The introductory essay of the first issue of the journal, Encyclopédie des Nuisances (The Encyclopedia of Nuisances, or Encyclopedia of Harmful Phenomena), published by the group of the same name in 1984.
Preliminary Discourse – Encyclopédie des Nuisances
Part One (Encyclopédie des Nuisances, No. 1, pages 3 to 10)
For Diderot and his friends, the practical power that men were attaining thanks to the growth of commodity production heralded a world that would be free of prejudices and governed by reason, a world that would be richer in opportunities for enjoyment, where everyone would be free to pursue happiness. More than two centuries later, although this mode of production modestly believes that it still has many favors that it can bestow, it is obvious that the time has come to judge it in accordance with the facts: for it has transformed the world enough to make its contributions evident, but not enough to cause us to forget all that it has deprived us of. It is surprising, however, that this opportunity of subjecting it to judgment has been so sparingly exercised: never before were discussions concerning the necessity of the market economy as rare as they are now, when, for the first time, everyone can engage in them. Of course, it is true that if our contemporaries were to become aware of the possibility of evaluating their history, they might also embrace the possibility of freely constructing it. We are not at that point now, but, if we want to get there, it would be advisable to disseminate the taste for the first of those two activities. It will be our intention to contribute to the attainment of this objective.
For we can no longer rely on the eventuality that commodity production itself will exhaust, by way of the accumulation of its disastrous results, the patience of those whom it victimizes on a daily basis. This would probably be expecting too much, since it is obvious that, at the same time that it is producing conditions that were only yesterday considered to be unendurable, it is also producing the men capable of enduring those conditions today. Or at least, men who are incapable of formulating and communicating their dissatisfaction, which amounts to the same thing: customs deteriorate; the loss of the meaning of words participates in this deterioration. And that is why we propose to sabotage this aspect of the contemporary production of harmful phenomena, since we have some possibility of acting on it.
We aspire to concretely demonstrate how class society contains (conceals and represses) the historical possibility of its abolition, and why its fight against the threat posed by this possible abolition leads class society to commit the worst excesses of noxiousness. The labor that we shall undertake, which we do not expect will be interrupted for a lack of raw material, thus has two objectives: as a Dictionary of Irrationality in the Sciences, the Arts, and Trades, it must explain the way that each one of these professional specializations that comprise authorized social activity contributes to the general degradation of the conditions of existence; as an Encyclopedia, it must explain the unity of the production of harmful phenomena as the authoritarian development of the arbitrariness which is the inverted and obsessive image of the liberty that is possible in our time. We want at the same time to point out, wherever they appear, the paths that lead to the supersession of the historical paralysis that the owning classes would like to render irreversible by means of its prostheses.
Whereas the Encyclopedists compiled an inventory of a material world liberated from religious illusion, and whereas Marx still perceived “the exoteric revelation of man’s essential powers”, today we can only describe the reign of technologically equipped illusion and the “open book” of the powerlessness of men, subjugated by their own production, to consciously make their own history. We shall devote ourselves to the task of methodically exploring repressed possibilities, compiling a precise inventory of that which, in the midst of so many accumulated means, could be utilized for the purposes of a freer life, and also of that which will never be able to be used for anything except the perpetuation of oppression.
Illusion has not disappeared from social life; to the contrary, illusion has erected an independent realm within social life, undoubtedly due to the fact that those conditions that render illusion socially necessary have been exacerbated. The Reason invoked by the Encyclopedists was, subsumed within ideology, the particular, scientific and technical rationality that was experienced in material production, and whose victory over the chimeras of the old order was supposed to transform men into the masters of their destiny. But this reason did not yield such good results as might have been expected, because material production monopolized by the commodity, due to the fact that it was founded on the separation of men from each other as well as from the product of their activity, brought irrationality in its wake. Thus its development was instead the development of an increasingly more powerful irrationality. It would be demonstrated just how hostile the world is with respect to the miserable people of civilization who, at all points of the compass, are producing that world; more hostile than nature ever was for the most defenseless primitive peoples. At least the latter felt at home in a world inhabited by magical thought. From this subjective point of view, that of the men whose world was supposed to be made comprehensible by modern science, we may define this modern science, in its latest stage, as a magic that is not working.
