The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.
I never realised that, like party politics, academia has a conference season. At least, March appears to be it which means I’ve ended up with far too much work to do in one go. Never mind. Just a quick one then on the various bits of highly-tangentially-related of reading I’ve been fitting in. I still don’t know a great deal about mid-20th century French philosophy, but as I’m using a mid-20th century French philosopher as one of the key theoretical standpoints for my PhD I thought I should probably find out a little more. Rob Shields’ Lefebvre, Love & Struggle: spatial dialectics (there’s a part of me slightly concerned that I’ll cite this as Kevin Shields at some point, which is a whole other thing) was an interesting starting point – an intellectual biography of Henri Lefebvre – Father of the Dialectic, critic of everyday life and guiding light of the 1968 student uprising in Paris. I’ve been digging through Greil Marcus’ excellent Lipstick Traces, as well, which throws together the Sex Pistols, the Situationists, religious fanatics and other revolutionary moments into a big intertextual gloop; I also happened across this guide to the existentialism of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Heidegger et al, which overlaps somewhat with Lefebvre’s own writings.
Like I said, I’m no expert so I shan’t presume to create some sort of wonderful synthesis of these pretty disparate perspectives. One thing that’s kept on coming up though is the demand for action – no mere abstract thought, no highfalutin but ultimately intangible words on a page here. As Sarah Bakewell notes, “Most existentialists were in favour of getting out into the world and making a difference, rather than being authentic all by themselves in a room.” The same could certainly be said of Lefebvre. There’s much to be said about bringing what you believe in theory to bear in life; to play an active part (Marx (and Tony Wilson) called it praxis). Life is to be reclaimed from grind, from toil, from the demands of a system which turns everyone’s existence into a commodity.
Here are just a few of the slogans found across Paris during May 1968. Inspired by the Situationist movement as much as anything else, thousands of students joined in general strikes to create a situation which nearly toppled de Gaulle. Just like the Communards of 1871 or the revolutionaries of 1792, they used space to make their point, from occupations of admin buildings at Nanterre (Lefebvre’s university, you’ll note) to makeshift barricades. Perhaps most infamous has been the widespread graffiti that changed the nature of public space in creative and confrontational ways, reclaiming space associated with the state or with capital, for the everyday. This is directly inspired by Situationism and Guy Debord’s idea of the society of the spectacle – you could call this détournement, the subversion of an original work to create something new that confounds it. Read more here.
So. So what, I guess. Why do I study what I do, why do I think about it if it doesn’t create, or change, or improve? If nothing else, thinking about everyday life starts to appear anything but boring – it challenges me to do something with my own everyday, to intervene and make a difference. The point is not merely to interpret the world; the point is to change it.