Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com
French Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings by Henri Lefebvre, edited by Stuart Elden, Eleonore Kofman (Continuum Collection Key Writings: Continuum International Publishing Group) Not seen.

Critique of Everyday Life, Volume III: From Modernity to Modernism by Henri Lefebvre, translated by Michel Trebitsch (Towards a Metaphilosophy of Daily Life: Verso) Critique of Everyday Life, Volume II by Henri Lefebvre, Translated by John Moore (Verso) The more needs a human being has, the more he exists," quips Lefebvre in a savage critique of consumerist society, first published in 1947. The French philosopher, historian and Marxist sociologist, who died this summer at age 90, meditates on the dehumanization and ugliness smuggled into daily life under cover of purity, utility, beauty. He deconstructs leisure as a form of social control, spanks surrealism for its turning away from reality, and attempts to get past the "mystification" inherent in bourgeois life by analyzing Chaplin's films, Brecht's epic theater, peasant festivals, daydreams, Rimbaud and the rhythms of work and relaxation. Rejecting the inauthentic, which he perceives in a church service or in rote work from which one is alienated, Lefebvre nevertheless seeks to unearth the human potential that may be inherent in such rituals.

This translation of the second edition (1958) of French sociologist and philosopher Lefebvre's Critique de la Vie Quotidienne will introduce the English reader to his examination of the forces and structures that govern various aspects of our daily lives and in particular the role played by alienation in its various manifestations. The text includes a lengthy analytical introduction by the author that did not appear in the first edition of 1947. Lefebvre's Marxist orientation and terminology often make for tough reading, and there is a tendency here to make claims that lack clear supporting evidence.

Excerpt: This book represents a leave-taking -- in the first instance, for Henri Lefebvre himself -- since it closes a long cycle, wholly unpremeditated at its inception, extending from volume one of Critique of Everyday Life, published in 1947, to the third volume, which dates from 1981. The philosopher, who had retired in 1973, died ten years later, at the age of 90. There is no better way of indicating that these three volumes span almost half a century of intellectual history - especially when we recall that Lefebvre's questions were inspired by theoretical lines of inquiry going back to the pre-war period and that to the trilogy we need to add one of the signature books of 1968, Everyday Life in the Modern World (not to mention a number of articles).

The decades separating these works were full of historical upheavals: that is why this preface, in contrast to those to the previous volumes, will not merely offer a presentation or, rather, contextualization. Nothing could be less straightforward than jumping from the years around 1968, which postdate the second volume, to (in the French case) the arrival of the Left in power, which coincided with this work, not to mention the collapse of the Eastern bloc foreshadowed by events in Poland. But we must go further (and perhaps we should have done in the earlier prefaces) by considering not only the context – the reconstruction of the conditions of production of each of these texts in its own right - but also the effects they produced – that is to say, the conditions of their reception. Thus, as is well known, it was the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life that had the main impact on COBRA and then on the Situationists; while the second volume (however densely theoretical, even abstract), which was contemporaneous with close relations with the Situationists, was construed by them as ratifying the summons to total revolution they thought they had deciphered in volume one and in those of Lefebvre's texts that they regarded as veritable manifestos, especially the article on 'revolutionary romanticism'. That is why it is worth returning to what was in fact at the heart of the reception of Lefebvre's conception of the everyday: the close relation between this conceptual endeavour and a component of la pens& 68 – precisely what eludes the utterly one-sided analysis of Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, obsessed as they are with antihumanism. Above all, we shall have to extend this examination by seeking to understand Lefebvre's evolution from the 'radical critique' of the 1960s to the more complex stance, albeit one still stamped by the need for critical radicalism, characteristic of the 1980s.