The belief in progress has traveled such a long road that it is finally getting tired…. The bourgeois substitute for religion, the idea of a guaranteed better future, is inexorably decomposing, but in this dunghill monstrous flowers bloom: the nostalgia that obsesses our contemporaries and which confers an idyllic aspect on all the archaic forms of survival and the states of mind with which they are associated, bears the indelible mark of impotence and puerility. It must be confessed, however, that compared to this nostalgia, the devout apology for technology is humanly even more repugnant. In opposition to the false alternative of nostalgia for the past or modernism, we proclaim as loudly and clearly as possible that nothing is more modern and less complacent with regard to the illusions of progress than the project of total emancipation that was born with the struggles of the proletariat of the 19th century, a project that the considerable development of the means of submission has dialectically compelled to become more precise and more profound. It is evident that the course pursued by the material organization of commodity production, far from creating the foundations for the realization of that project, has rendered its realization more difficult than ever. But perhaps something like this was needed in order for that project to dare to appear for what it really is, that is, the project of a conscious history that cannot base its cause on any kind of needs external to those recognized by individuals themselves.
Despite its vaguely idealistic tendency, Lewis Mumford’s formula in his introduction to Technics and Civilization could serve as an excellent preamble to the historical critique of all allegedly “technical imperatives”: “What man has created, he can destroy. What man can destroy, he can also return to and create in a very different way.”1 The mere perception of such a possibility is nonetheless suppressed by the entire contemporary organization of culture, by the separations that are established between problems by the acceptance of socially dominant compartmentalizations. Today it is a cliché to say that the extreme division of intellectual labor prevents the attainment of an encyclopedic view, or the ability to survey the “circle of knowledge” at a glance. But this cliché conceals, as always, an anti-dialectical apology for what exists, since it makes no allowance at all for the possible unity of knowledge except on the terrain of separate knowledge, and only proposes to reconstitute this unity by overcoming its separation with the exclusive aid of the conceptual and material instruments of separation. In this way, knowledge that has been chopped up into little pieces by intellectual specialization pursues its redemption, in symposiums and conferences, in a vain search for a new “multidisciplinary” collage of its fragments, a caricature of universality which represents the same trend with respect to the “universal and concrete point of view of the totality” that the parodic downtowns (whose construction is the culmination of the destruction of a city) represent compared to cities when they were still full of life. The only possible result of these unitary whims of separate thought in its struggle with the totality, besides the confusionist logorrhea that so often ends in the sewer of mysticism, is the instrumentalization of the totalitarian control over life, where the State concretely embodies the unity of a world without unity, in the search for which so much speculation has been devoted. Unlike the holdings [in English in the original—translator’s note] formed under the tutelage of the State for bankrupt intellectual enterprises, our unitary point of view is the one that is discovered on the basis of everyday misery, including that of the specialists themselves, who must confess that they are totally at a loss when they venture outside their specialties. As a result, we only want to reconstruct the “circle of knowledge” in order to relate each point that composes it with the common center, that is, with the deprivation of all power over life, the fate of the immense majority of men.
Unlike all the encyclopedic attempts since Diderot, the reality that we start from is ignorance. This appears to us to be a human faculty whose exercise must be truly familiar and an everyday experience for all our contemporaries; thus, it is a more solid and more easily observable reality than the immense field of knowledge with which they preserve—and we preserve—less direct or more timid relations. Any Encyclopedia that takes human knowledge as its object and does not begin by asserting and assuming as a general starting point the fact that men are socially separated from that knowledge, can only participate in that popular soup of culture that is nothing but a distribution carried out by specialists of pre-masticated fragments of knowledge that float in a broth of ideology, a distribution that participates in the reproduction of ignorance and its paternalistic maintenance. Instead, our method consists in a development that starts with the immediate sense of privation in the face of science and technology, and with the revolt that this privation inspires; it is a grandiose conception that never loses sight of the totality, and tries to preserve it and to master it; it penetrates directly to the core of unrest in everything that exists and takes nothing for granted.
