A situationist and feminist critique of situationists, from 1976.
In September 1973 I participated in the formation of the Center for Research on the Social Question from which I resigned in December 1975. At that time, all things considered, I definitely had to acknowledge my personal failure during those two years, which can be summed up as follows: I did not have during that period any individual theoretico-practical activity.
The members of the CRQS are chosen from among the revolutionaries .. . who want to assemble in the present semi-organizational solution in order to continue, in their name only, to address the revolutionary movement.
(Declaration concerning the CRQS— Bloch, Charles, Cornuault, Denevert)1
What follows is a reflection taken, for the most part, from this failure.
* * *
Practical impotence—behindism2 —is the result of the contradiction between the theory an individual adheres to from the exterior and his practice, i.e. the real choices that he carries out in his life; so that there is apparently more truth to the ideologue of the right, left, or whatever—who defends in his 'ideas' the poverty of his life and who thus gives proof of a certain ideological coherence—than there is with the behindist. But the epoch makes it more and more difficult to maintain such a total illusion about it and about oneself.
The proof of the efficacity and the extremism of a theory at whose center is the affirmation of the individual is that it's impossible to adhere to it from the exterior without becoming totally impotent: it allows neither half-measures nor compromises. But it is also this theory's task to determine and theoretically and practically resolve this contradiction; to consider it not as an aberration located outside itself but, rather, as its own internal weakness. Revolutionary theory is concerned with its own spectacularization. It is a matter of answering this question: why, and also how, do people adhere to revolutionary theory from the exterior?
* * *
To practice theory, one's own theory, it is necessary to subjectivize the world: to recognize what in it is opposed to one's interests, objectives, and desires, and to avail oneself of the means to realize these; to consider exterior reality as a field for personal experimentation, the terrain of interventions, of the possible. This is what the behindist, passing his time in analyzing what about him is opposed to his ideal revolutionary realization, does not know how to do. However, this moment does not suffice, because it does not allow anyone to make the choice between his individuality, his desire to master his life, and his alienation. On the contrary, outside of revolutions and isolated moments of revolt, it is not real aspirations which are spontaneously known and pursued, but rather those which each particular spectacle designates, for it is those which do not encounter opposition in the present social organization. The moment of subjectivization is thus the moment of modern spectacular consumption, including its counter-cultural pseudo-alternative; it is the moment of the illusion of authenticity.
One must therefore, at the same time, objectify oneself: which is to say, seize in oneself what belongs to the spectacle and alienation-- that is, everything which tends to maintain the status quo of dominant social relations—and be as severe as when these things mani-fest themselves elsewhere. This is the never-definitively-established condition of a true seizure of one's real aspirations.
Repression is directly opposed to the practice of theory; it is always simultaneously repression of real aspirations and failure to recognize their inversion in alienation. A repressed individual—and to a large extent one chooses repression almost consciously—is just as incapable of really intervening in the world as he is in himself. The choice of repression is thus choice for what exists, for submission, falsehood, ideology, spectacle. This does not mean that someone who practices theory does not know repression, but his work leads him to progressively discover new interests, desires and objectives, as well as new resistances and new obstacles; in this process he transforms himself. The individual who chooses repression is neurotic, but not necessarily more than someone else; he can even be relatively free of neurosis; but he does not change himself; it is circumstances which change him, circumstances which anchor him more and more deeply in the dominant alienation.
* * *
The choice of repression, of resignation, does not appear as such to the individual's consciousness; to be able to tolerate it and himself, to flee his shame, he justifies it by an objective, exterior constraint stronger than he. During the previous phase of class society, authority and hierarchy constituted this at once objective and subjective internalized constraint which, when accepted, justified resignation. Today, when the old forms of hierarchization are breaking down before the obstinacy of proletarians in struggle, the resigned individual tends to replace those forms with affective ties, a new excuse for his complicity with the existing world. But clearly such ties have only a subjective reality.