But this final preface also affords the requisite occasion for a more general appraisal. Not so much of the French variety of Marxism and its crisis in the second half of the twentieth century – a subject that has spawned a whole host of commentaries (not always of the highest quality) – as of the place of Lefebvre's own thought in the philosophical and ideological reconfiguration of the period, the position of his thinking in a landscape ranging from the French brand of phenomenology, and then existentialism, to the structuralism and deconstructionist theories of the years after 1968. The rather perfunctory observations I shall make will certainly not compensate for the surprising absence of Lefebvre in the (rather rare) histories of contemporary philosophy (one thinks, for example, of the works of Vincent Descombes or Christian Delacampagne). Was Lefebvre too much of a sociologist and not enough of an officially recognized philosopher? Too much of a Marxist, but unaffiliated to respectable post-Althusserian orthodoxy? Without venturing an overly generic explanation, we shall try to read the partial oblivion that the work of Henri Lefebvre has fallen into as one of the symptoms of the end of an era of thinking that became apparent at the turn of the 1980s.

At the beginning of the 1980s, with the appearance of the third volume of Critique of Everyday Life, completed at the very moment of the Left's electoral victory, Lefebvre found himself in a rather paradoxical position. On the one hand, he was, so to speak, still living under the impetus of the works that made him one of the representatives of the non-communist 'French Marxism' I have just mentioned. His latest work seemed to mark a return to philosophy. This was underlined by Olivier Corpet and Thierry Paquot – two of the leading figures in Autogestion with whom he was to break shortly afterwards – in one of the main articles on him published in the mainstream French press – an interview in Le Monde entitled 'Henri Lefebvre philosophe du quotidien':

The first two volumes of Critique of Everyday Life seemed to be primarily sociological works. They contained a number of concrete analyses, accompanied by a theoretical inquiry into the instruments and categories required to develop a 'sociology of everydayness'. With this new volume, sub-titled Tor a meta-philosophy of the everyday', you appear to change your approach somewhat, moving towards more intensive abstraction, covering a wider field and more basic questions. So what register does your work, and specifically everything that relates to everyday life, pertain to?33

It is true that Lefebvre's main titles in the early 1980s marked, not without some Heideggerian echoes, renewed philosophical ambition: Le Presence et l'absence, Une Pens& devenue monde, Qu'est-ce que penser?, Le Retour de la dialectique. This ambition could certainly be accounted for by his distance, since retirement, from the professional role of sociologist. But it is doubtless more readily attributable to his wish to resume what, as is indicated by this last volume of Critique of Everyday Life, he had defined in his work of 1965 as 'meta-philosophy'. What this had involved, at a time when radical critique was at its peak, was openly asserting that sociology could only perform a critical function if it formed part of a more ambitious examination, philosophical in kind. However, starting out from Marx, it also implied avoiding the alternative between the institutionalization of philosophy, preserving the figure of the sage, and the liquidation of philosophical speculation in the name of a posture that Lefebvre, targeting Althusser, characterized as positivist or scientistic. Meta-philosophy was thus defined as a supersession of philosophy and this objective of transgression continued to mark Lefebvre's thinking when he analyzed the prefix 'meta' in Qu'est-ce que penser?

On the other hand, the 1981 work must be restored to its proper context – in particular, the Left's arrival in power. Amid the intellectual effervescence of the early Mitterrand years, Lefebvre had hopes of acquiring a position on key social issues where rapid changes were underway – towns, space and so on. Thus he played a role if not as expert, then as an adviser at least, for example, in connection with the Auroux labour legislation. Was not Michel Delebarre, minister for towns, reported to keep a copy of Le Droit a la ville on his ministerial desk, not hesitating to cite it?36 But Lefebvre's thinking became partially inaudible – and not only on account of the ideological assault on Marxism. At the beginning of the 1980s, Lefebvre opted for a paradoxical reunion with a declining PCF, prompting many idiotic remarks. As Olivier Corpet rather disloyally put it in his 1991 obituary: 'Surprising, even saddening a number of his friends, from 1978 onwards Henri Lefebvre initiated what he wanted to be a "critical" reconciliation with the Communist Party'. It was at this point that he published, with the short-lived Editions Libres-Hallier, a book of interviews with the young Communist militant Catherine Régulier, La Revolution n'est plus ce qu'elle itait. The title is significant and in its way already signals the commentary on an aphorism of Adorno's that runs through all of Lefebvre's last writings: the moment for the realization of philosophy was missed. But for now, the rapprochement with the PCF, which was all too eager to get its hands on a Marxist thinker in the straitened circumstances of the 1980s, found

