Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem
by Hans Ulrich Obrist
May 2009 / e-flux magazine
Translated from the French by Eric Anglès
HUO: In his book Utopistics, Immanuel Wallerstein claims that our world system is undergoing a structural crisis. He predicts it will take another twenty to fifty years for a more democratic and egalitarian system to replace it. He believes that the future belongs to “demarketized,” free-of-charge institutions (on the model, say, of public libraries). So we must oppose the marketization of water and air.1 What is your view?
RV: I do not know how long the current transformation will take (hopefully not too long, as I would like to witness it). But I have no doubt that this new alliance with the forces of life and nature will disseminate equality and freeness. We must go beyond our natural indignation at profit’s appropriation of our water, air, soil, environment, plants, animals. We must establish collectives that are capable of managing natural resources for the benefit of human interests, not market interests. This process of reappropriation that I foresee has a name: self-management, an experience attempted many times in hostile historical contexts. At this point, given the implosion of consumer society, it appears to be the only solution from both an individual and social point of view.
HUO: In your writing you have described the work imperative as an inhuman, almost animal condition. Do you consider market society to be a regression?
RV: As I mentioned above, evolution in the Paleolithic age meant the development of creativity—the distinctive trait of the human species as it breaks free from its original animality. But during the Neolithic, the osmotic relationship to nature loosened progressively, as intensive agriculture became based on looting and the exploitation of natural resources. It was also then that religion surfaced as an institution, society stratified, the reign of patriarchy began, of contempt for women, and of priests and kings with their stream of wars, destitution, and violence. Creation gave way to work, life to survival, jouissance to the animal predation that the appropriation economy confiscates, transcends, and spiritualizes. In this sense market civilization is indeed a regression in which technical progress supersedes human progress.
HUO: For you, what is a life in progress?
RV: Advancing from survival, the struggle for subsistence and predation to a new art of living, by recreating the world for the benefit of all.
HUO: My interviews often focus on the connections between art and architecture/urbanism, or literature and architecture/urbanism. Could you tell me about the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism?
RV: That was an idea more than a project. It was about the urgency of rebuilding our social fabric, so damaged by the stranglehold of the market. Such a rebuilding effort goes hand in hand with the rebuilding by individuals of their own daily existence. That is what psychogeography is really about: a passionate and critical deciphering of what in our environment needs to be destroyed, subjected to détournement, rebuilt.
HUO: In your view there is no such thing as urbanism?
RV: Urbanism is the ideological gridding and control of individuals and society by an economic system that exploits man and Earth and transforms life into a commodity. The danger in the self-built housing movement that is growing today would be to pay more attention to saving money than to the poetry of a new style of life.
HUO: How do you see cities in the year 2009? What kind of unitary urbanism for the third millennium? How do you envision the future of cities? What is your favorite city? You call Oarystis the city of desire. Oarystis takes its inspiration from the world of childhood and femininity. Nothing is static in Oarystis. John Cage once said that, like nature, “one never reaches a point of shapedness or finishedness. The situation is in constant unpredictable change.”2 Do you agree with Cage?
RV: I love wandering through Venice and Prague. I appreciate Mantua, Rome, Bologna, Barcelona, and certain districts of Paris. I care less about architecture than about how much human warmth its beauty has been capable of sustaining. Even Brussels, so devastated by real estate developers and disgraceful architects (remember that in the dialect of Brussels, “architect” is an insult), has held on to some wonderful bistros. Strolling from one to the next gives Brussels a charm that urbanism has deprived it of altogether. The Oarystis I describe is not an ideal city or a model space (all models are totalitarian). It is a clumsy and naïve rough draft for an experiment I still hope might one day be undertaken—so I agree with John Cage. This is not a diagram, but an experimental proposition that the creation of an environment is one and the same as the creation by individuals of their own future.
HUO: Is Oarystis based on natural power, like the Metabolist cities? Rem Koolhaas and I are working on a book on the Japanese Metabolists. When I read your wonderful text on Oarystis, I was reminded of that movement from the 1960s, especially the floating cities, Kikutake’s water cities. Is Oarystis a Metabolist city?
