Meanderings Through the Politics of Everyday Life: A Conversation between Iain Mackenzie and Robert Porter
IM: There are two things that immediately strike the prospective reader of your new book: the title and the structure. It is not often that we get the word ‘meanderings’ in the title of a scholarly text. What led you to this idea, this motif, this practice? In addition, turning to the contents page, we can’t help but notice that you have 18 non-traditional chapters. In fact, you call them ‘parts’: how does the idea of meandering relate to the 18 parts of the book?
RP: I think it is important to immediately say that the structure, form and content of the book crept up on me in a way. The finished text looked nothing like I’d imagined before writing it. In the first instance, I thought I was writing a traditional scholarly monograph on the situationist thinker Raoul Vaneigem, but all too slowly, then really rather quickly, I realised that this was not one of my better ideas. As I engaged more with Vaneigem it became all too apparent that a traditional academic monograph or commentary on his work would be about as useful as a chocolate teapot, or, if I was lucky, maybe an ashtray on a bicycle. Anyway, the inappropriateness of this kind of traditional scholarly monograph or approach explains, at least in parts, why the parts of the text meander in the way they do. The parts of the text meander out of necessity, and I would be a liar if I suggested that I had somehow planned the route in advance. So, to answer your initial question, I was led by an all too palpable sense of my own short-sightedness regarding what I now see as the real provocation of Vaneigem's work, his life, even his political activism.
IM: The role of Vaneigem throughout the book is fascinating and certainly speaks to the novelty of your approach. It seems to me that one particularly strong marker of this innovative approach is that Vaneigem offers a way of thinking about everyday life that is first and foremost practical. It is through Vaneigem that you come to ask, early in the book: ‘how do concepts help or hinder us in living our lives, here and now?’ (13). Could you say a little more about how Vaneigem’s work led you to this very practical understanding of philosophy (if ‘philosophy’ is even the right word here)?
RP: Yes, I think philosophy is a word we can indeed use here, and Vaneigem’s work can be clearly defended as a kind of practical philosophy. If we wanted to situate Vaneigem within a recognisable philosophical tradition, then perhaps the most obvious label to use is ‘twentieth century Marxist’ – by which I mean a thinker engaged in that basic Marxian ‘post-philosophical’ gesture of critically evaluating philosophy by way of the non-philosophical or extra-philosophical conditions that give shape to it. So, as with Marx, philosophy for Vaneigem is critiqued, realised and, in a way, transformed in a new dispensation that emerges out of capitalistic conditions that are not of its choosing. If we compare a text like Marx and Engels’s German Ideology and Vaneigem’s Movement of the Free Spirit, we see the same desire expressed, time and again: that we need to know the world through our transformation of it. Therefore, or thought about in this way, the practical nature of Vaneigem’s philosophy is to be found in the transformations it brings about in the existential situations of those who actually bring it life. From the very first lines of his most well-known book, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Vaneigem wants to leave his readers in no doubt about his aim. As he says: “My aim is not to make the real experience contained in this book comprehensible to readers who have no real interest in reliving it”.
Yet Vaneigem is not a philosopher in the way that, say, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, or even Soren Kierkegaard, are. He is not immersed in, or overburdened by, the history of philosophy, he doesn’t spend much time in the philosophical archive, he hasn’t been trained to think about the huge debts he owes to the great philosophers who have shaped his European intellectual inheritance. Rather than being a philosophical archivist, Vaneigem is best thought of as a philosophical dramatist; by that I mean he is often more concerned to seduce by way of an impressionistic poetry than convince through systematic philosophical prose. To try to answer your question directly; Vaneigem (and also importantly his contemporary, one-time friend and fellow situationist traveller, Lefebvre) led me to think about what might be the practical implications of taking seriously the very everydayness of philosophy itself. In the book, I talk about the ‘conceptual significance of everyday life’ as the life that shapes concepts, as-well as the life into which concepts move, extend, take form and resonate. This bring us back to the question with which you began our conversation. For I think the structure, form and content of the work are also partly a consequence of me trying to take seriously the idea that everydayness itself has philosophical significance.
IM: There are several examples throughout the book of cultural forms that you draw into this process of dramatizing the everyday: the game show, newspaper reports, cartoons, jokes and so on. In one sense, this is familiar territory for cultural theorists but it strikes me that you incorporate these examples into your politics of everyday life in an unusual way. Rather than pronounce on what they really mean, what the underlying realities of such cultural forms say about our current conjuncture, you argue that it is better to think of what they tell us (“us”, as in theorists) about the act of theorising in our contemporary situation. Is one of your aims in this book to get theorists and philosophers off their high horses and, instead, to learn from the everyday dynamics of contemporary culture?
RP: Yes, I have to admit that I suppose it is! Though there is always the recurring, obsessional, even guilty, thought that suggesting ‘we’ theorists, philosophers or academics should show good humour and take ourselves less seriously is actually a really rather po-faced thing to do. This is why I try to implicate myself at times in the book, but hopefully in a way that doesn’t make me sound like an Alanis Morrissette tribute act. It is also why I implicitly and explicitly come back to the point (made most forcefully by Lefebvre) that the triviality and triteness of everyday culture and experience is something to take seriously – that is, in good humour. So being serious about the dynamism and resonance of concepts that circulate in everyday life, but without being humourlessly wedded to an academic metalanguage of the ‘conjuncture’ that somehow explains them away in advance, is the trickiest of tricks I want to pull off in this book. I guess the reader will have to decide for herself the extent to which I’ve succeeded in this endeavour, if at all.
To be honest, though, the accusation of humourlessness would hurt my feelings a lot more than being dismissed as lacking a certain seriousness. Humour is important, being funny has real and resonant meaning for me, that is, existentially as well as intellectually.
IM: In her discussion of humour and resistance (I’m quoting here from her chapter in Comedy and Critical Thought, a book to which you also contributed with your co-authors Adrian Hickey and Giuliana Monteverde), Kate Fox says that “humour is performative. It gets things done.” Reading your book, it seems to me that this is a sentiment you share. Is it and what do you think humour ‘gets done’?
RP: Funny you mention the Comedy and Critical Thought collection, as it was the review in Contemporary Political Theory of our contribution to that book that I was just thinking about. You may well recall the reviewer, Kennan Ferguson, concluded his discussion of our chapter with the following remarks; “Is it funny? Sort of. Insightful? Definitely.” I clearly would have preferred: “Is it funny? Definitely. Insightful? Sort of.” This is not simply reflective of the fact that my self-identity is wrapped up in the notion that I’m somehow funny, or that I really enjoy making others laugh (both of these things are undoubtedly the case). But I also think (and I’m speculating wildly here and veering off into the hinterlands of cultural phenomenology, political anthropology and social-psychology) this may have something to do with the fact that humour has a kind of phenomenological, social-psychological, even political, reach and impact that some other forms of human interaction tend not to have to the same degree (say, for example, a human interaction defined by predominantly by procedural or bureaucratic norms, or one carefully delimited by game-like rules).
What, then, is the nature of this reach and impact that I want to attribute to humour? For me, it’s all about seduction – pure and simple. Well, it is never pure and simple. But the basic proposition holds: humour can indeed get things done. So, to come back to your important question, what is it that humour “gets done?” At the moment, I’m particularly interested in the potential humour can have in seducing us into new forms of political comradeship or solidarity which emerge in the face of something collectively experienced as absurdly cruel. At certain points in the book, and drawing (rather promiscuously I have to admit) on a combination of Kierkegaard, Bergson and Deleuze, in addition to the ever-present Vaneigem, I more than hint at the possibility of this kind of comradeship or political solidarity. Presently, I am particularly intrigued by the everyday experiences of contemporary workers in the overdeveloped world (how could I not be? I am, after all one of those ‘workers’ myself) as they negotiate the absurdities and cruelties that define the organisations they give huge chunks of their lives to in exchange for money (these people, like me, are at least in a better place than the increasingly large number of poor bastards who work for free, but that’s another story). Anyway, I’d very much to think about the absurdities and cruelties of organisational or work life in more developed ways, and dream that, one day, I get to write a book entitled something like: Rise of the Idiots?: Everyday Organisational Life and the Bullshit Economy. That’s not a great title, but maybe you can begin to see what I’m gesturing towards here.