U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Everyday Life and Revolutionary Praxis”: Social Text’s Program for the Epistemic Left, Part One

This week, we continue to look at Social Text and the Prospectus published in its inaugural issue.

At the end of that Prospectus, Social Text’s editors lay out eight themes that the journal would emphasize: 1) “Everyday Life and Revolutionary Praxis”; 2) “The Proliferation of Theories”; 3) “Symbolic Investments of the Political”; 4) “The Texts of History”; 5) “Ideology and Narrative”; 6) “Mass Culture and the Avant-Garde”; 7) “Marxism and the State”; 8) “‘Consumer Society’ and the World System.”

An unscientific survey of Social Text’s first decade suggests that all eight themes were, indeed, prominent in the journal’s pages; some more than others. New themes––in particular, the challenges of postmodernism, the contested legacy of the 1960s, and the possibilities and problems attending the stateside diffusion of Birmingham School Cultural Studies––displaced some of the original preoccupations.

I would like to widen the lens and look at these eight themes and recall some of the major texts and debates that circled around them in the late 1970s and 1980s. The easiest way to proceed, I think, is to tackle them one at a time. This commits us to what might be too pedantic a task for the next months, but the rewards might be great.

As always, this essay serves as an invitation to readers to fill in the blanks or contest the interpretation offered here.

On to our week’s theme: the first subcategory specified by the Social Text Prospectus: “Everyday Life and Revolutionary Praxis.”

In the late 1970s, “everyday life” emerged as a central concern for Theory, carried aloft by a wave of enthusiasm for the works of Michel de Certeau, the French Jesuit philosopher with Lacanian and student-radical affiliations. American scholars fluent in French were taken, in particular, with Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (L’invention du quotidien. Vol. 1, Arts de faire) (published in France in 1980, and in English translation in 1984). Lingering attachments to the spirit of May 1968––mediated via Certeau’s elegant meditations––sustained the belief that a new politics might be forged out of “everyday life” (hence the tie to “revolutionary praxis”).

Perhaps the loveliest idea developed by Certeau  is that of the “perruque” (“the wig”), the subversive use of company time by employees to pursue their own projects: taking advantage of access to a Xerox machine to print out a fanzine, or smuggling a novel inside an annual report to be read diligently at one’s desk. Of course, the celebration of this kind of “soft sabotage” struck some Leftists as entirely misguided: some labor historians, for example, continued to adhere (often unconsciously) to the Protestant work ethic as a way of pushing back on management complaints about workers’ efficiency; political strategists often failed to see how such actions could ever lead to lasting improvements for the poor and working class.

At the same time, attention to “Everyday Life and Revolutionary Praxis”––what Robin D.G Kelley, following James Scott, calls “infra-politics”––animated some of the most important social historical studies of the 1980s. The endless arguments about “agency” versus “domination” among historians of extreme forms of coercive labor often receive more attention in seminar rooms today than the groundbreaking work by historians like Kelley and Tera Hunter on various strategies of withholding efficiency by slaves and those working in the shadow of slavery.

Alongside Certeau, Raoul Vaneigem, the Belgian radical who drafted a good deal of the theoretical program of the Situationist International and author of The Revolution of Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations) (1967), was to find a growing American readership in the 1980s and 1990s. So much so that numerous articles would be written––in the early years of academic e-mail––about the popularity of a certain Vaneigem quote in the signature lines of radical academics: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.”

The enthusiasm for Certeau also led to a renewed interest in the thought of Henri Lefebvre, a heterodox historical materialist thinker whose star had faded during the peak years of structuralist Marxism. Left intellectuals in the United States began to read Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life (1947) in tandem with Certeau. The cross-pollination of Certeauean and Lefebvrean meditations upon the “everyday” led to the recovery of the phenomenology of quotidian experience (a la Bergson and Husserl): a turn to a Proustian poetics of the mundane that enfleshed accounts of capitalist reality without acceding to sentimental humanism or humanist sentimentality.

The new emphasis on “Everyday Life and Revolutionary Praxis” in the 1970s and 1980s should be seen retrospectively as having derived not from airy speculation but from bottom-up social movements (both the uprisings of May 68 in France, and by various articulations of Black Nationalism, stretching back to the early years of the twentieth century). It should also be seen as a response to a genuine problem: what might be termed the crisis of leadership that has been endemic since the early 1970s: in the United States, the product of COINTELPRO’s attacks on African American activists, the often violent suppression of democratic trade unionists in the labor movement, and the failure of social-democratic realignment of the Democratic Party.

This cuts against the more traditional laying of blame upon a listless and demoralized mass base (perhaps narcotized by popular culture and occasional geysers of easy credit). If “everyday life” remains a terrain of “revolutionary praxis,” that does not translate, necessarily, as: “we no longer need to organize, we can riot via our engagement with Madonna.” (This was the caricature popularized by the anti-Theory press in the 1980s and 1990s). The meaning of this persistence of politics by other means was much simpler, and much more sober: “the will to collectively transform the world in a more just and livable direction cannot ever be fully quenched.”

As I work through the early run of Social Text, this sort of weak utopian hope certainly seems to provide the connective tissue connecting the various elaborations of what might be authentically “revolutionary” about the “revolutionary praxis” of “everyday life.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve never read Social Text (although I’m familiar with, and fond of Lefebvre’s work) but the notion of the revolutionary praxis of everyday life calls to mind the anarchist tradition, in Richard Sonn’s words, “People did not simply understand anarchist ideas, they lived them. There has always been an existential element to anarchism that transcends dogma.” The ’60s slogan, “Make Love, not War,” crystallizes this anarchist and countercultural ethos and calls to mind, for me at any rate, the revolutionary praxis of everyday life. I mention this simply by way of wondering if there is any sustained discussion of anarchist thought and praxis in the material you’re examining. Situationists, anxious to prove their Marxist credentials, appear reluctant to grant the anarchist currents they’ve taken up (perhaps a few exceptions to this), and over time this anarchist contribution seems to have been largely forgotten.

    • Yes-“Everyday Life and Revolutionary Praxis” is a core principle of anarchist ethics. Certainly, much of the far-let Theoretical writing of the 1970s had an anarchist bent–this is certainly true of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Lyotard on libidinal economy, and Foucault on prisons. One must think, too, about thinkers like Ivan Illich, a philosopher with adherents on the right––especially Peter Berger, the key popularizer of social constructivism––as well as the left. Today, of course, anarchism sustains some of the most important strains of left critique (especially the antifascist activism called “antifa,” the anti-police work of groups like Copwatch, and prisoner solidarity and prison abolitionist agitation). At the same time, we have never seen so wide a gulf between anarchists and socialists–in contrast to the New Left, which had an appetite for Paul Goodman and Lenny Bruce, and in contrast to the Popular Front, for whom Sacco and Vanzetti served as patron saints.

  2. More great stuff, Kurt! Yesterday, I was taking some notes from the essay collection The Intellectual and its People, by Jacques Rancière, and thought some of his observations–which engage French political and intellectual culture in the 70s and early 80s, for the most part–connect in interesting ways with your post. He criticizes quite heavily the French gauchistes–including Foucault and Deleuze, especially in their interview about the intellectual–for their alleged overemphasis on the multiplicity of power and local struggles, which he sees as a potential “new doxa in which the struggle against power will soon become a flatus vocis, successor to the class struggle in the mouths of those seeking to find a place for themselves on the right side at the least cost.” This other quote is also illuminating: “there is never either a pure discourse of proletarian power or a pure discourse of non-power; neither a consciousness from below that would be sufficient in itself nor a science that could be imported. The strength of Marx’s thinking—but perhaps also its untenable character—lies no doubt in the effort to hold together these contradictions, subsequently untied in the police-state fictions of proletarian power or the pastoral reveries of plebeian non-power.” Rancière’s polemics with gauchisme were of course connected with the many poststructuralist critiques of Marxism in France and how it embodied power and ignored the local, the everyday, etc. What’s fascinating is that Rancière tried to cultivate a third position in the French radical left, beyond Althusser and the other PCF stalwarts, but also not in alliance with the anarcho-gauche. He seemed to be quite on point about the ascendance of power and local struggle, though I am not too sure about his judgement about the gauchistes seeking to be “on the right side at the least cost.”

    By the way, it is interesting how an emphasis on revolutionary praxis end up in many cases evolving into a resistance praxis, where the scholar can deconstruct virtually any form of everyday life as a practice of resistance, and suddenly yell, eureka, resistance is everywhere, subsuming into it all questions of accomodation and survival. In its most extreme versions, this became the opposite of the Marxist who looked to unveil the alienating logic of hegemony. Rancière would say that, like the gauchistes who looked for power everywhere, scholars who looked for resistance everywhere, this was still the position of the philosopher king, ascribing values to the masses.

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