RV: When Oarystis was published, the architect Philippe Rothier and Diane Hennebert, who ran Brussels’ Architecture Museum at the time, rightly criticized me for ignoring the imaginative projects of a new generation of builders. Now that the old world is collapsing, the fusion of free natural power, self-built housing techniques, and the reinvention of sensual form is going to be decisive. So it is useful to remember that technical inventiveness must stem from the reinvention of individual and collective life. That is to say, what allows for genuine rupture and ecstatic inventiveness is self-management: the management by individuals and councils of their own lives and environment through direct democracy. Let us entrust the boundless freedoms of the imaginary to childhood and the child within us.
HUO: Several years ago I interviewed Constant on New Babylon. What were your dialogues with Constant and how do you see New Babylon today?
RV: I never met Constant, who if I am not mistaken had been expelled before my own association with the SI. New Babylon’s flaw is that it privileges technology over the formation of an individual and collective way of life—the necessary basis of any architectural concept. An architectural project only interests me if it is about the construction of daily life.
HUO: How can the city of the future contribute to biodiversity?
RV: By drawing inspiration from Alphonse Allais, by encouraging the countryside to infiltrate the city. By creating zones of organic farming, gardens, vegetable plots, and farms inside urban space. After all, there are so many bureaucratic and parasitical buildings that can’t wait to give way to fertile, pleasant land that is useful to all. Architects and squatters, build us some hanging gardens where we can go for walks, eat, and live!
HUO: Oarystis is in the form of a maze, but it is also influenced by Venice and its public piazzas. Could you tell us about the form of Oarystis?
RV: Our internal space-time is maze-like. In it, each of us is at once Theseus, Ariadne, and Minotaur. Our dérives would gain in awareness, alertness, harmony, and happiness if only external space-time could offer meanders that could conjure up the possible courses of our futures, as an analogy or echo of sorts—one that favors games of life, and prevents their inversion into games of death.
HUO: Will museums be abolished? Could you discuss the amphitheater of memory? A protestation against oblivion?
RV: The museum suffers from being a closed space in which works waste away. Painting, sculpture, music belong to the street, like the façades that contemplate us and come back to life when we greet them. Like life and love, learning is a continuous flow that enjoys the privilege of irrigating and fertilizing our sentient intelligence. Nothing is more contagious than creation. But the past also carries with it all the dross of our inhumanity. What should we do with it? A museum of horrors, of the barbarism of the past? I attempted to answer the question of the “duty of memory” in Ni pardon, ni talion [Neither Forgiveness Nor Retribution]:
Most of the great men we were brought up to worship were nothing more than cynical or sly murderers. History as taught in schools and peddled by an overflowing and hagiographic literature is a model of falsehood; to borrow a fashionable term, it is negationist. It might not deny the reality of gas chambers, it might no longer erect monuments to the glory of Stalin, Mao or Hitler, but it persists in celebrating the brutish conqueror: Alexander, called the Great—whose mentor was Aristotle, it is proudly intoned—Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon, the throngs of generals, slaughterers of peoples, petty tyrants of the city or the state, torturer–judges, Javerts of every ilk, conniving diplomats, rapists and killers contracted by religions and ideologies; so much high renown carved from baseness, wickedness, and abjection. I am not suggesting we should unpave the avenues of official history and pave the side alleys instead. We are not in need of a purged history, but of a knowledge that scoops out into broad daylight facts that have been obscured, generation after generation, by the unceasing stratification of prejudice. I am not calling for a tribunal of the mind to begin condemning a bunch of undesirables who have been bizarrely put up on pedestals and celebrated in the motley pantheons of official memory. I just want to see the list of their crimes, the mention of their victims, the recollection of those who confronted them added to the inventory of their unsavory eulogies. I am not suggesting that the name of Francisco Ferrer wipe out that of his murderer, Alfonso XIII, but that at the very least everything be known of both. How dare textbooks still cultivate any respect