expression in numerous interviews in the Communist press. At the time of the book's release, following a PCF Congress that was presented as a significant turning-point, Lefebvre, in an interview entitled 'Not remaining a prisoner of the past', recalled that he had `quit the party from the left', not seeking to conceal his bitterness and scars. The rapprochement was the product of a process of elimination among leftists – 'terribly dogmatic and divided into small groups' – and the 'more insidious [pressure] of social-democracy', which in his eyes was the vector of computerization and multi-nationalization under American influence." Other articles followed, to the point where it might be said that the Communist press was virtually the only one to attend to Lefebvre in the 1980s, especially given that on several occasions he associated himself with appeals by intellectuals for a Communist vote. Readers were reminded of his oeuvre, in particular when the third volume of Critique of Everyday Life came out. But his own interventions all revolved around a refusal to 'follow the pack' in regarding the decline of the PCF as irreversible, and the sociological and political necessity of its survival in order to preserve a radical pole capable of rallying new, alternative social movements, urban, ecological and pacifist. For Lefebvre, this belated and ultimately limited reconciliation was wholly consistent with a stance that had always consisted in rejecting orthodoxy: faced with the prevailing consensus, he believed it possible to identify traces, albeit vestigial, of a counterculture, a power to say no, in surviving Communist practice.

On this basis, his life came to an end. Driven out of his Parisian apartment – he, the thinker of 'habitation' – and not having retired (as was stupidly said) to his house in Navarrenx, it was after Lefebvre's death in 1991 that his thinking underwent a surprising, if limited, revival. Integrating him into some current of Marxism was no longer the issue. The renewal took two complementary forms. First there was a 'spatial turn', which naturally encompassed various aspects of the everyday. Even if Lefebvre had exerted some influence in the previous fifteen years, it was the English translation of The Production of Space in 1991 that marked an initial turning-point. It intersected with inquiries by geographers, sociologists, anthropologists – particularly from North America.42 Mario Rui Martins, Kristin Ross and Stuart Elden, but especially Edward W. Soja, Fredric Jameson and Mark Gottdiener played a key role in introducing Lefebvre's thinking about space into the United States. Contrary to spatial metaphors a la Althusser or Bourdieu, they introduced two key ideas: the first was that everyday life is the equivalent of social space; the second – and doubtless more important – was that they presented Lefebvre as a precursor of postmodernism.43 A characteristic phenomenon of 'French theory' was the re-export to France and re-acclimatization of a 'new look' Lefebvrianism, in the wake of this Anglo-American 'spatial turn'. First came the issue of Annales de la recherche urbaine in 1994, offering a balance-sheet of ten years on urban questions. While Manuel Castells did not even mention Lefebvre's name, a stimulating article by Isaac Joseph, 'Le droit a la ville, la ville a l'oeuvre. Deux paradigmes de la recherche', analyzed research developments alongside the evolution of urbanization during the trente glorieuses, comparing the notion of droit a la ville – the title of a work by Lefebvre published in 1968 – which he defined as one of the social rights and which still alluded to an urban utopia, and a book by Jean-Christophe Bailly, published in 1992, La Ville a l'oeuvre. Likewise in 1994, virtually a complete number of Espaces et sociétés, which Lefebvre had helped establish, was devoted to him. Two articles in particular signalled the importation into France of the theme of postmodernity, discerning in it the epistemological openness and lack of dogmatism characteristic of Lefebvre's Marxism. The same type of revival is evident in a recent number of the journal Urbanisme, significantly entitled 'Henri Lefebvre au présent', which is more testimonial than analytical in character, even if the aim is to detect a 'subterranean' Lefebvrian presence, including during the years of Marxism's retreat.

