Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 2
Clearing the Ground, section 20

by Henri Lefebvre, 1961
translated by John Moore, 2002

Although technology has gone very far and high above the everyday, and continues to do so, it has not abandoned this neglected sector to its own devices. Up to a certain point the everyday has ceased to be underdeveloped. A technical vacuum, long the characteristic of the everyday, has been partially filled in. Technology has introduced a host of household objects and gadgets. Thus small technical objects have become familiar (although many housewives still have no access to this 'familiarity' and persist in regarding technical knowledge, including that of small objects, as a masculine attribute). Indisputably, the uncontrolled sector has somewhat declined. Could it be that everyday life has become integrated within a 'technological milieu' or, to use our own terminology, within the controlled sector organized in accordance with industrial technology? Could 'industrial society' have given it a coherent and specific structure, thus separating it from contact with uncontrolled nature, or conversely allowing it to rejoin nature via the 'world' of technical objects and making it part of a set of dynamic balances, similar to the feedbacks, homeostases and scannings studied by specialists in autoregulations? Nothing allows us to confirm this. In fact, everything proves the opposite.

With the introduction of the technical object within everyday life, the contrast between the aesthetic object (which may or may not be useful) and the strictly functional and utilitarian technical object has been revealed in a barsher light. Hitherto confined to being part of the decor of social life, the 'aesthetic/technical' or 'artistic/functional' dichotomy has entered into familiarity. The industrial aesthetic and the commendable efforts which have been made in the field of industrial design have not succeeded in conferring an aesthetic status on the technical object, nor a technical status on the aesthetic object. The 'world of objects' is marked by this dichotomy, which classifies them in two major categories. We cannot avoid the fact that extreme or moderate functionalism has failed time and time again to extrapolate a plastic art from the functional. The fact that aesthetic creation or production has become saturated with technology and abstract functionalism make these failures all the more astonishing. Only partially technicized, everyday life has not created its own specific style or rhythm. Unconnected objects (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, radio or television sets, refrigerators, cars, etc.) determine a series of disjointed actions. Small technical actions intervene in the old rhythms rather like fragmented labour in productive activity in general. The equipment of everyday life finds itself more or less in the same situation as industrial mechanization in its early stages, in the period when specific tools had unique and exclusive functions. lf these gestures increase effectiveness — productivity — they also split things up; they truncate, they make mincemeat of everyday life; they leave margins and empty spaces. They increase the proportion of passivity. Dialectically, progress consists of gaps and partial regressions. What is more, a reduction in the time devoted to productive actions and gestures which are now carried out by technical objects has raised the question of time itself, and already this is a very urgent problem. lf we examine time as it is experienced by many of today's men and women, we will see that it is chock-ablock full and completely empty. On the horizon of the modern world dawns the black sun of boredom, and critique of everyday life has a sociology of boredom as part of its agenda.

lncorporation of the everyday within a concrete totality (the total or world man) via modern means of information and communication can be interpreted in a variety of ways. ls it correct to say that television gives the everyday a world-wide dimension? Yes it is. Television allows every household to Iook at the spectacle of the world, but it is precisely this mode of looking at the world as a spectacle which introduces non-participation and receptive passivity. The idea that the audiovisual as it was lived in archaic communities (in scenes of magic) could be reconstituted is laughable and frivolous. The mass media strip the magic of presence from what was the presence of magic: participation — real, active or potential. Sitting in his armchair, surrounded by his wife and children, the television viewer witnesses the universe. At the same time, day in and day out, news, signs and significations roll over him like a succession of waves, churned out and repeated and already indistinguishable by the simple fact that they are pure spectacle: they are overpowering, they are hypnotic. The 'news' submerges viewers in a monotonous sea of newness and topicality which blunts sensitivity and wears down the desire to know. Certainly, people are becoming more cultivated. Vulgar encyclopedism is all the rage. The observer may weil suspect that when communication becomes incorporated in private life to this degree it becomes non-communication.

Radio and television do not penetrate the everyday solely in terms of the viewer. They go looking for it at its source: personalized (but superficial) anecdotes, trivial incidents, familiar little family events. They set out from an implicit principle: 'Everything, in other words, anything at all, can become interesting and even enthralling, provided that it is presented, i.e., present.’ The art of presenting the everyday by taking it from its context, emphasizing it, making it appear unusual or picturesque and overloading it with meaning, has become highly skilful. But even if the lives of the great and the good are 'presentified' in this way through the mediation of presenters, editors and producers, it is still never anything eise but the everyday. And so communication passes from unmediated event (captured the instant it happens and where it happens) to unmediated reception, within the familiar context of the everyday. Concrete mediations — language, culture in the traditional sense, values and symbols — become blurred. They do not disappear. They are too useful. They are worn down, they deteriorate, and yet at the same time they hypertrophy. lt is their mediating function which is worn away.

At the extreme, signs and significations which are nothing more than significations lose all meaning. At the extreme looms the shadow of what we will call 'the great pleonasm:’ the unmediated passing immediately into the unmediated and the everyday recorded just as it is in the everyday — the event grasped, pulverized and transmitted as rapidly as light and consciousness — the repetition of the identical in a wild whirling dance devoid of Dionysian rapture, since the 'news' never contains anything really new. lf this extreme were reached, the closed circuit of communication and information would jeopardize the unmediated and the mediated alike. lt would merge them in a monotonous and Babel-like confusion. The reign of the global would also be the reign of a gigantic tautology, which would kill all dramas aftcr having exploited them shamelessly.

Of course, this extreme situation is still a long way away. It would be a closed circuit, a circuit from hell, a perfect circle in which the absence of communication and communication pushed to the point of paroxysm would meet and their identities would merge. But it will never come full circle. There will always be something new and unforeseen, if only in terms of sheer horror. There will be 'creations' which will stimulate informative energy and allow for a massive injection of new information. This extreme exists oniy in the mind's eye as a distant possibility, in the same way as the debasement of informational energy and the triumph of entropy are. And yet, this extreme allows us to imagine and determine certain aspects of 'the real'. The very least we can be sure of is that the mass media have not yet incorporated the everyday into a vaster, richer whole, such as spontaneity or culture. They have left it to its 'privation' while moving into this privation and taking it over. lt is the generalization of private life. At one and the same time the mass media have unified and broadcast the everyday; they have disintegrated it by integrating it with 'world' current events in a way which is both too real and utterly superficial. What is more or less certain is that they are dissociating an acquired, traditional culture, the culture of books, from written discourse and Logos. We cannot say what the outcome of tbis destructuring process will be.

A New Institute for Social Research