Part I: The Formula for Overthrowing the World

I

THE FORMULA FOR OVERTHROWING THE WORLD

“Anyone who wants to possess the knowledge of living things must rely on demonstration beginning with material things and going back towards the principle of everything.”

Michael Psellus
Quaestionum Naturalium

1

The situationists attempted to formulate as coherently as possible a radical critique of the contemporary world, defined as a “spectacular-commodity” society dominated and unified by the economy. In a society of this type, all authentic life is rendered impossible by the falsification of human relations, which are experienced exclusively in accordance with the model of “separation”. This consists in the separation of social roles whose concrete expression is the division of labor; a division that is not limited to the sphere of traditional economic exchange but is extended to every form of specialization of activity (productive, artistic, intellectual, political…), none of which can be said to escape the influence of the economy. A separated activity, then, is necessarily an alienating activity, one that makes the person who exercises it an instrument, a mere cog in a system of generalized commodity exchange. The separation of roles leads to the reification of individuals, who are reduced to the status of commodities, transformed into things by the same process that makes them believe that they are autonomous subjects. Separated from each other, they are also separated from themselves. Social classification, by defining the individual on the basis of his function, consummates his dissolution into the universal exchangeability of commodities, like a bar code, without which no value can be attributed to the product on the checkout line.

The ruling ideology makes separation appear to be the natural, and therefore legitimate, condition of human society: its acceptance as an unavoidable destiny engenders its endless reproduction. The different kinds of partial critique only result in a reinforcement of separation, because they do not attack the root itself of the distinction of social roles, but only this or that consequence of those roles. Only a unitary critique that reveals the concealed resources that make separation possible can clear the way for a global transformation of society. The only revolution that is possible must be total; every attempt at partial subversion entails an acceptance of separation, an acceptance that allows it to remain intact. Revolutionary actions that do not have the goal of the complete liquidation of this society finally only lead to giving it the means to perpetuate itself by means of its modernization.

Having learned from history, the situationists established the principle that the revolution cannot aim at the goal of substituting the power of one group for another. In such a case, power changes hands but it is not abolished as such; that is why the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks did not carry out real revolutions. The only model of social organization that the situationists accepted was the system of workers councils, which they considered to be the only truly democratic system. The main weakness of this model lies in the fact that it has never been successfully established for any significant period of time because, due to the absence of specialization and hierarchy, it was a very fragile system when faced with repression or recuperation, and was more susceptible than any other system to internal decomposition. Its victory, making a place for itself in history, almost ineluctably gives way to its end. Debord himself emphasized this fact in 1966 (“Contribution to a Councilist Program in Spain”, I.S., no. 10):

“Councilist power … cannot itself survive for very long without staking and winning its bet on the total transformation of all existing conditions and the immediate liberation of life.”

Now that capitalism has gradually transformed the entire world, except for a few aspects, into one vast “spectacular-commodity” society, the revolutionary perspective cannot be inscribed in a national framework. The nation, regardless of the basis upon which it claims to be founded (ethnic, religious, linguistic, or some other type) is only one of the forms of separation that the revolution must specifically aim to abolish, since it unites some people (the “citizens”) in order to separate them from all other people.

In view of the fact that the revolution is directed against a social system whose influence extends throughout the entire world and the fact that this social system must be abolished without allowing any part of it to survive, destroying this society is the same thing as destroying the world, or this world. Such an expression cannot but evoke the language of the millenarians, and the situationists themselves emphasized their kinship with the prophets of the apocalypse who preached, in the most ancient times, rebellion against the powers that be, which were considered to be the concrete manifestations of the kingdom of Satan. In both cases the destruction of the world as it currently exists is the precondition for the advent of a better world; for the situationists, of course, the “prince of this world” is obviously not the devil, who is just as non-existent as God, but the economy.

