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Critique Of Everyday Life Summary Essay

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New Literary History 33.4 (2002) 743-760



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Everyday (Virtual) Life

Mark Poster


The concept of everyday life has been central to the discourse of critical theory at least since the early 1960s when Henri Lefebvre devoted several volumes to elaborating the idea. 1 In this essay I shall review the category of the everyday and test its critical capacities in the current context, when information machines or media have been disseminated widely in places like the home and the street, perhaps undermining the boundary between the quotidian and the extraordinary, the private and the public. I shall argue that the media transform place and space in such a way that what had been regarded as the locus of the everyday can no longer be distinguished as separate from its opposite. This change operates to nullify earlier notions of the everyday but also opens the possibility for a reconfigured concept of daily life which might yet contain critical potentials. 2

Humanism and Everyday Life

A review of Lefebvre's concept of the everyday provides insight into the distance that separates us from critical positions of the immediate postwar period. Lefebvre's intervention in that discourse upset the prevailing conceptual registers. To be critical of domination in the early postwar years, for Lefebvre, meant to call into question the freedoms offered by representative democracy, capitalism, or the state socialism of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European bloc of nations. Freedom, in his view, could not be realized in these institutional frames of practice. In the first instance, the everyday was the region outside official politics and large economic organizations. The locus of an "other" to public life was the first step in redefining human freedom. He writes in Critique of Everyday Life in 1947 that "the critique of everyday life involves a critique of political life, in that everyday life already contains and constitutes such a critique: in that it is that critique." 3 The issue at stake in the concept of daily life therefore was the recognition of the failure of big politics to offer anything like an adequate domain for human life.

In order to define the everyday Lefebvre took over from phenomenology and existentialism the notion of "lived experience," le veçu, erlebnis. [End Page 743] The category of lived experience functioned in Edmund Husserl's Phenomenology and the Crisis of the European Sciences, in Martin Heidegger's early existentialism of Being and Time, and in French translations and adaptations of these works such as Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness and Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception as a critique of rationalist metaphysics deriving from Cartesian, Kantian, and Hegelian traditions. These newer philosophies of the 1920s to the 1950s rejected the ordering of the world through the category of reflected reason, opening the understanding of the human condition precisely to everyday experience. One might say that these critiques of reason-centered reality were the first steps toward positions which inspire much of critical thinking today, from poststructuralist theory to the cultural studies traditions. The crucial leap was to get outside the Western worldview in which reality moved toward and was moved by reason—not to assert an opposite to reason as in the writings of romantic philosophy and literature, but to test the limits of what we now call logocentrism, to demote it in status as simply one, however important, regime of rationality. Lived experience could serve Lefebvre as a critical notion only because it was not defined completely within something known as reason.

Lefebvre was aware of the dangers of turning to everyday life as a critical category. Heidegger's treatment of the everyday in Being and Time, for instance, was that of the realm of alienation, of the forgetfulness of Being. Lefebvre acknowledges Heidegger's view when he defines the everyday as the "concrete," as "lived experience," but also as "alienation." He points to "a problem which is fundamental for the critique of everyday life. . . . Many men . . . do not know their own lives very well. . . . Men have no knowledge of their own lives: they see them and act...



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