of energy, a libidinal energy, but this is never just a kind of Austin Powers sauciness, it is much funnier, much more serious, and much worthier of our attention. What do I mean here? Well, I guess I’m talking about what I’m content to call Vaneigem’s orgasmic political epistemology. Yes, you read that right! So, what, then does that look like?  For Vaneigem, our knowledge of the world is immanent to its transformation; we know the world through changing it. As he says at one point in The Revolution of Everyday Life: ‘My knowledge of the world exists effectively only at the moment when I act to transform the world’.7Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, p. 97. If there is a politics of the present in Vaneigem, then it means simply the subject giving itself over to the present in acts, in the doing of something here and now; it is as crude as that. Or, as Vaneigem even more crudely puts it:

Perhaps the sacrifice of the present will turn out to be the last stage of a rite that has maimed humanity since its beginnings. Our every moment crumbles into bits and pieces of past and future. We never really give ourselves over completely to what we are doing, except perhaps in orgasm.8Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, p. 116.

This is the kind of rhetoric that drives the detractors of Vaneigem nuts. They think, perhaps, he is taking the piss, but they fail to understand how taking the piss can sometimes be a serious business, how humour can be used to face down the things that we find intolerable in our everyday life. The presentism, the idea of recuperation as a two-way-street, his orgasmic political epistemology, always come together whenever Vaneigem diagnoses the problems facing contemporary thinkers and political actors motivated by the prospect of a revolution of everyday life. The aura of philosophy, of critical theory, is fading, but if it still gives off a seductive light, one diffused and refracted in our contemporary metaphysical landscape, this is because the metaphysics of our present situation is, for Vaneigem, a metaphysics of consumerism that not only recuperates antagonism and critique, but which also conditions it, breathes new life into it, unleashes it at unexpected moments. For Vaneigem, consumer capitalism is like a horror story, a Frankensteinian story to be more precise, and the experiment can, and often does, get out of the laboratory. That is to say, consumer capitalism trades on desires that may well bring into play its ‘subversion’ or, what Vaneigem would also call, ‘detournement’.  This brings us, neatly, then, to a consideration of the urban. One of the most famous slogans used by the Situationists was that if ‘urbanism promises us happiness’, then ‘it should be judged accordingly’.9On Situationism and urbanism see, for example, Tom McDonough, The Situationists and the City, London: Verso, 2009. In other words, we should critically recuperate the, undoubtedly often spurious and cynical, promises that justify the ‘development’ of our cities with a comic literalism that would even curl the toes of Stan Laurel. There is no mystery to critique, no code to crack to bring about the revolution of everyday life, only good humour, excessively literal humour, a subversive and playful poetic imagination that presses back against the real relentlessly pressing in on us. There is a lovely moment in The Revolution of Everyday Life when Vaneigem draws on an autobiographical example to illustrate the potential of this poetically subversive sensibility. He writes:

One evening, as night fell, my friends and I wandered into the Palais de Justice in Brussels. The building is a monstrosity, crushing the poor quarters beneath it and standing over the fashionable Avenue Louise – out of which, some day, we will make a breathtakingly beautiful wasteland. As we drifted through the labyrinth of corridors, staircases and suite after suite of rooms, we discussed what could be done to make the place habitable; for a time we occupied the enemy’s territory; through the power of our imagination we transformed the thieves’ den into a fantastic funfair, into a sunny pleasure dome, where the most amazing adventures would, for the first time, be really lived. In short, subversion is the basic expression of creativity. Daydreaming subverts the world.10Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, p. 264.

For those of you who remain sceptical about the idea that daydreaming subverts the world, that a poetic imagination is of little use in trying to transform a situation for the better, that play is not the game in our world where incessant game-playing is the steel-capped boot constantly hovering over our necks, I would like to offer the following true story by way of conclusion.

The Reichian Society for Orgasmic Cycling

The events in question took place in a regional city in the UK, about 12 years ago. I can’t say which city, but let’s say, for talk’s sake, its Belfast. It’s a city that Vaneigem has visited often, sometimes openly, but, more often than not, clandestinely. He often travels under assumed names on such visits, names like: Julienne de Cherisy, Conn Holohan, Robert Carrier-Desessarts, Jules-François Dupuis, Daniel Jewesbury, Tristan Hannaniel, Paola Doherty, Stefano Bakerian, Anne de Launay, Wilhem Reich, and Michele Thorgal. On one of his trips to the city in question, Wilhelm met a group of mostly middle-aged male underground punky cycling activists, called CYCleFIGhtZONe. A small sub-group of the few female members of CYCleFIGhtZONe were so impressed with Wilhelm’s ideas of ‘orgasmic potency’ and ‘cyclo-geography’ that they formed a new, even more underground, society. Thus, The Reichian Society of Orgasmic Cycling was born (they traded under a different name, of course, but I’m sworn to secrecy…). Its mission statement amounted to a list of slogans, which they never wrote down on paper, but which nonetheless started to appear on the walls of female public toilets in the city. Here are some examples:

Remember you are sleeping for the city that bosses you, that fucks you over.