It was from this conception of society as a totality—paradoxically unified by a principle of generalized separation—that the opposition between the (present) world of separation and the (future) world of a finally realized unity was derived. If the revolution does not pose this realization as its goal, it cannot be considered to be a complete reversal of perspective. Is such a reversal possible? Is it even conceivable? This is the question for which Vaneigem sought to provide a positive response in The Revolution of Everyday Life, and in order to do so he resorted to the metaphorical armory of alchemy.

2

The Revolution of Everyday Life, completed in 1965, was published in 1967, the same year as The Society of the Spectacle. These two works were quite different with regard to both their style as well as their overall structure. Debord, as he was to say in his 1979 Preface, elaborated a “historical and strategic conception” of the society of the spectacle considered as a whole. Vaneigem, for his part, situated himself on the terrain of tactics, addressing the question from a subjective point of view, enumerating the possibilities for the concrete transformation of everyday life that are offered to individuals. The later disavowal of Vaneigem by the SI tends to cause the differences, and even the opposition, between the two books to stand out in retrospect. Nonetheless, the theses expounded in The Revolution of Everyday Life were precisely those of the SI at the time the book was published, and both texts were conceived to be read as the two complementary sides of a single unified theory.1

The Revolution of Everyday Life was presented as a “contribution … to the recreation of the international revolutionary movement”. It was based on the opposition between the perspective of power, which rules today’s world in all its aspects, and the perspective of its overthrow [renversement], which necessarily proceeds by way of a “reversal [renversement] of perspective”.2 Thus, “the description of the negative founds the positive project and the positive project confirms negativity”.

Today’s world is absolutely negative. In it, everything that characterizes authentic life is negated: the participation, communication and realization to which human beings aspire are impossible, since they are only accessible in a falsified form. Because these things constitute the real and permanent aspirations of individuals, everything converges to contribute to make them believe that they have the possibility to obtain them, if they work hard, just as children are promised candy if they behave. The simulacra of participation, communication and realization, presented as if they were the real things, allow individuals to forget that they are totally deprived of them, and that the only real activity that they are permitted is consumption. The illusion of life disguises the reality of survival, so that “the guarantee that we will not die of starvation is bought by accepting the risk of dying of boredom”. Commodity exchange not only conditions all the other forms of exchange; it alters them in their very essence. In the reign of the quantitative, the living is identified with the mechanical, the human with the commodity. Everything that is presented as qualitative—including the cultural “dose of soul”—is a veil covering the quantitative, the outer shell whose purpose is to make it acceptable.

The positive project of the revolution consists in abolishing everything that stands in the way of real participation, communication and realization. In other words, it means the abolition of separation. The revolution has no other content or program, of a political or any other kind. It is easy, however, to point out that this project is more ambitious than any other program. The situationists did not distinguish, unlike most other theoreticians of the revolution, between two stages in the revolution: a negative stage (destruction of the existing order) and a positive stage (construction of a new order). For the situationists, the abolition of this negation of life that defines the “spectacular-commodity” organization of the world is itself the positive moment, if we define the positive, following the logicians and Hegel, as the negation of the negation.

Positive and negative have two opposed meanings depending on whether we situate ourselves upon the perspective of power or of its abolition: contemporary society considers everything that contributes to strengthening it to be positive, while everything that contributes to weakening it, the “negative in action”, is positive for the situationists.

The role of the revolutionary organization known as the SI did not consist in leading or planning the revolution, or in elaborating utopias. The energy devoted to detailed predictions concerning the configuration of the world of the future is so much energy lost for the task of destroying the world of the present, and reality always assumes responsibility for ruining the best-laid plans. Besides, the situationists were busy excluding the actual utopians from their ranks, such as the science-fiction urbanist Constant. They did, however, preserve a very distinct sympathy for Charles Fourier, insofar as his utopianism, behind the combinational formalism that constitutes its most apparent feature, basically had no other real program than the free expression of the passions; moreover, the system of the passions described by Fourier, with its variability and its innumerable possible combinations, could be considered as a forbearer of the game from which the situationists derived their very name: the construction of situations (“Constructed situation: A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambience and a game of events.”, I.S., no. 1).