The notion of a critique of everyday life was cardinal in Henri Lefebvre, especially when it intersected with the theme of space and towns. In addition to Thomas Kleinspehn's book of 1975, it has prompted a fairly large number of works, which vary in value. Is not this final volume in the sequence stamped with a veritable nostalgia? `Twenty Years After' is the appropriate title with which to summon up the exceptionally turbulent period, politically and intellectually, separating Lefebvre's last two volumes. It was completely dominated by the polysemic theme of 'crisis': not only the two oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, the failure of every revolutionary model, the death of Mao (1976), Sartre (1980) and Althusser, who strangled his wife (1980). There were also possibilities that had become impossibilities: At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, it was possible that the European working class would find itself strengthened, enter onto the political stage, make itself into a political subject and, by various means, become the dominant class'.48 This was no longer possible. With the third volume of the Critique of Everyday Life, the hour of reckoning had struck (Continuities', Discontinuities'). From the standpoint of Lefebvre's personal trajectory, more tragic perhaps is that at many points in this final volume we see that he too, while unable to abandon the organizing framework of Marxism, while unwilling to 'renounce Marx', had a clear sense that it was all up with a number of the notions, concepts or even realities around which a revolutionary system that also aspired to be a revolution in thought had been constructed. Lefebvre comes straight out with it: the notion of the people,49 labour as the source of value, and the revolutionary project itself are at an end. This is how the dictum that the moment for the realization of philosophy has been missed is to be understood.

It is this general perspective that leads to the most tragic reality to be recorded: the end of an era in thought. Lefebvre's great contribution, on the dual basis of Marxism and the avant-garde experience, was unquestionably to have rendered the everyday, or more precisely the critique of the everyday, an essential field of sociological exploration and philosophical reflection on social change; and to have made it the theoretical basis of the demand to changer la vie that inspired the various movements around May 1968, as well as the thinking of the official Left, which adopted it for its own purposes and instrumentalized it. What volume three reveals is that Marxism, indispensable from the 1930s to the 1960s when it came to thinking about the contemporary world, had not succumbed only to the hammer-blows of the 'New Philosophers' (Marx is dead'). Thinking about the everyday and the critique of everyday life no longer require Marxism: that, after all, is the lesson of Michel de Certeau. If it is possible to reread Marx today, it is in an utterly different, non-synchronous intellectual configuration. In the mid-1990s, even before the Bourdieu wave, a crop of books on Marxism tried to broach it differently from the good old days when it was intellectually dominant. We had a glimpse of this, for example, at the international conference of the journal Actuel Marx on the results and prospects of Marxism in September 1995, or in May 1998 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. Moreover, this renewed interest derives from intellectual universes that are often very different from Marxist thought in the classical sense of the term and is bound up, in France at least, with the renaissance in political philosophy under the influence of Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort in particular, not to mention the flourishing in the Anglophone world of an 'analytical' Marxism that rejects Hegelian logic and endeavours to reconcile Marx with John Rawls. Has Marx become 'untimely' in the quasi-Nietzschean sense of the term? At least he has not acquired the remote but venerable status of 'nineteenth-century thinker' enjoyed by Guizot, Tocqueville, Renan or Taine. He still has some bite!

In the presentation of the issue of Espaces and sociétés devoted to him, the authors metaphorically evoke the 'ghost of Henri Lefebvre'. Jacques Derrida's attempt to flush out the 'spectres of Marx' is not conducted metaphorically. Via the notion of spectre, he ponders the spirit of Marxism and contests the new dominant discourse that rejoices in its collapse. In this sense, the 'end of history' is a species of spiritualist gesture, intended to conjure the ghost of Marx. Marxism persists as a 'spirit', neither living nor dead; it haunts neo-capitalism on behalf of radical critique and a capacity for self-criticism. La Fin de l'histoire is a work by Lefebvre dating back to 1970 ... 'The moment to realize philosophy was missed'. Is this not to state, in true philosophical-poetical or poetical-philosophical style, and even though there is still something to play for, what Francois Furet had already announced in Interpreting the French Revolution in 1978 and which he subsequently analyzed at great length in The Passing of an Illusion: the end of the regime of revolutionary historicity, the end of the illusion that revolution is the only modality of historical change?

Headline 3

insert content here