for Bonaparte, responsible for the death of millions, for Louis XIV, slaughterer of peasants and persecutor of Protestants and freethinkers? For Calvin, murderer of Jacques Gruet and Michel Servet and dictator of Geneva, whose citizens, in tribute to Sébastien Castellion, would one day resolve to destroy the emblems and signs of such an unworthy worship? While Spain has now toppled the effigies of Francoism and rescinded the street names imposed by fascism, we somehow tolerate, towering in the sky of Paris, that Sacré-Coeur whose execrable architecture glorifies the crushing of the Commune. In Belgium there are still avenues and monuments honoring King Leopold II, one of the most cynical criminals of the nineteenth century, whose “red rubber” policy—denounced by Mark Twain, by Roger Casement (who paid for this with his life), by Edward Dene Morel, and more recently by Adam Hochschild—has so far bothered nary a conscience. This is a not a call to blow up his statues or to chisel away the inscriptions that celebrate him. This is a call to Belgian and Congolese citizens to cleanse and disinfect public places of this stain, the stain of one of the worst sponsors of colonial savagery. Paradoxically, I do tend to believe that forgetting can be productive, when it comes to the perpetrators of inhumanity. A forgetting that does not eradicate remembering, that does not blue-pencil memory, that is not an enforceable judgment, but that proceeds rather from a spontaneous feeling of revulsion, like a last-minute pivot to avoid dog droppings on the sidewalk. Once they have been exposed for their inhumanity, I wish for the instigators of past brutalities to be buried in the shroud of their wrongs. Let the memory of the crime obliterate the memory of the criminal.3
HUO: Learning is deserting schools and going to the streets. Are streets becoming Thinkbelts? Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt used abandoned railroads for pop-up schools. What and where is learning today?
RV: Learning is permanent for all of us regardless of age. Curiosity feeds the desire to know. The call to teach stems from the pleasure of transmitting life: neither an imposition nor a power relation, it is pure gift, like life, from which it flows. Economic totalitarianism has ripped learning away from life, whose creative conscience it ought to be. We want to disseminate everywhere this poetry of knowledge that gives itself. Against school as a closed-off space (a barrack in the past, a slave market nowadays), we must invent nomadic learning.
HUO: How do you foresee the twenty-first-century university?
RV: The demise of the university: it will be liquidated by the quest for and daily practice of a universal learning of which it has always been but a pale travesty.
HUO: Could you tell me about the freeness principle (I am extremely interested in this; as a curator I have always believed museums should be free—Art for All, as Gilbert and George put it).
RV: Freeness is the only absolute weapon capable of shattering the mighty self-destruction machine set in motion by consumer society, whose implosion is still releasing, like a deadly gas, bottom-line mentality, cupidity, financial gain, profit, and predation. Museums and culture should be free, for sure, but so should public services, currently prey to the scamming multinationals and states. Free trains, buses, subways, free healthcare, free schools, free water, air, electricity, free power, all through alternative networks to be set up. As freeness spreads, new solidarity networks will eradicate the stranglehold of the commodity. This is because life is a free gift, a continuous creation that the market’s vile profiteering alone deprives us of.
HUO: Where is love in Oarystis?
RV: Everywhere. The love affair, as complex as it is simple, will serve as the building block for the new solidarity relations that sooner or later will supersede selfish calculation, competition, competitiveness, and predation, causes of our societies’ dehumanization.
HUO: Where is the city of the dead? In a forest rather than a cemetery?
RV: Yes, a forest, an auditorium in which the voices of the dead will speak amidst the lushness of nature, where life continuously creates itself anew.
HUO: Have you dreamt up other utopian cities apart from Oarystis? Or a concrete utopia in relation to the city?
RV: No, but I have not given up hope that such projects might mushroom and be realized one day, as we begin reconstructing a world devastated by the racketeering mafias.
HUO: In 1991 I founded a Robert Walser museum, a strollological museum, in Switzerland. I have always been fascinated by your notion of the stroll. Could you say something about your urban strolls with and without Debord? What about Walser’s? Have other strollologists inspired you?