In order to supersede and abolish the stage of separation, it is necessary for this phenomenon not to be inherent to human society as such, since it would otherwise effectively possess that character of inevitability that would make it insuperable. The situationists therefore claim that separation has a historical origin. For Vaneigem, separation arises from a “basic separation which precipitates and determines all the others: the social distinction between masters and slaves”. This origin, lost in the mists of time, dates to an era long before the period (which was quite recent) when the bourgeoisie came to power, but the bourgeoisie “laid bare the social and material character of separation”, so that “by the close of the eighteenth century the fabric was rending in all directions as the process of decomposition began to speed up”. Debord saw, for his part, in “the transition from pastoral nomadism to sedentary agriculture” the historical moment when labor replaced “lazy liberty without content”; from then on, “the social appropriation of time, the production of man by human labor, develops within a society divided into classes”.

The supersession of the world of survival and separation is conceivable because there is, in this same world, a vague aspiration for a completely different kind of life. For socialization has not yet completely stifled the will to live. The latter is all the more violently manifested the more it is repressed; thus, the suppression of the sexual urges only makes them more insistent: Puritanism creates Jack the Rippers the way cheese breeds worms. Within the individuals themselves a battle is waged between the forces of submission and those of freedom, a battle that is nothing but “the struggle between subjectivity and what degrades it”. The dynamism of life, muzzled and distorted but not extinguished by the social organization that perpetuates domination, is constantly attempting to force its way to the light of day just as a sprouting weed cleaves the hardest pavement. Separation is therefore not the natural condition of humanity, but a state that is maintained by coercion: the coercion exercised by institutions against individuals, who in turn strive to resist that coercion; and the coercion that individuals, alienated in every sense of the word, exercise against themselves.

The tactical weapon of the reversal of perspective is détournement [“diversion”], which Vaneigem defined as “a sort of anti-conditioning, not conditioning of a new type, but playful tactics”, or, in the terms used by Debord, “the language of contradiction”, which is the “fluid language of anti-ideology”. Propaganda—political, commercial, journalistic, cultural, recreational—is based on the distortion of individual desires and aspirations, which it channels and recuperates for the benefit of the existing social organization. Just as the revolution is the negation of the negation, détournement permits, among other things, the reversal of the process of recuperation for the benefit of subversion.3

The tactic is playful, since play is an essential dimension of revolution. Since alienation prevails in the everyday life of individuals, it is in everyday life that the revolution must take shape, because otherwise the revolution is not a force of life, but of death. The antithesis of commodified reification is found in the gratuitousness of play, which proceeds without consideration of the profit requirements of the world of the economy. Whatever is gained in the game of life is just so much time wasted in a society in which time is only worth the money that it allows one to accumulate or spend; and labor time is a succession of instants that individuals lose forever.

Against the calculation of the indices of profitability and interest rates is opposed the qualitative, which is embodied in individual creativity. The later abuse of this term—popularized, among other sources, by Vaneigem’s book—makes it necessary to specify that we are not talking here about that “creativity” as it is understood in the art market and the cultural entertainment industry, and much less that “creativity” that the specialists of advertising propaganda are always bragging about. Creativity as the situationists understood the term is not the exercise of any particular separate activity, susceptible to fostering social recognition and earning money, but the “unmediated experience of subjectivity”, “the direct communication of the essential”: in short, the emergence of spontaneity.

3

Although at the risk of giving rise to certain misunderstandings—which indeed did not fail to arise—Vaneigem called the practical realization of spontaneity, its concrete result, “poetry”. Poetry, in the situationist sense of the term, is not a literary activity (there is no situationist poetry in the way that there is, for example, a surrealist poetry). Poetry is “the organizer of creative spontaneity to the extent that it reinforces spontaneity’s hold on reality”. In other words, the practical effect of the eruption of life—which is by definition spontaneity—in the world of survival, to the extent that this eruption helps make the existing order of the world tremble, this is poetry, which is thus at the same time “the fulfillment of radical theory”, the “revolutionary act par excellence” and the “act which engenders new realities”. True poetry is not written or read: it is revolution, in power and in action; that is, the destruction of the existing world.

