The writings of Karl Marx will always remain a source of insight and inspiration, but vast swaths of the Marxist literature that exerted such a fascination when I was younger now seem barren of interest. Their oppressiveness stems from their false certainty of being at the forefront of historical progress, despite the inescapable truth that “the enemy has never ceased to be victorious” (Walter Benjamin). As a result of this, even their most striking and genuine intuitions are mired in falsity and hollow rhetoric, a contest of would-be dogmatisms. Today more than ever, the only radicalism that counts is the one prepared to face the truth that all odds are against it. Thus my disappointment with the first volume — modestly titled “Introduction” — of this legendary work of Marxist theory, first published in 1947 and in a second edition, with a long new introduction, in 1958. (Volume II came out in 1961, number three in 1981; the English translations date from 1991, 2002, and 2005.) My hopes were all the higher given that the notion of “everyday life” is a subject as elusive as it is urgent. What do we mean by “everyday”? The “special” or “exalted” regions of life — politics, art, science, religion, whatever you think they are — reach deeply into everyday life. So where does the category find its proper boundaries? What immediately attracted me as I started to read was Lefebvre’s awareness of the quotidian as a kind of theater, which means that its problems are as aesthetic as they are political and ethical. And yet he doesn’t seem to take this insight as seriously as he should — merely as an excuse to settle scores with the Surrealists and Existentialists (as well as, in the 1958 introduction, the fellow orthodox Marxists who didn’t take him seriously enough the first time around). It wouldn’t be so bad if this had been carried out with the wit and verve of first-rate polemic, but instead the argument descends to the level of crude Stalinist imprecation, as when Surrealist poets are dismissed as “confirmed idealists” who “betray a very real tendency towards parasitism or pimping.” Admittedly, it’s easy enough for Lefebvre to cherry-pick ridiculous and pretentious statements from Breton’s manifestos, but when he characterizes Breton’s tone as “solemn, authoritarian, and intimidating—to an impressionable adolescent, that is,” I had to think of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Besides, if he’d consulted instead the poems of Char or Eluard, Desnos or Tzara, he might have found that the Surrealist “marvelous” is not the enemy of the everyday, as he imagines, but rather can have a far more profound relation to life than anything he himself has been able to imagine — at least from what I could force myself to read in this book. Dispirited, I had to stop about half-way through Volume I. I’d give up altogether, except for Michel Trebisch’s Prefaces to each of the three volumes, which are in themselves such lucid and thoughtful works of intellectual history that I am half-tempted to take faith in his word that, despite (still!) “the inevitable scoria of the vocabulary of the period,” Volume II could be “the key book of a key moment” and something very different from the project’s beginnings. Maybe I should skip ahead and start again with Volume II, Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday. We’ll see.

Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life: The One Volume Edition, tr. by John Moore and Gregory Elliott (2014) is published by Verso and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso, 2016) and a collection...

One reply on “Reader’s Diary: Henri Lefebvre’s ‘Critique of Everyday Life’”

  1. Hmm, yeah. Maybe you SHOULD read the book before you write a critical review. You know, Barry, a few things changed between 1947 and 1961.

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