RV: I hold Robert Walser in high regard, as many do. His lucidity and sense of dérive enchanted Kafka. I have always been fascinated by the long journey Hölderlin undertook following his break-up with Diotima. I admire Chatwin’s Songlines, in which he somehow manages to turn the most innocuous of walks into an intonation of the paths of fate, as though we were in the heart of the Australian bush. And I appreciate the strolls of Léon-Paul Fargue and the learning of Héron de Villefosse. My psychogeographic dérives with Guy Debord in Paris, Barcelona, Brussels, Beersel, and Antwerp were exceptional moments, combining theoretical speculation, sentient intelligence, the critical analysis of beings and places, and the pleasure of cheerful drinking. Our homeports were pleasant bistros with a warm atmosphere, havens where one was oneself because one felt in the air something of the authentic life, however fragile and short-lived. It was an identical mood that guided our wanderings through the streets, the lanes and the alleys, through the meanderings of a pleasure that our every step helped us gauge in terms of what it might take to expand and refine it just a little further. I have a feeling that the neighborhoods destroyed by the likes of Haussmann, Pompidou, and the real estate barbarians will one day be rebuilt by their inhabitants in the spirit of the joy and the life they once harbored.
HUO: What possibilities do you see for disalienation and détournement in 2009?
RV: This is a time of unprecedented chaos in material and moral conditions. Human values are going to have to compensate for the effects of the only value that has prevailed so far: money. But the implosion of financial totalitarianism means that this currency, which has so tripped us up, is now doomed to devaluation and a loss of all meaning. The absurdity of money is becoming concrete. It will gradually give way to new forms of exchange that will hasten its disappearance and lead to a gift economy.
HUO: What are the conditions for dialogue in 2009? Is there a way out of this system of isolation?
RV: Dialogue with power is neither possible nor desirable. Power has always acted unilaterally, by organizing chaos, by spreading fear, by forcing individuals and communities into selfish and blind withdrawal. As a matter of course, we will invent new solidarity networks and new intervention councils for the well-being of all of us and each of us, overriding the fiats of the state and its mafioso-political hierarchies. The voice of lived poetry will sweep away the last remaining echoes of a discourse in which words are in profit’s pay.
HUO: In your recent books you discuss your existence and temporality. The homogenizing forces of globalization homogenize time, and vice versa. How does one break with this? Could you discuss the temporality of happiness, as a notion?
RV: The productivity- and profit-based economy has implanted into lived human reality a separate reality structured by its ruling mechanisms: predation, competition and competitiveness, acquisitiveness and the struggle for power and subsistence. For thousands of years such denatured human behaviors have been deemed natural. The temporality of draining, erosion, tiredness, and decay is determined by labor, an activity that dominates and corrupts all others. The temporality of desire, love, and creation has a density that fractures the temporality of survival cadenced by work. Replacing the temporality of money will be a temporality of desire, a beyond-the-mirror, an opening to uncharted territories.
HUO: Is life ageless?
RV: I don’t claim that life is ageless. But since survival is nothing but permanent agony relieved by premature death, a renatured life that cultivates its full potential for passion and creation would surely achieve enough vitality to delay its endpoint considerably.
HUO: The Revolution of Everyday Life was a trigger for May ’68, and you have stated in other interviews that it is your key book that you are continually rewriting. Was the book an epiphany? How did it change the course of your work? What had you been doing previously?
RV: The book was prompted by an urgent need I was feeling at the time for a new perspective on the world and on myself, to pull me out of my state of survival, by means other than through suicide. This critical take on a consumer society that was corrupting and destroying life so relentlessly made me aware and conscious of my own life drive. And it became clear to me very quickly that this wasn’t a purely solipsistic project, that many readers were finding their own major concerns echoed there.
HUO: The Revolution of Everyday Life ends on an optimistic note: “We have a world of pleasures to win, and nothing to lose but boredom.”4 Are you still an optimist today?
RV: “Pessimists, what is it you were hoping for?,” Scutenaire wrote. I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I try to remain faithful to a principle: desire everything, expect nothing.
HUO: What is the most recent version of the book?
RV: Entre le deuil du monde et la joie de vivre [Between Mourning the World and Exuberant Life].
HUO: What book are you working on at the moment?
RV: I would love to have the resources to complete a Dictionary of Heresies, so as to clarify and correct the historical elements included in The Movement of the Free Spirit and Resistance to Christianity.
HUO: The question of temporality also brings us to Proust and his questionnaire (see inset). What might your definition of happiness be in 2009?
RV: Living ever more intensely and passionately in an ever more intense world. To those who sneer at my ecstatic candor, I reply with a phrase that brings me great comfort: “The desire for an other life is that life already.”5
HUO: Do you have unrealized projects? Unrealized books, unrealized projects in fields other than writing, unrealized architectural projects?