Why, then, use this term, “poetry”? In order to emphasize the fact that the SI considered itself to be the continuation, the consequence and the supersession of the different artistic and poetic vanguards of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Baudelaire to Lettrism, via Dada and the early surrealists. Debord himself says in his Panegyric:

“After all, it was modern poetry, for the last hundred years, that had led us there. We were a handful who thought that it was necessary to carry out its programme in reality, and in any case to do nothing else.”

If we consider the evolution that led to the SI, the choice of the word “poetry” is completely justified. The situationists took the declarations of Isidore Ducasse very seriously—“Poetry must be made by all, not by one”, “Poetry must have practical truth as its goal”—along with the ideas of the surrealists concerning the power of poetry, from which the surrealists were either unable or unwilling to draw all the conclusions. Vaneigem, in his A Cavalier History of Surrealism (written in 1969 under the pseudonym of Jules-François Dupuis,4 but not published until 1977), points out that surrealism had attempted to formulate, “so faithfully yet so maladroitly”, the essential problem: that “of the total human being's self-realization under the sign of freedom”. It devolved upon the situationists to realize the potentials, which had been perceived but not realized by the surrealists, of this “radioactive radical nucleus”.

This is where alchemy comes into the picture. In The Second Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton devoted a long section to the “alchemy of the word”. This expression, utilized by Rimbaud in A Season in Hell, was first used at the end of the Middle Ages by certain alchemists who wrote under the name of Ramon Llull (the real Llull, who was hostile to alchemy, was not the author of any of the numerous alchemical treatises attributed to him) and ultimately served as a metaphorical designation, beginning in the 16th century, for rhetoric and later, by extension, for poetry. At the beginning, however, it had a very different meaning. The alchimia verborum, literally the “alchemy of words”, originated in the Arab theory known as the “balance of letters”, which has been associated with the name of Jâbir ibn Hayyân. The “balance”, that is, the equilibrium, is a theory of the universal measure, which seeks to make all the data of human knowledge the object of an exact science. The “balance of letters” is an intellectual construct of the letters of the alphabet (which cannot but evoke the Jewish Kabbalah) which consists above all in establishing a correspondence between these letters and the elemental qualities, the “natures”, whose combinations lie at the basis of all the bodies in the physical world. The combinations of these “natures” can thus be translated into combinations of letters and, for that reason, quantified and measured, since each letter also corresponds, in this theory, to a number. The identification of letters, numbers and “natures” originated in the fact that, for the Greeks, one word was used to designate the elements of the physical world and the letters of the alphabet, since they considered the latter to be the constitutive “elements” of language, and in the fact that they used letters to designate numbers. Neither Rimbaud, nor Breton, nor even the authors of the pseudo-Llullian alchemical treatises possessed a clear understanding of this relation. For the latter, the “alchemy of the word” instead referred to the Divine Word, the “Fiat” thanks to which God, according to Genesis, created light and all the other things of the world. The connection between alchemy and poetry proceeded from the creative power thus attributed to the word (“poetry” comes from the Greek word, “poiésis”, which strictly designates the act of creation, of production, of making, and the “work”, poetic or any other kind, that results from this act of creation).

Breton, for his part, declared: “alchemy of the word: this expression which we go around repeating more or less at random today demands to be taken literally.” This task was at first sight quite difficult. Because he did not know exactly what the “alchemy of the word” could mean, but as he was convinced that it meant something—and in this respect he proceeded just as the generations of alchemists who preceded him had, limited to conjectures with respect to the meaning of all the deliberately obscure texts that constitute the alchemical corpus—Breton confessed:

“Everything happens in our epoch as if a small handful of men had just taken possession, by supernatural means, of a unique volume resulting from the collaboration of Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and a few others, and that a voice said to them, as the angel said to Flamel: ‘Come, behold this book; you will not understand a line in it, neither you nor many others, but you will one day see therein what no one could see’.”

