Modern life is rubbish

Parisians have a phrase for the world of boring daily routine which we simply ignore or take for granted – métro-bulot-dodo or “commuting-working-sleeping”. Henri Lefebvre, the French thinker who died in 1991 at the age of 90, spent much of his seven-decade writing career trying to make sense of this quotidian life through his own “sociology of everydayness”. For Lefebvre, the dramatic technological changes of the twentieth century had not been matched by equivalent improvements in our mundane lives. The everyday was the embarrassing underside of capitalist progress, a “residual deposit, a great, disparate patchwork that modernity drags in its wake”.

Lefebvre aimed to show that these apparently eternal daily routines were the product of historical change. The long gestation period of his magnum opus, The Critique of Everyday Life – published in three volumes between 1947 and 1981, with the last one only now translated into English – shows this clearly. The first volume was written during the liberation of France after World War II, when fuel, food and housing shortages made the simplest everyday routines a matter of fierce political debate. The second volume, published in 1961, came in the middle of the trente glorieuses, the thirty-year boom that transformed France from an agrarian country into an urbanized consumer society. The films of Jacques Tati satirize these social changes, most memorably in the figure of Madame Arpel in Mon Oncle (1958), who spends her days obsessively wiping her formica surfaces, playing with the gadgets in her push-button kitchen and perching on her uncomfortable furniture. Lefebvre similarly argued that the modernized homes and new towns of 1950s France had produced a “pseudo-everyday” in which daily routines were “reconstructed in caricature”.

This third and last volume of Lefebvre’s Critique was completed in 1981 and foresees the transformation of daily life by New Right economics. It examines emergent phenomena such as the extension of home ownership, the return to town centres by middle-class gentrifiers and the media invention of “lifestyle”. Despite Lefebvre’s claim that “critical knowledge of daily life does not require a special or perfect language”, it must be said that his own style has the awkward, stop-start quality of a creaky commuter train. In the earlier volumes of Critique, vivid detail compensates for this problem. There are memorable descriptions of French church congregations, traffic jams, suburban villas and the cheap slab blocks of public housing, which Lefebvre attacks as “the dictatorship of the right angle”. The final volume of the Critique is subtitled “towards a metaphilosophy of daily life”, which reflects a move from this kind of sociological concreteness towards greater philosophical abstraction. Lefebvre’s writing is even harder work than usual when it does not have such a purchase on the real. But it is worth persevering with, since he is one of the few writers to deal with those moments of limbo, exemplified by the unpaid labour of the daily commute, which remind us of the literal meaning of quotidian as “marking time”.

The Critique’s central insight is that “the only genuine, profound human changes are those which cut into the substance of everyday life and make their mark upon it”. Lefebvre’s work was a key inspiration for the Parisian revolutionaries of May 1968, whose famous slogans – “Beauty is in the street”, “Beneath the paving stones, the beach”, “Never Work” – condemned the oppressive boredom of daily life. Lefebvre was fond of pointing out that the évènements originated not on the radical Left Bank but in his own university, the concrete jungle of the new suburban campus at Nanterre – a bit like an English revolution starting in Croydon or Milton Keynes. Real social change, he argued, had to occur through a far-reaching transformation of the spaces and practices of daily life: how we catch buses and trains, spend time at our work desks, drive along motorways, get stuck in traffic jams and park our cars. He longed for a world where these things would no longer be tedious, or at least where the tedium would be more evenly distributed among different sections of society. The straphangers and clockwatchers of the 21st century can take heart from Lefebvre’s vision of a less dreary society in which “all moments would be equivalent in daily life. In that case, daily life would dissolve, as it were, like a bad dream.”

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