Having feelings of affection in regard to other people is not contradictory in itself with maintaining an individual point of view—true affection can only exist where there is individual affirmation—except when these feelings serve as justification for a person to abandon his point of view. I define affective relations as those relations justified by ‘affection' which can only maintain themselves on the basis of repression.
Pseudo-affection, which serves as justification for self-betrayal, must itself be justified—to give a coherent appearance to this very betrayal—with objective qualities, be they real or imaginary, encountered in the people who are the objects of pseudo-affection. But in so doing, the affective individual reveals that he aspires to be loved for his 'objective', intrinsic qualities, even though he does not know how to put them to use for himself—and thus these qualities do not exist—any more than he knows how to recognize through practice the qualities of his friends. Having renounced his point of view, renounced critique, he demands that others reciprocate, that they leave him alone, that they accept him as he is. What is to be found here is in fact the old mystico-bourgeois conception of the ‘interior richness of the human being, always there to be discovered', which would have it that a person is something other than what he actually does. And with the affective revolutionary, interior richness becomes 'interior radicality'.
However, in all of this, we can recognize, although certainly in a reified form, a manifestation of men's and women's real need for affection, for friendship, for love, a need which is so frustrated in the present general conditions of separation.
The affective revolutionary endeavors not to be criticised: on the one hand by effectively not doing anything, not making any 'error' which might offer the basis for a critique, on the other hand by not playing any precise, identifiable role. He is generally modest, even timid, pleasant, loyal, lucid, full of good will, etc.... But this no longer means anything, since the modern spectacle makes use of this facile contestation as anti-role. In fact, if a person does not manifest his opposition to the dominant conditions actively, by decisions, oppositions and errors, he merely manifests his desire to be recognized by others as anti-spectacular. This role is the ultimate recourse of those who still do not want to face up to their lot, when all the other attitudes—such as the arrogance without content of the pro-situationist—have appeared clearly and been denounced as mystifying; but these people are mistaken if they think that the modesty of what they hope to buy with their role—tranquility in mediocrity, a good conscience, and a little sympathy, rather than power or prestige—protects that role from an all-too-rapid devalorization. The anti-role already appears for what it is: a manner of fleeing and distorting reality.
* * *
It is astonishing enough that the majority of those excluded from the SI (as with many people from whom other radical groups or individuals have had to separate) thereafter definitely renounced —judging from their silence—the perspectives they had till then defended. In fact, we must suppose that many among them had never really defended these perspectives, that they had not felt totally engaged by them, that, in one way or another, these perspectives had been exterior to them.
What the affective revolutionary wants to avoid above all is the exclusion or break (one can have the same kind of relation to an organization as one does to one or more individuals, even if the existence of a collectivity camouflages this relation), because this appears to him as veritable treason on the part of the object of his attachment, in fact because it signals the end of his illusion about himself, an illusion sustained and dependent only on the maintenance of this very relation, of his membership in the collectivity. But he nonetheless remains in constant fear of what might happen, as though it were a matter of a misfortune which can only be inflicted on him from on high, by an authority to whom he has submitted for so long a time. All his talk and gestures are calculated in avoidance of it; but his margin of maneuverability, between the minimum apparent autonomy which he must keep up if he does not want to be rejected immediately and the complete abstention towards which he tends, is slight.
To the degree that a person 'loves' an authority who accepts him as submissive and impotent, this 'love' transforms itself into hate and resentment when this authority refuses to be one any longer. The violence of breaks is well-founded when those breaks are caused by the publicity, stemming from a concrete fact, of previously concealed individual renouncement. And it is only traumatizing for someone who, even after the separation, continues to accord an authority to those from whom he is separated. This traumatism and the resentment which accompanies it is one of the factors which can precipitate the abandonment, even brutal rejection, of the perspectives apparently defended till then.
* * *
When an affective revolutionary undertakes to consider his past, to understand what errors he made and what wealth they held, he realizes that he cannot. From the multiple experiences he has participated in, he cannot draw any particular lesson, because his experiences have never belonged to him, he has never been really involved in them, the errors that have been produced were not his. He has made only one 'error': that of not beginning from himself, or of having forgotten himself along the way. This is the total error, the error which does not contain any element susceptible to being corrected, precised or developed, until a total reversal of perspective has taken place, until the illusion which founded the refusal to begin with oneself has itself been considered and critiqued practically. In short, the affective revolutionary must make decisions which directly modify a concrete situation which has made illusion necessary.