(Here he is referring to the Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures supposedly written by Nicolas Flamel in the 14th century, but Flamel—who really existed—never wrote any alchemical works. This legend dates back to the Renaissance, and its falsehood was demonstrated in 1758 by Étienne-François Villain. But as in the previously-mentioned case of Ramon Llull, or of Basil Valentine—an alleged alchemist monk from the 15th century whose texts were actually written after the time of Paracelsus—Breton, a tributary of the history of alchemy as he had found it in the works of the occultists Eliphas Lévi and Grillot de Givry, as well as other fake historians like Louis Figuier or Albert Poisson, accepted all the legends concocted by the alchemists themselves as authentic.)

A man like Breton could not allow himself to be deterred for very long by a “you will not understand a line”, even if it was delivered to him by an angel, so he proceeded immediately to revelation:

“I would appreciate you noting the remarkable analogy, insofar as their goals are concerned, between the surrealist efforts and those of the alchemists: the philosopher’s stone is nothing more or less than that which was to enable man’s imagination to take a stunning revenge on all things, which brings us once again, after centuries of the mind’s domestication and insane resignation, to the attempt to liberate once and for all the imagination by the ‘long, immense and reasoned derangement of the senses’, and all the rest…. ‘Alchemy of the word’: one can equally regret that the word, ‘verbe, is taken here in a somewhat restrictive sense, and Rimbaud, moreover, seems to recognize that ‘outmoded poetics’ hold too important a role in this alchemy. The word is more, and, for the cabalists, it is nothing less, for example, than that in the image of which the human soul is created; everyone knows that this concept goes all the way back to the first example of the cause of causes;5 that is why the word is as much present in what we fear as in what we write, or in what we love.”

For Breton, therefore, the function of alchemy was to restore the primacy of the imagination and abolish the reign of domestication and resignation. In this respect it does not really matter very much whether or not this corresponds to the real goal that was proposed by the alchemists; what matters is the fact that Breton provided the “alchemy of the word” with a meaning that went far beyond the “outmoded poetics”: it now involved, according to Rimbaud, “the transformation of life”. With this incentive, the situationists, who also took Rimbaud’s and Breton’s formulations “literally”, made poetry itself responsible for bearing the transmutative power that was once conferred by the philosopher’s stone, obtained through the “alchemy of the word”. Hence the definition of poetry as “the organizer of creative spontaneity to the extent that it reinforces spontaneity’s hold on reality”, the conclusion of the “stunning revenge” of the imagination that Breton had glimpsed.

4

Just as the alchemists issued exhortations not to confuse the “vulgar” substances mercury and sulfur with the mercury and sulfur “of the philosophers”, which were the mysterious substances concerning which they spoke, the situationists understood “poetry” to mean something very different from “vulgar” poetry. And in his attempt to explain the possibility of the birth of the revolutionary transformation in the world of separation, or, which amounts to the same thing, the realization of “practical truth” by way of poetry, Vaneigem compares the revolution with an alchemical transmutation.

The alchemists proposed to transform any metal into gold or silver. This seemed possible to them, and even indisputable, because they thought that all the metals were composed of a single substance that could assume forms of different degrees of maturity: the base or impure metals (lead, iron, copper, tin…) are those metals in which this substance is still unrefined and mixed with impurities; silver is the substance that is almost perfect, and gold represents its absolutely perfected state. For gold is not altered by either the passage of time or by the action of fire. The process that nature conducted very slowly in the bowels of the earth, the alchemists strove to carry out in their laboratories, artificially accelerating the maturation process of the substances of metals. In order to do so, however, these metals had to be reduced to their prima materia [“primal matter”], which was the only way to make them susceptible to the action of the “elixir”—in the form of powder, liquid or solid (the philosopher’s stone)—by virtue of which the base metals could be conducted to their perfection, that is, transmuted into silver or gold. After the 13th century it was widely believed that the elixir was capable not only of perfecting metallic bodies but that it could also purify the human body of all its imperfections, curing all illnesses and prolonging one’s lifespan (hence, the “elixir of eternal youth”).