Most of the time the city fucks you, so why don’t you fuck it back?

Urbanism promises us orgasms, it should be judged accordingly.

Those who speak about revolution, but have never ridden a bike, have a punctured mouth.

Your knowledge of the city only exists at that precise moment you cycle through it.

Ideally, a city would have no order to it, forcing you to free yourself to make it your own.

Our aim is not to make the orgasmic experience of traversing our city understandable to you if you have no desire to relive it in practical acts, here and now.

The pleasure of riding in the city and the pleasure of the orgasm are identical.

The love of a bike is the absence of motorised anxiety.

Mistaking insolence for free movement has always been the hallmark of the slave.

Forget the traffic jam of yesterday, fuck the traffic jam of tomorrow. The motorised slavery of deferred gratification is beneath you.

Under the cover of a city council funded arty cycling tour of the city, the membership of the The Reichian Society of Orgasmic Cycling operated for four years between 2006 and 2010, wrapping up just as Gordon Brown was making way for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. I say this for historical context, to anchor this true story in real events, but not to suggest for one moment that David Cameron or Nick Clegg had a hand in shutting the society down. Nothing could be further from the truth! Anyway, the length of the society’s existence, its brief history, or speculating about, say, the petty and, at times, rather personal antagonism between the various factions within the society that, in part, contributed to eventually bringing it down, are not really worthy of our concern. What is worth dwelling on? As I said, under the cover of a municipally funded project, ‘The forgotten female toilets of Belfast’ (again, Belfast is not the real city here…), this punky Reichian squad directed its exclusively female audiences around the city, forgotten toilet by forgotten toilet. They got the money from the council, and marketed the tours, as a forgotten ‘herstory’, and as a corrective to the dominance of the history of the ‘great men’ of the city, and particularly the ‘great male industrialists of the Victorian era’, as these were well established and dominant tropes in previously funded city tours. They invented this ‘herstory’, of course, somehow convincing and/or amusing council funders enough with the fiction that, due to Victorian prudishness, female toilets in the city, their design, and even their building, was practically an all-female affair. They played the city council’s game by suggesting that the built environment of the city in question (in this case, its architecturally or historically significant proto-feminist public conveniences) could be productively used to drive and increase tourist business or consumer spend by effectively using city tours to direct people around a well mapped out ‘retail circuit’. The Reichian Society of Orgasmic Cycling read the council’s strategy document (understanding that the council specifically thought of the city as a commodity, and understanding, more generally, that municipal governments consider art, culture and the built environment in the city as acting as a kind of traffic cop or ‘sales consultant’ directing potential business around a consumptive space), spewed it back to them, took their money, and drank their beer with all the skill and panache of a latter-day Horkheimer.11What I’m hinting at here is the way Horkheimer was able to con the holohan right out of the Post-war US government by somehow convincing them that the Institute For Social Research was effectively a proto-clientist operation that could help them in the reconstruction of West Germany. On this point, see Ned Rossiter, Organized Networks, Rotterdam: NAI, 2006.

For we now know, and I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the real reason for doing ‘The forgotten female toilets of Belfast’ project was to bring to life or dramatize their political ideas in direct dialogue with the women in their company as they traversed the city on two wheels together. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that those slogans detailed above were scrawled on the walls of the particular public convenience stops of the tour, the tour guides prompting their audience to be mindful of the potential significance of the ‘graffiti’ that they would find there, which would then shape their performative engagement and story-telling of the broader ‘herstory’ on offer through the cycling tour (for instance, invented stories about Max Horkheimer’s exile in the city just before his move to the US, cryptically hinted at, say, in the slogan above about ‘mistaking insolence for free movement’).

What The Reichian Society of Orgasmic Cycling achieved was nothing less than what Vaneigem would unselfconsciously and unapologetically call a revolution of the everyday life of the city they operated in. Vaneigem’s lesson is simple: the revolution of everyday life is not something to be mystically retrieved from mists of time (The Paris Commune, or the events of fifty years ago in Paris), nor is it to be anticipated in the future only when we have expertly designed the optimal conditions for it. The revolution of everyday life is already ‘under way’, as Vaneigem would say, already happening in practical acts lived out in the rough and tumble of the quotidian (say, The Reichian Society doing their business with the municipal government’s money, or Horkheimer fleecing the triumphalist Post-war US state by donning a technocratic and clientist mask…).12I develop this point about Horkheimer in Robert Porter, Meanderings through the Politics of Everyday Life, London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.

The revolution of the everyday life of our cities is happening all around us, Vaneigem never tires of pointing out, and only becomes petrified when we mistake the everydayness of the city for the hardened shit or the stale fart that it is always in danger of becoming. But, as everyday experience teaches us, stale smells can give way to the wind and the fresh air that blows in from the outside, and petrified shit crumbles in our hands as soon as we realize it has none of the solidity of the stone we initially mistook it for.


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