RV: My priority is to live better and better in a world that is more and more human. I would love to build the “urban countryside” of Oarystis, but I’m not just waiting patiently, like Fourier at the Palais Royal, for some billionaire to decide to finance the project only to lose everything to the financial crash a minute later.
HUO: What about your collaborations with other artists, painters, sculptors, designers, filmmakers?
RV: I don’t collaborate with anyone. At times I have offered a few texts to artist friends, not as a commentary on their work but as a counterpoint to it. Art moves me when, in it, I can sense its own overcoming, something that goes beyond it; when it nurtures a trace of life that blossoms as a true aspiration, the intuition of a new art of living.
HUO: Could you tell me about Brussels? What does Brussels mean to you? Where do you write?
RV: I live in the country, facing a garden and woods where the rhythm of the seasons has retained its beauty. Brussels as a city has been destroyed by urbanists and architects who are paid by real estate developers. There are still a few districts suitable for nice walks. I am fond of a good dozen wonderful cafés where one can enjoy excellent artisanal beers.
HUO: Do you agree with Geremek’s view that Europe is the big concern of the twenty-first century?
RV: I am not interested in this Europe ruled by racketeering bureaucracies and corrupt democracies. And regions only interest me once they are stripped of their regionalist ideology and are experiencing self-management and direct democracy. I feel neither Belgian nor European. The only homeland is a humanity that is at long last sovereign.
HUO: You have used a lot of pseudonyms. Je est un autre [I is an other]? How do you find or choose pseudonyms? How many pseudonyms have you used? Is there a complete list?
RV: I don’t keep any kind of score. I leave it up to the inspiration of the moment. There is nothing secret about using a pseudonym. Rather, it is about creating a distance, most often in commissioned work. This allows me to have some fun while alleviating my enduring financial difficulties, which I have always refused to resolve by compromising with the world of the spectacle.
HUO: A book that has been used by many artists and architects has been your Dictionnaire de citations pour servir au divertissement et a l’intelligence du temps [Dictionary of Quotations for the Entertainment and Intelligence of Our Time]. Where did that idea come from?
RV: It was a suggestion from my friend Pierre Drachline, who works for the Cherche Midi publishing house.
HUO: You have often criticized environmental movements who try to replace existing capitalism with capitalism of a different type. What do you think of Joseph Beuys? What non-capitalist project or movement do you support?
RV: We are being “offered” biofuels on the condition we agree to transgenic rapeseed farming. Eco-tourism will accelerate the plundering of our biosphere. Windmill farms are being built without any advantage to the consumers. Those are the areas where intervention is possible. Natural resources belong to us, they are free, they must be made to serve the freedom of life. It will be up to the communities to secure their own energy and food independence so as to free themselves from the control of the multinationals and their state vassals everywhere. Claiming natural power for our use means reclaiming our own existence first. Only creativity will rid us of work.
HUO: Last but not least, Rilke wrote that wonderful little book of advice to a young poet. What would your advice be to a young philosopher-writer in 2009?
RV: To apply to his own life the creativity he displays in his work. To follow the path of the heart, of what is most alive in him.
1 See Immanuel Wallerstein, Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century (New York: The New Press, 1998).
2 Quoted in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 34.
3 Raoul Vaneigem, Ni pardon ni talion: La question de l’impunité dans les crimes contre l’humanité (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 2009).
4 Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Welcombe, UK: Rebel Press, 2001), 279.
5 See Raoul Vaneigem, “Le désir d’une vie autre est déjà cette vie-là,” Cahiers internationaux de symbolisme 119–121 (2008): 193–194.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss curator and art critic. In 1993, he founded the Museum Robert Walser and began to run the Migrateurs program at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris where he served as a curator for contemporary art. In 1996 he co-curated Manifesta 1, the first edition of the roving European biennial of contemporary art. He presently serves as the Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Raoul Vaneigem is a Belgian writer and philosopher. After studying romance philology at the Free University of Brussels (now split into the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel) from 1952 to 1956, he participated in the Situationist International from 1961 to 1970. His most well-known book, The Revolution of Everyday Life, was published in 1967, the same year as fellow situationist Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.