Thus, Vaneigem declares that, “the laboratory of individual creativity transmutes the basest metals of daily life into gold through a revolutionary alchemy”. Subjectivity is the crucible within which this transmutation must take place. What must be transmuted is everyday life, which must be conducted from its current state of impurity (survival) to the perfect realization of its essence (life, properly speaking). The prima materia that is susceptible to undergoing this transmutation is individual creativity; the latter is the “absolute weapon” that everyone possesses but only rarely wields in everyday life, with the help of certain “privileged moments”. Vaneigem is explicitly evoking Paracelsus, for whom the prima materia was simultaneously “visible and invisible” to ordinary mortals: “the ignorant walk all over it with their feet every day” without noticing it. (This idea, by the way, was not invented by Paracelsus, but had already appeared in numerous alchemists who preceded him.)

For the alchemists, the prima materia was the selfsame substance that composed the chaos before the creation of the world by God in Genesis, who is identified with the demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus: it is something without any particular form, and for that reason susceptible to adopting any form. Likewise, for Vaneigem, individual creativity is “the source of all creation”; from it “everything, being or thing, is ordered in accordance with poetry’s grand freedom”. What the alchemists literally understood to apply to the matter of the physical world, Vaneigem seems, at least at first sight, not to endorse, except as a metaphor that graphically describes a process of psychological transformation. But insofar as this creativity is the manifestation of the life force that animates individuals, it could and must also be extended as a power of creation in the literal sense: the ability to give life. The quintessence that was sought by the alchemists of the Renaissance was the same thing as the “world spirit”, a substance that could be found in a concentrated state in the sap of plants and in the sperm of animals, as well as in deposits of metal ore. This world spirit, which was not entirely made up of soul or entirely of body, was what disseminated life, and Vaneigem did not understand it in any other way.

The alchemists proceeded via the dissolution and coagulation of matter. In revolutionary alchemy, one must “dissolve slave consciousness, consciousness of impotence, by releasing creativity’s magnetic power … as creative energy surges forth, genius serene in its self-assurance”. The individual’s discovery of his creative possibilities is the elixir that transforms alienated consciousness into revolutionary subjectivity. The reversal of perspective is this transformation that takes place in the consciousness of the individuals themselves is the place where one may find the “positive in negativity, the fruit which will burst out of the old world’s bud”.

5

In the situationist view, what induces this revolutionary transformation is the conscious action of individuals, rather than, as in vulgar Marxism, the mere modification of the economic base, since for the situationists it is a matter of abolishing the economy itself as a whole. The abolition of the state and of the economy must be carried out immediately; otherwise it will never happen, as is demonstrated by its postponement ad calendas graecas by Marxist counterrevolutionaries. If the revolution is not animated by the spirit of play (which is radically opposed to economic reification), it will only lead to another form of the organization of survival. This spirit must therefore be distilled drop by drop in the alembic of subjectivity in order to acquire its power.