Historically, this has been the general situation of women3 (just as individually they are very often affective persons). The history of the theoretico-practical struggles of the proletariat for its liberation does not belong to them. They can only appropriate this history in acquiring the understanding of the causes of their absence, therefore in seizing hold of their present history, which is something they are beginning to do everywhere. Since even in the dominant class women were excluded from the active exercise of power, the autonomous struggles of women have long been bourgeois in nature, demanding formal equality for men and women in the framework of existing conditions. It is now, when the development of the spectacle and the commodity has rendered possible and necessary such an equality, that feminine alienation, and not inequality, clearly appears as the one of these subjective conditions which has permitted this development; at the same time, a quasi-total absence of the critique of this alienation becomes evident. In this light, one can affirm that the ensemble of theoretico-practical struggles of the proletariat is more the result of the critique of masculine alienation than of feminine alienation, which is visible as much in their form as in their content, even though these struggles have always implicitly included—to various degrees—a critique of the dominant relations between men and women.
* * *
At the center of the alienation of women one finds both their need to submit to men and their criteria, and the contempt that women have for themselves. The general absence of autonomous and qualitative activity of women in the situationist milieu signifies that the struggle of women against their condition is not yet developed to a point where they have mastered its expression, and also that revolutionary activity as it is still practiced today is too masculine, still contains too many criteria to which women can submit.
It is significant that the participants (all men) in the Orientation Debate of the SI never stopped posing the question of the appropriation of their theory by the workers, of the necessary interaction between the theory they formulated and this appropriation, without ever even citing this same question for women.
This problem can only appear within and coming from a sufficient critique of everyday life, when activity no longer separates itself from this critique. Thus wherever only men have an activity and women do not (whether women aspire to one or not), critical activity itself is considered by men, and by the women who submit themselves to them, in a narrow manner, as essentially written and public production. This written production is considered not as one necessary and natural moment in the ensemble of the work of the negative, ‘a refined product of practical struggles, consciousness momentarily crystalized in a form on the way to becoming broken down again into raw material for other struggles' (K.Knabb, Double Reflection), but as its whole. Even those who in speaking and writing pose the critique of everyday life as central can ignore the critique of their everyday lives. And it is only because it is envisioned as separate activity—by its spectators and all too often by its producers—that theoretical activity is considered prestigious.
This so-called practice of theory leaves a part of the individual's life and real needs out of consideration: the part that the individual does not want to change, the part he has accustomed himself to, the side of him that is resigned. Everything the critique leaves out is left to the spectacle. All the while, the content of this so-called theory, no matter how much of it is objectively correct, still constitutes a theory of separated, mutilated life.
Men who practice a theory separated from their lives exclude women de facto from this practice, 'hence the particular miseries in the love relations in the situationist milieu' (Knabb). Unable to have ‘theoretical' relations with women —the only relations which really interest these men and which they are capable of following out—these men find themselves not knowing what to do with women, except to lavish advice on them or to show indulgence for and pseudo-comprehension of 'their difficulties in producing theory'. And when men renounce this task from weariness or when the inefficacity of this attitude becomes apparent to them, they undertake sexual relations with women which are all the poorer as they are envisioned as separate from their critical activity—an aside, a pastime. This semi-conscious contempt for women is only the contempt that men have for sexuality in general, for their sexuality in particular, in fact for their own concrete existence.
These men are not without ‘exigence' for women. They want women to be 'revolutionary'; which for them means: that women recognize them as revolutionary; which is to say that women be subject to the same criteria as men are; in fact that women not be revolutionary.
The misadventures of the theory of character
It seems that when it is preoccupied with itself, consciousness disturbs its own functioning. The pause which ushers in the act of consciousness has been for some of our contemporaries a pretext to flee from action. Like Zeno's runner, in reflecting on the cause they lose the power to attain the goal. ... Interior life serves as excuse for deserting exterior life. Introspection replaces action instead of transforming it . . . This cancerous consciousness employs the processes of consciousness to reverse the very function of consciousness. Creative consciousness is action and command . . .; cancerous consciousness is retreat in the face of action, and resignation to one's lot. Creative consciousness is an instrument of truth and clarity. Cancerous consciousness is an apparatus of mystification.
Emmanuel Mounier—Traité du caractère
This cancerous consciousness has manifested itself—as an essential aspect of behindism—within the revolutionary movement. Here are some critical judgments which expose what the behindists seek to ignore, to themselves and to others, and what the psychologists certainly ignore: what truth is mystified and why? what action is fled? What interests can someone have in maintaining himself in such a situation?
* * *
Nadine Bloch (10.16.75)
"On the terrain of the possible, character is the principle obstacle to autonomy. In my opinion, it is not for this reason that one must launch a head-on attack on one's character; this is the mistake that I have made too often. It is in the very course of life, in the difficulties and blocks encountered there, that the diverse manifestations and peculiar aspects of character present themselves as a concrete hindrance to the realization of desires and objectives. Moreover, in this process one can push oneself and transform oneself without submitting to external models. . . .
The critique of a person must bear this in mind: it is not a question of the degree of autonomy effectively attained by an individual, for this does not make sense and necessarily lends undue emphasis to the most spectacular aspects of autonomy, but of the capacity to approach and resolve the conflicts arising between character and one's conscious perspectives. A revolutionary person knows how to put himself in situations where he encounters blocks and learns to supersede them. Through their gropings and errors in these situations individuals are furnished with the bases for their theory of their own lives."
"The self-critique of J. is not one, it is really a self-depreciation essentially because it remains in the upside-down perspective of the 'critique of character' which always and inevitably poses char-acter and characterological attitudes as a person's normal condition. Of course, the real question is not to determine the part of consciousness which remains in the unconscious, but to create the conditions which will suppress the part as yet unconscious still existing in consciousness."
Daniel Denevert (October 1975)
"(Let no one speak to me here about character, that latest find of determinism. I will answer that I hold character to be a conscious choice effected and repeated in the use of life. That here autonomy applies itself through the form of char-acter simply in order to flee itself; that this choice is not so irrational—much less innocent—to the extent that in existing conditions it takes its stand flatly on the side of Power, a power which in the present alignment of forces still designates real autonomy and not character as the position of weakness. That whoever enters into the revolutionary adventure ceaselessly interposing failures and limits which he attributes to the difficulties that his 'character' gives him, makes me sick. That I won't play this game. That I don't for one moment believe him to be the victim of his unconscious; that I take him for someone who wants to play both sides at the same time, that is to say for a faker and a swine! And that his first fakery consists in his not leaving behind his need to fake, that is, his choosing to still fake with us!)"
N.Bloch (November 1975)
"I believe one can state that the ideological utilization of the theory of character, which would have it that an individual could be excused because he is a victim of his character, is nothing other than a counter-offensive within the very heart of the revolutionary movement waged by the least conscious, more submissive individuals against the power—all-in-all legitimate—that the more conscious individuals have over them; a counter-offensive, in fact, by dominant power against consciousness. In presenting itself for something other than what it is, this counter-offensive has been a real trap."
Translated, with assistance from the author, by Gina Rosenberg: p.o.box 4502, Berkeley, CA 94704, U.S.A.
COMPTE-RENDU 1976 by Nadine Bloch available from Nadine Bloch: BP 167, 75864 Paris cedex 18, France.
- 1The Declaration is reprinted on p239 of Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb, 1970-1997
- 2See Double Reflection – Ken Knabb, reprinted on p204 of Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb, 1970-1997 and Behindism– Chris Shutes
- 3 See Arms & the Woman by Jeanne Charles; English translation by Ken Knabb, also reprinted on p265 of Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb, 1970-1997