The revolt against the separation of scientific knowledge is the extra-scientific social truth that subjects science to historical judgment; it reflects consciousness’s recognition that everything affects it and that it must therefore re-appropriate the specific knowledge expropriated by the existing powers, just as the construction of a free life will have to practically assume responsibility for the control of all technologies in order to subject them to its requirements. For regardless of the question under consideration and however it is approached, except perhaps for foreign curiosities, by starting from the circumference of the circle one must recognize, at the convergence of its radii, in the center of the circle, ignorance and dispossession. This rejection of the spectacular culture that constrains the desire for concrete knowledge will allow, by way of the reconquest of all of its possible practical means, the accord between subjective requirements and those of the external world.
Therefore, our Encyclopedia will not derive its principles and its criteria from any of the particular rationalities whose validity in a specialized domain of activity no longer conceals its bankruptcy, due to the fact that its social employment has become dangerously irrational. The perennial “crisis of reason” is never anything but the crisis of the dominant form of reason, the crisis of the rationality of the ruling class. It must be admitted that in such a situation, whereas some ideologues have no reservations about using an irrationalist tone, others do not have any reservations about hurling the reproach of irrationalism. This confusion is the symptom of an era that does not know how to use either rational thought or the other means that are at its disposal. Not because it has too much of it, as is so often maintained, but because it does not possess it where it is most needed. One of the misfortunes of our era is the fact that the contradictions of individual consciousness, due to social censorship, are impoverished as a result of the individual’s inability to fully manifest them in his lived experience, and the individual must be satisfied with miserable substitutes and compensations. These contradictions are not entirely reducible to historically produced forms of consciousness, since what is perceived and expressed by means of those forms, more or less effectively, that is, at the present time most ineffectively, is the universal human experience of the passage of life and of the negation of this passage. From such a perspective, we may say that not only are other possibilities offered by history, but that history itself, as Europe has imposed it on the rest of the world, was merely one possibility among others and, until a new order is established, it is not necessarily the best: a traditional society would have undoubtedly offered better conditions for the realization of this experience than those that our partially historical society offers today; although it is historical enough to destroy everything, it is not historical enough to know how to consciously employ the means at its disposal.
The only possible historical reason, and not only for the purpose of inspiring the publication of an Encyclopedia, is the one that can serve as the practical basis for the activity of a free society by destroying everything that stands in its way, and subjecting everything to the dialogue of associated individuals. And on this terrain that has been cleared of the ghosts created by fear, the aspirations that form part of the anti-historical aspect of consciousness and which are currently reduced to an impotent parody (occultism and neo-sorceries of all kinds) will be able to be unfold rationally and poetically—and will therefore be able to experience a new life.
This revolutionary project that is the obsession of modern history is the only one that is worth defending. Especially for those for whom the current era of falsification has not altered their taste for the truth, because it is only on that basis, both with regard to its advances as well as its retreats, that we can understand the social text of our era, which is otherwise indecipherable. Our objective consists in clarifying this fact by means of the concrete and detailed description of that which, in the hands of its managers, has become what is commonly referred to as human life, although it lacks both life and humanity. It is therefore an exhaustive program for the revolution formulated ex negativo, which will have to reorganize all of the conditions of existence by addressing all of the problems that class society is currently incapable of resolving. By formulating all the considerations of the judgment that this society is pronouncing against itself on a massive scale, we hope to provide an example of that “universal and concrete view of the whole, independent of all authority and all abstract metaphysics” that Hegel admired in the first Encyclopedists and without which the contempt for what exists descends into a passive nihilism. What qualifies us for such a task is the fact that we are by no means possessed of great erudition; the kind of erudition that produces the current social organization. What we learned from such erudition was how to fight it, and with the sole objective of learning how to do so more effectively: that is why our knowledge can by no means be adapted to the criteria of usefulness established by that erudition. This is just what is needed to judge it from the point of view of real proletarianized life, deprived of everything, even of the information regarding the extent of its deprivation. As George Orwell said, who described the beginnings of the bureaucratization of the world, the decisive victories of which we are today able to savor, better than anyone else in his time: “Where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in.” This ability is not to be distinguished from the practical choice to have no interests that prevent its exercise.
We must respond, however, to the objection that maintains that formulations like ours are imbued with a complacent catastrophism, in which, in our desire to find a way out of our evil plight, the necessity of its destruction is disguised as a chronicle of lamentations. It is true that every generation of revolutionaries, ever since the proletarian project for a classless society has existed, was convinced that its struggle was decisive and that the prevailing social order had finally reached the point of its inevitable downfall; or at least, the point at which the requirements for its preservation would compel it to subject the majority of men to such conditions of existence that men would be, so to speak, forced to become conscious and to commit to revolution. And instead it was demonstrated that, on every such occasion, the limits of what was endurable could still be further extended, with the invariable result of an increasingly more sophisticated cowardice and simulation among the worthy citizens of ignominy.
It is not our intention to speak ironically about the role played by the illusions that the revolutionaries of the past often cultivated about their own action: we will leave that to those realists who, with regard to their own affairs, obtain immediate consolation and enjoyment by submerging themselves in the current abjectness, which is well adapted, of course, to their minuscule appetites. We shall prefer to always to be mistaken together with those who thought that they were the last generation to endure the mutilation of life and did not conceive that the accumulation of dispossession could be perpetuated, rather than be correct with those who defeated them or with the heirs of their conquerors; it just so happens that today, the best reasons, because they are the least “scientific”, of those defeated rebels, are the most concrete and most urgent. For all those people who, in spite of everything, will not identify with the forces of inertia that are plunging us ever more precipitously down the slope of programmed horror, these reasons are as tangible as the macabre project of making the results of the prolific development of commodities irreversible, and, in a sinister parody of the revolutionary project of the total man, as the project of over-equipping the worthlessness of individuals, of definitively reducing them to the status of convulsive marionettes, agitated by their innumerable commodity prostheses, in response to the rhythm of an ubiquitous telematic machinery. And all of these defeated reasons therefore continue to pass their judgments on the subsequent development in its entirety, so that we shall be able to condemn it with full knowledge of its causes.
Thus, the subjective foundation of revolutionary desire is stripped of all appearances of arbitrariness by the movement of alienated history: the objectivity of the still-existing world is determined from the top down by aspirations that it must endlessly destroy, and at the same time, it must continue to justify by destroying them. Instead, despite or because of a Platonic will towards objectivity that seeks to be sparing with regard to the affirmation of individual choice, the confidence that spoke in the name of a guaranteed future has been cruelly refuted—a confidence that is usually content with the unilateral identification of the possibilities of freedom with a “development of the productive forces” conceived in accordance with the lamentable model of bourgeois progress. We still have to dialectically render an assessment of that which is today revealed to us as illusion: on the one hand, the idea that the mere development of the productive forces, within the framework of bourgeois society, facilitated their revolutionary re-appropriation and made them more suitable for their use by a free society; this idea was not a theoretical error that must now be corrected, but the expression of a historical possibility that was effectively presented and was at the time an opportunity that had to be seized; an expression that was unfortunately mystified since it was no longer based on the conscious activity that had to impose that possibility, as opposed to all other possible outcomes. On the other hand, the idea of this possible re-appropriation, transformed into an ideology by its contemplative abandonment to the course of economic development, contributed to the fact that everything followed its autonomous course, and became, in the next stage, a decisive counterrevolutionary factor. There can be no doubt that the confidence that the workers will inherit the world was not only the basis for bureaucratic ideology, but also, for numerous revolutionaries, the source of their determination and even their willingness to die for their beliefs. But, with regard to the issues that concern us, and that concern everyone who is really determined to bring about the disappearance of the existing world, we shall simply say that we can no longer derive our resolve and the steadfastness of our beliefs from such a notion.
The crucial historic moment in which we find ourselves can be defined by saying that today not only is it true that “every development of new productive forces is at the same time a weapon against the workers” (Marx, “Wages” ), but that such development is above all, and almost exclusively, a machine of war directed against the revolutionary project of the proletariat: it is no longer just the case that a choice among all the applicable technical inventions can be made in response to the needs of preserving class power, and that their organization taken as a whole, the form bestowed on these technologies, is determined by the imperative of the bureaucratic secret to perpetuate the monopoly of their use, but that, what is happening now, is that these famous “productive forces” are mobilized by the owning classes and by their States to make the expropriation of life irreversible and to pillage the world until it is transformed into something over whose possession no one can even imagine disputing.