Vaneigem identifies what he calls a “third force”, called upon to play an essential role in the revolutionary process, similar to that of the quintessence of the alchemists, although this analogy is not explicitly elaborated in The Revolution of Everyday Life. This force “covers the whole extent of everyday life”, just as the quintessence, according to the alchemists of the Renaissance, is everywhere, in a higher or lower concentration. The quintessence was the agent that would allow bodies to attain perfect health, overcoming their imperfections; in the same way, the third force is what “radicalizes contradictions and leads to their supersession, in the name of individual freedom and against all forms of constraint”. It is born in the form of an “irrepressible upsurge of individual desires”, “in all conflicts between opposing sides”. It is what “radicalizes insurrections, denounces false problems, threatens power in its very structure”. This force is the will to live. It is called the “third force” because it constitutes the middle term between the two antagonistic forces of the positive and the negative. It is this force which introduces the violence of the negative to destroy the apparent equilibrium of today’s world, this negativity that is transformed into positivity when it is considered from the perspective of the supersession of this world. The third force is also the means by which the conflict finds its resolution, not so much in the form of a synthesis that supersedes the two antagonistic forces by absorbing them (as in the Hegelian dialectic) as in the form of a process of maturation whose oppositional power is reinforced by revolutionary radicalization, which wants one of these forces to triumph over and destroy the other. For Hegel, supersession is a negation “which supersedes in such a way as to preserve and maintain what is superseded, and consequently survives its own supersession,”6 whereas for the situationists, there is not much worth preserving or maintaining from today’s world. (We shall see in the next chapter that in reality they preserved a lot more of it than they would have liked to admit.)

Vaneigem specifies that the will to live can appear as a “force of decompression” when it is crushed or recuperated by power, which constantly aspires to manipulate and control the conflicts that break out in society:

“Under the process of decompression, antagonists who seemed irreconcilable at first sight grow old together, become frozen in purely formal opposition, lose their substance, neutralize and moulder into each other.”

While the revolutionary perspective accelerates the maturation of antagonisms by driving them towards a final conflict,7 the perspective of power organizes the degradation of these antagonisms by “hiding real contradictions”, marshalling “unresolved antagonisms” in order to foster “the seeds of their future coexistence” for the purpose of “shackling man’s most irreducible desire, the desire to be completely himself”. Decompression is the third force that in Hegel takes the form of the abstract negation of supersession,8 and which in the falsifications of the “glassblowers” (the false alchemists) stands opposed to real alchemy. For the alchemists, the quintessence, the active principle, is the life force when it is used correctly, but it can be converted into a force for death if one does not know how to use it: it is the same substance that was thought to compose the sperm of animals and the venom of serpents. As the ancient Greeks said long ago, the poison and the remedy comprise a unity; the antidote is extracted from the venom.

Every failure is derived from this error. The sterilization of the will to live by power is the reason why not even once in history “has an absolute confrontation been carried through”; “so far the last fight has only had false starts”. In the same way, no alchemical transmutation has ever succeeded (although some illuminati persist in believing otherwise). The alchemists who witnessed their attempts fail one after another were not discouraged by this; they did not perceive their disappointments as proofs of the vanity of their quest but as so many confirmations of the extreme difficulty of the “divine and sacred art”, whose secret, they believed, had been carefully concealed by previous alchemists in such a way that it would be inaccessible to the uninitiated. With every failure of the revolution as well as of the Great Work, “everything must be resumed from scratch”.

  • 1. As late as April 1970, Debord notified the other situationists of his intention to produce a film version of The Revolution of Everyday Life.
  • 2. The French word renversement, in the English language editions of The Revolution of Everyday Life, is translated as “reversal” in the context of “the reversal of perspective” [Note of the American Translator.]
  • 3. Predictably, however, once its initial shock wore off, détournement, too, ended up being absorbed by advertising; just like all other modes of expression, by the way.
  • 4. This was the name of Lautréamont’s landlord.
  • 5. An allusion to The Gospel According to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
  • 6. This is the definition, in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, of “Aufhebung”, a term whose translation by the word, “supersession” is more clear than the literal, but less explicit term, “suppression”.
  • 7. Vaneigem uses the word “revolution” in an ambiguous way, in order to designate both the period of confrontations prior to the final struggle (defined as the “long revolution”) as well as the final struggle itself.
  • 8. In “abstract negation”, “the middle term collapses into a lifeless unity which is split into lifeless, merely immediate, unopposed extremes; and the two do not reciprocally give and receive back from each other consciously, but leave each other free only indifferently, like things” (Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit).