chapter  3
15 Pages

“What true project has been lost?” Modern art and Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life


Like others loosely collected under the banner “everyday life studies,” Henri Lefebvre’s extensive work on the everyday offers us little by way of strict definitions or clear concepts; rather, it demonstrates the severe demands the everyday places on conceptualization. Maurice Blanchot understood this more than most, and it is the focal point of his 1962 review of Lefebvre’s work. The version of everyday life Blanchot deduces from Lefebvre is a provocation riddled with ambiguity: it is “what we are first of all and most often,” but also “what is most difficult to discover” (Blanchot 1992: 238). It is a composite of the concrete and abstract, the immediate and the highly mediated, both generative and corrosive for critical thought.2 How then, should a critical theory of everyday life proceed? Should it amass “histories from below,” archiving voices and experiences that have yet to participate in the writing of history? What about a sociological study that would calculate the everyday through facts, statistics, and so forth? Can philosophy be of any use? For Lefebvre, the everyday is enigmatic; it cannot be understood solely through rigorous application of these forms of knowledge. For an alternative whose restlessness exempts it from the disciplinary restrictions of history, sociology, or philosophy, Lefebvre turns to art: “The functions of the critique of everyday life can be determined by reference to an art which immerses itself in everyday life” (Lefebvre 1992: 25).3 Indeed, a brief inventory of these “references” is telling: the first volume of The Critique of Everyday Life opens with a sketch of literary history charting the life of the everyday in Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud, and French Surrealism and later adds references to Chaplin, Brecht, and Woolf in the reissue; Introduction to Modernity engages with Baudelaire and includes a much expanded version of Lefebvre’s aesthetico-political essay “Vers un romantisme révolutionnaire”; Everyday Life in the Modern World begins with an analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses; finally, the late works

on the everyday-Critique of Everyday Life Volume III and Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life-contain more negotiations with modern(ist) artworks that bear more than a family resemblance to Adorno’s writings on art and music.4

Yet, how do we evaluate this conjuncture of art and critique in Lefebvre’s project? I suggest that we think of modern art as a condition of possibility for Lefebvre’s critique of everyday life, for situating and framing the everyday as something to be observed, thought, and analyzed critically. In Lefebvre’s critique, modern artworks are not obscure objects in need of explanation; they are explanations; they constitute multiple responses to the conditions of everyday life under capitalism. References to modern art in Lefebvre’s critique have not gone unnoticed and

they often determine how his critical project is received. Claire Colebrook, Rita Felski, Michael Gardiner, and Ben Highmore have insightfully read Lefebvre’s work with an eye towards the importance of art and aesthetics.5 According to Colebrook and Felski, Lefebvre pursues a transcendence of everyday life and values the quotidian only insofar as it can be radically transformed.6 Defamiliarizing the entrenched avant-gardism in Lefebvre’s work, Felski writes “the conviction that the everyday can be redeemed only by its aesthetic transfiguration will become the leitmotif of a French intellectual and political tradition most prominently represented by Henri Lefebvre and by the Situationists” (Felski 2002: 609).7 Moreover, this form of aesthetic ideology is particularly modernist: “Those qualities most valued in modernist aesthetics-innovation, formal disruption, self-reflexivity-are transferred without further ado to the domain of everyday life and hailed as the key to its revolutionary transformation” (Felski 2002: 611). These are, of course, serious charges, but, as Highmore and Gardiner show, they are not irrefutable; Highmore rehabilitates aesthetics as a fundamental mode of sociological investigation for Lefebvre. For Gardiner, the very notion that “daily life must be ‘liberated’ through a transformative praxis that ushers in some sort of idealist utopia, is … a distorting caricature” (Gardiner 2004: 239).8 Both rejoinders demonstrate the productivity of reading Lefebvre more closely and, at times, against the grain. Still, Felski’s critique remains provocative because it poses two questions: can a critical project that draws from art avoid aestheticizing the everyday? Is Lefebvre touting yet another aesthetic ideology, repeating Schiller’s notion that political transformation can only come through the aesthetic? I think we can answer these questions without either diminishing the importance

of art or suspending the political. Modern art has nothing if not a profoundly political function in Lefebvre’s critique. For Lefebvre, modern art mediates the antagonisms of daily life and he is interested in the various modes this mediation might take. Thus, it is not my concern to revalorize art for its own sake. Even less do I propose to defend all of Lefebvre’s aesthetic judgments; some are shortsighted (Rimbaud and Surrealism) and others motivated by personal conflicts (Breton and Debord). I am more interested in questions that disappear if we accept Felski and Colebrook’s arguments. For one, if Lefebvre is not redeploying a general avant-gardiste technique of defamiliarization, how do we characterize

the use of modern art for his project? Does modern art’s exclusion from both the practices of everyday life and its increasing rationalization lend it a particular way of questioning the everyday? Finally, what is to be learned from modern art’s failure to end art’s separation from everyday life? These questions allow us to discern more carefully the relation between modern art and critique, and, moreover, the political dimension Lefebvre’s project acquires through that relation. In an oft-cited (and misread) passage from the first volume of the critique,

Lefebvre identifies the everyday as a residue, as what is left when all “distinct, superior, specialized, structured activities have been singled out by analysis” (Lefebvre, 1992: 97). Despite what John Frow (2002) rushes to tell us, Lefebvre never intended to detach everyday life from other systems; rather, he understands the everyday as relational-to art, economic formations, the state, historical circumstances-and that relation can be broadly characterized as one of uneven development.9 He recognizes modern art, which he dates from Baudelaire forward, as an invaluable register of the changing realities of daily life under capitalism. For Lefebvre, the growing disproportions between the technological and economic development of the modern world and the material conditions of daily life are sedimented into the form and content of modern artworks. In Everyday Life in the Modern World he tells us, “the momentous eruption of everyday life into literature should not be overlooked. It might, however, be more exact to say that readers were suddenly made aware of everyday life through the medium of literature or the written word” (Lefebvre 1984: 2). Sorting through the rubble of this “momentous eruption,” Lefebvre retrieves a few things: first, he recovers several dialectical models of everyday life as they emerge and expire at different moments of literary history; second, he reads the relation of those dialectics to utopic longings or their absence; finally, he reads art politically, focusing on how it imagines life within and, perhaps, without power. Lefebvre indexes at least three ways art addresses the quotidian, and we can sketch them as the symptomatic (Baudelaire), the transcendent (Surrealism), and the tactical (Brecht, Constant Nieuwenhuys, and the Situationist International).