We therefore do not reject what exists and is decomposing with an ever-increasing degree of noxiousness in the name of a future that we claim to more faithfully represent than its official proprietors. Instead, we think that they eminently represent this future, the whole future that is predictable from the standpoint of the present abjection: they represent only that future, and having made their bed they have to sleep in it. Against this enterprise of planned desolation whose explicit program is the production of an unusable2 world, revolutionaries find themselves in the novel situation of having to fight in defense of the present in order to keep all the other possibilities of changing it open—beginning of course with the very possibility of safeguarding the minimal conditions for the survival of the species—which are the same possibilities that the dominant society is endeavoring to obstruct by means of its attempt to irrevocably reduce history to the extended reproduction of the past and by trying to reduce the future to the management of the wastes of the present.
It is true that the project of producing an unusable world, foreclosing from now through eternity the chance of any revolutionary re-appropriation, is absurd and suicidal, because this means a strictly unlivable world, in which historical nothingness will be catastrophically materialized, to which the owning classes will condemn themselves along with the proletarians, in order to assure the continuation of the economic history of things. However, if the display of supine stupidity continues to prevail in the attempt to construct a world where absolute reification would not mean death, the latter may be the last gift that capitalism will give us, but not in the sense we desire. Because it is possible that by that time no one will be capable of perceiving this world as the finally total counterrevolution from which a no less total revolution must arise, since the bourgeoisie will have successfully brought about, not in its economic ideology but in reality itself, a situation in which there once was history, but not anymore.
In the end, the State is responsible for creating the situation that makes any return to the past impossible, which prohibits men from returning to their own history and reawakening their dormant reason for the purpose of subjecting their power to a consideration without illusions and to freely decide the use to which they must put it. And revolutionaries must take advantage of what could turn out to be a strong position, granted by the demented flight forward of the powers and the autonomized economy to which the fate of those powers is bound. For, as opposed to the attempt to render the current state of affairs irreversible and the affairs of state that are making the consequent harmful phenomena indestructible, the revolutionaries no longer represent merely a different option but simple realism: they defend both a negation and a project, and they can mobilize for their cause, together with the desire of the unknown, the instinct for self-preservation. An admirable convergence: to save what is left of human existence that has not yet been disastrously putrefied by commodity production, and whose preservation is of concern to all of us, a social revolution is necessary; for the social revolution to be possible we need to defend that which serves as the basis for the possibility of imagining and constructing a free life, and for subjecting everything else to evaluation. Beginning with the memory of all free activity in history, in the light of which the economic misadventure will clearly appear for what it is, that is, an endless deviation in man’s production of himself that threatens to become an irreversible deviation. The promising creations of the past, which exemplified or adorned a community full of life, have been pillaged or made incomprehensible by the system itself. With regard to the quality contained in all authentic creation, we may say what André Breton said concerning the art of the Australian aborigines: “May man, with the difficulty he has to survive today, here take the measure of his lost powers, and the individual who, surrounded by general alienation, resists his own alienation, ‘turn back on himself, like the Australian boomerang in the second phase of its flight’.” So that anything that helps us to discern the marvels of which a free humanity would be capable, is for us one more reason to put all our confidence in the unleashed forces of the social revolution.
Encyclopédie des Nuisances
Translated from the Spanish translation:
Encyclopédie des Nuisances, “Discurso Preliminar”, Chapter 1 of La Sinrazón en las Ciencias, los Oficios y las Artes. Artículos selectos de la Encyclopédie des Nuisances, tr. Miguel Amorós, Muturreko Burutazioak, Bilbao, Second Edition, 2007, pp. 9-20.
Originally published as “Discours préliminaire” in L’Encyclopédie des Nuisances no. 1, Paris, November 1984.
- 1 A corresponding original English version of this quotation could not be located in Mumford’s Introduction (1963) to the American edition of Technics and Civilization (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010); this quotation was therefore translated from the Spanish [American Translator’s Note].
- 2 Not susceptible to détournement; that which cannot be transformed or utilized in any way.