If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them. That it is a form of bourgeois thought is attested by the status of the real in Lacanian doctrine. The real is always something terrible, formless, lawless, which the symbolic order tries to shield from awareness, but which keeps slithering in, unbidden. It is a modern version of the serpents that in [Asger] Jorn’s account Apollonian thought has to slay, again and again. The symbolic preserves for the ruling class, to whom it classically belongs, an order that keeps at bay the self-ornamenting powers of nature and labor, working together, writhing and worming their way into the cracks in Apollonian form.
In Henri Lefebvre the real is the fulcrum of action rather than an apprehension of terror. His vision of it comes to him while swimming against the current, the body acting on raw need to survive. “The real can only be grasped and appreciated via potentiality.” It is by attempting to transform everyday life that the contours of the real are encountered. The real is not entirely formless, even if its forms are not an order that reveals itself in the clear light of day. The encounter with the real, because it is active, informs the imaginary. From the struggle in and with the real emerges an imagining of what might be possible. The object of study for both Lacan and Lefebvre is in a sense always everyday life, but in Lefebvre study is a stage in the project of transforming it.
Freedom is not the opposite of necessity in Lefebvre. Freedom is born out of need, and the starting point is a theory of needs. Without the experience of need, there can be no being. Needs are few; desires are many. There is no desire without a need at its core. Need can be intense: hunger, thirst, lust. Need without desire, without play, artifice, luxury, superfluity, is no longer human. It is human poverty. Desire abstracted from need loses vitality, spontaneity, and ossifies into the mere accumulation of things. It is abstract and alienating, another kind of poverty. Lefebvre’s critique aims to bring together a presentation of needs and a determination of desires to arrive at a theory of situations, as they arrive in the everyday.
What forcloses the possibility of praxis is what Lefebvre, citing Debord, calls the spectacle. The spectacle makes totality visible, but only in fragments, and visible only within the space of the private. It does not make the private social as well. The spectacle is a one-way street, the public privatized. “It is the generalization of private life. At one and the same time the mass media have unified and broadcast the everyday; they have disintegrated it by integrating it with ‘world’ current events in a way which is both too real and utterly superficial.”
Lefebvre calls the spectacle the great pleonasm, the Thing of Things. Thought in terms of its totalizing tendency, “it would be a closed circuit from hell, a perfect circle in which the absence of communication and communication pushed to the point of paroxysm would meet and their identities would merge.” What is real is what is known: what is known is what is real. The illusion of permanent novelty occludes the possibility of surprise. It is a world of incessant redundancy. Everything is always the same, only better. It makes the same special offer to everyone, all the time: “the faked orgasms of art and life.”
“Philosophy,” says Simon Critchley, “begins in disappointment.” After the death of God, the end of Art, the failure of the Revolution, there’s nothing left but philosophy, the moment of contemplation of the ruins. For Jacques Rancière, it is not that literature arises out of failed revolutions, but that revolutions are failed literature. Certainly the high theory of the post-’68 era was born of the disappointments, not just of May but of the red decade of 1966-1976, of which May was the high water mark. If other failed revolutions gave us Hegel and Stendhal, Marx and Baudelaire, this one gave us Foucault and Deleuze, Derrida and Lyotard. Whatever interest such thoughts may once have held, they are now no more than the routine spasms of an era out of love with itself.
Low theory returns in moments, not of disappointment, but of boredom. We are bored with these burn offerings, these warmed-up leftovers. High theory cedes too much to the existing organization of knowledge and art. It is nothing more than the spectacle of disintegration extending into knowledge itself. Rather a negative theory that reveals the gap between this world and its promises. Rather a negative action that reveals the void between what can be done and what is to be done. Rather a spirited invention of genuine forms within the space of everyday life, than the relentless genuflection to the hidden God that is power. For such experiments the Situationist legacy stands ripe for a détournement that has no respect for those who claim proprietary rights over it. There is plenty of fruit to be gleaned from the vine.